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November 5, 2010

Elephants, Tigers & Snakes . . . Chiang Mai!

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.

Bamboo rafting Chiang MaiThe 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.

Tiger Kigdom, Chiang Mai

November 2, 2010

A Crash Course — 24 Hours in Bangkok

Notes from a bleary-eyed traveler just trying to capture the essence  . . . maybe one day it’ll get re-written to make more sense, but for now, notes from the road. . .

Flying into Bangkok, it seemed we’d been traveling for days.  We’d completely lost Monday . . . never really sure what happens to a day lost to the dateline, nor could I determine with any accuracy how long we’d been travelling.  But we had arrived.  Grateful that the driver stood at baggage claim to shuttle us to the hotel, I finally began to unwind as he raced through the midnight freeways.  Bright signs, intersecting spaghetti-bowl highways, outcroppings of skyscrapers, industry and emerging development, all tossed together in a mish-mash of exotic landscape barely distinguishable through my exhausted lens.  Tomorrow.  We’ll figure it out tomorrow.

Bangkok awakens on the river.  The sun glistened off the water as barges, long-boats, ferries, and water taxis slowly overtook their channels, looking like toy boats from our 27th floor perch.  The haze – the west’s iconic image of Asia – hung over the city . . . yet somehow didn’t seem as horrific as I’d imagined.

Amidst the markets, the wats (temples) the tuk-tuks, and the scammers eager to cash in on western tourism dollars, we wandered.  It wasn’t yet 10AM and at least three different drivers had attempted to lure us into their ride, telling us that it’s a Monk holiday and the temples are closed.  Thank you, Lonely Planet, for sparing us the scam.  Don’t these guys read the same guides and figure out a new angle?

Kao San Road – backpacker mecca – I had to see it, even if Dundee and Sacagawea are the only two children visible in any direction.  It’s Dundee’s sense of direction that navigated through the maze of food vendors, exotic smells, and market carts hawking all manner of merchandise.  Like kids in a candy shop, we found the perfect dive for spring rolls, pad thai, chicken satay, even a grilled cheese, and a beer.  For under $15.  I’m starting to get it.

What’s up with all the 7-11s?  It’s like ABC stores in Waikiki.  Where’d the notion come from that convenience stores should be the anchor corner store in every destination around the globe?

The famous Reclining Buddha…insanely massive!  The sound of the coins jingling as they are dropped into the alms bowls resonates through the building.  The ones on the end seem to lose out.  Note to self…ration at the front end to have ample for the last bowls.  Good life lesson, I guess.

Grand Palace…finding the entrance a challenge in itself.  Then Dundee needed long pants…great local experience trading out Baht for acceptable clothing then turning it back in once we’re ready to move on.  Emerald Buddha…actually made of jade.  Go figure.  Smell of incense, the sound of people slowly padding into the temple to pay their respects.  The brilliance of the glittering columns, monuments and frescoes.  It’s a visual feast.

Less than 24 hours into Asia, and we’ve found our legs in Bangkok.  Hopping on/off the ferries, winding through the maze of markets on back streets, learning to navigate a new city, a new culture, a new land.  Like riding a bike, it all comes flooding back.  This is why we travel.  Let the adventures begin.