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Traveling in Style : ELEPHANTS AND SILK : Shop Till You Drop in Thailand's Beautiful Chiang Mai--Then Hop on a Pachyderm or Glide Down the River on a Bamboo Raft

May 15, 1994|Eric Goodman | Eric Goodman is a novelist and journalist who writes frequently about Southeast Asia. His latest novel , "In Days of Awe," is available in paperback ( Washington Square Press )

We are seated on crude wooden benches in a dusty clearing about 100 yards from the Mae Ping River in Chiang Dao, 45 minutes north of Chiang Mai, Thailand. It is a brilliant morning, with sunshine winking through the tall trees. We are surrounded by French tourists.

Fresh from their ablutions in the river, 12 changs, or Asian elephants, two of them babies, are lined up, ready to begin their elephants-at-work show. Nine years ago, I attended a similar show, and it's all flooding back. There are the mahouts, attaching the elephants' drag chains to teak logs. There go the elephants, first singly, then in pairs and finally in threes, dragging logs to the log pile--where, with the mahouts exhorting them, the changs push each log in turn to the top of the pile with their powerful trunks.

It's silly work, a crude demonstration of how elephants once helped clear Thailand's now mostly vanished teak forests. Still, my children applaud, and the French cry, "Bravo!" The elephants do not reveal what they think of it all, but their large, intelligent eyes, no more than half-intent on their tasks, suggest that they are thinking something.

Finally, the show is over, and I'm grateful, because the rest of the morning's activities, booked through a tour operator in Chiang Mai, are about to begin: an elephant ride through the jungle and a bamboo raft ride down the Mae Ping.

*

During our first visit to Southeast Asia in 1985, my wife and I spent five months on vacation? in Chiang Mai, not quite 400 miles northwest of Bangkok. We had just one child then, a toddler, and all we knew about the city was what a friend had told us--that it was beautiful and that there was a good hospital, in case the kid got sick. We arrived in November, in time for the relatively cool, dry season that continues through late February, and which brings Chiang Mai most of its visitors--among them Thailand's king and queen, who maintain a winter palace on the nearby mountain of Doi Suthep.

From guidebooks, we learned that Chiang Mai, founded in 1296 by King Mengrai, was a sleepy provincial capital, notable for its 600-year-old wats (Buddhist temples), for the moat around its old city walls and for what partisans claimed was the best handicraft shopping in Asia. Located on a high plateau at the foot of the rugged mountains that comprise most of Thailand's northern borders with Laos and Burma (now called Myanmar), Chiang Mai was also regularly referred to as the "Gateway to the Golden Triangle, and its colorful hill tribes."

We were not prepared then for how friendly, charming and sophisticated the people of Chiang Mai were. Neither were we prepared for the food: Everything we ate, from the fried chicken and sticky rice in the market to the satay and kway teo (noodle soup) on the street to the curries and seafood in restaurants was delicious and inexpensive. We had other pleasant surprises as well.

We quickly learned our way around the city, renting an ancient right-hand-drive Toyota. Most buildings were one or two stories high, with shops on the ground floor. The major thoroughfares were an adventure to negotiate, because they were shared by cars, trucks, motorcycles and bicycle-rickshaws--four distinct sizes and speeds of vehicles filling two lanes in each direction. The smaller streets were quite narrow, often winding past aged wats .

From Chiang Mai, we also drove as far north and west as the Burmese and Laotian borders. On one excursion, we danced in the midnight moonlight at a hill tribe festival outside Chiang Rai, the only foreigners there. (We also learned that the tribes' vibrantly colorful "costumes" were actually their daily attire.) We had raw silk suits made in one of the city's tailor shops. On a whim, we hung baskets of orchids from the market on the lamyai tree (lamyai is a plum-like fruit) in our front yard. We learned firsthand how much Thais love children and learned to watch calmly and happily as strangers picked up our son and hugged him. We kept extending our visas. . . .

Then a Thai friend took us to a shop that specialized in hand-embroidered cotton pillows, and we became so enamored of them that for several years after returning to the States, we ran a small import business, bringing them in--thus maintaining our connection to this city we had loved so well.

*

My son and I ride Bualoi, a bulky, balky 35-year-old female elephant with faint pink polka dots on her ears. My wife and daughter follow on Di Mak, a 40-year-old male. Each chang comes equipped with a carved wooden seat for two and a mahout seated between its ears.

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