At 9am a truck pulled up to my hostel and I jumped in the back next to five new faces, eager to start my next adventure.
I didn’t want to leave Pai but 3+ weeks without a restful night has taken a toll on my body. I’ve developed a head cold, the open wound on my foot from the scooter fall is in danger of infection, and I was surviving on three hours of sleep for the past few nights. I’d never be able to keep this pace at home but here my mind is in such a better place that my tolerance to everything has increased. Even so, my physical and mental limit has finally been reached so I forced myself to book a three day trek through the jungle to clear my head and give my body a break from all the toxins.
In the truck I was greeted by a dutch couple, two British girls and another from Germany. We all hit it off and I felt at ease knowing I was about to enter this experience with people I could trust and become good friends with.
Feeling ill and exhausted, I chugged a pint of coffee and fast food from 7/11 while we traveled up the windy mountain toward our destination. An hour later we arrived at a small village and prepared for the long journey.
Our tour guide, Chai, chopped some bamboo stalks for walking sticks as we used the restroom facilities—another squatter with a bucket of water.
We ascended up the mountain with sweeping views of tree covered cliffs, rice fields and mountain ranges. At the top we walked through another small village inhabited by Burmese refugees, and Chai pointed out the Myanmar border in the distance.
A wall of rain swept over us as we took shelter in a hut littered with bags of seed, dirty shoes and clothing. After the storm passed we continued to climb through banana trees and crops of wild mountain rice. The village began to shrink beneath us as we left the open air and entered the dense jungle.
Chai stopped us frequently, spotting snakes and salamanders, quizzing us on our plant life and species knowledge and digging up roots to use for hot tea.
Having not exercised in over three weeks, I quickly became out of breath as the hot humid air and weight of my backpack took its toll. Thankfully we were all on the same level—none of us experienced trekkers as we trailed behind our guide with slow and heavy breathing. Now I know how Survivorman feels.
We took a detour off the trail as Chai forged a new path, clearing bushes and trees with his machete. When the heat became too much, mother nature delivered a rain shower to cool our sweaty bodies.
The terrain challenged us as dirt turned into mud and the mountain into a cliff as we made our way alongside a narrow dropoff. We took turns slipping and falling as we went, realizing this was much more advanced than any of us had anticipated. I remember thinking I felt safer on my motorbike and wondered if this trek included life insurance.
The trek was now an obstacle course as we crawled in the mud underneath fallen trees and jumped across rivers and boulders. Mosquitos and gnats stalked us as bug spray proved useless against the rain and sweat. My foot wound throbbed with each step as the mud and water soaked through my shoe and bandage.
Here in the jungle I was forced to be alone with my thoughts for hours. When I wasn’t strategizing on where to place my foot to avoid slipping off a cliff, my mind was focused on introspection.
I realized that I’ve lived my entire life avoiding discomfort in all forms. Always on the path of least resistance, playing it safe and minimizing risks. These last few months (or years to be honest) have brought suffering I was not prepared for, that felt unbearable at times, as I had not built up any tolerance from living an “easy” life. That pain has led me here, to a new level of happiness—an entirely different mindset that I didn’t know was possible and I’m hooked.
I crave the challenges and know I can handle anything thrown at me. Months ago I would have been miserable and irritated on this trek, but here in this moment, I don’t want to stop. I push myself harder, knowing I’m capable of so much more.
This trek is simply a mirror—the physical version of the mental struggle I’ve faced and the pain becomes addicting when you know what’s on the other side of it. Pain was my way to happiness so now I welcome it in any form. I’ll come out of this jungle stronger, healthier and happier than when I went in.
After a few hours we came to a clearing and stopped to rest and refuel. Chai pulled out bags of rice, chicken, lychee and cucumber. We devoured our food as he chopped down bamboo trees and carefully sliced them into sections for firewood. The trees provided cover from a light rain and we warmed and dried our tired bodies by the fire.
I watched intently at the interaction between a caterpillar and colony of ants, realizing I haven’t watched television in over a month. Nature was providing free entertainment and watching the real life drama on that tree unfold was better than any scripted reality TV.
When the food was gone, Chai cut down another bamboo tree and sliced it into sections, carving each one into a drinking cup with expert precision. We watched as he smoothed the edges with his knife and handed them to us one by one. Water was poured into another bamboo shoot and placed in the fire with green tea leaves until it boiled over. We sipped our tea and learned about Thai and Burmese history and culture.
The trek continued for a few more hours until we came upon a small village—just a handful of wood and bamboo huts, greeted by the native Karen tribe.
Bamboo mats were rolled out onto the ground as we gathered in a circle and a villager served us tea. We reflected on the day’s events and compared bug bites and injuries.
Another villager called us over and we watched as he hacked away at a bamboo stalk with his machete. I couldn’t figure out what he was making until smoke began to appear out of thin air, and then fire. In a matter of minutes he had created fire from nothing more than a blade and bamboo, and we took turns trying to recreate the steps on our own.
I splashed myself with cold water and changed into dry clothes, feeling refreshed as daylight began to fade.
There were three small children in the village who timidly peeked out at us, curious about the funny looking foreigners in their home. They giggled when we spoke and ran around the yard in excitement. There were no toys to play with or technology to entertain them, so one of the boys folded paper into airplanes and launched them into the sky. The little girl was shy and kept her distance, but she ran up behind me as I was kneeled down taking photos of her brother.
Captivated by the images on my screen, she climbed onto my back and wrapped her hands around my neck as the boy ran over to join in. They laughed hysterically as they saw themselves and watched in wonder as I scrolled through old shots of my hometown scenery. They would have stayed there forever, having likely never seen anything like this before.
Our time was cut short by the mother walking up to let us know it was time for dinner. By this time it was close to 7pm and they had been preparing the meal for hours, since before our arrival.
The cooking hut was dark, even during the day with no windows. They used headlamps and the glow from the fire to see, and spread their ingredients into large pans on the floor. We could sense the great effort and care put into this feast.
We sat down to a spread of rice, potato curry and coconut milk soup, spicy red soup, chicken, chopped carrots, cucumbers and green beans. A bottle of moonshine was passed around as we told stories about our lives and compared cultural differences. Dinner was followed by fresh pineapple slices and tea, and by 9pm we were fading and ready for bed. The tribeswomen had prepared our beds—thin blankets spread on the ground under mosquito net tents.
With a phone screen as my only source of light, I cautiously walked across the field to the toilet shed and came face to face with a giant black spider. My first instinct was to run back out but I really had to go and also brush my teeth, so I walked over to the squatter and there was another huge spider inches away. It was my most terrifying toilet experience to date and I never entered that shed again.
Minutes later I crawled into a lumpy, hard bed and felt shooting pains down my back. The symphony of crickets and frogs provided background noise while voices from the next hut carried into our loft as they finished their bottle of moonshine. Ignoring my physical condition, I lived in the moment, knowing I’d never have this experience again.
Day two tomorrow…