Chiang Mai might be one of my favorite cities. It is a complete 180 from the chaos and disorganization of Bangkok. We were staying in the historic center, so there were restaurants and things to do right out our door – no taxi or tuk tuk needed. On our first morning in Chiang Mai, we were up early to get reservations for massages at the Women’s Correctional Institute. Yes, you read that correctly. We were going to pay inmates to massage us. It was a few blocks from our hostel and we arrived just before the rush of customers. It was 200 baht ($7 USD) for a one-hour massage. The inmates were dressed in a light pink blouse, the color of Pepto Bismol, with dark marron pants. None of the outfits were tight fitting and they all had their hair pulled back in a tight bun. There was a guard dressed in a navy security uniform who overlooked everything they did. We took our shoes off outside, which is customary for many Thai places – hostels, restaurants, temples, etc. Tony joked that it was a never-ending shoe exchange in Thailand.
The inmates handed us each a basket with a set of clothing to change into we. We were escorted to dressing rooms where we made the switch. Then, we went into a large room where there were roughly a dozen massage beds. We each laid on the bed. As soon as I laid down, about a half dozen inmates surrounded me and started talking in Thai. I wasn’t sure what was happening until the guard came over and said that the masseuse was worried about hurting my legs. I explained in as simple English as possible that I wouldn’t be hurt but if it did I would let her know. They were okay with this and scattered back to their stations. The massage itself was incredible, one of the best I’ve ever had. The woman massaging Tony next to me and my masseuse must have been friends. They giggled quietly together and anytime I looked at them, they had an ornery look on their faces. They were certainly making the best of a difficult situation.
We had breakfast next door, which was a restaurant also run by inmates. Most of the inmates were in prison for recreational drug use and learning to do massage or wait tables gives them skills that they can use when they are finished with their sentence. I definitely recommend getting a Thai massage at the women’s prison in Chiang Mai!
We had hired a private driver for the day in Chiang Mai – total cost was only $125 for a large tourist van that we had for 10 hours. He would take us anywhere; it was definitely worth it!
The first stop was Tiger Kingdom. We all wanted to have the chance to play with tigers while in Thailand. I did a lot of research and was torn. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I struggle with animals being held in captivity. There were simply no facilities in Thailand that offered a humanitarian approach for tourists to play with tigers. After all, they are tigers…
Tiger Kingdom was the best that I could find, and in the end, it was a fine experience. Tony and I both played with a small white tiger, about 6 months old, named Whipped Cream. We had about 10 minutes of play time. Amelia wanted a bigger tiger and got to go into the cage with two fully grown white tigers. They were calm, actually calmer than Amelia! She also had just 10 minutes of play time, but it was enough.
Our driver didn’t speak any English, so each time we got back in the van, he called his office and got a woman on the phone. I spoke to her and told her where we wanted to go. She would give me tips on entrance fees, accessibility, and so on, and then she would regurgitate the same message to the driver when I handed the phone back to him. This went on all day, back and forth, back and forth. What an incredibly helpful culture.
This time, we advised that we wanted to see the Karen Long Neck Tribe. I’m sure you’ve seen pictures of the woman who wear gold rings around their necks, slowly adding more as they age. That’s exactly what this tribe of people did. We walked through their village, seeing their school and church, and taking in the trinkets they were wanting us to buy. We were able to get a few pictures of the woman, who all posed the same, with no expression on their face. There really are so many different ways of living life. I’ve seen and learned so much with my travels, and this is one of the most interesting ways of living that I’ve witnessed.
Doi Suthep is a temple up on a mountaintop of Chiang Mai. We took curvy and winding roads to the top. It was beautiful and had amazing views overlooking the city, but we had to leave early. Amelia’s shorts were too short for this temple. Fortunately, we were able to get the photos we wanted and had a complete experience.
There is a temple in Chiang Mai – Wat Ched – that allows tourists to spend time chatting with monks. In exchange, the monks get to practice their English. The setting is serene, situated immediately next door to the temple, by a coffee shop that provides drinks. The monks looked to be in their early 20s, dressed in the brownish-orange ropes that you see in movies, and I couldn’t help but wonder what wisdom they could possible provide me. I’ve learned though, that a book cannot be judged by its cover.
We had dinner at a food market next to the Chiang Mai night market. There were probably 25 different vendors, each offering something new for us to try. My favorite was the ever-popular Thai sticky mango rice. It comes highly recommended!
The next morning, we had a 6:30 am pickup to the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary. We took a Songtaew there. This is basically a pickup truck with benches on each side and a makeshift roof over the top. It fits 8-10 people. I suppose it’s cheaper than a bus. We were going to the airport immediately after this, so our bags were tied to the top of the Songtaew for the hour and a half drive. We were packed full – eight people in the back and two in the front.
The elephants were adorable. We fed them hundreds of bananas. One even ate a few off of my head! We had the opportunity to go into their pen and play with and feed them. There was a baby, about two years old, who started running away when he saw me. One of the employees said that the elephants “never see wheelchair and get scared.” I moved to the sideline from then on out. The last thing I needed was a startled momma elephant ready to attack!
The second half of the elephant activity involved giving the elephants a mud bath and bathing them in a river. I stayed back at the main building center during this event. One of the local boys, I would guess about 19 or 20, came up to me after I sat for a while. He asked if I liked coffee and brought be a cup. His English was extremely limited, but I found out that he has a girlfriend in Chicago. He asked me, “Can I ask you anything?” “Sure.” “What happened to your legs?” I tried to explain in very simple English, and I think he understood. He told me that he had a 15-year-old brother that used a wheelchair and his mom was still caring for him. He is one of seven children. He asked me if I finished university and I asked him the same. He said he wants to very badly but that he doesn’t have enough money to. It took some willpower to not hand over all of my baht to him and tell him to go learn! It was obvious he had a good heart, and wanted a better life, but didn’t have the means to get there. His story will stick with me, but I know he is also just one of millions in Thailand. The poverty there is heartbreaking.
Earlier that morning, I was talking with another worker who asked me where I had all been. Tony responded that Thailand was my 52nd country. He smiled with a big grin and said, “You know how many countries I been to?” And he held up one finger. He was so optimistic, saying that someday he wanted to visit more. I am so, so fortunate, for so, so many things.