Swallowed by the Green Giant

 |  January 28, 2010

You don’t need to drive far from Chiang Mai city to be pulled out from underneath your urban blanket of civilised security and propelled into the un- or at least little-explored northern jungles. During the high season, when our city’s inhabitants hit the streets in their best winter woolies carrying balloons, snacks-on-sticks, and wide smiles, I decided it was time to be reunited with the inner ape, uncle Darwin held so dear. Shane Beary from Track of the Tiger was the matchmaker who set up my primate (primal) rendezvous.

I was picked up in the morning by the English speaking forest guide Thong – a 30 year old, hyper-energetic Bangkok-boy who had left the concrete jungle for the organic version. He pulled up next to my hotel and threw my bag into his shiny Mitsubishi Triton. We drove for 40 minutes until we reached the Pang Soong Lodge, which is situated 50 kms from Chiang Mai, near Mae Lai village. We were greeted by Boon Yuen, a 49 year old experienced hunter and forest farmer who knows the wilderness better than his own rear pocket. His expertise on local flora and fauna as well as the much-needed machete duty, clearing our forest path, proved to be invaluable. After a quick safety briefing we embarked on our journey.

Initially the trail was cement coated and we effortlessly strolled to the first stop; a small clearing with Arabica coffee bushes. Nibbling on a couple of sweet mocha beans we then reached a pasture of chewing tea, chaa miang, which we also sampled. The tea releases a nice flavour and a flow of stimulating caffeine, which became my saviour later on as the trek got more physical.

Soon the concrete trails ended and the forest swallowed us whole. My two companions took me into the emerald labyrinth showing me several cascades and escorting me through rivers on treacherous balancing acts as we jumped from rock to rock like fearless gibbons. We were greeted by giant trees with trunks as thick as factory chimneys and crowns like cumulus clouds, some I was told were up to 1000 years old, though have since been informed that it may be a slightly dubious claim. Twice did poisonous green vipers force us to change our paths but the exhausting ever-ascending hike took my mind off the many dangerous creepy critters, which were doubtlessly hiding on the forest floor.

Boon Yuen wanted to show me the woods from above, so after we had fought ourselves through a thicket of giant bamboo, we arrived at a roughly 15 metre tall cliff with a knotted rope hanging from the top. “Can you climb this?” Thong asked me, with a facial expression that told me he doubted my simian climbing skills. My ego forced me to show him that I could climb. My arms are still sore. Snacking on chocolate, feet dangling over the ledge, we gazed at blue skies, canopies in different shades of verdant green, birds flying high . . . exhilarating! A vague, murmuring sound in the distance broke through the monotoned cicada song and caught my attention. When I asked what it was, Thong just smiled and told me…I would have to wait and see.

45 minutes later, cutting our way through lush green jungle salad, we finally arrived at the source of the rumbling forest symphony we had enjoyed from afar. As I looked up at the 40 metres of roaring, crystal clear waterfall that would be our lunch vista, I was speechless. I felt small, humbled, and very glad I had ignored the excuses I had earlier in the morning for skipping the trek. In the shade of banana trees, we enjoyed our packed lunch and soaked in the sights. No words were spoken, nor were they needed.

The walk back was an easier task as we went downhill. Boon Yuen occasionally stopped to show me the medical cabinet of the forest; different trees, plants and vines that cure, or help with, everything from headaches to arthritis. After a total of 6 hours trekking, we again reached the Pang Soong Lodge, where we spent the night chilling by a bonfire and listening to the sounds of the forest.

Get in touch with a trekking agent like Track of the Tiger (which is known for its responsible and sustainable environmentally aware principles) or a similar tour provider. You might return with some bruises and cuts, but more revitalised than after a spa! (Though I think I need to go to a spa now…)