A Week with the Eles

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Walking About

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

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

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

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

Welcome Back

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

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

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

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

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

Life on the Project

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bathing Elephants

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

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

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

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

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

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Celebrating a Friend

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Life goes on

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

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

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

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

Another One Becomes a Monk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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And We Danced

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

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

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

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

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

Transition to Monk

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coming Full Circle

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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.

Elephant Time

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Family Time

My first stop upon returning to Thailand, was Taphan Hin in central Thailand to spend a little time with my Thai family. Family is such an important facet of Thai culture. Over the years I have become the oldest sister in the Tabjeen family, being only 3 years younger than mom. As often as possible when I visit Thailand, I try to make it a point to visit the family.

This visit, they set up my own “home stay” room. The room used to belong to Pa (aunt) Lee before she finished building her house. Now Nat uses it on the weekends to teach a special English class to a few of the kids that live in the neighborhood. The room was adorned with a bed with a silk coverlet and a blue mosquito net, pink curtains and my own bathroom. Dad even made sure I had my own source of bottled water. Such a sweet gesture to ensure my comfort while I am visiting.

Having my own room was also necessary now that Nat, Gao and their baby Nong Name and Gao’s sister are all living in the main house with Nat’s parents. Nong Name, my 6-month old nephew, is a 10 kilo (22 pound) bundle of joy and sweetness. This child is surrounded by love and caring. Lung (uncle) Buhm takes care of him every day. Just seeing the love and happiness radiating from Lung Buhm’s face when he is holding or playing with Nong Name warms the heart.

One of the days Nat took me to his school to help teach English. Nat truly enjoys teaching and wants to set his students up for success in being able to read and speak English. Having worked in the tourist industry, Nat has a true appreciation of how important this skill is. Arriving at the school, I was greeted with the obligatory stares and giggles from both the boys and girls. The interest continued as we were teaching with the grade 6 girls that gathered outside the classroom door about half way through the morning.

The morning was spent working on basic conversation skills with the grade 3 and 4 students. Keeping it simple with things like: “How are you?”; “I am fine, thank you. And you?”; “I am fine.” We also played some games to keep it interesting. In the afternoon, the entire school (about 35-40 students) joined together in the classroom. My task… teach them how to sing Jingle Bells. A slow yet successful process, culminating in a rousing singing of Jingle Bells that was a little sketchy on the verse but solid on the chorus. Two of the kids dressed in Santa costumes and came in dancing during our singing.

The students and I after learning Jingle Bells.

The students and I after learning Jingle Bells.

This trip I also did my best to try to avoid the hospital. Last visit, around 1 AM I found myself on the way to the urgent care due to a small bout of food poisoning. This trip, on the way home from the school, I found myself at the side of the road thanks to a small bout of something (probably food related). I made Nat promise not to tell his mom.  Usually I have no problem eating Thai (or Indian or Nepali) food, so having this happen twice is really unusual for me. Mom was a bit worried that evening when I couldn’t eat very much, sticking to rice and grilled chicken.

Instead, ant bites almost resulted in a trip to the doctor. Thailand has 7 different varieties of ants. I am allergic to at least one variety. The bites swell up, becoming puffy and red puffy and itching incessantly. Quickly I learned the words for ant (moot), mosquito (yoong) and itching (kraan). Insisting that I knew what was wrong, everyone in the hospital housing area produced every manner of pill and lotion that they thought would help me. The bites scoffed at the pills and calamine lotion. Eventually, the best solution was the topical steroid that Nat had. Before I left, Dad made a trip to the pharmacy resulting in two full bottles of the Kanalon Lotion for me.

This trip the request was made of me to make a western dinner. A request I couldn’t refuse since it came primarily from Dad, a wonderful man who does everything he can to make sure that I am comfortable when I am there. We settled on spaghetti, since that was the only thing anyone could come up with that represented western food and that I thought I would even have a remote possibility of successfully making. Somehow the combination of fresh tomatoes, basil, onions, garlic, tomato sauce (actually more of what we would call ketchup), ground pork and red pepper flakes transformed themselves into a sauce that reasonably resembled spaghetti sauce. Everyone said it tasted delicious, even better than the pizza restaurant in town. My heart was just happy seeing the joy that it brought to everyone.

Hanging with the Elephants

Volunteering at the Surin Project is less about doing work than it is about showing mahouts and other tourists that there is an alternative to the ways elephants are currently used in tourism. The balance of using elephants for tourism and protecting the elephants from harm is a particularly delicate balance. Elephants need to eat and mahouts (the people who care for the elephants) need to support their families. An elephant eats about 10% of its weight in food each day. To support that type of appetite, mahouts must find a way to earn money.

Mahouts and their elephants living at the Elephant Study Center in Ban Tha Klang (where the Surin Project is based) are given a stipend of 8000 baht a month. Almost half of that money goes to feeding their elephant, driving the mahouts to find supplemental income. Some of the options that mahouts have are: using their elephants in the twice daily circus show at the center where they do tricks for the entertainment of the tourists; offering elephant rides around the center piling 3-4 humans plus the weight of the saddle (150 pounds/75 kilos) on the back of the elephant; leaving their family at the center and taking their elephant to work at trekking camps elsewhere in Thailand; or leaving their elephants on chain all day while the mahouts work in the fields or other employment outside of the center.

The Surin Project offers another alternative. The Elephant Nature Foundation offers an additional 8000 baht per month to mahouts that agree to have their elephants be part of the Surin Project. The mahouts must agree to a set of rules to be part of the project. Mahouts are not allowed to use a bull hook, a foot long stick with an 1.5″ heavy metal hook on the end, used for controlling the elephant and sometimes as a means for punishment. Elephants are not allowed to be in the circus, to give rides or to participate in festivals. And the elephants must be off chain for 4 hours each day.

Off chain time is spent on forest walks, bathing in the river or roaming, swimming and eating in the enclosure. These activities are where volunteers can make the most impact in demonstrating that another form of tourism exists. Showing the mahouts that tourists are perfectly content in walking with elephants instead of riding them or bathing the elephants instead of watching them perform tricks, is the first step in helping to change the culture.

Forest walks allow volunteers to watch and be near the elephants. The elephants glide gracefully through the forest, the cushion on the pads of their massive round feet absorbing the weight of each step. The anatomy of an elephant’s foot still amazes me. Elephants essentially walk on tiptoe with tough spongy connective tissue for the sole. The spongy shock absorber and ridged and pitted sole are what allow an elephant to move so silently and sure-footedly through any terrain. The main sounds are the swishing of their bodies while they pass through the trees, the occasional snap of a breaking branch as one decides it needs a snack, and the chatter of the volunteers and mahouts.

Nong Lek enjoying her walk in the forest.

Nong Lek enjoying her walk in the forest.

Another activity where volunteers have the opportunity to interact with the elephants is walking to the river and bathing the elephants. Each of our trips to the river took different paths. The first walk was through the village to the road that would take us to the river. I’m pretty sure that a group of farang (foreigners) walking through the village drew more looks than the 11 elephants walking in front of us. The second walk was through the rice fields that have been burned off and are waiting for the next crop of rice to be planted.

Bathing elephants is an activity that has always been a very rewarding activity for me. Ever since the first time in 2008 when I splashed and scrubbed Jokia at Elephant Nature Park during a day visit, bathing elephants has been one of my favorite ways of interacting with elephants. In the river, we are given a bag of food to first feed the elephant. After eating, we begin scrubbing and splashing the elephants to get the dirt off (so that they can apply a new layer of insect repellent and sunscreen when they get out of the water.)

Bath time for Jaeb and Warrin.

Bath time for Jaeb and Warrin.

Bathing Nong Lek was wonderful. She’s one of the smaller elephants on the project, so much easier to get around with in the water. Su Chad, her mahout, is also very adept at getting her to follow commands such as putting her head down in the water or getting down on her side. With her it was like two children playing and splashing in the water. Of course, she is a bit bigger of a kid and I had to be careful to watch where her feet were going (as that is the most dangerous part in the water.) I got to scrub her body, behind her ears and her forehead and trunk and the top of her head. Looking into her beautiful sweet eyes felt like there was a soul-to-soul connection.

And then her friend Nam Fon came to play. This pair can often be seen playing in the water. Like children, they will sit on each other, hold each other down and just toss about playfully. Watching them do this in the enclosure or during the bath on the forest walks is amusing. Experiencing it close up and almost getting sat on is a whole different experience. Thankfully I managed to escape in one non-flattened piece, laughing the entire way out of the water.

Life at the Center

This week being my second visit to the project, the changes are what were most apparent to me. The biggest change is in the elephants and mahouts that are now part of the project. Only 5 of the elephants and 3 of the mahouts that I met last April are still part of the project. The elephants and mahouts that have left had their reasons. The most common reason that the mahouts leave the project is that the mahouts feel they cannot abide by the project rules consistently. Other times, they decide that they can make even more money taking their elephant somewhere else. Both reasons underlie the depth to which the change needs to occur in the elephant tourism culture.

A new minimart has opened within the study center. Now we no longer have to walk into the village for treats such as ice cream, chips (crisps) or the occasional beer. Poi with her loud cheerful voice and laugh greeted us every time we walked past the shop, which was several times a day. Mornings it was often a remark on the weather: now mai ka? (are you cold?) or now mak mak (very cold). During the day it would be waving her small child’s arm and saying “hello”, or “bye bye” in the evening. Over the course of the week, I am pretty sure our group was responsible for making her profit for the month. Especially when we cleared her out of beer, buying one for each mahout on the project at the final dinner.

A more pleasing change for me was getting to see the enclosure and forest when it is green and lush. All the green leaves on the trees provides a beautiful compliment to the reddish brown dirt, clear crisp blue sky and grey and pink elephants. On walks, the sunlight filtering through the leaves just added to the beauty. A far contrast to the dry brown landscape I had experienced before.

Every climate in the world has its own standard of hot and cold. For Thailand, right now is the cold season, which typically means lows of 60 F (16 C) and highs of 85 F (30 C). This year is unusually cold. In fact, even the farang (foreigners) on the project were cold. Every evening around 10 pm, a cold wind would start blowing. The wood houses do very little to stop the cold wind from blowing through, making for a cold night bundled in whatever blankets I had available. In the morning, after a breakfast involving cuddling with a warm glass of coffee, cocoa, tea or hot water, we would join the mahouts around their fire waiting to get started on the daily chores. At night, the field outside my house where the non-project elephants are chained was dotted with fires to help keep the elephants a bit warmer.

The field outside my house is home to 5 non-project elephants. Most of these elephants stay on chain nearly 24 hours a day. The little guy closest to my door was really not happy about his predicament of being on chain. Many times it looked as though he was plotting and trying every possible tactic to get the chain loose. Even when he would be moved to his alternate spot just around the corner he would continue his struggle. His constant straining at the chain made me sad and at the same time secretly root for him to be successful.

At night, the 3 younger elephants in the field would sleep laying down. The light of the full moon would transform their color to a ghostly pale grey. Seeing the sleeping elephants by that light was almost eerie, as if it was a specter of a future for these young elephants.

The sight of the non-project elephants being on chain, giving rides or walking down the street carrying their own heavy chains, is a sight that never gets easier to see. To me, seeing the elephants carry their own chain almost seems like putting salt in a wound. Not only does the elephant have the chain around their ankle all day, even when not attached to the post, they have to carry the weight of the chain. Nothing can be done other than to send the elephant caring thoughts, continue to volunteer and educate other tourists, and hope that the elephant tourism culture can change before it is too late.

A Little Work

Projects are another way volunteers contribute to the success of the Surin Project. Often the project teams are a combination of mahouts and volunteers, providing an additional interaction opportunity. The projects this week included planting corn, making a perimeter around the field to hopefully protect it from cattle that use that area to graze, and transferring elephant poo from a poo box to a box where it will continue to decompose and be turned into fertilizer. Cool weather and a volunteer group that was anxious to do work made quick work of the projects.

Recently, the Surin Project purchased a small amount of land where they can raise sweet corn for feeding the elephants. The mostly grey-brown clay soil had been tilled by tractor, leaving large clumps in long furrows. Our job was to go along, dig a hole every foot or so, place 5 seeds in each one and cover the hole. Having done work like this in Thailand, I made sure to pick the right tool for the job. The best tool for digging holes is a long metal pole with a curved piece of metal at the end that looks like one of the straws you get in a thick drink that acts like a spoon. I started digging and Nana (the driver for the project) dropped in the seeds and covered the seeds using his bare feet on the wet clay. He patiently allowed me to do the first 5 or so holes. Then he made me switch places with him. Taking the hole digger, he quickly went to work digging holes just deep enough for the seeds in almost straight rows. I took off one of my shoes, following behind dropping seeds and covering them using my bare foot in the mud. The corn seeds had a strangely unnatural pink color.  I’m not sure if the pink is a fertilizer to help it grow faster or something to keep the seeds from rotting while they germinate. By the end of our work, my hands were covered in bright pink dust and my foot was covered in mud.

The next day, we went back to the field to hang a sign indicating that it is property of the Surin Project and to create a perimeter around the field to protect the seed and seedlings. Farmers will take their herds of cattle through the rice fields that are between planting so that they can graze. The perimeter involves posts sunk deep into the mud every 8 or 10 feet or so, strung with the plastic string that is the primary binding mechanism used in Thailand with plastic bags tied along the string to make it visible and provide a deterrent to the birds that are another threat to the seeds and seedlings.

Nana was in charge of gathering the small trees or branches, each a couple of inches in diameter, for the posts. At our stop on the way to the field, Nana only found 4 poles that met his liking. Using 2 or 3 strikes of the machete, the small tree was taken down and just as deftly using the machete the small branches were removed leaving a pole. Once at the field, Nana set off on a quest for more branches. Watching Nana gather tree branches to use for poles is watching a masterpiece in action. Once he found all the acceptable poles he could that were at ground level, he moved to getting branches out of the tall slender trees. He would shimmy up the trees, and with a few hacks of the machete, down came branches.

While Nana collected branches, Ocha and Chris began digging holes and Siobhan and I  made our best attempt at hanging the sign. The sign, made out of plaster board painted a pale green with darker green letters, was not as easy to attach to the tree as it seemed it should be. The first obstacle was getting the nail into the plaster board. Eventually we managed that task without cracking the plaster board. The second obstacle was attaching it to the tree using the single slightly rusty 3 inch nail that Ocha had brought with him from the center.

The fields are surrounded with berms. Some berms are only a foot high, others are several feet high. This particular berm was about 3 feet high with the trees growing out of the slope about a foot and a half from the flat path along the top of the berm. At this point I should probably mention that Siobhan and I are the two shortest volunteers. Leaning across the gap, I held the sign while she worked on hammering the nail into the tree. Some progress was made, but not enough to successfully attach the sign to the tree. In the process, strikes of the hammer that missed its target were creating a crack in the plaster board and raising concerns in our minds of the likelihood of the plaster board staying on the nail should we even manage to get the nail into the tree. After discussing the situation with Chris who noticed us struggling, we decided to use the nail to balance the sign and to just use some of the string to tie it in place on the tree. At least it was still up that afternoon when Vincent and I went back to finish the string around the perimeter.

Elephant poo at the project is recycled in two ways. The first is using to make poo paper, which is turned into goods that can be sold. The second is to compost the poo in to fertilizer. To support these efforts, all the poo is gathered into poo boxes near the elephant shelters. For the fertilizer, the poo is then transferred to a composting box where the necessary ingredients are added to help it decompose completely. The last project that I helped with was moving the poo from the shelter by Nong Lek and Kahm Koon (two of the smallest elephants on the project) to the composting box. The tricky part was not working with Chris to carry the basket of poo but rather trying to figure out where to dump the bucket and having enough momentum to make it easy. Only once did I actually fall in the compost box. Definitely a moment of comic relief!

Making Friends

A real emphasis at the Surin Project is getting to know the mahouts as well as their elephants. On the first day, we do an ice breaker game to learn everyone’s name. We call it the “ay ya” game. A ball is thrown around the circle and the people on either side of the person catching it have to say “ay ya”. If they mess up, they have to stand up and name one of the people in the group, farang naming mahouts and mahouts naming farang. Failure to name a person correctly results in the performance of a dance in the middle of the circle.

Through out the week, friendships form. Even if they aren’t based on much conversation. One of my favorite mahouts was Su Chad, the mahout for Nong Lek. Su Chad is a quiet, older mahout. Surprisingly, this quiet looking man has quite the mischievous streak. On our way back from cutting sugar cane, Su Chad first cut my team pieces of sugar cane to eat. Then he proceeded to take a dry sugar cane leaf and sneakily tie it to another mahout’s bag that was strapped across his back. Then he tied a piece of sugar cane to make a tail. It was really hard not to laugh out loud at what was transpiring. I’m not sure if the other mahout noticed or if it fell off. The next day, when we were bathing Nong Lek, he splashed me with water, so I splashed him back. Later that day when planting corn, he pretended to get my foot with his hoe.

Su Chad giving Nong Lek her morning shower.

Su Chad giving Nong Lek her morning shower.

Another favorite pair of mahouts was Pan and Em, mahouts for Warrin and Jaeb. In my mind I think of them as the masked bandits, always just a bit mischievous. For the duration of the week they wore hats that covered everything but their eyes. In fact, I didn’t even recognize Em at the Mahout Dinner on Friday evening. Pan is round and jovial, always greeting me with a robust “MJ”. Em on the other hand looks like a stick figure acting as a clothes hanger. The last walk through the forest, I ended up walking with Em and Pan and their elephants. They kept trying to convince me that I should be a mahout. Talking in Thai (or trying to talk in Thai), having closer contact with Warrin and Jaeb and laughing made for a wonderful end to my week.

The interaction with the mahouts culminates in the Mahout Olympics. Mahouts and volunteers are separated into four teams comprised of a combination of mahouts and volunteers. The activities vary by season. This week the first event was a slingshot contest. The mahouts practice almost daily with slingshots, so I feel pretty proud of the one time I actually hit the bottle since I had only shot a slingshot once during the week. Next up was Mahout Basketball. Here the 2″ diameter round seeds are tossed into a plastic bottle that has been hung on a post. Between events, Vincent and I practiced with Krow (one of the mahouts on our team) for the third event. This event involved taking 5 seeds in the palm of your hand, tossing them and catching as many as possible on the back of your hand and then tossing those up and closing your hand around them. Practicing with stones was one thing, using the slippery seeds was another. At least I managed to catch 2. The last event was the 3-legged race. Despite a tricky transition where both Aed (a quiet mahout that I don’t think I had met until the Olympics) and I opted to take off our shoes, we did really well with our “nueng (1), song (2), nueng (1), song (2)” managing to take third place.

Friendships are also formed between the volunteers on the project. The group of volunteers that came together this week was one of the best groups that I have had the pleasure of volunteering with since I started volunteering in 2010. Many of the nights were spent talking late into the night about a variety of topics. Sometimes it was just one-on-one chats, other times it was 2 or 3 of us gathered around the table at the meeting point by the light of the makeshift Christmas tree (a dead tree branch that had been planted and strung with lights and ornaments, reminiscent of the tree in A Charlie Brown Christmas) until the wind and cold drove us to say goodnight. One of the best nights was listening to Christmas songs and talking about what Christmas means to each of us and our favorite Christmas songs and movies. Hopefully our paths will cross again.

Life in Chiang Mai

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Tourist Season in Chiang Mai

High season in Chiang Mai brings a whole different feel to the otherwise lazy and laid back atmosphere the rest of the year. The traffic on the roads is more ubiquitous, changing the ratio of motorbikes to cars. Parades of tuk tuks filled with tourists like clown cars sputter down the streets. Large lumbering tour buses attempt to navigate the sometimes narrow streets and blocking traffic as they make the u-turns from the inside moat road to the outside moat road. The Thai that work the shops and markets in this area have taken on an air of exasperation with the constant stream of foreigners. Rare is the greeting of a genuine smile and heartfelt “sawad dee ka” in this area of the old town, especially from the workers the 7-11 at the heart of the backpacker area.

Taking detours down small sois (alleys) to avoid the hordes of tourists and the exhaust from the traffic reminds me that the area around CM Blue House is more than just a collection of coffee shops, massage shops and guest houses. Well before this area become the hot destination for so many young people backpacking their way across Southeast Asia, this neighborhood was and is home to many Thai people. Even on the more popular sois, looking closely you can see the homes. Some of the inhabitants have used the boom in tourism to their advantage turning part of their homes into restaurants, laundry shops, bicycle rental places and other types of shops. The rest come and go, carrying on with their daily lives. I often wonder what they think of all these farang (foreigners) roaming about the sois.

Shopping, Football and Herbal Steams

One of the advantages of being on my ninth journey to Thailand is that I can pick and choose what I want to do with my days without having to feel like I need to fill every available moment with tourist activities. Almost every day involved a trip to Fitness Thailand for a workout and venturing out for food, usually to the Chiang Mai Gate night market. Also managed a trip to Worowot Market for some shopping, a couple of Monday morning Denver Broncos games and an herbal steam.

Worowot market is a bustling hive of shops, generally consisting of two buildings and a plethora of additional shops. The streets around Worowot market are crammed with cars, motorbikes, songtheaws and people. Both buildings offer opportunities to purchase pretty much anything you might need. The only real difference is that building 2 feels like you are trapped in an MC Escher painting. Staircases leading to ramps and more ramps leading to stairs that lead to ramps, all of them lined with stalls selling everything from clothing to housewares to food. I bought a couple of shirts and some peanut yummy goodness (a sticky mixture of puffed rice, dried coconut and peanuts) and decided to save my energy for being in a crowd until the Sunday Night Walking Street.

My Monday mornings were spent at Thai 1 On Bar and Grill eating breakfast and watching the Denver Broncos play their Sunday Night Football games. The first Monday I was pretty much by myself, other than Tony (the owner) and Chien (his right hand man). Felt a little funny to be the only one yelling at the TV about bad plays and cheering for touchdowns, and I’m pretty sure Chien thinks I’m a crazy farang (as did the group of young European tourists that had arrived to eat and play pool). When the broadcast would show views of Denver on the return from commercial, I would show Chien and tell him that is where I am from. Made him very excited to see it and he doesn’t believe that Denver and Chiang Mai are the same size.

The next Monday, Tony had the game on the TV before I even got there. That Monday I was joined by 3 guys from Chicago who were just rooting for a good football game, and 2 guys from Boston that were rooting for the wrong team. Definitely a fun way to watch the game. Guess I should have actually packed my jersey (although I’m not sure I would have had room for it in my already near full suitcase).

After two days of intense training, Jo (the other student) and I headed to Spa Mantra for an herbal steam to detoxify everything that had been stirred up by the massage work. Spa Mantra is a beautiful spa located just outside of the old town. The warm and soothing interior is dressed in lush fabrics and plenty of places to relax. Upon arrival, an ice-cold, slightly sweet tea garnished with rose petals to prepare the body for the steam is served in traditional metal cups that look like small bowls. After drinking our tea and checking in, we were led up the stairs where we were given lockers for our purses and a tray containing a sarong and a hair cover. After changing, it was time for the steam.

The 8′ x 8′ room was filled with luscious smelling steam infused with beneficial herbs so thick you could barely see across the room. After awhile, maybe 15 minutes, the helper opened the door and told us it was time to come out for a few minutes. During our break we were served a room temperature brown tea with a delicious taste that I couldn’t quite recognize. The tea helps to bring the impurities out of the body. After giving our bodies a few minutes to cool, it was back into the steam. We repeated this process two more times, each time the cool tile benches became a more welcoming contrast to the hot steam. Once we could take the heat no longer, we emerged from the steam room slightly light-headed and sweat oozing from every pore combined with the moisture from the steam. A cool shower finished the process. The treatment was rounded out with hot Butterfly Pea Tea, a delicious blue hot tea that helps to improve circulation and cleanse the blood, and a plate of watermelon.

Of Keys and Motorbikes

Keys and I have a real issue in Thailand. Last trip, I blamed the number of times I left my keys in my motorbike or my guesthouse room door on the wrong dosage of a medicine I was on. This trip, I’m lacking that excuse. And while the frequency of leaving the keys in my motorbike has decreased, I’m still finding it to be a problem. Especially when I leave the ignition in the “On” position, which is a new twist to this habit. Even more problematic is when I leave it that way for 2.5 hours, as that tends to drain the battery. Fortunately, the automatic motorbikes have a kick-starter for just such instances, so long as they are on the big kickstand. The tricky part is getting the motorbike up on that stand when you only weigh half as much as the motorbike. The unfortunate part is that I actually got good at it after I left the keys in the ignition and on for another 45 minutes the next day, again draining the battery, just not as completely.

Riding a motorbike in Chiang Mai is still an experience that I relish. The weaving amongst the cars to the head of the line at traffic lights, the crosswalk taking its role as a motorbike waiting zone. The surge forward as the light turns green. Or actually, just slightly before the light turns green in that pause after the opposing traffic light turns red. The happy smiles from other motorbike drivers. The wide-eyed stares by young children squished between parents or riding standing in front of the driver. The school girls piled 3 to a motorbike with their matching uniforms of navy blue pants, orange shirts and navy blue bows tied in their thick black hair.

Of course, the opportunity to have a small mishap is always present. Fortunately, my second incident in 9 trips to Thailand was just a minor one. I was heading home after a 35 minute ride around Chiang Mai to charge the battery in the motorbike and was turning onto the moat road. Following the motorbike in front of me, I attempted to squish by the line of cars waiting to turn. By squish, I mean that there was just a very narrow strip of asphalt to precariously steer along without scraping the car next to me. Unfortunately, my motorbike skills are not quite good enough to do that, and I ended up tumbling off the pavement. The kind gentleman on the bike behind me helped to right my bike, get it back on the asphalt and generally put the mirrors back in their more appropriate positions. The motorbike and my body both sustained a few scratches but generally stayed in fine working order.

Long Road to India

About 2 years ago, I was invited to India to visit a family that I had met at the Elephant Nature Park (2 years in a row). Each time since then that I would send one of my email blogs, I would get a short message reminding me that Delhi is only a short flight from Bangkok. So this year, I decided to go visit. While it may be a short flight, the process for getting a visa to get in the country has been long, long road for me.

Shortly after booking my flights for India in September, I started the rather confusing India visa application process through the designated visa provider in the US, BLS International. Starting mid-October I began worrying about the fact that I had not heard any word on the status of my visa. As my November 14 departure date drew ever closer, my anxiety and panic rose. My attempts to contact the helpline proved futile. Finally, 6 days (3 business days) before my departure, without a visa or my passport, I had no other option but to report my passport as stolen and procure a new one so I could at least get to Thailand.

Once in Chiang Mai, I started the visa application process again. At the same time, my initial application was approved and a multi-entry visa was issued to my now invalid passport. Apparently, invalidating the old visa and just assigning a new one to my new passport is not an option. The in-person visa application requires an interview with the Consul General, an abrupt man who uses his power to make applicants feel insignificant and seems to lack any sense of compassion. After a 30-minute berating that left me in tears about the concerns of reporting a passport as stolen (yes, I know that a terrorist could steal my identity), how I was accusing India of this situation (I wasn’t, I accused BLS International), that obviously my passport wasn’t stolen (since I had a picture of my visa) and how there was no room for emotion in this situation (once I lost any sense of composure I was trying to maintain), I was sent away to get additional proof he required for the application. I found myself thinking that it was hard to believe that a country that honors Gandhi, one of the most compassionate men ever to have lived, would choose this person to represent their country.

On November 20th, I finally managed to get my application submitted, and at that time I was informed that it would take a week to get the visa processed. My flight to India was mid-day on the 27th and I still needed to fly to Bangkok to catch my flight. The cloud of anxiety still loomed over me as I began to formulate back up plans for getting to India.

After trying to not obsessively check the India visa website (the 8 times I did between the 25th and 26th, all it said was that my application was in process), I decided to make a trip in person to the consulate on the morning of the 26th. I am still convinced that the Visa Processor gentleman is the only person with compassion at the Chiang Mai India Consulate (with the exception of the door sentry, who on the second day of attempting to submit my application said “happy, happy, no tears” on my way in.) His kind smile and gentle demeanor was a welcome contrast to the Consul General. When the processor gentleman saw me, he went to get my file, and asked me when I was planning to fly. When I responded with that evening, he asked me to come back that afternoon.

Thanks to his kindness and compassion, at 2 PM (well outside the designated hours for picking up a passport) I am now in possession of a single-entry visa and will make my flight for India. And thankfully airlines do not charge extra for same-day flight arrangements.

More Elephant Time

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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.