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Thailand Chaing Mai, Bangkok and Phuket

Posted by Mei on November 22, 2011

Elephants in Chiang Mai

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA In Thailand there are elephant villages. We went to one outside Chiang Mai. We were wizzed past a souvenir shop that had everything pachyderm; cushions, rugs, toys, vases, boxes, etc. damn! We climbed up a structure to board the elephant. The elephant had a wooden seating rack strapped on his back. The seat was padded and had a safety bar. Along the way to board the elephant we were asked if we wanted to buy some bananas and sugar cane for $1 AUD. Yes why not. Our Mahout sat on the elephant’s neck with his legs behind it’s big floppy ears. He seemed to tap his feet gently to direct the elephant. Some Mahouts sit more nonchalantly on the top of the elephants head with their legs crossed dangling on the elephant’s forehead. Oddly there was an indentation on the elephant’s head that look just like it was designed for sitting. We lumbered out of the elephant camp.We observed the villagers working hard in the fields, cutting hay for the elephants. Many fields were cultivated with sugar cane, bananas and small patches of rice. I read somewhere that elephant requires 1-2 tonnes of foods a day. As we ambled along I began to ponder when we should feed our elephant; when he decided for us by stopping on the side of the road. He swung his trunk back and the Mahout turned around and pointed at the sugar cane. We handed it to the nose and soon heard the crunching. Our bundle of 10 sticks quickly disappeared. It became apparent that the elephant could eat and walk at the same time. I thought of feeding the bananas one at the time but the nose took the entire bunch. We ambled up a road and spotted a roadside stand clearly aimed at the intrepid elephant riders. The stand was precariously perched on stilts to bring the stall to the level of the elephant riders. These stalls did not sell the usual tourist stuff, drinks, sunscreen and junky souvenirs. It must have been a happy day when the villagers discovered that the tourist would be more than glad to pay cold hard cash to feed their beasts. Cheekily these hawkers charged 75 cents for a larger bunch of sugar cane. I couldn’t let my elephant starve so we had to buy some more food. These elephant villagers traditionally work in the forest as the loggers, the elephants deftly pulling the logs to trucks or rivers. Most of the forest does not exist anymore. The Mahout and elephants have lost their livelihoods as loggers. A young elephant is bonded to a Mahout (age 12). The elephant is just not for Christmas, it is for 50 years. Luckily tourism may yet save the elephant culture. It must have astonished the Mahout villagers that the tourist would pay serious money to learn to become a Mahout. This involves scrubbing, feeding, a lot of shovelling and riding. These Mahout courses are in huge demand and there are waiting lists. It has spawned a new industry of providing accommodation and restaurants for these Mahout wannabees. Tourism in Thailand is very organic. They don’t create theme parks, they use what they have and it is impressive.

Tigers in Chiang Mai

Asian tigers have a little white spot behind their ears. I’m not an avid animal toucher. It would never occur to me to pet a strange dog. The only cats and dogs I’m comfortable with are my own. But there we were inside a cage with six tiger cubs. They were about three months old, and their fur was softer then a dog’s, but not as silky as a cat’s. They are incredibly cute and curious. They obviously have not reached the “oh hum here’s another tourist, God another boring day” attitude the bigger tigers reach. kevin-and-tiger-cub For me it was just about the most interesting experience in Thailand. I had naturally assumed that tiger touching was sudden death. But the taxi driver’s up-sell had us both entranced. It was just fascinating being in the same space. What intrigued me was that the tiger cubs were better behaved than Baloo; a cat we used to have. Inside a cage with six tiger cubs

Chiang Rai

We had imagined this to be a small town with wooden houses but discovered Chiang Rai is a concrete town of 1 million. We did visit an akha village. The akha are hill tribe folk. In one of the photos on the wall of the village souvenir stall appeared to have Hillary Clinton surrounded by a group of Akha women dressed in traditional costume. white-temple-panoThe most fascinating time we had at Chiang Rai was at the White Temple. This place is iconic.

Road Trip from Bangkok to Phuket

We joined Margie and Hank in Bangkok. Hank and Margie are cycling down to Phuket in a March next year. The idea was to drive to Phuket in 200km hops for a bicycle reconnaissance tour. Hank wanted to check out the accommodation, scenery and get a sense whether the bike tour he planned with google earth was going to be fun and interesting. For Kevin and I; we were doing it because we wanted to see Margie and Hank. It was also an opportunity to see Chiang Mai and Bangkok. We had been aware there were floods in Thailand and I felt quite frustrated not being able to get accurate flood information. Chiang Mai was dry and dusty. The television was full of flood news in Thai. The English newspapers in Thailand were OK but did not show any current flood status maps. It was not until I stumbled on a good website that we were reassured Bangkok CBD and the road south was dry. Hank was smarter and phoned the hotel in Bangkok. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAs we flew into Bangkok we got stuck in a holding pattern. The extent of the floods was quite horrific. Some of these areas had been underwater for weeks. Bangkok was in pain. The ride into the CBD on the train was interesting; the canals were full, and the roads dry. We were staying at the Lebua at State Tower in the CBD. We had a walk around the hotel neighborhood and couldn’t help noticing the bricked/rendered walls up to 1.4m high in front of the shop windows (some were being bricked up as we watched). The shop keepers had been assured that the CBD would remain dry (source: newspapers) they clearly thought the government had lost control. Pictures and cartoons showed just what the Thais thought of the situation. They were damned unhappy with the irrigation authority that held back the water when it should have been released, the prime minister’s lack of management ability and the Bangkok’s mayor’s maintenance inability to keep the canals deep and free flowing; and the government’s sacrifice of their factories, farmland and homes for a bunch of buildings in the CBD. I asked a Thai woman if she was angry with the people who we mismanaging the situation, her answer was very Thai. “I am one person who can do nothing. I am not angry, just sad for all the people caught up in the floods.” In reference to the mismanagement and corruption she said grimly, “God will punish them.” In Bangkok we visited the Jim Thompson house (built in the 50s). It was next to a very full river and interestingly enough on stilts. The threat of flooding has been ever present. It was an interesting tour with many old thai furnishings and interiors, and architecture. A treat. We had drinks with Hank and Margie and their friends Keith and Joanne at an Irish pub. It was great to see Hank and Margie again. The next day we hit the road after an enormous breakfast. Even Kevin reached his limit. Asian buffet breakfasts are pretty amazing because they also do Thai, Chinese food along with the usual egg flip bar, cereal, yes bircher too, patisseries, charcuterie and fruit. The pizza wood fired oven doubled as a toaster. The roads were clear of water as we left. But feeling a little like Indiana Jones we were chased down by a tongue of water that swamped the road behind us. We used a roadmap and the Nokia Thai street maps that we had specially loaded into the phone. It is this feature alone that keeps us wedded to Nokia as we do not have to be online to use them. We found a town near Phetchaburi. We stopped at a cafe and we could immediately tell that this town was not used to foreigners the only menu was entirely in Thai. I was really annoyed I didn't invest in the Thai phrase book I had seen in Chiang Mai. We ended up pointing at the Pepsi and ice. When I was a kid living in Singapore I rarely drank any water when I was out. Keeping hydrated all the time in this heat is important, or so we believe now. The cost at least to us women is high. This back yarder had a different type of squat system (tiny and less functional), and lack of dexterity resulted in having to wash legs and shoes under running water. UGH. We found the temple in Cha-am that was built in the time of Ankor wat. It was built of red rock that looked like impacted coral. Margie loved the cats around the wats. They were beautiful Siamese cats. hank-mei-margieThe Casuarina Hotel (Puek Tian) Hank found had a lovely pool, which we had all to ourselves. The rooms were nice. The dining room had no-one there except us. There were other guests. Hmmm… I really did wonder about the food quality, even more so when they didn't have many items on the menu. Hank suggested we leave and we found an amazing little restaurant that had very nice food albeit a tad heavy handed with the chilies. The crab soup was explosive. I think my ears were ringing. Kevin and Hank had to slow down eating. It didn't faze Margie at all; she can even eat chillies neat. The next day we drove around the area to check out the roads. These little coastal towns were beach escapes for the Bangkok Thais. There were some lovely boutique hotels and cafes with decent coffee. We zoomed past Hua Hin, a dense surfers paradise with 5 star high rise hotels for the Thai beach goers. best-yellow-crab-curryWe had lunch at a roadside stop near the Khao Sam Roi Yot Natianal park at the thinnest neck of the isthmus. The restaurant was on the edge of a prawn farm. It had the loveliest yellow crab curry I've ever eaten. All the dishes there left everyone replete. The Keeree Waree hotel (Bang Saphan) was an amazing find by Hank. It was interesting with it’s outdoor garden shower. The whole place was tastefully done. The beach was lovely and clean, a huge expense of sand. They had some nice wine. At the next stop, we went to a night market and tried the food. Most of the food was seafood, and not the best quality. The fish cakes were nice but the rest forgettable. There was a wedding being held in the town square. It was huge. We went to a restaurant after that and ordered a few dishes. The one dish that sticks in my mind was the “fresh prawn salad”, I thought fresh was about the quality of the prawn, Kevin thought it meant it was from the sea and not farmed. It arrived; a mountain of shredded vegetables on a bed of raw prawns. We waited hopefully for the boiling water to arrive but no this was it. Hank took it to the kitchen and asked it to be cooked by miming. The next day we drove to Krabi. I thought we might find some good food here before we hit the tourist strip that was Ao Nang. Margie ordered a chicken tendon salad. When Margie read it she thought tenderloin. It came, with cartilage, ball and socket joints, all crunchy in a tasty batter. Margie found it disgusting. It’s interesting the only times we ordered something new and different on a local thai menu; on arrival it became clear why we had never seen it in Thai restaurants in Australia and never will. That afternoon we walked along Ao Nang beach. It’s a huge long stretch, very wide gently shoaling beach. We walked along the beach. Margie and I along the waterline and Hank and Kevin on the high tide line. Kevin and Hank were approached by a middle aged Muslim woman with a scarf. They were chatting for a while. Apparently the men were being appraised by a facilitator. As soon as they mentioned that their wives were just there, about a hundred meters away, she just walked away abruptly. That night we visited the night district of Ao Nang, looking for coffee and cake. Hank and Margie got a glimpse of the gorgeous Thai women with men older and uglier than their great grandfathers. The next day we headed into Phuket to drop off Margie and Hank at the airport. We had a little time so we detoured via Yacht Haven Marina. The super yachts in this marina need to be seen to be believed. We did our chores at the Boat Lagoon Chandleries. It was very lonely there; none of our friends were there. The next day we went to Phromthep Cape and said goodbye to Thailand.