Home » 2018 Thailand Trip

Chiang Mai, Thailand

Thursday, March 22, 2018 - 12:30pm by Lolo
120 miles and 3 hours from our last stop - 3 night stay


Day 1 - Arrival and Night Bazaar

Ladyboys in the Chiang Mai night bazaarLadyboys in the Chiang Mai night bazaar After our visit with the Karen Long Neck people, we continued on to Chiang Mai where we would be spending the next three nights at another luxurious hotel - Le Meridien Chiang Mai. I could really get used to this.

We were totally on our own for the rest of the day, a welcome respite from the sensory overload of so many new experiences and a way to recharge ourselves for more. Some time in the hotel fitness center running on a treadmill and a dip in the pool did just that.

Herb followed this with his traditional late afternoon two-pack of Chang beer from a nearby 7-Eleven. I neglected to mention the ubiquitousness of 7-Elevens in Thailand. There are over 8,000 of them. You literally can’t walk a tenth of a mile in a Thailand city without passing one.

We were on our own for dinner that night, so we consulted the Gate1 packet we had been given for a restaurant recommendation in Chiang Mai and then looked how they were rated on Trip Advisor. Everyone seemed to love Lemongrass.

The recommendation was spot on. The food was delicious and reasonably priced. The only negative was that neither the wine or the IPA on the menu (both of which I was craving at this point) were unavailable, and I was getting pretty sick of Chang beer.

After dinner, we decided to walk through the nearby night bazaar, a very popular concept in Thailand’s cities. Every evening around 6:00, hundreds of vendors set up their stalls along the sidewalks near the intersection of Chang Khlan Road and Loi Khro Road. For the next five hours, hordes of locals and tourists flood the market searching for bargains on everything from hand-tailored Thai silk to designer purses to jewelry to CDs and DVDs to tacky souvenirs. Herb bought a really cute pair of silk boxer shorts with elephants all over them. I tried to keep a straight face when he was haggling over their price.

Fish spa anyone?Fish spa anyone?The night bazaar was quite a scene, not your typical night at the mall in New Jersey.

First difference - ladyboys. As we wandered through the bazaar we noticed a couple of very beautiful flamboyantly dressed ladies - complete with low cut gowns, feathers, super high heels, the works. At first we thought they were prostitutes, but then realized they were ladyboys, or katoeys (meaning third gender) as they are called in Thailand. Ladyboys are well integrated into Thailand society and widely accepted amongst the people. They were gorgeous. We took a picture of one as she approached us, but she stopped us from taking any more without paying for the privilege first.

The second difference from NJ malls - fish spas. That’s right. People actually pay 300 Baht (about $10) to place their feet in a giant fish tank so that toothless garra rufa fish can nibble the dead skin tissue off their feet. Yuck! Udom actually warned us against doing this because one of his previous clients wound up in the hospital with an infection from an unhygienic tank.

From long neck women to ladyboys - another interesting day had come to a close. Tomorrow, elephants!!

Day 2 - Elephant Kingdom and more free time

Lolo bathing the elephantsLolo bathing the elephantsAnother day, another ethical challenge as a tourist, and rationalizing that the elephants truly are better off because of tourism.

As commercial logging is slowing being outlawed in Southeast Asia, many elephants are being forced into early retirement. Without the income from logging, their owners can’t afford to keep or support them, so they have to go somewhere else or they will die. There just isn’t enough acreage in the wild to support the Thailand elephant population.

There are really only two options for them: an elephant sanctuary or an elephant camp. The difference is that a sanctuary is a true “retirement community” for the elephants, while in a camp, elephants are still well cared for, but they continue to be trained to entertain tourists.

Today, we would be visiting the Elephant Kingdom, where we would get to bathe, feed, and ride an elephant - in other words, an elephant camp. Udom assured us that these elephants were treated very well here and would die without places like this to feed and care for them. It reminded me a bit of the dilemma the long neck people were in. What about creatures that weren’t exotic or entertaining enough to earn a living through tourism. I guess their fate was much worse.

Washer or washee?Washer or washee?Gate1 is such a big force in Thailand, that the Elephant Kingdom has a separate area devoted just to Gate1 tours, with 3 mahouts (trainers) and 4 elephants (one of them a rambunctious toddler).

Our first interaction with the elephants was giving them a bath in the river. It was kind of like a car wash, but one where the cars squirted back. It was a bit scary at first, as they are very large animals, but their trainers were in the water with us, making sure no mishaps or tourist stomping occurred, which would be very bad for business.

As with all the Thai people we have met so far, the mahouts were always smiling, possibly because they were getting a chance to use the elephants’ trunks to squirt water on squealing tourists.

Now, that we had cleaned them, it was time to make them lunch. At this point, I was starting to feel a lot less guilty about the elephants’ life in the camp.

Herb atop his pachydermHerb atop his pachydermThe mahouts gave us tamarind, salt, and cooked rice and, which we mixed, pounded, and rolled into balls. When the balls were complete, we set off to feed them. You had to be quick, because once the elephant got sight of that ball, if you didn’t offer it up, he was coming for it anyway. That certainly didn’t take long.

It was now time to ride them - the moment I had been anticipating with excitement as well as a healthy dose of fear - these animals were huge!

We got a quick lesson as to how to mount them. Hold onto their ear with one hand, step up on the leg which they have bent for you, grab their skin with the other hand (trying not to pull their hair - yes, they have little hairs covering their skin), and pull yourself up - easier said than done. Then, you’re supposed to place your hands on the knobby bumps on their skull.

I waited and let others try first, including Herb. He did a really good job, forfeiting just a little bit of dignity along the way, before finally majestically (haha) mounting his pachyderm. I tried not to laugh, because I had no idea how my process would go. My attempt wasn’t too bad, but I did receive a little boost from behind by one of the helpers.

The ride was a bit rockier and more precarious than I expected, and I felt quite insecure holding onto nothing but its bumpy knobs as it rocked and swayed along. I kept trying to avoid the temptation of grabbing on to its hair, as I didn’t want to make him angry. We tried to look dignified and in control as our photos were taken.

Lolo mounting her pachydermLolo mounting her pachydermDismounting was a bit easier than getting on. All we really had to do was clutch an ear and slide down its side.

I do have to admit that we had a lot of laughs watching each others attempts at mounting and dismounting these really large animals. Everyone was such a good sport. I especially give credit to Henri, who was 81 years old. He gave up on the first attempt, but went back for a second and with a little extra help, made it. It was really quite inspirational.

After everyone had gotten a chance to ride, the mahouts brought the elephants forward so that we could pose with them. As we each took a turn standing between two of the larger ones, they poked us with their trunks and even gave wet kisses on our cheeks. It was pretty disgusting. I couldn't wait to wash my face.

The last event of the day, and the one that I found the tackiest, was the mahouts lining up the elephants so that we could offer them tips (dollar bills or bahts) as they reached out and grabbed them with their trunks. They just wouldn’t stop and I felt bad for one woman on our tour that kept being harassed by one until she practically handed over her entire pocketbook.

Herb getting a smoochHerb getting a smoochAs we were leaving, there was a table with the photographs of each of us riding our elephant, set in a frame made from elephant dung - I am serious. Elephant dung is used to make paper products in Thailand. Kind of ironic that toilet paper is also made from dung. Of course, we just had to purchase it. I think it cost something like the equivalent of $10.

Herb and I are not big shoppers, so we skipped the afternoon excursion to Sankampang Street to see demonstrations on how silk, lacquer, silver, wood and bronze handicrafts are made. It was 95 degrees and humid, so instead we got a 2-pack of Chang beer at the 7-Eleven and hung out at the pool.

That evening we were on our own again for dinner, and not feeling terribly creative or adventurous, we went back to Lemongrass, had the same dinner as the night before, and then walked through the night bazaar. I think with all the new and changing stimuli, we needed some sense of routine.

Day 3 - Wat Suan Dok, Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep, visit to a local jade factory, authentic Thai dinner in a local Chiang Mai family’s home

Wat Suan DokWat Suan DokThis was it: the Gate1 finale - our last day of the tour. It was hard to believe it was almost over. It was even harder to believe how much we had seen and experienced in 11 days. It felt like we had been away from home for a month.

Our first stop of the day was the Wat Suan Dok, a 14th century temple of great significance, because it houses a very sacred Buddha relic - a bone believed to be from the shoulder of the Buddha. This sacred relic is enshrined in a large golden chedi (pagoda), surrounded by numerous white chedis that contain the ashes of several generations of the Chiang Mai royal family.

As legend has it, a monk named Sumana Thera from Sukhothai found the shoulder bone and brought it to King Kuene who ruled the Lanna Kingdom in the north (what is today Chiang Mai). When the monk arrived, the bone magically split in two. The smaller piece was enshrined in the Wat Suan Dok, but the king had the larger piece put on the back of a white elephant which was set free to wander wherever it wanted. The elephant chose to take the high road and wandered to the top of Doi Suthep mountain, where it was said to have trumpeted three times and then died.

Ordination of young monks at Wat Suan DokOrdination of young monks at Wat Suan DokTaking that a divine sign, the King had a Wat built on top of the mountain to house the relic, on the very spot where the elephant had collapsed. Later today we would be following in the footsteps of that elephant to visit the famous Wat Phra That Doi Suthep.

Before leaving the Wat Suan Dok thought, we did have the opportunity to watch an ordination ceremony for young monks in the ordination hall. Just like a graduation ceremony in the states, the hall was filled with proud parents and grandparents celebrating this important milestone in a young Thai boy’s life.

Then it was on to our very last temple on our Gate1 tour, the The Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, one of northern Thailand’s most sacred temples and a beautiful example of northern Thai architecture.

Wat Phrathat Doi SuthepWat Phrathat Doi SuthepFortunately, unlike the poor elephant that had to trudge up Doi Suthep with the Buddha’s shoulder bone strapped to his back, we got to ride up the steep hill in an air conditioned bus.

When reading about this temple beforehand, I was excited to see that there was a long 306-step staircase to reach the temple complex. Finally, some physical activity I thought - something greatly lacking on a guided tour. However, to my dismay, Udom herded us onto an elevator instead, which scooted us effortlessly to the temple complex on top.

From the outer terrace which was dotted with shrines and monuments, including one of the white elephant that carried the Buddha relic, we passed a lizard-like guardian dragon and entered an inner terrace and followed a walkway that circumnavigated a 79-foot tall golden chedi, within which was the Buddha’s shoulder bone.

Inner Terrace of Wat Phrathat Doi SuthepInner Terrace of Wat Phrathat Doi SuthepIt was quite crowded with people stopping to leave lotus blossoms and other offerings at various shrines along the way. Each of the shrines had a Buddha statue with a particular pose and hand gesture. Each pose represents a day of the week, and you are supposed to pay respect to the statue representing the day you were born - something I learned on our brief visit into Myanmar, except that I later found out I making offerings to the Saturday Buddha when I should have been giving my lotus blossoms to the Thursday Buddha.

Based on what we had learned about the Buddha, I’m not sure how much he really cared about my offerings. Herb and I couldn’t help questioning whether this is what he really wanted from his followers. He clearly stated that he did not want to be worshiped and that one should shun the accumulation of material things as a way of seeking happiness. Yet here we were surrounded with glittery gold statues and buildings and people leaving offerings and bowing down before his image, as if he were a god. We would have to ask Udom how the Thai people reconcile this seeming paradox.

Monks about to earn Buddhist merits by climbing stairs to templeMonks about to earn Buddhist merits by climbing stairs to templeWe had some extra time, so I suggested to Herb that we go down the 306-step staircase, so that we could walk back up it like we should have in the first place. Ascending these steps is a way of gaining Buddhist merit. Herb thought it was kind of silly, but he knew better than to try to dissuade me on this.

The balustrade of the staircase was a beautiful tiled mosaic water serpent (“naga”) that ran along its entire length. Besides representing a bridge between the earth and the sky, a naga is a sacred being believed to bring good luck.

So down we went, passing many monks on their way up, earning their merit points. Once at the bottom, we turned around and started back up again. I don’t think you get merit for just descending.

Along the way, there were little girls dressed in traditional Thai costumes. I stopped to take a photo of one really adorable one, who immediately held out her hand and said “money,” an English word that the children of Thailand have seemed to master.

Another favorite little Thai girlAnother favorite little Thai girlOnce we had completed the folly of going down stairs, just so we could go up them, and then down them again, we met up with the rest of our tour group who had more sensibly taken the elevator down. They might have thought we were crazy, but we had earned Buddhist merit points and naga good luck.

Once that Udom had us all gathered together again, we walked a short distance down the road to Orchid Jade, a jade factory where he had arranged for us to have a tour. From the moment we were offered fancy cookies and coffee, I knew this was not going to be a tacky gift shop. The jewelry and figurines were absolutely beautiful. My particular favorites were the carved elephants, but even the tiny ones were over $100. I looked at this stop as more of a museum visit than a shopping trip.

That evening, for our closing event, we gathered together at a local Chiang Mai family’s home to have an authentic Thai dinner. Herb and I wondered how they were going to accommodate such a large group, but when the bus pulled up in front of their beautiful teak home, we knew it would not be a problem.

Our fellow travelers at our final dinner togetherOur fellow travelers at our final dinner togetherOur hosts were lovely. They spoke English perfectly. The son, who was now in his late 20s had gone to high school in Los Angeles, so he very much knew all the idioms and expressions that a typical American teenager would. Many children of wealthy Thai families go to high school in the United States. They were quite affluent and well connected it seemed, as there were photos of them with the royal family.

The food was delicious and the tour of their home afterwards was quite interesting. They even gave us some home-made curry paste to take home.

It was a lovely way to conclude our time together.

Chiang Mai location map in "high definition"

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