Wednesday, October 04, 2017

10th Week: Hill Tribe Immersion

Sawadii ka, everyone!

This weeks program was called "Hill Tribe Immersion". Basically, what we did was, we travelled to Chiang Rai, a city in the very North of Thailand to visit and live among the Akha hill tribe. This hill tribe is one of the three hill tribes present in Thailand. The village I've been to this week is the biggest Akha village in Thailand and is home to about 1200 people and 300 families.

The people who are part of hill tribes are not Thai citizens, have an own culture, a different religion and language. They theoretically don't live there legally and could be arrested if caught in the cities. That's why so many hill tribe kids are in the orphanages - to get a legal Thai ID, health care and free education which they would not get when staying in the village.

For this project I had to make an upgrade as well, so I paid about 160€ extra since it is a 10 point program. It was so worth it, though. My tenth week was one of my favourite weeks in Thailand because it was just so different from the rest and a once in a lifetime experience, especially because the Akha hill tribe will die out sooner or later.

The journey to Chiang Rai started Sunday evening with a night bus. It took about 11 hours in total, including a short stop for food at around midnight, where almost everyone got food but I stayed in the bus. Unfortunately, I couldn't really sleep that night so I was extremely tired when I arrived at the Chiang Rai bus station at 7 o'clock, monday morning.


Monday 

After I've arrived, I had to wait almost one and a half hours for my coordinator to arrive. At 8am the national anthem started playing and we all had to stand up and wait until the hymn was over. Luckily I've read about this before coming to Thailand, so I could make sure not to be disrespectful to the previous king. Thai people take this morning anthem very serious and glare at people who remain seated, since standing up is a form of showing respect and honor to the king who passed away in October 2016.


A few minutes after the anthem has played, my coordinator finally arrived and we started the drive to the hill tribe village, where I would meet one other volunteer and get to know the coordinators family, whom we would be staying with. On the way up there we had an amazing view of the mountainous landscape.
At 10am we stopped at a lakeside restaurant and got fried rice for breakfast. A few minutes after continuing driving we stopped at a view point on the side of the road and could see the lake, where we got food at, from above. 

When we finally arrived in the Akha village, I first got to know the coordinators parents, his brother, M, and the other participant from Sweden, named Malin. We walked through the village a bit and arrived at a family's house where a woman brought us snacks, tea and a book about the Akha hill tribes. 

After we've looked through the book for a couple of minutes, the women gave us a plate full of seeds and some yarn and we could make ourselves bracelets and necklaces out of it. 


Back at the camp I could finally move into my room that I would share with Malin. It was a quite big clay house with just two beds in it and a bathroom.


We even had a european toilet but the shower was freezing cold and had almost no pressure at all. After unpacking most of my things we had lunch, which consisted of lots of fruit, chips and cookies. At 3 o'clock we met up with Tho, our coordinator, and did a village tour.



At first we went to the village gate where Tho told us some facts about the village. There are about 1200 poeple who live in that village (more than 300 families) which makes it the largest Akha tribe. They speak an own Akha language and also have an own Akha religion.
The meaning of the village gate is, that outside the gate is the bad spirit and inside the good. When the Akha people leave the village they  have to go through that gate, and when they return to the village as well. If they don't, the bad spirits can enter the tribe. 


Tho then wanted to show us the holy water place. On the way to that, he told us a bit more about his tribe. He said that the new generations don't learn anything about the tribe anymore because they all move to the cities to study and live there as Thai citizens.
It's also very hard for children to learn about their tribes since they all can't write or read and only can get to know things by hearing and watching. The government also doesn't support the Akha villages, since they, theoretically, are illegal immigrants without a Thai ID and that's why basically everyone wants to become Thai. It's quite sad, though, because that means, that the Akha hill tribes will die out in the next 20 years. One more reason, that I'm extremely grateful for my time here.

When we got to the path that would lead us down to the holy water place in the woods, we saw extreme pollution. There were water bottles and plastic wrappers everywhere and no one seemed to do anything about it.
Tho said, that this was just out of habit since they have always used natural substances like bamboo for bottles, bowls, etc. and they could obviously just throw that into the woods since it would decompost anyways. When they started using things made out of plastic, they just kept that habit even though it wouldn't decompost for obvious reasons. 

We evetually arrived at the water place and both Malin and I were quite confused at first. The "holy water place" consisted out of two water pipes with water from the natural spring. It didn't look like it was honored so much and it wasn't decorated at all, just polluted with lots and lots of water bottles again.
Apparently, the people who don't have running water in their house (yet), come to this place everyday to shower and get water for drinking, cooking and cleaning. We could also drink the water after washing our arms and face first. 

After walking back up another path, we strolled through the village a bit until we arrived at another forest walk which lead us to the spirit house where some people go to when they have a problem or need help.
We could tell that there hasn't been anyone in a long time since everything was completely overgrown with plants and we couldn't even see the path anymore. Sometimes there are some kinds of celebrations up there at the spirit house but since the new generation isn't interested in that anymore and the old generation can't really come up there since the track is so steep, the spirit house remains quite abandoned.


Tho showed us the market square where all the children play during the day and he also showed  us the school before going back to the camp. There I took a freezing cold shower and wrote in my diary before having dinner at 6:30pm. We could even sit at the family table and after dinner Tho brought me a mosquito net since I left mine at Twinhouse because I didn't think I would need it. Before going to sleep at 9 o'clock, I talked with Malin a bit about her previous travel destinations and the poeple we both have met during our stay in Thailand so far.


Tuesday

 Tuesday was construction work day. At 8 o'clock we ate breakfast, that Malin and Tho have cooked. We ate banana pancakes with chocolate sauce and a huge plate of fruit. 


We then had a short amount of free time until 9am, when we had to make roof sheets out of bamboo strings.
The first one took me almost two hours and was, I got to be honest, quite ugly. M, Thos brother, said that, for the fact, that it was my first time making anything like that, it was actually perfect. I think he was just trying to be nice, though. ;)


I then started making the second one and that one was actually pretty. Really dense and even! I initially wanted to finish this one really quickly but when I was about halfway done, lunch was ready. After lunch we had a two hour break until 2pm. From two to four, we worked on the roof parts again and each one of us made three sheets in total.

 
At 5:30pm we went to the market downtown where we got money to buy our dinner. Malin and I both got fried rice with a couple of other food items and M even got us donuts. After dinner we had an Akha language lesson with Tho and M's mom. We learned the language basics like "thank you", "hello", a few animal names, the weekdays and we even learned to count to 1000! We stayed up a bit with the mom and joked around, even though she could neither speak nor understand english at all but we, somehow, managed to communicate.


Wednesday

On Wednesday it was my turn to make breakfast with Tho and we made apple pancakes. That day we should've gone jungle trekking but it was pouring rain so we switched the wednesday and the thursday program, which meant that we would do the homestay today. Tho drove us to the family where we would be staying for the day and night and we greeted everyone in Akha. The daughter of the hostess was visiting from Bangkok with her son, Thai Thai, a friend and her daughter, Yai Thai. 

 After we got to see our sleeping place, the hostess and mom of the house gave us utensils for making bracelets. We first had to cross stitch a piece of fabric in our desired pattern (we both chose the Thai flag) and, let me tell you, it took forever!! When I was almost done with my third row, it was already one o'clock and we took a lunch break. We got Pad Thai and papaya for lunch and then we helped making some sort of thai coconut dessert. 

Basically, the hostess made the dough and a coconut filling and rolled that into little balls with her grandson, Thai Thai. Malins and my task was, to pack those balls into banana leaves.
We needed a specific technique for that, so that the packets wouldn't tear or open up whilst being steamed. It took us quite a while to master that technique but in the end everything worked out. While the food was steaming, we found a kitten and basically saved it from the little children who would fight over it and treat it like it wasn't a living creature. 

The finished coconut balls were really slimy but actually tasted quite nice, especially the filling. We got a huge plate full with the dessert and went back to the balcony to finally finish our bracelets.
After the stiching pattern was completed, we had to sew the bracelet up and the host mom helped us with the bracelet clasp. Then, two little Akha girls came to visit their friends and we played with them a bit.


One of the highlight of the week was trying on traditional Akha clothing. The host mom dressed us and we both looked ridiculous, especially with the head piece. We took lots and lots of pictures, with the kids as well, and later on, M, Tho's brother, visited to see how we were doing.

Then it was already dinner time. We ate lots of Akha and Thai food and showed our Akha and Thai language skills. They were all quite impressed, especially when we started counting to 100 in Akha. After dinner, we went to our sleeping place and talked for a bit, before going to sleep and hoping for nice weather on Thursday, since that was going to be out trekking day. The homestay was extremely fun and very very interesting, since only the hostess' daughter could speak english a bit and with the others we had to communicate in Akha or just body language. It was definitely one of the best experiences, even though I probably can't really represent how cool it was!


Thursday

 On Thursday we ate breakfast at the homestay after being awakened by the rooster at 5am. The host mom accompanied us back to the camp where we could gather our stuff for the trekking and the hot spa afterwards. M brought us and two guides to the starting point where we began the trek at 9:45am.
I almost slipped about a hundred times, since I only brought trainers with a smooth sole and no real hiking boots. After a few minutes we already had to cope with the first obstacle - a river we had to cross. Although the guides did their best and arranged rocks, so that we wouldn't have to go through the river, my shoes were soaking wet after that. 


The weather was quite nice. It wasn't too sunny or hot but it also wasn't raining that much, only a little drizzle. I slipped a few times, ripped my whole pants and scraped my shin but overall it was a nice hike. After about two hours it was time for lunch break.


The guides built an entire table and a bench out of bamboo, made a fire, carved plates, cups and chop sticks and cooked the food, which consisted of a pumpkin we picked on the way, instant noodles, rice, omelet and hot chocolate. 

During that preparing time, Malin and I tried carving cups and chop sticks ourselves but failed miserably at the cups. All that, including the actual eating time, took more than two hours and after that we continued our hike.
We walked for about three hours and had amazing views. We also saw some rubber plantations which was really cool to see, since I once did a presentation about natural rubber in chemistry class. 
Shortly before we arrived at the bus station, where M would pick us up and bring us to the natural hot spring, we encountered a few tropical plants like dragon fruit, guava and rose apples. At the bus station the guides used the time to carve themselves some more chop sticks and also to refine mine. The drive to the natural hot spring took about 20 minutes and we spent one hour there. 

The pool was inside a room with showers where we should do a specific program. At first go into the hot pool for 15-20 minutes (it was VERY hot, we had to fill it with cold water so it wouldn't burn our skin off - I'm exaggerating, but it was actually extremely hot), then take a cold shower, walk around for eight minutes, go into the pool again and, in the end, take a cold shower again. 



I got to be honest, that was the only time we actually washed our hair all week because the water in our bathroom in the camp was just wayyyy too cold and had no pressure at all. Of course we showered but washing our hair was a whole nother story that week.




The drive back to the camp took an hour (we bought some stuff on the way back) and there we had noodles and fried bananas for dinner. 


Before going to sleep Malin and I had a major panic attack because there was a giant huntsman spider IN Malins mosquito net. We tried to shake it out of it which just resulted in the spider escaping and hiding. We obviously couldn't go to sleep with the knowledge of a - sorry - huge ass spider in our room, so we looked for it. When looking under Malins bed, there was a spider but it wasn't the one from before, it was even bigger. I'm so sorry for every animal lover but we just had to kill it, sleeping that night wouldn't have been possible with two massive spiders. When trying to get that one with a broom, we missed it and it fled under my bed, where we also found the other one. Eventually, we managed to kill both of them (again, I'm sorry!) and could finally go to sleep. Let me tell you, that evening was a freaking adventure itself.
 

PS: I dare you to google "sparassidae Thailand", that's the kind of spiders we had in our room.


Friday

Friday was a very fun day. After waking up at 7am, Malin and I decided that we would both make breakfast that day. When we went to the kitchen, neither Tho nor M were there so we didn't get to make pancakes but made Akha style breakfast with the mom instead, which obviously was fun as well. 

 
We then left to go to another part of the village to roast our own coffee. At first we had to peel the coffee beans, which actually were completely white, then we had to seperate the peels from the actual beans by shaking them in a basket in a specific way. Malin and I both didn't master that technique so we let the "coffee guy" handle that step. 




 
After that, we could start to roast our beans until they were a really dark brown colour. They needed to cool down before we could pack them into bags and take them home with us. We obviously also got to try finished coffee and, although I usually don't like coffee, it didn't taste all too bad to me. Apart from making coffee, we also got some tea and we even got to make our own popcorn. 


Later we drove down to a huge lake where we went kayaking for about two hours. It was lots of fun, since Malin and I had much time to just talk about our home countries, traditions etc and joke around.
After a few minutes it started to rain, though, but we didn't let that bother us and just kept kayaking. At one point the rain got much worse so we had to quickly take shelter under a bridge. When we got back to the landing stage, we quickly changed out of our soaking wet clothes and got lunch at a restaurant. 

In the afternoon, M brought us to the local market and shop, so that we could buy ingredients for traditional meals from our home countries, that we would have to make in the evening for the culture exchange party, where lots of Akha people would visit the camp. We also had to think of any traditional action, dance or festive activity, that we should show them as well.
  
The meal I was going to prepare was Kaiserschmarrn, a dutch pancake like meal, often served with stewed plum, jam or, as in my case, apple sauce. For me it was quite easy to find all the ingredients. Malin had a few struggles, since she was going to make swedish K├Âttbullar (meat balls) with potatoes and brown sauce. She had troubles finding minced meat, cream for the sauce and spices but in the end we managed finding everything we needed. 

Back in the camp, we had to find things for Malins performance, since she decided to show how swedish people celebrate midsummer. For that, we needed some bamboo for the may pole and lots of flowers. Since time was short, we had to start cooking and let M build the may pole. At that time I didn't even know what I should perform yet. At first I wanted to dance the Viennese Waltz but we didn't have music for that and internet connection was hard to find in the camp. I decided to just start cooking and hoped that something would come to my mind. 


Cooking in the Akha kitchen was not easy at all. The first obsticle I had to face was beating the egg whites. I obviously had to do it by hand and it just didn't want to get stiff. We also didn't have a scale and basically had to eyeball everything.
Then, when I started to fry my Kaiserschmarrn, the stove kept turning off and my meal started to fall apart. It definitely didn't look like a Kaiserschmarrn but, lucky for me, noone knew how it's supposed to look, so it was fine. Moving on to the second disaster, my apple sauce. I didn't think about the fact, that there wouldn't be a blender at the camp, so I had to try to mash the apples with a whisk. Didn't work, obviously, but, again, nobody knew what it's supposed to look like. 

Whilst cooking, I finally had an idea for my performance. I wanted to perform the "Perchtenlauf" which is an austrian tradition where poeple dress up, run around and scare people.  
( No 6: https://www.thelocal.at/20160620/six-unique-traditions-that-austrians-love-to-love )

I didn't have that much time to hand craft a mask so it just consisted of paper, string and chop sticks. 

At half past 6, the celebration began. We each had to eat a boiled egg and drink a shot of "happy water" (Vodka). Then we got blessed by each Akha member, who took part in the celebration and got eight string bracelets, one for each prayer, on our wrists. Legend says, that the prayers come true when they fall off by themselves. As I'm writing this (March 2018) all but one are still on.

Now it was our turn to represent our country and show them part of our culture. First, they tried our food and I think they genuinely enjoyed both of our meals, since they finished all of it. We also ate some Akha food for dinner and joked around with the little kids, Thai Thai and Yai Thai. 

The first perfomance we got to see, was the Akha one. They all wore their traditional clothes and we had to stand in a circle. We then did some traditional dancing, clapping and stamping. At first Malin and I both didn't know what exactly to do but after a few tries, we mastered the dance. 




Malin then showed everyone how she celebrates midsummer in Sweden. It was really interesting, even for me, and the Akha people had lots of fun as well. 





For my Perchtenlauf performance, I played the song "Ocean Avenue" by Yellowcard and ran around like a maniac, pretending to scare them. The played along really well and it seemed like they were quite entertained.

That was the end of the ceremony and Malin and I washed all the pans and pots before going to our room. Tho joined us for a few minutes and we just talked a bit about our experience in the village and we also had to get a cockroach out of our room. All in all, our friday in the village was simply amazing and I enjoyed every second of it, minus the cockroach incident.


Saturday

Today was Saturday, thus my last day in the Hill Tribe village.We made banana pancakes with Tho one last time and I had to pack my stuff right after finishing breakfast and say goodbye to the Akha host mom . Tho even gave me a traditional Akha bag as a surprise. 

We then went to Chaing Rai City with M to do a little sightseeing. First, we visited a temple complex called Wat Saeng Kao Pohtiyan where usually only locals go to since 90% of the tourists in Chiang Rai are only interested in seeing the white temple. 



This complex, however, was great! It had three golden monk statues in the center which were sorrounded by mythical figures, like three-headed dragons, for example.



Then I got to see the white temple. Since Malin has visited this temple the week before already, I went in there on my own. It looked super stunnig and my expectations were far exceeded. It had mirrored mosaics on it and the looks of it overall just amazed me. There, unfortunately, was construction work going on at the entrance that day but I still managed to shoot some pretty good pictures without all the scaffolding. (Sorry, not sorry, for the photo spam!)











Malin and I had to look for M for a few minutes because he was nowhere to be seen. Not at the restaurant, not at the truck, not at the temple entrance - nowhere. When we finally found him, we went to get food  and M told us, we were going to go to a waterfall after lunch.

It was the Korn Khun waterfall and we had to hike 1400 metres to the actual waterfall. Since it was monsoon season, the path was flooded and extremely muddy here and there and we had to cross quite a lot of creeks.
When we finally got to the waterfall, our clothes were sopping because of all the humidity and the rain. The waterfall itself, however, was fairly nice, so we were still glad that we did the hike and faced the obstacles. On our way back to the parking lot, I got bitten by a leech which was super gross but apparently very common in Thai jungles and forests and, luckily, leeches are pretty harmless.


Our last stop was the shopping mall, where we just had to kill time, before it was time for me to go back to Singburi. Malin and I both got a smoothie and we went to a phone shop to look at all the phones we don't have in our home countries. I also had to buy some birthday presents for a friend of mine.


I took the bus back at 6pm and this time it was a super comfortable one! The drive back took me about eleven hours again with two layovers. At 5am, the bus driver stopped in the middle of the highway and said that this was my stop. Since they can't speak english at all, I didn't even bother asking where I should go and just got out. It took me a few minutes to find the next gas station. Remember, I was on a super busy highway in the middle of the night, without a clue where I actually was, trying to find someone who could help me. The fact that there were plenty of stray dogs on the road, didn't make the situation any better. When I finally got to a gas station, there, fortunately, was a taxi driver, who took me back to Twinhouse.


Sunday

Sunday was a typical sunday. I got up shortly before noon, did my laundry and watched YouTube videos and Netflix the whole day. I also got two new roommates and had to pack for the next week. At dinner, I talked with all the new arrivals and wrote in my travel diary, as always. I then finished packing for the elephant sanctuary, before going to sleep pretty early, since we had to get up at 5am. 

October 9th -  October 15th 2017

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