Saturday, August 22, 2009

Therapy Elephants

Hi loyal readers. Thanks for being patient while I got my Thailand on for the last 2 weeks or so. I'm now sitting in the Seoul Incheon Airport, eating a bag of this Thai snack that Al and I call chicken sticks because the bag has a picture of a chicken on it, even though the ingredients don't mention chicken. We choose not to question it. Anyway, I have a 10-hour layover here, and I'm in hour 7 now. I spent the first 7 hours wandering aimlessly around the shiny shopping area, reading a trashy book about vampires, and sleeping on a bench, probably drooling on myself. Now I am up and about and want to begin the semi-arduous task of blogging my Thailand adventure for you all.

The best place to start would be the beginning: Chiang Mai, the first place we went after our Cambodia detour. Chiang Mai is a very pleasant city in the north of Thailand that has somehow morphed into the activity center for tourists to Thailand. The options are overwhelming: trekking, ziplining, Thai cooking class, muay thai fighting class, massage class, Thai language class, whitewater rafting, elephant parks, tiger parks, monkey parks. Basically, if there's a dangerous wild animal that is capable of being doped up for tourists' enjoyment, you'll find it in Chiang Mai. (As a side note, I'd like to point out that although I am completely against drugging baby tigers so that they won't claw out the eyes of the chubby British girls who come to "play" with them, I am still not totally convinced that ALL of the animal parks are abusive. I seem to recall reading somewhere once that when elephants paint pictures by holding paintbrushes in their trunks, it's actually therapeutic for the elephants. Al thinks this is an absurd idea, and claims that no elephant would voluntarily paint a picture without being beaten, Dumbo's-Mom-style, behind the scenes. But I am not so sure.)

After much consideration, Al and I decided to go with two days of Thai cooking class, and a two-day, one-night trek to see the so-called "hill tribes" in the countryside outside of Chiang Mai. The cooking class was held at the Chiang Mai Thai Cookery School, which is a well-respected school run by a popular Thai TV chef at his beautiful home on the outskirts of the city. The class was really fun (we got to use a real stone mortar and pestle to make curry paste, and I didn't crush my own fingers!) and we learned a lot. We cooked six dishes a day and ate each one, so by the end of each day we were deep into curry-coma and had chili and garlic oozing out of our pores. Delicious.

On our third day in Chiang Mai, we embarked on our trek, which was a package deal that included trekking, staying overnight in a hill tribe village, riding elephants, whitewater rafting, and bamboo rafting. Like most things in life, there were disinctive highs and lows on this trip. The highs: seeing beautiful scenery on our trek, playing in waterfalls, not being murdered in our beds by our opium-addled guide, getting to pet an elephant! The lows: seeing elephants being speared repeatedly with large hooks by their handlers (this wasn't a therapy-elephant kind of place), having zero contact with actual villagers (except the ones who came around peddling candy bars and massages), peeing in a hole. Actually, the peeing in the hole wasn't so bad: it made me feel rugged.

Overall, the trek was fun and I'm glad we did it, but it was tainted by the bizarre antics of our guide, Johnny. Johnny, who referred to himself as "Mr. Johnny Walker," was a crazy-eyed, wiry man with long fingernails and wispy facial hair who smoked like a chimney and occasionally made howling noises as we were tramping uphill through the forest. His jumpiness and bug eyes were later explained by the fact that Johnny was smoking opium the entire time we were trekking. I know. It's like, come ON Johnny, get with the times: opium is SO China in the 1870s. At least upgrade to heroin.

Yeah, so, Johnny was creepy, but we somehow made it back down to Chiang Mai without him going all Opium Wars on us. After our trek, we decided to get Thai massages, because it's not a trip to Thailand without some small lady pulling your body into weird configurations, right? We tried to pick a place that looked like it gave legit massages and not "sexy massages," which would have been awkward, I think. The massage place made us wear these giant Thai pants that we had to hold up with our hands, and weird, ninja-style tops. Apparently wearing ill-fitting clothes makes the entire massage more effective. Al and I were on pallets right next to each other, but I still kept my eye on Al's massage lady for the first five minutes to make sure she wasn't pulling any funny business. Hey, this is Thailand: you can never be too careful.

The rest of our Chiang Mai activities were less structured. We spent a lot of time at the night market, buying knickknacks (or, as Al called it, "Sawasdeecrap"), eating noodles, and drinking Changs. We also went to a few bars in the city, with mixed results. The first bar we went to had a dart board and played classic rock. The second bar we went to had Connect 4 and was filled with prostitutes. The instant we walked into that second bar, Al and I both knew something was weird. I was the only non-Thai female in the place, and the Thai women inside thrilled at the sight of Al, then looked disappointed when they saw me. Once they realized that we were just there for drinks and not for "massage," they went back to sitting around expectantly, scanning the street with their eyes, on the watch-out for potential business. I imagine that they normally did a pretty brisk business, since Chiang Mai is crawling with old white men who are eager to pay for sex with young, Thai women. It's completely astounding to me how many creepy old dudes I saw with girls young enough to be their granddaughters, strolling down the streets unashamed. If I were a sex tourist to Thailand, I'd at least try to hide it, I think. Not these guys: they seemed proud of the fact that they were exploitative skeezeballs. Chiang Mai was our first encounter with the blatant sex tourism that is rampant in Thailand, but it wasn't our last. Turns out that Bangkok makes Chiang Mai look like Mr. Roger's neighborhood. Yick.

After five days in Chiang Mai, we headed off to the south of Thailand for the beachy leg of our trip. I will write more about the South later, but my time at the free internet kiosk is running up. Sawatdi for now!

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous4:07 PM

    Hilarious post. I'd like to sign my baby elephant for therapy painting... please let me know where this is possible.