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Tuesday 13 Jan
Umphang, Thailand


I had great hopes that Umphang would be something special, because getting there was such an ordeal that people should be discouraged from attempting it. It took Chris and I quite a bit of asking to find the song theaw stop in a completely random corner of the muslim quarter of Mae Sot. Then we were squashed in near the back and spent four hours being sandwiched between various thai/karen people in various uncomfortable ways, while people around us vomited into plastic bags and the song theaw curved constantly around the mountains on the "Death Highway".

Occasionally, when someone bent over to meditate on their motion sickness, I could catch a glimpse of some vast forested valley with distant mountains and no indication at all of where the edge of the road might be. At one point I saw a village of thatched huts on a hillside, which, as I discovered when I got a fuller view of it, goes on and on as far as the eye can see and is in fact one of the Burmese refugee camps. (As part of its policy of not allowing the refugee situation to become "permanent", the Thai government doesn't allow metal rooves on dwellings in the camps, hence the thatch which I naively thought was picturesque).

I survived this journey, mainly because I took a tablet and wasn't sick. But on the way back we sat on the roof. This was windy, scenic, dangerous, and uncomfortable (whereas sitting inside is cramped, nauseous, head-banging and uncomfortable). We set up a rotation system to mitigate the discomfort of sitting on metal bars, and found several implausible ways of reclining on people's luggage. It was much less intimidating to face backwards and not worry about the shape of the road, oncoming traffic, or low branches. This got us back to Mae Sot with (in my case) only a bruised spine from leaning on a piece of metal.

Anyway, the point of going to Umphang is to go trekking, and that is what we did. The landscape was pretty impressive - huge knobbly limestone cliffs, some with water or intriguing plants falling off them.  The forest was as dry as Australia, but with bamboo everywhere. During our enforced breaks, the guide would make things out of bamboo with his machete - mainly coffee cups and spoons. Thi Lo Su waterfall, which was the main point of the trek, was duly enormous, and very cold, although we did swim in it because you had to having come all that way. We spent a night in a Karen village and while we were protected from actually encountering the locals, it was very interesting to see. And on the last day, the elephant ride was fun for about an hour and then it became unnecessary (for some reason, you have to sit on top of your own luggage in an extremely uncomfortable wooden box...).

While all of this was quite enjoyable, it was overshadowed by my serious distaste for the experience of being "looked after" by guides who, while well organised and conscientious, basically treated us like children. I felt like I had paid a large amount of money to hand over my independence to someone who didn't really care who I was or what I wanted. Everything was programmed, down to which log we rested on, when we relaxed and for how long, and the amount of time for which a mysterious gibbon was supplied in one of our camps to look neglected and give everyone hugs. Because it went without saying that we "can't eat spicy", our diet consisted entirely of tasteless stir-fried vegetables and suspiciously large amounts of pineapple. This was almost insulting, despite being really painful to eat. But there was no point in trying to explain, because they didn't have any chilli (!) and anyway, they didn't care. The irony is that all of this was supposed to represent good service. They had gone out of their way to account for our particular needs, just without bothering to find out what they actually were. They shielded us from having to engage with their culture, instead relying on their erroneous and half-baked understanding of our culture to decide what was best for everyone.

So I have a renewed fear of the abominations of package tourism. I will think twice before surrendering my independence again!

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Perambulation 2009

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I am going to spend a year travelling through four continents and hope that by the end of it I have learnt something.

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