Where the Magic Happened: Chiang Mai

 
 

I can count on one hand how many cities have truly captured my heart. I can now add another to that list: Chiang Mai. There's something about certain places. You can't always figure out why, but these places just evoke feelings of fun and mystery and most importantly, genuine contentment. I’m noticing a pattern in my list: I seem to enjoy the really old ones. The cities and towns that clearly have a lot of stories to tell; the ones that have something to teach you. Chiang Mai is smaller than Bangkok and is separated within by history: the old city and the new city. The new city is fairly typical; a nice mix of residential and commercial with construction and modern touches pushing in at the edges. Oppositely the old city, although relatively modern, is ‘protected’ by ruins of a stone wall (complete with bow and arrow holes) that now survives merely as replicas of the original, and a moat that once kept out invaders and has now been built into beautiful canals with cascading fountains and lights at night. The square city was designed and built over 700 years ago. It’s fascinating to imagine the exotic way of life that must’ve existed within the gates. Monks in orange togas, markets with spices and woodworking, and residents filtering in and out of the various Wats (temples) for daily prayers. The first tourist didn’t visit the city of Chiang Mai until the late 1500’s. So few areas of the world are still untouched, it’s beautiful to picture this city still fully immersed in itself rather than to the needs and wants of its visitors.

Our hostel is what I imagined hostels in Thailand would be like: a welcoming tropical garden walkway, a bustling common area, twenty-somethings on cell phones and laptops, foreign languages spilling over tabletops with plates of pad thai and coffees. We are in the heart of the old city and I am incredibly jealous of their year round gardens and shiny tile floors that never get cold. There is a house dog named Coco, who just had two puppies who make appearances in the lobby throughout the day.

Chiang Mai might be getting extra points because it has also been the place we've done some of the most exciting things on the trip. We planned our arrival to line up with Loy Krathong, one of Thailand's most important holidays. We were fortunate to have a hostel who encouraged our participation in the festival by providing us with all of the supplies to make krathongs, which are floating structures made from banana trunks and decorated with candles, flowers and incense. It felt good to do something with my hands. I sat happily, folding banana leaves into little pyramids and pinning it to the banana trunk. We went into the garden and collected gorgeous purple orchids (that seem to grow everywhere) to decorate our krathongs.

 
 
 
 

After we finished, we walked out of the old city, down to the river. We pushed our little boats out on to the River Ping where they floated away, carrying our wishes and prayers downstream, while also removing us of our pains and troubles. We also took it upon ourselves to buy lanterns that we released alongside thousands of other locals and tourists participating in this beautiful tradition. My lanterns meant more to me than just a pretty light and good wishes for the next year. They were dedicated to my dad, my neighbor and friend Bob, my dog Riley and my Gramma, who passed this week. Four beings whose exit from this world changed me. Despite the sadness it brought, their losses have been catalysts for my living a better life. My lanterns were my symbol of the love and appreciation I have for their influence in my life, and also my gift of light to them, letting them know they live on through me. Chiang Mai is also home to wildlife centers that allow participants to get much closer to the animals than you will ever get anywhere in the Western world. Despite the obvious risk involved, I was not going to question the opportunity. Cuddling with grown tigers was never actually on my bucket list, but nevertheless, it’s now crossed off. Huge, beautiful creatures that are so incredibly similar to their smaller domestic counterparts, it’s almost hilarious. The only difference being that if you start to play with a grown tiger they could potentially rip your face off with their paws that are literally the size of a small dinner plate. The tiger cubs we met after their much larger parents were just plain adorable, even though the size of their paws were also equally as alarming.

One of the things I was most looking forward to on this trip was working with elephants. Giants, really. It’s a completely different experience seeing an elephant from afar and having one follow you, begging for another banana. At the center we visited, the elephants are raised and utilized very similar to stable horses in the U.S. And as visitors, we bought bananas to bring as our contribution to their feeding, as well as a hefty (in terms of Thai prices for most attractions) price tag for the experience. We were able to feed and socialize with them, and eventually rode one through a mountainous jungle landscape. The feeling of being on the back of a 13 foot elephant who has zero concern for your safety as you grip their flapping ears is another level of exhilaration. My first practice trip at camp left me catching my breath out of excitement.

I felt transported to another time, where elephants helped build the city of Chiang Mai. Expeditions on the backs of giants. Each dip in the trail had me tightening my grip to stay on top of her. She was slow and deliberate, but I could feel her size and strength below me. Brittany and Ryan’s elephant was more playful. We saw them holding on repeatedly while their guy swung his trunk and lifted his feet side to side; dancing, if you will.

To round out our adventure, we traveled down a river with our new friends. Our elephant took her time to find a spot that she liked, and slowly at first and then all at once sat straight down in the water to let us off and began bathing. I have never seen happier animals in my life. Like dogs in the heat of summer in a kiddie pool, these enormous babies rolled in the flowing stream, shooting water at each other and all of the awestruck humans watching. Seeing enjoyment in another species makes me question so much; are they feeling enjoyment the way I feel it when I roll around in the pool? In my heart of hearts, I truly believe they were knee deep in their favorite part of their day.

The experience with these animals was not only magical, it was humbling in a strange way. It made me feel very out of control as a human being. We think we control this world and because of a few evolutionary advantages, we currently do. But essentially, we shouldn’t. These animals are strong and capable and live off of this inherent instinct that just flows through them naturally, no matter what environment they live in. Some people would scoff at these centers and I understand the concern. But as an animal lover, I saw nothing but fantastic care being given to these animals. These are not animals plucked from the wild like in zoos; they are born and raised in captivity. No different from how we raise dogs and cats and horses. I don’t want to go too far down the animal rights road but I am incredibly grateful for the experience I had and it has forever changed me.

 
 

I don’t think it has been a coincidence I was in Chiang Mai when I found out my grandmother had passed away this week. I knew that being away would mean I would have to develop my own process of saying goodbye and reconnecting with her in her new place, while I would not be able to join my family for services. This was the place I needed to be to feel the warmth from the locals, experience some incredibly life changing distractions, and to have a once in a lifetime opportunity to honor her memory, as well as others I’ve lost, in a way that felt very personal and impactful. Being so far from home has been a challenge for me. Being away during a major family event has been another level of stress all together. I will always be thankful for the feelings of peace I have experienced here in this city. With a few days left here, I’m anxious to see what else Chiang Mai can teach me. Pictures & video to come :) -steph