WanderMom's story of Chiang Mai, Thailand
Before I start my story about Chiang Mai, I would like to point out that my picture for this entry features Hubby. Our trip to Chiang Mai coincided with Father's Day. Hubby is the man of my dreams and an amazing father to my girls. I am lucky to walk through life with him. I hope my girls meet someone as amazing as him someday!! XO and Happy Father's Day to Hubby!
Now, back to Chiang Mai!!
Our trip to Chiang Mai tested our ability to adapt and be flexible!
Our original plan was to travel to an artist home stay, La Bhu Salah, located in the hills of the Mea On, just outside of Chiang Mai city. La Bhu Salah was opened two years ago by Vatcharin Bhumichitr (Vatch). Vatch is a world-renowned chef with many published cookbooks and several internationally acclaimed Thai restaurants. The village is designed for artists and art lovers. The accommodations consist of renovated rice barns in lush gardens. We were going to learn how to do batik, make jewelry, cook, pottery, etc. I was particularly excited about learning Thai cooking from Vatch!
We should have seen the signs that our plans would be foiled much sooner than we did, but hindsight is 20/20, right? First, after several attempts to e-mail Vatch in the two weeks preceding our trip, we got no response. Second, we had arranged for transport from the airport to the village and no one showed up to pick us up. Third, once Vatch met us at the airport, we learned that in the rainy season, there are no artists residing in the village!!! WHAT???? We should have been told about this!! We were seriously disappointed. Time to teach our daughter how to make delicious lemon and honey drinks when handed a bunch of lemons!
So, we revised our plans. We stayed at La Bhu Salah Friday night. The grounds were beautiful and Vatch made us feel at home. Our "barn" was beautiful, peaceful, and quiet (except the tree frogs!!). Vatch showed us around, took us to the local market to buy fresh ingredients for our cooking class, to a textile and to the traditional Thai umbrella-making factory, and to eat "local" street food. I use the term factory, but really these were small facilities run by just a handful of craftsman, most of whom had spent their entire lives learning their craft. The textile and umbrella facilities were quite remarkable. Everything was made by hand. At the umbrella factory, a woman took the shirt off of VagaBabe's back and hand-painted it while we were standing there. It was gorgeous! Cost? $3!!! On Friday night, Vatch invited us to his home for a night of cooking, eating, and good company. He spent a lot of time explaining the basics of key ingredients in Thai food and how to put them together in a variety of ways. We learned how to make Tom Yum soup (the secret is in the soup stock), green curry, and pad thai. He then treated us to a platter of fruit - Rambutan and Mangosteen. Delicious!!
The next day, we arranged to move to a new hotel closer to the city and for a driver to show us around. We were able to book a room at Le Meridien, using our hotel points, right in the heart of Chiang Mai. The hotel was plush, clean, and modern. The view from our window was the best. We could see the entire city and the surrounding mountains. We spotted a glint of gold on the mountain and realized it was the temple we had visited earlier in the day.
We had mixed feelings about our driver, Songsap, "Song" for short. On the one hand, he was amenable to our wants and needs and more than willing to drive us wherever we wanted to go. On the other hand, it was clear he was steering us toward tourist traps and that he was getting a cut at each stop. I had done some research about what to do in Chiang Mai before our visit. One of my main concerns was animal exploitation. There are opportunities to visit monkeys, tigers, and elephants in Chiang Mai. I knew that there were places in Chiang Mai where animals were treated with respect for the wild animals that they are. There are other places, however, that exploited animals in order to entertain tourists. I had no desire to see the drugged tigers (how else are humans able to get close enough to pet them?), or the chained monkeys, or the elephants performing shows with paintbrushes in their trunks. But, these are exactly the types of places our driver kept pushing us towards. I was able to negate the trip to see the tigers with a pretty forceful "no". I tried to get him to take us to a reputable elephant camp, but many excuses were made about needed prior reservations, etc. and instead we ended up at a camp that made me very uncomfortable. I stayed, though, because I learned that the elephants were raised with only one trainer, a mahout, their entire lives and spent most of their day in the jungle eating and roaming free. The few hours they "work" at the camp, though, involved performing stupid tricks for humans and giving them rides. Our driver also went on about the "amazing" monkey center. We walked into the center, and the first thing I saw was a baby monkey that was chained to a cage and engaged in stereotyped behavior. There were lots of monkeys with chains around their necks. This was a sad, sad place. Get me out of here!!!!
Our driver also guided us to the silver making factory, bronze making factory, and textile factory. It was neat to see and learn how these crafts are performed by hand, but we always had the distinct sense that we were being shuttled around to spend money (and the driver would get some percentage). This would never had happened had a) we had the art experience that we thought we were going to get, and/or b) I had done my homework and had a solid back-up itinerary plan for what to do in Chiang Mai. I'll know better next time.
Three experiences were particularly notable: visiting the hill tribe villages, Doi Suthep temple, and seeing a traditional Thai dancing performance.
We visited the Karen, Lahu Shi Bala, Palong, and Mong tribes who live in an area called Baan Tong Luang in Thailand. Most of the tribes come to escape violence through Burma and Tibet to live cooperatively and peacefully in Thailand. What struck me first was the beautiful and unique dress of the tribes and the amazing beauty of the women and children. The tribes live in extreme poverty in thatched roof huts. The women are busy taking care of the children. I noticed that many of the girls nursing babies were very, very young themselves. I also saw evidence of textile weaving. The tribal men were working to provide food either by hunting, fishing, or farming. They live off of the land. The village consists of a one-room schoolhouse and a Christian church. We learned that in the evenings, the children go to school to learn English. While waiting for their children, the parents sit outside of the school trying to learn English as well. We met several "long-necked" women in Mae Hong Son who wore brass rings around their neck. Again, I had a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach. It is one thing for these girls and women to wear the rings around their neck if that is what the tradition of their tribe dictates. However, it is something completely different for tribal women to sit around in rings and make-up so that tourists can gawk at them. There was palpable sadness. It just didn't feel right. I didn't want to pass through and stare, I wanted to sit with them and talk. I wanted to hear their voices, but that was not allowed.
There are over 300 temples in Chiang Mai, but one of the most amazing of them all is Wat Pra Thart Doi Suthep, located at the top of Doi Suthep mountain. The Lanna-style temple was built over 1200 years ago. As we walked around the terrace of the temple, we could see murals, which depicted the lives of Buddha, especially those that he experienced just before Nirvana. There are also living quarters and a school for monks at the temple. We also noticed many bells, large and small, surrounding the temple. It is believed that good luck will come to you if you strike the series of bells. I wish I had known that before visiting the temple!! Finally, many Thai Buddhists believe that Buddha's remains are located on the sacred grounds of Doi Suthep. This was an active temple with many believers engaged in prayer and ritual. I found myself intrigued by the architecture, the mysticism, and the history. It's no wonder that I love to travel!!
To top off our day of touring, we went to see a traditional Thai dance performance known as "Fawn Thai". We pulled up to the hotel and I saw busloads of people being shuttled in and out. Uh-Oh! To Song's credit, he booked us seats that gave us a premium view of the performance. When I saw all of the people and knew that we had been suckered into a very touristy experience, I didn't have high hopes for our dinner. The food was billed as traditional northern Thai food called "Khan Toke". Um, that was fried chicken where I come from! Despite the food, the dancing was fantastic! My favorite dances were the "Fawn Leb", the Fingernail Dance, where the dancers where six-inch-long brass nails; "Fawn Mam Gumm Ber", the Butterfly Dance, which featured the most beautiful costumes; and the Ramwong dance, which was the coolest drum circle I've ever heard! Musicians playing Siamese instruments accompanied each dance. Kongming lanterns were floating into the night sky. I admit the effect was magical. I totally bought into this popular tourist activity! After the show, we let VagaBabe make a wish and send off her sky lantern….just like in the movie, Tangled. She loved it!
By the time we finished with the show and the lanterns, it seemed like the staff had cleaned up and gone home. We found ourselves with no transportation back to our hotel. We were finally able to find someone to help us. He flagged down a "taxi" for us. Do you know what a Thai taxi is? Ahhhh!!! Think pick up truck with a cover, a couple of benches, a bar to hold onto, and no rear closure. I got into the taxi, put my head down, and prayed we'd make it home safely!!
The rest of our trip was fun too. We explored the night markets and art galleries. No trip to Thailand would be complete without some spa time. Since it was Father's Day, and I am married to the most amazing man who is the best father to my daughters, Hubby got the full Thai massage treatment. While we waited, VagaBabe had a mani/pedi and I had a delicious, wonderful, fantastic 90-minute foot massage. That is 90 minutes dedicated to all of my body parts below the knee!!! I must make this type of massage a more regular part of my life. After our spa treatments, we rushed back to the hotel and begged for a later checkout time. We took a quick dip in the pool, packed up, and rushed off to the airport.
Good-bye Thailand! We'll miss you, but hope we'll return soon!!