Chiang Mai is set up very simple, there's the old city which is a box in the center where all the tourists go, and according to the map, nothing else matters. There are hundreds of tourist offices offering various opportunities to explore what Chiang Mai, and the surrounding areas, have to offer, along with Italian, Mexican, Greek and many other international restaurants. The tours all look so fun and enticing but it takes a bit of research to find out which are tourist traps and over priced and which are worth every penny.
I signed up for a Thai cooking class which was very touristy but I got to eat a five course meal- so totally worth it in the end. We were picked up at 8am and brought to a local market to buy homemade noodles and meat for the day. There was a stand making fresh coconut milk which we bought for our curry. After, we arrived at a farm, where we walked around and picked our fresh herbs and vegetables. Everything we cooked was from raw ingredients and completely organic! All the curries are plant based and we ground our own curry powder. It was really cool to see how Thai food is made- after eating it for two months, ordering food that usually required a guessing game of look and smell.
Two days into Chiang Mai, I decided it was finally time to buy decent mosquito repellant. I was getting eaten alive and my legs were completely covered in bug bites and scabs. I went to the pharmacy, walked up to the guy at the counter to show him my legs so he could suggest some repellant. He looked at me and said, one word, which I'm not sure was a question or statement, but for my sake I'll assume it was a question; "Disease?" We kind of stared at each other confused for a bit before I finally started laughing and said, no mosquitos! He looked shocked and appalled, went into the back, and reappeared with a coworker. Talking excitedly, he pointed to my legs to show his friend. They both got a hoot out of my apparently disease infected legs, prescribed me DEET 95 and a pair of pants.
The following day my diseased legs and me set off for the Elephant Nature Park. I opted out of doing the hillside treks, which usually offer a hike through the jungle, rafting and elephant rides. After some research and talking to other travelers who had been on the trek, I discovered that these treks were known to mistreat the elephants, abuse them and even torture them. The Elephant Nature Park was founded in 1995 to rescue elephants from abusive work situations. The park offers hand to trunk interaction into the elephants lives in the middle of the Mae Taeng Valley. We were given a tour of the park, the vet clinic and the homes of these elephants. The goal of the park is to let elephants be elephants, as much as possible. We learned about the histories of each of the 36 elephants at the park, how some were blind from being stabbed in the eyes repeatedly by their mahouts, one had an infection in his jaw from having his tusks forcibly removed from an ivory poacher while another was missing a leg from stepping on a land mine. It sounds pretty depressing but being around these animals the whole day was a natural high. They were so happy, full of emotions and personality, smiling and teasing each other. The park was filled with dozens of volunteers and vets from around the world who had come to help out. We helped feed and bathe them. I was going to go into a venting blog about the mistreatment of elephants and the importance of ecotourism, but no one likes venting, so all I'll say is research the impact of what you do while traveling before you do it! Leaving the park we saw miles and miles of trees with orange scarves tied around them. Each week, to protect the jungle from being destroyed, monks walk through different areas, tying parts of their robes to trees. This blesses the trees and makes cutting them down a sacriledge, which is more important than law in Thailand.
Buddhism is more prevalent in Chiang Mai then in any other part of Thailand I've seen thus far. Most temples serve as living quarters for the monks and some offer "monk chats," a form of cultural exchange where the monks can practice their english and tourists can ask questions about Buddhism. However, the monks had more questions for us then we had for them and at the end of the session they all whipped out iphones and asked for a picture. They told us they taught an English class on Fridays and invited us along to observe. The school was about a half hour outside of Chiang Mai, and 10 minutes into the ride the monks inform us that we'll actually be teaching two 1- hour long classes. Totally unprepared, I'm given a workbook on simple classroom vocabulary as a "guide". We arrive at the school in the middle of the "salute to the King". I haven't really talked about the Kings almost omniscent presence throughout Thailand. Twice a day, a salute to the King comes over the radio. I was in a train station once when it happened and everyone dropped what they were doing and stood, with immediate silence. There are portraits of the King on every major road. At the theaters, a montage of the Kings life comes on before each movie, playing such powerful clips and music that it had me adoring him by the end of it. Anyway, these kids were saluting the king, and not in the half ass way that we did the pledge of allegiance. They were very serious and still, all of them wearing red shirts and long red skirts or pants. This, the monk whispered, was the traditional northern uniform, only worn on Fridays. The rest of the week public school students wore the same uniform that's designed by the government.
After the salute, I'm brought to a classroom filled with six year olds who say, "Good Morning Teacher," when I walk in. I turned around looking for their teacher. Whelp, guess thats me? Poor kids. I had them go around and introduce themselves and make a pathetic attempt at repeating their names. The next hour progressed with me making a lot of over enthusiastic noises and games about vocab words such as desk and pencil and chair. The kids clung onto my every word and the monk tells me they've never met a Falong, or foreigner, before. Each kid that passes puts their hands together and bows their heads to us in respect. The principal served us lunch and when we leave, thanked us repeatedly for coming. It was such a rewarding experience to see the graciousness and generoisty of the Thai culture away from the tourism.
I sign up for a two day Buddhist meditation retreat through the monks and am told to wear all white, modest and non transparent clothing. I set out to walk to the temple wearing my all white gear, and half way there the first true monsoon arrives. By the time I arrive my clothing is no longer white, no longer non transparent and no longer modest. Of course I didn't bring any extra clothes so I had to borrow clothes from a monk. Monks clothes. Seeing how they aren't allowed to even touch women, I'm not sure the rules would allow a woman to wear their clothes. Stupid falong. The meditation retreat was really tough, with over five hours a day of meditating and a loud 'gong' that woke us at 5am. However, I learned a lot about Buddhism; a religion, a philosophy and way of living that constantly pushes critical questions making it more adaptable to the modern world, more realistic in its treatment of the planet and more accepting of others than any other religion, faith or spirituality I've encountered...
I've really enjoyed my time in Chiang Mai. As a city, its not the most cultural or architecturally significant place, but there are tons of hidden gems to discover- either by motorbike up the mountain, or by hike through the jungle. Next- I'm doing what I like to call my creepy crawl to Vietnam-over the next week I'll be headed towards Vietnam taking only local buses- hopefully no more farting men!