Don't get off the elephant!

Exploring the hill tribes and opium fields of northern Thailand on foot sounded like a great adventure. It wasn't.

By Karl Taro Greenfeld

Published July 22, 1997 6:50PM (EDT)

the idea had been, at the outset, to ride elephants around northern Thailand. Take in some temples. Visit a few villages. Dip a toe into the hilly jungle. Do, in other words, the tourist's Thailand. But somehow, after a day in Chiang Mai, the plan changed. That smart, civilized and sober concept was lost in the tropical heat, humidity and licentiousness -- and what emerged instead was hard to define. We would do something that tourists don't do. Our Golden Triangle, we decided, would be the real Golden Triangle. Elephants. Hill tribes. Guns. Opium. Rice paddies. And jungle.
From air-conditioned hotel rooms in Chiang Mai it seemed like a good idea.

Chiang Mai, a city of 156,000 in Northern Thailand, is where MTV stops. MTV Asia blares in Hong Kong high-rises and Bangkok brothels, in Kuala Lumpur discos and Macau casinos, but Chiang Mai is beyond the reach of the Asianet satellite that broadcasts MTV. And when MTV Asia -- Japanese idol singers, Indian heavy metal bands, Kylie Minogue and all -- isn't on the tube, you really feel remote. (There is something reassuring about a VJ, any VJ, even if he speaks half in Chinese and his name is Woo.) Where MTV ends, the Golden Triangle begins.

it was the introduction of the opium poppy for cultivation by British and French merchants in the mid-19th century that changed Chiang Mai from a prosperous center for Theravada Buddhism to the booming economic heart of northern Thailand. Before 1800, opium smoking in Burma, Laos and Thailand, the three countries whose border regions make up the Golden Triangle, had been virtually unheard of. By 1930 there were 6,441 government-regulated opium dens. The Kingdom of Siam, Thailand's predecessor state, earned 14 percent of its tax revenues through its 972 licensed opium dens. While Chiang Mai had once been a center for pottery, weaving, silver work and woodcarving, it now became the destination point for hundreds of mule caravans hauling the bulk of the Golden Triangle's annual production of 3,000 tons of opium.
As demand for refined opium products like heroin and morphine has increased in Asia and the West, the economics of the Golden Triangle, which produces 73 percent of the world's opium, have become ever more intertwined with the poppy plant. A succession of local warlords, some with CIA backing because of their staunch anti-communist stances, have ruled the region and fought for control of its rich harvest. Thai generals, Shan rebels, communist guerrillas and exiled Kuomintang (Nationalist Chinese) commanders have all, at one time, sought and controlled a large piece of the opium action. The business of opium is so immense -- heroin generates $2 million a day on the streets of New York alone -- that its windfall has financed wars and toppled governments. (In 1990 the United States government indicted Shan rebel leader, opium warlord and Chiang Mai local Khun Sa as an international drug trafficker, labeling him "the self-proclaimed king of opium.") Alfred W. McCoy wrote in "The Politics of Heroin": "This illicit traffic allows opium and heroin traders at all levels enormous incomes that they can use to purchase enough protection to survive any attempt at suppression."

"If you go up there it will become clear," a junior officer in the Thai military explained to David, my photographer traveling companion, and me, pointing to the verdant mountain ranges that loom above Chiang Mai. "Generals and governments come and go; opium is the real king of these hills."
So our idea was to go into the hills. Sure, we would ride elephants and gaze at ruins, but what we were looking for was something else. I hate saying it because it sounds so stupid now, but we wanted adventure.
We hired two Karen tribesmen as guides. We bought hiking boots. We took malaria pills. We innovated ways to lighten our packs. We consulted maps. We planned a six-day route up through Mae Hong Sa and down along the Burmese border and then back into civilization.
We should have listened to the sunburned, brain-dead, weed-thin American in the lobby of the Chiang Mai Orchid Hotel who had been in the jungle outside Chiang Mai for six months and had come to town for some air-conditioning. Upon hearing of our plan, he asked, "What kind of idiots would want to do something like that?"

From the godlike perspective of looking down on a topographical map, a 2,000-foot hill looks manageable. The green that indicates higher ground seems invitingly lush after all the white and brown that indicate the lower elevations. In reality, when you are humping up it on a mud trail with no switchbacks, a 2,000-foot hill is a monster of a mountain, slick, unforgiving and treacherous. Many of Thailand's northern mountains -- they are mountains, despite what the guidebooks and locals say -- don't have well-beaten, clearly marked tracks. Instead, you have to claw your way up pig runs or seldom-used paths through thick undergrowth teeming with leaches and ticks. It's bad jungle, with the climate changing every 30 minutes from pelting rain to blistering sun and the mud making for unsure footing.
Within six hours of being dropped off by a jeep at the end of the loneliest dirt road I've ever seen, we were enmeshed in the lush green vegetation, banana stalks, giant bamboo, royal palms and thorny licorice. We hadn't known it would be like this. We hadn't considered that with steep mountains and quintuple-canopy jungle in a dozen shades of green and rainbowed crystal waterfalls came exhaustion and thirst and confusion and wishing to hell we had stuck to the original plan. The simple plan. The tourist's plan. There were nice, organized, enjoyable treks for tourists where one can ride elephants, stay in clean villages, do a little rafting. Who were we to buck the system?
All the estimates we, and our Karen guides Perm and Sarbom, had made back in our Chiang Mai hotel rooms of the time it would take between villages were wrong. For example, we had estimated four hours between Sadaeng and Mae Dat La. It took closer to seven. And that was seven bad hours of going up and down mountains, slogging up waist-deep rivers and tip-toeing to keep our balance along the muddy edges of rice paddies. The Karen tribesmen maybe could have done it in four. Maybe. We had our doubts.
"I thought there was a trail," David shouted as we waited for Sarbom to hack through thick brush with his machete. "There's supposed to be a fucking trail."
"This is a trail," Perm explained (Sarbom didn't speak English), "a not-used-much trail."

It's the downhills that kill. Uphill was horrible, but downhill in the mud and mossy rocks was deadly. And by the second day, I felt like my knees were running out of cartilage, that nothing was cushioning the impact of bone against bone and each downhill step was somehow degenerative or permanently debilitating. I was being punished for the aplomb of walking into the jungle and just assuming everything would be all right. And while we were fatigued, our native guides were still going strong and carrying all our luggage. (We would hire, over the course of the trek, four porters, a pony, elephants and a Lisu opium trader named Sook.)
It was midway through the third day when, as David was verging on heat stroke and my right knee simply stopped working and poisonous blue snakes made their first appearance on the trail (they liked the rain) and it was getting dark fast and we were still hours away from the nearest village and even Perm, our guide who had taken on a sort of Daniel Boone-meets-Bruce Lee heroic quality in our eyes, said that finding the way in the dark would be impossible, that it dawned on us that maybe we were in serious trouble, that maybe we had made a terrible mistake, the kind of mistake people die from. And if something were to happen to us, who would ever know? A few Hmong tribesmen on their way out to hunt? A couple of Lisu merchants? A Chinese opium buyer making his rounds? There were no roads. No planes in the sky to spot us. We would simply vanish. Fallen off a cliff. Bit by a snake. Shot by a drunk tribesman. There were so many ways.
"This is bad," we were mumbling as we descended another killer downhill. "This is so, so bad."
And we were out of water.

We made Nao Lao Dum, a Lisu village somewhere along the Burmese border, as the sun shot orange and blue streaks through nimbus clouds in a dramatic last stand before surrendering behind a craggy mountain. Sai Pu Dong, the village headman, was between 25 and 60. It was impossible to narrow his age any more based on looks alone. His face was mottled and scarred, but his arms and legs remained sinewy and tight-skinned. When he smiled, he flashed teeth bright red from betel nut chewing.
Naked children stared at us as we staggered in after climbing the terraced rice paddy, they mobbed us as we wended up the trail into the village, and as the headman greeted us the crowd of children and women swelled to about 50, all just drop-jawed staring at the spectacle that had wandered into their village.
There were no roads to Nao Lao Dum, only footpaths so narrow that if you didn't know they were there you would miss them. Where there are no roads there are no police and no schools and no bureaucracy and no missionaries. No law. And certainly no toilets. Call me a wuss, but it's hard taking a crap when 30 kids are giggling watching you squat. And it's not that you're crapping that's so funny, it's you, just being foreign and wearing sunglasses or a red shirt. Utterly shocking. It wouldn't matter to them if you were taking a crap or assembling Stinger missiles, it's you they're fascinated by.
Headman's elephant grass hut wobbled precariously on stilts. Wide gaps had been intentionally left between floorboards so any grain of rice that didn't end up in your mouth fell through the floor to the ground below for the pigs, chickens and cows who made an awful racket down there jockeying for scraps.
A crowd of men were gathered around a cooking fire in Headman's hut. The women and children skulked at the periphery of the orange glow, their shadowy features catching the flickering light for a moment and then vanishing as the flames shifted in the draft. The place was better in the dark. You couldn't see all the cow turds and pig shit and fleas and garbage. You couldn't see what was floating around in your water, even after it was boiled.
"When was the last time you had foreigners here?" I asked.
"Two opium harvests ago." Headman answered as one of his wives spooned something into a bowl for me. "Eat."
It would have been rude to refuse. "What is it?"
"Pork," I was told.
The Lisu men were digging in.
"It's cooked?" I asked.
Headman nodded.
I took a bite, chewed and swallowed. It was fatty and cold.
"After we cook it," Headman explained to me through Perm, "we soak the meat in the raw blood and guts for flavor."

Opium was the opiate of the masses. Opium served the same purpose for the hill tribes as the cocktail after work does for Manhattan's work force. No matter how poor the village, no matter how destitute the inhabitants, every male over the age of 18 owned a well-crafted glass-bowled opium pipe, a gas or oil lamp for heating opium, crushed aspirin for mixing with opium to eliminate headaches, several thin steel sticks and pokers for heating the opium and reaming the pipes, a small pillow or smooth bench for laying his head upon and, probably, some opium. Even if the kids were naked and they ate rice mixed with barley for dinner, dad had an opium pipe. Even if they couldn't afford a candle to light their hut, dad had an oil lamp for heating his opium.
After the cooking, eating and cleaning, the men broke out their pipes and went to work with their oil lamps heating the opium and mixing it with aspirin powder. (Aspirin powder was the only Western medicine they had and it never occurred to them to use it for anything besides cutting opium.) Once the paste was heated and mixed it was rolled between the palms into cylinders and then broken off piece by piece to smoke. The reason one must lie down to smoke -- and hence the evolution of the opium den -- is that it takes one hand to hold the opium, and one to direct the foot-long pipe so that the opium is close to the flame but not directly burned by it. Unless your head is down near the ground, you can't see how close the flame is to the pipe.
It takes five pipes to get high. Seven to begin to drift away. And between 10 and 20 and you don't feel any more of your pain. Your knees feel strong. Your stomach cramps are suddenly gone. And you're not hungry anymore. The hill tribes smoke it because it is the best thing they have in otherwise tough, hardscrabble lives. Take opium away and replace it with what? Corn? That's what the Thai government tried to do. Once you're up in these hills you see why that will never work. Corn, as useful as it is for making whiskey, doesn't get one away from it all for a few hours.
The dozens of children gazing at us, the mangy dog next to me scratching violently, the fleas biting me, the leach stings, the raw pork, the dirty water, suddenly it was all tolerable and didn't seem so horrible. But then nothing seems horrible when you're on the pipe and that's why opium will always be king of these hills.

We were five now -- David the photographer, Perm, Sarbom, Sook the opium merchant and me, plus a pony we had bought for 8,000 baht ($160) from a Lisu tribeswoman. But the gray pony, once we loaded our gear in baskets and slung the baskets on his back, proved to be slower than we had thought. Still, it was good not carrying anything -- not that David and I were carrying anything, anyway; we had long ago given our packs to Perm, Sarbom and Sook. Sook was 4-foot-10, weighed about 115 pounds and had small, cruel features and an expression that conveyed total indifference, to you, to his own well-being, to the world. He was a certified opium addict who broke the rule of drug dealers the world over: He got high off his own supply. It took Sook 35 pipes to catch a buzz. He smoked three times day, including first thing in the morning. And after he smoked he could carry a 50-pound backpack through 10 miles of bad jungle and not feel a thing. He was ageless, his growth stunted from opium and his expression childlike in its emptiness. But he had a never-ending supply of opium, so wherever we brought him we were warmly welcomed by the locals; he was a good guy to have around.
We marched knee-deep up a rocky stream, Sarbom behind us keeping the pony walking by shooting rocks at its ass with a slingshot. (Slingshots are immensely popular in these mountains. It is the child's first toy.) Perm led us out of the stream and up another muddy trail that offered about as much traction as a hill of frozen yogurt. As we climbed, the familiar noises of Sarbom's snapping slingshot, the flustering of the pony, the bird calls and the gibbon shrieks were suddenly interrupted by a sharp cracking sound and then a rapid succession of breaks and whizzes in nearby bushes.
The smell of smoke.
Perm, Sarbom and Sook dropped to the ground. David and I stood and stared at each other for a moment before realizing what was happening. We were being shot at. We hit the mud. I hurriedly unbuttoned my pants and pissed while lying in the mud.
Perm shouted something in Karen.
A child's voice answered. We were being shot at by children.
There followed a long exchange during which we assured the children firing at us at that we were not interested in stealing their prized bulls or confiscating their opium. And nor were we Nationalist Chinese (KMT) troops looking to extort opium. The KMT had been through here recently and had forced the villagers to give up the bulk of their opium and a few ponies. These KMT units were relics of Chiang Kai Shek's defeated 3rd and 5th Nationalist Armies, which had crossed in 1949 from China's Yunan province into Burma and then kept moving south to northern Thailand, where, with the tacit cooperation of the Thai government and weapons from Taiwan and the United States, they had established fully militarized bases. The KMT these days was nothing like the efficient heroin-exporting machine it had been in the 1960s, when thousand-mule caravans guarded by hundreds of armed troops plied these mountains, but they were still a considerable, well-armed and dangerous presence. With their American-made M-14s and AR-16s -- compared to the local tribes' cheap Chinese imitations of 19th century British muskets -- the KMT were still among the top opium buyers and refiners.
"We are tourists," we assured them. If only that were true, if only we had done some sedate nature walk with a pack of healthy Germans and Swedes, a few hours of hiking, some food, plenty of water, clean villages and real trails. That would be the life. There are hundreds of companies offering that kind of safe, touristy trip, and if you're ever in Chiang Mai and get the urge to head into the hills, do it the easy way. Don't be stupid and get shot at.
Our attackers turned out to be one 8-year-old child with a Chinese-made musket taller than he was. He emerged from behind a thorny licorice plant onto the trail about 20 feet ahead of us, smiling widely. He wore a blue wool cap and a T-shirt on which was a tattered silk-screen of Paul Molitor, a baseball player now with the Minnesota Twins but pictured in the silk-screen with his original team, the Milwaukee Brewers.
"What the fuck is this?" I demanded of Perm as I buttoned up my pants. "Who the fuck would shoot at us?"
And then focusing my anger on Perm because he was the only guide who spoke English, "And who would take us to a place like this?"
Wide-eyed, dirty-faced Paul Molitor spoke quickly.
Perm translated: "He wasn't trying to hit us."
Paul Molitor spoke again.
"And he says he will take us into town and introduce us to his headman."
"What's the big deal about a headman?" I asked. "We've met plenty of headmen."
"Special headman," Perm assured me. "Powerful headman. Headman of all headmen."

"Billy Bong will see you now," a thin Karen warrior dressed in a thickly woven V-neck tunic told us. From his mouth dangled an unlit teak tobacco pipe.
We took off our shoes and climbed the ladder to the tin-roofed hut that stood a whole story higher than any other hut in the village. The hut had wooden windows. The hut had doors. The hut had separate rooms. There was an outhouse in back. This Billy Bong lived in a palace.
All the windows of the innermost chamber were shuttered and the only light in the room emanated from two candles stuck to empty condensed milk cans. Billy Bong was little more than skin and bones beneath an orange, flowing, V-neck tunic and trousers. He lay with his eyes closed and his head resting on a shiny black stone slab. His opium pipe lay on a small, gray and black carpet before him. He opened his eyes as we entered. His high cheek bones, drawn skin and strong jaw gave him a dissipated look. He did not look cruel but rather exhausted. He smiled. He said something to Paul Molitor, who had entered ahead of them, and Paul Molitor spoke rapidly back.
"Why don't you go home?" Billy Bong said, looking at our eyes.
"We want to," I said. "As soon as possible, as soon as we can get out, to a road or something, somewhere where we can be picked up."
"There is a village one day from here, through the village runs a river, down the river there is a road. There are jeeps there."
"Then that's where we want to go."
He began heating opium on the oil lamp. "The village is five mountains away."
We sighed.
"But I can get you there in five hours. No walking."
Then we heard an animal call like a distorted, amplified amateur trumpet blast and turned and beheld through the doorway an armed Karen warrior seated atop the immense, dinosaurlike head of a five-ton cow elephant. Behind her were five more elephants, standing in a broken line along a trail up the hill from Billy Bong's hut.
"My elephants will take you," said Billy Bong as he lit his pipe.
Billy Bong, Headman among Headmen of the Black Karen, was the supreme tribal leader in these parts. Billy Bong (his real name was Ba Pu Long, but he insisted Westerners call him Billy Bong) had five wives and 22 children whose names ranged from Ee Pa (literal translation: First Girl) to Ee Pa Pa (twenty-second girl). As Supreme Headman he was in charge of the local opium production, and of keeping KMT and Shan hands off of that opium, and Billy Bong wanted to expand.
"No more Khun Sa," Billy Bong said of the indicted warlord. "No more KMT. The Karen people must take charge of their own opium. Karen people will rule these hills. Tell them that where you are from."

We climbed onto Billy Bong's elephants from the deck of his hut, stepping between the elephant's eyes and then sitting cautiously on the wooden benches strapped to the elephant's backs. Billy Bong had informed us he always traveled by elephant, and it is a magnificent way to travel. Elephants are sure-footed, steady if a bit stubborn, and capable of climbing steeper hills than ponies. (We gave Billy Bong our pony in gratitude.) The only things to watch out for are branches and the occasional showers of dirt elephants throw over their shoulders. Their guides keep them moving with slingshots and monosyllabic commands. (Elephants will only listen to one master at a time. When an elephant is sold -- in these mountains the price is between 200,000 and 400,000 baht, or $8,000 to $16,000 -- the new master must spend a month together with the former master handling the elephant before the elephant will listen to the new owner's commands.) They are smart, temperamental animals who spend 20 hours a day eating. And they were our saviors.
We got out. On the back of the elephants who took us over the mountains, the ride a relief for sore legs and battered egos. Riding on their backs above the jungle, so that our heads scraped the bottom of the canopy, made the drenching rains and blistering sun seem not so bad. As they climbed up the mud tracks, their immense flat feet finding traction where there would appear to be none and their trunks rooting out bamboo from the side of the trail, as we rose higher and higher to the top of a mountain, they were taking us to heaven. This was ecstasy, to ride and not walk, to be carried and not to carry, to be above the jungle and not in it, to be safe and not threatened.
After the elephants, rafting down the Nam Mae Yuam river was easy -- no walking, just poling along the bottom during slow parts and keeping balanced during rapids, but nothing as tough as those mountains. All the bad part of what we had been through began to seem not so bad as it became clearer we would make it out with only partially torn ligaments and severe dysentery and eye infections and leach scars and maybe a stomach amoeba or two, but we would make it.
Yes, it became obvious we would be OK, and that realization makes you happy when you've been through a rough spot. For just a moment, you are relieved. And then, instantly, your worldly concerns return. All those cares that seemed trivial as you were dehydrating in the jungle or dousing leaches with Deat or worrying about being shot, all those cares return suddenly and you think about money and cars and girlfriends and all the civilization you left behind and how you will be fine, you will go home and you will take all that up again. And you think that maybe what matters more than everything that happened out there in the jungle is keeping up on your credit card bills and changing the oil every 3,000 miles.
I don't know. My knees are still fucked up.

Karl Taro Greenfeld

Karl Taro Greenfeld is a Knight-Bagehot Fellow at Columbia University. He is the author of "Speed Tribes" and a contributor to Vogue, Details, the New York Times Magazine, Wired and other publications. He has written for Wanderlust on Ibiza and exploring northern Thailand by foot.

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