Being Sneezed on by Elephants   (04/10/04)

Last updated 04/10/04                                                                                                                               

Many tour companies in Chiang Mai offer 1-day or longer "trekking" trips, and we joined one such tour despite Puneet's premonition that it would be a boring, over-organized, unhip sort of thing to do. Daria (that's me), on the other hand, was attracted by the promise of elephant riding, bamboo rafting and jungle walking, and hoped for a fun time with some potential degree of safe boredom, kinda like going for a ride on kids' merry-go-round. Read on to find out who, if anyone, was right...


Bananaleaf House -- raised so animals can be kept below                Craftslady making a scarf                Some handicrafts for sale      The huts in the Mhong village were quite different from the Karen village   

One part of the 1-day trek was a visit to two separate "hilltribe" villages. There are several indigenous tribes in Thailand which each have their own languages and customs. While the tribes once relied upon growing opium for their livelihood, they now make a living by selling potato chips and various handicrafts to visiting tourists. On a side note, I think it's unreasonable to expect that cultures will be able to live in some sort of sheltered bubble, devoid of any impact from external influence. While I don't think that having a McDonalds or 7-Eleven (very popular in Thailand) on every block is a "good thing", I can't hold it against the tribes if they want to use Clorox or Surf to help make their clothes cleaner.


Snacks bought to be "friendly" to the elephants                The beginning of the ride                Daria becomes friendly with the transport      Feeding the beast: Take 1

They love bananas                Puneet looks worried already                The cute baby that became a constant worry      Riding the beast

Puneet aboard our elephant, feeding it a banana                Mahootless...                Jungle walk       Feeding the beast: Take 2, and more fun on the run

Another portion of our trek involved an hour-long Elephant ride through "forest" (actually there was little forest left since most of the bamboo trees had either been cut or burned down) surrounding an elephant camp. The ride turned out to be a lot rougher than the previous elephant ride in Jaipur (look at pictures here). We were holding on for dear life most of the time and it felt a lot like one of those roller-coasters at Six Flags or Disneyland where you get tossed around until your body is sore (except this ride lasted for an hour instead of a measely 2 minutes). We had the misfortune of riding on the mother of the baby elephant shown in the pictures above. I say misfortune because most of the time the mother ended up following the baby (apparently no one had told the baby that it should be following and not leading) around the jungle instead of staying with the rest of our little caravan (I was constantly worried about the baby, thinking that it could easily be stamped on by the other, much larger, elephants. This would obviously cause the mother to freak out, and that's the last thing in the world that I wanted to see happen).. Furthermore, although we fed the mother yummy bananas and sugar cane, she had the nerve to constantly sneeze at us. I mean, she actually turned her trunk in our direction to blow out water at us (mainly on my legs, though stuff got on my arms and on both of our faces). Being sneezed upon by an elephant (actually 2 of them since the one trailing us also sneezed on us once) is one experience I could honestly have lived without.

To me, the best (read: most nerve-racking) part of the elephant ride came when our mahoot, i.e. the elephant driver, got off onto a raised platform in the middle of sparse jungle and sat down for some rest and refreshments. While he was slowly peeling and then eating a green mango, our mahootless elephant first devoured all snacks we had to offer, broke into a sneezing fit, then at last turned around and walked off, with us aboard. We didn't get too worried until all the other elephants in the caravan left by a different route, and our mahoot was still in the rest house and not on the beast's head where he belonged. After a few lonely minutes and more than a few cries "Help! Come back! Turn around!" and "I want my Mom", the mahoot graced us with his presence again and for a while accompanied the elephant on foot, without saddling it, while the animal followed the baby elephant off track through some bamboo bushes (riders beware of sticks positioned at the eye level) and a steep muddy descent to finally join the rest of the group. The sigh of relief almost escaped us when the mahoot climbed onto the elephant's neck and took command again, but we held it back until the glorious moment when we reached the disembarkment platform and reported to the tour guide how the trip had been "fun, but a little scary at times".


Waterfall stop                Bamboo rafting adventure                Traffic jam in the making              Aquatic chapters in the trekking adventure

Besides tribe villages and elephants, our day included a visit to a pretty waterfall where trekkers could swim in the basin below the fall. Some adventurous souls did so, despite the evidence of the sharp rocks at the bottom of the shallow pool, and yours truly sat on the sun-baked stones and observed the action, the reason for such passive behaviour being not lack of courage, obviously, but lack of swimming trunks on Puneet's side. Local boys jumping into the basin from a 15-feet-tall cliff provided us with some entertainment; it seemed they competed with each other for the loudest splash made (the fatter boys having an unfair advantage), while grabbing onto leafy branches of a cliff-hugging bush counted for extra points. We arrived at the waterfall by the way of some 200 well-maintained concrete steps, but left it by climbing slippery rocks up a steep hill, to find ourselves on a narrow path jammed between two lovely creeks. We followed the path through a tropical jungle and across cultivated fields for half an hour or so (the only walking part of the day's trek!) in the company of a very stupid dog who joined us back at the waterfall and refused to leave, endangering its silly little life multiple times as it tried to keep up with us.

The final part of the trek was accomplished on bamboo rafts along an extremely shallow river stream. April is the dry season in northern Thailand, and the stream was nearly dried up in many places while its deeper portions were maybe a foot and a half in depth. The rafts got stuck every so often, and the passengers (2-3 per raft) had to get up and push their means of transportations off the rocks. Despite the apparent shortage of water, both of us got wet behinds two minutes after boarding the raft, since enough water seeped between the bamboo poles, and very soon our pants were drenched because the raft tended to float half-submerged. Moreover, on later stages of the rafting trip, which lasted an hour, we were greeted by dozens of Thai kids (and their adult relations, in many cases) who stood, sat and jumped about on the sides of the river and in the stream itself and appeared eager to start early Songkran celebrations. They doused us with sprinkles, splashes and buckets of water until we were as drenched as if we'd gone for a swim with all our clothes on. I (Daria) got the worst of it, being seated on the raft and presenting an easy target, but Puneet (who was standing up and propelling the raft with a long bamboo pole) got his share too.

All in all, a good way to spend a day and 15 USD per person (our smallest investment with highest adventure payoff to date), but what does it have to do with trekking?.. Feels like Chiang Mai tour operators take much liberty with the term. By now, "trekking" is their name for anything that is not Thai massage, spa or cooking class.