25: Da Vinci code cracked! The elephant did it

I never did find that burly European gentleman with the shaved head and the penchant for serious water hostility. Probably for the best as I couldn't have been held accountable for my actions! The week that followed was tremendous fun. Now acclimatised to the Songkran flavour, I equipped myself sensibly, wallet in plastic bag, camera in plastic bag and a choice of clothes which didn't matter if I got covered with a barrel of river water (which was bound to happen at some stage). As far as water fighting etiquette in Chiang Mai goes, the only rule is that it all stops when the sun sets. Not everyone sticks to this but most people do; I did see one man get covered in ice cold water just as he finished the sentence: "You can't get me now, the sun's already gone ...." SPLASH!

After sunset is, for some, the best part of the day; this is because the famed Chiang Mai night bazaar opens. Here bargain hunters can have a field day revelling in how cheap authentic handmade goods are sold for. Many of the goods are hand crafted in the mountains by Thailand's famous tribes (such as the long-neck tribe) who have been producing items like this for centuries from natural materials, and at very low cost. However, you have to have your wits about you while shopping at the night bazaar and knowledge of Thai numbers and prices is a valuable asset. I stood behind an English holiday maker trying to buy a hand-crafted elephant shaped wooden wind chime. The stall owner offered 650 Baht (£9) which I thought was a reasonable price, the man unflappably replied "I'll give you 150 Baht" to which the stall owner said "Ok, sell." It is easy to see why many foreigners are a little more naive than this well travelled man, and think that the first price offered is such a good deal that they are willing to pay it. The item's true value is invariably at least half of this original figure.

When travelling to foreign lands, working out the price of things in our own currency always seems to cause problems, although Europeans' problems have diminished since the inauguration of the Euro. A friend of mine recently paid £100 for a map he bought from a small boy in Vietnam (The maps' value was probably about 50 pence, his wife later had it framed for him!). In Thailand it is especially important to know how much you are actually paying for goods. Local merchants often increase their prices up to ten fold just to test exactly how much foreigners (unbeknown as to the true local value) are willing to pay. When I first moved to Thailand, I was constantly exchanging the Thai Baht into English Pounds in my head whilst shopping. I realised after about a month how dangerous this is. Everything is cheap here when you convert its value into pounds sterling, it is important to stop this bad habit as soon as possible and start thinking and counting in local currency. Now I realise that, for example, a staple dinner such as Phad Thai (Thai style fried noodles) should cost around 25 baht rather than the 100 baht I was willing to pay when I first moved here.

Elephant artNeedless to say I got lots of excellent and cheap bargains from the Chiang Mai night bazaar, whether I actually needed any of things I bought is another story. The following day I travelled to the Mae Sa elephant camp which recently found fame in the local media after visits from Venus and Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova. The camp houses 80 elephants and I was extremely impressed with the natural surroundings and plentiful space provided for the elephants. This is in stark contrast to camps I had previously visited in Bangkok and Ayutthia where the elephants looked like they had malnutrition and were over-heated. I watched elephants playing football and building a wall with huge tree trunks before it was time for the main event. That is elephant painting! Mae Sa holds two entries in the Guinness book of records, one for the largest painting completed by an elephant, and the other for the most valuable painting completed by an elephant (sold for $40.000) to an American man earlier this year. I am no art critic but I was honoured to be in the company of one bull Elephant whom, it is claimed, is regarded by many as being at the top of the world-wide elephant artistry field!

I have enjoyed my holiday in Chiang Mai immensely but (on a sour note) a downside was reading the bad press associated with the Songkran celebrations throughout the country. Songkran perennially causes a huge surge in vehicle accidents down to water throwing and drink driving. Also sexual harassment towards women and crimes of violence vastly increase during this time of supposed care-free happiness (*official figures 13 cases of theft, 21 weapons offenses, 63 cases of illegal gambling, 59 drug offenses, 29 cases of prostitution and 93 cases of assault and sexual harrasment). There is no doubt that something must be done to stop this in the future, it is becoming a terrible scar on the face of what is one of the world's most special and joyous occasions. Thankfully, during my time in Chiang Mai I didn't see even a hint of crime. Many plans are being put forward to combat the problem including zoning celebrations, i.e. allotting only special areas where water throwing is allowed, or reducing the celebrations from several days to only one. Whatever happens, it is not going to be easy for the Thai authorities to change the actions of the whole country during the time they look forward to all year round.


* Thanks to China economic.net (www.en.ce.cn) 11/05/05

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