Chiang Mai Aquarium

After the giant pandas on loan from China that have become famous for failing to reproduce, and the giant monorail that snakes over the treetops of the extensive area, here is Chiang Mai Zoo’s latest mega-project, the Aquarium. It was built on top of a pond, not very far from the panda enclosures, overlooking the city. It had been years in the making and has gobbled up a staggering 600 million baht, a joint venture between the Thai government and Australian firm Marine Scape.

Opened last year, it boasts the world’s longest underwater tunnel, 133 metres, half of which is dedicated to freshwater habitats. Over 250 different species are on display, most of them native to Thailand. Besides the spectacular coral reef habitats, the less colourful but just as interesting Mekhong river wildlife comes alive right above your head. Some of the highlights are stingrays, lionfish, clownfish, sea horses, and starfish, all long-time favourites with small children because of their unusual appearance. Small sections are dedicated to life in the Bhumibol dam, Doi Inthanon, mangrove habitats, and insects (though since when have snakes belonged to the insect kingdom, I have no idea).

So far, so good – sounds really impressive.
Last week, we went on a field trip with my students. With 30 kids in tow, it is difficult to take notes and contemplate displays for over 10 seconds at a time, but you get a very different take on what is going on around you. As an addicted snorkeller, I had been looking forward to visiting this Aquarium, even though I know it always pales in comparison with the real thing.

For a start, the pricing structure is really confusing, and I got even more puzzled when I checked out the zoo website for definitive answers. It seems that the prices have been lowered since the opening. What I saw on the spot is that you have the choice to buy tickets only valid for the aquarium for 400 / 300 baht (foreigner adult / child) and you will be transported straight to the aquarium by tram. If you buy the ticket at the aquarium, after having paid the regular zoo entry fee to be able to see other displays, the price is 350 / 260. Thai adults pay 220 at the gate, the children’s price was covered up with a notice and I couldn’t see it from a distance. Of course, Thai numerals are used to throw unsuspecting foreigners off track. The zoo usually gives the Thai price to expats with a work permit.

At the entrance to the aquarium, you need to drop off your water bottles, food and large backpacks, and pick up a brochure that is only in Thai. You may take your photo with the advertising poster featuring hammerhead sharks – that is as close as you are ever going to get to them on this day. On second thought, hopefully those beasts are still enjoying their freedom somewhere out in the wild.

After walking over the bridge, the dark insides of the building swallow you up and you are thrown into the underwater world, a stark contrast to the blinding sunshine outside. It is pleasant to escape, except that in the dark it is somewhat difficult to locate and read information about fish, which seems to be bilingual. The staff is very helpful, answers questions when all the poor visually challenged teacher can say to curious kids is “I don’t know” while scrambling to find some information.

You can come up close to stingrays and various small fish tanks with beautifully arranged displays of clown fish, starfish, seahorses, there is enough space to admire every detail even for a large group of small kids. However, I don’t remember seeing seats anywhere where you could just sit for a while and contemplate, or take a little rest.

In the tunnel, there is a smart moving platform that proceeds at a convenient speed, faster or slower visitors may move on the stable part of the pavement beside it. In the fresh water section, the catfish and turtles are not shy and move right up to the glass so that kids can admire them up close. The seawater section has small black tip, white tip and leopard sharks in abundance as well as more rays and lots of colourful coral reef fish familiar to any snorkeller, eliciting excited cries from the children.

But somehow, the tunnel, which is supposed to be the highlight, is a disappointment. The water is four metres deep, and you feel like you are under water – all the light comes from overhead and it is like looking into the sun. Fish are back lit and photos just don’t work. If you have been to Siam Ocean World in Bangkok, you may remember it feels like walking among sharks, on the bottom of the sea – and large sharks at that. In Chiang Mai, it is a more restricted view, especially if you are a kid – just look at the photo below. It is a problem in all of the zoo that enclosures are built so that small children only see the walls and need to be picked up by an adult to see anything at all. (Maybe hence the reduced price for visiting school groups who get a limited view in the absence of their parents?) In the tunnel, they can only look up, losing half the view completely if the poor teacher is not an octopus with eight arms. And the sharks are a lot smaller too.

I estimate it takes about two hours to take in everything (if you are not with that bunch of children, that is). Slightly smaller and less impressive than the above mentioned establishment in Bangkok. On the way out, you may admire a carefully selected array of ridiculously overpriced soft toys and souvenirs (good luck dragging the children away), or pay for some funny photo editing that places you at the feeding end of a shark.

Overall, a pleasant experience and a neatly done project with some gaping holes. For me personally, it does not come up to the hype, and I find the foreigner prices ridiculous. Their target seems to be 800,000 visitors a year – which is more than the entire population of the city. I understand it was a huge investment and they need a return in the foreseeable future. With zoo entry prices gradually crawling up even for Thais, and separate tickets to be bought for the zoo, the monorail, the pandas, the aquarium, the tram, the adventure park, parking facilities, not to mention the souvenirs…. it adds up to an expensive family day out. I suspect most people will come on school trips, paying a reduced price, or only come once or twice, not regularly. It is not the sort of price many would pay over and over for a casual, relaxing Sunday afternoon.

I don’t know enough about animal protection issues to comment on the doubts and controversies raised in connection with the Aquarium, so I really do not want to go into that dimension of the project. I can only sincerely hope that Thai children will be a little more educated about their treasures and how vulnerable they are. So far away from the sea, an Aquarium is likely to bring increased awareness; however, I have no idea how it could translate into everyday life. But even if people think aquatic environments are worthy of some protection because they are nice to look at, I suppose that is a step forward.

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