The good news is that I survived the 3 day, 2 night Thailand northern mountain trek, which included: riding an elephant; spending a couple of nights in two villages; visiting 3 waterfalls and a lagoon; rafting down a river; and hiking approximately 15 miles over the course of the trip. Believe me when I say that I am not exaggerating too much when I use the word “survived.” This is one of the toughest things I have done physically and emotionally in quite a few years. I have climbed 14000 foot mountains (more often referred to as 14ners by folks in Colorado) that weren’t nearly as tough as this experience. If you want something to take you out of your comfort zone, then going on this trek will definitely push you to your limits.
Trekking in the Northern part includes Doi Chiangdao to the Maetang river area. This is one of the most popular destinations as it is only an hour’s drive from Chiang Mai and offers stunning jungle, waterfalls and wild rivers. Doi Chiangdao (or Doi Luang) is the country’s third tallest mountain and forms an impressive backdrop. South West of Chiangmai lies the Doi Inthanon, the country’s tallest mountain, with numerous waterfalls and jungle trails.
The elephant ride was not what I expected. These magnificent creatures are quite intelligent and if I knew what was entailed or required for me and other tourists to ride them, I would not have participated. Specifically, the animals are abused constantly. Our elephant had visible open sores and our “mahout” (the trainer) had a metal tool with a pointed hook that he did not use while I was riding, but I saw other mahouts use theirs or a crowbar on other elephants. In one instance, one elephant was hit on the skull hard enough to concuss or kill a human. It was sickening.
Additionally, I found out later that it is more humane to ride the animal on his neck, behind his ears (only one person) versus on the animal’s back. During our ride, I rode with Klause – a German tourist in our group. We had no sun protection (an umbrella) and unlike some of the other bench seats, no front bar above our legs to hold onto. Consequently, we both were holding on to the side rail bars tightly for fear of falling off, especially when we were going uphill or downhill.
Frankly, the elephants only cooperate because they are beaten. If you want to experience elephants in a more humane way, I am told that the Elephant Nature Park (ENP) is the place to go. The ENP has an elephant hospital on site and they provide nurturing experiences for tourists, e.g., bathing the elephants, feeding them, petting them, and riding them (in the correct manner behind the ears). All of the elephants are raised humanely and most of them come from the tourist operations that abused them. It’s quite expensive, but a worthy cause.
With regard to the rest of the trek, as I alluded to earlier – BE PREPARED TO EXPERIENCE SOMETHING THAT IS OUTSIDE YOUR COMFORT ZONE! Ensure that you bring the following, so you have a modicum of comfort (LOL . . . probably the wrong word . . . umm, “tolerance” might be more appropriate):
1. Toilet paper. Plenty of it. 2. Small LED light for finding the toilet late at night. 3. Long pants, preferably convertible. 3. Bathing suit. 4. Towel. 5. Hat with brim (my Kangaroo bush hat worked perfectly). 6. “Mission” Cool towel (My mom gave me this and it was indispensable on this trip – the fibers are specially treated and when you wet it and wring it out, it becomes cool. I used it in combination with my bush hat and my head stayed cool and protected from the sun. THANKS MOM!). 7. Flip flops. 8. I took malaria pills and according to the locals you don’t need it. Umm . . . Good luck with that advice. 9. Mosquito spray. 10 Sunscreen.
Below is what the tour brochure itinerary conveyed and my commentary follows after each day:
“You will be collected from your Chiang Mai hotel or guest house and we will proceed to drive towards the Mae Tang area. On route we will stop by at the local market where our guide will buy some fresh supplies for the trip into the hills. Before embarking on the trek we will ride elephants through forested scenic trails for about 1 hour. After the elephant ride we will take lunch near the elephant camp and then commence the first leg of the trek which is a good 3 hour hike up challenging trails to a picturesque Lahu village situated on a mountain top. The Lahu village will be the destination for the night where you can spend late afternoon and evening in the village and kick back and relax after the days trek. Your guide will prepare your evening meal and you can spend the rest of the evening relaxing with your fellow trekkers over a few drinks.”
First, let me introduce you to our group: Mark and Cheryl are both retired and are from Australia; Klaus, is a German orchestra violinist, who is also retired; and there were two German couples, a bit younger than us, who left after the 1st day/night. They didn’t speak much English, so I didn’t really get to know them like I did Mark and Cheryl, who were simply lovely! We all helped and supported each other during this trek. Similarly, Klause didn’t speak English very well, but he was able to understand us and we managed to communicate satisfactorily. He was also able to play one of the Thai village string instruments, which I wasn’t able to get a picture of (later I will explain why there are no photos in this post). Mark, Cheryl, and Klause were all delightful and I couldn’t have asked for better companions on this trip.
I should mention that Mark and Cheryl have participated in other treks around the world and they indicated that this was the toughest one they had been on. I only mention this because I don’t want anyone to think I am blowing smoke up their kazoo when I say this was not your ordinary stroll in the park. In fact, our National Park Service would shut down this type of trail simply because the trails are treacherous and barely navigable. In short, you have to focus on where you are stepping constantly. Couple that with the extreme humidity and heat, then you’ll have an idea of what I am talking about.
Umm, the first day was more like the Bataan Death March in World War II, except we weren’t shot on-site or tortured for not keeping up. The word “challenging” in describing the trails is an understatement. In some instances, if you slipped or fell – then you would either have a serious injury or even death. Perhaps the latter would be preferred. Grin.
The food was adequate, but it wasn’t anything to write home about. Actually, the 1st day dinner meal was the best, since it had some sort of meat in the stew. Rice was served as well. Insofar as having drinks when you arrived at the village, they were warm (Colas, water, and beer were not refrigerated) and you were too exhausted to party. The Germans did imbibe a bit, but Mark, Cheryl and I hit the sack early. Bed was a bamboo mat, with a thin sleeping bag and blanket. Mosquito nets were also provided, but the blankets were dirty and had bedbugs. Surprisingly, you needed the blanket because it did get cold later in the evening.
With regard to the guide – he was very friendly, but due to communication barriers, he didn’t provide any information about the villages and villagers we were staying with, nor any sort of insight about the land, culture, customs, etc. Basically, he led us. We really had no idea where we were or rather, he was unable to communicate in English this information to us. As a result, I had no idea of the names of villages, rivers, mountains, and waterfalls. I looked all that stuff up when I got back to my hotel in Chaing Mai. Also, he did not assist any of us on the trail. Cheryl, who is in good shape, had a difficult time on parts of the trail. Mark and I assisted her. Usually with Mark behind her and I in front of her. There were at least a dozen or more times I was scared for my own safety and I can only imagine how she felt, along with the other two females that were with us.
You are probably wondering why I haven’t interspersed photographs of the elephant ride, waterfall, the swim we took, and scenic views from the hike . . . I had an accident where I slipped/fell in the water while wetting my Mission towel. When I slipped, the rapids took me downstream into a lagoon. Quite hilarious actually. However, my wallet and camera were in my pocket. The camera is pfffffft, albeit, I was able to confirm that the SIM card still works. I didn’t have my tablet with me and I wasn’t able to take any more photos. Mark took photos for me and he is going to send me approximately a dozen photos for a future post regarding this specific trip and a DVD, which contains all his photographs from this trip. In short, I will have to rely upon my tablet for taking photos on the rest of this trip, unless miraculously my camera comes to life again. Not likely. Sigh.
“Breakfast will be had in the village before we embark on the second days trekking. About a 1.5 hour trek will bring us to a waterfall where we can enjoy swimming and cooling off in the cool waters before taking our lunch at this attractive spot. After lunch we continue to walk through the jungle, farmland and foothills of the areas inhabited by the hill tribes to the jungle camp where we will spend the night and we will enjoy the magic of the Jungle in the evening.”
Breakfast was cold toast, with butter and preserves, with a hard-boiled egg. Instant coffee and tea were also available. Yummy. As I said earlier, the two German couples left with our guide back to Chaing Mai and a nice shower and bed. Us? We still have two days of tortu . . . umm, fun left. HA. The 2nd day was actually less grueling than the 1st day, except for the last part of the day’s hike, where we were on terrain that was extremely slippery due to the dry leaves on the trail, as well as the severe grade.
We also crossed bridges with either rickety hand rails or the last bridge, which had NO HAND RAIL. This last bridge was approximately 2.5 feet wide and 15 feet above water. No one fell in, but in my opinion, we were lucky. Everyone was exhausted, carrying their back packs and you really had to concentrate while you were crossing over.
Cheryl was quite upset about our new guide for the 2nd day, who seemed to not care whether we were behind him or not. He was very cheerful, but as a guide, he was incompetent. At one point, we had fallen behind the guide and Klause. We were taking our time, so we could assist Cheryl at certain severe grades in the trail where the footing was questionable. We got so far behind the guide, we took the wrong turn in a fork and this was even more difficult terrain then Klause and the guide had taken. We eventually met up with them at a junction without incident, but we were all upset about the guide leaving us. Cheryl spoke to the lead guide at camp about this incident and told him it was unacceptable for our guide to not know where we were. He indicated that he would speak with him.
We arrived in camp late and after a short swim in the river/lagoon; I ate; chatted a bit with Mark, Cheryl, and Klause; and again, went to bed early.
“The mornings up in the hills are refreshingly cool which you will appreciate before working up a sweat with the mornings trek. Breakfast will be had at the bamboo camp before we embark on the mornings trek towards the river. On arrival at the river we will take lunch before your are briefed for the white water rafting trip down river. You will get to raft around 5km of some great rapids (the best an biggest rapids can usually be found in the wetter months between may and November) but the rafting is still fun all year round. The river calms in the lower stretches and here will change to bamboo rafts where you can kick back and relax while the great scenery passes you by or feel free to pick up a pole and try piloting the raft.”
The morning was cool, but of course, that doesn’t last very long. Cheryl and I both wanted to skip the gourmet breakfast of an egg, cold toast, instant coffee or tea and get on with the trek while it was still cool. However, that wasn’t on the schedule, so we were out of luck.
The good news was that I had lasted 3 days without . . . umm, using the various village outhouse toilets for “Number 2.” I was very grateful for even small miracles such as this. Additionally, I only had been bitten once by a mosquito, although the son of a bitch took quite a bit of blood from me before succumbing to my swat.
We walked for about an hour and a half before reaching the village (actually more of a resort town), where we were to raft the river. Imagine 6 large bamboo poles, approximately 4-6 inches in width each, tied together . . . Ta Da! That’s your raft. Despite what the brochure says above, we weren’t allowed to pilot the raft, nor were there any rapids to speak of. Your ass was totally wet. Actually, your entire body below your belly button was wet. Consequently, you best have remembered to have removed your wallet and any other valuables that you didn’t want to get wet. Camera? You were nuts to chance taking a photograph on this rickety raft, so best to leave it behind in your back pack. Because this was the end of our journey – the truck was able to store our gear. More on the truck in a bit . . . In honesty, this was the best part of the journey, insofar as being able to relax, without a heavy back pack, and just take in the serene and peaceful scenic views.
When our 5 kilometer journey ended, we had lunch. More gruel (LOL) and discussed our experiences. Despite the hardship, we all had previously agreed to give our primary guide, 200 baht each, total of 1000 baht. However, then the truck experience occurred . . . The truck had a bed with bench seating in the back, i.e., two benches the length of the bed. This was a small pickup, not one of those with an extended bed. It was covered with ventilation, but with more than 8 people, it was uncomfortable. Guess what? We had 6 additional people join our group. With their gear as well. I hate to admit it, but I lost it and complained to our guide. I was told by him that he had no choice in the matter because his boss had made this decision. He suggested that I complain to him. This was fruitless because the company already had our money. I told Mark, Cheryl and Klause that our guide just said bye-bye to my part of the group tip. However, after we got going and discussed it a bit more, we all agreed that it wasn’t our guide’s fault and we gave him half of the intended 1000 baht.
Conclusion – Mark and Cheryl were dropped off at a luxury hotel, the Shangri La. Similarly, Klause was dropped off at this hotel, which was quite nice as well. I mistakenly thought I had a 3-4 hour journey to Pai, until I checked my personal itinerary papers and found out that I was actually booked at the Porn Ping Hotel in Chaing Mai. I have never been more grateful. I immediately took a shower, skipped dinner, and went to sleep at around 8:30pm.
I forgot to mention that a German girl got sick the first day and was quite ill. She was with her boyfriend and left with the other German couple the first day. I have no idea if she would have been able to continue had she booked for three days and two nights.
I can honestly say that I am glad that I participated in this trek. It was an unforgettable adventure, where I and others were allowed to “test” what we were made of. Melodramatic? Maybe. However, you wont know what I am talking about, unless you go on one of these treks yourself. Mark and Cheryl have gone on treks in Nepal, where they had nine guides. That was child’s play versus what we had all just accomplished.
Was it fun? No. I would be lying if I said it was. However, I got an appreciation of how Thai people live in the northern mountainous region and frankly, they are tough SOBs. My grandfather grew up in a Spanish village with dirt floors and little or no electricity. This is comparable, but even more primitive. Women would cross those bridges I described earlier, with large baskets filled with heavy loads on their backs. Unbelievable. I really admire these people who have managed to live a life that is productive and where they seemed quite happy with their lifestyle.
Again, I was disturbed by some of the things that I observed, especially the elephant cruelty. By the way, I have only described the “high-lights” of this trek. There was much more and perhaps, I will discuss that in a future post. Thank you for reading . . .