What was it Alice in Wonderland said about dreaming six impossible things everyday before breakfast? Double that if you’re in the hills and the jungle around Chiang Mai.
Today, I feel an elephant’s skin – it’s rough and thick like dried mud. I press my hand on the elephant’s shoulders as he carries me and my Italian friend Maura on his back. The muscles in his back roll as he steps across rocks, through mudholes, up a steep hill.
Back down at camp, I look into the elephant’s amber eye. He curls his trunk around my wrist for a stubby green banana and shows me his wet snout.
This is just one of many impossibly beautiful experiences that can be found in the hills and jungle around Chiang Mai. I spend four days exploring these areas with friends - on foot and on scooter, on raft and on elephant.
It’s Alun Pugh who gets me started on the excitement of exploring the Chiang Mai hills on a scooter. My first day in Chiang Mai, I hear a happy Welsh voice as I come down the stairs at The Britannia guesthouse.
‘How about we get some scooters and go up to the hills this afternoon?’ Alun says.
And away to the hills we go...
An hour later, Alun, Frank and I are buzzing around the bends of the Chiang Mai hills – we have only just met but we fall into an easy friendship.
We visit Doi Suthep temple. Military men kneel and make offerings. Monks pray. Golden monuments twinkle. Dragon-headed serpents form the handrails to the impossibly long Naga staircase.
Another day in the hills...
Alun and I ride our scooters for 80 kilometres to the north and west of Chiang Mai, stopping off at the viewpoint over the Samoeng Forest.
Alun tells me about a trip he’s planning in the summer of 2011, cycling over 3000 miles across America. He will write about his epic journey by stopping each day at midday to take a photograph. He’ll post the photo on his blog with a brief note about his progress on this incredible cycle ride. Alun is also planning to ride a motorbike from Wales to Singapore. And he’s climbed the Mera Peak (6460 metres) and Island Peak (6189 metres) in the Nepalese Himalayas.
Over lunch in the Chiang Mai hills in a restaurant with an impossibly beautiful garden, Alun takes a call. He says he won’t be able to change his flight to be back in time for the selection meeting.
Turns out that Alun is the former Minister for Culture, Welsh Language and Sport in the Welsh Assembly (2003 - 2007) and an Assembly Member from 1999 - 2007. I ask lots of nosey questions about life as a minister in the Welsh Assembly. He tells me a story about having to fly to Melbourne and back in a weekend due to a requirement to be in Wales to vote.
Alun’s proudest achievement as a minister was bringing in the smoking ban in Wales. He also recalls a lively debate with Tessa Jowell about the creation of a GB football team for the 2012 Olympics.
And thanks to Alun, I start to believe that impossible journeys might be possible for me – maybe like Alun, I could create my own incredible adventures for the rest of my life. I could skateboard across America. Or tapdance the Great Wall of China.
A third day in the hills (now I'm addicted)...
Chiang Mai-based journalist Tom Fawthrop from the Chiang Mai Writers Club takes Maura and I out for a day on scooters. We visit Tom’s favourite places for relaxation in the Chiang Mai hills.
We drink delicious black coffee stirred with cinnamon sticks and read the Bangkok Post. Maura mentions that she loves the writing of renowned Italian journalist Tiziano Terzani – then Tom smiles and says he stayed at Tiziano’s home in Italy.
‘He was a great host,' Tom says. 'And we drank great wines.'
According to the Guardian's obituary, Terzani once said his gravestone should only bear his name and the word 'traveller'.
Both Tom and Maura recommend Terzani’s book A Fortune Teller Told Me – a true account of a year in Terzani’s life when he was told by a fortune teller not to take a plane journey as he predicted a plane crash. So Terzani took boats, trains and cars to his international journalistic appointments and continued to have his fortune told along the way.
Tom, Maura and I eat lunch at the Beatles station at Mae Rim, owned by Jaeb and his wife. Hidden away behind trees down a dirt track, the Beatles station is a large hut full with Beatles memorabilia and posters of Jaeb’s Beatles tribute gigs – Jaeb has a performance repertoire of some 70 Beatles songs.
‘Are you from Liverpool?’ Jaeb asks me.
‘No, I’m afraid not,’ I say.
‘You like Beatles,’ he says.
‘Of course,’ I say.
But Jaeb seems a little disappointed that a girl from England only has the Sergeant Pepper album in her music collection.
After lunch of tom yum soup, red rice and noodles, picked from a menu decorated with Beatles pictures, Jaeb sings Thank you girl by the Beatles to us.
And we watch the bounciest dog in the world jumping for pieces of omelette. He clearly has springs in his legs, he’s like a pogo stick.
Into the jungle...
Inspired by stories from fellow travellers Sarah and Gerland, the following day Maura and I take a trekking trip into the jungle.
On our way into the jungle, we pass wooden carts and oxen, mango and banana and papaya trees, huts on stilts.
Maura and I walk through a wonderland of impossibly tall trees with twisting branches.
The sound of millions crickets is so constant in the jungle that you forget they are there.
There’s the smell of ash from fires lit by the forest dwellers. And an enormous fallen tree across the river – its back is broken, black in the middle.
The air cools in the jungle as it fills with the sound of water spraying over black and brown and grey rocks.
We reach the waterfall and eat packets of rice wrapped in banana leaf. For dessert, we jump and splash around in the water pool.
An old Thai lady in a bright yellow coat squats on a rock. She watches me writing.
A man carves bamboo cups by the waterfall.
And I think that one day I want to wake up here in the jungle and take my morning shower in the waterfall.
I could stay in one of the huts on stilts. Or tie a hammock between the impossibly tall trees and sleep in the sky. Or rent a house in the Chiang Mai hills for 6 months and write.
On a bamboo raft floating down the river, laughing with friends, falling in the water - all of these things seem possible in Chiang Mai.
This is why it’s almost impossible to leave.