“Oooooooooooh,” said Somboone, our guide, his voice rising in a now-familiar exclamation he uses at the beginning of every sentence when he gets excited. “No, we don’t eat that bug. Shell too hard and his meat will kill us.”
V had developed a game with Somboone, pointing at some greenery or animal and asking if his people ate that particular thing. 9 out of 10 times, they did. He stopped answering me and only responded to V, as I kept pointing to things like electrical wiring and discarded car tires. Somboone is a good sport.
We left the temple at Doi Suthep, but instead of heading back down the mountain, Somboone left the paved road near the summit and entered a precipitous looking trail. Could not have been a road; it was too narrow and pitted with huge potholes that made us bounce and jerk and hold onto the safety bars inside his SUV.
A wonderful little place hanging off a jungle cliff in the middle of nowhere.
We settled in for some delicious coffee and made friends with a chicken. Okay, a rooster.
A rooster as a brave hunter? I asked if that’s where the word “cocky” came from. Somboone looked at me blankly. Then went on to explain the role of a rooster in hunting. It suddenly made sense. The rooster was used less as an actual hunter and more like, well, bait. Set him out in the wild and wait for what came after him. Then get critter before critter get bait, uh, brave hunter.
As the rooster paraded around us, it seemed a shame to tell him he was anything but the mighty hunter Somboone described.
Hopped up on caffeine and poultry bluster, we drove on up the mountain until we came to the Hmong village. The Hmong are one of many indigenous hill tribes (Somboone is a Karin) that have lived in the mountains of Southeast Asia longer than all the Siams and Burmas that formed, changed, crumbled, and were re-drawn into different provinces by ambitious warlords for the last three thousand years. They were here long before Buddha and many have stubbornly kept hold of the old gods.
village was quiet and seemingly empty and we walked along trying to get a sense of the place. Hard to do. Just seemed like an open space in the jungle with wood and rusted metal roof structures dotting the hillock it occupied. Yet many homes had solar panels (!)
We walked through the village, like a ghost town, and found only a few residents around. Perhaps it was their day off from playing local indigenous natives for the farang (foreigner) tourists?
We visited a school with many children out on recess and playing. We passed the usual groups of sleeping dogs, chirping chicks and wandering cats. Truthfully, there wasn’t a lot going on. The village was quiet, at rest, and well-cared for.
“Where are all the men?” I asked.
“They work,” replied Somboone. Like anywhere in the world, during the middle of the day people are at work. Of course. The old, the very young and mothers were the only people we saw. Duh.
So we stopped at a tiny store slash restaurant and had lunch. The teenaged shopkeeper worked on a noodle concoction for us while Somboone delighted us by cutting up a small mountain of fresh fruit — things we had never eaten before.
We walked back to the car, watching the few villagers carrying on with their lives, and I just couldn’t put my finger on why I felt so odd. Then a pick-up truck went by. A young Hmong mother stood in the pack, clinging to the sides while her toddler son was strapped to her back, staring at everything whizzing by him, uncomprehending.
It was at that moment that I realized what was bothering me.
I was like the toddler, strapped in place, as a world I was too unformed to understand bounced and sped by me. There was no way for me to have anything other than a tourist’s moment with these ancient people. In every face I looked, non-judgmental, even blank, eyes looked back into mine. They’d seen hundreds like me and I barely registered in their consciousness. We must be like strange, colorful birds, chirping away, unintelligible, looking around, then flying away again, until the next migratory batch flies through. While they continue with their lives. Perhaps that is best that way to think of their experience; at least it is pretty to think so.
Soon we were back in the jungle. Small family farms seemed to spring up wherever there was an open space.
Somboone stopped the car several times to point out an interesting fact (like many of the farmers are Burmese who have fled the oppressive Myranmar government and life and slipped into Thailand, into these mountains where they can live free — no one will come looking for them here I was assured). And sometimes he stopped just to perform a bit of magic.
Hours later we exited the jungles of Doi Suthep, passed a man-made lake and, filled to the brim with the day, headed back to our hotel. Every day had been different thus far and yet every day we came away with similar feelings about what we had seen: (over) stimulated with sights, images, feelings of empathy, wonder, and gratitude. And occasionally haunted by what we had just seen. One could easily become addicted to these kinds of days.