Don’t eat the wild mushrooms in Chaing Pai. Some will make you die. Some will make you fly.
My trip began on a 12 hour overnight train from Bangkok, Thailand to Chaing Mai, the largest city in northern Thailand. I didn’t have high expectations for the train, but I was happily surprised when I realized the bunks I slept on were actually comfortable and spacious. I had heard that taking the overnight train was essential for the ‘real Thai experience.’ I assumed, since I booked in coach, I was going to be sleeping on a dirty leather chair probably still warm from the person before me.
Instead, I slept on a nicely made lower bunk bed with my friend, Lauren, whom I was traveling with at the time. Lauren is low maintenance, so traveling together works out well, especially since backpacking isn’t for the faint of heart.
We arrived early in the morning around 8 a.m. and hopped on an overpacked red passenger van to a recommended hostel. The ride was scary. We weaved between traffic on narrow roads, whipping around every corner possible and almost falling out the open back. But we made it. We dropped off our backpacks and headed for our destination, an elephant sanctuary.
There is a dark side of animal tourism in Thailand. Many of the animals endure exploitation and abuse. Why else would so many wild animals become so docile and obedient? Elephants in particular are subjected to prolonged torture and abuse for public entertainment and tourism. For this reason, it was important to Lauren and I to research and choose the right company to see these gentle giants.
We booked our tour through Rong-Ton save and rescue animal sanctuary. This sanctuary rescues elephants from circuses and other abusive agencies and cares for them in the jungles of Chaing Mai. Riding on these elephants is strictly prohibited here. Instead, their service allows you to feed and bathe these wonderful creatures, showing them the love they deserve.
Lauren and I were introduced to ‘Bobi,’ an eight-month-old baby elephant who was just old enough to play with and immature enough to do whatever the hell he wanted. He was crazy spoiled and he knew it. If he didn’t get his way he’d complain, and you’d have to deal with the wrath of his mom. No one wants to deal with an angry 2-ton mother. So when he wanted food, we fed him. When he wanted attention, we showed him love. And when he wanted excessive amounts of sugar cane that we spent all afternoon cutting, we had no choice but to indulge his sugar cravings.
After Bobi was fed and happy, we took the older elephants into the jungle and catered to them individually. The expressions on their faces as they stuffed their mouths full with sugar cane reminded me of my lust for pizza after a long night of drinking. Desperate. Plump. And undoubtedly happy.
Snack time was over and it was time to get dirty. We plunged into a giant mud pit, where we splashed around all afternoon. I was covered head to toe in a mixture of mud and elephant poop. Adding insult to injury, the elephants continued to douse me in this stinky concoction, but not even a mouth full of elephant shit could cloud my skies.
I badly needed a bath though, and so did they. So we made our way to the river. Swimming with a giant two ton animal sounded pretty intimidating at first, but they were as innocent and childlike as ever. We took turns spraying each other and laughing at the other, enjoying the hot sun as it beamed off the water. In this moment, nothing in the world mattered.
These animals, who once felt pain and suffering, showed me how small and unimportant my problems were and how far showing compassion can take you in this world. If I could return to any moment, it would be this one.
But, as always, the adventures continued on.
Later that evening, Lauren and I booked a bus to Chaing Mai’s sister city, and Thailand’s hippie capital, Chaing Pai. Pai has become a popular travel destination in the recent years along the South East Asia backpacker trail for its lax drug laws, drunk backpackers, and funky bars that pump out transcendental dance music.
This does not mean drugs are legal here, because they aren’t. But it’s easy to find magic mushroom shakes and a joint or two at almost any bar. Whether you’re a backpacking hippie or not, it’s worth the visit.
It was dark and stormy when we arrived. Since we had no reservations, we walked aimlessly until we came across a bundle of bungalows. They were cozy and, more importantly dry, so we set up camp. As always, we dropped off our backpacks and headed to town.
That’s the night we met Ju. Ju was a small, scrawny Thai man who had the most outrageous crush on Lauren. Thankfully, this worked in our favor because he worked at the most lively and psychedelic bar in town and would give us whatever we wanted. Free drinks. Free water. Free snacks. I mean whatever we wanted. And Lauren was into him too. So, I became the third wheel.
We decided to head home when it began to rain. Crossing the janky bamboo bridge in the dark was already hard enough, and we knew a storm would only make it worse. We got back to the bungalow and both fell asleep in my hammock, swaying with the stormy winds. When we awoke we headed to town for fruit shakes and scooter rides.
We had made friends with four other backpackers the night before and they decided to join us on a hike deep into the rainforest. We filled our bags with fruits and water and set out on an adventure. We scootered for about 20 minutes until we reached the edge of the rainforest and could ride no more.
On foot we went.
I decided to break out my hiking boots that day, but I learned quickly we would be walking through the river for the majority of the two hour hike. I guess I should be thankful because my calves are looking nice and toned now.
After an uphill battle, and countless bug bites, we reached the Mae Yen waterfall. It was absolutely breathtaking and pretty high up. I stripped down and free climbed up the edge of the waterfall where a limestone pool awaited me. We spent the afternoon swimming in its pool and soaking up the Thai sunshine.
It was the best bath I’ve ever taken.
I was past pruney by the time we began our descent back to Pai. Lauren and I were the first ones back to the scooters. We headed back to our bungalow and napped. Later that evening, we decided we’d give our friends some space and venture out to the nightlife alone. We happened to be there during the Reggae Festival in Pai, the city was lit up, somewhat literally.
Since Lauren and I had already made friends with the bartenders and the DJ, we got VIP treatment. We’re definitely not VIP material, but I’ll take free drinks, free body paint, and live music any day. We shuffled from bar to bar following the crowds of people enjoying the free spirited atmosphere that engulfed us.
I didn’t wake up in the hammock this time but instead wrapped up in the mosquito net hanging over the bed. I chugged a bottle of water and cured my hangover with a mug of coffee and a good read on the porch. When Lauren finally climbed out of bed, we set out on our last adventure in Pai.
This time we headed for the hot springs. We met up with out hiking friends again, refueled our scooters, and headed out north of Pai. It was a 30 minute drive speeding down the back roads, which were overrun with the luscious rainforests. Ten minutes into our journey, we were stopped due to elephant traffic.
I wasn’t expecting the hot springs to be as hot as they are, with the coolest at 30° Celsius (86° F), and the hottest at 46° Celsius (114° F). It was so hot standing in the hottest pool that it burned my feet, so we opted to cut this adventure short.
While bathing, I ran into a cute German boy who I had accidentally angered by spilling my drink on the night before. I tried to apologize and make conversation, but he wasn’t having it. In a favorable twist of fate, he let it slip that he had lost the keys to his scooter in the rapids. Jumping at any chance to seek redemption, I offered him a ride back to Pai, making me his ‘knight in shining armor.’
That was until I crashed.
Trying to flirt and drive at the same time took my attention off the road. I didn’t see the giant mud pit that was quickly approaching and next thing I knew, my bike had hydroplaned and we were on the ground bleeding and covered in mud. My redemption had brutally backfired. And my ego was more damaged than the scooter itself.
I don’t know why, but the German was a good sport and helped me to recollect myself but this time, he drove. When we made it back to Pai, he dropped himself off at his hostel, and that was the last time I’d ever hear from him. I like to think he thinks of me from time to time.
Later that afternoon, Lauren and I returned our scooters and traded up for two bus tickets. We said farewell to our newfound friends and headed back towards Chaing Mai. We celebrated our last night in Northern Thailand with beers, chicken curry, and Muay Thai Boxing.
Despite the bumps in the (literal) road, Thailand was one righteous adventure.