As mentioned in my last post, as soon as we arrived in Chiang Mai, we shopped around to see what day trip packages each travel agency had to offer. We stopped at an agency with a really nice and knowledgeable saleswoman who was willing to give us a good deal. We went for the “Day Trek” which included a visit to an orchid farm, a meet and greet with women of the “long neck” tribe, bamboo rafting, riding on elephants, swimming in a small waterfall, and finally, white water rafting…All in one day!
A bus picked us up bright and early the next morning, and we joined a small group of 5 other people: a recently married Indian couple, a Chinese couple, and a Japanese guy who was learning Korean! (He was pretty good.) We kind of kept to ourselves in the beginning but by the end of the activities we had bonded and it was kind of sad to say goodbye!
The first stop was a beautiful orchid farm. I have never seen so many huge, colorful orchids in my life! It was also pretty cool to see them growing above-ground. There were rows and rows of them, filling an entire greenhouse.
After, we headed towards the “long neck” women of the Kayan tribe. I was excited to see and meet them, to speak with them and find out about their culture first-hand, especially after seeing their beautiful portraits published in sources like National Geographic. I expected them to be friendly, open, and proud of their culture. I thought that we would actually be going to a village to see what everyday life was like for them.
Unfortunately, I was wrong. We pulled up to a dirt road and followed it to a neat row of huts with a woman of the tribe inhabiting each one. There were only about half a dozen women there. It was not a village at all, it was a touristy set-up organized to exhibit the women and exploit the culture for revenue. Each hut was filled with tacky souvenirs and I immediately became aware that the women’s sole jobs were to collect as much additional Baht as possible. The whole thing felt very artificial and awkward.
Many seemed very detached from the situation and rather than interacting on a deeper level with tourists, they just seemed desperate to sell souvenirs and postcards. Determined to get some profundity from the situation, I approached a girl who looked like she was around my age and asked her about the rings around her neck. She spoke English and explained that she had worn them ever since she could remember, and that she even wears them to sleep. She spoke in short sentences though and seemed really hesitant and reserved. She was 22 years old, just like I was. I asked to take a photo with her and it’s crazy to see the contrast between cultures that we were raised in.
Immediately after our short conversation, she asked if I wanted to buy anything from her store. The whole environment just made me feel like in exchange for speaking and taking photos with the women, you were obligated to pay or buy something.
After the whole ordeal, I did some research about the tribe, and realized that they are not Thai, but Burmese refugees who had escaped the country to avoid the conflict between the government and its citizens. In Thailand they have very few rights and are exploited for tourism, with restrictions to leave and find asylum elsewhere. It was our first indication of the need to be conscious tourists.
I was a little relieved to get on the bus towards our next destination. We drove up to a big river surrounded by leafy vegetation and emerald green mountains. We put on some life vests and boarded a big bamboo raft.
It was a really serene ride as someone stood with a tall bamboo stick and steered us through. I grew up in Illinois, otherwise known as the Prairie State, so any landscape with rolling hills and mountains still fascinate me to this day. It was really nice just relaxing under the sun and taking in the greenery around us.
After the ride, we crossed a big rickety wooden bridge over the river to ride elephants! Since this was our first encounter with elephants in Thailand we were really excited.
Our elephant’s name was George and he was adorable and sweet! Every elephant was assigned to a guide who would lead them through the path, which was basically a big loop through a valley between the mountains. At the end of the first half of the route, there is a tall hut filled with sugar canes, which you can buy and feed to your elephant. As soon as we bought a bag, the elephant reached its giant trunk back to grab it from us! We gave our camera to our guide to take some photos and he got real snap happy, to the point that the elephant started lingering away from the path as the guide took zoomed photos of the anatomy of the elephant (i.e. We got some details shots of its tails, toes, etc.).
Everything was new and exciting at first, until we started noticing how aggressive our Thai guide was being towards our elephant. Since it was the rainy season, the dirt path was super muddy, and the other elephants left deep potholes where they passed. Our elephant wanted to avoid these potholes and it was obvious that he felt very uncomfortable moving forward since the path was super slippery and downhill. In two seconds our guide lost his temper and started dragging the elephant forward by its ear. Yikes. A few minutes later, the elephant hesitated again, and this time the guide took a rod with a metal hook on it, and started hitting the elephant on its forehead with it. Woah. I looked at the spot afterward and saw there were scars there from former beatings, and it was slightly bloody. As the guide let me sit bareback on the elephant on the way back, I got a front row seat to all of this. I was not a happy camper and felt incredibly horrible for paying any amount of money that would encourage this kind of behavior. If only I could carry George away to safety on the back of our rickety little bus. Thomas and I were really affected by this, which influenced our tourist decisions later (post to come soon).
As we waited for our bus at the end of the ride, we spotted two baby elephants. They were so cute and playful!! It made me sad to know the future they might face.
Finally the bus came and took us to a small waterfall that we could climb and jump from. As Thomy jumped in, I decided to stay back and watch all our stuff. Our bus driver walked over and insisted that he take my photo. I thought it was charming how camera-happy the tour guides were. Thais are also super sweet and smiley, so I just thought he was being really nice until he just started taking random shots of me walking around and such, and also snuck in a photo with his phone. Um, awkward. At that point I thought it was better that I escape into the waterfall as well and jumped in.
The last and final leg of the trip was white water rafting. It was my first time white water rafting and it was so much fun!! We had so much team spirit, especially after our raft coach basically left us to fend for ourselves when one of the guys on our raft lost a paddle because he wasn’t listening to directions. It was actually hilarious because we didn’t really know what the hell we were doing but just went with the flow (pun intended), yelling with exhilaration at the top of our lungs even for the smallest rapids. When we got back, we washed off, and our tour guide surprised us with a huge poisonous millipede on steroids. He said one bite could paralyze a person.
No doubt that this was one of the most packed and adventurous trips I’ve had! But as fun as everything was, the trip definitely opened our eyes to a lot of exploitation and mistreatment that has become the result of explosive tourism in Thailand. It seems that people will do anything for a few extra Baht from foreigners. This trip taught me to be a well informed, more knowledgeable tourist. I made sure to do more research before jumping into things for our next bookings.