I think whoever came up with the term ‘concrete jungle’ must have spent some time in the Chiang Mai zoo. But before I bias your decision to visit the zoo, (or not), with such bold statements, let me back-track a bit. It was a hot and sunny day, the kind of hot and sunny that leaves your skin feeling the burn as it’s happening, perfect for an outing to the zoo…
We caught a Songthaew (rhymes with song-cow) from our downtown location to the Chiang Mai Zoo, on the edge of town where Doi Suthep mountain meets the city. A Songthaew is a modified pickup truck with an open air cab on the back and benches along the sides. They can be hired privately, or used as a sort of communal taxi, provided it’s going in the same direction as you. If you have the patience, you can stay on the truck until it’s dropped off all other passengers, and your destination becomes the new route. We were staying close enough to the zoo that it was easy enough to find one going in our direction, so we hopped on the first one passing by.
The Zoo gate was a perfect photo op of concrete statues, striking in their lifelike appearance. Walking past the gate, we reached a booth, paid the marginal fee for our tickets, which we then handed to a man 10 feet further on. Next, entering a construction zone, we skirted the arc welding happening on edge of the sidewalk and the construction debris tinkling down from the concrete structure overhead. Better get used to the word ‘concrete’ now, because you are going to see it lots in this chapter…
Concrete. Concrete concrete concrete. And I’m just getting started!
Finally passing all the construction, we entered the main part of the zoo, to be confronted with a fork in the road. To the right was a slight uphill climb, with signs (written in Thai) showing pictures of birds and tigers. To the left were just signs written in Thai. No pictures, presumably no animals.
Sensing that the sign we understood was more relevant than the one we didn’t, we headed up to the right. We had heard there was an open-air safari bus you could ride on cheaply, so kept our eyes peeled for it. As we walked past mostly empty cages up the hill, we were starting to sense that we might be going in the wrong direction. Then with his keen eyes, Cyrus spotted a sign with pictures of bears and tigers, which gave us the impression that we might be on the right track after all.
As we hiked farther and farther up the hill with nothing but trees on either side, we started to wonder. Did we go the wrong way, or was it just a really lame zoo? To our relief, we soon came on the bears. The Black bears (the same kind that used to hang out on our deck in BC), Brown bears, and Sun bears were all overdressed for the occasion and were pacing back and forth on small concrete walls or retreating into the shady corners of their concrete caves. We could only feel pity for them, knowing that their wild animal natures were being constrained in the cruelest way possible.
We pushed a little further up the hill and came to a crossroads. Hmm. Further up the hill in the blistering sun, or left towards the… monorail? Hail Buddha! An answer to our prayers! Although quite ugly, being a raw concrete structure, anything at this point was a means to our salvation from walking up and down the eternal hills in the infernal heat.
As we approached the concrete monorail booth, we noticed the lack of people inside. Or of anything inside, for that matter. It dawned on us that we had not yet seen or heard the monorail on our walk, and we quickly concluded that whatever the cause, the monorail wasn’t going to take us anywhere that day, or anytime soon. We could only assume the sign written on the door (all in Thai, of course), said something like “Don’t tell the Farangs that the monorail isn’t running yet.”
A little way past the monorail ‘booth’ was an amazing gigantic tree stump. At least twenty feet across and over thirty feet tall, it boasted openings at various places that looked just like the sort of windows you would expect gnomes to peer out of. There was even a door like structure at the base of the tree.
As we got nearer and nearer, I began to have my doubts about the possible fairy tale creatures that might have made this magical tree.
“I’m pretty sure it’s concrete…” Theresa offered, trying to sooth my curious wonder at the beauty of the tree.
“No way,” I replied. “Look at the detail of the bark. Humans could not have made that. Elves, maybe, but not humans.”
Theresa shot me a look that suggested I should either stop joking, or see a shrink, whichever was most convenient. As we came within ten feet of the tree, I noticed the rough edges of the roots as they met the ground. And the places where the paint had worn off, revealing the light grey interior underneath.
“Ah, yes well, obviously that is a concrete tree,” I remarked. “Amazing attention to detail though…” I allowed my voice to trail off, as I was beyond the realm of being worthy of listening to. And, luckily, there was a sign showing a picture of Elephants. Ah, the mighty elephant!
If ever there was a beast of mystical proportions, the elephant is it. Thundering along the Savannah, roaming vast areas of open wilderness, they embody all that one imagines of mystical Africa and Asia. To see one in the flesh goes far beyond what some cartoon drawings in a children’s book or Disney cartoon might portray.
With renewed vigour we made our way down the slight incline to the area proclaimed by the sign to house the great beasts. Crossing the path (which we shared with the cars and trucks taking the driving tour of the zoo,) we spotted the gentle giants.
One thing you will notice about elephants upon close inspection is that their face, large in dimension, conveys a proportionate amount of emotion. When they are happy, their smile that is ancient and contagious. When sad, you want to weep with them, as we did with the ones in the small concrete pens. I will say little else about them, other than the fact that this was not the first elephant experience I had hoped to share with my children.
Fortunately, the hippos just down the hill provided some comical relief for the kids, if only because we had never seen animals swimming in water completely filled with their own feces. Their antics amused us all, and helped us to forget the pain of seeing the sad elephants.
Moving on, we finally found the dining area. This was good, as we were all starving. We were hungry enough to eat whatever we could find, so long as it wasn’t a former inhabitant of the zoo. That is, until we discovered that what all could find was more mystery food, or bags of what appeared to be potato chips with pictures of shrimp, squid or cartoon characters on them. Personally, I was will to try most of the mystery food in Thailand, but I drew the line at cartoon characters. At least they had Coke. A little glucose and caffeine could go a long way to preventing a blood sugar crash, at least in the short term, and it did the trick.
Feeling refreshed, we found a food cart that sold authentic Ramen noodles straight from the packet, with a variety of meats that could be added. Using our well-practiced sign language (as the cook spoke no English,) we ordered two bowls of ramen with no spice packet and no meat. Watching the lady dish up the cloudy water from the cauldron beside her gave us a moment’s pause, but trying to push on through the heat with no nourishment other than Coca-Cola seemed more dangerous than the water.
That mysterious broth might well have been a magical potion. The noodle soup was fantastic and we felt energized enough to push on. A short ways up the hill, we came upon a sign for the Panda viewing area. This was what we had been waiting for. The icon of Asia, the inspiration for the Yin Yang, the rolly poly bear that pretty much sits around all day, eats shoots and leaves, was finally within our reach. This was one of our main reasons for coming to the zoo, and the kids were practically bouncing up and down with excitement. We followed the signs to a kiosk that was crowded with… Asian tourists? In Asia? and waited our turn to pass through the turnstile. Which actually was a ticket booth. Which actually required payment. Which actually cost more than the entrance fee to the zoo. Which had actually turned out to be a huge disappointment thus far, and Pandas or no, there was no damn way we were giving this shitty zoo any more of our Baht. At least they had misting fans outside the kiosk, which gave us some reprieve against the now stifling heat. I can only imagine what the bears were suffering.
Offsetting our disappointment, and to our great joy, we noticed that we were at one of the stops along the safari bus route! Not to be dismayed by the class of 40 schoolchildren waiting in line ahead of us, we staked our turf in the queue. At least, I staked our turf in the queue. Theresa and the kids sought refuge in the misters by the Panda kiosk, while I proudly held Violet’s pink decorative parasol above my head to provide some relief from the blistering sun. Fortunately, when the bus rolled up, there was room for half of the children waiting ahead of me. Twenty-five minutes and several gallons of sweat later, we were able to board the next bus.
Careening around corners as though the driver was trying to set a land speed record, we were able to make out the vague shapes of several animals through the trees as we zoomed past. The bus would periodically stop to let people on or off, but by this point, we were too tired to be able to extract ourselves from our seats. Finally, we pulled up to the penguin house, and this seemed like a venture worthy of our disembarking. Penguins live in Antarctica. It’s cold in Antarctica. Thus the exhibit would be cold. And by this point, we would be willing to cram ourselves into a bar fridge to find some relief from the heat.
In my mind, I could see Mumble Happy Feet tapping away his message of environmental caution, ignoring the brainwashing of “Try the water, Dave. It’s really real.” But I can’t imagine anything actually swimming in the murky grey-brown water these penguins were supplied with. They were all standing around in a lethargic stupor, as though they were waiting for something to happen. Perhaps that something was air conditioning. I’m sure the heat contributed to their lack of energy. I know it was getting to me.
“Daddy, do you see Happy Feet?” Violet asked from beside me.
“Hmm, I’m not sure that any of these guys are actually very happy.” I replied, but then she spotted him.
“Oh, there he is. That one is happy feet!” she exclaimed, pointing at one of penguins who looked less lethargic and animatronic than the others.
“Ah, yes he sure looks… happy.” This seemed like all the response that was needed, and we left the less than arctic room to brave the intense heat of the mid-day once again.
Theresa and I decided that beyond the lack of decent exhibits in the zoo, it was too hot and draining for us to continue, and we should make our way back to the zoo exit. We managed to squeeze into the next Safari bus and coasted back down the mountain to the main pick up and drop off area, which was on the left hand fork from where we had come in. Now if only some of those signs had been in English…