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Sunday 23 Jun 2013
Chiang Mai, Thailand

Steep hills, Elephants and bamboo stick games

We left our big bags at Eco Resort and took day packs for our hill trek. When our pick-up arrived we had to squeeze into the back of a small songthau with 8 other people in a space definitely not intended for 10 Western bottoms! It was a quick way to get to know our trekking companions: Stephen (Canada); Wim and Marloes (Dutch honeymoon couple); Cora and Phoebe (Swiss); Ravi and Alisha (Manchester) and an Israeli guy called Lior. We were a mixed group of 2 and 3-day trekkers. Our first stop en route was at a butterfly sanctuary and orchid nursery while Lior was driven up to see a Padang village. This was something that again made me feel uncomfortable, that people are paying to see these poor women with their long necks and brass rings. I didn't like it in Burma and Stacie and I had deliberately avoided trips that included a visit there. Inadvertently we appeared to still be supporting the same company even though we were not there ourselves. The butterfly sanctuary was fairly underwhelming - barely 20 butterflies and all seemed to be the same species - but the orchid nursery was quite interesting to see rows and rows of beautiful flowers hanging up with their air roots trailing down.

Our next stop was at an Elephant Camp where we were expecting to learn about the rescued elephants and their history, with a chance to ride them . Unfortunately, once again we found we'd ended up in exactly the situation we'd hoped to avoid. Having bought a bag of bananas and sugar cane to feed to our elehants, we were bundled up onto a platform from where we could step onto the elephant's back and sit in the seat balanced on top of a pile of blankets. Before we knew what was happening our elephant set off up the road with a mahmout walking along beside us. Every so often our elephant would flip his trunk up on top of his head and search around for a banana. This was all fun until we turned around to see Wim and Marloes on their elephant behind us. Behind them, their mahmout was walking along with a catapult and firing a rock at the elephant's legs to keep him walking. We caught up with a younger elephant on the trail. He didn't have a riding seat on his back but his mahmout was driving him along the path in the same direction. His methods were horrible. He had a wooden stick with a metal hook on the end and used it to threaten the elephant violently whenever it stopped or tried to turn around. The poor creature flinched and backed away from the mahmout each time, which was heartbreaking to see. We both wanted to get down and have nothing more to do with these people, but had no choice but to ride it out. At the end we climbed out on another platform and the elephants were walked off without a word spoken. We never even found out the name of our elephant. You hear so any stories of elephants being mistreated for tourist purposes and we were ashamed to have been involved, albeit unwittingly.

From there we walked along a narrow trail down to the river for about 15 minutes. At the river, we crossed in pairs inside a metal cage on a pulley system. It was a bit unnerving as it really didn't look strong enough, but it was fun at the same time. Wim had to stick his whole head out of the top just to be able to stand up. There was a sall shack shop overlooking the river where our lunch was waiting - folded banana leaves wrapped around a big portion of fried rice and vegetables. Delicious.

After lunch we piled back into our tiny songthau and carried on up into the hills a bit further before setting off on our trek. Having left my Merrills behind in Cairns, I didn't have any proper trainers with me (I've been living in my croc flip flops for two months now. Ailsa, you were absolutely right, they are so comfy!). I fortunately still had a pair of sports sandles but they kept working loose, so I had to tighten them up every so often which got very irritating. Must rethink the shoes before my next trip.

We walked through some relatively flat jungle initially, but that didn't last too long and we were soon going uphill. After an hour or so we stopped at a small plateau overlooking a small chasm containing a very inviting waterfall and small pool. The pool was only knee deep at the most, so no good for swiming, but alost everyone waded in and stuck their heads under the icy flow of the waterfall. Bliss after climbing uphill on such a hot day.
Our guide, Tavi, got busy with his machete and cut us all bamboo walking canes for the next part of the journey, which should have given us a clue about just how steep it was about to get... One hour later of ridiculously steep climbing and we were all sweating buckets, breathing hard and complaining of very pumped arms from clinging on to our walking canes. But when we paused to look around us the views made it all worth while. We could see for miles back down the valley over thick green jungle and steep craggy rock faces jutting out here and there. The final part of the trek brought us up through rice paddies and steep cultivated fields into the village where we were staying the night.
They had two cold showers in rough corrugated metal shelters, complete with the requisite insects and cobwebs, which appeared to serve a number of houses. We took it in turns to get clean and sat out on the bamboo deck looking out over the valley enjoying a cold beer or two. There are several houses in the village which take turns to host the trekking groups so that the money gets spread around for the good of the whole village. We were all sleeping in one room with mosquito nets hung over double mattress pads on the floor. The building was raised up on stilts, although the ground was so steep that the bac of the room was actually at ground level, while the front of the deck was at least a storey off the ground. Outside our room was a long table under cover, with a small kitchen room off to the side where Tavi helped our host to prepare our dinner while we got to know a few of the village women. They had come up to meet us and sell some of their crafts. I bought a lovely metal bracelet and a woven friendship band. They had brought a little girl with them, maybe three years old, who knew exactly how cameras worked. She proceeded to sit on people's laps and scroll through all their photos and take more. She wasn't phased by iPhones either, even flipping the cameras around to take photos of herself! That one will go far...

Dinner was a very impressive meal of green curry, steamed rice and fried vegetables. Tavi joined us but the villagers went home for their own dinner. Afterwards we started playing games and puzzles. Tavi knew an incredible number of logic problems with bamboo matchsticks - the kind where you lay out a pattern and have to create something new by moving just two sticks. We spent most of the evening frowning and then groaning when the answer was revealed, or crowing triumphantly when we guessed it correctly. I introduced our traditional family Christmas game of separating the interlocked corks (which is incidentely a lot mor difficult with matchsticks) and was surprised to find Tavi already knew it!

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