Land of smiles A mother and son’s mag­i­cal ad­ven­ture in Thai­land

Artis­tic ele­phants, a mum­mi­fied monk, beach­side fire shows and a tree- top flight make for a mag­i­cal ad­ven­ture, writes Michelle Jack­son

The Irish Times Magazine - - NEWS -

With a Sawadee ka and the Wai, ( a slight bow with palms pressed to­gether) I prime my son, Mark, for his first visit to Thai­land. He stands 6ft 4in tall – a gi­ant com­pared with the smil­ing dark- haired lo­cals – ready to em­brace his first Asian ex­pe­ri­ence.

Step­ping out on to the streets of Chi­ang Mai, we are swad­dled in the re­laxed uni­ver­sity vibe that can best be de­scribed as the Thai equiv­a­lent of Gal­way. Our ho­tel, Le Meri­dien ( lemeri­di­enchi­ang­mai. com), is one of the few high- rise build­ings stretch­ing up be­tween the 1,000- year- old tem­ples and beauty par­lours. The me­dieval moat marks a square bound­ary run­ning be­side the old city walls and the uni­form streets pro­vide calm­ness in stark con­trast to the cap­i­tal Bangkok. This an­cient city is just a one- hour flight north from the Thai cap­i­tal and is of­ten over­looked by those rush­ing to get to the beach and many is­lands in the south.

In the far dis­tance lush green hills beckon as we are picked up by bus to take us to Maesa Ele­phant Camp at Mae Rim ( mae­saele­phant­camp. com). Ele­phants have al­ways been an in­te­gral part of the Asian land­scape, but since log­ging was banned in 1989 the gen­eral pop­u­la­tion has fallen to circa 3,000 wild an­i­mals, and the fu­ture for th­ese crea­tures is con­sid­ered by many to lie in tourism. I’m keen to ob­serve the way the ele­phants are cared for and sur­prised to learn that each has a per­sonal ma- hout ( rider/ trainer), who, ac­cord­ing to the camp’s vet, Siri­pat, “sees more of their ele­phant than their fam­i­lies.” Siri­pat is one of a small num­ber of grad­u­ates each year from uni­ver­sity to spe­cialise in ele­phant health, and he guides us through the quar­ters where the older ele­phants are kept.

Mark and I pum­mel turmeric and gin­seng and other strange roots into a pun­gent mix­ture be­fore de­liv­er­ing it to the geri­atric ele­phants, and al­though the smell is atro­cious, there’s a sense of sat­is­fac­tion as they take their medicine from us with their beau­ti­fully dec­o­rated trunks. The skin of the Asian ele­phant i s a del­i­cate pink around the eyes and top half of the trunk, and the ears are smaller than the African va­ri­ety and carry torn edges.

The nurs­ery is an equal hive of ac­tiv­ity as new re­cruits line up to take their first art les­son. In­cred­i­ble as it may seem, this camp has a res­i­dent artist who teaches the ele­phants and ma­houts to paint a va­ri­ety of images. Some works have fetched thou­sands of dol­lars and have made the Guin­ness Book of Records. Each night the an­i­mals are re­leased into the jungle but al­ways re­turn next morn­ing to their ma­hout. Mark and I give a bull a good wash in the river – he seems to think we need a wash, too, and sprays us down. But it’s not a prob­lem as we wear a uni­form so our clothes are in­tact in the chang­ing room.

Back in our ho­tel I have a clear view of the sec­ond most im­por­tant tem­ple in Thai­land, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, perched high in the moun­tains. The gold steeples glit­ter, even from such a dis­tance. Next morn­ing I take Mark for some con­tem­pla­tion to the tem­ple; it is about 20 min­utes from the city and ser­viced by monks, who bless us and give us bracelet bless­ings for 20 baht, about 50 cent. There’s plenty to do, from buy­ing a tile to help pay for a new roof at the tem­ple to burn­ing some in­cense, but we are fas­ci­nated by the thou­sand- year- old paint­ings on the walls that tell the al­le­gory of the Bud­dha; inspirational stuff for my 16- year- old.

At night Chi­ang Mai has a spe­cial buzz in the mar­kets, and food is at the fore­front. Del­i­cately carved soaps are on dis­play and sold in hand- painted cases. Bustling stalls sell sound sys­tems, T- shirts and food. Mark picks up a wire­less speaker for ¤ 30. Elec­tronic ac­ces­sories are prob­a­bly the best deals.

The jun­gles of north­ern Thai­land are a pho­tog­ra­pher’s de­light, with tiered paddy fields and rope bridges stretch­ing be­tween the high branches of the ta­marind trees. I’m es­pe­cially safety con­scious while trav­el­ling with my boy so chose Ea­gle Track Zi­pline ( ea­gle­trackchi­ang­mai. com), as they pro­vide the only dou­ble- chorded zi­pline in the area. It cer­tainly makes me feel more se­cure as we buckle up and put on our hel­mets. The sil­ver tour takes us through 16 zips, some short and oth­ers 200m long, as well as sev­eral rope bridges. It’s a two- hour hike and great ac­tiv­ity to share with a teen, who en­joys laugh­ing at my clumsy land­ings and yelps as we ab­seil up and down the trees. We are served a se­lec­tion of Thai food back at the base camp, and al­though we’ve put in most of the day, I’ve still time for a spot of sun­bathing on the rooftop pool of our ho­tel, while my son works out in the gym. We even have time for a quick mas­sage ( for just 300 baht ( about ¤ 8) be­fore din­ner.

Thai box­ing is hugely pop­u­lar in Thai­land and a rea­son­ably priced night- time ac­tiv­ity. Al­though it may seem more bru­tal than western box­ing, it’s more gra­cious than MMA and just as skil­ful. I didn’t want to go at first, but found I got re­ally into it, to my son’s sur­prise.

Three nights is the per­fect amount of time to rel­ish the flavour of Chi­ang Mai, but we are off next to Koh Sa­mui. When we land, the ar­rivals area at the air­port re­sem­bles a four- star ho­tel lounge, with rat­tan fur­ni­ture and dec­o­rated ponds wel­com­ing visi­tors to a place of calm and well­ness.

Some of Thai­land’s most lux­u­ri­ous well-

it‘ In­cred­i­ble as may seem, this camp has a res­i­dent artist who teaches the ele­phants and ma­houts to paint a va­ri­ety of images – some works have fetched thou­sands of dol­lars

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