Tigers, Elephants & Flying Lanterns in Northern Thailand

12/27/2013

Alex and I have a running joke about missing festivals. Sequencing long-term travel is hard enough when you consider cost, distance, seasons, and meeting friends, so we’ve never considered festivals. But when we saw pictures of the Yi Peng Festival near Chiang Mai, we damn well shuffled things around to make it work.

The first challenge was navigating travel between Battambang, Cambodia and Chiang Mai. After weighing trains and busses for the whole route, we decided that it was easier to bus to Bangkok and hop a plane from there. We hopped a taxi to the Thai border (2.5h for the price of a 10m ride back home) early to beat the bus rush– border lines can apparently get serious when the full busses arrive.

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The border was a breeze. We just hopped in a few short lines and walked across. First impression of Thailand: confusing. There were no signs in English and no clear “next step” for the unescorted tourist. We’d read to ignore the touts and head to the busses, but we never were able to find a place near the border to buy a ticket. It was hot and frustrating. We knew there was a bigger bus station a few miles away, so we hopped a tuk tuk there and things finally came together.

Five and half hours later, we asked the bus driver to drop us off on the side of the highway (the bus drove right by the airport on the way to the bus station), walked over an overpass, and we were on the way to Chiang Mai in style.

Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai is a legit Thai city that exists for reasons beyond tourism (gasp!). It’s an old city (the core of which has the remains of walls and a moat) with loads of gorgeous temples.

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As a city, it didn’t strike us as terribly interesting, but that was no problem– because it was festival time! Nonetheless, we tromped all over the city trying to get a sense of things. We stayed outside of the old city (not our preference, but lodging was scarce due to the festivities) and eventually learned that the southern part of the old city was our favorite. Chiang Mai had plenty of street food and beloved restaurants, but we weren’t terribly impressed with the Thai Food. Once again, Tony’s Universal Law of Ethnic Food Being Better in America proved true.

The festival wasn’t entirely convenient for our seat-of-the-pants travel style. Massage places were booked solid, and all of the elephant sanctuaries (where you could live with elephants for a few days) didn’t have room ’till the next month. Foiled!

Chiang Mai is a base for trekking in Thailand and visiting the hill tribes, but we couldn’t bring ourselves to think that hiking in 90 degree weather was a good idea… So we stuck to wandering around the city and festival-related stuff (mostly in the evening).

One somewhat-cheesy (and perhaps not entirely ethical) activity that I jumped on was hanging with tigers. Tiger Kingdom offers overpriced packages where you can hang with tigers of varying sizes. Alex didn’t like the idea and stayed home. It’s a complicated issue… The younger tigers get a pretty decent life– large enclosures, swimming pools, plenty of food, etc. My first sight of the tigers was these two guys playing in the pool.

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All they have to endure is tourists hanging all over them during the day. Once they get old enough, however, they stop being so friendly and aren’t willing to share space with other tigers or humans… which means the biggest cats are in small cages. It’s sad, but what can you do? Shutting down places like this will only result in a bunch of additional tigers getting turned into expensive food and aphrodisiacs (WTF, China?). I wasn’t thrilled with it, but I didn’t see it as much less ethical than bacon consumption… And, snuggling with freakin’ tigers was kind of a trump card.

Tiger by the Tail
Grabbing the tiger by the tail was less dramatic than I was led to believe

Lanterns and Floating Offerings… Festival Time!
Yi Peng & Loi Krathong are two coinciding festivals celebrated all over Southeast Asia. Yi Peng is the floating lantern festival– thousands of fluorescent jellyfish get released simultaneously with spectacular effect and pay homage to Lord Buddha while wiping the proverbial slate clean. Loi Krathong centers around letting go of all one’s hatred, anger and bad luck, often in the form of a floating offering released into the river.

While the festivals may have spiritual origins, for most Thai people they seemed to be an excuse to wander around and eat street food. Wherever we went there were happy crowds, with perhaps only 1 out of 100 having a white face– most of the tourists were from Southeast Asia, with a generous helping of Chinese.

We’d read that the major lantern release was at Maejo Unversity (40 minutes northwest of Chiang Mai). An old friend from Anchorage happened to be in town, so we grabbed a taxi north with him to join the fray. Once we got out, the crowds started getting more and more dense. At first, it was fun– there was street food and lantern hawkers and we launched our first ones to make sure we knew what to do during the big launch.

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But soon the crowds got shoulder to shoulder– we were as close to the stage as we were going to get. We waited a stifling 20 minutes before the monks on stage started chanting in anticipation of the launch (occasionally someone would hop on the loudspeaker and discourage people from their impromptu lantern launches).

When the moment finally arrived, we got 15 minutes of one of the most beautiful things we’ve ever seen.

It was a good thing that we had 15 minutes of beauty and fellowship so we could endure the exodus. Never before had we been so tightly packed with other humans. Add to this the fact that Asian cultures don’t have remotely the same “crowd etiquette” that most westerners do, and it might’ve been some of the most bizarre and miserable minutes of our 7-month trip. Imagine being mashed by humans on all sides, not moving at all. All at once, the crowd shuffles a few short steps and stops dead again. If you don’t aggressively shuffle, someone quickly sidles into the space you left in front of you, killing any progress you could’ve made. Rinse, repeat… for about an hour. We managed to go “off road” over a chain link fence and then through some barbed wire to make some quick headway at one point, which was pure bliss. With all of that, we’d do it again in a heartbeat… It was too damn magical for any crowd-related-misery to ruin it!

The next day, we relaxed a bit in anticipation of heading downtown in the late afternoon to explore and find a massage (challenging with all of the festival tourists!). We ended up walking for so long that we just decided to stick around for the Loi Krathong festivities in the city.

Bridge During Loi Krathong

There were crowds, but somehow they seemed trivial compared to the previous night. There were lanterns being launched all over the place, lit offerings being dropped in the river, and street food everywhere… It was glorious! We found a cool setting to photograph ourselves launching lanterns (challenging in the crowds the day before).

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Finding a taxi proved to be a challenge so we ended up walking all the way back to the hotel (we walked 10 miles that day!).

It’s Time for Pai (and Scorpion Bites!)
We’d read mixed reviews on Pai, but decided we wanted to see more of northern Thailand. Pai is a mountain town reachable via a 3 hour minivan ride with 762 curves. We’d read one person who said that 5 out of 8 people in her minivan threw up on the journey, so we took a rare dramamine and rode north.

The town of Pai once existed without tourists, but now it is purely and utterly a backpacker town. It had a hilarious hippy vibe– quiet in the daytime, but coming alive with pedestrian streets in the evening. The street food was outstanding ($5 or so for us both to fill up on varied foods) and the people-watching was peerless. There is nothing authentic about Pai, but the vibe is wonderful and it’s pretty relaxing.

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We chose to stay out of town a bit in a bungalow at an elephant camp. The elephants were retired logging workers and had been in the family for years– in fact they had once been used in a war against Malaysia! The younger generation of elephant owners is blending tourist activities with the need of these intelligent animals for constant stimulation and 200 pounds of food each day. The elephants slept in the jungle each night and were taken on excursions to a local river at least 3 times a day. Every day we ate breakfast near elephants. We could wander down at any time and hang out with them, feed them bananas, and grab a hug or two. They didn’t seem terribly affectionate, but they were gentle and very aware… And they LOVED bananas. Here is a video of Tony talking baby talk to a 3 ton animal:

We took a bamboo raft down the river and a short elephant ride through the jungle (their main line of business). You ride bareback up into the hills (the platforms that most people ride on are hard on their backs) and then down to the river to splash around. The river was a hoot– the elephants immediately came alive spraying us and (with some encouragement from the mahouts) bucking us off into the water.

That night, Alex met some new local wildlife– a scorpion! I woke up to an “aAhh… AHHHHHHHHH!” from the bathroom and groggily asked, “Do you need help?” When she said “YESSSS!!”, I hopped up to see what was wrong… It took a while to figure out. Alex was wide eyed, holding her hand, breathing at a crazy pace, and all she could get out were somewhat incomprehensible sentence fragments, usually containing the phrase “shards of glass”. She finally was able to let me know that she was reaching towards the shower sprayer when it happened. There was no glass nearby, so I was befuddled… Until I spotted a small grey scorpion sitting on top of our clothes soaking in the tub.

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“Oh, shit.”

Nothing is more exciting that googling “scorpion sting” at 3 in the morning in Pai, Thailand. It turns out these little buggers are almost never deadly unless you are allergic, but they can cause agony for 4-24 hours, with pain and numbness sometimes lasting for days. Alex was a trooper… Once she calmed down, she loaded up with painkillers and antihistamines and tried to wait it out. Her hand was still hurting a lot the next night and took days to get back to normal.

I did battle with the scorpion and it looked something like this:

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Actually, it looked nothing like that. I was terrified of getting stung and had no idea if scorpions were fast, could jump, etc. It turns out that if you have brutally painful poison, you don’t need any other impressive traits. The poor fella was easy to herd into a glass, and I chucked him into the jungle.

Pai & Chiang Mai… Worth it?
Chiang Mai is a solid city to base yourself out of for northern Thailand. If you love temples, it might be worth a visit. If you’re there, interacting with elephants and tigers is a rare treat. But the festivals? Flat-out one of the cooler things we’ve seen and done. Build a trip around it and you won’t regret it.

Pai is a little more challenging. It’s certainly not very Thai, but both of us really enjoyed wandering and motorbiking around town (especially at night when it gets more lively).