Sunday, March 30, 2008

Chiang Mai

View Chiang Mai Photos Part 1 here.

View Chiang Mai Photos Part 2 here.

So I have been a little lax on the blog postings due to leaving my laptop in Bangkok while in N. Thailand. I opted for that as I didn’t want to have to worry about it at the guesthouses while out trekking around. Theoretically, this was probably a good idea but when the wheels of the plane left the Bangkok tarmac, I felt like I was leaving my first born behind! We have since been happily reunited and I now feel whole again.

It was a huge relief to leave Bangkok to Chiang Mai. I really wanted to GET ‘somewhere’ after being in Bangkok for 5 days (which were 5 too many). I had lost my bank card and had to stay to work out the details of getting it sent to me (not an easy task) and also had to sort out my Vietnam visa, prior to entering the country. 

I stayed at The Libra House on Moon Muang Road, Soi 9. This is where a large portion of the guesthouses are and the Libra House came highly recommended both by friends who had stayed there and my trusty online, SE Asia bible,

I inquired about treks and was told that there was one leaving in the morning for 2 days that included a waterfall, hot springs, elephant riding, bamboo rafting and a 3 hour mountain hike. I was quite ready to have some kind of plan after wandering aimlessly around Bangkok the last few days, so I signed myself up!

The next morning, myself, a couple from France, a guy from Japan, 2 fellow Canadians from Saskatchewan, Levi from London, and Cait and Ada, from New York, set off on our voyage. We all piled into the back of a pick-up that had 2 benches parallel to one another (called a sawngthaew). I felt a little like a soldier en route to the battlefields! Was actually a lot of fun and great for seeing the country side.

We drove north of Chiang Mai first to a spectacular waterfall, where I stood directly underneath; a most refreshing way to start the day. Then came the hot springs - nice but would be much more satisfying in a colder climate me thinks. After lunch, we went trekking up a mountain and visited a couple of hill tribes along the way. Most areas consisted of a shack or two with colourful clothes drying on the line complete with pigs, chickens, roosters, water buffalo and oxen basking in the shade nearby. 

The last part of the trek was the most gruelling physically – an extremely vertical hike to our overnight destination atop the mountain. We arrived exhausted, dirty, sweaty and hungry! So most of us had a dip in the river before being served a traditional Thai meal by the hill tribe we were staying with – noodles, lemongrass, chicken and I even got my very own tofu dish – scrumptious!

We sat by the campfire before retiring to our sleeping quarters - a large hut with thin pieces of foam laid out beside each other. It was a chilly and uncomfortable sleep but well worth it for the experience. 

After breakfast, we went for our elephant rides. I had mixed feelings about this of course but the elephants SEEMED to be well taken care of. Ada and I rode one together and neither of us particularly liked the guide we had. He sat on top of the elephant’s head and steered him down the path with a series of menacing grunts, shifting his body weight and kicking his heels. To me, he was just exhibiting symptoms of ‘small man syndrome’. I cannot relate to people who cannot relate to or feel for animals. 

He pulled out a large tool that had a thick blade shaped like a hook at the end. This made us rather nervous and fully prepared ourselves to kick his ass if he hurt the elephant in any way. We saw him use it later to hook in behind the elephant’s ear to steer it to the ledge where we were dropped off and keep his head facing forward. It wasn’t done forcefully or maliciously but seemed like an unnecessarily frightening tool to have to utilize.

When we got off our elephant, one of the guides hit the elephant beside us on the top of the head with a bamboo stick. I yelled out, ‘Noooooooo!!’. The guide didn’t even look at me, so I made a point of petting the elephant on the head in a comforting gesture while glaring at his abuser, who continued to completely ignore me. 

The next day, I made a point of going to a restaurant called Tuskers who is owned by a guy from London who had gone on an elephant trek in Chiang Mai and didn’t like how the elephants were treated. He moved there to open Tuskers, where he donates a part of the proceeds to elephant conservation. He said the guides should never have to hit the elephants. Dow, the owner of our guesthouse said that when the elephants aren’t doing the treks, they are left to roam free in the jungle. I also asked the guide that took us on the trek and he said the same thing. That’s a really nice story and I really wanted to believe them but they also knew what I wanted to hear. Elephants are profoundly social animals with strong family bonds so I could take some comfort in the fact that there were a good bunch of them together and none of them had to go at this alone.

After elephant riding, we slowly drifted down the river on bamboo rafts past hill tribe villages, fishermen and children playing in the water. Many photo ops were to be had, but I put my camera in a water resistant bag as I have been known to fall, sometimes for no reason, and I wasn’t going to take any chances!

We arrived at yet another ‘hill tribe’. Use the term ‘hill tribe’ loosely because it is totally set up for tourism and doesn’t really have that tribal feel one would hope for when seeking culture. 

I bought some bracelets from the ladies and felt a real bond with one of them. I don’t think either of us understood much of what the other said but when I left I squeezed her hand like I would a grandmother’s and she bid farewell with a warm smile. 

 We then got into the back of another sawngthaew and headed to Chiang Mai. It was great to take pictures out the back where elephants were strolling down the side of the road and locals cruising behind us on motorbikes. 

All in all Chiang Mai was much more pleasant and laid back than Bangkok. That’s not to say that it wasn’t polluted or congested with traffic but I felt like I could breathe a little easier there. I decided the next stop would be Pai! A small town with a population of 3000 filled with travelers, hippies, musicians, artists and new age bohemians. I knew this would be my kind of place and convinced Ada and Cait that they would love it too. 

Stay tuned for more on Pai..coming soon!

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