Part 1 of this post deals with Thailand: Bangkok and Koh Phi Phi. Will soon write up Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos (all smooshed together in one post).
THAILAND – CHIANG MAI:
After trudging through busy Bangkok and almost a week spent in and out of the tropical ocean around Phi Phi we flew to Chiang Mai in the north to see a different, blessedly cooler (temperature wise) side of Thailand. One with more mountains, more jungle, and more elephants albeit a comparable amount of tigers. This was the trip of awkward hotel bookings though so not only did I end booking a hotel in the red light district of Bangkok (the type where every other person at the breakfast buffet was an older white dude with a very young looking, presumable paid for, Thai girl) – my dad booked us into what we were pretty sure was a ‘love motel’ in Chiang Mai. All the rooms were themed and super secluded with no windows. We were asked to pick between the jungle theme and the Candyland themed room and went with the Candyland because at least it was mostly pastel coloured so you would be able to tell if something was filthy. Who knows what could be hiding in the camo plastered and fake flora bedecked Tarzan suite…Good wifi everywhere tho.
As far as the city and surrounding areas it’s smaller and much less hectic compared to Bangkok, more livable but also more wild. It seems like right outside the city the jungle is already trying to creep in and a short drive away you have dense foggy forests and the stepped mountains home to nearly neon green rice paddies.
Also more monks. You are apt to spot them everywhere, telltale shaved heads and orange robes. They are very young and they are very old and everything in between. Silently criss-crossing the wats ignoring the masses of camera-wielding tourists; walking in a straight line, bowls in hand collected their morning alms, or dozing off at their designated ‘monk only’ seating areas in the airport. At some of the wats they have designated talking areas/times where you can talk to monk apprentices which was really interesting for us. It’s a chance for them to better their English and for you to get to know their lifestyle. We hung out at one of these for a while and it was neat to chat to these boys, mostly teenagers, who were so friendly and who live such a different day to day life. Many of them come from the countryside and many young men of all walks of life become ‘novices’: sometimes for a few days and sometimes for a few months but increasingly rarely for life.
Wat Phra Doi Suthep:
Of course there were more wats to attend to. One of the most impressive being Wat Phra Thad Doi Suthep (above) where after quite the trek up a lengthy staircase you will find a shining yellow gold cupola (re: pagoda, re re: chedi). You also get a nice view of the city and the tiny bells strung around the temple provide a melodious background tinkling every time the wind picks up. There were also a few gongs around and every now and then one of the more raucous tourists would take it upon themselves to break all that peaceful jingling with a deep ringing beat of the gong.
As you climb up the stairs there are many vendors selling mangoes and refreshing drinks to presumably/more often than not heavy, heaving tourists plodding their way up the steep stairs. Myself included. I think half of my calories from this trip were extracted from these 5 baht sticks of pineapple. Despite my dad’s warnings about impending stomach troubles they looked too damn tempting, all impeccably golden spears resting on mountains of crushed ice. Plus these carts were usually covered and for a lesser developed oftentimes chaotic country, I found food in Thailand to be quite clean and never got sick once. See Dad.
Wat Chedi Luang:
This one was very elephant-y themed. I wish I could tell you more about it but I just remember it formerly housing the Emerald Buddha which is a big deal. Although a lot of of the wats in Chiang Mai also hold the honor of former Emerald Buddha-houser. It is now in the Grand Palace in Bangkok. Also not made of emerald, most likely jade or jasper. I think at this point we were hitting peak wat-overload and they all started to blend in.
Wat Suan Dok:
After a day of wat-ing we also went to the famed Night Market. We bought a couple crappy trinkets and ate crappy food but it’s fun to go to and I’m sure there are gems if you know where to look. Although we attempted to circle around and get a good look at everything it’s hard to judge what is handmade and authentic and what is mass produced and overpriced. So we just got what we liked and tried some Issan style sausage which I think was good but I could barely taste over how phenomenally spicy it was.
The last tours we did in Chiang Mai have all recently come under scrutiny for being somewhat unethical. I included the pictures as well as links to articles on the subject matter. I am not sure that I would patronize these places again, even though I still see many people engaging in these trips. It seems that the elephant riding is unequivocally frowned upon but as for the ethics of Tiger Kingdom and seeing the Kayan people there are arguments for both sides.
The elephant riding was part of our day trip and at the time we had no idea that it was so cruel and unethical. In short, elephants are not made to support the weight of humans and the process to get them to accept carrying people around all day involves animal torture including sleep deprivation, stabbing with bull hooks and beatings. Not to mention the risk of extinction for elephants is at an all time high due to stealing animals from the wild for tourism. If you want to interact with elephants, instead of riding one or watching them do tricks (there are places where they will paint or do other circus type acts), go visit an elephant sanctuary like the Elephant Nature Park.
Another controversial place to visit (we were also unaware of this at the time) is Tiger Kingdom in Chiang Mai. Despite their many claims that the tigers are not drugged in the end who really knows (note the link is for Tiger Temple in Bangkok not Tiger Kingdom, but still food for thought + pretty depressing stuff). They do set some ground rules like no flash, no touching the tigers on their head or approaching them from behind and we did see some very active tigers running into pools and playing with logs and toys. The younger tigers were especially curious and seemed to move around a lot. The older ones seemed quite sleepy, which since they are nocturnal creatures isn’t entirely suspicious, but also doesn’t bode well that you are basically encouraged to drape on top of this wild apex predator. Their facilities are definitely nicer than Tiger Temple in Bangkok and since a lot of the tigers grow up in captivity that could explain why they are so comfortable around humans. Without being aware of the debate on the well-being of the animals we really enjoyed our experience here – despite one of the baby tigers starting to nudge my sister’s knee which apparently means he was about to bite her. The trainers and volunteers seemed experienced and comfortable with the animals although I would research it more before patronizing this institution again.
As part of this day trip we also got to rafting on these very unstable bamboo rafts. You are piloted down a shallow river by your guide who will inevitably purposely jam you into other boats and splash you as he bellow “no wet no fun!!” Everything you own will be soaked to the bone but you do get to see some pretty waterfalls at the end. No animals are hurt in this part of the tour so there’s one activity I can condone.
The end of the trip however, culminated in visiting the Kayan tribe (or Long Neck), which my dad was very excited for. These are former refugees from Burma that are part of a tribe where the women are known for wearing multiple brass rings on their necks, giving them an elongated appearance. There are estimated to be 130,000 Kayan people and about 600 Kayan residing in villages open to tourists in Mae Hong Kong in Thailand. Women wear the rings for aesthetic purposes although in an attempt to modernize in the early 2000s many women stopped this practice. Some people say many Kayans that continue this tradition do so for solely for tourism, as these villages commend a relatively steep fee. There is a debate surrounding the Thai government pocketing most of this fee and forcing the Kayan women to continue with this tradition against their will.
Although it was cool to see this remote village on top of a mountain in the jungle it did feel a bit contrived. When you walk in the girls are all standing by their booths, selling scarves or pretending to use the loom. We talked to one of the girls for a while and she said that most of the scarves are just mass produced but there were a few of the simpler looking ones that they make themselves so she directed us towards those. You can tell the girls are all used to being gawked at and photographed and although some don’t seem to mind it, it must not be to everyone’s liking especially if you’re being forced to do it or the government is trying to prevent development or modernization of your village because it would ruin the photo ops. Even if it was a bit stage-y I wouldn’t mind if the money was going to the villagers and they were doing this willingly. Many travel agencies want nothing to do with this tour saying it amounts to a human zoo. Others claim that many of the Kayan are okay with their lives as the funds from tourism allow them to get an education and a life of posing for pictures is easier than the back breaking work they would have had to do in Myanmar.
To not end on a depression note its absolutely worth visiting the countryside around Chiang Mai. The forests are beautifully lush and dark green, with rings of fog lazily encircling mountain peaks in the morning. There are rivers and waterfalls and we traversed the thin muddy paths connecting bright green rice paddies, shaded by giant mango trees and banana palms. The people, as everywhere else in Thailand, are warm and friendly. There is no need to exploit wild animals or minorities to see something worthwhile. If you want to do something that involves an organized tour, we heard good things about ziplining in the jungle as well as motorcycle tours.