After experiencing the urban wildness of Bangkok we were very exited to experience the natural wildness of northern Thailand. Our first stop was a city called Chiang Mai. Chiang Mai is Thailand's second largest city (behind Bangkok) and was described to us as a more chill, laid-back, outdoorsy version of Bangkok. Sign us up! It was also a walled city for several hundred years due to the constant threat of Burmese invasion, and there are still remnants of the walls and moat that surrounded the city. And how fitting as Chiang Mai is was the place where Carrie and I hit our “travel wall” and had to work hard to surmount it.
We took the sleeper train from Bangkok that would get us in early in the morning the next day. Trains are pretty tough to sleep on to begin with, and this one seemed to jostle us for the entire 12 hour ride. I slept decently, but Carrie didn't really sleep at all. So we arrived in Chiang Mai a little frazzled and sleep-deprived, but excited for this new city.
We planned lots of animal-related activities for our time in Chiang Mai – specifically the tiger park and the elephant nature park, which, if you're following the blog, was already the subject of our last post. We decided that our first stop (after a quick nap) would be the tiger park.
Tiger Kingdom bills itself as a “tiger conservatory” that allows visitors to enter the cages with real, live tigers. They break up the experience into 4 categories, all seperated by age of the tigers – smallest (3-6 months), small (6-12 months), medium (12-18 months) and big cats (18-36 months). We chose to split our time between the “smallest” and the “medium” groups. First up – medium. Now, the term medium usually indicates that subject in question isn't very small nor very big....except when that subject is a tiger. These things looked full grown! The tigers were about 8 feet long from head to tail and a couple hundred pounds each. They had full, huge sets of teeth, giant paws, and incredibly muscular bodies. In short, they could very easily rip us to shreds in a matter of seconds. When in there with the tigers we are no longer the top of the food chain. We entered the cage with trepidation, but the trainers in the cage urged us to come in and get close. The trainers seemed very at-ease with these cats. They were playing with them, rubbing their bellies, holding their tails – no fear. We had lots of fear. There were a few rules, of course – no touching the heads or paws, no approaching from the front, no sudden movement or noises, and when you pet them, pet hard so the tiger knows your hand isn't a fly they need to swat.
We walked up to the first tiger, gingerly knelt beside her, and petted her back. She was very docile and let us give her lots of pets, just like a giant house cat. Her fur was a little rough, but gorgeous. We could feel her muscles under her skin and realized these animals are made to do one thing – hunt. We just hoped we weren't going to be the hunted. She then got up to play with her friend tiger and we obliged – she can do whatever she wants. We had our heads on a swivel as there were 4 tigers in the cage with us. Luckily the tigers mostly just laid on the ground and relaxed, but we were VERY aware when one stood up and walked around. After some fairly terrifying pictures with the cats and a little more petting, we high-tailed it out of the cage, happy we still had all our limbs.
As we walked to the next set of cages we saw a few of the older tigers in their pens. Once a tiger gets older than 3 years old they become too aggressive and unpredictable for petting, so they are (supposedly) shipped off to a nature preserve in the mountains. But there seemed to be holding pens for some of these guys in the back of the park, and the pens were really small and confining. The park also had a lion and a few white tigers that aren't available to the public, but yet are still held in tiny cages. These older tigers paced back and forth, roared fairly often, and generally didn't seem all that happy. We felt really bad for them, and that's where it dawned on us that this park is just a tiger breeding farm that is more interested in making money from the public than learning about the behavior of tigers or helping to make sure their numbers in the wild don't dwindle. It was sad to see their caged behavior exhibited right in front of us. It just put a bad taste in our mouth. But maybe we were wrong, so we continued on to the rest of the park.
We had paid for time with the “smallest” tigers, so we made our way to their cages. These guys were so cute! They were just like slightly big house cats and really liked to play. Same rules applied for these guys, but they were a lot less scary than their big brothers and sisters. We laid around on the floor with them and contemplated trying to sneak one out under our shirt. Would the park really miss one little tiger? As we sat on the floor with them, one of the trainers started antagonizing a tiger kitten with a toy, trying to get it to play. The little guy batted away the toy and growled. He then walked around behind me and I felt a pinch – did that little sucker bite me on the back!? Yes! It was just a playful nip which at first didn't look like much of anything but apparently human flesh takes a few minutes to react to an abrasion wound caused by the sharp drag of a tiger kitten's fangs, because the bite soon became swollen, angry, and a little bloody. This meant an intense conversation with the Tiger Kingdom staff where they tried to tell me “no big deal, OK to go home” and then (ironically), “Here take tiger balm, put on, make better.” Ultimately we did seek proper medical care, in the form of two trips to the Thai ER and a bunch of rabies vaccine shots for the next month. Hooray! Fun Times! Hitting the wall #1.
In the end, we decided we cannot endorse Tiger Kingdom. Not because I was bitten, but rather because of the conditions of the cages and the goal of the park. It was sorta like a zoo, but much worse. They breed these tigers to play with humans, but then what? Do they really go to some nature preserve far outside the city? Given the conditions, that seemed a little far-fetched, and after leaving we regret having supported their park. It's not really someplace we'd go back to. We also learned one of our most valuable lessons - thoroughly research any animal related activity. Between Tiger Kingdom and the plethora of "parks" offering elephant rides there are many fairly inhumane institutions out there, and we learned to be careful before plunking down money for an experience that isn't kind to the animals. Lesson learned.
The next day we headed out of Chiang Mai to a cooking class at a farm outside of the city. On the way to the farm we stopped at a traditional market, one where all the area chefs go for their days' ingredients. The market had everything – colorful fresh produce, dozens of different kinds of rice, sauces, fresh fish and meat, and coffee. The selection puts most American farmers markets to shame.
After perusing the wares at the market we headed to the farm. The class takes place on a working family farm, so we were able to pick fresh herbs and vegetables for the dishes we were going to prepare. We made our own red curry paste from scratch using a mortar and pestle and cut up the veggies we'd use for the stir fry we'd make later. After all the prep was done it was off to the kitchen to cook. We made red curry soup, tom yom soup, chicken pad thai, coconut soup, and holy basil chicken. Everything came out delicious! There's something very satisfying about picking the ingredients from a garden, making them into a delicious meal, and eating it right away. Farm to table at its finest!
Then, we hit really the wall (figuratively, of course)....hard. I got food poisoning and was sick for a couple of days, then Carrie got sick herself. Wall #2. The combination of our sickness and the tiger bite/hospital visits started wearing on us, and we both had fleeting desires to call the trip off and go to the relative safety and comfort of the USA. We sat in our hotel room and contemplated coming home. We were road-weary and the thought of trying to figure out how to get to our next stop was completely unappealing. We had hit that long-term travel wall that every traveler inevitably hits....
Although neither of us really wanted to go out, we forced ourselves out of the tiny guesthouse room we hadn't left for 2 days. We wanted to head to the nearby temple for a candle ceremony we'd seen advertised on a poster in town. The candle ceremony is done for the full moon and involves the monks lighting thousands of tea lamps in little bowls, chanting in the temple, then leading the crowd through the grounds with incense and candles of their own. We walked over and caught them just as they had begun lighting the candles. With each one being lit the temple grounds became more magical. There were candles EVERYWHERE – in the pond, ringing the grassy area, in front of all the Buddha statues – it was an amazing sight. And when all the candles were lit it looked like stars reflecting on water, with the flames of each candle bouncing off every surface of the temple. Above us, the actual stars seemed to mirror the twinkle of the ceremony. It was an absolutely amazing sight that re-energized us and reminded us why we were on this trip in the first place. We HAD to continue!
The next day we woke up and headed to the bus station to catch a bus to a town a little further north called Pai. Pai is regarded as a “hippie backpacker town” with lots of artist shops, a short walking street, and great restaurants. It's also separated from Chiang Mai by a road with 762 curves (yes, someone counted). The van driver takes the curves at about Mach 2, so lots of people get sick on the van ride, which obviously wasn't something we looked forward to, but we had no other option if we wanted to go. So we strapped in and hoped we wouldn't need the barf bags (we didn't).
Pai actually IS a really funky little hippie town, and here we recharged big time. The town is only a couple of streets wide, we could walk everywhere, and the people were really friendly and welcoming. Pai's nightly “Walking Street” was cute and not too crowded, which was a welcome respite from the throngs of people on the walking street in Chiang Mai. A walking street is described by the name – the city shuts down a road and all sorts of vendors come out to sell their goods. It's kinda like a street fair back home, but it happens every day.
We spent one day touring around the sights and saw the “big Buddha on the hill”, the Pai Canyon, and the strawberry farms. In the sweltering heat of the day, we swam in the pool. At night, we wandered around the streets and sampled the tasty savory and sweet snacks the street vendors were selling, as well as the clothes and housewares sold by the shops that lined the walking street. I can see why people come to Pai and just never leave – it's an easy, quiet, relaxing place to while away a few days....or weeks...or years. But alas, our sickness in Chiang Mai meant we could only spend 2 days in Pai before we had to head back to Chiang Mai for our flight to Hanoi, so we bid it adieu, happy that we had our travel legs back underneath us and excited for a new country.