When our airplane touched down on the Chang Mai runway with a loud thud, Thayer tapped Blair on the shoulder and said, “Mom, I think maybe we’ve landed somewhere. Where are we this time?” And so it goes when a 6 year-old takes her 24th flight in a matter of 8 months.
Chang Mai is a booming metropolis next to Luang Prabang. The official city limits are home to 160,000 people but the urban sprawl surrounding it contains over one million people, making it the largest city in northern Thailand. There is a vibrant expat community here and the city hosts over 5 million tourists every year, so the infrastructure supporting travelers is well-established. The “old city” where we are staying (within the ancient brick walls of the original citadel) contains over 100 temples, and the monks within are welcoming and eager to share their practices with tourists. Yet along with the ancient traditions and architecture, we have also seen a Starbucks coffee, 7-11, and McDonalds – sure signs of Western influence. Admittedly, Blair did enjoy her first Starbucks mocha since December in Sydney.
Our hotel is a little green oasis in the heart of the old city, and we have been soaking up the new vibe that Chang Mai brings to our journey. Spicy Thai curries, $5 massages at our doorstep, booming night markets, more tuk tuk taxis, more saffron-robed monks, textiles, ceramics, hill tribes and even tiger petting… it’s been a busy week in many respects.
On the other hand, the continued extreme heat and various ills for all three girls have held us back somewhat from getting as much out of our time here as we might have hoped. After long stretches of good health this year, Southeast Asia continues to challenge us in this regard.
Despite these minor obstacles, we still had plenty of opportunity to explore Chang Mai and get acquainted with the wonders of N. Thailand…
BUDDHISM IN CHANG MAI
We began our stay in Chang Mai with a guided tour of Wat Chedi Luang, one of the oldest and most magnificent temples in Chang Mai. The girls brought notebooks so that they could begin a research project on Buddhism, and our guide gave them a detailed history of both the temple and the story of Buddha. We lasted about an hour because it must have been over 100 degrees by 10am; despite finding shade whenever possible, the girls wilted fast. No amount of heat could lessen the beauty of the temples within the compound of Wat Chedi Luang, however. Truly a sight to behold!
Once inside the main temple, we were awestruck by the golden statues and pillars everywhere, and by the colorful prayer flags adorning the ceiling.
THAYER: I thought that the temple was really unusual and I took some notes on Buddhism which was a new experience for me.
SCHUYLER: As the story goes, in ancient times there was a big drought and villages turned on each other to fight for water. Buddha came to ask them if they’d rather have water or have their relatives live instead of kill each other, and the villagers decided they’d rather keep the peace and save the lives of their loved ones. The above statue of Buddha, holding his head up, means “bring peace, stop the fighting.”
We also enjoyed visiting the only remaining original (meaning not yet reinforced) wooden temple in Chang Mai, right next door to Wat Chedi Luang. Slightly more understated but no less lovely, this temple happened to be hosting an important ceremony for young novice monks. The boys, ages 11-13 years, were all being indoctrinated as monks at the time of our visit. We had the privilege of a sneak peek at this special occasion.
ZOE: I wrote a long report on the story of Buddha’s life, from his birth to his death. He was born in May (like me!) and he grew up as a prince within palace walls. The first time he was allowed to leave his palace he saw people who were suffering, sick and dying. When he realized that people lived this way, he decided to give up his palace life and become a monk. He meditated for many years with much struggle, but finally reached enlightenment. From then on was known as Buddha. He died in his 80s. It was interesting to learn about this history because I had never heard anything about this before. Being in the temples inspired me to learn so much about it all!
OK, yes, this is a major tourist trap and likely controversial with animal rights activists world wide, but when presented with the opportunity to actually pet a baby tiger, we just couldn’t resist. Tiger Kingdom is sort of like a zoo for tigers, where the big cats are raised from infancy by individual handlers who train them to interact safely (?) with visitors. Visitors can opt for 15 minutes with the smallest tigers, the medium tigers, or the BIG tigers. There are strict rules about how close you can get (right next to them, basically), and how to approach them and behave around them. The handlers stay very close by. But really, what kind of protection does a man with a wooden stick really offer when one is snuggling with an adult male tiger? Not enough for us to take the bait (or for that matter, be the bait) on that one. We stuck with the babies.
THAYER: When I was with the baby tigers I felt happy, joyful, and excited! I was a little bit scared too, but they were very very nice. And one of them whacked Zoe in the face! But she was OK.
SCHUYLER: My experience at the Tiger Kingdom was so amazing. It was extremely nerve wracking because my face could be clawed off at any time by this baby tiger, so I had to mentally think of it as a sweet baby kitten rather than a big cat that could kill me. I’d like to make the point that although I liked the fact that I was lying on a tiger, I also felt like I was putting my life at risk.
ZOE: The Tiger Kingdom was THE BEST. I never thought that I would actually be able to cuddle a tiger in my lifetime, but apparently I could! I had so much fun snuggling with the cutest little 3-4 month olds. Most of them were very sleepy, but a couple were pretty playful. I was a little bit nervous at first, before petting the tigers, because even though they were growing up with humans they are still TIGERS…. and who knows? But, everything was fine and we had the best time ever!
LONG NECK VILLAGE
Nearby Tiger Kingdom is a cultural attraction known as the Long Neck Village. This little hamlet of huts did not originally intend to be a large scale tourist destination. Rather, it was more of a refugee location for a tribe known as the “long neck people” or “Karen tribe.” Schuyler was inspired to do a research project on this tribe after visiting the village, and can tell you more about it.
SCHUYLER: The Karen people are originally from Burma, but many now reside in Northern Thailand due to persecution by the Burmese who found their customs strange. The women of this tribe layer golden rings up their necks to stretch them out. Tourists call them the ‘giraffe people’ or the ‘long-neck people.’ Women modify their bodies like this because it is a sign of beauty; the longer your neck, the more beautiful you are. Some also think that the rings may have originated as protection from tigers. The rings get so heavy that they condense the women’s shoulders over time and shrink their rib cages, creating the illusion of a longer neck. This tradition starts at the age of 3-5 years and they keep adding rings as the child gets older. Now in the modern world, you can chose to follow this tradition if you are one of the Karen people. Most children choose to carry on with the ritual even though it is very painful and it can make permanent scars on your body.
THAYER: I thought Long Neck Village was kind of scary. At first I saw some of the older ladies who had stained teeth from chewing a special nut that makes their teeth dark purple. I noticed that the ladies wore scarfs inside their neck rings, maybe so the rings don’t burn them in the hot sun.
BLAIR: While both the tiger petting and the Long Neck Village were interesting from a cultural standpoint and fascinating for the girls especially, I found them disconcerting from an ethical standpoint. Seeing so many tigers penned in small enclosures, and forced to lie about all day while hundreds of tourists pose for photos, was pretty sad. I suppose like with any zoo, there is an element of depression one feels looking at wild animals behind bars, but Tiger Kingdom in particular felt like a vehicle for tourism rather than a home away from home for the big cats. As for the Karen Tribe, I admit I was quite fascinated to see these women in person, and was particularly surprised by the number of children wearing the rings. However, the village has become a string of dozens of vendors, all selling pretty much the same crafts and souvenirs, like a lane for tourists to walk down. This marred the authenticity of the experience. It is clear that these people are now making their living off tourists who want to snap photos of their ringed necks, and I had to wonder whether the children were forced to continue the practice in part to preserve the tourist industry rather than to carry on the tradition for cultural reasons.
We had a fair amount of down time in Chang Mai so we tried to find some kid-friendly recreation options to spice things up a bit. A huge, sparkling shopping mall provided a Thai arcade and Coldstone Creamery ice cream (just like in NH!) – nice way to kill the middle of a day in Chang Mai!
Jeff found his own recreation at a “night golf” nine-hole course and driving range. He took Zoe and Thayer over one night to hit some balls and enjoy the local golf culture. In order to play the course, you had to have your own “Refresher” — otherwise known in the U.S as a caddy. The Refreshers were all displayed on a poster board for your selection.
The course stays open until midnight, and you pay extra as the night wears on due to the increasing electricity costs. Jeff didn’t get to play the nine holes because it was fully booked – definitely a local hotspot!
In the cooler evenings we also wandered the endless walking streets filled with food stalls and souvenir vendors galore.
ZOE: Watch out NH because we want to buy a Thai tuk tuk and turn it into a waffle mobile/local taxi service, driving the streets of Portsmouth. Wahooo!
We also enjoyed some lazy days at our hotel while the kids were recovering from their various ailments. Cards, Thai arts and crafts, swimming, and of course, some homework….
THAYER: I painted an umbrella with flowers on it and stripes. And also some butterflies. I signed my signature on it. I am going to ship it home to Portsmouth. You can’t use it in the rain at home because it is paper. But you use it for sunshine, to keep the hot sun off of you.
ZOE: Every day the hotel sets up a little crafts stand and with different themes. One day we did Tung making – these are flags made out of tissue paper that are used for Thai celebrations. The umbrella painting was my favorite of these activities. I hadn’t painted anything in a really long time, so it was enjoyable to have a brush in my hands again. I think mine turned out really well! Dad helped me with my color choices and pattern and he couldn’t help but paint a little too. It was really fun.
During our last couple of days in Chang Mai, we chose to spend our time doing some community service at the Agape Home. Founded in 1996 by a Canadian expat who has spent 40 years in Chang Mai, the Agape Home serves over 100 children ages 0-21 years who either have HIV/AIDS or have been impacted by the rise of HIV/AIDS in Thailand. The majority of children have already lost their parents to AIDS, and there are no other options for their care. Many others were abandoned at birth for unknown reasons. Schuyler, Zoe and Thayer decided to use the remainder of last summer’s yard sale money (what was left over after adopting the orphaned elephants in Kenya) to support Agape and bring a little cheer to the children living there.
We started our service project with a giant shopping spree at a local discount shopping center. This was the most fun our three have had in a while! It felt like one of those game shows where you have a certain amount of time to throw as much into your cart as you can. We gleefully crammed clothes, shoes, stuffed animals, toys, and sports gear for children of all ages into our shopping cart. The prices were pretty tough to beat, which made our shopping spree all the more exciting. Granted, by the time we got to the cashier, we may have gone slightly over the yard sale proceeds, but Blair and Jeff were glad to support the girls’ generosity of spirit.
After our shopping expedition, Zoe unfortunately had to return to the hotel and get back into bed – all the excitement brought her fever back and she was so disappointed to miss out on our time at the children’s home. Even the slightest exposure to her virus could be dangerous for the immune-compromised children at Agape.
ZOE: I’ve had a bad fever and body aches for three days now and it’s getting a little boring. I was so glad to be a part of the shopping, but was really disappointed that I couldn’t go be with the kids. I felt badly that Dad had to miss out and stay home with me, but thankfully he got to go to the home on the second day of volunteering. Of course, I still had a fever and stayed in bed. UGH!
Blair, Schuyler and Thayer drove about 30 minutes out to the center and spent a full afternoon touring the facilities, talking with the Founder, a very impressive and lovely woman named Avis Rideout, and of course, playing with the children! We opted not to hand out our gifts per Avis’s request, so that she could take the time to sort through them and decide which children should receive which donations. She also wanted to put a lot away for Christmas. But that didn’t seem to matter to our girls, who gladly threw themselves into the mix of babies, toddlers, and school-aged children for a couple of hours. We loved our time there so much, Jeff returned the following afternoon with Schuyler and Thayer for another few hours of volunteering.
SCHUYLER: I loved helping out with the small babies. I would hold them and snuggle them whenever they started to cry (which was a lot!). It was my job to run around turning, repositioning, holding, or sitting the babies up when they got fussy. It was really fun and I’m so glad I could help. It felt so great to donate tons of toys and clothes to Agape. Even though I won’t be there to witness it, I can’t wait for the children to receive their gifts! I had such an amazing experience and I hope that when I am older, I can go volunteer there for a longer time. If you are ever in Chang Mai, you HAVE to go and visit this place!
THAYER: I mostly stayed with the babies and little kids at the Agape Home. The child I liked the most had a green shirt on and he wanted to be with me all the time. It was like I was his mother. But I definitely wasn’t! All of the babies were sooooo cute but it was hard to have time to play with them because the one little boy was hogging me. It was hard to say no to him. I felt sad for all the others. I went a second day and got to spend more time with the babies. Some of the children gathered around me and started hugging me. I felt SO special!
BLAIR: Agape Home was truly a lovely place, filled with warmth and joy and beautifully managed by Avis and a large staff of Thai nannies, nurses, and helpers. Many Westerners come and volunteer there for weeks at a time, contributing to the care and nurturing that all of these children receive. Because very few of the children get adopted, this organization operates more as a home and family than as an orphanage per se. I was extremely impressed with all that Avis and her family have accomplished on behalf of HIV/AIDS children and families in Chang Mai. It was wonderful to once again incorporate some service into our travel experience – long overdue!
Our travel clock is ticking away, and we are off on the next leg of our journey. From Chang Mai, we now fly to Kunming, China and begin a 3-week stint in Yunnan Province and Beijing. We have been told that WordPress is censored in China and we won’t be able to post on this blog site until we land in Japan in a few weeks. So you won’t be hearing from us for a while, but we’ll have a LOT of great updates when we get this blog back online! You can always track us down over email if the spirit moves you. Thank you for your continued love and support from afar… we truly appreciate it!