Chiang Mai was one of those cities that had receieved so many rave reviews from fellow travellers that, while we were really excited to get there, we were also worried that it would not live up to our expectations. These concerns were quickly blighted by our first stroll around this gorgeous city. Our guesthouse (Green Tulip) was well situated within the crumbling walls of the old city, and this menat that most sights and fantastic restaurants were within easy walking distance. However, even if they weren’t, walking around this part of Chiang Mai was such a pleasure that we still made the trek on foot. It felt as if we could not walk 10m without stumbling across a grand old temple, or a mesmerising stupa, and often we would just find ourselves strolling along until we reached the imposing city gates or the grassy banks of the mote, which were perfect for enjoying afternoon ice creams.
Of course, no big city in SEA is complete without its bustling markets, and Chiang Mai was more than complete in this regard with markets-a-plenty. The stand-out contender here was definitely the Sunday Walking Street Market, when the main road running through the city centre is closed to traffic, and vendors of all types set up shop for the evening. Unlike many of the samey markets we’d seen in most of the cities up until this point, Chiang Mai’s Sunday market offered a more eclectic mix of artsy stalls selling a wonderful array of interesting things. Our favourite by far was the artisan cupcake stall, where we spent a good deal of the evening’s budget. We spent hours wandering up and down, soaking up the atmosphere and getting our haggling skills back up to scratch.
All marketed out, and full of cake, we happily returned to our guesthouse, only to find our door latched from the inside. Confused at how we could have managed something that daft, we peered through the little space and saw our room in disarray on the other side. The realisation that someone had broken in was sickening, as our passports and travel documents, both laptops, and the hard-drives with all our photos on them had been left inside (stupid, we know). Panicked, Joff managed to jump from the landing onto our balcony and get in through the balcony door which the thieves had left open. Our first look around confirmed that my laptop had been taken, along with my shoulder bag and the dearly beloved Ipod. At least Joff had had some sense and slid his backpack with the computer and hard-drives in it under the bed before we left – a classic keys-and-wallet-in-the-shoe-at-the-beach-style backpacker move.
Amazingly, our robbers had not thought to look there, and we were at least left with the more important electronics. It also turned out that we had thieves with a bit of a conscience, as lifting one sleeping bag revealed a neat little pile of both passports and all our important travel documents, which they must have actively sought out as I had carefully stowed them in a discreet little pocket in the shoulder bag. Despite the losses, and the discomfort of having our space invaded, we sat on the stairs and waited for the police feeling very relieved that it had not been worse. Dealing with the Thai police was a pleasure and they were very thorough and apologetic. With the help of our wonderful guesthouse proprietresses (the sisters Nine and Stella), who were probably the most traumatised by the ordeal, we got through all the formalities easily, and were constantly assured that this was ‘not what Thai culture condoned.’
I had booked a cooking course for the following day, and had half a mind to cancel, but, having lost quite a lot already, I was not that ready to say goodbye to another 700baht. Thank goodnes for that. The day long course at Siam Rice Cooking School will remain one of the highlights of this trip. It started with a visit to the market where we learned about all the different herbs and the processing of coconut milk and cream, and then moved on to the tranquil garden setting of the family run school. Throughout the day we made seven dishes. Apparently one is supposed to eat them all too, but that’s just crazy talk, so we were all sent on our merry way with bags of take-aways in addition to our certificates, recipe books and bursting stomachs.
While I was thus occupied, Joff was a man on a mission as he walked the city looking for the perfect travel guitar, which he finally found. So by the end of the day we were both on top of the world again thanks to our favourite things: good food and music. And it only got better…
The following day was Joff’s Birthday and we’d decided to do something special and splash out on a trip to The Elephant Nature Park. Up until then, we’d avoided all elephant-related activities in South East Asia (especially Thailand) because of how badly the animals are apparently treated. Our visit to Elephant Nature Park shed more light on this for us, and revealed a far more complex situation than what we had previously written off as simple inhumane brutality. The short version is this: For a long time, Elephants were used as working animals in Thailand’s logging industry, so when logging was banned in 1989, an estimated 3000 animals were left without work and purpose. Sadly, while wild elephants are heavily protected by Thai law, ‘working’ elephants (the animals that have either been left behind after the logging ban, or those that are born into ownership and brutally ‘domesticated’ at a young age) have less protection than livestock, so many of these animals have now crossed over into the tourism industry, where the regulations for their care are hardly stringent. But (and this is the BIG ‘but’ we had not previously considered) without the steady influx of tourists who are dying to ride these magnificent animals, there would be little place for them in Thai society, so by boycotting the elephant camps, one runs the risk of inadvertantly worsening their situation.
But this is where the Elephant Nature Park and the inspiring ‘Lek’ (Little) Chailert come in. Lek has been a champion for elephants’ protection in Thailand since the nineties. After some time travelling through the villages near her home, dispensing medicine and training to elephants and their mahuts (something she still does on an alarmingly large scale), she ended up adopting her first elephant calf and raising him by hand. From then on, she has slowly built up capital and acquired enough land to buy and care for almost 40 elephants from some truly disturbing backgrounds. Possibly the most famous is Jokia, and old ex-logging female who was forced to work while giving birth. After the baby fell to its death she refused to carry on, and was then blinded by her mahout as punishment. We also saw a female whose hind legs were caved in at a very uncomfortable angle under her big body, and were told that this was the result of having her hip broken by a large male in a forced mating set-up. With these violent histories in mind, it was all the more sublime to have close contact with Lek’s gentle giants.
We started off with a great feeding session, and were totally amazed by the sheer quantity of food they could eat. We then moved on to a close contact session with Jokia and her best friend, another female who ‘adopted’ her within hours of Jokia’s arrival, and leads her all over the sanctuary by tapping her with her trunk. From here we moved to a close herd feeding session, which would have been very intimidating were it not for the ever-watchful and expert presence of the mahouts. Once the ellies were full, we were treated to a delicious buffet lunch, followed by a very moving documentary viewing. Usually visitors get to bathe the herd in the river in the afternoon, but unfortunately our visit coinsided with the beginning of the floods, so the river was out of bounds. Instead we got a tour of the grounds, and were given time to hang out with some of the herd a little more before giving them some early dinner.
Lek is determined to show that domestic elephants can be trained by love and positive reinforcement, rather than the torturous process of violently enforced submission which is still the common practice. As a result, visitors are not permitted to ride any of the elephants at her sanctuary, but what she offers is so much more; a really interactive experience with the herd, and a chance to see these majestic animals in a natural, happy and healthy environment.
We left the Elephant Nature Park invigorated, inspired and ecstatic. It was such a phenomenal place and it will remain etched in our memories forever.
Back in Chiang Mai for one more day, we did the only logical thing and hired a scooter so we could see another temple. Doi Suthep is perched on a mountain and overlooks the whole city, so it was definately worth the trip. The temple complex is really impressive, and the views of Chiang Mai were beautiful. As it happens every time we really feel a connection with a place, deciding to leave Chiang Mai was difficult, but the time to move on had come.
On our way out, we saw the first signs that the flooding that had started in the outlying areas had just begun its assault on the city. There was no way of knowing that the conditions would escalate to the dreadful levels they did, and over the following days and weeks we watched the flooding reports with very heavy hearts.