chiang mai - Where's Byrne?

chiang mai

15.09.2011 – 20.09.2011 Sunny 34 °C

I had enjoyed Bangkok thoroughly but was looking forward to leaving for Chiang Mai as it’s a place which people have banged on about to me for years. We grabbed the Bangkok – Chiang Mai bus (12 hours, 18:00 – 06:00) for 320bt each. I was dreading the journey and even though we booked a ‘VIP Bus’ which are supposed to have large seats that stretch back, with a max of about twenty-four passengers on the top deck and nothing below, we have been subject to so much Thai bullshit we hadn’t got our hopes up. Surprisingly it turned out to be the VIP bus we were promised and the journey was pretty good, I slept all the way utilising the empty seats at the back of the bus and waking up at an Esso garage in Chiang Mai. We disembarked and the bus drove off leaving us at the crack of dawn in the middle of nowhere. Fantastic. No one around and nothing about, even the fucking garage was closed. A guy appeared from nowhere though and offered to take us into town for 20bt each. Although we were a bit suspicious, we accepted because we had no choice. Typical Thai’s that is, leaving us potentially stuck in the middle of nowhere. We found a guest house easy enough for 200bt a night (yes that’s £4).

We were planning on staying a week in Chiang Mai such was the hype, but in the end it was a bit of a let down. There are plenty of excursions to go on and different attractions to see but the actual place itself is underwhelming. Probably the best part was the Sunday Market, which is the longest I have ever been to. It stretches three – five  kilometres depending on how many traders turn up, one stall holder told us. I thought Chatuchak in Bangkok was big but this one appeared bigger as it’s stretched out in a seemingly never ending line with roads coming off both sides all packed with people and stalls. We walked for forty-five minutes easily and couldn’t see the end of it. We decided to head back after that as we were meeting Thailand James in a bar and Spurs were playing Liverpool at 7pm so I didn’t want to miss that (4-0 win by the way). On the way back we spotted a stall that sold deep-fried insects. We’d seen these in Bangkok but had decided against it. They were knocking them out at only 20bt a bag. There must have been ten different ones separated in tubs. I asked for a pick and mix and the girl was more than happy obviously realising that we probably wouldn’t eat them and laughing as she handed them over. Wrong. We did and they were fucking disgusting. As we got to the bar we showed them to a waitress there and she said they were delicious, to which we offered her some. She proceeded to grab the big grasshopper (you only get one of them bad boys) pull his legs and wings off and eat it like it was a bit of fruit and nut. Hungover from the night before (or was it the night before that?), I nearly threw up in my mouth. I can confirm B and I did try one each and swallowed them. They were vile. Mine was soft and crunchy at the same time. I tried a second but had to spit it out. I offered one to James but he declined citing his nut allergy and them potentially being fried in ground nut oil, as the problem. We believe you James.

Chiang Mai Zoo. Read a bit about the Zoo in Chiang Mai and didn’t find anything derogatory like I did with the Tiger Temple in Kanchanaburi (see next paragraph) so we thought we’d check it out and I’m glad we did, what a day we had. The Seal show was brilliant, catching basketballs, sticking them through the hoops and performing various other tricks, as well as clapping their hands/fins after every trick to get the crowd going. They looked happy to perform for the reward treats. We even touched one as they come up to the barriers to beg for cash, they were well taught. The Pandas were cool too although they were asleep the entire time we were there and the story of how the youngest was conceived through artificial insemination was graphic to say the least. Returning back to the other side of the Zoo near the Seals, we fed Penguins sardines for 50bt which was awesome. They are fucking greedy little sods, pecking B’s leg and welly trying to get her to drop a fish. White Tigers, Lions, Jaguars and Leopards were all great to see, their enclosures were reasonable sizes too. Fed some Elephants again which seemed happy, they weren’t being whipped to perform tricks, the sheer astonishment that you’re seeing a happy elephant close up is enough for me so I get annoyed when they are treated like circus animals. Gibbon’s, Croc’s, a Rhino, various Birds, Giraffe’s, Zebra’s and Ostrich’s were all good to see too. Decided against entering the Aquarium as it was an extra 450bt each, the longest underwater walkway in South East Asia wasn’t enough to convince us to part with that kind of cash. If I had one criticism it would be to add some directions and update their fucking map so you can find your way around. Although not massively big, it’s certainly big enough to have you scratching your head wondering if you are on the right path to wherever you want to go. Much of the Zoo’s roads were being dug up too, presumably being replaced, but they don’t offer you a small path to walk down, you are expected to walk through the muddy shit that lays there while the Thais sit around or aren’t even there. Verdict: Very good and well worth going, most of the animals seemed to be treated well.

Tiger Kingdom. This was a genuinely unbelievable experience. We knocked the idea of going to the Tiger Temple in Kanchanaburi on the head as we’d heard bad things about the Tigers being dosed up to keep them from biting your head off. The price was 600bt too so not cheap  and to possibly swell the coffers of someone who isn’t reinvesting the money on the animals and them potentially being drugged was enough for us to say no thanks. Thailand James, did go though and told us the tigers were chained up and that he thought they were too docile to not have been drugged so sounds like a good decision. It was a complete coincidence we came across the Tiger Kingdom as I hadn’t heard of it before we arrived in Chiang Mai. I did some research and didn’t find anything negative, I didn’t find anything positive either but thought we’d chance it. I’m so glad we did because so far, it was the best experience of my life.

We grabbed a tuk tuk there and the guy agreed to wait outside and take us back as it’s hard to get a taxi from there (apparently). This turned out to be more Thai bullshit but I had a soft spot for the driver as he was Spurs fan, complete with stickers on his bike. It was 840bt each, about £17, so not cheap but for that you got to pick two visits from the smallest tigers, the medium tigers, the medium – large tigers or the big tiger categories. We chose the smallest and the big tigers. As we walked around to see the smallest tigers we were made to wash our hands and swap our flip-flops for gay ones, I presume for safety concerns as certain colours make the tigers attack. A really weird sight, as we walked in there were ten tigers cubs asleep against the brick walls of the enclosure. They looked like stuffed toys. Our handler (who was a miserable bastard) sat us down next to one and grabbed his back leg and tail to wake him up but the tiger really wasn’t interested. He explained that they were asleep because it was the hottest part of the day and they are most active at night. The way he tugged this tigers back leg and pulled him across the ground was really odd but the tiger didn’t seem to give a monkeys and the floor was polished concrete, similar to tiles, so it wouldn’t have hurt him. He did wake up, only to walk off and plod himself back down against another wall, you could imagine he was thinking ‘I wish these people would piss off and leave me alone’. There was one running around though, our handler grabbed this  bamboo brick with teeth marks in it, obviously one of their toys, and chucked it along the ground to us. The tiger saw it immediately and stood behind a table leg as not to be seen, just like a domestic kitten would. It was eery how similar to a kitten they were. He attacked the brick and jumped on B’s lap which was absolutely amazing. We went on to play with the little guy for a while and another female cub. I thought it was a bit odd they were all so docile but later concluded, in my opinion it was just because it was 30°C+ in there, they are covered in fur and they’re nocturnal. When they did get up, they seemed alert and happy. We got some fantastic pictures.

On to the big tigers enclosures. Our tiger was called Jackie, I asked our big tiger handler ‘is she a girl?’, ‘No, boy, like Jackie Chan’ he said. It was surreal being so close to such a big animal. It’s a fucking Tiger after all weighing one-hundred and fifty kilos yet only two years old. He was a man-eating animal and it showed but the handler explained that he was his tiger. He’d brought him up since he was a cub and trained him not to attack for food but to wait for his dinner. He was covered in little scars on his hands and up his arms where he’d played with Jackie as he was growing up and got nipped here and there, another thing that made me make up my mind they weren’t drugged. He told us Jackie would double in size and grow to two-hundred and fifty kilos within the next few years but he was massive already. The handler encouraged us to lay down behind Jackie and put our heads on his back like we were sleeping on him. I was very reluctant at first but did it. The longer I was laying there the more confident I became, until, getting a bit cocky, I picked up his tail and put it on my leg, which was like picking up a fucking massive snake might I add, and he turned round and roared at me. It wasn’t a jungle roar but it was loud enough to make me get up and run, which B got a picture of, and I look terrified. I sheepishly came back and we continued laying on him and posing for photos when I asked if he gets up in the day? With that they handler picked up a piece of bamboo, about six foot long with what looked like a piece of skin coloured leather on the end. This I realised, was his toy. The handler waved it about a bit and Jackie got up staring at this piece of leather. He was at least four foot high just standing. The bloke rested this thing up against the fence and Jackie jumped up on his back legs to grab it. He was now six foot tall and probably three wide. As he fell down back to his four feet, I was standing close to him taking pictures. His head pointed down to the ground but his eyes were looking up at me, directly into mine. He started to walk towards me slowly but with proper menace. For those few seconds my heart missed a beat, he’d only taken a few steps but I knew one hundred percent that if the handler hadn’t been there then he would have gone for me. I felt like his prey, and I wouldn’t have stood a chance. Fortunately the handler was well on the ball and he gave him a short sharp whack on the nose with a small stick to which Jackie immediately turned and walked away from me, wandered under a tree and sat down. Unreal. My heart was still going ten to the dozen. We continued the picture-taking with B rubbing his stomach, him rolling over and putting his leg in the air. It really was like stroking a normal cat. He even started making purring noises, like he was loving it. Unlucky for us, our time was up but I knew we had got a real treat. We watched two groups before us and their tiger didn’t get up, they didn’t lay down with him, they didn’t pick his tail up or stroke his belly, let alone get his toy out and watch him play with it. What an experience and the best £20 I’ve ever spent. Verdict: If you only came to Thailand to do this, it would be worth it.

Chaing Mai Night Safari. In stark contrast to the Zoo and the Tiger Kingdom, the Night Safari – one of former PM Thaksin Shiniwatra’s pet projects, was an utter let down and quite disturbing. We thought we’d go under our own steam and not book through an agent which turned out to be a good decision as it worked out much cheaper. They have a resort at the safari where you can stay so we thought we’d go for it. We met up with Thailand James again as he fancied it too and made our way there. It was a fantastic room, for the three of us including the ticket to the safari and breakfast it was 1200bt each which wasn’t bad. We embarked on the walking tour first, a 1.2km walk around a big lake. This was thoroughly depressing. There were two Chimpanzees on a tiny island in the lake, close enough to watch but not throw things to, they looked really unhappy. There were Crocs in orange water and I mean orange, with a skin of oil or petrol on top and not one of them moved in the time we were watching them, not a flinch. The cages and enclosures for the Leopards, White Tigers and other big cats were far too small and there was a stench of smelly animal cage the complete walk round. Towards the end we did see some fresh food in the cages so it looked like they were being fed but not well looked after. The best bit of this was coming across a guy with a pet Lemur named Jeremy which we held for pictures and fed sweetcorn. I was a little naïve before about just how cool Lemurs are but having him sitting on my shoulder eating out of my hand was a great experience. We went back, got showered, changed and ready for dinner which was a buffet for 180bt each and what a buffet it was, well worth it. Back out in the main lobby there were two elephants which again you could feed bananas for 20bt. That was good until the handlers barked instructions at the elephants to which they courtesied and started waving their heads to the beat of the background music. The handler was a nice bloke but they just seemed to miss the point that tourists don’t want to see these animals perform tricks. Us being so close and feeding them is more than enough. I wondered how many whips and smacks the elephant got whilst learning the tricks. I also wondered if this was a sign of things to come…

The South Safari trek was fairly impressive but I’ve never been on any safari before so having Zebra’s, Giraffe’s and Deer walking around which come right up to the van and you can hand feed carrots and bananas to was pretty cool. However it wasn’t to last as the ignorant tourists fucked me off. The narrator clearly said ‘No flash photography as it damages the animals retinas’ so what does everyone do? Use their flash. This particular group of Spanish arsewipes behind us obviously took tips from the Japanese. Click, click, click, five of them each with a camera all using the flash. It wasn’t just them, almost every tourist on the bus were doing the same. I witnessed a fantastic piece of Karma though when an Israeli guy hugged a Zebra, yes, hugged, after being told not to feed them by hand because they bite. What happened? He got bitten. Watching him with his fingers in a Zebra’s gob while he was whimpering like a little girl was particularly satisfying. The narrator was useless and had no control over the tourists while continuing to refer to all the animals as ‘lazy’ because they were asleep. I’d love a bus load of tourists to come through her bedroom in the middle of the night using the flash on their cameras while they referred to her as lazy. Idiot.

Lastly the North Safari trek. Unfortunately we’d already seen the best out of the two in the south zone but we didn’t know that at the time. The flashes commenced and the div narrator started rambling, although at least he actually mentioned twice no flash photography. On this side we had the big cats, Hyenas etc. Again their enclosure were far too small and this continued throughout. The worst part was the very last enclosure, which had two big elephants chained to a concrete platform. The Thai narrator shouted instructions at them over the megaphone at which point they started to dance. A real sad sight. He said ‘You can throw bananas at them to eat’ but because they were last nobody had anything left to throw. That summed it up for me. All the focus on the safari was getting this and that for the tourists, including making the resort amazing but they have skimped on the animals and they are suffering. We spoke to an Australian guy who lived in Chiang Mai and he told us when the Safari opened it was known as ‘Auschwitz for animals’ because so many died as the Thais didn’t know how to care for them. I really hope this isn’t true but I wouldn’t be surprised. Hard one to call this as you feel like you don’t want to give them your money as it’s certainly not worth it but if everyone stops going, will the animals get even worse conditions to live in? Verdict: You decide.

Great to have been to Chiang Mai but it didn’t live up to expectations.  It’s worth a visit just for the Tiger Kingdom, the Zoo being a bonus and the night market good fun too.

We were planning to head to Chiang Rai next but after doing more research it looked a little similar to Chiang Mai, but smaller. James suggested going to Pai. ‘Where?’, I said. ‘Pai’. Okies, let’s do it.

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