Trekking, Rafting and elephant-riding in Thailand

Text and photos: Erik Pontoppidan, Copenhagen, Denmark

Click HERE for Danish version of this page.

Trekking in the forests of northern Thailand is an exciting experience. Although a tourist-arrangement, the surrounding nature is impressive and interesting. In addition to a walk in beautiful surroundings, you get a chance to visit some of the local tribes in the area. And finally, almost all the offered trips include elephant-riding and river rafting.

In July / August 1996, I travelled around in Thailand for 4 weeks with my 12-year-old daughter Birgit. The only thing arranged in advance was the flight tickets: Copenhagen - Bangkok with Thai Airways and from there on the way out with another plane to the town Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. Here, we stayed the first week at a nice guest house near the town centre, 10 minute's walk from the sparkling night market and very close to many of the 300 temples in the town. Our modest guest house was a very nice and relaxing place to stay, with many inspiring backpackers. But in addition to that, the guest house could offer us a 3 day trek to the jungle up north in the area called "The Golden Triangle" between Burma and Laos. Together with our guide Piroon and 9 other tourists, we had 3 tremendous days, which we will never forget. Here is an edited selection from my diary:


It's a little sad that we are going to leave the friendly and secure Chiang Mai Garden Guest House - but we will be back in 3 days, and of course we are looking forward to the trekking. After breakfast, we all enter a songthaew (pronounced sawng thaéw) - in Thailand the name of a very common type of pick-up with seats along the sides in the back of the car - and drive into the jungle. The driving time to the starting place of the trek is 3 hours. On the way, we stop in a village in order to take in supplies for the trip. After leaving the sealed road, it really gets adventurous. The car is now climbing a steep dirt track, an the landscape is getting still more wild.


We sleep in the village in a bamboo hut built on wooden posts. The trip next day is going to be a 3 hour trekking down to an elephant camp and from there another 1 1/2 hour on elephants to the next camp. We start the trekking at about nine o clock, and initially, we descend steeply through the forest. Later, we walk between rice fields made as small parcels and terraces among the trees. The farmers are friendly, waving and greeting us as we pass by.

After 2 1/2 hours of walking, my daughter discovers the first elephant. Later, we both see a lot more of them. It's really an experience to get close to and touch these enormous animals without a cage in between. Their skin around their head feels very hard, but the stomach feels soft and elastic.

After lunch in the elephant camp, we start the most exciting part of the trip from my daughter's point of view: 1 1/2 hours on elephants through the jungle! That's really great! For a long time, I have been wondering, how on earth you get on the back of one of these giant creatures, but this turns out to be very simple: The animal goes to a tall "footboard" made of bamboo, and from there, we step across the head to the back and sit down in a small wooden chair. By the way, I thought this ride was planned as a trip along a peaceful dirt track, but I was very wrong! OUR elephants are definitely cross-country walkers! The route passes up and down along steep hills in the forest, through muddy, stony streams, and the last 15 minutes through a powerful river in water covering the legs of the elephants. It's quite astonishing, that the animals are able to co-ordinate their four legs on steep hills and in stony river beds. As we enter the river, it starts pouring down, but at this time, it doesn't matter. In some way, this puts an extra dimension to the experience. My daughter insists on giving a name to our elephant and proposes that we call her Ella.

When we reach the next camp at the river bank, we are all wet through, but it doesn't matter so much in that climate. We sit down under a thatched palm roof and enjoy life with beer, coffee and tea. From the jungle, we can hear a lot of strange, unknown sounds. One of the sounds come from the monkeys in the trees. A short way upstream, about ten water buffaloes are enjoying life as well, almost covered by water.


To-day, we go river rafting for about 4 hours downstream on the Mae Teng River! Although a tourist invention, it isn't less exciting for that reason. The Thais have got a genius idea: Bamboo trunks are used for thousands of things in this part of the world, but when the trees have been cut down, they must be carried out of the rain forest. And how do you solve that problem? You make rafts by the trunks for the tourists! Each raft can carry 6-8 persons including the luggage, which is placed on a tripod in the middle so it won't get wet.

We start the rafting after breakfast - after a small delay because one of the rafts is overloaded and has to be strengthened! But anyway, it becomes a wet experience! On this trip, it's a great advantage to be in the tropics! If this had taken place on a Swedish river, several of us had caught a cold! Every time we pass a strong current, the raft is pulled down so the water comes up to our knees. My daughter enjoys every minute of the trip, but I am very nervous in the beginning because water is not my element. Fortunately, our guide Piroon is an excellent captain - but one time, we hit a big stone so everybody is thrown forwards. Some of us even fall into the water a couple of times, and another time we all have to jump into the water in order to remove the grounded raft.

The whole trip takes about 4 hours, and everybody helps with the steering. Everybody is carrying a long bamboo stick, which is to be used to for this purpose. 4 hours is a long time to stand upright, but half the way, we take a break. Apart from the technical difficulties about the sailing, the trip itself is incredibly beautiful. The river winds its way between the wooded mountains, and from the rain forest, you can hear all the sounds connected to the expectation of a jungle.

As we reach our destination after 4 hours, we eat some nice Thai food in one of the well known bamboo huts. Later, we enter our songthaew and start the drive out of the rain forest, back to Chiang Mai. At the moment we start the drive, the usual intense afternoon rain starts, changing the dirt tracks to puddles. Apparently, we must have been far away from everything since it takes about an hour to reach a sealed road. After 2 1/2 hours, we reach our friendly Chiang Mai Garden Guest House at about 6 p.m., and after a well earned shower + meal, it's time for another visit at the fantastic night market in town.

Click on the photos for max. size

The rest of the 4 weeks, we did a lot of other exciting things, which however didn't include trekking: Relaxation on 2 palm islands in southern Thailand (Koh Samui and Koh Pha-Ngan), sight-seeing in Bangkok, which we both found incredibly exciting, cycling around the Kwai River bridge in Kanchanaburi, etc. In Bangkok, my daughter persuaded me to visit the world's biggest restaurant (so big that the waiters had to use roller skates in order to serve their customers!). Unfortunately, this restaurant is closed to-day.

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