FOR a totally new experience, try an elephant ride into the jungle. Tucked into the howreh on the elephant's back, DAVID BOWDEN finds it exhilarating, albeit a little uncomfortable.
The mahout grunts something only the beast understands. The beast trumpets, the bell clangs and slowly, oh so very slowly, we are off. Being ever watchful for low-lying branches, our jumbo-sized jungle journey begins.
We are to spend a very leisurely eight hours passing through some of the last remaining jungle in the Golden Triangle in northern Thailand and we ride on top of some of the oldest known working beasts harnessed by humans.
Mention the word "jumbo" these days, and most of us have visions of large planes flying through the air. Our jumbos are far from this as they move very slowly, very carefully, and very purposefully. These jumbos are of course, elephants, and riding on them is one of the highlights of our visit to an area bordered by Lao PDR, Thailand and Myanmar.
Probably the most amazing thing about sitting on the back of an elephant is the daintiness with which these huge animals move. Remembering that an average adult elephant weighs around two tonnes, it's difficult to appreciate just how delicately they move. Elephants can balance on an oil drum with all four feet, something most of us would find difficult. Elephants can go wherever humans can go, well almost - they're probably not too good at mountain-climbing or abseiling. The jungles of northern Thailand are rugged, so years ago, getting valuable teak timber from the forests was difficult without machinery. Elephants used to pull logs out in days gone by but today they mostly transport tourists along jungle trails.
Our journey involves following a creek from the valley floor up to its source high along the Thai/Myanmar border region. The creek bed is flat at the beginning but soon changes to a steep, rocky trail. The elephants don't falter; they plod on.
"We're not going to get up here," whispers my companion as we come round a corner to see a near-vertical rocky waterfall nearly four metres high. I say to myself, you're right, the ride's been nice, but here is where we start walking.
Our mahout, the guy up front who steers, like an elephant jockey, remains expressionless. Rather than ask us to get off, he grunts a few commands, gently taps the elephant behind the ear and its right front foot finds a level step in the rock face. The left rear foot joins that. Then the left front foot, then the right rear foot, until all four feet are balanced on an ever so small rock ledge. Meanwhile our howreh - that's like an oversized saddle - has gone back about 45 degrees, almost catapulting both of us out backwards. This is the first of many exhilarating encounters of the day. Our blood is pumping and the adventure has well and truly started.
The mahout is an elderly Thai who had worked elephants all his life. During the training of elephant, the mahouts become brothers, more than masters of the elephants.
This relationship starts early, in an elephant training school. For an elephant to be useful to humans, it has to be taught various commands. Their life is very similar to humans in that at five years of age, domesticated elephants attend school, just like a child attending kindergarten.
After six years schooling, the elephants are ready for work experience in the logging camps. It's not until 30 years of age however, that the animal is fully educated and can graduate. By about 60, the animals cease work and spend about another five years or so in retirement.
Mechanisation has obviously affected the working lives of elephants, but in isolated hilly terrain, elephants come into their own, as we discover when the trail is reduced to a stream.
By midday, both elephants and riders need resting. Sitting on a howreh is far from comfortable and good padding, such as a sleeping bag is essential for a comfortable ride.
Lunch is taken by a mountain stream, well into the hills close to the Myanmar border. It can be quite a lawless area, so choose a trekking company that's familiar with the terrain.
Over lunch, while the rest are content to lie down or paddle their feet in the stream, our elephants are feeding their voracious appetite. But why not? They haven't eaten for several hours, apart from the odd bamboo stem snapped off here and there. To keep their vast bodies functioning, elephants have to eat something like 500kg of fodder each day. They also trample and destroy much vegetation to seek out their food. In addition to this, they may drink up to 250 litres of water daily and go out of their way to seek out salt licks as salt is important to control intestinal parasites.
By late afternoon, everyone is glad to see our hill tribe village as this means food, a wash and a rest. While elephant riding is not always comfortable, we are sad to see the elephants return back along the jungle trail to pick up tomorrow's group, as it has been an adventurous journey only made possible by the elephants.
How To Get There
Malaysia Airlines (www.malaysiaairlines.com) and Thai Airways (www.thaiair.com) have several flights per day to Bangkok and from here there are many connecting flights to either Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai. AirAsia (www.airasia.com) flies daily to Chiang Mai. There are numerous travel agents in Chiang Mai who sell tours to an elephant park or an extended journey of several days that includes rafting and visiting various hill tribes.
Where To Stay
Most visitors to northern Thailand use Chiang Mai as their base although Mae Hong Son, Chiang Dao and Chiang Rai are equally as good and offer a more remote experience than Chiang Mai. In Chiang Mai, stay in luxury at the Sofitel Riverside (www.sofitel.com), The Chedi (www.ghm.com), the new Shangri-La (www.shangri-la.com) or for those on a budget, Galare Guest House (www.galare.com).
Northern Thailand At Cost
Chiang Mai need not be expensive but choose a five-star hotel and it could be. Food and transport is cheaper than in Malaysia. Visiting elephant parks and participating in day-long activities like elephant washing, elephant show and riding costs about RM30 and increases, depending on any additional activity you choose. Visit parks like Mae Taeng Elephant Park (www.elephanteco.com) or choose day-long trips from RM100 or overnight trips from RM150.
Elephant riding, rafting and washing elephants at one of several elephant parks. Shop around for more remote and jungle experiences. Buy paper products made from elephant dung.
The Tourism Authority of Thailand (Tel: 03-2162 3480, www.tourismthailand.org) has lots of information on travel to Chiang Mai.
Source: NST-Travel Times