Our 19-year-old Mormon guide from Phuket widened his sweet round eyes, but didn’t reply.
“Does anyone else know?” asked DD tentatively.
There was a silence among the group of hikers, resting near a pig sty in a cluster of tribal shacks.
“I think we’re somewhere north of Chiang Mai, but I’m not sure,” the male half of the Danish couple offered. “Maybe I can pick up GPS when we’re back at the village.”
We were high up in the mountains half way into our four-hour trek through bamboo trees and cabbage fields, past waterfalls and bat caves. The air was hot enough to cover our bodies with a sticky sheen of sweat, sun cream and insect spray, but dry enough for us to cool down quickly in the shade. We enjoyed views of lush green mountains covered in a gentle haze, and conquered steep climbs along cliff edges that taught me what it feels like to hug a rock and pray to Buddha. In short, it was the quintessential Thai countryside experience, which was what this group of mainly Western tourists had signed up for in the tour company’s office in Chiang Mai. So perhaps it was wrong to wonder where we actually were, as long as we could tick “saw some nature” off our list at the end of the day and go back to sipping beer.
It was, in truth, a great experience – laid-back, colourful and varied, much like the city of Chiang Mai itself. Its temples are less touristy and more functional than those in Bangkok, with monks in bright orange garments wandering around in threes, sitting stunningly still among the statues, or posing for photos as they put up tents for a festival in the grounds of their school. During the day, boutique cafes on lazy streets give you good coffee and free Wi-Fi, and at night everyone is eating and drinking outside, watching the world go by with a smile on its face. The only things to wake you up from this paradise are the migrant workers, probably from nearby Myanmar, who sit crammed on the back of utes along polluted highways, and the wrong choice of Thai food which can be so spicy it makes your ears ring or so adventurous it gives you an upset stomach.
The latter was what one hiker appeared to be suffering from on the morning of our trek. We were being driven to the mountains in a songthaew, a converted pick-up truck with two rows of seats in the back, knees virtually rubbing together and swapping glances of concern and amusement every time the Irishman jumped off to run to the toilet. The group consisted of an outgoing Danish couple, a good-looking Spanish couple, four single travellers from Austria, Holland, Ireland and China, three excited Canadian girls, and us, all in our twenties and thirties. I know this because I was the last to write our details on a list that went round in the songthaew at the start of the trip, and because I was, inevitably, trying to typecast each person into familiar narratives in order to decide whether I liked them or not.
We were all independent enough, and the time we were spending together was short enough, that no one felt the need to make friends, and we were also tired from the early and slow-moving start. So we sat in a comfortably awkward silence and tried not to catch each other’s stares, with the occasional stilted conversation:
“Are you Swedish?”
“No we’re Danish.”
“I thought you were Swedish – it sounds very similar.”
“Yes it does.”
“How long have you been in Thailand?”
“Where else have you been?”
“It’s nice isn’t it?”
“It’s really nice.”
It reminded me of Poirot. Like the crime scenes he ends up in, we were a bunch of culturally disparate strangers thrown together in an exotic location, similar enough to judge each other from afar, wary enough to avoid open prying. I was fairly sure there was no thwarted lover in our midst out for a bloody revenge, and we weren’t all secretly plotting to kill a beautiful heiress – presumably the Angelina Jolie lookalike from Spain – but it put an interesting spin on the day.
As it turned out, of course, everyone was pleasant, friendly, and not at all murderous. A stalled car on the highway, cute piglets roaming free and an Irishman with diarrhea all helped to start a laugh, and by the end two of the single travellers were swapping phone numbers. We even became acquainted with a couple of dogs and their puppies who followed us most of the trek, making us jealous of their four-wheel drive.
This morning, I woke up with a painful, satisfying, all-body muscle ache.
“Why aren’t you suffering more?” I asked DD, as I attempted to move under the bed sheets.
“I am,” DD replied. “I’m lying still.”
“Shall we take it easy today? Cafe, mooch, river cruise, then booze?”
Our quintessential Thai countryside experience had been successful.
Copyright © 2014 followingdrdippy