Doi Suthep, Doi Poi, and Chiang Mai Zoo

Trip Start Oct 13, 2007
Trip End Nov 01, 2007

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Sunday, October 21, 2007

This morning we made a trip down to the restaurant for breakfast at the hotel before our tour of Wat Prathat Doi Suthep, Doi Poi Hmong Village, and finally the Chiang Mai Zoo with our tour guide Supat.  We left to begin our tour at 8:30am, heading outside of Chiang Mai and up the most winding, hilly road I've ever seen.  The climb up the mountain totals about 20 kilometers due to the winding, and eventually takes us to the Doi Poi Hmong Village.  The local tribes have unfortunately lost much of their traditional cultures and are now little more than a tourist attraction (which, admittedly we are guilty in this respect also but we tried to tour the area without making spectacles of the tribesman like many people were doing).  Supat is a regular visitor to the village and took us immediately past the main tourist areas and into the much less visited areas, including into the house of one family that he knows.  The Hmong villagers have unfortunately taken to dressing their children up in full traditional clothing and having them wander around trying to get tourists to pay them for photos.  We didn't partake in this, but a significant number of people did.  It's a catch 22 here, the money is nice for the families but to reduce their traditions and cultures to this is unfortunate.  Even with all this, it was still worth visiting the area and Danielle bought a silk blanket with elephants on it. 
After that, we headed back down the winding mountain road about 4-5 kilometers and stopped at Wat Prathat Doi Suthep, one of the highest elevation temples in Thailand.  This temple previously required a walk up the steep hill that took about 5 hours time, but a road was added more than 20 years ago.  The bottom area of the temple is very much a tourist trap, with everything imaginable available for sale.  I say the bottom area because the rest is quite a distance away.  As you make the first turn to the right following your ascent of a set of about 30 or so stairs, a daunting obstacle faces you.  The path to Doi Suthep leads through about 340 stairs to the top of the mountain.  There's also a cable car for those that aren't able, but that would take away the history and meaning of the climb, so off to the stairs we went.  All told, this climb would be about the same as tackling the stairs in a 30 story building, and it was worth the effort.  The upper temple is beautiful, as is the view of the valleys below.  The only unfortunate part of the upper temple is the presence of a coffee shop and the ever-present sellers of garland, amulets, and the like.  The Wats shouldn't have vendors in these areas, it's just wrong on so many levels.  Anyway, we toured the upper area for about 25 minutes before heading towards the stairs and admiring (and dreading) the upcoming climb down.  At least down is easier than up.  After a quick stop off for a snack at one of the street carts and grabbing a couple more bottles of water, it was off to the Chiang Mai Zoo for us.
At the bottom of the mountain, the entrance to the Chiang Mai Zoo is being completely rebuilt with a car parking garage, new entrance plaza, and the upcoming monorail.  Right now, almost everyone that comes into the zoo drives around from site to site.  The idea is to have most people (if not all), come into the zoo and park their cars in the garage.  They then would board the monorail and take that from station to station.  It appears that the parking garage is still a little ways from complete, but the monorail looks as if it's pretty close to ready.  With the distances involved and the number of hills, walking the zoo would be pretty much impossible.  Instead, we had Supat drop us off at a point and then drive ahead to the next break of exhibits and wait there for the next drive.  This worked out pretty well for us, as we managed to see pretty much everything that we had intended to.  The zoo is under a significant amount of renovation and new exhibit construction right now, including a fairly large new aquarium that is very early in building.  The reptile and bird enclosures for the most part were large enough and in good condition, though a few were sparsely decorated and were in various degrees of disrepair.  The largest bird enclosure, a walk-through aviary, was absolutely huge in width, length, and height.  The maximum height appears to be somewhere in the neighborhood of 65-70 feet and the remaining dimensions are around 400 feet by 200 feet.  I'll have to see if I can track down the exact dimensions, but for now I'll just say that it was huge.  There are sets of stairs that take you up into the canopy of the aviary for accessing the multiple viewing pavilions up in the trees.  The aviary appeared to have been constructed by just fencing in a portion of the forest and calling it an aviary.  The only drawback to an aviary this size is bird visibility.  There were quite a few pigeons, pheasants, peafowl, and the like wandering the ground and a few pigeons, doves, and parrots up in the trees but other than that very few birds were seen.  Some of the other exhibits that we spent some time at were the pandas, Indian rhino, penguins, bird gardens, African savannah, tapir, etc.  Too many to mention individually.  We drove past the elephant enclosure and saw a bull with one impressive tusk (the other was missing), but the enclosure wasn't all that great and wasn't worth stopping for.  Our trip back to the hotel took about 20 minutes, leaving us enough time to rest up for a little bit before heading to grab dinner and go to the Sunday night walking market.
I won't go into too many details about the Sunday night walking market other than to say that it is the ultimate in chaos.  They close down a significant number of the streets in the inner city and booths are set up on both sides and down the middle of the road.  There are literally thousands of booths selling everything imaginable.  There are also street performers out looking to earn a few baht displaying their varying talents, ranging from singing, playing instruments, dancing, mime work, or magic.  When we first heard about the market, all the information we were given said something along the lines of "the road in front of your hotel will be closed to traffic for the market".  They neglected to mention that this was only one of dozens of roads that would be closed.  We hadn't brought our map with us, so after we wandered a little bit it took a while to find our way back to the hotel.  Yes, we were the stupid tourists that couldn't find our hotel.  For the whole two hours of walking around, we only made one purchase.  There were dozens of things that I would have liked to have bought, but most of them were too bring, fragile, or illegal to bring onto the airplane.  I think U.S. customs would have liked to have a talk with us if we tried to come into the country with some of the stuff, especially the live animals.  Once we found the hotel, it was time to start packing for tomorrow and our trip to the Thai Elephant Conservation Center.  We leave at 7am tomorrow for three days of playing with elephants.
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