Chiang Mai Zookeeper For a Day

This giraffe wanted his banana.

This giraffe wanted his banana.

We just got back from five days in Chiang Mai and upcountry Thailand. Breathtaking views and scenery up in the mountains. Wonderfully chill vibe, too. We could have spent another week there.

First, Chiang Mai. We spent only three days in town, probably not enough given all the outdoor activities there are to do there (rafting, elephant camps, cooking classes, trekking, etc).

The city feels a lot busier and much more commercial (in a bad way) since I last visited 10 years ago. They’re building a super highway and gated communities for second and third home buyers just outside of town, whereas 10 years ago it was fields. The night bazaar is three or four times larger than I remember it and has its share now of useless tchotchkes, much of it likely made in China.

But some elements of town haven’t changed. The streets are a little dusty and the smell of diesel exhaust is unavoidable. There’s still no metered taxi service, it’s all tuk tuks and song-taos, essentially red pickup trucks with a cabin and bench seats in the back. Flag one down and hop around town for 20 baht, although usually as soon as they see Karl and I attempt to haggle in English, the price goes up to 30 or 40 baht per person. (Note to self, must learn NUMBERS and basic Thai the next time I come here! Everyone assumes I’m a local until I open my mouth.)

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I was also amused to see vendors still sell the same elephant T-shirt design that I bought a decade ago, except now it’s printed on much thinner, cheaper cotton. I actually still wear the elephant shirt from time to time, it’s held up well.

A trip to the Chiang Mai Zoo makes you feel like you’re in a time warp, too. Visitors freely feed the animals! The captions on my pictures ought to read, “Forget propriety and safety, I just hand-fed a giraffe six bananas!”

The hippos are fair game too. They know visitors mean food and they obligingly open their massive jaws so you can toss fingerling potatoes in. I flung some eggplant chunks into the bull hippo’s mouth. It was surreal. There was also a large African elephant hanging out at one small fenced enclosure. I fed him a bunch of chopped cucumbers and touched his tusks in awe.

The giraffes got bananas. And someone even sold raw meat on a stick so I could poke it through a fence to give a young jaguar a snack. There were vendors at various points in the zoo facilitating the feedings, which cost about 10 to 20 baht, or 50 cents each. I won’t lie, it was FUN! But admittedly, it probably wasn’t good for the animals in the long run. But hey, This is Thailand.

We also spent a day ziplining through the forest. Over three hours we flew down 16 lines and abseiled two trees with Flight of the Gibbon, all for about $120 per person, including transport from hotel and a hot lunch. It was pretty fun. Believe it or not we took our SLR down the lines with us and took tons of great video. Need to find some time to cut it all together.

Since we were up north, we decided we’d rent a car and drive to Pai, a famed valley in the mountains that guidebooks describe as serene and bucolic — with its fair share of backpackers, of course.

We’d heard the road to Pai is like the road to Hana on Maui, only much worse. It’s notoriously windy — full switchbacks, U-turns galore. Vans run every two hours from Chiang Mai for a mere $5, but I was pretty sure I’d lose my cookies if I had to ride one of those. So we reserved a rental car.

But we hit a huge snag. The night before we were set to rent a car, someone tried to use my Capitol One card to charge $2,600 worth of stuff at Target.com. The credit card company sent a fraud alert email and I called the company right away. They put a block on my card going forward. This was a rather big problem for numerous reasons.

For one, we were stuck in Chiang Mai with no second credit card and no return airline ticket or other hotels booked. We worked that part out with the customer service rep on the phone — Karl frantically began booking an airline ticket on the computer while I was still on the line and as soon he got to the “submit payment” button on an airline ticket and hotel,  she unblocked the card to let the transactions go through, then blocked it again.

Still, I was scared we wouldn’t be able to rent a car the next day. Typically in the U.S., rental companies do not let you use debit cards. Alas, This is Thailand! Thais don’t seem to pay attention to that detail. They just saw that my card had a Visa sign on it and ran it like a credit card. I didn’t say anything, transaction went through. Away we went!

In the end, Karl drove (right hand drive) and I almost lost my cookies even though I was in the front seat. We’d barely be finishing one turn and then you’d see the next one 50 yards ahead. It was 762 curves to Pai, and we drove another 200 past town the next day to visit some famous limestone caves. Not for the faint-stomached.

Many Thais have not even been to Pai because of the intimidating road. Almost all of our local Thai friends in Bangkok who have lived in Thailand all their lives have never been.

On our way through the mountains, we saw several vans pulled alongside the rest stops and lots of sick looking people getting air outside as we drove past. 

On the way up the mountain, we made a pitstop at a neat geyser. These were hot hot hot “boil-an-egg-smells-like-an-egg” springs.  And some nice mineral pools. It was pretty warm outside, but in high season the temperature in these mountains drops significantly. I can imagine during those times, the place would be filled with tourists, mineral pool bathers and more.

We felt like we had private pools to ourselves this way.

Oh, almost forgot: We picked up a solo female hitchhiker just as we turned onto the mountain road. As fates would have it, she was a Tennesseean named Allison. She was learning about permaculture farming and volunteering on farms while on summer break from teaching English in Taiwan.

We don’t usually stop for hitchhikers but solo female travelers are OK in our book. We felt like doing a nice thing and we were going there anyway. She almost got sick in the back of our car even though we were going relatively slow. Lucky for her she didn’t ride the vans!

We did get to Pai. It exceeded expectations. But that’s a separate post. We’re also headed to Myanmar tomorrow. Meantime, check out a few photos:

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