Friday, April 17, 2015 - Our five days in Chaing Mai, Thailand were very wet, considering that our visit coincided with the Thai New Year (Songkran) that extended from Sunday through Wednesday. Apparently there is a custom that water can wash away bad luck and make space for the good luck of the New Year, so let me tell you, the Thai people wash away with a vengeance! Regardless if you were walking, driving a motor scooter, or riding in an open three wheel cab (“tuktuk”), you could be expect to be doused with ice cold water as you pass by shops or street corners. This was fun the first two days, but eventually by the fourth day, it was a bit tiring to be drenched before dinner, going on a tour, or trying to get dry laundry back to the hotel. But at least now, we should have plenty of good luck! Chiang Mai is a smaller city (170,000 population) northeast of the huge Bangkok and is considered the gateway to northern mountainous Thailand and home to the “hill people tribe”. For many years these tribes made their livelihood growing beautiful fields of poppies that of course were harvested for opium. Now, fortunately the villagers are converting their fields to coffee for sale to Starbucks. Much more sustainable! In addition to the many Buddhist temples we visited, the incredible street fairs and markets, and friendly Thai people, the highlight of our Chiang Mai visit was a daylong trip to a local elephant sanctuary, Baanchang Elephant Camp. The camp rescues elephants that are no longer needed in the timber industry or are being mistreated as tourist attractions, so they can live in a more comfortable and natural setting. At this camp we learned about the biology of the animals, fed them bananas and sugarcane, rode bareback around a short jungle path, and finally, slipped into a muddy pond to wash and scrub their backs. These are incredible creatures with brains and intelligence on par with our relatives the subhuman primates, complex family units, massive strength, but yet are very sensitive and easily frightened. The female elephant that Cindy rode was quite mischievous, and sprayed Cindy and her riding partner frequently on the trail ride. This would be no big problem, but considering the “spray” was partially regurgitated stomach fluid, Cindy was doing of lot of ducking and wiping. This same elephant took it upon herself to give all of us a good dousing with pond water after the elephant baths - guess she was just celebrating Songkran.
This is one example of a Buddhist temple that we visited, notice the lack of shoes and all toes hidden from Buddha. The Thai people have highest regard for the head (don't ever pat their head) and disdain for the feet, so you toes should never be pointed to Buddha. There were literally hundreds of these temples in Chaing Mai and in the adjacent countryside, all populated by orange tunic clad monks that accept all offerings and also openly beg in the early morning hours for their food and substinence.
The street fairs and food carts in Chaing Mai for the New Year crowds were marvelous. Here is a typical offering of sushi, sashimi, and seafood delicacies. Food prices were very cheap, with an individual sushi only 5 baht, equivalent to 15 cents American! Pretty easy to eat well for $1 - $2 dollars per meal.
Annabelle tried out a new fashion look with the help of these ladies of the Long Neck Karen Tribe. For full disclosure, we did not visit any real Hill Tribe villages in the mountains north of Chiang Mai, but we visited a fabricated village outside of town that demonstrated how many of the tribes lived in the mountains. These brass collars were incredibly heaven and extra coils were added every year of life to stretch the next just a little farther, in addition to the brass coils they also wore around their lower legs. Attractive, don't you think?
These children are armed and dangerous, squirting every passerby with New Year's water as part of the Songkran celebration. We were fortunate to visit this small United Methodist Mission orphanage for HIV positive young girls that was started 5 years ago by a couple from southern California. HIV is a pressing problem in Thai society aggravated by the very active sex trade, fueled by the booming tourist traffic. These girls have no parents and came here after being selected by officials of the public orphanage where they were. Thai people adore children but there is a special challenge for orphans with HIV infection, due to the stigma of the disease.