Chiang Mai, Thailand – January 2015

Ran-Tong Elephant Save & Rescue Center

Ran-Tong Elephant Save & Rescue Center

Photo’s are here or you can just click on the photograph above.

As we flew in over Chiang Mai from Laos, we realized just how huge and sprawling this city is. Not exactly the diminutive ancient templed city in the jungle we had envisaged.

Things didn’t improve on the drive to the hotel ….. lots of run-down inner city 1970’s buildings, traffic chaos and general disarray. Not a great start…. it seemed to have all the most unattractive parts of western culture – distracting and unattractive western style advertisement hoardings and backed up traffic crawling through traffic lights…lots of cars getting nowhere fast ….

Oh well, not people to fall at the first traveller’s hurdle we grabbed a tuk-tuk and headed down to the Saturday night “Wualai Walking Street” Market in the hope of finding some local color. It was pretty disappointing and seedy aside from one lonely vendor selling authentically hand made crafts rather than items produced in their thousands in a backstreet sweat shop. I couldn’t fight the sense of doom and the impression that Thailand rather seemed to be the China of South East Asia with all of the negative images that conjures.

Pressing on, we stumbled across a food market which was the hub of Saturday night activity for locals and tourists alike. People were sitting at tables in a concrete park wedged between the main road and the wall to the old city sampling the food vendors various options. Geoff braved something deep fried but I wasn’t convinced I wouldn’t get dysentery so I abstained 😉

The highlight of this part of the city was undoubtedly the Silver Temple (Wat Sri Suphan) – which was tiny but spectacular and the first silver temple we have seen. It is decorated with highly intricate images and frieze scenes created by the silver craftsmen who work on site.

Still, the atmosphere is so different from the Laotian Wats – busy, noisy, no sense of peace, tranquility nor calm, multi-colored plastic banners adorning the surrounding buildings, scaffolding… and women are not allowed inside the chapel so Geoff was sent in with the camera instead 😦 … umm … it wasn’t like that in Laos!

We continued on to the Old City inside the ancient walls but didn’t find anything there which greatly appealed either…aside from a couple more temples it was just as dirty and run-down as the market area… ho hum.. this wasn’t going quite as planned! The grimy bars were filled with equally scruffy and grimy looking back-packers and I was seriously beginning to question the wisdom of agreeing to Geoff’s request to stop here at all rather than just get the connection straight back to Singapore.

Presumably suffering from some element of guilt ;-), Geoff was busily trying to convince me it would all look better in the morning when we weren’t so tired.  I wasn’t so sure… I just didn’t feel any kind of affinity to the city at all but I was prepared to concede that anywhere would be hard pushed to compete with Luang Prabang.

In reality, the only reason I really agreed to stop in Chiang Mai is that I had read about all the elephant conservation centers in Northern Thailand which piqued my interest. I thought it might be fun to ride an elephant and get up close and personal with these amazing creatures for a day and to learn how to be mahouts (elephant carers 🙂 ) so I had pre-booked a tour a couple of weeks earlier when we had arranged the trip out to South East Asia.

In the meantime, we decided we would make the best of the intervening day and head off to Tiger Kingdom early in the morning (again, against my better judgement) and then spend the afternoon exploring the countryside in the nearby mountains. So we booked a cab for the following morning to take us out of the city in the hope it would cheer us up. We hit the sack a little disenchanted but not without hope for a reprieve for Northern Thailand, if not for the city itself.

Up bright and early and getting ready to catch the cab something niggled in the back of my mind to make me check the paperwork for the elephant booking … we had just had so much going on for the last few weeks that I hadn’t had a chance to double check the bookings and plans for Thailand.

Yikes – the cab to Tiger Kingdom on its way to collect us, breakfast not yet consumed and dressed all spic and span for a casual day stroking tigers and sitting in the air conditioned luxury of the most expensive private cab in Thailand, I realized with dawning horror that I had made a massive booboo. I had got all my days and dates confused (duh!) and we actually had about 10 minutes to change clothes, re-pack the backpack for an entirely different sort of excursion, grab breakfast and catch the mini-bus to go and play with the filthy, dusty, muddy elephants for the day. Oops… 😉

Disaster (and the loss of a huge deposit) was averted, we caught the mini-bus, and headed off for what turned out to be one of the most singularly exhausting days of our lives 😉 An hour and a half cramped into the back of the mini-bus we headed out of town into the mountains. I have absolutely no idea where we actually went as all the road signs are written in Thai script. That may sound like an odd thing to comment upon but the town and village names in both Cambodia and Laos were also written using the latin alphabet so we could at least read the road signs albeit we couldn’t pronounce them and we could , more importantly, locate ourselves on a map :-).

In any case, wherever we were, the countryside was far prettier than the city – thank goodness.

So… somewhere out in the boonies, we spent the day at the Ran-Tong Save and Rescue Centre “learning how to feed” elephants (seriously?). Feeding an elephant is not something that actually requires a lot of learning as they have the ability to sniff out a banana (or a left over skin inadvertently left in someone’s back-pack) at 1000 paces and snaffle it with no assistance required from a human to “feed” it at all. Before you can blink an enormous dribbling proboscis will have found its way straight to its targeted snack and woe betide you if you don’t hand it over immediately otherwise you might just get belted by a 3 tonne mammal.

That part of “training” over, we then had to learn 6 verbal commands – in Thai of course as these heffelumps don’t speak a lot of English. Unbelievably, they can understand the voice commands of their own particular mahouts and know the words for “stop” (our rather disobedient ‘phant (named Pui) got lots of practice with this one), “reverse” (same again) ;-), “lie down”, “go”, “turn right” and “turn left”. How clever is that?!!

And then for what I thought would be the hardest bit of the day (silly me) – learning to clamber onto Pui bareback. That wasn’t too difficult although you do have to perform some contortions but when Pui lurched to stand up and I had only a lonely looking rope to cling onto for dear life I began to spot the precariousness of my position… Geoff got to nestle up behind his ears without the benefit of anything to hang on to at all.

I don’t know which was the most terrifying position – they were both suitably scary perched up on the very lumpy, uncomfortable and prickly back of an enormous beast.

To be fair I was reasonably relaxed on the flat and it was quite fun lumbering around in a field looking at the view. However, it didn’t take long to realize that Pui had a mind of his own and was really only motivated by where the next banana was coming from. If there was no banana within sniffing distance he re-focussed his attentions on some distant delicious morsel of greenery – whether on the nice flat designated trail or not (mainly not 😉 ). So, we got to practice “Hao” (=STOPPP!!) and “Toy” (=reverse) quite frequently.  Generally speaking, Pui liked to reverse backwards down hill and happily away from some lethal precipice – which was interesting. If he had been a toddler he would have spent most of the day standing on the naughty step 😉

Pui took us a number of detours for which I haven’t fully forgiven him yet and by the end of the second half of the day we were both covered from head to foot in sweat, mud and dust. For purposes of elephant entertainment, I suppose, he also enjoyed rubbing his 3 tonnes of prickly, sandpapery flesh up and down his equally huge prickly, sandpapery elephant friend. He didn’t seem to much notice if there was a stray human limb being crushed or any delicate human skin being abraded in the process. I suppose I should be grateful that I didn’t actually break a leg squished between them and in the end the only injury sustained (aside from 16 various sized bruises up and down my legs, calves and thighs) was the loss of the top half of my big toenail ripped off between the 2 of them rubbing up and down each other….nice…

Overall, I THINK it was fun – Geoff certainly enjoyed it ;-). He enjoyed it so much he could barely tear himself off the poor creature and was still impressing our mahout with his elegant mastery of mounting and dismounting by trunk (for experts) when I had already long given up and retired to lick my wounds in the shade 😉

Whilst it was a wonderful experience (in parts!) I wouldn’t rush to do it again as for several days we were both still nursing some strained muscles in unusual places and my legs looked like a patchwork quilt of multi-colored abrasions. If only our chiropractor weren’t 9248 miles away as we could both have done with some hip re-alignment maneuvers.

The following day we were back on schedule with the drive through the mountains which was far more sedate and far less painful. En route we made the, with hindsight, somewhat dubious decision of visiting Tiger Kingdom – we struggled with it before, during and after the visit because we are so anti-zoo. All animals should be in the wild and even though it was an incredible experience to get up close and personal with baby tigers and the fully grown man-eating kitties themselves we have to question the morality of it all. Tiger Kingdom purports to be a “conservation of species” facility but we both felt it was more of a Dismal Disney experience and in the end we regretted going. The upside is that the tigers were all well cared for, well fed (thankfully!) and seemed pretty chilled out with the constant attention from hundreds of tourists a day cuddling up for a photo shoot. During one peaceful stroking session of a simply magnificent creature he turned slowly to look me in the eye – he was one of the most beautiful animals I have ever seen. I wasn’t sure whether to look away out of respect for my knowledge that he was a top predator and I was dinner but I couldn’t tear my gaze away from his face. It crossed my mind in a split second that this was all wrong and I nearly had a coronary 😉 He should have been in the jungle running wild with the wind in his fur 😦 And when I lay cuddled up on the back of his similarly captive friend (an even larger, lazier reclining adult) for a photo he should have ripped my head off – as would be the way of the natural world ….

The drive through the countryside was very pretty – mountain passes; hairpin bends; farms growing mangos, macadamia nuts, strawberries and bananas; paddy fields; tea and coffee plantations etc etc. We cooled off at a Hang Dong Tea House (Doi Chaang) where I tried a lemon tea so thick with sugar that I feared my teeth would rebel and drop out before the last sip. We tried to burn a few calories by taking a walk down to a farmers field because Geoff had spotted a couple of water buffalo which he thought needed feeding (??!) and he didn’t mind trespassing to do it 😉 So he spent a few minutes harassing the local wildlife before we headed back on the long (=boring=stuck in stationary traffic) journey home to run the gauntlet of the mosquitoes back at the hotel…..

Did I mention they have somewhat of a mosquito problem in Thailand? Whenever we entered or exited the suite a cloud of some 2 or 300 ravenous mozzies would swarm in. We would then entertain ourselves for hours with a fabulous invention – the mosquito “swatter bat” which would electrocute the little monsters in mid flight. It made a satisfying bang and sizzle every time we executed one 🙂 Not very Buddhist, for sure, but then neither were the expletives when either of us were zapped yet again on some painful part of our respective anatomies.

Our final evening was frittered at the Anusarn Night Bazaar – more ghastly sweat-shop imports; women dressed up like exotic dancers who I could have sworn were lady boys; snail facial spas (seriously – why would anyone pay good money to have snails crawl over their face?); fish spas where tourists dangled their feet in huge grubby looking fish tanks and allowed hundreds of tiny fish to nibble at their trotters – umm… again…over my dead body. I don’t care how good snail slime or feeding the fish with your feet is for you – both of those activities would be in my top 10 of  “1984- type” nightmarish experiences.

So… if I’m honest, in the final analysis I really didn’t feel it for Chiang Mai – Geoff was slightly more positive but he couldn’t convince me.

The architecture is mainly bland and in need of some sprucing up.

The traffic is bad, the roads are over-crowded and the cars are stationary even on a green light because of all the other oncoming vehicles jumping the red lights.

Though it has some attractive temples they are rather marred by the brightly colored banners advertising goodness knows what and the scaffolding everywhere…

I just don’t get the perennial tourist attraction of this city 😦

Usually, even in the face of travel related adversity I can find something to be positive about but I jut can’t recommend this city – young back packers obviously like it for all of the outdoor activities Chiang Mai has to offer and the bars and nightlife but even the old city didn’t do it for me… it is just plain grubby and grungy.

Apologies to anyone who loves it – I guess diversity makes the world more interesting.

We did have one notably excellent Thai curry here though (Pum restaurant ) – the rest were awful…

So, if you want to see fabulous temples in all of their serenity and ancient beauty just go to Laos! If you want to learn to ride elephants … go to Laos … and if you want world class food ….. just go to Laos 🙂 !

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