Untamed Thailand

Story and photos by Ted Alan Stedman

“There are tiger leeches along the trail – harmless, but I suggest you wear these protective socks,” cautioned Shane Beary as he handed me garter-length muslin stockings to thwart the little blood suckers. I scoffed until the strapping former South African military survivalist-turned-guide gave me a look that said I’d be sorry if I didn’t. Muslin garters it was.

I’d just arrived at Pang Soon Lodge and Track of the Tiger outdoor education center to explore surrounding trails buried deep in northern Thailand’s mountain rainforests. Being the first stop of a two-week adventure ramble, it seemed I was off to a good start. Beary’s Track of the Tiger caters to travelers wanting to experience what he calls a slice of “untrammeled Thailand.” He wasn’t kidding. Beyond the lodge clearing, the landscape dissolved into a near-impenetrable forest primeval, emanating the same jungle chatter you’d expect on Animal Planet.

With several Khon Muang village forest guides wielding sticks and machetes, we climbed up from the Mae Lai stream and followed a 19th century horse caravan trail leading to Lampang, then waded through rivulets and maneuvered the botanical maze before arriving at a misty waterfall with a pristine plunge pool. While I removed an errant tiger leech enjoying my blood, I half-jokingly asked if they were the inspiration for the center’s Track of the Tiger name.

“Actually, that would be the four-legged variety,” he said. “There used to be a fair number of tigers roaming these mountains.”

“But no longer?” I asked.

“Well, there were several cattle killed and eaten recently down the valley,” he conceded. “No worries. Tigers generally avoid groups of humans.”

With those encouraging words we threaded our way through the verdant landscape several kilometers back to the lodge. Though we never glimpsed any stripes – we settled for an emerald pit viper nonchalantly draped from a branch – the prospect added that palpable sense of adventure that had drawn me half-way around the world.

Bustling Bangkok, Buddhist temple circuits and lavish resorts dotting the paper-white coastlines are Thailand’s tourism mainstays. But the country also has a spirited “soft adventure” scene that’s exploding in popularity, especially in the conjoined Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai provinces of the north. The region straddling the ancient southern spur of the Silk Road has become Thailand’s nature hub, flaunting the most densely forested land in the area, the country’s two highest peaks, elephant sanctuaries, numerous tribal villages, trekking trails and sizeable rivers. For my money it seemed like Eden – even with leeches.

From Chiang Mai, I ventured into the surrounding lush valleys and misty mountains of what was known as The Kingdom of Lanna, or “Kingdom of a Million Rice Fields.” A new enterprise worth checking out was Flight of the Gibbon, a zip-line stitching together 100-foot-high platforms in the stately old growth forest of Mae Kompong. I’ve done my share of zip-lines, including marginal outfits where a little voice in my head questioned the rationality of literally putting my life on the line. But this operation was expertly built by a Kiwi zip-line guru who made sure all safety precautions were in place.

Zooming tree-to-tree at 30 mph and over 100 feet above the forest floor was an adrenaline rush. And also a nature fix. Skirting the upper canopy of the magnificent rainforest puts you eye-to-eye with some interesting life forms: orchids, colorful birds and a few things of the wiggly variety. Of course our eyes and ears were trained for the local celebrities that are the outfit’s namesake primate, the lanky, long-armed gibbons that routinely swing among the trees here. But just like the elusive tigers days earlier, there were no sightings on this day, though we could hear the primates whooping it up somewhere in the treetops.

If tigers and gibbons were absent, Thailand’s most charismatic icon, the Asian elephant, certainly wasn’t. On the outskirts of Chiang Mai the Patara Elephant Farm might be one of the county’s best places to interact with the pachyderms in a dignified way. When logging was banned in 1989, suddenly there was an elephant “surplus” as the animals lost their job security. Nowadays, pay-to-participate sanctuaries like Patara allow a portion of the country’s estimated 3,200 domestic elephants to live without the burden of hard labor or being reduced to Bangkok street performers.

At Patara I went through a detailed orientation of how to become a mahoutfor a day. Be forewarned: it’s not for the squeamish. Hands-on work required some gritty procedures involving elephant health, habits and other caregiving necessities. After the dirty work I was charged with giving Mekapawa, my feisty 23-year-old elephant, a scrub bath in a stream. Just imagine washing a moving RV without a ladder.

“She likes you,” observed one of Patara’s resident mahouts, pointing out her flapping ears and swishing tail. “It’s good. Mekapawa can be our most difficult elephant. That’s why you feed her lots.” Sound advice, I thought. So throughout my jostling bareback jungle ride to the waterfalls and back, I made sure 10,000-pound Mekapawa had plenty of opportunities to forage for grasses and bananas in the flourishing outdoor supermarket.

But all adventures here don’t veer into the wild. Walking the streets of the province’s namesake capital is mesmerizing; think of it as an urban safari. You can wander the parameter of Chiang Mai’s Old City for hours on end, right along the still-intact fortress walls and moats built about 700 years ago. I might have put in miles carousing the boisterous aisles of the Night Bazaar, and the city’s oldest and most famous marketplace, Talat Warorot. From munching fried bamboo worms (“like popcorn” I was told) to seeing three-foot-long Mekong catfish slithering in tubs awaiting their fate, this exotic hive of raw commerce makes a Westerner re-calibrate their refined sensibilities.

A visit to Thailand wouldn’t be right without some Buddhist proclivities. Ornate temples are rarely far. In Chiang Mai, Wat Chedi Luang, dating to 1441, is the city’s most visited and a highlight of the local temple trail that usually takes in nearby Wat Chiang Man and Wat Phan Tao. To witness the height of Buddhist celebration, however, arrange travel here to coincide with the spectacular Yi Peng festival, held on the full moon during the second month of the Lanna calendar (late October to mid-November). This festival, known for the Lanna-style khom loy, or sky lanterns, is incomparable.

A melodic prayer ceremony attended by a gleeful throng of thousands gives way to countless candle lanterns launched into the night by worshipful monks. Like giant translucent orange lamps, the large paper contraptions rise thousands of feet, illuminating the black sky with a speckled constellation until they dissolve in a rain of glowing embers.

After several more day journeys to elephant camps and forest preserves, I drove a scenic four-hours north to Chiang Rai, Thailand’s northernmost province. This is where the mountains and lowland floodplains of the mighty Mekong River intersect with the borders of Myanmar (Burma) and Laos in what’s known as the fabled Golden Triangle. In the 19th century this region was the opium trade’s epicenter. But that’s all history now, and the area has moved on to become a traveler’s base for trekking, river excursions and for visiting nomadic hill people who’ve settled in villages on remote mountainsides.

From the capital city of Chiang Rai, a steep, rough mountain road with crater-sized potholes leads to the Yao and Akha Hill Tribe Village at Mae Chan. The Yao are friendly, heartwarming people who migrated from southern China and are unusual for being the only minority group in Thailand to have used a written Chinese language dialect. As I walked the dusty red clay corridors, children swarmed around me and smiling adults beckoned me with their handicrafts while small pigs, chickens and dogs roamed freely between rows of dirt-floor wooden houses.

A short drive away I visited the village of the Akha people, fairly recent arrivals who crossed into Thailand from Tibet and southern China just 100 years ago. The Akha people appear different from other tribals – smaller stature with darker complexions and delicate facial features. Another quality is that women wear highly exotic, ornamented costumes and metal jewelry that have become all the rage in Thai fashion circles. Walking this village I couldn’t help but think that these people were enduring a life of what Westerners would consider poverty. Yet all around me the children played like children anywhere and adults were busy with chores and maintaining their stilted homes perched on the steep hillside.

As I photographed some costumed women who posed for 20 bhat – a good deal –  my guide talked to one older Akha woman dressed in ornaments and colorfully detailed clothing. My guide said the woman asked where I was from. When she learned I was an American, she smiled with teeth stained dark red from chewing betel nut, and said something “She thinks you probably consider her village as poor, but that would be wrong,” my guide explained. “She wants you to know that they live simply but have everything they need. To the Akha, this is the most beautiful place in the world.”

I smiled back with a nod and a lump in my throat. “Tell her she’s right. This is the most beautiful place in the world.”

If you go: A premier eco-resort on the northern Thai-Myanmar border is the Four Seasons Tented Camp Golden Triangle (www.fourseasons.com/goldentriangle). Another luxury resort that accesses eco-adventure activities further south is the Four Seasons Chiang Mai (www.fourseasons.com/chiangmai/). Domestic airline routes make it easy to visit most regions in Thailand. Groups might consider private tour guides like those represented through Thai Tour Guides (www.thaitourguide.com).

More info:Visit www.tourismthailand.org. A good resource for planning flights and tours can be found at www.tat-usa.org.

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