If I were to live in Thailand, I’d want to live in Chaing Mai. It’s an old, walled city in the Northern part of the country. There are remnants of a moat around the old city and the tiny streets are packed with coffee shops, boutique hotels, art galleries, bustling restaurants, and the kindest people I met during my trip. Chiang Mai is also in a valley that is home to wildlife sanctuaries, outdoor adventure programs, and a winding river. I was sad to leave, but knew that it would be a place I’d return to someday.
Chiang Mai was full of surreal moments, of which I will share three.
Tiger parks are a controversial attraction in Thailand. They are heavily advertised to tourists (pet a tiger! play with a tiger!) but the reality is that most of the tigers are drugged and treated poorly. Tigers aren’t meant to be lap cats, and the only way to tame them enough for people to pet them is to sedate them. We went to Tiger Kingdom, a small park outside of Chiang Mai, and it was dual parts enchanting and sad. The larger tigers were definitely drugged, but the smaller tigers had been raised in captivity and were therefore playful and unafraid of humans. We sat in a large, square pen where three-to-five month old tigers crawled all over our laps. I expected them to feel like kittens, but their paws are huge and they have a certain power behind their gate that is immediately impressive. Having a real baby tiger sit on my lap made me feel awe-inspired rather than saddened, although I’m not sure I would return.
We spent one night of our experience at a cooking class that had been recommended to us by New, the woman who owned our boutique hotel. I am something of a foodie, and we enjoyed thai food for every meal while in Thailand (no American spaghetti for us). But unexpectedly, there are fruits, vegetables and spices in the country that I had never seen before. The cooking class was helpful because they took us to an organic garden and showed us the difference between thai ginger and normal ginger. The woman who was leading the tour pulled lemongrass out of the ground for us to smell, and demonstrated the healing powers of tumeric. She then took us to the local market and taught us about the many varieties of rice. When we returned to the cooking school, we learned to make three dishes: a stir fry, a curry, and an appetizer. Our teacher was hilarious and we laughed harder that night than on any other night of the trip.
The high point for me in Chiang Mai, other than wandering the vivacious streets and meeting other travelers, was the day we spent training and riding elephants. Elephant rides are another tourist staple in Chiang Mai, but New again directed us toward a wonderful, conservation-based elephant experience. We spent the morning learning commands (“pai pai” meant go and “how” meant stop) and practicing the commands on smaller elephants. Meanwhile, tourists rode past us in whicker baskets, wondering at how we were able to be up close and personal with the elephants. After lunch, we spent about 45 minutes trekking on our elephants. Dana and I ended up on an elephant that had a baby, so the baby came with us for the whole trek, which ended in the river. We bathed with the elephants and then headed home after a few ice cold beers. It was unreal to be 12 feet up on an elephant, bareback, staring out at the valley around us and wondering how we’d ended up in this place. Elephant skin is thick and leathery, like a tire, and they are kind creatures. Their trunks are fascinating – they give you elephant kisses, suctioning your cheek with their trunk, and suddenly you realize how large and powerful the animals are.