Travel: Nice views, shame about the leeches: The Thai guide said no to opium but promised elephant rides, hill-tribe folk and hard walking. A honeymoon? Perhaps, but certainly not a picnic, writes Sheila Paine
Our narrow launch splashed noisily through spumy canals, past wooden shanty settlements piled with broken baskets and hung with caged songbirds and ragged washing. We whipped past tinselled shrines on posts like birds' feeding tables, past sawmills, junkyards, litter, lilies. Rusty hulks sloped against jetties, a timorous cat clawed its way around the edge, a man spat into the water, cleaning his teeth.
We called at all the gilded sights, Suzy clucking and counting. We visited the snake show ('this python have 52 teeth, that what he got' - we peered dutifully into its jaws, some women screaming deliciously). It wasn't a touristy gimmick, we were assured, but was to prepare us in case we met a snake while trekking.
Our return to the hotel was on the public express boat. This skidded into the jetty for a few seconds, the boatman blowing his whistle as he pushed people on. Suzy made it, but most of us were left to find our own way home.
Suitably chastened, trained in elementary snake-handling techniques and survival tactics, we caught the night train to Chieng-
If we fondly imagined we were trekkers, the programme for the next few days quickly disillusioned us. It promised 'The Tourist Experience': traditional Thai massage; dinner with authentic dance, transport included; visit to craft workshops ('you may buy if you wish').
The workshops were large shopping emporia fronted by some kind of activity: silkworms wriggling in sieves, a dwarf painting particularly small umbrellas. At the massage parlour - a quiet teak house set in a rampant garden - masseuses pounded and pummelled, prising flesh from bone and kneading muscle away from its skeleton mooring. It was nothing to the battering we were soon to receive.
We loaded our rucksacks on to the trucks, along with the sacks of cabbages, cauliflowers and noodles that were to be our food. An Italian tried to throw his bags on, too. 'Must have fancied one of us,' said Derek. We climbed a red-mud track into rollicking wooded hills, gradually leaving behind cobra shows, elephant camps, Tea-for-Two cafes, electricity wires and telegraph poles. Up into hill-tribe territory.
The hill people are subsistence farmers of six different tribes of Burmo-Tibetan and Chinese origin, settled in small villages buried in the densely forested hills and clinging to their ancient lifestyle and costumes. Now they are part of Thailand's tourist industry: 'Siam Trekker Company offers elephants, hill tribes, opium, rafting. Aircon minibuses.'
We were different. 'No drugs,' said our organiser, a tall, patient man with a Thai wife and a strong line in corny jokes, who tried to instil into his charges some understanding of the people they were to see. 'No drugs at all. And your own two feet.' But he cheered us up by saying he had taken an exclusive lease on the elephants in our territory.
We set off in single file. With our garish trainers and rucksacks - purple, turquoise, orange, blue - we progressed like some psychedelic caterpillar along the forest path. For three days we walked. We slithered and slid in squelchy mud. We forded streams. We struggled through tangled undergrowth. We shimmied along fallen tree-trunks. We tightrope-walked over skinny log bridges. When we missed our footing and fell, a guide was always there to haul us up again, nimbly balancing all the while the trays of eggs he had bought at the last village for our dinner.
For a few hours on one of the days, we admired the view while wobbling on elephants, but mainly we looked down at red mud, tree roots, pine needles and the Reeboks in front. We saw no wildlife and heard no birdsong.
We stopped at tribal villages, Karen, Hmong, Lisu. They were usually small scatterings of houses, cabins of planks and sticks mounted above bare earth on stilts, roofed with dried leaves or tin. Underneath them, pigs rooted and chickens pecked; between them, small patches of field tumbled with glossy leaves and starry pale-yellow flowers.
Each tribe was different. The Karen were idly curious as we washed in their streams and disappeared behind their bushes; the Hmong women walked haughtily by, their wide embroidered skirts swinging like kilts; the Lisu pounced, trying to flog us woven bracelets.
The approach to each village was also different. The rooftops of the first Karen village appeared suddenly in a misty clearing above the treetops, the entrance to another was guarded by latticed wooden arches. To reach the Lisu, we crossed a log bridge, trampling over muddy embroidered shirts and a child's red wellingtons, clothing of the sick strewn to appease the offending spirits.
We stayed each night in a large hut rented from the local headman. We sat in candlelight, burning the leeches off each other's feet, firing questions at the guides, eating the bowl of food they had prepared for us. We laid our sleeping bags cheek by jowl on the floor and by nine o'clock were fast asleep.
The nights were damp, cocks crowed noisily beneath us, and we were up before the morning mists had cleared. The men of the village had already left for the fields and we strolled round intrusively, smiling at children in doorways, at a girl pounding rice, a woman weaving, an old man playing a bamboo flute. Sometimes we caught glimpses inside houses where high wooden shelves held offerings of food for the spirits and women in beautiful clothes crouched over fires of sticks. But mostly we just took photographs.
The final night, around a fire outside our hut, we had a singsong with the village children. From the dark shadows their faces glowed waxen in the firelight, like the candlelit figures of a Georges de la Tour painting. They sang sweetly to us. We hokey-cokeyed, yelled 'fire, fire', scratched our armpits, oinked and mooed. They laughed, we sang, they sang, we clapped, together a light, bright circle in the warm shawl of the night.
We walked away the next morning and, by truck, bus and boat, went from dirt road to paved, from paved road to river, from river to railway.
'That,' said Katie, her arms still around Dave as we lolled jelly-legged in the train taking us back south, 'was our honeymoon.'
Operators: Sheila Paine travelled on an 11-night 'North Thai Rover' package with Trailfinders, 42-50 Earls Court Road, London W8 6EJ (071-938 3366), which costs pounds 325. The package includes six nights of budget standard accommodation, three nights in hill-tribe huts and two nights on a sleeper train. The price excludes air travel from London: return fares with Trailfinders from London to Bangkok cost from pounds 437 with Royal Brunei. Other operators that feature trekking holidays in Thailand include Encounter Overland (071-370 6845); Exodus Expeditions (081-675 5550); and Top Deck Travel (071-370 6487).
Books: The Rough Guide to Thailand (Penguin, pounds 8.99) by Paul Gray and Lucy Ridout was last month selected as Guide Book of the Year in the Thomas Cook Travel Book awards.
Further information: Tourism Authority of Thailand, 49 Albermarle Street, London W1X 3FE (071-499 7679).
The author won the 1991 Independent Travel Writing competition. Her prize was a trip to Thailand through Trailfinders. Her first travel book, The Afghan Amulet, will be published by Michael Joseph next January.
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