Charmed by Chiang Mai
Our first night in Chiang Mai we walked to the Night Market for dinner. We saw temples, tons of Thai fabrics and clothes, silver goods and trinkets. We saw more food we couldn’t identify than food we COULD identify, but we found delicious things to eat nonetheless. *Aside* We also found the crispy fried bugs: crickets, grasshoppers, among other creepy crawly things. We did not try the bugs. I know I’ve missed my best opportunity EVER to try crispy fried bugs, but c’est la vie! We finished the evening with a massage for less than $10.00 each. Great first day!! Our first full day in Chiang Mai we visited Tiger Kingdom. *Aside*We had people tell us that Tiger Kingdom was awesome and we had people tell us that it was wrong, just wrong, to even want to go there. If you put me on a debate team I could probably argue either side convincingly. The tigers are bred and hand -raised in Tiger Kingdom, teaching them from newborn, to interact with people. They are available to the public (with supervision of course) until they are about five years old. When I asked what happened to them after five, the answer was vague, like, “I don’t know.” I’m guessing this is more like “You don’t want to know.” I suspect they are sold to zoos and perhaps even to game preserves for “hunting.” I don’t like that, but in the long run, if someone must have a trophy, isn’t it better to let them get one of these rather than an endangered one from the wild? But I don’t like the idea. So despite my misgivings we went to see the tigers.
Being who we are, we wanted to arrive early to avoid the crowds only to discover that at the appointed time we would arrive before Tiger Kingdom opened so we went to the Butterfly and Orchid Farm as time filler. We weren’t too excited as we have seen both butterflies and orchids during this trip, but it was far more engaging than we imagined. There were hundreds of orchids of all colors and sizes growing everywhere, each one more beautiful than the one before. *Aside* It made me think of the days when you could walk in any store at Easter and buy your mom a beautiful orchid corsage.
The butterfly enclosure did not have a huge variety of butterflies but what they lacked in variety the made up for in quantity. Everywhere we looked we saw butterflies! Next up TIGERS! Let me just say the tigers are awesome! The opportunity to be so close to such a majestic animal probably will never present itself again. There are three tigers in each cage. Each one has its own trainer. We chose an experience package with small and large tigers. Interaction is allowed with each tiger, one by one. You sit down behind the tiger, petting and even lying on the tiger (lying on the tiger is encouraged by the attendants).
*Aside* There is a whole page of rules you agree to before you enter the cage with the tigers. One is that you always approach the tiger from the rear, never from the front. Another is that you must not touch the front paws. Occasionally something catches the tiger’s eye so it just gets up and walks away, but you get another opportunity to interact with that tiger when its trainer settles it again. The tigers were beautiful and their coats clean and soft and smooth. It was amazing to be able to see up close the markings on the tigers. *Aside* I never realized they have a white spot on the back of each ear! We had about 30 minutes total with the tigers. They seemed healthy, well cared for and not at all abused.
In the evening we head out for a Chiang Mai food tour. This is awesome because the guide gave us a handout with descriptions of Thai food with pronunciations. We visit two street markets, learning a ton about Thai food and enjoy some of the best food we’ve eaten yet! Our favorite? Coconut custard pudding. There were round hot griddles with round divots (something like a deviled-egg holder.) First a thin rice batter was poured in to coat the griddle then the coconut custard mix was poured in to fill the divot. When the custard set, one griddle was flipped on top of another, keeping the filling warm. To eat you pulled them apart to enjoy. *Aside* Oh my! They were good!! I don’t think a day goes by that I don’t want another one. Sounds as though another trip to Chiang Mai is in my future, huh?
The next day we tour The Black Museum, The White Temple and visit the Long-Neck Women of Karen. The Black Museum is so named for its color not its subject matter. Though most temples in Thailand are gold this one is black. It was the life work of Thawan Duchanee, Thailand’s National Artist (died September 3, 2014). The property is not just one building but a collection of odd and sundry buildings built under the direction of the artist to house his work, his students, his studio and now his ashes. The property is full of the skeletons, horns, bones and skins of hundreds of animals including snakes, crocodiles and water buffalo. It is reported that the animals all died of natural causes, but it seems to me that Thawan may have single-handedly wiped out several herds of water buffalo. No matter, from 20 foot snake skins to rooms full the biggest shells I’ve even seen (and no one will probably ever see in nature again), the place was fascinating.
Next we visit the Long-Necked Women of Karen (as it says on the sign) or more accurately the Kayan people of Myanmar. *History Lesson* Girls usually start to wear rings at around five years old. As they grow, the coil is replaced by a longer one and more turns are added, up to 33 rings. The weight of the brass pushes down the collar bone to compress the rib cage crating the appearance of a longer neck. Why do they do it? The best answer today is probably custom but other hypothesis are to make them less desirable as slaves; to protect against tiger bites; and within their culture, it makes them more attractive. The Kayan of Myanmar became the Karens of Thailand when the Thai government offered them citizenship and their own village if they would stop growing opium in the mountains. A percentage of money from tours goes to the village and the women do traditional weaving which is also for sale. The village is really a glorified tourist trap with even young girls hawking goods. 10 year-old Karen girl to me: “You like scarf? Me: “Yes - it’s very pretty.” 10 year-old Karen girl to me: “If you like it you should buy it. 200 baht. This may be the last generation of Karen women wearing rings. No worries though. There’s a place for that girl in sales.
The White Temple is even better than I expected. The White temple is the life work of another artist Ajarn Chalermchai Kositpipat. He wanted his temple to be different from other temples so he made it white. He says that his temple is a work in progress. He has devoted his life to this project, anticipating it will take sixty to ninety years to complete and may not be done until after his death. His goal is to portray both good and evil. We were not able to take pictures inside the main temple. There the walls are covered with what on first impression look like traditional Thai paintings, but are peppered with small Pop-Culture images ranging from Michael Jackson to the New York Twin Towers and Angry Birds. There is also a life-sized statue of a very real-looking monk in the middle of the main temple. *Aside* They said it is not real; however you could see every individual hair on its head. I’m still not sure it wasn’t real.
The pure white of the temple buildings is accentuated by millions of small, mirrored mosaic pieces which make them shimmer and sparkle in the sunlight. We could have spent hours and hours looking at everything.
As a final goodbye to The White Temple Tom bought a silver leaf, wrote our names and the date on it and added it to the millions of other leaves already hanging. With this purchase we received Buddha’s blessing.
On our last day in Chiang Mai we visited Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. This is one of Chiang Mai’s most famous temple sites, founded in 1383. On our way up to Doi Suthep we stop at the scenic view lookout for pictures of Chiang Mai in the valley below us.
*Aside* It was great that we stopped because even there the clouds were low. So low that when we got to the top to Doi Suthep we were actually IN the clouds. I swear the pictures are not out of focus. It was literally cloudy around us! There are 306 steps to the temple for the devoted pilgrims to climb. The rest of us non-believers took funicular-style elevator. We had an opportunity to buy a small bell to hang in the temple for Buddha’s blessing, but we already got his blessing with our leaf at the White Temple, so we passed. The temple itself is amazing like the other temples we’ve seen in Thailand. The pictures tell the story.
*Aside* I thought the Catholics were the kings of petitioning for donations, but I believe the Buddhists have them beaten. There is an entire wall of small drawers, with slots for depositing cash donations, petitioning for money for everything from the new monks to the blind students, temple building projects, statue projects and the list goes on and on. This is in addition to all the candles and incense and flowers and temple bells and medallions and Buddha paraphernalia available for purchase. On our way back to our hotel we realize that one of the street food locations we visited on our food tour is just down the street from our hotel, so for dinner we had a replay of the food tour. *Aside* Unfortunately it was NOT the one with the delicious coconut custard. On our way back to the hotel we stopped for a bit to listen to a live jazz combo. What a wonderful way to say goodbye to Chiang Mai!