by Anthony Horrobin –
Thailand is best known for its pristine beaches, intricate temples and world-renowned nightlife but the north of the country provides a perfect base for an authentic Thai trekking experience. The northern jungles of Thailand are home to a diverse mix of hill-tribe villages and ethnic minorities, each with their own customs, costumes and building style.
Whilst travelling in Thailand at the beginning of 2010 I took part in our 2-night trekking tour and thoroughly enjoyed myself, the experience was very different to what I expected and I would recommend the trip to anyone looking for a little adventure!
We began our trip in Chiang Mai and drove north to the town of Mae Malai, where we purchased various supplies to take with us on the trek. The market at Mae Malai was very authentic and certainly not aimed at tourists. Our guide explained the various produce that was being sold, including the interesting sounding ‘Thousand Year Egg’ – I chose NOT to try this! From Mae Malai we continued our drive to the beautiful Pang Lan Waterfalls where we had the opportunity to swim in the refreshing waters and listen to the hum of the wildlife in the surrounding jungle. Later in the afternoon our driver dropped us off at Huay Nam Dang National Park where our trekking began.
Day one of the trek saw us walking for approximately 2-3 hours along forest paths used often by local hill-tribe people. Along the way we passed by a few locals and cattle from the nearby villages (and also lots of HUGE cobwebs, where giant spiders were no doubt lurking inside). The terrain was reasonably flat on the first day, apart from the slope leading down into the village. This path offered some fantastic views of the surrounding landscapes and brought home just how remote the village actually was!! – There was no sign of civilization in any direction. Upon arrival at the village we were led to our accommodation, which was located in the center of the village. Although the hut was very basic, it was probably more comfortable then I had been expecting (see above pictures). After settling in and resting for our while, our guide took us on a tour of the village where we were able to witness the day-to-day life of the local people. The houses were mainly built on stilts and underneath lived their livestock – mainly water buffalo and pigs. I was surprised to learn that many of Karen villages actually follow the Christian faith and a modest church was located on the outskirts of the village. After seeing the bright lights of Bangkok and Chiang Mai, the basic conditions of the village were a real culture shock, however the people here were some of the happiest I met whilst in Thailand. In the evening we joined some of the local people who taught us how to make spring rolls and we enjoyed these whilst being serenaded by one of the local villagers and his guitar. The lack of electricity meant that the only light available was candle-light, which with the buzz of the forest around us and the thought of being in such as remote location gave an almost magical atmosphere.
On day two I was awoken very early by the crowing of the many cockerels roaming around the village. We had a light breakfast before beginning our trek again. The walking on day two was more difficult with many inclines. The path was also much thinner and the forest surrounding us seemed much thicker too. Along the way we again had the chance to view many amazing landscapes including the tiered rice paddies so famous in southeast Asia. Unfortunately we were travelling during the dry season which meant that the Paddy fields were dry; however it gave us a good idea of how the lush and green fields would look in the rainy season. We walked for between 4 and 5 hours on day two and the journey ended at an elephant camp, located in a valley surrounded by jungle on every side. Here the elephants were clearly treat very well and were free to roam around the surrounding area. We joined in with bathing one of the elephants in the river before climbing onboard to begin our elephant trek through the jungle. We rode for just over 1 hour whilst the mahout and our trekking guide walked behind. Our mahout was obviously very well trained and directed the elephants throughout the whole journey without any physical contact, the strange sounds coming from the guides’ mouth were clear enough to keep the elephants on the correct path. The elephant ride ended close to our second Karen village and after walking a short distance we arrived. The second village was much larger and some of the villagers actually had cars too. The houses were still very basic but not on stilts as they were in our previous village. We arrived in the middle of the day and many of the villagers were swimming in the river, along with their water-buffalo. We spent a little time relaxing beside the river bank before crossing a DIY bamboo bridge to the small island on the out-skirts of the village where out hut was located. After walking along dusty tracks for such a long time today were we all very dirty and decided to clean up by taking a ‘bath’ in the nearby river. That evening we were all very tired and after hearing stories from the guide for a while we all retired to bed for an early night.
On day three we boarded a basic bamboo raft and sailed downriver for much of the day. The dense forest on both sides of the river caused the imagination to wander and conjure up images of what animals might be lurking beyond the river bank. Our journey took around 6 hours, however during the rainy season when the water levels are much higher the journey can be done in 3-4 hours. The steady pace of our journey was very relaxing although quite exciting at times too; especially when the boat became stuck between rocks and we had to wade through the river to help lift it free. Our adventure ended at a riverside café where we enjoyed lunch before being collected and driven from here back to Chiang Mai.
I would recommend our Trekking Adventure to anyone looking for something a little more exciting whilst in Thailand. The trip makes for an excellent addition to a Northern Thailand tour and gives a great insight into how Thailand may have been many years ago.