Perusing the aisles of the Chiang Rai markets, I took in the pungent smell of spices and gazed in wonder at the exotic delicacies of the small, rural community. I dodged the lady selling boiled chicken foetus eggs (fertilised?!) and pressed onto the food stalls up ahead.
I scanned the selection of noodles, rice and soups on offer and thought I might as well go full generic tourist and order a pad thai. As this was only the start of my trip, I was working on building up my chilli tolerance from white-girl-thinks-toothpaste-is-spicy up to the standard of a Thai local. So I insisted on extra chilli.
I felt my mouth dance with excitement as the added topping of chilli went to work on my tastebuds when suddenly a blur of green caught the corner of my eye.
I turned in surprise to find dozens of turtles swimming around a makeshift aquarium. I always pictured turtles as gigantic, wrinkled, century-old creatures with a hard shell but this was a soft shell turtle straight out of the tropics of the Mekong. It could fit inside the palm of my hand; the perfect size for a travel pet!
Being raised in Australia, turtles are expensive and hard to acquire as pets. Because certain species are endangered, you have to pay hundreds of dollars for a reptile licence.
So when I saw the sign “20 baht” ($1AUD) I thought wow what a bargain!
Jen: “One please.”
Having understood that each turtle cost 20 baht each, I was confused when the lady grabbed a scoop and shovelled a few handfuls of baby turtles into a plastic bag full of water.
“Woah, woah.. I can’t afford all that, I’m a backpacker!”
I stopped the woman and urged her to put “just one!” in the bag. Her questioning face turned into a wry smirk as she handed me one lone turtle swimming in a water-filled plastic bag. She turned to her co-worker and the couple giggled to each other, excitedly speaking in Thai whilst looking over at me.
At that moment the co-worker scooped up what looked like 20 turtles and threw them into a bag for the next customer. The shopper shoved the bag into her basket with no concern at all, making an almost tidal wave inside the bag while I held my lone turtle still, careful of even causing small ripples in his water.
I stepped back as the penny dropped. These turtles weren’t for eating, they were for turtle soup!
The distant hum of the Thai lady’s laughter slowly vanished as I raced out of the markets, cradling my turtle tightly. I immediately felt a sense of responsibility and snuck my turtle past the hostel reception area and into the safety of my room, where I made a furnished, all-inclusive home. Later that night I added a playground for him, with an obstacle course and hidden treats included. It was a mini turtle resort!
When morning broke, I could hear the murmur of the native wildlife echoing behind me as I set off on my scooter. It was time to set the turtle free.
The trip turned out to be mutually beneficial for the both of us; the turtle was going home and I got to see Thailand off the beaten track. I had never driven that far north before but I wanted to release him at the confluence of the Mekong and the Ruak River so I enjoyed admiring the quaint villages and rural countryside views on the way there.
The beam from the headlights danced on the water’s reflection as the morning hazed away and midday was upon us. I drove kilometre after kilometre until I neared the border of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar, which is also known as the Golden Triangle.
Every twist and turn of the road brought feelings of excitement and a sense of adventure. I took in one last look of the picturesque scenery and pulled into the river bank. I jumped off the bike and walk to the river’s edge. It was time to say our goodbyes.
I watched the emerald green of his shell disappear into the same shade of green of the Mekong river.
**(If you want to check out my other post about Chiang Rai, then please check out Part 1 here!)