After going to bed feeling a little bit unsure, we woke up bright and early with more excitement than nerves about what the next two days would entail.
We walked down the road to Mr Chart’s office for 8:30am, stopping for breakfast on the way and were joined by another guy called Vojtech from the Czech Republic. Even though he had told us that he liked to leave promptly, we all piled into the car, made FOUR pit stops and then were on our way out of Pai about 10am. We arrived at his house where we were greeted by his young wife, Nan, and 6 year old son, Bamboo. We sat, slightly awkwardly, at the table in the small, wooden house while his wife cooked us lunch and his son watched Cartoon Network, translated into Thai. Lunch was so good! We had rice with a chicken curry like thing and vegetables with a massive plate of watermelon for pudding. We then packed our bags, got in the back of the car and were on our way.
Once we had hit every single bump in the road and I had been hit in the face by two trees, we reached the start point and began our trek about 1:45. The trek wasn’t particularly challenging but Ammun and I did not want to go at the same fast pace as the men so there was a lot of them waiting while we caught up. Mr Chart didn’t seem to care. After a short while we reached a river. We couldn’t go over it, we couldn’t go under it so we had to go through it! We swapped our trainers for flip flops and waded through. The current was very strong and there were a lot of stones and rocks lining the riverbed so we were pretty nervous about losing our flip flops. After a few more rivers where we changed shoes every time and the guys just went straight through, we started to feel a bit fed up. Ammun decided to just get her trainers wet and I decided to just power on in my cheap flip flops and pray for no breakages or blisters.
About 3pm we arrived at a river and Mr Chart said we should wait here for a bit. We could sunbathe or swim or do whatever while he ran off to a potential camp to see if there were enough banana leaves. We all got into our swimwear and went for a paddle in the streams. It reminded me a lot of the scene from Pocahontas when she’s in her canoe and sings Just Around The Riverbend and deciding which route to take.
I had no choice of route. Mr Chart never returned but his friend Ling came to fetch us and asked if we had enjoyed our showers. If we had known that was our chance to clean all the sweat off, we would have gone swimming properly.
We walked about 30 more minutes to arrive at camp where Mr Chart and one other guy had already got a fire going, had made a well that separates the clean and dirty water and were collecting bamboo. We got to work too and collected fire wood to last the night and herbs to go in the whisky. The first thing we all made was a shelter in case of rain. We put sticks and strips of bamboo in a criss cross and tied it all together with really thin strips of bamboo. Then we covered the roof and the floor with bamboo leaves and it was finished!
Ammun digging up herbs
Then it was my favourite part of the whole trip: dinner time! We watched while Mr Chart and his team used their knives and various sizes of bamboo to do all the cooking. The first thing we had was pieces of pork that had been BBQd to perfection, washed down with bamboo water. Not all the compartments in bamboo have water in them but he put some in a cup for us (a cup made of bamboo). Our next course was Tom Yum soup with pork and rice and it was one of the most incredible dishes I ate in the whole time I was in Thailand! I went back for thirds because it was so good. The Tom Yum was a little bit cheated with a packet mix but we got herbs from the forest which made it a bit more legit. The rice was put in a big piece of banana leaf, raw and wrapped up really tight then bound with the thin strips of bamboo again. This was then put in the water that was boiling in shoots of bamboo over the fire and left for a while. They used bamboo as a soup dish, bowls for us and a chopping board for the herbs and pork. It was all very clever.
After our amazing Tom Yum, the sun had set and the frogs had all started to come out to play. We all got our torches and tried our best to catch as many frogs as possible. Ammun wouldn’t touch any, Vojtech tried and failed and I also tried and failed. I used to have a pond full of frogs as a kid and I would play with them all the time (yeah, I had a weird childhood at times) but these frogs were a lot smaller so I couldn’t catch them! The unfortunate frogs that didn’t escape like my ones were all forced into two small water bottles. I felt a bit sorry for them because I’m sure the natural circle of life doesn’t include suffocating in a plastic water bottle.
We had quite a long pause while we waited for Mr Chart and Ling to go off and catch more frogs but once they were back we watched him kill them by bashing their heads against a rock then gut them and spatchcock them on a bamboo stick. We made Tom Yum with them again which was really nice and I really enjoyed he frogs legs. I didn’t dare eat any other part unlike Mr Chart and Ling who ate it all!
At night, the three of us were left alone in the camp while Mr Chart and Ling slept somewhere else and kept guard. He was very unclear about what we needed to be guarded from. We went to bed around 11:30pm but it wasn’t til 3am when I had put all my clothes on, wrapped myself in my sleeping bag liner and towel and restarted the fire three times that I actually fell asleep.
I woke up naturally at 8:30 feeling very hot with all my layers. My back and knees weren’t in as much pain as I was expecting but they did feel very weird. The morning was spent eating and we had toasted pork sandwiches then squirrel Tom yum with lots and lots of rice. Yes, you read that right. Squirrel. It didn’t have much meat on it so I only tried a small amount that wasn’t too bad but I didn’t want any more because of all the gristle, fat and bones. I really liked the sauce and rice though even if it was too early for spice.
Mr Chart advertises this as being an ‘off the beaten path’ tour and it really was. We were walking through the very day jungle with absolutely no path in sight! Like the day before, Mr Chart stormed ahead with Vojtech keeping close behind and Ammun and I went at our own pace because the terrain was quite hard to walk on. As we were on the side of a hill, we regularly slid on the dry leaves and had cuts and mud half way up our shins. Eventually we got to a cave where Mr Chart disappeared to go and help his friend shoot something (his communication was awful so we didn’t really know). Ling took us up the very, very steep side of the cliff to get to this cave and sadly, it was quite disappointing. After seeing the amazing caves in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, everything else seems a bit disappointing. This one was filled with bats and that’s about the only cool thing.
After we stumbled down again (taking on average three times as long as the guys) we played catchup again until we got to a river. Ammun and I couldn’t have got in there any quicker while Mr Chart and his team went off to get clean drinking water for everyone. It was much better than the bamboo water that had been used in cooking the day before. He has a saying of “open your eyes, open your stomach” as if to say “trust that what I give you won’t make you poo your pants”! We stayed here a while and smacked on peanuts that we had brought and rice and canned fish.
By this point we were actually pretty miserable. We had paid a lot of money to play catch up with Mr Chart who didn’t give any time for using natures toilet or taking pictures etc. Luckily, someone had the idea of going home in two teams. Mr Chart and Vojtech stayed by the river to do some hunting and we went home with Ling. I would have liked to try hunting but at this point I was ready to go home and I had honestly had enough of following Mr Chart.
Our walk back took about an hour and a half and Ling went at a much better pace for us. He stopped occasionally to show us things and we even stopped while he grabbed some bananas from a tree for us. We only had to make a few river crossings so I didn’t have to change shoes so often and sometimes there was something I could walk (or crawl) along to avoid getting my trainers wet. We got back to the car about 5:30 to find Mr Chart and Vojtech were already back and hadn’t caught anything.
In the evening, back at his house, the weird food continued. It started nice with a whole plate of watermelon, then we had some sour little fruits that I really liked, then finished with fish paste with chilli and garlic that looked so grim I didn’t try it. For dinner we had fish soup which I really liked (although I think I had the only nice bit of fish because I picked out the head afterwards) and we had iguana curry that Mr Chart shot while we were in the cave. I think iguanas might actually be forbidden to hunt but by the sounds of things, everyone still does it in the village and after we had eaten, the whole village seemed to turn up for a portion! As usual I was brave and gave it a go but it was so awful I had to spit it in the bin. It was 90% bone, 8% skin and 2% meat.
After dinner and a shower we were ready for a normal evening. But no señor, not in Mr Charts house! As it is the beginning of Songkran/Thai New Year (see my next blog post to see how we celebrated) there was a party under the bridge down the road. Mr Chart’s wife, Nan, and all the house guests left and we followed behind a few minutes later. Once we were under the bridge we were greeted by a man called Poo who said that he owned the place and was “number 1”. He didn’t speak English but we worked out that he was buying boxes of beers for his friends and gave us one each and encouraged us to down them. To make the situation weirder, this whole time there was crazy Thai karaoke going on in the background. I prayed to every god that they had nothing in English but sadly they did. And no, I still don’t want to sing the YMCA.
Nan invited us over to drink with her and her friends on a bamboo raft on the river (which did start sinking after a while) but Vojtech stayed with the lads a bit longer because Poo loved him so much he wouldn’t let him leave! Nan’s friends were mostly in their 30’s and were all very happy to meet us. There was very little English between them and one guy called Jack kept repeating “you happy? Jack happy. Jack happy.” Turns out Jack is the town mayor. I have no idea what town we were in but I had a beer with its mayor on a sinking raft under a bridge while my ears were filled with bad Thai karaoke. Think back to all the crazy food that was swimming, crawling and jumping in my tummy and that’s not a travel story I was ever expecting to tell.
We stayed at Mr Chart and Nan’s house that night and they had arranged a car back to Chiang Mai for us the next morning. It was an uncomfortable sleep on three small things I would barely call mattresses but after the last 48 hours, I couldn’t be a princess now.