I am rarely asked what I would do if I only had 24 hours in Chiang Mai. But when I am, it is a tricky question to answer. I might suggest exploring one of the well over a dozen temples dotted around the city including the fabulous Wat Doi Suthep with its mountain-top views and big bells to bong. I might mention the Night Bazaar, the Chinese market or the Saturday and Sunday walking streets with tat and trinkets galore. What about a massage, a Thai cooking class or a day chatting with some monks? There’s white water rafting, hill tribe villages, rock climbing adventures and a whole array of questionable encounters with carnivorous animals. I could offer up the idea of a balloon trip over the rice fields at dawn, a motorbike ride through the mountains or a spot of tuk tuk racing around the moat. Perhaps invest in a smart new tailored suit, go fishing, play a round of golf or spend an afternoon at the zoo.
But if I had just 24 hours in this glorious city it would definitely be a toss-up between two of the most popular activities Chiang Mai has to offer: a day at an elephant camp or a day at immigration.
First of all, in the tradition of most of the pamphlets advertising such excursions, a couple of handy things to know before you go.
Price: Depending on the package chosen, visitors can expect to part with around two thousand baht for a day’s adventure at either facility.
What to pack: For a day with the elephants, some sunscreen, a camera and a spare set of clothes should do it. For immigration a passport (the importance of a passport cannot be stressed enough), a sense of humour/sense of impending disappointment, strong sedatives and possibly a spare set of clothes should something go terribly wrong will suffice.
What to expect: A day out at immigration or an elephant camp usually starts early. Expect to be at immigration before sunrise if you want to get a good seat and most tour companies will promise to pick up wannabe mahouts at around 8-8.30 in the morning. Timetables in Thailand are somewhat optimistic to say the least, so make sure you are equipped with a book, cigarettes and coffee while waiting for your adventure to begin. A day with elephants will usually involve hanging out with Asian elephants. A day at immigration often necessitates mingling with a rather more eclectic assortment of homo sapiens.
Visits to an elephant camp near Chiang Mai will often include a trip to an orchid farm, perhaps a trek and maybe a spot of bamboo rafting. The immigration programme can also feature a range of “add ons.” Why not visit the petrol station over the road and watch the attendants put petrol in everything from a battered old two-stroke motorbike to a shiny new SUV? Or, trek up to the airport to watch the planes landing and taking off. Explore the traditional handicrafts store at domestic departures or relax while sampling some locally reheated cuisine in a restaurant – there’s a McDonald’s, a Burger King and a marvellous eatery decked out in the livery of a national airline which has strangely sticky carpets and bottled beer for just under 1,000 baht.
Don’t be afraid to get up close to the fabulous beasts, even though they can be intimidating. The older members of the herd are usually the longer-term expats. They have been wandering around the immigration enclosure for years. Resigned to the fact that they will never escape the repetitive nature of immigration, they are the ones clutching a folder and gently swaying near the 90-day check-in counter.
The younger members of the herd are often a little friskier. Their markings are different to the smart shirt and trousers of the more battle-scarred bulls and cows – often a Chang or Beer Lao singlet and a pair of cut-off jeans. Unlike the low rumblings of older, more seasoned expats, they tend to emit higher squeaks, especially when trying to understand the overstay regulations. Calves can be curious creatures, so be prepared for a bit of inquisitiveness regarding which form to fill in and where to get passport photos and photocopies made.
At lunchtime it is normal for mahouts and elephants, immigration staff and passport holders, to take a break for an hour or so. This allows the elephants a bit of time to wander freely, chewing on bamboo, and for passport holders to wonder why the whole process of getting a stamp in their passport is taking so long while chewing on their nails.
Many of the newer elephant camps springing up across the north are dedicated to improving the conditions in which the herd lives and looking after the physical and mental welfare of the individuals. The brochures promise no overcrowding, no use of chains or sticks with hooks and no dancing or games of elephant football.
Unfortunately, at immigration camp there can often be a problem with overcrowding leading the herd to get overheated, restless and stressed at times. Although chains are not employed, a little piece of paper with a number on it prevents any of the immigration herd from straying too far from the LED number displays and automated announcer. I think dancing and football is also frowned upon (although my esteemed managing editor reports one instance involving a shoeless hippie and a didgeridoo).
If you do decide to ride an elephant, it is best to do so bareback and on the neck. An elephant’s back is not particularly strong and those big wooden seats used in some camps are not terribly good for the poor pachyderm’s spine. If you try to ride an immigration official, probably best not to attempt it bareback and do be prepared to explain yourself to a policeman.
Mahouts dedicate their lives to looking after the elephant they are paired with. They eat, sleep and bathe with them. This is very much how one should view an immigration official. The immigration “mahouts” are there to look after the “herd.” And they do an excellent job of it. Yet just as elephants are now confined mainly to camps, immigration workers are tied up by ridiculous bureaucracy. A good rule of thumb is never to try and hurry an elephant. Nothing good will come of it. The same goes for anyone in a smart uniform at immigration.