June in Thailand: The Elephant Trek

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Over lunch, one of the villagers lounged around smoking his pipe as we slurped down our noodles. We wondered why as he didn’t make any contact at all with us. No one else in the village came into the hut, not even inquisitive children.


It was only after lunch when we set off that we realised that the mystery man was our mahout! Jare told us that there was only one elephant this time because the rest were turned out to feed. We had this handsome female to take us for a little spin round the jungle.


But first we had to walk own our own two feet for a little while so the poor elephant wouldn’t be too tired out. The path took us through more hilly forest and yet more padi fields.


The  Danish couple went first, spending a good hour on the elephant. When it was time to swap, they jumped down quickly and strangely, neither wanted to continue on with the ride.  Tom didn’t want to take the elephant because of his issues with animal welfare. So it was just me.

After 15 minutes, I was ready to call it quits. Going up wasn’t too bad as the elephant plodded along the forest path. All that happened was that her ears flapped the horseflies around, occasionally slapping my mud-encrusted feet and I got frequent bashes on the face from twigs and branches. And she must have had a dribbly nose because she snorted a few times, spraying me with a fine mist of what I hope wasn’t elephant snot. However, when the path starting trailing downwards, I had to hang on for dear life to the bamboo howdah, wondering desperately why there wasn’t a seatbelt of some sort to stop me from being flung forward over her head. Branches were still slapping me on the head and horseflies were still trying to get at me. I turned back and looked imploringly at Jare who was leading the rest on foot. Thankfully, he signalled a stop after half an hour and I got off the elephant in double quick time.

It was lovely to get back on my feet again and we continued onwards to the final village where we’d spend the night, enjoying the views all the way.


It was amazing the generousity and warmth of the Karen villagers. The area we were in was fairly remote and not many tourists came by.  The locals would never know when someone would turn up and ask for shelter. Hospitality is very much a part of them. According to Jare, they led treks to each village on average once every three to six months: the villagers had rather infrequent contact with tourists. This trek was as untouristy as they come, especially given the very basic conditions and the difficult terrain we had to pass through.

Even on the last morning, the elements didn’t let up and we walked out of the forest in the driving rain, footpaths turning into muddy rivulets.


After finally making it to the main dirt track did we see a motorised vehicle, but only after waiting a good four hours. Here, hitchhiking is the norm and it was customary to give lifts to anyone who asks. Here’s a picture of us crammed in the back of the pickup together with other hitchhikers. We were about to leave Karen and their beloved country…


… but not before a little grasshopper landed on my head in farewell. Just before reaching Mae Sariang, it flew back off into the forest, leaving only photos and memories as reminders of its presence.


June in Thailand: Off the Beaten Track

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And the most adventurous part of Thailand started with Tom and me taking a school bus type vehicle out of Chiang Mai, past seriously obscure villages perched on curves of streams…


… to an equally obscure little town called Mae Sariang that even Dee hadn’t heard of when I texted her. Lying in southern Mae Hong Son province, Mae Sariang lies in a predominately Karen region with other tribal groups like the Lawa mixed in. According to Lonely Planet Thailand, it is also the best base for trekking in the province.


Mr Salawin, the best and only trekking guy in town, treated us really well. I’d called ahead to warn him that two of us were coming in for a 3-day trek and he sent two motorbikes to pick us up from the bus station even though his “office” was only a 5 minutes walk away. We had a good chat to discuss the itinerary and what we wanted or didn’t want. (Tom wasn’t too keen on the elephant trek because he’d learned that some elephants weren’t treated too well.) He also recommended good places to stay and eat and also sent us on a motorbike back to the station to pick up a book I left on the bus!

We didn’t really know what to expect on the trek except that it would probably rain and that we would need a pair of trousers, a pair of shorts and two shirts (maybe three). Jare and Kiat, both relatedly to Mr Salawin in some convoluted way, were our guides for the trek. They first hauled in three big bottles of water for each person (probably making my bag about 10 kg by now, so much for one pair of shorts and two shirts), got all their gear and food into impossibly tiny packs, and packed us into a public sawng thaew (pickup with covered seats at the back) replete with the usual assortment of people and chickens.


Somehow the chickens out here seemed to be the scrawnier, less attractive kind. They looked so traumatised at their own appearances and probably life in general that I kinda pitied them. Poor guys. They did have pretty fashionable woven baskets shaped like women’s shopper bags as their transport though.


And after bumping our way in for a couple of hours, we finally made it to the border town of Mae Sam Laeb, which was to be the start of the trek. It was strange being so near to Myanmar as the Salawin River formed the border. I couldn’t help but imagine the types of trafficking occurring between the rebel  Karen-controlled Burmese side and the peaceful Thai side. It all looked so deceptively peaceful.


More soon!