Northern Thailand – March 2006

Northern Thailand March 2006

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Summary by Archana Manoharan

It reminded me of the Sunday morning church services from my childhood. Slouching on an uncomfortably hard bench in less than ideal temperature, drowsily listening to the murmuring monotone of the preacher’s sermon, and fantasizing about Sunday buffet lunch. In this case, however, the congregants were a sleepy herd of elephants, swaying in unison to the chant of Buddhist monks, at the Thai Elephant Conservation Center in Lampang Province, Northern Thailand. Our group was fortunate enough to have arrived at the Center on the day before the nationally celebrated Chang (Elephant) Day. Fortunate, I say, because not only were we able to observe the elephants earn their keep (by performing a routine showcasing their log manipulation, obedience, curtsying, painting and musical skills), we were also able to witness the blessing of the elephants and the subsequent feast.

The patient elephants were rewarded for sitting through- standing, rather- the considerably long blessing by being presented with an enormous table piled high with all their favorite foods- sugar cane, pineapple, bananas, jackfruit, papaya and watermelon- a veritable banquet. No time for a Sunday afternoon post-lunch nap, however. As soon as they had demolished the food, it was time to be strapped up with saddles to give us a tour of the surrounding forest. Did I mention how big elephants are? Especially when you’re sitting on a chair on top of one? It’s a long way down. I was so busy trying to hang on and not slide off that I dropped my sunglasses. Not a problem. One word from the mahout and a very dexterous trunk rooted down in the undergrowth, located my sunglasses and delivered them back to me- complete with elephant snot.

Richard Lair, a world-renowned expert on domesticated elephants and an American who fell in love with Thailand and has lived there for many years, shared with us his knowledge of the history, behavior and character of Thai elephants as well as the pressures they face today in terms of lack of habitat and friction with local people. Richard also demonstrated his devotion to spicy Thai food over our own lunchtime feast of fiery Tom Yum soup, chicken cooked with cashews, fried shredded fish served with papaya salad and spicy mixed seafood. Lunch was set to the melodious strains of an elephant orchestra, one of Richard’s many projects designed to bring international attention to the plight of domesticated elephants. After lunch we went our separate ways- some to cooking class to explore the delicate balancing act of Thai cooking, others to be pampered at a local spa retreat, and the rest to be given the grand tour of Chiang Mai by the spirited J Jay, our guide for the week.

This was just the beginning of a remarkable week of memory-making. In Chiang Mai we stayed at a tropical paradise called Yaang Come Village. Under the owner’s formidable but gracious eye, we were treated like royalty by the staff who brought us made-to-order omelets in the morning, greeted us after a long hard day of sightseeing, and sent nimble-fingered women to our room to Thai massage us to sleep. Our accommodations were no less royal at Suanthip Vanna Resort, situated in the forest of Chiang Rai Province, where we had the entire resort to ourselves. There we relaxed with our very own swimming pool, massage therapists, restaurant and bar. We didn’t think it could get any more luxurious and then we arrived at Phu Chaisai Resort perched high in the mountains near Chiang Rai Town. You have to see Phu Chaisai to believe it, but it’s a wonderland of natural materials, tropical flora, chirping geckos and whimsically crafted pottery figures. Sarah Williams commented that it felt like you were living in a treehouse and I couldn’t think of a better description. It was like living in an enchanted treehouse with its own library, fully-stocked liquor bar (oh, those Bird of Paradise cocktails!), underground club, fruit shake bar, spa with massage cabanas overlooking the valley below, swimming pool, meditation room and herb garden.

Did we come all the way to Thailand just to be fed, bathed, massaged, manicured, pedicured, given elephant rides and taken shopping? Well…yes. But that’s not all! We took our roles as responsible tourists very seriously and with equal pleasure, delved into Thai culture and history with gusto. On Day 3, we became serious fans of His Majesty King Bhumibol and his family (we learned very quickly that the King and his family are held in high reverence in Thailand and for good reason) after visiting one of the Royal Development Projects. Thailand’s natural beauty is astounding to the casual tourist but the country has had its share of environmental damage, primarily through the traditional slash and burn techniques employed by many of the local farmers. On our field trip, we learned that the various Royal Development Projects, initiated by members of the royal family (paragons of virtue compared to their counterparts in other countries), include education and training in sustainable, environmentally-friendly agricultural techniques, conservation and reforestation. The biologists among us particularly enjoyed the tour where we could see for ourselves how the forest was growing back as well as visit the local frog population and mushroom-cultivation areas of the Project.

The next day we were loaded up into the ubiquitous pick-up trucks for the bumpy, winding journey into hill tribe country. Our first stop was a Lahu village high up in the hills where we emerged from the trucks into a different place entirely. The Lahu originate from Tibet which is perhaps why they feel most at home living at high altitudes. In some ways, they, like the other ethnic hill tribes that inhabit Thailand, have been able to preserve their culture by living in villages isolated from the pervasiveness of modernity. In other ways, however, their lives have rapidly modernized, especially in the last couple of decades. Lahu children, for example, wear t-shirts with contemporary logos (where did one young Lahu boy pick up a “Playboy” shirt we wondered) and are ferried off to school every day where the exposure to modern culture becomes inevitable.

With good will on both sides, we investigated the villagers’ living quarters, marveled at all the livestock, used their Turkish porcelain toilet, handed out overly ripe bananas, ogled the handsome young chief and asked impertinent questions. Finally J Jay, Noc and our local trekker guide decided we had overstayed our welcome and led us into the jungle for a good long trek. So much for complaining about the easy life. Two perspiring hours, two bottles of water, a bag of potato chips each and much panting later, we trudged out from the tropical growth to invade another Lahu home for our picnic lunch. There is nothing like sitting Indian-style on a bamboo-woven floor in a circle of other sweaty people eating chicken legs and fried rice with a rusty musket overhead and a band of hungry kittens at your side. All we needed to complete our day was a dip in the pool, a traditional Thai massage, sunset cocktails and dinner complete with a nearby forest fire lighting up the night.

Apparently the somewhat disturbing (to us anyway if not the resort staff) forest fire was extinguished sometime during the night as we awoke to a clear bright sky. J Jay and Noc loaded us up yet again for the trip northeast towards the border with Myanmar. The drive up Doi Wawee Mountain was filled with sweeping vistas of rolling hills and fertile valleys. Within a couple of hours terraces of tea plants covered the slopes and we had arrived at the Lauwee Resort. From Tibet to China! Remnants of Chiang Kai-shek’s army, the Kuomintang, fled from southern China at the end of the Chinese Civil War to northern Thailand where they established homes and built up thriving businesses. At Lauwee we admired the views while we drank delicate cups of green tea and gorged ourselves on a massive spread of Chinese dishes. From there, we drove to Ban Mae Salak where long-tailed boats awaited us to take us on a 2-hour journey down the Mae Kok River. For many of our group members, this trip became a favorite memory because it was so essentially Thai. The river is life in Thailand and that is where you will see it. From our boats we waved at busy fishermen, laughing children, women washing laundry, water buffalo submerged in the cool depths and even a “wild” elephant!

Was there anything more to see and do? Too much, in fact, but it was time for relaxation at Phu Chaisai where our only exertion was to choose which spa treatment we fancied. We ventured out with J Jay and Noc to pack in that one last cultural excursion (the Opium Museum), that one last shopping trip (the Jade Factory), and that one last sweeping view that couldn’t be missed (the Golden Triangle), but we were really content to sit on the terrace at sunset, drinking cocktails and pondering all we’d seen and done in the last week. It’s astonishing how in one week you can fall so totally in love with a place. Oh, nothing is perfect. There’s always that cockroach in your suitcase, that annoying gecko in your roof, the drug problems, rural poverty and sex trade, but you still come away from it all with awe that on the other side of the ocean, there is a place of such indescribable beauty and grace. You also come away grateful that there are people like Priscilla, Cindy, Heidi, Jane, Jennifer, Kendra, Lance, Michelle and Sarah who appreciate all that beauty and grace with you and who make the discovery all that more fun.

Before I close this summary, just a quick word about our guides who were our closest contact with Thai people. J Jay and Noc deserve an epic poem celebrating their kindness, graciousness and humor. J Jay picked Lance and me up from the airport in Chiang Mai so became our very first impression- and one of our most favorable ones- of our one week tour. We came out of the arrival lounge and this adorable person with a welcoming smile was waiting for us with, literally, open arms. She asked, “Are you hungry?” thereby setting the tone for her maternal attitude towards the group for the coming week. J Jay’s motto: “If my customer is happy, I’m happy.” Well, we were happy…and spoiled. If the idea of thirst came into minds, J Jay was ready with ice cold bottles of water and soda. Did we feel a bit grimy? Moist towels to wipe away the sweat. A bit peckish in between meals? Bananas, tangerines and Oreos materialized. J Jay and Noc symbolized all that was best in Thai people- their hospitality, generosity, charm, warmth and open spirit. At Wat Chedi Luang temple in Chiang Mai, J Jay told us: “The more good you do for others, the happier you become.” It’s no wonder she is, and so many Thais are, happiness personified.

Thailand is truly the “Land of Smiles”. So until our next trip together, sawat-dee kaaaaaaaaa!

Trip Highlights from a few of our Sojourners:

One memorable moment was the long-tail boat ride down the Mae Kok river. It was exciting and enjoyable to sit back and relax while watching the beautiful countryside. From the river, we had great views of the mountains, with their now hidden tea plantations, which we had recently descended from. Down on the river, I had a close-up of many facets of Thai life. We passed farmers working their fields as well as people enjoying their country estates. It seemed llike everyone in Northern Thailand was enjoying the river that day. We saw locals fishing, children swimming and playing in the water, and families just out for a good time. I was also amazed by the skills of our boat drivers. They expertly navigated the sometimes tricky waters without a hitch. Overall it was an excellent day and a memorable view of Thailand.
-Lance Barnhardt

I had such a great time, that it’s hard to single out one thing over the other – I’ll give it a try nonetheless…

  • Cooking class in ChaingMai – although we were hot and tired going into this class, it was really a standout. I hope you can recommend the school on to other groups, as I know that Tim is trying to her business established, and competing heavily against the more established school. She was fantastic, and her staff was so helpful. The outdoor kitchen ambiance was delightful. The school and kitchen were immaculate – and the overall experience superb. I just made my first attempt at mango with sticky rice from our class there!
  • Elephant festival – the timing could not have been better. I think it made this outing much more special to be there the day before Thai Elephant Day, and their celebrations with their elephants.
  • Yaang Come village – really a beautiful place, my favorite of the outstanding accommodations you selected for us.
  • JJ and Nok – words fail me. Our wonderful local guides worked so hard to ensure that we had a wonderful time. They were personable and funny, and catered to our every whim. JJ “confided” to me that she was not used to such a young and energetic group of women! She was always too kind.
  • Hill Tribes trek – an amazing opportunity to see a less touristed part of the country. I agree that it’s always awkward to wander into someone’s home. Thanks to the village people for allowing us a glimpse into their lives.

-Cynthia

“Thailand is a beautiful country full of happy, friendly people who love their King. Priscilla did a great job creating a diverse adventure which included everything from a visit to a remote village to a relaxing Thai massage. I enjoyed getting to know everyone in our group. I can’t wait to visit Thailand again. Now it’s back to the reality of work, kids and carpools”
-Sarah

Taking a cooking class from Tim was a highlight. She is like the Martha Stewart of Thailand: very perky and cute. Everything was very clean and the food was delicious. I’ve already made the mango and sticky rice twice since I’ve been home!
-Kendra

One of the highlights for me was the Thai people. I made an attempt to talk (sometimes only with sign language and a few Thai words to those who did not speak English) to local people like those in shops off the beaten path in the cities, or maids in hotels, or in a market. I enjoyed their positive energy.
-Jane

Highlights for me include:

  • traveling with such interesting, kind, fun, independent, enthusiastic people
  • the group’s enthusiasm for “meal time”
  • Thai massages (and Swedish massages, deep tissue massages and foot massages!)
  • trekking in the lush hills
  • all the fresh tropical fruit and fruit juices
  • The expanse and variety of agricultural products grown in Northern Thailand
  • PhuChai Sai- this funky, relaxing resort where Fred Flintstone meets graceful Thai asthetics
  • The mix of cultures that come together in Northern Thailand

-Priscilla

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