Si Lanna National Park | Chiang Rai Province, Thailand
The sun was shining, the fresh, mountain air was filling my lungs, my heart was happy, my mind was expanding with new knowledge, and my eyes were open wide to the never before seen sights in front of me. That’s pretty much how my journey through the hill tribe villages of northern Thailand went on Saturday.
James and I were beyond fortunate to be offered the opportunity to join a group of local Thai men and a few women on their annual holiday day-trip up to the hill tribe temples to offer gifts to the monks (and have an excuse to drink beer and drive trucks). The group was celebrating the three-month annual buddhist retreat called Vassa, similar to Christians’ Lent. Vassa season means the monks will be confined to the temple and their immediate surroundings for a while, which is why it is a common practice for Thai people to bring them offerings, such as food and water.
We showed up to the house we were told to meet at in the morning with beer in hand as our offering to them for taking us. We expected to be saving them for later in the afternoon but quickly realized these guys were ready to party when they cracked them all open before we even left, at 9 in the morning. Large 4×4 trucks rolled in one after the other as we sat and enjoyed the view of the mountains until there was about eight of them. We met the crew, ate strange foods, learned a few Thai words, drank beer and eventually began our journey up the mountain through Si Lanna National Park. There was a single narrow, rocky, dirt road we took that was being shared by several different 4×4 truck and motorbike groups who were doing the same thing we were. As I was tossed from side to side in the back of the truck, I figured out pretty quickly why everyone brought their durable 4×4. Our driver, P’Chiang, is a Thai man who works at the non-profit we’re volunteering for. He is a large, talkative dude who loves a good laugh and a cold Chang beer.
I’ve never had to pee as bad as I did on our way up to the first temple. After all that beer and rocky dirt road to toss me around the truck, all I could really think about was a toilet. I (barely) made it though and was so charmed by the little, wooden temple up in the Si Lanna mountains we found ourselves at when we arrived. The monk at this temple was a German woman who said she had been there for five years. I wanted to ask her a million questions and learn her story but the other temples awaited. On my way out, she invited me to come back again and share a cup of coffee with her so maybe I will.
We did this for a while- rocking around in the 4×4, stopping at a temple to offer gifts and pray, hopping back in the truck with a beer in hand to rock around some more, and so on. There was a lunch break, however, when the whole 4×4 crew pulled over and unloaded buckets of steamed rice, cans of beer, meat dishes and fruits. They were generous enough to share it all with us so there I was scooping mounds of sticky rice into my hand and grabbing fried pork out of bucket to eat with it- quite the opposite of the way my mother taught me to eat. I listened to them all laugh and share stories as my family and friends would on a roadtrip like this. And while I couldn’t understand a word they were saying, the smiles and laughter, food laid out all ever the truck bed, and the views of the northern Thailand mountains made me feel right at home.
Then it was back in the truck and time for rocking around again.
After a couple more temple stops and pictures with monks (because they all get giddy when they see the rare white person in their temple), we found ourselves eating and drinking again. This time we were in a hill tribe village all the way up in the Chiang Rai Province at what seemed to be friends of our truck friends’ wooden house. They brought out more sticky rice and meat dishes, one with cooked bamboo served as noodles, for us to devour without knowing exactly what we were eating. And then came the rice whiskey…
Things started to get really comfortable once the rice whiskey was introduced to the gathering. There was a woman, Sirintip, whose favorite activity was forcing shots of this stuff down people’s throats. James and I both had a few willingly but it didn’t stop there… every time we agreed to “ONE MORE,” she managed to convince us we had to have another until before we knew it we were about 15 shots deep. While we were obviously her favorite victims, she made sure to include everyone in her efforts and soon enough we didn’t have to be the drunk Americans at the party- everyone was in on it.
Groups came and went on their motorbikes and trucks, each bringing their enthusiasm and smiles to the party. There was so much joy and energy at one point we had to make our own music since we didn’t have speakers, service, or any other means to play any. We used whatever we could find- an empty jug of water, an empty beer bottle and our hands and voices to complete the atmosphere.
Times like those are the ones I look back on and am most thankful for from my travels. You can’t plan that kind of joy or fun. It just happens somewhere, sometime and you go with it. Looking around at the villagers smiling and dancing, the children running around playing, and people coming and going through what I would consider to be a small, distant village, I felt so incredibly fortunate to be where I was in the company of people so unfamiliar but even the more enjoyable. It’s amazing how little a language barrier matters when rice whiskey and music are involved. In those moments, we were all simply human, not individuals associated with different countries, statuses and cultures.
As we jumped back in the trucks and rolled away from our new friends, I had the fullest heart knowing what kind of rare and wonderful experience we just had. When I’m sitting in my air-conditioned house eating my takeout meal back in the states, I’ll think of that village and those people and remember how different life can be. Their reality is so drastically distant from mine at home, yet we shared a unique experience that I think we all will remember and cherish for some time.