Terracotta Gardens, the Ethics of Travel and My Damn Curiosity…

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(journal excerpt-March 21, 2012)

Still smoky and hazy here with no chance of rain but yesterday was a lot better (you could actually see parts of blue sky and Jupiter at night).   Did you know you can actually see planets right now with the naked eye? Pretty cool! Anyway, we didn’t really know what to do with ourselves today.  See, we don’t really travel like a lot of people travel, for good or evil.  We pretty much refuse to do tours or organized events of most any kind.  We hate taking taxis, tuk tuks, rickshaws or whatever because we don’t enjoy the hassle of negotiating or getting ripped off and we prefer to walk everywhere because we get to see more.  If we can’t walk, we usually take public transit.  So to many people, it probably seems like we miss out on a lot.  It does seem like a lot of Chiang Mai’s charm depends on tours and day trips that take you OUT of Chiang Mai.  Some that we have seen cater to the extreme outdoorsy sports type (umm, not us!) Bungy jumping, zip lining etc., or animal encounters (elephant rides, snake farms, tiger “sanctuaries”, monkey training camps, and zoos, which we don’t support or ethnic peoples/tribal encounters. 

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Now, as much as I have great interest in ethnic hill tribes, particularly their handicrafts, I just can’t bring myself to go on one of these touristed out, prefabricated, inauthentic tours.  First of all, and I’m sure I’ll get some disagreement here, it feels a bit exploitive to me.  (If you are Canadian, and you are not sure what I mean, imagine if we started giving tours of reservations?  There are a lot of parallels to be made here).  The experience of loading up into a van of tourists and ferrying out to a remote village with a hundred other people to take photos of long-necked women in tribal clothing all seems a bit much to me, really.  While I am aware that there remains many an unexplored and untouched pocket of indigenous tribal living (the Amazon for example), I don’t believe it is here and I have also read several stories of said local tribes and how they no longer actually dress in their traditional clothing, or where the long neck rings etc., but continue it on as a matter of display for the tourist dollar.  And who can blame them?IMG_2535

The fact remains that in many countries, including my own, indigenous peoples remained exploited for the sake of the tourist dollar to be made by the majority race of that country but all are largely forgotten by both local and federal governments and rely more on NGO intervention.  A prime example of this can be seen in my own country in the mass exploitation and expropriation of First Nations imagery and culture at the Winter Olympics of 2010 in Vancouver, at which First Nations athletes were largely absent and oh, did I mention that the land was stolen in the first place?  Anyway, I digress.  I can feel my readership dwindling as we speak! Point being, we have found that our most rewarding experiences come, when we travel, in the unexpected moments.  When we walk, for hours at a time, we never really know where we’ll end up or what we’ll see.  Sometimes we meet unexpected and interesting people.  We stumble upon a shop or building or an art gallery etc. 

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Such as been our experience in Chiang Mai so far.  We spent yesterday walking around the small lanes within the old city and came across an ancient looking walled area and an imposing terracotta gate (above).  Not ancient after all, but a huge outdoor garden shop that sold terracotta replica statues from all over Asia.  Massive  Dieffenbachia wound up coconut palms and the whole place was jungly, damp and shady with the most amazing smell you only get from tropical plants and humidity. 

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Terracotta statues and reliefs were everywhere, some of them broken and moss-covered, so the whole place had the air of some Indiana Jones temple.  Butterflies and birds everywhere.  Oh, and a loooooooooooong snake (mild freak out here!)  Later, I mentioned the snake to the woman owner, not having any idea if it was even poisonous or not and two small boys where playing near where we saw it: “Oh yeah, you mean the snake in the coconut tree?” she said, like it was old news.  Anyway, the whole place was just beautiful, the photos here do not do it justice. 

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Usually we walk around for 3 or 4 hours or so, since it is always in midday heat, that is as much as we can usually do before we stop for a drink somewhere.  Yesterday also demonstrated a fine example of my insatiable curiosity in action.  We had just left some place or another where I was just finishing getting on M’s last nerve with my incessant “why’s” and he said that he was starting to get the feeling of what it would be like to have a five-year old.  But I guess mostly I just think out loud: “Why do you think such and such happens…” “Why do you suppose that people blah blah blah…” I understand.  I annoy myself sometimes!  Anyway, I decided to pick up a bright red crazy looking seed pod I found on the ground.  This is not unusual for me.  I am always picking up some kind of twig or flower or something I can stick in my notebook or keep as a souvenir.  And yes, I know I cannot bring seed pods into my country but it wasn’t the seed! Just the pod!! Anyway:

 “Put that down, what if it’s poisonous or something!”

 “It’s not poisonous, it’s soft, see! Touch it!”

 “I am not touching that”. 

Well no sooner had he said that than I realized that the “soft” covering of the seed pod was actually an infinitesimal number of prickly small needles that stuck in ALL over my hands and fingers (ever picked up a fuzzy caterpillar? Yeah, like that, but a million of ’em)  and we had to stop for 15 minutes or so while I pulled them out and M laughed his ass off at me, while he videotaped me, of course:

“So what did we learn today?” (on camera)

“Don’t pick up weird seed pods”

Anyway, like I said, nothing new for me, sometimes I break something in a store, sometimes a weiner dog snaps at me in Berlin because I have to pet it (M wants me to point out here that the owner DID tell me not to pet it, but um, he was speaking German, hello??)  or I get flea bites because I can’ t leave the stray cats alone or it results in me eating weird foods (crickets, durian etc.)  Wouldn’t change it though! It just sometimes backfires on me…

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