Sunday, 24 November 2013

Chiang Mai: Chapter Two

While in Chiang Mai, we have also done a few more things worth mentioning. A couple of day trips, a fun evening at a festival and I even squeezed in a cookery course (due to Robs allergies it wasn't really worth it for him).

Starting with the festival which took place on Sunday Night. I mentioned a couple of blogs ago that we were in Chiang Mai for Loy Krathong which is a local, annual lantern festival. It goes on for four days but the busiest day was definitely Sunday. We headed to the riverside to join the festivities passing by Chiang Mai's notorious bar street on the way which is the first glimpse we've had of Thailands sex tourism industry.

Reaching the river it was incredibly busy with food stalls and small bars set up selling pitchers of Chang, and countless people selling handheld fireworks and lanterns to set off into the sky or down the river! We grabbed some food from a street BBQ and washed it down with a pitcher of Chang before heading to the bridge. 

Dodging the fireworks (health and safety isn't really an issue here) we grabbed a paper lantern from one of the vendors and set it off to join the thousands of others lighting up the night sky. It was quite an amazing spectacle. After this we stood back to watch for a while, browsing the small markets set up on each side, marvelling at the carefully put together flower arrangements floating down the river and watching the ornately decorated boats coming under the bridge.

After it started to get even more rowdy with kids throwing fire crackers into the water to start mini tsunamis and me nearly getting hit in the face with a handheld rocket launcher, we called it a night. Bright and early the next day, I headed to a nearby farm for my cookery course stopping for a quick market tour on the way. We saw tons of different vegetables we don't have at home including eggplants the size of peas, fresh roots such as turmeric and Thai ginseng and others which I don't even know the name of! 

I absolutely love Thai food- with the exception of Japanese it's been my favourite cuisine, so it was great to learn how to cook everything properly and hopefully I'll be able to replicate it at home (although sourcing some of the ingredients might be a challenge). I learnt how to make: Tom Yum (or hot and sour) soup; fresh papaya salad; massaman curry (grinding the curry paste means my arm still hurts); chicken with holy basil; pad thai and sticky rice with mango for dessert! Needless to say after cooking and sampling everything I was stuffed!!! 

The following day, being a bit more active, Rob and I headed for a day trip up to the highest mountain in Thailand, Doi Inthanon. Not fancying the walk up 3000 metres, we took a van to the top stopping at a few key attractions along the way. The day got off to a panicky start with us sleeping in until 8.42am when the bus was due to pick us up at 8.30! Thankfully, they were running a bit late too so we made it in the nick of time. 

The first stop of the day was to a huge and powerful waterfall. Standing anywhere near it you got soaked but it was definitely a good view!

After this we headed to another hill tribe village but thankfully we weren't there very long...

We then stopped at another gentler waterfall which is in the middle of a forested area and very scenic!!

We quickly stopped at a local market before lunch which had some cool foodstuffs- a lot of different types of fruit wine, different dried fruits and some good juices! The stallholders kindly allowed us to sample some of the produce and it was all really good- we even purchased some of the strawberry juice (although we struggled to finish it as it was 20% sugar)! 

After lunch we continued the drive up the mountain reaching the summit after about half an hour. The road up is paved so it was a smooth ride surprisingly! The difference in climate from sweltering Chiang Mai was apparent as soon as you left the car- the temperature dropped a whole 25degrees and we both regretted wearing shorts! 

After walking around the summit, we headed slowly down and stopped at a couple of pagodas which had been built for the King and Queen of Thailand. Thai people love the King and it is still illegal to insult him in any way- an expat recently got decades in prison for it!! We went to the cinema last week and before each film, they play the thai national anthem accompanied by footage of the royal family and everyone stands and claps. The pagodas were a lovely place with well-kept gardens aptly named the royal project. Unfortunately the view was marred by the descending mist, although this did afford the mountain a very creepy vibe!

Heading back to Chiang Mai, we checked out the Night Bazaar that evening which is huge and set over 4 streets. We finally finished our Christmas shopping so that is a relief!

We had one more busy day in Chiang Mai and that was a trek into the nearby jungle. We were picked up by a Songtheaw (a local 8 seater pick up truck) and driven about 90 minutes north. We started the ascent from a local village passing through some fairly dense jungle. Thankfully our guide had a machete to hack through the overgrowth while donning some pretty jungley attire!

The trek was hard work because we were often having to scramble up rocks and slide down muddy verges. The path was through some very spiky plants so we had to be very careful where we were walking as at times there would be a sheer drop on one side of you and a thorny bush on the other!! 

It started off very well with us both leading the pack and we were still in the lead when we reached the halfway point and stopped for lunch- banana leaf wrapped rice which we ate sitting on the jungle floor.

We continued walking down to a small waterfall where we had a much needed break eating some delicious local oranges. Getting back up from here was a much bigger challenge however as we essentially had to climb up a sheer rock face! We then walked further up to get the view from a good vantage point at a tiny village where only 25 people live! 

Heading back with our quads and calves aching, we went for some more delicious thai food and a much needed sleep! Apart from this, we have spent our time in Chiang Mai wandering through the old city and passing the numerous wats and markets, visiting a Saturday night market where the hill tribes come to Chiang Mai and sell homemade crafts and foods, eating a lot of street food from the collection of stalls near our guesthouse and Rob has even found an amazing cafe which will make him Thai curry without the coconut! Definitely check out Jimmy and Jengs if you're in Chiang Mai- they will make you very welcome! We're flying to Bangkok later today and I'm expecting a huge contrast from Chiang Mai but we're both very excited! We're also meeting my Mum and brother there so we might be living a slightly more luxurious lifestyle :) 

Close Encounters at Elephant Nature Park

Animal tourism is big business in Thailand, particularly in the North. Every travel agency advertises various different tours involving animals from zoos and safari parks to elephant trekking. Two of the most popular animals are tigers and elephants. There is a place near Chiang Mai called Tiger Kingdom, and a similar enterprise called Tiger Temple north of Bangkok. At both they offer you the opportunity to get close to a range of tigers and pose with their heads on your lap etc. After some research and reading various reports of the tigers living in terrible conditions, we decided that the novelty of the photos wasn't worth the suffering endured by the animals and that we didn't want to support this business. 

Similarly, elephant tourism has a terrible reputation in the region. A lot of reviews of different trekking  companies and elephant camps state that mistreatment is common and the elephants are noted to be clearly in distress. Again, we obviously didn't want to take our business to any park which was like this. We also weren't interested in riding elephants after reading a few articles about how they are 'broken in' to become docile enough to allow humans to ride them. This is commonly known as the 'crush' and this article explains the process pretty well-

I might sound like a hypocrite as I rode an elephant in India back in February, and I feel so guilty about this after doing some research into the suffering that these elephants go through daily. Needless to say, now I know more about it, I wouldn't consider doing it again!!

We thought initially that we weren't going to be able to have any kind of ethical elephant experience, until we found out about Elephant Nature Park. Set up by a Thai woman called Lek in 1995, this sanctuary started out as a home for four formerly mistreated elephants. There is now a group of 36 there, mostly females but with four males. This gender discrepancy is because more female elephants are put to work as they are easier to train and more placid. Therefore, they generally require sanctuary more often. Lek predominantly rescues mistreated elephants from the illegal logging industry, circuses, street begging and those who have injured by landmines, meaning most of the elephants have noticeable injuries. 

We had originally looked to do an overnight stay, however due to the popularity of the camp this wasn't possible and we were restricted to a one-day visit. The booking process was simple and although the cost was higher than any other day-trip apart from Borneo (about £60) we were both still keen and knew our money was going to a good cause! The bus picked us up bright and early and the hour-long journey to the park passed quickly as a documentary about Lek and the elephants was shown. This highlighted the issues which elephants face and the industries which they are forced to work in. Street begging has thankfully now been outlawed but there are many elephants who used to do this and they all now need new homes. The contradiction driving to the park was really apparent as we passed numerous elephants plodding along the main road with large wooden boxes strapped to their backs sometimes supporting the weight of 3 or 4 people. 

When we arrived at the park, we were struck by the lovely setting it is in. Nestled in a valley between forested hills, there is greenery everywhere and it's a refuge from the bustling city of Chiang Mai. All the elephants at the park are free roaming with no confines or chains to keep them in one place. Therefore when we walked into the park we were instantly greeted by the sight of many different elephants all having the time of their lives munching on the leaves and playing with each other. 

We were left to observe the elephants for a short while and then Andy, our guide, brought over a bucket of food for us to start feeding the elephants. The 36 elephants consume several tons of food a day (each needing 10% of their body weight each day) meaning feeding is a regular occurrence. This was lucky for us as it gave us plenty of opportunities to interact with the elephants having never fed them before! The first elephant we fed was a geriatric in her late 70s. Her teeth were in poor condition so she had a special diet of watermelon chunks, peeled bananas and other soft fruits. You can tell the difference between older and younger elephants because of the indentations in their skulls (bigger when older) and the number of wrinkles they have. This elephant was very placid and happy to wait for us to feed her. Holding out the pieces of fruit next to her trunk, she would then promptly stretch her trunk out and wrap it round the food transporting it to her mouth.

The next elephant we fed was much younger, about 30, and much more wilful. She kept going for the basket if we were taking to long to feed her, and when taking fruit from your hand she quite often nearly took you with it! Her grip was incredibly strong showing that while these animals are generally not dangerous, you wouldn't want to do anything to incur their wrath! 

After they had polished off every morsel of food (their intelligence is very apparent as if you show them the empty basket they promptly wander away) we were then directed towards the medical area. The park also is a rescue centre for cats, dogs and water buffalo so walking through the grass you see copious amounts of these.

Arriving at the medical centre, we saw another old, female elephant who had multiple injuries. She had a large abcess on her right, front leg, injuries on her feet and an infection in one of her eyes. There was charts up detailing the treatments she was undergoing and most of the money raised by admissions goes towards veterinary care which is very expensive! She again was very gentle and happy to be stroked and fed. 

In a nearby field was another elephant just hanging around with her mahout (lifelong carer). We stood for a while and just observed and stroked her. She was pretty happy to pose for photos and looked genuinely happy and content, just how she should! 

Since the inception of the park, there have been four successful elephant births, the most recent of these occurring 3 months ago. There is also an 8-month old, a 3-year-old and a 4-year-old. We were able to see the youngest with his mother and 'auntie' (not really related but part of the same herd so fulfil different family roles). The young elephant was tiny and very boisterous! He kept coming towards us and every time he did we had to move as getting too close could encourage the mother to become aggressive to protect from the perceived threat. The relationship between the mother and son was amazing to watch with the son teasing the mother, nuzzling into her and always looking to her for approval when he moved too far away.

When we weren't watching these elephants, another one nearby was giving itself a bath in a nearby pile of mud to cool down from the hot day. Each trunkful contains about 2 gallons of liquid meaning she was able to give herself a proper soaking!! 

Tearing ourselves away we followed our guide who showed us the safest way to feed elephants directly to their mouths. They obviously have a very special relationship with the elephants who are content to follow their instructions. There wasn't a bullhook in sight, no physical violence or even so much as a raise of a voice and the camp believes solely in positive reinforcement in dealing with the elephants i.e. rewarding for good behaviour rather than punishing for bad. 

Heading for lunch, a strictly vegetarian affair due to the parks affinity with all animals, we took the opportunity to play with some of the dogs from the rescue center. One was hilarious and kept jumping on the table much to the chagrin of some of the volunteers. During our 'break' we also walked to the elevated platform through the park to observe some of the elephants. There were three elephants there who form one smaller herd. They all have horrific stories about their origins. 

The first, eldest elephant is blind. She was working in the logging industry and was forced to work when pregnant. This induced premature labour and she lost her calf. She refused to work after this and became quite aggressive. In order to force her to continue, the loggers would fire slingshots at her eyes as this is their most delicate spot. This caused her to become completely blind. On arrival at the camp, she was 'adopted' by an elderly female elephant who now follows her around. This elephant has bad scarring on her legs from mistreatment at a different elephant camp who forced her to give rides. Again one of the many horror stories we were given. The third member of the herd was probably the most obviously disfigured of all the elephants at the park. She again worked in the logging industry and ultimately was forced to enter a very cruel breeding programme when she was no longer fit to work. Left alone at too young an age with a huge and aggressive male elephant, her hips and legs were broken and one of her legs is far shorter than the others as she was still growing at the time. 

After observing for a while longer, we went to see the other baby who, along with her mother, is part of the largest herd at the camp with 9 members. They were being fed again and were playfully fighting over the food. We also got to meet Lek, the founder of the park who was sat next to one of the elephants. You can see quite how close her bond is with them as one of the elephants placed the end of her trunk over Leks mouth (maybe trying to give her kisses) and was clearly seeking her attention! Lek is tiny- maybe 4ft8- but she's still in control at the park!!

The last part of the days programme was the chance to give one of the elephants a bath. A daily ritual for the herd it basically involved throwing buckets of water over her to rinse off the mud which would then be put straight back on again!! On occasion we got more wet than the elephant but it was fun all the same. 

After giving her a bath, her mahout gave us some fruit and opportunity to feed her directly to the mouth. This was quite scary but she was obviously pretty experienced and cared more about the food than who was giving it to her! Her tongue was huge and felt pretty rough and her jaws were very strong so you had to get your hand out quickly!!

After a quick final feeding and covered in mud, we headed back to the bus and back to Chiang Mai taking some amazing memories of our day with us! In the future we would love to go back for longer and are both jealous of everyone who has volunteered at this amazing place!! 

Saturday, 23 November 2013

Chiang Rai in a Day

When we decided to come to Northern Thailand, we considered staying in a couple of places. Chiang Mai was always a definite but we looked into a couple of smaller cities as well- Pai and Chiang Rai. We decided not to bother going to Pai as there isn't a huge amount there and we only had limited time in the region, but we were planning on spending a few nights in Chiang Rai. When looking into it, we realised we could see everything we wanted in one (very long) day and this seemed like an easier option. The bus picked us up at 7am so it was a very early start. 

The first of many stops of the day was a 'hot spring' which had been advertised as a key attraction. This is a bit of an overstatement as it turned out to be a glorified service station with a fountain of hot water. We were allowed to dip our feet in the flowing water however, it's location next to a toilet didn't make this very appealing. 

Arriving at the next attraction was much more worthwhile. We visited Wat Rong Khun which is also known as the White Temple. I'm sure you're all thinking 'not another temple' but this one was very different to the typical temples we have visited so far. This temple was built only nine years ago and looks almost like something you would see in a Disney film, complete with towering spires and a glistening white coating. It is in a tiny village in Chiang Rai province and the reason behind this is that one of the villagers became a famous architect and donated the temple to make the village a tourist destination.

The architect of the temple obviously has something of a sense of humour and on arrival we were greeted by some very unexpected sights including a predator sculpture emerging from the ground, a tree with hanging heads and gothic references including skulls and clenching hands everywhere. 

The temple is set with a lake in front of it and a bridge to cross this to the entrance. This provided a great place to take photos of these various, surprising additions. Crossing the bridge and entering the Wat, there were even more surprises in store. The walls were covered in a mural with some well-known characters from recent popular culture, including: Superman; Elvis; Harry Potter; Spider-Man; Terminator; Godzilla and Jabba the Hut. Not your typical Buddhist temple. 

The final attraction at the Wat was the sparkling golden building housing....the toilet. 

Needless to say,this unique Wat has definitely been one of the most memorable temples so far. 

After leaving Rong Khun, we drove a while further to a hilltribe village. The tribe who live there are the Karen tribe and there are five different branches in Northern Thailand. We saw four of these- the black , the red , the big-eared and the long-necked.  The Karen tribespeople are originally Burmese, but following decades of civil unrest in Myanmar, they are now no longer welcome in the country. The Thai government has offered them a limited amount of refuge within the North- they have a place to live and to maintain their customs, but they are not able to work in the vast majority of jobs thus they depend upon tourism to sustain them. 

The long-necked and big-eared branches of the tribe are perhaps the most unique. The long-necked women wear an increasing number of rings around their necks from the age of five and never take these off as long necks are considered most beautiful. The big-eared pierce their ears and expand the holes annually (strangely this is more well-known now due to the trend in the west to do the same). We read up on their customs before visiting the village and there is divided opinion on the ethical nature of visiting these tribes. Some consider it exploitation as the young children are being forced into these practices in order to generate more tourism for the people. We did confused this when deciding whether to visit, but the Thai government offers the Karen people no other alternative to make a living so we decided to go and hope that our entrance fee to the area goes to them. 

The village is not what we were expecting. We both had pre-conceived ideas that it would be like what we saw in Sa'Pa in Vietnam and the people would be playing an active role in the tourism industry. Instead, it's very much a set-up with a few simple stalls and the people sitting waiting for the tourists to take photos of them. The women are lovely and friendly but at times we felt uncomfortable with this 'human zoo' approach. I'm not sure if we would gone had we known what to expect although it's definitely a grey issue and tourism is at least providing them with an income.

Leaving the Karen village, we took the bus another 60km north to the 'Golden Triangle' the area where Laos, Thailand and Myanmar meet across the Mekong river. The area is famous, as historically it has been one of the largest regions of opium production in Asia. Firstly we stood next to the Mekong River and could see both Laos and Myanmar (previously Burma) in the distance.

Around the area, there are a few points of interest. There is the exact point where the border lies marked by a golden triangle, a huge golden Buddha, the border crossing into Myanmar and a small market selling various items from Thailand, Laos and Myanmar. 

It is possible from here to take a speed boat to an area of Laos across the river which you need neither visa nor passport to access. Speaking to our guide, we got the impression that this is simply a duty-free region where you could buy knock-offs at Laotian prices, so we decided to give it a miss. While the rest of our group did this, we walked a km or so along the road to the Hall of Opium, a museum developed by the Queen of Thailand to educate on the history and the dangers of Opium. Considering the huge damages which have been inflicted upon the region and the tribespeople of Northern Thailand through opium production, and the issues with drugs throughout the world, we thought this would provide really interesting insight. 

We weren't expecting a huge amount from a museum in such an obscure region, so we thought we'd be able to see everything in the half an hour or so we had spare. We were really surprised however by the amazing design and technology of the museum. It's incredibly interactive and well thought out and we wish we'd had more time to fully take it in. We did manage to glean some information from our race around however, although photography isn't allowed so there won't be many photos here.

Firstly we walked through a huge tunnel with purple lighting and many faces scattered around the walls, seemingly to create the illusion of a drug-induced hallucination. There was some brief information about the life cycle of the poppy plant and how opium is produced from this. We then watched a video on the wars caused by opium and the effects of the drug along with the project which the queen had implemented in the region to prevent local people depending on opium production e.g. Encouraging the growth of other plants, offering incentives to farmers and educating local people. 

Continuing the multi-media theme we then walked through different rooms portraying various historical and social facts about opium-

- A room built as a boat to show the shipping methods and passages used across the world
- Many holographic images depicting leaders perspectives and their involvement in drug wars
- The history of opium usage from Ancient Greece to Benjamin Franklin
- A room set out like an opium den with a waxwork of a heroin addict
- Artefact collection for how it is smuggled e.g. in plaster casts, soles of shoes etc.
- Posters showing the benefits of legal opium production e.g. Morphine and codeine
- Case studies and images detailing the famous deaths and addictions to opium from Billie Holliday to River Phoenix
- Posters advertising campaigns to prevent addiction from the last few decades

Our long day ended walking back to the bus and travelling back to Chiang Mai. We would have tried to nap on the bus back had it not been for the insane driver racing along the country roads. After a quick dinner from a local street cart, we called it a day and had a very early night!! 

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Chiang Mai: Chapter One

So after leaving Bali we spent a long day flying, first to Bangkok then with a further flight to Chiang Mai in the North of Thailand. We decided to focus purely on the north so opted to use this as a base for the next 12 days. We took a taxi to our new guesthouse, Tree Residences, and were greeted by a rather creepy gentleman (who we have now come to love) who showed us to our huge room complete with fridge, a flat screen TV and en-suite (thankfully Chiang Mai is super-cheap). We walked to the local market for a quick bowl of pork noodles before calling it a night after a long day of travelling.

On our first proper day in Chiang Mai, we decided to explore the city. Chiang Mai has a very traditional lay-out with an old, walled city surrounded by a moat and the newer buildings branching out on the roads surrounding this. Most of the Wats (temples in Thai) are in the older part of the city so it's quite easy to explore by foot. Firstly we called in for a quick lunch at a local street cafe, Harrads, where I had my first taste of Kao Soi which is a local dish of curried noodles (amazing)! Rob opted for the non-allergen option of Chicken in noodles (complete with congealed blood) and apart from this inclusion, we both thoroughly enjoyed our first proper Thai food, and for a pound a head we couldn't really complain. 

We walked through Chiang Mai gate into the old town coming across a fresh food market on the way. It all looked super tasty until we noticed a man in the drains seemingly collecting raw sewage with a huge spoon. After we dodged the splashback and our gag reflexes recovered, we headed to Propokklao Street, one of the major roads in the area. We wanted to book some tours for the following days as our plan was to explore other parts of the region during our stay here. After a bit of haggling, we booked trips to Chiang Rai, Doi Inthanon and a jungle trek (more on these to come).

Our first stop was Wat Chedi Luang, and we followed this by visiting some other Thai temples which we passed during the course of our wandering. We had a walk in and around each temple enjoying the view of orange-clad monks going about their business. Thai temples are very different from the temples we had seen in Bali, obviously being Buddhist rather than Hindu. The quintessential Thai-style pointed roofs are present on each one and you can see a lot of gold everywhere you look. We also saw Buddha in his various incarnations- reclining Buddha, nirvana Buddha and happy Buddha being the three most present.

After a giant cup of tea complete with jelly, we bumped into a Thai tourist outside Three kings Monument, who informed us of a festival taking place over the next four nights. He said it was starting there that evening so we decided to check it out. When we came back at nightfall, all the temples in the area were illuminated and there were lanterns everywhere, some of which were set up to create an archway across the street.

We have subsequently learned that the festival is called Loy Krathong and it is a huge celebration in Chiang Mai annually. We released one of the paper lanterns available for sale and admired the view, particularly enjoying the various challenges that people encountered when trying to release their lanterns! Safe to say we're guessing the fire brigade were busy that night!

Our stomachs started to growl so we headed along to one of the other gates to a different night market. This was a lot bigger than our local one and seemed to hold a larger variety of food. It was however much more expensive and we paid twice as much for a very similar meal (a whole £1.60!!!)

We had our first try of Chang beer however which is one of the nicer beers we have had so far! Contrary to the fact that we only had one, I still somehow managed to fall off my stool into a table full of Thai gentlemen much to their hilarity. After a couple more beers and avoiding any further disaster, we headed back stopping for some sesame and sugar pastries (not great) on the way.

After a reasonable nights sleep, not great due to our very noisy neighbours, we walked to a local cafÄ— for lunch and then headed to the riverside to go to Warorot Market with the intention of finishing our Christmas shopping. I got excited on the way when I saw some trousers and the guy told me they were only 100baht, but when I went to pay he revealed he was 'joking'. Strange sales tactic. At the market itself we didn't really find anything as it was more a wholesale market for local shopkeepers and restaurants. It was however, quite interesting to walk around the huge indoor and outdoor setting with so many stalls selling everything from fresh fruit to lucky cats.

As part of the festival the whole city had been decorated with various things. We passed a roundabout with lanterns in the shape of each Chinese Year, year of the dragon, year of the rooster etc. We also passed stands with the highlights of each south-east Asian country depicted. 

A festival which is a bit closer to home for us is Christmas, so we couldn't resist popping into a nearby Starbucks for a festive drink- peppermint mocha for me and white chocolate and cranberry cappucino for Rob. While the 30degree weather wasn't very Christmassy, it did start to get us excited for the holiday season.

With this area being a little bit further out of the city centre, we took a tuk tuk across to Chieng Mun Temple. Similarly to Chedi Luang, we had a walk around the grounds, although to be completely honest we've seen so many temples over the past few months, these have sadly started to blur into one. However, this doesn't mean that Thai temples aren't beautiful, and we've still tried to make the effort to see the most notable ones, while also popping into any that we pass along the way.

After a very strange dinner at a local Thai, Mickey Mouse themed restaurant and dessert of banana roti from a local stall (best thing ever and we've started having them every night although our arteries aren't thanking us) we had an early night in preparation for a trip to Chiang Rai the next day.