We had planned to spend some time in this part of the country up in Pai, a mountain town which, depending on who you talk to, is either a wonderful, vibrant hub for jungle trekking, exploration and partying with other travelers or a placid rest-stop in the middle of nowhere, somewhere to sip coffees and catch up on reading for a few days. Both options sounded good to me but timing and Thailands’ tourism/transport industry intervened, forcing us to abandon Pai and focus our efforts on reaching Cambodia instead. With our already ramshackle plans readjusted we weighted up our options for the last couple of nights in Chiang Mai, opting for a day of rest and recuperation followed by a day at the zoo and visiting the mountain temple of Doi Suthep.
It transpires that Chiang Mai is a reasonably good destination for those fond of bumbling around with no real purpose whatsoever. We let ourselves bounce around the streets, buffeted from market stall to cafe by the currents of the streets like paper boats adrift on a stream. As we had been doing all holiday we indulged in a variety of cuisines – Chiang Mai is a purveyor of a mixed bag of foods, some blandness to be sure but there are mouthwatering treats aplenty to make up for it. The hot dogs at Mike’s, the genuine Indian food, the insanely large Philly cheesesteak and fries at the Chiang Mai Saloon, all conspired to slowly move my belt onto the next notch. And let’s not forget my former colleague Nick’s restaurant, The Swan, serving up incredibly tasty and complex variants on traditional Burmese dishes, the Nur Leng meatballs and accompanying mindblowing sauce now permanently seared into my taste memory.
Our plan for the zoo trip was fairly simple; catch a red truck (taxi) out there, wander around, then hop on the bus from the zoo entrance up to Doi Suthep to take in the famed views of the city. After that perhaps a swim at the hostel to unwind before the following day’s journey to Cambodia (see Long day…). The zoo part was easy enough, a mere fifteen minute ride and we were buying tickets – 100 baht for the zoo, 100 baht to see the pandas and another 20 to be allowed to hop on and off the tram (actually just a bus) that continually circled the compound. Unfortunately the famed new aquarium demanded a little over 500 baht if I remember rightly, a little too rich for our blood but in the end it made no difference.
Before I start I realise that some people have pretty strong views about zoos, and by ‘strong views’ I mean they hate them and believe them to be cruel and immoral ventures. Myself, I avoid making blanket statements about zoos. The fact is that their intentions are mainly pure – helping animals, studying them, in many cases preserving species which would have died long ago in the wild. I know enough about their financial situation from an old friend who worked at Edinburgh Zoo, there’s no profit motive here, at least not in the vast majority of cases, just a staff of animal lovers doing their best to carry out a difficult task in difficult circumstances. That’s not to say that there aren’t bad apples in the basket. Some zoos, particularly in less developed countries, exist merely as tourist attractions, modern day freakshows with no regard for the inhabitants. Some, like in Chiang Mai, focus on the animals which attract the customers which allow them to survive and seem to neglect others. It’s not a perfect world.
On the whole Chiang Mai zoo was nestled comfortably in the ‘Good Guy’ section of the animal care world. The residents appeared healthy, some of the tigers, giraffes and primates particularly so, and their enclosures – while still inevitably enclosed – were of a generous size and often mixed several species together. The giraffe, zebra and ostrich field provided an amusing and varied sight whereas the sight of a solitary turtle sharing it’s pool with an enormous crocodile was just plain baffling. Maybe one one of those odd inter-species adoption things you read about? Who knows…
The gibbons had it particularly good on Gibbon Island, a lagoon of three islands each containing a child’s paradise of treehouses, rope swings, ladders and everything else you could want. The inhabitants were mostly taking advantage of the generous shade provided when we made out midday visit but there was the odd live-wire sprinting and swinging around the gangways and slides like a possessed imp, it’s brain fried and malfunctioning from exposure to the glaring sun. I was idling around the islands, hypnotised by the antics and contemplating the eerie yet stunningly obvious similarities between ourselves and our primate cousins, separated by a mere few seconds in evolutionary time, when I noticed something bizarre yet uplifting. There were no barriers to this enclosure. Not the flimsiest fence, not even a Gibbons, please don’t run away or we’ll be really sad” sign to be seen. The islands, separated from the public walkways by moats scarcely a couple of metres wide, were festooned with trees and poles within what had to be easy jumping distance for these seasoned tarzans. And yet none made a move, not a single one attempted a bid for freedom, entirely content in their new homes. Maybe I’m being naive but it made me happy.
That said, there were downside. The sight of a lone elephant coralled in to a tiny stand by the roadside for visitors to coo over was upsetting to say the least. The sounds emanating from it when too many humans surrounded it were clearly not of the happy variety and all too often it tried to back away, only to find it had no means of escape, nowhere to hide. Such a beautiful creatures made to perform parlour tricks for a crowd of onlookers wasn’t an enjoyable sight, I couldn’t even take a single photo and had to move on as soon as possible. Similarly, the lone otter in his enclosure made me miserable. I love otters, their sleek, energetic forms and endless play always raise a smile but they are social animals, they don’t do so well alone, especially not in a grimy concrete pit full of rotting logs and cloudy water set back from the rest of the star attractions. In the few minutes we could bear to look it endlessly repeated a loop around it’s prison, scampering across the land, swimming through the miniscule pool,, then pausing for a second on a log before doing it all again. I’d seen this before in a polar bear at Edinburgh Zoo which was suffering extremely badly from being in captivity. No sign of anything going on in its head, just an endless OCD-like circuit around its lonely and woefully inadequate cell. This made me sad.
So we’ve done happy, done sad, now what? Erm… angry! So we paid an extra 100 baht to see the pandas, knowing that Chiang Mai zoo was home to some recently born cubs, including the famous Lin Ping who has her own TV channel over here. I was happy to shell out some extra cash for this, spurred on by the pictures of the cubs all over the zoo entrance. The red and yellow “To Lin Ping” sign inside the exhibit fuelled the excitement as we made our way through the eager crowd to see… two adult pandas. One sleeping, one munching on bamboo leaves. Cubs? No, they don’t live here any more, they’ve gone to a new home. Bastards, bastards, lying fucking bastards.
But hey, we got to see all manner of other beasts, some enormous crocs, gaudily-coloured birds, unbelievably gorgeous white tigers and a 5km walk up and down a hillside zoo in unbelievably hot sunshine. Climbing up a mountain to see yet another temple after this? No thanks. We dragged ourselves out to another red truck and set out for more food, swimming, reading and the general relaxation which I’m pretty sure holidays are supposed to be all about. A wise decision it seemed, as we were going to need all our energy to deal with the next leg of the journey.