Change of pace. Change of scenery. Change of heart.
Chiang Mai gave all that and more to me. In fact, the 10 days we spent in Chiang Mai were so full of adventure and emotional shifts that I have divided the time into two posts. Peeking over from the isle seat on our bumpy flight north from Bangkok, I caught my first glimpse of the lush, rolling mountains below. Flooded with the feeling of excitement and the familiarity of the mountains back home in Kelowna, I could feel this place had something special to offer. Walking into the airport and seeing only a few luggage belts, instead of the chaos that awaits you in the Bangkok airport, I breathed in the first calm I had felt in days. We stepped out into the heat wave that seems to sweep through with increasing vigor everyday. After our taxi driver figured out where we needed to be taken, through bouts of yelling, laughter and hand signals with his fellow drivers, he led us to our cab through the hoards of cars and people on the airport parking lot. The short drive into the city took us down brick roads, past soaring gold temples, and past hundreds of locals zigzagging their way through traffic on scooters. After about 15 minutes, we came to a crumbling wall made of redding brick that formed a gate through which we entered into Chiang Mai’s Old City. Inside is the oldest part of Chiang Mai (although Chiang Mai means “new city”, it was actually founded in 1296) , bursting with culture, street food, markets and the most ancient temples. We turned down one of the alleys that make up most of the roads in the old city- cobblestone, quiet and winding- and arrived at our guesthouse. Directly beside our terraced, white home stood a temple of horses. Golden horse statues gleamed from every post along the temple’s white concrete fence, and palm trees popped up from various points along the fence. The huge, gold trimmed, bird-winged roofs of the temple soared into the blue sky. After putting our stuff inside and exploring the adorable 3 story meditation house with a rooftop yoga area, we ventured deeper into the old city to meet up with a friend from home.
The most wonderful part of the city is the way it has retained its culture and personality through time. There are few modern buildings or restaurants; street carts rule the roads, and the buildings show their history through their chipping paint and crumbling brick. Few shops have doors, but rather sliding metal garage-like doors that they pull open in the mornings, and close up at night. The fences surrounding houses and temples are concrete and chipping, and even the clothing of the locals has resisted the western style that has made its way into so many countries. There is a sense of pride in the unwillingness to conform- a confidence of the city that assures you it is exactly how it is supposed to be- and you whole heartedly love it just the way it is.
Our first day consisted of finding a huge plate of vegan food for one dollar, and wandering around the relatively quiet streets. The old city is one perfect square in the heart of Chiang Mai, with the remaining parts of the old walls surrounding it, and a canal running down all sides. Inside the walls are countless hostels, guest houses, restaurants, temples, night markets and bars. Our first night, we walked to the night market near the center of the old city. While we waited for the market to begin, we grabbed beers at a pub close by. By the time we left, the sun had set and the scene outside had completely transformed. The lit up street shops stretched on for blocks and blocks in all directions. It seemed that every turn opened up to a new market with different clothing, bags and jewelry of all colours. Thai massage shops that offered hour long massages for $8 seemed to be in every second building. Every kind of food you could imagine seemed almost within sight at all times. Thai food stands offered pad thai for a dollar, while fancier places will still get you a huge meal for four or five. I was constantly impressed and excited by the endless vegan places in the area. Not a day has gone by that we don’t drink at least a smoothie or two. Chang beers- the local brew- go for a few bucks at a restaurant, but you can get them for less than two at any 711. You can also walk around the street, beer in hand, which wasn’t so bad either. one of the highlights of the whole trip so far has been the Thai massages. For $8 you can get a one hour Thai massage- and yes, they really do bend you into pretzel shapes and step on you. We went two nights in a row they were so good.
I think you could walk for hours- and we did- and never get bored in Chiang Mai. The city pace and energy is the perfect mix. There is always something happening and places to go, but there is this constant undercurrent of calm and kindness. One night as we were walking we noticed thousands and thousands of candles lit all along the canal, leading into a community square where young people sat on stage playing different woodwind instruments, and people lit candles in different forms on the ground. We still don’t know what it was for, but it was beautiful and amazing nonetheless. The air is also fresher and less congested, a huge relief from the heaviness of Bangkok. The streets are almost always full of cars, tuk tuks and motorists, and cross walks are few, but we soon learned that if you simply start walking across the impossibly busy streets everyone will somehow stop- and happily. I have never known a kinder people, and feel honoured to meet and interact with the local people here everyday. And the food! Every meal here is a feast for a few dollars. Talking with my dad over facetime, he constantly remarks how he is living in the wrong country. I found myself feeling extremely comfortable and relaxed here within a couple of days. There are few things better than wandering around the sunny streets of a beautiful, cultural city in the mountains.
Perhaps the highlight of the trip so far was The Elephant Nature Park- an elephant sanctuary north of Chiang Mai in the jungle, where elephants rescued from the circus, logging and riding industries come to recover and live free. The first sight of these gentle giants ignites that childhood giddiness in you like a spark. It’s hard to believe you’re so close to the creatures you have dreamed of meeting for years. We started by feeding them watermelon, pumpkin and cucumber, and they wrapped their huge trunks around the fruit in our hands with precision and gentleness. There are around 70 elephants at the park, and they range from a 6 week old baby that was only waist height, to a 5 tonne grandma elephant born in the 40’s (she stuck around for all the scraps). We walked out into the 200 acre park with our guide Jan, passing elephants walking along the same paths we were, and got to pet and take pictures with a couple of the well adjusted ones. Their skin was rough and kind of hairy, and they constantly used their trunks to check your hands for food. They lost interest pretty quick if you didn’t have any to offer them, so the guides continuously handed us food to feed them. Elephants spend about 18 hours a day eating 10% of their body weight in food (600-800 pounds a day)!
We watched a baby elephant and his mom playfully pushing each other into the river, and a herd splash around and take a bath together. Elephants are much like humans in that they form their own social groups, and it can be very difficult for a new elephant to be accepted into a family. Bathing the two oldest elephants was definitely the best part. Dozens of us, buckets in hand, followed the beautiful beasts into the river along the sanctuary and threw buckets of water onto their backs (they are too old to bathe themselves). Laughing and splashing around, I got soaked along with the elephants.
Learning about the crushingly sad past of the elephants in Asia was as eye opening as it was sickening. To put it briefly, in order to train an elephant to respond to commands from its trainer, it must undergo a process that results in ‘breaking the spirit’ of the animal. This involves capturing a baby elephant from the wild, and killing its mother and any other guardian of the baby. The poached elephant is then attached to a contraption (usually out in the jungle) that holds the animal from all angles. For a week the elephant is starved, dehydrated, beaten, stabbed, burned and made to walk in circles until they forget their family and see their trainer as their master. And no, riding elephants is never okay. The weight of the saddle and the people on its back combine to about half of its body weight, and it has to walk around under that weight for 8 plus hours a day. The elephants will be dehydrated and beaten in order to work up to standard, and their spine shape makes this level of weight extremely painful and unsafe. Plain and simple, elephants are wild animals and don’t do tricks or follow human command naturally- it must be forced and tortured into them. So all I can ask is that if anyone decides to visit elephants anywhere in the world, please be an informed tourist and don’t exploit these innocent animals. They are not ours for enjoyment (just like the poor drugged up tigers at “Tiger Kingdom”), and the industry only survives if there are people like you and me willing to support it. Sorry for the rant, but please do stay informed!
As the days in Chiang Mai went on, I became more and more at home. I found the tightness in my chest and the twisting in my stomach that had become constant companions begin to fade away. I was able to smile easier, laugh fuller, act with more truth. This confidence that I have had to dig and dig for has finally broken through the hard earth. I’m realizing the human potential for change is immense- far greater than I could have ever dreamed. I wish I could go tell myself a week ago that everything passes. The good and the bad. All of the bullshit that crowds your mind, that convinces your courage it isn’t strong enough, and shoves your confidence to unreachable depths: it passes. This is just the way it is. Life is waves. Fighting the waves gets us nowhere- fast- and frankly it’s just really, really tiring. You’re allowed to just float, just feel. You’re allowed to let go.