In the tourism brochure here, they’re blandly lumped together like some eco-tour to-do list: Elephant riding, Long Necked Ladies, Hill Tribes, Bamboo rafting.
This is Chiang Mai, Thailand, the launch point for many of these tours and a one-stop shop for the ‘exotic’, not found amidst the tumult of Bangkok’s bustling urban core or the Euro-dominated Phuket beaches (where hot chilis are removed from dishes so as not to offend western palettes).
Chiang Mai is a mere 90 minutes from Bangkok by plane, and The Land of Smiles’ second most populous city. Or, for what’s touted by some tour companies as “more of a real Thai experience”, you can intermingle with Thais on a rickety overnight train from Bangkok’s Hualamphong station. This offers the sights and smells of the cramped, sanitarium-like confines of a bunk, with sleep invariably interrupted by drunken lurching to and from the dining train—the conveyance’s de facto pub that along with the wobbly ride of the rails, offers little opportunities for all but the deepest sleepers. However, for those weary of the ‘friendly skies’, it’s a cost-effective alternative that apparently offers quite the view of the countryside during daylight hours.
Chiang Mai itself is a lovely, charming, livable city, miles away literally and figuratively, from the jostle and red-light hustling of the country’s capital, with rental bicycles aplenty and loads of public parks where a game of Takraw Lod Huang can be enjoyed (a highly skilled hybrid of volleyball and basketball using any appendage but the hand) or where one can simply watch the world go by. The city is also a focal point for the more sharply bitter-infused Northern Thai cuisine, influenced heavily by nearby Myanmar and Laos.
Unfortunately, the delights it has to offer are often lost on the casual visitor, looking to fill their Flickr profiles with National Geographic travelogs of a human zoo-like experience of a trek to see Padaung long-necked villagers.
For all the cynicism, these treks, however, do actually serve a function—that of maintaining Padaung culture in the face of big-city migration by an ever dwindling population.
Elephants have experienced this urban migration too. According to a recent report in The Scotsman, there are nearly 4,000 so called ‘domesticated’ elephants in Thailand today, many of which find their way into urban environments.
When the government banned logging to save the nation’s dwindling forests, hundreds of elephants used in that capacity found themselves as tourism beasts of burden.
It’s worth noting that while many Westerns are loath to support such an activity back home, when in another country it soon becomes just another rung on your eco-tour ladder, especially when it seems (counter-intuitively) like ‘the thing to do’ as elephants are such an entrenched part of Thail life. That being said, for those who’d feel less than comfortable riding pachyderm piggyback It is comforting to know, that conservation efforts are underway in newly created nature parks in the northern reaches of the country, in the so-called Golden Triangle.
One enterprise that won’t weigh on the conscience and quite comfortably marries the almighty tourist buck with a respect for indigenous life is a chance to visit the Hill Tribes. Travellers are afforded the opportunity to lazily navigate an inland tributary by bamboo raft, piloted by locals dragging an oar along the river basin and then spending the night in a Hill Tribe Village in the rugged highlands.
These tours and concomitantly lengthy hikes (not to mention bathroom facilities of a ‘bucket of water and a hole’ variety) are usually enough to dissuade the less resilient traveler and attract the most inquisitive, and are characteristically lead by villagers themselves, eager to share their heritage. And while kicking back and cracking open a can of lager while a traditional tribal dance is performed by village girls around a campfire is incongruous, to say the least, small groups of travelers do get a chance to rest their tired heads in actual village huts amidst the wild pigs and chickens, which is an experience few forget.
It also gives travellers a chance to meet and greet with village elders and kids and get as close to village life as someone from this continent would want (not to mention fabulous, hearty home-made food).