New Year “Hmong style”, good times in the Wild, Wild West, amazing hitchhiking experiences

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Women from the Hmong ethnic group

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MAP_Chaing Khong 1We hitchhike near the border town Chiang Khong. It is a small town which is also the entrance point to Laos. There is a bridge and one could also cross with a boat on Mekong that costs 0,75 euro. People leave us in the beginning of the town and we have to walk for 4-5 km. to exit it. It is a nice place without many tourists and the walk is pleasant. We continue towards the mountains located on the border with Laos. The region becomes more and more interesting. It is inhabited by the Hmong ethnic group. Everywhere we see people dressed in their traditional outfits sitting around fires they have lit next to their huts.

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Hmong house

I want to make a digression here and tell more about the Hmong ethnic group. The Hmong started migrating from South China several hundred years ago. Anyway there are still a million of them left in China. There they call them Miao. They prefer living mainly in the mountains and could be found in Vietnam, Laos (most of them), Thailand and Myanmar.

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Hmong women

They practice traditional agriculture – which is: they burn the forest, afterwards throw rice seeds and then pick what has grown, the plants are irrigated solely by the rain. Their huts are not pile dwellings, but they build them on the ground. Every house has a central wooden pillar which is considered sacred. In front of it on the wall they hang something related to magic rituals (what we saw when we were in Laos some years ago were chicken feathers). Hmong are so to say the gypsies of the Far East. They don’t like to work, have many children, practice black magic and are generally marginalized by society.

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Traditional sling for carrying a baby

Part of the Hmong people agreed some years ago to be trained by the CIA against Patet Lao (the Laos communist party) and as a result now are held in special camps. This is the main reason they come to live in Thailand and a small part of them managed to immigrate in USA.

On our previous journey I mentioned, on evening we arrived in Laos on the border with Vietnam. It was dark already and we pitched our tent next to a wire net on a hill. In the morning we saw many people gathered behind the net and some minutes later the police came too. They took us to the precinct. It turned out we were next to a Hmong village which was a kind of camp from which people couldn’t exit freely and the authorities suspected us of being some kind of spies or I didn’t know what. In an hour all was clarified and they let us go. In Thai Hmong people live undisturbed as we saw with our own eyes.

The last person who takes us is a construction worker. He builds a school in a Hmong village next to the mountain Phu Chi Fa famous for the fact the people go there on first of January each year to gaze at the beautiful “crawling mists”. The man offers us to sleep at his place. It is getting dark anyway so we accept the offer. We arrive at a big two-storey wooden house located in the center of the village, which was given to the workers to use by the municipality. Inside it there is almost no furniture and people have pitched their tents or mats in different corners of the house.

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Our bivouac at the workers’ house

The workers inside seem excited and show us where to pitch our tent. It is very cold and we are happy we will sleep inside. Outside there is loud music playing and they tell us it is the Hmong New Year now. We are so lucky! We leave our rucksacks and rush outside.

In the center there is a huge lawn with high wheels, a stage and vendors selling food – the atmosphere resembles this of a fair. Later they said there would be a Muay Thai match. There are not much people yet and we go around the town. Everyone is in front of their houses and sit around the fires they have set. Some men smoke gigantic bamboo bongs (bong is a Thai word meaning bamboo or wooden cylinder for smoking). Most of the elderly ones wear traditional clothes – black velvet jackets and embroidered breeches.

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Hmong women wearing traditional clothes

We go back for dinner at the house. The workers are taking baths and preparing for the New Year. The guy who drove us here told us that around 9 p.m. starts the match and there would be many people. We eat fast and leave together. It makes us wonder how people in Thailand, and in Burma too, leave their personal belongings such as wallets and mobiles unattended. We exit the house and leave the door open and the lights lid. Obviously no one is stealing here.

There is an entrance fee for the fair – 50 bhats (1,25 euro). We really want to see the Muay Thai match (the tickets for the professional matches usually cost 300 bhats – 7,50 euro) so we pay the fee. Inside a scene “Balkan style” awaits us.

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Hmong children

New Year “Hmong style”

Most of the people are dressed in traditional costumes. Though the young girls have changed their costumes in their own way. All wear short pleated skirts and 20 cm high heels, heavy make-up and have bleached hair. Boys circle around and watch the girls lustfully. Their outfits are so strange that I wonder one can find such fashion outfits in the most remote gypsy village.

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Traditional clothes made sexier

A village singer is performing love songs on the stage and the music from the close-by discotheque drowns his voice.

There are drunken teenagers everywhere. Every five meters there are guards armed with truncheons and one can feel that a fight could erupt any moment. Many of the people on the street are tipsy or plainly drunk. Before we came, while we were having dinner around the fire next to our house, there was a scandal at the neighbors and the man started his jeep and almost hit our fence while driving away. Then he came back, took the children and drove away again.

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The local lads

I should say here that this behavior is not typical for the Thai at all. They are friendly, calm and smiling. Participating in a scandal outside on the street is considered very bad and one could “lose one’s face” so if you can’t keep control this is shameful for you and you are taken as an ill-bred person. Even shouting in loud voice is considered extremely rude. Drivers here are also very balanced. But here among the Hmong every 5 minutes there is someone that revs up his engine and drives like mad. On the next morning two motor bikers even crashed but luckily were unharmed.

Soon the long expected Muay Thai match begins. Two muscular guys get our on the ring and start fighting quite professionally. After two rounds one gives up and the referee invites people from the public to come and try. Two guys immediately show up. They dress them properly with shorts and gloves and they start fighting quite aggressively till knockdown.

The feeling of being in a Kusturica movie is palpable. The party continues till the early hours of the night and starts the next morning again. On the lawn the young boys flirt with the girls who are in a row with umbrellas in their hands

The boys are also in a row in front of them and they pass by a ball for quite a long time.

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People playing the traditional ball game

 

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Older woman playing the ball game

Some of the older people participate too.

In the meantime an old man sings traditional songs. We sit under a shelter and watch the different people that are coming and going with interest. Next to us sits a young lady 17-18 years old and looks around as if expecting something. Then a woman comes carrying a baby, gives it to her and she starts breastfeeding it without a shade of any shyness. Then she straightens her mini skirt and walks away on her 20 cm. high heels.

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Hmong mom

Everyone we see is interesting and looks strange so we spend 2-3 hours just watching the people. The New Year we spent with the Hmong people was awesome for us and it reminded us of how gypsies live and celebrate in Bulgaria 🙂

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Hmong youngster

 

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Thread put for “magical” reasons

 

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Little Hmong girls

 

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Hmong woman in the middle of nowhere

 

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Hitchhiking with the Hmong

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MAP_Chaing Kham 2At noon we continue hitchhiking to Chiang Kham. We wait for half an hour till someone stops. On the road pass just Hmong people going at the fair. The jeep that stops and takes us is full of 12-13 year old Hmong girls with the traditional dresses and of course 20 cm. high heels. They leave us in a village outside the mountains and then a young man that drives like mad takes us to Chiang Kham itself. He has many tattoos but have in mind that having tattoos is traditional in Thailand and Laos and we have even seen Buddhist monks with tattoos. He leaves us 5 km. away from the center and till we manage tell him to take us a little bit further he drives away.

We start walking and hitchhiking at the same time. A moment later when we are not looking at the road and not even lifted our thumbs a monk stops and offers us to drive us to town. We tell him we want to go out of town and if he takes us to a bus stop this wouldn’t be comfortable for us but he doesn’t speak English.

People here always want to leave you at the bus station, in front of a police precinct or in front of 7 eleven. We thank the monk and head to the exit of the town not even sure if we are going in the right direction. We start feeling desperate that we have to walk for an hour or more and it will get dark when a car stops. For the second time today somebody stops for us without hitchhiking. The driver is an American who grew up in Thailand. He says he is going home but will be more than happy to take us to the town’s exit. He then drives us 10-15 km. from Chiang Kham, wishes us successful hitchhiking, tells us good-bye and leaves.

We hitchhike for ten minutes more, it gets dark and we decide to look for a place for the tent. At this moment a minibus comes from a dirt road next to us and stops. The man says he is going to Bangkok and could take us anywhere we want.

We can’t believe our luck. The bus is luxury, but it is private, not for tourists. We settle like kings and after 30-40 km. we enter Chun Town from where we want to continue south to the mountains towards Nan State. The bus continues to Bangkok on the highway.

We feel excited by this unheard of hitchhiking luck (everyone who travels like this know what I am talking about – people stoppin by themselves without you even waving a hand is awesome) and walk joyfully to the end of the town. Thank God that Chun is small and soon we are almost out of it. Then another lucky thing happens.

Good times in the wild, wild west

Smiling man in his fifties stops his jeep next to us and asks us where we are headed to. We tell him we look for a place to pitch our tent and he invites us at his ranch. We get on and after a while we turn aside and take a small road going to the nearby mountains. After a kilometer we reach the ranch.

We are flabbergasted when we see that the whole yard is in Indian wigwams, there is a wooden bar with the American flag and at the back there is something like a replica of a street in the Wild West and even a stage-coach! At first we are worried that this is a tourist attraction, but then turns out that Woody, the owner of the place, loves cowboys and turned his ranch in an authentic place from the American past to enjoy with his friends.

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Arriving at the Wild West

Woody himself is a head of the pharmaceutical department of the close-by hospital and states: “I am not a fan of pharmaceutics. I just want to be a cowboy”. Behind the Indian village there are stables with 36 horses and behind them is the small wooden house of Woody and his family.

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The ranch

 

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Woody saloon

In the evening we light a huge fire in the middle of the Indian village. Instead of chairs there are straw packs. Woody and his workers wear leather boots and cowboy clothes and hats. We bake sweet potatoes on the fire and later on everyone leaves. We accommodate at the wigwam of the chieftain.

First the sorcerer at Chiang Rai, then the Hmong New Year and now we are in the Wild West!

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In the morning we wake up and jump out of the wigwam like children that can’t wait to experience the new and interesting day. Woody has started the fire and has brought us fried batters and coffee. The workers are putting saddles on the horses and every one prepares for the morning ride in the close-by mountains. We are given two bike because (shame for us) we still can’t ride a horse.

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Morning horse riding before work

We reach a beautiful lake where they told us they came from time to time with the stage-coach, bring their wigwams and make a camp. A cowboy let me hop on his horse – I have ridden a camel and an elephant, but never a horse. The feeling is great. Then we go back to the ranch because Woody has to go to work.

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At the lake

Mr. Shushtari and I immerse in the mundane life of the Wild West and all day long pretend to be cowboys/cowgirls. We put on the respective jackets and trousers as well as boots and hats and we totally forget we are actually in Thailand. We climb the sheriff’s building, sit inside the stage-coach, roll in the hay-stacks, pretend we shoot with guns and in the long afternoon sit at the bar like old trappers and gaze at the horizon and the grazing horses.

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Before the riding

Woody comes back in the evening, we light the fire, he puts on the beer machine, we pour ourselves a glass of fresh beer and start cooking hot-pot (cooking in special earthen-jar bowls directly on the fire). Woody tells us about his visit to Texas where he stayed ten days. He also explains how he and other people from north Thailand organize cowboy gatherings, dress like Indians and sheriffs and play Wild West.

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This is the Wild West!

I think that it is worth it to make money just to fulfill your childhood dreams. Otherwise it is not worth it. Instead of building a luxury house as his neighbors and spend all his time quarreling with his wife inside it, Woody has bought 36 horses and lives the life of a cowboy, absolutely happy.

How sad that people who fulfill their wildest and purest childhood dreams are so few. I wonder all the time what is this force that make people live monotonous life till their death; what makes people live as if they will never die and have all the time in the world; to pass through your day on autopilot, just as the day before… sad and suicidal to me are the human biases.

We plan to leave the next day, but the life of the cowboys (cowgirls in my case) is so awesome that we decide to stay one more day. We ride horses the whole morning and a boy patiently shows us the basics. The rest of the day we spend on the bar, around the fire, listening stories about Sioux and Ogallala tribes, scalping, prairie chases, gold diggers, fire horses and other very important stuff 🙂  

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Still in the Wild West

 

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Mr. Shushtari fights with the Indians… or the cowboys

 

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Magy on a horse

In the afternoon we went to the market with the bikes (we still suck at riding horses) and were flabbergasted to see we were actually in Thailand. This night Woody is not here – he went to buy a calf. We bake corn and potatoes on the fire with the rest of the gang. On the next day we are sad to say goodbye to Woody, his workers, the horses and the ranch.

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At noon we start hitchhiking. A young man with his family take us. Their village is 20 km. from Chun but they decide to drive us further. We try to explain that we hitchhike and always someone takes us but he insists to take us to Pong Village which is 30 km. away. We stop just to leave the people the driver is with and the he drives us.

Next people who stop is an old couple who bring guitar with them. It turns out they are Christians Protestants and every Sunday go to a small church in the province. They get very enthusiastic when we say that the official religion in our country is Christianity and start playing preachers and religious songs in English. We listened for 20 minutes how some crazy American pastor speaks exaltedly and when the woman stops the recording we sigh with relief.

MAP_Ban Luang 3We reach Ban Luang Village and it turns out the church belongs to the couple and the man is the pastor. They invite us to sleep there but it is still early and we want to continue traveling. Tha pastor, despite our protest, decides to take us to Nan which is 50 km. away but the road goes through the mountains and has many bends. I want to say here that according to my experience the best hitchhiking (passing long distances with one car, fast private cars, little to no waiting, perfect roads and people who stop without even waving at them and who divert just to take you) is in Thailand.

The pastor leaves us at the center of Nan and we go out of on foot. It is getting dark and soon a corpulent Thai woman takes us to the next town Wiang Sa from where we plan to go to a mountain region before we head south on the highway. We go out of the town and we find a nice pumpkin field. Before we enter the fields several motor bikers stop to ask us if we need help with anything – people in this region are really nice.

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There is a temple next to the field. In the temple there are always bathrooms and toilets and after a bath and a breakfast we go back on the road. A nice couple who live in the capital take us. They are going on holiday in the mountain. They are the typical people from the capital – dressed in a fashionable way, smelling of nice perfume, not very oriented, going to some mounting lodge for the weekend.

They leave us in a small village called Na Noi and continued to their destination. We stop to cook lunch at a pavilion and a bus passes us by. We could not believe our eyes when it stops and comes back to ask us if we want to get in. There are almost no buses here because everyone has their own cars or hire a car when traveling. We suppose the driver saw us and worried we would miss the only bus.

At noon we continue hitchhiking and man with many tattoos takes us for 50 km. more. After the village he leaves us the traffic goes dead. The road continues 15 km. more inside the mountain and then finishes at a river that one needs to cross with a boat. Then the road continues again on the other side. The man with the tattoos shows up again few minutes later worried we won’t be able to reach the river and offers to take us. Wonderful people who divert tens of kilometers just to make us a favor. We can’t believe how nice they are all.

The region is very beautiful, strange dry forest and the river which overflows because of the Sirkrit dam. On the bank of the river-dam there is a small fishermen village with pile dwellings above the water. Some fishermen agree to take us on the other side for 50 bhats per person (1,25 euro). We bargain and they agree to 1 euro per person. When we reach the other bank it turns out we have just one big bill and Mr. Shushtari heads to a close-by restaurant to change it, but the fishermen smile at us and tell us there is no need, so they actually take us for free.

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Fishermen village at Sirkrit dam

We continue on the asphalt road and soon it is clear to us that there are no cars passing on the road. We hope that a family who comes to fish for the weekend will take us, but there is no one. After an hour a car passes but it is full of luggage. They stop and the men and the woman starts worrying that they can’t takes and what will we do.

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People panicking that they cannot take us with them

But their car is really packed with fishing rods, tents, chairs and god knows what else – they even bring a portable toilet. We try to calm them down telling them that a car will pass by for sure, but the men cannot accept the fact that they will leave us in the forest instead of 7 eleven shop, police precinct or a place with people.

Then a small trucks comes our way but it also is full of goods and there is no place for us. It stops too and a faffing starts. Everyone know that there is no buses here and that maybe no other car will pass. We are not worried at all – we have food and water and we know that tomorrow someone will take us.

Then a third car comes and everyone stand in its way. The driver and his wife are pleasant people and agree to take us. At parting the other people give us a map of north Thailand which is great. There are 50 km. to the main road left and we want to find a place to sleep before we reach it but we can’t find a proper place for the tent. We reach then Nam Pat Town.

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Last bivouac in the cold north Thailand

Soon we find a place hidden in some bushes next to the road. We light a fire because it is cold here (the temperature at night is as low as 10-12 degrees Celsius (50-53 Fahrenheit) and then a group of masked men with rifles come from the forest. We are startled but it turns out they are hunters. They wish us good night and leave. Hunting is very popular in Thailand. In this region of Asia I think that only India really cares about the wildlife and its protection.

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Thai village house

We spend our last cold night in the north and the next day we are ready to part the road 🙂

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Shortcut to the highway

 

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