Chiang Mai is known largely for what surrounds it. Basically, it’s normal, medium-sized Asian city, and while there are great markets, good music and fun events, the natural beauty that lies in the surrounding countryside is the real draw.
I spent my first couple of days strolling through the town, visiting temples and markets. I dropped coins in the prayer pots and made offerings for the new year, friends good fortune and my own safe onward journey. I bought trinkets from the market merchants and ate questionable fare from corner stalls (not including what is pictured below), but after two days I was ready for a change.
Per the recommendations of some friends, I decided to go on a three-day trek to explore and stretch my legs.
Well, I can safely say my legs have been stretched, my back racked and my lungs over-inflated. I kind of assumed the trek would be an intermediate-ish hike. I also kind of assumed that I, being a Colorado girl and all, would have no problem climbing up the little, low altitude hills around here. I was mistaken, yet again…
We departed at the really civilized hour of 10am, this is part of what led me to believe this would be a cake walk. After all, I am used to raft trips where we are up and at’em by 6am. The trekking group consisted of me, a solo female traveler from Wales named Lois, and six Parisians who were all long-time friends. Our guide’s name was Cha and he did the entire trek in treadless plastic loafers – think if Crocs tried to make a deck shoe, this is what Cha was able to scale rock walls and climb down sandy pitches with. He was impressive.
We began at an elephant camp where we loaded two-by-two onto giant pachyderms for what I figured would be an leisurely stroll. When I rode the elephant in Cambodia it was in a very controlled environment. Our perch had a safety bar, we had a guide who rode atop the elephant with us, we stayed on a well-worn path, there were no overhanging branches or cliff edges – it was fun and in no way scary.
This time we had none of these creature comforts, instead we were placed on a metal and wooden platform, affixed to the elephant’s back by, I think, baling wire and chewing gum. Our ‘guides’ walked behind us, randomly shooting things with slingshots and only directing the pack when one of our group would scream out in guttural fear as our rides veered towards cliffs or tried to scrape us off under tree branches. Such a scream would result in the guide hitting the beasts with rocks from the slingshot, a punishment the elephants did not like (who would) and which would result in their lurching and swinging their trunks around.
Somewhere about minute five I realized I was actually trapped on this beast. I was ten or so feet off the ground - assuming I jumped and landed safely, I would still have to manage to not get trampled by the three others in the pack. So I mustered up a smile, pushed my fears deep down into my belly and started rapid-fire feeding our ride bananas in an attempt to win its loyalty.
An hour later we dismounted the elephants and walked down to the river. Here we were loaded into a cabled jail cell and were sent whizzing across a rusted wire to the other side. Once again my survival instincts had to be overridden since apparently mine don’t think it is wise to be sealed into a cage and loosely dangled over a body of water.
After that it was time to start trekking. That first day we climbed up to a hill tribe for the night. And by ‘we climbed up’, I mean straight up. Someone really could do wonders around here by introducing the principle of switchbacks. Instead of using the clearly Western ideal of zig-zagging up steep pitches, the folks here seem to favor a system of kicked-in foot holds that act sort of like ladder rungs, albeit oddly spaced ones covered in loose soil.
By hour three I had to have a serious conversation with my lungs and calves to manage each step. “Come on guys, you can do this, I am pretty sure there is flat ground and a cold beverage somewhere up there…”
When we did reach the village I was comforted when Cha informed us that day one was always the hardest and it would be easy from here on out. Cha was a bit of a liar it turns out.
Night one we all huddled around a campfire and traded stories. The Parisians kindly used English for Lois’ and my benefit but they were all so animated that words were hardly necessary. That night I fell asleep on my 1” foam pad, serenaded by fighting dogs, rustling chickens and laughing Frenchmen.
The next day we again got a civilized 10am start. Cha’s lie became quickly apparent as we began by climbing straight up. However, after about an hour we switched directions and began climbing straight down. Sometimes going down is much harder. I don’t’ think any of us managed to make it through the whole trek with out ending up on out bums at least once.
At some of the craziest, steepest, hairiest parts of the trail we would randomly pass a motorbike. Here I was clambering on all fours over fallen trees and boulders and some Evil Knievel guy has managed to ride a moped up here, no doubt laden with Chang beer for the trekkers, or fertilizer for his crop, or all three generations of his family.
Night two we camped next to a stunning waterfall in a really basic jungle camp. We all took freezing showers under the falls and again huddled around the campfire.
Camp two came with not only fighting dogs, cawing roosters and noisy children, but had the added bonus of pigs, who slept right under us and periodically scratched themselves on the supports for our shack, causing the whole thing to shake. Our alarm clock was the sound of a loud thud, followed by a few minutes of yelping, and then silence – either someone kicked a dog, or killed a chicken, I didn’t get up to investigate.
Day three was the easiest day of hiking, we passed more waterfalls, bamboo and banana tree forests and finally ended up back at the river we had cage-zipped across two days before. Here we loaded onto river rafts and floated about a half-hour down stream through some fun, if bony, class II-III rapids, before finally being loaded onto bamboo rafts for the last 15 minutes of the trek.
Over the past several years I had developed a fear of heights and for a while I could barely hike in the mountains at all. A path with a drop on one side would leave me unable to will one foot in front of the other. I managed to do this whole trek without that fear creeping in, save for one fallen tree crossing when I needed Cha to help steady me after I stupidly stopped mid-tree. It just goes to show how adaptable we really are, how we can overcome fears and how powerful our minds are when we take control of them.
On the drive home we stopped at an orchid farm near a place impressively named the Tiger Kingdom. I had seen adverts for the tiger place and asked Cha about it, a few minutes later we were all in various cages petting and cuddling with Bengal tigers.
I can’t walk across a tree bridge but I will lay my head on a tiger cub – strange what seems dangerous to me.
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