I’m a city girl through and through, but after several years of backpacking and even trekking for fourteen days along the Annapurna Circuit in the Himalayas, I’ve come to realize that I like nature and that at times, I too can “rough it” just like anyone else.
As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not a fan of organized tours, but when I was offered a chance to see what a guided trek and village homestay was like, I thought I’d give it a try. I signed up for a two day, one night trek into the mountains outside Chiang Mai with Chiang Mai Trekking. I was especially looking forward to the homestay with a Hmong family.
Regrettably, I was thoroughly disappointed with a majority of the entire experience.
As a solo traveler, much of your experience comes from those who you meet along the way. Most of the time, you get lucky and meet some really interesting people that you can easily connect with. Unfortunately, I wasn’t as lucky this time. My group was small, just two others who were also solo travelers. The other two were just about the opposite of me. One was a young Korean businessman who had just flown in for a three-day, whirlwind trip to Chiang Mai and he was determined to “do it all” and as quickly as possible. The other was an older Dutch woman who was rather pleasant, but a bit odd and quirky, and I found most of my conversations with her ended with me giving her a forced smile as I couldn’t come up with anything to say.
Our guide, Pod must have been having a bad week or something because it seemed like he didn’t want to be there with us. He trekked ahead most of the time, barely glancing back to see if we were behind him (we often had to call out when the Dutch woman needed to rest for a minute), and wasn’t very talkative. In any case, none of us had much in common and silence was easier than trying to make small talk. It just made for a somewhat awkward two days.
Our first stop after leaving Chiang Mai was at an elephant riding camp. Many of you know that I love elephants, but I just can’t support the way that they are treated in the tourism industry, particularly at the riding camps. I refused to ride one and instead waited for the others. I hung out with a chained elephant and her lethargic calf, which nearly broke my heart. No one was around so I fed them a couple of bundles of bamboo that I found across the yard.
We trekked into the jungle for several hours, making our way to the Hmong village and to the house where we would be staying by the late afternoon. Pod pointed out where the squat toilet/shower and our room (completely separate from the rest of the house) was before disappearing into the main house. I took a quick, refreshingly cold shower and went upstairs to the bedroom.
As expected, the communal sleeping area was sparse, but nothing I hadn’t experienced before, especially when I had been traveling in Burma. I set up my mosquito net and took a quick nap before heading back out to walk around the town. The town was pretty empty except for the pigs tied up in the yards and the roaming chickens. The villagers were busy in their homes, though some sat on their front porches. None acknowledged my presence, though some nodded at me when I waved and siad hello. I had this strange feeling like I was intruding on their lives.
I went back to the house and read a book until dinner was ready. The other two were either sitting around walking around town. At this point, Pod was still MIA and I had no idea who’s house I was staying at for the night. As it grew darker, I sat at the table outside, waiting patiently for dinner with the family. Some time later, the father of the house and Pod came out with a bowl of pumpkin curry, stir fried vegetables with egg, and rice. It was dinner time!
“Enjoy,” they both said before leaving us to return back into the house for their meal.
I was confused at this point. I thought the whole idea of a homestay was to get to know the local culture, meet a family, spend time getting to know them, pantomime conversations and laugh at all the things that were getting lost in translation? Perhaps most of that is just wishful thinking, but I thought we would at least spend some time with the family.
The three of us finished our rather delicious dinner, making idle small chat. Afterwards, exhausted and for lack of anything else to do, I went to sleep.
The next morning we set off through the jungles again after a basic breakfast of coffee, tea, toast, and eggs. We took a rest near a waterfall to escape the heat and humidity before making it to a river-based bamboo rafting area. The three of us got on a raft with a local rafter while Pod took all our belongings with him further down where we would meet him and the car that would take us back to Chiang Mai. This was the highlight of the entire two days, but unfortunately, I wasn’t able to bring my camera to take any photos.
The views of the remote jungle and mountain range were stunning and the bamboo rafting were great fun, but I could have done without the disappointing homestay. Personally, it feels like visiting a zoo and I don’t blame them for not wanting to interact with me. I think there are better ways to learn about and involve yourself with villagers and unfortunately, organized tours can often take away from the natural experience that could have been shared.
All in all, the trekking was nothing that I had hoped for, but it was a reminder of why I avoided guided tours in the first place. I have met many people who have done similar guided treks and enjoyed their experience tremendously. Like I said before, the group you are with really does make a difference and I just didn’t join one that fit me. I hope that everyone who does decide to go on a guided trek gets placed in a good group, with an engaging guide, and a welcoming host family.
*Disclaimer: My excursion with Chiang Mai Trekking was sponsored by the company and Cool Asia Travel, but all opinions are an accurate and honest view on my experience there.