We didn’t turn around and run away from Chiang Mai as if it was a house on fire. There was a lot to enjoy in the area in spite of the bad air and visibility and we did stick around long enough to sample the offerings and we had a blast in the process.
After a fair bit of discussion we decided to give this attraction a go. While we don’t agree with the principle of animals in captivity the reviews that we read about Tiger Kingdom were predominately positive. It seemed there was a lot of agreement that the animals were well cared for and content. The temptation of actually getting up close and personal with Tigers, which is what you get to do at Tiger Kingdom, was too great. Eric was hesitant as he has pretty strong feelings regarding big animals in small spaces but in the end we convinced him that this was a once in a blue moon opportunity that we were all going to seize.
At Tiger Kingdom man mingles with beast on a regular basis. In fact the tigers here grow up with people and in doing so become pretty tame and receptive to human contact. In a nut shell, you pay a fairly hefty sum to spend about 20 minutes in a cage with a tiger! You get to choose the age of the cat you want to get close to.
I went first to meet some baby tigers. They were soft and oh so very very cute! It sure seemed as though they enjoyed the attention.
The bros went second to meet some adolescent tigers. These teenagers still seemed pretty big and beastly to us. Some of these guys were playful and others were content to rest and to be “stroked”.
Rob met the real deal…eye to eye with these massive cats was according to Rob very cool in deed. Most of the big cats were active and Rob had an incredible time watching them roam around and play with the trainers.
We had enjoyed spending a day in Luang Prabang at an Elephant Sanctaury and riding the elephants was a thrill. In Chiang Mai we decided to take in a show. The elephants in the sanctuaries and in the shows are animals that have previously been used as working animals, mostly in logging camps. Elephants have a long history throughout Asia and not all of that history is easy to learn about as it includes abuse and poor working conditions. Although some people disagree with training the elephants to entertain others are adamant that the elephants are far better off in their new homes then they were in the logging camps and that they are actually more content learning new things. We were very impressed with what we saw as the elephants seemed very healthy and even happy.
The show was amazing and the pictures can’t capture it. The intelligence that these gentle giants must possess to do what they can do is incredible. In addition to marching, playing instruments, basketball and soccer they paint beautiful pictures - for goodness sake!
But he doesn't score as a save is made!
OK – maybe sounds a bit on the tacky side but we were driving past and the boys thought why not? It was pretty cool.
Hill Tribe Villages
One of the highlights of our trip has been trekking through the hill tribe villages in Northern Vietnam where we felt we really did get a tiny glimpse of a way of life that has existed for centuries. Our experience with the hill tribes in Northern Thailand was completely different from our experience in Vietnam. We enjoyed it but for very different reasons.
In an attempt to combat the terrible conditions and the poverty faced by many ethnic minority tribes in Thailand the Thai Royal Family has set up what basically amounts to staged hill tribe tourist villages. Hill tribe people can choose to move to these villages and carry on a fairly traditional way of life, traditional in some respects and not at all so in others. They work the land in the same way that they have done so for centuries. They make their crafts, dress traditionally and maintain cultural practices. When crops fail, however, the Royal Family steps in to help. When profits from crafts amount to little the Royal Family helps. When people are ill they receive medical attention. They no longer need to rely on the sale of opium to make a living. In exchange for aid they live in villages that have been made into tourist attractions and they must get used to having outsiders from all over the globe, cameras in hand, trek through their communities, their backyards and in some cases even through their homes. While it does have more than a bit of a human zoo feel to it, it is also evident that the hill tribe people who have chosen to forgo their nomadic ways and live in these somewhat artificial villages are not subject to the widespread and devastating poverty that is the affliction of many tribal groups.
There is no ideal solution in terms of creating equality between mainstream society and marginalized ethnic minorities and turning the life of the marginalized into a tourist attraction is far from ideal. It did, however, seem to us, to be a better solution than doing nothing. Most of the people we interacted with seemed very proud of their culture and eager to share and answer our questions. Unlike villages in Vietnam and elsewhere in Thailand there were no outward signs of poverty.
The food in Thailand has in our opinion been the best! Without all of the fresh ingredients we don’t expect to be able to duplicate the explosion of flavours that we seem to experience with every Thai meal that we have but we thought perhaps with a Thai cooking class we could get closer. Our class started with a trip to a local market where we learned about the ingredients behind the dishes. Once we had done the shopping we were off to measure, cut , chop, mix and then of course taste. We could not quite believe that we had actually made what we were tasting, it was fantastic. Now we just need the fresh market ingredients, the instructor and the commitment to cook together as a family and we might be set to replicate the fun and the tastes at home!
Muay Thai – Thai Boxing
Watching men, women, boys and girls punch, kick, grapple and head butt each other does not sound like much of a cultural event but Muay Thai is Thailand’s incredibly popular national sport and we thought we should spend a little time at the ringside to see what it might be all about. The sport has a rich history dating back to ancient battlefields where Siamese/ Thai armies reigned supreme. Just about every night stadiums across Thailand are filled with spectators eager to watch and to bet on Muay Thai. The “stadium” that we went to was not much more than a dingy warehouse with a ring in the middle surrounded by moldy plastic table and chairs with makeshift bars set up on the periphery. All this accompanied with the pungent smells of liniment oils mixed with sweat and cigarettes….and we paid what for this??
When the first opponents came out we were a little shocked and I had to do my best to stay in my seat rather than to make a bee line for the exit. These “fighters” were likely younger than our kids. They may have been 11 or 12 years old. Before the actual fight they performed a traditional dance that is apparently done to honor their trainers. As the dance went on the intensity built and I started to feel a little better thinking these kids may not really be going to fight. Perhaps they would just dance?
I was wrong of course and when the fighting started I was even more torn over whether to stay or go. It is one thing to pay and see adults pounding on each other in the name of sport but it is quite another thing to pay to see kids do it. I couldn’t help but wonder if the kids were truly there of their own free will and I also had to wonder if proper care was taken to ensure no harm was being done. Were we unknowingly contributing to something nasty?
Fortunately as the matches went on the age of the competitors increased. The increasing severity of the kicks and blows was still, however, not enough to capture Eric's attention. We were not too upset that he enjoyed his book more than the Muay Thai....
I can’t say that any of us would make a habit out of attending Muay Thai and I can’t say I would encourage my kids to learn this art (?) but at least now we have a better idea of what it’s all about. The skill and fitness level of competitors is pretty darn impressive even if you don’t really like what they are doing.
Hanging with the Gibbons
The boys took a half a day to swing through the jungle and look for gibbons at a tree top adventure park. There were no gibbons to be seen but the zip lining was great fun.
The White Temple, Wat Rong Khun & The Golden Triangle
I headed out on my own for a day tour to Chiang Rai, the Golden Triangle and the White Temple.
The White Temple or Wat Rong Khun was beautiful but it undoubtedly felt much more like a tourist attraction than an actual temple. The artist built the temple entirely in white to represent the purity of Buddha. The mirrored glass mosaics embedded in the white plaster makes it twinkle and creates quite a magical energy. The glass is meant to represent Buddha’s wisdom shining over earth.
The guardian deity below is but one that greets visitors as they cross the bridge to enter the temple.
Check out the whiskey bottle inserted in the demon’s head below. There are strange and unique displays of things like this scattered throughout the grounds. I couldn't find out exactly what they are all meant to represent, something about helping to release human passions.
The Golden Triangle
The area where Laos, Myanmar and Thailand come together is referred to as the Golden Triangle. If China were just a few miles closer it may have been called the Golden Square. Opium production and export were once a mainstay of the economy here and although the opium trade has dwindled there is no doubt that crops are still planted and that the potent substance still crosses these borders on a regular basis. In deed Myanmar is known to be the world’s second largest producer of opium. When you combine this with its status as the second largest producer of methamphetamines the country claims the title of being the largest narcotic state in the world. The revenue that comes from illicit substances surpasses all of the country’s other exports and likely reaches the coffers of nearly all government officials. As Myanmar opens up to the world it will be very interesting to see how the military regime might handle the pressures that the international community will undoubtedly exert in an attempt to change the situation.
The border of Thailand and Myanmar was far busier than other border crossings we have experienced. A bustling market extended into alleyways and lined both sides of the road approaching the border. When we had planned our visit to Northern Thailand we had been thinking that we might take time to explore Myanmar as well, however since all of the fires from the burning season were making the air quality so bad we decided against it.
When we get back to Victoria we won't be missing all of the garbage that seems to be lurking in nooks and crannies just about everywhere.
More Hill Tribe Villages...
The day trip to Chiang Mai also included a stop at another Hill Tribe Village. This village was obviously on the itinerary of many day tours. When we had visited the site closer the Chiang Mai we were the only tourists there but this place was quite crowded. I did not seem to see as many smiling faces amongst the villagers and I had to wonder if they were a little weary of the attention and intrusion being imposed on them.
The "Long Necks" or Karons believe that the rings they wear over various body parts are beautiful. They never take them off and apparently they don't do any damage and are not uncomfortable! I can't imagine going for a run or a swim with huge pieces of metal constricting my throat and weighing me down....but then again I don't think exercises like swimming or running are priorities for many tribal women.