The Trek, Day Three: Ow, Ow, Ow

On the morning of the third day, we left our hut at dawn to be greeted by a silent, solemn craft fair. The villagers receive seeds and blankets as gifts from the visiting tourists. These things are important and useful, but they are not cash. Seeds and blankets do not buy metal farm tools or dye for yarn or medical care. The cash had to come in somewhere. And it did.

Most of the village women earned cash by weaving and making handicrafts. Oii, knowing the tourists don’t want to be harrassed and asked to buy things had set up a system whereby the village women laid out their handiwork at dawn and went to go sit quietly by the fire. The potential buyers would see everyone’s work at once, make their choices and then the woman would come forward and take the money.

If all this sounds a little disciplined for a Thai village market (and it is, make no mistake) it’s probably because Oii insisted on it. Our Thai guide had tremendous power in the villages we visited, and if she had been a different kind of woman it could have been a bad thing. We knew nothing of her arrangements with the villagers really. We asked her what families hadn’t had blankets and seeds recently, so she could tell us to whom they should go. We bought weavings only from the women that Oii allowed to display their work for us. If the villagers wanted the things we brought, they would only have them on her terms. I really believe, though, that this was a good thing. Oii cared about those villages and the people liked her. If the whole thing was a sham for the tourists, it was very convincing.

So anyway, we got up in the morning and the school room we were sleeping in had been surrounded by weavings. Tunics, sarongs, bags and headdresses in all the colors of the rainbow were hung on bamboo fences all around us. A few of us bought things. We ate breakfast, the shamans blessed us, and we were off.

Saying the shamans blessed us is literally to say they tied strings around our wrists, and laid rice and string on our shoulders. I think I’ve said that the Karen people are animists who believe in the spirits (I am unclear on whether they are sentient spirits) of all living things. I cannot tell you whether the shaman asked the spirits of his place to watch over us, or whether he asked spirits with less of a sense of place to do the guarding. It was all very warm and kind and confusing. We sensed their good fellowship as I hope they sensed ours. And then we left.

Hiking on day three was a problem for me. I had developed blisters wandering around the village in really old really decrepit Tivas after the hiking day was over and half way through day three they began to fester. Further, my feet clenched up from walking on them strangely trying to avoid the blisters. By the last hour of the hike I was limping along swearing savagely under my breath and no longer putting a very good face on it. Fortunately, it was soon over. And then we all piled into the truck to head back to Chang Mai. And along the way, to ride some elephants.

Now a word about Thai elephants. Elephants were used in Thailand for logging in the teak forests until pretty recently when the Thai government put a ban on logging. This means we have tons (quite literally) of asian elephants with nothing to do. The people can’t really afford to feed them if they’re not logging. The lucky onese end up as tourist transporters. I don’t like to think about the unlucky ones.

So what’s it like to ride an elephant you ask? It’s sort of like riding on a swaying bristle covered rock. The elephant’s skin does not give to the touch. It will not acknowledge that you are on its back (unless you’re its trainer and then you can tell it what to do) and you’re apt to be dragged slowly through the brush when your mount decides its snack time — which is often. Elephants are hungry beings and will take any opportunity to grab an extra mouthful. All that girth, you know. Petting an elephant is far less charming than you might suppose. They just don’t feel pleasant no matter how cute they are and it’s never clear that your scratching makes any difference to them. While petting is sort of pointless, feeding them is actually a lot of fun. Our guides brought a ton of banannas and watermelon rinds for us to give the elephants and the elephants were very clear on just exactly what we had with us. They’re really pushy with those trunks of theirs and if you don’t mean to give one a whole bunch of bananas at once you have to be really careful just how close you stand. All in all, the elephant experience was great, even if I did manage to step in elephant poop on the way out. This was to have interesting (not disgusting, I swear) consequences later.

After elephant riding, we returned to Chang Mai and saw the night markets, but I’ll tell you about that in the next journal where I talk about seeing Chang Mai.

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