I thought riding an elephant would be easy, peaceful even. I was wrong. It started off well, after some coaxing my 4 year old elephant knelt down and I jumped on without too much hassle. I was sure the hardest part was over an now I'd be able to sit back and enjoy taking in the Thai jungle from on high. However, my elephant "Channa" had different ideas. First she refused to budge until I fed her a whole bunch of bananas and she received a stern talking to by the mahout (elephant handler). Once she finally got moving, instead of following nicely behind the other elephants, Channa proceeded to trudge in every other direction, tearing down branches and ramming her now terrified passenger into trees. I breathed a sigh of relief after making it down a hill without being thrown off, only to be confronted by a river. The other mahouts jumped on their respective elephants to guide them through the water but my handler ended up in the water so I was left to my own devices. I tried reckoning with the beast in english but figured, like the mahouts, my elephant probably had no idea what the hell I was saying ("slow down" mostly). For the rest of the ride I was ready to throw myself off at any moment, preferring to take my chances with the 3 metre drop to the ground rather than a delinquent stampeding elephant. Thankfully the dismount was uneventful but I think there's definetely a market for customised cushioned elephant seats or perhaps some sort of lycra elephant wear with built-in padding.
My elephant encounter was part of a three day trek into the Doi Inthanon National Park, south of Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. On the second day of the trek I found myself being led through the jungle by a family of three from the Karen village of Ban Koo Poi. My guides were constantly stopping to pick berries and nuts for me to try and after about three hours traipsing our way through the forest we arrived at the village.
The village itself has a population of about 300 people and unlike other villagers I had visited closer to populated areas, western tourists were still somewhat of a novelty to the locals. The Karen people originate from Burma and China but many moved into Thailand hundreds of years ago and now make up the largest hill tribe in Thailand. Apart from a couple of solar panels and a fluorescent light run on battery power in several huts, village life is primitive by western standards. Most houses are built of bamboo, wood and thatched rooves on stilts above the ground. The animals, mainly pigs and cows are kept under the house while chickens and dogs run around. The menagerie of animals makes it impossible to sleep past the crack of dawn and made me almost miss the low-flying planes over inner west Sydney. Entire families (including grandparents) sleep in one room of the house, while the cooking and living is done in the other room.
I was struck by the sense of community in the village. Children roam around freely and help each other do their chores without complaint, while the adults yell greetings to people within each house as they wander by. The ladies weave clothes for their families and the men make cane baskets to be used to collect wood and hold other goods. The village children greeted me with a friendly wave and a curious look and the adults would offer up a shy smile. Even with the presence of foreigners, bringing with them flashy cameras and ipods, the people in the village genuinely seemed happy with their lot in life. For this reason, very few people leave the village to live in the mainstream Thai community. I thoroughly enjoyed my night staying in the village but I was content to leave it all behind in favour of a hot shower and clean clothes!