Escape to Chiang Mai

I know the zoo isn’t for everyone but we like to go when we are in town. I am generally not a lover of zoos but CM Zoo has a certain charm to it and it has a very natural feel and big enclosures for the animals. The weather is perfect for it. You can feed hippos and giraffes, you just buy a small bowl of carrots or beans for a few baht, it helps to pay for the feed and is a small price to pay. It is great fun seeing the head and long neck of the giraffe coming towards you, tongue reaching out because it has noticed you are buying green beans……and not many places where you can stroke a hippos chin!! There seem fewer animals this time and money has been spent on infrastructure, new animal compounds and better toilets. It’s £4 entrance to the zoo, it is a huge site and takes at least 4 hours to walk round, it’s a really good walk. A lot of the enclosures are huge and natural and others scrupulously maintained modern buildings like the pandas which are on loan from China and a big attraction. One of my favourite animals and one I haven’t seen before is a binterong. It has the face of a cat, body of a bear, long black fur and a big bushy tail. It’s about the size of a large Alsatian dog and just seems to sleep, lying along a sturdy branch. Fascinating.

There is a huge tribe of small clawed otters which are very vocal and fun to watch. The only thing I don’t like is the tiger compound where the tiger paces up and down, he doesn’t look happy. A lot of the animals do look happy and content and it’s more like a petting zoo where you can stroke goats and pot bellied pigs and a whole menagerie of small animals. In the U.K. you are so far away from everything and definitely no touching or feeding. They are unnatural and the animals are rarely out because it’s so fricking cold.

We have also visited an insect zoo just out of the city where you can hold iguanas, spiders, scorpions and other assorted insects. I held a scorpion as a 6 year old sweet looking girl had just done the same and I felt obliged to not look scared witless. It’s only when I handed it back to the keeper that she said it was only ‘slightly’ poisonous!!

We have just been again to the Siam Insect Zoo with a friend and driving through the mountains saw a very poisonous centipede in the middle of the road, we had just seen them at the Zoo. They are up to 8” long and it is an active, aggressive predator that prays on any animal it can overwhelm. It tends to try to eat any living animal it encounters that is not longer than itself. It has a venomous bite which will put you in hospital and can kill the young and infirm. We also saw last week driving around, a vine snake just on the side of the road not harmful this time. Whew!! It’s a wild, wild place.

On the way back from long drives in the countryside we often see elephants. After they have finished being with tourists they are in corals eating and relaxing and we have spoken to the mahouts and been able to say hello. I always feel very emotional around elephants. You can usually smell them before you see them, they have a rich, earthy distinctive aroma. I like just being near them. Some are really inquisitive, I have had trunks delving about in my shorts pockets and twisting my tea shirt round and round. We often give the mahouts a few baht for letting us near them and take a few photos, they always seem surprised and happy with the small gift and hopefully they will let us do it again. It feels like such a privilege it makes me very happy and I cannot get enough of them!

There are lots of other animals in the region which do not fare quite as well. Up near Chiang Rai, in the golden triangle, just inside the border with Myanmar there is a market where you can buy animal parts which are used in traditional Chinese ‘medicine’. You can buy bear paws, bear bile extracted daily from black bears kept in horrendous conditions, tiger skin and bones, pangolins which are almost extinct and sadly lots of body parts of other unfortunate animals. I am not even sure that all these medicines even work, it’s disgusting but will take many generations to hopefully one day be a thing of the past. The Chinese government has just banned the sale of all ivory, its a step in the right direction but the traditions of Chinese medicine will be harder to eradicate.

On a lighter note on every street, in the cities and villages, outside shops and temples there are lots of dogs and cats. Most look homeless but unlike the U.K. they are just out and about in the daytime and have homes. You realise this when the weather gets cold as you then see them with little fleecy coats on. Our local shop has 3 pure white cats. One is always on top of a tall shelving unit, one in a box on a shelf and one sprawled out on the counter. The temple dogs are fed by the monks and other people who bring food for them. The locals bring unwanted dogs to the temples to be looked after. The Thais mostly have dogs for security, cats as rat catchers and aren’t as soppy generally as we are with pets. They all have a purpose. Most of the dogs are friendly but I have been surrounded by snarling dogs at one of the temples and needed a monk to rescue me.

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