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If you don't have much time and want to go elephant riding, do a little rafting and spend the night in a traditional hill tribe village; this is the program for you.

A Quick Adventure in North Thailand

When friends come and visit us in Chiang Mai, it is usually in late November; when it is nice and cool and the rains have ended.

Since we are all now getting on in years, a rough trek to the hill tribe villages and long walks through the jungle is not our idea of fun. However, we all still want to enjoy the hill tribe people and the fantastic scenery in North Thailand.

Believe it or not, this can be done while still avoiding most of the tourist crowds.

To enjoy a wonderful experience in North Thailand, you will need to speak a little Thai but if you don't speak the language, the best way to go is to hire a guide.

Since my wife is a Thai national and I speak Thai, this is not a problem for us.

Learning About The Thai Hill Tribes

A visit to the Hill Tribe Museum is a good starting point; to learn about the hill tribe peoples, customs and traditions.

To get there, drive on Highway 107 toward Mae Rim and look for a sign indicating a left turn into Ratchamangkala Park. After turning, a few minutes' drive brings you to the museum; a pavilion near a large lake.

The daily lives of the various hill tribe peoples are illustrated through exhibits of photographs, agricultural implements, household utensils, artefacts associated with the various traditional religions, musical instruments and ethnic costumes.

Thai Hill Tribe Museum near Chiang Mai
Thai Hill Tribe Museum near Chiang Mai

Some exhibits include models dressed in complete traditional costumes depicting daily activities, such as a Hmong family having a meal or a Lisu man serenading his sweetheart.

The museum is open on weekdays from 9am to 4pm. A slide and video show is available from 10am to 2pm daily, except Sunday.

The Elephant Camp

From here, go back to Highway 107 and continued north past Mae Rim; past the turn off to Mae Hong Son in Mae Malai (Highway 1095) and through Mae Taeng.

Once you pass Mae Taeng, go up the hill and a few kilometres more to a big sign on your left that says Mae Taaman. Turn left here and travel about 7km to a quiet elephant camp.

You can't miss it. Just before the village you will see elephants on your left. Turn onto the parking lot.

A Little Adventure

Here the quick adventure begins, although you will need to make reservations in advance; through your guide or tour operator.

To reach the Lisu hill tribe village (the adventurous way) means taking a one-hour elephant ride through streams and over mountains, then change on to an ox cart for a 20-minute ride to your bamboo raft ; for a 50-minute float along the river.

You will then transfer to a four-wheel vehicle for the short ride to a Lisu hill tribe village, where you will spend the evening with a Lisu hill tribe family and guide; to experience their way of life. Toilet and showers are available here, but there is no electricity.

Try and imagine you're not really going around in circles.

The Elephant Ride

When the elephants arrived, we walked up the steps to a boarding platform, where we got into the seat that holds two persons on the back of the elephant. We took off and right away headed for the stream. When we came to the bank, the elephant had to go down and the front bar kept us from sliding off. It was a little scary at first, but after you do this a few times, you learn where to hold on and it was kind of fun.

Once we settled down from the excitement of being so high off the ground and started into the jungle, we heard shouting from our friends on the elephant in font of us, When we get around the bend, we could see that their elephant was urinating. We are talking gallons here. When an elephant urinates, its whole body shakes something like being in the massage chairs at the airport.

Not only that, but an elephant eats constantly while walking in the jungle. This means it passes gas a lot and everyone got a real kick out of this. We continued on swaying gently on the elephant's back with the sound of birds and of the elephants constantly passing gas.

We travelled through stands of bamboo, and it seemed that the elephants never stopped eating, pulling the top tender bamboo branches with their trunks and eating them.

There are not many trees here, and the ones we did see were newly planted within the past 10 years or so. We came back and crossed the river again to a Thai village.

Fresh Bananas
Elephants Like Bananas

Here we got off the elephants at another platform, walked down the steps, and purchased more bananas; feeding them to the elephants as a tip.

We then tipped our elephant handlers (not with bananas) and were led to an ox cart harnessed to two white cows.

The Ox Cart

This is not your normal ox cart, as it had two comfortable, padded bench seats and was covered to keep us out of the sun. The ride was kind of boring, as we stayed on the paved road back to the elephant camp.

Next time, I will give this a miss. As I had never done an ox-cart ride before, I needed to do it so I could check it off my list of thing to do when in Thailand.

The Bamboo Raft

I have been rafting many times in Thailand but in rubber rafts through real jungle, so this was also boring for me. My friends loved it, slowly travelling down the river with the raft men pushing us away from the rocks along the banks.

We saw a few colourful kingfishers gliding through the air and children playing in the river and shouting, "Hello".

The rafting was relaxing, but I wouldn't want to do this in the heat in the afternoon. Make sure you wear a hat and put on sun-block.

Driving to The Lisu Village

When we got back to the shore, we were greeted by a Thai man who would drive us to the Lisu village in his pick-up truck.

First, we were to return to the elephant camp, where we had a wonderful Thai lunch along the river at their restaurant. After eating, we jumped in the back of the pick-up and away we went. The drive was only about 15 minutes or so on a dirt road through a small mountain canyon and across a stream and there we were.

The Lisu Hill Tribe Village

The village was very clean, with only about 10 homes or so. What surprised us was their beautiful, well-kept garden and also that the village was surrounded by trees. Most hill tribes do clear cut, slash and burn farming.

The elephant camp owns the land and helps them with funds and money for building projects. The villagers moved here from high in the mountains, because it was close to schools for their children and a much better way of life.

The village headman, Asapa, and his son, who spoke English, greeted us, and we were taken to his home to meet their family. We took our shoes off and entered his home. We were given a cup of green tea, which we sipped, and started asking questions.

The houses were built like those of the Karen or Lahu hill tribes, up on stilts, instead of with dirt floor on the ground like most Lisu homes. Asapa told me that although they stick to Lisu customs and culture, the homes more reflected a combination of hill tribe and Thai houses, which were more comfortable and sturdy.

In the village, we also learned about their farming methods, how the children got to school, who lived in which house and how many there were in the families.

Cooking Thai-Style
Cooking Thai-Style

While the dinner was being prepared, twenty or so Lisu men, women and children formed two circles in front of us.

The boys and men formed an inside circle while the women and girls were on the outside circle. They had all showered and changed from their colourful work clothes into their even more colourful evening costumes. The men usually wear T-shirts and Lisu baggy pants and the girls wear traditional dresses; which are easy to work in during the day. The children had changed from their school uniforms into their traditional costumes.

Asapa came out of his home in his black Lisu clothes and hat carrying a long musical instrument made of five bamboo pipes fastened to a gourd at the bottom end. Five holes were drilled in the gourd, where he put his fingers.

He walked into the centre of the circle and began playing. It kind of sounded like a flute but also had a bass note that added a beat. As he was playing and marching in the centre, the girls and boys joined hands and began dancing around the outside in their respective circles. It didn't take long before we all joined in.

We then went back into the house and sat on the floor.

Dinner was mountain rice; a lemongrass soup; a Lisu pork dish mixed with vegetables, which was not spicy; a very spicy chicken red curry; and fresh stir-fried vegetables. It was more than we could eat.

Lisu people like to eat black pig, which is much sweeter than the store-bought commercial white pigs. In true Lisu tradition, they are being kept in pens far away from the house and streams.

It was getting dark and a little chilly, so we put on our jackets and sat around a campfire that was made for us. In the house, the beds were being made up for us on the living room floor. Everyone took turns going to the bathroom and taking showers. Weepha even heated water for us to bathe with.

The mattresses were comfortable, sleeping two persons on each mattress. We were given clean blankets and pillows. I reminded everyone to put on their ear plugs, or at least keep them handy, as at 3am, the roosters would start crowing.

Soon, we all fell asleep while listening to the village sounds, people talking softly, children laughing, pigs snorting at times and chickens flapping their wings as they go into the trees to roost.

In the Morning

It was just getting light outside as I lay there listening to the sound of women talking softly and the wonderful sound of a dull ka-chunk, ka-chunk; which was the rice pounder taking the husks off the grains of rice. This is a morning ritual in a hill tribe village.

The rice pounder (as I call it) is a long beam with a fulcrum near one end. On the other end is a round piece of wood attached to the beam pointing down into a wooden hollowed-out log, set into the ground vertically. Two women put their feet on the beam, at the end opposite the hollowed log and press down. They then release their feet from the beam and the opposite end crashes into the hollowed log filled with un-husked rice.

The girls took the rice and placed it in large, round bamboo plates. As they tossed the rice into the air, the gently breeze blew the husks away to leave nice white rice kernels in the bottom.

The sun was just coming up but yet to peek over the mountains, and a foggy mist was lingering from the ground up at about two feet or so. Smoke was coming from the homes of people cooking rice and their breakfast.

Since it was a weekday, the children of school age were dressed in their school uniforms carrying their little backpacks. We waited with them for the school bus to arrive, which was a large truck with benches and steel cage with a door in the back.

Once we waved them a goodbye, the village seamed deserted. Most of the villagers had already left for the town or to work in the gardens. The women, who worked in the gardens, put on their traditional colourful work clothes and the men were back in their baggy bright blue or green Lisu pants and T-shirts.

The only ones left in the village were children too young to start school and the grandparents that took care of them, all in traditional dress.

Breakfast was rice porridge with minced pork, green onions, roasted garlic ginger, and parsley.

After breakfast, the truck from the elephant camp came to pick us up.

As you can see the adventure is short but it's a great way to experience a traditional Thai village if you're staying in Chiang Mai.

By Randy Gaudet.

Related Links

Doi Inthanon National Park:
Doi Inthanon National Park covers the areas of Sanpatong District, Chomthong District, Mae Chaem District, Mae Wang District, and Toi Lor Sub-district of Chiang Mai Province within an approximate area of 482 square kilometres.

Thailand Travel Notes:
Bangkok is often the starting point for travel to Thailand, unless you are overlanding up from Malaysia. Find out more about Thailand @ Travel Notes.

Virtual Hilltribe Museum:
A project of the Mirror Art Group of Chiang Rai, Thailand to document the rapidly changing cultures of hill tribe people in northern Thailand. While countless volumes have been compiled about the popular hill tribe cultures, almost all of these works have been written by Thais or Westerners and, therefore, carry the bias and mistakes of an outsider. The Virtual Hill tribe Museum is the work of the tribal people themselves.

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