Chiang Mai: Temples and Elephants

Temples – or Wat, as they are called in Thai – and elephants are two of the things Thailand is most known for. Both are authentic and integral parts of life in Thailand, past and present, and at the same time heavily marketed tourist attractions. We experienced some of the resulting paradoxes on our second and third day in Chiang Mai.

As usual, the day began with culinary exploration: In search of a brunch spot, we stumbled on a semi-formal restaurant that was packed, mostly with Thai families. A good sign! The menu revealed that they specialized in northern Thai dishes and we excitedly ordered two things we’d never tried before: a pomelo salad – similar to the well-known papaya salad but with the zesty freshness of pomelo, a large tropical citrus fruit – and an entree of stewed baby eggplants in a hot chillie sauce.

Thus fortified, and after completing some admin at a local cat cafe (yes, these are very popular: a herd of scrawny felines on long leashes roam around pet-deprived cafe customers desperate for furry cuddles. To our disappointment, the cats seem generally jaded and unimpressed by the humans’ cooing offers of affection) we hopped on/into our loaner tuk tuk and headed out of the city in the afternoon for some wat-hopping.

As our valiant ride struggled up the steep slope of the four-lane road leading through the woods up Doi Suthep mountain, scooter drivers’ heads turned. Who was that farang lady who’d managed to hire her own privat tuk tuk, Thai driver and all?! What a breath of fresh air, literally, to get out of city and into this forest park that ascends to 1,050 m, where from the trees rise golden Buddhas and a Dragon-flanked stairway leading into the large hill-top temple complex of Wat Phra Doi Suthep.

The view of the city below is wonderful and we’ve intentionally arrived just before sunset to catch the best light. After circling the outer courtyard we venture into the inner sanctum, a square courtyard ringed in Buddha statues, murals, and nooks that hold devotional offerings of candles and flowers. In the center rises a spectacular gold-plated spire in the typical Thai style, whose facade is set ablaze by the last rays of the setting sun. Worshipers and tourists circle the spire. Which is which or whether that distinction even makes sense I can’t say as I observe foreigners and Thai-looking visitors alike pose for one portrait shot after another, hands demonstratively joined as if in prayer just for the photo. Ah, what irony: capturing a selfie – the ultimate expression of 21st century vanity – seems to be most visitors’ main objective as they stand in the heart of a place founded on the very premise of the ego being an illusion.

We hear chanting and peek into the worship hall. Monks in orange robes are seated on a raised platform to the left, as well as mingled with a few foreigners sitting on the ground, facing the giant Buddha statue. A nun with shaved head, clad in white, is just arriving at the door, chanting book in hand. She gives me a warm smile as she passes me, steps inside, and joins the few other nuns who are all sitting on the ground and at the back of the hall. The chanting reverberates around the hall and floats into the courtyard, giving life to the rich tapestry of statues and treasures which I otherwise might have viewed as mere relics of history. I wonder what the monks and nuns, in their unwavering composure and devotion, think of practicing their faith right under the eyes and lenses of a daily wave of tourists who hardly see below the surface of these rituals. I am drawn into the hypnotic effect of the chanting and focus on one middle-aged monk sitting towards the back of the raised area, holding up his booklet of chants as he sings. When one chant ends, he lays the book aside, whips out his phone – whose screen I can see clearly – and begins to scroll through close-up shots of plates of food. He zooms in on the most delicious looking dishes, then scrolls down to the next. I cannot believe my eyes. I look at Jonathan and silently point to the monk’s phone. While all the other visitors are sunken in solemn observation of the sacred ritual, I have to press my hand to my mouth to stop myself from bursting out in giggles. So much for the Buddhist commitment to overcome craving. I guess being a monk might be just another job for some.

Elephant kisses

The next morning, we get picked up at 8 a.m. for a day-tour to visit an elephant sanctuary, hike to a waterfall, and do river rafting. Due to the general decline in tourism we are joined by just three other travelers: a Spaniard and two Irish blokes who all know each other. Our local tour guide introduces himself as “JK”, as in “just kidding”, he jokes. And no doubt he is – his Thai name has probably been deemed to difficult for foreigners to wrap their tongues around. After an hour we arrive at the elephant sanctuary. There seems to be an inordinate number of these in Northern Thailand, each home to just a hand-full of elephants. In just the past few years, elephant tours in Thailand have overwhelmingly changed their concept from riding elephants to taking care of them. Tourists and tour companies alike have been sensitized and “no chains, no riding” is now emphasized in most of the tour descriptions we read. JK assures us that the six elephants we will meet today have indeed all been rescued from harsh labor in the logging industry where an accident or illness would have meant a death sentence.

I’ve been fortunate enough to see quite a few of the larger African elephants up close on safaries in South Africa, Botswana and Namibia. And I did ride on an elephant when I traveled to Sri Lanka, before I was aware of the harsh handling and potential skeletal injuries that can occur in these settings. But no matter how many elephants I’ve seen in the wild, these astonishingly large yet sensitive and intelligent creatures always hold a special place in my heart and I couldn’t pass up the chance to interact with them up close. The first order of the day is for us to change into t-shirts and shorts that we don’t mind getting wet and dirty, for feeding and bathing the ellies is on the agenda. We then learn about elephant nutrition as we hack pumpkins into small chunks and pile them into wicker baskets each of us will sling over our shoulder. For dessert, power balls made of tamarind, banana, corn, sticky rice and salt are on the menu. After a short lesson in elephant handler vocab, we enter the corral where one fully grown specimen and one baby are waiting to be fed. When we say “bon bon”, they know to open their mouths and let us gently pop a piece of pumpkin onto their giant tongues. Often, though, they seem to prefer scooping the food directly out of our hands with their astonishingly strong trunks. When a successful food transaction has been completed, we reinforce our positive bond by vigorously petting the elephants’ thick hide and cooing “dee dee” (something like “good girl/good boy”). Two other, even larger, elephants wait patiently in an adjoining pen until we begin feeding them, too, over the fence.

Baby Jasmin is, of course, the star. She acts just like any kid: moving around much more than the grown-ups, sneakily trying to steal pumpkin pieces directly from our baskets. When we are almost done with feeding, JK tells me to sit on a wooden block in the middle of the corral. One of the elephant care-takers brings Jasmin over to stand directly in front of me. He tells me to make a certain gesture, upon which Jasmin wraps her trunk around my waist in a giant gentle hug. The handler then says, “Jasmin – jup jup!” and Jasmin plants a big, fat, sucking elephant kiss on my neck with the lips of her trunk. It is a slightly alarming sensation but the gesture is of course delightful. After lunch, we head over to the nearby river where we are joined by two of the adult elephants and their care-takers. Equipped with brushes and small buckets we go to work cleaning our giant friends. Daily water (followed by dust) baths are necessary to protect the elephants’ skin from insects. No one stays dry, of course. It’s not long until a trunk-full of water is gleefully spurted right onto my head.

We wrap up our tour with a hilarious “white water rafting” trip down a river so depleted by the dry season that we have to wriggle and push our way through the rocks whenever we hit a mini rapid. Nevertheless, we all have fun and especially enjoy observing the locals who are lazing away their Sunday afternoon bathing, picnicking, drinking, fishing and socializing by the river. Kids splash us whenever our boats drift close enough.

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