It was too cold to trek in India or Nepal. Too out of the way in Sri Lanka. We didn’t have enough time in Malaysia. So, when we arrived in Chiang Mai, the home of trekking in Thailand, we decided to splurge and take Mr. Whiskey’s “non-touristic” three day and two night trek through the jungle.
The biggest difference between this and the standard “touristic” trek was that most places send the group to the same local villages that they have been using for nearly 30 years. The locals have adapted and show the trekkers what they want to see, but the actual culture is long gone. Also, as most visitors opt for the touristic trek, much of the three days is spent surrounded by countless other Westerners. No thanks.
Our group started out as nine people: a French couple who fought the whole time, three other European guys, us and two local guides: Mr. Ton (the leader) and Jackie Chan (his helper). It didn’t take long to make an impression, as at our first rest stop at a local market I ripped my pants and had to sit on the side of the road in my boxers as Carrie sewed them up. Later on the drive out of town we saw a local woman hand cranked petrol from an oil barrel into a soda bottle while watching lines of Westerners waiting to take an elephant ride. Finally, we left civilization behind and headed into the mountains to the northwest of Chiang Mai.
The ride was long and muddy and I spent most of it crushed between three people leaning and the metal guards at the back of the truck. With 4WD in gear we sloshed and skidded our way up, past a fogged in lookout point to a local village for lunch and a tour of tour of the town. Primarily a weaving village, we saw local huts, outhouses, farm life, kitchens, a quick sewing demonstration and a giant satellite dish on everyone’s roof.
Carrie and I joked that it was as if someone was giving us a tour of Murra (the village Carrie volunteered in in Nicaragua). The people seemed immune to our presence and really seemed to keep up a traditional life mixed with just a few modern comforts.
“Aren’t we supposed to have Sherpas to carrying our stuff,” I wondered as I piled six liters of water into my already stuffed pack to begin our walk. I guess that only comes in Nepal. So, with at least 10kg on our backs we trekked across grassy flatlands and up steep and never-ending hills. I’m pretty sure some of them were actual at a 90 degree angle. At one point the steepness got to the Danish guy who had to lay down for a bit then have Jackie Chan carry his bag for him.
Nearly three hours later, after lots of awesome viewpoints and fascinating lessons on the indigenous plant species, we turned a bend and saw two massive elephants standing around waiting for us. Carrie and I were the first to get on back of one of these giant beautiful animals and begin our ride, complete with a bag of small sugar cane cubes that the guides called elephant chocolate.
Every few steps the elephant would stop, put its trunk up above it’s head and beg for a chocolate. When we gave it one he would lower the trunk, eat it and show his joy by flapping his ears. Then, the trunk would raise again for more chocolate. We used these times to actually pet the elephant, whose skin felt like leather sandpaper with very course hairs sticking out of it.
The ride itself was about 45 minutes long, though the elephant only walked for a minute or two in between breaks and only when its master made some grunting sound that meant forward. We stayed on a well trodden path and had no control over the elephant’s pace or movements…which I’m surprisingly OK with.
What was surprisingly not OK was just how unpleasant the actual ride was. We imagined something out of Aladdin with plush seats fit for a king. In reality, the seat is a plank of wood on the elephant’s back and the safety rails that come up to keep riders in are just square metal poles that are always digging into the spine. We spent much of the time being jostled into the poles, hanging on for dear life as the elephant went downhill or enjoying the feeling of our butt bones becoming one with the wood planks. Still, we rode on an elephant and it was awesome!
One rain-induced sprint through a muddy and slippery rice terrace later we arrived at our home for the evening: wooden cabins on stilts sitting on the edge of a valley facing the sunset in a “village” named Meateang. As the rain continued to pour we sat around, drying off, playing with the two local kids who also lived there, watching our elephant hosts sniff around our porch and waiting for dinner. When it came we feasted like kings, as Mr. Ton had prepared us a five course meal that I rank as one of the most delicious I’ve had in Thailand.
Dinner was supposed to be complimented by rats that we caught in the field and roasted over a campfire, but the rain put the kibosh on that plan. Instead, we sat around listening to Mr. Ton and Jackie Chan playing local instruments as well as a guitar. Some songs were in Thai, others were classic Western ditties and others still were them singing about the day and tomorrow’s plans. A fun night, but after a long day I quickly retreated to sleep in our shared room with six mattresses lined up on the floor. The toilet was up the hill behind our shack.
Day two began at 7am, as we awoke to find Mr. Ton toasting bread on a stick over an open fire and boiling eggs for breakfast. To spread the butter and jam he had carved us all engraved knives out of wood; ours remain unused and in my pack. In addition to knives, Mr. Ton also whittled slingshots and we spent much of the next hour shooting away at beer cans and stuffed animals. The best shooters, we found, were the two local kids who probably get to practice daily.
All out of rock slingshot ammo, we headed off into the jungle again for a full day of walking. Our first real break was lunch after nearly three hours of trekking and consisted of a heaping portion of veggie noodles that we had been carrying in our packs all morning. Wrapped in bamboo leaves and eaten with chop sticks whittled out of bamboo by Mr. Ton, our meal left no eco-footprint in the forest.
The whittling continued later in the day when we stopped for a while and Mr. Ton chopped down a bamboo tree to make us all cups and again that night when we used hand-carved forks for dinner. The whole idea of the trek was to teach methods to survive in the jungle alone. I guess if surviving involves making a full set of utensils then I should be golden.
Two more hours of walking later we finally arrived at the indigenous village of Weawang, located in a valley of a remote mountain. Inhabited by only seven families and 53 people, the town had only a handful of buildings and more farm animals than anything else. Immediately upon our arrival we were greeted by a villager plopping down a bucket of Coke, beer and water for sale. She then proceeded to return up the hill to join her friends and family in sitting there and staring at the new group of foreigners invading their village.
Solar power panels donated by the Thai government were attached to a couple of the houses, but there was no need for it as none of the locals seemed to have any electronics except for a radio. There was a pig pen, water buffalo roaming freely, cows, roosters, chickens and animal poo everywhere. One highlight was watching a local woman gather all the chickens and put them in their baskets for the night. Her job was pretty easy, as she just tossed seeds into the baskets and the chickens jumped in after them.
Dinner was another amazing feast prepared by Mr. Ton but was eaten alone. Other than continued staring and the occasional smile, interactions with the villagers were non existent. Carrie and I were a bit annoyed by this, as one of the reasons we splurged was to have a more of a real experience. I guess it’s tough when there is a massive language barrier and the only person who can bridge it (Mr. Ton) did not even try.
The awkwardness was put on hold briefly when Mr. Ton began to make a hot air balloon out of paper, bamboo sticks, toilet paper soaked in wax, metal ties (like twisties without the paper covering) and fireworks. We all signed our names, he assembled it and the whole town watched as he set it off into the night sky. The thing must have gone up for 10 minutes, setting off the noisy fireworks at lengthy intervals, before poofing out and returning to earth miles away.
No sooner than the balloon show ended did the villagers head off in their own directions again. The rest of the night was spent sitting around a small campfire listening to Mr. Ton play more instruments. Looking in the sky was another treat, as the stars were out in force with no city lights around to dull them and were awe inspiring.
My third day began by sleeping through hours of rooster crowing and pig squealing from the pen below our shared room on stilts. After waking up and having breakfast, Carrie gave the local kids the gift we had bought them at 7-11: a toy clay set with fun shaped cutters. For the first time, all the parents and kids came around and got involved as Carrie demonstrated how to use the cut outs. It was a very cool sight to watch.
Our hike for the day was pretty straightforward. Two and a half hours in the jungle, avoiding leeches, crossing streams on logs and rocks, sweating like crazy, watching butterflies frolick in poo. Pretty standard really, though we could have done without the French couple fighting for hours on end, crying and making us all wait for them to air their business.
Finally back in town we headed down from the mountains onto bamboo rafts for a journey downstream. These rafts are literally ten or so bamboo trees tied together Huck Finn style with string. We had two rafts total: each with three trekkers and one guide. Steering and propulsion were accomplished by taking 10 foot bamboo poles and sticking them into the water to push against the river bed.
In reality, although we were given two poles per raft, the guide did all the work. We used our sticks more to try and capsize the other raft…a game which our guides seemed to have more fun playing than us. An hour later we got off the rafts and watched as the staff disassembled each one and brought the individual logs uphill for transport back to the start.
Our final stop on the trek was a waterfall that was by far the largest I’ve seen in more than six months of travel. Two-tiered, we arrived at the bottom for a quick swim. The water was bone-chillingly cold and I actually lost my breath when I first jumped in. That didn’t stop me, however, from jumping off a rock and cannonballing into the water a few times before we left.
All in all I really liked the trek. Sure, there were a few niggles along the way, but we got to do tons of hiking, saw amazing views, were surrounded by nature and visited multiple local villages. Well worth it and a wonderful experience.
Walking through the thick
Sounds of the jungle at sunset
Putting the chickens away at the local village we visited on the second night
Playing and singing by Mr Ton and Jackie Chan our first night Jackie is playing a plastic oil bottle with spoons
Hot air balloon liftoff
Chiang Mai Jungle Trek Elephant ride
Carrie does a Tarzan