We left Luang Nam Tha in Laos and headed for the Thai border at the Mekong River. We left around 9:00 a.m. by bus for a relatively quick trip to Houei Xai and crossed the river into Thailand. We caught a 5:00 p.m. bus to Chiang Rai, and arrived later in the evening. Thailand has much more money than Laos, and we noticed immediately the fancier vehicles and roads in Thailand. Chiang Rai has a nice central market that uses traditional Thai architecture to create a vibrant public space with a large open air food court and a large stage for live music. We were only here for the night and did not see much else of the city (which offers many things, but we kept moving on).
The next morning we caught a bus for Chiang Mai, which is a major tourist destination in Northern Thailand. Chiang Mai was a capital city of the Lanna kingdom many years ago, and was considered the capital of the north. The Lanna kingdom fell to the invading Burmese, who occupied the area for a few hundred years and left Chiang Mai depopulated and abandoned. Years later the Kingdom of Siam reclaimed the city from the Burmese, and built a large wall and moat to protect the city from future invasions from Burma. With this stability, Chiang Mai rose to become an important cultural and trading city in the north. We learned all these fascinating tidbits from visiting the well presented museum in Chiang Mai.
Today, the inner city of Chiang Mai has many very old and historic Wats within the old walls and moat. This historic core is popular with tourists and the streets are filled with shops catering to foreign travelers and most of the signs are in English. There are tons of places offering tours, cooking classes, western food, and all other things touristic (to borrow a handy British word). Overwhelmed by the deluge of tourism after spending so much time in mellow Laos, we have blatantly copied the itinerary of our friends Sam and Laura (we met them in Xingping and then later in Hoi An) who visited this area a few weeks ago. There is a link to their blog on the side, and you can see for yourself all the good times they had here.
We went to the Elephant Nature Park and spent about $70 US per person to visit for the day. We had a great time and we felt it was money well spent. We were driven about one hour north of Chiang Mai, up into a beautiful valley along a river. The park rescues abused elephants and provides a sanctuary for them and allows tourists to visit or volunteer to learn about them and help run the place. In the morning, we had a quick chat about being safe around the animals and then went out to interact with some of them. Asian Elephants were used in Thailand for logging, but since logging has been restricted, this use for elephants has disappeared (although using elephants for logging continues in Burma). Domesticated elephants are now used for begging in Bangkok or taking tourists on treks. The mahouts are traditionally from the hill tribes on the Thai-Burma border, but this is not always the case these days.
There are many sad cases of abused elephants, one was blinded in both eyes by its mahout for refusing to work after its baby died, one has a damaged foot from a landmine (there are many on the Thai-Burma border), one was fed amphetamines to keep it working longer hours, and others where hit by vehicles while being used for begging in Bangkok. We spent the morning feeding some of them (bananas, pumpkin, corn and sugar cane) and then moved on to splashing water on some of the older, more low-key elephants down at the river. The blind one has a friend that helps to lead it around, and we washed those two for a while and took photos.
After bathing the old elephants, we went to an elevated platform to watch the babies bathe (since their families are more protective, it was safer for us to be out-of-the-way). We had a nice lunch and then did more feeding and bathing. The park is well designed to facilitate visitors interacting with the elephants will minimal control. Mahouts watch them to ensure they don’t cause serious damage, and we have plenty of time to just watch them up close. Feeding them and watching them interact with each other was amazing. They have complex family structures and can live to be about 80 bears old.
We visited an old Wat in the old city core, and once again we were horrified by the behavior of tourists at this important center of Thai Buddhism. In our time in SE Asia, we have learned some important things about respecting local culture. It is hard not to, since all the guidebooks have lots of information on how to act properly, and all the Wats in Laos and Thailand have a well presented poster at the entrances explaining to tourists what is acceptable and what is not. Buddhism monks are revered, and to show respect, people should not have their heads higher than them (that is why the big important Buddha statues are on high platforms). Devote Buddhists always sit lower than a monk, and some even approach an important monk on their knees to show respect. Similar to the Wats we visited in Bangkok, visitors are allowed to freely wander the complex (inside and outside of the temples) but are required to wear long pants and shirts that cover the shoulders. Monks (in some sects) take a vow of celibacy, and no-one should touch a monk, especially not women. Sadly, we saw many scantily clad tourists prancing around in the temples in short-shorts and tank tops, showing off their fresh tropical tans. It was the king’s birthday a week ago, and since he is really (really, really) important to the Thais, there were many celebrations. As a part of the celebration, a very old monk who was clearly very important, was sitting on a high platform with adherents coming up, bowing and praying before him (always staying lowered than he was). He never moved and just looked forward like he was meditating. We observed from a respectful distance, and watched in horror as some European couple walked up to him, stared down at him for a while, and then took a photo with a flash right in his face.
Next we will head to the hippy town of Pai and then come back to Chiang Mai to take a cooking class. Yes, it is the same one that our friends did, but it seemed good, and we really enjoyed the Elephant Park.
***click to enlarge photos below***