I had nothing planned for this day, therefore the perfect opportunity to tick-off other highlights worth seeing. I found one enormous bucket list opportunity, reminded every time I passed a tour service through the. That was a very well-known tribe that lived in the hills of Chiang Mai. A tribe which escaped persecution many years ago from Tibet, those were the Karen (Long-Neck)Hill Tribe.
Instead of spending heavily on a tour, I was confident I could arrange it myself. I asked the incredibly friendly and helpful staff at my hostel (one of the best hostels I’ve ever stayed, details below) helped me out. They weren’t 100% sure where to find the tribe, and maps didn’t indicate where they were. All they knew was to go to a certain town North of Chiang Mai and follow a road that led into the hills. The tribe should be somewhere along there.
The city was only 10 miles away, and constant inspiration on how to get there was streaming by me every day. The bread-and-butter of Thai travel, scooters. Renting one seemed like the way to do it. I was confident there would be plenty of other things to see along the way.
A Day at the Snake Farm
The first unscheduled stop was indicated on maps.me, which showed there was some sort of snake farm in the area. I rocked up on an unassuming little booth which indicated a King Cobra Show, and a sign “200 baht”. The place was slightly legiti with banners outside of pictures of the staff next to none other than John Rambo. Apparently, in one of Stallone’s latest movies, they must have worked with them.
I was the only visitor there at the time. One of the crew offered to take me around the little farm to see the displays. There were several cages with all manner of creatures most of which being scaly.
The first of which he opened up the gate and suspiciously offered
“You can go in to take picture.” Just simply step into a cage with many snakes which he assured me weren’t poisonous. With each cage he took me to he gave a detailed explanation; what they were, how they live, what they ate and where they were found.
He also took out a set of very gentle and incredibly beautiful tree snakes, which immediately gave me a godly sense of courage; feeling no fear holding the snakes. This, unfortunately, brought my guard down. As he took the snakes off me, he grabbed my hand before pulling out an enormous black emperor scorpion. I immediately ripped my hand away and refused. I’ll do a lot of pushing your limits sort of shit but fuck that.
He wouldn’t stop, he kept trying to grab my hand assuring my “It’s okay, it’s okay.” Not wishing to offend or look like a whiny tourist, I let him place it on my forearm, sending me into paralysis. As I calmed for pictures, I started to get used to the little guy. He then pushed the ante and started pushing the bastard towards my shoulders and neck. I’ll happily never try that one again.
Following this was a short performance from the staff and some of the resident snakes. By now a small crowd of North Americans and a German had gathered and sat on the near-by wooden stands. Each staff member in their turn took out different snakes. Some of which were highly venomous, which wasn’t enough to deter them from coming in extremely close contact, baiting them to strike.
The lack of health and safety came to a point where we had the opportunity to take selfies with some highly venomous cobras. It was an opportunity I couldn’t miss, and the perfect time for the staff to take advantage. Naturally, I had to cautiously perch myself on the side of the ring only watching the snakes through my phone. This is when one of the staff members poked me in the ass with the pole he had in hand. This clearly launched me across the yard to the laughter of the onlookers. Well played sir.
A Cultural Eye-Opener
Hopping back on the scooter, I kept driving into the hills of Chiang Mai passing via a few more temples and even a waterfall. After about 20 minutes of driving, I began losing hope that I’d find any sign of the hill tribe. Not even the reliable maps.me had any indication. Eventually, signs to the effect of “Hill Tribe” started to pop up indicating a turn-off ahead.
I was a child when I first discovered this tribe. I had an obscure collection of Where’s Wally travel magazines called Wally’s World. They were full of facts, history and general entertaining points about various regions of the world. In one of the magazines I specifically remember a piece about the Karen Hill Tribe, and obviously fascinated by the pictures of the women with extraordinary long necks. It was my first real exposure to a culture completely alien to me, beyond what I considered reality at that time. Now I was about to meet them in person.
After following a series of signs, I arrived at the ticket booth and paid the 500 baht entrance fee before being let loose into the village with a little map. There were several different tribes in the village, each collected in their own groups but sharing the same space. Each with their unique culture and history indicated with helpful info boards. They were also easily recognised from the different garments they wore.
After passing through a few smaller tribes, I arrived at the Karen tribes portion of the village. Immediately recognisable by the numerous golden rings adorned by the women. I tried my hardest not to stare, but couldn’t help but be fascinated at seeing the very people I had wished to meet since my childhood. Fascinated at how they lived their life, their values, self-preservation.
Some individuals were quietly working away crafting extraordinary garments while others awaiting the opportunity to sell. Otherwise were living daily life observing me as much as I observed them. The best example of this was in the village’s Buddhist temple. As I had a quick look around the monks were fascinated by me, and they asked me for a photograph. Each came to me in turn and embraced me close as they took a picture. Given the circumstance, I politely asked if I could also have a picture.
The only issue I had with the experience was feeling like yet another ignorant foreigner. The type who feel they have a right to invade their village, stare at the tribe members and stick a camera in their face. Spending over a year in China I completely understand the frustration that comes with that sort of treatment. However, it is a double-sided argument. For one thing, tourists have been visiting the tribes for years to observe, something they must be very used to by now.
More importantly, however, tourism is practically their only source of income. As they’d escaped persecution from Tibet, they arrived in this area of the world unable to speak the language and therefore unable to find any work. As a result, the only income they have is the tourists that visit and purchase the crafts that they make.
Just for clarification, these women don’t actually have extended necks as the name and images might suggest. It’s actually an incredible illusion. It’s the women’s shoulders that are sloping downwards as a result of these rings, giving the illusion that the neck has grown.
Following this incredible bucket list event, I was happy with my exploration of the hills. I decided to make my way back to Chiang Mai ‘s centre, of which I had two options. 1) Either drive back along the high-way I came 2) A much longer road that led deeper into the hills before looping back. Having the scooter, I just couldn’t resist. I Moto GP’d myself through the rain forest coated hills over twisting and winding roads passing numerous beautifully adorned temples with Jimi Hendrix and the Rolling Stones blasting through my headphones. Complete and utter fucking bliss.
Second Scam of the Trip
The day ended with another gullible tourist scam, a much more famous and prevalent one. It started when I took my scooter down a one-way alley. Sharp as lightning jumped out a policeman with a clip-board, almost as if he was waiting for me.
“International licence?” fuck sake, this again? I handed my British licence knowing full well he wouldn’t accept it. “You don’t have international licence?”
“You need one” on cue he pulled out a laminated picture of what the licence should look like, quickly followed by another laminated sheet which had the cost. “It’s 1000 baht for having no licence” how predictable. But it wasn’t over. Yet another laminated sheet was taken out with a menu of offences and their subsequent fine cost beside them. He pointed to the offence I’d committed which was 500 baht. “I will write you a fine, and you must go to the police station to pay”. I didn’t have the time or patience to deal with the bullshit of going to the station for something millions of tourists do every day, let’s just get this shit over with
“Can’t I just pay you?” he laughed.
“How much money do you have?”
“I don’t have 1500”
“Okay, you give me 500 baht now and it’s over” I very deliberately took out 500 baht in plain site to boost the shame of his actions as he abruptly tucked it beneath his numerous laminated sheets. In the end, having to bribe an officer of the law the equivalent of £12 was worth it just for the story.
Particular special praise should be given to my hostel, which was absolutely magnificent. For all those people who recoil in horror of people staying in hostels, this particular one was my argument for why. It was your normal bunks sort of arrangement, but it was everything else that made it so spectacular. First and foremost being the back of the hostel, it was right up against the river that runs through Chiang Mai. Wooden huts placed around the back yard aloud you to lay and relax there observing life along and across the river. It was fucking beautiful.
The staff were also perfect examples of Thai hospitality and total kindness. Undergoing every interaction with enormous smiles, they helped me arrange outings, bike rentals, willing to hold onto my passport when I was out on a tour, happy to let me relax in the back after my check-out awaiting my flight. Amazing people, and an amazing hostel. Oh, and it’s the cheapest accommodation in ALL of Chiang Mai.
Spending Time with the Elephants
This was my final day in Chiang Mai, and only right to end it with a bang. It was time for my last tour, spending some time with some elephants. Naturally, people have started to figure out, which tour you take is important. There’s a hell of a lot of “Sanctuaries” in the area which couldn’t be further from it.
There are certain places where the elephants are beaten and tortured from birth, to make them submissive and suitable for extremely close contact with hordes of unwitting tourists all year round. These are easy to recognise as they offer an opportunity to ride one, something that shouldn’t be done.
Luckily though there are plenty of well-reputed places where the care of the elephants is put first. Most of these elephants will have been rescued from industries that exploited them. Not only the tourist industries but also logging ones.
I woke up late to the call of the guide waiting for me in my hostel. The first place we were taken was a regular stop for any elephant tour, the Elephantpoo poo paper park. Its exactly as it sounds. Something I’ve seen before, a company which takes animal faeces (in this case elephant) and turn it into paper. Our male guide with bright pink lipstick took us through each step of the process around the tropical little factory, even letting the visitors take part in some steps.
Following this, we were taken to the angelic little hut in the middle of the rain forest where we had to change into matching red garments. This was for the comfort of the elephants who gain familiarity with the tourists that arrive in the same clothing. Before we were introduced, we were taken through the different processes to make medicine for the elephants as well as how they prepared materials to scrub their skin.
The group was then led to our first elephant of the day, known as a gentle giant. Following the theme of the sanctuary with the elephant’s best interest in mind, the elephant wasn’t tied up or restrained in any way. It simply stood in a very simple 3-walled bamboo structure just enough to keep both the elephants and visitors (including children) at a suitable distance.
She was yet another rescued elephant from the logging industry, still bearing the scars across the top of her head. We were first introduced to her by feeding her bananas which she would accurately whip around her trunk to seek them out and wrap them up. We were told to be careful as elephants’ trunks were powerful enough to break your hand.
We then had the opportunity to scrub the elephant with the soup we’d prepared. We were told not only is it good for the elephant’s skin but acts as a natural insect repellent. Not only that but after the roots were done scrubbing, the elephants happily ate them and were fascinated with the odour that remained on your hands.
We then carried enormous baskets of bananas over the road to where a group of elephants were waiting patiently. There were 6 elephants in total of varying size lined up in a similar simple bamboo hold, patiently sticking their trunks out familiar with what was coming next.
We had to grab 6 bananas and walk down the line handing one to each. This is probably out of fairness that these highly intelligent animals could see. They were clearly hyped up and despite being friendly enough with each other, the trunks became highly competitive.
During this whole experience, one of the friendly staff noticed I was a lone traveller and offered to take my camera and essentially take pictures of me through the whole experience. Not only did he do this out of his own kindness, but he took it super seriously, practically as if I hired him. He dutifully took numerous pictures of every angle, trying his best to avoid the other visitors, even taking pictures of me when no elephants were there. Special thanks to him.
We then went on a little stroll with the elephants into the grasslands nearby to watch them do what they do naturally.
They were then led back over the road into where the river runs where the elephants playfully ran into. They were then led into a deeper pool where we’d have the opportunity to get into the water and clean them. We had hand-scrubs and a little bowl to do the job, as they patiently stood there waiting for a groom. What a conclusion to possibly my favourite destination in the world, Chiang Mai.
A Welsh university drop-out on a mission to travel the world for as little money as possible. My adventures have taken me through over 30 countries across Europe, Asia and Oceania, and the list keeps on growing! From classic backpacking to working and volunteering, I have found all sorts of ways to maintain a life on the road.