According to a friend who lives in Chiang Mai, there are four main reasons to visit this city – cooking, elephants, motorbiking around, and trekking. And trekking is the most famous, and one of the biggest reasons tourists have come to Chiang Mai over the years. And so, I booked a trekking tour! For only ~$50, I spent three days trekking around Chiang Mai, with 7 new friends.
To be honest, the trekking was easier – and a lot more enjoyable – than I expected. On my 3 climb of Mount Rinjani in Indonesia, it was a pretty serious climb every day, with maybe 8 solid hours of climbing per day (plus an extra 4 hours for the sunrise hike to the summit). In contrast, here in Chiang Mai, trekking is easy, even relaxed.
The trek started off on a high note – with an elephant ride! It wasn’t a full on elephant camp (where you can ‘train’ the elephants and swim with them), but a half hour elephant ride was still an amazing experience.
Sitting on top of the elephant and having it walk is a strange experience – it’s like riding a horse, but much more unsteady, as the elephant bounces up and down. Sitting on that platform (and not straddling the elephant’s neck), you can feel every step. It’s especially tricky when the elephant goes uphill or downhill – you find yourself sitting on a slanted surface, holding on for dear life.
And with every five steps it takes, it begs you for food, for bananas. And of course, there are vendors ready, selling you bananas and bamboo cane for the elephant’s enjoyment. I rather felt bad for the elephants – to milk the most money out of tourists, I bet the elephants are kept hungry before tourists arrive, so they beg the most for food.
Oh, and we also walked through a shallow river – at which point, the elephant promptly had itself a drink, and then sprayed those of us on its back – for not feeding it enough bananas, apparently.
And of course, you have to make sure you don’t drop your camera – otherwise, the elephant will happily stomp it into the dust. I’m pretty sure warranties do not cover acts of elephant.
Elephants! Including some ridiculously cute baby elephants!
The other folks in my group also had lots of fun riding on the elephants – including one adventurous girl who moved from the seat onto the elephant’s neck!
And with that elephant ride, day 1 of the trek started! The trail it self was pretty easy and stress-free:
And the scenery was also quite nice!
And although we spent a long time hiking, it was interspersed with a lot of rivers and waterfalls. Rivers were easy to cross – just walk across the tree trunk! I was all fancy and didn’t bother to use the handrail.
The local kids were very friendly. And we had a fireplace! It got surprisingly cold at night, so we huddled around the fireplace, and listened to the two Kiwi girls talk about growing up in hippie communities in New Zealand. Apparently, if you mentioned “the hippie school” in NZ, everyone knows what you’re talking about? Lots of singing, art, and other self expression early on in elementary school, with formal education not starting until later. I’m rather jealous!
The next day, day 2, our trekking continued! It was still a very comfortable walk, and the hike went through several villages.
And just like yesterday, there were a lot of waterfalls:
Lunch was at one of the waterfalls – where the guide put on a snorkel, jumped into the pool, and used a spearfish to catch a couple of fish to accompany our fried noodles! We had plenty of time, so we had a relaxed lunch, jumping into the pool and climbing up the waterfall.
Oh! The guide found for us some kind of an edible underground spider- which he proceeded to catch, grill, and eat. I was incredibly tempted to try a bite, but couldn’t risk my silkworm cocoon allergies flaring up in the middle of a trek.
And just like the first night, we passed the night in a local hill tribe village.
It was right next to a river and pool, so we spent the evening lounging about – and shopping! Some villagers were selling silk scarves and native vestments, so I got myself a very nice new scarf – the 4th one I’ve purchased on this trip!
And as before, river crossing and waterfalls. The last waterfall was a good 10 meters high – and I jumped it. It was scary as hell – climbing onto the ledge, gingerly climbing to the top amongst a pile a dead leaves, hoping that I wouldn’t slip, then gathering up your courage to jump into the waterfall with a piercing battle cry…
And finally, to cap off this trekking adventure, we went on a bamboo rafting adventure! Or rather, it would have been an adventure during the wet season. During the dry season, the boats are rather unimpressive – always getting stuck, moving very slowly, and being very disappointing in general. Still, I can see how awesome it would have been during the wet season – floating down the river, stopping at bamboo platforms on the side of the river to buy snacks and rest in the shade, joining all the kids in a huge water fight…
All in all, this trekking thing was pretty awesome. A former trekking guide confided in me that there are four types of trails, so you should make sure you pick a good one.
1) the most popular trail to the Northwest of Chiang Mai, filled with trekkers. You’ll have lots of company, but not much of a sense of solitude
2) A less-traveled trail to the Southwest of Chiang Mai, with a bit more solitude. I went on this one, and quite enjoyed us.
3) A rougher trail to the Northeast of Chiang Mai, requring much more trekking, but quite deserted.
4) A cheap (but cheating) trail that simply doubles back upon itself, and doesn’t really pass through any interesting sights. Avoid.