I have a confession to make.
Almost fourteen years ago when I was last in Chiang Mai, Thailand, I went on a 3 day hill-tribe trek and elephant riding tour.
I’m not proud of my choice. Whilst on tour I had a horrible feeling about the treatment of the elephants. Bull-hooks used aggressively to move these gentle beasts.
Later you arrived at a ‘long-neck’ Karen hill tribe and were told a little bit about their culture and history. People snapping photos of what is effectively a ‘human zoo’ then only to be offered opium which was a major destroyer of the culture.
It was an exercise in inconsistencies and destruction.
Today, with those years far behind and actively seeking responsible tourism Rich and I arrive in Chiang Mai.
Hill trekking and elephants in Chiang Mai
Looking for experiences to celebrate Rich’s last year in his thirties(!) I look for a combination of interaction with elephants, some trekking and an overnight stay with a hill-tribe.
It’s easy to understand how people find themselves still in this day on an elephant ride and supporting oppressive hill-tribe tours. These tours are advertised on chalkboards all around town. And they are cheap. VERY CHEAP.
For a third of the cost you could have seemingly the same experience as we did, but perhaps your karma capsule would be looking empty. This great post by Lonely Planet is a must read on what you should avoid as part of Thailand’s elephant tourism.
After much researching I came to book with Elephant Jungle Sanctuary. Set up in July 2014 it is “home to almost twenty formerly mistreated elephants, who are now free to enjoy their lives.”
You are picked up from your hotel and enjoy the open songtaew ride to the Sanctuary. The hour and half trip gave us time to make new friends with the ladies from Taiwan (I will be visiting Lesley!) and the Californian family visiting their daughter who has been teaching English in the a remote part of North East Thailand.
The majority of the ride is fine until the last half hour where you can expect to know with a great degree of detail the contours of your seat and every splinter and bump it may have.
Arriving at the Sanctuary we are asked to don some traditional tops and wash our hands of any chemicals before we meet our friendly pachyderms.
We walk through post-card perfect rice fields and are met by grandma and mum of this family trio.
Carefully eating sugar cane, bananas and energy rice balls from your hand, the calmness is interrupted by Naughty Boy.
Awesomely impatient, impolite and a beast (as he should be). We meet the teenage son with pure delight in his eyes at the food buffet presented to him by eager travellers.
For mother and grandmother, their story is less happy, who over many years have been conditioned to obey through force and learn subversive behaviour. They are happy now!
The Asian elephant is a truly remarkable creature to witness up close. Unlike my time in Africa ten years ago, the African elephant is almost twice as large, and you would not be making any attempt to get up in their space unless you enjoyed the idea of being a human pancake.
After a good feed we visit the next family further up the hill and learn more about the Sanctuary and the breeding cycles (thankfully two elephants are pregnant). Positive news helping to restore the elephant numbers in Northern Thailand.
A couple of elephants make a break for it to a water source and help themselves to bundles of sugar cane. We are all the more happier for seeing them express their true character.
Now it was time for more fun with the elephants. Bathing!
After having our own delicious lunch we get into the river with the elephants for a cooling dip and a good scrub. Enjoying the water Naughty Boy effectively goes snorkelling the entire time we are in the river.
Afterwards the ‘sunblock’ needs to go on and we follow the elephants to their mud spa. Smelling more like elephant dung than mud, you get over that fact and join in the liberal coating of mud on elephant and you.
The day is coming to a close, so it’s a final dip for the humans to wash off the mud before we say bye to the day-trippers.
Of the two groups totalling 25 people, we were the only ones staying overnight. We were given an option to hang about in a private camp or go to a village. Rich and I opted for village to see a little more of the hill-tribe life.
Taking a walk around town we learn how the Catholic Church has assisted with providing education for the community for a certain amount of ‘fee of faith’. The locals have also moved from their temperamental solar panels to ‘back on the grid’ since electricity lines were built a few months ago. A strange reversal in choice of energy resources we think, but it is cheaper for them.
We meet Mr Sun’s family and sit down to a meal that could feed the entire village. We listen to Mr Sun as he tells us about his life growing up in the tribe, then moving to the city for college and work. Now he prefers his life with the tribe in the hills. He says it’s easier and stress-free. The family does not need to work long hours to buy material things or pay extortionate rents. What’s important is quality family time and ‘you’ time.
Like our homestay families in South America, what they seek for their families is consistent. A happy and healthy life. They seek it out by not getting overly caught up in the race with what the neighbours have, or idolising celebrity lifestyles. Your measure is your character.
On that philosophical note we downed some Thai whiskey and said cheers on a few beers further exploring the simple life. Later that night we take slumber in the hut just for the two of us under mosquito nets listening to the jungle sounds.
Starting at a reasonable time of 8.30am we have breakfast and say the only two words we learnt in Karen “O mue cho per” (hello) and “tar bluer” (thank you) to our kind hosts and begin our trek.
A medium level track heading over the hill leading around another village, it still brings up a serious sweat.
We talk about the wildlife and the trials of the rice farmers in this unseasonably dry ‘rainy’ season when I come across a baby cobra.
I point it out, not knowing it is a cobra and get pulled back by Mr Sun. He exclaims you have about 1 hour after a bite and then you die!
Where we are located in the middle of the jungle, the certainty would be death – yay! He says that as a Buddhist you believe a bite from a snake is lucky and therefore your next life would be filled with fortune.
I like this life. I’m glad on this day I was spared.
On we go passing only one other group who have been trekking for three days and I think they were a little over it. My recount about the cobra seemed to pep them up 🙂
We keep walking and are about 30 minutes away from the sweet relief from heat when we find these chaps chopping wood so ridiculously far from their village, you almost think they are making it up.
It’s a hard life traversing this ground in thongs and using a manual saw to cut up the wood. I realise I should quit my complaining and be thankful that if I needed timber, it would be a ute ride to Bunnings.
Down the back of a brown-rice field (grown on the side of a hill, not in flooded plains like white rice), we finally round the last bend and come face to face with a refreshing waterfall.
In true form we find ourselves greeted by another snake. This time, a water snake thankfully swimming out of the waterfall so we can get in.
It was time for lunch and nothing like a bowl of 2-minute ramen and fried rice to satisfy the belly monster.
Off we walk for the final down-hill trek through more villages and empty rice fields.
It hits 3pm and we intercept a songtaew heading back to Chiang Mai and we jump on. A fab day and personal tour with Mr Sun. I’m glad we got to experience an overnight stay and see what a Karen village in 2015 is like and how they are working with companies like Elephant Jungle Sanctuary for a more prosperous community and supporting animal welfare.
Missing Naughty Boy’s antics to Telefon Tel Aviv.