For Ting, the one thing that helped get her through softball sized mosquito bites and jungle trekking in the scorching heat was the thought that in a few short days she’d be poolside sipping on sauvignon blanc and working on her tan. Thanks to a very generous benefactor, we’d be heading straight for the Four Seasons Chiang Mai, and it couldn’t have come at a better time. After weeks of only intermittent electricity, wi-fi, hot water, air conditioning, refrigeration, paved roads, etc we planned to relax and enjoy ourselves. We got into Chiang Mai on the earliest bus from Chiang Rai and made plans to check out as late as possible the following day. We lounged by the rice paddy infinity pool and celebrated the Fourth of July with poolside burgers. Up to this point, our schedule has been nonstop travel and activities so it was great to have an excuse to do nothing but lie in the sun and jump in the pool for nearly two full days.
One of our rare outings away from the Four Seasons was a short bike ride to Chiang Mai Tiger Kingdom. This not-even-conceivable-in-America wildlife park allows visitors into cages with unsedated tigers. Much like being a crocodile hunter or an extreme tight rope walker, it seems like one of those things that eventually only ends one way. But for a single day, we were willing to take our chances. We signed up to snuggle with tigers in the “smallest”, “small”, and “medium” categories, deciding the “big” cats were bigger than we could justify coming face to face with. It turns out “medium” tigers are enormous. They’re all kept well fed so they’re not even tempted to dine on their visitors. Guides in each cage are very cautious about how they allow guests to approach the cats, making sure hands are kept away from their faces and front paws. Overall, it felt incredibly safe. The tigers were more or less big sleepy house cats. One loved when we rubbed its belly. Others just slept, seemingly unphased by us. The smallest tigers were adorable, wrestling with each other and swatting at dangly toys exactly the way kittens would.
On our third day in Chiang Mai, we visited Basil Cookery for a Thai cooking class. We were joined by another wannabe chef named Gabriel who was wrapping up a year-long Watson Fellowship and looking forward to beginning a year-long Fullbright Fellowship, as he travelled the world studying the treatment of drug addiction. We started in a market where our teacher Benz explained the various ingredients we’d be using that day. Then we made our way to our kitchen and each prepared a series of dishes. We learned how to grind our own curry pastes with a mortar and pestle, how to whip up pad thai in a few minutes time, and how to squeeze coconut milk out of fresh coconut meat for use in making mango sticky rice. We each made six dishes and pigged out on delicious food. By the end of the course, it was difficult to envision any future in which we didn’t at some point open a wildly popular Thai restaurant.
When we weren’t lying by the pool or petting tigers, we loved to explore Chiang Mai on foot. It was by far the most developed and touristy place we’d been in weeks. The town is home to dozens of wats and a busy walking street that fills with venders each night. One interesting discovery was the juice of the gac fruit. Gac fruit is a “super fruit” with absurd levels of beta carotene and lycopene. The juice’s taste wasn’t memorable but we’re certain gac fruit will be a wild health craze in America in a few years. You read it here first…
It’s hard to say which part of our trip we were most eager about, but our last day in Chiang Mai was definitely up there as we’d be spending the day learning about and playing with elephants. Chiang Mai is home to several elephant camps that offer guests an up close introduction to the animals. From the mix we selected Patara Elephant Farm because of its reputation as the most humane option (they rescue elephants from circuses and other industries, never separate mothers and babies, don’t make their animals wear heavy metal saddles, don’t whip them or chain them, etc.). The day began with a 30 min drive out to the camp and a not-so-brief information session. We then donned our traditional hill tribe mahout (elephant trainer) outfits and proceeded to meet our elephants. The elephants were chosen for us by the main trainer, Jack, based on our personalities. Ting was paired with 17 year old Boonyen, a strapping young male with beautiful ivory tusks that was rescued from the circus in Chiang Mai. Eric, on the other hand, was paired with an elderly cow named Mamae who would later be the focus of the elephant poop inspection session. To be fair, Mamae’s poop was moist, well-chewed, and had the fragrance of corn husks…grade A elephant poop. We each spent some time getting to know our elephants and befriending them with buckets of sugarcane, bananas, and tamarind. Next we had to inspect our elephants to make sure they were healthy and happy. Did you know that elephants sweat from their toenails?! We then prepared them for the day of riding by cleaning the dirt off their backs and giving them a quick hose down.
Using a series of newly learned commands, the elephants helped us up onto their backs. Initially, riding on their bare backs with little to hold onto was a bit unnerving, but we quickly became accustomed to the rhythmic sway.The first stop of the day was at a waterfall where we bathed the elephants as they played in the water. We then rode another 30 minutes up hill to an incredible lunch of fruit, fried chicken, and sticky rice. At the end of lunch we fed many of the leftovers to our elephants. There was a young baby elephant in our group who was rather ravenous and ate some of Boonyen’s food out of Ting’s hands before raiding the lunch table for remaining leftovers. Later when we rode back down the hill, Boonyen would exact his revenge. As Boonyen was passing the calf and his mother, he swung his massive tusks into the young elephant and created quite the scene. Needless to say both Ting and the young calf shrieked in fear. The elephant trainers quickly sprung into action though and made sure that the young calf was out of Boonyen’s sight the remainder of the day. Our last stop of the day was at the open field where baby elephants were kept with their mothers. Here we met a very rambunctious 8 month old elephant and his mother. We watched as he ran towards anyone holding sugarcane seemingly unaware of his relative size and as he splashed happily in the river. Although we weren’t quite ready to leave the elephants, we were heading to Bangkok that evening and had a night train to catch. Patara provided us each with photos and movies that the staff had taken throughout the day and dropped us off at the train station. To say that we were pleased with our choice of elephant camp would be an understatement. Although the most expensive activity of our trip by far, we found our day at Patara to be well worth the cost. It was certainly one of the most memorable days of our trip and an experience we will always treasure.