It’s a misty Saturday morning in Northern Thailand’s Mae Sa Mai Village as a group of about 25 American study abroad students prepare themselves for a three-hour trek in the deep jungle. Ponchos, baseball hats, and hiking boots compile the attire for the day. Adventurous excitement triggers for the first challenging hike since arriving at Chiang Mai University.
This activity is part of a weekend home stay at a Hmong village composed of tribal people originally from China who migrated to Thailand for better work and living conditions. As a part of the home stay, students experience the daily live from procuring food and medicine from the jungle to dancing and singing around a campfire to ward off evil spirits.
Trekking through the jungle
Here comes the first steep uphill. Some of the girls complain about burning calve muscles, but are secretly thankful for the exercise. A few minutes into the hike and it starts torrential down pouring. Mud begins to formulate beneath the feet as the students struggle downhill, avoiding a nasty fall. Everyone is soaked to the bone but the trek continues. As every other person slips reaching for a nearby teak tree, the tour guide, Wen, stops to make sure no one is hurt.
“Help each other!” he shouts behind the group.
Sam Torpey, a 20-year-old from the Southeast area of Massachusetts studying kinesiology, says she often hikes back home but this trek does not compare to anything she has previously experienced.
“This is insane! I keep thinking about how our guide told us ‘this is an easy day in the jungle for us.’ That really put it in perspective how difficult their livelihood can be,” says Torpey in a compassionate tone.
Wen is accustom to the jungle life, which reflects in his accurate knowledge behind the purpose of various plants and trees. He points to one tree that is 60 years old, standing at 1,100 feet above sea level on the mountain. The plants below the tree sprout about 3 feet tall with skinny stems and green pointy leaves, supposedly a cure for drinking poison.
“He is amazing,” says Torpey. “He can indentify the species and medicinal value of so many different plants that all looks the same to us newcomers.”
The trek is informative and yet mildly dangerous. The threat of leeches turns into a reality for many individuals as the little insects latch on to pants and even the skin. Torpey and a few others unfortunately get bit. The initial feeling is a bit numbing – you don’t feel the bite at all until the part of the skin becomes itchy and then begins bleeding profusely. Luckily, a band-aid will do the trick so the bite will only leave a blister or scab afterwards.
Kendall Enns, a 21-year-old from Chico, Northern California says during the course of the trail, she keeps thinking of how she is being challenged in the best and the worst ways.
“I enjoyed gaining knowledge, but I felt panicky at times because I was not used to the terrain. However, I experienced the greatest feelings of accomplishment afterwards. I would do it again!” she says with a modest grin.
“I learned that natural remedies exist in our own backyards for permanently discontinuing childbirth and mending bones. I admire the Hmong people for being brave enough to experiment with these resources.”
An Abundant Dinner
Once everyone scrapes off the mud from his or her shoes and changes into dry clothing, the host family provides a generous dinner around 5 pm. The group of 25 students separates into smaller groups of 6-7 people and by gender – so each group has an individual host family.
It’s all vegetarian here.Kevin Oberst, an enthusiastic 26-year-old from Rochester, New York says that the Hmong people are very accommodating.
“I have never met a more friendly or hospitable people. They gave up their homes so we could stay there as a group. They also cooked for us and made sure we had plenty of blankets and pillows,” he says.
The families even kindly cook vegetarian style for those who do not eat meat including two large pumpkin dishes, two large bowls of rice, yellow curry with tofu and plenty of local, fresh tomatoes on the side.
“We ate rice with a chicken stew and spiced tomatoes,” says Oberst, referring to the non-vegetarian meals. “We also had a rice dish with cabbage soup, mixed vegetables and a chicken stir fry. The meals were delicious. We ate family style with our host families.”
Enns spends the night with a different family and eats relatively the same meal with a little extra something.
“The food we ate consisted of bone soup, rice, and vegetables. There was a chicken head and its feet in the bone soup. That definitely surprised me, but I ate it anyways,” says Enns.
The sun sets behind the cloudy green mountains and the campfire slowly burns among the damp wood. Everyone is gathered in a large circle, completely relaxed after dinner, herbal tea, and short rest, ready to watch different dances and musical performances by the Hmong people.
One elderly short Hmong man wearing a traditional Hmong costume, black velvet pants and a button Hmong women cooking in one of their houses.up velvet jacket, both outlined with colorful embroidery, plays an instrument called a kang. It is made from bamboo and is customarily played by men age
50-80 year olds as a welcoming for guests and as a spiritual sendoff to heaven for those who passed away.
“The performances are very interesting and creative. Their language is beautiful to hear, especially when sung by the females,” says Torpey, referring to the song a few female Hmong women and children performed by waking around in circles, spinning hemp for clothing – a traditional activity practiced during their long morning walks to the farms.
“I was able to appreciate the Hmong more because instead of just studying about the Hmong, we temporarily integrated into their culture,” says Oberst. “The perspective we gained from spending time with the Hmong certainly enriched our experience and cultivated my own desire for a better understanding of Hmong traditions.”
At night, everyone falls asleep in the huts, on thin mattresses laid out on mud-based floors or bamboo-like mattress boxes, covered with mosquito nets.
On Sunday, the group wakes up at around 5:30 am and indulges in another hefty breakfast with omelets, tomatoes, and vegetables. Pick up trucks arrive a couple hours later to bring the students up the mountain for a reforestation activity: planting trees.
The Hmong are very rooted in agriculture especially since they are now a part of the Royal Project, initiated in 1969 by the Majesty in attempt to make better living and environmental conditions for the poor village people. Reforestation and local farming are crucial components to deter slash and burn agriculture and sustain the jungle’s biodiversity.
Christina Justice helps plant a tree.The sun is barely shining and the weather is relatively cool, a nice break from Chiang Mai’s humid and smoggy atmosphere. Once the groups arrive at the planting spot, each individual is handed a baby tree to plant with bare hands. Once again, the rain comes down hard, this time not even stopping for a brief moment.
“My experience planting trees in the mountains was laughable. I’m still not used to Thai-time,” says Enns. I felt unorganized and the rain did not help. I bolted for shelter immediately after planting my tree. I wish I could have been more appreciative of the opportunity, but I was tired of being cold and soaking wet.”
Before the last lunch at the Hmong Village, some of the guests witness a pig and a bird sacrifice, a common, spiritual ritual of the Hmong people. While a select few are capable of blocking out the desperate squeals of the pig, the majority of the students depart from the scene.
“Everyone knew their places and how to operate this kind of ritual. I did not view it as barbaric, but I was sad to see that the animals did not die quickly and painlessly, says Enns. “Their lives appeared to linger and that bothered me. However, these are parts of culture and they are not to be viewed as ‘bad,’ just different.”
A couple of the villagers smeared the pig’s blood on the back of their shirts as soon as it died.
“It was definitely an intense experience, certainly not for the squeamish. It was a little unsettling to watch because you feel for the animals but I think that if you’re seeking
A local guide shows the group bamboo trees.
to get a new perspective of a culture you have to try to view it in it’s entirety and that means not passing on opportunities for a little culture shock,” says Oberst.
A learning experience
From trekking in the rainy, leech-infested jungle to indulging in a Thanksgiving-style local meal cooked by villagers, the home stay in Mae Sa Mai concluded on an overall positive note. The student visitors kindly respected the spirits and dressed appropriately throughout the two-day stay- showing the legs and shoulders is considered disrespectful and also asking for millions of bug bites. Some of the guests also helped the women cook meals and clean up dishes.
“I learned that the culture of the Hmong people is very tightly knit. When one of their members is facing trouble they unite to assist a member of their community. They are very hardworking and they live according to a different standard of living. They live good lives despite a quality of living that is not the same as mine and I find that admirable,” says Enns.
Kevin Oberst was also very pleased with the accommodations made by the Hmong, constantly complimenting their cooking and generosity, especially when sharing their dry clothes with some of the students.
“I would certainly do a home stay in this village again. The experience was my most favorite of my Thailand journey thus far!” he says.
Kristina Kulybina is a student at UMass Amherst and is currently studying abroad in Thailand. Read more of her stories on GoNOMAD
Read her Thailand blog about her experiences there.
Read more about Thailand on GoNOMAD
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