“Korean students are not fit,” my friend Dasom tells me as we scroll through different tour options on her iPad, all written in Korean. “Really, they don’t exercise that much. So, I don’t think that any of these will be very difficult.” It’s the day before we have planned to trek, and we still haven’t selected a tour, largely because we have searched and searched for a day trek in Doi Inthanon National Park, but couldn’t find treks shorter than two day trips. Because we were only staying in Chiang Mai for four days, a two day trek would have been half our time. So, we are sitting in a cafe, searching the internet for a place with good reviews. We book our trek, thinking we are going one of the classic tourist trips. You know– elephants, lazy river, see a temple, hike a bit: the “usual.”
We get picked up at 7:30 am, and we drive up into the mountains for about an hour, on the kind of road that seems to be entirely made out of the hairpin, one-lane-wide turns everyone who has ever done anything mildly adventurous in South East always talks about. (We didn’t die, and it actually wasn’t all that nerve-wreaking compared to some of the mountain driving experiences I have taken part of in Indonesia.) We stop at some unnamed location where our guide and group of three meet our local guide, a man who belongs to the Karen tribe. He’s wearing a green knit beanie and his slingshot is wrapped around his head. On his feet are a pair of brown galoshes, and as our English speaking guide starts tucking his pants into his socks “because of the leeches,” I’m starting to wish I was wearing wellies, too.
As we start to walk, our guide points to a tiny snake of silver in the middle of the jungle, near the top of the mountain. “That’s the waterfall where we are going to eat lunch,” he says. This was the first warning sign that this was more than a leisurely stroll on Thailand’s tallest mountains. (Is there even such a thing as a leisurely stroll up a mountain? Korean students, I think you mislead me…).
We hike up. And up. And up. I’m not very fit, but I am very determined and decently stubborn, so I keep on the guide’s heels the entire time, even though I am panting the entire last thirty minutes of the first half of our ascent. On the way up, our guides both start picking various pieces of flora: jelly mushrooms and banana leaves and chunks of bamboo and zucchini vines. “For our jungle meal,” they say. (Well, our English guide says. Our Karen guide only communicates in Thai and laughter at our small group’s fumbles.)
Lunch is at the waterfall we had seen from the distance. We use bamboo sticks to roast pork over a quickly built fire, and we are each given a hunk of rice wrapped in banana leaf to eat with our meat and veggies. We smush it all together and eat it using a bamboo spoon the our guide made for each of us. (He uses his hand to eat. “Mother’s spoon,” he says, grinning.) Dessert is pineapple and small, perfectly ripe bananas.
We hike a bit further up the waterfall, to where the main flow is crashing down, and it’s incredible: uncountable stories tall, the force of water pouring down from massive rock slab to rock slab is almost deafening when up close. Nature is impossibly strong. God is impossibly powerful.
We reach the plateau of the mountain a hour later. (Hallelujah. I don’t know how much longer I can embarrassingly pant up the incline.)
Our descent is magical. First, the trees transition from tropical to pine, and it smells like a Michigan summer day. The sweeping views of the contours of the neighboring, tree covered peaks is gorgeous. The air is cooler, not only because of the altitude, but because a breeze is weaving through the trees.
After walking through the rice field of our Karen guide’s tribe, we stop at another waterfall and change into swimsuits so we can plunge into the frigid river. It was freezing, but incredibly refreshing after the heat and humidity of the hike. (DJ jumped from the outcrop into the water. Dasom almost go swept away in the current and I had to grab her before she went over the edge.) Only thirty minutes of hiking later, and we are done, bidding our local guide farewell and haltingly driving back through the mountains.
(Note: This post was also published on Clapway!)