We are seated on crude wooden benches in a dusty clearing about 100 yards from the Mae Ping River in Chiang Dao, 45 minutes north of Chiang Mai, Thailand. It is a brilliant morning, with sunshine winking through the tall trees. We are surrounded by French tourists.
Fresh from their ablutions in the river, 12 changs, or Asian elephants, two of them babies, are lined up, ready to begin their elephants-at-work show. Nine years ago, I attended a similar show, and it's all flooding back. There are the mahouts, attaching the elephants' drag chains to teak logs. There go the elephants, first singly, then in pairs and finally in threes, dragging logs to the log pile--where, with the mahouts exhorting them, the changs push each log in turn to the top of the pile with their powerful trunks.
It's silly work, a crude demonstration of how elephants once helped clear Thailand's now mostly vanished teak forests. Still, my children applaud, and the French cry, "Bravo!" The elephants do not reveal what they think of it all, but their large, intelligent eyes, no more than half-intent on their tasks, suggest that they are thinking something.
Finally, the show is over, and I'm grateful, because the rest of the morning's activities, booked through a tour operator in Chiang Mai, are about to begin: an elephant ride through the jungle and a bamboo raft ride down the Mae Ping.
During our first visit to Southeast Asia in 1985, my wife and I spent five months on vacation? in Chiang Mai, not quite 400 miles northwest of Bangkok. We had just one child then, a toddler, and all we knew about the city was what a friend had told us--that it was beautiful and that there was a good hospital, in case the kid got sick. We arrived in November, in time for the relatively cool, dry season that continues through late February, and which brings Chiang Mai most of its visitors--among them Thailand's king and queen, who maintain a winter palace on the nearby mountain of Doi Suthep.
From guidebooks, we learned that Chiang Mai, founded in 1296 by King Mengrai, was a sleepy provincial capital, notable for its 600-year-old wats (Buddhist temples), for the moat around its old city walls and for what partisans claimed was the best handicraft shopping in Asia. Located on a high plateau at the foot of the rugged mountains that comprise most of Thailand's northern borders with Laos and Burma (now called Myanmar), Chiang Mai was also regularly referred to as the "Gateway to the Golden Triangle, and its colorful hill tribes."
We were not prepared then for how friendly, charming and sophisticated the people of Chiang Mai were. Neither were we prepared for the food: Everything we ate, from the fried chicken and sticky rice in the market to the satay and kway teo (noodle soup) on the street to the curries and seafood in restaurants was delicious and inexpensive. We had other pleasant surprises as well.
We quickly learned our way around the city, renting an ancient right-hand-drive Toyota. Most buildings were one or two stories high, with shops on the ground floor. The major thoroughfares were an adventure to negotiate, because they were shared by cars, trucks, motorcycles and bicycle-rickshaws--four distinct sizes and speeds of vehicles filling two lanes in each direction. The smaller streets were quite narrow, often winding past aged wats .
From Chiang Mai, we also drove as far north and west as the Burmese and Laotian borders. On one excursion, we danced in the midnight moonlight at a hill tribe festival outside Chiang Rai, the only foreigners there. (We also learned that the tribes' vibrantly colorful "costumes" were actually their daily attire.) We had raw silk suits made in one of the city's tailor shops. On a whim, we hung baskets of orchids from the market on the lamyai tree (lamyai is a plum-like fruit) in our front yard. We learned firsthand how much Thais love children and learned to watch calmly and happily as strangers picked up our son and hugged him. We kept extending our visas. . . .
Then a Thai friend took us to a shop that specialized in hand-embroidered cotton pillows, and we became so enamored of them that for several years after returning to the States, we ran a small import business, bringing them in--thus maintaining our connection to this city we had loved so well.
My son and I ride Bualoi, a bulky, balky 35-year-old female elephant with faint pink polka dots on her ears. My wife and daughter follow on Di Mak, a 40-year-old male. Each chang comes equipped with a carved wooden seat for two and a mahout seated between its ears.
We're about halfway down the line in a 10-elephant caravan, following a muddy trail south along the banks of the Mae Ping. The jungle is lush and lovely, full of tall trees I don't know the names of, many of them flowering--but dry hillsides rise gradually from both sides of the river valley, reminders that this is the second year of a drought in the region. As exotic as it is, I realize that there's something about the landscape, the dry air and brilliant sunshine that's familiar. Then it comes to me: Change the unfamiliar trees to live oak, and we could almost be riding along a horse trail in the Santa Monica Mountains--except, of course, for the fact that we're 15 feet off the ground, scraping tree limbs, and that Bualoi's lurching gait is like that of no horse I've ever encountered.
The kids are loving it, and though it's clear that our chang trek is as artificial and manufactured as the elephants-at-work show, my wife and I are equally enthralled. Then the trail ends, and our elephants begin stepping down into the river. The Mae Ping reaches up about four feet, to Bualoi's first leg joint, and water laps against her and the other changs as we stroll across the river beneath a canopy of tree limbs. Hills rise in the distance. Then the elephant in front of us defecates. My son laughs and points and calls to his sister as an elephant turd the size of a small green cannonball floats down the river.
The Chiang Mai we returned to with some trepidation on our trip last fall is small and sleepy no more. The city's first five-star hotel, the Chiang Mai Westin, is now open, and there are several new golf courses. There's an active second-home market here for wealthy residents of Bangkok. The traffic, although nothing like the legendary snarls on the streets of the Thai capital, is a nuisance at rush hour.
Because we like being out of the hectic city center, we stayed at the Rincome Hotel, on the west side of town. It's a friendly, comfortable place with two pools (which our kids love) and a free shuttle to the Night Bazaar--an incredible marketplace, open 365 days a year from about 5 p.m. to midnight, covering several square blocks of shops and stalls and selling an amazing array of handicrafts and manufactured goods.
Here, we discovered a fabulous small restaurant just down the road, a place with the unlikely name of The Pancake--which in fact served wonderful, inexpensive American-style breakfasts (pancakes included) as well as some of the best Thai curries we've ever eaten, at any price. However else Chiang Mai may have changed, the food remains as complex and delicious as ever.
Across the street from the Rincome is one of our favorite shops, Nandakwang, where the proprietor creates a wide range of clothing and interior design items--place mats and napkins, materials for curtains and furniture covers and the like--from hand-loomed cotton. This is simply one of the world's great stores.
Chiang Mai is a fabulous place to shop. Both in the city and in the surrounding area, businesses of every sort, from full-scale stores to tiny stands, sell high-quality goods of every kind, in a variety that defies description. There is certainly schlock to be had, and if you don't bargain you can pay considerably more than you should--but to us (and to a multitude of others, both foreigners and Thais), Chiang Mai and vicinity is to shopping what Brooklyn is to pizza or Hollywood to movies. Both quantity and quality abound.
Just east of Chiang Mai, on the San Kampaeng Road, are two handicraft villages--Bor Sang, which specializes in hand-painted silk umbrellas, and San Kampeang, known for silk products. Taxi drivers and tuk-tuk operators (tuk-tuks are a sort of open-air tourist torture--motorcycles with a roof and seats on the back for passengers) are eager to ferry travelers out to San Kampeang from Chiang Mai because they receive a commission from the stores. For the most part, though, we avoid shopping there. There are undeniably fine goods to be had there, but we find it too large and impersonal.
Instead, we prefer Hang Dong, a new shopping mecca as yet undiscovered by most tourists. About eight or nine miles southwest of Chiang Mai on a good road, Hang Dong specializes in carved wooden wall decorations and furniture. Hang Dong has become such a hot spot in recent years that it now has its own upscale restaurant and hotel, the Village Inn, just past the turnoff from the main Chiang Mai-Hang Dong road to the street with all the woodwork galleries. At the open-air Village Inn restaurant, we ate perhaps the best food we have had in Chiang Mai--the shrimp with basil and chiles and the fish cakes are sublime--while waiting for the shipper we had engaged to pick up the hand-carved furniture we'd just bought. (The shipping cost more than the pieces themselves, but were still a bargain.)
At the end of our long elephant-filled morning in Chiang Dao, we are floating down the Mai Ping on a bamboo raft, propelled by the lazy current and by Satiam, our boatman. After the elephant ride, we waited for the French tourists and their loud "Bravos" to depart first. Now we have the river to ourselves, and we drift quietly past dry rice paddies and low hills. Satiam, who, of course, loves kids, encourages our son to help pole the raft. The next thing we know, both kids are in the river in their underwear, holding onto the raft and swimming along beside us.
For now, we've got nothing to do but enjoy the sun and the view of the hills and the sight of our children having the time of their lives. Later, we'll drive back to Chiang Mai for a late lunch and perhaps--what else?--a little shopping before dinner.
Checking Out Chiang Mai
Phone numbers and prices: The country code for Thailand is 66 and the city code for Chiang Mai and vicinity is 53 from outside Thailand, 053 from within the country. All prices are approximate, and are based on an exchange rate of 25 baht to the dollar. Hotel prices are maximum rates for a double room for one night, including tax and service charges. When rooms are booked through a travel agent, breakfast is often included. Restaurant prices are for dinner for two, food only.
Getting there: There are no nonstop flights between Los Angeles and Bangkok, the capital of Thailand, but United Airlines offers daily connecting flights via San Francisco and Taipei, and Thai Airways International has four flights a week connecting through Seoul. Thai Airways also has frequent service between Bangkok and Chiang Mai. Another way to reach Chiang Mai is by express train. These leave Bangkok's Hualampong Station daily at 8:10 a.m. (arriving at 7 p.m.), 6 p.m. (arriving at 7:25 a.m. the next morning) and 7:40 p.m. (arriving at 8:05 a.m.). Fares range from about $20 round-trip for a second-class ticket on the day train to about $80 round-trip for a first-class ticket overnight, in a two-sleeping-berth compartment. Reservations are essential, and may be made at the train station or through any Bangkok travel agency.
Where to stay: Amari Rincome Hotel, Huay Kaew Road, telephone 221-130, fax 221-915. For reservations, (800) 448-8355. A charming place, with recently remodeled rooms and two pools. Rate: $98. The Westin Chiang Mai, 318/1 Chiang Mai-Lumpoon Road, tel. 275-300, fax 275-299. For reservations, (800) 228-3000. A new, palatial hotel, very well equipped, though a bit isolated from the action in Chiang Mai. Rate: $130. Gap's Antique House, Rajadamnern Road, tel. 213-140. One of Chiang Mai's more charming guesthouses, air-conditioned and furnished with antiques. Rate: $24.
Where to eat: The Pancake Restaurant, Nimmanhemin Road, tel. 213-234. Best for American-style breakfasts and curries; $10. Galare Food Center, Changklan Road, (opposite the Night Bazaar), a complex of stands offering a wide selection of dishes; $8-$10. The Village Inn, Kilometer 17, Chiang Mai-Hang Dong Road, tel. 441-074.; $15-$20.
What to do: Our morning of elephant show, elephant ride and bamboo raft cruise cost about $17 per person and about $10 for children. More ambitious three-to-five-day treks into hill tribe territory, backpacking and camping out, with elephant rides and raft trips included, run $50-$60 per person. Tours may be booked through any of the aforementioned hotels, or by any of the travel agencies or independent tour operators in Chiang Mai.
For more information: Tourism Authority of Thailand, 3440 Wilshire Blvd. Suite 1101, Los Angeles, 90010; (213) 382-2353.