What do you call a pig that does karate? Pork chop.
Right so nothing to do with anything, but was Bel’s suggestion at an opening line: start with a joke, people like that. Bet it killed.
Here we are in Thailand, and the first thing we notice is how quiet it is. We find ourselves a nearby bar, order 2 Long Island ice teas and sit with the crickets, so to speak. Perhaps because we’ve just come from the madness of Hanoi and got so used to the chaos, but Chiang Mai on first impression seems tranquil.
The streets are wide and there are pavements to walk on, there are fountains and fast food joints everywhere. Thailand has adapted to the western way of things, compared to Vietnam who has stuck to their traditions. None the less we vow it will only be Thai food, with the exception of the gateway Macca’s at the airport.
A new daily routine takes place in Chiang Mai; in the mornings we do temples.
Now not that I’ve been many places at all, but the Thai really know how to put together a temple. The carvings, the statues, the wall paintings, the GOLD. I know, let’s make it gold freakin everything. They’re just breath taking, you see the tops of them over sidewalk walls, oohh look at THAT one. We by no means do them all, there are simply too many, and quite frankly after awhile you do get templed out, but we manage our fair share. And we do make it up the mountain to see Doi Suthep.
The origins of this temple are somewhat shrouded in mystery, but there are theories and legends, the main of which is the White Elephant.
The story goes a monk found a relic which was believed to be Buddha’s shoulder bone, it had magical powers and could glow and disappear. He took it to the king, and it replicated into 2 pieces. One was enshrined and the other was placed on the back of a white elephant. The elephant went off into the jungle and climbed up Doi Suthep mountain. He trumpeted 3 times and then lay down and died. The king took it as a good omen and ordered a Temple to be constructed.
It is easily the busiest and most visited of all the temples we see. You have to catch a bus up the mountain, then climb the 309 steps to the temple. Normal temple dress code rules apply; no shorts, no bare shoulders. Bel and I are prepared though we see several silly white people in tank tops and khaki cut offs that get sent to the wardrobe department of borrowed sarongs.
The temple is beautiful, and wins the prize of most gold everything. Though we have come early it is swarming with visitors and worshipers. There are flowers to purchase and place as offerings, candles to light, and donation boxes next to absolutely everything. We enter on our knees with the throng, and bow our heads as a monk douses us with holy water and says a prayer for our happiness. He then ties holy cotton on each wrist, though the women are directed to his assistant; monks do not have permission to touch a lady.
So take that world with your average paying job, no credits to my name and no boyfriend, I’m now equipped with holy cotton for success in my every endeavor. Things are looking up.
Midday in our routine means pool time at the hotel. It’s getting hot by this stage, and the mornings wandering and worshiping have us in need of a rest. Our hotel is budget, but it does have a pool, about the only good thing going for it as the staff are grumpy and the wifi connection is frustratingly, ridiculously bad.
The afternoons are for pampering, and we manage to cover all bases. Foot massage one day, manicure the next. On the second afternoon we find ourselves lying in our undies on mattresses on the floor getting the strangest rub down. I always get slightly off put when your masseuses quietly talk to each other during a ‘couples massages’, worse still when they giggle, are they laughing at me? Look at this white girls wobbly thighs, she come to Thailand and eat too many noodle. Or maybe it’s not about me, and just daily banter, did you see Steve’s new bike? Who’s he kidding, I know what he earns. Can’t decide what’s worse, but would you just be quiet I’m trying to be zen here.
We also try out the fish spa, the one where you dangle your feet into a tank of flesh eating little fishes that gnaw at your dead skin. Something I’ve been dying to try, which Annabel partook in very willingly, then spent the half hour an anxious wreck panicking about the whole situation. Its OK, they’re just very small fish. The sensation is very strange, and at first I couldn’t keep my feet still for tickling, but goodness I was fascinated, and after all that Bel did remark at how silky smooth her feets were.
And then evenings meant shopping, as if we hasn’t done enough already, with a range of night time markets to explore. We demonstrate our spending abilities once more, Bel could teach a course on buying cushion covers, while I excel at pants. We both had difficulty zipping up the luggage this morning, THAT’S it, no more in Phuket.
Our last day in Chiang Mai we go to The Elephant Nature park. It’s a bit of a must in Asia, and the parks are numerous. You can do elephant treks through the jungle, see them perform shows and paint pictures, but I’m not interested in seeing working elephants with feet manacled to chains, we want the real deal.
Founded by a tiny little woman called Lek (which in Thai means small) is an elephant sanctuary. A valley of green surrounded by rolling hills where the elephants roam free. All having been rescued by Lek from abuse and diabolical ‘working’ situations.
Thai law puts elephants on par with cattle (regardless of their cultural significance and religious status) and means they are the property of their owner, who can do what they like with them. Before the logging industry was banned in Thailand they were it’s muscle. Now it’s the tourist industry and the worlds fascination with elephants sees them as nothing more than a money maker.
Each working elephant is put through ‘training’ at the age of about 4. They are placed inside a cage called the ‘crush’ barely big enough to contain them, their feet are bound, and for four days they are beaten relentlessly into submission. The males stay in the crush for up to seven days as they tend to put up more of a fight. We are shown a video of this ‘training’, and it’s just sickening. Baby elephants getting beaten by about 6 men at a time until they get the command right, and they have nails on the end of those sticks. There is even a shaman on each site, lighting incense and saying prayers; all the pain is necessary, they must yield to their master.
Every working elephant is put through this ordeal, and that’s just the first few days. The process of making them obedient takes weeks.
The money making scheme of elephants goes so far as the streets of Bangkok, where you see elephants on crowded sidewalks, terrified of all the passing traffic, while their owners sell bags of food to tourists to feed them; it’s a gold mine.
It’s absolutely disgusting.
Lek, the granddaughter of a shaman wants to put a stop to all the elephant abuse, but sadly she’s one of the only few speaking out.
She buys elephants where she can and brings them to her sanctuary. Many of them have broken legs, some are blind (the eyes are a weak spot and a target for cruelty). She started with four, and now the family has grown to 35, 2 of which are babies, and oh man is there anything cuter than a baby elephant running? No there is not.
Each elephant has their own trainer, that feeds them and wanders the park with them. They are taught not with sticks and whips but with words, and pats and love. Though they come here as strangers, four different herds have formed amongst them, and they move in their new family’s.
The park also has a medical clinic on site, to look after the elephants health, one of two in Thailand and the only one in the local area. Lek allows the other nearby parks to use the clinic free of charge, else their elephants get no medical help at all.
The task of saving them isn’t easy, each one costs thousands to buy, and they eat daily tonnes. Volunteers pour in from around the world and pay for a working holiday on the camp. Emptying the daily trucks of their diet: watermelons, pumpkins, bananas and cucumbers. Helping clean, and run the site, and manage the dogs.
That’s another thing; as well as the gentle giants Lek also rescues dogs from Bangkok, and anyone who’s traveled Asia will know how many strays you see wandering the streets. The park is home to more than 400 rescued muts, some have lost legs, or just look a little mangy. But they are fed and cared for and are happy as Larry. Anywhere you go on the site there will be a pooch napping, or happily running alongside the paddocks, the elephants pay them no mind.
We help feed the elephants, we walk in the fields with them, and we help bath them in the river. It’s incredible. There are no sticks, or chains, there are no fences, they can go where they like. And Lek is there herself, smiling and shaking hands with people, followed everywhere by a herd of dogs.
Also the buffet lunch is the best meal we’ve had thus far in Thailand (Vietnam’s winning on that front)
If you are heading to Thailand, this is the only elephant park to choose.
We finish Chiang Mai with an evening of Khum Khantoke; dinner and a show of traditional Thai dance. The costumes are exquisite, the dancers are beautiful, and we have our second great meal of the day and eat ourselves into a state of pain. The night is marred only by the hoards of Chinese tourists that swarm around us and make a lot of noise.
Now we’re sitting on a plane, Bels just been telling me about her nightmare last night where some guy stole her blue Nissan (she doesn’t have a blue Nissan but it was still scary) and we’re heading to Phuket. The last leg of the journey, then soon it’ll be home time.
Big love to you all