Almost 3 Days in Tokyo

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Temples, Shrines and Gardens

Japan’s oldest religion is Shinto. Shinto has no founder, no holy book and not even the concept of religious conversion. The core concept is that deities, kami, preside over all things in nature, be they living, dead or inanimate. Shinto values include harmony with nature and virtues such as magokoro (sincere heart). Many Japanese practice Shinto; however, few are purely Shinto. Many Japanese also practice Buddhism. Shinto has shrines and are most easily distinguished by their typically vermilion (red) tori gateways, constructed by two posts with two rails at the top. After 3 days of walking around Tokyo looking at temples and shrines, many of them have just blended together into two categories, those with tori gates and those without.

The tour of shrines and temples started at Sensoji Temple in Asakusa. Just a few steps from the subway exit, I found the Kaminarimon Gate (“Thunder Gate”). The gate was built in 946 and burned down several times, the last in 1865 and not rebuilt until 1960. Kaminarimon Gate stands big and impressive at the head of a long row of shops leading to the temple complex. Arriving early in the morning, before the area was laden with rickshaw tour operators and tour groups, made the visit reasonably pleasant and peaceful. Sensoji temple was built in the 645 and escaped damage in the 1923 Tokyo Earthquake only to be destroyed during WWII. All the buildings have been rebuilt following their Edo-era layout. In addition to the main temple building, the complex offers a 5-story pagoda, several smaller buildings, a pond with koi and several stone lanterns and statues. After a reasonably quick meditative stroll around the complex, I was on my way to my next destination on my aggressive list of sites to see during my time in Tokyo.

A popular part of the visit to Sensoji (or most temples, although Sensoji is one of the few that has them in English on the reverse side) is to get a paper fortune called an omikuji. After paying your 100 yen, you grab one of the metal canisters of sticks and make your wish. Once your wish is made, modestly shake the canister twice (or several times) until a stick comes out. Each stick has a number written on it in kanji (Japanese writing). So after a bit of matching the symbols on the stick to the symbols on the drawers containing the fortunes, you get your fortune. If it is a good fortune, then be happy with it. If it is a bad fortune, then don’t be upset. Simply tie it to the nearby rack so the wind can carry it away, ask the gods for better luck and try again later. So I dutifully paid my 100 yen, shook the canister and matched my number (66) to the drawer. No. 66 is Bad Fortune. So I tied it to the rack and walked away. When I came back to the temple are the next day for some souvenir shopping, I figured I would try it again, maybe being a little more specific with my wish. This time I got No. 97. Bad fortune again…sigh. Hopefully that changes soon.

Zojoji Temple in the Shimbashi area was my next planned destination. I say planned, because it took a little extra effort and a lot of walking to get there. I’ve navigated big cities (namely Paris when I was 17) using pretty much only a subway map and the information maps that are located on many corners at big intersections and near the subway entrances. So I got off at the Shimbashi station and set out walking in what I thought was the correct direction. When I reached the Higashi-ginza station, I discovered that I had walked about 20 minutes in the wrong direction. So I turned around, and after finding a set of elevated subway tracks, I decided to follow those as closely as I could to get to the station that was my original destination.

At the next map I found, I discovered that I was actually reasonably close to the Hama-rikyu Gardens, another spot that was on my list of places I was trying to see that day. Turning left, I headed for the garden, finding it in short order. Hama-rikyu Gardens were the family garden of the Tokugawa Shogun, built in 1654. All of the buildings and the vegetation were destroyed between the 1923 earthquake and the bombings in WWII and then rebuilt. The gardens are a nice oasis of green in the city, quiet and pleasant, the sounds of the city muffled by thick trees. Inside the 62-acre gardens the main places of interest are the tidal pond with the 3 tea houses, two duck hunting ponds, and a 300 year old black pine.

The Hama-rikyu has a free Ubiquitous Audio Tour. At the entrance they give you a smart device (basically like a smart phone) that you wear on a lanyard around your neck and an earphone. As you walk by the 27 places of interest along the tour, the smart device uses GPS technology to identify which place you are by and then plays an audio clip describing the place of interest and the history surrounding it. A lot of the extra information was very helpful and contained some very interesting facts.

One of the things I loved best about the garden are all the gnarled pine trees that look like bonsai trees on steroids. Each of the trees are meticulously pruned each year by hand. Workers remove 2/3rd of the new growth, snapping the shoots off by hand. The 300 year old pine takes 4 workers 5 days to complete. (Fact provided courtesy of the ubiquitous audio tour.)

300 year old pine at Hama-rikyu

300 year old pine at Hama-rikyu

With my feet starting to form a couple of hot spots, I continued on in my quest to find Zojoji Temple. To aid in navigation, I did actually ask the worker at the garden entrance when I returned my ubiquitous audio tour device. After another 20 minute walk and a stop for a late lunch at a curry shop, I finally found the temple complex.

The Zojoji temple complex is much smaller than the Sensoji temple. The Zojoji temple was established in 1393 and was moved to its current location in 1598 to protect the city spiritually from a southeasterly direction. The wooden temple gate is the only structure that remains of the original 17th century temple buildings. The main building was rebuilt in 1974, after being destroyed between the earthquake in 1923 and the bombings of WWII. Now the temple lies in the shadow of the Tokyo Tower, the red and white tower that is modeled after the Eiffel Tower, just taller. Seeing the tower brought back memories of my trip with my dad to Japan in 1982 when I did actually go up to the observation deck to see the view of the city.

Zojoji Temple and the Tokyo Tower

Zojoji Temple and the Tokyo Tower

After a short walk to the subway station, my feet got a little bit of a rest on the 20 minute ride to my next destination, the Kashiwa Karokuen Gardens. Finding the gardens proved to be challenging. Following the information provided on my Tokyo Subway App instead of actually checking the exit information on the signs in the station, I went out exit 8 instead of exit 2, which would have been a much better choice. After wandering around for quite awhile, I did actually find the Tokyo Dome home of the Yomiuri Giants (Tokyo Giants) and signs pointing me in the direction of the gardens… just a mere 350 meters (nearly a ¼ mile) along a white wall by baseball fields where adorable kids were having baseball practice.

When I planned out my time I had hoped to have some time to just sit in the garden and maybe write a little. With all of my navigational detours, by the time I finally reached the gardens I had about an hour to explore and enjoy. The picture in my guidebook that had drawn me to seeking out this garden was the Tsuten-kyo bridge, a vermilion (red) bridge that is a copy of a famous bridge in Kyoto that I had seen on my trip in 1982. Finding the bridge proved tricky since the location marked on the map had a different spelling than the picture and label of points of interest in the brochure that I was given at the entrance. On my search for it, I did see the Full Moon Bridge (Engetsu-kyo), so named because the reflection of the bridge in the water forms the image of a full moon. Even though renovation work was underway near the bridge, they did have enough water in the pool by the bridge to give it the full effect. I also saw the iris field and the rice paddies, and the Chinese style path and the central island, all of which were pretty but not my goal. With 20 minutes remaining until the park closed, I returned to the entrance and asked them, using a lot of pointing and short words, where the red bridge was. Armed with a location on the map, I made a bee-line for the bridge. Seeing the bright red surrounded with lush green was definitely worth all of the effort. I spent as much of the remaining time that I had in the park taking pictures and just sitting on a rock near the bridge as I could. My feet appreciated the short respite.

Tsuten-kyo bridge at Koishikawa Korakuen Gardens

Tsuten-kyo bridge at Koishikawa Korakuen Gardens

Amongst all of the temples and shrines that I visited over the course of my days in Tokyo, the Meiji Jingu (Shrine) was my favorite. Meiji Jingu is an oasis of lush green, the comforting aroma of the cedars and cypress trees permeating the air. The natural forest surrounding the shrine was hand planted when the shrine was first built. Now, generations later, it is considered a self-sustaining natural forest. A broad grey gravel path provides a meditative walk, leading you away from the main street through the forested area up to the tranquil area of the temple complex. Three unpainted cypress tori gates grace the path to the main shrine, the second or grand shrine gate, is the largest tori of that style in Japan. Each pillar is 1.2 meters (about 4 feet) in diameter and the crosspiece is 17 meters (55.7 feet) long. Very impressive and very beautiful!

Approaching the shrine, I followed the directions in the pamphlet on how to pay respect at Meiji Jingu. At the Temizuya, a cistern with running water and dippers (cups on long handles), I did the purification ritual. Using a dipper, I rinsed my left hand, then my right hand, then poured water into my left hand and rinsed my mouth, then rinsed my left hand and replaced the dipper. Then at the main shrine building, I made my wish, threw some coins in the offeratory box, bowed twice, clapped my hands twice to make sure the gods heard, and then bowed one more time. While there I also took time to write my wishes and hopes for 2014 and the future on a paper and placed it in an envelope with some coins and deposited in the box. The wishes will be included in the prayers of the priesthood at the temple.

A Blister for Each Day

In addition to walking to and around all of the temples, shrines and gardens, I visited several other places of interest in Tokyo. And I had a few more navigational issues.

Monday evening, I rounded out my first day at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building Observation Deck. The observation deck is on the 47th floor of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building and provides an impressive panoramic view of the city. On a clear day, which Monday was not by the time I made it there, Mt. Fuji is also visible. I am glad that I visited on Monday, since the weather was probably the best that day. While I couldn’t see Mt. Fuji I was able to see the majority of the places that I had visited while walking around the city. An added benefit to visiting was that I was able to pick up a guidebook that actually had some basic maps for key areas of Tokyo.

My second day in Tokyo started with my trip to Meiji Jingu, which is located next to the Yoyogi Park, the site of the Tokyo Olympics and the Harajuku neighborhood. The Tokyo National Stadium, built for the 1964 Olympics, is still used today. After taking a few minutes to appreciate the impressive curves of the shell-like architecture and to take some pictures, I dove into the Harajuku neighborhood, seeking out one of the largest 100 Yen Store (basically a Dollar Store) in Tokyo. Harajuku was greatly influenced by the international culture of the Olympics and remains the hot spot for the young and innovative and is a center for fashion with just about every high-end international store present.

No visit to Tokyo would be complete without going to see the Imperial Palace. The large thick, deep grey colored, stone sloping walls surrounded by a moat and the white and brown palace buildings are a stark contrast to the shiny, sleek, modern glass buildings of Tokyo. I had tried to visit the Imperial Palace East Gardens on Monday, but they were closed. Originally I had planned to visit the gardens on Tuesday; however, when I got there I felt I had pretty much had my fill of gardens. So I went to see the famous and often photographed Nijubashi bridge, the main gate stone bridge. The stone bridge reflected in the green-ish moat water accompanied by the massive stone walls, green vegetation and white building is truly picturesque.

Nijubashi bridge at the Imperial Palace

Nijubashi bridge at the Imperial Palace

My last morning in Tokyo was pretty much consumed by a walking tour of Yanaka. I’m pretty sure that Yanaka means “place of many, many temples”. The walking tour outlined in the guide book started at Nezu subway station. So I went to Nezu station, consulted the information map outside the station and started walking… in the opposite direction… again. Only figured it out once I made it to another subway station and after consulting my subway map confirmed that I had walked the wrong way. Backtracking, I made it back to Nezu station and started the tour. Finding the temples and shrines proved to be a little tricky, since for the most part they look like fancy houses with gates stuck in amongst the narrow regular buildings. The only way I found one of the temples is that the tree outside of it had an information marker telling me that it was one of the only remaining red oaks in an urban area and was located behind the Gyokurin-ji (temple).

The walking tour took me through several back streets and by literally dozens of temples. While the walk wasn’t quite as picturesque and quaint as the guidebook made it out to be, it was a nice walk. I did stop in a few of the temples, noting the shrines and the gravesites and other interesting statues and plants. Growing tired of temples and all of them blurring together in my mind and my feet feeling the sting of walking so much, I sped along to go to the Yanaka Cemetery, the largest cemetery in Tokyo.

Cemeteries in Japan are pretty interesting. Families have an altar site containing a primary stone altar with the family crest on it and maybe a few smaller stone structures. Ancestors are honored with their information written on a wooden stick which is added to the collection already there. Offerings are made by living family members and each little plot is well cared for. The cemeteries are very peaceful and several that I visited had gardenia plants, their sweet aroma mingling with the scent of lilies and incense  that had been placed at some of the altars.

Typical family cemetery shrine

Typical family cemetery shrine

My last stop was Akihabara, the famous electronics district. Home of every electronics company you can think of and a mecca for gamers. The buildings are everything you would imagine it to be – electric and overwhelming. SEGA, Panasonic, neon signs in Japanese, anime posters, all larger than life on the tall buildings that soar to the skies and assault the senses. My main destination was the Tokyo Anime Center, since my niece and a few of the young people that are in my life are interested in that. The center itself was actually quite disappointing, not offering much in the way of exhibits and offering a lot in the way of very high priced souvenirs. Walking around the area and taking in all the hustle and bustle was much more interesting.

So what to do when you discover that your flight is almost 2 hours delayed? I ended up going on a bike adventure in an attempt to find some lunch and see the last remaining trolley car in Tokyo. The woman at the hotel gave me directions to a soba noodle shop and the key to her bike and sent me on my way. Half of the adventure was just getting on the bike and getting going. The seat was set so low that my legs were bent the entire time. Eventually I got the hang of it. Off I went on the sidewalk, trying to stay in the bike lane area and  not to hit any of the people walking. Think I may have scared a couple of them with my wobbling. Finding the last remaining trolley car line in Tokyo, the two trolley cars ferrying people the short distance of the line, was my first success. On I went to find Joyful Minowa shopping street where the soba shop is located. A few interesting turns and there it was. After a couple of attempts at asking where the restaurant was, I finally understood that it was closed today. Sadly, I opted for take away tempura and some rice, went back to where the trolley line ends, and had my lunch. The victorious part of this adventure is that I actually made it back to the hotel successfully.

I have no idea exactly how many miles (or meters) that I walked during my 3 days in Tokyo. Many of the subway stations involved walks of 200-300 meters to get between subway lines. By the end of my second day I wished I had a pedometer to track the miles. At the end of my visit to Tokyo, 3 reasonably annoying and a little painful blisters graced my feet, one for each day I was there.

Tokyo Subway A to Z

I love the impressive efficiency of subways. The way the wind gushes in a rush of air in front of an approaching train. The rumbling sound as the train arrives. The constant announcements and interesting signs, especially in foreign countries. The often long escalators descending deep underground or taking you up to the surface.

The Tokyo Subway system is a model of efficiency and punctuality. Made up of two lines, the Tokyo Metro Line (9 lines) and the Toei Line (4 lines), you can swiftly get from one side of the city to the other in typically less than 30-45 minutes. Trains are spaced about 5 minutes apart, sometimes less, or 10 minutes at the most. Unlike many of the commuters, I was never in a rush to get anywhere, but knew better to stay out of the way when figuring out where I was going.

The Tokyo Subway Route Map became my constant companion. The Tokyo Subway app provided a helpful companion in figuring out which route to take and how long it the trip would be. Each of the 13 lines are color coded with an assigned letter (A, C, E, F, G, H, I M, N, S, T, Y and Z) and station numbers identifying each station. Thankfully all of the stations have the name in English as well as Japanese. I remember this being different when I visited as a child and we had to match the kanji characters on the map with the information in our guide book. Over the course of my 3 days in Tokyo I rode 11 of the 13 lines comprising the system (missed F and Y).

The most cost effective way to use the subway as a tourist is to purchase a One-day Unlimited Pass ticket. For 710 yen (about $7) you can ride all of the Tokyo Metro Line lines as much as you want. Or for 1000 yen (about $10) you can ride all of the Tokyo Metro and Toei lines. I definitely got my money’s worth of my one day passes.

Subway stations during rush hour are an interesting and fun experience. Commuters line up methodically at the designated door locations, the bigger stations having actual lanes marked out. When the train arrives, space is given to those exiting the trains. Then all of the people queued up squeeze on to the train. White gloved metro workers are present to make sure everything is orderly and to help push people into the cars if necessary.

Watching the white gloved workers greet and send off each train was a wonderful display of synchronicity and respect. Upon arrival, each of the workers would salute the driver as the train passed by. When all of the people were loaded, there was a check up and down the line confirming the doors were clear. And as the train departed, each worker in turn would point in the direction the train was traveling.

Train leaving the Minami-senju station

Train leaving the Minami-senju station

Many commuters come from well outside the city, with the typical commute taking around an hour or more. Often people would be sleeping. Watching them I wondered two things: how do they sleep standing up? And, how do they not miss their stops?

Additional Random Observations

Typically I am not a fan of major cities. I have spent almost no time in Bangkok in all of my trips to Thailand. New York City, Delhi and Beijing were overwhelming, dirty and polluted. Tokyo is an exception.

Tokyo is very clean and has pretty much no perceivable pollution. Most districts have a ban on smoking on the sidewalks. Established smoking areas, typically partitioned off with panels, are located every 5 or 6 blocks. Litter on the street is almost non-existent. Bottles are recycled religiously, with a bin located by pretty much every vending machine. Even traffic is minimal for such a large metropolitan area, a testament to the efficiency of the subway system and the considered ease of using a bicycle to get around.

On my hours of walking around the city, one thing that struck me was the conformity of it all. Most notably was the conformity of clothing throughout the city, Harajuku being a distinct exception. It seemed as most everyone was wearing dark blue or black pants or skirts, with a light pastel top ranging from white to tan to light blue to light pink. The occasional colorful dress or shirt was definitely eye-catching. Harajuku was a blast of color and individualism that I didn’t really experience elsewhere in the city. Even the buildings in most districts were relatively conforming in color. Some of the skyscrapers have unique architecture, although most of them all are that metallic blue-ish color of glass reflecting the sky. Smaller buildings and houses ranged in the tan-white-grey color palette.

Tokyo is a very new old city. The history of the city goes back over a thousand years. Unfortunately most of the buildings were destroyed during the fire following the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923. Buildings that managed to survive the earthquake were destroyed by air raid bombings toward the end of WWII. While temples and shrines were rebuilt according to the original plans, the actual buildings only go back about 70 years. Some not even that far.

Every bit of available space is used efficiently. My hotel was a testament to this fact. My single room was about 3 feet wider and about 3 feet longer than a twin bed. In that space was a bed, table, stool, tv, waste bin and a small closet. The room wasn’t uncomfortable. Besides, you don’t go to some place to spend time in a hotel room. The bed was the typical firmness of any Asian bed. The pillow was made of a mesh bag filled with hollow pink plastic beads about a centimeter long and the diameter of a large straw covered with a pillow case. Strangely it wasn’t as uncomfortable as that sounds.

My room was on the 8th floor, the ladies floor. At the end of the hallway you could go out onto the emergency balcony for a view of the Tokyo Skytree, another tall tower offering a panoramic view of the city, and the Tokyo skyline. At night the Skytree is lit up, each night with a different color. My first morning I woke, first to the sun rising at the terribly early hour of 4:30 (I had forgot to close my actual curtain), then to the gentle rolling sway of the building. In my bleary state it took me a minute or two to realize that it was a shockwave from an earthquake.

Part of my purpose for spending time in Tokyo was to see it through adult eyes. Having visited Japan with my dad in 1982 and again in 1990, I hold many memories of places we visited and the experiences we had in our travels. Each time I heard the train announcement for the Ueno station (Ueno, Ueno des) I remembered the very first time Dad and I traveled into the city, groggy from our flight from Hawaii. Visiting some of the sites, I remembered that I had been there before. And all of this brought a smile to my face and my heart.

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A Week with the Eles

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Walking About

Buriram is not really a city that draws a large number of foreign visitors. Mostly because Buriram offers very little to see. As I discovered in my almost 5 hours of walking around between Sunday evening and Monday morning.

Setting out with my not-to-scale map that was really more of a suggestion of where streets are and how they are named, I began my tour of Buriram. Just to make navigating more interesting, typically only one of the two roads at an intersection were labeled. I either knew what street I was on and had to guess at the cross street. Or I knew what the cross street was but wasn’t quite sure I was on the street I intended to be on. I’ve also decided that sidewalks in Thailand are definitely not designed to be walked on. Uneven and often taken over by food stalls or various repair shops, it was generally easier at times to just walk in the street.

Being a white foreign female in a town like Buriram, definitely draws some attention. Generally, I was greeted with curious looks that changed to a smile when I smiled at them and said “sawad dee kaa” (hello). Men would occasionally shout out a “hello”, to which I typically responded with “sawad dee kaa” or maybe just “hello” depending on the moment. The clearly drunk Thai male on the bicycle was the most interesting interaction. Holding his beer in one hand and pointing with the other, I think he was trying to suggest that he wanted me to take him to America with me. Finally I said I needed to go, so he shook my hand, said he loved me and I quickly went on my way. Reluctantly he turned his bicycle around and off he pedaled.

If I had remembered to wear a t-shirt instead of a tank top, I could have gone in the two wats (temples) that are located in the main part of Buriram. To go into a temple, you are supposed to have your shoulders covered. So mostly I looked at the temples from the street. I did venture into the City Pillar monument. I refrained from going inside the building housing the 2 city pillars since I wasn’t sure if I was already being disrespectful by being in the monument area with my shoulders not covered.

Welcome Back

Returning to the project is like coming home. This visit being my third time volunteering at the Surin Project, I was mostly aware of the changes. A new concrete and tin roof shelter has been built for Tangmo, Wang Duen, and Nong Lek to hang out. A rebuilt structure for Jaeb, since she had been working intently on destroying her last one. And just like visiting home, I have stayed in the same room and the same house each time, although now Sing’s wife, Pi Jan, is the house mom.

The week begins with an opening ceremony that is a combination of Buddhist and Kuy (Goi) beliefs. Lead by a shaman, the ceremony is a mixture of happiness and reverence. The purpose behind the ceremony is to bring us all together and to wish for us a healthy and good week. The kuy people believe in white and dark magic, so much of the ceremony is about bringing the white protective magic to all the people there.

The ceremony is also the first time where all the volunteers get to meet the mahouts, the caretakers of the elephants. The aptly named Pan, Warin’s mahout, was sitting behind me. He remembered me from my last visit, greeting me with “MJ MJ”. Three times during the ceremony, all the mahouts throw mulberry leaves at us to bless us. Several meanings are tied to this blessing. The main meaning is to bring your spirit back to your body. The kuy believe that occasionally our spirits wander off to the forest. The mulberry tree has special magic and being blessed with them helps the spirit to return to the body. Another meaning is that someone who is blessed by these leaves will be great and will be loved. Pan, Thong Di, and Em were sitting behind me so I was greatly blessed with large handfuls of mulberry leaves showered on me with great force. A terrific welcome from the mahouts.

The cast of characters, both elephants and mahouts, has remained mostly the same since my visit last December. One new elephant, Wong Duen, and her mahout, Nei, have joined the project. Another elephant, Ploy, and her mahout, Sing, have returned to the project. Unfortunately, Ploy’s baby girl Kwan has not been allowed to come back to the project by the owner. And sadly, Sai Faa and her mahout, Dao, are not on the project at the moment because Dao is sick. Hopefully she will return to the project when Dao is better.

From a project success standpoint this consistency is a good sign. Many mahouts have a difficult time with the rules imposed in their agreement to be on the project. One of the rules is that they are not allowed to use a bull hook, a 2 foot stick with a large metal hook attached to it, to control their elephant. Many mahouts view just carrying the bull hook as a talisman of protection from injury. To give up the bull hook is to give up the idea that they are protected from injury.

Life on the Project

The Surin Project is focused on helping to change the culture of elephant tourism in Thailand by demonstrating that people will come to interact with elephants in a much more natural way. As a volunteer, our primary “work” is to ensure that the elephants have at least 3-4 hours each day off their chains. This goal is accomplished through going for walks in the forest and to the river and by allowing the elephants to wander in the enclosure to eat and play in the water. (For more on the project and why it is important, click here.)

Throughout the week we take several walks through the forest with the elephants. Generally, we try to stay out of the way of the elephants, not always easy since elephants move surprisingly quietly, and just watch them as they stop and forage for food, enjoying a tasty vine here or some other plant there. One of our walks takes us to a bamboo thicket. This particular day, Fah Sai was intent on having some bamboo as a snack. Sarot hurried us out of the way as she reached for a giant stalk. With a great crack she pulled it to the ground. While watching her and admiring her great power we were momentarily oblivious to the nest of red ants that we had ended up in. These ants are particularly vicious and bite with a vengeance. The ants seemed to drop off the bushes and crawl up from the ground, all the sudden appearing on shirts, in hair, on legs, everywhere. By the time we got out of the area I had eight major bites, one on my back the rest on my legs.

Of course some work does need to be done during the week. Mostly in the form of morning and evening chores. In the morning, we have three tasks that our teams rotate through: cleaning shelters, cleaning the enclosure and cutting sugar cane. None of the tasks are particularly arduous, taking at most 30 minutes to complete. My favorite task is cutting sugar cane. Not only because I get to use a machete to hack down the 8 foot tall stalks of sugar cane, but also because I get to work with the mahouts.  I am always amazed at the speed and skill with which they accomplish their task. Clearing away the dead leaves with a whoosh whoosh of their machete and cutting the stalk with  a simple thwack of the machete. The mahouts are sweetly tolerant of my swoosh….swoosh as I copy them in clearing away the dried leaves and the thwack, thwack, thwack that it takes me to bring down one sugar cane stalk. The task is still sanook (fun) involving much smiling and laughing.

Our one project for the week was to help plant a field of sugar cane for the elephants. Sugar cane fields are planted by laying sugar cane stalks in furrows, cutting the stalks into about foot long pieces, covering them with elephant manure and then covering with the dirt. Any opportunity for me to use a machete is always welcome, so I volunteered to cut the sugar cane stalks. Careful to stand a furrow over from where I was working to make sure my bare toes were protected by a barricade of dirt, I made my way up and down the rows cutting the stalks. Using a machete effectively definitely takes consistent practice. Much more practice than my once or twice a year. Second only to getting to use a machete, the best part of doing this project was getting to walk barefoot in the soft freshly plowed field of red sandy soil.

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Another component of the Surin Project is to help support the community of Ban Tha Klang. Two of the days this week we went to a local school to teach the students. Divided into four teams, we created lessons for teaching basic conversation, body parts, alphabet letter sounds, and numbers. Autumn and I chose numbers. Though both of us teach adults, neither of us are particularly fond of teaching children. Our first day was a bit of a struggle. The second day we changed up our lesson and taught the kids a song using numbers. By the end of our hour of teaching, all of the kahnom (grade) 1-3 kids could sing: “1 little, 2 little, 3 little elephants; 4 little, 5 little, 6 little elephants; 7 little, 8 little, 9 little elephants; 10 elephants more.”

Coming from the dry climate of Colorado, the heat and humidity of Ban Tha Klang was on occasion almost stifling. Only one day passed without rain sometime during the day or night. The rest of the days included a rain shower, often in the late afternoon and occasionally well into the night. Instead of cooling the air, each passing afternoon shower seemed to leave the air twice as heavy and twice as hot. Rain showers at night were welcomed to keep the hordes of June bugs at bay and did actually make it a little more cool to sleep.

All the moisture made the landscape of the village much more vibrant. The lush green of the trees and plants contrasted with the red clay soil provided a vibrant backdrop for our elephant walks. Especially our walks to the river through the bright green of the young rice fields. Add to this tableau the shades of grey and pink of the elephants, partially covered with the red soil the elephants use for sunscreen and bug repellent. Such a beautiful and refreshing sight.

The heat and humidity also upped the number of bucket showers to be had each day. On average, I took 2 each day. Definitely a far cry from my last visit to the project where it was so cold that bucket showers were tolerated only when the amount of dirt became overwhelming. Scooping the cool water from the bucket and pouring it over me brought welcome relief from being covered with sweat, mosquito repellent and dirt. Regardless of how hot it was, that first scoop of water always brought the same cold shock of jumping into a cold body of water. And always felt so refreshing.

The week for me this time culminated with the mahout dinner and the farang (foreigner/volunteer) show. The mahout dinner gives us a chance to spend time talking and laughing with the mahouts. Sitting next to Sarot, the head mahout, can always prove interesting. When Ocha brought the traditional dish made from beef throat, Sarot took a fork and put a piece of it on it, dipped it lightly in the sauce and handed it to me. I have always lived by the rule that I will try any food that is offered to me, a practice instilled in me by years of travelling with my dad. The meat tasted reasonably good. Probably wouldn’t eat a whole meal of it, but I did reach for a second piece after a while, making the mistake of dipping it too much in the sauce which left my lips tingling for quite awhile from the spice. A while later, Sarot again took my fork and gave me another bite. I also made the mistake of letting Sarot make my second drink of Hong Thong (a wiskey-esque alcohol) and soda water. I think it had more Hong Thong than soda water.

The farang show is always good for some laughs. The girls performance was singing The Lion Sleeps tonight. Percussion and was provided by the collection of instruments we created out of a bamboo bin played with a stick, a piece of bamboo and a stick and two maracas made from water bottles and rocks. For only practicing once, we did great. Rob’s performance was sweet too. He made a rap out of all the information of the elephants and their mahouts. The mahouts always follow up with a performance, typically the frog mating dance. Even though I have seen it several times, I still don’t quite get it.

Bathing Elephants

No matter how many times I do it, the best part of the week is the chance to bathe the elephants in the river. Twice during the week we walk with the elephants to the river, spend a little time watching them eat the sugar cane, and then get in the river with them. In the water, each elephant gets its own bag of mangao, a cross between a turnip and a potato, and then the bathing begins. These massive animals so solid on land are almost buoyant in the water.

Bathing Fah Sai was one of the most amazing elephant bathing experiences I have had in a long time. Fah Sai is the biggest elephant on the project. At 5’3″, I am roughly half as tall as she stands at the shoulder. Not a skinny elephant by any means, her mass leaves me awestruck when she passes close by. To get to play with her in the water was so incredible.

After feeding her 2 bags of mangao, that Thong Di made sure each one was rinsed of dirt before handing them to me to feed her, Thong Di had her lie down in the water. I started splashing her with water and scrubbing her with my brush. To help me better reach her ear and other side of her face, Thong Di gave her a command to put her head down farther into the water. At one point I was practically on top of her head. The feeling of being so close to such a beautiful animal is hard to put into words. The heat of her body, the gentle breathing, the thick skin with the wiry hair, the power in her ears and trunk.

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By the end of the bathing, I was soaked from head to toe. Especially since Thong Di kept having Fah Sai bring water into her trunk and on command blow it at me. Each time the initial burst of warm trunk (nasal?) air preceding the blast of water from her trunk hitting me square in the face. I was all smiles sloshing out of the water beside Fah Sai, her wake making a ruckus in direct contrast to the stealthfulness with which she moves on land.

People ask me what keeps me coming back to the Surin Project (or any of the elephant projects). Part of my response is to try to help change the culture of tourism in Thailand and to protect the elephants from abuse and harm that can come to them through elephant rides, circus tricks and trekking. What truly keeps me coming back is getting to experience the energy of these gentle giants. Elephants are empathetic and compassionate creatures. Experiencing their touch and looking into their eyes refills my heart and refreshes my spirit.

Celebrating a Friend

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Life goes on

Yes, a military coup apparently took place about two weeks ago now in Thailand. Arriving at Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok at 11 PM at night, you would never know the military was in charge of the government, especially if this was your first trip to Thailand. This trip is not my first trip, it is my 10th.

The differences are barely perceptible. The lack of the hustle and bustle that is the arrivals floor at the airport struck me the moment I left the confines of immigration and customs. The speed with which I passed through customs I attributed to arriving an hour earlier than my past trips. Or in retrospect, maybe immigration went faster because they aren’t scheduling very many late night planes in with the midnight to 4 AM curfew in place.  Outside of customs and immigration, the usual swarm of people greeting family and friends was greatly diminished. The overall feeling was one of stillness.

Exiting the airport, the sense of quiet continued. The traffic cop whistles and constant flow of bus, car and van engines passing through the departures and arrivals levels were strangely absent. Heading to the hotel a checkpoint on the road heading toward the airport was being set up, the night restaurants that are typically busy were nearly empty or closed, and only a few cars were on the road. One military truck was near the restaurants, I’m guessing they were actually just getting food before their shift of enforcing the curfew began.

Life after the coup seems to just go on for most Thai. Leaving Bangkok and heading for Korat and Chet’s small hometown, the idea that there was a coup doesn’t even register. People are just going about their lives.

Another One Becomes a Monk

Suvarnabumi airport was the meeting point for Tarn (our guide), Deborah and her son Jonah (ENP volunteers from New York), and Yo and Pim (Chet and Tarn’s friends). From there the plan was to take a taxi to Mo Chit bus station and then a bus to Korat. That was the plan anyway. The six of us and our luggage piled into the taxi van, the girls sharing the front single seat and the four of us squished into the back seat. Lots of very adamant chatter ensued between the Thai passengers and our taxi driver. In the end it was put to us that we could (with some rearranging of the luggage and seating configuration) have the taxi driver take us all the way to Chet’s home for 500 bhat each. The main selling point being that it would be a shorter overall length of trip.

So that is what we did. The driver pulled over into the merge point area between the 2-lane frontage road and the 4-lane highway. We piled out of the van and with traffic zooming by us on both sides and the rearranging began. Once everything had been redistributed as best as possible to provide some level of comfort, we were off. Four hours and three inexplicably long and interesting stops for gasoline later, we arrived at Chet’s village and home.

Every monk ceremony is slightly different depending on the traditions of the village, the region of the country and the individual becoming a monk. Regardless of the nuances, all of the ceremonies have two distinct parts. Part one is about purification and preparation. Part two is the transition to becoming a monk. Sometimes the ceremony takes place all in one day, sometimes the ceremony is divided over two days.

The ceremony is paid for by the individual becoming a monk. Often the young man will save up for a long time to be able to pay for the food, gifts for the monks, and everything else involved in the ceremony. It is not uncommon for relatives or friends to hold their ceremonies at the same time to help defray the costs. Chet offered to share his ceremony with his nephew. About two weeks before the ceremony, his nephew decided to accept the offer.

After a night’s rest on a mattress that gives a tile floor a run for its money for firmness, it was off to Chet’s house at the early hour of 6 am for the first part of the ceremony. Symbolic of Buddha cutting his princely locks and renouncing his life of privilege, the ceremony began with the cutting of Chet’s hair and shaving of his head and eyebrows (and a few other stray facial hairs.) Each person takes three cuts of hair, starting with mother, father, grandfather, elders, family and eventually friends. By the time I got my chance, it was hard to find much hair to cut. Once the cutting is done, all of the remaining hair was diligently and carefully shaved.

After being rinsed, Chet changed into an outfit of a white shirt, a deep maroon silk sarong tied with a large skein of blessing string tied around his waist and a white almost lace robe with gold trim. A garland of flowers and gold ribbon was placed around his neck and he was given the lotus flower and candle set he would have with him for most of the rest of the day’s activities. At this point, Chet is no longer considered man and is not yet considered monk, so he is called Naga.

Then began the procession through the village. Dancers led the way with flowing hand movement, metered step-together-step pace and call and response cheers. The band brought up the rear with music blaring from the portable platform. Everyone else ambled somewhere in between, ebbing and flowing within the pack. Chet sheltered from the sun by the yellow canopied umbrella being carried by his friends somewhere in the middle. Along the way was water and whiskey to provide some relief from the heat and physical exertion.

Dancing is a lovely way to interact with locals. A common language for communicating despite any difference in languages. There was the lovely elder woman that kept dancing with me, encouraging more hip movements. Ket (one of the village women) was most encouraging about the dancing. My attempts to mimic her hand movements, which generally have significance in traditional dance in Thailand, brought smiles. Most of all it was sanook (fun). Sanook is very important to Thai life. If it isn’t fun, why do it.

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We danced our way through the village, all the way to the shrine at the entrance to the village. Reaching the shrine, we circled the shrine three times then paused while Chet and his nephew prayed and offered incense at the shrine. After the brief prayer and offering, the procession and dancing started again in earnest, heading back to Chet’s home for food and the next part of the ceremony.

The next part of the purification and preparation process is to symbolically rinse away all of the bad things that had been done in their life. Cups of water infused with marigolds and other flowers are poured over the person becoming a monk by everyone in attendance, again beginning with the parents and elders, family and then friends. Some of the friends were a little merciless pouring small pitchers of ice water over them.

After changing back into their robes and sarongs, the longest part of the ceremony began. Sermons were given about being a monk and making all the preparations. Saffron robes and pillows were blessed by the elders. Small metal fans holding three candles each were passed around the circle of elders several times, each person taking their turn to pray and then wave the smoke and flame toward the center of the circle three times before passing it on. More sermons followed, even the shaman stopped to take a swig of an energy drink. The sermon dragged on and on, the stifling heat wilting the lotus flowers.

One part of the ceremony I had never experienced before (and have no clarification at this point about the symbolism) involved a pillar with seven layers created from bamboo. Each layer contained foods such as rice cakes and mangoes and bananas. At one point, the shaman took a coconut from the top layer and cracked it open, pouring the water into a glass. Then he took something from each layer and added it to the glass. The entire mixture was stirred and Chet and his nephew had to eat three spoonfuls of it. I can’t imagine that it tasted all that good.

After what felt like hours, most of which I spent playing papparazzi taking pictures, a task which had been requested by Chet long before the ceremony, we had a chance to participate. Each person took their turn to tie a blessing string on Chet’s wrist. After the parents and elders and pretty much everyone else, it was our turn. Taking the string, you wipe it three times down the hand toward the fingers to take away any bad spirits or energy. Then wipe it three times toward the heart to give good wishes and spirits. Then tie it around the wrist using three knots. After struggling with my knots I am utterly impressed at the agility of the elder women with the crooked hands to tie them so adeptly.

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And We Danced

Dinner was a spectacular affair, the type of which I have never experienced at any of the monk ceremonies I have previously attended. More than just a gathering of friends and family for dinner and drinking, Chet did his ceremony with a flair that completely captures his persona with a full show.

At one end of the street was a bi-level stage with a large poster for Chet’s ceremony as the backdrop. Tables and chairs filled the rest of the street, with the exception of an area for dancing. Food and drink flowed freely in a never ending train of people coming to and from the kitchen area like a trail of ants. At dusk, the show began.

Words are failing me to fully capture all of the costumes and lights and the festive atmosphere. The dancers went through probably 10 outfits ranging from full length silk skirts and shirts typical of traditional Thai dance to short short sparkly dresses. The three singers took turns singing and engaging the crowd. The male performer kept calling me out, asking my name and where I was from and then calling me “amerika” the rest of the night. The pinnacle of the show was the lady boy performance of some traditional Thai dances that enthralled the crowd.

Aided by a good amount of beer and whiskey, everyone danced. Chet’s sister, Khan, was dressed to the hilt in sparkles and insisted on dancing. Dancing to Thai popular music is not an easy feat. Eventually I got the hang of it, thanks to having done some belly dancing. Also helps if you know the song because each song seems to have an understood choreography that accompanies it.

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We were exhausted and headed back to the hotel around 10:30. The day had been long and tiring, even with a brief nap. I’m sure the party lasted well into the night when the last bottle of Chang and the last drop of whiskey had been consumed.

Transition to Monk

The Sunday morning sun shone intensely as we began the final part of the ceremony. We danced our way over to the temple, women carrying the baskets of coin flowers and all the accoutrements needed for the ceremony, the band playing, people laughing and smiling. The procession proceed around the bot (main temple building) three times, occasionally pausing in the little bit of shade offered by a tree or the building.

At the sacred stone in front of the bot, Chet and his nephew bowed, said some prayers and offered the lotus flower and the candles they had been carrying. In a mad throng they were then propelled forward by the crowd up the steps of the temple, symbolizing the support of the community and family of their service as a monk.

Prior to a monk ceremony, hours and hours of work by friends and family go into making “coin flowers”. These intricately folded flowers contain some amount of money in the center, typically 1 or 2 bhat. The 365 that I had folded over the course of the past 6 months was a small drop in the ocean of coins that were there. So as Buddha gave away his wealth and worldly possessions, the coin flowers are thrown out to all the people there for the ceremony. Madness ensues. Caught in a barrage of coins pelting me and small children at my feet furiously gathering as many coins as possible, I tried to take some pictures and to catch one myself (for good luck.) Eventually I was able to extract myself from my spot and try to take a few more pictures out of the range of fire. At the very end I think that one man thought I didn’t catch any and so he gave me one of his.

While Chet went through the remaining part of the ceremony with only his family in attendance, we sat outside and tried to not melt. Eventually, the ceremony was complete and Chet and his nephew emerged as monks in their saffron robes. As they stood at the doors of the temple everyone lined up to make an alms offering. Placing some money or other offering in their bags and paying respect.

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The whole ceremony ended with lunch. While the monks ate, we sat and waited. When at last they were done eating and had filed out of the food hall, we were served lunch. While we were eating the head monk came back in. He was worried that Deborah, Jonah and I were not going to be able to eat because the food might be too spicy for us. He also decided we needed mangoes, so he had the women cut up about 8 mangoes for us (by far some of the best mangoes I have had in a long time.) Then he decided we each needed our own green mango to take with us. He was happily surprised when I actually held up a plate to take mine from him as monks cannot hand anything directly to or take anything directly from a woman. He also decided we needed some fresh crysantheum tea and brought us those as well. After we were done eating and ready to leave, we went and paid our respects and he sent us off with chok dee (good luck) and many happy smiles.

And so Chet begins his 7 days as a monk. Being a monk in Thailand is not a forever commitment, unless that is their choice. All Thai Buddhist males are expected to be a monk for 3 days up to 3 months. Serving as a monk honors the parents and creates good karma for the family. And I was honored to be part of one of my dear friend’s ceremony.