Chiang Mai and Surrounds

People seem to have a love affair with Chiang Mai. My guidebook flatly asks if you’ve yet been asked about it by other travelers (“Have you been to Chiang Mai yet??”)

With high expectations I took a second overnight train (see previous entry) from Bangkok and headed north. My initial impressions of the town were that it is a typical, almost sleepy, Thai town. Medium in size, it has its share of traffic, especially around the central, older part of town, whose decaying, ancient walls and moat cause traffic flow to be circuitous.

It took me a few days of urban surfing to find the spots I’d been hoping to run across, but there they were, hidden behind dark alleys or sandwiched between expat bars. Chiang Mai may be an ancient and historic town, but what I realized is that it is the Thai equivalent of the Bay Area, filled with lively nightlife and hippie influence. There is a confluence of raggae bars where a few alleys meet, where lanky dreadlocked Thai musicians rock, and the odd wandering trumpet player drops in to jam. Daytime offers numerous Yoga studios and a huge number of vegetarian restaurants and book shops. In addition to the quotidian night market, weekly night markets take over entire streets, such as the one near my guest house. Block after block of people, food, wares and music, drove home my impressions that while this city seems to sleep much of the time, it really lives often, and with verve.

For me, these are the cherries on a city that already offers so much to see. One can easily lose a few days wandering the numerous temples in the area, and tourists flock here for trekking expeditions to the hills, where between lengthy hikes they have their choice of touristsploitation: elephant rides, meeting “hill tribe” people, etc.

Unsure of how I would spend my exploitation dollars in the days to come, I first opted to take a Thai cooking course. In the morning our class went to a local market to explore the offerings, picking up some fresh vegetables along the way. We spent the following several hours learning to prepare numerous dishes, with mine adjusted to be “jay” (vegetarian). After a full day of cooking and eating, I could barely finish the spring rolls and noodles I’d made for dinner, and passed out cold and early.

Renting a scooter, I set off to explore Doi Suthep, am impressive temple sitting three hundred steps up a hillside in the mountains some 15 km from the town center. They say that the view from there is impressive, and I had to settle for imagination, as the area has been battling a bad case of haze, caused by slash-and-burn fires in Thailand, Burma and Laos. Though not magnificent a day for a landscape, I welcomed the excursion, riding twisties half an hour up the mountain, chugging along as best a 125cc scooter can, and taking in what little I could see along the way.

After another day of chilling in the city I took a day trip to the Elephant Nature Camp, a sanctuary for abused elephants. It was started by a woman who is trying to change centuries-old traditions that break elephants using days of starvation, beating and torture. This has traditionally been done for the purposes of construction, but since Thailand abolished logging, elephants are now mainly used for entertainment, performing shows and offering rides to the general public, who is largely unaware of the barbaric practices that have tamed the large animals. With the volunteer slots booked up far in advance, I was unable to stay for more than one day at the camp. So, instead of getting to do lots of daily chores, I spent the day learning about the elephants’ tragic stories, feeding them fruits and vegetables at lunchtime, and bathing them a couple of times in the river.

It surely unnecessary for me to say that elephants are big, but you have no idea just how big they are until you see them laying on their sides in the river as you scrub their leathery skin with a tiny brush. For all the awkwardness that comes with their scale, they are as gentle and graceful as can possibly be. Most impressively is that despite their legendary memories, most are able to forgive the terrible episodes they have suffered in their lifetimes (and a couple are over seventy years of age!) I’m talking about traumas dealing with forced labor during pregnancy, broken spines due to [elephant] rape, being tied to a post (at a temple, no less) for two years, unable to move… that these clearly emotional (for they are emotive, and social) animals do not ambush all humans they encounter breaks my heart, and I am glad to have had the opportunity to briefly interact with them in the way I did — the center does not, unlike other elephant “camps”, offer rides or have them do tricks. It is their goal to have the elephants be, well, elephants; and our quirky tour guide spent much of the day telling us about their many many soap operas (he likes her, and this one is jealous, but they’re hanging out together anyway, after much coaxing………) It turns out that being an elephant is much like being on daytime TV, but with more bananas and dust baths.

My last day in Chiang Mai, I took a bus tour farther north, to the Golden Triangle. Now, I thought I’d signed up for a trek of some sort, but it turned out to be more of a tour of various shopping areas hours from Chiang Mai. Nevertheless, it was pretty cool to see where Thailand, Burma (err.. sorry.. Myanmar) and Laos meet, at the Mekhong River. Historically known for opium production, this spot is now a mooring where tourists to Thailand can take a boat trip to a tourist trap in Laos for thirty minutes to purchase cheap cigarettes. I opted not to spend the extra ten bucks to see that.

After lunch we went to the Thailand-Burma border crossing, where stall after stall sells all manner of jewelry, cheap knock-off watches and other Chinese imports. Actually, this is an important trade destination, which has for a long long time seen Burmese, Thais and Chinese from Yun Nan converge to trade wares.

Thankfully not staying here for long, we were soon shuttled to a less-than-authentic hill tribe village, where Karen, Akha and Lahu people (mostly women) sell their various scarves, hats, jewelry and opium pipes to tourists. If I sound cynical it is because I’m a little jaded at the whole hill-tribe/tourist situation. I am happy to have gotten to see people I would normally never see, and a certain curiosity was satisfied; but there is little authenticity to the experience. There is evidence that the women I met do actually live there (laundry, livestock, satellite dish), but it is clearly an experienced manufactured for tourist dollars; a little strip of Epcot in Northern Thailand, exactly as I expected. I did not go on an extended hike up in the mountains, but I understand that guided treks in the area make exactly the same photo-op pit stops, with the added bonus of sleeping under the same thatched roofs. Therefore, I must resign myself to the whole experience. I am very much a tourist in their land, and bring the promise of income to people do not even benefit from Thai citizenship. To their dismay, however, I did not purchase anything, despite their best puppy-dog eyes. They cursed me in languages I cannot begin to understand.

So, Chiang Mai.. it offers a quality of life that makes an extended stay tempting. It has a verve similar to Bangkok’s, with less bustle; it’s got endless eco-tourist and extreme-sports opportunities; it’s got a laid back atmosphere that I enjoyed very much. With my only complaint being lack of ocean, I will definitely come back some day to experience more of it, and hopefully head into Laos and Myanmar.

Now, with only a few days left of my stay in Thailand and huge New Year’s celebrations prepping throughout the country, I will start heading back south to Bangkok, with a couple of stops along the way.

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