Chiang Mai trekking in the jungles of Northern Thailand was something we had wanted to do even before we knew anything else about the area, about trekking in South East Asia or even had any other plans for backpacking. It became our code word for the adventures we would have on our long term travels but also for the discomfort it might bring! So to be finally in the “Thai Jungle” was a surreal moment for sure. We headed out on a gruelling 2 day hike through dense jungles, steep mountainsides whilst bathing in waterfalls and sleeping in bamboo huts…but somewhere along the line we also saw the darker side to tourism in Thailand and were left with mixed emotions upon returning to Chiang Mai.
A chance to explore the jungles of Northern Thailand: Chiang Mai trekking
Rewind back at least 4 years ago when we started talking about this crazy long term backpacking adventure that we are now and all we really had in mind was Thailand. Of course, we knew there were many other countries we wanted to visit but we were still a little naive to the possibilities, but after seeing freinds backpacking in Thailand, trekking through the dense and otherworldly jungles we knew it was something we had to do, it was that that really sparked off the idea to explore the other side of the world!
Many countries later, many amazing and life changing experiences on from those initial ideas and here we are, heading for the Thai Jungle, a phrase we would use to joke about whilst stood around in the kitchen at home cooking tea (Northern for Dinner!). So a two day trek through remote areas of the jungle, sleeping in basic village huts, bathing in waterfalls and soaking in this wonderful region was a top priority whilst in the wonderful city of Chiang Mai.
Trekking through remote parts of this region to a camp right in the wilds
The first day was right into the action, after having a traditional Asian breakfast of fried noodles in a tiny village in the foothills of the mountains we were straight onto steep trails. In the baking sun and 35c heat the up hill path through the humid jungle was not just your average stroll. The guide told us this particular route was on the “tough” scale but in this heat it really was challenging, however, we love pushing ourselves and relished the opportunity to trek deeper into this untamed landscape.
An unexpected and somewhat disturbing elephant encounter
The first day generally was a quite exhilarating and exhausting trek. We found ourselves in deep parts of the forest where the only traces of civilisations were small villages and small farms we came across. Seeing how different live was in these remote locations compared to the modern city of Chiang Mai was really eye opening and a refreshing way to see Thailand and fulfil our Chiang Mai trekking dream.
We finished the gruelling first day of Chiang Mai trekking at a wonderful camp down by the river in a traditional bamboo hut and by this time we had picked up 3 trekking dogs that had followed us for miles. Blackie, Goldie and Lucy! Blackie and Goldie had a bit of a beef over Lucy that lasted throughout the night, in the end they made friends! The camp was basic with small mattresses on the floor and mosquito nets over the top of us and bathing was done in the river. As soon as the sun dropped behind the line of trees and the camp fire was extinguished the night air grew colder and the melodic chorus of the jungle awoke, sitting around the camp fire this was a great camping adventure. However…
I was kept awake with questions from an encounter we had had just as we arrived at the camp. We were astonished to see a couple of elephants grazing close by to the river just below our camp. Initially thinking they were wild I was almost brought to tears by the scene, these beautiful creatures roaming free in their natural environment, what a magical sight. Then came a voice, they’re not wild, he proclaimed, they’re mine! He then stepped out with a rifle and it was at that moment we noticed the chains around their ankles. Our Chiang Mai trekking experience was soured.
He said they were for their own protection, against the villagers and for the protection of visitors too. Apparently one of the elephants was that disturbed that he had trampled the mans best friend to death just a year earlier and this was supposedly their “retirement” area. I really didn’t know what to believe. I felt like they were hiding their real intentions and the truth behind why these two were here. It made me question all the so called sanctuaries around here and as we had chosen specifically to go with a company who doesn’t do elephant jungle trekking intentionally we were quite disturbed to find that these men worked for the subcontracted company we had actually ended up doing the Chiang Mai trekking with.
A week later we eventually did find a amazing place where they protect and care for these animals in Chiang Mai. But this one interaction made us much more aware and cautious about trying to avoid becoming unknowingly involved in cruelty.
Read about our day at the elephant sanctuary here: Amazing elephants without the cruelty
A second day of trekking and cooling down in a waterfall
The second day however we pressed on again into some remote, beautiful and unspoilt jungles. Swinging on vines like Tarzan and getting to know our trekking companions even more. It was another tiring day mostly up hill and many sections also on dusty path ways in the red hot sun. The dry orange soil sticking to our sweating limbs before the eventual relief of exploring a bat infested cave gave us some cooler if not bat poop filled air! So far the second day was living up to our Chiang Mai trekking dreams.
With the dogs still in tow through the heat and brutal uphill slogs we were all happy to hear the crashing of the promised waterfall in the distance as we made what felt like our first descent of the journey to swim in its refreshing pools before lunch.
A second sour note with more mistreated animals and anger
Moving on from the well needed dip in the cool waters of the falls it was time for some food. Up a small wooden stairway to a small farm where we would eat cooked rice in bamboo leaves, a simple but traditional and filling meal we were all looking forward too.
But upon sitting down we were once again taken aback by a chained up animal. This time a tiny monkey clearly employed by the sadistic owner of this small farm to attract tourists as many crowded round to take photos whilst it tugged hopelessly on the cruel chain. Many other trekking groups congregated here for lunch and many were just as disgusted as we were and felt it soured their experience after once again selecting this tour due to concerns over elephants welfare. This was something we never expected when we wanted to do the Chiang Mai trekking trip.
But this was just the start. Our guide said the monkey was nothing to do with them. Which is fair enough. But if many people express distaste then surely they should stop using this guys farm as a lunch stop. He is clearly unhinged as the next and worst incident occurred. We had 3 dogs following us for the entire trek. Miles and miles of uphill sections, other people and other groups, but they stayed with us even sleeping outside our door over night. So we were pretty friendly with them, especially blackie who was a gorgeous and warm hearted dog who followed our every step. So as we ate Blackie laid at our feet and not causing any disturbance. This is when the monkey owner came charging over with a huge cane, whipping Blackie several times across the back and face as he let out a series of piercing yelps before being cornered and the stick launched at him.
I could not just sit there and let this happen. It was completely irrational, cruel and out of order. The man was deranged and the dog scared out of its wits. I leapt up and shouted out at the man. Telling him to stop and leave the dog alone, at this point I was shaking with rage and nothing could have allowed me to keep quiet. The man began shouting at me, clearly swearing in Thai but I really didn’t care. At this point I could no longer stay here. We got up and walked away, Blackie following us as closely as he could. I couldn’t eat, so as all three of us sat at the edge of the farm I gave my lunch to Blackie instead.
Overall: An eye opening experience in a different way that left us in two minds
The trek really left me in two minds and unsure what to write about it. The main problem here is that they are one of the only companies out there that actually offer trekking without elephants and yet upon further inspection they do also offer that too. So are you supporting the industry or taking a stand selecting the tour with no elephants? I’d rather go with a company that doesn’t just have an option not to trek with them and that actually takes a moral stance against it by only offering ethical tours. But currently there aren’t too many other options if you want to do the Chiang Mai trekking.
Secondly what happened on the second day was unacceptable. Generally the people in Thailand we have met are much more caring and compassionate than others in South East Asia for animals and those other guides there knew it was wrong but said nothing. The monkey too is something non of us sighed up to be part of. This company knowing how this man behaves really shouldn’t be held to ransom by him and should move their lunch elsewhere.
However we did have a wonderful time in other aspects whilst on our Chiang Mai trekking trip. Our guide was a warm and friendly young man who was a little quiet but knowledgable when asked. We were able to see the amazing rainforests and jungles of Thailand up close and in faraway spots, take in panoramic visas over mountains and farmland, bathe in waterfalls, eat under the stars, chat around the campfire and sleep with the sound of the jungle right next to us. We also met some wonderful people, dogs included, too.
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