Visiting Elephant Island

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Adventure in Getting There

After my trip from the Surin Project in Ban Tha Klang to Koh Chang, I’m not certain that I buy into the whole “it’s the journey not the destination” philosophy when actually traveling. On a map, the distance between these two locations is not that far. My mistake was in thinking that there would be an easy route to get between the two. Trusting Ocha’s directions, I boarded the Nakonchai Air bus around 9 PM in Surin. The plan was to take the bus to Rayong and from Rayong it would be easy to catch a bus to Koh Chang. At least that’s what he said.

As we were sitting in the Surin Nakonchai Air bus terminal waiting for the bus, Ocha tells me to make sure that I get off the bus at the main Rayong Bus Terminal on the outskirts of town, not the separate Nakonchai Air terminal. Despite the comfort of my seat, I spent the next 8 hours in spurts of that trance-like sleep where you aren’t fully asleep but aren’t awake either. Having no concept of where the stop for Rayong was along the route factored heavily into that sleepless equation. Turns out, the bus doesn’t actually stop at the main bus terminal in Rayong. So at 5 AM, bleary eyed and confused, I finally ask a songtheaw driver to take me to the main bus station. The driver was not willing to bargain on the fare, insisting on charging me 150 baht (about $5). Based on where Ocha said the main bus station was relative to the Nakhonchai Air terminal, I figured was the price was high, but what is a couple of dollars when you are tired and confused. The driver took me to the terminal located inside the city about 10 blocks away. Upon arrival, I watched him laugh about the con he had just pulled on me. He watched me get my minivan ticket and continued to smirk smugly in my direction. Hopefully he felt the daggers that my look sent him. I also hope that my wish that his actions be returned to him ten-fold was fulfilled.

Feeling hopeless and seeing that my only options were minivans to get to Koh Chang, I purchased my ticket for 200 baht and waited for the 6 AM minivan to leave for Koh Chang. Technically the minivan goes to Trat and from there I needed to take a ferry over to Koh Chang. By the time I got on the minivan, I discovered all the regular seats to be filled and had to settle for the very back, less padded seat. On the upside, for a good portion of the ride I was able to lay down on the seat and rest. After about an hour or two, I really can’t tell you how long it was in my sleep deprived state, my stop apparently came up. My stop turned out to be a small building at a corner on the outskirts of Trat. The driver took my suitcase up to the building for me, said something in Thai to whoever was supposed to be there, and off he went. As I stood alone in the building, I took some solace in the sign to buy a ferry ticket.

After a short time, a man and two women arrived. The man said abruptly, “You wait for more people”. I said ok. Then after a few moments a minivan pulled up. Again the man said abruptly, “You buy ticket.” Quickly, I bought my ticket and got in the minivan. Without waiting for any more passengers, we were off for the 35 km drive to Leam Ngob where the ferry goes to Koh Chang. Arriving at the ferry, I was summarily dropped off. Looking disoriented and weary, a kind man pointed me through a door. I handed my ticket to the woman and wandered up to the ferry that was in dock. Being the only person that was on foot, I wasn’t sure if I should board or not. After a bit of hesitation, I walked up the car ramp and onto the ferry. After staking out a place where I had a great view, I purchased an ice coffee and took a deep breath.

With careful orchestration, cars loaded onto the ferry. Eventually the ferry engines started churning and we departed for Koh Chang. Arriving on the island, the last hurdle was getting to my hotel. The white shared taxis at the meeting point insist on waiting until there are around 12 passengers to make the journey. Again, I was told to wait for more people. I joined another couple in waiting. Two more ferries arrived and still no more passengers. Finally, as though sensing my palpable desperation to get to my hotel, the drivers decided to make a deal with us to pay more than the normal fare instead of waiting. Initially, he said 200 baht. Less than 3 minutes later, while the other couple was debating the offer, the driver said 250 baht for me. Still stinging from the exchange with the driver in Rayong, I challenged him on the change in fare. Agreeing to 200 baht and the other couple agreeing to their offer, we loaded onto the taxi and finally were off. An arduous 16 hours after leaving Ban Tha Klang, I arrived bleary eyed and sleep deprived at my destination, Bailan Bay Resort.

Welcome to Koh Chang!

Welcome to Koh Chang!

Elephant Island

Koh Chang, translated as Elephant Island, is situated off the coast of Thailand, near the Cambodia border. The island is a lush green rainforest rising up out of the turquoise blue water of the Gulf of Thailand, looking like a herd of elephants loitering in a lake. Maybe it’s like finding shapes in clouds in that we see what we want to see.

Elephants are not indigenous to Koh Chang. Koh Chang got its name from the elephant shape of the headland. The elephants that are here have been brought here to cater to the tourists, giving elephant rides and doing trekking. Sarot (the head mahout from the Surin project) has family that moved to Koh Chang to give rides in Ban Kwan Chang on the east side of the island. Never approving of elephant riding, Sarot opted to stay behind in Ban Tha Klang. Going past the elephant riding camps, my heart aches for the elephants and the families that are broken up in the name of the tourist baht.

The second largest island in Thailand, Koh Chang is roughly 30 km long and 14 km wide, its highest point is 744 meters (2,440 feet). Most of the central part of the island is virgin rainforest, leaving the inhabited areas to the coast. Wanting to be further away from the main tourist areas, I chose Bailan Bay as my destination. Bailan Bay Resort is a quaint resort about halfway down the western side of the island. The individual bungalows cling to the hillside on the sharp 100 meter (328 feet) descent to the water. In a land of several resort hotels, Bailan Bay Resort is somewhere in between the fancy and the cheap.

At the end of the path of uneven step-stones, tucked away behind a pair of mangrove trees and nestled into the hillside is bungalow #20. A sea-view room with a fan, it is about 20 feet from the water at high tide. The side of the bungalow facing the water is graced with two large windows and the small wood porch ensures an ample view of the bay. The bungalow is typical of most Thai bungalow architecture; a wood structure housing a single room with a thatched roof. The attached bathroom is almost like a concrete after thought.

Bailan Bay Resort Bungalow #20

Bailan Bay Resort Bungalow #20

My bungalow is as far from the reception and restaurant as possible. To get to my bungalow I follow a cement walkway running parallel to the hill, then down a steep flight of 52 stairs with varying rise and run. The cement is textured like tree bark to as though to blend in with the natural surroundings. At night, the path to the room is illuminated by lanterns attached to poles. Where the lanterns have been broken, they are replaced by light bulbs protected by plastic bottles attached to trees. The lights lend an almost fairy tale like quality to the walk.

What Bailan Bay Resort lacks in upscale amenities and maintenance, was made up for by its location. Taking the easy route of cutting around a mangrove tree, across the beach of the neighboring property, through the property up to the main road, and a short walk down the main road, I was at the small gathering of shops and restaurants that could be called Bailan Bay Village. I don’t think the village technically has a name. The best part was the distinct lack of tourist crowds found in the other coastal towns and beaches.

The Rough Life

Visiting Koh Change is like being in a postcard for a week. The verdant greens, the aqua and turquoise blue water, the clear skies. Mangroves dot the shore to help keep the island from eroding into the water. Vines drip from the trees as they reach toward the sky seeking the sun. The gentle waves of the Gulf of Thailand gently lap at the shore. Stump tailed macaques playing in the trees adding their chatter to the sounds of geckos chirping.

Every day I made it a point to take a swim in the bath-like clear blue water. Even on the day that it rained, only the top couple of inches of water were cold, the lower layer feeling as though it was still being warmed by some geothermal source. Among the rocks lining the bottom of the bay, I saw many fishes darting for cover as I passed by. Though not as vibrant as some areas that I have had the opportunity to snorkel, I got to see quite a variety of yellow and black, all black, blue, brown, big and little fishes. Black eels lay on the bottom like large cucumbers. As the water became deeper, I swam through fields of sea weed. The tree-like plants ebbing and flowing in the tide, giving the water a yellowish cast. Eventually the water became deep enough that I could no longer see the rocks, despite how clear the water was.

Bailan Bay

Bailan Bay

The changing tides were evident in the bay. At high tide, the water covered the many rocks and most of the beach. At mid-tide swimming became a bit of a challenge weaving around the rocks. At low tide, the water recedes almost all the way out of the shallow bay. The rocks and sand exposed like an alien landscape. The ground offering burbles and pops as the water gave way to the air.

Rounding out each day was watching the golden sun dip below the horizon, its last rays turning the water shades of oranges, pinks and purples. The sun growing large and red as it moved closer to the water. Sitting on the beach, the peacefulness and beauty was perfect.

Seeing the Island

My attention span doesn’t lend itself to spending multiple days on a beach doing nothing. So after a few days of decompression and hoping to make this blur of a trip slow down, I headed out to see the island. Heading to the little village just over from the resort, I rented a motorbike, put some gas in it and off I went.

Driving on Koh Chang’s roller coaster roads was a thrill at times. The yellow “steep slope” sign, displaying a truck over a 30-60-90 triangle representing the slope, didn’t seem to do the steepness justice. Going down several of the hills, my toes were pressed firmly against the front of the motorbike foot area to keep me on the seat. Conversely, going up the hills, occasionally it felt as though I might slip right off the back causing me to grasp the handlebars as tightly as possible. The ups and downs are punctuated by sharply twisting turns. One particular hairpin turn between Bailan Bay and Lonely Beach has a double hairpin turn. A sign at the top informs drivers heading down the hill to give opposing traffic the right of way, since it is pretty much impossible to stay in the lane and make the curve.

Double hairpin turn on a steep hill

Double hairpin turn on a steep hill

Loving the freedom and feel of riding a motorbike, I have been known to go long distances. To get the feel of the motorbike and hoping for less steep hills and sharp curves, I headed about 10 km south to the southwest point of the island. Or, at least to the point where the road seemed to end. Turning around, I zipped my way north 25 km along the coast, up and down hills, around curves, feeling more comfortable with the motorbike. Along the way I stopped at overlooks, the tops of hills, to see a gathering of cute but really evil macaques, and to visit a shrine or two. Proceeding down the east coast, I found much flatter roads as I rolled through groves of coconut, lychee and rubber trees. Occasionally the fruity floral scent of plumeria blooms would catch my nose. 25 km later, I reached the end of the road at the southeastern point of the island. By the time I returned to my hotel, I had managed to ride about 100 km, all on an island. I wouldn’t have thought it possible to ride that far on an island, yet, I somehow managed to do it.

Driving 100 km requires several liters of gasoline. Gasoline “stations” on the island typically consist of several recycled Hong Thong (a whiskey drink) or liter soda bottles filled with gasoline on some type of stand or table with a sign that usually had “gasoline” spelled correctly. The typical cost was about 40 baht ($1.30) for about 750 mL. Coincidentally, the color of 91 octane gasoline and Hong Thong are about the same color. I don’t recommend confusing the two.

Gasoline stand on Koh Chang

Gasoline stand on Koh Chang

Stump tailed macaques are indigenous to Koh Chang. Macaques may be cute to look at, they are generally quite mean. At one point, as I came around a corner, a bevy of tourists were gathered gawking and photographing a gaggle of stump tailed macaques putting on a show by the side of the road. I stopped for a picture or two as well; however, I didn’t stay long. As I was looking eye to eye with a macaque, I got the sense he was working through the options of pouncing on me or not. I made the decision for him and sped away.

Within the virgin rain forest on Koh Chang are several waterfalls. At 20 meters, Klong Plu Waterfall is the tallest waterfall on the island and is easily accessible from the main road on the west side of the island. Listed as one of the “Top 16 Things to do on Koh Chang” on Trip Advisor, even in dry season, I opted to pay the 200 baht fee for foreigners and hiked to the waterfall. After paying 10 baht to park my motorbike at the insistence of the friendly locals to park outside the gate, I discovered free parking just inside the gate.

The trail leads through the rain forest to the waterfall. Having had some rain the two days prior, the ground and trees were moist and everything was lush green. At the end of the trail, the area opens out into a vista with a terrific view of the cascading waterfall. As a popular spot to visit, I was not alone. Many tourists and Thai were wading or swimming in the water, jumping off the rock face into the deep swimming hole at the base of the waterfall. Escaping some of the tourists by scrambling over the rocks, I was able to get a closer and more peaceful view. And as the Trip Advisor review indicated, even in February it was worth the time to go visit.

Klong Plu Waterfall

Klong Plu Waterfall

Kai Bae View Point is purported to be the most spectacular spot to view the sunset on the island and at every tourist shop you can find postcards taken at this spot. On a cloudy day it is a nice view. On a clear day it is an absolutely gorgeous view. The first time I stopped at the view point, it was overcast. Two days later the weather was clear and sunny. Despite gut wrenching cramps from food poisoning, I ventured around the double hairpin curve to go to the view point. Looking out over the turquoise and aqua water glistening in the sun and the smaller green islands, I was reminded of how beautiful the place the island is and how fortunate I am to get to take these adventures.

The postcard shot from the Kai Bae Viewpoint

The postcard shot from the Kai Bae Viewpoint

For those of you that have been following my tales since the beginning, you might recount my first experience driving a motorbike on a Thai island and the resulting “Phuket tattoo” (burn) from a small mishap that I had. In the past almost exactly 7 years, my motorbike skills have improved dramatically. Probably helps that I only use automatic motorbikes at this point. Three days of riding on the steep roller coaster hills with their hairpin turns and no mishaps to report. Phew.

Heading Home

The trip leaving Koh Chang for Bangkok was much less harrowing than the trip getting to Koh Chang. Svuarnabhumi (prounounced: soo-wan-a-poom) Bus Company offers a trip from Koh Chang island directly to the Svuarnabhumi airport for 600 baht ($20). Staying at the resort farthest down the coast, I was the first to be picked up by the minivan on the morning of my departure. We made our way back up the coast, stopping at several resorts along the way until the van was filled with other tourists starting their journey onward. From there, they gave us white tickets and took us to the center point ferry. Dropping us off with our luggage, we were herded onto the waiting ferry and directed to go ahead and leave our bags gathered along the side with the cars, and head upstairs.

Weather beaten and rusty from the salt water and sun from the hundreds of trips back and forth, the ferry churned through the water, leaving Koh Chang behind and heading for the mainland. The weather was beautiful, giving me one last fill of turquoise water and lush green island. Taking a few more pictures, I said goodbye to Koh Chang. Arriving at the dock on the mainland, I watched in awe at the skill of the ferry pilot in bringing the ferry into dock. With incredible precision and timing he swung the ferry around and docked it seamlessly.

Centerpoint Ferry Dock on the mainland

Centerpoint Ferry Dock on the mainland

Gathering our luggage and watching the finely orchestrated dance of cars being directed off the ferry, we made our way to a shuttle bus. This bus took us the length of the pier. Unloading and gathering bags one more time, we transferred to the big bus to go to Bangkok. I managed to snag a window seat. Lena, a nurse from Sweden, asked to sit by me. Much to the probable chagrin of the passengers around us, Lena and I hit it off splendidly. We talked pretty much the entire 7 hour bus ride, including the stop for food that the bus makes half way to Bangkok.

As though breaking my computer and camera on this trip weren’t enough, I managed to finish the trip with a flourish. Arriving in Svuarnabhumi airport, I said my goodbyes to Lena and went to 7-11 to get some juice and yogurt for the morning. As I went to pay for my purchase, I discovered that my change purse was not to be found in my bag. Filled with panic, I paid for my purchase with other money that I had, scurried out of the shop to the nearest place I could and dumped the contents of my bag on the floor to make sure I didn’t just miss it. For some reason, when something is misplaced I think it is human nature to check in even the most unlikeliest of places. I checked my backpack, which I hadn’t opened on the bus or since being in the airport, and my bag a third and fourth time. No luck.

Rushing down to the bus counter, I asked if the bus was still there. No, it had already left to go over to the main bus terminal for cleaning. Pearl, a Thai woman who happened to be standing there, was a wonderful help. She made phone calls for me and wrote out my situation in Thai to make it easier for me to communicate with the people at the main bus terminal. Anxious and hopeful, I got on the shuttle to the bus terminal. I kept telling myself “jai yen yen” (which means to keep a cool heart and not get excited) but I wasn’t listening very well. They pointed me to the bus and despite it already being swept and half mopped, they still let me look under and around my seat. No luck.

While upsetting and annoying, nothing that was in the change purse is irreplaceable. I’m grateful that I still had my passport and I had money to travel. Arriving at my hotel, I called and cancelled my credit card that was in the purse and when I return home, I will get a new drivers license. These are the events that make a journey and adventure.

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Return to the Elephants

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Back Again

This trip to the Surin Project is my fourth since 2013. On every visit, it is always heartwarming to see my mahout (the people that care for the elephants) and elephant friends. The first person from the project to greet me is Nana, the driver. Because I usually meet the volunteer group arriving from Bangkok at the Buriram bus station, I am typically there waiting when he arrives. His warm smile and cheerful Sawad dee krabp (hello) never fail to bring a smile to my face. Next is Sarot, the main Thai coordinator of the project, when we arrive in Ban Tha Klang at the Elephant Study Center. This time I was able to show him the final version of the tattoo that was fresh and healing the last time I was there. He rubbed it with his wrist and said “good luck, good luck.” My tattoo is that of a Kui (pronounced: goui) symbol he drew on one of my previous trips representing the eight directions we can go in life so that you never lose your way.

For the first time since participating in the project, I stayed in a different house. The project rents houses from the mahouts for the volunteers to stay in. Typically it is two volunteers to a house (or more if there are couples). Because I have a history of disturbing other volunteers with my snoring, Wills arranged for me to have my own place in Dao’s house. Even though Dao is no longer on the project due to health reasons, we still rent his house. Having the change was nice even though I was a bit farther from the Volunteer Meeting Point. Outside my window was Sai Faa’s shelter. Hearing the sounds of an elephant eating, sugar cane swishing against her legs, and the occasional belly rumble is such a calming and happy sound.

The first chance to see the rest of the mahouts, and meet the new ones, is at the welcoming ceremony. Every week of the Surin Project begins with a ceremony performed by the local shaman. The ceremony is part Buddhist and part Kui, which follow a more animistic practice. Pan always seems to be the first mahout to arrive, and I am always greeted with “MJ, MJ”. At least this week I was sitting next to a second week volunteer, so was not the brunt of Pan throwing star gooseberry leaves at me like the last time.

The purpose of the welcoming ceremony is to bring us together for the week as a family and wish us projection and health while we are there. One of the concepts I really enjoy about the welcoming ceremony is the idea of bringing your spirit back to you. As animists, the Kui believe that occasionally your spirit may wander off. Throwing star gooseberry leaves is a ritual to bring your spirit back to you.

With only 12 elephants on the project, the number of volunteers is limited to 12. In the past, the largest group I had been part of was 9. This week we had 12 volunteers. Seeing the growth in popularity of this project is awesome. Of all the Elephant Nature Foundation projects that I have participated in, I believe in the Surin Project purpose and mission of “working to improve the living conditions of captive Asian elephants” the most. For more on the Surin Project see my post: Why Volunteer at the Surin Project or visit www.suringproject.org. Sadly, this trip also marks the last time that Kirsty and Wills will be there as the project coordinators. I will be sad to see them leave; however, their legacy will last in the solid foundation they have established for the project to continue to expand and grow.

Who’s New and Who’s Gone

Each visit to the Surin Project starts with a roll call of elephants and their mahouts. For one reason or another, sometimes elephants are taken off the project. While it is sad to see some of them go, at least they are replaced with other elephants. Two elephants, Jaeb and Sai Faa, left the project since my last visit. Both left because the mahouts had health reasons. Replacing those two elephants are Nuua Tong and Manow.

The cutest addition to the project, bringing the number of elephants back up to the 12 (technically 13) that can be supported on the project are baby Anda and her mom Kaem Sen. Baby Anda is about 4 months old and as cute as ever. Watching a baby elephant trying to figure out how to use their trunk and eat the sugar cane is adorable. Sometimes Kaem Sen gets a little anxious when Anda is running around or when volunteers get a little too close. When she does, she begins slapping her trunk in an attempt to try to get little Anda under control.

Typically when an elephant leaves the project, the knowledge that their life has changed is sad and generally fleeting as the elephant is out of sight, out of mind. Staying at Sai Faa’s mahout’s house, her new existence caused me a bit of heartache. Dao, Sai Faa’s mahout, had to leave the project for health reasons that wouldn’t allow him to participate in the walks and other required work. Sai Faa, his elephant, has been returned to a life of giving back-breaking elephant rides during the day and being on chain the rest of the time. Her saddle is on a shelf just outside my door by the stairs. The missing saddle during the day is a subtle reminder of the change in her daily existence. When she is not out giving rides to the hordes of tourists that visit the Elephant Study Center, she is on chain in her shelter. On the Surin Project, elephants are only allowed to be chained by one chain. Dao is now chaining Sai Faa with two chains. She has a chain on her back leg to keep her in her shelter and a chain between her two front feet. The chain between her two front feet allows her to take steps of only about 3 feet, which at 5’3” is my typical stride length when I walk. Sometimes when I saw Dao, I just wanted to ask him “why?”

Sai Faa on two chains in her shelter

Sai Faa on two chains in her shelter

On the project, the mahouts are under contract to not carry or use a bull hook. A bull hook is a 2 foot long stick with a sharp metal hook on the end. The mahouts in the center are Kui, the local tribe. As animists, the Kui believe that spirits inhabit the bull hook and carrying the bull hook gives them protection from injury. The hook is used to control the elephant, usually not intended to pierce the elephant’s skin, although on occasion mahouts will use it in that manner. Dao has also returned to carrying a bull hook. Seeing him guiding Sai Faa by the ear using the edge of the hook is not a happy sight. When giving her a hello from the stairs while Dao was putting away her saddle one day, it was hard to not think that the small wound on her head isn’t from a bull hook.

Project Life

The main “work” volunteers perform on the project is giving the elephants opportunities to be off chain and interacting as elephants would in the wild. These opportunities are in the form of walks through the forest, watching them eating and playing in the water in the enclosure and walking to the river for baths.

Every day involves at least one walk in the forest, sometimes two. The first day of the project, the volunteers typically go through part of the forest where the poo paper factory and elephant graveyard are located. Having been on that part of the walk multiple times, Sarot took me to hang out with the elephants as they ate while waiting for the rest of the volunteers. Sitting and watching the elephants munch their way through piles of sugar cane and take care of some itches by rubbing against trees is fantastic. This time was also a chance to refine my sling shot skills in practice for the Mahout Olympics at the end of the week, and also because it is fun. Thong Di lent me his sling shot and set up a couple of sugar cane stalks to hit. Even I was impressed by the fact that I actually hit the stalks several times with some accuracy.

One of the changes on the project this time was the opportunity to go into the enclosure during enclosure time to observe the elephants more closely. On prior visits, the volunteers were restricted to trying to see the elephants from the platform that looks out over the enclosure pond. Often the elephants hang out in the enclosure behind the stands of trees, hidden from view from the platform. Getting to go into the enclosure allows the volunteers to observe the elephants more closely.

No matter how many times I do it, bathing an elephant never gets old. Feeling their massive body so close, looking them eye to eye, and scrubbing them from head to tail fill me with joy. Luckily we have two opportunities during the week to bathe the elephants. Wednesday I washed Warrin. Pi Pong, Pan’s dad who was taking care of Warrin that day, is very succinct and business like in his work, unlike Pan who tends to live up to his Roman-mythology based name. After washing Warrin, I headed over to help with Fah Sai. At some point during the bath, Thong Di will give Fah Sai the command to take water in her trunk and blow it out while he aims her trunk at a generally unsuspecting volunteer. After dousing Alexia, Thong Di turned Fah Sai’s trunk on me. Even though I know I will lose a water fight with an elephant, it doesn’t stop me from splashing Thong Di after he has Fah Sai spray me. We go back and forth saying “mahout apnam (shower)” and “volunteer apnam”, laughing uncontrollably in the process and getting out of the river soaking wet.

Bathing Warrin in the river

Bathing Warrin in the river

Friday I got to bathe Tangmo, which was a wonderful reward for me after the week of interacting with Krow. Tangmo is one of the smaller elephants on the project and is much more mobile in the water. For some reason Krow likes to completely douse himself when bathing Tangmo even though he always says that the water is “yen mak mak” (very cold). So with a “MJ… neung, song, sam (1, 2, 3)” both Krow and I dunked ourselves underwater. Sometimes I think they do these things to see if the volunteers will play along. Most the times I participate because I think it is fun and helps create friendships with the mahouts.

Occasionally we do actual physical work. Every day we have morning chores of picking up the dried sugar cane from the shelters, cleaning the enclosure area and cutting the sugar cane for the elephants. The volunteers are divided into teams and rotate jobs each day. With 12 volunteers the work is done in about 15 minutes, except for the shelter team which goes on a long tractor ride to spread the sugar cane in a field to be used as mulch for young sugar cane. This trip I only had one opportunity to cut sugar cane, which is probably my favorite task as I get to use a machete. Sugar cane cutting this time was a little frustrating as the machete they gave me to use was about as sharp as a butter knife.

One of the days that my team was cleaning the enclosure, we got to meet Lin Daa. Lin Daa was in the enclosure when we arrived and her mahout quickly gathered her so we could clean. On the way out, I had forgot my water bottle and went back into the enclosure to get it. As I was coming out, Lin Daa was coming back in. Turns out Lin Daa belongs to Krow’s parents and is one of the few elephants not on the project that takes advantage of the opportunity to use the enclosure. After the standard conversation of “what’s your name”, “where are you from” and a little astonishment that I can speak just a little bit of slow Thai, Krow’s dad explained to me that Lin Daa is pregnant and that he is 50. Krow’s mom emphatically in loud slow Thai explained that they are Krow’s parents and emphasized again that they are both 50.

Friday the volunteers actually help the mahouts with some project that is needed for the elephants. This week one job was building a poo bin, which is a bin where elephant poo is stored before it is either used to make paper or turned into fertilizer. The other job was going with Sarot and a team of mahouts to cut down poles. Working together we cut as many 3” diameter eucalyptus trees as were needed until we were told that we had enough. My job was to go with Pi Pong to cut trees using a saw. Again, he had a very swift and business-like manner to his work, walking from eucalyptus stand to eucalyptus stand finding just the right ones to cut. He was patient with my sawing skills and gave a bit of direction when to cut slower. No one is really sure what project Sarot has in mind for these poles.

Working with Pi Pong to cut down eucalyptus trees

Working with Pi Pong to cut down eucalyptus trees

Special Moments

The Surin Project is really working to emphasize a more hands-off, just hang back and watch, approach. Occasionally, having the discipline to not go up and touch the elephants and take pictures can be a Herculean feat. Especially when Sarot is encouraging volunteers to come up to the elephants and have their picture taken. Sometimes the temptation is overwhelming and the spirit is weak. Perhaps it is because both elephants and massage therapists use touch to heal or just because elephants are such beautiful creatures, whatever the reason, I sometimes find the desire to touch the elephants overwhelming. On one of our walks when we were hanging out with Fah Sai and Euang Luang in the forest, Sarot was encouraging volunteers to get in and hug Euang Luang’s trunk as a photo opportunity. I couldn’t resist and got in there for my hug. Mid-hug she gave a deep gentle belly rumble, which to me is one of the most comforting sounds that I know.

Sitting back and watching the elephants results in some pretty awesome experiences as well. During one of the enclosure times, we all stood or sat at the sala (a small simple shelter with a platform and a roof) and just watched Kaem Sen and Anda. Singhat, Kaem Sen and Anda’s mahout, is so beautiful and gentle in how he interacts with Anda. Watching the love and the start of the bonding between elephant and mahout is so special. He would get down to Anda’s height and just let her be in contact with him as she explored her environment. At 4 months old, she is just starting to get used to figuring out how to eat, often attempting to copy what mom is doing. Sugar cane is an obstacle she just hasn’t quite mastered and her attempts to do so are comical and adorable. After a bit of struggling, Singhat gives her an Anda-sized piece of sugar cane that she happily eats.

Watching the mahouts grow and change the longer they are on the project is a benefit of volunteering several times. Seeing the change in Krow, Tangmo’s mahout, this time was precious. The moments where he puts his head against Tangmo or kisses her are just beautiful, truly emphasizing the bond a mahout has with his elephant. In the wild, elephants form family groups and several elephants will take on the role of Auntie to the babies. Tangmo is starting to play this role for Anda. While we were watching Kaem Sen and Anda in the enclosure, Krow brought Tangmo over to be with them and also give Anda an opportunity to continue to grow more comfortable with his presence. Seeing Krow put his head against Anda’s belly and kiss her was precious.

Krow giving Tangmo some love

Krow giving Tangmo some love

A major highlight of the week at the Surin Project is the Mahout Olympics. Volunteers and mahouts are divided into teams to play a series of games. My team was Alexia, Boon Ma, Nana, Suwat and myself. The first event is the slingshot challenge. Five bottles are set up and each person gets five stones. For each bottle that is knocked down, the team gets 3 points. Even after a week of practicing with a sling shot, I was only able to knock down 2 bottles. Fortunately, Nana and Boon Ma are extremely talented with a sling shot. The second event is knuckle bones. Knuckle bones is where you take 10 stone-like seeds, place them in the palm of your hand, toss them in the air, catch as many as you can on the back of your hand, toss those stones in the air and catch as many as you can in your hand using a downward motion. I managed to catch two stones. Nana helped us greatly in this event by catching all 10 stones. The third event was the poo ball catch. Each team member has three chances to use a rake to fling a (dry) poo ball at their teammate that is holding a bucket. The poo ball must be caught in the bucket without the catcher leaving their designated circle. I think we managed to get 2 out of 12 in the bucket. Final event was the 3-legged race. With our ankles bound very securely together, Nana and I started and Boon Ma and Alexia took over, obtaining us a second place finish. Unfortunately, all that left us in a tie for last place.

The last place was determined through a match of teams performing Rock-Paper-Scissors. My team went 3-1 in the tie breaker, declaring us the last place team. Our “prize” for last place was a bit of embarrassment and a lot of laughter. After our team picture, we had to perform the Barbeque Chicken song. Only part of us knew the actions that go with the song, but we gave it our best shot. Next, all the other participants had the opportunity to generously cover our faces with baby powder. Krow gave me extra special treatment by using soot to draw lines down my cheeks to my chin, across my eyebrows and on my nose. Once we were sufficiently white faced, we officially closed the Mahout Olympics by performing the Chang song. Again, we did our best to both sing and do the motions for the song. The last part of the embarrassment was the walk back to my house, passing by the extremely friendly shop owner, who got terrific joy at seeing my face covered in white.

Krow and I after the Mahout Olympics

Krow and I after the Mahout Olympics

Not all of the special moments this week were particularly happy. One less-than-happy moment was the spider eviction that I had to perform one night. I am fine with geckos chirping and running amok, especially since they eat mosquitoes. Even the rhino beetle that performed a nightly fly-by of my mosquito netting sounding like a helicopter landing didn’t really bother me, even not knowing where it landed. What bothered me was the night I went to plug in my phone to charge and the rather hefty spider that plopped down on my computer and scurried in the general direction of my bed. It’s possible that I let out a girlish squeak or maybe it was the commotion of me jumping out of my room, switching on every possible light switch on the porch in an attempt to find the broom and then frantically attempting to fling the spider out of my room, that brought Dao’s wife Ruak up to check on me. When she arrived I had successfully evicted the spider. To answer her quizzical look and question if I was ok, I used the international hand gesture of wiggling fingers to explain there had been a spider in my room.

The other less-than-happy moment was the moment that my camera lens jammed on our second walk to the river. One of the other volunteers that is particularly handy with a camera and I had ventured into a rice paddy to get a really cool shot of the elephants as they were walking. As the fields were dry and the angle of the shot was against the berm between rice paddies, a cloud of dust struck my camera. Sadly, attempts to get it un-jammed have been futile. I’m hoping that possibly when I return home, or maybe even while I am on Koh Chang for my last week, that it will be possible to have it repaired. In the meantime, I am grateful that the camera on my Samsung Galaxy phone is almost as good as my regular camera.

Elephants walking to the river

Elephants walking to the river (the shot that killed my camera)

Love is in the Air

One of the crazy moments of the week was when dozens of brides and grooms descended on the Elephant Study Center to participate in a mass ceremony of getting married on an elephant on Valentine’s Day. The sheer number of people at the center was overwhelming, bordering on insane. The main ceremony platform is located just down from our meeting point. Throughout the week we watched the progress of the platform being transformed with the ceremonial trappings.

Finally on the big day it became a zoo of humans, cars and elephants. Participants and their families started arriving in droves around 8:30 am, just as we were returning from our morning chores. Parking anywhere they felt there was space made it impossible for us to return the truck and tractor to their places, eventually just giving up and parking them among the cars. Elephants were gathered in the field behind the ceremony platform, all decked out in ornate cloths under their saddles and some wore headdresses of flowers. The mahouts all had the same bright red shirt. Trucks from the center had been decorated with flowers and bunting to participate in the elephant parade, also adding to the chaos.

Having that much chaos is stressful for the elephants, both our project elephants and the elephants that are waiting to carry the newlyweds around the center in a parade. Fortunately the event went off without any tragedy. Kaem Sen and Anda’s enclosure is the closest enclosure to the ceremonial platform. Kaem Sen is on chain while Anda is allowed to run back and forth. Kaem Sen was clearly anxious about the fact that people kept coming up the closure and wanting to touch her baby. Thankfully we avoided the bulk of the commotion by going on our morning walk through the forest.

As a government sponsored elephant, sometimes the elephants on the project are required to participate in certain events such as this. To refuse to participate would result in the mahout losing their government salary for the week and potentially even losing their place at the Elephant Study Center. Fah Sai was requested to participate. So on Saturday she was dressed up like the other elephants, ornate cloth and basket on her back, and Thong Di had to carry a bull hook for the morning. On our walk in the forest, Nong Neun was particularly vocal about the fact that Fah Sai wasn’t there as part of their friend group. Hearing her trumpets calling to Fah Sai echoing through the trees was a testament to the friendships that can be formed between the elephants.

Swiftly Passing Week in Chiang Mai

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Hello Again

Chiang Mai is changing. Sometimes change is good and at the same time bad. Immediately noticeable is the increased cost of taxis from the airport into town, the uniformed drivers and their new cars and the increased number of cars in general on the roads. I know my perception of whether the change is good or bad. Really I wanted to know what the Thai think about it. Both people I asked said that it is good for the economy and bad for the culture. Long, the woman I met at one of the Body Pump classes I attended, summed it up saying that there are so many more Westerners and Asians, in Chiang Mai that she felt came here for what it was and have made it what they want to be. She is saddened by the changes.

In an effort to avoid the touristy and changing old town, and to give me something new to write about, I decided this time to stay somewhere new. The fact that CM Blue House, the guesthouse that has been my home in Chiang Mai for the past 5 years, recently closed also aided that decision. So I opted to stay at Inspire House, just a short distance from Sunshine Massage School.

Inspire House is actually not very inspiring. From the funky stale smell in my room to the tears in the fabric of the sofas in the lobby, it just didn’t make a very good impression on me. Perhaps a fresh coat of paint and a good cleaning of the mold in the bathroom would do it wonders. (To be fair, the fight against mold is a tough one in this climate.) After a day or so, what it lacks in aesthetics was more than compensated for by the luxury of daily housekeeping, two bottles of water a day and a primo location for me. Although lacking strong English speaking skills, the staff was kind and helpful. They helped me get a motorbike the evening I arrived, even though I thought I had arrived too late in the evening to rent one.

Daily Routines

My propensity for making Chiang Mai my home was definitely enhanced by being outside of the old town. During the day I took my massage class. In the evening I worked out, ran errands and went and had dinner. Having such a routine existence made the days fly by.

Having taken several days off of actually working out, the lengthy walks through both Svuarnabhumi and Don Muang Airports on Thursday and Sunday notwithstanding, I needed to go do some exercise. Fitness Thailand offers classes in the evening and Monday and Wednesday were Body Pump class. The instructors are pretty good at leading the class in some combination of Thai and English. Enough English that it wasn’t hard to follow along at all. Also helps that I have been doing Body Pump classes at home so knew the general pattern and moves.

Wednesday evening I arrived at Fitness Thailand running a little behind due to unexpected traffic and a slight navigational issue. When I went to pay I discovered that I didn’t have my wallet with me. No money and no ATM card. Pleading my case to the receptionist, she let me take the class on the promise that I would come back and pay. So after class, I jumped on the motorbike, zoomed back to Inspire House, had a slight moment of panic when my wallet wasn’t where I thought it might be, found my wallet hiding in my backpack, grabbed my wallet, and zoomed back to Fitness Thailand. Times like this are when I am extremely happy to have a motorbike to get around and am generally familiar with Chiang Mai roads.

My inner mermaid was starting to get cranky about not getting in the water, so Tuesday, Thursday and Friday I opted for swimming. Eco Resort, a common location for many Sunshine Massage School students, has a beautiful 25 meter pool. Generally the pool is not crowded, making it fairly easy to swim laps. Sophie, one of the students in my class, was staying there and was at the pool on Tuesday and Thursday. Both days she made the comment that I never stop after watching me jump in the water and swim around 1000 meters each night. The clean, lightly chlorinated, cool water was a welcomed way to end my days.

The most important errand of the week was getting my computer repaired. Upon Lek’s recommendation, I took my computer to the second floor of Panthip Plaza where I found Chiang Mai Notebook Repair. Presenting my computer to them and explaining the tragic incident that had befallen it, I looked at them hopefully and asked if it could be fixed. To my great relief, they said yes. The price for the repair would be 800 baht or about $27. The relief of having my computer fixed and not having to type on my phone washed over me like a wave. The prospect at having to find an alternative or paying a large amount had been weighing on me.

No trip to Chiang Mai is complete without going to the Sunday Night Walking Street (unless you are not there on a Sunday). Walking street is a market that materializes every Sunday evening covering several blocks running right through the middle of the old town. Walking is a relative term, as the number of people squeezing their way between stalls makes a turtle seem like a speed racer. Armed with a list but lacking the desire to do much shopping, I did my best to plod my way down the street and back up. Eventually I gave up and headed back to Inspire House, the realization that I would be forced to do more shopping at the Night Bazaar at some point during the week.

The Night Bazaar is probably my least favorite place to go in Chiang Mai. Pretty much I view it as a feeding grounds for vendors as they ply tourists for their money. Probably doesn’t help that I don’t like to bargain for what I want to purchase, yet know that I have to as the prices the vendors give are inflated to catch the unsuspecting and inexperienced tourist unaware. Tuesday night, after eating dinner and meeting a new friend, we decided in solidarity to head to the Night Bazaar. Generally I was successful in getting several of the remaining items on my list, most specifically the massage tools that I have only ever found here.

Learning Something New

My general motto is to never stop learning. So this year I returned to Sunshine Massage School to take Thai Massage Using the Feet. Our class was the largest I have had there, 20 massage therapists from all over the Europe with a couple people from America and Turkey. Almost everyone in the class was a practicing massage practitioner with several years of experience. Having that much experience in the class was so beneficial as each of us brought a wealth of skills and perspective to the new techniques we were learning.

The week of learning passed very quickly. When learning massage, it is important to work with as many different body types as possible. On Thursday I had the opportunity to work with Rogier. Rogier does a form of acro-yoga massage. As the name suggests, acro means in the air. The short term for acro-yoga massage is “flying”. Toward the end of our session, Rogier did some of this type of work. The experience was truly incredible. To be suspended in the air and moved through different positions requires a certain amount of trust and release of control. The most loving and tender part of the time was the ending where he returned to the ground surrounded in a hug. As he was doing this part and I looked around, almost the whole class was watching. Several people commented on how incredible it was to watch. And while I’m sure it looked incredible, it felt even more incredible to experience this type of work.

Flying with Rogier

Flying with Rogier

The People You Meet

One of the most beautiful aspects of traveling is the people that you meet and connect with along the way. People come into our lives at specific times and for specific reasons. And even though your paths may briefly cross, sometimes that person can have a profound effect, like a stone being thrown into a pond changes the water with the ripples it creates.

My normal haunt for dinner is the Chiang Mai Gate market. True, it’s not very adventurous to eat at the same place every night; however, it is a lot like cooking your own food every night, just without the effort. Tuesday night at the market was crowded, with all of the tables filled. At one of the tables was an individual dining solo. Not being particularly shy and knowing it is generally a custom in a lot of countries to share a table with strangers, I asked him if could join him at the table. He said I could so long as I didn’t mind sitting among the trash. As I watched him try to eat his pad thai, I finally couldn’t take it any longer and gave him a lesson on the proper way to eat the noodle dish gracefully. Mike, an American turned Canadian, and I talked for a very long time about a broad array of topics interspersed with moments of very cerebral humor. The capricious amount of witty banter was much appreciated. It was the start of a very interesting friendship that grew over the next few days.

Wednesday night we met again for dinner. When eating at the street vendors it is custom to order your food, eat and then pay before you leave. Mike is just one of those people where conversation comes easily. We were so engrossed at the end of dinner that both of us said our goodbyes and went our separate ways. Fortunately I was taking the long way around the outside moat road looking for a gas station, when I realized that I left without paying for my dinner. Taking the next turnaround I zipped back to the night market and paid for my dinner amongst a profuse amount of apologies. The vendor laughed when I apologized and said she forgot too.

Massage class is a petri dish for meeting and connecting with people. The advantage is that everyone is there for a common purpose and has the fact that we are body workers in common. Having 20 people in class made it difficult to really connect with the group as a whole. Even by the last day there were a couple people whose names I didn’t even know. At the same time, it was possible to establish some very strong connections with people. Justine, a cheerful and kind woman from the UK, and I hit it off almost immediately. Sophie and Melody were also quick connections. The deepest connection I had was with Rogier, a wonderful and kind man from Holland. A testament to when the timing is right; we didn’t actually connect until we worked together Thursday afternoon, yet that connection had the most profound impact on my week.

Just as important as meeting new people is seeing old friends. Many of my friends from Elephant Nature Park have moved away from Chiang Mai. Lek and Chai are the two friends that I have seen most consistently over my travels. Even though we don’t talk as regularly as we used to, we are still friends and still make a special effort to see each other.

Friday night Lek and I were able to meet. She picked a meeting location that she knew I could find, just down from where I used to stay. I parked my motorbike, grabbed my helmet and jumped on the back of her cute orange, almost vintage looking, motorbike. First stop was dinner at a small place on Sirphon Road (the north inside moat road). I took one look at the menu which was entirely in Thai and told her to order for us. We had tom yum goon, fried fish with garlic, and vegetables. We spent dinner catching up and talking about the fact that we have known each other for 5 years already.

After dinner, Lek felt like going to Zoe in Yellow, a bar that is popular for farang (foreigners) and for dancing. A friend of hers was there and invited us to join them at the table they were at. In retrospect, ordering the bucket of mojito for Lek and I might not have been the best move. Somehow by the end of the night, we did manage to drink the whole thing. In the process we ended up actually dancing for awhile. I haven’t danced like that in a long time. Was really nice to relax and enjoy spending time with a very dear friend. At the end of the night, which was about 1 AM, Lek drove me to my motorbike. From there she followed me all the way back to Inspire House just to make sure I made it ok.

Lek and I sharing a bucket of mojito at Zoe in Yellow

Lek and I sharing a bucket of mojito at Zoe in Yellow

Chai travels for his work, which is driving a van for tourists. Most often he is in Chiang Rai. In the blur that was my week, I forgot to contact him and let him know that I was in Chiang Mai, just in case he was able to meet me. Friday morning Chai saw the post of Lek and I on Facebook. Turns out he was in Chiang Mai for the night. Unfortunately for me, he had to work almost all day on Saturday. The beauty of my Thai friends is the lengths they will go to in an effort to see me.

Typically I am ok with Thai time. When it comes to travel arrangements and Thai time, I struggle somewhat. Chai offered to pick me up at Inspire House and take me to the bus station so that I could see him for a few minutes. Saturday happened to be the day that the Chiang Mai Flower Festival parade was happening, making traffic a nightmare. The trip that would normally take maybe 5-10 minutes ended up taking him about 30 minutes. As the time grew nearer for me to catch my bus he finally said that it might be better for us to meet at the bus station instead. Arriving at the bus station at 6:05 for my 6:15 bus, I checked in my luggage and anxiously waited for Chai to arrive. Not having been to the bus station in a long time he didn’t realize that Nakonchai Air now has its own terminal in the bus station complex. Mere moments (6:11) before I needed to be on the bus he made it there to say hello. It was good to see him and I felt guilty that we didn’t get to spend more than those few brief moments.

Even More Ruins

At the end of a very full and very quick week, it was time for me to head south to Buriram. The bus ride from Chiang Mai to Buriram is a 12-hour overnight trip. Fortunately the buses Nakhonchai Air uses are very comfortable, especially the VIP seats at the front. For $24, the VIP seats are worth it as they almost fully recline. Part of the bus experience in Thailand is the sometimes too loud Thai music and then short movie. Fortunately with the overnight trip, about 3 hours in they turn the tv off so everyone can sleep. Until then I made a valiant attempt to drown out the noise using my iPod.

Ever since I have come to the Surin Project, I have wanted to make a trip down to the Prasat Hin Khao Phanom Rung ruins. Generally my travel plans have prevented this from happening, so this time I made a special effort to get there. Prasat Hin Khao Phanom Rung is a former Khmer temple that was part of the Khmer empire that extended from Angkor Wat in Cambodia deep into Thailand in the 9th to 11th centuries. The temple is also the best example of Khmer architecture in Thailand.

The ruins are located a mere 70 kilometers or so from Buriram. The options for getting there are to take a bus to a small town and then a motorbike taxi from there, hiring a taxi from Buriram or renting a motorbike. As is my way, I opted for the motorbike. When I went to rent a motorbike from the place I was staying, you would have thought that I suddenly sprouted a third eye the way the woman looked at me. After emphatically suggesting the taxi approach and me emphatically insisting on motorbike, she helped me locate a place to rent a motorbike that included a helmet. Jintana Resort, where I am staying, has a motorbike to rent but no helmet. In Thailand, helmets are compulsory even if this law isn’t always particularly enforced for Thai. For farang (foreigners) the law is almost always enforced. Not to mention the safety factor.

Armed with a not-to-scale map and a practice of holistic navigation, I jumped on my yellow and black motorbike that I immediately nicknamed Bumble Bee Jr. (after the transformer) and headed off. For those unfamiliar with the concept of holistic navigation, it is the practice of heading off in what you assume to be the right direction and hope for signs that you made the right choice. Occasionally this method has resulted in some interesting adventures to places I didn’t expect. This time, according to the blue tourist attraction signs, it worked out pretty well.

Bumble Bee Jr. on the road

Bumble Bee Jr. on the road

Zooming down the road on a motorbike through the sun bleached plains, sometimes strange and interesting sights briefly catch your attention: cows grazing on the side of the road; dogs lying in the sun; motorbikes coming at you on the wrong side of the road; cars coming at you passing another car on a bridge where the road narrows, a large concrete Buddha being constructed on what I’m assuming is the site of a future wat (temple); tourist attraction signs for Thai Silk Village; large fiberglass crane statues marking the entrance to a bird sanctuary; the Thai Cowboy Hat Factory. (Who knew there was a Thai Cowboy Hat Factory?!) The most interesting phenomenon was the waves of cool air fighting with the hot midday sun. Even though the fields looked dry and brown, enough water must have been present to create a swamp cooler effect.

Prasat Hin Khao Phanom Rung is situated at the top of a dormant volcano. “The approach to the temple is pretty dramatic [when approached from the east]”. Unfortunately I read that part in my guide book after parking at the west entrance. To get the full effect I opted to climb down to the eastern entrance and then come back up to the main prang (temple building). The guide book was definitely correct. The approach is symbolic of the journey to the heavenly palace of the gods. The 200-meter-long avenue is paved in large stones leads to several flights of stairs leading sharply up the mountain. Along the way are bridges adorned with 5-headed naga (serpent) balustrades and the feet of what were once guardian sculptures protecting the path.

Approach to Prasat Hin Phanom Rung from the east

Approach to Prasat Hin Phanom Rung from the east

While definitely not on the scale of Angkor Wat, the architecture that has been immaculately restored is impressive. The Khmer practiced Hinduism. The Buddha statues typical of Thai religious buildings are replaced with Shiva lingam, the sacred symbol of Hindu worship. The ornate carvings that adorn the inside and outside of the prang depict Hindu creation myths. The use of primarily stone in the construction has allowed these building to persist for centuries.

Next stop on my tour was Prasat Muang Tam, located about 8 km down the other side of the hill. While not as impressive as Prasat Hin Khao Rung, the ruins are still fantastically preserved. One of the features of Khmer or Hindu architecture is the symmetry of the buildings where the doorways between galleries and the inner buildings all are in alignment, creating an endless path that diminishes into the horizon.

Doorways at Prasat Muang Tam

Doorways at Prasat Muang Tam

Again reaching my fill of ruins, I began the journey back toward Buriram. Relying on my holistic navigation and the desire to see a bit of potentially different countryside, I continued in what would be a loop back to Buriram. Doubting my sense of navigation at one junction in a small town, I opted to actually ask which direction to go to get to Buriram. Again, you would have thought a third eye suddenly materialized on my head as I told the gentleman that I asked that I was going by motorbike. He kindly pointed me in the right direction (which is the direction I would have taken) and after a typical chat of “where are you from, “what is your name” and “how long are you visiting Thailand”, I was back on the road.

About 10 km outside of Buriram, I came across the Khao Kradong Volcano Forest Park. In no real rush to get back to Buriram and needing a break from the motorbike seat, I stopped for a visit. The steep 101 step staircase lead to a very large gold seated Buddha keeping watch over the plains. The view from the top was impressive and dramatic as far as how quickly the dormant volcanoes rise from the flat plains. After a short tour of the few buildings situated around the Buddha statue, I made the much easier climb back down the mountain and back on my motorbike.

Staircase at Khao Kradong Vocano Forest Park

Staircase at Khao Kradong Vocano Forest Park

Another Journey Begins

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It all seems such a blur so far. 11 Days into the trip and I am just now starting to write my travel tales. Perhaps that is a sign of enjoying my time.

Trip number 11 to Thailand started in its usual way. One difference was the direct Denver to Tokyo flight. Otherwise, the arrival in Bangkok at almost midnight, welcomed by heat and humidity, the trip to Floral Shire Resort, the room on the second floor, was all the same. The restaurants on the way to the hotel were once again full of people, a contrast to the last time I was here and the curfew was in effect.

The other distinct difference was knocking my computer off the table in the morning when grabbing for my phone to silence the rather loud alarm, made even louder by the tile floor and concrete walls. Much like bread landing butter side down, the computer landed on the side where the power cord is plugged in. The result, the DC connector was jammed into the computer and could no longer be connected to a power supply. Apparently I needed to have something interesting at the start of the trip.

Wats in Ruin

Needing to spend a day between my arrival and when it would be best for me to visit my Thai family, I opted to visit Sukhothai. In 1238 the Sukhothai kingdom was founded, the seat of power being as what could now be considered the second capital of Thailand during the 13th and 14th century. The old town is now a historical site with the remains of wats (temples) and chedis covering several square kilometers. The third king of the Sukhothai kingdom had the most profound effect on the history by laying the foundation of a unique Thai identity by establishing Theravada Buddhism as the common religion and introducing the forerunner of the modern Thai alphabet. Just a little history…

Getting to Sukhothai was even more hassle free than I could have asked for. Last trip I had attempted without much success at finding the free shuttle between Svuarnbhumi Airport (the international airport) and Don Muang Airport (the domestic airport). Finding the correct desk (located on floor 2 at gate 3) this time, I showed them my flight reservation they stamped the paper and I boarded the bus. Most my time on the bus was spent reading with an occasional glance at the humid haze enshrouded city and the traffic. An hour later I was at Don Muang Airport with plenty of time to kill before checking in for my flight to Phitsanulok, about 58 km southeast of Sukhothai.

Aging Don Muang Airport is such a contrast to the newer Svuarnabhumi Airport. The opening of one of my favorite books, Long Dark Tea Time of the Soul, is “It can hardly be a coincidence that no language has ever come up with the phrase ‘as pretty as an airport’.” Don Muang Airport is a case in point. The dingy fluorescent light emphasizing the aging carpet and 1960’s tile floor. The crazy and unique thing about Don Muang Airport is the fact that there is a golf course situated between the two runways. Led me to wonder if the planes ever are hit by golf balls that are shanked off the course.

Initially my biggest concern lay in getting from Phitsanulok to Sukhothai. In my mind I knew I needed to find transportation from the airport to the correct bus station then finding the correct bus from Phitsanulok to Sukhothai. Entering the baggage claim area, my eye was drawn to the bright yellow uniform of the Nok Air agent holding the sign offering a transfer to Sukhothai from Phistanulok. Taking the easy approach, I hopped a ride in a pleasant air conditioned minivan. Turned out to be a very auspicious choice as the van dropped me off on the exact soi (alley) where my guesthouse was located. This arrangement was totally by chance, but a happy coincidence

Immediately after checking into my room, I rented a motorbike and was on my way to the old town, about 14 km from the new town. The first few meters were used to successfully get my motorbike skills up to date, all without incident. After that I was zipping through the Thai countryside in the late afternoon sun.

In 2011 I had visited Sukhothai with my friends Lek, Lauren and Fern. The trip had an incredibly frenzied pace due to a late start to drive to Sukhothai (about an hour) and the need to have Lauren and Fern back to the Phitsanulok Airport in time for their flight. Our time at the ruins was spent running up and looking and taking pictures, running back to the car, zipping to the next wat ruin, running up and looking and taking pictures. This visit took on a much more leisurely pace. Probably should have considered taking the audio tour, as that might have made viewing the ruins a little more interesting.

Arriving in late afternoon about 4:30, I stayed until well after dusk. Watching the light change as the sun was casting its last bit of light on the ruins was stunning. Especially seeing the evening star positioned just over the shoulder of the enormous Buddha at Wat Mahathat in the fading blue sky touched with strands of orange and pink over the distant hills.

Buddha at Wat Mahathat at Sunset

Buddha at Wat Mahathat at Sunset

More Ruins

Having already spent several hours at the central zone, I opted to visit the west zone located about 5 km west of the main gate. The main feature of the west zone is a very large standing Buddha at the hilltop temple of Wat Saphan Hin, which means “stone bridge”. The hilltop temple is reached via a steep 200-meter long path of stone slabs. Fairly uneven stone slabs at that. The view enjoyed by the standing Buddha was worth the climb.

Path up to the hilltop Buddha

Path up to the hilltop Buddha

Opted to continue further into the west zone to ensure I got my whole value out of the 120 baht (about $4) entrance fee. Some of the ruins I just looked at from my motorbike and took the occasional picture. On the ones with a more interesting description, I hiked up a few more uneven stone paths in the hopes that there might be more Buddha images and something interesting to see. Unfortunately most of the Buddha images from this zone have been moved to the museum in the central zone, leaving it to your imagination to picture what the temple looked like.

To be honest, I can only look at so many piles of rocks that were once wats and chedis before I lose interest. Upon reaching that point, I turned my motorbike around and headed back toward the new town. Not to mention hunger was setting in. With time to spare after eating I opted to get a massage to work out all the kinks in my muscles from about 3 days of traveling.

Buses make the 45-60 minute trip from Sukhothai to Phitsanulok about every hour. What I did not know is that there are options of buses to take. Failing to figure this out, I ended up on the slow government bus that seemed to stop almost everywhere stretching out the ride to almost 90 minutes. Getting close to Phitsanulok, the bus became more crowded. Fortunately no one really opts to sit by the farang (foreigner) unless there is no other spot to sit.

Time in Tapan Hin

Next stop on the trip was Tapan Hin, about an hour south of Phitsanulok in the Pichit province. Every trip that I can make it to Tapan Hin to visit my family, I do. I go out of my way to get there and they go out of their way to make sure that I am happy. Mostly that care and love on their part is demonstrated through their worry. They worry that I’m hungry, that I’m sick, that I can’t eat something, that I’m bored. And it is hard to convince them otherwise. I really am ok just being with them. I know the worry about me being sick part is justified, as the last two times I was there I got sick. And there was the whole ant attack thing the last trip.

The whole family greats me with warm smiles and the sensation that I belong as part of them. Nun (my little sister) and her boyfriend Not were home from University. The few days I spent with them was Nun’s chance to really practice her English. Nat had to work both days that I was there proctoring a district test, so Nun was left in charge of translating for me. Translating is a trying task and I am grateful for her being there.

Something is to be said for technology aiding communication. My conversations were greatly enhanced with the help of the Google Translate app downloaded to my phone. While Google Translate isn’t perfect and sometimes can be quite interesting in its translations, it was good enough. Instead of rudimentary conversation, I was able to share more complex thoughts. And using the app was much faster than trying to find individual words in my English-Thai dictionary.

I still believe that any farang left on their own in Thailand will lose weight. Any farang that is with a Thai family will gain weight. The entire morning was spent eating. First breakfast. Then one of the many neighbors or family showed up with fried bananas. Then dad went and bought fried potato balls, fried taro balls, fried balls with mung beans in them, fried donut like things with carmalized sugar on them, pomello and papaya. I think I spent all morning eating. And consequently, was not hungry at lunch time when Dad was supposed to take me for pad thai.

Thinking that I was completely bored, Fern (one of the neighbors) was enlisted to take Nun, Not and me to see some temples. The first temple we went to was in Tapan Hin, the extremely large Buddha rising above the temple walls looking out over the town. Here we made an offering of a candle, flowers and rubbing gold leaf on the Buddha. After a few pictures, we headed over to the train station to pick up my friend Mai. She was getting ready to go back to the University where she teaches and had a little time to spend with us. It was great to see Mai. Last time I saw Mai was almost 3 years ago.

The next temple we visited was Wat Mai Kahm Wan, located about half way between Tapan Hin and Pichit. The main bot (temple building) was an awesome spectacle. Covered almost entirely in silver mirrors it glistened in the bright sun. Even the inside is covered in silver mirrors, reflecting the gold of the Buddha statues. The next shrine was dedicated to yakkha, the Black Buddha. Yakkha is a mara (basically a demon), typically portrayed as eating the moon. The tale goes that each month he eats the moon but because he is unable to digest food, the moon reappears every 28 days. At the shrine, the incense and the offering candles are black instead of the typical gold.

The main temple building at Wat Mai Kahm Wan

The main temple building at Wat Mai Kahm Wan

While pausing to look at the shrine and the wax offerings next to the shrine, an elderly man came up and showed us what to do to make a wax token. First, you take a piece of wax and put it in the large pot of melted wax. From there, you find the mould for corresponding to your Chinese zodiac year (I am the year of the dog), take a ladle of wax and pour it into the mould. Lastly, you take one of the already made wax tokens and offer it to the Buddha corresponding to your Chinese zodiac year.

Making wax tokens with Mai

Making wax tokens with Mai

The last building at the wat that we visited was unique. A different elderly man urged us to go in for a monk’s blessing. The entrance of the building is as though you are walking into the mouth of yakkha. There you pray to the first Buddha, then move over to where the monk is sitting for the blessing. The first thing the monk does is give you a blessing bracelet. Because monks cannot had anything to or take anything from a female, he drops them in our hands for us to put on. Unlike other temples where the blessing bracelet is a multi-strand string, this temple’s bracelets are more like a true bracelet made of pink and white braided cord with a wooden bead. After the blessing, one more prayer to another Buddha and exit out of a different door than you came in.

Mugata…Yum!

The last several trips to Thailand I have been invited to go to eat mugata. Literally pork pan, the food is cooked at the table with a heated metal plate in the center with a trough of broth for cooking the vegetables. The communal cooking is fun and brings the group together. When Nat told me we were having mugata for dinner, I was super happy. Not just because I was looking forward to eating it but because I was hoping that I would have the opportunity to have it on this trip.

Nat was home when we returned from our temple tour, so Nat, Gao, Nun, Not, Name and I all piled in the car and headed off to shop for the ingredients for mugata. First stop was Tesco-Lotus to get the pork and some of the meats that were better to get there instead of the fresh market. Next was the fresh market. Nat and I mostly just walked around and talked while everyone else did the shopping. We decided we are much better at carrying things instead of buying things. One final stop at Big C for items that apparently were not at either of the other two stops.

Preparation commenced the minute we got home. Nat gave me a knife and a cutting board. Then it was decided that perhaps a better task for me would be to take the small sausages out of their casings. A simple task with less possibility of cutting myself, and probably much easier to explain what needed to be done. So pork was cut into pieces and seasoned, vegetables were prepared, sausages and faux crab unwrapped. Dad set to getting the pans ready to cook, one electric and one over the fire.

Mugata is one of those meals where you are constantly eating bite by bite. Everyone puts meat on the cooking plate and vegetables are added to the broth to cook. When the food is ready, which was demonstrated to me what was done and what was not done several times, you dip it in the green or the red (or a combination of the two) sauces and eat it. Repeat this process over and over again until you are beyond full. At which point, everyone will still encourage you to eat more.

Boat Festival

After dinner we headed into Pichit for a festival that was taking place. I still have no idea the name of the festival or exactly what it is commemorating. Pichit is the home of the long boat races held every year around Buddhist lent. For this festival, large boat structures are constructed in the river and covered in lights so they look like they are alit with fire. The temple is a swarm of people, taking on the atmosphere of a carnival with lights and vendors. Traffic approaching the temple was a nightmare and fortunately Nat grew up close to there so knew his way around the small sois.

First stop is the lottery. Like a carnival game, you buy tickets then go to the large pool of water and fish out as many small containers as you have tickets using a net attached to a long pole. Inside the little containers are numbers. When you have your allotted number of containers, you proceed to the table where workers open them, and like reading tea leaves, determine what you have won. Everyone hopes for the big prizes. I won a collection of plastic baskets, a multi-purpose can/bottle/I don’t know what opener, a bar of soap and a package of laundry soap. I kept the soap and laundry soap and left the rest for the family.

The crowd was so large it was impossible to see the performances and the only pictures I was able to get were the ones where I hold my camera as high as possible, aim it at where I think it will take a picture and then see how it turns out. We did get to see the last part of the processional of women and men dressed in beautiful outfits.

The emerald Buddha, typically housed in the temple, was out on display. People made offerings of candles that were floated on the large containers of water. In the background, the white temple was lit with ever changing colors. Was a very ethereal experience, especially as all commotion stopped as a blessing was made over the PA system.

Boat display in the water

Boat display in the water

One of the treats of northern Thailand are dried rice sheets that have been moistened with sugar water and then cooked over a fire so they puff up, resulting in a sweet treat. The cooking method is the most tricky part. Two wooden tools that look like forks that have been flattened are used to quickly flip the rice sheet back and forth over the fire until it puffs up to the appropriate size. Sounds easy, right? Nat made an agreement with the woman doing the cooking to let me give it a go. Cooking this treat definitely takes a certain skill set that I’m not sure I have. Really I think that I did alright. I didn’t drop it in the fire, even though it came close occasionally, and I didn’t burn it.

Making the puffed rice treat

Making the puffed rice treat

The festival evening was rounded out with fireworks. I love fireworks. Especially fireworks that are set off over a river. The reflection of the burst of light on the water and the amplified echo of the percussion make it even more spectacular. Perhaps I was more enthralled with the fireworks than the rest of the family, so they patiently waited while I watched them to the very end of the display.

Moving On

Last visit to my family, I was asked to make a western meal. Somehow I managed to pull off spaghetti that actually tasted pretty good (better than the local restaurant according to my family.) This time I decided to try and bring something that maybe they didn’t have in Thailand. So I brought popcorn, only to find out that they have popcorn here. Typically they have microwave popcorn, so at least it was something different to see how to cook it in a pan over a fire.

Cooking it over an actual fire is a bit of a slow process. Holding the pan over the fire is even more challenging. Somehow I managed to pull off a perfect pot of popcorn without burning the popcorn or myself. Everyone said it tasted better than the usual popcorn that they have. After awhile one of the guys decided to give popping popcorn a try. He had more difficulty trying to hold the pot and keeping it moving so that the popcorn didn’t burn. Because he kept stopping and eventually Nat took over the process, the second batch didn’t turn out quite as well. Everyone still had fun though!

Because I needed to get to Chiang Mai at a reasonable time Sunday evening and wanted to maximize my time in Tapan Hin, I decided to fly instead of taking the bus. Yes, it costs more, but it is worth it. Unlike the time I took the bus and we were running late making it to the bus station minutes before the bus left, I was under more pressure to get to the airport in time to check in. I tried to not feel stressed as I was watching the minutes pass on the clock, getting ever closer to the time we needed to leave. Because Nat was at work, we were waiting for Dad to get home so he could drive me.

Finally I couldn’t take it any longer, so we piled into Nat’s car and mom started the trip to the airport. About 30 kilometers from Phitsanulok, dad caught up with us. I should preface this part that Dad drives an ambulance for a living. So we pulled over, dad and mom switched cars and off we went. On the way, dad tried to explain that he was an ambulance driver and very good at driving safely and quickly. Really I wasn’t scared. Took a sharp breath of air in one time when we were a little close to a car in front of us or passing a car making the two-lane road into a three-lane road. The important thing is that we made it to the airport and I got checked in on time.