Coming Full Circle

Standard

Ending Where I Started

Getting to Chiang Mai from the Surin Project is a 14 hour journey. All of the mahouts gather to send of the volunteers. A flurry of “lob pop gon mai” (hope to see you again) and wais (bowing), with a few hugs thrown in much to the chagrin of the Thai, followed by a group photo and we were off. The first hour of the trip is the truck ride from Ban Tha Klan to the bus station in Buriram. Watching the green countryside roll by in the setting sun, we said good bye.

Buses in Thailand are actually pretty comfortable, especially the VIP Gold Class buses. The seats recline and have leg and feet rests. Snacks of crisps (potato chips), water, soy milk and a sandwich are provided throughout the course of the trip and the bus stops for food about 2 hours into the trip. The only uncomfortable part of this particular trip was the temperature. It was cold. Very, very cold. Once again I was grateful for the $5 wool blanket I had purchased in Nepal.

For the first 1.5 hours, I tried to type on my computer. Finally, I gave into the cold and tiredness. Huddled under the blanket provided by the bus with my other blanket pulled over my head, I slept for most of the remainder of the trip.

Christmas in Thailand

Being in a 95% Buddhist country and having traveled enough that I’m not sure what day it actually is, Christmas just sort of made itself known through the Santa hats worn by workers and Christmas carols playing at the market and shops. My plan was to spend Christmas at the Elephant Nature Park with my friends (and a few elephants.) Unfortunately for me, the park was completely booked for volunteers, overnight guests and day trip guests. But Christmas wishes do come true (and being a repeat volunteer and visitor helps.)

Every year at Christmas, the Elephant Nature Park holds a Christmas show. At the show, all the various groups at the park do a performance. The mahouts, students from the village, massage therapists, gardeners, staff and volunteers all contribute to the show.  Under the auspices of Christmas, everyone also receives a gift in appreciation for their work throughout the year. Santa (and Santee, the female Santa Claus) make an appearance to help Lek, the founder, distribute the gifts.

When Chet asked me if I wanted to go with Miss Patty to help set up for the Christmas Show at the park, I jumped at the chance. Christmas day morning, we loaded our sleigh (actually 2 vans) with the gifts, some desserts and a bottle of SamSong “rum” and headed off to the park.

Decorating for the show started in earnest after we had a chance to eat lunch. Balloons were inflated and banners hung with care. The tree was decorated with lights and tinsel, and boxes wrapped in paper and bows placed underneath. The stage was set and lights were strung from the ceiling. In short order, the feeding platform of the park was transformed into a wonderland of colors and was ready for the show.

Party balloons with Mae Do heading for her shelter for the evening.

Party balloons with Mae Do heading for her shelter for the evening.

The local village children started the show with their traditional hill tribe and Thai dances, looking so adorable in their traditional dress. Rocky did a magic show. The massage ladies did a traditional Thai dance. The mahouts played Christmas songs with a Thai feel on their flutes made out of PVC and drum made out of a bucket. And for the fourth year in a row, Chet did his fabulous job as emcee.

The best part of being at the park for the Christmas show was the chance to catch up with friends that I haven’t seen in several months. Just like a family gathering, everyone was there. Hugs, smiles, laughter and talk filled the evening. Just the way Christmas should be.

Chet and my annual Christmas pic.

Chet and my annual Christmas pic.

Afternoons in the Park

Much of my last week in Chiang Mai was spent seeing what it would be like to just exist without filling my days with motorbike rides and tourist activities. Not wanting to be confined to my guest house and longing to be in the sunshine, I headed for Nong Buak Hard Public Park. A little oasis of green nestled into the southwest corner of the old town.

The park boasts a small lake with bridges crossing over it and a fountain, playground area for children (which I believe is where all of the metal playground equipment we grew up with went when it was determined it was too unsafe), and a bevy of vendors selling fish food, bird food, people food and renting mats to sit on. Inside the park, the sounds of the city fade away, replaced by the cooing of the pigeons. Stopping to rent a mat (10 bhat ($0.30) for as long as you want to use it) I headed for the south side of the lake, out of the spray of the fountain, away from the other farang (foreigners) in their bikini tops, and in the sun.

My mat in the sun in the park.

My mat in the sun in the park.

Mostly I spent my time writing in my journal, reading a book and thinking about some of the massage workshops I want to develop in 2014. I also was on a mission to start making the coin flowers for my friend Chet’s monk ceremony that will be coming up in June 2014. During the monk ceremony, hundreds of coin flowers are blessed and then thrown out to the people in attendance. Catching one is believed to be good luck (and like kids racing for candy from a piñata, a chance to tear the ribbon flowers apart for the coins at the center.) And the majority of three out of my last four trips to Thailand have been spent making these flowers.

Making the coin flowers seems like it should be a traditional craft that everyone knows. Strangely, this actually isn’t the case. Many Thai are surprised to see a farang making these coin flowers. The flowers are made by taking 4 pieces of ribbon and folding them origami style into flowers or fish or boxes (I only know how to do a couple of the flowers.)

One of the days that I was sitting in the sun making the coin flowers, two Thai girls set up their mat close to me. After a while of watching me, one of the girls came over and asked me (in Thai) what I was doing and wanted me to show her how I was making them. She spoke almost no English, so using mostly gestures and having her follow along, I taught her how to make the most simple of the flowers. When we finished one, she wanted to make more so that she would remember how to make them. Eventually her friend, who spoke more English, pulled their mat over to join mine and we spent the next hour and a half making coin flowers and talking. With their help that afternoon, I was able to accomplish my goal of 100 coin flowers for the week.

My first 100 coin flowers for Chet's ceremony.

My first 100 coin flowers for Chet’s ceremony.

Advertisements

More Elephant Time

Standard

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.