Way, way back in June I was thinking about vacations. Well, daydreaming mad hard about vacations actually. I had returned from my R&R a month before and I knew there was the long, busy summer of Shanghai-style visa adjudications and the G-20 timeframe ahead of me. I would need something to sustain me. Planning vacations makes people happy. Studies have shown that even planning vacations can have longer term happiness benefits than the vacation itself. I certainly wholeheartedly embrace this.
I looked at November. Thailand came to mind. My daughter likes elephants; although she tells me that “all animals” are her favorite animal she definitely has a top three: horses, cats, and elephants. I recalled my friends JK1 and JK2, who had served with us in Ciudad Juarez, were in Chiang Mai. I sent a quick message to JK1 and she confirmed they would be in town and would love us to visit. I booked the tickets.
I first visited Thailand the winter of 1995/1996. (Holy moly I am getting old) I was participating in a student/volunteer program at Trinity College of Quezon City and I traveled to Thailand to meet up with friends I had previously taught English with in Korea. We hung out together in Bangkok and then went our separate ways. I traveled north to Ayutthaya and Chiang Mai, and then south to Koh Pha Ngan and Khao Sok National Park, and then west to Kanchanaburi. Over the years I traveled several more times to vacation around the country. A week in conjunction with a week in Malaysia, another week combined with a trip to Cambodia, and a week along with a trip to Laos. I also had several short trips to Bangkok–long layovers between Japan and Europe, a few days stopover to get a visa for Burma or to head to Brunei, and on my last trip several days for a counter-terrorism conference. As I thought about it, I found it surprising that although I have a Masters degree in Southeast Asian Studies and used to spend quite a lot of time in the region and in Thailand, I had not been to Southeast Asia since joining the State Department over five years ago.
Less than a month prior to our trip the beloved Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who had reigned over the country for over 70 years, passed away. The people of Thailand were overcome with grief and the government announced a one year period of mourning. For the first 30 days people were to avoid celebrations and bright colors and this would include some and perhaps all of the activities associated with the Loi Krathong Festival to be held around the time of our visit. Packing my suitcase full of somber colored clothing felt odd.
When we arrived it was raining. It seemed fitting. All around people were dressed predominantly in black and white. And yet…although the clothing was subdued there was still a lightness in the air. As we walked out of the terminal to see my friend JK2 and Little JK, I too could feel myself lighten.
We headed to a late lunch to meet JK1 who had finished up work at the Consulate. The lunch was fresh and delicious. The conversation and company more than worth the trip. Afterwards we headed to a mall near their home and C and Little JK enjoyed some time crawling through a giant kids jungle gym while JK1 and I tried in vain to keep up. Then we headed back to the JK homestead, a beautiful two story home with two car garage surrounded by a yard full of lush green tropical foliage. They put us up in a cute little guest cottage connected to the main house by a wooden deck. It did occur to me that I might have made a mistake not bidding on my friend’s job.
The weather forecast for the second day too was rain. Thailand in general and Chiang Mai in particular is more of a place with outdoor pursuits – traipsing over historic temples, lying on tropical beaches, hiking through jungles and/or mountains in search of hill tribes or waterfalls or breathtaking vistas or all of the above. JK1 suggested we check out Art in Paradise, a 3D art museum where visitors can, through a bit of illusion and creativity, place themselves into the artwork. I had no other ideas and a quick online search suggested it was or had once been the world’s largest 3D museum and enough visitors gave it a thumbs up. So off we went. I could hardly imagine that we would spend more than 2 hours there laughing and shooting photos that seemed to place us in some fairly outrageous scenarios.
Our museum experience was followed by yet another amazing lunch in a simple but attractive riverside restaurant. We then headed to the mall. Because the JKs needed to get some items for Little JK and I, in my pursuit of clinching the Mother of the Year Award before the year ended, needed to purchase C some underwear having forgotten to pack a single pair except for those she was wearing.
Before I was a mother I rarely forgot to pack items nor did I lose things. Alas now I am very adept at both. Soon after our successful clothing acquisition disaster struck: We lost White Cat. You may recall from our trip to Hong Kong in January we lost beloved Black Cat, C’s most precious stuffie. White Cat became the new favorite and accompanied C everywhere – to dance class and preschool, out to eat, to Disneyland, and on every single vacation. If you look carefully, White Cat is in each of the photos above, clutched in C’s hand. But we went into an arcade and the sights and sounds and games were enticing. C put her down to play a game. Less than five minutes later and I was uttering “Where is White Cat?” (easily the sentence I have said more often than any other since January). I looked down the aisle we had just walked. I looked at each of the three game locations we had been before. I crawled on my hands and knees (in a kids’ arcade!) looking under each and every machine. I knew she was gone. I had little doubt that some other child had snatched her up. Despite her once white but now grey and matted coat, her scratched eyes, her lost whiskers and the small hole in the back of her head, she was still a very cute stuffed animal. I looked for 20 minutes at least and JK1 and JK2 looked as well, inquiring with staff and arcade management. We did not find her. And for the next hour or so we were all treated to C’s forlorn and gut-wrenching wails as we walked to the car and drove back to JKs’ home.
The next morning I woke up in the cottage to absolute silence. I looked around and C was gone. I found the sliding doors open but saw her shoes were sitting neatly side by side in front of the doors to the main house. I thought of going in after her but there was something peaceful and not ominous about the quiet (and anyone who has a small child will know what I am talking about) so I slipped back into the cottage and enjoyed the peaceful solitude another 30 minutes.
Little JK and C were playing companionably together — Little JK had won C’s heart when he offered up two of his own favorite stuffies for her to hug the previous night as she slept. After breakfast JK1 took a call from a colleague and our day’s plan began to form.
We met JK1’s local colleague, his wife, and 5 year old daughter at a traditional Lanna market. Apparently this market occurs only once a year and we were lucky not only to be in town but also for the glorious weather. C immediately took to 5 year old Witta and the two ran off together with Witta’s mother in tow. The market was lovely — makeshift bamboo and straw stalls or tables set up on both sides of a narrow road, in green grass yards to the side of people’s homes. For sale were traditional fabrics, handmade dolls, clothing, foodstuffs and beverages like the very refreshing and eye-poppingly purple colored Butterfly Pea iced tea. Then the JKs and C and I headed to lunch. We ate at yet another fantastic restaurant – set in an idyllic green location near the Chiang Mai Night Safari. Besides delicious food, the restaurant had a grassy picnic like area and a children’s play area. As JK1, JK2 and I sat in pleasant conversation at a shaded table by a koi pond complete with small waterfall and bridge, C and Little JK made friends with the Thai and Thai-Chinese children at the playground. At that particular moment I could not imagine ever returning to Shanghai.
Although it was not yet night (in fact only 2 PM) we headed next to the Night Safari. Outside the gates you can pet and feed deer that wander around the parking lot and area by the entrance, and also feed giraffes. The 40 baht(US$1.12) I paid for the giraffe food and chance to feed them and take photos was so much more affordable than the AUS$25 (US$18.34) I paid in Sydney. The park opened at 3:30 and JK1’s friends and daughter once again joined us. The zoo is in a beautiful setting around a large artificial lake with Doi Suthep (Mt. Suthep) rising in the background. We rode the two trams and walked the 1.2 km Jaguar Trail around the lake. I generally avoid zoos in developing countries, but I found the Chiang Mai Night Safari to be pleasant with pretty good enclosures; the animals appeared, to my untrained eye, to be well cared for.
We woke the next morning in our hotel room. I loved staying with friends but I also try to be really conscious of the toll a guest can take on hosts. JK1 is one of the hardest working Foreign Service Officers you might meet and I felt she needed a weekend day to relax with her family. I too needed a break. The weeks leading up to the vacation — the bidding process and the election — had taken their toll on me as well. C and I spent the morning at the hotel pool where we met a local Scotsman, 15 years living in Chiang Mai, and his 4 year old son Felix. They invited C to join in the game of “diving for the tamarind seed” in the pool. Felix had brought a hard, dark brown burnished tamarindseed about an inch in diameter and the tossed it in the pool and dove effortlessly to retrieve it. Although C is a pretty good swimmer for 4 she could not out swim the fish-like Felix, yet he still made sure she could play.
Afterwards C and I walked about 15 minutes towards the old city. I pushed the stroller across a two lane traffic bridge over the Ping river, and along some very uneven sidewalks, to the They Call Me Cat Cafe. I have only anecdotal evidence, but I would guess that the two countries with the most number of cafes where one can dine with cats (or bunnies or other cute animals) would be Japan and Thailand. I had to give it a try. They Call Me Cat did not disappoint. A small cafe with some 10 very fancy felines and some surprisingly delicious fries and smoothies, the place was just what we needed for a light lunch. For the rest of the afternoon we rested at the hotel until 7 PM when we boarded the free hotel shuttle to the Chiang Mai market. Although it had been over a decade since I had been there last it felt instantly familiar. I had no agenda, no plan to buy anything. We browsed a little. The striking kathoey (ladyboys) passing out flyers to their show fawned over C. Then we stopped at a restaurant to enjoy yet another amazing Thai meal as we watched the activity in the market and C enjoyed the restaurant singer. I felt so content.
On Monday, our last full day, C and I went out to the Mae Sa Elephant camp. Our arranged driver picked us up at 8:30 AM for the 50 minute drive. I know that some people have criticized Mae Sa as a tourist trap with poor treatment of the animals. I did a lot of reading beforehand reading reviews from both sides and conducting some of my own research. Looking at the other elephant experiences (and there are so many), there did seem some smaller outfits with higher ratings for fun and compassionate experiences. Initially I had signed us up for a jungle sanctuary experience with elephants — but the 6:30 AM pick up and 2 PM drop off times, actual mud bath with elephants (bring a change a clothes!) and photos of bikini clad backpackers, made me think this was not the experience for 4 year old C and me. Mae Sa too had been where I had had my first such elephant experience nearly 21 years before. There we first watched elephants enjoying a bath in the river. This was followed by a short show with several elephants kicking a giant soccer ball and then painting pictures. C and I then took a short 15 minute trek on an elephant. We went in search of the baby elephant nursery with bananas and sugar cane in hand but ended up handing over the foodstuffs to two other friendly pachyderms. We were back in Chiang Mai just after noon in time to have lunch with JK2 and Little JK.
The evening of November 14 was the Loi Krathong and Yi Peng festival – a celebration of lights. Once celebrated separately, the two festivals, one with baskets of flowers, incense and candles (Loi Krathong) set afloat on rivers, and the other with white wax-coated paper hot air lanterns that soar into the sky, are now held together. As the 30 day ban on festivities ended the day before, the light festival could carry on. I booked for C and I to join the hotel celebration including a massive buffet dinner, several dance performances, and included a krathong for each guest to place on the river. I had imagined taking amazing photos of the Yi Peng lanterns but although I could see them in the sky we were far from the launch area. The dinner was too long for C although I luckily snagged us two seats at the table nearest the stage for the dances, which C really enjoyed. Once outside we had to wait in a very long line to launch our krathong as only two guests at a time could venture out on the hotel pontoon. It took over an hour for our turn and by that time C was extremely grump, and admittedly so was I. Still, although if I were to have the opportunity to experience the festival again I would probably choose another location to participate, I was nonetheless glad to have experienced it even if in such a small way.
On our last half day the sun shown brightly and the sky was clear. The view across the city was spectacular–the muddy brown Ping river, the cluster of low-rise homes and businesses, spreading to the base of Doi Suthep, and the sacred temple of Wat Phra That visible on the mountain’s slope. We both had contracted colds. The tropical warm weather and cleaner skies not something our bodies were ready to handle. I wanted to stay longer but it was time to return to Shanghai.