Our tour guide released us from the back of the songthaew, those flatbed trucks converted into passenger vehicles. We had reached the first site on the tour, just outside the Thai city of Chiang Mai. Gone were the exhaust fumes of city traffic, replaced by a bucolic countryside overrun with buses, vans, and a flood of camera-snappers.
“This is the orchid farm and butterfly exhibit,” the guide said. “But there’s no butterfly that much. You can just drink some coffee at the cafe. We be about twenty minutes.”
The butterfly exhibit had one yellow and one black butterfly fluttering about. There had been more butterflies in the parking lot. There were rows of orchids, which were probably impressive to botanists.
“We go,” the guide said, noticing that the entire group had gathered beside the vehicle in about ten minutes.
I normally avoid tours, fearing that I’ll end up on a trip where one tour vehicle follows another–which is how this tour began–forming a chain of the worst kind of travel. But as we left the orchid farm, the songathaews and vans and buses began to split up.
We arrived at elephant camp. In the distance, a farmer pushed a motorized rake through a rice paddy and two women with nets skimmed the flooded fields. Though the terraced paddies, spilling water from high ground to low, and the uncommon farming method were intriguing, nothing could capture our attention the way the two-month old elephant did. She was feeding from her mother.
The mother rocked back and forth with obsessive-compulsive tendencies and we all begged obsessively for the baby to come near us. She crossed her clumsy legs as if she had to pee and wrapped her trunk around the wooden beam, pressing the end of that appendage into our hands, giving us high fives with her wet snout. Her hair stuck up like a newborn human, though her’s was bristly. Other Westerners in blue shirts and pants led elephants into a field. They were training to be mahouts, or elephant trainers, learning the intricacies of teaching and working with these spectacular creatures. We were on a ninety-minute stopover to ride the three-and-a-half ton animals, I just wanted to hang out with the newborn.
I eventually did mount a stubborn elephant and sat upon a small bench strapped to its back. My unwashed elephant guide, Krispa, sat with his legs tucked behind the elephant’s ears. But then he grew brazen and just balanced on the big mammal’s head like Mowgli from the Jungle Book. The elephant, Ketchena, spent the first twenty minutes of travel munching on grass, selecting the steepest slope for this forage. The elephant will surely topple over and crush us, I thought, but the sure-footed creature ate at this angle without problem. She ripped up grass–about seven times before deciding it was enough for a bushel–and then whipped it about to remove the mud before eating.
The herd eventually stopped breakfast and marched us beneath lychee trees, which were covered in mustache-like caterpillars. We moved at a lumbering kilometer-per-hour pace, so I watched the farmers in the rice field and the creature’s neck stretch and compress like an accordion.
After our elephant voyage, we learned how to make elephant shampoo from wood and what to feed an elephant to help it digest the quarter-ton of food it eats per day.
The Hill Tribes
We jumped back into the songthaew and headed to a two-hundred person Hmong village. After all, the tour was called the Hill Tribe Variety Tour, an introduction to the hill tribes of Northern Thailand. But visiting these people posed a slight dilemma: On the one hand I wanted to observe their way of life, but I also couldn’t quite grasp how driving up to the village, where the people were on display, would be authentic.
We received, I imagine, a dose of inauthentic authenticity. A Hmong man was smacking his hammer against the dull side of his machete so he could cut open a tin can. Leaning against cinder block homes were weaved backpacks. Some chickens sat under baskets, others darted around bamboo homes, which were made from shoots as thick as an arm. The bamboo had been cut open, soaked in water, flattened, and then dried so it could be used as sidings for the hut. We peered into their outdoor kitchens, where blackened woks hung from the wall and corn was strung up above burners so it could be stored for the next season in stilt-houses. Clothes dried on an old songthaew covering.
I figured that unless we were working on a National Geographic assignment, this was as authentic as it would get. We walked toward the forest and two little Hmong children in soccer jerseys sat on top of the hill, waving down at us.
The two-mile hike to the fifty meter waterfall was incredibly verdant–endless groves of bamboo, huge-leafed short-trunked banana trees, six feet of surrounding elephant grass, and rain to metastasize the forest’s growth.
Next we visited the Lisu village, which was not a normal stop for our tour, but the Lahu tribe that they normally visited was inaccessible because of the rain. The Lisu ran a tourist-heavy village. Little boys ran up to us trying to sell their fluorescent bracelets. A brother gave his little sister a piggyback ride. She clutched his shoulder and her cellphone. At the far end of the village, all of the trash was scattered behind the homes. It felt like the equivalent of Americans taking tours of trailer parks to see how the poor lived.
After we visited the Paduang women, most commonly referred to as the long neck women, who wear stacks of brass rings around their necks. The rings press their shoulders down and consequently create a very long neck. The women sat on bamboo patios, before bamboo huts, surrounded by the beautiful scarves they had made on looms. The rushing sound of waterfalls could be heard in the background. These women are refugees, our guide explained, chased from Burma, where they faced oppression.
As our guide told us the reasons for the rings–to rise above the Burmese that oppress them, to defend themselves against the bad spirits that attack virgin necks, to pay respect to the phoenix–I studied one woman with twenty-six rings on her neck and additional rings below her knees. She scratched at an itch beneath the neck rings. Her knees looked swollen. Before we walked around the village to snap pictures of the young girls who had already begun the process of acquiring rings, we were advised not to purchase any of the souvenirs nor donate money to the boxes. “All of this money goes to rich Thai people.” We were, however, told that it was fine to buy the handmade scarves. All revenues from scarf sales would go directly to the Paduang women.
A five-year-old girl sat with her mother. She wore five rings around her neck and a filthy Winnie the Pooh shirt. Another child with brass rings weighing down her shoulders was wearing butterfly flip-flops.
Though it was part touristic zoo, part education, there are not many other ways for visitors to witness this slice of life and understand the problems these tribes face. At least visitors go from oblivious to aware.
The tour that I was invited to join was Panda Tour, which operates out of Chiang Mai. Note: They do not offer tours to see pandas.
Panda Tour has very knowledgable guides, gave participants options (bamboo boat or white water rafting, choose the rapids), had their own elephant camp, and were established with the Hmong village. The owner of the company, who has more than two decades of experience as a guide, told me that only Panda Tour has access to that particular tribe since they employ the villagers and provide them with old tour vehicles. It’s certainly nice not showing up to a site with a caravan of tourists. The elephant camp is privately owned by Panda Tours so it remains uncrowded, too, which is not always the case for tour companies that use the public elephant camps. But if you’re most interested in elephants, I would suggest skipping the variety tour and try out the mahout training.
Whatever tour you do select in Chiang Mai, make sure to ask the essential questions:
Will there be other tour buses at the visited sites?
How long will we spend at each site?
Are there options for adding or subtracting stop-offs?