Forest Course: Trekking 70+ Miles

Hi Colby World!
Da-Bluh! Zeauh Mee Leauh Aria. (Karen Language for Hello! My name is Aria.)

I have just gotten back from my second field course, Forests. We studied the Political Ecology of Forests in Thailand before and during our course, and have just spent 2.5 weeks in the Mae Hong Son Province in Northern Thailand. Many issues surround the small villages in this province. After having lived there for many years, the government has come in and declared their living and farming land National Park Land. These people now have no land that they own, and must find ways to compromise with the government in order to do agriculture on the land that is in national park territory. They depend on the forests for everything: food, construction, herbal medicines, ect. Most of the villages have no money, as they only need to sustain themselves and farm for consumption only and use materials from the forest for construction of their homes, but the National Government doesn’t necessarily like this because they are taking from the National Parks. So, this becomes a constant source of confusing and conflicting sides.

We first drove 6 hours from Chiang Mai to Mae Hong Son. Our first village was the most developed that we went to. We stayed for one night and prepared to start our first trek in the morning. In the past when there were no roads or motorbikes, the people of the Mae Hong Son Province would hike up and down this long mountain range in order to communicate with each other and visit each other’s villages. That is no longer necessary, but in order to show us what their culture was like, the villagers collectively decided that we should walk the same paths that they walked years ago. OH and not to forget, we carried what we needed for the 2.5 weeks on our backs, yes that does include clothes, shower supplies, and TEXT BOOKS. So, we began our first trek that Wednesday morning from the first village to the second. For each hike, we had a different local guide walk with us. It was a “quaint” 4 hour hike in comparison to the rest. Rolling hills, short ups and short downs, very enjoyable. After about 6 miles, we made it to our next village. We stayed here for one night again, and in the morning started our second trek. This one a bit longer, about 7 hours, with similar difficulty. But, the cool thing about this hike was that we had to be completely silent for 2 hours of the hike because there is a species of bee that resides there (locally called the “crazy bee”) that is attracted to the vibrations in human voices. So, to avoid them chasing us, we couldn’t speak. A long day, but we all succeeded. We stayed in our next village for 2 nights, and then we were off again to trek to the next village.

Now this third hike was absolutely unlike anything I have ever done. We basically went 8 hours through this channel of rivers. Whether it was wading through waist-deep water, using vines to scale slippery rocks, or helping each other up massive boulders, the entire day consisted of us being soaked and excited. It was like a puzzle to hike, and we all made it without injury. We stayed in the next village for about 3 nights and then completed our fourth hike. This one equally as long, but not nearly as enjoyable. Basically this fourth hike was up and down extremely steep, muddy hills filled with leeches and not a single switchback. The day consisted of us basically taking one step in front of the other as we slowly went up and down massive piles of mud. We stayed in the next village for 3 nights, and one of the days we were there was our 5th hike where we climbed to the top of Doi Pui, the tallest mountain in the Mae Hong Son Province. A day later was our last hike, 14 miles of a “W” formation to finally end at our last village.

The hikes were extremely difficult, but amazing. We saw wild gibbons swinging through the canopy of the jungle on one of the days, we saw a wild hornbill fly over us on another, we all got our fair share of leeches stuck to our ankles and tick bites. We were able to identify different types of trees and bugs and plants and orchids and we constantly were loving all of the different types of mushrooms and weird species we were coming across.

In the villages, we learned a lot about their ways of life. First, most of the villages we went to were Karen, which means that they don’t even speak a lot of Thai. So, my Thai skills are improving but I am also learning Karen Language skills. We learned that Community Based Tourism is huge, especially near the villages of Doi Pui because tourists always come to hike it and need a place to stay We also learned about other forms of trade that they used including naturally dying and weaving scarves and fabrics, blacksmithing, and basket weaving. We had two nights where we sat in a room with the villagers and shared cultural songs, dances and games with each other, and spent countless hours playing soccer or games with the kids in all of the villages. The villages in Mae Hong Son that we visited ranged from being pretty large to only having 8 households. The homes were all made out of wood and on stilts so their livestock and chickens could live underneath. In fact in our last village my host home had 7 tiny baby piglets living underneath our kitchen! I truly learned so much from all of the villagers and from this entire experience.

on our past weekend in Chiang Mai, we were able to see the Lantern Festival that happens every November. Highly recommended to anyone who has wanted to see the floating lights!

Next week I head to the south where we are doing our final field course on the ecology of oceans! We will be studying coral reefs and mangroves, so I will update you after that!’

Thanks for reading,

Aria Nicoletti