Shine on you Crazy Diamond (Thailand Part 2)
We arrived into Chiang Mai in the darkness, sharing a communal Tuk Tuk with a charming chatty crew of solo young backpackers. Our hotel for the next 4 nights was a short shared ride away. Sri Pat was the number 1 Lonely Planet recommendation as a ‘Flashpacker’ hostel, and we got it at a great rate. Our room, with a roll out bed for Fred, was on the top floor with a balcony overlooking Chiang Mai. A small pool was squeezed into the courtyard, perfect for cooling off after a day’s sightseeing. We found a refreshing salad bar for dinner, after a short walk, navigating the mad traffic wizzing through the narrow streets. Sultry spicy air was all around us and we could see why Chiang Mai captivates its visitors.
We committed to making the most of the day, and set off reasonably early, skipping breakfast, in search of the famous Wat’s. Old Chiang Mai is quite compact, and we took less than 15 minutes to arrive at our first stop, The Lanna Museum. We took in the exhibition slowly, reading about the Lanna culture and its rich religious content. Comparative religion was todays educational subject, specialising in Buddhism. We followed this up with a refuelling of pancakes, smoothies and toasties (picking up an intricately strung Buddhist fresh flower charm from an elderly lady who came into our café selling them) before making our way to Lilia Massage. This fabulous social enterprise retrains female Thai prisoners in massage. There is a terrible amphetamine problem in Thailand, addiction leading to petty criminal activity to fund the habit. Stigmatisation of released criminals makes it impossible for them to return to their families and communities, or gain employment. The Lila Massage provides the way for them to progress; the committed ones pass the selection process and training, finally working in one of the several parlours they have set up. In beautiful purple and gold silk uniforms the women stood in the teak lobby bowing as we entered. We sat and chose from the menus before being led to seats where our feet were soaked and carefully washed. Fred was to have an hour long foot massage, whilst Dean and I had opted for a full body oil massage. We would have this together. The signs in the hall way listed behaviours that the school expected of its masseurs, and those it wanted reported; poor service, talking during massage, lack of interest in the client. They clearly ran a tight and disciplined ship. Dean and I slipped on our massage pants and hair nets, I don’t think either of us have looked less appealing. The massage however was amazing, careful, thorough, and utterly relaxing. Still dazed we joined Fred in the lobby, he was smiling beatifically. It was another ‘best experience of my life’ for him. We bowed to our ladies and thanked them in Thai and wished them all well, glad that we had spent our money here.
It was temple time, and we set off for the most significant Wat in Chiang Mai just around the corner. We couldn’t go into the main temple, a conference for orange clad monks was underway, but the grounds and a smaller temple were all we needed. Massive gold statues in the gardens astounded us, and the smaller beautifully decorated temple we could enter was a feast of Thai religious art. Most monks are only there for short periods. They earn ‘merit’ for themselves and their families by taking orders for a month. There is huge prestige for a family when one of their sons does this. However the fast pace of modern life is taking its toll and many now short cut it to a weekend, or week. I’m not sure how this works in the eyes of Buddha, feels like a bit of cheat to me. It was amusing to see most of those not in prayer wondering the gardens with smart phone in hand, quiet contemplation seemed quite absent. None of them looked terribly happy, they probably looked the least happy Thai people I had seen.
The heat was quite overpowering and we had had a pretty good tour, now ready for the pool, so we headed back. I had decided that I could no longer put off a waxing session so found a small shop and left them to make their way home. A neatly dressed middle aged Thai lady took me through to a bed, drawing a curtain around us and turning on the wall mounted fan. We were not, apparently, going to reveal my body one bit at a time, tucking tissue paper into my pants to deal with my bikini line. Instead I was to strip off and lie naked on the bed so she could see the extent of the renovations to be undertaken. She put her glasses on and peered at me and, like a plumber, sucked in hard. The pot of wax was on and she set to, methodically working from my lower leg up as I lay naked on her workbench. When she got to my bikini line there was no discussion about how I would like it. The scissors came out first, every hair trimmed back. Then came out the clippers for more trimming. Finally the wax was ready. I was put in positions usually kept for the nurse every 2 years, and fingers dexterously found folds no western beautician has ever been near. Judging from the time taken, and the places visited, my beautician in England has been rather negligent. When we were all done and I stood to get dressed I saw bits of flesh I’d not seen since before puberty. Miraculously it had all been rather painless. I paid my Bhat (£14) and left feeling, I swear, lighter.
At the bottom of our lane we had spotted an outdoor pizza oven servicing a corner plot restaurant. Wine, a rarity in Thailand, was on the menu which sealed it for me. The food was delicious, excellent service, and we ended up with the delightful company of a German family backpacking with their scarlet haired 18 month old daughter. An early dinner turned into a late night fed by great conversation.
Desperately in need of a clothes wash I woke early and dropped a big bag at the laundry next door, picking up an iced coffee for Dean and I on the way back. Made with condensed milk they are a total meal, or two, but gorgeous. We wanted to head out of the city into the countryside to escape the city for a day. We’ve missed the campervan and the freedom to drift into small places, a Tuk Tuk, we hoped, would give us the chance to explore a bit. I passed an older driver parked up on my way back with the coffees and we agreed a price of £6 for him to drive us around for the day. We gathered our things together and joined him 20 minutes later, the three of us squeezed into the back with a couple of bags of picnic food and swimming gear. As we cleared the city, picking up speed, we were cooled by the open vehicle, infinitely better than an aircon taxi. Fred beamed as the small vehicle gave a false sense of tremendous speed, though he did seem to be overtaking vehicles of all sizes. I started to wonder, not for the first time this trip, if this was to be our last experience of life. I’ve found that the only thing to do in those situations it suck up the experience, if it’s going to be your last you might as well enjoy it. I’d hate to die anxious and unhappy. The Thai countryside is wonderfully lush. We turned off the highway and at ground level it was like being in England of old. Thick rich green grass covered untamed verges, ditches were full of water, running off the jungle hills that surround Chiang Mai. We climbed through the lanes, making our way to Sae Mae waterfalls. Several times we politely declined his offer to take us to the Tiger Sanctuary. Sadly none of the tiger centres are sanctuaries. Tigers are taken from the wild, kept in captivity, and drugged to keep them passive. Second generations are bred in captivity, never knowing freedom. Its dispiriting that monks are responsible for many of these places, tourists understandably believing that ‘sanctuaries’ run by monks must be ethical places. They aren’t. If you can pet and lie against a tiger it’s drugged, unseen cruelty having been used in its ‘training’. We also enschewed the ‘Monkey School’, ‘Cobra Show’, ‘Crocodile Circus’ that we passed for the same reasons. Instead we made our way to the Insect Museum and Zoo. The website had promised the largest collection of insects and butterflies curated from across the world.
We arrived to a warm welcome and few visitors. The staff could not have been more enthusiastic in their desire to educate. Rare, madly coloured, butterflies flew through the air in the especially planted butterfly garden. Chrysalis hung from branches, some moved to carefully arranged twigs so they could be viewed. Several huge moths had hatched in the night, apparently it’s rare for visitors to see one still hanging on to its redundant shell, we saw three and they were enormous moths. We got to view the incredible display of pinned insects, numbering thousands, from all over the world. A challenging array of insects were on display to handle, Fred took some persuading but overcame his primeval instincts and worked his way through caterpillars, centipedes, beetles and stick insects. He rejected the millipede, 100 legs were ok but 1,000, he decided, was too much. We were glad he got over his fears, and learnt a lot, however it wasn’t lost on us that we were creating a hierarchy of what creatures should be kept in captivity and handled and which shouldn’t. This was brought into even more sharp focus when we were offered Bearded Dragons and Geckos to hold. They were also for sale.
Ready for some really wild nature we took another 20 minutes to get to the falls. As it was Sunday the locals were out in force getting relief from the heat of the city. Mae Sae is a series of 10 waterfalls that you climb up a path to get to, each one higher up. We heard them before we saw them, also feeling the cool they gave off from a distance. We climbed up the steps that have been cut into the hillside, stopping at Waterfall 7, third from the top. Deep pools overflowed with the water crashing from above. Pretty streams carried the foaming water down to the next fall. Young bucks were doing tumble dives off the rocks, we sufficed with navigating the slippery flat rocks that led into the pools. We soon had a game going of swimming into the falls, being submerged by the foam, finally emerging with the current into the large deep pool. It sure beat the CentreParcs rapids for excitement, but required a watchful eye despite Fred being a strong swimmer. It wasn’t long before Fred had found some local kids to play with, then a Dutch family. Around us families picnicked, children swimming whilst parents enjoyed the cool of the spray and relief that the higher elevation provided. It was just beautiful, surrounded by jungle green, peering through the canopy above the falls to see the vibrant blue sky. We headed back to our Tuk Tuk, greeted cheerily by our driver, after a couple of hours of fun. He wanted to take us around more of the sights, so we settled on the nearby Karen village. The drive there was more gorgeous countryside, past farms and homesteads, buffalo grazing freely. The village itself was a disaster. We walked for a minute up the entrance path, past small food outlets staffed by bored unsmiling villagers. At the entrance, we were asked for £10 per person, a vast sum in Thailand. We declined. We could see it was a coach tour construction, villagers lounging around like lost souls at the zoo waiting to perform for the cameras. There was no interest as we left, perhaps they were drugged too. I suspect they had no sense of self beyond that of freak show. It was desperately sad. We started off the drive home in a muted reflective mood, but ‘Captain Chaos’ our driver cheered us up with small detours through the lanes before taking us home. We showered off the jungle before Fred and I set off for a foot massage at ‘Silver Hands’ just around the corner from us. Side by side we sat in the small parlour. It was a lovely time together, Fred is the perfect massage companion holding hands as our feet, legs and thighs were worked over.
That night we got a Tuk Tuk to the famous Saturday night market, weaving through the traffic at speed, until we hit the queues on approach. Spread out throughout an entire district, the narrow streets were packed with visitors moving along the stalls on either side. More cooling clothes, especially for Dean, and lots of street food were the order of the night. We picked up some pretty trinkets, and much to my later regret didn’t purchase a beautiful necklace made from moulded incense. I jangled my way through the market, adorned with a delicate ankle bracelet that hung loosely. I hoped it gave the impression of the racehorse ankles possessed by my grandmother which genetics failed to pass on to me. Dean finally found some light clothing in a shop run by a delightful older Thai lady. Her English was pretty good, and she was very honest about what would fit and wouldn’t, even if it did her out of a sale. As everyone is covered in sweat at the market you can’t try clothes on, so we held shirt seams to his back and loose trousers to his waist. Shorts and shirts were selected in fabulous colours; the trousers were trickier. My special moment was her poking Dean in his stomach telling him, quite earnestly, that he needed to lose weight. He responded telling her she needed to make bigger clothes. She then proceeded to tell him he needed to eat less, and set about demonstrating the abdominal exercises that would benefit him. I loved the searing honesty and lack of obsequiousness, I’d take the first over the second any day. We agreed what we wanted and she kept discounting it, bartering herself down at every stage of the sale, without a word from us. We left happy and amused, apart from Fred who was outraged that anyone could criticise his Dad, whatever compliments had come his own way. Great food, refreshing fresh fruit smoothies, and live music along the way completed our market experience. We left the hustle and bustle at 9pm for home, we’d leave the late night party market for others.
A slight hitch in the booking of our visit to The Elephant Nature Park needed sorting on Sunday morning. Dean had accidentally booked the following Saturday, which whilst not disastrous, did mean we would have to go up to Pai, or somewhere else that we weren’t planning to, to kill 5 days before returning to Chiang Mai. A late night brain wave was to turn our one day booking (for the following Saturday) into a two day plus overnight stop this Monday, the website was showing vacancies. It would be quite a bit more expensive, but we weren’t liking any of the accommodation options to stay in the North. We headed over to the office in the city and thankfully they could accommodate our request. We got a sense of what ENP would be like as a small blackbird hopped on the desk, guarded a calculator jealously (it was clearly his and his alone), and sat on Deans shoulder watching the proceedings. Rescued dogs lounged under the tables, including a Pug, Fred’s favourite breed. After sorting out our ENP trip we grabbed a very late breakfast before heading back to chill out at the pool, packing for ENP, and sorting our flight to the islands. A late lunch was Japanese across the lane from our hotel. It was fabulous and ridiculously cheap. We got our jobs done, ran out of time for a massage, but walked to the Sunday Night market 5 minutes away.
Fred got his long awaited fresh coconut, Chiang Mai sausages on sticks filled us up before we tucked into dumplings cooked in front of us. We didn’t buy anything else, just soaked up the atmosphere of the vast market of local goods. Our walk home took us through the heart of backpacker party town, on the corner of a cross roads a VW camper had been converted into a bar. We stopped for a Mai Tai for me, Sprite for Fred, and a virgin Mojito for Dean. With elephants calling the next day we sensibly decided one was enough.
The mini bus arrived at 8am and we soon had the company of a young female vet from Ottley, Yorkshire, who was volunteering for 2 months at ENP, in the dog sanctuary they run. They have 400 dogs that they rescued, mostly from the 2011 Bangkok floods. Only 40 a year get rehomed in Thailand so a group of 80 dogs were being sent to Colorado with a charity that had sent volunteers to pick them up and fly them to the US. On the hour long journey we discussed farming, veganism and animal ethics. As a local farm vet she was a firm supporter of the small farmer, desperate not to see them eaten up by big industrial farms servicing the supermarkets. As a family we are grappling with our love of meat and starting to struggle to reconcile it with our view of what our relationship should be with animals. As we educate ourselves, and I’ve been pretty close to farm life, its becoming more difficult for us to justify buying meat that we haven’t farmed and slaughtered ourselves; with full control of the experience that animals have. It was a good conversation. By the time we arrived Becky had offered Fred the opportunity to come and visit the dog sanctuary so he could help out during his stay.
Our companions on the 2 day, 1 night stop were Alisha and Jake from Colorado. We couldn’t have wished for more lovely people to spend our time with. Both were civilian nurses (intensive care and emergency care) who had served in the Navy. Jake had been deployed in Iraq twice and they had met when stationed in Italy. In their 30s, they were well travelled, funny, and thoughtful as we discovered over the 2 days and a beer or more. We arrived with Jake and Alisha for mid morning feeding time. The elephants here roam free, accompanied by a Mahout which the elephants ‘choose’ when they arrive. All the elephants here have been abused, traditional elephant ‘training’ is by its nature an abuse of them; physical and psychological. They therefore need to have a totally new experience of humans. The Mahouts are drawn from the local tribes, some of whom only speak their own language, who are traditional elephant Mahouts. They have been trained by ENP to use positive re-enforcement and leave behind methods handed down through the generations. We stood on the balcony handing out watermelon, bananas, and squash. The elephants came over to us and used their incredible trunks to take the food from us. Until you see a trunk operating close up you don’t appreciate its dexterity. Containing over 1,000 muscles, with a tip that works like an opposable thumb, they sniff out and carefully take the large, or tiny food, from you. The teeth are set deep in their mouths, but the vast tongue makes an impressive appearance. We were already in love.
After feeding we walked along the river that runs through the park, elephants wandering in their family groups. Lone elephants have made new friends, others have arrived as small families, and a few new babies have been born. Naughty teenagers ventured across the river to the other banks, loathe to return, but coaxed back by a Mahout. Heartbreakingly there are severely disabled elephants hobbling along. A female, always close to the visitor centre, had a crushed rear leg, the result of a logging accident 10 years ago. We wondered if Stryker, Johnson & Johnson, or another orthopaedic trauma supplier could tackle the challenge with a bespoke solution. Land mines left behind after wars accounted for other injuries to limbs, so whilst free they were not pain free, their vast weight placing unequal pressure. There were elephants we didn’t see. Too traumatised by humans they are on another site in the park. Some can’t even be with other elephants, so they live alone with their Mahout to care for them.
In Chiang Mai dozens of elephant riding, trekking and training centres advertised. Driving in we passed people on elephants in rigid baskets, or bare back riding. When you come to ENP you wonder that it is still legal. Elephants do not have the physiology to carry humans, their bones deforming over time. Like the tigers, monkeys, crocodiles at the other attractions, they have been taken from their habitat and subject to discipline to train them to do unnatural things. Thankfully the commercial success of ENP has led to 2 other local operators moving from riding and chaining to free roaming. The park is confident that if visitors to Thailand, and other countries, choose to spend their money in ethical ways, all parks will be driven by the power of money to rethink their offer. Ultimately its in our power to influence what happens to those elephants and other animals already in captivity. The bigger challenge is to ensure that none of the 1,000 remaining wild elephants are brought into captivity.
On the first day we bathed the elephants that had been led to the river for a cooling bath, one elephant for the 4 of us to bath. After discussion with Jake and Alisha, we decided on the second day we would give this up. The success of the park means that more than 50 visitors (there is a limit) a day visit, paying the significant cost of buying the elephants that need rescuing and paying for their ongoing care, which is huge. The consequence is a dozen elephants, who are the most well integrated and placid, experience a lot of human contact at bathing time, surrounded by groups of 10 throwing water on them. We stepped back from our second bathing experience so the larger groups of day visitors could share our elephant.
A wonderful Thai vegetarian buffet was provided at lunch, and afterwards we walked around the park again. We got close to some of the elephants, others we kept back from (those who want to play their way which is just a little to rough for a human to survive intact, or those who just need their space). We watched them rolling in the mud baths, made for them daily using diggers and a hose, and tossing cool dry dirt with their trunks onto their backs. We all decided that watching them, whether close up or at a distance, was rewarding enough. A skywalk from the visitor centre was impressive, again giving the elephants space. We hoped that one day visitors to ENP will find it sufficient just to watch them.
Our rooms were surprisingly luxurious, and most wonderfully situated over the elephant park. A compound housed those with recent injuries who needed to stay immobile for a bit. It was right behind us. At night we were serenaded by the flapping of ears, shaking chains as they tried to undo the gate using their trunks, and the odd trumpet to family roaming elsewhere. Not even elephants like to be in hospital. Before we went to bed we found Cat Kingdom, the cat rescue centre that is on site. Fred was in seventh heaven as dozens of cats roamed free, low gates surrounding the Kingdom only to keep the roaming rescued dogs out. One section was for newly rescued cats who were enclosed, a holding area that they would be released from once ready. With both the rescued cats and dogs all, but the sick and new, roamed free. The vicious ones wore a red ribbon to warn visitors. We liked that. If their aggression was the consequence of human abuse, they would not be punished by being imprisoned, instead the rest of the human race would have to take their chances, but fair warning had been given. A few doggie skirmishes took place over the course of the 2 days, territories being established daily as they claimed temporary ownership of day visitors. Alisha and Jake were claimed by a dog who snuck into their room with them. Snuggled down they let him lie as they went for dinner. No trouble until they went back at night and a second snuck in. We chuckled on our balcony as we listened to the sounds of them trying to separate and shift the intransigent squatters. Dean picked up his own dog. She had sat at his feet all night in the bar as we chatted with new friends. She growled if our feet threated to tread on her, Thai dogs are far more assertive than their South American relatives. As the night set in, fireflies came out, and Chang beer was drunk, she made her way to his side, quietly ignoring the occasional pack warfare that broke out on the decking. Bedtime came and she followed us also sneaking in to our room. Like Jake and Alisha we let her be on the sofa.
We had gatecrashed Pat and Marissa’s table at dinner. They were volunteering for a week as part of a 2 week trip from Toronto. Fred found ‘Walking Dead’ fanatics to chat to, and we found more delightful company. The six of us, plus Fred, passed an easy evening of new friendship and common values. Its one of the pleasures of travelling that there is always fresh conversation, we’ve learnt to move on when there’s no connection, but here we found it and were sad it was so short a stay. Once again we thanked Mark Zukerberg for his creation.
Our second morning at ENP was a delight. The day visitors don’t arrive until 11am, so we had the park to ourselves and our guide, and got to walk around the grounds quietly watching the Elephants. Excitement came when we had to make a run for a treehouse as an old elephant decided we were too close to her extended family that included the baby. Aunty coming to see us off. Not content with our retreat, she climbed the tower and decided to pull part of the roof off. Not a word of anger from the Mahouts, instead we were asked to leave, which we did. In the afternoon Fred went off to the dog sanctuary, lovely young volunteers giving him jobs to do and letting him help out. The four of us made rice balls for the old ladies who had no teeth. We mixed a concoction of nutritious ingredients, under careful instruction, rolling them into balls. With a sack truck Jake wheeled the heavy basket quite some distance. As a rather grumpy old lady was our customer, we were imprisoned behind a bamboo enclosure in the park, and she trundled over to us to be fed. We liked that. Humans behind bars, elephants free. We fed her by turn, her trunk decending and sniffing out the food. She slowly munched her way through the meal, preferring a small banana inserted in the rice ball to sweeten it. Elephant snot, deposited by her trunk, covered my legs, I didn’t want to wash it off.
With it nearly time to leave I walked down to get Fred from the dog sanctuary. He’d had an amazing time and the volunteers had been so kind to him. We chatted about the dogs as we walked back, and he told me their stories. As we left, we all agreed we’d had a special time. The 2 days and 1 night was definitely worth the extra money, and our booking error turned into another blessing in disguise. Our only challenge was the further dissonance it created for me about our human relationship with animals. We had vegetarian pizza that night and I lay in bed reading the PETA website. This trip has been life changing, but in ways we’ve not expected. As we waited for our flight to Krabi the next day, in Chiang Mai airport, we researched ‘Gourmet Vegan’ cookery courses in the UK. It’s that or we’re going to have to move to a small holding to rear and farm what we eat, I’m struggling to see any other way forward.
For me this trip is all about having a great adventure with my family. Its taken years for us to finally stop talking about it and do it - simply because it both excites and frightens the life out me! So I'm stepping out of corporate life, where I singularly failed to achieve a work/life balance....to experience different cultures and spend time with those I love xx