Knowing that Vietnam set our Southeast Asia standards quite high, we were excited to see what Thailand had to offer when we arrived in Chiang Mai in the early afternoon. It did not take long for us to swipe a tuk-tuk ride from the airport into the area known as the “old city” to find out firsthand. Before we really delve into the nitty gritty highlights, how about a little background information to set the scene? Chiang Mai is Thailand’s second largest city…but it has only 180,000 people! That is a little mindblowing when you consider the fact that Bangkok is a major international metropolis. Located in northern Thailand, it is very close to the Burma border and to protect itself from attacks early on, Chiang Mai built a moat and city wall to keep out opportunistic invaders. Parts of the original wall still stand, separating the old city from the surrounding moat. This served as a brilliant reminder of the wealth of history that continues to live on in this little country despite the rapid growth of tourism and its subsequent effects on true authenticity.
Speaking of tourism, seems like a good SEGUE into our Chiang Mai experience. Fresh out of Vietnam and our very real tour of the country thanks to our motorcycle route taking us far from the regular tourist track, the sheer number of visitors, tour packages, and hamburger joints was slightly overwhelming. But hey, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em…right? So off we went to enjoy some of the quintessential Thailand tourist traps!
First on the Chiang Mai hit list was Tiger Kingdom. Since it was a little ways outside of town, we took it upon ourselves to rent a scooter for the day to toodle around on. Fair warning to anyone who just road over 2,500 miles by motorcycle in under three weeks and wants to hop on a scooter again…you will still be sore. But that is besides the point. Tiger Kingdom is kind of like a zoo…except that you are actually in the cage! This place has hundreds of tigers ranging in age from newborns to full grown adults. When push came to shove, we opted for the biggest tigers because “go big or go home” right?
When it was our turn to enter the cage all of the sudden the nerves started pumping. Honestly, I was not expecting to get any sort of adrenaline rush from this, but one face-to-face look at these massive, muscular creatures without the security of any sort of fence is enough to leave anyone shaking in their boots at least a little I would think. It was crazy! One minute we are sitting alongside these beautiful, striped beasts giving them tentative hugs and the next thing you know the staff are telling us to pick up their tails and move their feet so that we can get even closer. (You know, anything in the name of a good photo!) With every little twitch the tigers made, our hearts were set to pounding yet again. I still cannot totally get over the fact that we actually paid to hop in a confinded space with tigers who you are just hoping ate a big enough breakfast before you arrived. Yes, this was a total tourist trap, but where else on Earth can you get in a cage with a tiger without signing any real waiver or having and training whatsoever? Not at home. I can tell you that much!
Back in Chiang Mai following an adrenaline pumping morning, we fancied a little relaxation. Where better to get our first ever Thai massage than the Chiang Mai Women’s Prison? Seriously. We actually heard about this for the first time on a TV show called “Idiot Abroad”. (If you have never seen this show, it is definitely worth a watch.) This is actually a job training program that inmates can choose to partake in which is intruiging in and of itself. Despite what we were expecting (and kind of hoping for to be honest) the atmosphere was not a dreay prison cell, but in fact a spa in an old, converted Chiang Mai house across the street from the actual prison. After a short wait, we were called inside and changed into the special garments they provided which proved to be quite tricky to get on actually. From there we followed our massuses to an open room full of massage beds with people in different stages of their own spa treatments. Traditional Thai massage was unlike anything either of us had ever experienced before. It incorporates the use of the massuses’ whole body and has a large emphasis on stretching. She uses everything from her feet to her elbows in applying pressure and enhancing stretches. The goal is to leave a Thai massage feeling both relaxed and energized. Well, mission accomplished!
One down day to catch up on some planning, chores, and other necessary evils of longterm travel and we were back at it. Next on the agenda was our day trek. Northern Thailand is supposed to be famous for its hill tribe communities and elephant trekking industry so we thought that we ought to give it a go. Elephants have a long history here in Thailand as both trained war machines and useful workers. Think of them as a combination tractor and tank. Hence, the Thai have a close relationship to these amazingly intelligent and indisputably huge animals.
When we were scoping out different trekking companies in Chiang Mai we found that everyone seemed to offer the exact same packages more or less. Rather than any focused tours on one or two key activities, it seemed that everyone was in a competition to see who could squeeze the most into a short set of hours. It was actually pretty amusing to read the different offerings. One hours of this, 30 minutes here, 15 there, etc. Figuring that we had nothing to lose, we finally landed on a company and braced ourselves for an interesting and somewhat lack-luster tour. What we ended up with took that to the extreme.
We boarded the van in the morning with our small group and departed Chiang Mai. Our first stop was at an orchid and butterfly farm. It was very pretty and a nice stop along the way, but more of a time-killer than anything else. It left us with the impression that butterfly farming must not be very lucrative seeing as we only witnessed about 3 butterflies in the entire vacinity. Nonetheless, it was a good chuckle.
On to the elephants! Riding an elephant was no doubt the high point of the entire day! With everybody two up on an elephant plus a guide riding on the head, we took a short jaunt through what was billed as a “jungle.” (If that was a jungle, deforestation is a much bigger problem than anyone can imagine.) Regardless, the ride was very fun! Feeding our elephant bananas the entire way was hilarious as he threw his trunk back at us time and again sniffing out any more snacks that we might have onboard. As we trekked through a section of river on our loop back to the elephant boarding area Ron even got to trade places with our guide and sit on the head to drive us back! First a Vietnamese motorcycle and now an elephant! What’s next?! If nothing else and for however short, actually riding sky high on an elephant’s back made the whole day worth it! It was awesome!
We followed up our elephant “trek” with a bamboo raft trip down the river. While two standing men paddled the raft, we sat and enjoyed the smooth ride…all 20 minutes of it before lunch that is 🙂 A quick lunch and then it was off to ride an ox cart.
What?! This was not on our tour schedule…
It seemed that to fill their number quotas the tour company combined groups that had signed up for various tours together so everyone’s day was filled with little surprises. We decided to call these surprises “bonuses” and make the best of the add-ons. I mean, you can’t get too bent out of shape when you are getting more than you paid for. The ox cart ride was probably one of the funniest parts of the day, hands down! As we road about a quarter mile down the road in a cart pulled by two oxen and then promptly turned around again and followed the same asphault road back, the whole pack-it-all-in, tourist trap nature of this kind of trek was illustrated absolutely perfectly! Hilarious!
Okay, ox cart ride is over…quick it’s time for the elephant show! (Another “bonus” I might add.) This was actually pretty entertaining! We watched as elephants walked on two feet, did handstands, and played harmonicas while dancing. Ron and I both volunteered for the desperate host and got “elephant massages” as well which was a hoot! Totally ridiculous and touristy? Absolutely! Totally entertaining and comical? Absolutely! Sometimes it is okay to just accept the fact that certain things are going to be silly and absolutely anti-authentic and just go with the flow and have a good time! In the end, this little elephant show definitely rivaled any circus I have ever been to…so there is that.
Don’t you worry though, our epic tour was not over just yet! One of the primary reasons we wanted to do a trek at all was to see the Karen Long Neck tribe and their villages. Every company seemed to really advertise this aspect of their tours so we were pretty excited. While we were prepared for this portion of the day to still be somewhat contrived and tourist-catering, this took it to a whole new level. The “hike” to the village was in fact a walk of about 2 minutes up a hill to a tourist craft shop where they paid Karen Long Neck women to sit. Needless to say, this was the one part of the day we were really and truly disappointed about. In fact, we came to find out that despite all of the advertising, the Karen Long Neck tribe does not actually live anywhere in Thailand at all, but instead reside only in Burma. While we still snapped a few photos of the interesting cultural dress, we were disheartened by the whole thing. Alas, I suppose that you cannot win them all.
On the way back to Chiang Mai, we stopped for our “hike to a waterfall for swimming”. As you can imagine, we had our doubts by this point and rightly so. The “hike” was comprised of a set of concrete stairs and the “waterfall” was more of a babbling brook with no real swimming hole. Not too surprised, we laughed it off as we hopped in the van one final time before we made it back to Chiang Mai. Certainly not a bad day by any means nor one that we will forget anytime soon, but boy, oh boy did we get schooled by marketing jargon!
We had one more thing on the day’s agenda: The Chiang Mai Night Bazaar! This nightly market is chuck full of booths selling crafts, knick-knacks, street food, and pretty much anything else you can imagine, all in a reliably festive atmosphere completely with live music and twinkly lights. This was actually our second visit to the Night Bazaar and after scoping it all out the first time around, this time we came with one specific to-do: Attend the lady boy show. For reasons still unbenouced to us, Thailand has a large and very prevalent drag queen culture. Knowing that our Thailand trip would just not be complete without making it to at least one ladyboy (as they are known as here) show, we decided that there was no time like the present.
In a nutshell, IT WAS AMAZING! We went into the show kind of like we went into the rest of that day…taking everything with a grain of salt. We had pretty low expectations and if nothing else thought we would get a little giggle from watching poorly executed lip syncing. I’m happy to report that we could not have been more off base! There was no question that it was still a budget, amateur show complete with amusing costume failures and a handful of not-so-good dancers that just wanted to dress up in the Vegas-style, excessively sparkly sequined and feathered costumes, but the show as a whole was spectacular! The music, performaces, and dancing was beyond incredible! Some of these people were the real deal…just absolute stars who owned the stages with every ounce of their being. Just watching, you could see the pure joy and total abandon they found in dancing and performing. As a dance, I can totally relate. It is an indescribly incredible feeling to dance the way they were dancing. The whole thing was really something special. By the end of the show, I don’t think that there was one person, regardless of age, background, or gender that did not want to dance their way all the way home. It left us both speechless and very much in awe! Definitely a major high for us! Who knew?! When in Thailand…