CHAING MAI, Thailand -- I was in Bangkok and less than enamored.
The nightlife is chaotic, as are the crowded streets, the tourist-laden temples and the city itself, so overflowing with skyscrapers and malls and concrete that it seems about to burst. It was an impression based on a short, first-time visit, to be sure, but I felt the need to escape.
I contemplated hopping a shuttle van south to the beaches, but they can be just as overrun. Looking for peace in Pattaya is like looking for a sober person at a frat party.
So I veered north instead toward an ancient city called Chiang Mai because I’d heard there would be waterfalls and elephants in the nearby countryside, and a chance to get at least a little closer to another side of Thailand.
From Bangkok I took an overnight train and stretched out on the vaguely comfortable bunk beds that folded down from the walls. When I woke up the next morning and saw only countryside through the windows, I knew I was close.
Chiang Mai is a manageable city of about 200,000, a relief compared to Bangkok’s 9 million. There are leafy parks, inviting art galleries and little children wandering around in school uniforms. I went with my friend Michal Ruth Penwell, a Michigan native and artist who has lived in Bangkok for years, and we laughed when people said, more than once, that we must be twins. We look nothing alike except that we are both foreigners here.
This is hardly a place, though, where time has stopped. Motorbikes zoom around with three riders apiece, some texting, some clutching kittens, some reading books. The place is dotted with 7-Elevens, the sidewalks crammed both with backpackers and businesses that cater to them. Rent a bike from a stand on one side of the street. Wash your clothes at a Laundromat on the other, and no worries if you need to clean what you’re wearing — there’s a stack of robes out front.
Chiang Mai also has an abundance of trekking companies, all offering what seem like similar packages, so we picked one, Buddy Tours, that was cheap, with an easy-to-navigate website that we’d looked at while we were still kicking around Bangkok. We signed up for an overnight jungle hike.
The tour company picked us up in a van in town the next morning, and we met the other city slickers who’d be our companions: three Canadians celebrating their recent college graduation, and a retired couple from Belgium. Eventually our driver deposited us on a hilly road somewhere in the Mae Tang valley, and we set out with our Thai tour guide.
The tropical woods were loud with the shrieking cacophony of insects, but it was tranquil all the same. We played in waterfalls, ate fried rice packaged in banana leaves, packed away our watches because there was no need for them. Our guide knew the woods like someone who had been in them his whole life, picking herbs, spotting a stick bug that was all but invisible to me, trying to coax out a tarantula when he ran across its hole. When he wasn’t successful, I was not disappointed.
That evening we stayed in a one-room cabin in a hill tribe village, a place with a tiny school and maybe a few dozen houses and not much else. Kids wearing shorts and T-shirts chased each other around their yards, water buffalo meandered on the single street. In the evening, after our guide cooked dinner, we built a fire. Some of the villagers stopped by to see us, some to sell handmade bracelets or bottled water and beer, but some just to see the farang — the Thai word for foreigner.
The people there spoke a tribal language, not Thai, so our communication was mostly limited to hand signals and smiles. I’d brought pictures of New York, where I live, and passed them around. One smiling older man showed us sleight-of-hand tricks, making us guess how he’d unraveled a tangled piece of string.
The bathroom was an outhouse, which I got used to, and bed was a blanket on a wooden floor, which made my back ache.
The next morning, our guide cooked eggs, and we hiked again and cooled off in more waterfalls. A pickup truck took us to the Huay Poeng Elephant Camp, where we rode elephants and bought them bananas, and then to a river where guides rowed us along a lazy stream in bamboo rafts.
I’m keenly aware that going on a trip like this requires you to wrestle with the ethics of your visit. The elephants we rode seemed like they were treated fine, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have deeper questions about the morality of keeping them in captivity just for tourists like me to ride. It bothers me when people use words like adorable or quaint to describe a village like the one we visited, which might seem like praise but just comes off as condescending. And I don’t pretend that this wasn’t a tame way to rough it. Occasionally you feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere, and then you happen upon a roadside stand selling popsicles and a house with a satellite TV dish.
Still, I’d do this trip again in a minute, and would go for more than one night if I had the chance. I feel lucky that I went, and was happy to ditch the disorder of the city for the playground of the jungle.