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Wednesday January 17, 2007 // By Sandy

Days 5-6: North country

Or, How the indigenous Thai villages have embraced the world of commerce.

We knew we’d be doing lots of shopping on this trip. We had planned to bring back lots of handmade artifacts, for ourselves and our friends, as a way to remember our visit and support the Thai people. We were not prepared by how much the Thai people expected this, and how ingrained tourism is into their culture, even at the backwater-est of villages. It’s difficult to know how to react to this.

We started out this part of this tour at a couple of explicitly touristy spots: an orchid farm and an elephant camp. The elephant camp was especially fun — we fed them some sugarcane and bananas (whole bunches at a time), shook hands with their trunks, witnessed their morning bath in the river and watched a show where their talents as log pushers and lifters were on exhibit, as well as one elephant’s special skill with a paintbrush. The capper was an hour-long trip on the back of one beast, through the jungle and river. We named him Mr. Grumpy.

The rest of day one involved a couple of visits to hillside villages. The first, to the Akha tribe, was a very intimate visit — it had the potential to feel like we were visiting a Third World on Display exhibit at the natural history museum, but it didn’t. We walked around the village, met with the villagers, watched them mill rice and played with their pets. It was humbling to be in touch with people so far removed from our daily existence. Yet, in some ways they’re very close. They weren’t hesitant to charge me to take their photos, and some of the little ones even knew some English phrases. They had a new pickup to drive back and forth to town.

The second village was very similar sociologically, yet exhibited one very major difference: the town was riddled with souvenir stands. A vast majority of the goods on sale were clearly not made in that village, but instead had been trucked in from town then put on display as bait to lure in the tourists. It wasn’t even clear if the goods were handmade or factory-made. There was a very uneasy feeling to it. We did buy some stuff, because we were told some of the profits go to the village.

Day two involved a trip up to the Golden Triangle, the intersection of Burma, Laos and Thailand, and the former locus of opium trading. We were saddened to not see any actual opium, nor even a single poppyseed bagel. What we did see were many. more. markets. Anywhere you can possibly stop, you can buy tchatchkes. At one point we passed some strawberry farms and there were at least thirty fresh strawberry and strawberry wine stands along the side of the road — all of them exactly the same.

Tonight is our last night in Chiang Mai. We’re off now to get another foot massage, and check out, yep, one last night market. We’re told this one is the best.

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