After a slightly odd flight from Irkutsk to Bangkok (you know what I’m talking about Siberia Airlines: keep me at check in for 20 minutes without telling me why; then the mad stampede to get on the plane where everyone is in danger of getting trampled; followed by keeping the lights on all night on the red eye flight until the last hour; let’s not forget serving beef stew at 1:30 am when most people were asleep – despite the glaring light – and then not clearing anything away for three hours; and the grand finale, one of the cabin crew deciding not to give me a visa form, but merrily dishing them out to everyone else. I get it, Welsh people are often mistaken for Thai natives.) I skipped merrily off the plane and waltzed into the comforting, humid heat of a Thai morning. Bliss.
I’ve never been able to muster much enthusiasm for seeing Bangkok, so I didn’t, it’s not like it’s going to disappear any time soon, it seems to be doing okay, it is not a dot com start-up. Instead I booked myself on a flight to the city they call The Rose of the North, Chiang Mai. There are two major airports in Bangkok so I had to get a bus between the two of them, it took a little under an hour and let me appreciate just how enormous Bangkok is. It stretches across 150 kilometres, that’s around 90 miles give or take. There are countries 40 times smaller than that…or do I mean a principality? Is Monaco a country? I can’t remember, it’s been a long time since I was there. Anyway, when I think of skyscrapers I think of the iconic New York City horizon, or the shining towers of Hong Kong, but really Bangkok dwarves both of them with its sheer volume of skyscrapers and gargantuan monoliths of glass and steel.
China Mai by contrast is smaller and easily navigated. It has an unhurried feel to it that lulls you into staying just one more day…and another …and one more.
The old city is a central square that stretches around a mile and a half in each direction. It once had four sturdy red brick walls surrounding it, each one with a central gate. Today those walls have partially been removed, although they all remain intact where the gates are located (not actual wrought iron gates, but big fancy holes in the walls and roads leading into the old city). The square area is further demarcated by a wide moat that runs around the perimeter of the old city, just one more thing to add to the charm of the city.
At first glance I thought to myself “Hmmn, it seems okay. Bars, restaurants, coffee shops, tour operators, guest houses, massage parlours, 7 elevens…. don’t know what all the fuss is about.” But after walking around for a bit; visiting the night markets; finding the street vendors making the best smoothies you’ll ever have; wandering into the peaceful havens that the many temples provide; I could see it too. Chiang Mai is a place you could stay for a month, do a few side trips to other towns and villages, and keep coming back for some recuperation. Although it is thriving on tourism, it is doing an excellent job of balancing that fine line between adapting to Western visitors, and retaining it’s essential Thai culture. Having said that, there is an Irish pub in Chiang Mai…naturally.
Outside of the old part, the rest of the city sprawls outwards in a leisurely fashion towards the foothills of the mountains. Just delightful.
The big business is tourism, and there are plenty of trips on offer. You can go bamboo rafting; zip lining through tree tops; white water paddling; jungle trekking; attend cooking school and massage school; visit butterfly groves and elephant sanctuaries and nearby villages.
Those last two are a bone for contention. Thousands of people every year come to Thailand and enjoy elephant rides. However elephants are not naturally given to allowing someone to strap a casket on their backs and spend all day giving people rides. What they do when left to their own devices, is spend all day eating. They are massive vegetarians and need to graze constantly throughout the day simply to get enough calories to be able to stay standing upright. In order to make them subservient enough to be ridden they are subjected to cruel ‘breaking’ practices. Some sanctuaries are more like rescue centres where you can meet with elephants under the watchful eye of their care takers, but not ride them. Others are not. The elephant is easily as famous a symbol in Thailand as Buddha, and brings in a lot of tourist dollars so we have to choose carefully where and how we spend those dollars.
For more detailed information about elephant tourism in Thailand, check this woman’s article out: http://epicureandculture.com/elephant-tourism-thailand/
Trips to visit the Karen Paduang village are equally as controversial. The Paduang are the tribe whose female members wear heavy, brass coils around their necks which presses down on the collarbone and upper ribs, giving the appearance of an elongated neck. It is an uncomfortable process, and one that I cannot imagine being healthy, a chiropractor’s nightmare, much akin to the practice of wearing corsets which caused rib and pelvic deformities in Western women during the 1800s.
On the outskirts of Chiang Mai, there is a purpose built village for these women where tourists pay an entrance fee and the women sell souvenirs to them. The entrance fee doesn’t go to the village but to the tour operators, so only the selling of wares brings in money for the villagers. Herein lies the dilemma, if you don’t visit these places and buy souvenirs, you’re taking revenue away from people who need it. If you do go, then you’re giving women a reason to keep up the practice of donning brass rings from the age of 4 or 5 until their demise. Perhaps this practice would continue to exist with women willingly participating, without the presence of tourism. But perhaps some women might turn around and say, “Actually, I don’t want my daughter to wear these heavy rings. They are hot and uncomfortable, and impede breathing.”
One story says that women first started wearing the rings to protect their necks from tigers which kill by attacking the neck. The men were given weapons instead. A tad unfair don’t you think?
I’ve no wish to ride elephants, or to see woman wearing heavy brass rings, so I went kayaking instead, and happened to come across a couple of elephants taking a bath in the river. They are big buggers that don’t like kayaks because they are not familiar with them. We kept a very respectful distance.
I know people adore elephants, and I do think that they are glorious, beautiful creatures. I have the utmost respect for them. But bloody hell does no-one else share the opinion that they are massive and could crush you with one toenail? They can get stroppy just like humans, and if I were an elephant the last thing I’d want is a giddy tourist bounding over trying to fondle my trunk. Go get fresh with some other animal’s extremities, thank you very much!