Soothing yourself and some wanton beasts in Thailand's hill country

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Women Outside, Fall 1998

Adeventure Classics: Trekking
More Pad Thai, Dumbo?
Soothing yourself — and some wanton beasts — in Thailand's hill country
By Robert Earl Howells


TRAVEL: Fly-Fishing | Rafting | Skiing | TREKKING | Diving

On the winding, 62-mile drive northwest from the city of Chiang Mai, the hand-painted road sign said dangerous curves. many corpses have died here. Happily, we corpses did not perish. We were heading into northern Thailand's jungle mountains, the territory of its hill tribes, in the triangle formed by the towns of Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, and Mae Hong Son. The Lisu, Karen, Lahu, and Akha, seminomadic animists, live in mountains as high as 8,500 feet, impressive for their seeming impenetrability. Many more footpaths than roads reach into the interior, which is also laced with tumbling rivers and the occasional surreptitious opium field. Trekkers have certainly been here before (but don't confuse this region with the more crowded Golden Triangle). Still, it's a classic for a reason, and over four days and 30 miles, my group of 10 didn't see any other Westerners.

Deep in the mountains, our van stopped and we trekked a few miles steeply downhill to the Lisu village of Huai Nam Dang. This sounds easier than it was: We encountered very few switchbacks, and lush undergrowth crowded the path. We slept in Huai Nam Dang, spreading our bedrolls on a wooden platform in the thatch-roof home that was ours for the evening, after a miraculous stir-fry dinner cooked by our porters.

As what goes down must go up, the next day began with a four-mile climb out of the valley, in 85-degree heat and 95 percent humidity, to an unnamed ridge at about 5,000 feet. After following the ridge for a mile or so, we dropped down into another valley, following a maze of footpaths that somehow led to a mysterious riverside rendezvous with five elephants and their drivers, called mahouts. We rode the gentle but diffident pachyderms down the steep slope, clearly on an elephant highway: The trail was pocked with craters created by their footprints.

Later, we bathed in the Mae Taeng River until a band of elephants paused just upstream. It turns out we had something to fear. Our guide, Porn Chai, told us that although Asian beasts are more docile than their African cousins, they get cranky when they "fall in love." The Karen mollify their randiness by feeding them a blend of gourd, tamarind, and opium.

The hill tribes migrated from various parts of Asia to settle in Burma, Cambodia, and Thailand, and just as the Thai government frowns on their former nomadic slash-and-burn agricultural ways, it also discourages opium cultivation. We saw no poppy fields. But then, who would plant them beside a principal mountain footpath?

On the Mae Taeng, a fleet of bamboo rafts, each holding two passengers and two polers, was at the ready. We noticed a few abandoned rafts wrapped around river boulders. But mostly it was a languid 12-mile float through a subtropical mountain canyon — walls dense with wild bananas, coconuts, orchids.

We reached a Lahu settlement, Ban Muang Singh, and took a prelunch swim with about 50 naked kids. One intrepid fellow trekker ventured off for a one dollar massage. She came back looking beatified. We all could have used a rubdown: The final hike was a 2,000-foot, three-mile climb from the canyon floor to the settlement of Ban Akha. Just after dark, the village children demanded a sing-along, so I led the group in a pathetic version of "This Land Is Your Land." Then Eleanor from Louisville had a brainstorm: "The Hokey Pokey." That was the end of the folk songs.


Beware the many fly-by-night shopfront outfitters in Chiang Mai who offer hill-tribe treks. Asia Transpacific Journeys (800-642-2742) offers four-day treks in northern Thailand from October through February. Cost is $400 per person; figure on a $1,000-$1,500 round-trip airfare from Los Angeles or New York. Journeys (800-255-8735) runs eight-day treks for $950 per person.


The World Health Organization recommends a vaccination against hepatitis A, boosters for tetanus and polio, and malarial prophylaxis. Beyond that, you can do one other thing to take matters into your own hands: Pack antibacterial soap.

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