Pology Magazine  -  Adventures in Travel and World Culture.
Travel and World Culture   
  Photo: Lars Christensen
 Photo: Steven Allan

Thailand: Oral Hygiene And The Hokey Pokey
By Shelby Reynolds

I started out emphatically at the beginning of the trek, with a backpack on my back, feeling intrepid. Determined, I ascended the steep hill. The first couple-hundred yards were easy, and my hubris took a hold of me as I quickly climbed to the front of the group.

Our plan was to pass through the territories of a few other tribes on our way to staying a night with the Palong tribe in the northern hills of Thailand.  Before starting the 12 mile hike, we ate lunch at a Hmong village.  The houses were rudimentary, constructed of tin and wood, fed with an above ground electric wire. Some had satellites in the front yard. 
Even here, the disparity between the haves and have-nots was apparent.

Before departing, I gave toothbrushes to some of the Hmong children. I had read that this was one of the most useful gifts in the hills, but part of me wondered if I was the umpteenth Westerner to hand off oral hygiene like a novelty. However, the children seemed to like them, and they held the brushes tightly while continuing their game of jumping as high as they could over a large piece of twine.
A few women with bushels of firewood on their heads hustled by us on the way to their village. They glided down the hill effortlessly, while I became increasingly more winded as the incline increased. Gradually, I fell back in the ranks, as the others who had paced themselves overtook my exhausted, over-eager body. My face was crimson with heat, and my muscles shook with exertion. I paused to find my breath and to admire the large cornfield I was passing through. The landscape fused various shades of emerald, forest, and a silk corn-brown.  Poppies once covered this countryside too. I imagined them for color’s sake, but they were now the unspoken crop that only dotted secret sections of the province.
The terrain was more level by the time we reached our rest area with the Karen people. Rain was looming. Tong, our guide, urged us to take a short break so we could make it to the Palong before the storm started. A line of women from various tribes formed in front of us. Some of them had their young children in tow and were dressed in traditional clothing. They crouched behind fabrics where they displayed their wares and encouraged us to buy. Some of them would only say, “You buy. You buy.” I recognized a few of them from the market in Chiang Dao before we made our way north. They had beaten us up the mountain by taking a truck.  

Sweat dripped off my entire body, and my clothing was caked in mud from falling on slippery parts of the trail. My pack, though light, was full of useful items I would’ve been lost without—like toilet paper and a flashlight. It was a relief to set it down and to un-stick my shirt from my back. We sat under a bamboo A-frame with a thatched roof, on a raised platform protected from the weather.

Most of my traveling companions were eager to purchase trinkets. Sipping the Coca-Cola I had bought from the Karen elder for 20 Baht, I felt a little like I was in a commercial. After looking around, it was apparent that visits by weary hikers were old-hat for the locals.

A woman from the Lisu tribe wore an ornate headdress made of fabric, strings of beads, and aluminum. It adorned her face like a delicate window shade. She beckoned me to come look at her jewelry and small woven bags. I nodded at her appreciatively and rested while I finished my drink. Tong whispered to me that it was better not to buy anything from these women, because the tribe we were staying with was holding a special night market for us.
Once we got back on the path, we passed through a diminutive village belonging to an Ankha tribe; and I spotted my first monkey of the trip. It was brown with a long tail. It was chained to a spike in the hard ground and pacing furiously.

We heard the storm coming before it hit. The rain covered everything in its wake. Its sound echoed through the hills as it made contact with the earth. I scrambled to retrieve my raincoat from my pack. Putting on a plastic rain poncho in 98-degree weather with 100% humidity was masochistic. The hood was suicidal. But I persevered for the sake of protecting my gear.

We picked up the pace a bit. Just outside the Ankha village there was a woman and her two children traveling the same dirt road. They were carrying things to sell, but at that moment they were preoccupied with staying dry by holding large palm fronds over their heads. We smiled at one another. This storm, like most I experienced, was tempestuous and short in duration.    

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