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The International Writers Magazine

Chiang Mai on a Shoestring
Rachel Chan Suet Kay

Rachel Chan Suet Kay tours the city during a Peace Studies training course in Thailand.

Sunday morning came and we stuffed ourselves to brace the day. It would be a break from the heavy studying of the week. I asked our poet friend Javed why he ate so little at breakfast. As the cool of the early morning turned to prickling heat, we got restless waiting for Babar who woke up late once again that morning. Once we made the headcount, the tuk-tuk sped off on a road trip across the vast city of Chiang Mai.
Maesa Elephant Camp 
I did it. I touched an elephant. And then much later on I was in turn, touched by an elephant. The elephants, from my very first glance, were chained in spirit and body to the role of jester. Ugly Americans snapped away. We were the real animals, I hissed to anyone who would listen.
A few in the group agreed. Javed said it was due to capitalism. Reluctantly I followed the rest of the group (it was a pre-planned tour) despite initially having plans to run off to explore on my own. (Aleem and Nang were clever enough to go sightseeing on their own).
Tuk-tuks will take you along a preplanned route which links all the main tourist attractions for 15 baht. The price of the ticket was expensive and I felt uninspired at having to watch the humiliation of elephants. These were proud creatures who once fought in battles! But now they were reduced to carrying sedentary tourists who did not refrain from gawking at them throughout the whole show, passing comments as though they were at a slave auction.
Anyhow it was photo taking session afterwards, which cooled me down a bit. We snapped around while the seats were still empty of tourists who came merely to give armchair comments. Somehow I felt that the comments were uncultured compared to the beauty of the place. Maybe I was only hungry. After all the porridge I had for breakfast was slowly beginning to wear off. Here was a place I could lose weight while eating like…an elephant.
The elephants however, were astoundingly talented. They began with performances which they improvised at the end individually begging for tips. Then they moved on to performing greater tricks. They played football and proceeded to heckle each other as humans do. However what was really surprising was when they started to paint, which was nothing short of genius! Of course capitalism reared its ugly head again as the paintings were priced at 8000 baht each. The elephants provided foot massage too…
Butterfly Farm and Umbrella Making Factory
One of the traditional handicraft centres of Chiang Mai. Here was where they produced the dainty parasols, Chinese fans, papier-mache notebooks, ornamental swords (!) and other quirky little ornaments one can find in night bazaars. This was the source itself.
Wandering into the entrance the first to greet me was the T-shirt printing section where I was told I could get my own blank T-shirts deeper in the factory. So we went in, anxious to get a good buy. Along the way we were assaulted with the colours of ornaments surrounding the shelves. Fans of various shapes, sizes, and materials appeared before us.
The butterfly farm was where we had lunch. For the PETA folks no butterflies were on the menu. Only uber-expensive vegetarian meals for me and the smarter buffet choice which others made. Water cost 20 baht, which is 2 ringgit.
Silk House
Before the final tour site we stopped to marvel at the silk factory. I resigned myself to window shopping as I was greeted with rows of jade and diamonds even before I saw silk. Nelson jokingly propose to Marie while we looked around at illustrious panorama carvings out of jade. Then we entered the fitting area where cloth was cut to make costumes and witnessed the proves of cloth weaving.  Rauf from Malaysia entered the room and was swiftly deterred by Javed who criticized the “global capitalist pricings” of the textiles.  I went outside for an ice break. Yes, ice break. While the others were quenching their thirst at the ice cream man’s and Min Wenjie was discovering coconut for the first time, I was busy stealing ice cubes from the vendor.
Upward Bound
Next on then list was the temple on Doi Suthep hill. The journey up the hill was arduous. It took a strong stomach to withhold the steep ride by tuk-tuk up the hill. I fell asleep, tired with the afternoon’s heavy sightseeing. Of course, being the evening I was only half asleep and awoke to the sound of someone talking about Herbert Spencer and the “survival of the fittest”. I jolted up and started the discourse, saying he was too deterministic. Lino was enquiring if Faisal had read the works of this Darwin muse. Both were sociology postgrads. Then I realised I felt nauseous. I went back to sleep, excusing myself for apparently my stomach was not “fit” enough to “survive” the rest of the ride awake.

Doi Suthep
We finally reached Doi Suthep and thankfully enough I was fresh and ready to roll. Not everyone was, however. Our poet friend Javed was standing by the side of the road looking gloomy. I suspected this was not due to inspiration or a poet’s melancholy.
The temple of the hill called Doi Suthep was originally said to be reachable only by the staunchest of worshippers. Otherwise the hill was a very challenging trek upwards. However volunteers have laid out the path to the temple ever since. Here I wandered around the temple instead of taking the oft beaten track into the temple grounds where heaps of foreigners were clicking away. Instead I took a walk down the hill where the monks' quarters were. A few dogs guarded the steps coming down but none dared venture near me. I was a trespasser indeed in every sense of this tranquil portion of the temple. Young boys were sweeping the grounds around the quarters, but I do not think they were monks. It seemed that entire families lived here, but all was still new to the eye and the air was calm and soothing yet I felt a sensory overload at the new sights and wonders. I carried on walking in the peaceful atmosphere, thinking I could go on forever. The steps down were as steep as promised. It seemed to not end as I reached an empty space which to my non-bespectacled eyes seemed to be filled with white monuments. I roamed for a while and realised I had ventured into a graveyard. A pack of hounds emerged. Praying they would not bite, I turned and left.
I met up with Min Wenjie who was a very talented photographer. We stood around turrets and archways and got some good shots of ourselves. There were some hlltribe children at the steps of the temple which I think earned income through tourists posing with them in their photos. They were bedecked in their luxurious ethnic costumes. They looked no older then five.
Later on while Mr. B from Cambodia (who will one day become Minister) nagged at Min for using up his memory card I sneaked off to look at souvenirs. There wee brocaded bags selling at seven for 100 baht.
Some other general observations of the City
On the first day of my arrival at Chiang Mai I noticed a few peculiar things. The Thai revere their King greatly and so place portraits of him along the streets and in shops. However in the city of Chiang Mai the portraits of the King were nearly outdone by the great number of Coca-Cola advertisments similarly placed outside shops and along the streets. This was indeed a metaphor for the nation-state vs. globalisation.
When we cross roads in Chiang Mai there are no overhead bridges. One is expected to cross at specially carved out intersections along the dividers. Also cigarettes were very strategically packaged. Pictures of disfigured teeth and lungs are draped over the brandnames, daring you to take a puff.
Back To Crystal Spring House
So it was time to head home as the evening grew darker and everyone ws loaded with shopping bags. If I overshopped I was clever to hide it in my knapsack that I didn’t look like a tourist. It was important to maintain the leftist Che Guevara look always. After pressuring Faisal to buy me a souvenir I was prepared to leave.
We trudged off into the tuk-tuks where I chose to sit at the open end. Trying not to fall asleep this time as I missed most of the magnificent view I stayed awake by jesting around with Marie, an adventurous spirit. I accepted her challenge to stand by the ledge of the rapidly hill-descending vehicle. It felt cool to be spread-eagled in the air. The rest scolded me for pulling a stunt, saying I should return to Malaysia in one piece.  But I think I may have left my heart there.

© Rachel Chan Suet Kay April 18th 2007

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