Maybe it’s the retro-techno-remix of Gloria Gaynor blasting on the car stereo, the truckload of pigs oinking at us through the bars, or the wild mix of mopeds, tuk-tuks, rattletrap trucks and cars blasting through Bosang. Or maybe it’s Udon, our local driver and new best friend. One thing’s for sure . . . Thailand’s shaping up to be a wild ride.
Recently dubbed one of Lonely Planet’s “must see” spots of 2011, Chiang Mai is one of those destinations that people get all dreamy-eyed about. A mix of old world Thai culture, hill tribes still living off the land, an ancient city (still surrounded by the moat), and a modern influx of music, opportunity and buzz.
Udon’s plans for the day include all things wild and woolly. Having read Roland Smith’s classic, Elephant Run , experiencing these great creatures up-close-and-personal was a must. Our challenge — find a spot where the elephants are loved and cherished, not exploited for the sake of tourism. It’s a fine line, we’re learning, with much of what draws visitors to this part of the world. At Maesa Elephant Camp outside of Chaing Mai, we came close. There’s something awe-inspiring to climb aboard an elephant and trek through the jungle, watching the close bond between the mahout and his elephant. We fed them bananas and sugercane, giggled at their antics spewing us with water and mud, and marveled at their strength, soulful eyes, and mischievous trunks that seemed to sneak up and over our shoulders every time we got close. I was reminded of the saying on the lodge wall in Fraser Island, Australia. I always botch it a bit, but it goes something like this: We understand what we study; we cherish what we understand; we preserve what we cherish.
The rest of our day was spent floating down the river on a bamboo raft, cuddling baby tigers at Tiger Kingdom, and keeping our feet high off the floor as snakemen danced with King Cobras and other slippery snakes. Yep, it’s a jungle out there, both in the rice paddies and mountains of rural Thailand, and among the local vendors eager to lure tourists into their snare. We took the bait, and after some soul-searching, concluded the folks at Fraser Island are right.