I ticked an item off my bucket list in Chiang Mai. I rode an elephant. It felt strange to step on it’s great grey head as I boarded it, but once the docile pachyderm lumbered lazily along the path, I couldn’t wipe the smile from my face. But was it ethical?
I admired it’s ancient face and envied it’s cheeky child-like attitude. Its rough skin was the shell of a coconut spotted with sparse wiry hair, it’s ears were huge, overcooked pancakes. The betel-chewing driver hit it on the head with a cruel spiked stick now and then, and I wondered how ethical this whole experience actually was. Controlling it around the short jungle path seemed hard work, but the animal eventually and lazily complied. The curious trunk would occasionally unroll backwards, presenting us with two pink floating nostrils, noisily sucking in air as it demanded treats of sugar cane.
The trek begins
We were in the mountains surrounding Chiang Mai in Thailand’s north. C had returned from a short stint in Malaysia, joining me in Thailand for another adventure. The first day’s hike was not for the faint of heart, and as the thin path reached up into the mountains, our knowledgeable, resourceful, and occasionally feminine guide, Good, warned of us king cobras and dehydration.
There were fifteen in our party, backpacks loaded, slathered in insect repellent, armed with bamboo walking sticks. Most spoke French, but luckily I had a translator. The pre-prepared and the trekking enthusiasts had chosen hard, bulky hiking boots. I immediately regretted wearing my brand new Converse which I had bought in Vietnam; the battle to keep them clean was already lost, as they caked with the red mud of Chiang Mai’s jungles almost immediately.
The first day’s hike was very steep and very humid, the the group thinned out toward the top as casual and enthusiastic trekkers separated. The trail lasted about five hours. As we approached the top, the air grew colder, the jungle terrain grew rockier, and the valley below opened up to our admiring gaze.
The summit camp
The summit was our camp. It was small Thai village built of that most quintessentially Asian resource – bamboo. Stilted houses of bamboo, creaking balconies of bamboo, uneven tables of bamboo. As we walked the final hundred meters, rain began to brush over surrounding valleys in long, curling tendrils.
White wisps of rain that hovered over faraway mountains soon found us, and as we sheltered from the storm, we took comfort in the dorm and unfurled the mosquito nets over our thin mattresses. By the time the storm had passed, a meal of red curry, pumpkin and rice was ready on the table. Good toasted our first day with a Thai whiskey from a shot glass, made from – you guessed it – whittled bamboo.
Bamboo sentinel forests
The second morning’s sunkissed trail of deep red soil ushered us down postcards of mountain scenery, away from the village, and into lush forests of bamboo, a million emerald green sentinels standing stiffly to attention, ringed by pointed green leaves.
Good was chopping and whittling at pieces of bamboo with his pocket knife as he guided us through jungle paths, passing pairs of freshly made chopsticks backward to each member of the group as he finished them. Sometimes the path needed to be cleared by the sharp side of a machete.
A simple lunch of noodles was served in bowls of hollowed bamboo at our rest stop, a cool valley waterfall feeding a swimming hole. The jungle leaned in close and dark along the ridge as the afternoon eclipsed the morning. Bamboo stalks grew giant here, jutting skywards in thick bundles to compliment the high canopy, fallen columns criss-crossing in dense layers as we passed beneath.
The hard grey rain cloud overheard had been building all afternoon, and finally cleared its throat with a crackle of thunder. Bags and bodies were covered methodically with wet weather gear. Rain washed down in sheets, painting the jungle a vibrant green.
We took refuge under a bamboo shelter by a rushing river, fed by an expansive, high waterfall falling down a square, flat stone face. Two British trekkers on a five day trek, now jungle natives, bathed in thee waterfall. When the wet eased, the next camp was soon reached. Bamboo dorm, bamboo shower, bamboo table and bamboo shot glass.
Sometimes, the organised tour isn’t too bad
In the morning, after a brief stint of white water rafting, and a slow raft back to our pickup point, I reflected on the trek.
Normally, the promise of being herded through an organized tour is enough to make me throw up my hands in despair and walk in the opposite direction of the tourists, but this time I didn’t mind. It wasn’t long until our group was boots-deep in northern Thai mud, and the sounds of Chiang Mai’s choking traffic were well and truly behind us.
I felt like I escaped from the phony, pre-packaged, inauthentic, 7-11 addicted, dreadlocked, hippie Bangkok that sipped mango smoothies and lazily remarked how ‘chill it is to be backpacking’. The top of the mountain left this crowd behind, and I found myself with like-minded and friendly people. In the end I decided that’s just the way it goes in Thailand, and the weight of mass tourism is often unavoidable. I wanted to avoid the tourists; Bangkok’s ridiculous backpacker hub of Khao San Road (where cheap beers and pancakes are the attraction, not the Thai people and culture) left a sour taste in my mouth. But whatever, I rode my elephant!