Mar 08 2008

Trekking Adventures in Thailand: Day 1

Published by at 1:34 am under Chiang Mai,Thailand

Too much elephant lovesies?The third best thing about Thailand is the food, from mangos with sticky rice to noodles with EVERYTHING. The second best thing about Thailand is that Enrique Iglesias doesn’t live here. But the BEST thing about Thailand is that we can actually afford to DO things here! Last week, we took a 2-day trek into the hills north of Chiang Mai, as part of a package deal that included elephant riding, hiking with a local guide, whitewater rafting, bamboo rafting, all our meals, and accommodation in a hilltribe village. Total price: $30 each, or about 20 euros for you silly people back in the Old World. Do you realize what 20 euros would buy you in Western Europe? Do you?? Well, neither do I, because I don’t think they make euro coins that small. It’s like the half-cent on sales tax that always gets rounded up at the register. Moral of the story: travel in wonderful, affordable SE Asia, and whatever you do, don’t let Iglesias find out about it.

For lots of travelers, treks like the one we signed up for are the reason to visit Chiang Mai. So we weren’t surprised when we got picked up Tuesday morning by a truck filled with five Londoners and two Parisians. Our driver, tour guide, and constant companion was a wiry, excitable Thai man, somewhere between the ages of 20 and 50, who introduced himself with his self-appointed English nickname: Johnnie Walker. This accompanied by a pantomime of chugging from an invisible bottle, and wild-eyed laughter. We liked him immediately.

An hour’s drive from the city, we stopped on a dirt road in front of a place I don’t really know a good word for, so I’ll call it an “elepharm.” Which is really just a word I made up by combining the words “elephant” and “farm,” in an attempt to impress you. Since “elepharm” wasn’t a part of our mutual lexicon until you read that last sentence, you may be wondering if YOU have ever seen an elepharm. To find out, simply complete the following self-assessment:

  • Have you ever seen a farm?
  • If yes, did you notice, after further observation, that it wasn’t really a farm at all, but a large clearing in the jungle, full of elephants, elephant trainers, and ladies selling elephant food to tourists?

If you answered YES to both questions, then congratulations! You’ve seen an elepharm!

For the record, we did buy elephant food from the ladies, which consists of a bunch of bananas tied to several sticks of sugar cane. You might also call this Brittany food, but you wouldn’t be wise to do so. We used some of our treats to lure elephants into posing for pictures for us, and when it was time to climb the Elephant Boarding Platform (patent pending), I brought the remaining snacks with us. The Elephant Boarding Platform allows wimpy foreigners to easily slide into a two-person seat mounted on an elephant’s back. While they are so engaged, an elephant trainer (or “mahout”) soothingly scratches the elephant on the top of its head, and the elephant lowers it enough for the mahout to jump on top, where he will comfortably ride in the somewhat disturbing crease that I didn’t realize all elephants have on top of their skulls.

The view from atop our hungry elephantI also didn’t realize how strong elephants truly are until I watched ours uproot a tasty-looking tree from the side of the walking trail, without jostling us in the least. And I had no idea how quickly they can accelerate until I lobbed a banana up ahead on the path to see what would happen. This discovery led to extra entertainment during our ride, but also taught our elephant that we were carrying bananas. Once he figured that out, he stopped every few steps to lift his trunk backwards over his head in hopes of receiving a gift. To show him who was the master, I ignored such begging, and saved my bananas to encourage bursts of speed during key moments in our unspoken race against the other riders. Unfortunately, I remembered who the REAL master was as soon as he jumped off our elephant’s head for a short break. The moment he was gone, out elephant hustled to the edge of a precarious cliff to stretch for some barely-out-of-reach leaves, and I found myself screaming like a girl and flinging bananas back toward the trail.

We needed to reach the hilltribe village where we would be sleeping by the end of the afternoon, so after bidding the elephants goodbye, we lathered on the malaria repellant, and began our hike to the village. If this is a hilltribe, I have no interest in visiting a mountain tribe. The near-vertical gradient of the only path to the village found us all wishing we’d brought much more water about two minutes into the jungle death march. You wouldn’t know it by looking at Johnnie Walker though, who was continually bounding off the path in order to chop down eye-catching pieces of bamboo with his machete, and bringing them back to the path to whittle into bongs. If you looked like you might not get that the bamboo stick was supposed to be a bong (or like you might have forgotten since the last time he showed you) Johnnie was always happy to pantomime taking a hit from the hollow bamboo rod, and then stumble around dizzily while rolling his eyes.

I’m happy to report that we did see some authentic Thai wildlife on our trek. Sort of. First, one of the Brits spotted a huge spider sitting in a cone-shaped web. We all leaned in for a closer look, until Johhnie looked up from his whittling and yelled,

“Jumping! Jumping! In you eye! Watch you mouth!”

We enjoyed spiders from a distance after that.

Another time, a few of us spotted a small mound of dirt that was moving, and apparently being created by an unseen digging creature beside the trail. I cautiously poked at the mound with a long stick, but couldn’t uncover whatever animal lay below. Snake? Even bigger jumping spider? We asked Johnnie about it, and he instantly fell on the mound with his machete, carving away huge slices of earth as quickly as possible. Sadly, he only succeeded in scaring the creature further underground. Or not so sadly? Johnnie said he didn’t know the English word for the animal we’d pursued, but he did tell us “animal like this” while making giant fangs with his fingers. I stopped poking moving dirt mounds after that.

Here's the hut we slept in!We arrived in the village before sunset, exhausted, sweaty, and in desperate need of a shower. Fortunately, our village accommodation came equipped with a shower. [Insert evil maniacal laughter here.] The shower consisted of a bamboo lean-to outside our sleeping quarters, which sheltered a large plastic trash can of cold water. Voila! Oh, and there was a plastic scoop floating in the trash can, for to ladle dirty freezing water over your filthy shivering body. I borrowed a hairy bar of soap from one of the French guys and got to work, keeping one eye on the jumping spider in the corner all the while.

It’s amazing how early you’re ready to go to sleep when staying somewhere without electricity, but we lit candles after sunset, and postponed retiring to our mosquito-net covered floor mats. We enjoyed a great dinner prepared by a couple of the villagers, and Brittany bought a bracelet from some girls who paid us a visit when they smelled farang (foreigners of a Western persuasion) in the village. By this point, we were ready for bed, but Johnnie Walker insisted that we all play cards by firelight. He also insisted on painting losers’ faces with ashes from the fire, which ensured that the last thing we all did before closing up our mosquito nets was clean each other’s faces by flashlight.

Next time: Thai Trekking, Day 2!

NEXT: Trekking Adventures in Thailand: Day 2 »



3 responses so far

3 Responses to “Trekking Adventures in Thailand: Day 1”

  1. elepharm yo mamaon 08 Mar 2008 at 5:22 pm

    Is Johnnie Walker really just the grown up version of the kid from temple of doom (aka boobie trap kid from goonies)?

  2. Paulon 11 Mar 2008 at 9:42 am

    I am glad you enjoyed your stay in Thailand. Quite adventurous country. Nice that you also enjoyed great prices and food.

  3. Lottaon 27 Oct 2008 at 4:21 pm

    It was so helpful to read about your experiences. My boyfriend and I are planning a similar RTW, for 6 months. The thailand trek sounded like something we would love to do. I was wondering if you happen to recall what company you went with and know of any way to contact them; any info would be great. thanks.

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