The next day we were picked up at the crack of dawn by our tour guide, who was to take us to visit the Karen tribe, one of the many tribes who had fled persecution in Myanmar (Burma) and are among the estimated 130,000+ refugees who live in remote little villages in northern Thailand, speaking their own dialect and living a simple existence.
After an hour or so drive from Chiang Mai, we were ready to begin trekking to meet these people. Despite having travelled for almost 6 months, Liam and I still managed to wear the wrong shoes, and stubbed our toes in our flip-flops on numerous occasions as we climbed up steep hills in the forest to get to the village. To be honest, it was all a bit of an anticlimax - although they lived in little bamboo huts and showed us how they made fabrics by weaving the cotton which they'd coloured using vegetable dyes, they also told us how they made regular forays into Chiang Mai to sell their goods at the markets, and I'm sure I saw one of them with a Blackberry...
Ok, so I lied about the Blackberry, but the point is they weren't exactly tribes as I expected, all strange rituals and stretched necks etc. The only way in which they differed from other villagers we'd already met was the fact they chewed red betel nuts continously, giving them wide, gummy grins, only a handful of teeth between the lot of them.
Afterwards, we continued trekking until we came to a waterfall, and cooled off on the rocks for a while before stopping at a homestay for lunch - sweet and sour chicken, rice and pineapple. We gobbled it down, eager to get to the main event of the day - elephant trekking.
As we came to the elephant camp, I could hardly contain my excitement..there were several huge elephants as well as one tiny baby, too cute for words.
Never ones to miss a business opportunity, several locals rushed up to sell us bananas for the elephants. We obliged and climbed up to the platform to board our elephant of choice. I'd forgotten about the bananas in my hand as I went to get on the elephant's back, but it hadn't escaped the notice of another elephant behind, who was wrapping his trunk around my arm and trying to grab the bananas whilst I wobbled about, shrieking as I dodged his wet nostrils.
The guide encouraged Liam to sit behind the elephant's ears, whilst he sat alongside me in the chair on his back, and Liam soon discovered why - it's pretty uncomfortable sitting behind the ears whilst the elephant jerks you about as he walks. It was great fun to ride on the elephant's back, his trunk coming back over his head every few minutes to indicate he wanted another banana. The first time he did it I didn't realise he'd curl his trunk around the food, and stuffed the banana up his right nostril instead. Doh! I even peeled it, much to the guide's amusement, who showed me what to do instead..chuck about 5 bananas in their skins straight into his mouth. He was a stubborn creature, often refusing to budge until I handed him another banana.
"Giving him them one at a time is like feeding a man a bowl of rice, grain by grain," Liam observed, so I got a little more generous and gave him 2 after that.
At one point he refused to move at all, despite me giving him a load of bananas, so the guide shouted at him, then jumped down to the ground and started poking a stick in his ear until he finally started walking, with a sigh. I'm soft at heart, (yes,really) and felt quite sorry for him, so much so that I bought him another load of bananas, which was probably what they hoped I'd do I guess.
To get back to Chiang Mai, we took a bamboo raft down the river, which seemed quite a pleasant option until we came to some rapids. A few bamboo poles strung together with vine aren't really your first choice of transport in such situations, yet our guide managed to avert a disaster using another bamboo pole to steer us past the jutting rocks. Nevertheless, we all got soaked and found the journey pretty hair-raising at times. What is it with us and dangerous watersports, when we barely visit the local swimming pool at home?
Still, it had been a fun, and memorable day and we were relieved to be back on dry land and heading back to Chiang Mai for a few cold Chang (which means elephant in Thai) beers and to reflect on our day...