We arrive around 10am from Bangkok to the Chiang Mai airport. It’s a relief to have a domestic flight after so many international entries and exits. Chiang Mai is only a short three day visit, most of which will be work time. It’s a beautiful spot, and surprisingly cool compared to everything else we’ve done.
The girls jump in the pool at the Rimpling Village hotel, which seems busy but not crowded. They are one of the top rated trip advisor spots and impress us with their efficiency and attentiveness. It’s not an amazingly beautiful or charming place, but it seems perfect for families looking for an inexpensive hotel.
Our first day in Chiang Mai is unremarkable. Trish works while watching the kids at the pool, and I head to the office.
The original backpacker haunt
Chiang Mai is only the fifth largest city in Thailand, but has a much bigger presence on the tourist trail. Long a hangout for backpackers and ex-pats, Chiang Mai has a huge assortment of hotels and hostels, especially at the budget end.
There are a lot of museums and temples in Chiang Mai. The museums seem pretty meh (numismatic, postal and hill-tribe research museums? No thank you.) The temples are world class Buddhist temples, but we are templed-out. I think we’ve seen at least 20 so far on this trip, both ancient and modern. I may regret this later but there will be mutiny on the Creekmore ship today if I drag them to another one.
I try really hard to find a variety of travel activities for the family. We can’t just hike and see temples all day, nor can we do art museums and shopping all the time. Chiang Mai offers some great animal and jungle adventure stuff that is very different from the rest of our trip.
If I had more time, I would try a cooking class with my youngest Lily, who, like me, is really interested in cooking. That will wait till next time. Today’s activities include jungle ziplines and a visit to a Tiger breeding farm where we can pet baby tigers!
Is Trip Advisor useful?
The hotel is really good about scheduling the zipline at the last minute. According to the research, there are two (major) zipline companies here. Flight of the Gibbon seems to contribute some of their profits to environmental preservation and you get a chance to see gibbons, but it’s more than twice as expensive as Jungle Flight, which gets similarly good reviews.
I go with Jungle Flight. It takes about an hour to get to the zipline area, where we begin our 5 hour course.
We’re not the only ones going to Jungle Flight from Rimpling Village. I certainly don’t feel ‘exclusive’ about this plan. Trip Advisor is too easy sometimes. The minivan should be labeled ‘Trip Advisor Shuttle from Hotel #1 to Activity #10’
I love Trip Advisor in general, especially the forums where you can get remarkably specific information that would have been completely unobtainable 10 years ago unless you had a local friend in the tourist industry. (I just saw a forum dialog about an obscure hotel in Beijing. “Will the room safe fit an iPad?” He asked. And he got his answer! How nutty is that?”)
But there is a rush to get a top Trip Advisor billing, because some tourists depend solely on the rankings. I have found lots of great hotels and activities to do that are ranked past #50. And sometimes the top ones, espcaially hotels can get crowded and expensive as they ride the trip advisor wave.
I predict there will be a ‘trough of disillusionment’ with Trip Advisor in the next few years as the rankings become saturated with reviews that are really old. Tourist stuff changes so quickly. I really want to know what people thought in the past 12 or 18 months, but Trip advisor keeps all rankings. Over time this will give too much credit for old reviews.
Chiang Mai Rainforest
Up above the tree canopy (I love saying that – ‘tree canopy’ – it’s such a fun metaphor) we await our first zip through the trees. Jungle Flight needs a jumbo jet today, there are a huge number of us trying to traverse the system of 25 lines. I’m a little fearful that we’ll get bored waiting for the crowds to take turns.
Chiang Mai is the largest city in the north, and was founded around 1300 as the new capital (Chiang Mai means ‘new city’) of the Lanna, or Northern Thai Kingdom. It was a walled city, often attacked by the Burmese to the West. Burma continues to be a huge influence on Chiang Mai, as migrant workers and refugees cross the border in search of economic and political alternatives.
The tour groups are mostly Germans, with a few other Nationalities. We are the only Americans and are dubbed the ‘Yankee team’ by ‘Boston’ an American-born Thai local that wears a superman cape and has Fu Manchu facial hair.
It’s completely safe, almost tame compared to the epic ziplines we did in Peru. The forest and birds are wonderful, as are the mountain views we get once in a while. It’s comfortable high up in the trees and we don’t mind having worn long pants and hiking boots, which were recommended but not really necessary.
They have 3 abseils, which are straight drops, the last one is a steep 100 foot plunge. Emma (and I) made a short video of her fantastic drop where her rope runs out and she plunges to the ground. With the battlefield awareness and calm of a war correspondent, she holds the flip video straight through to the epic crash. (Of course she wasn’t harmed, silly. She was attached the whole time. This is Creekmoreworld, not some snuff site you were Googling.)
It’s over fairly quickly, but I still wouldn’t have opted for the longer zipline tour, which requires a long hike in the middle. We had enough. Emma and Lily are psyched and tired. I think all four of us sleep on the hour long trip back to Rimpling Village.
I tawt I taw a putty tat
Far down the list on Trip Advisor is #35, Tiger Kingdom. Animal farms, zoos, parks and habitats are hit or miss. They can be really bad. So I read dozens of reviews about Tiger Kingdom before scheduling a visit.
We all want to experience animals in the wild. But in a world were they are shot, we poison their environment, and eat their land, there is a place for keeping animals in captivity or domestication so long as the conditions are good. Sadly, conditions are not always good.
Even with the assurance of the other reviewers, I approach Tiger Kingdom with some trepidation. The hand painted signs “Special on Baby Tigers $620 Bhat for 10 minutes!” don’t give me much confidence.
It’s cheesy and expensive – $80 for a family of four for 10 minutes of tiger time? Wow. Maybe I should just buy the kids a tiger stuffed animal and cut my losses?
The lady taps at her watch with annoyance, something you don’t see a lot as a tourist in ‘The land of smiles‘ (barf). “It’s closing time, sir, please make your choice quickly.”
Nah, I go all in. “I’ll take 10 minutes with the baby tigers, AND 10 minutes with the young tigers”, forking over a few thousand baht to the cash register lady. If this is going to be horrible, I want us to go down in flames.
Can we take one home, daddy?
“Take your shoes off. Approach the Tigers from the back, not the front. Don’t pick up the Tigers. Tigers can bite or scratch.” Those are all the instructions we get from the two handlers that join us in the cage. The four tigers, each less than 3 mos old, are completely adorable. It’s feeding time, and they watch out the large cage (20′ x 20′ or so) , for the food delivery.
One of the trainers puts a docile one up on the table for the girls to pet. Squeals of little girl delight, chuckles of ticklish laughter, and soothing oooohs and aaaaahs come from Emma and Lily. It sounds like we have a dozen kids in here. We get on the floor with them, and the tigers play like kittens.
A criticism of Tiger Kingdom on the forums is that they wake up the tigers during the day, when they are normally sleeping, to see tourists. That does seem kinda shitty. So we go as late as possible, almost closing time. Some people say you can see them getting bottle fed in the evening.
We didn’t get to do that, but the tigers were in a very active state in the evening. And the keepers are incredibly friendly and helpful, offering to take good photographs while we played and letting us stay a few minutes over time. Come late!
The runt of the litter
The tigers play with one another, slapping paws and climbing on each other’s backs. Lily likes to get in the middle of as many as possible. Emma prefers to find the docile ones in the corner and pet them gently. She’s like her mom.
I’m reminded of a story from when Trisha and I were dating in New York City, 15 years ago. We passed a cat rescue place on the street and impulsively adopted a kitty for our apartment in Manhattan Valley, which was a transition neighborhood at the time. We named the cat ‘Sidney’ and kept her for about 10 years or so.
How do you think my to-be-wife picked the right cat? Did she look for the one with the most beautiful coat? No. Did she pick the one that seemed friendly and liked to curl in a ball on your lap? No. She picked the gaunt, skittish one coiled up in the back of the cage that hissed when picked up.
And then it dawned on me one day that that’s the same way she picked her husband. Ouch. (I was kind of a mess when she found me. I turned out pretty good though. )
The planet’s newest Tigers
Tiger Kingdom keeps Indochinese Tigers, a breed that was once common in the hills of Malaysa, China, Thailand and Vietnam. Today there are less than 1500, and none have been seen in China in two years.
Unfortunately these tigers are worth more dead than alive to the impoverished populations that can sell them at very high prices to Chinese pharmacies. And even if killing can be substituted for some kind of eco-tourism, the habitat of the Indochinese tiger doesn’t support the large prey they need to eat.
The sun is setting on the cages of Tiger Kingdom. We take off our shoes and enter the cages of the worlds newest Indochinese tigers, a batch of four born just a few weeks ago. The room is smaller, and has low open windows.
The tigers are so small, they can’t even leap 10 inches out the window to the outside world. In the back of the room are smaller cages and bottles, from which they will be fed. The trainer encourages us to sit on the ground and let them crawl around us.
Their fur is still matted, as if they just came out of the womb. The eyes are bigger than the head can support. But they are not frail. A few of them playfully fight and tussle. They seem most comfortable around Lily, but everyone plays with the little cubs. In captivity, these guys can live 20 years. Lily talks about coming back and seeing them as adults.
I don’t think they are trying to reintroduce these to the wild. That’s a very complicated process. But they go to zoos worldwide and, hopefully, give kinds a chance to appreciate how amazing these animals are.
Unfortunately, the prognosis for tigers is not good, and domesticated husbandry may be their only option for survival.
We grab a bite to eat at the restaurant, in view of the big cats who get fed raw chicken for their dinner. Reviews said the restaurant was good, but we have to disagree. There is no excuse for mediocre Thai food in Thailand, a culture that prizes cuisine and food as highly as the French.
Our night ride back to the hotel in the songthaew is electric. The kids and Trish are completely thrilled by the tiger experience. I get lots of ‘Thank you, Dad!’ for finding and arranging this.
I love leading this clan around the world.