After an excruciating 12-hour journey, the Bangkok bus finally arrived in Chiang Mai. As with most long bus journeys, it was uncomfortable and fairly unpleasant, but luckily Charlie had discovered some sleeping pills in his travel medical kit, and they helped. Unfortunately they didn't kick in until after the obligatory full-volume Thai-dubbed American movie – arguably the most difficult part of any long bus haul in Thailand – but armed with sleeping pills, eye shades and ear plugs, it was a bearable event. Arriving in Chiang Mai and tracking down a place to stay wasn't exactly difficult, as the bus ticket included a free night's accommodation in one of the many guest houses dotted around. Yes, Chiang Mai is a serious tourist trap.
Its main attraction is the trekking. I had absolutely no intention of going on an organised trek – an oxymoron in my book – but on arrival at the guest house, a thinly disguised tour-booking operation, I began to reconsider. After all, the secret to a good trek is to go with a good group, and the bunch off the bus were as good as it gets. So before I knew it, I'd booked myself on a three-day trek into the hills of northern Thailand.
The trip was quite excellent. The trekking was easy, and although it was very pleasant wandering through the paddy fields and river valleys of the north, it was nothing terribly different from central Sulawesi or any other Southeast Asian country. However, the extras made the whole expedition worth the effort: we rode on elephants for one leg, drifted down a river on a raft for another, and spent the nights in delightfully basic huts, sleeping on the floor and huddling round fires as the moon rose, our breath frosting in the cold nights of the north. Finally we drove to the top of Doi Inthanon, the highest peak in Thailand at 2565m, where a wonderful pair of wats have been built in honour of the king and queen.
But the one thing that made the trek different from the normal experience was the local drug culture among the tribes. The hill tribes of northern Thailand are famous throughout the world, but not necessarily for the best reasons; they grow some of the best marijuana in the world, and the area is a major source of opium. It's obvious why; people in northern Thailand are not rich, and if they can survive by growing drugs, then who can blame them?
Up here in the northern hills, these drugs are technically illegal, but in practice they're decriminalised, much like marijuana is in Amsterdam1. Is it any wonder that the organised treks through the hills are so popular?
On the first night of the trek we watched a real live opium den in action. It was an education. The smoker lies down on his side, and the opium man lies down on his, so that they're facing each other. The dealer then goes through a long procedure of mixing the pure opium resin with aspirin (to make it a smooth smoke) and less-refined opium, which he then grinds up in a little dish and pounds into a black paste with the consistency of Plasticine. Finally he pokes a little into the end of a pipe, and hands it over to the smoker.
As the pipe is smoked, the dealer keeps the end over a little paraffin lamp until all the opium has disappeared, and that's it. At 20 baht a pipe (about 25p) it's an astoundingly cheap drug, and between five and ten pipes will see most people through, depending on your size and tolerance. Is it any wonder trekking in Chiang Mai is so popular, where the mountains are high and so are the trekkers?
But even without this interesting insight into a culture that shaped the East back in the days of the Opium Wars, the trek would have been well worthwhile. I found myself wanting to explore the northern reaches of Thailand more, but my flight to Calcutta beckoned, and there I'd find a far trippier experience than any opium dream...
1 Things have changed since I wrote this in 1997. It seems that the drugs problem in the north has been seriously tackled and a lot of work done to reduce it throughout the country. It is now totally illegal for people to smoke opium while on a trek, and although there will always be some exceptions, many of the trekking agencies have been diligent in ensuring that guides and trekkers do not get involved in opium smoking. There was also a serious case of a westerner smoking too much opium on a trek and eventually dying, which might explain the speed of the changes.