Friday, 11 December 2009

Chiang Mai

Our first night in Chiang Mai was spent indulging each of our favourite pleasures - food and shopping.

The Sunday Night Markets here are not to be missed. Hidden off the main thoroughfare in a series of courtyards is a seemingly endless array of food stalls, selling fresh rotti, noodles, sushi, juice, duck....the choices are endless and cheap beyond belief! As a result, we bought more plates than we could carry and eat more than we should - no surprise there.

Libby then indulged in some retail therapy as we worked our way through the hundreds of stalls manned by the small boutiques from the region - t-shirts, shoes, handbags, paintings, ornaments, many stalls, so much for Libs to buy!

There were two main reasons we came to Chiang Mai, not just food and shopping, but cooking and elephants. We trumped for a fantastic full day cooking school at Baan Thai, starting with the usual visit to a local market for our super fresh ingredients. It was then back to the lovely provincial townhouse to start off our class with some easy stir fries (sweet basil prawns for Dave, chicken and cashew nuts for Libs), before moving onto a little more technique for the fish cakes, spring rolls and deep fried bananas no calorie counting here! It was time for muscle after that as we pummelled the mortar and pestle for our curry pastes that formed the basis of our Chiang Mai noodle and Panaeng curries. There was also soups of hot and sour prawns and seafood in coconut milk and when you consider we ate everything we prepared that day, needless to say we were stuffed! But the best result of the day was when Dave managed to talk his way into getting an old photo from the houseowner that showed Elvis Presley sitting with the King and Queen of Thailand - the King and the King! That's going straight to the pool room!

As for the elephants, we spent an amazing and without sounding cliched, life changing day out at the Elephant Nature Park, just 40km outside Chiang Mai but a world away from the hustle and bustle of Thailand's second biggest city. It is a slice of real paradise and seeing their 35 Asian elephants (together with dogs, cats, water buffalo and who knows how many birds) living and playing out their days without fear and full of love, it changed the way we thought about these graceful but threatened giants.

The people of Thailand worship the elephant as a national symbol of strength and perseverance. And yet, the Thai government watch idly as elephants are tortured as they are 'broken in' to serve their masters for profit. Asian elephants were traditionally used as cheap labour in foresting but after that industry was ended in the early 90s, elephants were out of work and became a nuisance to villages' crops. As a result, many were shot, starved, abused or worse.

The Elephant Nature Park was set up by a woman named Lek (which means small in Thai) to save those elephants treated most poorly. Elephants like Jokia who was blinded in both eyes by her forestry employer when she refused to work after losing a baby. Or Hope who was made an orphan when villagers shot and killed his mother for eating their corn crops. Or Lily who became addicted to the amphetamine used by her masters to get her to work around the clock. So many sad stories, all turned around by Lek and her merry band of mahouts (elephant trainers) and volunteers who brought these gorgeous giants to this sanctuary where they live out their lives happily and free of harm.

During our day here, we got to feed the elephants twice, pet the baby calves through their enclosure as they ran around in the dust, even bathe the elephants in the river that runs through the sanctuary, scrubbing their rough skin with brushes and tickling them behind their ears.

To get so close to such powerful animals,to feel their appreciation of our affection, to see love and good replacing pain and hurt, was something truly powerful and unforgetable.

Mr and Mrs T xx

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