Chiang Mai Stories and Tips

Trekking diary Part 1: Elephant riding and hike to village

Elephant trekking outside Chiang Mai Photo, Chiang Mai, Thailand

The elephants stopped half way across the river with water rushing around their ankles. A motorbike rider had stripped and was washing himself in the river. Deep noises came from their throats and they eyed the machine with suspicion. It was not mean't to be there. The mahout used his stick to tap them on, and with one more bellow they resumed their rolling gait, climbed the muddy bank and went back into the jungle.

The trek I went on was two days including elephant riding and bamboo rafting. They collected us very early in the morning in a bemo and sped us west to the mountains surrounding Chiang Mai. I was grouped with a bunch of four Scottish lads, a Dutchman and an Israeli girl. Each of us had paid 1500 bahts (£16/$20.00) to trek in the jungles and stay with the hill tribes. Our guide was the ebullient Soppong, a short-haired chubby Thai whose English was excellent. He stopped off at a market where he loaded up with supplies and cold drinking water. And after an hours drive the bemo pulled up along a shallow river. A rickety bamboo swaying bridge led across and we crossed in a chattering state of excitement as we had seen what was on the other side - elephants!

These were magnificent brutes. About four adults and youngsters were tethered in the shade or reaching for nearby greenery. We had to climb steps to be seated on the howdah which was about 12ft from the ground. The elephants would then plod for two hours through the jungle. The great leathery head of the elephant was in front of us and you had to keep your shins away from her flapping ears. We watched butterflies and flying insects flit around in the heat and as the jungle closed in on us the humidity got worse. We stopped every thirty seconds as the elephant in front of us halted and reached for its trunk for fresh vegetation. It would only move on when the mahout shouted at him or he had fresh grass to chew.

After sloshing through a river we returned to camp and went back to the bemo. And after an hours more ride stopped at a roadside restaurant and looked around. We were surrounded by towering mountains with jungle vegetation right up to their summits. The hilltribe village was eight miles up this mountain. We met with our Karen guide - a shirt wiry fellow who set an incredible pace. He led us through emerald green paddy fields ringed by jungle. When we entered the jungle the humidity nearly bowled you over and for miles we ascended a track following a stream. The incline was very severe and the track was crossed by roots and stones and was very hard on the feet. Soon all you cared about was putting one foot after another - the humidity made our T-shirts and shorts wet rags.

The last two miles of the trek were at a very severe incline and everyone was wheezing in the heat especially Soppong who was carrying our supplies. The last part was clambering over the stones near a waterfall - everyone was so hot they just stripped off and stood under the rushing water. But soon we began to see buffalo pastures and women in traditional costumes. Then we were there! A palmroofed longhouse stood on the edge of a paddyfield. From its verandah were views over the jungle and mountains. We were staying with a Karen family with father, baby, and mother working on her loom. With their dogs,hens, cockerels and tethered pig's - I thought I was in the middle of a BBC2 anthropology documentary.

The wooden longhouse was built on stilts and we would be sleeping on mats upstairs which was only reachable via wooden ladder. Soppong cooked us a delicious meal of curried potatoes and green beans and there was nothing else to do there but talk and watch the sun set over the jungle. Night falls about 6.00pm up here and the sound of cicada's was deafening. Most of us went to bed about 11.00pm with a mixture of Coca-cola and hilltribe moonshine to aid our sleep. One of the Scots asked for something stronger but the guide refused - saying the police regularly raid to make sure they are not providing opium to trekkers. So we let the sounds of the jungle send us to sleep.

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