To reach Maejantai, you start with a songtaew. It looks like a word scramble, I know. How about: to reach a rural Thai village, you start with a taxi-bus-truck. You wake up early on a typically sunny morning in Chiang Mai and catch a red local songtaew — a complicated-looking name for a truck with two rows of benches in the covered bed that functions as a public bus. Have your driver drop you off at the Akha Ama coffee shop, where you and twenty other people will crowd into two bright yellow, privately hired songtaews (pronounced “song-tow” – rhymes with “ow,” not “toe”) and drive north into Northern Thailand’s mountains.
After several weeks of travel and research, a whirlwind island romance, some jerks stealing my purse and everything important in it, and two nights crashed on my friend’s tiny couch, I arrived unprepared and exhausted at Akha Ama for the two-night Coffee Journey. The participants, roughly two-thirds foreign travelers and one-third Thais, sat sweaty thigh to sweaty thigh on the vinyl seats as we set off. Lee, the 25-year-old entrepreneur who founded Akha Ama, handed out motion sickness pills like candy. The back of the trucks had an outer low rack used for a step, a luggage rack, or, in Lee’s case, for extra passengers. He stood easily on the back, holding on to a rail with one hand while the truck whooshed up the highway.
Maejantai, Lee’s home village, sits up where an arm of Thailand stretches into a culturally shared space with northern Laos and Burma, as well as China’s Yunnan province. Even northern Vietnam almost gets a hand in there. Long the region of ethnic minorities, the mountainous area was coined Zomia by a historian in 2002. Willem van Shandel noted this region has historically stayed beyond the various government controls in the lowlands, and despite political boundaries many of the ethnic minorities still share languages, customs and cuisines.
Zomia is one of my favorite places on the planet. I’ve always been drawn to mountains and mountain people, and Zomia (feels like home-ia!), with its green mountains, red dirt roads and strong-backed locals carrying baskets of firewood on their backs, has consistently called me back. I feel a kinship with mountain people, even if I can’t really call myself one. I love the smells of wood smoke, the thin morning fog in the hills, and the steamy pleasure of a hot cup of green tea in chilly mountain air. It sounds like a cheesy Folgers’ commercial, but I really mean it.
The region is notoriously poor; the laws may have a harder time reaching hill tribes in this no-man’s land, but then so does the money.
Enter Lee. Lee is Akha, an ethnic minority that resides in Burma, Laos, Thailand and China (where the Chinese government classify them as Hani). Lee’s family straight up walked down from China several generations ago, and have been living in Maejantai ever since. Lee is the only person from his village to go to college. With his shiny black bowl cut, skinny jeans and broad, charming smile, Lee looks as urban as any 20-something Thai kid in Chiang Mai. But behind his typical Thai smile, Lee is seriously commited to pulling his village out of poverty by organically and sustainably growing the planet’s favorite upper: coffee.
Our yellow songtaews pulled up to a dirt parking lot in Chiang Rai, where five small 4×4 trucks were waiting for us in the shade of tall leafy trees. “Okay, we go!” Lee said, with a round-up motion of his arm. We climbed into the open beds and perched on the edges. From there we headed straight up into Chiang Rai’s surrounding mountains. The black, dirty trucks rumbled up impossible roads constructed mostly of mud, potholes and rutted red dirt; I felt like I was in a 4×4 commercial. The trucks kicked up a steam engine cloud of dust, so that everyone but those in the front truck was constantly doused with a gritty film of dirt.
I’ve always thought of myself as a good traveler, one who takes things in stride. I’ve found that broken-down buses, bad roads, hard-as-cement pillows and food poisoning are just part of the experience, and the experience is what I’m after. But after the previous two weeks, my resilience was down. I’m embarrassed to say that despite familiarity with tough car rides, trekking and uncomfortable sleeping situations, I had an ego-shatteringly rough time in Maejantai.
It took us two hours in those trucks to get to Lee’s village. Every time we hit a bump, there was a collective groan in the bed as our heads bobbed and our sit bones were pounded. I eventually stood up and held on to the bars over the cab, which allowed my knees to bend and absorb the bumps.
We arrived at the village around 5:30, just in time for sunset. A collection of wood homes high in the hills, Maejingtai is typical of villages in Zomia. Same look, same feel: soft rolling mountains, with tracks and red dirt roads popping through tall, green trees. The shady hillsides are a coffee plant’s happy place.
We had stopped for lunch at 11:30, and by 6 p.m. my blood sugar level was uncomfortably low and I was woozy from the ride. We stood around as Lee assigned host families and sleeping situations, directing participants to places like “the third house around that corner.” Lee’s own home was two stories — the ground floor was really just the foundation and used for storage, with chickens and dogs scratching around the dirt floor. Upstairs was an open room with mattresses lined along the wall. Sacks of coffee beans were piled in the corners. His mother and sister cooked outside behind the house.
As the sun sank behind the hills in a goodbye wave of tangerine, it got cold. We’d traveled in the open sunshine in t-shirts, but now we stood shivering and hungry. Lee directed me to my host’s house: a very small one-room shack with a packed dirt floor. A small kitchen area behind that room housed a smoky twig fire on the ground and in front was an oversized outhouse with a water hose attached to a propane tank.
My two roommates were cheerful Thai girls from Bangkok, one improbably pudgy. “Hello!” she boomed. They chatted with our hosts, an older, broad-faced couple with strong cheekbones and deep lines at their eyes. I wondered what their relationship was with Lee’s family and how they felt about Akha Ama and the burgeoning coffee venture. After showers in the exposed night air, the three of us walked up the hill to Lee’s home, where his sister and mother served us hot soup with greens, savory pork, and bowls full of fluffy yet sticky rice. We sat on the wood floor and leaned against the solid coffee sacks, then men outside on the porch and the women inside under a bare bulb that cast shadows behind the bulging bags.
One man, a coffee importer from Australia, brought his young Thai companion, a girl with braces and sparkly gold toenail polish. I wished I understood Thai; I felt uncomfortable with the idea that she might be hired, and wondered what Lee thought. I was curious about the dynamics; what did the meticulously made-up, high-class girl from Bangkok think of this coarse escort?
I left dinner early and walked down to my host’s home with my headlamp clamped to my forehead. I could see faint white lights coming from the clutter of homes I passed. When I walked in to my house, a crowd of villagers sat on the edge of the platform that held our mattresses. They huddled shoulder to shoulder, mostly men in long-sleeved shirts smoking cigarettes under a weakly blue light bulb. The center of attention was a small boxy TV with rabbit ears and a Thai soap opera on the screen.
We did the smile and nod routine, and shoulders parted to let me crawl up to my pillow where I’d stashed my small backpack. I pulled out my toothbrush and pajamas, and flapped out in my sandals to the bathroom.
I immediately regretted my choice of sleeping clothes: tiny jogging shorts and a tank top. Thais are pretty conservative with their clothes: your average Thai goes swimming fully dressed. And this was a rural mountain village. I thought about the handful of men in there, and how uncomfortable I was going to make everyone. Why hadn’t I considered my sleeping situation before I’d left the city? I knew better than to assume I’d have my own room, but I hadn’t given anything a thought.
I crossed my arms over my chest and scuffed back into the house, my toothbrush in one hand. Nods, smiles. Shoulders parted, shoulders rejoined, and I crawled into my bed and covered myself with a lumpy blanket, the TV audience at my feet. It was chilly, and I wondered when the blanket had been washed last – and I disgusted myself with these thoughts. I swallowed a melatonin, put in my earplugs and then read a book with my headlamp.
I love the sound of roosters in the morning, because their aggressive caw and weakly garbled finish always make me smile. Plus, I am always traveling when I hear them, so waking up to a rooster means I am waking up somewhere new and different.
I woke at sunrise, around 6 a.m., to roosters. My bunkmates cheerfully popped out of bed and showered, but I just waited my turn for the bathroom hut and changed into the same dusty clothes from the day before, trying not to get my pants and feet wet on the bathroom/shower floor.
I noted a funny twinge in my lower stomach but ignored it. Breakfast, on the wood floors of Lee’s home, was Thai omelets and rice, plus greens from the night before. The twinge got worse during breakfast, and I knew the signs of at bladder infection well enough to recognize I was in trouble.
I never travel without specific pain pills and antibiotics for my predictable UTIs. But again, I wasn’t thinking much before this trip. I made my way around the mingling group after breakfast, asking each Western woman, “Do you have any pain pills for a UTI?” No one did. Finally, I approached Angie, a young Thai women helping Lee out with the trip. I was about to cry, still tired from the journey and being uncomfortable with my surrounds.
Sweet, pixied, wide-smiled Angie! That girl jumped on it. While the rest of the group set off hiking to the coffee fields, she got Lee’s brother to drive me down the lumpy road to the next village in a rusty sedan. The village’s clinic was open-aired and dusty, and I squirmed in a plastic blue chair while Angie explained my symptoms in Thai. The doctor, a greying Thai man wearing frameless glasses and a faded button-down shirt, slowly dropped pastel pills into miniature plastic bags. He handed them to me and Angie explained.
“These ones for pain. These ones for antibiotics.”
The pain pills looked like basic Tylenol. I asked if they had any of the kind that make your pee turn orange. They didn’t. I didn’t trust the Tylenol but I didn’t have a choice – I just hoped the antibiotics would get to work right away. More than anything, I just wanted them to work so that I wouldn’t be THAT person — the high-needs girl hogging attention and resources. Also, I hoped Lee, whom I considered a friend in Chiang Mai, didn’t think I had an STD.
Lee’s brother, who didn’t speak any English but smiled a lot, drove Angie and through I Maejantai and along winding dirt roads to the coffee fields. No one made a big deal about my absence, and I blended right in, spending the rest of day picking coffee cherries under light clouds, the primal, berry-picking side of me taking over.
The rest of the weekend played out like the first 24 hours. It was chilly, I was tired, I wanted to cry, and I was ashamed and embarrassed at my discomfort. Here I’d thought I was a seasoned, tough traveler, yet I was struggling when everyone else on the trip seemed to be just fine. I felt privileged and snotty, and worried I was a voyeur. I wondered what Lee’s neighbors, many of whom bought into Akha Ama but several who hadn’t, thought of his venture and of him bringing outsiders twice a year to the village.
On the last day, we repeated our journey in reverse: down the mountains in 4x4s and into the yellow songtaews and the heat of the lowlands, as though Chiang Mai was sucking us back. I came home to the apartment I rented only the day before the journey, and fell happily into my large bed.