I traveled to Chiang Mai in northern Thailand to experience the wilder side of Southeast Asia. This city of 170, 000 is the jumping off point for jungle trekking where you can try a variety of exotic activities.
In February the area is cool and dry, ideal conditions to get out into the countryside and explore. Jungle excursions are offered at every hotel and guesthouse, and the going rate for a one day outing is between 1000 and 1200 Thai Baht ($32 to $40 U.S.). There are also two and three day tours that include overnight accommodation at an elephant sanctuary or at a hill tribe village.
Near my hotel I found a better price for a two day tour. The owner of the small travel agency said the only difference was I would be transported in the back of a pick-up truck instead of an air conditioned mini-van; otherwise the activities were identical to more expensive tours offered at my hotel.
The packages all included a visit to a hill tribe village, elephant riding, a jungle hike followed by a swim at a waterfall, then whitewater rafting and bamboo rafting. Visiting the “hill tribes” is a Chiang Mai highlight. There are six unique cultural groups in Thailand that are referred to as hill tribes.
The Akha People have a unique and distinct culture. They speak their own language, Akha. Groups of Akha also live in Laos, China and Burma. They originally came from China about 110 years ago. Their population in Thailand is about 80, 000.
These agricultural people converted to Catholicism 200 years ago, but they are not fanatics. I visited on a Sunday and most of the village was in church. However some chose to work, gathering dried fibers and weaving hats in the field.
Akha women adorn themselves with bright beadwork and silver jewelry and wear traditional “square-head” hats. Their society is egalitarian, and they retain many animistic beliefs. The peaks of houses and the entry to the village have crossed timber gates to keep evil spirits outside. Farming is primitive, horticulture and slash and burn.
They also have embraced small scale capitalism, hand crafting their jewelry, textiles, beadwork and woven straw hats and brooms for the tourist trade that comes to view them. They happily enact traditions of their culture for the tourists.
Riding elephants through the jungle was the next activity. Washing and feeding the elephants before and after the ride creates a bond with your animal. The elephants themselves clearly revel in the attention, and the tourists get the hands-on interaction,
The ride does come with some risks, however. You sit a dozen feet above the ground on a swaying bench, occasionally dodging branches and hanging on as the elephant climbs up and down the steep terrain.
A fellow rider, a young Aussie bloke scrambled to the ground when his beast went down an embankment to forage. His elephant then trunk-swatted the fellow, knocking him flying – luckily he only suffered a couple of scrapes. The elephant ride was followed by a half hour’s hike up a jungle trail. The cool water at the base of the falls was a welcome relief after the exertion.
The final activity was whitewater rafting. One fellow rafter was accidentally hit on the face by another guest’s paddle. Despite his pain and bleeding, the riverbanks were steep and there was no option but to carry on down the river.
We switched to bamboo rafts for the lower rapids. It was two hours before we were off the river and could take the unlucky rafter to the hospital where his treatment was quick and effective.
Potential risks aside, the adventure was one that was still well worth the perils for the once in a lifetime experience.
By Andrew Kolasinski
Born in The Hague, Andrew Kolasinski arrived in Canada as a small child riding in the luggage rack of a DC-7. Since then he has felt at home anywhere. He wrote this article for Tucan Travel, specialists in adventure travel to Asia, including Thailand and much more.