Saturday, August 14, 2010

Chiang Mai: Day 12

Gray skies greeted us this morning, and I wondered whether we'd have a miserable time in the jungle. Our guide arrived and confirmed, yeah, we might have some problems, but we should head out of town anyway and hope for the best. So we drove north toward the Burmese border, past tin-roofed stores and spirit houses, into a green hilly land that made Chiang Mai appear positively metropolitan. We heard stories of checkpoints and saw reminders that the military keeps a keen eye open for refugees and other undocumented peoples. But our guide smiled and reminded us, nobody messes with tourists these days.

Jenny enters a village, bearing gifts and western guilt
Our first stop was a village occupied by the Karen people, actually a tribe called the Padaung known for its "Long Necked Ladies." For months Jenny and I wrestled with this part of the trip. We'd seen pictures of the women who wear heavy brass rings from an early age. Most women of the Padaung add these rings year after year, pushing their collarbones down until their necks appear to be severely elongated: a sign of grace and beauty among these folks, we're told. Jenny and I considered ditching this part of the package, preferring not to participate in a tourist activity that seems so nakedly exploitative. Yet after reading about these women, refugees from Burma who subsist on the visits of camera-toting westerners, Jenny decided that we should go, as long as we bring gifts.

"It's called a scrunchie. You wear it!"
It's an awkward feeling, being led around a muddy village that was built primarily for photography, a stage-set composed mostly of commercial opportunities: stalls where women and girls offer supposedly handmade tourist trinkets for sale (the very things you can find at Bangkok airport gifts shops). The prices are both insanely inflated and ridiculously low. We bought a few things while Jenny offered her homemade presents, crocheted "scrunchies," one at a time. The adults weren't sure what do with the frilly presents they received, but the kids had no such problems. They turned the scrunchies into toys and commenced to running around, playing the kinds of games that children play worldwide. We stayed awhile and then we left, driving past a forlornly chained water buffalo. I was glad the whole thing was over.

Crossing over to see the elephants
Our next destination was an elephant preserve, the purpose of the entire trip as far as Jenny was concerned. For me this summer was all about traveling to China: a chance to explore the Shanghai world's fair; I'd been dreaming of it for years. Thereafter we considered several other destinations, Vietnam being my first choice. But Jenny wanted to see elephants. Honestly I wasn't too thrilled with the idea; I just couldn't visualize having a good time in Thailand. I was wrong, of course. And as we crossed a brown, rolling river over a long wooden footbridge, I knew Jenny'd led us to the right place.

"Need more sugar cane, lady? Turn around. They've got some in that stall."
The visit began with a somewhat perfunctory "elephant show." We watched the animals bathe in the river, we fed them hunks of sugar cane (conveniently available at a nearby stall), and we viewed how elephants are trained for jungle work, rolling logs with their trunks and helping stack heavy pieces of wood. One elephant painted a picture, really, with just a little guidance from a handler (known as a mahout in these parts). I say the whole thing was "perfunctory" because the show clearly runs through the same scripted performance day in and day out; you could tell from the sleepy expressions worn by all concerned. "Oh God," I imagined one mahout thinking, "If I see another elephant 'paint' a tree, I'm going to run screaming into the bush and never come back."

"So this is a 'camera.' Is it edible? Are you sure? Can I check anyway?"
All the same, we'd come to ride elephants, rain or shine. About then I realized, you know, we're in a rain forest. Something tells me that we'd ride no matter what. Better yet, the drizzle stopped and the sun began to peak through the clouds. It was time to ride some elephants! (Really, all the while throughout the show I kept wondering, "Are we going to ride the elephants? When will we ride the elephants? Will we ride the elephants now?) At last, we joined a short queue, hoisted ourselves atop a bamboo seat for two, and commenced to a short ride into the jungle.

View from the top - of the bottom
For about an hour and a half we followed a rocky rivulet, stepping over small waterfalls and ducking under hanging vines. Mahouts, sitting on the elephants' necks, would sometimes race us past one of their pals, but otherwise we followed a slow lumbering course. Our elephant would stop to enjoy a leafy snack now and again; otherwise he knew the drill. We stopped briefly at another "village," presumably to allow the animals some rest, but mainly to be sold more "handicrafts." Then it was back to the camp for a lunch of Northern Thai delicacies calibrated (a bit over calibrated, actually) for Western tastes. Jenny loved every moment. As we departed we were sold a picture they'd printed of Jenny and I on an elephant while we were riding through the jungle. The frame, we're told, is made of elephant dung.

An amazingly complex intersection of transportation,
culture, and tourism: all for this single photograph
(and thousands just like it)
After the elephant ride our guide drove us to the nearby Chiang Dao caves, which had always been a somewhat empty part of our itinerary. The package included a cave visit, so we would see caves, we figured. Turns out that Chiang Dao is a remarkable collection of towering caverns, dripping stalagmites, and religious artifacts that represent a convergence of Thai and Burmese cultures. Our guide revealed the varying manifestations of Buddha found throughout the pitch black enclosure, also interpreting dozens of formations that were helpfully illuminated by a local docent who lit our meandering path with a torch. When we had to turn back from one cavern that was filling with rainwater we knew that our bamboo raft trip would be canceled. We were a bit bummed as we left the cave, but our guide offered a swell replacement: we'd visit a tiger petting zoo instead.

That's right, we drove to a place called Tiger Kingdom for a chance to sit inside enclosures of tigers that range from playful kittens to imposing man-eaters. We were promised that these animals have been raised with human contact and only eat cooked meat - never the fresh stuff. Still, when one especially frisky cat swung his head around to look me in the eye, a handler deftly separated us quickly. These cats are for real.

I'm pretty sure we got the "It's raining and
tourists will now pay anything" price.
We paid for a 15 minute encounter but got about a half hour to visit a couple tigers, petting them and taking picture after goofy tourist picture. Once more, Jenny was enthralled; seeing some of Thailand's animals up close was her favorite day of the trip.

"Great. More non-edible food."
A little before dusk we drove back to Chiang Mai. We thanked our guide for a delightful day before grabbing an embarrassingly western meal in town. We were dusty, wet, and tired. The day'd been a total success. Now we would relax and prepare for the final leg of the journey. Last stop: Phuket.

Tourists. Bad for this tiger's diet.

Day 11 | Day 13

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