Towards the end of our stay in Chiang Mai we spent two full days on a “trek” adventure in the jungles of northern Thailand. I use quotation marks because it was billed as a trek but the trekking part only consisted of one two hour hike through the forest each day. However, the hikes were very enjoyable and several other activites took place, the best of which was elephant riding. The whole trip – transportation to and from the jungle, elephant riding, a night in the elephant village, several meals, river rafting and visits to two hill tribes – cost a whopping $32.

On the way to the jungle we stopped at a butterfly and orchid farm. I like this picture because you can see this butterfly getting its beak wet.

The orchids were almost too perfect. It was interesting to see the way they dry some of them and then lacquer them to make into decorative pins.

The hike to the elephant village took about two hours, about a third of which was spent taking rest breaks and milling around. Our guide, Ong, was a very interesting man. He grew up in a longneck hilltribe village and now spends most of his time doing jungle tours. He is a practicioner of what he calls “black magic” and showed us the magical amulet around his neck that he inherited from his witch-doctor grandfather. Whenever Ong spoke the entire group would instantly stop talking and then wait several seconds for Ong to slowly and quietly tell us what would happen next. I realize that the following picture does not depict what I just described, but in this scene we are just milling around before he called everyone’s attention.

We crested a hill and had a nice view of the village on the way down. There is a pool of running water from a man-made river coming down the hillside that empties into the bathing pool for the elephants which is not clean at all.

The Burmese trainers brought the elephants (also Burmese) to the clean pool to drink up before going on the ride.

We stood on an elevated wooden structure to climb onto the seats on the elephants’ backs. The trainers sat on their shoulders and used fierce looking metal spikes and loud barks to direct the animals.

This is what I looked like pretty much the entire time I was riding.

This is the view we had for a lot of the journey up and down the hillside. Some parts of the hill were pretty steep and several times I had to cling onto the seat very tightly. The elephants seemed very used to the path, probably taking tourists on it every day, and often times they would stop completely to eat a nearby tree branch before being prodded back to work. I don’t know if I’d be comfortable having a rope up my butt like that.

At one point I was able to hand my camera to another pair and they took some shots of us.

When we returned to camp Ong performed a healing ritual for one of the other tourists who had a giant bruise on her thigh from a motorcycle accident. He gathered leaves from a plant found in the forest, roasted them and breathed a spell into them before rubbing them into the bruise. Afterwards she said it had indeed started to feel better.

One daring Australian found some mushrooms growing on a pile of elephant dung and cleaned them off to eat, claiming they were psychedelic. He disappeared later on for about three hours and either had a fantastic time or awful stomach sickness.

Our sleeping area was a wooden open-air building up the hill. The mosquito nets ensured a comfortable night of sleep.

In the morning the group split into two, with half the people going with Ong deeper into the jungle for another night while the rest of us went on our second hike to the river. Whereas the first hike was through dry hills and sparse vegetation, this one followed the river through a lush valley.

The river was full of Thai and foreign tourists on both plastic and bamboo rafts. In between mild rapids we jumped in to swim alongside. Along the banks were dozens of simple wooden huts packed with Thai tourists escaping the city for a riverside vacation. Here’s a group picture we took afterward:

On the drive back to Chiang Mai we stopped at two hilltribe villages. I’m sure in the past these were much more rural and authentic places but nowadays the culture of the hilltribes is dominated by the tourism industry. The first had simple huts for the people to live in but we saw several cars and motorcycles and each hut had an accompanying shop of touristy knick-knacks.

The second village was home one of the famous Karen longneck tribes. Even moreso than the first village, it was clear that the longneck people have become completely dependent on tourism. They built the well-groomed village near the road so that foreigners could come pay to gawk at the heavy bronze rings around their necks, which actually push the collarbone down instead of stretching the neck up to make them seem taller as a result of the rings. The girls start wearing the rings at the age of five. In Burma the government in the past has tried to stop the practice but the Thai government seems to support it as a tourist attraction. The village really just consisted of a main road of shops with old women and young children covered in rings selling textiles and carvings. I had been looking forward to visiting them as I have seen pictures of the people in National Geographic since I was a little kid; however the experience just made me sad that their culture has been reduced to what it is now. I can’t really recommend a visit to anyone traveling through southeast Asia.