Magical Musings from Chiang Mai

Based on notes from my journal August 3rd-8th, 2016

      Straight from China to Thailand.  Well, not exactly.  Staying out all night boozing at Club Myst--a ratchet, in-your-face, over-the-top, expansive Shanghai club that zonked all those in attendance with excessively loud, grimy trap and dubstep music; a thoroughly excessive use of strobe lights; and free drinks for Westerners--certainly didn't help our morning mind functionality.  Neither did my six a.m. stroll for McDonalds ending in a discombobulated state of hungover hangriness after jaunts to three separate “24 hour Mickey D’s” that were all closed.  Raphael and I then laughably made the seven a.m. excursion to the wrong airport in Shanghai.  Despite having our flight information, we took the morning subway to Pudong Airport without recognizing that our flight was actually taking off from Hongqiao Airport, where we ironically entered Shanghai city limits via train days earlier. Well, shieeet.  When we finally arrived at Hongqiao Airport, well after our originally scheduled departure, we found our airline ticket counter, and much to our chagrin, we learned that Chinese Airlines play more hardball than even United Airlines.  We got no credit and had to buy a new face-value flight to Chiang Mai—where we had scheduled & paid for lodging for the next four nights. Well, shieeet.  Backed into a corner, our wallets took a hefty hit, in addition to us hanging around the airport for hours for our new and outrageously expensive flight. 

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     Before arriving Chiang Mai, we’d heard tales of it described as one of the burgeoning backpacker’s destination in Southeast Asia.  After spending time in the sci-fi cities of Tokyo and Shanghai as well as escaping the city to Mount Fuji and the Great Wall of China, Raphael and I were excited to descend into the jungle, in more ways than one, that is Chiang Mai. 

     We kicked off in Chiang Mai living in a treehouse just far enough outside the city to feel removed from the mayhem of the modern world. Lucky for us, the Viva Chiang Mai rental-house compound where the tree house was nestled was empty thanks to monsoon season.  We were the lords over the domain here, and essentially had Viva Chaing Mai’s host, Alex, as our personal local guide.  We checked in shortly after midnight and cashed out, exhausted from the unbelievable debacle that was leaving Shanghai.  As the Chinese say, success in the end erases all the mistakes along the way.  Our wallets were much much lighter, but here we were in Chiang Mai living like primordial kings in a tree house. 

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     Before arriving Chiang Mai, we’d heard tales of it described as one of the burgeoning backpacker’s destination in Southeast Asia.  After spending time in the sci-fi cities of Tokyo and Shanghai as well as escaping the city to Mount Fuji and the Great Wall of China, Raphael and I were excited to descend into the jungle, in more ways than one, that is Chiang Mai. 

     We kicked off in Chiang Mai living in a treehouse just far enough outside the city to feel removed from the mayhem of the modern world. Lucky for us, the Viva Chiang Mai rental-house compound where the tree house was nestled was empty thanks to monsoon season.  We were the lords over the domain here, and essentially had Viva Chaing Mai’s host, Alex, as our personal local guide.  We checked in shortly after midnight and cashed out, exhausted from the unbelievable debacle that was leaving Shanghai.  As the Chinese say, success in the end erases all the mistakes along the way.  Our wallets were much much lighter, but here we were in Chiang Mai living like primordial kings in a tree house. 

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     The first morning in Thailand Alex drove us to the local breakfast spot Bhukitta, which he claimed offered an authentic taste of Thailand. Raphael and I perused the menu offering local Thai dishes both spicy and savory, fresh juices, roti, homemade kombucha, coffee drinks galore, and even some Western food. Hungry for some Thai spice, we doused our palettes with spicy chili pork, stir fried basil pork, rice, and Thai iced teas.  The meal was simply narcotizing, and from our first bite on we knew our days would not be complete without eating at Bhukitta.  

     After a typical morning gorge, we decided to make the short walk back to the treehouse after meandering around Wat Rampoeng, a local Buddhist temple renowned for its meditation courses. The grounds, even under construction, were stunning.  Golden spires gleamed in the sunlight, intricate and ornate white and gold serpent figurines adorned temple entrances, and all the immaculate, wooden temples themselves.  Strolling around we noticed ourselves out of place, not in the white robes of guests on meditation retreats or the orange robes of the meditating monks.  One of these orange-robed magi, trailed by a white-robed apprentice at his heels, bid us good morning and asked if we were interested in a meditation course.  Our enthusiastic interest was irrelevant.  Meditation courses were a minimum of ten days and under heavy restriction: no electronics (laptops, phones, iPods, etc), no outside clothes (only white-robes), no eye contact, even no speaking to others.  10 days of you, your thoughts, your emotions, yourself, serious self-reflection, and the sound of silence.  Sadly, we could not commit ten days to stick around and cleanse our spirits through meditation then, but decided that such a course would have to be undertaken in the future.  The gains to be made from such an intensive and short journey into the center of the self were bound to have dramatically positive ramifications for the psyche. 

      Back at the treehouse compound, Alex secured us a scooter rental to ride into Old Town Chiang Mai later that afternoon for the whopping price of $4/day.  Our thrill at the inexpensiveness of life here was offset when the scooter arrived: an emasculating, bright blue Lilo & Stitch moped complete with the quote "Ohana means family.  Family means no one gets left behind."  Oh, did I mention Raphael and I would be sharing this scooter?  Like gayboys, we hopped on.  Raphael hit the accelerator and took us towards Old Town Chiang Mai. 

     Under the sunshine on this warm afternoon in Thailand, he tested the throttle and acceleration down a stretch of highway between us and Old Town.  He burned up the limited gas in the tank quickly, and we stopped to refuel.  If we thought the scooter was cheap at $4/day, the gas was even cheaper: an incredulous 50 cents for a full tank.  How laughable compared to gas prices back at home in Laguna Beach that ceaselessly skyrocketed above $4/gallon during the summer.  Refueled, we continued on across the square moat surrounding Old Town and into historic Old Town.

     At this point, it is pretty much in character that the first thing we did was eat.  After a morning of Thai Spice we diversified our culinary portfolio and feasted on Pad Thai, Pad See Ew, Pineapple fried rice, coconut curry, and more coffee.  Our gluttonous meal was once again enough to feed a family of four.  Bellies full and waistline bulging, we left the restaurant and got fake tattoos on the street (and scared our parents proclaiming they were legit Thai bamboo tattoos), scoured a small night market, and drank beers at a bar listening to live music--a young Thai couple singing American covers to cap the evening.  Around town we passed convenience stores, stalls selling Thai trinkets, massage parlors, restaurants, even a temple where dozens of monks were in the middle of a meditation ceremony.  In Old Town life was so festive; there always seemed reason for happiness and smiles thanks to the amalgam of traditional Thai culture and new tourist trappings.  As darkness blanketed the sky, we returned to the tree house, weary from our day out in Old Town and the previous day’s debacle just getting to Chiang Mai.  Tomorrow would be another long day, for reasons different than those of the day before: a jaunt to Doi Inthanon Elephant Sanctuary for a day among elephants, the intellectual animal kings of the jungle.

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     After a quick breakfast and coffee at Bhukitta, we headed out around eight a.m., stopping once to pick up a Parisian family that would be joining us at the sanctuary, then continuing way beyond Chiang Mai city limits.  Falling in and out of sleep, I foggily remember the journey beginning on the paved roads and highways of Chiang Mai civilization before venturing along winding dirt roads through small rural villages and other elephant farms nestled in the hills near Doi Inthanon National Park.  At these other elephant "sanctuaries" we could see local Thai villagers guiding tourists on their elephant experience, which included riding.  What a juxtaposition: villagers making a living and tourists advertising their “great lives” from atop an elephant in Thailand.

     At this point I must interrupt this story to inform my readers about the negative nature of most elephant “sanctuaries.”  In case you are out of the loop, like many of these tourists at the elephant “sanctuaries” we passed, riding elephants is extremely hurtful and damaging to these beautiful, intelligent, and majestic creatures.  Elephants have bony, protruding spines, so any added pressure on top of their backs causes significant pain, spine and vertebra damage, and even fertility issues in females.  Additionally, elephant performances such as riding are often ingrained into an elephant’s mind through barbaric training involving chains and sometimes even hooks.  So please, don't ride an elephant.  Isn't a picture feeding one, hugging one, mud-bathing with one, getting a trunk-kiss by one good enough for a soul as vapid as yours?  It was for me. 

     Once we arrived at the dead end of a dirt road that extended into the heartland of the Thai jungle, our local Karen village guide, Thong Cruise, led us to the small Doi Inthanon Elephant Sanctuary here tucked up against the nature park's lush and rolling green hills.  Under a thatched hut, we adorned ourselves with Karen village linen poncho shirts as Thong Cruise introduced himself and his upbringing in an (in)famous Karen “Long Neck” village and explained how the day would go.  In surprisingly stellar English--thanks to YouTube tutorials, American pop, and plenty of Tom Cruise movies--Thong walked us through the first hour of playful interaction feeding the elephants during which we could take photos.  With a simple command, "Bon Bon,” we could perk up the elephant's attention and get them to open their mouth for the incoming banana or bamboo treat.  After feeding the elephants, we would dive into a mud bath with the elephants, kick some elephant dung, and help bury the creatures in the soothing mud.  After dirtying ourselves up, we would hop into the small nearby river and wash down ourselves and scrub down the elephants as they showered us with river water spouted out their trunks.  Lastly, we would dine on a lunch of typical Karen food and depart back to the Treehouse. 

     Walking over to the elephants on my first approach I felt electricity coursing through my body.  There were 6 of them: 4 adults much larger than any human, and 2 babies that were thick little nuggets but no taller than myself.  My first encounter was with the largest of the majestic creatures who curiously approached me.  This gentle giant towered over me, trunk swaying gentle swaying in the breeze.  “Bon bon.”  Up his trunk went, expecting a treat. This clearly was not his first rodeo gobbling up bananas and bamboo. These elephants could see the new faces here (the tourists) wearing the same ponchos and holding the same satchels that had brought these treats before.  They remembered.  I suppose the idiom “an elephant never forgets” had to have originated from somewhere.  Not only were these elephants incredibly smart, but also incredibly strong.  Even the little baby--who could hide underneath his mother--had the strength to rambunctiously and spiritedly bowl over an unsuspecting tourist or two.  The adults were behemoths towering over us, but thrilled at the buffet coming their way.  They ate endlessly, gorging on the food as Raphael and I had gorged on our own meals, taking it all in like a vacuum.  Following the feeding frenzy, each of us was given the chance to approach the big boy again for an elephant hug and kiss.  Under Thong Cruise's command, the elephant would wrap his trunk around us for a coiled hug then give us a wet kiss on the cheek with his trunk.  A moment that radiated happiness, beauty, mindfulness, and implausibility.  When did I go down the rabbit hole and how did I get here?  Did I really get hugged and kissed by an elephant?  What is life?  

     Once the buffet closed, it was time to get dirty.  Slowly, we migrated with the elephants into a nearby mud pool.  The elephants love for splashing around in the mud was uncanny.  They joyfully dug themselves into the mud, rolled in it, used their trunks to lather themselves.  They were the stars of the afternoon, the center of attention, like a dog at a house party.
Us humans however, were much more tentative to get dirty.  Our Karen guides ensured otherwise.  The young locals threw mud coated balls of elephant dung, pushed people into the mud pit, and dumped mud on the heads of the ladies in our group.  The initial trepidation to get down and dirty in the mud was vanquished by a few muddy balls of elephant dung.  Better to be muddy than shitty. 

     Caked in a layer of mud, it was time to jump into the nearby stream and wash off. The group carefully snaked down a small but steep hill and plunged into the refreshingly crisp water. The elephants loved this just as much as the mud bath!  They dunked themselves endlessly and shot torrents of water out of their trunks into the air, water and happiness misting down to those below.  We scrubbed them to cleanliness and smiles all around, from the elephants and humans both.  All clean, we returned up to the small village for a Karen lunch of jasmine rice, noodles, and yellow curry as a torrential downpour began; it was monsoon season after all.  We ate under the cover of one of the thatched huts as Thong Cruise regaled us with his upbringing in a Karen village, where his female family members had practiced the tribal tradition of elongating their necks.  We watched a mother elephant shielding her young son from the rain with her own body, passing bamboo shoots and bananas his way.  I smiled blissfully and reveled in the happiness radiating from these elephants.  I felt like Mowgli brought to life, living my own jungle book, attuning my heart to the frequency of nature, the frequency of this phantasmagoria, the frequency of the extraordinary elephants. I felt like I was living without gravity, in the tangled dream of some fantastical reality.  Where destiny had led, beauty had followed. 

     If the ride to Doi Inthanon was foggy, then I simply do not recall the ride home.  I closed my eyes and drifted off into a subliminal slumber from which I would not truly arise until that night.

     After a day attuning to the natural world around us, Raphael and I decided to turn the dial up to max power that night and see what trouble Old Town nightlife could offer us.  By transcribing the randy and rowdy night to ensue, while a story in itself, I would simply diminish the transcendent experience at the elephant sanctuary earlier that day.  Alas, that means that is that for my journals in Chiang Mai.

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     Our introduction to Thailand was overwhelming.  Our minds were bombarded with solemn self-reflection thanks to our traverse through War Rampoeng near the tree house and observation of monks ritualistic prayer experience in town.  Our bellies were bombarded with unrelenting Thai spices as well as a deluge of Chang and Singha beer. Our hearts were bombarded with an extraordinarily enchanting experience at Doi Inthanon elephant sanctuary.  It was all utterly magnetizing.

     Going into Chiang Mai, I'd heard it described as a backpacker's haven, but my limited time there had shown me insights into a transforming scene. To me, Chiang Mai was in the middle of a metamorphosis. 10 years earlier it may have been an under-the-radar backpacker's hub for global nomads, but it was in the process of becoming a full-scale tourist destination. Much of authentic Chiang Mai was still alive and thriving, but there were hints that local life was starting to cater to the tourist industry more. When it comes to tourism in Thailand, the top destinations today are Bangkok, the Thai islands (unfair to group Phuket, Koh Phi Phi, Krabi, Koh Tao, Koh Samui, etc as one but I am so deal with it!), and Chiang Mai--the Northern, more remote, jungle-ish destination. Locals and other backpackers then and later on in the Oriental Odyssey would recommend a new location: Chiang Rai--home to the beautiful and luminous white temple--or Pai, an off-the-radar local hippie-like commune, even further north in Thailand. Next time in Thailand, Pai and Chiang Rai it shall be...or Koh Samui, Koh Phangan, Koh Tao...or Bangkok...shiiiieeeetttttttt, who knows now?