It was close to noon when we landed in Calcutta. Do to the monsoon weather delay, we were a day behind on our schedule, and we really had no desire to spend another night in India. The unimaginably irritating bureaucracy here is infuriating to deal with- and we have professional handling. All we wanted to do was get to Thailand and get out of India. Three and a half hours later, after standing around in this room, in that room, watching customs and other officials stare blankly at the huge stacks of ambiguous files that represented our ticket out of their country- we finally got our clearance and headed out.
A night approach into Chiang Mai, Thailand with sizable build-ups, rain, and mountainous terrain, was far preferable to spending another day dealing with that army of little bureaucrats back in India- eternally stamping and stapling endless piles of useless documents over and over like some kind of paperwork hell. We took off from Calcutta with high sprits, but as the skies grew orange, then purple, and then the last light disappearing into the darkness of night, Art and I became a little apprehensive. The terrain avoidance system in our plane isn't working, we weren't sure what the visibility was going to be like in Chiang Mai. We were studying the approach plates, getting ourselves ready for a potentially difficult situation, when I looked up and saw the most beautiful full moon rising up through the clouds- the biggest beacon you ever saw! It lit up the night sky so brightly, we didn't even need the radar to avoid the storm clouds.
Our late night arrival caused some difficulties with customs
We enjoyed a textbook landing at Chiang Mai, the visibility turned out to be excellent once we dropped below the cloud deck. It was so wonderful to see a modern city again. Our late night arrival caused some difficulties with customs, but the Thai are pretty easy-going, they let us take our passports and go to our hotel- we finished filling out documents the next day (imagine US Customs letting someone do that in the US!). When we checked into the hotel it was after eleven pm, but the hotel restaurant staff stayed late so that we could get something to eat after our eighteen hour flight day. We had been in the country only a few hours and we were already liking Thailand a lot.
Chiang Mai is in northern Thailand, it's the second largest city in the country. They still have a king here in Thailand and seem to really like their royal family. Although Art and I have visited Thailand before, we've never seen this part of the country. Chiang Mai, is fantastic- beautiful green mountains covered in lush rain forests, friendly people, and a clean, modern city with all the amenities. We started out our Thai adventure with a spa visit in the morning and an afternoon Thai cooking class- lots of fun! Our master Thai chef, "Patik", showed us how to make four different Thai curry dishes. The Thai use a lot of cocoanut milk and spicy chillies in their cooking- it can get pretty hot! We watched Patik prepare each dish and then we tasted it. After seeing how to make the dishes, we went to our cooking station and made the dish ourselves. At the end of the class we had a huge, wonderful, Thai meal. Taking a cooking class is a great way to get acquainted with the traditions and culture of any country.
Our second day in Chiang Mai, found us on elephant safari through the mountain rain forest. The weather turned out to be great- very lucky as it's rainy season here. We visited a traditional Thai elephant camp; now a tourist stop, but once a working logging camp. The government has outlawed logging here which has put the elephants and their [Mahouts[:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mahout out of work. To compensate, and keep the traditions of working elephants alive, they have turned to tourism. The Asiatic Elephant is a domesticated animal here, the Yang tribesmen of northern Thailand have been working and living with elephants for centuries. The relationship between a Mahout and his elephant is a very personal one. At birth, an elephant is pared with its Mahout- this is a lifetime partnership that only ends when either the Mahout, or the elephant dies. Watching the demonstrations of the Mahouts and the elephants working together was truly amazing- the best example I've ever seen of how closely man and animal can work together. At one point in the demonstration, three elephants standing side by side, with their Mahouts mounted on top, stacked huge logs into a neat pile. Minimal commands are used- only a soft grunting sound from the Mahouts and then all three elephants kneel down in perfect synchronization and lift each log into place with grace and precision.
After the working elephant demonstration, we all mounted up for an elephant ride through the jungle rain forest. We took a mountain trail that had big boulders, streams, fallen trees, and narrow gaps. It was fascinating to see how carefully this huge animal navigated around these obstacles. The ride finished up with a river crossing to cool the elephants down. It was a pretty good sized river and the elephants were belly deep- a really terrific experience! We ended the day with a relaxing raft trip down the river. Our rafts were made of bamboo and about twenty feet long. We even went through a little swift current "white water" which was really fun. This is our second visit to Thailand, but hopefully, not our last- very friendly people, beautiful flowers, great food, and lovely mountains; a superb place to visit.
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