I just got back from a three day, two night trek through the jungles of Northern Thailand, probably an hour outside of Chiang Mai. I booked through a travel agency, so it had its forced, tourist moments, but for the most part was amazing.
The first day, we began as one group (including the two and three day trekking groups). There were 13 of us in total. We hiked through the countryside, through some farms, until we reached the mountains. It was then we began our uphill climb into the jungle. After about 3 hours of hiking, we made it to an elephant camp and Longneck tribe village. This is where the tourism begins. The tribe was more a series of huts selling souvenirs and clothing, with tourists as its only market. It seemed a bit unnatural and out of place.
And I’ve got mixed feelings for the elephant camp, too. While it was amazing and humbling to see and be with the elephants, I couldn’t help but notice again, how unnatural it all felt. For one, there are barely any elephants left in the wild: they are all residents of camps, living a life ruled by tourism. We rode them, which was pretty cool, but also felt cruel. How many people have sat on this elephants neck just today, let alone every single day of the year. The mahouts, the trainers, carry a nail around as the elephants take us along the trail. Surely, they have felt the pain of the nail, for as the mahouts draw it to push the elephants onward, they immediately increase pace. And after riding the elephants, we got the chance to feed them. For 20 baht, we can buy a bunch of bananas to give them, with the mahouts showing us different tricks and ways to place the bananas. And while it made for great pictures for much of my group, I politely declined. It felt like a scam, as if we were responsible for feeding them. Pardon the negative approach, the shattering of magic, I just feel morally responsible to keep it real and share my perspective. There are better places to enjoy elephants, more humane sanctuaries, but they are few and far between. Elephant Nature Park seems to be a good one, with single-day to week-long volunteer programs, but gets booked up well in advance.
The one redeeming part of the experience was bathing the elephants. They sat in the river as we splashed them with water; and they splashed back with their trunks. Their ears flapped, a good sign, and it felt a bit better. We hugged them, rubbed them, and even took selfies with them. To be this close to the elephants, showering them with water and love, was rewarding. They are such amazing animals: so huge and capable of harm, but peaceful and kind.
At night, we had a campfire as we ate green curry, chicken, and vegetables, perhaps the Thai equivalent of hot dogs. I laid on the ground, staring at the sky and the sparkling stars. The fire crackled, crickets chirped, and all around me were conversations in Spanish, German, English, and French. It’s crazy how big the world is, yet small at the same time.
I woke up at 7 am, and multiple other times throughout the night, to what felt like a hundred roosters cock-a-doodle-dooing. The occasional elephant would also sound, but less like a trumpet and more like a dinosaur. Think Jurassic Park. Fellow group member, Chris, and I started our morning for a nice run before breakfast and coffee at camp. It’s such a magical experience to wake up in nature, with nature, watching it stretch its arms and yawn, slowly opening its eyes. More of early morning runs in a future blog though!
The group of 13 split up; it was now down to five of us, the 3-day trekkers. We hung out at a nearby waterfall, enjoying its steep, natural rock slide, before beginning another ascent into the mountains.
The trek up was a bit more challenging than yesterday. It was a lot steeper and had little coverage from the hot, midday sun. But our awesome trek guide, Simon, stopped along the way, entertaining us with little bits of wilderness tricks. He flicked rocks, made eye glasses out of bamboo, hit faraway targets with his slingshot, and even found us a small tarantula. After cutting off its sharp fangs right before our eyes, he began to play with him. Simon let him crawl all over his body, even put it in his mouth and letting it crawl out. We all warmed up to the scary little guy, and joined in the play. Spoiler alert: the next day, I built up the nerve to also put him in my mouth and have him crawl out! Who am I?
We got to the top of the mountain, the Lahu village, around 3 and settled into our hillside hut with stunning views. It’s crazy how people live up here, so removed from civilization and resources. I’d certainly love to join their village; to live so far away from “modern-day” society and live a much simpler life. I’ve definitely learned to appreciate silence and simplicity since I’ve began traveling. It has a naturalistic appeal.
We spent the rest the night hanging out in the huts porch, looking out over the valley and across to distant mountains. I escaped from the group for sunset, giving me a bit of time to think and journal. We had dinner with a small fire and a few candles. Simon played some familiar tunes on his guitar and recorder until we were too tired to stay awake. We went to bed early, around 10 pm.
The morning of the third day, I awoke early, again to the sounds of hundreds of roosters. I tried to go on a run, which quickly turned into a walk, as the hillside village is just that: hills. If it wasn’t a steep incline, it was a descent, and my legs were too tired after two days of hiking. The clouds were surprisingly low, hugging the lowest parts of the valleys and flowing with a river-like fluidity. The sun rose above the mountains, slowly waking one side of the village as the other remained fast asleep. Except for the roosters. All of them have been up since 3 am.
I returned to the hut for breakfast and coffee before we prepared to depart. We spent much of the day hiking down the mountain, enjoying waterfalls, and even white water rafting. It was more tame of a day, a combination of relaxing activities and our exhaustion from a long few days.
Overall, the trek was great, a little bit of cliche tourism and wilderness. And for just 2,180 baht ($60.85, including extra expenses the morning we left and the night we returned), I’d say it was well worth it. I maintained my $20/day budget while getting off the beaten path.