Chiang Mai - Seeing the difference you can make!

Trip Start Oct 13, 2004
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Trip End Jun 21, 2005


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Monday, March 14, 2005

March 14, 2005
She Said:

Chiang Mai was a nice change from Bangkok, but in reading the literature (cultural capital, laid back, beautiful ancient city...) my expectations were skewed - I admit I was hoping for a quaint little city like Ubud. Not so much - lots of the same problems as Bangkok, albeit on a smaller scale. That said, it was also a much more enjoyable experience. The inner city is completely surrounded by a moat and some of the stone walls/gates still remain - definitely more atmosphere than the capital.

We were totally sold on the whole serviced apartment concept, so found another one that had just opened. It was beautiful and in fact, we were the first people to have stayed in our particular 'home'. The staff were unbelievable, the girls would teach the children new Thai words everyday, or sneak them some ice-cream cake and just regale us with greetings every time we walked in the door. The other thing that totally rocked was it was not in any touristy area at all, so we got to experience more authentic Thai life. We were right next door to a food market and I don't think I ever saw another white person in there the whole time we were there. It meant we had to take transport pretty much everywhere, but that turned out to be a highlight. The Tuk Tuks (don't embarrass yourself like we did and say tuck tuck - I read it's a standing joke among them listening to us illiterates...it's actually a Touque Touque) are basically a covered seat on the back of a lawnmower engine. We would all pile in and have a blast. Kayla's fav was the truck taxis, which had two benches down the sides of a truck-box - she would always try to sit as close to the back as she could, like some Indiana Jones risk taker. How will we ever get these two back into seatbelts after this country!

Miss Kayla turns 8 this month, and her request was for Tom Yum Soup and an elephant ride. We know we'll be in Thailand on her birthday, so the Tom Yum is a no-brainer, but we weren't sure we'd be in an elephant area. So, we surprised her one day with a trip to an Elephant Camp. We not only got to go on an elephant ride, but watched them bath and learned how they work, got a ride on an ox-cart and ended off with a bamboo rafting trip. The children had an absolute blast! I must admit, the bleeding heart in me struggled for a good part of the day ... I despise animal cruelty or exploitation and tho' clearly these animals were treated very well, part of me wasn't comfortable with the whole riding for enjoyment thing. I worked thru some stuff and rationalized that we see nothing wrong with taming horses and using them for working activities. I have been doing some reading on it and am trying to keep a balanced approach in my thinking.

As mentioned in Bali post, I LOVE to barter so the Night Market was a total blast. Gazillions of vendors with something for everyone. Definitely a buyer-beware thing, as I experienced my first low-quality purchase here - looks great until you wash it kinda deal. There is a lot of beautiful stuff and many of the vendors are from the Hilltribes sporting some rather unique handicrafts. Mark was entirely caught up in the moment one evening, and when I found him he was surrounded by these 3 Ahka women chattering up a storm. He decided to buy one of their hats, which are quite a sight with bells, shells, yarn and beads....we'll have to share a picture of that one 

One of the few things we had preplanned on this trip (including Galapagos, Amazon Eco-lodge and African Safaris) was visiting our sponsored children in Thailand. What an AMAZING experience - absolutely heart-wrenching and heart-lifting all at the same time! I can't say enough about Compassion Canada's assistance in prepping this meet for us, or the Compassion Thai folks. Our guide/translator was such a beautiful woman and filled us in on so much information on the realities of life in Thailand.

We had selected our children based on the fact that they be the same age and sex as Kayla and Tyler. What an absolute shocker to meet them and find that they are also cross-cultural twins. Tyler and Teerachi are two shy little boys, completely uninterested in all this hoopla until the mints came out of Teerachi's gift backpack. Then they were fast friends  I wish I had a picture of them shortly after we all met, walking down the dirt path to Teerachi's home, one on each side of the road completely oblivious to all around them, in their own little world's kicking rocks almost simultaneously.

Kayla and Kalsuda, were the polar opposite of the boys and so much like each other - two very polite, outgoing pre-teenish girls interested in fashion and art. They were both obviously very excited to meet each other. It was so cool to see.

Now one of the most advertised, popular things to do in the north is visit the Hilltribes. As part of my cultural quest, I was torn about this activity as I really wanted to meet the real Thailand but didn't want to be involved in some exploitive tourist photo-op. As yet another gift of this trip, I was amazed to find that Teerachi was a member of the Lihu Hilltribe. When we pulled into their remote village, my heart was in my throat. It was like some royalty had arrived...school was clearly an after-thought as all of the children poured out of the doors to see us and we were literally followed down the streets/lanes by everyone so curious and honored by our visit. Everyone was clearly dressed in their best and this one little girl, so incredibly adorable with her huge eyes, pigtails and fake pearls won our hearts as every time we turned around she was right behind us giggling and smiling. I just wanted to sweep her up and hug her. The poverty is so apparent but it's clear that Compassion has made a significant difference for this village - out of 150 families in the area, over 100 children are sponsored. For the first time, the reality of the difference $1/day can make in someone's life was so glaring. $1 is loose change to us, we don't even think about it and yet in these countries $30/month is sometimes more than the family would earn.

Meeting Teerachi and his father, seeing all the children, touring the village - all of it so powerful, but being asked into Teerachi's home for dinner was the topper. This is rudimentary living - these people really have nothing, but you could see they had pulled out all the stops for us. All the dirt paths swept, the floors in the shack laid with woven mats and when they served us the delicious food we could only imagine how many meals they had sacrificed for this. When we saw the 'kitchen' which was simply an open fire in a separate shack, I could not imagine how they could prepare such amazing food under those conditions. Our translator informed us that one of the dishes was made from the 'black chicken', which is served as a meal for honored guests and to provide good luck for us. We, of course felt honored but didn't realize until reading an article later that it wasn't simply a chicken with black feathers, but apparently is a special bird that was used to feed the Emperor and actually has black organs and other interesting anomalies. Sadly, the mother of the house had to stand outside the whole time, as tho' she had prepared all the food and had clearly done all the prep work for our visit, she wasn't allowed to eat with us or even be in the house. She and other village women just stood outside and watched all the proceedings...it broke my heart.

We presented Teerachi with a backpack full of gifts, both practical and fun and they in turn presented the children with some handmade gifts, a bag for Ty and a crown-like hat for Kayla. We had also purchased a laundry basket full of household gifts, food, pots and pans, a wok etc. When I gave it to the mother, she was so moved she almost started crying. She kept apologizing (thru the translator) for having nothing for Mark and I...how could we ever explain the gifts that they had given us just by allowing us into their lives for a few hours.

Our visit with Kalsuda was equally as rewarding, tho' in different ways - with Teerachi, it was more of a family/village experience whereas here Kalsuda definitely took centre stage. The poverty also did not seem so stark, which was a relief and Kalsuda was such an engaging little girl that it was just a joy to visit with her. Kayla and her were like cross-cultural sisters and (with the help of the translator) taught each other some basic things like how to count to 10 and say "I love you" in each other's languages. We have been corresponding with her for years and it felt so special to see what a beautiful little girl she really is.

Words cannot express the magnitude of experiences like that in your life...this is another important component of what this trip is about for me. Trying to get out of our myopic western bubble and truly understand what is happening in this world. In some small way, try to make a difference...for we have so very much and the majority of the rest of the world is often barely surviving. What if I'd simply been born here instead of in Canada...how different my life would be.

Highlights:

1. Visits to Teerachi and Kalsuda - one of life's special moments.
2. Night Baazar - shop til ya drop!
3. Kayla's birthday extravaganza - elephant ride, bamboo rafting, mini-golf......the kids had so much fun it was a joy to watch! Ty's already planning his 'party' - look out Ireland.

Lowlights:

1. The treatment of women - I shouldn't get started on this topic or I may not stop. I don't feel it is my mission in the world to disseminate women's lib ideals, particularly as there are such strong cultural differences that I have no realistic comprehension of what is even appropriate. I however, do feel very strongly when women are in abusive situations. In these countries, women just don't rate...and people have no problem telling you that. It's obvious even by the way they treat Tyler - he is a male and that's what's important. Girl children are nothing - often sold to pay off debts or to work as prostitutes or are even killed for the sins of a male in the family. My heart cries out for some of these women - what an incredible tragedy they are born into. That said, we read an article one day reviewing the status of women in Asia...Thai came out of top. I guess this looks pretty good to some of the fundamentalist Muslim nations where they can't do anything or countries where barbaric acts like female circumcism is carried out or wives are burned when there husbands get sick of them etc. Tragic.

2. The squatter toilet facilities - YIKES, what a nightmare with kids. Kayla's familiar "this is disgusting' coming out from behind the door and Tyler often suffering from a bout of performance anxiety. There are western toilets in most places, but a whole day with the sponsored kids and lots of water meant many trips to the squatter...and these were the MOST basic facilities.

He Said:
Highlights:
1. Food, Food, Food
2. Running around the moat of the old city of Chiang Mai
3. Visiting the children we sponsor and their families in their villages.
4. Photography course
5. The Night Bazaar in Chiang Mai
6. Riding the Tuk Tuks (pronounced touque touque)
7. Elephant Park (the best thing with kids)
8. Viangbua Mansion (did I mention serviced apartments rock? Oh yeah I did)
9. The staff at Viangbua Mansion
10. The People - Thai's are very friendly people

Lowlights:
1. The smog that never clears out - at least not at this time of year
2. The crazy one way roads
3. The train ride from Bangkok to Chiang Mai


Well after a few days in Bangkok we were definitely ready for a change. Being the travelers we are, we never really book much ahead. So, when we decided to head to Chiang Mai we figured we'd just pick up the phone and book the night train, bada bing, bada boom. Well as it turns out the First Class sleeper cars are not so easily booked. It turns out you actually need to book a bit in advance as whole tour groups will book entire cars. Next we discovered you can't book over the phone you just head to the station and buy your ticket. So, we were up bright and early on Friday morning and off to the train station. We got our 2nd class tickets and we were ready to go.

Now I don't know about anyone else but I had this romantic image of travel by train. This was further enhanced by our very positive train experience in New Zealand. Thus, while we knew the train ride was long, approx. 12 hours, we figured that by going during the day we'd get to see the scenery, play some games etc. Well our romanticized view of train travel was very quickly shattered. The 2nd class seat, there is no first class on the day trains, were anything but luxurious. In fact they were down right dirty, the airplane style seats and tables had not been well cleaned for a while. The food made Air Canada food look like 5 star and that view of the country side we looked so forward two were nonexistent. The reason for that being the windows were all screened to allow the entire side of the car to be used for advertising. So, while the kids flagged it as a highlight, for Shannon and I it was definitely a low light. Thus, for our return trip we booked a Thai Airways flight for just over $200 for all of us. As it turned out, not much more than we'd have paid for one way on the sleeper train.

The train was quickly forgotten once we arrived in Chiang Mai. Chiang Mai is Thailand's second largest city and a very lively and active city, especially after dark. We were thrilled with our accommodations which as Shannon mentioned were brand new and complete with Free Wireless Internet Access in our room. As with the train I had an overly romanticized image of Chiang Mai. I, for some reason expected a city located in the lush jungle of northern Thailand. As it turns out, at least at this time of year, it is anything but lush and green. It was actually very dry and suffers, at this time of year, from weather inversions which keeps all the smog, smoke etc. from being cleared out. Thus, you don't even realize that Chiang Mai is located in a Mountain Basin as you can't see the mountains for the smog. During the rainy season however, the smog is cleared out and the area is lush and green.

I don't want to duplicate Shannon's efforts so I will just second her statements about visiting the children we sponsor and their families. It had me on the brink of tears on numerous occasions and I had to swallow real hard a couple times as the lump in my throat grew. It was so good to see that what you are doing is actually making a difference. Because I know prior to this, I wondered how much difference $1 a day can make. I mean I tip the barista's at Starbucks that much some days. (And yes there is a Starbucks in Chian Mai :) )But, as Shannon pointed out, in a developing country like Thailand that $30 month can go a long ways.

As with the Amazon trip, to actually be in the Hill Tribe village and to be able to walk around and visit a few families and artisans was a true blessing for us and for the kids. There are also some really interesting contrasts in that while these people live as they have for a very long time in simple traditional homes with a separate cooking building where they cook over an open fire you will also see them walking around with Cell Phones and the odd home with a Satellite Dish attached to the side. On one hand they are living very primitively while on the other hand some very modern technology is finding its way to these villages. One minute they are whipping up some chicken over the fire, the next they are taking an order for traditional, handmade, hill tribe bags over there cell phone. :0

Shannon pretty much covered off the rest of the highlights, the elephant park, the night bazaar, the Tuk Tuks etc. The only thing I'd add which were Mark specific were my runs around the moat that surrounds the old city of Chiang Mai and the one day photography course I took. Running is such a great way to see things I would not otherwise see and to scope out things. The photography course was very clearly a highlight for me. It was a very full day of one-on-one instruction with this ex-pat American fellow who was great. I have been taking pictures since I was a boy probably Kayla's or a bit older. In all that time I have never taken even an hour of formal instruction. The course involved a morning of theory which was great and then the afternoon was spent out in the field taking pictures. It was so great to formalize a bunch of things I thought I knew and to correct some things that I wrongly thought I knew. At the end of the day it was just great to use another part of my brain.

I hope we can come back to Chiang Mai in a few years and see the children and their families again. If you every wondered if these organizations like Compassion or World Vision are making a difference, they are!

Kid's Said:
Highlights:
Tyler:
- Going on the train
- Going to Teerachi and Kalsuda's house
- Riding on the elephants and watching them bath and play soccer
- Mini-golfing

Kayla:
- Meeting kalsuda and Teerachi and seeing how they live. I loved the picture Kalsuda drew for us and she even wrote "I love you" in English.
- The elephant riding and the baby elephants.
- Mini-golfing
- When I was allowed to steer the bamboo raft down the river.
- The train ride
- The truck taxi and Tuk Tuk rides, I even learned to barter for a price.
- The Night Market
Lowlights: - None
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