| Bahyiah Bakir in Chiang Mai |
CHIANG Mai, Thailand’s “Rose of the North”, is a city rich with cultural and a natural wonderland with ethnic diversity and a multitude of attractions.
Chiang Mai is one of the few places in Thailand where it is possible to experience both historical and modern Thai culture.
The city features centuries-old pagodas and temples next to modern convenience stores and hotels.
I was surprised by the fact that there are so many things to discover other than its beautiful and historic temples.
Intriguing diversity among ethnic tribes, a number of elephant camps, cooking and massage schools, numerous outdoor activities, a variety of handicraft workshops, various cultural performances and breath-taking scenery make Chiang Mai one of Asia’s most attractive tourist destinations.
Maetaeng Elephant Camp
Mae Taeng Elephant Camp borders a rushing river in a beautiful lush tropical valley of Maetaman, approximately 50 kilometres north of Chiang Mai. The camp offers the greatest up-close elephant experience.
We reached the camp in the morning and the place was already full of tourists. Luckily our tour guide and an officer from Tourism Authority Thailand (TAT) had booked our tickets a few days earlier.
We were ushered to one of the high platforms and sat atop a massive nine-foot-tall, four-tonne elephant.
Guided by its mahout, we rode through deep rivers and forests and back to the camp. Along the way, the villagers set up small stalls to sell food to feed the elephants. Bananas and sugarcanes were sold for 20 Baht (one Brunei dollar) per bundle.
We later enjoyed a 15-minute ox-cart ride back to the camp to watch an elephant show.
The elephants lined up and carry with them a ‘Welcome to Maetaeng Elephant Camp’ banner.
There were also dance performances, football games and paintings. One of the elephants, Suda, painted a beautiful tree and elephant silhouette, which was then sold for 3,000 Baht (126 Brunei dollars).
It was a great experience at the camp, where I shared a special bond with the gentle giants.
Karen Long Neck Hill Tribe
Another interesting place I visited was the Karen Long Neck Hill Tribe Village, not far from the elephant park.
The tribe was originally from Eastern Myanmar. They sought refuge in Northern Thailand where they now live in ‘touristy villages’, which help them sustain and keep their culture alive.
The people of Karen live in bamboo houses built on stilts. They have little to no furniture, sleep on floor mats and cook on open fires. Water for washing and drinking is drawn from the river.
The women of Karen Long Neck hill tribe or Padaung are known for boasting spiral brass coils around their necks. Girls as young as five years old are fitted with brass rings around their necks.
Longer rings are added as they grow older, in effect deforming the chest and shoulder to give the illusion that their necks are abnormally long.
The reason why the Karen women put themselves though the neck lengthening routine is simply just tradition and heritage.
In the early days, the practice of the brass rings was started not just for beauty, but also to protect themselves against tigers.
Karen women are known for their tremendous weaving skills which are done on a back strap loom, while the Karen men are mainly field workers and farmers.
Some of the women weaved at their storefronts, others simply stood at the foot of their booth waiting for tourists buying their trinkets and crafts.
My visit to the Karen tribal village was an experience I will never forget.
I was glad I made the trip for it was an experience straight out of a National Geographic special. – PHOTOS: BAHYIAH BAKIR