Our travels (and blog posts) have slowed down during the last few weeks. We rendezvoused with family in Chiang Mai where we spent the holidays enjoying company, eating good food, and seeing the sights. There is plenty to tell about Chiang Mai but I’ll save that for another time.
The only real travel we’ve done since arriving was a two night excursion into the Northern Thai countryside near Chiang Dao. Our first stop was an elephant training center that offered treks through the jungle via pachyderm.
The only other time I’ve ridden an elephant was at the circus. I was young and my memory is foggy but I have a vague recollection of a dark tent, a sad elephant that walked in small circle, and crying because I thought I was going to fall off.
I didn’t expect much more from riding an elephant in Thailand — perhaps I would cry less. Once I got on the elephant and felt its leathery skin beneath my bare feet, my feelings changed. If there were tears, they were tears of joy. For an hour we swayed on the back of our elephant as she plodded down forest paths, climbed hills, and forded rivers. I remember thinking this was one of the most amazing and wonderful experiences I have ever had.
I have seen so many pictures and watched so many movies about elephants I think I was desensitized to how awesome, how truly awesome, they are. It was not until I was face to face — or rather foot to back — with one in its natural habitat that the reality sunk in: This huge, immensely powerful, and magnificent thing was actually alive. I was sitting on top of a mountain of living, breathing flesh and blood.
How did the bones hold the weight? How could the heart circulate life through something so big? How could something this strong also seem so gentle? I think I could have spent the whole day watching and riding elephants but there were more adventures in Chiang Dao.
We settled into to a cozy bungalow beneath mountains shrouded in mist and cloud. The next morning we walked to those mountains and climbed 510 steps to a Buddhist monastery partly housed inside a cave.
There we got a better view of the surrounding forest and mountains. The air was cool and a light breeze moved through monks’ saffron robes that hung on a clothesline. The rains were heavy this year and the forest was still green even though the dry season was coming.
In the evening, I went back to the base of the mountain, a little further down the road, to Chiang Dao Cave. The entrance to the cave was sheltered by a wooden roof and sacred fish swam in a deep pool nearby. Inside, sprawling passages led off in several directions. I walked to the right down a tunnel lit by long fluorescent tubes. The cave smelled of incense and kerosene. Every few yards a small altar surrounded by candles was tucked into the dripping walls. The air was close and the floors dusty.
That evening, back in the fresh and cool air, we lit floating lanterns and watched them sail into the night sky. One burned out quickly and fell back to earth a few yards from us. Two more flew high enough to catch a fast current and blow speedily toward the mountain. It was a beautiful sight but nothing compared to what we would see on New Year’s Eve in Chiang Mai…