Thailand Trekking: Traveling by Elephant in the Land of Smiles

I grew up really LOVING “Ripley’s Believe it or Not”, reading the comic strip, reading the books, and later watching the shows.  I imagined myself having a job like his.  Travel the world and capture images and stories the bizarre and fantastic.   My trip to the golden triangle of Thailand included amazing animals including elephants, tigers, monkeys, and cobras, with people so far removed from my world, from indigenous people living off the land, to refugee hill tribes are simply happy to find peace.  The refugees escaping oppression and seeing extreme contrast in Thai joy and Burmese oppression. Visiting the hill tribes especially the long neck Karen tribe was the fulfillment of a childhood dream.  What a joy to spend time in the “Land of Smiles.”

Long Neck Karen - Giraffe Hill Tribe

The big question is why did they start putting these rings on their necks?

Long Neck Karen Children Weaving

There are a number of reasons to describe why they have the rings on their necks.

  1. The rings actually coils make them more beautiful are a sign of beauty and wealth
  2. The coils are designed to protect their necks from tigers!
  3. The coils make the women unattractive to the nearby tribes.

There is some pressure to blend into society, and leave the cultural traditions behind.  As their tribes get closer to modern society some are deciding to take off the rings.  Parents feel a new pressure to keep the rings on their kids for tourism.  Now that really changes the dynamic.  When people come to visit the tribe, we obviously want to see the authentic tribes living life, but if they are celebrating a tradition that happens only on certain holidays and doing the dance that only happens after feasts are we messing things up, or is it preserving the culture that otherwise would get wiped out.  There are definitely decisions that must be made about what is healthy.

Long Neck Karen Children Weaving

There are a few myths as well.

  1. They have the longest necks – actually the coils push down their shoulders and it just looks like their necks are longer.
  2. They can’t take off the coils and rings – not so.  In fact they take off the coils to wash.
  3. The rings can cause cancer – I’ve seen this in comments.  While it would definitely be uncomfortable, the tribe apparently lives longer than other tribes because they are more aware of medicinal plants.
  4. The tribe is not animists – in fact many of the Karen tribes are Christians.  Fascinating to see Christianity practiced in an environment with no pictures, living in bamboo huts lashed off the ground to protect them from tigers.

As a tourist going paying to visit the tribes I’ve heard some horrible comments calling it a human zoo.  I see it differently.  These ladies sent their men out to the fields and were actively working on projects.  They had much worse lives in Myanmar and were creating a new life.  They were living in the mountains, and in a native type environment, but one were they could weave, and carve and sell products they had produced themselves and support their families.  I really care for them, and politically am very excited to see more freedoms in their native lands.  My experience got me looking into the environment and better understanding what was happening.

Long Neck Karen Market

You can purchase hand made cloth, wooden carvings and bracelets.  I bought some wood carvings and hand weavings.


Many of the Hill Tribes are refugees from Myanmar also known in the western world as Burma.  We visited three tribes living fairly close together:  The White Karen (below), The Long Neck Karen, and the Yao (pictured above with red buff). 

Hill Tribe Dancing

We were greated by the white Karen tribe with a some cultural music.  There are easy day trips from Chiang Rai where you can visit a variety of different tribes.  Over the past few decades the hill tribes people emigrated from Burma as they were repressed and hunted by the Burmese Junkta. The military.  They are minority groups who fought for their rights.  They live very simply, and have to work very hard.  They do have very rich cultural traditions of music, dancing, and having fun. 

Karen Swing

I was surprised to find they had time to build a swing and enjoy such fun dancing and music.  The swing is a traditional swing (above).  It was great my kids had the chance to interact with the other children.

Sawadee Cup

The difference in language didn’t keep them from playing a game of hopscotch and enjoying the big swing.

Karen Hill Tribe Music and Dancing

Dancing with the Karen Hill tribes.  The elders enjoyed spending time with my boys.  No matter where we were in Thailand, the locals wanted their pictures with them.  Pale skin is considered attractive.  In fact in Myanmar you’ll find it common to see skin cremes left on the face not even rubbed in, spread out in designs to be more attractive.

Burmese Baby

We really enjoyed our interaction with the hill tribes.  While we didn’t speak the language my kids met kids from one of the tribes that led us on our hike.  Our guide was very pleasant and pointed out plants, played around with the kids, and helped teach us about the traditions of the different tribes.

White Karen Tribe Elder

The Thai Attitude Toward Life

“Generally, Thais accept their lot in life without resentment. They are usually good-natured and give the appearance that they are carefree (which is not always the case.) There is a sense of fatalism in their attitude towards life, which comes from the Buddhist concept of karma. That is, one’s past deeds bring consequences, both bad and good, to one’s present life. Trouble and suffering are believed to be a result of bad karma, while prosperity results from good karma.” – read more about the Thai Culture from YMAM

Family at Chiang Rai Temple

Some of the most beautiful temples I’ve ever seen are in Thailand.  The Chiang Rai white temple was fantastic.  I love religious temples, and I can and did spend days just visiting Buddhist temples in Thailand.

It’s a contemporary style made of tons of mirrors and white stucco.  It was started in 1998 and is designed to be perpetually built over the next 60-90 years.  It’s fascinating art work on the inside.  I saw scenes from star wars, but as well if you take a close look at the devil you will see small portraits of Bin Laden and George Bush in the Devil’s eyes. Also on the murals you’ll see the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center and also the creature from Alien.

Below: Chiang Rai White Temple –It’s a very peaceful place.

Chiang Rai White Temple

Tuk Tuk

Our most common mode of transport… the tuk tuk.  We often had all our bags and the four of us plus our driver crammed in a tuk tuk.  We flew into Chiang Mai from Bangkok and from a hotel in Chiang Mai most of our days were day trips from Chiang Mai.  We did spend a couple of days and one night in Chiang Rai, the largest northern most city in Thailand.

Golden Triangle

There are a few ideas for day trips

  • Visit Thailand’s northernmost town at Mae Sai and pop across the border to Tachileik, Myanmar (no visa needed)
  • Go north-east to the Golden Triangle, where Laos, Myanmar and Thailand meet, and formerly a major opium-growing region.  There’s even an opium museum, that was sanctioned by the Queen of Thailand. 
  • Go east to Chiang Khong and cross the Mekong to Huay Xai, Laos. 
  • China is fairly close, but I didn’t see any opportunities for day trips.

I remember there was a $20 or $30 visa fee for US to Laos, and while personally I would have loved to have done the little village on the Laos side, I figured I’d be back, and decided instead to go to Myanmar.  I really enjoyed the beauty of the river and jungles.

Myanmar Border

A few years ago it was much scarier proposition to go to Myanmar, but having spent a couple of days with our guide, I trusted him.  He said he had taken many tourists through the Tachileik Myanmar border.   We would leave our Passports at the border and they would carry them to the other side for when we would return.  This would both require us to be diligent in returning same day, but also put trust in a government that doesn’t get much trust. 

Golden Stupa

Above: Golden Stupa in Myanmar

I had a good feeling and felt it was worth the risk, my wife was in as well.  So we took a day trip into Myanmar.Robot Barbie Myanmar  We went to a couple of markets, walked through the city, went to a large golden stupa, and released some birds for good luck.  As well, we went to a Buddhist temple.  As well, one toy we saw at the market, the Robot Barbie would become famous in the SharePoint community for understanding failed projects.

Myanmar Market







In Burma we weren’t always treated with a smile.  There was a lot of skepticism.  As well, it seemed like people thought we were spies.  I don’t think they were use to a lot of tourism.  We did a lot of smiling and waving, and after a while people warmed up.  It’s been a rough last 30-40 years.  I’ve got high hopes for the way things are going.  I also hope that the hill tribes in Myanmar can have peace and have the rights in their minorities that they will be protected, including their abilities to worship the way they would want to.

In Thailand, we noticed one thing that really was interesting was the different levels you’d find in visiting different animal reserves.  They are all at very different levels of animal comfort on the international scale.  I’m sure PETA would be quite upset at many of the animal places we visited.

First there was the cobra show.  You could see lots of different snakes, and then meet the cobra man himself who was missing a finger and likely a toe or two.  He was pretty scary, and definitely was living on the edge showing us what he could do with three cobras at once.  That place was a mess.  I felt bad for the snakes and felt like it was abuse.  I learned not to judge, but also felt like someone needed to know about this tourist trap.  He was trying to make a living, but the snakes didn’t seem too happy.

Kiss the Cobra

Then there was the monkey training facility.  Again this place was sad.  The monkeys were chained up like prisoners, and to be honest there are places in the US where I feel really bad for the monkeys.  The local adventure park at Lagoon in Utah makes me feel bad for the animals as I cruise by on the train makes me feel awful for the animals, but really these monkeys looked like they were going insane.  There was one who would walk forward just enough to where he knew the chain would jerk and he’d do a flip and start over again.  The little show was cute, they showed monkeys climbing up a palm tree to fetch a coconut and twisting it to make it drop to the ground.

Monkey on a trike

There was one who could shoot baskets, lif weights, and my favorite riding a trike.  I wasn’t impressed to see the one forced to swim to the bottom and fetch something from under water knowing these guys didn’t like the water. 


I much prefer to see the troops in the wild, and that we did many times on on this trip.

In contrast, we did go to a tiger preserve that was very high end.  It was somewhere around $10-$20 for interacting with the baby tigers and a bit more for the adult or doing more with them.  I opted out, but my kids and wife really enjoyed the interaction and playing with the tigers.

Baby Tiger

Above: We visited the Tiger preserve where my kids interacted directly with the tiger cubs.

We felt like these tigers were being treated extremely well, and while we paid 4X as much as any other place, we felt better about the way they were being treated.


Eating bugs

Eating in Chiang Rai you should try the night bazaar.  There are a lot to choose from including crickets, meal worms, and other choice creatures of the earth.  I had more than a taste for less than $1 USD.

From Wikitravel: Night Bazaar & Food Court – The bazaar is located between the bus station and Phaholyothin Road in the centre of town. The market consists of many small stands lining the narrow street running between Phaholyothin Road and the bus station. Everything on display from silk ready-made garments to tattoo etching, even pets. The hill tribes sell an amazing selection of old coins, high quality needlework and very fine quilted bed spreads.

Hill Tribe Baby

Very curious babies that follow their mothers to the fields, and everywhere they go.  Also check out the earrings.  Very traditional.

Rice Fields of Thailand

There are lots of choices for trekking.  Lots and lots to see.  I recommend the waterfalls and hot springs.  Even just stopping on the trail to see the leaf cutter ants was really awesome.  As well, no matter how many times I see it I love seeing banana trees.

Bamboo Rafting

Some tours are more adventuresome and include getting in the water.  I really enjoyed the bamboo rafting, young boys standing with bamboo poles guiding our quickly assembled raft of bamboo was a huge rush.  Make sure you wear clothes that are fine wet.  We didn’t get too wet, but we all attempted as well to stand up, and balance like our Thai guide.  The small falls along the way, were a lot of fun and really added to the adventure.  Some people did go into the water. 

Elephant nose

There are various types of trekking, you can go deep into the jungle or focus on falls, and hill tribes.  Some people we met had plans to go very deep into the jungle and cover serious territory.  I loved every minute of it, and with kids and my wife I was all for variety, so we tried to fit in all sorts of trekking from Elephant to walking to the bamboo rafting.

Elephant Trekking in Thailand

HUAY  POENG ELEPHANT CAMP: Elephant Trekking outside of Chiang Mai

Elephant Trekking

Organize a trekking tour to the hill-tribes; various companies, such as Akha Hill house.

Maewang Falls

Above: Maewang Waterfall

Kun Korn is a 70 metre waterfall – about 15 km south of town, take a right at the wooden sign of the same name. Take the scenic windy road to its end. A smaller set of waterfalls is NW of town at Mae Sai hill tribe village (not the border town of the same name). There’s also a hill tribe museum at that village. Yet another pair of rather large waterfalls is west of town at an Akha village.

Painting cry

In Chiang Mai the art studios for students are incredible.  I recommend seeing the markets where ever you go, but despite the sometimes pushy vendors at night markets you never know what you’ll find.  I still LOVE my stingray skin wallet with the china sea jewel, and the tole painting done at the Umbrella painting area.  There are lots of these work centers where it may be silk worms, or jewelry, or umbrella painting.  Yes, many of them are simply tourist traps, but in reality those people doing the tole paintings live off generous tourists unlike me.  I whittle down the price to a couple of dollars, but when I buy 4 or 5 I’m sure I’m still making someone’s day.  As well, the 5 dollar massage, I don’t mind paying 20 bot for a low end massage place for the whole family to get a massage every night before we turn in.  I’m happy to keep the keep everyone busy and keep us relaxed as well.  I try to put the extra money in the tip to keep the prices affordable, but also help them know we enjoyed the Thai massage.

Young Thai dancer

Beautiful little girl dancing in the traditional Northern Thai style at night market in Chiang Rai.  I think we were the only tourists that were there at the time.

What a beautiful place in the world.  I hope you enjoyed my travels.  I highly encourage travel to the northwest of Thailand.  It’s such a fabulous country.  Don’t be discouraged by their government disputes.  Both times I’ve been in Thailand there have been disputes, but these disputes are working out democracy in Thailand.  I gained a respect for the King while I was there, but I’m also very anxious to see more freedom’s in the great kingdom of Thailand.  There are many great adventures to be had in Thailand, and they will be sure to deliver a smile… be sure to smile back.  I LOVE Thailand and in my travels consider it one of my favorite and one of the top destinations.

5 thoughts on “Thailand Trekking: Traveling by Elephant in the Land of Smiles

  1. Joel,

    Nice writeup. You’ll recall that our oldest son Dan served most of his mission in northern Thailand and loved it. He took some killer photos of the white temple and a lights festival there.

  2. I do remember Dan went to Thailand. I felt like he was blessed to go to such an awesome area of the world. They are such an accepting people. Very tolerant. I bet he loved it. Beautiful people, beautiful culture.

  3. I just love animals! And another news… I just found out that Manila Zoo has a cute elephant named Mali, and she is the only elephant in the Philippines! She has lived there for almost all of her lives, for more than 30 years. The zoo should feel like her sweet and cozy home now. But then, I read some articles in, and I noticed that Mali is in fact sad and lonely! Look at her here: She is like a prisoner, who cannot spend her days with her friends, roam in vast territories, and have delicious adequate food! She even suffers from foot problems. Why does she deserve this? 🙁 Please Help Her!

  4. There are ethical elephants treks you could have taken in Chiang Mai that walk rather than ride the elephants. All elephant riding treks torture the elephants as babies. Google the term pajaan and you will never mount an elephant or go to an animal show again.same for the tigers. I hate to tell you the truth but they are drugged and teeth pulled and claws clipped so they won’t harm tourists. Please be a ethical and responsible writer about travel, especially when recommending tours. Please please please.
    Many thanks

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