We bled baht today. We tried to avoid the tourist-traps but as tourists, well, we were trapped. Even when you are not on a tour, everywhere you go is set up for the tour buses, and you have a pretty similar experience.
We started the day with banana pancakes and ginger tea (awesome!) at our hotel on the lovely little patio, and since the songthaews were already booked, we got a private taxi for the day. This turned out to be the best choice -although expensive, it saved me a lot of stomach problems between the diesel and the winding roads! We spent most of the day touring Mae Sa valley, which is beautiful and lush and full of touristy things to do.
Ty's only goal for this trip is to touch a tiger, and today was our day. We were prepared to have to turn our morals off for the event. It turned out the animals seem to be treated well – we heard they were sedated in some places but didn't seem to be here to us. They do sleep a lot during the day anyhow.
(this is the half of the tiger you get to interact with, since the other half looks like the picture below...)
While it isn't necessarily a good thing to keep wild animals captive, they are somewhat domesticated- bred and raised at the place, and then retired to zoos after a few years of public life. Or so they tell us...but their cages and enclosures were clean, decently sized (similar to small zoos'), and they seem to rotate who gets bothered by the public and who gets a day off.
(Ty getting to pet his favorite animal, the big kitty)
Since they are pet and handled by the public and keepers from 4 weeks old and onward, they don't seem at all bothered (obviously, or we wouldn't be here to tell about it), and the handlers played and interacted with the animals even outside of their work stations. Compared to the sad snake farm we visited later, the tigers have it pretty good.
(who's making a better tiger face, me or the tiger?)
(at the end of this video,I point to the tiger's foot. Right after, he sat up - I was sure he was going to eat me for touching his foot on accident - but actually he just wanted to scratch his ear. You can see him start to sit up at the end of the video. The trainers had a good laugh at my jump out of his way!).
So we pet, snuggled, and otherwise dorkily got our fix of tigers. We started with the big guys – 23 months and huge, and mostly sleeping. Then we went to see the little guys- 6 months old and somewhat teenagerish. Super cute and more squeezable with their baby fat. They were more interactive and you could get much closer to them than the big boys (who we could only pet on the hind quarters).
(this one is around 5-6 months old)
(triplets - 2 boys and the girl is in the back)
(they were very sleepy - it was hot!)
Later we went to a snake farm and watched a 'show' which involved handlers harassing snakes to make them look scary and try to bite. It was really sad. They threw them around quite a bit – one was even swung in big circles by the tail to scare the audience. I thought about leaving it was so sad. We humans forget that even the most dangerous animals are mostly pretty boring during the day. Big cats, venomous snakes – they mostly want to mind their own business, and have to be provoked to be “exciting.”
(kissing the cobra)
The cobras were awesome though – and not harassed nearly as much since they could fight back. We sat in the front row, women behind us were screaming and bouncing around from the back row – lame! We did get to see some new species and snuggle up with a python, as well as get some relatively-close up shots of cobras after the show.
(definitely a venomous snake...Ty with 3 cobras)
(the handlers don't know we can do this at home too, so they are very excited and trying to look "tough" for this "brave" moment.)
(veteran snake handler)
The orchid farm was small but beautiful, and the orchids smelled amazing. Ty has a great picture of me making a face when I was trying to smell a flower and it went up my nose. :) By this time it was really hot and we started drooping from the humidity. Our driver, Mr. Boi, told us it was especially hot today- although he might have just been nice – it’s hard to know anything for sure as a tourist.
Finally, we went to the hill tribe area, something like a co-op of various tribes living together and selling their wares. This was almost as sad as the snake farm – except it was people on display. They were kind and made a point to talk to us – some did just hawk wares but others tried to speak with us in their limited English.
The high points were an older man teaching us to shoot his bow and arrows (similar to the kid’s version with rubber bands), and we both actually had decent shots – he was very kind. The other high point was watching some little kids playing around – they were maybe 4 years old and lived there. not realizing yet that there was any other way to live. The boy was showing off how tough he was by overturning all of the stools and tables, grunting and pulling the floor mats over his head to play a form of hide and seek. One of the girls pranced around in little plastic high heels, another had on a Disney princess dress. Apparently only the adults have to wear traditional garb.
(Ty learning the bow game - the targer is just behind the corn)
(hill tribe children passing time and looking cute)
The Karan longneck practice of having their women don heavy brass rings, which compress their collar bones and make their necks look longer, is highly criticized. Not only is it difficult for the women (they can't go for more than 10 or 15 minutes without the rings as their necks can no longer support the weight of their head), and traditionally sometimes used to oppress women (women caught in adultery would have their rings removed, which causes them to die from asphyxiation when they can no longer hold their head up); human rights groups are concerned that the practice, which was mostly abandoned, is being reintroduced for the sake of getting tourist money. The women are now curiosities that bring in money for the tribes. This definitely seemed to be the case here - all of the tribes felt "on display" and were certainly not in their natural social situations, being piled on top of each other and separated from their home groups.
Watching the children and the Karen mothers taking care of their little ones, I was struck at how universally human we all are. (The Karen are the hill tribe known for wearing bronze rings around the women’s neck, elongating them and giving them the nickname “long necks”). We all laugh at our children, play games, pretend to be nice to strangers, snack, sleep, get bored – whether we are tourists or living in a fake traditional village selling our people's cultural knock-offs to survive.
(A Karan long neck with rings is in this photo if you look closely)
We were really ready for a good shower and nap by around 3pm, so we returned to the hotel early. For dinner we walked to 'The Writers Club' in the middle of the old city. It was nice but not exciting – although I could stomach Thai food, which was nice. Supposedly Friday and Sunday nights here actual local expat writers converge, but it was so tiny it was hard to imagine much of a scene here. We watched geckos fight to the death (or several foot plunge) on the restaurant sign – they aren't as cute anymore!
(an all out gecko war is happening on this restaurant sign)
(best food we had in Thailand, yet so simple: ripe bananas stewed in sweet coconut milk!)
On the way home we felt brave enough to make a large loop back on new streets. Chiang Mai actually feels more accessible at night – the traffic and noise are much less intense, and many of the buildings and temples are lovely and lit up. The side streets are quiet in a safe and peaceful sort of way – at least in the old city. The weather is cooler and all of the stray dogs and cats come out to wander the streets – it’s a nice thing here though. The strays are relatively clean, well fed, and uninterested in humans, and everywhere!
(noticing some serious code violations on the way home. This is an outlet for the night market vendors, left hanging without any junction box on the sidewalk. At least they covered it with a bag to protect it from the rain?)
(Thai people are small, but not this small! The only choice around this phone booth is to step into the busy street, which has no shoulder area)
(awesome giant snail!)