Friday, June 14, 2013

Chiang Mai. Elephants!

After a couple of days in Bangkok, we were ready to get out of the big city. It's always fun to explore new cities, but coming from a big one, I don't like to spend my whole vacation there. Our next stop was a short flight away to the north of Thailand and the city of Chiang Mai. Chiang Mai is the capital city of the northern province of the same name. It's also the second largest city in Thailand, but has a much smaller population: closer to 200,000. It felt very much like a resort town, at least in the part of town we were staying in, near the old city and the night market. There were hotels, shops, and restaurants everywhere, as well as constant offers for activities to appeal to tourists: ziplining, elephant treks, monkey shows, things of that ilk. Most notably, in the off-season we were traveling in, it seemed like something of a ghost town. There were few people staying at our hotel, and the tours we booked ended up being private ones.

The gates to the Old City. I'm the one in the pink shirt to the left. I'm easy to spot because I'm one of the few people in the photo not on a segway. 
That's not to say that it was completely empty; there were definitely more than enough tourists around, and since we engaged in very touristy activities, we ran into a lot of them. However, it's the people of Chiang Mai, not the tourists, that make the place interesting. Maybe I've just been living in New York too long, but I can't remember the last time I was somewhere where the people were so friendly. If we so much as glanced at our map, people would stop on the street to ask where we were going and offer directions. Admittedly some of the people were vendors and tuk tuk drivers wanting to sell us on something, but for the most part they just wanted to chat. One guy we ran into twice told us all about his job in construction and moonlighting as a promoter for Muay Thai boxing. And yet he didn't even try to get us to go to a match (which was particularly refreshing because, national sport or not, Muay Thai was one part of Thai culture I had no interest in).

The moat around the Old City in Chiang Mai. 
On our first night in town, we signed up for a cooking class. I was surprised to be the only girl in our particular class. It was instead populated with two Canadian friends and five UT frat guys celebrating their recent graduations. Funny to run into so many Texans abroad (one of them even had gotten a job offer from the same company my dad works for), funnier still that a bunch of frat guys would want to take a cooking class. Nevertheless, it was a lot of fun. The teacher was hilarious, and more than willing to poke fun at our (well my at least) pathetic spice tolerance and crappy spring roll technique. In addition to teaching us how to make an appetizer, stir fry, and curry of our choice, he also took us to the garden and market to explain about Thai ingredients. Thai cooking is actually fairly simple, but some of the ingredients can be difficult to find in the US. This could be one of those times when living in a huge, culturally diverse city might come in handy. My big take away from the class was that I shouldn't be so wary of oyster sauce and fish sauce. I think because the smell is so strong, I'm always scared of using very much, but the flavors do totally mellow out in the finished dish. As part of the class, we got a cookbook, so I'm definitely going to experiment with my new wok (thanks Alice and Henry!) soon.

At the market, learning about rice and stuff.
This is what severely under spiced food looks like. My curry was worse. I liked it, but apparently you get more of a "white curry" if you don't add enough green curry paste because you're a wimp.
Our first full day in Chiang Mai, we explored some of the temples around the city. Our tour guide Nicky was really great. Her English was excellent, and we bonded over talking about our cats. She apparently likes to try to guess her client's professions. She decided, after spending two days with us, that I was a banker and Sam was a college professor.

At Wat Chiang Man. There were definite differences between the temple architecture here as compared to Bangkok. Notably more stone. 
Sam releasing birds at Wat Chedi Luang. Supposedly to bring good fortune. I'm really not sure how the lady catches the birds each day. 
At Wat Suan Dok. This is the only temple we visited outside the Old City. 

Still at Wat Sun Dok. This time with stray dogs. There were tons of healthy, happy looking strays in Thailand, and especially around temples. Apparently people abandon the animals they can't care for anymore there, and the monks feed, vaccinate, and otherwise look out for them. 
While temples are, of course, very interesting, we were slightly more excited for our tour the following day that involved, among other things, a trip to an elephant camp. I had mixed feelings about elephant trekking initially per the usual liberal guilt needs to justify all animal related tourism before participating. Frankly, I think I'm mostly still scarred from seeing The Cove and learning the dark secrets behind those "ride the dolphin" attractions. Elephants and their mahouts originally worked in the teak lumber industry until it was outlawed by the Thai government in 1988, putting them all out of a job. Apparently, not knowing what else to do, some of the mahouts brought their elephants to Bangkok to beg, which obviously wasn't good for all involved. Essentially, finding a second career in tourism was a welcome opening, although some elephant camps are still exploitive. From what I understand about elephant camps, the one we went to is one of the better ones. They only have shows and rides in the mornings, and allow the animals to rest and bathe in the heat of the day. But that's enough of my justifying, let's move on to cute pictures of elephants!

This little guy failed to get the hat on my head the first time, but I don't blame him. I have kind of a small head. 
The grand entrance of the elephants prior to the elephant show.
Demonstrating their original job by moving the shit out of some teak logs. 
This master artist is named Suda. We ended up buying this piece. She even signed it later. One day when she's more famous, this will really be worth something. 
Atop our elephant mount. A bunch of people along the trail were selling bananas and sugar cane to feed the elephants. They must have made a killing. What stone cold tourist isn't going to buy a bunch of bananas for the elephant they're riding? 
Eventually we had to leave the elephants behind and continue on our tour. There were apparently a part of the tour where we were supposed to ride traditional Thai ox carts too, but Nicky wasn't there during the transition, so when we got off our elephants at the halfway point, we were confused and got right back on them. Only as we were riding away did we see all the ox carts awaiting their passengers. So basically we're kind of bumbling idiots where elephants are involved. And also, I guess I'll never know what it's like to ride an ox cart.

We rode down this river on bamboo rafts just like this one. Our boat steerer kept making jokes about there being snakes, and one of the times, I fell for it. Mostly because I really wanted to see a snake. 
We also stopped at an orchid farm.  This is at that orchid farm.
There are orchids everywhere in Thailand. In the airports, thrown on hotel beds, etc. This is just one of them. 
The rest of our time in Chiang Mai, we spent much as we spent our time in Bangkok: eating and lounging. The food in Chiang Mai is somewhat different from the food in the south. More sticky rice and some Burmese influences. Noting the differences and subtleties was just one more excuse to stuff our faces during this leg of the trip. For more pictures of Chiang Mai and Bangkok (for those who missed the link in the post yesterday), click here. You can also get a sneak peak at the last leg of our trip: Koh Samui. Otherwise known as paradise.

1 comment:

  1. Looks amazing! And you guys look really good on an elephant.