"The greatness of a nation can be judged by the way its animals are treated." .... Mohandas Gandhi.
I believe the Mahatma's opinion of Thailand would have improved had he lived to see today's Chiangmai Night Safari in operation. The 1,000 or so animals from 200 different species appear to be healthy, happy and well cared for. I am neither a naturalist nor veterinarian, but am reliably informed that one of the foremost signs of a well-run zoo is when its inhabitants are producing offspring on a regular basis. This is happening with such regularity at Chiangmai Night Safari that serious consideration is now being given to the addition of a full-time maternity wing at the zoo's hospital.
On a tour of the safari park it soon becomes clear why the animals are so contented while out of their natural habitat. Young keepers charged with the animals' welfare have already developed the strong bond of trust that is necessary to make the beasts at ease in their new surroundings. Speaking softly to each of their charges as they move among them in their cages or enclosures, these young people instill confidence and trust with every word or gesture.
Night Safari is in fact a bit of a misnomer; it is a beautiful place to visit during daylight hours, and since not all of the denizens of the park are nocturnal there are many exotic birds and animals to see as you traverse the meticulously maintained grounds.\
The entrance to Chiangmai Night Safari features the Lanna village; a collection of impressive buildings of an Afro-Lanna fusion of architectural styles that house souvenir and handicraft shops: a food court, a photo-corner where visitors can have their picture taken with either a baby lion, tiger or bear-and this area boasts the country's only "Fun Plaza - an airy terrace from where the delighted squeals of children can be heard as they run around in an attempt to avoid jets of water shooting upward at intervals from hidden spouts in the ground.
From here I decided to take the only walking trail of the three animal zones, the Jaguar Trail Zone; a 1.2 kilometre paved track that encircles the tranquil waters of the Swan Lake where spectacular musical fountain shows are staged day and night. Graceful black and white swans glide across the mirrored surface of the lake while a cheeky gibbon lopes around the shrubbery on a tiny, off-shore island, trying to attract the attention of my companion, Khun Prakaykaw-or Deaw, as she prefers to be known to her friends. Deaw is a young, public relations executive from Bangkok who came to work for the safari park and fell in love with Chiangmai, its people, her job, and yes-this mischievous gibbon. I have known public relations people who've tried to convince me that junk food was nutritious, but never one as knowledgeable and caring about her job. Deaw has a personal relationship with many of the park's inhabitants, and more than a few run to greet her as she calls out their names as we pass their enclosures.
The park has three animal zones: the Jaguar Trail, which we chose to walk, the Savanna Safari Zone, where animals from the African savanna can be seen close-up at night from a 60-seater electric tram-or mini-train as it purrs past the more than 300 herbivores (not the back-packing vegetarians that haunt Chiangmai's restaurants) or plant eating animals, such as Giraffes, Gorals, Wildebeests, Rhinoceroses, yaks and many others.
The Predator Prowl Zone, which has no connection whatsoever with Chiangmai's Night Bazaar, is the carnivorous animal zone where the hairs on the back of your neck tend to rise. As your tram carries you, in total safety, within yards of some of the world's most ferocious creatures you can't help but feel the power, majesty and grace of such animals as lions, tigers, Asiatic Black bears, crocodiles, African hunting dogs, and the elegant impala.
But back to the Jaguar Trail where Deaw is introducing me to its denizens: Camels chase one another around a spacious corral, while a pair of Llamas in an adjacent enclosure chomp away on the abundant vegetation. We pass a little oasis where a giant tortoise from the Seychelles is trying to explain to a large, fluffy rabbit the moral of the story about the turtle and the hare. You don't know? Ask your teacher; that's what he or she is grossly underpaid to know!
There are some 400 animals from 50 species living along this route as it meanders around the Swan Lake amid immaculately landscaped gardens. I am aware that there are those who are opposed to the keeping of wild animals in captivity, and those who find it quite acceptable. These are not the pages in which such a debate should rage. Suffice it to say that the hyena I met on the Jaguar Trail was laughing.
Coming to a large, caged enclosure, I was delighted to get my first glimpse of a pair of rare white tigers. Zhaojin and his mate Lizhen were presented to Thailand by the Xiangiang Safari Park in southern China's Guangzhou, or Canton as it once was known. All manner of exotic beasts can be seen along the trail. Two magnificent jaguars lazed in the branches of a tree (the last time I saw two Jags up a tree was after a party in London's St. John's Wood district) But I digress. There were porcupines, otters, monkeys, a walk-through aviary, black leopards, and the only ring-tailed lemur in the country! I also noticed two pigmy hippos; or for the politically correct pedants out there, a pair of vertically challenged hippopotami.
There is a campsite and student accommodation; conference facilities and restaurants. Among the trees lies the Chiangmai Night Safari Resort; a collection of elegant bungalows, tastefully furnished and offering guests breathtaking views over Chiangmai. One can even retire to a four-poster bed and fall asleep to the night sounds of the jungle animals nearby. The resort is managed by Khun Pavit, who ensures guests of a most memorable stay among the forests of the Doi Suthep national park, of which the Chiangmai Night Safari and Resort is an integral part.
The safari park is a relaxing and educational facility where families can spend the day, or night, learning first hand about the habits of national, regional and international animal life.
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