The song “One Night is Bangkok” may be one thing that most of us know about Thailand. (Well, that and perhaps the food.)
I can remember in my 20s confusing this country in Southeast Asia with the island off the east coast of China: Taiwan. Simple mistake. I was only about 1400 miles off. Then even after traveling to Thailand five years ago, all I knew was that Phuket was the island for beaches, partying, and tourists; Bangkok was the largest city and hub of the country; and Chiang Rai was that “other city” up north where you could find “real Thailand”–whatever that meant.
Well, let’s see what it means. Today we start off with Three Days in Chiang Mai.
As I introduced last week, I’m here with a pack of 8th graders as part of a school trip. I get to chaperon and document their experience visiting a nation where their grandparents, parents, or even they themselves came from. The students are all Hmong or Karenni (a people from Burma who, like the Hmong, have recently been in refugee camps in Thailand and now have populations settled within the country.)
This is a trip to show these students the world on the other side of the planet, inhabited by their ethnic fellows, where they likely would have found themselves had their parents not decided to come to the US.
After our fourth and final flight (from Bangkok to Chiang Mai), after dragging ourselves from the airport to our hotel…
…and then after dragging ourselves up in the morning, we stared at our first full day in Thailand: April 30, 2015.
First things first: breakfast.
A motorcade of prearranged vans driven by a posse of local Hmong men saw us through the streets of our neighborhood in Chiang Mai.
Chiang Mai is Thailand’s 3rd largest city, a happening northern hub that continually impressed me by how beautiful it was. To the right in the picture was a meandering river slowly slicing through town, and this river boulevard had remnants of the old city wall laid out in mounds of various size along its length. Plus, it’s blossom season, and trees in and out of the city boasted branches showing painted tips of pink, yellow, and green pastel.
We arrived at a cozy corner diner without outside walls.
Breakfast is served.
For dessert: a local selling flower petal necklaces to the students.
We came to Thailand to see the Hmong in the eastern hemisphere, so that’s what we set out to do this first day.
Before that, a bit of touristy nature.
The tallest point in Thailand was just a drive away, up, up, up a mountain to an elevation that was surprisingly modest in this mountainous country (8,400 ft).
Nonetheless, it was high enough to see the temperature drop 20 degrees, send a wee bit of shiver down my now-under-dressed body, and then see this here barista gearing up for what seemed like actual cold weather.
Not the arctic, but the climate did change enough to alter the plant life as we enjoyed a walk through something I called the Yeti Forrest.
On the way down the mountain, we got our first look at a Hmong village here in the Old World.
Right alongside the descending highway a stretch of vendors sold Hmong clothing, jewelry and figurines, and honey and other foods.
One particular lady dressed in traditional attire sat beside her table of goods. She would have blended in with the rest but for one set of items on her table that stuck out and up.
Or so they seemed.
But they were small, a couple of the pairs were maybe six inches long, another pair perhaps a foot in length. Yet despite their diminutive size, I believed them to be genuine due to their color, hardness, and the endings (one tapering to a tip, the other off white, broad, and lumpy as it would where it met the head.)
I asked one of our van drivers to translate as I asked what these items were. The lady said they were the tusks from baby elephants. She said they lose their baby horns like people lose their baby teeth. I had no idea.
If so, it seemed reasonable to not let them go to waste. Yet I had just noted at the Bangkok airport the large signs warning travelers against buying or having any ivory products. Thus, I deemed the risk of airport detainment not worth the reward of owning two small tusks–though I did read that elephant tusk goes for something like $2000/pound. (And on a side note, I think the threat to elephants and rhinos due to hunting will be tapered off by the new technology of cultivating the horns/tusks outside the animals.)
Meanwhile, I also wondered about the authenticity of this villages, as they’ve understandably succumbed to the tourism trend and so many have gone from sowing to souvenirs and that which they do sew is made to sell or wear for the attraction of it. Tourists like to see the Hmong as the Hmong hill people. This was made more apparent the following day in another Hmong mountain village.
Like the one the day before, this village also happened to be in an advantageous, elevated location if tourists are your interest. It was tucked away behind lookout points overseeing Chiang Mai, temples, and touristy towns on the way up. And after riding through all that, we ended up winding back down the back side of the mountain, where trees lessened in number to make way for the small buildings in an opening below.
Soon we stopped and disembarked in this village that was more than a village. It offered a formal–if not artificial–introduction to Hmong life. The advantage was a population ready for showmanship, a modest museum of the hill people ways, and a layout and decor befitting the Hmong–and Chiang Mai.
First was the simple museum.
Beyond it was the gardens in back and up, up, up the hillside.
Another elevated view away from the gardens:
Finally, we made our way back down the back side of the village which featured a smooth, level dirt road flanked on either side by vendors selling similar gear and garb as the Hmong the day before. I knew this wasn’t the “real” Hmong experience that one might prefer when coming to see such a place.
“It’s changed a lot since I was here in 2010,” said Kazoua, the middle aged female Hmong COO of our school and trip leader. She said this at the top of the garden hill as students drank drinks from the coffee shop up there.
“There was no restaurant up here,” she continued. “The road wasn’t as smooth and not near the vendor activity.”
But by the time I got back to the van, I realized that these vendors were no less genuine–just adapting to the world they find themselves in today. And within the all this sales and showmanship were just everyday people living their life.
And this was precisely what we came to Thailand to see.
The following day, we got to experience a walk on the wild wide–the elephant park.