Published: February 18th 2008December 15th 2007
My dad flew from New Mexico to meet us for our Thailand portion of the trip. Unfortunately, our airplane was deemed unsafe to fly in (mind you this was after spending the night in the Bombay airport) so we were REALLY late meeting him. I was surprised that we made it that same day at all. They ended up just taking us off of our broken airplane and walking us across the tarmac to another airplane. It baffled me that they had another airplane just sitting around that they could use! Walking through the Bangkok airport, after being in India for several weeks, was a bit of a shock. Yuri went into the restroom and when he came out reported to me that it was so clean in there that he just wanted to lay down and go to sleep! The cleanliness, along with the fact that there were trash cans all over the place, made us instantly happy to be in Thailand!
My dad had found this crazy, cool hotel in Bangkok called the Atlanta Hotel. It has been there forever and is known for its very unique decorations in addition to the sign out front that says "SEX
TOURISTS NOT WELCOME" and they are NOT kidding. The rooms looked like my college dorms but they were clean so that's all we cared about. We took advantage of the hotel swimming pool on the second evening.. Yuri and I hadn't stayed in a lot of hotels with pools on our trip!
We only had one day in Bangkok so we tried to do a walking tour from our Lonely Planet book. Our first stop was the former royal district called Ko Ratanakosin. It was filled with amazing temples adorned with lots of gold and detail. The contents of my backpack that day included a long skirt so I could go in the temples. Several girls were wearing shorts and did not know to bring long pants or skirts so they were denied entry. The Emerald Buddha was a very popular destination. When we first entered the grounds we noticed people selling big green flowers that were not yet open. As we were entering the Emerald Buddha temple we realized what they were for! Thai people were dipping them in a bowl of water in front of the temple and then touching the bulb part of the flower to
their heads! In a museum we later learned that the Emerald Buddha (he was about 4 feet tall) had different "outfits" for each of the four seasons!
That evening we went to a crazy restaurant called the Vientiane Kitchen. It was voted #1 in our Lonely Planet book but didn't turn out to be our favorite. However, the entertainment was quite entertaining! They had a band with a lead singer that would best be described as the Thai version of Prince! He was crazy! Many of the patrons around us were older white men with beautiful, young Thai girls......................... yuck!
Our hotel in Chiang Mai (Northern Thailand) was just as unique as the Atlanta. Each room had its own theme and we ended up in the disco room for the first night! One of Yuri's goals for Thailand was to go to a Thai boxing match. It was really expensive in Bangkok so we tried again in Chiang Mai. Lucky for Yuri it was cheaper and in walking distance from our hotel! While walking there to purchase our tickets we ran into a guy selling tickets for that evening's match. He led us to the venue and had
us pick out our ring-side seats! This place was a big warehouse filled with plastic tables, plastic chairs and a boxing ring in the center! Later that evening we went back to the boxing place, made ourselves comfortable with a Singha beer, and waited for the action to begin. You can imagine our surprise when 10 year old boys walked to the ring! There was something mildly disturbing about watching these young boys kick and hit the crap out of each other! They were tough little suckers though! As the night progressed, the age of the participants did as well! The last fight of the evening was between an Australian and a local Thai boxer. By local I seriously mean local. We couldn't believe it when he walked out because he was the same dude that had sold us our tickets earlier that day! He wanted a packed house enough to go out on the streets and sell tickets himself! He ended up winning by kicking the Australian guy in the head when he was down. That didn't seem quite right to me.
The next day we embarked on our 3 day, 2 night trekking adventure to a local
hill tribe. Our guide's name was pronounced "home" and when he introduced himself he said "Home, like home sweet home"! He was a real character! After a 2 hour ride in the back of a truck, we arrived at the starting point of our trek. This little hike of ours was advertised as "medium grade walking, mostly uphill". Let me just say that it was a good thing that all three of us are in decent shape! The angle of some of those hills was much steeper than anything we even encountered on Mt. Kili. Not to mention that we were essentially in a rain forest so the humidity was NOT pleasant! It was a very enjoyable hike, just more strenuous than we anticipated! One of the coolest things was a leaf that instantly closed up when you touched it! Once "home" showed us that I kept myself very amused by touching the leaves and watching them close.
That night we stayed in a traditional style Lahu house in the Lahu hill tribe village. The Lahu people originated in China but have spread down through Burma, Laos and Northern Thailand. Their homes are built on stilts and are made
Hotel Atlanta reception desk
They even still had their old telephone switch board!
out of pieces of wood or bamboo which are lashed together using strong grasses or strips of bamboo. There were chickens, roosters and pigs galore running around the village. It was very cool to see but we learned from our guide that tourism has had a very negative impact on the hill tribes. It is a very interesting dynamic and one that I had not thought about until we saw a documentary in Leh, India. The basic gist is that when tourists go to these remote places to see a different side of life. Where cultures are still self efficient, farming all their own food, using herbal medicines, bartering in a small community for things they need, and living in a close knit family environment where children learn the ways of the world from their grand parents. Some tourists assume these cultures are poor and feel sorry for the people just because they do not have the western hierarchy of needs (Money, a car and an expensive house). The tourists come and introduce their culture to these communities and the local people start wanting what the tourists have. Try to look like them, want to make money and move away
from their community. The cultures and traditions start to waiver. Pretty soon they are going to school to get an education to get a good job and move away from their small towns. There is no one left to work the farms and take care of the grand parents. The small communities that were once self sufficient plummet into poverty. Anyhow, this is happening in the hill tribes of Northern Thailand and I felt kind of bad that we were there contributing to it. The Lahu people were starting to become more interested in earning money from the tourists than sticking with their traditional farming and way of life. Several Lahu women came to our "house" that evening and helped "home" make us a wonderful dinner. This was the first glimpse we had into the mass amount of food Thai people seem to want to feed to Muzungu!
After dinner, "home" offered us the hill tribe version of moonshine! It was some sort of alcohol made out of rice! I passed because it smelled like rubbing alcohol but my dad and Yuri enjoyed it very much. At one point we were all standing on the deck talking when "home"
says to us "Excuse me, I have to plop". We all looked at each other wondering what on earth that meant; was he telling us that he was going to go #2 or what? He proceeds to walk about 15 feet away from us and farted as loud as humanly possible. He says "excuse me" and joins the group again!!! PLOP?! Someone must have told him that was the word for farting or maybe he just made it up! I'm dying to know which country uses the word PLOP!!
We left the hill tribe the following morning and walked down the steep hill to our elephant ride. Keep in mind that we went to the elephant sanctuary AFTER this trip, otherwise there may not have been an elephant ride for me. However, at the time we really did enjoy it. My dad got his own elephant while Yuri and I were on one together. The mahout sat on the elephant's neck and steered him using what sounded to us like grunting noises. He also had a stick but thank goodness he didn't use it other than to gently tap our giant friend. As we strolled down the path the
Even granny was into it!
This lady was VERY excited about every match. She was right up there next to the ring.
mahout let our elephant eat as much as he wanted. I was very happy to see that but the more I thought about it, it made tons of sense. Why not let the elephant eat the vegetation in the jungle? That way you don't have to try and feed that enormous animal on your own! Once we were on flat ground, we all got to try our hand at "steering" the elephant and sitting on his neck. He knew exactly where he was supposed to go though so we didn't really have to do anything. Near the end they had a place where you could buy bananas for your elephant. Of course we did and he KNEW it! He flung his trunk back over his head and was feeling all over us to try and find his bananas!
Our elephant trip was followed by a "rafting" trip down the river. It wasn't really river rafting, mostly floating along, but there were a few rough spots in the river that we had to navigate though. That evening we ended up at the very cool Lisu Lodge where it was relaxation time! Once again, they fed us enough food to feed
a family of 10. I guess that Thai people are so small that when they see those of us that are bigger they assume that we need to eat A LOT of food! That evening we were taken to see the shaman of the Lisu village. He explained how one becomes a shaman and what he does for people when they come to him for help. They have to bring a chicken that is sacrificed to the shaman so he can see its bones. The shaman pulls out a specific chicken bone and looks at the number of holes in the bone. These holes tell him what is going to happen to the person. For example, if someone in the village is thinking of moving to Bangkok, they go to the shaman to see if it is a good idea. If the chicken bones are wrong, they don't go! They can try again with another chicken though! Fascinating.
The following day we had the choice of getting a Thai massage, going on an ox cart ride or doing another elephant ride. We chose the ox cart ride. They piled us in the wagon part and two white oxen
pulled us around the Lisu village. It was a very bumpy ride. When we returned to the hotel, I wanted to take a picture with my ox friends! The cart driver was trying to tell me something but spoke no English so I had no idea what it was. Meanwhile, I was positioning myself near the rear end of one of the oxen for my picture when BOOM, I was on the ground! The jerk kicked me! It happened so fast that I didn't even know what happened! He got me on the back of my right leg. I was OK but the staff of the hotel were really worried about me! It never really bruised but I had a few big scrapes! My guess is that the driver was telling me either 1. not to stand so close to the ox or 2. stand next to the other ox because that one is MEAN! Go ahead, laugh all you want. I know that it's funny. Sarah got kicked by an ox!
We went back to Chiang Mai that night and stayed in a new room. The HELLO KITTY ROOM!! On our first night in that hotel they showed
me pictures of all the different rooms. I saw the Hello Kitty one and asked if it would be available when we got back. Lucky for Yuri, it was!
Our last day in the Chiang Mai area was spent at the Elephant Nature Park. My dear friend Lori had been to this park and had great things to say about it when she returned. I now know why! It is an organization that was started by a small but mighty woman named Lek. She grew up in a hill tribe where they used elephants as workers. Her father knew a lot about elephants so she learned how to take care of them from him. The park started when Lek was called by a hill tribe to help their sick baby elephant. She now has about 34 elephants that she has saved! Our day at this magical place started with a trip to the local market to collect many pounds of fruit for the day's feedings. From there we drove about 1 1/2 hours north of Chiang Mai to the park. The mahouts unloaded the fruit and started making the elephants' feeding baskets. The baskets even had their names on
Left to right: A German guy in our group, my dad, "home" and Yuri
them! We were then each assigned an elephant to feed! That day they mostly got bananas and some sort of squash looking thing! It was SO cool to feed them. You basically had to put the food on the underside of their trunk near the end. They would then wrap their trunk around the food and deliver it to their mouths! It seemed that they would swallow entire bundles of bananas whole! They had to chew the squash up though!
After that it was bath time in the river! The mahouts led the elephants to the river and we followed. We were each given a scrub brush and a bucket to splash water on them. The elephants laid down on their sides and then you could go get them wet and scrub them! Their skin is so wrinkly and loose. It kind of looks like a big bag over their bodies, especially on their legs. They seemed to really enjoy getting scrubbed. Our guide for the day was taking pictures of us with my camera and kept encouraging me to get closer to one of the elephants, standing up in the river, for a picture. Given that I had
been kicked by a large animal the day before, I was little bit hesitant! After their baths, the elephants wasted no time in getting themselves completely dirty again. They spray dirt on their backs because it acts as sunscreen for them! There were two elephants playing non-stop and it really wasn't all that different from watching two human children playing! After lunch we talked to some of the staff about elephants in Thailand and then watched a VERY disturbing documentary that was created about 10 years ago. When logging in Thailand was banned, many elephants were out of jobs. They couldn't be released into the wild so they had to figure out what to do with them. That's when the tourist trade of riding the elephants began. However, the training process that gets the elephants to the point that they can be ridden is a brutal and inhumane act. That is, of course, my own opinion but I do think you would feel the same if you saw this movie. The Elephant Nature Park and Lek are trying to prove that you can train an animal without beating and starving it; instead she uses positive reinforcement.
Elephants are a
Reach trunk reach!
These were our German friends on the trek with us. They were NOT happy that their elephant was teetering on the edge to reach a plant!
symbol of Thailand. To me that's why it is so interesting that they treat them the way that they do. I guess I should say that SOME of the people treat them the way that they do. One of the elephants at the park is completely blind because her old mahout stabbed her eyes out because she wouldn't work hard enough hauling trees up a hill. The reason that she was not working very hard was that she was pregnant but not given a chance to have her baby properly so the baby was born while the mom was trying to haul trees still and ended up dying. Her name is Jokia and you can find her on the website along with all of the other elephants and their stories. What's wrong with people? Needless to say, visiting this park and hearing some of these stories was a bitter-sweet experience. All I can say is THANK GOD there are people out there like Lek that are willing to try their hearts out to help defenseless creatures like these elephants. Here is the link to this park: http://www.elephantnaturefoundation.org/go/foundation
I hope all of you can go there one day!
There are more photos below