Thursday, 13 September 2012

Chiang Mai

We landed in Chiang Mai airport after a relaxing flight and booked a taxi into the town centre. Already it was prevalent that we were in a very different area of the country. The small and easily navigatable beach villages were a distant memory and before us laid the hustle and bustle of another city, Chiang Mai.

Chiang Mai is much smaller than Bangkok and you can reach most places in the town centre on foot, yet it still remains the second biggest city in Thailand. It’s laid back, its cooler and although tourism certainly has a firm hold on the city it hasn’t taken over. The city is surrounded on all sides by beautifully majestic mountains and the city itself is encased in an ancient wall (most of which is now rubble) and a canal. When we arrived at our hostel on our first day in Chiang Mai we unpacked and then took a short stroll around the canal to see what we could find. We found some temples, we walked between the city walls and along the canal and eventually found some peace on a bench watching the fish laying their eggs.

The hostel we were staying at in Chiang Mai was unlike those we had stayed in before; it was made up of small teak wood bungalows that the owner had inherited from her grandfather. It was quite a sight to behold, the main reception area was full of hand crafted wooden antiques, in the evening bats would fly around, and everywhere you went you could smell the wood and incense.

On our first full day in Chiang Mai the sun was shining, considering it has been monsoon season here in Thailand we’ve been incredibly lucky with the weather; it has only rained in short spasms, usually in the evening. We had heard about Tiger Kingdom a place where you can go along and pet baby tigers and despite the high price tag we hired a tuk-tuk and headed 13km out of town to the small village of Mae Rim where Tiger Kingdom resides. We were a little sceptical about the animals welfare and were worried that Tiger Kingdom was just a tourist trap and whilst the latter does hold true it did seem like the tigers were preferably well looked after.

Our tuk-tuk driver pulled in right at the entrance and we offloaded and walked up the stairs into the reception area. You are greeted with 5 screens which all represent different things you can do at Tiger Kingdom, each has the price tag attached and we opted for ‘Take 3’ which meant that we could go in with the 3 – 5 months old tigers, the 5 – 7 month old tigers and the year old tigers, neither of us had the guts to tackle what Tiger Kingdom just calls the big tigers.

We paid our money and we were ushered through to the park, first up were the smallest tigers and they were strikingly cute, we spend about 15 minutes playing with the baby tigers before moving up through the ranks. The year old tigers were certainly the scariest and considering they were only a year old they were incredibly large, to me they looked like full grown beasts. The keepers kept trying to get us to pose for different photos which more often than not we rejected. Unfortunately that’s what this place is all about (photo opportunities) and you’re certainly not going to learn anything about the tigers here, however it was a worthwhile experience. We read horror stories about Tiger Temple in Bangkok and at least the tigers in Chiang Mai weren’t drugged and weren’t chained up so that was a plus in our books and we had a fantastic time getting to know the tigers and taking our photos with them.

Afterwards we headed to another wildlife orientated park that we had read about. Siam Insect Zoo had a giant collection of insects and you can even interact with some of them. This place was much more educational than Tiger Kingdom. We got to hold giant scorpions and praying mantises and we saw some fascinating insects and at the same time learnt a lot about them.

Our tuk-tuk took us back into the city once we had finished in Mae Rim and that evening we went to the night market or ‘Sunday walking street’ as its called. We spent hours walking through the market and we picked up lots of gifts for ourselves and for friends and family back home. The night was getting late and we strolled back to our hostel after a fantastic first day.

Our second day in Chiang Mai was spent visiting the elephant nature park which is an animal conservation centre and sanctuary up in the jungle near Chiang Mai. We had booked this tour a long time ago and we wanted to make sure that we went to an elephant park that was all about the elephants and not all about photo opportunities and elephant rides. Infact we didn’t want to ride elephants at all as we found it cruel and unnecessary. The park proved our suspicions correct. We learnt so much about elephant welfare in Thailand whilst really getting to know some of the elephants at the park.

The elephant trade in Thailand is truly horrific and Lek the owner of the elephant nature park is really doing good work to protect Thailand’s dwindling elephant population. The park is basically a rescue centre for elephants and some of the stories were incredibly moving. Stories of torture and abuse of the elephants, it was good that they were now in a positive environment away from the hardship they had endured. Some elephants had been blinded where owners had stabbed them in the eyes to get them to perform and obey their owners, others spirits had been broken in awful conditions that had left the elephants scared and alone. I urge you when travelling to Thailand to not only visit the park to learn about the elephants but to not support the street begging elephants or any other tourist orientated non-eco elephant park.

Unfortunately after logging was outlawed in 1989 thousands of domesticated Thai elephants were left out of work and unable to survive in the wild, these elephants are now used in the tourist industry, some in better conditions than others, but if tourists keep on actively exploiting these creatures then they will be bred into the tourist trade, and the cycle will never stop and the wild Thai elephant will be a thing of the past, nothing left but jungle elephant treks and elephant rides.

It was a joy feeding and bathing these wonderful creatures at the park and it’s something I’ll never forget. Their skin is coarse but nice to touch and whilst they are giants they are so gentle and quiet. We spent the day with some wonderful people as well, two tourists from Germany and two from America one whom was just finishing an internship in Cambodia and who had lots of recommendations for our trip there. We had a lovely meal by the river that evening and settled in for an early night after a busy day with the elephants.

On our last day in Chiang Mai we headed to Doi Suthep national park, Doi is Thai for mountain and this particular mountain has a gorgeous temple on top and views of the whole city, when we first got to the top it was incredibly misty but by the time we got to hiking to the waterfall near the bottom of the mountain the weather had cleared and we had amazing views. It was a nice way to bring our Chiang Mai adventures to a close.

As usual there is so much more to write about and its hard to sum up four days worth of awesome experiences in a short blog post but I hope that this gives everyone some idea of what we’ve been doing with our time in Thailand. We’re in Chiang Rai now, about three hours north east of Chiang Mai, but that’s for another blog post.

We’re fighting off insects and trying to cram as much into our adventures as possible, time is flying by and everyday we are getting better and better at this whole independent traveller gig, its certainly not easy, but its very rewarding and I’m sure when I get home I can bore you folks with some more in depth tales of the things that we’ve been doing.

Until then, good night and good luck. 

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