We were anxiously awaiting traveling to Northern Thailand not only because this would be the first time someone would join us on our travels but because the food was suppose to be spicier and more flavorful and we could catch a break from the heat. All of the above was waiting for us in Bangkok. We met up with my sister and brother in law at the swanky joint, The Banyan Tree hotel. Loren and I stood out among the professionally dressed guests around us.
Almost half way thru our journey around the globe we are looking a lil grungy. Loren’s hair is almost poney tail worthy and he has quite the beard. My hair is wild and long with lots of blonde coming thru, I presume from all the sun. We are both sun kissed coming from the south islands and our clothes are telling of all our adventures. This hotel was our Christmas present from Marcella and Matt and wow did it feel good to lie on a pillow top mattress and take a bath in clean water. The morning we checked in we hung out in the room enjoying the view from the 55th floor and the impeccable clean room. That evening we did the usual, wandered the streets to find a dinner joint. We landed ourselves a table at the Rice Bar to have some bibimbap and later wandered through the park back to the hotel.

The four of us ventured to see the temples Bangkok had to offer. The grand palace was as stated and the reclining Buddha was more impressive than anticipated. We travelled to China town to have “the best pad Thai in Bangkok,” or so they claimed . . . we disagreed. For second dinner, we had an epic dinner 62 floors up, at the open-air restaurant Vertigo of the Banyan Tree Hotel. It was surprisingly calm more than 600 ft up – above the smog – and with little wind to speak of.

The next morning we narrowly averted a well rehearsed scam involving an overly-friendly ambassador, a tuk-tuk driver, and a remote textile factory. Instead, we pulled the ripcord and abandoned ship just steps from a delectable French bakery – just perfect for coffee and breakfast.

A short flight brought us the Chiang Mai – capital of the North. Marcella found us a beautiful boutique hotel on the river call Sala Lanna. The rooms overlooked the river with claw-foot bathtubs prominently featured in the middle of the rooms. We sampled the delights of northern cuisine at a nearby riverside restaurant before heading to the Sunday night market in the old city.

The night market of Chiang Mai was similarly packed with tourists and hawkers, however it had a distinctly different feel than Bangkok or the islands of the South. The vendors are laid back, casual, and many times prices were marked – at least as a starting point for negotiations. We headed back to the hotel early each night to share stories and drinks on the balcony and throwing bones with our newly gifted set of dominoes.

We did as much research as we could to find a reputable camp offering a meaningful experience with the majestic asian elephants. Lampung Thai elephant conservatory provides medical treatment and care for sick elephants from all over Thailand and a retirement community for previously working animals formerly employed in logging, entertainment, and tourism.
They have an onsite hospital that manages Thailand’s first mobile clinic, treating needy elephants free of charge. Here we enjoyed watching the elephants bathe, partook in feeding them sugar cane and bananas. The nursery was particularly interesting with each pen labeled with descriptions of the mother or stepmother and baby. The babies were playful and their appetites seemed to even trump their size.

We chose to stay for the “show” which consisted of the elephants demonstrating their skills – mostly thru voice commands. They are beautiful and smart animals that seemed to enjoy the tasks that they completed. The relationship with their mahout seemed more than just trainer and beast. They seemed to have a special relationship and reliance on each other.

The next day we visited some of the many temples in and around the city. Highlights included a remote and dilapidated temple swallowed whole by the jungle and the mountain top Doi Suthep. There we received blessings from the eldest monk, “Happy, happy, happy. Lucky, lucky, lucky.” And “Happy marriage.” Atop the mountain, and in such a holy place, together we gave thanks for the opportunity to make such an epic journey. We gave thanks to have each other and such fortunate and loving families. We made prayer and gave offerings with friends and families in mind.

The next day we made our way to Chiang Rai. There is beautiful scenery across the plains although less dramatic landscapes than in the South. Although comparably smaller than Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai felt bustling and busy with foot traffic and market stalls. More and more great food with every meal.

Thursday, November 27th we embarked on a thanksgiving journey we’d never forget. We booked a hill tribe trek through Population and Community Development Association Chiang Rai (pdacr.org). This is one of the only community based initiatives that provides trekking tours to visit the hill tribes of Thailand. These treks allow tourists to be immersed in the culture of different native tribes of Thailand.
We started with an hour long boat ride on a wooden long tail boat on the Ako river. We passed small villages, huts made of straw, big stucco resorts, fisherman wading in the water catching their dinner and beautiful mountain ranges. It was quiet on the boat as we all took in the beauty around us.
Docking at a small village which led us to the elephant camp we saw a 200lb Python, this monster was as big around as Loren!
We arrived at the elephant terminal- climbed up a bamboo ladder to a platform made of bamboo to carefully and hesitantly climb aboard our elephant. The mahout sat along the neck of the elephant and often times would balance on the top of the elephants head. He carried a rope with one chain link attached at the end and a spike in his belt- we didn’t seem him use either of these tools, just a light pinch of the ear or voice command to get the elephant to do as he wanted. I was convinced that his feet were also used to communicate with the elephant, making small gestures alongside his ears and neck.

A note on elephant rides and elephant tourism in Thailand:
In 1988 there was a disastrous flood and series of huge landslides killing thousands of people and destroyed thousands of homes, mostly due to massive deforestation. In response, in 1989 Thailand completely outlawed all logging within its borders. In effect, these thousands of domesticated elephants went from being the breadwinners of many families’, to an unbearable burden to feed and maintain. Having been bred in captivity, elephant tourism became the only viable option for most of these magnificent creatures (the unlucky were sold to illegal Burmese logging operations). PDA uses the mahouts and their elephants as a mandatory part of their tours purposefully contributing to supplying the tribe members and their animals meaningful work and gives the elephants, which otherwise would be put to work in illegal logging operations or “elephant begging” syndicates in crowded cities, a more “humane” way to live their lives and stay near the jungle where they have access to plentiful food sources. The animals we saw and rode were healthy with no tell tale signs of chaffing from the baskets or chains. We did not see any mistreatment of the animals, beyond the fact that they were wearing padded baskets. The mahouts owned their animals and did not lease them therefore were more invested in the safety, health and happiness of the animal.

Gin, our guide, in her late 30’s originally from China, but grew up 2 hours outside of Chaing Rai in a village similar to the ones we were visiting. She got out and into the city as a teenager and studied hospitality and tourism at the university where she learned English. She was knowledgable about all the plants, medicinal herbs, and local customs.

She widdeled bamboo walking sticks for all of us to ward off dogs, snakes or anything else the jungle might be hiding. The trail was so narrow the palms were rubbing against your body on either side for 3 hours straight. The thicket of the green cover was broken now and then by small bamboo forests. The steep valley walls were dotted with planted pineapple, banana trees and coffee.

We arrived intact at the Akha Village. One dirt road flanked by a row of houses, and further surrounded by pig pens and cow sheds. Chickens, dogs, even pigs roamed free throughout the day, and children constantly played in the street. The older women wore traditional head dresses and lower leg coverings. One woman, we later dubbed “Gandma,” took particular interest in Matt and Loren’s beards. She told us she’s had 10 children. As each villager passed, she would point and claim them as her child. Each interaction always ended with an opportunity to purchase traditionally styled handicrafts.

Shortly after we acclimated ourselves to our surroundings, the sun began to set, and for a short while, the short street was alive with women gossiping, men smoking, and children playing. Puppies were commonplace and their cuteness universal. Without streetlights, only a small fire lit the street and the crowd dispersed little by little.

Dinner was simple and filling; Boiled vegetables and rice to refill the reserves for more trekking in the morning. Our gracious hosts even gave us a taste of Thai whisky; A fitting nightcap before retiring to our thatched roof bamboo huts.
The bathroom was a cement room, to my surprise there was a real porcelain toilet and spigot for a shower. The mattress was hard, and the mosquito net kept us protected from whatever might crawl on us thru the night. I slept lightly throughout the night; between the roosters and the thoughts of gratitude bubbling in my mind. Thankful for a hardworking father and a loving mother that always made sure a roof was over our head and we had clean clothes and fresh food. Gratitude for the opportunities to pursue whatever school or vocational training I wished. Thankful for a hardworking husband that is conscious about how his decisions affect the both of us, how lucky we are that we are experiencing this and it’s not our daily reality.

I often reflect on my desire to learn how the locals live, what they eat and how they think. I was fortunate with this opportunity to absorb all of this except their thinking of course…because of the language barrier.
The next morning we took a “short walk” which means 2 1/2 hours here 😉 to the waterfall where our guide and one of the men from the village, Mr. Aba, made us a bamboo lunch. Mr. Aba cut down bamboo as we walked to make cups, chopsticks, pots and serving dishes. Gin packed rice into a thin bamboo stick and placed it in the fire, the bamboo pots were filled with water for soup and tea.

Back in Chiang Rai we showered, ate, and spent the night reflecting on such a physically and mentally engaging experience. Our remaining time in Thailand flew by with flashes of the night market, the contemporary white temple, we said our goodbyes to Matt and Marcella and continued on to Cambodia.

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