Mae Wang NP Thailand

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A man in swimming trunks is sitting before me whittling a piece of bamboo. His name is Ron, and he is the guide for my small trekking group in the Mae Wang National Park. Ron is kindly making the nine hikers of our group a little bamboo cup with an elephant carved into the side.

I am an hour’s drive from Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand and undisturbed nature encircles me. I have been hiking for a few hours. Although under the shade of the jungle canopies, I was sweating profusely through the suffocating humidity. Ron had put his body on auto-pilot while whittling even as he walked through the beaten roots and rocks on the narrow trails. But for now, he told us to rest and cool down in the second waterfall of the trip. 

At the Waterfall

A refreshment stand by a waterfall, selling beer, Coke and fried rice
A refreshment stand by a waterfall, selling beer, Coke and fried rice. Photo by Jacob Hando

There are unique footprints in the sand by the waterfall, many times the size of my own: elephants have been here. The waterfall is in a clearing. I am now in the sun, ankle-deep in surprisingly freezing water that shocks my body too far the other way, as if a nearby elephant had sat on an empty seesaw. 

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Ron had put away his woodworking projects and was now carving up a hefty watermelon to go with the bag of egg-fried rice the group had been given for lunch. We had several more hours before arriving at the accommodation for the night. So, I inhaled the rice and melon, put my head under the waterfall and readied myself for the oncoming steepness. 

Read More: Visiting Chiang Mai: Memories Nestled in the Mountains of Thailand

Mae Wang National Park

Crops and mountains in Mae Wang National Park, Thailand
Crops and mountains in Mae Wang, Thailand. Photo by Jacob Hando

The Mae Wang National Park received its status in 2009 and covers 120km² of Northern Thailand. However, most of the major attractions, such as elephant sanctuaries (of notable ethical disparity), waterfalls and rafting rivers, lay on the outskirts of it.

The three smaller waterfalls Ron used for refreshment breaks each had a family nearby selling bottles of water, Coke and, crucially, Chang beer. The English announced ‘Beer Time,’ at every stop.

Paths Through the Green

The descent from the hills led through the local rice fields.
The descent from the hills led through the local rice fields. Photo by Jacob Hando

The jungle is quiet but it is a tranquil quiet rather than an eerie one. Ron points out the bamboo trees and the ‘Sensitive Plant’ that withdraws its leaves and wilts when touched. He is an able forager, dismembering obstructive branches with his machete and giving us bitter berries to try. He has lived in a nearby village most of his life and has little to fear from the natural world. 

After the third and final waterfall, the trail led across a questionably precarious bridge and into the hills. The jungle foliage subsided and I was gifted a sweeping panorama of the rolling ranges of the National Park and the series of rice fields that were getting closer. 

Village Life and the Karen People

A farmer's settlement in the hills of Mae Chang National Park
A farmer’s settlement in the hills. Photo by Jacob Hando

We passed through a small village and were greeted by pigs, dogs, puppies, chickens, cats and cows. Their arrival was announced by the soothing ringing of the bells around their necks. The animals here live in harmony.

Of the human inhabitants, I only saw the cow herder and two ladies who wanted to sell us their scarves. I felt a pang of shame that even this remote settlement pedaled the tourism engine, albeit in a tiny, slightly more personal way.

There is an ambiguity to this side of Thailand. The Karen people live in this part of the north, having fled Myanmar to seek a better life. Inevitably, their unique customs have been exploited for tourism.

The Karen people are allowed to stay in the area provided they integrate themselves into the tourism spiderweb. This economic loophole concerned me. Thankfully, the trip did not go to the Karen villages and I did not have to face the uneasiness of some of Thailand’s tourist attractions. 

Read More: 5 Reasons to Visit Hat Yai, Thailand

A Short Rest

The Thai guide, Ron, making one of his signature bamboo cups
Our Thai guide, Ron, making one of his signature bamboo cups. Photo by Jacob Hando

The sun was declining as Ron, working on the last few bamboo cups, led us down through the rice fields and to the night’s accommodation which sat proudly atop a dome of earth and grass.

Built from wood with outside toilets and no electricity, it was a suitably rugged home for us jungle hikers. Even the squealing of half a dozen suckling puppies under the floorboards failed to disturb the peacefulness of the evening setting. 

A huge coolbox was revealed, loaded with Changs, Cokes and even wines at a decent price. Ron and his friends cooked up a Massaman curry. It managed to be both the most basic one I ate in Thailand and also one of the most flavoursome. Its spice lingered rather than dominated, and there was plenty of it.

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Ron joined in with some beers, stating “I only drink when I work. If I am not working, I am on my motorbike.”

A trip to the bathroom before bed led to a friendly confrontation with a scorpion that was curiously observing the patrons of the loo. It was the size of my thumb and apparently ‘not dangerous’. But, in the jungle, miles away from health care, it is best to keep your relationships with nature strictly professional.

I slept under a mosquito net on a thin mattress on the floor. I was initially too hot to sleep, but my tired body bypassed that issue.

Bamboo Rafting and Fond Farewells

Mae Wang NP Thailand The morning view from the jungle house
The morning view from the jungle house. Photo by Jacob Hando

The sunrise was smothered by haze. But, it cooled the temperature for the walk towards more waterfalls and, ultimately, our lift back to civilisation. Outside of Mae Wang National Park, the included bamboo rafting experience was slightly soured by the piles of litter on the river bank and the sighting of a chained elephant being ridden through the flow.

Hopefully, the growing consciousness of tourists in Northern Thailand will force these ‘sanctuaries’ to change their ways amidst review bombs and word of mouth. 

The jungle faded in the rearview mirror but the heat and chlorophyllic colours were forever etched in memory. I did not need a memento. But, when Ron passed me his completed bamboo cup with an elephant and his signature gently carved into the side, I was thrilled.

I bid my friend goodbye and got in the back of the jeepney. The cup is too small for Chang, but just right for whisky. 

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Author Bio: Jacob Hando: Backpacker-writer trying to shed some light on the world. What else is new? Jacob can be found at https://forafewthoughtsmore.wordpress.com/. Can also be found still saving for the LEGO Death Star.

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