Chiang Mai. Sore muscles from a dry Thai massage; incense from stalls along the night market drag; and the welcoming lines of Wat Chedi Luang.
Although the memories that stayed with me weren’t of the town itself but of an overnight trek with new friends in the surrounding hills and valleys. A colourful world of waterfalls, flowers and curious elephants.
An orchid farm on Chiang Mai’s outskirts was a little more organised than I’d expected. In rows of pristine greenhouses, flowers stood to attention in pinky purples, like elegant soldiers ready for battle. The jittering of their visiting butterflies, a welcome dose of erratic in an otherwise clinical environment.
As our truck rattled further into the hills, nature seemed to heave a sigh of relief and let itself go.
And by the time we left the road behind and started walking, deep sea greens rolled like waves around us, only broken occasionally by the brighter tones of banana plantations and watery rice paddies. As the hours passed, the landscape became wilder and steeper. Sharp climbs up sticky slopes replacing our initial casual stroll through farmland.
By the time we reached our bed for the night – a raised bamboo platform with a superb view – we were exhausted. The huts of Jumbo Camp scattered below just faint outlines against the dusk. The huge grey bodies of the camp’s residents, a group of orphaned and injured elephants being cared for by mahouts, were barely visible at all. Although the few trumpets that broke the silence resonated to Bangkok.
The next morning as I shivered against a surprisingly cool dawn, I wondered what would replace all the green of the previous day and was answered by steely blue clouds rolling toward me.
Our second day was coloured by the watery worlds of northern Thailand.
It started with the daily ritual of washing. Both ourselves and our new friends. We scooped muddy water and scrubbed each elephant. Their tough, wrinkly skin turning into dark glossy oil slicks with the slosh of a bucket. I couldn’t decide then, or since, whether these poor creatures were enjoying bathing with human companions of whether the whole thing had a domestic dreariness to it. I took faith in the genuine care that each mahout showed with their animal. And the rapport they both seemed to enjoy.
Later, we walked alongside waterways that were a far cry from the camp’s still pond. Roaring water smashed through smooth boulders into frothing bottle necks like uncorked champagne. We swam, bobbed and slithered along some of the natural slides in the rock. Encircled by wildflowers and Thai-green jungle. “The perfect antidote to this encroaching sprawl” I thought, as we wound our way back to Chiang Mai.
As local farmers’ fresh chillies, orchids and bananas danced past our truck on roadside mats, I realised that the ragged overland P that I had been gradually etching through South East Asia, meant that I re-entered Thailand’s north roughly five weeks after landing in Bangkok.
Picking up my P at its highest point, all that as left was to draw a straight line south.