Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 20, 2017
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A Trek in Time

Life in the hill towns of northern Thailand hasn't changed in centuries

It's a black, starless night and there's the chatter of foreign voices in the background. I'm lying on a wooden platform, having my body twisted into pretzel-like shapes by a cigarillo-smoking Thai. He's old and wiry, and unlike any masseur I have ever known. A pig snorts and forages beneath the platform. A '70s flashback -- Morris Albert's one-hit wonder Feelings plays on the radio, wafting through the sticky air. Bizarre? You bet, but do you really want to go on vacation just to do the same old every day?

Thailand first seduces with its gentle people, sugary beaches and resplendent temples. But our group of 10 came here seeking adventure. So, after temple-gawking in Bangkok -- a city of 11 million people -- we fly north to Chiang Mai, where we join guides from Trikaya Cultural & Academic Travel Service, a firm that specializes in eco-friendly adventures.

Driving southwest, we follow a winding mountainous route where towering teak trees are tangled with vines and slopes are cloaked with orchids, lichens and mosses. Our destination is Pamon, a village of the Karen hill tribe in Doi Inthanon National Park -- but also home to nearly 400 bird species, macaque and other monkeys, gibbons, giant flying squirrels and deer. Time warp

About 10 tribes -- each with its own culture and language -- now live in these rugged mountains, after migrating from Myanmar, Laos and southern China. Forget microwaves and televisions: these people have no electricity, running water or modern machinery. They seem caught in a time warp between the 6th and 20th centuries, growing their own food, weaving clothing and educating their children. Tourism has discovered them, however, and guiding companies are allowed to take a limited number of visitors into some villages.

The first lap of our day-long journey is by elephant. At the Mae Taeng Elephant Camp, we pair up and climb aboard gnarly-skinned giants. Seated on wide platforms, we teeter above the narrow and steep trail below, jiggling back and forth to a nerve-wracking rhythm. The Thai have long maintained working relationships with these intelligent animals, which are the best means of jungle transport. With about 1500 elephants living wild in northern Thailand and another 1500 working in camps, elephant riding is something that you may choose to do while there. But I'd give it a five on a scale of 10. It seems sad that these mighty animals spend their days carrying tourists. Hiking the highlands

Next, we set out on foot with our two guides, Phet Jirawajanakul and Tong Sungkool. We walk a gentle path beside the Mae Taeng River, passing fields of rice and soybeans. We follow trails shrouded by greenery and alive with birdsong. The farther we go, the steeper and narrower the trail. We cross streams 'tight-rope' style, walking on logs. Our only English-speaking guide gives directions and offers advice on a lofty crossing. "No need to look down," he cautions.

The temperature, in the low 30s Celsius, is a piece of cake for a Thai but rather sticky for a Canadian, and the hum of cicadas fills the air like an orchestra warming up. Yet we meet two hill-tribe women -- gentle-featured, barefoot and to us over-dressed in layers of bright clothing -- who look like they never break a sweat. Over the next several hours, we gape at monkeys swinging like Tarzan overhead, take a dip in a cool pond at the base of a waterfall and then come upon several clearings that must have been village sites once.

We cover a lot of ground going uphill and begin to comprehend the warning we'd been given that this eight-kilometre walk is a serious hike. In one steep section, one of our companions slips off the trail. Before she can even shriek, a guide lunges over the side, grabbing her before she tumbles into the river. It's an impressive rescue and she manages the rest of the walk, albeit a bit shaken. As dusk descends, there are no jokes as we puff up the final 300 metres. At home in the hills

Sweaty and exhausted we wander into a village of about a dozen thatched, stilted huts. We watch several women in their brightly-woven skirts and tops as they work, grinding rice with a wooden pounder activated by a foot pedal. The children rush over to meet us. Perhaps it's sheer exhaustion, but once I flop down by the fire I have a surreal, dreamy feeling. I try to communicate with the soft-spoken people, but sign language and a few smiles are all we manage.

When we're offered a Thai massage, I figure it will be the perfect cure for my hike-wearied body. My aged masseur has fingers like steel and amazing strength. At times my body feels stretched beyond its limits, pounded like a piece of cheap beef. I communicate by gasps and groans. I hear similar sounds from my travel companions nearby. After about 45 minutes, I limp off to bed -- a platform with a sleeping pad and sheets. I drift off quickly and awaken at sunrise feeling like I have a new body. I've become a fan of Thai massage.

During the day, we take pictures, hike and observe life in the village. After the men depart for work, the women weave and string beads, care for the children and prepare food. We are served a delicious pot of chicken and curried vegetables cooked over the open fire. I befriend a lovely young woman who lets me hold her baby while she weaves a brightly coloured cloth. I finally purchase it from her, and after she shows me how to wear it wrapped around me we clasp hands to say good-bye.

Over the next week my companions and I river raft in Kanchanaburi, near Bangkok, then fly south to kayak among pearly limestone formations in Phan Nga Bay. We climb rock faces in Krabi and enjoy diving in Phuket. We eat delicious food and relish some of the world's best beaches. Yet when I remember my time in Thailand, it is always that lovely Karen woman I think about. Her weaving hangs in a place of honour in my upstairs hall and brings me back again to her village home, now so far away.

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