Chiang Mai – Northern Thailand
Our four days in this quite different and somewhat spiritual centre is worthy of its own page of notes. The difference is felt immediately upon stepping from the plane, a slight drop in temperature, and then stepping from the taxi after a short ride to the hotel, noticing a drop in the pace of life. Whilst still not slow, much slower from that found in Bangkok and Phuket. We enjoyed the afternoon amble around the streets. Turning left from the hotel and walking directly into the city’s centre, passing any number of massage parlours, where the delightfully looking ladies and some lady-boys too, much to Jo’s delight. It has been a goal of hers to see at least one lady-boy before departure. Box ticked, as it were. We did a couple more temples, and I have to admit to being all temple-out now. They are quite magnificent but one Buddha looks just like another after a while, even after a short while, truth be known!
We took an early night, following another delicious Thai meal, and looked forward to the next day which would see us playing and laughing with elephants, unchained elephants, more especially. We arrive at the banks of some river, up in the mountains north of Chiang Mai. We stripped to the order of “take off your clothes”. Our guide Jimmy, quite a character, from the Chiang Mai Elephant Sanctuary, had a super presence, extensive local knowledge of just about everything, and a sense of command that meant do as you are told or you are elephant meat. Elephants, of course do not eat meat, they are probably vegans, which seems to be a fad prevalent among the Andrews and Turner households at the moment. So we took off our clothes to reveal our swim wear. We trod very carefully down the muddy slope to the brown river’s edge, whereupon we embarked the bamboo raft, to be steered downstream by a handsome lad brandishing a large bamboo pole to dip into and out of the water in order to engage the bends and rapids along the two mile route through the jungle. This was not quite the white waters of the Colorado but nonetheless just as mesmerising. Bamboo, it must be said is just the most fantastically versatile wood ever created in nature. Our raft consisted of eight twenty foot lengths of this miracle wood, bound by other smaller and bendy miracle wood lengths. Quite special. If we were in America, this would be Huck Finn’s raft on a tributary of the Mississippi. We lazed our way comfortably downstream encountering the occasional blockage, created by other rafts, that had probably escaped their quite lax moorings or fallen disused bamboo bridges across the river. It was all good fun. At one point it was reminiscent of our Ardeche River adventures. The rapids were too rocky and difficult for the length of the raft that we needed to alight and tackle the rocks for about 50 yards before remounting the miracle wood for the final time. We beached at a convenient slip on the left bank. The rafts were lifted to a roof of a beat up old Toyota truck and our captains perched on top of them to go back upstream for a well earned banana leaf smoke and a nap. We, on the other hand, climbed into the back of another Toyota jalopy, which would take us further up the mountain, deeper into the jungle. The route as hazardous to say the least. The scenery beyond the steep drops to our left made the fear bearable until the mud track ruts halted our progress with wheel-spin. Versatile Jimmy strapped chains to a single wheel and we were off and spinning once again, en route to his home village, the name of which, sadly, at this time, I cannot recall.
A single track meandered through the many homes built on stilts. It was quiet, still, peaceful and humid. The menfolk were at work in the fields or in the surrounding towns, leaving the women, young and old at home tending to the young children and domestic chores, chopping wood and collecting rice bundles. The children were attending the local school, taken their, along with other family members on the family moped. Every home has at least one. This was a magical experience. On the porches of these wood and bamboo constructions sat young mothers breast feeding, grandmothers sitting with grandchildren, motionless, sad looking but seemingly content with each other. I spy a very elderly, frail looking lady lifting a felling axe to split wood, presumably for a cooking fire. She does it well and persists. Our western ways, on occasions like this, seem unnecessarily crazy. We chase status symbols, we allow ourselves to be manipulated by the media, we rely on conveniences. These charming people have only just installed electricity. I am not sure that is a good thing.
Our stroll through time took us to the elephants. The elephants. We had a quick Thai lunch as the heavens opened, changed into the required colourful garb, as seen in the snap above. The rain made the walk to the elephants feeding place, very interesting. The elephants know they cannot fall over. Should they lose their footing they would simply slide down the mountain, nonstop, at a rate of heavy knots! It was steep. The went very slowly, step by careful step. The trick, for us, to go up and down is to tread in their footprints. They compact the mud and make it solid. Avoiding the dollops of poo, we arrive eventless at where we feed them bananas. Oh no, Jo went base over apex! The atmosphere was spiritual. These splendid, prehistoric creatures obviously communicating with us as we touched them, hugged them, played with them. Their eyes still with intelligence, confidently quiet with a wealth of worldly knowledge within.
The feeding was followed by a mud bath. Both us and the elephants bathing knee deep in a mud pond, although they preferred rolling on their backs and snorting the muddy water over everyone. Such playful creatures. Not a care. Should we learn from that?
Another careful walk with the elephants, keep it up, two, three, four, to a waterfall and splash pool to wash off the mud, from everywhere, from everyone, achieved once again by the snorting powers of the big boys and girls as they lay on the backs and side in the water. Just very special.
That was the end of the elephant experience, although we stayed in the jungle for a while longer. We trekked, barefoot, along jungle paths to another more spectacular waterfall where we bathed and peed in the cool waters. The Chang beer was very welcome.
What a day? Certainly a most memorable 10 hours of wet, wild and wonderful.
Not satisfied with that, the following day we searched for the Baan Tong Luang village which is home to a number of hill tribes, including the famous long-neck tribe, Karon. Government funded, the hill tribes live in their own environments, pursuing their own styles of livelihood and cultures. Another eye-opener. We felt humbled by the nature of these folk, their simple yet effective life styles. Their unique cultures bonding with nature in mutual respect. I feel they will survive us when the western world is successful in destroying itself.
Our final exploit took us to a temple high on another mountain. I was all templed out but this one had to be done! According to the guide books. It was actually quite ordinary, in comparison to some we had visited, but suddenly there emerged a stream of saffron robed Buddhist monk trainees, chanting prayers and responses as they paraded around the circular walkway. It grabbed our senses. The monotony of the chants, the smell of incense, the colourful spectacle; we were tasting the religious culture and feeling moved. The event provided a new dimension to the temple experience. Before, temples were just places of worship visited by tourists.. This temple was now a working temple, much the same way as the hill tribe villages we had visited. Working, real and alive. Meaningful.
Chiang Mai was quite, quite exceptional.