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An Adventure of a Lifetime:
9-day Elephant Safari to Umphang, Part 1

I WAS SURFING THE Internet looking for something different and exciting to enjoy while in Thailand. I traveled there with a friend around 8 years ago and so enjoyed Chiangmai I wanted to return again on another holiday. At that time we did the normal trekking, visited the Golden Triangle area, you know the regular touristy stuff to check it off my list as been there, done that, bought the T-shirt. This time I wanted something different. I wanted to see real rain forest, wild animals, colorful birds and wild flowers, unspoiled hill tribe villages and spots not overrun by visitors.

I thought this might not be impossible until I came across "Welcome to Chiangmai and Chiangrai" on line magazine while surfing the Internet. Inside the magazine they have a travel help section where you can ask questions via email. So I sent them an email and got back a personal message the next day. The travel help staff told be about a place called Umphang where it is possible to go rafting and elephant riding in the real rain forest, see wild animals and view the 6th largest waterfall in the world.

This sounded like what I was looking for. They told me to contact All Thailand Experiences , which is a US based company that does eco culture friendly soft adventures in Thailand well away from the normal tourist crowds. Well, I thought, I heard this one before. Only to be taken to a reforested area with no animals and crowded hill tribe villages and rivers filled with tourists riding rafts.The last time I came to Thailand we were 2 single guys and this time I was bringing my wife and family. I was concerned about the food, accommodations and service which had to be much better than the last time I visited. We also wanted a private tour to avoid the touristy spots when possible.

I did contact All Thailand Experiences via the Internet and got a quick response. They told me to read their guest book and send email to their previous clients. They would respond telling me about their holiday with them. I wrote 3 persons and they all replied positively so I went ahead and booked the 9-day elephant safari with white water rafting. I am very glad I did.

We arrived in Chiangmai as was greeted at the airport by the guide and driver. They were very friendly and even had flowers for us. They showed us around the city and pointed out places of interest and the good restaurants before taking us to our hotel. I was given their mobile telephone number in case we might have any questions or have any problems before starting our journey the next morning. Right away we felt like we were with friends or family.

The next morning we were picked up at our hotel around 9 am and went to the Lampang Asian Elephant Conservation Center and Hospital. Our guide told us about the center and all the elephants the facility has saved from illness and mistreatment from their previous owners. We had a chance to ask questions with the director and doctor with help from our guide. We were so moved by their work we gave a donation and bought T-shirts and bumper stickers for our vehicles back home and gifts for our friends.

We then went on to Lampang town for a nice lunch in a garden setting. Our guide brought along hot dogs and had the chef cook them, bread, ketchup and mustard and potato chips were also provided for the kids, as they were not interested in the Thai food. From there we just relaxed and the kids feel asleep in the comfortable van on the way to Sukhothai where we would spend the evening. We had dinner in a wonderful old Thai style teak wood restaurant decorated with antiques. They had local Thai and western food so our children were thrilled to get a cheeseburger and fries. I told the children to be prepared as they would be eating a lot of rice in the jungle but our guide said they were bringing along food for the kids as well so no problems.

During dinner our guide said that we needed to get an early start to see the ancient ruins before the tourist crowds got there. I said we were early risers so no problem. She then suggested that we visit the market and purchase alms to give to the monks before going to the UNESCO World Heritage Park. Sounded good to us so we did.

After the market and giving alms to the monks we went to the park. We were the first ones there when they opened the gates. There was a fine misty fog, which made the ruins seem even more spectacular. The fog soon burned off and we were able to take our pictures. Our guide was very informative and answered all our questions about that time period in Thai history and the significance of the statues and temples. We left just as the large buses loaded with tourists started arriving. Our guide showed a great sense of timing.

We then drove on to Mae Sot and rested and slept along the way. We had lunch in the back of a Thai restaurant that overlooked a flower garden and small stream. From the front it looked like any Thai noodle shop, which can be found anywhere in the kingdom but once in the back it was beautiful and the food was excellent. Our guide went out and bought fried chicken andears of roasted corn and brought it back to the restaurant for the kids, which they enjoyed very much. To them anything was better than rice with what they call strange smelly junk on top.

From Mae Sot we traveled higher and higher into the mountains. The 168-kilometer road to Umphang took 4 hours, as the road is very narrow and steep with thousands of sharp curves. About halfway we stopped at a Hmong hill tribe village and visited a man who is more than 105 years old, the last he remembers. Our guide gave him the needed medicine prescribed by his doctor. She told us that she has a doctor give him a physical check up on him from time to time from Mae Sot. He can't afford the medications so she buys it for him.

Just a little farther down the road is a Karen refuge camp of about 40,000 people. We were not allowed in the camp but we stopped along the road where we could see the whole village on the slope. Our guide told us the camp was about 2 years old and had to be moved from time to time from the Burmese border due to attacks by Burmese soldiers. It is a real shock to see how these people lived even from a distance. There were several UNHCR and Red Cross vehicles we could see in the camp, which meant they were at least getting some sort of relief.

We kept going higher and higher into the mountains and had to put on jackets because of the cool weather. We were riding on top of a ridgeline and the views were spectacular of the surrounding mountains and the lush green valleys far below. We would go down one mountain and through rice fields, cornfields and small quaint villages. Water buffalo plowing fresh fields and women bent over planting fresh rice seedlings in knee-deep water filled paddies then drive back up again. We stopped several times to take photos of the truly picturesque scenery. We finally came down a mountain and around a bend into the small village of Umphang.

We felt as if this road took us to the end of the world. No tourists or loud noises just beautiful small teak wood homes with colorful flower gardens, smiling people and clear cool bubbling streams. We were taken to our bungalow, which was located along one of these streams. There were only a few bungalows there, very clean, and an eating area surrounded with wonderful smelling flowers.

We showered and had a great family style all you can eat dinner with our guide, driver and the 2 raft men that would come along with us on our adventure through the rain forest. We asked loads of questions, put the kids to bed then stayed up with our new friends drinking a few glasses of the local whiskey for another hour or so.

We all slept like proverbial "logs". If they didn't wake us at 8 AM, I think we would of all slept until noon. The weather was the perfect temperature, no sounds except of the stream next to our 3-bed room bungalow and the beds were so comfortable no one wanted to get up. This was heaven. I told my wife lets forget the safari and rafting and just stay here for the remainder of our holiday. She and the kids all said no way, hurry up lets get going.

During coffee and a great filling breakfast we were told the do's and don'ts of rafting, elephant riding and how to behave in the jungle and hill tribe villages. No picking flowers, climbing on rocks in the stream or river and no loud noises. This was all good pointers to know and we were ready.

The local office of this company can be contacted in the Anusarn Market E-mail: "All Thailand Experiences" allthai@all-thailand-exp.com

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