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!

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