Sunday, May 10, 2009

A all expense paid trip to Huai Hee

As an occasional instructor for hire, this past week I had the opportunity to accompany students from ISDSI's ( Political Forest Ecology course for a portion of their two-week long field visit to Karen forest communities in the remote mountains of Mae Hong Son in extreme northwest Thailand. Specifically, my visit was limited to the village of Huai Hee, a small settlement of a few dozen households at the base of Doi Pui, Mae Hong Son's highest mountain.

If I were to drive one of three road options to Huai Hee from Chiang Mai (none of which are fully paved) the trip would require 1-2 days. However, a Thai airlines flight over the rugged and still largely jungled mountains from CNX to Mae Hong Son required only 40 minutes with a 1.5 hour journey back to Huai Hee by four wheel drive. So having left my modern Chiang Mai home a little before 10:00 a.m., I suddenly found myself in remote, Huai Hee by 1:30 p.m. The ISDSI group arrived by foot from the closest community of Nam Hoo (a satellite village of Huai Hee) an hour later.
The next three days were full of activities that focused on the local forest environment as well as traditional rotational farming and other forms of livelihood such as Karen cuisine and the use of natural dyes to produce beautiful homemade textiles. In addition, I had to grade 17 essays and journal entries.

Sunday's activity was a hike to the summit of 5,160 ft. Doi Pui. Sounds impressive (and it was a steep trail), however, Hui Hee rests at an elevation of roughly 3,000 ft. So there wasn't an excessive amount of up and down that day.
Except for the bald summit, Doi Pui is covered with impressive forest. The higher the elevation the more evidence of cloud forest with an abundance of moss and orchids covering the evergreen trees. In fact, the people of Huai Hee, fighting the illegal harvest and trade of rare native orchids, have established an orchid conservation area that covers hundreds of acres of local forest.

Almost to the top of mountain, our local guides pointed out the wreckage of an airplane. By no means an aviation expert, all that was obvious to me were ancient leftovers of a propeller and pistons (with an I.D. plate without a serial number) as well as some scorched fragments of what appeared to be aluminum aircraft skin. I would have like to poked about a bit more but the wreckage was guarded by some very zealous leaches.

I've heard two stories related to the wreckage. One is that the plane was a WWII American warplane that bought the farm on this remote peak over 60 years ago. Another more intriguing tale is that the craft was a "bank plane" full of gold that crashed many decades ago. The locals, finding no survivors and gold bricks scattered about....(you can guess the rest of the story). Anyhow, given that the Second World War didn't spare this region and that there's reportedly no one left in the community that remembers the crash, I personally subscribe to the WWII air crash theory.

Only a few hundred yards past the air crash site the forest suddenly transforms into an alpine meadow. As the elevation is still too low to be a real tree line, my guess is that the combination of thin soil, dry season fires and free-range cattle is what keeps the mountain top in a bald state (similar to the high elevation balds of my native southern Appalachians which become "unbald" in the 20th century following the advent of effective fire control and the ban on free-range cattle).
The 360 degree view of Mae Hong Son was indescribable. The view contained rugged mountains, remote valleys, a single thread of road and a distant, tiny community. Scattered within the vast forest were some swidden fields where Karen rice is grown. Each patch is surrounded by woodland in various stages of succession. These diverse stages of regrowth reflect the forest fallow that follows a single year of traditional Karen crop production for each swidden field.

Following lunch, a brief group activity and a photo taking spree, threatening clouds forced our retreat back to Huai Hee.

Over the next two days we accompanied the people of Huai Hee to witness the annual planting of upland rice (yes, the rainy season has begun) and to participate in other aspects of their livelihoods.

During the last evening in Huai Hee, the ISDSI students entertained the local residents with their silly camp songs. The Karen retaliated with renditions of their own. At one point, one of our female hosts jumped up to lead an rowdy tune. But within a measure or two, the American and Canadian students began to recognize the performance. Suddenly, the entire bamboo gazebo was rocking with a vigorous bilingual session of Father Abraham.
On the last day I watched the ISDSI students, laden with heavy backpacks and other gear (and a few Karen guides with only a shoulder bag each) trudge up the mountain in the direction of Huai Tong Kaw, their final destination. I stayed behind to await my 4WD ride back to Mae Hong Son town. 1.5 hours later, still waiting on my ride, I decided to hire a motorcycle to drive me and my two bags back to the city. However, given the steep terrain and rough stretches of road, I was greatly relieved to meet the truck only a few miles outside of Huai Hee.
The flight back to Chiang Mai on a tiny 12 seat plane was the perfect ending to my five-day visit to Mae Hong Son. Flying slow and low over the mountains, I enjoyed an eagle's view of the rugged terrain that sustains the people of Huai Hee and dozens of other communities between Mae Hong Son and Chiang Mai.

I'm already scheming up another visit.