A walk in the woods

Salawin National Park Travel Blog

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After twelve hours in 'bed' we collectively struggled into the house's kitchen, where Salawin's nephews were toasting bread over the fire for our breakfast. We had another long day ahead of us, but one with an easy start - we had a ride for the first hour or so. On an elephant.

Elephant rides are fairly bog-standard tourist pastime in this part of the world but I was excited. From our upstairs room - all the rooms in these houses are upstairs; the houses are on stilts - we watched three elephants standing stoically around as the villagers lashed seats for us onto their backs. One of them reached its trunk through a gap in the wall of our house and started sniffing around for food. I nearly clapped.

We rode, taking it in turns to sit on the animals' necks or in the baskets their backs. In keeping with the rest of the trek, I think this was a good elephant ride. We tramped along a stream bed under overhanging jungle for an hour, the tobacco-swapper from yesterday leading the way, swinging a machete at undergrowth. These elephants had never carried tourists before and we were headed deep into the jungle, far from where they usually worked. Miles from anywhere - no bored handlers leading us along a track they walk every day; there was a fallen tree at one point that the elephants could only just negotiate. We really dropped lucky on this trek.

The ride over, the tobacco-swapper led us off into the forest - Salawin had gone back to Mae Sariang and his nephews (I'll not attempt to spell their names) didn't know the area well enough. Walked, stopped for lunch, walked until six o'clock through dust lying inches deep. The terrain was steep and mountainous - the highest point we reached was 1200m, which is nothing compared to places I visited later in my trip but is higher than Snowdon. It was beautiful, too.

Another meal in someone's kitchen, another evening spent as novelties to our hosts. A little kid in a Brazil footy top waved a puppy around as he tried to sing it to sleep. The puppy didn't seem to care.

The next day was the final day of our trek, and all the walking was downhill. Which is easier at first, but still gets knackering by the end of the day. We took short cuts down steep hills through thick bamboo groves, marvelling at the views. White cloud filled the valleys beneath us. Eventually we came to a village on the river, a jumping-off point for boat trips. White people weren't nearly so much of a novelty here - there was another group of trekkers waiting for the same boat as us - but that didn't stop a girl of about six sitting and watching in fascination as we ate our lunch.

A boat took us up the river - Burma to the left of us, Thailand to the right - to where we could pick up a sawngthaew back to Mae Sariang. We were supposed to go into Burma and visit a Karen rebel army camp but the army had better things to do that day - like fighting - so we didn't. Still. This was one of those occasions where it hit me how far away from home I was, sailing up a river at the far end of Asia. It was something special.

Sawgthaew back to the town, discussing our trek as we went; I think we all agreed that it couldn't have been a lot better. Couldn't fault it. When we arrived at Salawin's office there was an American couple dithering outside, trying to decide whether to go on this trek or not. Cos they'd done a 'trek' from some dodgy company and it had been a disaster - driven by car between villages where they were pressured to buy tacky goods, promised an elephant ride that never materialised. Did we get to ride elephants? Did we get to do much walking?

I think we took it in turns to gush at them before separating. I went to a different guest house, took a room, had a very long hot shower, waited twenty minutes at reception for someone to turn up to let me into my room cos I'd locked myself out. Met the other trekkers after a couple of hours for dinner and plenty of Beer Chang. Then bed. An actual bed, as opposed to a floor. Nice.
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Salawin National Park