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Getting Off the Beaten Track in Northern Thailand: Mae La Oop

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After a few hours in the van, cruising along roads that twisted and turned with the landscape, the first victim fell. Most everyone’s stomach was under assault. My wife and I had been popping Dramamine like candy, and using a strict regimen of denial to fight off the nausea (If you don’t admit you are about to puke, you won’t puke, right?).

But no one had thrown up until now. But he made up for lost time. You have seen Star Wars, right? You know the sound Chewbacca makes when he gets excited? Well, imagine a tall Mexican guy making that sound, only with a wet, gurgling quality, while hunched over a tiny little plastic bag. He was crammed into the back of the van, and the convulsions of his body made it impossible for him to exit the van, even after the driver pulled over for him.

He just sat there, wedged in between two large guys. Throwing up Chewbacca-style.

It was horrible. But also kind of funny.

One of the guys sitting next to Chewbacca made eye contact with me right in the midst of another excessively noisy round of hurling. His facial expression was priceless. He was crammed right next to Chewbacca. Legs, shoulders, hips. All pressed together. And Chewy was madly hurling away. The other guy had no way out. No escape. No choice but to sit there, making full body contact with a vomiter.

I tried not to laugh, mostly because I wondered if what goes around comes around. We were in the land of karma after all. Better to fake a sympathetic expression and hope to fool fate.

Sometime later another victim fell, but she was quiet and discreet. Later we found out that she simply threw up in a small baggy she had. She closed it up and locked it away and disposed of it at another time. We would have never known if she hadn’t told us.


The Road to Who Knows Where

Mae La Oop Main St.

Mae La Oop Main St.

We were on the road to . . . somewhere. There was some confusion. I was traveling with a group of students studying international development. Through a mutual friend, we had been put in contact with an organization called Raks Thai that worked in northern Thailand. We were heading to a village to work along with Raks Thai and try to learn something about how rural communities in northern Thailand were planning for future growth and development.

Where exactly were we going? We didn’t know. We knew it was a small town, but there was some disagreement over what the name of the town was. We had heard the name Wat Chan and we even found it on the map. It wasn’t too far from the tourist town of Pai. But we had heard other names as well.

Right now, all we knew was that you had to drive across every mountain in northern Thailand to get to wherever we were going.

Hopefully our driver knew where to go.

In the end, we went to the town of Wat Chan and the driver had us climb out at the local government building. The students were excited. I had told them to be prepared to a very simple village, without many of the comforts they were used to. Wat Chan had a 7-Eleven. And the 3G on everyone’s phone worked. They quickly began to message their loved ones that they would not be totally cut off from the internet for the next month.

But then the driver told us we were to wait here for another ride which would take us to our final destination. Up in the  hills. No 7-Eleven. No wifi.

Chewbacca threw up again.


Mae La Oop

Eventually a couple of pickup trucks arrived and we piled in the back. The trucks made their way up rutted, dirt roads into the mountains. We drove for about 20 minutes before we came to Ban Mae La Oop. “Ban” is the Thai word for village, so we were in Mae La Oop Village.

And a village it was.

The village of Mae La Oop

The village of Mae La Oop

Houses bunched around the main road, with rice paddies surrounding the road and homes. The mountain slopes above us were a mix of wild forest and cultivation. We would later find out that some of what looked like wild forest was actually agriculture, with fruit trees growing not in nice, neat rows, but in a more natural, unorganized way. It was like a forest of pomegranate, and jackfruit, and banana, and mango. Pineapples make the undergrowth. Nice forest, right?

Workers in the rice fields in Mae La Oop

Workers in the rice fields in Mae La Oop

Our group was split up and taken to different homes where we would stay. Mae La Oop was not developed for tourism. As far as I know, we are the only outside group to ever stay in the village. We slept not in developed “homestays” that are often found through SE Asia which consist of a guesthouse/private house hybrid. We slept on the floors of the people’s home in Mae La Oop. We shared their bathrooms. We ate with them.

It turned out to be one of the greatest experiences of my life.

Our host family was amazing. The family consisted of a father and mother, two daughters (a 9-year-old and a baby), and a grandma. The whole family was wonderful. I spent evenings with the father, teaching him English and talking about life in a Karen village. He showed me how to hunt eels as well as mangoes (we shot mangoes down from the trees in the fruit forest with sling shots). Grandma taught my wife how to weave. We all learned how to plant rice.

Grandma teaching my wife to weave

Grandma teaching my wife to weave

And every evening, after dinner, we would sit out on the front porch, watching the sun set and listening to the crescendo of the sound of the frogs coming alive in the rice paddies all around us.

Our after-dinner job was to play with the baby, and we set to it with gusto.


Our regular after-dinner chore

During the days we helped out at the local school, went to Raks Thai meetings, and studied Thai. It turned out that there was a trickle of a wifi signal coming from the community hospital, and the students often gathered at the hospital’s front entrance to contact home, check in with their friends, and do who knows what online.

The food we had was amazing. Green curried eel. Chicken rice that was better than any chicken rice we had at the famous places in Singapore. Fresh fruit from the forest. And rice that was grown in the fields that now surrounded us.

And always our host family. Grandma checking to see if we were OK, and laughing hysterically every time we said “thank you” to her in the Karen language (all the Karen people we met went nuts when we spoke this one word, the only word we know in Karen, to them. We became the instant village pets). The baby, laughing and punching us in the face with her tiny little fists. Mama making sure we had enough to eat and drink. And Papa, making sure we learned everything we could about what it was to live in a Karen village.

This did not feel like travel. It was simply life in a new place. The time we spent there is something I will never forget. I learned what it means to be a good host. To be happy with a simple life while working for more at the same time. I made good friends. I had an experience that changed me. And I had it because travel.

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