Crossing a swollen Thai River (Helen Moat)
Blog Words : Freewheeling | 31 May

A walk in the woods – Thai-style

Helen Moat reflects on how the simple things in life are done differently in Thailand

The weather is glorious in Britain at the moment. At the invitation of my next door neighbours, I went for a walk with them and their friends in the woods this weekend. We wandered along the idyllic Cromford Canal lined with Forget-me-not, Pink Campion and May tree. White blossom drifted over the water, showering little grebes and their chicks. We headed on past a coot nesting on a twiggy throne before turning away from the canal and into the woods.

Bow Wood must have one of the most beautiful bluebell woods in the UK. The area around Lea and the wood is outside of the Peak District National Park, but to my mind it should be in it. Swathes of bluebells and wood anemone thrive under oak and birch and a thick carpet of purple spreads a carpet over open land. We walked along the ridge at the edge of the woods drinking in the wide open views of the Derwent Valley, enjoying warm sunshine.

As I plodded along, deep in my own thoughts, I wondered when I’d last gone for a walk in the woods, and I realised it was in the summer, in Thailand. What a different experience.

We were thrown out at a dirt trail on the Mae Hong Son road. Three men stood waiting, wearing plastic shoes with punched holes, a piece of plastic sheeting and a casual grin. They leaned on bamboo sticks, appraising us.

“This is our A-team,” John, our guide, announced, wearing a shower cap he’d taken from the hotel.

I looked the men up and down, decked out in my sturdy walking boots, Gortex jacket, and ‘serious walker’ expression. I was carrying quality aluminium walking poles.

Setting off into the rainforest, it was unnervingly still, the sky ominous – low and dark. It should’ve been a sign. “Don’t worry,” my partner said. “It won’t rain until late afternoon.”

But the rain started and didn’t stop. Soon my waterproof boots were waterlogged, my Gortex jacket letting in, the aluminium walking poles catching in the undergrowth. The A-team, in contrast, splashed through the water unconcerned, the water draining out of their shoes and running off the plastic. They were bone-dry beneath their makeshift macs.

The sheer slope ahead was reduced to wet red earth. The A-team pulled my arms; then resorted to pushing my bottom. Dignity now unimportant, I focused on the sticky matter of friction and gravity.

Further on the men hacked the undergrowth with their machetes, searching out an alternative route to a lower point in the river. But on arrival the water was a deep swirling mass. I waded in up to my waist, the strong current pulling me downstream. The guides grabbed my arms and held on tightly.

My waterproof now useless, I thought, “Sod this,” and put up my umbrella. Overhead the mist swirled across the rainforest, shifting periodically to reveal cliffs of karst. In the rainforest, the cook gathered mushrooms into a Teak leaf. I dreamed of dinner.

We reached a second river, the current stronger, the river wider. I sighed.

But soon an abandoned moped, corn and paddy fields indicated civilisation. We stumbled, relieved, into the mud-logged village, climbing the ramp to a wooden dwelling on stilts. I peeled off sodden clothes to find blood pouring down my legs where leeches had been feasting. Through the darkness, I could see the A-team in the room opposite hunkered over a black crock on a fire of twigs. The smell of cinnamon, chilli, cardamom and meat wafted through the air.

Bellies full, we sat in a circle under candlelight and sang the songbooks of the Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel and any other songbook we could think of until we’d forgotten the rain and the bloody leeches. The village children peeped round the door, bemused by the singing westerners.

That night I fell asleep in the hill country to the throbbing of crickets, barking dogs, pigs in noisy dispute and the patter of rain on the roof. When I woke again there was still the patter of rain on the roof along with the sound of the cockerel and children singing in the nearby school.

Day two of the trek and there was more monsoon rain.

“But hey,” John grinned, “it’s only water.”