Posts tagged ‘Chiang Mai’

No time for boredom, Chiang Mai, Thailand

You could spend a lifetime in Chiang Mai and never run out of things to do – temple-hopping, cooking classes, yoga classes, open conversation classes with monks, thai massages, foot spas, elephant shows, shopping, late nights out, early morning markets, chilled juice bars, local national parks, sacred peaks, floating on the resevoir, jungle adventures, minority tribe visits, off-road biking, uphill hiking and the endless hunt for the best curry in town. Somehow the words “I’m bored” just aren’t a part of this vibrant city’s dialogue.

It is for all these reasons and half a dozen more that Chiang Mai is the perfect gateway into Thailand and a pretty convincing destination of its own. With more depth than the islands at less than half the price, the capital of the north is the kind of place you can sink your teeth into. The kind of place where you can kick off your flip-flops, pull up a chair and really get to know the locals. Indeed it is the locals that make the city so open and welcoming – locals who spend their days lounging in their shopfronts chattering with neighbours and their evenings devouring mango and sticky rice at the local market with family and friends.

While it may seem all those smiling faces are part of one big Thai-speaking club though, it is not an exclusive club as we learned one night on our way home. Wandering down the street after a scrumptious market dinner we were suddenly faced with a huge crowd of local people who were singing and dancing on the street. Emerging from their ranks were ten or so brightly coloured floats on sticks. Homemade from crepe paper and sticky glue, the humble floats were bobbing in time to the music, rattling, jingling and swishing their way towards a local temple. Captivated, we stood at the edge of the crowd smiling at performers who seemed happy enough to burst and wishing for the hundredth time that we were part of their club.

Well, you should be careful what you wish for because two minutes later we were being hustled by a group of middle-aged women in matching outfits onto the street and into the beating heart of the celebration. Hopping from one foot to the other and grinning manically at everyone who caught out eyes, we copied our hostesses moves, wriggling our hips, waving our elbows, twisting our wrists and pinching our fingers together until we looked like a bad Bollywood film. Just as we started to run out of breath the procession finally reached the temple gates where we took our leave as the crowd hollered their way into the gilded temple and, with a backwards wink, set about the serious business of celebrating Buddha. Breathless and hyperactive after our initiation into the club, we floated home, raving about those moments that remind you why you started travelling in the first place.

Continuing the theme of hopping on the bandwagon, we signed up to a full-day cookery course in Chiang Mai Thai Farm Cooking School and started our fast. After all, we were going to need all the help we could get if we were going to eat five dishes in one sitting. Over the course of the day we would learn how to make thai green curry from scratch (paste included), tom yam soup, spring rolls, steamed and sticky rice and my all-time favourite Thai dish, mango and sweet sticky rice.

The course started in a local market where we were introduced to all the ingredients we would be working with during the day and some massive vats of the final ingredients. Even at 9am they smelled delicious. We were introduced to our instructor Max – another adorable local kid who said his name was short for “Maximum, as in maximum size” even though he was far from it. How, I thought, could you be so tiny with so much delicious food surrounding you at every second? Fragrant curries, wonderfully greasy fried chicken wings, juicy fruit, charcoal grilled meat kebabs, coconuty sticky rice, buttery chocolate rotis and so much delicious pad thai…. Thailand, a country where curry is a breakfast or lunch meal but definately not a dinner dish, is not the kind of place to watch your figure. And when a plate of Pad Thai sets you back less than a dollar, why should you?

So anyway, back to the farm where Max is taking us on a tour of the crops, following everything up (struggling desperately against a smug smirk) with “You don’t have this in your country, no? It is too cold.” “Thai ginger, you don’t have this.” “Coconut, this not grow.” “Green papaya, you buy from my country.” This continues in the kitchen when we take one glance at our ingredients and realise that we will not be able to buy half of this in Ireland. “How much of it can we replace with potatoes?” we wonder until Max swoops to the rescue. “You can’t find Thai ginger? Use more lemongrass. No kaffir lime? More lemongrass. Out of chicken? Just toss in a little more lemongrass!” Lemongrass, it seems, is the solution to all of life’s problems.

After some vigourous chopping, pounding, crushing, dicing, frying, marinating, boiling, steaming and a few cheap laughs (“When stirring use little finger of left hand. If you need more salt, use one on right hand” says Max, sticking his finger up his nose to demonstrate. “The things you can do with those fingers” says one overweight, middle-aged American breathlessly to a chorus of immature giggles from the class) we plop heavily into our seats around the table, take off our sombreroes and start the very serious business of eating.

I won’t lie, it wasn’t the best food I have ever eaten. My curry paste was still leafy, my tom yam soup was too spicy and my spring rolls were so loosely wrapped that they were half-full of seasame oil. The mango and sticky rice however, was absoulte perfection (although I do acknowledge that all I did was add some coconut cream to a bowl of sticky rice). Full up to bursting point, we gave our leftovers to the cat who was looking a little worse for wear afterwards….

Before we left Chiang Mai we met  up with our oldest travel buddies Dan and Ash – by now firm secondary characters in the story of yearlongbreakup. The night started out pretty normally – them filling us in on their four new travel buddies, the woes of securing an Indian visa and a story involving Connect Four and some hookers and us raving about elephant welfare (yep – still on that buzz). A few ill-advised Chang beers later however, and the scene was a little different. Ash, paranoid after spotting the Thai girl who had stolen his camera’s memory card when he went home with her last night, fled the bar screaming something about not paying for sex while Gary and I argued heatedly (and ignorantly) about Buddhism and Dan tried to break it up whilst securing an invitation to the wedding.

Whatever it says on the bottle – Chang is not 6.4% alcohol and Changovers are not fun.

 More pictures from Chiang Mai are available in the gallery


March 12, 2010 at 1:28 pm 3 comments

Thailand’s mistreated mascot, Chiang Mai, Thailand

It is 1am in Chiang Mai and you are sitting in a beer garden about to start into your fourth Chang beer. A few metres away a live band is belting out a phonetical version of a western rock song (“smo-h on the wah-er”). Midway through your rivetting conversation about the merits of an unregulated beer (“It says its 6.4% but it could be 15%.” “Yeah, but that’s just better value!”) your new best friend stops dead, staring open-mouthed behind you. You turn around expecting to see yet another beautiful Thai girl only to be faced by a wall of tough grey flesh. Its an elephant. AN ELEPHANT! A real life elephant only a metre away from where you sit. The hairs on your neck stand on end and just as you rush over to pet the creature it occurs to you – What the hell is an elephant doing in a big city in the middle of the night?

Since logging was banned in Thailand a few years ago all of the domestic elephants and their owners that were once employed in the industry have been out of a job. Unable to afford the upkeep, many Thai people sold their elephants into Burma, others looked for a new occupation and many headed to the cities where drunk tourists would pay money to feed bananas to the magestic beasts. Living here in makeshift camps many mahouts (elephant keepers) don’t have the resources to care for their elephants in even the most basic of ways.

While Thai law currently protects wild elephants, domestic elephants are considered to be livestock much like chickens or cattle so there is little to stop an owner from abusing, maiming or even murdering his elephant (small fines exist but they are rarely enforced.) And abused, maimed and murdered they often are. Small wonder that there are only 5,000 Asian elephants left in Thailand where there was 150,000 twenty five years ago.

The practice of training a baby elephant is pretty much the same all around the country and has remained unchanged for hundreds of years. At around 4 years old the elephant is put into an ‘elephant crush’ barely large enough to hold it. Here it will spend up to a week (three days for girls, seven for boys) being beaten continuously by a dozen or so men using sticks with nails embedded in the end. To prompt a quicker response, the men will often stab the elephant’s sensitive inner ear. It will not be given any food, water or medical treatment during this time. The aim of the practice is to break the elephant down, to destroy it’s spirit and free-will and most importantly, it’s bond with it’s mother. Inevitably many elephants die during this process but it is considered by most Thai elephant families (and the all-important Shamans of their village) to be a necessary evil.

Taking all this into account, it can be difficult to decide which of the dozens of elephant camps to visit in northern Thailand. In many tourist camps elephants spend most of their waking hours chained in pens, released only to give rides to westerners and to perform in twice daily shows – painting and dancing among other things. But without these camps domestic elephants have nowhere to go and are often released into the wild by their owners where they are shot by poachers or by villagers when they wander into the wrong field and eat the crops.

After looking around for a while – anyone who knows Gary will understand just how important it was that we get ourselves to an elephant camp as soon as humanly possible – we stumbled across the Elephant Nature Park. Here visitors are invited to trade in the dancing shows and elephant rides for a slice of good conscience. Founded in 1995, the Elephant Nature Park is home to 33 rescued elephants who have no demands placed on them other than to show up for daily feedings (no big request since they eat 10% of their body weight every day) and to take the occasional bath. In return they are offered constant vetinary care, 150 acres to wander, plenty of company and the occasional trip up to Elephant Heaven – another stretch of land where they are allowed to wander free in an attempt to re-introduce them to the wild.

To say that we enjoyed our time in the park would be a massive understatement. In truth, we had the greatest time ever! The team collected us at 8.30am and we met our guide Hin – a cute young Thai guy with so much enthusiasm and love for his job that it was hard to make space for anything else in the minivan. We were hardly out of the van when another chunk of the family came to meet us. As it turns out the park is not only home to 33 elephants but is also occupied by a dozen or so cats, a herd of cows, a handful of water buffalo including one rare white buffalo, one pony and a welcoming committee of 50 dogs. There is also a huge school of fish living in the river on the premises which, in keeping with the park’s pilosophies, are fed daily by staff and volunteers bearing buckets of fish food. All the animals are strays, rescues or unfortunate creatures who were left on the doorstep one day.

After meeting the human and canine team, Hin introduced us to the long-nosed members of the park complete with their heart-breaking stories. Hope was an obvious favourite. Rescued by founder Lek when he was only a year old, Hope had been orphaned a week beforehand when his mother was shot. He was a handful from the start and, as the sanctuary’s only wild elephant, he was a little harder to train (Lek uses positive reaffirmation – offering bananas rather than the elephant crush) and he even broke two of Lek’s ribs. Although he has been with the sanctuary for a few years now, Hope is still the most rambunctuous of the tribe – requiring two full-time mahouts to keep an eye on him where the others only have one and having always to wear a bell so that the staff can always hear trouble coming. We found him as charming as a little James Dean though, although his kisses were a little more slobbery than I would like to think James Dean’s were.

The definite highlight of the day was bath time, when we were allowed to run into the freezing cold river and help scrub the elephants down using buckets and handfuls of mud. A little apprehensive at first we kept our distance. The mahouts led the way though, splashing water in the elephants’ faces in that strict-but-loving parent way that they have perfected (its lovely to see the relationship between them and their elephants, walking along side by side with the mahout babbling away and the elephant nodding his/her head in understanding). Little by little it became obvious that, in the heat of the midday sun, the elephants were loving it so we got closer and closer – always watching our toes – shovelling water as if onto a burning house and scraping off layers of crusty mud. The challenge was to dodge their trunks as they sucked up water and sprayed it onto their backs.

All our efforts seem to have been in vain though because hardly five minutes after they got out of the water the two babies of the group had found a nearby mud puddle and were stomping about in it, wrestling one another to the ground. Concerned at first for their precious children’s safety, the herd gathered around making half-hearted attempts to break up the tots with a bit of spanking and gentle nudging. It wasn’t long before the ever-growing puddle had engulfed them all though and, slipping and sliding on their backs and bellies, the entire family (excluding Grandma of course) rolled about the mud pool trumpetting and giggling as their mahouts cheered from the sidelines.

As well as bathing and making out with the elephants we helped to feed them a few times during the day. While it wasn’t as interactive as a bare-back riding session nor as novel as a painting demonstration, we left The Elephant Park having learned a lot more about Thailand’s wildlife and culture. Although our pockets were a little lighter it was great to know that, for once, our cash was going to a worthy cause. Our only real regret was that we didn’t have a week, a month or maybe even a year to spend pottering about with the elephants, shovelling poo, preparing tonnes of fresh fruit and contributing more to what is undoutably a worthy cause.

*note: we had a little trouble booking through the website which, as it turns out, is run from the UK. If you are banging about Chiang Mai its a safer bet to drop into one of the charity’s local branches.

More pictures from the elephant nature park are available in the gallery

March 9, 2010 at 5:03 pm 2 comments


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