I am in Chiang Mai, Thailand, heading towards my first mountain trek. I am with fellow tourist Ani and guides Mr G and Chai. Before we set off we speak to the tourism police who take photocopies of our passports, so they can keep track on who goes in and out of the area. The chief policeman has the biggest smile I have ever seen. He shakes our hands telling us to always listen to our guides. However, encase somehow we lose our guides he hands Ani and I a card with phone numbers on it. ‘These numbers, you need if you get lost, you call us and we come get you’. This sounds great, till he finishes his sentence with…‘there is no phone signal in the mountains. So you need to find village, or, find road and then village, then find phone and call us’, he beams.
It is humid and I already wish I had prepared more for my trek, my fitness, or, lack of it will be felt pretty soon. We begin at the local market where the locals sell their produce, Chai shows us around and this is my first experience of a Thai food market. Rows of colourful vegetables and raw meat that I have only seen previously from glossy magazines are displayed. Chai hands me a sugared, mini pancake and a banana covered in sticky rice all wrapped inside a gooey banana leaf. Out the corner of my eye I notice a tray piled with brown spices. I look closely at the fine brown strands coated in white dust. Suddenly I see movement…it is covered in ants and hundreds of them scurry over the spices. ‘Chai’, I call out. ‘Ants!’ they’re everywhere, do we need to tell someone?’ Chai laughs then grins from ear to ear. ‘No, no’, he says, ‘we eat them…ant eggs, make soup, put in’.
‘Oh’, I say, cheeks going redder and this time not from the heat.
We reach the start of our route with backpacks ready it is time to start our trek. Apart from the gentle swaying of trees everything else feels so still. I can see more shades and varieties of greens, beiges and yellows than I can count. Walking in the shadows to try to stay cool, my hair is already sticking to my flushed face and I can feel the humidity in the air each time I breathe in. It will take four hours to reach the top. G and Chai having spent their lives on these mountains barely break a sweat, not even touching the water we bring with us. Somehow I have already downed a two litre bottle.
A few hours in and we are in the heart of the terrain. Mr G tells us stories of his life on the mountains, swinging a machete through the branches as we push our way through. Earlier I asked Mr G if there were any dangerous animals in the mountains, ‘No, just wild chickens’. Mr G turns to Ani, pointing towards a tree with a hollowed out trunk at the base. ‘Last time I walk through, I see a big snake, all curl up, sleeping’, he says.
‘Cool!’ says Ani.
‘Um…hang…hang on! I exclaim. ‘I asked if there was anything dangerous in the mountain and you said no but…you just said you saw a snake in that tree’, my heart races slightly, it could be lack of fitness or fear, possibly both.
‘Yes’, Mr G says with a puzzled expression on his face, ‘but it is not there now’. ‘And it is okay I have this!’ the machete is held aloft. ‘If you see, you scream and I…’ now makes a slashing motion towards the ground to illustrate his point.
Two hours later and we make it to the top. I sink, gratefully, onto a wooden log. Relieved, I sit and catch my breath. From this height the trees have thinned and I can across a simply stunning landscape, nothing but natural beauty for miles, the mountains in the distance dip down and I can see a few wooden stilted houses amongst the trees. I feel exhausted but exhilarated. It is quiet except for distinct clicking sounds. Turning my head to look for my fellow trekkers I see them, sitting in a row, perched on the same tree log…all tapping on mobile phones. ‘Ani…you’re all on your phones?’ I say.
‘Yeah!’ he beams up at me, ‘there’s signal up here, I’m just checking Facebook’.