We’ve just returned from a three-day trek into the jungle of Northern Thailand and oh my goodness, it was worth the splurge. We had heard a lot of bad things about treks like this – mistreated, underfed elephants giving tourists rides up and down strips of concrete, Hill Tribe villages turned into human zoos with women paid to wear neck rings so that the tourists can take their photos, and more. Yet we stumbled upon a trek which promised a more natural route – less touristed and more actual living in the jungle, and decided to go for it.
Thai elephants used to be work animals for the logging industry. When logging was banned in the 1990s, a huge number of elephants were suddenly left purposeless. Wild elephants in Thailand are heavily protected, but working animals are thoroughly domesticated and not included in any legislation. Many have found their way into the tourism industry giving rides to farangs, often facing terrible living conditions. However, (something I had not considered) with their trained profession banned, these elephants don’t have any place in Thai society at all and without the tourists, might actually be worse off. The best thing to do is support businesses and organizations that treat their animals well.
Knowing this, we began our trek with a long bumpy songtheaw ride to a small family operation with five healthy-looking elephants, arriving right at bath-time! The elephants were having a ball rolling around in the river with the handlers climbing all over them splashing and washing. Afterwards, we met them before climbing up a mounting platform and going for a ride! We were given bunches of bananas as “elephant fuel” and were taken up and down a jagged path through the jungle. And you guys, the hype is true. Riding an elephant is so cool. They are friendly and massively huge and feel like dinosaurs.
(C discovers the most comfortable way to ride an elephant. Don’t knock it til you try it.)
After climbing off and saying goodbye, we had lunch and then took off walking. Nice pathways through forested hills quickly turned into scrambling through jungle along a small stream bed and everyone ended the day wet and muddy. Hell yes.
We swung on vines, Tarzan-style, and tried to keep close to our guide, Den, in order to hear his running commentary about different plants and trees and their uses. If ever stuck in a southeast Asian jungle, we could totally make tea, roll cigarettes, find drinkable water, make good torches, spice our food, and make eating utensils. Survivors! We are also given slingshots, which J takes to instantly and spends the rest of the trip with pockets full of small stones and nuts for ammo.
We spend the first night in a raised bamboo hut in a jungle clearing with a beautiful view. As a group, we cook up some delicious green curry and spicy basil chicken with entire handfuls of garlic and hot pepper.
Day two involves a long day of hiking through some breathtaking scenery with a stop for lunch beside a small stream. In addition to our noodles, we roast over the fire some crabs J helped to pull from the stream and a large spider we’d come a cross en route.
At the end of the day, we find ourselves meandering through rice patties and around water buffalo to a tiny Karen Hill Tribe village, where we spend the night. None of our hosts speak a word of either English or Thai, but we are fed a delicious meal of pumpkin curry, rice from the fields, and a delicious stir-fried mystery green we had trouble translating enough to identify. Later in the evening, Den gives us a talk about the Hill Tribe culture and later we are joined by our host for a song session around the fire – classic Bob Marley and Christmas carols in multiple languages at once with a guitar accompaniment. The stars are unbelievable, and the altitude makes the night brisk and chilly.
In the morning, we are awoken by the roosters before the break of dawn. The village is alive with animals – dogs, chickens, buffalo and pigs all wandering around freely. Usually there are five families here, we are told, but since the harvest is done, many move temporarily to other nearby villages to work. The kids aged 5-12 attend school 15km away, and thus stay for the week and return on weekends. Thus the usually tiny village is reduced to just a handful of people and one small toddler. The family wears traditional clothing – thick woven wrap skirts and embroidered blouses which struck us as much more Burmese in style than Thai – with the occasional western T-shirt or plastic sandals. They have a special house just for rice storage.
After a quick breakfast we hike off for the final leg of our trek – a few hours of walking, then maneuvering our way downriver on long bamboo rafts! It’s a bit tricky. We float past farms and homes with docks jutting out and laundry strung from trees. The lack of other tourists is cemented when we float past a couple of bloated dog carcasses washed up on the banks. . .
Our final stop is a beautiful waterfall where we play and jump from the rocks into the refreshingly “chilly” pool below. We all nod off on the long ride back to Chiang Mai, which is probably very dangerous, as there were 11 people in the songtheaw for 8 and some of us were seated dangling off the back end. A great end to a great trip, made all the better by the new buddies we’ve made – an awesome French Canadian couple fresh off a working holiday in Australia who’ve given us some great inspiration for our plans this spring. We hope to meet up with them again in Laos.
We’ve spent the last few days in Chiang Mai, but have done shockingly little exploring due to various stomach ailments which have led to lots of lying around the guesthouse drinking coconut milk and eating rice. We have done just enough wandering and exploring to get a taste of Chiang Mai. It is a beautiful city, with lots of tiny little tree-lined alleyways and sois opening up into huge markets (super intense sensory overload) and wats (same same).
A few closing photos:
C making friends!!
J hiking with bamboo (which we later made into some pretty awesome cups and chopsticks).
Lots of love!
C and J