THE KAHNS IN THAILAND: PART II – Chapter 2
KEEPING IT KID-FRIENDLY
It doesn’t take a genius to know that the key to successful travel with kids is to be sure to include plenty of activities geared towards their idea of fun. While it seemed counter to any of the objectives of our trip, let alone the cultural and geographic context of our current location, we nevertheless felt duty bound as parents to take our children to one of Chiang Mai’s biggest family attractions: the Night Safari
. Following the depressing experience of visiting Saigon’s zoo, I did not have high expectations for this excursion. But of course, Thailand is nothing like Vietnam and so I did suspect it might be a little better. Sure enough, the place felt as organized, clean and efficient as any theme park in the West- perhaps even better. Although this place is known for being an evening attraction, we somehow managed to get there during the sweet-spot hours of just after the day crowds had left and before the night crowds had pulled in. So we had the zoo portion of the park completely to ourselves, which would have been eerie
had the children not been so totally delighted by this and the fact the animals were all awake and happy to strut around their enclosures for us.
While the mostly Thai public formed orderly lines to wait their turns on Thai-guided train tours through the safari portion of the park, we were able to stroll right up to the empty trains waiting for the few Anglophone tourists. The two 20-minutes train rides through different sections of the park were actually incredibly impressive and rivaled in exhilaration any of the several dozen true African safaris I have been on in my lifetime. The main reason for this is that these Thai giraffes and zebras could be fed by visiting tourists (though the choice of food is highly regulated and of the park’s official choosing- mainly carrots, turnips, and bananas) and so they come right up to you on the little safari train. Having a giraffe bend down, poke its head at you, and grab a carrot out of your hand with its enormous black tongue, is quite an experience. Luckily for me, this somewhat terrified the children and so I was able to use them as my excuse
to not repeat it. We simply threw the rest of our basket of veggies to the nearest Zebra and called it a night.
It may have absolutely nothing to do with Thai culture- at least not traditional Thai culture- and feels completely out of place, but I can’t help but recommend a visit to the night safari to any families visiting Chiang Mai- if anything, to gain yourself some leverage when you propose an itinerary of four Buddhist temples for the following day.
Other kid-oriented activities require little or no extra incentive for their parents. Perhaps the easiest example of this is visiting an elephant sanctuary. These gentle giants happen to be my favourite animal and having two young children at home has offered me an incredibly convenient excuse to indulge in all things elephant-themed, from toys to books to room decorations. As a result, my sweet, pliable son inevitably came to be quite fond of elephants too. When we were proposing various ways of celebrating his 3rd
birthday to him earlier this month, we knew the odds were in our favour that he would choose to see elephants up close and even possibly
ride on one.
elephant camp to visit in the Chiang Mai area was no easy task though. There are dozens to choose from and all claim to put the elephants’ best interests first. Unfortunately, there are varying views on just what are elephants’ best interests and only after some considerable research into the matter (in the form of endless brochures, websites, and 5 separate forum discussions,) was I able to come up with a shortlist of camps that met our ethical and financial criteria. On the ethical front, I wanted a place that treated elephants humanely and yet also honoured the historic and revered position they hold in the local culture. As much as I believe animals deserve to be left in the wild, one cannot ignore that without the valuable role these elephant camps and sanctuaries play in regards to responsible breeding and veterinary care, the Asian elephant would cease to exist. Besides, there is a certain beauty and integrity in the ancient tradition of “mahmouts”- the elephant keepers- which also intrigues me. So a zoo simply doesn’t compare to the experience of meeting and understanding Thai elephants that is offered by these camps.
In the end, on the democratic basis of it receiving the greatest number of recommendations, we chose to visit the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre (TECC)
. This is the only camp enjoying royal patronage and thereby government funding, so it was also among the least expensive elephant encounters available to us, some of which can run as high as $100 USD per person. Furthermore, TECC hosts one of the few Elephant hospitals in the country and is a renowned research centre.
We were lucky enough to have a car on loan to us and so were able to hit the road early on December 13th
for the 70 km journey from Chiang Mai to TECC. Despite a rainy drive down, we were blessed with blue skies and warm sunshine for the rest of the day, making our visit all the more pleasant. Though there was a large group of school girls visiting the elephants on the same day as us, we managed to avoid them and had the whole camp practically to ourselves for most of the day, making it feel extra special. I wasn’t entirely in favour of the show that was put on for us as
we arrived, complete with Elephants painting and demonstrating feats of strength, but that was quickly forgotten when I was selected from the audience to play a game of catch with one of the elephants. We then enjoyed a much anticipated elephant ride.
Because of the age of our kids and the brevity of our visit (no time for proper training,) we could not ride directly on the elephants’ bare back, as we’d been hoping, and in stead had to settle for riding on a “howdah”- a wooden elephant seat, much as was used by Thai nobility back in the day. These are considered less comfortable for the elephants, but greatly more comfortable (and safer) for the people riding them, as they are spared the thick, prickly hairs of an elephant which can be rather unpleasant for the unaccustomed bottom. Sam was extremely apprehensive when the moment to climb on actually came, but was finally persuaded to bravely proceed thanks to being able to share a howdah with his mother. Arnaud and Mimi rode together ahead of us on a separate elephant.
As exciting as these elephant rides were, the true highlight of our visit
was without a doubt the visit to the elephant nursery. Here, we were able to meet the youngest and cutest members of the TECC family. One was an orphan who was paired with a female elephant known for being particularly maternal and who had adopted and nursed the now 4 month old elephant. It was touching to see this relationships and the tenderness of the gestures between the adopted mother and infant, testimony to the intelligence and kindness of these fantastic animals. After feeding and playing with the babies, we moved on to witness the older elephants having a bath. We thought our lucky streak was on a roll when we were able to secure front row seats to this spectacle, only to then receive a soaking from the playful mahouts, getting their kicks on instructing the larger elephants to empty their trunks in our direction. Nevertheless, by this point, we were so jubilant from the day’s events, that all actions emanating from elephants were well received and we eventually headed back to Chiang Mai, floating on our happy cloud, filled with the thrill of our extraordinary day’s encounters.
Later that evening, we further celebrated Sam’s birthday
with the best meal we had all trip long, at the little “La Fourchette
” restaurant around the corner from our new hotel, the 3 Sis Vacation Lodge.
The superb chef at this restaurant was trained by his award-winning father, who originated from our very own Geneva! He treated Sam with a very special homemade chocolate and pear birthday cake- quite possibly one of the most delicious cakes I’ve ever eaten.
KEEPING IT PARENT-FRIENDLY
Some love Asia for the food… others, come here for the beautiful landscapes… me, it’s the massages… (ok, ok… there may be a few other things that appeal to me here, but I DO love those massages…) Asia is known for its cheap and fabulous massages… And Chiang Mai just might be the massage mecca. You can hardly walk a few meters without passing in front of a massage shop or spa. And an average hour-long professional Thai massage can be enjoyed for 150 Thai Baht (circa $5 USD.) Given that our children nap every afternoon after lunch and Arnaud doesn’t share my passion for spa treatments, I was left with a golden opportunity to put these local massaging skills
to the test. And frankly, I can think of no better way for a mother to spend her one free hour in the day, when spending 7 days a week in the constant presence of her children. As a result, I managed to sneak in a massage every third day on average during our 18 days in the region. (Now you also know why I didn’t have much free time for blogging while in Thailand!) And for those of you who have asked how I cope travelling with young children… well, there’s your answer.
Luckily, we actually also found a couple other “coping mechanisms” for such a kid-intensive episode of our lives. The first was a babysitter who looked after the kids one evening while Arnaud and I treated ourselves to a romantic riverside dinner at the very trendy Chedi Hotel
. Of course, we returned to our hotel room to find the kids using our bed as a trampoline, still completely awake and wired from the pizza and free reign they had enjoyed in our absence. As a subsequent alternative to the hotel babysitter, we identified two kids’ clubs in town which operated as drop-in centers, complete
with pools and swimming lessons offered by a former Thai Olympian! The first one we tried out was the lovely, but slightly remote “Kiddee House
”, which offered a fantastic playground and constant video surveillance. The latter allows parents (or distant grandparents) to check out what their kids are up to via the internet- pretty cool! The other, an affiliate club called “Bronco
”, was a more modern structure, restricted to an indoor space, but with an impressive collection of quality toys. Though we preferred the Kiddee House, the central location of Bronco had us returning more easily and frequently- 3 times, in fact. The first two occasions were not fully utilized as they coincided with Arnaud’s onset of Malaria symptoms, causing him to spend those days in bed while I did Sam’s birthday shopping and some solo temple touring. (More on Arnaud’s health later, in a separate blog entry…) Only on our last full day in Chiang Mai were we finally able to enjoy a proper lovely day of parent time, while the kids got spoiled rotten once again by the Bronco staff. And since by then we were all “templed out” and had had our fill of sightseeing, we did
what any normal married couple would do on their day off… we went to jail.
I suppose enough of you are connected to me on Facebook to know by now that by “jail”, I mean the Chiang Mai Women’s Correctional Facility and by that, I mean, the Inmate Massage Training Program that offers curious tourists cheap massages carried out by female prisoners. Funnily enough, Arnaud didn’t take much convincing on this activity. And so we each enjoyed a lovely hour-long foot massage by two of the sweetest-looking criminals we had ever met. Due to language and cultural barriers, we didn’t dare ask the ladies what they were doing time for. I also wondered if there was a way to let the prison warden know that massaging Arnaud’s feet is sufficient punishment to shorten anyone’s sentence by at least a few months. (For those of you who are as morbidly curious as us, you’ll be relieved to know that we later found out from a friend that most of the ladies working in the prison massage program had drug-related convictions and were now all addiction-free.) Let me also assure you that we were not the only tourists to
be oddly drawn to this rather unusual form of a spa. Unlike any of the begezillion other places in town where you can waltz in and have a massage on the spot, at the prison, there was quite a long waiting list! But cleverly enough, we were able to kill those 30 minutes of waiting time with a pleasant smoothie in the prison spa garden- also served graciously by more inmates.
Once fully relaxed and “out of prison”, we dedicated our remaining hours of freedom to some true Thai immersion: we went to a mall and took in a movie. Unfortunately, the options were limited and we foolishly accepted to sit through The Hobbit
(with apologies to those of you who actually like wizards and goblins and blockbuster movies that cheat you out of an ending… AGAIN
!) Nevertheless, spending almost 3 hours without the slightest interruption from our children, a nice supply of popcorn, and constant air conditioning felt like a true treat. And kicking it all off with a standing ovation to a video about the king was an additional cultural snapshot which we enjoyed experiencing.
When not farming out our parenting responsibilities
to strangers, we occasionally also took turns offering each other “time off”. One such occasion was when I signed myself up for a Thai cooking lesson offered by our friend Kun-Mai, who not only owns one of the best Lanna cuisine restaurants in Chiang Mai- the fantastic Huen Come In,
but also reveals the secrets to her delicious family recipes during her one day cooking classes. I was lucky enough to have met Kun-Mai through a family friend and squeezed myself into one her classes, which are usually reserved for B&B guests. (Huen Come In is Kun-Mai’s beautiful family home, built in the traditional Lanna style, using the best quality teak wood. It operates as a luxury guesthouse, something we unfortunately discovered only after we had already booked elsewhere. But we were lucky enough to spend one night there thanks to an early return from Chiang Rai. Needless to say, we LOVED it…)
My day of cooking got off to a fantastic start with a visit to a local market, where Kun-Mai introduced the other 4 students and me to all sorts of unusual Thai ingredients. My favourite was the pea-sized eggplants! We then got down to
business, chopping and stirring in a makeshift kitchen set up on a shady poolside terrace. On the syllabus: Green Curry & coconut chicken, traditional Thai salad, Pad Thai, and Sticky Rice with Mango.
Just as my curry chicken was nearing completion and my classmates and I could actually sit down for lunch in order to enjoy the fruits of our labour, I got a message from Arnaud casually announcing he was at the hospital with Sam. And just like Cinderella leaving the ball at midnight, I raced off… as my chef’s hat (ok, maybe it was just a bandana) turned back into regular messy mom hair… It turned out Sam was just suffering from a severe case of food poisoning, which quickly improved after he emptied the contents of his sore belly onto the lap of the unlucky pediatrician on duty at that moment. The real patient should have been Arnaud however, as he actually was suffering at the same time from something suspiciously similar to Malaria. He had gallantly- and slightly foolishly- downplayed his symptoms earlier that morning, in the interest of allowing me to pursue my cooking plans. But it was soon apparent that they
made for quite a sorry pair, and Arnaud was in no shape to be caring for Sam. I was actually grateful to find them easily at the hospital and to take charge of matters. Once the necessary basketful of medication for each of my boys had been collected, I brought them back to our hotel to tuck them into bed, before collecting Mimi from her solo day at Bronco’s. Not all days go according to plan, but it also isn’t every day that you get to feel like your family’s hero… and on this day, both Arnaud and I had our turns in that role. I may not have been able to wear my chef’s hat for long, but I certainly dusted off that nurse’s cap. Within 48 hours, everyone was back on their feet and ready for more sightseeing.
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