When I was in Vietnam I really wanted to get to Sapa in the north to see the rice terraces but ran out of time. I’d heard you could see rice fields in the north of Chiang Mai that weren’t as majestic but still beautiful so I decided to book a trek. After a bit of googling I found Chiang Mai Trekking and popped into their offices to book. The women working there were super friendly but it was difficult to understand them. ‘Will I see rice paddies?’, I asked. ‘Sure, sure’, they said.
They offered several tours of various difficulty and, shamefully, I didn’t pay too much attention to the one I picked. All I knew is that it was a two-day hike that involved rice fields so I paid the fee (R1 400) and figured it couldn’t be too strenuous. As it was I was walking over 10 000 steps a day (thanks fitbit!) and I liked that the others who’d signed up were ‘young people from Belgium and Holland’.) The first time I got an inkling of what I’d be in for was when I was told that the best mosquito repellent I could bring would also offer leech protection. ‘What?!’
The next day I was collected at my hotel by Ping, a farmer turned tour guide from the local Lahu tribe, and climbed onto a bench in the back of a pick up truck where I met my trekmates – Manon and Ben from Belgium and Lisa and Jordy from Holland. (We’d soon become Team Tiger.) It turned out we were down for the harder trail and I was fine with that. I mean, I could climb Lion’s Head, right? How difficult could it be? Still, our first stop was the police station where officers were given a copy of our passports and took photos of us while briefing us on a number to call (1155!) if we ever felt like we were in danger.
‘Is this trip a little dangerous?’, I asked Ping.
‘No, no’, he laughed.
‘Has anyone died on it?’, I pressed.
‘A Chinese tourist drowned in the river once’.
‘Don’t worry! It was loooong ago. Like, three weeks back.’
On that note, we set off to a Thai market to buy food supplies for our trip which were all included in the price. The market was an adventure in itself, serving up a nightmarish array of ‘delicacies’ that ranged from worms wriggling in honeycomb-like nests, fish still gasping for air and eels writhing in plastic bags. In saying that, it also offered the most beautiful, fresh-looking fruits and veg, many of which I’d never seen before. I’ve put the pics into a slideshow as many of them aren’t for sensitive viewers.
We also made a quick stop to buy ‘jungle shoes’ – plastic Reebok knock offs with cleats – as Ping deemed all our trainers, with the exception of Lisa’s, to not have enough traction. Initially we balked at the idea of having to buy new shoes but when we found out they were 42 Baht (R17!) we laced up and got back on the road.
After a quick lunch at a scenic spot we headed to our first trekking destination, a beautiful waterfall. Getting there was a lot harder than I anticipated as it involved an uphill climb on a seriously humid day. It was worth it though as we arrived there before another tour group so, at one point, we had the place all to ourselves. After a refreshing dip we hit the road again and said goodbye to the car.
We hiked just under 10 kilometres that day to get to our overnight destination, an elephant camp, with a pit stop at a tribal village where nobody spoke Thai, let alone English.
At this point I was finding the hike pretty testing but I never considered stopping. Also, what was I going to do if I wanted to? Call 1155 and order up a rescue chopper? Still, I did envy super fit Lisa getting to wear her own trainers. While I was grateful for the grip of my jungle shoes, the plastic wasn’t the cushioned foam I was used to so going downhill soon become murder on my toes. Still, this totally beat uphill. At one point there was so much uphill I felt like I was moving along on all fours! Worse yet, every now and again we’d get a short burst of rain which felt amazing on your skin but turned the path to mud and the idea of slipping and twisting an ankle suddenly become more threatening than any of the biting, stinging insects we encountered along the way.
At one point Manon actually did fall but she took it like a champ, popping straight back up and carrying on. Also, Ping got bitten by a hairy blue caterpillar that attached to his neck while passing a low hanging shrub. It stung like a bitch but he knew which leaves to crush and rub onto the bite. As for me, I ended up being ravaged by a million different insects but I never saw which ones. The only pain I could focus on was that in my feet but even then that was dulled by the distracting beauty of my incredible surroundings.
When I tell you this hike was through some of the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever encountered you’ll have to take my word for it. My phone died pretty early on and I wanted to save my power bank for the next day. In a way I was kind of glad as this allowed me to fully immerse in things as opposed to view it through a lens. Also, there was just no way my little smart phone was ever going to capture just how magnificent things really were. Manon however, has a great eye and had a really good camera and I hope to get a few shots from them soon which I’ll use to update the post.
When we finally reached the elephant camp it was the second best feeling in the world. The best? Cleaning up in ‘bathroom’, a little wooden hut with a hose pipe shower and toilet that ‘flushed’ when you pored buckets of water into it.
If I think about it, there were a lot of ‘best feelings’ that night. Cracking open my first ice cold Chang beer. Stuffing the Beng Beng chocolate into my face that Ping had picked up in the market. (Lisa, a chocoholic, was in 7th heaven!) Also, the supper he prepared was incredible. It would be easy to say that we were so ravenous after our hike that we’d have eaten anything but this was a truly delicious meal that included ‘KFC’ (crispy deep-fried chicken fillets with a sweet chilli dipping sauce) and a fantastic creamy chicken curry. Personally, I like my curry hot and found this one to be very mild but Ben thought it was too hot which earned him the nickname ‘Boring Belgium Boy’, something he bore well. (For the record, I was ‘Auntie Leigh’ because, at the ripe old age of 36, I was the most ancient person on the trek.)
That night I lay on my little mattress with my super thin blanky (perfect because it was hot!) and listened to the jungle scream around me through the rickety wood of the hut creating a wonderful ‘white noise’ that put me to bed.
Later I was woken by a terrible leg cramp and couldn’t get back to sleep so I popped half a sleeping pill. I didn’t want to be bleary eyed for the second part of my adventure. While waiting for it to kick in I assessed my beaten up bod. I was covered from head to toe in bites, bruises and scratches and several of my toenails had broken off. I should’ve been miserable but I felt great as well as embarrassingly cliched. The pampered city girl had survived the trek and was now lying in bed, a million miles away from her air-conditioned life, thinking about how she wanted to change it. There were just so many stupid things I worried about back home and now they all seemed… well… stupid. I also owned far too many things. Did I really need three primers? Why was I holding on to that big ass craft box a brand had sent me? I was never going to add sequins to my T-shirts. I’d always been a minimalist but now I couldn’t wait to get home and rid myself of a hundred silly objects that suddenly felt like anchors. I wondered if I could possibly reorganise my life in such a way where I could spend three months of the year in tropical countries with warm oceans. Swimming in the sea brings me so much joy and Cape Town’s icy Atlantic puts a damper on that. I promised myself I would work less and spend more time with my friends. I wished I was ten years younger so I had more time to live selfishly as opposed to settle and start a family, something I also really want to do but not just yet. (‘You look so young’, said Ping. ‘I can’t believe you’re so old. You have to have a baby soon or it will come out bad’. You don’t mince words in the jungle.)
The next morning I limped over to the main hut to sip on a coffee that tasted like magic before jumping into the ‘shower’. Ping and a tribal woman were up and at ’em slicing fruit and making banana pancakes. Lisa, Jordy and Ben had left earlier in the morning with another guide to round up the elephants. If you find them, that’s great, but that doesn’t mean they’ll always come with you back to the camp. ‘They’re not like dogs’, said Ping. ‘They’re like people. They do what they want’.
I’d just washed my clothes and was hanging them up to dry when I saw the hot and sweaty foursome walk towards the camp alongside two elephants. Ben waved his stick triumphantly. The whole thing felt completely surreal. Apparently the hike to find them was pretty intense and involved some crazy, crazy uphill through a lot of mud. At one point, after finding one, the guide was like ‘Wait here with him while I go find his friend’ and left the trio to babysit. Lisa said it was the weirdest/coolest thing in the world – to be standing in a jungle all alone with an elephant.
Much like supper, brekkie was delicious. The elephants, who weren’t tied up, waited patiently at the gates of the camp for us to finish and then we made our way down to the river where we got to feed them bananas. They then climbed into the water and we were given buckets to give them a bath. You guys, there’s no way to explain what this experience was like and a part of me still feels like it was all just a dream. Despite being enormous, the elephants are the sweetest, most gentle creatures. They even let you climb up on their backs to wash behind their ears! There’s so much I could say about this particular moment but I can’t find the right words so I’m just going to keep it to myself.
Bath time sorted, we said goodbye to our pachyderm pals and started the rafting part of our journey. When I heard we were going to raft, I had no idea it was going to be made from bamboo sticks tied together by bits of rope!
Rafting was a seriously epic way to take in the beauty of our surroundings and I sadly don’t have too many pictures as, for the most part, our phones and cameras lived in Ping’s waterproof bag. Just trust me when I tell you the sky was an intense shade of blue and the river was fringed by electric green vegetation as tall as sky scrapers. Much of the flora was made up of these gorgeous creeper vine things that hung down like the jungle version of weeping willows from which the cicadas shrieked and screamed.
Every now and again we’d tie up our raft (usually when one of the ‘oars’ – a very long bamboo pole – snapped on the river bed) and enjoy a swim. (Because I’m an evil person one of my trip highlights was the look on Jordy’s face when a current brushed my foot past his leg. For a split second he thought it was an eel or snake or something worse and it might as well have given him an electric shock!)
Just over two hours later our river trip came to an end in a little village where we stopped to eat lunch, knock back a beer and devour the very last Beng Beng chocolate I’d hoarded in my bag. We then piled into the car, which had driven to meet us, and made our way back to Chiang Mai feeling happy and accomplished with the kind of memories that, I know, will live with me forever. My trekking shoes, however, were left in the car.
When I finally got dropped off at my hotel, I hobbled in covered in mud sporting all my aforementioned injuries plus a little sunburn. Backpackers sitting in the lobby gave me knowing nod that felt like a salute and that felt very, very cool.
That same evening I hit up Lila Thai, a spa recommended by Manon that employes ex-inmates to reintegrate them back into society. It was surprisingly luxe-looking but even if it weren’t I really love the idea as I believe in the power of redemption. I got to indulge in a wonderful 90-minute massage for just R160 that included a cup of tea and my therapist was a shy, sweet-natured, fine-boned little doll. I couldn’t imagine what had led to her spending time in jail but I’m glad she’s out and on a path that leads to better things. I don’t want to live in a world where we’re forever judged by our worst moment alone. To do so means there’s no point in carrying on and striving for anything better. Despite her tiny hands, she gave me the most wonderful massage but she couldn’t touch my calves – they were just too painful! I gave her a big tip, an ever bigger hug and limped away wishing her a long and beautiful life.
Later, when I went to bed (a real bed!) I felt like I’d been hit but a car but in the best way possible. My skin smelled like jasmine and my freshly shampooed hair was clean and silky soft but the moment I closed my eyes I headed straight back to the jungle.