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Chris goes to the zoo (again)

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On our travels through Asia, we have come across all manner of animal-themed tourist attractions. Animals as entertainment is big business here and nowhere more so than in Chiang Mai Province in northern Thailand. In the Mae Sa Valley a short distance from the city of Chiang Mai, you can watch a man French-kissing a king cobra, laugh at monkeys riding bicycles and have a photo taken of your head in the mouth of a live crocodile. As if this weren't enough, a few miles down the road lies Tiger Kingdom, which unashamedly bills itself as the only place in the world where you can enter a cage with a full-grown tiger and stroke its whiskers. It's tempting to shake one's head disapprovingly at the Thais for laying on such dubious forms of entertainment. Though they are guilty of insufficient regulation of this kind of attraction and pandering to the market for cheap thrills at animals' expense, the real culprits here are the paying punters. For instance, the staff at Tiger Kingdom has to keep poking and prodding the tigers to stop them from falling asleep. Their excuse for this shameful practice is that if the tigers were asleep, the tourists would not pay to enter the cage. To which I say: isn't it time to educate your visitors instead?

Closer to Chiang Mai itself are two wildlife attractions of a more traditional nature; a zoo and a night safari. Now I like a good zoo (the emphasis on good), and the UK is blessed with some very good zoos which do great work in conversation and education. For this reason I don't subscribe to the notion that zoos belong in the dustbin of history - they should be given a chance to move with the times and respond to the ever-changing demands of the discerning zoo visitor. I also enjoy visiting other countries' zoos, because I think you can learn something about their society from the way they exhibit and care for captive animals, and from observing the natives on family outings to their local zoo.

In Chiang Mai I passed on the Night Safari (because it had been built inside a National Park) and caught a tuk-tuk to the Chiang Mai Zoo and Aquarium, Thailand's largest zoo. It's a very picturesque place, set on a forested hillside with an abundance of tropical flowering plants. It's also vast, so vat that the Thais have built roads between the enclosures, as if to prove the point that there's nowhere in the country that can't be reached on a moped. Modern Thailand again shows its face in the form of innumerable retail outlets in the zoo grounds; even a small supermarket and a shoe shop.

In the zoo's many souvenir kiosks, panda toys are the hot sellers, for Chiang Mai is one of the only zoos in South East Asia to house giant pandas. In 2009, their pair of pandas produced a baby, though not without the help of a small army of veterinary specialists. The male showed no interest in mating with the female by natural means, so artificial insemination was used (twice). I know this because it was all explained in great detail on a wall of information boards in the panda house, with the help of some very graphic photos showing probes being inserted in various panda orifices. The panda enclosure faces this wall, so the poor animals are confronted with poster-size images of their own genitalia all day long. It must be the panda equivalent of waking up after a night on the lash, looking in the mirror and thinking "Oh God, is that really me?"

Giant panda at Chiang Mai Zoo

Giant panda at Chiang Mai Zoo

If the panda exhibit was one highlight, another was the huge walk-through aviary, which must have been created by simply stretching a net over an area of mature forest and filling it full of colourful tropical birds. Elsewhere, the exhibits were disappointingly average. Though the reptiles can be exhibited in outdoor enclosures rather than the poky heated buildings we're used to in European zoos, choosing to put all your crocodiles in concrete pits isn't the greatest way to show them off. Furthermore, there were no outstanding exhibits and no local rarities - just the usual crowd-pleasers such as lions, penguins and elephants.

Tropical bird aviary at Chiang Mai Zoo

Tropical bird aviary at Chiang Mai Zoo

The visitors to Far Eastern zoos often betray the different attitude to wild animals between this part of the world and, say, Europe or North America. Here, animals in zoos are firmly for the visitors' entertainment. In Western Europe zoos take great pains to instruct visitors not to feed the animals, but in Chiang Mai it was positively encouraged. You could feed pretty much anything, including the big cats, the latter by means of a piece of raw meat on the end of a pole which you could insert through the wire mesh of their cage. How exactly does this foster respectful stewardship and sensitivity towards wildlife? To be fair to the Thais, they were generally pretty well behaved, especially when I think back to some of the things I saw in Beijing Zoo.

The aquarium in the middle of the zoo has the distinction of having South East Asia's longest underwater tunnels. (It's important for all public aquaria to have a 'deepest', 'longest', 'biggest' or 'world's only' to trumpet.) The more impressive of the two runs through a freshwater tank which is home to some absolute monsters - giant Mekong catfish, freshwater stingrays and pirarucu (the largest fish in the Amazon). The information signs in the aquarium reflected an unusual take on visitor interpretation, offering advice on which species could be kept in home aquaria.

If Chiang Mai tried to impress with its role-call of big-hitting species, the other zoo I visited on this trip was a complete contrast. True, it held tigers, wolves, bears and panthers, but this was still a zoo with a difference. The Himalayan Mountain Zoo in Darjeeling specialises in Himalayan fauna, so you won't find giraffes, meerkats or flamingos here. It's a small establishment but holds the distinction of being the most successful zoo globally at breeding endangered snow leopards and red pandas.

Red panda at Darjeeling Zoo

Red panda at Darjeeling Zoo

I arrived late one afternoon after a brisk walk along the ridge out of town. Fortunately, the zoo occupies a small site and can be explored thoroughly in just an hour or two. The setting, like Chiang Mai's zoo, is delightful: mature forest, one of the few such areas remaining in this part of West Bengal. And unlike the rest of India, the zoo grounds are clean, orderly and quiet. I spent a good half hour watching the red pandas devouring their evening meal of bamboo shoots, and a similar amount of time marvelling at the extensive collection of pheasants (unfortunately kept behind dirty Perspex screens, so I could not photograph their brilliant colours).

Himalayan wolf at Darjeeling Zoo

Himalayan wolf at Darjeeling Zoo

At the blue sheep enclosure I noticed three Indian boys nearby. Eventually their curiosity got the better of them and they approached me (this happens a lot in India). "Where are you from?" one of them asked. "England," I replied, "Manchester." Their eyes suddenly widened, for mention of this city provokes the same response across the whole of Asia. "Manchester United!" they chorused in unison. I then had to explain that few people in Manchester actually support United, and I was not one of them. This they found hard to believe, perhaps because 99% of Man U fans live in Asia and they can't imagine why I would want to follow any other team. They were not visiting the zoo, but were on the way to the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute which lies within the zoo grounds. They had two weeks off school to learn basic mountaineering schools at this famous training centre established by Tenzing Norgay the year after he summitted Everest on the 1953 British expedition. "You like my country?" asked one of the boys as we parted ways. "I like your zoo!" I replied evasively.

Posted by Chris Parsons 07:02 Archived in Thailand Tagged india thailand zoo panda darjeeling Comments (0)

That sinking Darjeeling feeling

It was with great anticipation that we were driven up the corkscrew road past tea plantations into the cooler air of the mountains again. This was India, our second country, and an area completely new to us: destination Darjeeling.

If things can go downhill while travelling uphill then they very nearly did in Mirik, a small town not far from Darjeeling (Until we arrived in Mirik we had forgotten that we were actually in India). Our driver stopped us for a late lunch break, and so having just crossed the border from Nepal overland we immediately went in search of some cash. To our dismay the ATM shutters were down, and so started a typically Indian wild goose chase. As we were carrying US dollars, we asked if we could change them into rupees at the bank. The bank clerk pointed us towards a local hotel. The hotel receptionist pointed us to the restaurant next door, and the waiter pointed us to The Boss. We waited with baited breath... The Boss looked us in the eye, shook his head and uttered the dreaded words "Sorry, not possible." Our taxi driver was waiting and our 30 minutes for lunch was rapidly running out. It was looking like being a very light lunch indeed. We were on the point of giving up when The Boss had a change of heart, relented and said we could pay by card. Some good news for our rumbling stomachs. We savoured our pakoras and aloo parathas - this was the good side of India after a whole month of daal bhat - and made the taxi driver wait. With full bellies, it was time to settle the bill, and we duly handed our credit card over to the waiter. He took one look, and with a shake of the head offered uttered those immortal words "Sorry, no cards." I for one didn't fancy the washing up, and it was either this or we walked. Soon the credit card was taken into the back room and with no explanation we were left wondering if we would ever see it again. Welcome to India.

We arrived in Darjeeling just after dark at the Snowlion Homestay. This turned out to be a very welcoming place with a comfortable bed, delicious breakfast and a hot shower. The receptionist recommended we eat dinner in the Shangri-La Hotel up the road and gave us a discount card for our meal there. The Shangri-La "Hotel" turned out to be nothing of the sort, but preserves the facade for some reason. The food we were served there was excellent (I was loving the gastronomic offerings of West Bengal) but it was a bit of a lottery finding something from their own menu they were willing to cook. This time the refrain was "Sorry sir, no hot drinks" and "Sorry sir, no pakoras today". Hot drinks are apparently only served at breakfast and pakoras when the chef feels like it. Funnily enough though we did get the pakoras in the end...

Information, mis-information and downright lies were a familiar theme throughout our two-day stay in Darjeeling. In truth, we had probably arrived in India at the wrong time of the year. It was the middle of the Diwali festival and therefore a national holiday - the equivalent of arriving on the 25th December, and it made everything even more difficult. However, we needed to be fed and we had jobs to do too, including arranging our permit to Sikkim, so we fought on, trying to outsmart the bureaucracy.

The saga of the Sikkim permits is an excellent example of the way information and misinformation go hand in hand in India. First, we visited the Foreigners' Registration Office for the correct forms. The clerk seemed helpful and told us to take our completed forms and passport photos to the Office of the District Magistrate at the bottom of town, though it was closed that day because of the festival: "No problem sir, open tomorrow." As an afterthought, he also added that the Old Bellevue Hotel, close to our homestay, would issue permits. We called in at the Old Bellevue, but they were closed too. Would they be open tomorrow? "Yes," came the reply, and then a "maybe." Back at our homestay the manager listened to our woes and told us getting a permit was now an easy five minute job. so the following day we called in again, and unsurprisingly, they were closed. Our plan B was to try our luck at the magistrate's office. This was the only place left in town that would issue a Sikkim Permit. On a sunny Friday morning, we traipsed down through the market to a leafy quarter to find a haphazard collection of government buildings. Through a courtyard, up some stairs and down a corridor, we found a sign over a door for "Sikkim Permits". Promising...until we saw the sign underneath, "closed". The informative sign revealed that the permit office would infact remain closed throughout Saturday, Sunday and any further Bank Holidays. It was Friday, and we were leaving for Sikkim the next day: an urgent telephone call to Yak and Yeti, our trekking company, was required! Satish was reassuring though, "not to worry", we were told, we could get our permits at Melli, a border checkpost, en route to the start of the trek.

Unbeknownst to us, the following day our trekking guide, Pushpa, and our driver decided to make a shortcut to a different border crossing. On handing over our application forms at the border, we were laughed at by the jobsworth policeman (a Kim Jong-Il look-alike). After a sweaty 15 minutes, while Pushpa tried to find someone who knew someone who knew someone willing to issue us a permit, we were let through on the proviso that we make a 30km detour to Melli to get the permits. One bumpy, dusty hour later we arrived at our second border post to find the only guy in India issuing Sikkim permits. We nearly bought him a beer...

We experienced so many examples of "Sorry, sir" or misinformation that I've now lost count, but it very nearly left us dinnerless on our second evening in Darjeeling. There is a paucity of good restaurants in the town - we counted three and ate in all of them at various occasions. But on this particular evening, Diwali celebrations were in full swing and only two options were open to us: the Shangri-La, where we had eaten twice already (and would have to go through another round of the "Sorry sir, no tea..." routine) or Glenary's, an English cake shop serving West Bengali fare in their upstairs restaurant. It was looking doubtful when we walked into Glenary's, and the restaurant was stacked with a queue bulging at the door, so we settled upon the posh Elgin Hotel for our evening meal. Although we did eventually get to eat at the Elgin (a a very pleasant high tea the following afternoon), on this particular occasion we were turned away at the door. "Sorry sir, dinner is served to hotel guests only." I guess that's what you pay 100 quid a night for.

Darjeeling's a nice place to be
If you don't mind the bureaucracy
For a taste of the Raj
Let your batteries recharge
With the Elgin's delightful high tea

By the time we had found our way back to Glenary's we were met with another rebuttal at the door. "Sorry sir, kitchen is closed". It was 7:30! Either Glenary's were turning away an easy profit (for there were still people queuing) or the chef wanted to make his own tea. Either way, we were by now starving, and as Darjeeling was operating on an '8 till 8' shift, we were rapidly running out of time. Rejecting the option of a desperation omelette at the Snowlion, we walked down through the town, gravitating like moths towards some neon lights down an alleyway. These announced the Blue Dragon restaurant. The door was bolted and padlocked and the dining room lights were out, but appearances can be deceptive. Within about five minutes, we were installed in a clean and functional dining room with fish and chicken thalis (Indian daal bhat) on the way. It was the most unlikely of turnarounds. We were extremely well fed for 179 rupees - a pittance. Thank you India!

Posted by jparsons 07:14 Archived in India Tagged india darjeeling Comments (0)

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