This is what the website for visiting the Tad Kwan Mien Hill Tribe Village says. Upon reading it I thought well hell, that about covers me, doesn't it? Every single review that I read on Trip Advisor gave riding a buggy (basically a go-kart with roll bar and sun shade) in the unpaved, undeveloped hills of Chiang Rai, where the Mien Hill Tribe lives an outstanding.
More than one person implied that it was the most fun one could have in this world “without getting horizontal.” Other avid travelers said it was the best thing that they have ever done on vacation… ever.
So, when given the time and the choice of how to spend my last day in Chiang Rai, I signed up.
Picked up at 8AM, it took a full hour to get the village. We drove endlessly on a highway passing rubber tree farms, rice paddies, corn fields and “towns” dedicated solely to farming. Hand made baskets and brooms were for sale on every corner, barefoot men individually pushed the plows through their fields. My driver asked if “in my country if we had something to separate grain.” Or, I think that was what he said. And yes, Old McDonald and Farmer Ted have figured out how to not separate the grain or do much with their bare hands anymore.
But then we turned. Off a highway and onto a narrow road that was primarily on an incline, which took me into the hills and into vegetation so lush - a combination of tropical palms with ruddy forest - that it brought to mind scenes from Apocalypse Now.
As we passed the most barren, on stilts, wooden and simple looking homes I have ever seen I started to think … Ashley, you know how you were saying you weren’t really suffering from culture shock yet? Well, this just might be your moment.
My second thought, going up a stiff incline was that I should have brought my insurance card even though that likely is of no help in this forest should things get cray and my third thought was the delightfully classy… holy shit.
So, I met a young guy who wore an NYPD SWAT polo shirt, of all things, and he introduced himself as our group leader. He showed me some of the buggys with their roll bars crushed and said, do you want to do the easy or the hard trails?
Now, I hadn’t really thought about this off roading experience until this moment. I hadn’t thought oh, this could be sort of dangerous or even hard… until a crushed bumper and front lights were staring me in the face. I squeaked out… the hard? I was praying that the other guests joining me were not a bunch of balls to the wall Australian dudes looking to fly through the forest and test the hands of fate.
When the car showed up, it was a French couple with a three year old and a four month old. This couple, with their baby strapped to the chest, told me that they did things like this with their children "just to prove they still could" were going to ride the buggys. While the 4 month old "napped." Good. For. You.
So we begin. I instantly had a shit eating grin on my face and as we went over unpaved paths and up steep inclines that reminded me of the tick-tick-tick sound at Six Flags before a huge roller coaster drop. In that pure moment, I did slowly start to think:
1) I SHOULD have my insurance card....you are a moron as you didn’t really strap yourself in all that well...if you DID need to be airlifted somewhere who can really get to you in the middle of a thick forest
2) This is fucking awesome
3) Holy Christ
We drove through dusty dirt paths that cut through fields, hilltops, lush gardens and straight up mud puddles. I let out large laughs, screams and swears (a lot of the latter – I don’t know how the Frenchies with kids didn’t) and the guide behind me seemed amused as he drove, smoked a cig and twirled a knife with one hand. (Another Apocalyse Now vision summoned here as well)
We eventually stopped, hiked to a waterfall, swam in the swimming hole and then our guides made a fire. I roasted marshmallows for the first time in about 15 years and THEN they started hacking at the bamboo – and cut young branches at their seams so that they would create a cup. And we made coffee. Coffee in a fresh cut bamboo high ball glass. Someone here in Chiang Rai needs to call Martha Stewart and swap stories and skills, stat.
On the ride back I had more guts, was flooring it through mud, basically eating the red dusty dirt coming off the buggy in front of me and daring to drive with one hand while I took a slew of idiotic (yet very joyful) selfies and pictures of the surrounding landscape.
I could actually hear my mother to put both hands on the wheel and asking if I was crazy. Whatever. Yolo. Fomo. And every other Millennial hashtag. I was having a kick ass time.
The day ended with a late lunch atop a hill after we drove through the Hill Tribe village. The children came out to wave, I almost ran over one or two roosters, which I really feel would not have gone over well with the owner. I was flying high and like when skiing, seeking out bumps to go over to try to feel some air.
At the end of it all I can tell you that this is one of the most awesome things I’ve done in a really long time, that if you were a little less afraid of death you probably could have FLOWN through these paths and that the reviews on Trip Advisor are fully on point – this is the #1 thing to do in Chiang Rai.
I leave today to hop aboard a boat to take me down the Mekong River, into Laos.
Life is good. See you when I see you.