Published: March 12th 2011March 6th 2011
We woke at 6am to prepare for the days ahead. We checked out of the hotel and left at 7.45am for the Chiang Dao Elephant Training Centre
. We arrived around 8.30am, fed bananas to the elephants, watched a show and then went for a ride. While the show was difficult to watch (elephants pulling logs and painting pictures is not really my idea of entertainment), the ride was great. The elephant Ren and I clambered onto was hungry, so she decided to go bush a number of times to eat. She also took her own path during the river walk, making a beeline for the riverbank where she could clamber up and munch on the undergrowth. As we made our way back to the minibus we were presented with a framed photo of the two of us during the ride. We left the training centre and continued our journey north.
We stopped off at a roadside restaurant at midday for lunch. The som tum
(Thai spicy green papaya salad) and khao pad moo
(pork fried rice) were ordinary but the setting on a lake was beautiful. We left at 12.45pm and continued north, stopping at Thaton
through a recently built temple that displayed various Buddha images from different countries and centuries. We visited an orange farm a little further up the road and then began to twist our way through the steep rural terrain of northern Thailand before arriving at our accommodation in Doi Mae Salong
at 4.15pm, where we were welcomed with a warm oolong tea. We dropped our packs and set off to wander around the town in the fading afternoon sun, sitting down at the Xing Yang Tea House for a fantastic tea tasting.
We walked back to our accommodation and relaxed on our deck overlooking this fascinating town. I’d purchased what I thought was a new (and very cheap) beer at the local 7-11, but it was actually cider. In such a fantastic setting, it just didn’t matter. We headed out for dinner at 6pm to a family restaurant which was only a stone’s throw up the road. We shared a Yunnan style beef curry with steamed dumplings and a spicy salad of tuna and green tea leaves - the taste was exceptional.
We headed back to our accommodation and kicked back on the deck to share a beautiful evening
with a couple of travel companions. It had been a long day, so we retired at 10pm.
I woke at 5.30am to catch up on my writing. We headed out to the local morning market at 6.30am, which was packed and had a vibrant atmosphere. We breakfasted at 7.15am and prepared ourselves for our journey to the Golden Triangle. We left in a songthaew
(small pickup truck/ute with seats in the tray) at 8.30am and travelled for 15 minutes until we arrived at the Mae Salong Tea Plantation. After a great tasting, we descended out of the mountains to Mae Sai on the Burmese border. SHE SAID...
The next morning we checked out too early for breakfast, so we hurried to our trusty 7-11 to get an iced milo for me and an iced coffee for Andrew. We have become quite dependent on the 7-11 stores here. They really are as ‘convenient’ as they claim to be, from mints to nail clippers to alcohol to sunscreen. We left Chiang Mai in minibuses and travelled north towards Doi Mae Salong
which is in the Golden Triangle region. We were going to stop at an elephant camp on
the way to see, touch and play with elephants - the mere thought of it had me laughing out loud with anticipation and excitement!
Some of you will know that I totally and utterly love animals. For me, travelling to another country is as much to experience the human culture as it is to experience the animal one... and as I may have mentioned before, I believe you can tell a lot about the levels of compassion and empathy in a society by the way they treat their animals. I cannot help but pat and cuddle animals if they even half invite me to do so; and while I have been lucky until now and have read their body language well, I thought I should play it safe on this trip and not be so forthcoming with physical contact. Thailand is ridden with lone ambiguous cats, packs of stray dogs and troupes of unpredictable monkeys (although we are yet to see any monkeys). Elephants on the other hand - totally safe in the rabies department!
Large numbers of elephants had been domesticated for the logging industry in the past, but that industry now becoming redundant (except for
the illegal operations of course); the mahouts struggle to feed these enormous beasts who eat well over 100 kilograms of food a day. So it’s not uncommon for these mahouts to use the elephant as a street performer and beg for food and money, or pimp them out to large tourist parks. However, thankfully there are a few sustainable elephant camps that have been set up to rescue and sometimes re-habilitate these beautiful creatures. We arrived at Chiang Dao Elephant Centre
on the banks of the Mae Ping river in time to watch the elephants have their morning bath before putting on a short ‘show’ for us. Fortunately the ‘show’ was more about demonstrating how they were used in logging and not a demeaning circus performance. However I struggled with watching the elephants bow to us and also with the farcical elephant ‘painting’. We then got an hour long ride on them through the forest, along the river and then through the river. So much excitement!
I know that the ideal would be that these elephants roamed wild and free in their natural habitat and didn’t have to put up with tourists gawking at them; but anyone who
has been here would point out two large holes in that argument - firstly there is little to no real habitat left, and secondly (due to the above point) wild elephants frequently raid farmers crops and put themselves and the villagers in danger. Places like this are vital in taking the elephants off the streets and guaranteeing that they are properly fed and receive the medical care they need. Equally as importantly, places like this expose the ruthless tourist parks that exploit the elephants with willing tourists who turn a blind eye to their appalling living conditions because it’s a cheaper day out than at the elephant camps where the elephant comes first.
It was very apparent that the animals here are well treated and happy. They have a training session and show in the morning but apparently get the rest of the day to roam and socialise as they wish on this large property of forest and river. The ‘training’ of baby elephants was a little hard to watch but I suppose the better trained they are now, the better placed they will be to co-habit with the locals later in life.
Even though I saw how
much the elephants get fed here, our elephant was definitely more interested in trying to eat all the plants in sight than in taking us for a ride...it was quite cute but got very tiresome when she would stop dead in front of every tree or shrub she thought looked yummy, which usually meant Andrew and I had to employ the death grip to keep ourselves in our wooden seat on her back. A few tense moments were had when the mahout had to admonish the greedy girl, and try and reverse her out of the shrubbery and onto the path again. I was so glad that our mahout’s use of the khor
(hook used to direct and control the elephant) was minimal, if at all. As much as some mahouts may tell you that the elephants have very thick skins and hardly feel the piercing of the hook - the wounds on the top of the street elephant’s ears and legs tell a very different and sad story.
When we first got there and were waiting for the elephants to start their baths, a cheeky little elephant came up to us and outstretched her trunk, asking for
the bananas that were being sold at a strategically placed stall behind us. Of course we obliged and lined up with small bananas in our hands, she gobbled it all up in seconds and then kept asking for more. Having a gravelly wet nozzley trunk pat down my camera holding hand for anymore hidden bananas was a very odd experience indeed.
After our elephant ride, on my request Golf asked a lounging mahout if we could spend some time with his elephant. Happily the mahout said yes, and Kim and I got to cuddle a older, fat and very calm elephant that seemed to love the attention. This old man elephant was so gorgeous, I could have spent all day with him but we had to keep travelling to our village destination further north.
The usual restaurant Golf took his groups to for lunch was closed, so we drove to the next best option which happened to be Huay Kung Royal Project
which we gather has been set up by the King to help the disadvantaged people in the area. The khao pad moo
(pork fried rice) and som tum
(Thai spicy green papaya salad) were average
but it’s setting on a small lake was quite picturesque.
This was a long travel day from Chiang Mai into the northern province of Chiang Rai, so Golf made sure we had lots of pit stops. One of which was the Grass Stupa Temple in Thaton, which was a very engaging modern temple and almost a museum of Buddha images from different centuries and all over the world. It gave us a different insight into Buddhism and Thai culture than we had seen in the older temples we had visited so far. We also paid a quick visit to Thanathon Orange Plantation
which is the largest citrus plantation in Thailand. The orange juice here was exquisite, made even tastier by the fact that it was a hot and long travel day.
We continued our travels towards the imposing Doi Chiang Dao mountain range to spend the night in the charming small town of Doi Mae Salong that sits in a long ridge along the mountain. The atmosphere and culture here was more Yunnanese (southern Chinese) than Thai. The village was settled in 1961 after a regiment of the Chinese Military defected to Myanmar and then negotiated asylum in
Thailand (apparently in exchange for guarding this border area). The region is renowned for growing high mountain oolong tea also called ‘Black Dragon’ tea, so we decided to spend the late afternoon walking in the small town and checking out the traditional Chinese tea houses. We stopped at the Xing Yang Tea House
for a tasting of different oolongs, and bought a pack of the one we liked the most. It was very interesting to see the Xing Yang Tea Factory that was situated next door to the tea house with sheets of tea leaves drying in the sun.
Our guesthouse - Baan See See
was rustic, but so comfortable! It made up for its simple (but very clean and adequate) rooms with the most magnificent of views and a restful atmosphere. We bought some adult drinks and returned to the guesthouse and sat on the balcony which we shared with Kim and Lee and relaxed into the evening drinking and chatting until we had to get ready for dinner. It was a very civilized start to an evening in this gorgeous place.
Dinner that night was at Salima’s Restaurant
, which I cannot rave about enough. At the
chef’s recommendation we had Yunnan style beef stew with man toh
(steamed Chinese buns), and a spicy tuna salad with fresh baby tea leaves. It was brilliant! I was amazed at the quality of food that could come out of such a homey and simple kitchen. Highly highly recommend this place.
We retired to our balcony for more drinks and more chatting while listening to the evening village sounds, however we didn’t have a late night as we had an early morning market to visit. At 6:30am Kim, Lee, Golf, Andrew and I trotted off to find the Morning Market. We walked through amazingly fresh produce and meat displays (including a massive pig’s head) and sizzling breakfast stalls. At Golf’s suggestion we bought some pandan and peanut sticky rice and banana with sticky rice servings to try. The pandan one was disappointing, but the banana with sticky rice was fabulous. I really love this market, especially as it was full of local women doing their grocery shopping. Most of the women were wearing loose kind of satiny pyjama outfits in pinks and blues. We saw this look in central and southern Vietnam too, and it looks comfortable but very strange nonetheless.
After a lovely breakfast of Chinese omelette on toast at Baan See See
, we had to sadly say goodbye to this beautiful and interesting town. It further saddens me that there isn’t even a remote chance that we will get to visit again, as it’s not really on the route of any further travels. However we did get a bonus stop on the way out of town. The Doi Mae Salong Tea Plantation is the largest tea plantation in the area and offered us another tea tasting. While this one was more wide ranging in its varieties of oolong teas, I preferred the more intimate setting at the Xing Yang Tea House.
See you in the little village of Mae Jun at a homestay!