On our second day in Chiang Mai we decided to do a day tour. I'm not really a day tour person, but after couple of very good ones in Australia, this did seem like the best way to make the most of our very short time in Chiang Mai. So slightly dubius but also excited, Ed and I jumped in the back of the rattly open backed van/bus that came to pick us up. There were 8 of us on the tour...an American girl, a German girl, a Dutch couple, a french guy, an Isrealian guy and us. As the day went on, we began to get to know each other and by the end of the day had all swapped email addresses which was great considering the air of uncertainty on the bus that morning.
After a brief and largely uninspiring stop at a Butterfly and Orchid farm that morning we arrived at the village of the Karen Long Neck tribe - a hiltribe where the women where brass coils round their necks frm the age of about 5, adding more coils every year until their necks are stretched and become impossibly long. They can never take the coils off as of couse, their necks are broken - seems ridiculous to us but to them it is tradition; it is normal. The theory behind it is partly that women with very long necks are deemed to be more very beautiful, and also that it helps with defence against predators such as snakes and tigers which tend to go for the neck when they attack. Our guide, V, a self assured man who I wasn't sure how much I liked just yet, explained how this tribe came to be. They are essentially Burmese refugees, unable to return to their own country, yet unable also to gain citizenship in Thailand. The Thai government has somewhat mediated over the situation, giving them a place to live in their little hill village, and an income from selling handicrafts and charging an entrance fee to tourists. So essentially, in order to stay in the country and earn any kind of living, they must in themselves and their lives become a tourist attraction. It seems wrong, but when you consider the alternative options for them, you can see how in a lot of ways it is the best thing. There is a definite air of them just sitting in limbo though, waiting for some sort of concrete decision to be made about their future. We wandered through the tiny village, bought a couple of their hand woven scarves which really were beautiful, and tentatvively asked if we could take a photo of one woman and her little girl, who was wearing a smaller version of her mothers huge brass neck coil and weaving a shawl as we spoke. She smiled for us and greeted us warmly, whereas her mother sat stiffly and although did grace us with one smile, looked far more worn down by the tourist process as I'm sure she must be.
After leaving the Long Neck tribe with mixed feelings, it was time for elephants. I was very excited to ride an elephant and I was not disappointed. Close up, they are such beautiful creatures and so friendly and riding them is actually surprisingly comfortable. Ed and I managed to get an elephant that was definitely more interested in stopping and munching than actually moving and so we gog rather left behind, but at least our ride lasted longer. Moving slowly down a dirt track, through lush and gorgeous Thai countryside, under a hot sun, on top of an elephant was another moment when I felt just so lucky to be here and doing this, and also sad that I was now so close to the end.
All too soon it was time to dismount onto a high wooden platform and climb down from elephant height. After crossing the river by means of a creaky cage swinging on a rope from one side to the other, into which two people could just about fit, it was time for lunch. We ate pad thai in a tiny hut in the middle of nowhere, out of banana leaves - definitely not your average lunch. It was at this point that Ed demonstrated his fluent Thai talking to V, generating all the normal questions and admiration. It struck me that I was only person there who could only speak one language - a fact that I should probably do something about.
It was a good job we filled up on lunch because in order to reach the beautiful, refreshing waterfall we had been looking forward to all day, we had an hours hike through the rainforest ahead of us. We set off in the mind numbing heat, following the river which we knew eventually the cool waterfall would come crashing into. We clambered over rocks of all shapes and sizes, climbed muddy banks and wobbles across precariously placed platforms taking us from one side of the river to the other. I don’t think I have ever been so sticky and sweaty in my life but the scenery was seriously beautiful and not another person in sight. Eventually we rounded a corner and there was the waterfall in all its glory. It certainly wasn’t the most beautiful waterfall I have seen, not compared to those in the Atherton Tablelands, but it was lovely, with a clear pool and surrounded by rocks just asking to be sunbathed upon. Within seconds we were all in the water, leaning back against the rock and letting the icy water cascade over us. After our energetic trek to get there, it was pure heaven.
All too soon, it was time to leave and begin the hike back – the disadvantage of organised tours, as always. But on the way back, knowing that a wobbly, narrow plank suspended over the river was the trickiest obstacle I would face, I could relax and really enjoy the moment. It seemed impossible that so soon I would be back in the UK, in Brixham, and it would be grey and probably very cold – it seemed a million miles from this total beauty and lushness, not to mention the heat. Everyone was tired by now and conversation had lulled, so the only sounds were the birds, the rushing water alongside us and the occasional yelp as someone, usually me, came close to slipping off the narrow path.
Next on the agenda was white water rafting. Last Saturday I had never been rafting in my life, and now here I was preparing to do it for the second time in a week. While we waited for the boats and equipment to be brought up the river (thais are never in a rush to do anything), V showed us his loveable side by producing a bunch of matchsticks and proceeding to baffle us all with his riddles, which involved moving a certain number of matchsticks from the pattern to create a new scenario of some kind. My personal favourite was ‘clever pig’, where he used the matchsticks to create a pig, and an arrow poised to hit him. By moving just two matchsticks, we had to somehow stop the arrow hitting the pig. On second thoughts, maybe I won’t reveal the answer, I may be able to use this again. Maybe in a normal environment this sort of thing would only be mildly entertaining…out here in the middle of the rainforest, it was hilarious.
White water rafting, when we got going, was brilliant fun. It was nowhere near as extreme as my rafting on the Tully in Australia, but I knew it wouldn’t be and I still had a great time. At one point, Ed managed to fall out of the boat and it was incredibly entertaining – his arms and legs were still inside the boat, with the rest of his body hanging out, and all of us, including him, laughing so hard we couldn’t do a thing about it. So for quite a few metres, Ed was dragged, half in, half out, in hysterical laughter. Less funny at the time was Eric, the French guy, falling out at literally the worst moment possible: right in the middle of the biggest rapid, while we were still in danger of all coming out, and with rocks all over the place. Luckily, it was fine, and so we could laugh about it afterwards.
We ended our time on the river by transferring onto bamboo rafts and floating the remaining 500 metres or so incredibly peacefully. At first it was slightly alarming, as we were ushered onto the rafts which were then released down the river, with nobody and nothing to steer or propel them forward. It was lovely and relaxing though, and I wished someone had been around to take a photo from the shore: the rafts sank just under the water under the weight of 6 people on each, and so we must have looked like we were floating, totally unsupported, along the surface of the river. As we neared the end of our ride, we noticed two elephants slowly making their way down into the river, each with a small boy astride, bare legs wrapped round the elephant’s neck. Once in the water, they sat down and the boys splashed copious amounts of cool water over the heads and backs, giving them a refreshing bath. To be gently floating on a bamboo raft, sharing the river with two elephants having a bath really was a very special moment.
After lots of photo taking, email swapping and laughter, we all piled back into the van, dripping water to set off back in the direction of the city. We stopped briefly at another tiny hilltribe village, nestled into the mountain side, this time with people with ordinary length necks. Then we were off, back to Chiang Mai and back to civilisation. But our exciting day was far from being over just yet. After a hasty dinner, Ed and I headed off to see some Muai Thai boxing. I know nothing about boxing of any kind, but it isn’t too difficult to begin to understand the basics of Thai boxing, or at least to know vaguely who is winning. We watched 7 matches, each as exciting and thrilling as the last, and culminating in a international match, between a Thailand and Croatia. Despite all the very loud support for the Thai guy, Croatia eventually won, and we bounced out of the stadium still buzzing with the raw energy of the place. But our evening wasn’t quite over yet. We bumped into our friend Eric, the French guy from the trip, who told us about a bar called Zoe on Yellow, so we jumped in a tuk tuk and set off there to end the night with a few drinks. It turned out to be a pretty awesome place, totally rammed with Thais and backpackers and over a couple of cocktails I decided that I really do need to return to Asia and see it all, as a backpacker. I don’t love it in quite the same way I had fallen in love with NZ and Aus, but then again I haven’t seen nearly enough of it. Chaing Mai however, really had captured me and I was very sorry to leave it. It was thoroughly Thai, but also prettier, cleaner, more compact and easier than Bangkok. I would definitely be returning.