I’m almost to the top of the mountain. Far ahead I can see Ti, the guide of the two-day adventure trek I am on in the mountains of northern Thailand. He’s waiting by a bend in the road and urging my 12 fellow trekkers and me to keep coming.
“Almost there!” he bellows down the trail at us. He’s smiling and doesn’t seem at all winded by the last few hours of trudging through thick vegetation and brush, during which he expertly pointed out a slithering snake, sweet-smelling lemongrass and a weird, edible nut. The trail we’ve been following – when there has actually been sign of a trail – has recently grown wider into a dirt road, hopefully an indication we’re almost to the top of the mountain and the local village where we will spend the night.
I hear a low rumbling noise that gets louder and louder until a motorcycle comes roaring up the trail carrying two Thai boys who look about 15. They weave around me and stop when they get to Ti, who greets them joyfully. After a minute, the motorcycle takes off again and I notice bags of what looks like groceries strapped to its back.
“Think that’s our dinner?” jokes my fiancé, who has joined me on this adventure.
“The villagers drive motorcycles up and down the mountain?” is my surprised response. I’m aware they need to get around; I just assumed it was rare and via foot or animal. I’m more curious than ever to see this mountain-top village. We round a few more bends and arrive.
The village is more massive than I expected. Faded wood huts with thatched roofs, most on stilts, dot the landscape. As I walk around I notice a cluster of animals; puppies, pigs, chickens and roosters all abuzz amongst the overgrown grass and dirt paths winding between the huts. Joining them are a dozen young children, running around laughing, the setting sun dancing off their eyes as it creates a hazy glow over the mountains in the distance.
The children are barefoot, but look well fed and dressed. Another motorcycle whizzes by and the children chase it, giggling. It stops next to an empty lot where a low-slung volleyball net is strung and teenage boys, their western-looking clothes rustling lightly in the low breeze, are hitting a soccer ball over it with their feet. I wonder if they’re wearing hand-me-downs from visitors or if the money from tours actually covers the costs of such clothes.
I look around at the motorcycles, the well-dressed children and the minimalist huts and find myself wondering if it’s all an act. Do they head back down the mountain after we’re all asleep? Is this just a well-produced illusion for tourists? Then I notice a woman hanging up laundry and I pass what looks like a bare-bones general store. This definitely is a lived-in – and by all appearances happy – village.
Later, after the sun has set and a chill sets in, Ti regales us with stories. We’re huddled around a blazing bonfire adjacent to a long room we trekkers will be sleeping in. The bonfire is the only heat we’re going to have the luxury of experiencing tonight.
A local woman, dressed in a long gold and red robe, enters our bonfire circle from the darkness beyond the hut (there is no electricity here). I look at her in surprise. Her outfit is so different from the ones I saw on the playing children and teenagers earlier this evening. She murmurs something in Ti’s ear and he nods before turning to us.
“Anyone want a Thai massage?” he asks. “200 baht,” which is roughly US$6.50.
My fiancé and I – and six other trekkers – excitedly raise our hands.
We head into the long room and climb onto our mosquito net–covered cots. Teenage girls, also dressed in robes, join us and begin massaging us over our clothing. It was relaxing, although these girls aren’t anywhere close to being professional masseuses. It’s just another useful (and clever) way for them to make some money through tourism.
As we leave the village the next morning, passing by a one-room schoolhouse, it is clear this is every bit an authentic mountaintop village – just not exactly what I expected. The villagers appear to have found a way to embrace the 21st century and make a living without having to leave their serene home up here where the air is crisp. From the trekkers they get what is most likely much-needed income and, in turn, trekkers such as myself get to share their beautiful mountains and home. The community’s peaceful existence is maintained through this low-impact form of village tourism, preserving the beauty of the river- and waterfall-filled environment, the habitat of wildlife such as the elephants I see along the way.
As I set off back down the mountain to where an afternoon of whitewater thrills on bamboo rafts awaits us, rows of bright green mountains fill the distance for miles and local children’s laughter follows me down the trail. To me, visiting this community is a remarkable experience, unlike any I’ve ever had. I hope it has helped to protect the little village and the majesty of its surroundings.