A few days in the hustle and bustle of Bangkok got us eager for the countryside of Thailand. Our first stop was two hours west to Kanchanaburi. Some of you may recognize it as the home to the bridge on the River Kwai. The movie (“The Bridge On The River Kwai”) came out in 1957 and was actually shot in Sri Lanka, but the true location is here in Thailand. There are lots of historical WWII sites in town that are sobering and educational, but tend to level out our otherwise high spirits. I have a feeling there will be plenty more moments like this once we venture to Vietnam and Cambodia.
The main thing to do in Kanchanaburi is to explore outside of Kanchanaburi. We rented a motorbike one day (kinda like a Vespa) and drove 65km up to Erawan Falls. It has seven tiers spanning just over 2km that can be hiked progressively. It took just over an hour to get all the way to the top, which had clear blue water and powdery white stones. There were also fish in the pools that would nibble the dead skin from your feet if you kept them still long enough (a treatment that costs about $5/half-hour in Bangkok massage parlors). We jumped into a couple of the waterfalls on the way back down, but felt a bit rushed because we still wanted to get to the Tiger Temple before it was too late.
The Tiger Temple was founded by a Buddhist monk in 1994 as a forest temple and refuge for wildlife. In 1999, it received its first tiger cub when its mother was killed by poachers. Since then, tigers have been raised and cared for by Buddhist monks. As of May 2012, the total number of tigers has risen to over 100. The amazing thing about it is that since the tigers have been raised by hand around humans, they’re used to being touched and handled without much complaining. They used to roam about freely, like all of the other animals, but due to their population increase and popularity amongst tourist they are now kept on leashes for safety. Also, the only time they are brought to the public is from 12:30-3:30pm (hence the rush from Erawan Falls) when they’re the most sleepy and mild-mannered. Like your typical house cat, tigers sleep around 16-18 hours/day, especially during the afternoon heat.
Some argue that the animals are mistreated and drugged in order to be so docile for tourists. Others claim that this is simply a front for illegal tiger breeding and trade. Because of this, we were a bit hesitant to visit, but decided to see for ourselves anyways. (I mean really, how often do you get to pet a tiger?!) Although we were only there for just over an hour, we didn’t get the impression that they were abused or drugged. They’re just big cats! But there’s no way to know what goes on behind the scenes. Overall, we’re pretty happy we went and only wish we had gotten there earlier to savor this rare opportunity. (see more pics here: https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.3706653938897.283698.1051984216&type=3&l=b57c19cf32)
The rest of the day was spent cruising around the countryside and seeing how fast this little bike could go. I think I topped out at 105! (don’t worry mom, it was in km/hr) We even woke up early the next day to watch the sunrise and visit The Cave of the Buddhas before the motorbike was due back at 9am. The landscape in Thailand is beautiful; rolling blue hills set behind fields of cultivated land speckled with bamboo huts. Two days later, I rented a bicycle and rode out to visit The Giant Monkey Pod Tree and soak in the scenery.
Transit from Kanchanaburi to Chiang Mai required a pit stop back in Bangkok for a few hours. We hopped on an overnight VIP bus at 9pm and arrived around 6:30am. This bus was by far the nicest we’d encountered so far – double decker, reclining seats, neck pillow, blanket, bottle of water, and snacks in the evening and morning! I can’t tell you what a difference this was from India and Sri Lanka. We were even able to get some sleep during the journey.
Chiang Mai is a backpacker haven with a university atmosphere. Inside the walls of the old city, narrow streets wind their way to a multitude of restaurants, guesthouses, and travel agencies (most of the time all three in one) filling the space between magnificent Buddhist temples. We arrived on a Sunday, which meant we could experience the Sunday Night Market. Endless booths filled the main streets with everything from clothes to jewelry to artwork and eateries (even a booth with fried insects!). It would be great if we were near the end of our trip and could buy all the wonderful things for sale at ridiculously cheap prices, but we’ve still got a lot to see and every ounce counts when it’s being lugged in a backpack.
Due to the abundance of prepackaged tours with a range of activities we’d been waiting to do, we decided to book an all day tour with the company Chok Chai. It included a little bit everything in a neatly packaged itinerary. We were picked up from our guesthouse around 9am with the first stop being an orchid and butterfly farm. Only 20 minutes of viewing pleasure here, then it was off to the Longneck Hill Tribe village. This was a bit awkward since it is strictly intended for tourists to see how indigenous tribes in northern Thailand and Myanmar live. The women spend days sewing shawls and making knickknacks for tourists to buy, and every little stall has exactly the same stuff. The main attraction is that the women also wear brass rings around their neck beginning from a young age. Over time, the progressive addition of rings elongates the vertebrae and creates an unusually long neck (hence the name of the tribe). It felt almost like a zoo or a museum, but with real people.
Then we were driven the Chok Chai facilities. First, it was a 40 minute elephant ride with the most gentle of giants that couldn’t stop stuffing their faces every few steps. They say an elephant never forgets, but this one didn’t seem to remember when he had his last meal! Then we suited up to go zip-lining through the forest. It only took about 70 minutes, but there were 15 lines and 3 vertical drops – enough to make me satisfied! After lunch we took a ride upstream to go whitewater rafting. The water wasn’t too intense, but there were some exciting moments with twists and drops. From the river, we drove a little bit to a waterfall and had time for a relaxing swim. Then it was back to the Chok Chai grounds to end the day on a slow-moving bamboo raft and enjoy the scenery in the setting sun.
Out of all of this non-stop activity, my favorite part of the day was something that wasn’t even in the itinerary. As we were waiting for the guide to take us on the bamboo raft, some of the other employees were training a 5-year-old elephant for a show they do at night. We got to feed and pet him if he responded properly to the commands. I even played around with his trunk for a bit and he almost ate my hat! To have that sort of interaction with an animal that I’d otherwise never get to be around is one thing that makes traveling to a different part of the world so much fun. Unfortunately, we got the feeling that these animals are sometimes mistreated, unlike at the Tiger Temple. Here, every worker has a 15” stick with a 5” sickle on the end of it that they use to jab into the elephants when they want it to do something. The elephants also spend most of the day with a chain around their foot. One was simply swaying and pacing back and forth in the small area that his chain allowed. They seem so innocent and docile; I don’t know why anyone would want to harm them!
The next day, we planned to rent a motorbike again and see the surrounding area of Chiang Mai. When we went to the front desk to tell them that we’d like to stay an extra night, we were told that there are people coming back from a trekking trip and they need our room for them. Instead of hopping on a motorbike we headed upstairs to pack. Faced with the decision to find another guesthouse or move on to another town, we took this as a sign that our time in Chiang Mai had ended. We went to the bus station and took a twisting, turning, three-hour journey to the quaint bohemian/backpacker town of Pai. We’ve been here since Wednesday and it was the best decision we could’ve made! It’s going to be so hard to leave…