More Elephant Time


The Little Ones

The park has two new darlings that everyone is fawning over. Naavan is about 6 months old and is a cheeky little fellow. His birth was a complete surprise as Sri Prae, one of the landmine victim elephants, never showed any signs of being pregnant. This 300 kg little toddler is curious about everyone and everything.

On the first day the volunteers experienced Naavan’s curiosity first hand. The group of volunteers had just got out of the river after bathing the elephants and the ensuing water fight. Around the corner came Naavan, rushing ahead of his auntie and mom to the river for bath time. He decided to check out our group, which collectively sent us scurrying up volunteer hill (no longer called that, but that’s what I know it as.) One of the volunteers just couldn’t seem to get out of Naavan’s way whichever way he went and ended up getting chased almost to the river. Watching the chase gave us all a good laugh.

After bath time, Pom let us have a photo opportunity with the new family. Pom asked me to help her with the bananas by putting them out for the adult elephants. Naavan hasn’t quite figured out how to eat bananas, making them more of an object of curiosity to be played with than eat. What was even more curious to him was the bag of bananas I was holding. Instead of playing Tug-of-War with Naavan, I opted for Keep Away. Not that I had a chance of winning either, my odds were better with Keep Away. A few nudges from him and a bit of scrambling on my part I successfully got all the bananas out of the bag. That little guy is really strong!

The other new darling of the park is Dok Mai. She was just 16 days old when I got to the park. The cute furry little elephant is so sweet to watch as she figures out her trunk and feet, like a new baby figuring out their hands. Dok Mai is the second baby Dok Ngern has given birth to at the park.

Dok Mai and her mother are currently secluded in a shelter until Dok Mai is a little older. At around 4 to 5 weeks Dok Mai will be old enough to be around other elephants and the two will be able to rejoin the family group. In the meantime Chiang Yim, Dok Mai’s older brother, is not handling the arrival of his baby sister very well. His behavior is erratic like a child trying to get the attention he was used to. Unfortunately, when a 4 year old elephant decides to have a tantrum things can get a little crazy.

Spending Time with the Elephants

Having been to the park so many times, I definitely have my favorite elephants that I like to spend some time with. Volunteer elephant bathing time was at the end of the day. Generally this was when I got to see two of my favorites, Mae Do and Mae Lanna. Mae Do has a broken pelvis from a forced breeding program and is one of the most immediately recognizable elephants at the park. She and Mae Lanna are never far apart.

My time with Mae Do was considerably less this trip. She and Mae Lanna have a new shelter that we didn’t visit on our elephant walk, which is typically when I would spend the most time massaging her hips. (Yes, you can massage an elephant, it’s all about providing healing touch.) Additionally, with 49 volunteers it his hard to find that time where she isn’t surrounded. On the last day I had a little alone time with Mae Do and her mahout. Mae Do’s mahout always recognizes me. His english continues to improve, at least at a faster rate than my thai.

Another favorite elephant pair is Jokia and Mae Perm, the superstars of the park. Mae Perm is the first elephant rescued by the park and holds the status of reigning matriarch. She is amazingly compassionate and serves as guide for Jokia who is blind in both eyes from abuse. During our elephant walk we spent the most time with this pair. Because Jokia is blind, you have to touch her trunk first when feeding her. If you touch the underside of her trunk, she will put her trunk up and allow you to put the food directly in her mouth. The important part is to not throw the food into her mouth. Technically, feeding the elephants directly in their mouth is against the safety rules, but then all rules have an exception.

Not All Fun and Games

The volunteers at the park help offset the operating costs. Which means doing some of the work. Each day we had a morning chore and typically had an afternoon project. The typical morning chores include elephant poo to clean up the shelters, elephant kitchen to clean and help prepare the food for the day, cutting corn for the elephants’ overnight eating and mud put to make sure the elephants have sufficient mud to apply as sunscreen. My favorite morning chore is still cutting corn, followed closely by cleaning up elephant poo.

Corn cutting typically takes up the whole morning and into the afternoon. The fields are about an hour from the park and 300 bundles are needed to feed the growing herd. Cutting corn involves the opportunity to use a machete. Which is probably why I like this task so much. (Yes, I still have all my toes and fingers. Only injury to report is a blister.) Using a machete to cut corn in the middle of the Thai countryside surrounded by bright green rice fields is actually quite cathartic. It’s also a point of pride for me if I can keep pace with the Thai workers that are there to help us. I am getting faster bit still not quite as fast as they are. Maybe next time.

Elephant poo is fun because it often provides unexpected encounters with the elephants. One of the shelters we clean is the area around where Dok Ngern and Dok Mai are currently staying. Straying from his typical mantra of “more work, less talk”, at this shelter it was “more pictures, less work”. At least for a little while.

Blessings for Long Life

Lek, the founder of the park, has been rescuing and caring for elephants since the late 90’s. In 2003, through a very generous donation she was able to buy the property that currently comprises the majority of the park. Last week marked 10 years of the park operating as an ecotourism organization in this location.

On Tuesday, a ceremony was held to commemorate the 10 years. As we came up the stairs to the upstairs platform room we were greeted by a common room transformed into a sacred space. At just about head level, blessed white string made a grid. Above each cushion on the floor was a piece of string tied in a loose knot. At the front of the room a large tripod of sticks had been erected, a different offering at the base of each stick. The string from the grid wrapped around the tripod and to a Buddha image on a little shrine. The string connects us all and the tripod represents the way we support each other.

Sitting at the front of the room were six monks, one in deep red robe providing contrast to the traditional saffron robes associated with monks in Thailand. The ceremony was performed by the monks and the shaman from the village. Very little was explained about the actual content of the ceremony, so I can only interpret based on what I have seen at other ceremonies. Candles were lit, offerings were made and blessings were said. During a long bit of chanting, that even the monks seemed to tire of, a large tray of small candles were lit. At another point in the ceremony, following the lead of the shaman wrapping the string from above Lek and Derrik’s head around their head, we pulled the strings down so that they were either touching our heads or holding it in our hands while they were in a wai (hands together like a payer position.)

At the end of the ceremony we were told to keep the string as it represents long life. Some people tied the string around their wrist in several bands. Alternatively, the monk in the deep red colored robe was willing to say a blessing and tie it on your wrist. In total breach of Thai culture, I performed my wai with my hands at my heart instead at my forehead. Then in an effort to not make contact with the monk since I am a female, I managed to drop the string on the floor. While he was wrapping the string around my wrist 3 times and saying the blessing, the first loop around my wrist slipped out of his fingers so he had to very carefully, without actually touching my skin, pick it up. Hopefully the blessing is still valid despite the several gaffs that occurred. I’m sure it is.

OK, Some Fun

Doing the mud pit requires some people getting in the muddy water and breaking up the dirt around the edge with a hoe to make mud while other people bring more water up from the river. Often this chore is touted as a free spa trip, since some people pay good money to be slathered in mud. Eve and I decided to go all out and rub mud on our cheeks, nose and chin. In reality it was putting on war paint.

Rule #1: wear your oldest possible clothes. People with water and mud make for a enticing combination. Every person in the mud pit was waiting for who would be the first to start the mud flying. It begins innocently, using your hoe to splash the backs of the people on the opposite side. From there it escalates to grabbing a bucket to pour or splash mud on each other. Another tactic is to just tackle the person into the mud.

Rule #2: not even bystanders are safe. Once the people in the pit are sufficiently mud covered, the mud fight expands outward. The first casualties are the ones bringing water up from the river. The next casualties are the onlookers that have decided to actually come down to ground level.

Rule #3: do not wear your contacts. I only discovered this rule after the fact. After several buckets of mud to the face, I actually had someone with river water help rinse out my eyes. Not sure how sanitary that was, but it was better than the mud.

Once everyone was sufficiently coated in mud and exhausted from laughing and playing, we headed to the river to get the first couple of layers of mud off. As we paraded by a group of day visitors, I’m sure they thought we were crazy. But what better way to show how much fun being a volunteer can be. Three days later I think I finally have all the mud out of my eyes and ears.

Special Moments

My most favorite elephant at the park is an old trekking elephant named Jarunee. Jarunee’s back is rippled from years of carrying a saddle and tourists and she is blind from old age. For all my previous visits, Jarunee was part of an elephant pair. Last year her best friend passed away. With the arrival of Naavan, she has become one of his aunts. This lovely old lady has a new chance to get the social support and love she needs from being part of a family group.

Because Naavan’s family group doesn’t yet come to the platform for feeding, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to spend some very special time observing Jarunee and her new family. Naavan was initially interested in us. He checked us out and then his attention quickly turned to a log that was there.

Watching him puzzle out moving the log was sweet. While using his trunk to check it out, it moved much to his surprise. Again a little nudging with his trunk and again it moved. So he gave it a try using his leg, this time suspecting it might move. After that he rolled it a few more times using either his trunk or his foot. And then he was distracted by some other new thought.

One Night in Hong Kong

The first stretch of my long journey took me to Hong Kong for an overnight stay. Since I was only in the city for a little over 12 hours, I opted to stay in the Kowloon area where lodging is typically cheaper. Leaving my luggage at the Left Luggage in the airport and armed with my Octopus card and 380 HKD, I headed into the city.

Conveniently located about 3 steps away from the B1 exit of the Jordan MTR station, the New Lucky House is a rather dodgy looking building. Readying myself for an adventure, in I went. The Hoi Shing Hotel occupies two flats on the first floor in the New Lucky House building. The rickety elevator took me to the first floor where I was faced with a barrage of signs pointing to the variety of “hotels” on this floor and eventually located my hotel. $52 does not provide for especially luxurious accommodations in Hong Kong. My 8′ x 10′ room offered two beds that comply with the Asian standard of firm, and a bathroom that is smaller than a standard size bathtub. But it was clean and had air conditioning and an adapter power strip for people travelling with US plugs.

Kowloon by night is a crazy mix of neon lights and traffic. For a few minutes I stood there with my mouth agape taking it all in. Running low on cash and the ATM’s unwilling to give me more, I wandered over to the Temple Street night market to see if I could find something cheap to eat. Fortunately, the food on my two flights was good and I decided that I didn’t really need to eat.

Hong Kong at 6 am is much different than Hong Kong during the day. The streets are virtually empty, the neon lights are sleeping and the MTR stations deserted. The whole city felt as if it was pressing the collective snooze button to delay waking up.

Until Next Time

Leaving Thailand is always a little emotional, even though I know I will return. My journey back involved 5 airports and 4 airlines. Sadly, with each progressive flight taking me further away from Thailand, the standards of food quality and amenities decreased. At least I had interesting people to talk to and an empty middle seat on the long flight from Tokyo to Seattle.

Family Time


Getting there is Half the Fun

Trains in Thailand are not especially known for their punctuality or reliability. One advantage of taking a train from a terminus is that the train generally leaves on time. Any station after that it can, and usually is, a bit behind schedule. Or a lot behind schedule depending on the reliability of the train. If you are up for an adventure, take the train. Otherwise, take the bus.

The Special Express train costs a little more with the advantage of not stopping at every little station along the tracks. The first impression of the inside of the train is that they have been in service since some time in the 60’s, or about the same time commercial air travel became possible. Vinyl seats and linoleum floors adorn the interior and fans on the ceiling aid the circulation of gently air conditioned air. Even the stewardess was dressed like she had been transported in time. Complete with metal drink and food carts offering a limited supply of drinks and food that smelled terrible and tasted worse.

Taking the train, despite the punctuality and reliability issues, is actually quite pleasant. The gentle sound off the train rolling through the countryside is soothing. The bright green rice fields giving way to the mountains surrounding the valley in which Chiang Mai is situated the further south we went.

7 Hours into my 6 hour trip to Pichit there was a sudden horrible sound and the train came to a screeching halt. Or as screeching of a halt that a train can come to. Many of the crossings are not controlled with barriers and rely on drivers to check for oncoming trains. Unfortunately, one car was not so lucky. We stayed stopped for awhile while things were sorted out and the train was checked for damage. The front end of the car was totaled and the train had a large piece of metal torn off the front carriage. We ended up returning to the previous station for repairs.

Celebrating Family Love

The second day of Songkran is Family Day. Family Day celebrates family love and togetherness. Value of family is one of the three major values in the Thai way of life. Songkran is the time when family members come together to show appreciation, love and respect as well as making merit and paying homage to their ancestors. This celebration was my main purpose for making the trip to Pichit.

The religious part of the celebration was a merit making ceremony in dedication to the late ancestors. This year was especially important as Nat’s grandmother had passed away last July. The ceremony was hosted at Lung (uncle) Bhum and Paa (aunt) Song’s house, where as much of the family as possible gathered.

Before the monks arrive at the house, food is prepared, a list of relatives that have passed away is written, offering envelopes are filled with money and wishes, the Buddha image is set up and the chedi (memorial statue where ashes are kept) is cleaned. White string is wrapped around the Buddha image and strung over to the chedi and back. The idea of the string is to pass on the blessings to all that are connected to it, either human or Buddha image or other inanimate object. All the accoutrements of the ceremony are set in place. Then Lung Buhm was given the microphone…

While waiting for the monks to arrive, Lung Buhm provided a jovial and entertaining monologue. Without understanding more than two words of his monologue, I surmised that he was talking about family and the happiness of having the family there. The two words that I understood were “MJ” and “Colorado”. His words were genuine and heartfelt.

The ceremony began with six monks from the temple arriving and taking their place on the platform that had been set up in the courtyard of the house. The beginning of the ceremony focused on honoring the late ancestors and the gathering of family. A series of blessings and prayers were said, candles were lit to honor all of our late ancestors, and water was blessed. During the middle of the ceremony, the monks took their meal. At the same time, meal offerings were placed in front of the Buddha image and the chedi. The remainder of the ceremony involved merit making and blessing the family members. The offering envelopes were given to the monks and a special offering was given to the head monk for performing the ceremony. The ceremony ended with a symbolic purification of pouring water while a blessing is being said and being sprinkled with water by the head monk.

After our meal, the bingo began. Ante was 5 baht per card for each round. We spent most of the afternoon playing. At one point I think it became important to them that I won at least one round. In the end I managed to win enough rounds that I think I actually finished ahead 100 baht. Which I lost at least 50 baht of in the evening games.

Playing bingo was an excellent way for me to practice my Thai numbers. Most the time I was able to quickly recognize the number and see if I had it on my card. The rest off the time Mea, Paa Salee or Nat would say “MJ” after the number if I had it on my card. Eventually I know I will clearly be able to distinguish yi-sip (20) from see-sip (40). For a couple of the rounds they patiently even let me call the numbers.

Songkran – Part Two

While in Pichit, my experience of the festival part of Songkran continued. This time I was part of the group standing by the road throwing buckets of water on passing cars and the occasional motorbike. This experience was much more fun than being the one in the back of the truck on the receiving end of buckets of cold water. The real fun was when trucks would pull over and an all out water fight ensued.

As the sun began to set behind a bank of clouds, we all piled into the back of a truck and made a lap of town. As we would slow for another group, Nat would say “MJ, MJ…this is you.” By the end of the lap, I was soaked and happy.

Pichit doesn’t see many farang (foreigners) visitors. Accordingly, I became a source of interest to any group that stopped or that we met in town. I was offered beers and was on the receiving end of many extra buckets of water. Several people told me they loved me and shook or kissed my hand. Many asked where I was from and welcomed me to Thailand.

Khab Lob Di Moung (We are the Same Family)

Belonging to a Thai family is an enduring connection, especially with the emphasis placed on family within the culture. Nat has a truly warm and welcoming family. Many of his extended family remembered me from his monk ceremony, and instantly made me feel at home. Even Nat says I am now his oldest sister.

While many families have communication issues, ours was more of a communication challenge given the language barrier. In all my trips, I think this is the most I used my Thai phrase book. At first, just as I was hesitant to speak the little Thai that I know, they were equally hesitant to speak the English that they know. Most of the time Nat or his cousin Neung translated for me or helped me learn the words so I could almost communicate on some level. By the end of the three days, most people figured out that if they talked to me slowly and used simple words, much like you would talk to a small child, we could manage some basic conversation.

One lesson I learned is: never worry your Thai mom by feeling sick in the middle of the night. Especially when your Thai dad works at the hospital and you live in the hospital housing. This only results in a trip to the hospital at 1 AM. The words to convince her that if I just could vomit (and even after I finally did) I would be fine and that no, I didn’t need to go to the hospital were lost in translation. Diagnosis: food poisoning. Treatment: anti-nausea pills and electrolytes should I continue to be sick.

Taking me to the bus station in Pitsanulok was even a family affair. I rode with Mea (mom) and Poe (dad). Along the way, dad wanted to make sure I saw the highlights of Pichit. Mainly this meant a drive-by of the temple of the white elephant, a stop at the large crocodile for a photo opportunity, and a visit to the crocodile museum. Using simple words, accompanied by mom’s basic English and my phrase book with it’s limited dictionary, we were able to carry on a short dialogue. Mostly I think dad wanted to make sure I was happy and that I enjoyed my time there. Toward the end of the trip, he said that he believes we are the same family. Kahb lob di moung.

Hills and Valleys

Situated in the Mae Ping river valley, the city of Chiang Mai is pretty much flat. Immediately west of the city, the Doi Inthanon range of mountains rise almost 1400 meters (4500 feet) out of the river valley. On a clear day the mountains provide a lovely backdrop to the buildings of Chiang Mai. The nearby mountains also make for a nice escape from the heat of the city.

Only when getting out of the city am I reminded of just how big Chiang Mai is. At each intersection, I weave my way to the front of the traffic as is the custom in Thailand. Just before the light turns green, a revving of motorbike engines grows. As the light changes, all the bikes are off in a collective roar. The sound and knowing that I am a part of it makes me smile.

The destination for this motorbike adventure was the Mae Sae – Samoeng loop. The 90 kilometer (56 mile) route heads north from Chiang Mai, west through the Mae Sae valley, south to Samoeng, and back east to Chiang Mai. After getting out of the city and past the plethora of tourist attractions such as the Monkey Centre and snake show along the first part of the highway leading to the Mae Sae valley, the traffic was almost nonexistent.

The loop was definitely a test of my motorbike skills as I went up and down the mountains and around curves. Driving in the mountains of Thailand, three types of signs designate the types of curves coming up. The s-curve sign with its gently waving lines indicates casual turns. The angle curve sign, with the arrow containing two 90 degree angles, indicates tighter turns ahead. The Sharp Curve sign isn’t kidding. Some of the curves following this sign had the road practically doubling back on itself.

The cool mountain air was in a constant battle with the heat from the sun and pavement. Occasionally, nearer the top of a mountain, a cool bit of breeze would win. Descending down into the valley, the heat generally had the upper hand. Especially the last descent back into Chiang Mai.

The distant mountains looked picturesque, softened by a gentle haze. While a postcard would have you believe it is a mist that gives the mountains their mystical quality, the reality is that it is smoke from forest fires. Most of these fires are intentionally set to clear the land for farming. Looking at the nearer hillsides and seeing the terraced farms is a testament to this practice that is slowly destroying the forests and the habitats for the animals that dwell in them. To think that once the hills had lush jungles and were home to elephants and monkeys made my heart ache a bit.

Along the way I came across four cattle grazing on the side of the road, a small girl that smiled and waved, and the obligatory random dogs that generally believe they have the right of way on roads. The highway was lined with quaint little villages, many having only a few buildings. (I am assuming the villages had more than what was along the roadside.) I knew I was close to Chiang Mai when the villages became larger and the houses were mud brick instead of bamboo.

Time Out

Chiang Mai truly is my home away from home. With each trip I feel less compelled to rush around seeing and doing as much as possible. Several days this week I found myself doing the types of things that I would do at home. Granted, making ribbon flowers for a friend’s upcoming monk ceremony isn’t something I typically do at home. I will say that I’m getting better at making the coin offerings, although many of them still have a special farang quality to them that make them special.

On Saturday, swimming sounded like a great way to escape the 102 F (39 C) degree heat and to change up my exercise regime. Municipal swimming pools are rare in Chiang Mai. Many of the guest houses and hotels open their pools to the public with fees ranging from 100 to 200 baht ($3.5 to $6.5). The lesser known Chiang Mai Land Pool was one of the few that I found not attached to a hotel and only charged a 60 baht ($2) entrance fee. Not terribly crowded, I was able to swim several short laps and only heard one or two farang comments, mostly from kids splashing in the water near me.

New Year Festivities


Home Sweet Home

Surin in the southeast of Thailand to Chiang Mai in the north covers a great expanse of the country. After an hour drive to Buriram through a countryside of dry, brown rice fields, I boarded the overnight bus headed for Chiang Mai. Generally, I filled the 12 hour journey with a movie and writing on my tablet until my battery went low and an attempt to sleep. Despite the comfort of the bus seats, I struggled to sleep. The cold blast of air from the air conditioning didn’t help either. At least as dawn broke I was able to look out the window at the lush green scenery in the hills outside of Chiang Mai. Weary, yet happy to be in Chiang Mai, I was greeted at CM Blue House with a warm and jovial greeting.

Being in Chiang Mai is truly like being home. After a few awkward moments where my motorbike and I were getting to know each other, I was off and running. Just in case you were wondering, black motorbike seats tend to heat up quickly which tends to feel like you are searing a little more skin off each time you sit on the bike. Chiang Mai traffic was worse than I have ever seen it, with everyone arriving for Songkran. For once it seemed like cars outnumbered the motorbikes. Even with the increased traffic, motorbikes still enjoy their high standing in the traffic pecking order.

My first few days were mostly spent seeing my friends, which mostly involved eating food. The first night was a hot pot meal with Chet and Mix. Chet and Mix were in charge of ordering since everything was in Thai. Two types of broth to cook meat and vegetables in as well as a hot plate to grill food. The funniest item was the Angry Bird sausage. The one that got stuck to the side of the pot, halfway in the broth, really looked angry! An incredible amount of food combined with wonderful conversation made for a terrific evening. The next day was lunch with Yaweav at a hip place that is popular with the college students. After lunch we went to a wonderful ice cream place that had some fun art. The next day was dinner with Lek followed by a trip to her favorite place for dessert, dao tuung. Dao tuung is an interesting mix of jellies, fruit, beans and corn, covered with a scoop of ice with longan juice played on top. It was really quite yummy!

The rest of my time has been filled with typical day-to-day events. Shopping for necessities, getting bit by some type of bug, trip to the pharmacy for ointment for said bite, working out and some massage training. Despite a lack of a true itinerary, my days have seemed to pass quickly and I somehow have reached the end of another week according to the calendar.

Stopping to Smell the Flowers

Ratchaphruek park, also known as the Royal Flora garden, was established to host the 2006 Chiang Mai floral exhibition. The exhibition featured 30 international gardens and several corporate sponsored gardens displaying flora specific to the countries. Granted, dry season on the hottest day my entire week in Chiang Mai might have not been the ideal day to go to a flower garden. But still I went since I had never been and I needed something to do. Plus it gave me a chance to get out and ride around.

The orchid display was beautiful. So many different colors and shapes of orchids, plus shade and cool. The international gardens were interesting. Despite the lack of actual flowers, each garden contained statuary representative of that country that made it worth walking around. I’m sure it would even be better in cool season.

Finding relief from the hot sun during my 3 hour visit posed a bit of a challenge. Some respite from the heat was found in the mist from the sprinklers watering the landscape. Bug World and the Lanna style house also offered some shade. The greatest relief from the heat was found in the appropriately named Shaded Paradise. Filled with plants and flowers found under the canopy of the rainforests mixed with interesting statuary made it easy to spend a great deal of time walking around.

As one of the few, if not the only, caucasian farang (foreigner) in the park, I ended up being the subject of a couple of photo opportunities. As I was looking at the Buddha images, including one for Songkran, a hospitality employee encouraged me to pour water on the image for good luck. He took a picture of me pouring the water. Then I ran onto him again along with the group of performers dressed in traditional Thai outfits looking utterly gorgeous with their red dresses, matching umbrellas, and beautiful hair and makeup. He insisted that I have my picture taken with the group, which involved about 3 people taking pictures with an assortment of cameras.

Let the Water Festival (Fight) Begin

Songkran is the traditional Thai New Year, also known as the Water Festival. The name Songkran comes from the Sanskrit word “sangkranata” which means to move or change. At the root, Songkran is a religious holiday although today the religious origins are largely overlooked. Water is poured on Buddha images for cleansing and good luck. Sand is brought to the temples, as a way to return all the sand that is taken on your shoes from each visit throughout the year. The sand is made into giant chedi shaped sand castles and decorated with colorful flags. And many Thai use this time to clean their homes and make resolutions to do good deeds during the coming year. Water is poured on friends and family to represent cleansing and baby powder is smeared on faces to represent the fresh and good smell after a cleansing.

Chiang Mai has become one of the prominent locations to celebrate Songkran for Thai and tourists. If you don’t want to be completely drenched by buckets of water and super soaker squirt guns, do not leave your guest house or hotel! Monks are pretty much the only people exempt from soaking. While there are some “rules” followed by Thais, these rules are unfortunately widely disregarded by tourists. Some of the rules include not hitting people in the eyes with water, motorbikes are generally exempt or only the lower body or passenger are targeted, young babies or small children should only have watered sprinkled on them, and after sundown is understood to be a general ceasefire. Songkran lasts several days, and according to locals it seems to last longer each year. This year Songkran started on the 12th.

The 13th was my main day for experiencing Songkran. Navigating the city by motorbike took some special skills and was a solid test of my knowledge of Chiang Mai streets. My friend Alison and I ventured out to some temples in the morning before the craziness really started. Even on back roads it was impossible to not get drenched. On one street, a mischievous official walked out into the road and signaled us to slow down so he could pour water down our backs. Kids with their large buckets of water or hoses meant a lot of splashing. And every time we got splashed or sprayed, Alison would giggle. Trying to get back to our guest house took some serious motorbike skills to negotiate the near standstill traffic and also completed our drenching.

Armed with squirt guns, we dove into the full festivities by walking around the south and west sides of the moat where there were significantly less tourists. Watching water fly everywhere and kids swimming in the moat (either willingly or having been pushed), listening to the booming music being played by cars and on stages that had been constructed overnight, enjoying the brightly colored shirts, and shrieking every time ice water was used made it a truly wonderful afternoon.

Truly I enjoyed being part of such a crazy and wonderful all out celebration. All around the moat people were filled with happiness and carefree frivolity. Young children giggling as they squirted you with their squirt guns that were occasionally bigger than them. Teens pouring water on your shoulder or down your back. Adults encouraging children to spray people or helping with the drenching. Trucks full of families and large buckets of water circulating through the traffic finding as many people as possible to drench. The warm water was fine, the ice water was always a shock.

In the same way it is hard to not be drawn to the images of a natural disaster, we decided to head toward Thae Pae gate to see the carnage there. Thae Pae gate is where the main concentration of foreigners celebrate. We never made it there (thankfully).

One of the key events of Songkran is the parade of the Buddha images from each of the temples. On our way toward Thae Pae gate, we found the parade. Hundreds of people lining the street armed with water infused with tamarind, other spices and flower pedals or bags of pedals to throw. Each image was preceded by a procession of women and men dressed in traditional Thai outfits carrying offerings and flags, and a band. Everyone in the parade was drenched with water. As each image came by, water would fly from every direction. Despite the religious nature of the parade, it was not without festivity in any way. One woman came up and poured us each a shot of Hong Thong, a blended spirits drink. Another woman grabbed my hand and danced me away for a bit.

From Hot to Cold

One of the ways to escape the craziness of Songkran, is to go have a picnic and go bamboo rafting in the hills outside of the city. Lek invited Alison and I to go with her and some friends to Mae Wang, a small river about 40 km from town. Driving up, each little town had at least one or two groups armed with buckets. Alison and I were happy to be inside the truck, as all the people in the people in the back were drenched by the time we reached Mae Wang and our picnic site.

All along the river are bamboo salas, open bamboo platforms with a roof to block the sun, right over the river. The river is shallow (or as the Thai would say, not deep), coming up to maybe my thighs. After eating, most of the younger folks (Lek, App, Alison, Nee and I) got in the river for some fun splashing and playing. Not sure how long we played in the river, apparently it was long enough for me to start getting hypothermia, or at least for my skin to start turning pale even though I only felt a little chilled.

Bamboo rafting was fun. The bamboo rafts are constructed of 8 – 20 foot long, 4 inch diameter stalks of bamboo, lashed together with a length of rubber (a piece of an old tire) and a thin bamboo cross bar. Two people steer (or attempt to steer) the raft down the river using bamboo poles. Traffic jams of other rafts and rocks posed the greatest obstacles. Some of the collisions were quite jarring.

Most the “rapids” we went through were class 1, more just a spot of extra stones and a faster current. Calling these areas rapids is like calling a speed bump a hill. One of the more challenging spots was a narrow rapid that required precise navigation to get through. Felt like being in a large truck negotiating a narrow alley. App and Lek did great getting us through. And then we collided with another raft at the end of it.

The most fun was all the splashing between rafts and greetings of happy new year. As we approached, you would hear “farang, farang”, which usually elicited extra splashing. Not sure if there is some significance of splashing a foreigner for Songkran or if it was just a fun way to welcome us to Thailand.

Not wanting to get the seats all wet inside the truck, Alison and I joined the group in the back of the truck for the ride back. I was already cold and the wind and being drenched with more water didn’t help. By the time we got back to Lek’s friends place, I am pretty sure I was close to having full on hypothermia. Never was I so grateful for the heat of the city, a warm shower and a hot bowl of noodle soup.

Helping Elephants in Surin


Plight of the Elephants

In Thailand, approximately 1,000 elephants remain in the wild, placing the Asian elephant on the endangered species list. Unfortunately, captive elephants are considered livestock, similar to cattle, and are not protected as an endangered species. Captive elephants have a mahout (care taker) that forms a bond with the elephant. Often this bond is a life long relationship.

When young (about 3 years old), the mahout seeks to break the elephant’s wild spirit. Often the breaking process is through negative feedback involving beating with a hook (a foot long rod with a sharp metal book on the end) until the elephant displays the desired behavior. Once broken, if the elephant is destined for life in the tourism industry, they face further training to perform feats that are not a natural part of an elephant’s behavior such as playing soccer (football) or basketball, throwing darts at objects, painting or standing on their front lets. Again, this training is through negative feedback.

In 1989 logging was banned in Thailand. Elephants that once provided essential manpower were suddenly unemployed and their mahouts found themselves without a viable income source to feed their elephants and their families. Many mahouts turned to a life of street begging with their elephants or using their elephants in the tourism industry for trekking or circus shows. Ultimately, mahouts went from a standing of significant status to being on the lowest rung of the ladder.

Street begging elephants faced long days on the streets without access to proper nutrition or water as tourists paid to feed an elephant a bunch of bananas. In 2012, street begging was finally banned in all of the major cities in Thailand. And only a few years ago did authorities start enforcing the ban by fining mahouts using their elephants for begging

Trekking elephants and elephants used for giving rides at tourist locations face back breaking work carrying a heavy saddle (30-50 kilos/56-110 lbs) plus the weight of the tourists which can be another 70 to 120 kilos (150 to 265 lbs) or more, depending on the number of riders. The saddle is often ill fitting as they are a “one size fits all” design, held on with ropes that if tied wrong can constrict movements of the elephant’s legs and their ability to breathe. The elephant wears the saddle the entire working day. Despite the massive size of an elephant, their spine is not designed to bear this type of weight.

Life at the Elephant Study Project

Despite its research sounding name, the Elephant Study Project is basically a relocation option for formerly street begging and otherwise unemployed elephants and their mahouts. The center is located in Baan Tha Klan in the Surin province. Set on 2,000 acres of land, the center is currently home to 160 elephants and their families. The government provides an income of 8,000 baht ($230) a month for families and elephants living at the center. About half that money goes to feeding their elephants. Often mahouts have to turn to another source of additional income to feed their families. One option is to perform in the circus that is held twice a day or to offer elephant rides around the center.

Many of the elephants at the center are “on chain” the entire day, either because their mahout is working elsewhere or because they have no place to roam. On chain means bound to a stake by a heavy chain allowing the elephant a very small area to move in, typically a radius of only about 6 or 8 feet. Some elephants also have a chain binding their front feet together allowing them very little movement and often another chain around their neck attaching them to a tree or post of a shelter.

Elephants on chain tend to develop stereotypical behaviors, akin to a bored human drumming their fingers or taping their foot. Some elephants sway, some move their head in circles, others rock back and forth. Most elephants at the center display some type of stereotypical behavior. Walking around the center it was heart wrenching to see these beautiful creatures facing this reality on a daily basis. One of the most heart wrenching was a young elephant that spent his entire time on chain in a shelter. Day and night this little guy spent his time straining at his chain.

Throughout the day, morning to night, the air was filled with terrific bellows by many of the elephants. These cries were impossible to not interpret as frustration and anguish. Unlike the happy trumpets and belly rumbles I’m used to at the park, these cries were filed with sadness that drove straight to my heart.

Why Volunteer?

The Surin Project was started by the Elephant Nature Foundation as a way to provide elephants a better existence and to demonstrate that tourists are interested in seeing elephants acting as they would in the wild. Volunteers pay about $400 a week to be part of the project. This money covers project expenses for the volunteers and to pay the mahouts salaries.

The project currently has funding to support 12 elephants and 3 old lady elephants. The mahouts are paid an additional 8,000 baht salary to participate in the program. While these elephants still spend a large portion of their time on chain, the project ensures that they get at least 4 hours a day off chain to go for walks, for swims in the river or for roaming in the enclosure built with the support of the Surin Project. Mahouts are not allowed to use hooks or any sharp objects to control their elephant.

Besides directly supporting the mahouts, the project helps the community and village as a whole. Volunteer lodging is homes that are rented from study center families. The women take care of the houses daily to ensure the bathroom is kept clean and the refrigerator is stocked with an endless supply of water, and will do laundry if needed. Many of the meals we had were at local restaurants. And the volunteers desire for WiFi access, ice cream or other items supported the local convenience store.

Cleaning Shelters and Cutting Sugar Cane

Morning chores alternated between gathering the dried remains of sugar cane, which we had raked into piles the evening before when we cleaned the shelters, and cutting that day’s supply of sugar cane. Wearing long sleeved shirts was essential for both tasks, as sugar cane has rough edges that leave small scrapes on exposed skin. My shins are currently a testament to the effects of walking in sugar cane.

Shelter duty involved stuffing as much of the dried cane in the back of a tractor and taking it to a field where we had to spread it out so that it could continue to dry and decompose. Part of the team would go and clean the enclosure area where the old lady elephants live and where the 12 elephants get to feed and roam.

Sugar cane cutting was definitely my preferred morning activity. Any time I have an opportunity to tempt fate by using a sharp blade to slash through a plant, I’ll take it. Yes, despite hearing my litany of injuries over the past 2 years, they still let me use a machete. I am happy to report that all of my extremities are intact, although I think at one point one of the mahouts was particularly worried about my leg possibly getting cut.

As the dry season continues, sugar cane is becoming harder and harder to purchase for feeding the elephants. The current field owned by the project is nearly depleted. One potential field to purchase is almost 18 kilometers (11 miles) from the camp. Rainy season is still a few months away, without any guarantee that the region will receive enough rain to truly help the crops grow.

What Happens to the Poo

While cleaning the shelters, the poo is gathered into poo boxes (or piles for the shelters without boxes.) From there, the poo is used either for making paper or making fertilizer. The camp has its own poo paper factory. Approximately 40 kilos (88 lbs) can be processed at one time. The dried poo is ground, chemically treated, washed, bleached, washed again, then finally made into paper using mesh screens. From there, the paper is used to make cards and other items for people to purchase.

Our only real project, due to extreme heat, was to finish building a poo box at the enclosure. In the morning we went and gathered bamboo stalks. I once again got to use a machete in an attempt to cut down one of the bamboo stalks. Bamboo is not easy to cut and the mahouts were patient with me. Then they took the machete away.

In the afternoon, we cut and split the bamboo, then nailed the bamboo slats onto the box. Working with bamboo is almost as hard as trying to cut it down. First we had to clean the remaining branch stubs off the stalks. Sounds easy, and Apple (one of the volunteer coordinators) certainly made it look easy, but it isn’t. Then we cut the stalks into the right length. Final step was to split the bamboo using a machete and a hammer. Very tricky to get the machete started in a way that splits it evenly. Once the slats were ready, we hammered them on to the poles. And voila, the project was done.

Working in the intense heat wasn’t easy, but it was better than sitting around just letting the heat sap my energy. No one was required to help, it was just nice for the rest of us who had the energy.

Off Chain Time

As part of their off chain time we would take the elephants for a walk through the forest to a pond, where the mahouts would take them for a quick bath. The image of a forest currently in your mind is probably nothing like the actual forest we were walking in. Part of the walk did have trees that were taller than us, their anorexic trunks and branches providing a modicum of shade. The next part of the walk might be considered a field trying to be a forest with skinny trees and lots of shrubbery. Moving out of the forest, we crossed the area being cleared for Elephant World, the next attraction to be part of the center. Seeing the broad expanse of cleared area with leveled dirt made me feel disheartened. The area, once filled with trees, also grew mushrooms which the villagers were able to sell at market for additional income.

Walking with the elephants was a great time to get to know the mahouts and their elephants. Throughout the week we were challenged to learn the elephants names, identifying marks and who their mahout is. I managed to achieve all the names and about half of the mahouts. Next time I’ll at least have a head start.

Afternoon off chain time alternated between enclosure time and walking to the river. Enclosure time is when the elephants get to feed and roam on their own. The enclosure has trees for them to amble through and a pond for them to swim in. As well as being a good opportunity for pictures, enclosure time was a great way to watch the elephants interact in more natural groupings. Fah Sai is clearly the popular girl of the bunch. Wherever she went, Euang Luang was sure to follow shortly. And Sah Fai was also there as part of her entourage, often to the annoyance of Euang Luang.

Being in the river with the elephants was quite possibly one of the best experiences of the week. Each volunteer had a bag of food (cucumbers the first time, taro the second time) to feed their elephant. Once the food was gone, we would hep wash the elephants as they rolled about in the river, enjoying a brief moment of buoyancy. Seeing eye to eye with an elephant and getting to feel the expanse of their body definitely warms your heart.

The other great part of being in the river was the respite from the draining heat. Just remember to keep your mouth closed and watch out for poo fights breaking out. The ride back to camp after the long, hot walk in 110 degree heat (43 C) on blacktop road, was also a nice treat. That is, once the metal bars on the back cooled off enough to hold onto.

Mixing with the Mahouts

One of the really nice parts about this project was the opportunity to meet and interact with the mahouts. Throughout the week we had several activities to encourage interaction, beyond going for the walks.

The first evening at the project, the volunteers were welcomed with a ceremony performed by the local shaman and the mahouts. The volunteers sat in a circle and the mahouts gathered around us. A white string was wrapped around the volunteers to symbolically join us together and the shaman said blessings and prayers, evoking the spirit of togetherness and of family. At one point during the ceremony, the mahouts threw leaves from a tree on us to bless us as well. The ceremony finished with the tying of blessing strings on our wrists. First the shaman went around the inside of the circle and after he blessed us with a string, we turned to the outside and each of the 14 mahouts on the project tied a blessing string on our wrists. The blessing strings are worn for a minimum of 3 days, after which you can take them off. You are not supposed to cut them nor should you throw them on the ground (unless you place them under a tree.) In this way, we were all joined together.

One of the first activities we did directly with the mahouts was an ice breaker activity.The ice breaker activity involved leaving around a paper ball and whoever was holding the ball when the music stopped had to draw a piece of paper with an activity written on it. If you couldn’t do it, you had to walk like a duck. Fortunately, the one I drew was to introduce yourself in Thai, which I know how to do.

The last evening the mahouts had a BBQ. We had the opportunity to join them if we wanted. Sitting with them, sharing drinks and talking was great fun. Sarote, the head mahout, is a wonderfully friendly person. Throughout the week he had moments of mischief including tickling the backs of people’s legs with branches to feel like a bug was on them and making me a wreath out of branches. When offered Sarote’s glass of beer, you were expected to drink it in one fell swoop.

Every time I have come to Thailand the question is asked, “did you try a fried cricket?” I have always said that I wouldn’t go out of my way to try them, but that if offered, I wouldn’t turn it down. Friday night I finally had the occasion to try a fried cricket. Once you get over the mental hurdle of what this crispy thing with legs is that you are about to eat, they really aren’t bad. And the second one was easier than the first.

The evening also included the Farang (foreigner) Show. Kirsty and Wills (the project leaders) started the show with the performance of the Grilled Chicken song. After which two of the mahouts performed it properly. Next Monica, Meike and I performed a German children’s song about a little duck. After that, two of the mahouts also performed a Thai children’s song about ducks. The last two farang performances were dancing ones. At the end everyone got up and did a Thai dance around the platform area.

Saturday morning we had the Mahout Games. Divided into four teams, we competed in several events to gain points. Each team had two volunteers and three Thai members. The first event was the poo toss. Each team member got to throw two (dried) poo balls into a bucket being held by another team member standing on an overturned bucket. Next we made the challenge harder by blindfolding the tosser. Last activity was the seed throw. These large seeds have two blades on them that act like a helicopter. Earlier in the week I had shown Wills that it was better to throw them underhanded instead of overhand to gain better distance. Our team won the games! (A first for Wills to be on a winning team.)

A New Adventure…


East Meets West

In my mind I somehow pictured Hong Kong as this large flat city separated from the mainland of China by a body of water. So I was surprised to realize that the landscape of Hong Kong island is fairly hilly to mountainous with steep slopes. The part of Hong Kong city that is on the island is squished between a slope and area that they have claimed from the sea. Across Victoria Harbor (one of the deepest maritime ports in the world) lies Kowloon, a continuation of Hong Kong where the Chinese influence is much more prevalent. English influence is apparent with shopping areas dominated by British and American stores and MTR (subway) stops with names such as Forest Hill, Admiralty, and Causeway Bay.

Travel around Hong Kong is as simple as everyone I talked to before going purported it to be, even when weary from over 24 hours of travel. The tricky part is knowing which way you are headed when exiting the subway otherwise you may get trampled by a flood of Hong Kongers that are briskly going to their next destination. Signage (when you can find it) is in Chinese and English, and signposts on corners often direct you to nearly attractions.

Fitting Hong Kong’s almost 8.7 million inhabitants into a relatively small area requires that the city be dominated by extremely tall buildings, giving the city a 3D perspective. The variety of architecture demonstrates a competition of creating the most fantastic and tallest buildings possible. At night, the cityscape is one of the most fantastic, a vibrant symphony of colors in neon lights.

Venturing Out

My two days in Hong Kong were filled with an attempt to see as many of the sights as possible. Only two things prevented me from achieving seeing all the sights that I wanted to. One was the weather and the other was my ability to find the longest queues possible.

Several of the attractions promise spectacular views of the city or island. I’m sure on a clear day this is true; however, I did not have such luck. The weather oscillated between foggy and rainy, another adoption of British influence. Often the tops of the tallest buildings were lost in the fog. Even my 23rd story window in my hotel was obscured with fog on several occasions.

My first stop was Kowloon and the Avenue of Stars. On the way I found myself wandering through Kowloon park, an oasis of green in a concrete jungle. The park was filled with interesting sculptures and people exercising. One lovely old lady on one of the pieces of equipment smiled at me broadly and waved. Ambling through the park in no rush to be anywhere specific, I took in the peacefulness among a bustling city.

The Avenue of the Stars is everything it promised to be. A variety of sculptures, polished by thousands of visitors posing for pictures. If you are up on your Chinese movie stars, the impressions of handprints in the concrete might have been more interesting. As I am not, I headed for the ever popular statue of Bruce Lee, the only sculpture with a barricade. Surrounded by tourists posing with the sculpture, often mimicking the famous Bruce Lee pose, it was difficult to actually get a solo picture.

The second destination was the Big Buddha located high on Lantau island. Tourists have two options to get there. One is a cable car that takes you up and over the steep hills, the other is a bus ride that my guidebook purported took an hour. Despite my general dislike of cable cars, I choose this option. So I queued up with all the other tourists assuming the queue wasn’t too bad, just a few switchbacks, across a bridge and I would be there. Unfortunately, this was not the case. After 45 minutes I was almost up the bridge. Once there, I found a mass of people slowly moving through more switchbacks. 2 hours later I bought my ticket.

Some things to do while stuck in a very long queue:
* Read your entire guide book.
* Empathize with bored children confined to their strollers.
* Watch the fog roll in.
* Take random photos of signs.
* Contemplate when to cut your losses and take the bus.
* Wish you had actually ate before getting in line.

Almost 3 hours later I was finally heading through the fog on a cable car. No spectacular views, just the cable disappearing ahead of us and cars returning to the bottom eerily appearing from the fog. At the top was the Big Buddha, stoically sitting peacefully in the mist. Seeing the Buddha this way was actually nice because the focus was on the Buddha and not the spectacular views. As I climbed the stairs I listened to the faint chanting of the monks in the monastery below.

I took the bus back down. It took a half hour.

Rain, Rain Go Away

The next day it was all out rain. Heading for Thailand in hot season, I failed to pack anything to keep me dry and warm. So wearing my warmest possible outfit, I headed out for a second day of sightseeing.

Taking a tram so I could see the city above ground, I went to meet my friend Lisa and her newly adopted son, Georgie. Heading for Man Mo temple, one of the oldest Chinese temples in Hong Kong, we pushed the stroller up the steep hills. Getting around with wheels is not an easy task in many Asian cities, especially ones built on hillsides. The sidewalks often have sets of steps and the curbs have a significant rise to them.

Man Mo temple was a beehive of Taoist worshipers offering incense and prayers to the variety of statutes dedicated to the god of literature (Man) and the god of war (Mo). The dimly lit, small room was overflowing with the aroma of incense. Hanging from the ceiling were objects that I originally assumed were baskets until I realized they were incense coils offered as payer requests.

After a brief visit to the Midlevel Escalators, a system of people movers and escalators designed to aid the commute of midlevels inhabitants to the city below, and lunch we headed across the harbor on the Star Ferry. Riding the Star Ferry is another “must have” experience to get another perspective of Hong Kong’s skyline. Even with the rainy weather and choppy water it was a fun ride with a few good picture opportunities.

Using an Octopus

A card, not the animal.

Octopus cards allow you to move quickly through the transportation system. Accepted on the MTR, trams, buses and ferries, the cards hold monetary value and each transaction is subtracted from the balance. Several convenience stores allow you to use the cards for purchases. Using the Octopus card made my travels through Hong Kong easy, allowing me to just focus on where I was going and not having to buy tickets or have exact change.

I quickly learned that a key to using the Octopus cards is to keep moving once you sweep your card over the reader. If you don’t, you end up getting trapped on the wrong side of the turnstiles. Yes, I learned this by experience. Unable to figure out how to correct this situation, I decided to sweep my card over the incoming reader, take the MTR one stop and back, so that I could get out where I wanted to be.

City Below the City

The MTR system is a city below the city. An intricate system of tunnels connecting the subway stations with multiple exists to get travelers where they need to be efficiently. Along the way are a variety of shops ranging from convenience stores and newsstands to high end stores offering designer goods. Such an efficient mass transit system helps to reduce the traffic and congestion so prevalent in many large cities.

While an efficient way to move around the city, it’s easy to miss seeing the city as a whole.