Following my own advice, I set out first thing in the morning on a bicycle which I've already said is the best way to see the most of your new city, get your barrings and get a little bit of exercise. I rode around for a few hours stopping at a couple different tour booking places to check out some options for the next few days. With enough info gathered to make a decision, I stopped for lunch and made a plan.
First up - Baan Chen Elephant Park. What a great day this was. The park is run by a man who loves his elephants (he has 12) and wanted a place to teach people about them, give them an incredible experience by being able to interact with them and do it all without exploiting the animals or using them for "entertainment".
Throughout the day we fed them, learned what it meant to be a "mahout" and develop a relationship with them, what it takes to take care of them and a few basic elephant commands. We did get to ride them, but it was bareback without a nasty iron seat most commonly used for tourist elephant rides. The owner of the park who was with us most of the day explained the riding was short and just long enough to give them some decent exercise. We rode about 25 mins up to a clearing in the jungle were we got off and talked more about elephants with our guide while the big guys rested and the babies rolled around in the dirt. It was really fun to watch and see so close up. When we were ready to go back, we jumped back on their necks and backs and rode back to camp and directly into the watering hole where we were required to scrub down our new friends as a way to say "thank you" for their work with us.
I was reluctant at first to jump into the pond. It wasn't being with the elephants that caused concern, it was the dung and elephant piss I wasn't interested in swimming with. However, I wasn't given much of a choice and in I went.
This probably ranked up there as one of the most memorable parts of my traveling. Swimming around, up, over and on top of a giant elephant, scrubbing them down and seeing how they enjoyed it as much as we did was pretty cool. The baby elephants swam over and played with us. They sprayed us with water from their trunks and jumped over mum, head butting and pawing at her as we all played together. Pretty amazing, even with the dung.
One of the other most memorable experiences was a visit to see the Karen tribe or "long necks". Unfortunately this was memorable for all the wrong reasons.
Having done some hill tribe treks and visiting villages in Sapa I made the assumption that this was going to be similar. I booked it through my hotel and as it was explained, we would be visiting a large village which was home to 5 different tribes including the "long necks". This was actually the only village where you could see the long necks unless you went way far north to the boarder of Burma where their main village is. So this sounds perfect to me, a trek, 5 villages/tribes, the long necks. Perfect.
Well, when we arrived to this village there was no need to trek anywhere. This village of 5 tribes was more like a zoo. It was a make shift village built for the purpose of tourism. Ethnic tribes (or members of) come from their homelands to live in this living museum to sit on display for tourist. They have homes here, but many of them probably drive in everyday from the looks of all the pick up trucks in the parking lot. They make a living off what we purchase of their crafts and possibly a small salary from the larger operation.
Feeling pretty cheated by my hotel on this crap tour, things went from bad to worse.
We approached a gated village (as opposed to the wide open ones we just walked through) and read the sign at the entrance. This was the long neck village. The sign explained that the occupants of this village were granted a "work" visa by Thai immigration, but are not granted citizenship and are considered aliens by the Thai government. 16 woman and their husbands (and some have had children here) were allowed entry to the country for the purpose of working in this village but were not allowed to leave unless applying for, and being granted permission by immigration officials.
Basically, these people were brought here to this make shift village to sit on their door steps and have tourist take photos of them. The village is about 50 meters long and as wide as a one car width road with huts lining each side. They will be arrested and deported back to Burma if they leave this area.
Burma is a horrible place and many of the Karen tribe escape Burma and take refuge in a camp on the Thai side of the boarder (which explains the "main village near the boarder" explained to me earlier). In short, we were walking around a concentration camp for women seeking escape from either a corrupt and violent Burma, or refugee camp alternative.
The feeling of being cheated on a crap tour quickly turned to a dirty greasy, guilty feeling of being a part of this. The feeling was mutual throughout the 5 of us in the group and we silently hung our heads while we walked away. We felt like like terrible tourist. We made some purchases of their crafts hoping that the money would eventually help them out of this situation, but I could only take a few photos before it just wasn't right and I couldn't take anymore. Not knowing what to do or say, we just left.
That pretty much put a damper on the rest of the day and it never really got much better.
Besides the strange long neck experience, Chiang Mai has been amazing. I did a Thai cooking class, went to the night bazaar, had a facial, foot massages, Thai massage and endless great Pad Tai. I know that sounds like a lot of massages, but at $6 an hour, it would be a crime not to. Last night, although I think she made a mistake, I had a 1 hour foot massage followed by a 1 hour Thai massage for a total of 170 baht. That's just about $6.
Speaking of which, last night walking home from my massage, it was about 10pm, and although much of the shops and things had closed up for the night, there was still action in the streets. I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me and I cursed myself swearing I would never leave the house without my glasses ever again, but they weren't playing tricks, there actually was an elephant walking down the sidewalk towards me. He was following a boy. Of course. I seemed to be the only one who cared or even looked up.
Today I leave for Koh Samui and in one week I head home. I'm ready for home now. I miss Anthony and think I would just have more fun if he was here with me. We'll have to come back again next year. Two weeks isn't long enough anyhow.
More photos of Chiang Mai here: