In the Land of the Thai: Part 1, Chiang Mai

It’s been over a month since I’ve returned from Thailand. A month! My taste buds are still in mourning. Mourning and longing for the deliciousness that was every day of our trip. What was my favorite part of Thailand? The food. Hands down. I don’t think I’ve eaten anything since to rival the effortless flavors I consumed there. Nothing. My food life has become blah. Oh Thailand, dear sweet and spicy and flavorful Thailand, thank you for sharing your cuisine with me. I think of you fondly and often.

Now that I’ve gotten that out of my system, I can talk about the rest of our trip—only because I’m going to give food a post unto itself.

We opted to visit Thailand because we are determined to take advantage of Kazakhstan’s proximity to the rest of south and central Asia. My husband also has family there, which moved it up on our list of priority places to visit. Another bonus – a decently priced direct flight from Astana to Bangkok on Air Astana! And funny enough, many of our friends who work at the university have either worked as English teachers in Thailand or have spent extensive vacation time there and could not stop singing its praises once we told them we were going. And after visiting, I can see why they endorse it so highly.

We spent most of our time in Chiang Mai, a sizable city in the northwest where my husband’s uncle and family live. It was great having a local guide, not just for showing us around, but because we were able to learn so much more about the culture, food, and strong Buddhist traditions of the region.

One of the most striking things about Thailand in general are the wats, or temples. We visited several in Chiang Mai, some of which are on high hills and have spectacular views of the surrounding region. It was a holy day when we went to Wat Phra That Doi Kham mid-morning. Crowded, full of unfamiliar sounds and smells, vibrant colors everywhere—it was a feast for the senses. Devotees gathered around shrines to give offerings of pungent incense, elaborate flowers, small statues, and even water. Groups of musicians scattered about the temple grounds animated the air with metal drums, bells, and other instruments. The wat and its smaller shrines, covered in gold, reflected the sun brilliantly and radiated against the fuchsia, saffron, and emerald accents that permeated every corner. Everything about it was breathtaking.

Visiting Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep in the evening a few days later was a very different experience. Quiet and serene, it felt more like a holy place. I had to cover my legs and shoulders with sarongs before entering the most sacred area. The gold encasing the wat was a deeper, richer bronze, which was only enhanced by the red accents. Monks melodically chanted their evening prayers. People lit oil lamp offerings or incense speaking quietly to one another or not at all. It was a place of calm.

I had reservations about visiting a place called Tiger Kingdom; it’s one of these attractions where visitors can pay to pet tigers ranging in age from young cub to 3-year-old adult. There are mixed reviews online about the ethics of the park (accusations that the animals are drugged, abused, etc.), but many of the criticisms came from people who had not actually visited or confused it with a notoriously vile place, Tiger Temple. After reading some very positive accounts, such as this one from someone who spent several months working in the park and a follow-up post, I felt better about going.

The park itself seemed very clean, the pens well attended, and the caretakers genuinely cared for the health and safety of the animals and visitors. I probably would have opted to pet a tiger cub, but they didn’t have any cubs at the time (only a lion cub which my husband’s 6-year-old cousin got to meet) demonstrating they are not churning out tigers unnecessarily. I thought a fully-grown tiger would be too intimidating, so I opted to visit a medium-sized kitty, about 18 months old. My husband and uncle seemed relaxed touching this creature; I, however, was a bit terrified. Not even fully grown, the tiger was massive. The fur was coarser than I expected and the body very strong. Knowing how much my cat hates having his butt pet, I was just waiting for a giant paw to come and slap me. It was docile though and seemed to enjoy it a bit! Anyone who has a cat knows how much they sleep…almost three-quarters of the day. Tigers are no exception. They had all the mannerisms of our housecat, Meo, but packed in a body that could do serious damage!

While walking around later, we saw several of the pens and other play areas, other parts were under renovation. The individual pens were a bit small and some of the animals paced, which most animals do in captivity. One of the play areas featured a pool that two tigers were hoarding while a third tried to lure them out to take his turn in the cooling water. They played and chased each other as siblings would and it was cute to see.

Overall, I still have some reservations about the place because, like all zoos, this is not where animals should be. However, while it is not an ideal situation, at least places like this will keep us from completely losing such a beautiful animal and hopefully more stretches of their natural habitat will be protected for their future conservation.

The best part of Chiang Mai was being embraced by our extended family. My husband’s uncle is married to a warm Thai woman and they have a beautiful, kind, and funny family. My…what would it be…aunt-in-law by marriage(?) is fortunate to still have both her mother (88 years old and from whom I had the opportunity to learn how to cook a Thai dish!—keep an eye out for the upcoming Thai food post) and grandmother (~102 years old!).

The morning we were set to leave Chiang Mai, Grandma wanted to offer a Buddhist blessing to me and my husband. Still active, she spins cotton thread for her local temple and visitors come from far away to receive her blessings; this was an exceptional honor. For the blessing, she caressed our open, upturned palms with pieces of her twisted string while muttering prayers, tied the strings around each wrist, and sent us on our way to Bangkok.

Blessings from Grandma

More to come soon!


3 thoughts on “In the Land of the Thai: Part 1, Chiang Mai

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