We could have been hiking the hills in any rugged area of Europe or America on this particular Sunday, but there were a few differences that would suggest not. It was a December afternoon and we were all wearing summer clothes, perspiring in the humidity. The sun was shining brightly through the forest canopy and the temperature lingering near 90 degrees. Our walking sticks that were needed for the steep hills were cut fresh from bamboo trees by our guide, a rather short, dark haired man, wearing surplus combat attire. His name was Sam and he was Thai. We in fact weren't in Europe or America but in Sam's native Thailand. My wife and I were about half way through our tour of Thailand when we were 'roughing it' on the trekking section. We had four days of walking deep in the hills of northern Thailand, but only for a few hours a day. Each day the goal was to walk to a different village of Thailand's hill tribes and spend the night in one of their huts, soaking up their way of life. It's not an experience for those who couldn't be without the luxuries of a hotel. We stayed in the villages of the Karen, Akha and Lahu tribes; each having their own customs, dress and way of life. All live life quite primitively, with virtually no modern amenities. The huts we stayed in were made of bamboo and straw and our group slept on the floor in sleeping bags. No glass windows, no running water. The toilets were outhouse style and the only water available for washing was the central village tap for all to use. Our group, which was comprised of Americans and Europeans, sometimes felt as if we were intruding, but it was an experience for both cultures. Us Westerners learning that there are still peoples who can live without the conveniences of blow dryers and mobiles phones; and the villagers finding benefit by receiving an income from the tours staying in their village. One of their traditional crops, opium, is being stamped out by the government who wish to make Thailand a drug free country. Thailand meaning 'Land of the Free', is an appropriate name as it's one place in Southeast Asia that was never colonised by the French or British! The Thai's remain fiercely proud of their past and their royalty. Bangkok, a huge bustling metropolis of 11 million or so, is the capital and this is where we started our tour from. Thailand's main religion is Buddhism and Bangkok alone has more than 400 temples; photos of the more prestigious temples of gold and ornaments adorn the tourist brochures associated with Thailand. We spent a morning on the klongs (canals); aboard long tail boats with huge outboard motors that moved the along the canals at great speed, slowing down only to cross anothers wake. We cruised the canals viewing the way of life of those who live in stilt houses along the banks and visiting a colourful floating market before being dropped off at the Temple of Dawn on the edge of the Chao Phraya River. The Temple of Dawn is a Cambodian style temple whose tower rises over 60 meters in the air. If you're up to it, to get a good view over the city, you must climb half way up the tower (you can't go up any further than halfway) on probably the steepest steps you'll ever encounter. Later we visited the famous Temple of the Golden Buddha, a solid gold statue of Buddha that was only recently (1950's) discovered to be so. It was revealed after its once stucco exterior was chipped by mistake revealing its gold interior. For being solid gold, it's remarkably 'open' for tourists to get close to and take photos. Another famous temple is that of the Reclining Buddha, definitely worth a visit. Here you'll witness the awesome sight of a 45 meter long Buddha lying on his side! And then don't miss the Grand Palace, virtually a city within a city. The golden spires reaching above the surrounding white walls which separate it from 'modern' Bangkok. The Grand Palace is the place which reminded my wife most of what she thought Thailand should look like. ( She's seen the movie "The King & I" too often). Colourful is the key word to describe Thailand's temples. The base colour of most everything being gold, then layered on top with bright colours and all set against deep blue skies - Thailand is certainly not the place to try out black & white photography! Our northern base was Chiang Mai, a 13 hour train ride away from Bangkok and Thailand's number two city. With a population of a mere 1.5 million, it's just an oversized village compared to Bangkok's teeming masses. We found it much more traveller friendly, being smaller and not so hectic, but will all the amenities you'd need including numerous American fast food chains. More traditionally, Chiang Mai has a popular night market which bustles with activity from locals and tourists alike. We stocked up on souvenirs here, after having spent most of the day at an elephant training camp in the forests an hour away from the city. There were over 20 Asian elephants at this particular camp, each with their own life long trainers. The elephants are trained and still used for work in the forests. After they put on a show for us, we went on an hour long ride through the trees and back through the river on elephant-back. The elephants moved along very gracefully allowing us to sit back and enjoy the ride. After our hill tribe trek we went as far north as you can go in Thailand, to the Golden Triangle. The area where the mighty Mekong, and another smaller river make the natural border between Laos, Thailand and Burma, is physically the Golden Triangle. Here we stood at a well located viewpoint and aimed our camera sights into neighboring Burma and Laos. The area is more famous, or actually infamous, because of the illegal production of opium, mentioned earlier, which still makes its way to the drug dealers of the West. The Thai government is doing everything in its power to curb this production, as our guide Sam kept telling us. Halfway between Chiang Mai and Bangkok, we boarded our transportation for the last leg of our journey. As a relaxing end to the trip, our group spent two nights and a day cruising slowly down the Chao Phraya River aboard a converted rice barge! The barge had it's own crew who cooked us more of the spicy Thai food we'd all become accustomed to during our stay. We didn't do much on the barge except resting those tired bones from the treks. We stopped at a temple or a village here and there, but most just took advantage of the sunbathing opportunities in the near 100 degree heat before the inevitable return to the hustle and bustle of civilisation. The gates admit you to a world guarded by colourful creatures of a definite Asian flavour. Inside you'll find the famous Emerald Buddha, relatively small but one of Thailand's most respected religious symbols, amongst many other colourful sites within the huge complex.