True traveling in the jungles of Thailand

It's not exactly a joy ride -- but that's the cost of an activity holiday in Chiang Mai

DPA , Chiang Mai, Thailand

Thu, Jul 22, 2004 - Page 16

For days it has not rained in the mountains around Chiang Mai, a city about 700km north of the Thai capital Bangkok. The streets are dusty and give us some indication of what we can expect on our jungle tour.

We leave in a convoy of eight 190 horsepower Jeep Grand Cherokees. The group is made up of Singaporeans, Australians and Germans. The conditions are not ideal for those who expected a "four-wheel drive mud sling."

But when organizer Wybe Valkema tells us that we will need at least eight hours to cover the first 36km, everyone in the group knows that this will be no joy ride.

"It is like going through a German field," Wolfgang mumbles as the convoy gradually moves up the mountain in the Doi-Suthep-Pui national park, northwest of Chiang Mai.

To the left and right of the path leading to a height of 1,600m above sea level there is a green wall of bamboo, grass, branches and loop plants. Again and again the jeeps are struck by leaves and branches. The vehicles shudder their passengers over every stone and uneven ground.

After moving higher after the first two hours the abyss next to the road demands increasing respect. There is not much room to maneuver, especially when local pick-up trucks meet us from the front. Every few minutes the convoy grinds to a halt as the Thai locals guide the drivers centimeter by centimeter.

The higher we move up the mountain the deeper the furrows in the road. Valkema gives the drivers tips on how to best use the automatic gearbox via the radio with which each vehicle is equipped.

Down below in the green valleys, the rice plants are turning yellow and waiting to be harvested. There are plantations of bamboo, bananas and papaya trees. But even here, at a growing height, we see fir trees growing next to the road.

In the village of Chang Khian the convoy is the talk of the day. A?family of farmers run across the dusty road. The locals carry firewood on their backs. The Hmong, one of the numerous mountain peoples, live here.

Other favorite stops along the four-wheel drive tour are the elephant camps around Chiang Mai. Northern Thailand is elephant country, even if the animals are no longer used in the timber industry since forest clearing has been prohibited. Today the elephants mainly entertain the visitors.

Once we have reached the summit, Wybe Valkema promises the group of offroaders a "very interesting section." Indeed, the road is more of a dried river bed. Sometimes the vehicles tilt dangerously to the side with one of the wheels dangling in the air. It takes a good hour with the help of hand signals from the helpers until all the eight jeeps have crossed this difficult section.

"It's nothing risky," Valkema says in a bid to calm the nerves of everyone.

Then we hear the message on the radio: "Vehicle Number One is stuck. Vehicle Number One is stuck." It is the leading vehicle which also carries a nurse, just in case. The jeep has slid dangerously with only the two left wheels still on the road. A steel rope is wound around a tree and the vehicle pulled out of its precarious situation with a winder.

"We included a bit of excitement so that there is a challenge for everyone," the 60-year-old Valkema says after arrival at the hotel and nine hours of driving. Some 30 years ago the Dutch citizen was a rally driver in the region. He knows the best offroad tours, preferring Thailand to Indonesia because it has a better infra-structure and a larger availability of vehicles.

Valkema recommends two centers for the offroad fans visiting Thailand. There is the Kanchanaburi -- about 100km west of Bangkok and the Chiang Mai -- which is mainly used by tourists.