Thai Trailblazing (Extract)

Extract from an article in Issue 19, January 7, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. For full story please subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here to subscribe. An Israeli navy veteran has carved out a niche for himself as an adventure-travel operator in the trekking hub of Chiang Mai "Captain aboard!" Hallel Raz-Yuval hollers, to the momentary alarm of the diners, as he arrives at a small sampan converted into a floating restaurant on a scenic local river. Before he's done with his first glass of wine, he starts banging the table and belting out "What Do You Do with a Drunken Sailor?" as his long-suffering Thai wife quietly orders fish and potatoes for him. Decades in the Israeli navy and merchant marine have soaked Raz-Yuval to the core with the salt of the sea - both inside and out. Somewhat stocky with a protruding paunch, the 55-year-old Israeli sports the silvery tresses and curly white beard of a celluloid Odysseus. He effuses rambunctious camaraderie. "Let me tell you, I didn't get the white in my hair in the beauty salon," he offers. Get him started on his myriad maritime adventures, and he'll never stop. "I was a boy growing up in Eilat by the sea ... I had my bar mitzva on an oil tanker - the Aurora, my father was an engineer on it ... It was the same boat I rescued at the Suez [during the Yom Kippur War] when I was in command of a fast gunboat, strike craft class 4 ... I even captured an Egyptian flag. I still have it...." Like a swell-tossed sailor on shore leave finding himself with a captive audience, Raz-Yuval talks in a meandering, rapid-fire, stream-of-consciousness ramble that gives his conversation an arresting - if slightly manic - loquacious-uncle quality. "I'm a sailor," he exclaims. "I love the sea!" So what is he doing in land-locked Chiang Mai, a northern Thai city nestled among endless, rumpled mountains where the closest you can get to a heady rush of water is a monsoon downpour? This retired mariner has carved out a niche for himself as an adventure-travel operator in the region's preeminent trekking hub. Commanding a small flotilla of powered-up Toyota 4x4s with chains fastened on tires for traction during his off-road explorations, Raz-Yuval, a former trainer in navy tactics simulations, transports his adventure-seeking passengers - mainly Israelis - into uncharted jungle territory. Leaving behind the comforts of civilization for a few days, they slosh through mud-clogged forest paths, ford rapid streams, navigate precipitous passes, skirt hillside tea leaf plantations and venture deep within hill-tribe land. "I'll show you the jungle as locals see it, not as tourists," Raz-Yuval promises. "You won't see [city-dwelling] locals dolled up as hill people greeting you with 'Hava Nagila.' When we arrive [in a remote hamlet], the tribespeople sometimes look at us as if space aliens had landed in their village." Raz-Yuval's trailblazing jungle adventures have gained a word-of-mouth following back in Israel - "Friends bring friends from mouth to ear," as Raz-Yuval puts it. His clients have included IDF generals, chiefs of police and celebrities like actor-entertainer Dudu Topaz. Tours - and their prices - are tailored to individual clients' itinerary choices and their expected levels of relative comfort while roughing it in the jungle. "Our friends in Israel told us that Udi's tour was a must," testifies Royi Parati, an anthropology student at Bar-Ilan University. He's just arrived in Chiang Mai straight from Israel with his wife, Idit Moyal. As part of their honeymoon, the newlyweds are here to embark on a four-day jungle trek with Raz-Yuval. "We're counting on Udi [Raz-Yuval] to show us the way," Moyal adds. Liron Markovitch has already seen "the way" and loved it. "We got stuck in the jungle in pouring rain," recalls the 26-year-old web designer from Petah Tikva, who did a tour with Raz-Yuval a few months ago during the monsoon season. "I was covered in mud, trying to push the jeep out for three hours. But I had the best time." Located in downtown Chiang Mai behind a Buddhist temple and next door to a traditional massage parlor with blind masseuses, the headquarters of Udiya Tour, Raz-Yuval's family venture (named after him and his wife) looks less like a travel agency than a halfway house for traveling eccentrics. Gaudy parrots cavort rowdily under a Hebrew welcome sign with an Israeli flag while five freshly shampooed shih tzu dogs with Hebrew names like Tiyul (Tour) scamper underfoot. Inside, a portrait of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson rubs frames with a picture of the afro-coiffeured Hindu holy man Sathya Sai Baba. Completing the tableau of spiritual syncretism is a silver menora surrounded by corpulent "Happy Buddha" figurines. Hasidic songs on Israeli radio blare from speakers through an Internet connection. "I've been out of the country for 17 years," says Raz-Yuval, "but ask me anything about Israel and I'll tell you the latest news up to the minute." In mixed marriages in Thailand, the foreign spouse invariably adapts to local customs. Raz-Yuval has remained as incorrigibly Israeli as if he were living in Tel Aviv. "Up here and down there," he says, indicating his mind and heart with oratorical flourish, "I know and I feel that my home, my place, my soul are all in Israel." Though he can get by in pidgin Thai, he has taught his wife, Fidsahyahnat (Ya), fluent Hebrew - a language their sons, Raziel, 14, and Ariel, 12, also use at home as their "father tongue." (Raziel was born in Israel and just had his bar mitzva.) Meticulous and levelheaded, Ya is a pretty 37-year-old local woman with serene poise. She serves as helpful ballast to her flamboyant, head-in-the-clouds husband. When he gets carried away, she calms him down with a quiet hakol beseder ("everything's all right," in Hebrew). She designs, draws and decorates all promotional material by hand. She also stops Raz-Yuval from bankrupting the family venture when he offers - as he often does - to take hard-up Israeli backpackers along on a tour at his own expense. "We're not a business; we're a way of life," Raz-Yuval explains. "If we have a piece of bread, we share it. If we have cake, we share that, too." Extract from an article in Issue 19, January 7, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. For full story please subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here to subscribe.