Chiang Mai was like a breath of fresh air for me – literally: Crisp, clean air filled my lungs as I stepped off the train and onto the platform, leaving me instantly revitalized. A picturesque little city bordered by a river that marked its perimeter, Chiang Mai was the perfect dose of small town life that I needed. Aware of the fact that I only had one night to recharge before I hit the road again, I quickly made it to the centre of town to book the long awaited Trek and Elephant tour that I heard so much about.
The next morning, at the crack of dawn, a rusty old tuk tuk came squeaking down the narrow alleyway and beeped a few times when it reached the front gate of my hostel. Laced up with sturdy sneakers, equipped with my tiny day pack, and camera in hand, I was tripping over myself with excitement. I hopped in the wagon of the tuk tuk with eight other Spanish people who didn’t speak a word of English, and off we went!
Our first stop was to the local market. Our guide, a sprightly middle-aged Thai man, hopped out and went inside to pick up our lunch and dinner. Twenty minutes later he returned with a bag full of Styrofoam take-out containers for lunch. He placed that bag in the back of the tuk tuk and as we packed ourselves back into the vehicle, he hoisted another large bag over his shoulder and flung it onto the roof. I noticed that there were vegetables and raw meat in the bag, and then reluctantly asked him what it was for. Wishing I had never asked, or even seen it for that matter, he told me it was for our dinner! He started the engine and all I could think about was how the raw meat, aka: our soon-to-be dinner, was sitting up on the roof and slow roasting under the sun in the 35 degree heat…I almost gagged thinking about the various types of bacteria that were growing.
We drove about 20 minutes north and entered into a forested area, where he stopped the tuk tuk and told us to take our belongings so we could start the trek. We walked a few metres and parked ourselves at a large log alongside a ravine in order to eat our lunch. I was so proud of myself already: eating in a forest on a dirty tree, without washing my hands! I gave myself a pat on the back. After we ate, he let us pack up as he declared the start of the trek by saying, “We start now”.
He led us onto a rickety wooden bridge that carried us over the ravine and onto a gravel path which looked like it was going to wind through the forest. I thought to myself, this will be a nice walk. All of a sudden, we turned the corner, and the gravel path had disappeared. The terrain spiked upwards and had transformed into muddy branches and leaves. I took one step and my foot slipped out from under me, leaving me down on my hands and knees. There I was, on all fours, in the mud, and we had barely started this trek. I got up and forced myself to overcome the obsessive compulsive feeling of wanting to take a shower immediately. As we got deeper and deeper into the forest, I started to realize that this wasn’t a forest at all – it was a jungle – I was trekking through the jungle. There were trees so high I couldn’t see the top, vines hanging everywhere, and the sounds of very unusual birds and monkeys who were perched up in the trees. The trek started to get more difficult when found myself almost on my hands and knees again, searching for rocks to grab and pull myself up. Having to gather bunches of branches and yank them out of the way just long enough for me to slip through before they snapped back, I managed to get through quickly enough to inch my way up the mountain.
It was the first time I was breathing fresh air in weeks and it was so nice to be out in the middle of nowhere, where all I could hear were creatures, blowing leaves and water running through the ravines. It was then that through the trees and a few kilometres across the rice paddies below, that we had the first sighting of elephants.
We had reached the top of the mountain after two hours, and we could see the elephants. It was breathtaking….but as amazing as it was, it also meant that we had only reached the halfway point!