Hill Tribes & Elephants
Trip Start May 01, 2010
85Trip End May 01, 2011
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Where I stayed
After a short (3-4 hour) bus journey we arrived in Chiang Rai and, instead of finding a hostel, headed straight to the Akha Hill office where we had lunch and awaited collection. At 4.30pm a pickup truck arrived, we were bundled into the back and set off on the 26km journey into the highlands
We checked in and were shown to our wooden bungalow, without a word being spoken we were handed the key and left alone to settle in. When we flicked the light on we were presented by what appeared to be a wooden hut which had been built many years ago, half completed and then totally neglected. There were immense amounts of cobwebs in every corner, huge gaps in the walls/ceiling and no mosquito netting. The squat toilet seemed to leak a small amount of brown liquid onto the bathroom floor, none of the doors shut fully and the bedsheets and pillow covers were all slashed as if a clawed rodent had lost its temper with the mattress. In case your imagination hasn’t filled this gap in for you; it smelled pretty nasty as well. It was so unalike the photos on the brochure we had been shown that I strongly believe that they had faked the images. Having spent a week in the Amazon, Rach and I can handle basic or rustic accommodation but this was on a much lower level. We had both paid the price for neglecting to read any reviews. With no return transport back to the city, we had no choice but to stay the night
We headed to the dining hall area to order some food and found that on top of the wretched accommodation we were staying in, the hill tribe experience couldn’t have been less authentic. We weren’t naïve enough to be expecting the tribe’s population to be hunting animals with a spear or making a fire with two sticks. We were, however, totally unprepared to see them using a laptop to watch YouTube videos. We were actually in the middle of the mountains and could connect to their wireless router! Rach and I were therefore torn as to whether or not we would go with them on an organized trek. We tapped into their wi-fi and read some very disappointing reviews about their treks (as well as similar complaints about their accommodation and misleading advertising) and decided that in the morning we would head back to Chiang Rai. We spent the evening chatting to a middle-aged German backpacker called Harald, sank a lot of beer and headed to bed. We both slept surprisingly well!
In the morning we checked out and headed into Chiang Rai. The same pick-up truck was packed with about 15-20 people so it was a real tight squeeze - and probably not the safest of journeys - down the mountains. We checked into a hostel called Baan Bua Guesthouse which offered a clean private room with en-suite for 400 Baht (£8)
Our first destination out of Chiang Rai was to be the Golden Triangle which is 60km north of the city. It is the area where the Mekong River forks into two and marks the borders of Thailand, Myanmar (formerly Burma) and Laos. We left in the morning on a rented scooter – which turned out to be bright pink – and headed up the highway. After a short refreshment stop on the city limits we continued north. The roads became increasingly less well paved and soon we were in an area which was seemingly under development. There was orangey-red clay everywhere and construction vehicles kicking up dust. I had to borrow Rach’s sunglasses in order to protect my eyes. How awesome did I look on a pink scooter wearing women’s sunglasses you ask? Pretty damn awesome!
We began to believe that we had gotten lost but a sign pointed us towards the Hall of Opium Museum which we eventually found. The area surrounding the Golden Triangle is famed for its bloody history of opium production. For hundreds of years, poor farmers have planted poppies as a cash crop to sell to manufacturers of opium and drug traffickers. We almost didn’t go in because of the entry fee but decided last minute to check it out. It turned out to be an excellent decision. The museum was probably the best I have ever been to. It was futuristic, interactive and each room was totally different. Along the way it told of the history of opium and the huge impact the drug has made, not just on the local populace, but on the historical relations of East and West and ultimately how those relations have shaped the current political climate.
After the museum we continued to the Golden Triangle, which was essentially a long road flanked by stalls, souvenir shops and restaurants as well as a giant Buddha statue on a boat. We walked to the point where the Mekong forked and took a few photos. It wasn’t visually impressive but the idea that you were looking at both Laos and Myanmar whilst stood on Thailand soil was pretty cool. Our bellies were growling and there wasn’t much else to do so we soon got back on the scooter, bypassed the Western-style restaurants and ate a modest place down the road where all the Thai people were eating
The following day we had booked on a package tour to visit some hill tribes in the area as well as a boat trip and some elephant riding. We were introduced to our guides - Nok and Noi - and delighted to discover that we were the only ones booked on the tour so, once again, we had a private tour for the same price as being in a group of eight others. We have been very lucky with this so far!
The morning kicked off with a long tail boat journey up the river. We’d foolishly not brought jackets so huddled together for warmth while observing the river life for an hour. We were quite happy when the boat dropped us off at the elephant park. I had never before seen an elephant in the flesh and it was quite overwhelming to walk up the slopes from the boat and find myself in amongst about twenty elephants. Before we knew it we were climbing a bamboo tower and onto the back of an elephant and sitting on a couch-like contraption strapped to his back. For some reason I felt bad stepping on an elephant with my shoes on but reminded myself that our weight compared to their mass is pretty negligible.
The 'driver’ is known as a mahout and typically spends about 2 years in training with the same elephant when the elephant reaches the age of five. They issue their commands in the language of their native tribe and, if well trained, the elephant responds accordingly. The elephant plunged into the river up to his belly and plodded through the water. I shuffled to get more comfortable and our big bottle of water fell out of my day bag and into the river
The elephant ride took us about an hour in total; we came out onto the shore a little further down the river, through a town, and over some fields and hills before returning back to the camp where we dismounted. We purchased a bag of sugar cane and bananas and walked around feeding the elephants. They are such gentle creatures considering their size and it was an absolute joy to be able to stroke them and interact. We even saw one bobbing his head rhythmically and when we asked what he was doing the reply came simply "he’s dancing" (there was no music so we’re guessing he was a bit unhinged – or owned an iPod).
Next up was a very interesting lunch; we drove some distance into the mountains and stopped just short of a waterfall. We then walked into the trees where Noi started a fire going and then disappeared into the forest. While Nok stoked the fire we talked and waited a few minutes until Noi returned with a ten meter long piece of bamboo. I held it for him while he chopped it into pieces with his machete
The whole thing was very impressive but took ages, and Rach went with Nok to get some water while I chatted to Noi about where he was from and had a brief discussion about his opinions on the current Thai government. After what seemed like an age, the food was ready. We ate the sticky rice right out the bamboo and devoured the chicken by ripping pieces off with our fingers. It was a delicious meal! We tried to offer some chicken to Noi but he politely declined saying he didn’t like it much and that he preferred to eat dung beetles – he was not joking! Chicken is too expensive for a lot of the hill tribe members and so they get most of their protein from eating insects.
After an hour’s hike up steep slopes and over several streams we reached a hill tribe village, we thought it looked familiar and were informed it was actually the Akha Hill Tribe (the one with the internet!). We told our guides we had already been there and so we continued onward eventually reaching a beautiful bamboo house on the crest of a hill surrounded by shallow valleys. Noi told us that it was his home. We were greeted by two excited dogs and a cat who looked a little sour that his peers were of the canine variety. He made us a cup of green tea and we relaxed, breathing in the fresh mountain air. Neither of us wanted to leave.
Our next stop was just over the valley ridge where the rest of the Lahu village was located. We were shown around various homes to see how they lived and were eventually taken to the town square where lots of children were gathered. Apparently we were witnessing ‘Kids Day’ where, for one day in the year; the kids are spoiled with sweets and chocolate. Rach and I bought some cookies from the local shop and handed them out to the eager children. Rach was particularly popular with the kids and when we got in the jeep they all waved us off. Once again we were sad to have to leave.
Our last stop of the tour was a dip in the thermal baths
On our final day in Chiang Rai we decided to visit the White Temple, something not widely talked about and isn’t a major feature of the guidebooks. Nevertheless we had met someone in Malaysia who had shown us pictures which were mind blowing so we decided to check it out. We hired a scooter once more and drove to the temple. Unfortunately the weather was overcast and lightly raining which meant the place was not at its most stunning. The temple was still very impressive and designed and built by a famous Thai artist who wanted to make an ode to Buddhism, the religion which taught him patience and the value of life. The entire place is covered in reflective panels which, in the daytime, reflect the light beautifully. We only know this from the pictures we had seen because, sadly, the sky was totally dense with grey clouds. I was pretty disappointed because what we were seeing did not at all match up to the pictures in my head, however the place was worth visiting nevertheless.
That was it for our time in Chiang Rai, on our last night we had a look round the night bazaar and bumped into Matt (who we spent some time with in Krabi) and went for dinner together. We caught up on travel stories but had to leave his company relatively early because we were pretty tired and had packing to do for our 2 day boat trip to Luang Prabang.