Signing up to The Tuk Tuk Club in Thailand seemed exciting, as my mum relayed the adventure ahead over the phone and emailed me the 11-day itinerary, which I had skimmed over for about a minute.
Bouncing around Thailand driving our own Tuk Tuks appealed to me, so I thought I needn’t read the rest- although when my colleagues had probed about my upcoming adventure as I tidied my desk to leave, I didn’t really have much to offer in return.
“Well, we learn to drive a Tuk Tuk. I’m going to wash some elephants too. I don’t expect I’ll tan much…” I’d repeated. I’d pondered the question for a while actually: can you tan in a Tuk Tuk at all?
Around 48 hours after I’d landed in Chiang Mai with my parents (and 0% tanning complete) we were packed up and departing from our first hotel. Thapae Loft had served us well for two nights, although admittedly we hadn’t spent much time in its industrial themed walls.
Our time so far had been a whirl wind; discovering street food and markets on our first night, cycling round old Chiang Mai and learning the local cuisine at a fantastic, small cookery school. Circling the city for two days seemed to be enough for me, as we walked past the same pattern of stunning temples, market stalls and massage parlours.
I was ready to move on. And we did.
Mum had already spoken to Bruce, the managing director of The Tuk Tuk Club, via email, as he answered all of our many questions in the run up to our adventure. As he met us at the front of our hotel, she was surprised that he was not Australian.
“There are people called Bruce in England too, Mum.”
Bruce would be joining us for the first three days of the trip, and he led us a short way down the street to meet operations manager Graham and tour guide Smith (self-proclaimed best tour guide in Thailand- don’t worry Smith, we agree). Both guys would be accompanying us for the whole 11 days, along with travel writer Mark (TravelBeginsAt40).
Next stop: The Tuk Tuk Club HQ, in nearby Mae Wang. Around midday, we pulled up at a lovely hotel hidden behind shrubs and a natural pond, and sat with our new travel buddies for a welcome drink and lunch.
I tried to make a decent impression, quiet as I am when I first meet people. I know going on holiday with your parents at 21 isn’t exactly ‘fashionable’ and I was slightly conscious of the fact, but it didn’t really bother me nor anyone else.
A short while later, we headed to the driving training ground; a disused basketball court that local farmers had actually claimed for the day, to dry their rice. It was no trouble, just an even more realistic element of the obstacle course.
Smith gave us an in-depth rundown of the Tuk Tuk’s workings and Bruce explained that each Tuk Tuk had a name with a meaning (as long as it was four letters or less) and had been specially adapted for a roomier – and much more powerful – driving experience. They were an eye-catching orange in colour, with different stripy coloured seats and traditional Bangkok styling.
I hopped in my practice vehicle eagerly and got to know the driver’s seat: a clutch pedal on the left, a brake pedal on the right, a gearbox in the middle. It was just like a funny, three-wheeled, open-sided car, I supposed… but with quad-bike handles.
Dad and I took to the driving quite naturally. Dad was to be expected, he had after all driven just about everything before, but the guys seemed pleasantly surprised at how comfortable I was. As soon as I had grasped the idea that I didn’t actually need to rev so hard, Dad and I escaped the practice square and headed up a quiet side road.
Mum, the most nervous of the group, was left trailing a little, alongside Mark still troubled with some stalling. Nevertheless, it didn’t take long before we were all a little braver and we headed out in the convoy style we would practice all holiday (Smith’s Tuk Tuk at the front, us in the middle and Graham’s car at the rear) on a trip to a local temple.
We all drove individually, Bruce supporting Mum from the passenger seat- it was an impressive start!
In a secluded temple in the forest, past beautiful rice fields and views of local farmers at work, we sat as a group with a monk and Num, an ex-monk and friend of the Tuk Tuk club, who owned the Elephant Sanctuary that we would visit the next day.
It amazed me, without knowing the beautiful places I was yet to see, how stunning the temples and statues were in such remote places.
Having given the monk our offerings, Smith and Num translated between us as we asked how long he had been a monk (eight years) and told him how honoured we were to be there.
His offering back to us was unexpected and lovely, as he blessed our travels with a small plaited white bracelet on each of our wrists. Smith had tied on mine and my mums, as monks can’t directly touch women. The last gift was a bag of candles to divvy up between us: he told us we needed to light them with nine white flowers each, and our wishes would come true.
Perhaps Mum would drive a little more now, knowing we were blessed?
Mae Wang is a peaceful place to wake up, if you didn’t get any mosquito bites in the night.
Our plan for today had been to practice a little more in the Tuk Tuks if needed, but we had suitably passed our ‘driving tests’ and to be honest, I couldn’t wait to get one with the day ahead.
I rifled through my still-packed suitcase to find the perfect shorts for the occasion: blue with little elephants on the legs. Is this a dream come true? Elephants can finally be ticked off my bucket list.
I decided to take the opportunity to drive my own Tuk Tuk once again, as I knew I’d be sharing with my parents for the rest of the holiday. Freedom tasted good after sharing a room with my parents for three nights; having only visited home for a few weekends in the last year, it was taking its toll.
We laughed about it over breakfast and Bruce exceeded himself thereafter, swiftly managing to book an extra room for me in all of our future hotels. Mum and I both sighed relief.
We started on our way to Num’s Maevang Elephant Home. I had taken ‘Flo’ who, by coin flip, was our family Tuk Tuk for the whole trip. I had secretly willed it to be, as her fabulous pink and blue striped seats made me feel a little fancy.
We stopped along the way, to visit a stunning golden statue that looked out over the land.
Going through the gears was more natural than ever and before I knew it, we had arrived and were pulling up for a quick lunch, provided by the Elephant Home, as we looked out on to the group of nine beautiful creatures a matter of metres away.
I posted the first of many Snapchats as I realised there were two baby elephants in the group. I was in love, not just with the animals, but with the home. Num explained how 18 months ago he had taken great leaps forward in the care of his animals, banning all riding and working of the beautiful things and making sure that they were as happy as they could be.
He told us how working elephants were so miserable that they refused to breed: the baby elephants, then, were a fantastic testimony for his hard work in elephant care.
As we walked with the elephants, who roamed freely in front of us (it’s safer to be behind), I was still in awe of these huge, gentle creatures. We had fed them bamboo shoots before leaving, but they still stopped to grab leaves and bushes on the way to the river. Their trunks strong and precise. Small brown ears flapping away at flies.
It was when we hit the water that my heart truly melted: the babies played cheekily, dunking each other, as the elder elephants slid gracefully into the water.
What can I say? I washed and played with my favourite animal.
Was it as amazing as I thought? Hell yeah.
I’m not sure if I stopped smiling on the drive home, but after a fantastic spread of food at a local restaurant, I certainly went to sleep with a grin.