Leaving Chiang Mai

This is my final report from the northern frontier in the small city of Chiang Mai (actually, it’s a rather large city, at least by Prince Edward Island standards). I’m sitting here in the air conditioned comfort of Cafe Internet, listening to a combination of the roar of tuk tuks and other traffic and some sort of steamy Thai soap opera in the background.

When we first thought of coming to Chiang Mai I was afraid it would be like Hamilton to Bangkok’s Toronto — a “junior city” with nothing in particular to recommend it (I grew up near Hamilton; it’s a nice place, but why would you ever want to visit?).

I need not have feared: Chiang Mai has a character all its own. Because it is built around an historic “old city” (still surrounded by a moat, and remnants of the old walls), it has an indentifiable downtown area, which gives it the sort of focus that you can’t find in sprawling Bangkok. You can actually walk around to tour Chiang Mai (although with the heat and the pollution, we’ve tried to avoid this) as everything is relatively close together.

For some odd reason, the government here in Chiang Mai decided to do away with public transit at some point in the recent future; the result is fleet of tuk tuks (three-wheeled LPG-fired motorcycles with a bench seat and roof) and pickup truck cum taxis, with bench seats on either side of the bed, and a roof overhead. The result is a lot of noise, a lot of pollution (not quite on Bangkok levels, yet), but also the ability to get anywhere, anytime, for about a dollar or less. Of course travelling in the back of an open pickup truck with motorcycles weaving in and around and the odd giant Japanese tour bus looming large is somewhat more frantic an experience than taking the TTC, but it works.

The night market in the city (literally a market that opens around 4:00 p.m. every night the length of the next street over from here) is the focus for a lot of traveller services: there are travel agents, tour companies, coffee shops, and so on, scattered all over the place. There’s even a giant artificial rock climbing wall. It’s not genuine Thai, but then again it’s hard to identify what that means anyway.

At the other end of the alley from our Guest House is a small travel/tour agency that we’ve used twice this week. The first time was yesterday on our tour of the crafts strip; today we used them again for a trip up into the mountains for the “Elephants at Work” tour. This was a straight-ahead touristic experience (this is a common adjective in tourist-oriented publications here, usually used in the negative sense, like “must less touristic,” when a tour costs more). We drove 45 minutes north of the city to the elephant grounds, which were actually quite amazing: just the sort of “lush tropical paradise” you would imagine to find in Thailand.

We arrived just before the crush of other tourists, and thus were able to go immediately to the elephant riding area, and additional cost, but one we felt obligated to bear given possible later scorn from Oliver of the “you took me all the way to see the elephants and didn’t let me ride one?”. Riding an elephant — a first for all three of us — was considerably more thrilling than we thought (my adjective: Catherine might use “terrifying”). We were up and down the side of the mountain, through a rushing stream, and back to base; took about 30 minutes. We were perched behind the driver in a little gondola that was strapped to the elephant’s back.

It was only mid-elephant-ride that we realized that we’d forgotten to pack extra film, so the experience won’t be well documented: we only had six snaps left on the camera. It will live on in our minds, however (no doubt Oliver will have dramatic elephants dreams until he’s 29).

After the thrill ride there was an interesting, although somewhat too circus-like “elephants at work” show, which nonetheless did impress for the sheer flexibility of the animals.

Post-elephant we stopped at an orchid and butterfly farm on our way down the mountain, and then back to town for a rest.

This afternoon Catherine and Oliver hired a car to take them out to another hill tribe craft coop while I wandered around town, checked email, read the paper and generally enjoyed some time alone.

Once it got dark, we hailed a tuk tuk and headed way, way across town (I know it was way, way across town as this was the negotiating tactic used by the tuk tuk driver to get me from 30 baht to 50 baht — roughly 1 dollar to about $1.50) to visit the Central Department Store, the only place we’ve seen diapers in quantities larger than the 4-packs you can buy at 7-11 (which is a hugh chain here; they even have a mail order catalogue where you can buy fridges and lawnmowers). The ride back was a much steeper 80 baht (about 4 dollars), but it’s hard to argue when you’re way, way across town!

Tomorrow we’re up early to take the train to Phitsanulok, a city midway between here and Bangkok. We’ll overnight there, or nearby, perhaps visit some ruins at Sukhothai, and then back to Bangkok on Sunday for a last couple of days before heading back to Canada on Wednesday.