One thing Chiang Mai certainly isn’t lacking is tour options for visitors. While I usually hate the prospect of these kind of groups, preferring to just go off on my own and see what I can find, I will concede that occasionally they will bring you places that you just couldn’t get otherwise. A few of Chiang Mai’s most popular are tiger visits, elephant farms, and hikes to local hill tribes.
In the last few hours with the motorbike I took to Wat Doi Suthep, I rode over to the bus station, got my ticket to Surin so that I would be there in time for the Elephant Round Up festival in a few days, and then went to the office of a tour I had see a couple days before when walking through the city.
This tour included an array of things. A dabble of everything rather than 4 days straight with elephants or a 3 night hike into the backwoods of northern Thailand. On top of that, it was a good deal. Less than 3000 baht (US$90) for a forest hike, visit to a hill tribe village, waterfall hike, overnight at an elephant farm, whitewater rafting. And, all meals provided.
To quote a Facebook status update from last year when I was trying to figure out how to spend limited time in Boston, “When in doubt on what to do, do everything.”
For the first time since I had left the U.S., I was woken up by an alarm. Next to me was a small bag already packed with a bare minimum for the expedition’s activities. It still amazes me how much some people can overpack for situations as short as a 1 or 2 day trip.
After a quick shower, I headed down to the Julie Guest House’s main floor, a large open-air lounge area and for the first time since being in Thailand, opened the menu and pointed straight to the “American-style” breakfast. Scrambled eggs, toast, bacon, etc. came were set in front of me less than ten minutes later. That was coupled with a Krating Daeng, the original form of Red Bull, to help wake me up.
A few minutes later, a songthaew (pickup truck with benches and a roof in the back end) pulled up looking for me. In the truck already were 3 French, 3 Americans, and a German. Being passed around the back end amidst the passengers were bottles of Chang, the staple cheap Thailand beer. I grabbed a bottle from them and joined in the conversation as the driver, unseen to us, was maneuvering around the labyrinthine sois of inner Chiang Mai to pick up the rest of our expedition.
We had 3 more pickups before leaving the city, an Australian and an Italian couple. The Italians were the only ones in the group that didn’t know English. Though, based on a tip I received from Marina, an Italian girl I met at Julie Guest House that Italian and Spanish were similar enough to be mutually understood if spoken slowly and carefully, we struggled through a few exchanges.
The songthaew left the city on a path I wouldn’t have been able to follow even if I had been paying attention. Our first stop was a greenhouse attraction of some sort with a wide array of foreign plants, a jewelry shop, and a cafeteria which we were much to early to get into. It wasn’t an interesting stop, but there have been much worse ways to send 20 minutes.
We piled back into the songthaew and continued into the northern Thailand wilderness. The truck began to slow down and we looked around to see where we could be.
It then brought us to a small town developed at what was simply a highway intersection. Inside a few of the corner buildings, which were really just heavy ceilings without walls, a market selling many different kinds of food and other items stood. I was amazed at how many different kinds of bugs were.
We were then herded back into the songthaew and driven around several winding dirt roads pasts some fairly steep river valleys. One of our French companions made a joke in passing that this would be a perfect spot for them to “take care of us”.
About a half hour later, we stopped at a spot along a small ravine. Next to the stream were a few wooden buildings open to the elements and a staircase leading up to a shack, which, according the Aussie who tried to get in for some privacy, was well-secured. This was where we had lunch along a very elongated picnic table on the edge of the creek.
From the creek, we were walked back to the road and led a couple hundred meters to a path into the woods. For the next few hours, we were hiking through the northern jungle mountains of Northern Thailand.
It was odd to see some of the buildings we passed at areas that were so far away from any sort of makeshift road. Homes in the middle of the woods that were usually open-air. Throughout them were obvious piles of clothes and empty bottle of Chang and whiskey strewn about the floors, and occasionally sitting outdoor shelves or tables.
In between some of these homes were dried out rice fields. Though we were able to walk through their husks with ease, it was much easier to traverse the narrow grids of raised earth that crisscrossed the fields.
There were a couple times when we were required to cross streams/small rivers, some shallow and some not so much. We had to use the rocks and random logs along with branches hanging over the streams. I was very glad at this point that my sister had talked me into getting waterproof hiking boots for my trip over here. There were a couple close calls and some thorny branches that left scratches. But no one had a fall into the water.
The most difficult part came a couple hours or so in. A slope stood in front of us. Because of the trees growing up its entirety, there was no way for me to gauge its actual height. There was no actual path either, as we all just scaled the way we found best as we went up.
About ¾ the way up, we finally stopped at a semi-flat area with rocks and logs covered in a layer of insects to sit on.
I’ll freely admit that I am not in the peak of physical fitness, probably far from it, though I was doing much better than some of the people on the trek at this point. Although, the lingering hangovers that many of us had did nothing to help the overall situation.
One of the more irritating aspects during the climb was that, on the more narrow areas, where we were single-file going up a series of rocks and very steep slopes, I was caught behind the Italians, who were faring the worst of the group. With streams of sweat and a slower pace than me, he was not a pleasant man to be caught behind.
Once at the actual top, it was relatively flat from there on out. It was a little over another kilometer on high-elevation, mostly along a very narrow ridge, which provided a fantastic cleared view of grassy valleys in between the small mountains.
Throughout all of this, there was talk about hitting up the advertised swimming pool the moment we reached the encampment.
Once finally down the slope into the valley, we came to a few houses. It could hardly be called a village, though it was dotted with sparely with buildings here and there. Maybe 20 in all.
Here, we very quickly saw our first elephant as we approached one final stream to cross on a narrow bridge made of about 8 branches. It came, guided by a rider on its neck, through the river to lead us to the camp.
The first thing most did once at the camp was not check out the elephants or the cows, or the swimming pool, but simply crash in the covered area next to the main building. Some sat and some laid, but everyone did it.
Very quickly, the annoyance arose that the cooler, containing water, soda, and beer, was locked. We were told that the man who ran the camp was away and had taken the key with him. About a half hour later, though no sign of this man surfaced, our guide was able to unlock the cooler. After a round of waters, the Changs started popping open.
Behind this covered patio was the swimming pool advertised for us to swim with and help bathe the elephants. It was really more of an artificial pond of stagnant water that looked as if it hadn’t been clean in a very long time. Someone in our group described it as a ‘stagnant pool of festering hepatitis’ and jokes began about how many Changs it would take before someone would actually be the first to jump in. I quickly decided it wouldn’t be me.
There were about 4 or 5 elephants total on the camp, including a young one tied to a post in a distant lean-to that always looked as if he were dancing off in the far end of the camp.
After dinner was served, the caretakers came around looking for people among our group who wanted to take their turn riding the elephants. Each on had a bench roped on to its back, and the whole apparatus included rope, which looked very uncomfortably tied under its tail and digging into its butthole.
Some rushed at the chance, while others were too exhausted. I just didn’t have any real desire to ride on one.
By this time, dusk was starting to come across the valley. Aside from the annoying crows of the roosters all throughout the area, it proved an extremely peaceful spot for us to wind down for the evening.
We spent close to 4 or 5 hours just sitting on the long benches where we had eaten dinner drinking Changs and discussing every topic from Thailand to travel to pop culture in different countries. I was one of the last ones down there, though not even coming close to matching our Australian companion, who had put back 13 1.25 liter (6.4% ABV) Changs.
Finally calling it a night with 2 others, we initially had no idea how to get to the visitor cabin that was at the top of a nearby slope. Luckily, I had a miniature flashlight, and we found the stairs up to it. The cabin was open-air, but each bed inside was surrounded by its own intricate mosquito netting.
Thankfully no one was snoring noticeably as I joined everyone that had already fallen asleep.