Lampang - Elephants, Trains & More
20 Aug 2010
|We’re now sitting at a train station in Lampang, waiting for the train on which we will travel the two or three hours to Chiang Mai. It was to have arrived at 10:10. It’s now 11:00. It may be here momentarily, but then again, it may not. The time of arrival and the trip duration should be taken as best guess estimates only.
Thai trains do not arrive and depart with Swiss precision. Likewise, transit times vary depending on how fast the engineer chooses to push his train on any particular day, whether he needs to swing by the old homestead to pickup lunch or, more commonly, merely at the whim of various influences known only to mysterious Thai Train Gods.
We don’t care. We’re not in a hurry. And anyway, who would dare complain when the ticket price is less than 70 cents?
We spent three nights in Lampang. The guesthouse in which we resided was an eclectic mixture of traditional-style buildings, located in a garden-like setting on the banks of the river. I’ve included a picture showing the view from our room.
Lampang is a town of approximately 150,000. Some have referred to it as an untouched Chiang Mai, with a slower pace of life. I’d have to agree.
One of the things we most enjoyed here is that the town is (at least, for now) delightfully untouched by tourism. Farang (that’s us foreigners) are still a novelty at whom the locals smile while surreptitiously nudging their friends to ‘look at the white guys!’
Taxi and sorngtaaou owners aren’t yet used to gouging the rich (as all tourists are in the eyes of locals). The price we paid was pretty much the price paid by local citizenry, without quarrel or quibble. Refreshing!
Lampang was, during the golden years of the Thai teak industry, a major center for forestry and transport. Logging has since been outlawed in Thailand, although Thais still do a booming (and illegal) trade. Teak that is purchased from the ruling military junta in Myanmar, and then smuggled across isolated sections of the Thai-Myanmar border.
Although the lumber barons are long gone from Lampang, their beautiful teak mansions, dating from the late 18th and early 19th centuries, remain. Lampang is known for its smart collection of these beautiful old homes, some of which have been restored and some not.
We rented a motorbike in this town as well, and did a self-designed ‘old homes tour’ by riding up and down backstreets and alleyways. We also stopped and toured a representative teak mansion. Known as the ‘House of Many Pillars’, it sits on an unusually high number of stilts (116 in all). It’s still owned by the original family, and has undergone a beautiful restoration. See pictures above.
One of the culinary treats in which Thais like to indulge during their Lampang visits is kow daan; deep fried (and therefore crispy) rice cakes that are subsequently drizzled with palm sugar. Our $1.50 admission fee to the House of Stilts included a plate of kow daan and a cup each of cold tamarind juice. See picture above of Amy preparing to partake. I’ll stick in my testimonial two-bits: they’re good!
We also did a seventy-kilometer round-trip by motorcycle to visit the Thai Elephant Conservation Center.
Modern Thais both idolize and romanticize elephants for the important role that the elephant played in Thai history and development. However, human overpopulation and destruction of habitat have taken their toll. Whereas there once were hundreds of thousands of such animals, the current population has now been reduced to fewer than two thousand.
With the illegalization of the logging industry, trained elephants have become an unemployed burden on their owners. Many have been reduced to essentially begging in the streets. They lumber along city boulevards, while their trainers (called ‘mahouts’) shout out ‘feed the elephants’ and sell bunches of bananas or sugar canes to be used for that purpose. It’s a real step down for these magnificent animals.
Thai elephants often live to eighty years of age or more, but at least they have retirement to look forward to. By Thai law, elephants must be released into the wild at age 61. There are a few elephant sanctuaries that care for the elderly and the ill, and that’s one of the roles played by the Thai Elephant Conservation Center. Another is to promote the role of the elephant in Thai ecotourism.
We enjoyed touring the grounds, and especially loved watching the elephants as they took one of their daily baths. The elephants obviously enjoyed it too. They squealed and rolled, spraying each other with their trunks and then curling them back to squirt the mahouts who were perched on their backs! A few playful pachyderms even went so far as to “dunk” their mahouts. Fun was had by all.
We watched the usual elephant show that is part and parcel of the entertainment at such places, although the Conservation Center’s version is less ‘touristy’ than most and focuses on the working role of elephants. Elephants banged drums in the entry parade, one raised a flag at the start of the show (and lowered it at the end), and there was a demonstration of the methods used by elephants in logging.
We particularly enjoyed the three ‘artist’ elephants, and watched as they painted some dandy artwork (I’ve included photos of two of their paintings above).
The show ended with a snazzy little tune performed on xylophone by five elephants. Their selection was apparently well known to the overwhelmingly-Thai audience, who sang along merrily as the elephants played.