Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Chiang Mai & the Ethical Quandary of Elephant Tourism

Elephants y'all.
Chiang Mai, the largest city in North Thailand, is the capital of the Chiang Mai Province and one of the hottest tourist destinations in the country. It's divided into the old city, which is walled off, and the new city surrounding it. It's got a fresh vibe (I felt it was Austin, TX-esque - which was weird, but complimentary), some of the best food in Thailand, and elephant tourism, which is why we went. The city is just an hour and 15 minute flight from Bangkok, and a must-visit.

Our first meal was on the north end of the old city at a heavily Chinese-influenced market. This cowboy hat-wearing woman is starting to build quite a reputation and was recommended by multiple foodie friends. She's simply known as the Cowgirl. 
We got some khao ka moo, which is pork leg. Simple and good. 

Pad Thai wrapped in an omelette, which is a popular way of serving the dish. My hot take is honestly that I feel like Pad Thai has become such a popular western dish that I prefer the American-Thai version. #SoAmerican 

Chiang Mai night market is the thing to do. Merchandise of everything that you can bargain for... like this imitation Jordan with a badonkadonk like Shaq's. Never pay full price at a market place.
This was the Austin part of Chiang Mai. Instead of food trucks, it was a land of cheap gourmet (oxymoron?) food stands, they had everything you can imagine - and we continued to eat our share of pad Thai, Khao Soi (more on this in a minute), and even funnel cake! Yes. We ate funnel cake in Chiang Mai. No, not Thai's version of funnel cake. Good old fashioned USA funnel cake.

I'm telling you this little shopping center was straight Americana.
Complete with live music and haystack seats.
Chiang Mai is famous for their sausage called sai ua. It's good like all sausage off the grill, but I don't remember anything standing out to me. It's no red Chinese sausage that you get from Ranch 99 or any generic Asian supermarket! #ChineseElitism

Say hello to my favorite "restaurant" in all of Thailand. This little food stand was next to our Little Bears Hotel, which is super cheap, but I don't remember the rates. They were open early in the morning and I ordered some Khao soi, which is a lightly-spiced curry egg noodle soup with some crispy noodles sprinkled in, and your choice of protein. This spot had more protein option - I got the crispy pork (which tasted like pork belly).
I can't reiterate how addicted to this I was. How much do you think this cost? 40bht! That's like $1.15!!!

My girl hustling in the early morning, making those fresh noodles. The greatness of all these Thai spots - sometimes you have to forget about Trip Advisor and just explore. I fell in love with this lady!

Welcome to the epitome of cognitive dissonance. Chiang Mai is known for elephant tourism but you have to watch out for the many inhumane spots that are infamous for poor animal treatment. There's a comprehensive blog if you Google "Chiang Mai elephant tours" that outlines the more elephant-friendly. The best are Patara and the Elephant Nature Park, but both of those were sold out months in advance. The website stated Chai Lai Orchid was one of the more humane spots so we chose to go with them. Chai Lai is also involved with Daughters Rising, an organization that helps rescue young Burmese women from sex trafficking.

First meeting the elephants was awesome. You feed them bananas and they love it. There' were about 6 or 7 of them, but they had one foot chained to either a tree or the ground. We were told that's for their own protection as it prevents them from walking onto roads and getting hit by vehicles. Still, it seemed a little suspicious.

Mindy meets baby Dumbo.
When you select an elephant tour, be sure to find an outfitter that doesn't offer chair riding or elephant shows. Chair-riding is evidently devastating for an elephant's back, but riding bareback is okay. You also want to avoid any outfitters that have elephant shows, because they treat the animals horribly to get them to act accordingly. 

Squad. Riding the elephant, you just sit on his neck and brace yourself on his head. Sounds like that would be irritating to the elephants, but they're so massive that they can hardly feel us. At least, that's how I justify. It didn't feel like we were exploiting the animals. Pete seems to be nervous in the back.
That feeling when you're riding an elephant and need to make a Usain Bolt celebration pose.
After a quick pad Thai lunch, we went on a bamboo rafting ride in cold water as it rained. It was freezing. This would be a great experience in warm weather, instead for us it was just cold. Your butt is basically chilling in water the whole time. I did "paddle" for a little spell. Essentially, you use another piece of bamboo and drive it into the river bottom for momentum.
Bathing the elephant. This experience started off well, but quickly took a turn. It's a joyous occasion to clean these wonderful beasts. You use a scrub bush to clean up his rough, thick skin that's covered in mud. It was all fantastic. The handlers tell you to go ahead and sit on his trunk and he lifts you up. Their trunks raised my 160-lb body like it was nothing. So fun. But once the elephant put me down, the handler put a harmonica in his mouth and had him play. I assume - and hopefully am wrong - that there's only one way he became conditioned to do this - exploitation. That means whipping and who knows what else. The handler, who spoke very little English and thinking we were entertained by this, then told the elephant to raise and drop a leg as if he were dancing. This left a bad taste in our mouths. It made me look at the entire operation differently. I spent around $100 US to do this. I wouldn't go back. In fact, I'd recommend only two: Patara, and if you can't get in there, the Elephant Nature Park.
There are more than 300 Buddhist temples in Chiang Mai. I forget the names of which ones we visited, but this was certainly my favorite for the tranquil ambience. 
The Buddhas were surrounded by water and surrounded with lanterns.


Stairs to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, which overlooks Chiang Mai.
The view from Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. Sadly it was overcast and rainy, so we couldn't see much. We got up here for sunrise, but it was a little underwhelming because of the weather. Apparently it's normally quite impressive.

The fish pedicure fad is still alive in Thailand. Tiny toothless fish eat away the dead skin on your feet, but the US started clamping down because the fish may carry bacteria that can cause infections. Gross. I didn't do this. This is totally some random person's feet.

Khao soi near the night market. Ate next door to a highly-rated place called Lemongrass, which was filled with European travelers which made us question its authenticity and popularity. My khao soi was just fine.
Never enough khao soi. Seriously had around 6 bowls of this in 2 days.

I had every intention to mock this sign on social network, then the crew proceeded to tell me it's very common for Chinese tourists to use the toilet like such. So I didn't post what would've been a hilarious sign in America. Sigh. Such sacrifices not to appear like an ignorant American. That said, one good thing about the form in this sign is that it should ease flow, according to the Squatty Potty. #themoreyouknow

Lady boys! First off, I'm not being brutish or offensive, this is the common term used for some transgender individuals. The surgeries and operations that many have are so well done that it's quite common for tourists to be unable to tell if they are women or men. I saw a sign that said cabaret show at 930p and walked over at 10p - nobody was there! Granted, this was at the family-friendly night market... Gotta know your audience! 
Elephants out.


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