Thursday, November 10, 2011

Orchids, Elephants, and Tigers!

On our free day in Chiang Mai, our hired driver first took us to an orchid garden. Here are some of the beautiful flowers:

They grew in long, tidy rows inside hanging planters. At the gift shop they sold orchid perfume (which they must use in extract form, since orchids don’t have much smell), orchids dipped in gold to pin to your shirt, and other orchid jewelry.

After the orchid farm, we visited Mae Sae Elephant Park. First, we saw the trainers bathing the elephants and washing their tusks:

Afterwards, during the show, they didn’t talk about the elephants, which was fine because we’d already heard several talks on them. Here are a few tricks:

An elephant “giving a message” to a trainer:

Elephants playing soccer:

And an elephant painting!

The trainer just gives the elephant the brush with the right color and the elephant paints. Most animal psychologists think the elephants simply remember the order of the right strokes. They don’t really know they’re painting a tree or a landscape or a trainer. Each elephant has a set number of pictures it is trained to paint, and depending on which color the elephant gets first, or some other cue from the trainer, it knows which image the trainer wants it to paint. So the saying proves true once more. Elephants never forget!

Elephant paintings sell pretty high! I think the most expensive on record was several million dollars, which was then donated (both money and painting) to the park. So people don’t just buy the paintings for the novelty of them. The profits support conversation.

Some other interesting facts about elephants. They live in small, matriarchal herds and have a primitive form of communication. Besides not forgetting what they paint, they also don’t need constant reinforcement with food like other, more hyperactive trained animals (such as sea lions, otters, dogs, and parrots). Elephants are capable of doing a whole show without getting a treat until the very end. They are more focused and remember when they will be fed. (You can tell because as soon as they finish the finale, they run to the fence where the audience sits with newly purchased bananas and sugar cane. Sometimes the elephants come so fast they scare the children.) If you tried to wait until the end with the other above animals, they would lose interest in doing tricks pretty quick.

Speaking of the finale, here it is:

After the show, Mom and I rode a big, twenty-year-old male elephant through the jungle for over an hour. A trainer rode on its head, guiding it. Sometimes he got off and took our picture in a good spot. He often gave a command for the elephant to raise its trunk. Here’s what that looks like:

And here’s us in the middle of the river. The trainer stood on a stone to take our picture.

Here’s a picture of the jungle.

That house you see is where they’re keeping the dominate male elephant who likes to fight with the others. (You can see him beside it, with HUGE tusks!) In general, all ungelded males have to be kept separate from the others.

After the ride, we bought a coconut to drink the water and eat some of the soft flesh inside, and then gave the empty shell to our elephant. What a hefty crunch!

Next, we went to tiger kingdom. We debated for awhile if we wanted to play with the baby tigers (3 months) or the newborn tigers (1 month). The latter cost more (about $40 per person for 10 minutes versus $30) but we finally decided that’s what we wanted, and it was worth it! About three pairs were allowed in at a time to play with the six tiger cubs. While we stood outside the glass cage waiting for our number to be called, I took this video of a cub getting cleaned:

Finally, it was our turn! They were really frisky just before we went in, but when we had them the poor things were so tired they wouldn’t climb on our laps or even open their eyes. (They have to play with people for 8 hours straight everyday. The trainers don’t change them out or give them any rest!) We weren’t allowed to pick them up. But here’s two pictures of me petting one:

Mom thought I was nuts, but I really wanted to go in with the big tigers too, and she went with me. We had to sign a release form first saying if the tiger mauled us we wouldn’t sue. I have no idea if that’s ever happened to anyone at Tiger Kingdom or not. Anyway, a trainer went in with Mom and me and instructed us on how to approach the tiger from behind, which is not what I would have thought. I expected to approach them from the front so they could see me coming and not get spooked. Turns out, the back is better because they don’t have as much power in their hind legs as in their front. I saw one trainer get kicked a little while the tiger was sleeping and it didn’t leave a scratch, whereas the front claws are used for hunting and tearing. The front is also where the teeth are.

Our big tiger was pretty tired too. Here’s us with him:

And here’s some weird, red ants I saw on a tree who found some kind of food. I thought I was in a National Geographic special!

There were some other tigers sitting up with the patrons, but they all looked pretty lazy. I hope the keepers don’t drug the tigers. Maybe they were only like that because it was the middle of the day. We saw lots of grown tigers in cages who were not being petted, especially ones with nasty tempers. One of them sprayed and hissed at the tiger in the neighboring cage, who just lay down like she didn’t care, so I assumed the mean tiger was a male who wanted to get at the female and couldn’t, so he was mad. Turned out, the trainer said, it was a female tiger in heat! I knew female house cats can get territorial and hormonal with other females, but I didn’t know female tigers did that too. I learn something knew every day!

When we finished with the big tigers, we spent the last remaining open hours of the park watching the baby tigers again (though only from afar; inside the cage would have cost more money). I got some cute videos:

And here’s a Japanese father with his son. The little boy was afraid of the baby tigers, so he kept climbing all over his daddy to get away from them!

Then we headed back to our hotel to get cleaned up for a Kantoke dinner and show at 7:30, featuring northern Thai and hill tribe food and performing arts. We were seated on the floor with reclining cushions around a circular, rotating tray of eight dishes. Here’s all the food:

Starting from my left shoulder: spicy curry soup, vegetable stir-fry (cabbage based), some kind of fried, crunchy vegetable, the appetizer fried banana (so good!) fried sweet potato, fried chicken, tomato paste, raw vegetables in the middle (celery, cucumber, carrot tomato), plus a bowl of clear chicken soup next to me, and rice! Anytime we ran out of something, they came back to refill it. We had to ask them to stop. It was all so good! I ate way too much.

Here’s Mom and me with one of our waitresses, who’s dressed in a traditional hill tribe costume.

About five minutes into dinner, the musicians started playing. It was repetitious and not very melodic (what melodies did exist were all pentatonic, based on the five-note Chinese scale), though less repetitive and atonal than Japanese music.

About thirty minutes into dinner, the show started. It was about an hour long and consisted mostly of dances similar to those we’d seen in the previous cultural show near Bangkok, but we were closer to the stage, so that was nice. Here’s the beginning procession:

Here’s the lion dance, which we hadn’t seen in the previous cultural show. (I believe it’s originally of Chinese origin.)

Each Asian country seems to have their own version. There are actual world competitions in the art of dragon dance. Last year, America won, believe it or not, though all participants were Chinese immigrants.

And the sword dance, which we also hadn’t seen before:

We left the theater around 9:30, but our van went back after ten minutes because someone must have called that I had left my black backpack. I hadn’t even realized it was missing! How they knew it was mine and what van I was in I’ll never know. What service!

And that was our free day in Chiang Mai! Stay tuned for Laos and the Golden Triangle!

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Chiang Mai Tour

The next day, we drove from Sukhothai to Lampang, the centre of the northern teak industry. We visited the walled temple of Wat Phrathat Lampang Luang, considered the most beautiful temple in Thailand. Its central chedi was made of old teak, and exquisite carvings graced the facades of many of its buildings. Here’s an interesting altar:

Another fine example of northern temple architecture was Wat Phra Kaew Don Tao. As I recall, both of these were under construction, with scaffolding and debris everywhere, so despite the fine descriptions I just gave from the brochure, I wasn’t that impressed, except for this small, Chinese temple near the exit:

Lampang is also famous for its brightly colored horse-drawn carriages, a popular form of transport. We had the option to take a ride, but didn’t. We were already paying enough money!

In the afternoon we visited the Thai Elephant Conservation Center. We saw an elephant show put on by professional trainers and tourists who paid to be part of a one or two week elephant camp. First we saw them bathing:

Here’s a super cute baby, only two and a half years old (elephants take about fifteen years to reach full-size, same as people, and live about sixty years).

Here’s some tricks during the show:

Yes, the elephant really is painting! No help from the trainer (except he gives her the brush with the right color). I'll show you a video and discuss it more in my next post about our free day.

Mom and me petting a baby elephant:

Several of the Thai conservationists taught us how to make elephant dung paper, dissolving the dung in water, covering a screen with it, and letting it dry in the sun. From these they made calendars, notebooks, and scrapbooks to sell in support of the elephants. That would be a good gift for your boss…I mean someone you don’t like. Kind of reminds me of the deer poop cookies in Japan (made of chocolate, not poop, of course).

Last we visited the elephant hospital and nursery. Here we are feeding the baby elephant:

Oh, no, it’s got me! (Those trunks are surprisingly strong!)

From there we drove on to Chiang Mai. The streets were flooded, even then:

There were no damns or walls to keep the water from the rice fields from getting up into the roads. Lately, Mom and I have been listening to the news about the flood. There’s been very little talk of Chiang Mai where the flood started. All anybody seems to care about is that the water doesn’t get to Bankok’s central business district. What about the people up north? I hope they’re all right!

We stayed the night in another hotel, and the next morning visited Wat Prathat on Doi Suthep Mountain. We took the tram to the top, 1,000 meters, took off our shoes, put formal wraps around our pants, and admired the giant golden pagoda with our guide Chiya in front:

Here’s the spectacular panoramic view over the surrounding countryside. Reminds me of that Carpenter’s song “On Top of the World” or a castle in the sky:

The gorgeous bougainvillea:

We found a statue of a mythical monster called a “mom.” I couldn’t resist getting this picture:

I think I prefer the mom on the left.

We heard so many Hindu and Buddhist legends that they all started running together in our heads, and we weren’t the only ones. As we walked back down the mountain, about 300 stairs or so, we noticed the railings were shaped like the giant mythical serpents called “naga.” Another group passed us, and one of the guys, imitating a thick Thai accent, said,

“And dis is da naga. He so big because he eat all da mythical creatures, which now exist in various places in his digestive tract.”

Mom and I couldn’t figure out what he was talking about until we reached the bottom and saw this:

It’s hard to see, but they’re mouths are wide and they’re eating about seven mythical creatures each, those things with heads at the end. After that, we couldn’t stop laughing.

From there we drove to the neighboring villages of Sankampaeng and Borsarng to see the various cottages industries including silk weaving, wood carving, lacquer ware and umbrellas making. According to legend, silk was discovered when the Chinese emperor told the empress to investigate some worms that were eating the mulberry trees. Later, the empress was carrying some of the cocoons and dropped them in hot water, either by accident or to kill the worms inside. When she took them out of the water, soft thread unraveled from the cocoon. She soon began using it to make her own clothes, and its popularity spread throughout the palace. The secret to making silk was kept within the royal courts of China for many generations, giving China a monopoly on the trade and propelling its golden age of culture, exploration, and conquest, until the secret was either told, stolen, or simply figured out by the Japanese, Indians, and eventually others. China is still the world’s leading silk producer, about 50% of the total world output.

In this next picture, you can see silk worms eating mulberry leaves on the right, and larger ones spinning their cocoons on the left. Some produce white, and others yellow. They’re simply different varieties of worm:

So how do you tell the difference between real silk and fake silk? Here’s a short article on the subject:

The gist of it is weave, cost, sheen, print, and whether it stops or keeps burning once you light it and then take the flame away (kind of expensive, this last test, so I don’t recommend it).

Here’s a video of a woman weaving silk using a hand shuttle. A “shuttle” is the device that holds the new thread, and the weaver passes it back and forth across the tapestry to add the new threads. A “beater” then presses them into place. (That's what she's pulling on after she passes the shuttle through each time.):

The noise you hear in the background is from a foot shuttle, the dominate form of weaving apparatus used today. The weaver simply presses a peddle to make the shuttle go back and forth across the threads.

I’m particularly fascinated by the art of weaving because of my stories. One of my shorts, “Tapestry of Time” is based on the idea that people’s lives are threads in the space-time continuum. Lives can be cut and sewn to other lives to make each one shorter or longer. In my novel series, the characters use “shuttles,” portal like devices, to travel from place to place through the fabric of space-time. Thus they can travel through outer space to other planets without having to use a spaceship.

Next we saw the lacquer ware. Artisans get the lacquer from tree sap, which they paint on wooden or ceramic objects. Then they paint on gold and other designs. Other times, they coat the surface in gold paint, brush on the lacquer, and then scratch away the lacquer to reveal the gold underneath and create designs. This is typically the better method, and lasts longer, though it is quite a bit more expensive.

Here’s Mom with a large lacquer gold fish that cost several hundred dollars:

The last place we stopped was the fan/umbrella making shop, for which Chiang Mai is particularly famous. Mom and I both bought fans because they were cheap and useful in the heat. (Mom also got one depicting a beautiful Thai village, waterfall, and jungle to mount in the living room for decoration.) Here is a large umbrella on display:

And some gorgeous paintings:

Each item is hand painted by artists, so you get a lot for the price you pay. Many of the designs are repeated and used by several artists, but you can request an original, unique one, though they cost more.

After we finished there, Chiya had to run and catch a plane for his next tour. We got back to our hotel about 5:00 to talk and make plans for our free day. We checked out some Thai TV and Mom noted that many of the shows were either American or Japanese in origin. There were lots of Japanese cartoons in particular. I explained to her the growing fandom with Japanese “anime” (short for animation) since the 1980s that is sweeping across the world, particularly in Asia and America.

“Lots of people are totally obsessed,” I said. “They dress up as the characters, go to conventions. You’ve seen the T-shirts around Thailand, even. People who are obsessed like that are called ‘otaku.’ ”

After that, we went downstairs in the hotel to check out what kind of tours they offered. The woman who worked the tour desk was in her early thirties, very pretty and proper. She asked why we were in Thailand. I told her I was living in Japan and had just finished my contract.

“Oh, Japan? I love Japan!” she exclaimed. “I want to go there some day.”

“Why?” I asked, a little confused. Most Southeast Asians I knew either disliked Japan or had an indifferent attitude about it, on account that Japan took over so much of Asia with brutal force during World War II.

The woman looked very shy all of a sudden. “Because,” she whispered, as if she didn’t want anyone to hear, “I love Kitty.”

“You mean Hello Kitty, the character?” I asked.

“Yes!” she exclaimed. “I love all things Kitty!”

“Well,” I told the woman, “in Osaka, the big city near where I live, you can actually get a Hello Kitty wedding.”

Her eyes got real big. “Oh, how romantic!”

I smiled, though I actually thought it was the most unromantic thing I’d ever heard of. A Hello Kitty wedding? While I visited Universal Studios Japan and saw the sign advertising them, I thought I might gag. Where has the sanctity of marriage gone?

“See?” I told Mom later. “You never know who might be ‘otaku.’ ”

The following day was our best day on the entire 12-day tour, so stay tuned to find out about that next time!