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Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Lost in a Thailand Forest for 3 Days: The Adventures of Neeraj Narayanan

But how can you expect me to just stay in this #$#$@ forest”, I raged.

He walked over to the jeep and the next moment he had driven off, leaving me alone in the middle of the jungle. In the background stood five wild elephants. I was stranded and there wasn’t a human around, for miles.

I seem to have a knack of getting into ridiculous situations...

It all started when I signed up for a three day jungle tour in the forested highlands of North Thailand. It was still just day eight of my South East Asia solo trip and I was now in Chiang Mai – a pretty town where you do nothing much besides walking along the canals, drinking at the pub, riding a bike to the nearby town of Pai and doing nothing there as well.

I, of course, was raring for some adventure and thought I had found a bit of that in my three day jungle itinerary. It did look promising. Hiking to a waterfalls, and then rafting - on day one. Trekking deeper into the forest on day two and staying overnight in a tribal village. And rock climbing on day three before returning to Chiang Mai in the evening.


Earlier that fateful morning, I bounded to the jeep waiting outside my hostel. Besides me, there were six others. In the three hours that it took to leave the town and reach the forest, we were laughing, talking and had bonded a lot.


The sun was beating down on us, when we began the trek. We were all in our vests and shorts and walked under the trees as much as possible. A shallow stream kept us company as we hiked to the waterfall. 



The water was deliciously cold and we played about for a while.

It was when we were headed to the rafting point when I first got to know that I was the only one in the group who had signed up for a three day tour. Everyone else was part of the one day jungle tour. Puzzled, I asked the driver what I was supposed to do when the rest would leave.

We are going to leave you at a deserted elephant camp”, he informed me and chuckled. I laughed with him and reminded myself that Thai guides had a good sense of humour. If only I knew then that he was speaking the truth.


We divided ourselves into two teams and jumped into the rafts. The water was extremely shallow but we had a fun time, flicking water on the other boats and singing songs.
We then headed back to our jeep and half an hour later, we were at a deserted camp. In this non touristy season, there were no workers at the camp. I could see a couple of makeshift huts and the driver asked me to alight from the vehicle.

When he told me that I was to stay there while the rest returned to the city, I exploded.

Nobody else signed up today for the three day jungle tour, so you will have to stay here by yourself tonight.”

What if no one comes to pick me up tomorrow?”

Even if no one comes tomorrow, at the end of these three days you will be picked up. Don’t worry, a villager will come and make lunch and dinner for you every day.”
You think I care about someone cooking food in this jungle. How can the agency just leave me here, I don’t get it.”

He looked equally helpless. When he insisted that he was just the driver and was only following instructions, I did not even know how to react.

Somebody will come to pick you up tomorrow”, he insisted.

 I wonder what made me stop protesting. Maybe I wanted to believe him. My silence emboldened him to turn and make for the jeep. My friends just stared at me from the back of the vehicle. The next moment he had driven off, leaving me alone in the middle of the jungle. In the background stood five wild elephants, in a stable of sorts. I was stranded and there wasn’t a human around, for miles.

It was five thirty pm. I was still seething but decided to explore my neighbourhood. In half an hour, it became dark. So I walked across to my hut. Inside, there was a mattress, a mosquito net, and a single bulb. No fan. No window. I flopped on the mattress and stared at the ceiling. What I had imagined as an ideal day just hours before, was now turning out to be quite a disaster. I raised my head when I heard a sound from the stream.

A man was bent over the water, at the banks. I hurried to him and tried talking. His English was very basic and he told me he would be cooking for me. He caught a few fish and disappeared into a makeshift kitchen. Soon he came back with a large bowl of rice, a bowl of fried fish and some vegetable. Before I could even raise my head and thank him, he vanished into the jungle. I have a feeling he wanted to get to his village before it became even darker. One doesn’t know what animals lurk in these jungles.
I have had all kinds of food across the world, and I have always been very non fussy about what I eat. But what he cooked was very inedible. 


After finishing whatever I could, I returned to my hut. Of course there was no phone network or internet. There was nothing to do, so I took out my iPad and started writing about the emotions that were running inside me. From time to time, I thought I could hear something, and whenever I did, I shut off the light and listened intently.  My fear had now given way to excitement though. I was still a little unnerved but a part of me told me this was a great adventure and I could feel a familiar excitement run inside.

From time to time, the elephants trumpeted. Maybe they were dreaming. Somewhere around three or four am, I dozed off too.

I woke up the next morning,on hearing some human voices. I rushed outside to see my cook and three other men. “Mahouts, sir” he told me in his funny accent. “From Burma.”
Excellent. I did not know any Thai in the first place. And the three men who now grace my abode turn out to be Burmese and don’t know a single word of English. 

As usual, my cook disappeared like clockwork the moment he had made a meal for me. He had earlier told me that the mahouts came daily for two hours to feed the elephants and bathe them. In high season, they would take tourists on the back of these elephants to the river and the fields.

I followed the mahouts to the elephants’ stable. Though I did not understand a word of what they said to each other, I really wanted to learn how to deal with elephants. They noticed my eagerness and laughed. One by one, they clambered onto the backs of the elephants, not from some high perch, but by clambering up the trunk. The youngest guy then signaled me to climb onto the fourth elephant’s back. I tried and slipped and fell on my bum. I was also worried that my antics might irritate the elephant. She was a venerable old lady and I was not sure if she would take kindly to be mounted without first being properly courted.

What’s her name?” I barked.
Lhoti”, the youngest man replied.

I looked at Lhoti, the beautiful animal, and held her trunk and cooed to her. There was so much in her eyes. Slowly, she sat down and I clambered on top. The mahouts cheered as she stood again, with the Indian boy on top.

Slowly in line, we lumbered towards the river. For those who do not know, an elephant’s skin is not soft at all. It is in fact extremely tough and coarse. And the tiny hair that sprout from its skin are extremely porky. They almost feel like thorns.

The river was down a three metre slope and as Lhoti descended awkwardly, I slipped down her head. My cries did not seem to have any impact on her and I went almost halfway down her trunk before I somehow managed to stop my slide.

The stream was not more than twenty feet in width. On both banks were bamboo trees and the elephants went straight for them. It is during those moments I realized how insignificant my weight was to an adult elephant. As Lhoti splashed her way to the bamboo trees, and tore down the branches, I had to crouch, almost lie flat on her to avoid being hit by the bamboo.

And so we continued, from one bamboo tree to another, the elephants enjoying their time, me swerving and diving and lying flat and almost falling off, and the mahouts laughing at my expense.




When they had their fill, the elephants went to the middle of the stream. The mahouts slid down and started throwing water on their backs. This was the part I was waiting for and I too splashed water on my lady. She eyed me for a bit, and then suddenly out of nowhere, filled her trunk with water and sprayed me. I looked at her in shock, and I can swear there was a twinkle in her eye.

The mahouts had scrubbing brushes with them and they rubbed it on the elephants’ backs with gusto. The elephants seemed to love it. I scrubbed Lhoti with my hands, and every time I heard one of the men shout something in Burmese, I would repeat the same to Lhoti. Whenever she got bored, she would spray me and though I wanted to whack her for doing so, common sense told me not to be over friendly.

Later the mahouts led them back through the fields to the stable, and left. I wondered how far their village was, and if they would take me with them. But I chose to stay put in my hut. I knew they would return the next day.

The three days in that jungle in the highlands of Chiang Mai passed just like that. In the mornings, the mahouts would come and we would take the elephants to the river. They would feed and bathe there. Later, when the Burmese men left, I would sit a little away from the elephants’ stable and write for a bit. Towards five pm, the Thai man would come and cook for me. And every day I learned a little bit more about what Lhoti liked. Or did not.

On the third day, a jeep did come to my camp. It had a new group of tourists and they all came to ride the elephants. It made me a little angry to see the mahouts put howdahs on the elephants and the tourists sit on the howdahs, but I kept quiet. Lhoti, however, rode without a howdah. She had me on top, you know.

I returned to Chiang Mai that evening. I had earlier wanted to go and scream at the guys in the travel agency, but I did not. To be honest, the experience at the camp, alone in the middle of a jungle, with those elephants, felt like the most special experience of my life.

It still is.

Hopefully, Lhoti will still be there when I return. And maybe she will not have forgotten me.