Chiang Mai – Elephants
Mark has told me all about the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre in Lampang, having visited it years ago. It’s a couple of hours away from Chiang Mai, so we woke at 6am to go and find a bus. We got out there around 10am. Elephants and their mahouts, or handlers, were utilised throughout this region for centuries for warfare, royal ceremonial occasions, and for providing power for work.
The mahout will begin working with a single elephant while both are at a young age, and will work only with that elephant. They build a strong relationship, and the elephant will obey the mahout’s every command. However, the practical need for elephant power to move and haul logs in the forests has shrunk with the loss of forests and the increase in the use of machines. This means that these relationships are sadly dying out.
The conservation centre aims to provide the last home for Thai Elephants in Thailand while providing free medical treatment to sick elephants. There are over fifty elephants under care by their mahouts and vets. I was happy to be contributing to this by paying for entry and buying souvenirs and food, but mainly, I wanted to see baby elephants!
When we entered the park, we could see elephants in the distance. Then we realised that we could walk up quite close to the stables. There they all were, flapping their ears, waving their tales, munching away on bamboo. They eat a lot. They also poo a lot. I was busily taking pictures of one with her mahout climbing out of the bathing pool, when it stopped. I thought the mahout was getting it to stop for us to take pictures. I wondered why he was looking at the elephant’s bottom so much. Then the tail lifted and all was revealed. I’ll leave that one off the website.
After this lovely interlude, we went up to the main arena to watch the elephant show. They’re so clever! There were I think twelve altogether, and there was one baby! She had a little red flower in her, urm, hair. So cute! They all greet you in their own individual way and then they show you how they manoeuvre logs around, either by pushing with their trunks for the small ones, or lifting them between their trunks and tusks for the big ones. They then go on to perform a variety of tricks.
One elephant in particular was astounding. She’s been trained so well that the mahout doesn’t even have to ride on her back to command her as the others did, she responds to voice commands alone. The best example of this was her having to pick up her mahout’s hat from the ground with her trunk, then carry it across to him and gently place it on his head. It made me think that if you were making a ghost movie, this could be possibly the least cost effective way of CGI-ing a hat floating across to someones head – or any other kinds of inanimate objects moving spookily around the room. I took a video of this which is posted in the video gallery if you would like to see these amazing feats.
The next highlight was three of the elephants painting. I really don’t know how they train them to do this. At first it looked like indeterminable blobs. But annoyingly, when they had finished, they were better works of art than I could ever produce. And the most amazing thing was that two of them were portraits of elephants, one of them clearly a self-portrait painted by the baby with the flower in her hair, and she even painted the little flower. Ahhhhhh. The other one was a lovely landscape of jungle trees. I also took a video of this. I’m going a little animal crazy with the videos, but don’t worry, I haven’t got any illusions that I am the new David Attenborough. Be contented that at least I haven’t done a voiceover.
After the show was finished, we went on an elephant ride. You stand on the elephant’s back to get into the seat, and for one foolish moment I was worried that I would hurt him But when I got in the seat, I was more afraid that I would fall out the side and hurt myself. It’s quite indescribable, the feeling as you’re lumbering along. It’s not very fast, and you sway from side to side quite alarmingly, but if you can imagine that you’re an ancient King, Queen or warrior who would have travelled in this way, then it’s amazing.
Chiang Mai – Cooking, Lanterns and Trains
We headed back to Chiang Mai in the early afternoon as we had a Thai cooking course to get to, booked with Asia Scenic. I highly recommend them. We both like to dabble a little in cooking, but it’s always good to have someone show you where you are going hopelessly wrong. And it turned out that the tutor we had was the right man for the job. His name was A. He was a tiny little Thai man, I’d say around mid-twenties in age, but what he lacked in height, he made up for in personality. If he wasn’t gay, then he was the campest straight man I ever met. And he was really bitchy! But also extremely funny. He advocates that cooking must be mostly about the imagination, and above all, must be sexy! Sexy meaning hot, hot, hot!
He had a way of looking at you as if to say “I’ve given you all the ingredients and instructions… how have you managed to make it taste like this??” He also said to each of us at least once “Do you like how that tastes?”, as if no-one possibly could. We even offered to share our endeavours with him at the end of the class, and his reply was an emphatic “No, your food is not to my taste.”
The class started with us all choosing the menus we wanted to cook. Our group decided to cook soups, stir fry, and it’s mandatory to make a curry paste and cook a curry. I chose Tom Yum soup, Pad See Uw stir fry, Massaman curry paste and Massaman curry. Mark chose Tom Yum soup, Pad Thai stir fry, Khaw Soi curry paste and Khaw Soi curry. We were in a really fun group with lots of teasing about our (lack of) cooking ability, and lots of laughter.
We were given a tour through their vegetable and herb garden, to identify the different Thai ingredients that we would be using, and we were then taken on a walk to a nearby fruit and vegetable market, where we were shown more of the foods that are used in traditional Thai cooking. Thai cooking is something that’s very important to every individual in Thailand. Everyone is bought up being taught how to cook by their elders. Meal times are family affairs, where everybody sits down to enjoy the fresh, beautifully flavoured food, and talk about their days.
After the market it was back to the cookery school to enjoy a quick snack called Meang Kum. This is a selection of food on a plate that you wrap up in betel-leaves and pop in your mouth. You have sliced lime, chillies, shallots, gingers, roasted peanuts, toasted coconut and a sweet syrup. It was absolutely delicious, like an explosion of flavours in your mouth.
Then it was on to the cooking. A gave each of us our ingredients, instructed us how to crush or cut them up, then showed us how to cook everything. Then it was our turn. It seemed to be going OK for everyone, right up to the tasting part. I agree with A, I have no idea how I didn’t manage to bring out all the flavours I had in each of my dishes. But I’m sure practise will make perfect. Making the curry paste was the most arduous task, as you bash up everything with a pestl and mortar until it’s a smooth paste. This is quite difficult when you’re trying to bash up among other things onions, chillies and seeds. In the end we all had to take it in turns. I kept handing the job over to the men – they have more muscle power than me.
Once we had cooked everything we could all sit down to enjoy our hard work. And although I think mine could have had a bit more flavour, overall I was really pleased with how it turned out. It was also really nice to do a group activity where everyone is enthusiastic and willing to help each other out. Marks’ Pad Thai was fantastic. I think he’ll have to become the chief cook in our house.
Once the class finished, we took a walk down to Tha Pae Gate, one of the gates in the old city walls that provides access across the moat in to and out of the old city. We were in Chiang Mai just at the start of Loi Krathong, the festival of lights. This takes place on the evening of the full moon of the 12th month in the traditional Thai lunar calendar. In the western calendar this usually falls in November. The festival was founded to honour the original Buddha. We were unfortunately going to miss the culmination of the celebrations. People make a little raft from banana leaves, containing food, betel nuts, flowers, incense, candles and coins, and float them down the river as part of this ceremony. This act encourages people to let go of grudges and negative energy.
This festival also coincides with Yi Peng. Yi Peng festivities are the lighting of paper lanterns and the release of them up into the night sky. Over the course of our stay in Chiang Mai we had seen these lanterns going up in the air. Sometimes there were only a few, but other times there were hundreds of them going up all around the city. It’s such a beautiful sight. When you release your lantern, you can make a wish (but make sure you keep it a secret else it won’t come true). Having seen so many of them, we decided it was our turn. It’s not as easy as it looks. Our first attempt was let go too early, so floated down to the pavement and skittered along like a paper R2-D2, almost heading into heavy traffic. We managed to rescue it and once the heat had built up fully, we released it again, upwards this time. The second one headed towards some tuk tuks parked nearby, to the owners cries of alarm. Again, we managed to rescue it and send it on its way. The third one was just right. We were very proud.
We headed home to pack and prepare for leaving Chiang Mai. I was very sad to leave. It’s a very beautiful city with friendly people, the weather had been very kind to us, and I really didn’t want to leave behind the peaceful feeling it invokes to head to busy Bangkok. We got up the next day for a couple of errands before we headed to the train station. I finally bought a padded bag for the ukulele, to insure it against unnecessary damage. This should also enable me to carry it around a bit more freely to get more travelling ukulele shots. We also went to have a massage, which was fantastic. The positions they pull you into seem impossible, but you do feel the benefits. The two ladies massaging us were chatting to each other in Thai, and Mark and I wondered what they were talking about. Were they saying “I need to buy some chicken for dinner tonight”, or was it “Blimey, these westerners are really knotted up!”
I was excited that we were getting on a sleeper train to Bangkok. It was really modern, spacious and comfortable. The only slight concern was that I chose the top bunk, and you have to be seat belted in to make sure you don’t fall out in the middle of the night. And I did keep getting stuck in between the sliding doors between the carriages. I must be too thin for the sensors to register me. There was a restaurant car, and the waitress had the funniest facial expressions that made me laugh every time she came over to us. She always laughed back, so I think it’s the way that she communicates with people that can’t speak her language. All of the staff congregate in the restaurant car and watch TV, which they find hilarious, even though every Thai programme that I saw reminded me of Saturday night prime time programming from the 80s. We rolled into Bangkok at midday the following day feeling ready to face Bangkok, and headed to our new home from home in the searing sunshine.