Yes, I rode on an elephant. You can stop asking now.
Fulfilling a tourist cliche.
CHIANG MAI, Thailand — Yes, I rode an elephant through the jungle. You can stop asking now.
When I told people about my plans to visit Thailand, the most popular question I got asked — beating out “Won’t you get sick?”, “How can you go to Thailand without knowing where you’re going or staying?”, and “Are you going to have sex with a prostitute?” — was, “Are you going to ride on an elephant?” This was strange to me, because while I have always associated Thailand with enormous golden Buddahs, backpackers, and an exotic culture, I didn’t know that the predominant image of Thailand for most Americans was taking a ride on an elephant. But now, I have. So you can stop asking.
Four days ago, I hired a Thai guide named Pitak (we called him Tom) from the Um Phang Tu Ka Su Cottage at which I was staying to take me and two friends from Denmark on a trek through the Burmese-Thai jungle. This type of eco-tourism has become exceptionally popular in Thailand and other countries with natural beauty (e.g. Costa Rica, Peru); in some Thailand backpacker destinations (e.g. Chang Mai, Pai), it’s hard to find a guest house that doesn’t start asking, “Trek? Trek?” as soon as you walk in the door.
For a mere 3,500 Baht ($88 US), Pitak and his three-man team took us on a three day trek. On the first day, we spent the morning rafting down the Mae Nam Mae Klong river, enjoying the rapids, watching for jungle wildlife, and gawking at the towering limestone cliffs above us. We ended the day by hiking and rock climbing up a small mountain and swimming under Thee Lor Su waterfall; Thailand’s largest and one of Southeast Asia’s most spectacular falls, it cascades down a 984-foot limestone cliff into a green translucent pool. We camped next to the river in small tents and enjoyed excellent, traditional Thai food that Pitak’s team prepared for us. Before bedtime, I brushed on up my Danish with my friends and taught one of them how to play backgammon using my tiny travel set.
We spent more time on the second day swimming under the waterfall and then proceeded to hike about half of the day into the Heart of Darkness, finally stopping at a small Karen village to camp for the night and experience life in the middle of a jungle. Refugees originally from Htikabler village of Myanmar, the Karen people live in small, bamboo huts and make a meager living selling handmade clothes to tourists. They obtain electricity using solar cell technology provided for them by the Thai government. Again, we punctuated the day with traditional Thai food and backgammon.
Finally, we spent the morning of the third day riding in bamboo chairs on elephants through the jungle, returning to the river for a final swim and then a trip back to our Um Phang guest house. I have to admit that while the elephants were fun, they were my least favorite part of the trip; sitting in a tiny, bouncing bamboo chair on top of an elephant can get tiring after three hours. I’m sorry to disappoint you.
Side note: the answers to the next most popular going-to-Thailand questions are: yes, it’s possible to get sick in Thailand (though the risks are significantly lower than in other developing countries), but you can get sick in the U.S. and in every other country too; vacations are significantly more fun when you have the freedom to travel and leave a place whenever you want, making hotel reservations more of a hinderance than a help; and no, the sex tourism industry in Thailand is surprisingly small and caters mostly to locals — I’ve been propositioned more in New York and in Amsterdam than here.
Our trip was unique, but even more exceptional was our guide, Pitak. One of the few Thais (and trek guides) I met who spoke nearly-fluent English, he filled us with knowledge about the area and Thai culture; he explained Thai politics, the specifics of plants, trees, and wildlife, the competition between local trek guides, and the difficulties of running a tourist business in Thailand. He talked our ears off (sometimes to sleep), but it’s hard to complain because he filled us with so much great information. As a favor, he drove the three of us to our next destination in his truck after the trek (a motion-sickness inducing 6-hour drive) and later made sure we found the right bus to Chang Mai (finding the “right” bus in Thailand is not easy).
If you’re thinking of trekking in Northern Thailand, I highly recommend the trip we took out of Um Phang. Because of the remote location, we didn’t see many other trekkers (only two other small, three-person trips at the waterfall), and the Tu Ka Su cottage has the best rooms in Um Phang (for 600 Baht/$15 US per night). I originally planned a trip with the Umphang Hill Resort (you can’t imagine what an abuse of the word “resort” this is), but they (thankfully) didn’t bother to pick me up when they promised. Some of the other trekkers we ran into didn’t get to do as much rock-climbing and hiking as we did either. We’re forever indebted to our first real Thai friend, Pitak.