Temples and Tigers and Elephants... Oh My!

Trip Start Dec 29, 2009
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Trip End May 13, 2010


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Where I stayed
SpicyThai Backpackers Hostel

Flag of Thailand  , Chiang Mai,
Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Arrival Time: 8am
Status: Exhausted

Honestly, the only good thing I can say about the overnight train to Chiang Mai was that I got to see the sunrise over the northern Thailand countryside. However, the fact that I was up for the sunrise is probably indication enough of how the ten hour train ride went. My first day there we got right down to business. By 11am we were leaving for the day having secured our host as driver and private tour guide at minimal charge. Noom was the best host ever. He brought us around Chiang Mai, gave us suggestions on where to go for dinner/massages and let us keep our stuff in his lockers an extra day at no extra charge. He was a really hospitable guy, housing tons of backpackers just like us from, well, pretty much everywhere. There were girls and guys from Australia, Colombia, the UK, China and others. Some were there for the night, some had been there for over a month. The atmosphere was really chill and we all hung out together for breakfast, dinner, games and movies. I really wish we could have stayed here longer, but time was limited and we had a flight home to catch…

That Wednesday was a pretty spectacular day. Noom brought us up to the top of the mountain to see Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, which loosely translates as the temple on top of the mountain. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wat_Phrathat_Doi_Suthep read the story about the white elephant- it's cute) The Wat itself wasn’t anything too special, but it was definitely worthwhile to go see simply because Noom brought us and sat us down and told us an in depth history of the temple and, more interestingly, told us about Buddhism and answered our questions. Up to this point we had been left to our own devices at all the sights, just exploring and seeing, but not really learning that much, so it was great to have someone sit us down and just talk for about an hour, explaining what we were seeing and about Thai culture. The other nice feature of the Wat was that it was at the highest point in Chiang Mai and gave a great view of the city. Similarly, the Wat is lit at night and you can see it glowing on top of the mountain from the city. Another interesting part of the temple is the chedi at the center of the temple.  It was originally made of pure gold, but it was vulnerable to raiders and so they rebuilt the chedi with the real gold on the inside layer and a gold painted brass plating on the outside level. The chedi was under construction when we saw it, but only minor reconstruction. Back in the 80s, it was in really bad shape and was in need of a full revival. Sylvestor Stallone offered to pay for all the repairs for the chedi, if the monks would let him use the temple in his movie. Apparently, they accepted, because in Rambo 2 there is a scene with Stallone banging on the chedi, being the only outsider to ever get to touch it. I guess it pays to have money. Also, all of the Rambo movies were made in and around Chiang Mai/ Northern Thailand, so if you’ve seen the movie, just think of the beautiful landscapes he goes and blows up. The vast mountains, endless jungle and wide flowing rivers. Got that picture in your head? Yeah… I’ve been there. ;)

After our temple tour and lesson in Thai Buddhism, Noom brought us to Tiger Kingdom. This is definitely one of the coolest things I’ve ever had the opportunity to do. Basically, it is a tiger reserve where they raise and take care of Thai tigers. In order to pay for their upkeep, they allow visitors to go into the cages and basically hang out with the tigers. Long story short? I pet a tiger. I have to say, I was very nervous going into the cage. We went into the female cage, with three fully-grown cats, 20 months of age. These ladies were restless. One wouldn’t stop pacing in front of the gate after we entered, barring our exit. Another kept growling or purring, or something. I couldn’t really tell the difference. There was one that was really chill though, and so we hung out with her. As long as you don’t look them in the eyes, touch their front paws or face, and approach them from the back they are perfectly docile creatures, just like kittens. Giant kittens. It was really amazing to touch such beautiful creatures. They are so incredibly powerful as their entire body is pure muscle and you can feel their heartbeat anywhere you touch them. When you touch them, you have to be firm and place your hand heavily on their body when you pet them. I learned this, because I was the first to touch one, and I did it too lightly. The tiger whipped its tail at me and turned its head around and growled. I almost died of fright, but apparently I had tickled her and that was her natural reaction. So yes, I can say that I have tickled a tiger.  It was an amazing experience. Originally I was hesitant to do it, because I have heard about these types of places before and how they mistreat the animals, drugging and abusing them. However, I can fully attest that these tigers were highly alert, well trained, well kept with plenty of space and definitely not drugged. I was really glad I did it. That night, we went out and got traditional Thai massages. One hour for about 5 USD. It was amazing, I felt so relaxed afterwards I don’t think anything could have put me in a bad mood. Looking back, I should have gotten one every day it was so cheap and so rewarding. I have to say, this day ranks up there in the "best day of my life" category.

Not surprisingly, day two in Chiang Mai ranks pretty high as well. While I didn’t do nearly as many different things, I have to say the quality was excellent. Thursday was our elephant day. We booked a half-day excursion to the Maesa Elephant Camp. It included a stop at an orchid farm- Thailand Orchids are famous and are shipped all around the world. When we got to the camp we watched a show put on by the elephants and trainers, about 15 elephants were in the show and twice as many trainers. They performed tricks to show the dexterity, power, intelligence and grace of the elephant. I saw them play a game of soccer, throw darts to pop balloons, and paint pictures. The paintings were truly impressive, and I almost bought an elephant painting of an elephant, painted on elephant dung paper, but it was almost $60, so I reconsidered. I think how they do it is that the brush handles are of different thicknesses and so when the elephant is holding a certain size brush, it is trained to move it in a certain way across the paper. That is the only explanation I could come up with as to how they managed to paint these pictures.

After the show we paid a little extra and got an elephant ride for an hour. This was cheaper than the show, but probably twice as worthwhile. Beth and I lucked out, getting the best trainer in our group. I say this because about ten minutes into the ride, our trainer jumps off Poo Kung (our 20 yrd old male elephant) and offers to take our picture. The other trainers did the same, the only difference is, our trainer didn’t get back on. After he gave the camera back, he waved and said “bye”. Beth and I were confused, but Poo Kung knew exactly what was going on and just went walking along like it was nothing, without a driver. That’s why I say we got the best trainer, he was able to control the animal with only vocal commands, and he was by far the most playful. Near the end of the ride, when our trainer decided to get back on, he let Poo Kung show off a bit, pushing over a tree stump just for the heck of it and then led us to the river where Poo Kung cooled himself, and us, off. He even started a water war with another elephant group. I’m pretty sure we won. In the olden days, only kings and queens rode elephants as a mode of transportation. Honestly, I can see why- it is the only way to travel through the jungle. Or at least, the best. The rest of the day was very relaxed and we had to catch a bus back to Bangkok that night. Needless to say, I was sad to go. Chiang Mai was definitely my favorite part of Thailand.
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Comments

JoEllen on

Each adventure seems to outdo your previous one. The previous food blog was about as adventuresome I'd get...but tickling a tiger????

Debbie Cain on

What a fantastic trip you are having! Keep those blogs coming - great job!

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