The thing that's unusual about the two youth hostels in Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand, is that they are probably the only youth hostels in the world to own their own fleet of elephants.
The elephants are for the hostel's popular jungle treks that are operated almost daily. About 300 visitors per month take the four-day guided tours that cost about $69 per person.
These excursions, however, are not for those people who crave creature comforts. Guided groups of 6 to 10 people hike 10 to 22 miles a day (porters carry the food and cooking equipment), ride rafts and elephants, and sleep on bamboo floors of huts owned by hill-tribe families. A small backpack, a water container and a blanket, which may or may not be adequate, are provided.
Treks out to neighboring hill tribes are also extremely popular, and in Chiang Mai, numerous tour guides compete for the business. In a new leaflet, "Hilltribe Trekking in Northern Thailand," the Tourism Authority of Thailand offers such tips as rejecting the services of any firm that is not registered with the tourist police.
Although tribes visited by tourists live on the fringe of urban development, some still practice exotic rituals and beliefs, and it's possible to make enemies of them if you violate their rules.
Youth hostel tour manager Charoon Poonlapyot tells of a young traveler who cut down an important religious object dangling from a ceiling in one of the Akha homes he visited. This caused the gathering of an angry crowd of about 100 tribe members. The young visitor was then refrained from leaving, and the tour company had to pay the tribe five water buffalo to secure the person's release.
The two hostels that offer inexpensive accommodations and trek arrangements are:
--Chiang Mai Youth Hostel (Chang Puak) at 31 Prapokklao, Soi 3, Pra-sing Sub-district, Chiang Mai.
--Chiang Mai Youth Hostel (Chang Klan) at 21/8 Chang Klan Road (Ounruan Village), Padad Sub-district, Chiang Mai.
For more information, contact the Tourism Authority of Thailand, 3440 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1101, Los Angeles 90010, (213) 382-2353.
A new international youth hostel opened in May in Bangkok at 25/2 Phitsanulok Road, See Sao Theves, Dusit. It offers visitors dormitory-type accommodations for $2.15 per person, per night; single rooms for $10.80, and double rooms for $13.
The best way to get to the hostel from the airport is by bus, which gets you close. Take buses No. 16, 72, 99, 3, 53, 56, 12 or 43. However, if you are traveling with several others, a taxi is also economical.
The taxis, which are in the arrival area of the airport, should be about $10 for a ride to the hostel. Agree on the price beforehand and be wary of drivers who claim that the hostel has burned down. Drivers often use this ploy because they get commissions from competing guest houses.
In these areas it is also important to take anti-malaria medication. However, even when you take the medication, it is still possible to contract the disease, which is spread by mosquito bites. If you experience flulike symptoms, with high fever and chills, get medical assistance immediately. And if you have already left the country, make sure your doctor knows where you have been traveling.
Malaria is tricky because the symptoms hit in cycles. You can feel bad one day, pretty good the next and awful again later on. It also can be difficult to detect because the first symptoms may not surface for weeks, or even months, after the malaria is first contracted.