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Mark Moxon's Travel Writing

Thailand: Chiang Mai

The elephant that took me through the hills of Chiang Mai
The elephant that took me through the northern hills

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.

A group trekking through fields
Trekking through field-laden hills

Opium Dens

A hut in the hills
Our camp on the second night

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?

The temple on top of Thailand's highest point, Doi Inthanon
The temple on top of Doi Inthanon, the highest point in the whole of Thailand

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.