Monday, April 18, 2005

Day 19 - The 'trek' continues

The day started early. Our guide awoke us at 6:30 in the morning. Unlike Bangkok and Chiang Mai these Thai highlands were refreshingly cold at night and in the morning and I had no choice but to put on the only extra clothes I brought - a second t-shirt.

Prior to exiting our sleeping quarters I proceeded to take out and eat one of my prepared meals of canned sardines and bread. Upon exiting I was again surprised by the fact that a native breakfast was prepared for us. Surprisingly their breakfast was quite similar to the one we enjoy in the civilized world - scrambled eggs, toast and folgers coffee.

After breakfast we set off on a one hour hike over a conveniently marked jungle path which led from the village towards the location where we were supposed to meet our elephant transport. We arrived in a small village and were met by native women selling trinkets that look strangely similar to trinkets I had previously seen in the markets of Chiang Mai and not particularly different from those I saw in Beijing. Whether these native women had been able to establish a trade network for their trinkets in Beijing or whether these authentic native bracelets were produced in an authentic Chinese labor camp 'factory' somewhere in the Guanzhou province of China I will never know because I ain't buying that crap.

In any case we waited for some time in the village while our two mighty elephants were driven into the water and bathed by 12 year old boys sitting on the elephants' heads. These gentle giants waited patiently while they were being washed and then stood quitely by while our group posed individually for pictures with them. After the elephants had been bathed the handlers attached benches to their backs and we started climbing on top of them. I was told that 3 people would ride per elephant, but the benches seemed pretty small for that number. After the Australian couple got on and sat on the bench I was invited to board the elephant. I had sat down on the bench when I was told that this was not my place and my guide informed me that 'elephant neck stronger than elephant back'. This was to signal me that I was to sit on the elephants neck during this part of the trek. I slid down and prepared for the journey. Unlike the fluffy images we have of elephants, they have very thick coarse hair on their backs. At the same time riding on the elephant's neck was many many times more comfortable than riding a camel. The skin is relatively soft as is the top of the animal's head where I had to hold on to keep my balance when the beast was going up or down slopes. Unfortunately I do not have a picture of me on the elephant, but hopefully I will eventually be sent a picture taken by the german guy from the back of the other elephant. (probably not)

In any case once everybody was seated - with the australian couple and me on one elephant and the handler and the german couple on the other - we were off. Our guide remained behind in the village. The day was really very hot so it was uncomfortable. In addition to this the novelty began to wear off quickly since we had no control over where the elephant was going. It had probably been walking the same path for the past 20 years and could have probably taken every step blindfolded. After half an hour I was tired of both sitting the way I was on the elephant and the whole experience and wasn't afraid of the prospect of falling into the cold refreshing river water off the back of the elephant. We rode the elephant for about an hour and a half down a path and through a river. The elephant would occassionaly refresh itself by taking air into its trunk and expelling it in a stream into its face. It would also use its trunk to spray water on its feet. The elephant also used its trunk to pick up sticks to scratch itself and to pick up branches to swat away the flys buzzing around. These seem to be rather intelligent beasts.

After an hour and a half we got to another village where our guide was already waiting for us. He checked the time and informed us that the sun was too hot to begin rafting now and in any case our bamboo raft was still being prepared. The bamboo raft is a pretty simple contraption. You take some long bamboo sticks and you use bamboo bark to tie them together. They are easy to repair as well all you do is tie bamboo bark around those beams that are coming off the raft.

After a nap of a couple of hours we were ready to go on an adventurous trip down the wild river. The wild river was in no place more than 4 feet deep. There were however some places where the raft would get stuck and sometimes down certain rapids it would gain enough speed that when it would hit a rock and come to a complete stop and people would almost fall into the water. I did fall into the water, but was rescued from drowning in 9 inches of water by the german guy who pulled me back into the raft. I did however sustain a mild cut to my forearm where it hit one of the rocks. Fortunately I had my first aid kit and applied iodine.

The raft was piloted by our guide who stood in the front of the raft and directed where the front of the raft would go by pushing off the bottom with a long bamboo stick. He would sometimes shout out directions to the 2 out of the 3 guys also standing and holding bamboo sticks in the back of the raft and who wuld occassionally try to direct the boat as well. I am not sure how much help we were in the back of the raft but am positive that most of the work was done by the guide and we were more a decoration than a practical aspect of this cruise. In the beginnining of our rafting cruise we were joined by a native boy who had a fishing net. Unfortunately there were very few fish and before he had caught a fish he decided to get off our boat and go back to the village.

After about 3 hours of rafting we arrived at a lodge where we had some Chang Beer and some Phat Thai and waited for a pick-up truck to go back to Chiang Mai. Within 2 hours we were back in Chiang Mai and I was back at my hotel. That day in the evening I went out determined but circumstances dictated the abandonment of my goal and the retirement to my abode and sleep.

The next day I had to catch a train back to Bangkok because I had a plane to catch back to Hong Kong and onwards back to the States.

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