Monday, May 19, 2014

Bathing Beasts at Elephant Nature Park

The crew and I returned to Pai for a couple leisurely days after our time in Tham Lod Village. We found a private pool to swim in, met friends new and old, and said our goodbyes. I was off to Chiang Mai to see the elephants.

Everyone who's ever visited Elephant Nature Park (ENP) says that you just have to go there. After hearing this from four trustworthy individuals (two of which happen to be best friends of mine back home, Nathan and Sandy) I was convinced. I thought twice about the cost - $80 is steep for a day trip in Thailand - but it included transportation and an all-you-can-eat vegetarian buffet. Everyone was right. I just had to go.

ENP is a sanctuary for abused, retired, and elderly elephants. The lady in charge, Lek, has been saving elephants for years and owns a big piece of land where the beasts can roam freely. I deliberately chose to visit a sanctuary rather than your typical ride-the-elephants tour because of how the animals are treated.

Lek believes in educating her ecotourists, not just entertaining them. We watched a video on the van ride from Chiang Mai, and another later in the afternoon. Images of elephants in chains, posing with tourists on the streets of Bangkok, terrified. To make these wild animals tame they must be "broken", which is every bit as brutal as it sounds. I won't get into details here. If you're interested in learning more, one of my former coworkers wrote an excellent 2-part blog post on the matter: How to Break an Elephant (thanks Heather). 

Because riding elephants improperly can injure them, rides are not offered at ENP. There are no chains or restraints. Just a big open chunk of land for some big, gentle beasties.

We began by meeting our guide, Cherry. She introduced us to some of the elephants we'd seen in the video and advised us on how to approach them. Mostly common sense stuff like watch your toes and don't touch sensitive areas. Cherry guided us to a feeding area with a big tub of fruit and turned us loose. I approached the gentle giant cautiously at first, holding a quarter of a watermelon in my right hand. I then placed the fruit on the inside of her trunk, gave the outer-trunk a good pet, and watched as she raised the melon to her mouth and devoured it. Awesome.

Elephants eat 300 - 600 pounds of “jungle fodder” every day. Some of the older animals at ENP have trouble consuming rinds, so the sanctuary employs watermelon peelers. It takes a huge staff to run the place, plus the work of volunteers. It didn't take long to see where my money was going. It probably costs at least $80 to feed a single elephant for the day, not to mention operating costs and the expense of acquiring elephants.

My tour group was a diverse bunch. We had some Canadians, another guy from Seattle, a woman and her niece from Chile, and more. At one point Cherry asked our group if anyone knew the Thai word for "elephant". I simultaneously answered "Chang!" with one of the Canadian girls. Our group laughed. Chang's not a good beer. But there are elephants on label, and I'd learned the meaning at a bar in Chiang Mai. You never know when a little beer trivia might come in handy!

Next up: bath time. Elephants like to roll around in the mud to cool off, and its equally important that they have water access to bathe. Cherry led us down to the river, where a few elephants were waiting for us to shower them with buckets of water. We set about our task gleefully, soaking each other in the process.

Next time you're in Thailand, visit Elephant Nature Park. You just have to.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The Farmer in the Dell

Leaving Tham Lod, we were distracted by a sign. A simple sign reading "temple" with an arrow pointing to the right. Let's check it out, we thought, maybe watch the sunset from a majestic mountaintop wat. Sergio, Karina, Rosie, and I walked down the dirt road awhile in search of this imagined paradise. Meandering through dips, curves, and forks in the road we crossed a dam and discovered a gazebo in the middle of nowhere. Karina left our mark in black ink on the ceiling. 

We never found the temple. But what we did come across was far more remarkable.

A man approached Karina while the rest of us relaxed in our gazebo. She had crossed back over the dam into a field, determined to find this elusive temple. The man gestured for her to follow him. Karina communicated this to our group by yelling across the river. We followed.

The man led us to a small village across the field, four or five huts arranged loosely between papaya trees. He welcomed us into his hut, a simple, three-wall structure with a wide open entrance and deck. We removed our shoes and sat in a semicircle on the deck, a bowl of bananas between us. He encouraged us to eat, so we ate. The man disappeared into another hut for awhile, leaving us to enjoy our tiny bananas and chat amongst ourselves.

We decided he was a farmer and this was one of those hill tribes we'd all heard about. For many tourists in Thailand, the hill tribes are just another attraction: relatively expensive tours can be arranged in which one goes trekking for several days and visits "authentic" hill tribes. Such tours are a source of controversy in Thailand because of concerns that these people are being exploited. Many of the hill tribe people are Burmese refugees, not Thai citizens. Therefore their rights are limited and it's unlikely that they see much, if any, of the money brought in by tourism. An extreme example of this is the fabricated Karen longneck villages, described by some as "human zoos". Ethical tourism is a vast topic beyond the scope of this blog post, so if you want more info start with CNN's coverage of the issue here: CNN article.

Our farmer friend returned, this time with a woman - who we assumed to be his wife - and some fresh-cut papaya. They also brought out peanut flavored candies (similar in taste to Butterfinger) and some hot tea. We gratefully accepted, wishing we had something to offer in return. We sat around munching for awhile, attempting to communicate in broken Thai-English and watching the sun disappear behind the hills. Suddenly a monk appeared, presumably from the lost temple, and offered a blessing to our gracious hosts. In turn they gifted him a large papaya from a nearby tree. He was gone as swiftly and silently as he'd arrived.

At sundown the farmer man stood up. He went inside his hut and emerged with a large drum, nearly as long as he was tall. He began pounding away on it, playing music for us as the light faded. The woman joined in with a gong; we all stood up and clapped along. Karina and Rosie took turns on the drum while Sergio and I snapped photos. Despite communication barriers, we were reminded that music is a universal language understood by all. 

We thanked our hosts profusely at the end of the night before heading off into the dark jungle. We hadn't anticipated a walk back in the dark and were unprepared with only a couple tiny lights between us. It took some trial and error to find our way through the darkness, past a pack of barking dogs and back to Cave Lodge. We arrived at precisely 8 o'clock, when the kitchen was scheduled to close. We were very hungry. The staff took pity on us. We reminisced about our incredible day over a big tasty meal with beer and kombucha. I passed out not long after, exhausted.

What we shared was a truly authentic hill tribe experience. No tour, no money, no exploitation. The man invited us into his home and gave freely, expecting nothing in return. We gave what we could - laughter and thank-you's. And it was enough.

I recently contacted John Spies, owner of Cave Lodge and long-time resident of the Tham Lod area. He has spent years photographing hill tribes in the region and is considered the local expert on caves. I wanted to know more about our hosts and sent him a couple photos of the farmer.

John told me that the man is "a local Thai Shan from Tham Lod village". The Shan are a Southeast Asian ethnic group, primarily from Burma. So our friend may have been a Burmese refugee - and we may never know. It is interesting to note that we were less than ten miles from the Burmese border during our visit to Tham Lod.

These are the experiences I ventured to Thailand for. Connecting with people the world over; shared experiences as a common language. This is why I travel.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Tham Lod Spelunking

We assembled a crew for the ride. Me, Sergio, Karina, and Rosie. Or me, a guy I met in a hostel in Bangkok, and two girls we met in bars in Chiang Mai and Pai, respectively. 

Our destination was Tham Lod, one of the largest caves in Thailand (1600 meters long). Located approximately 50km northwest of Pai, the ride there was full of ups and downs - along the same steep route containing 762 curves in the opposite direction to Chiang Mai. Four of us with varying levels of motorbike experience scootering along a road with dozens of hairpin turns was quite the experience. We made it in one piece. And yes, we wore our helmets.

Karina had arranged for us to stay at Cave Lodge, a simple guesthouse in an incredible natural setting above the Nam Lang river. Opened in 1986, Cave Lodge is run by an Australian named John who just so happens to be the local cave expert. We didn't have a chance to meet John during our stay, but his book and photos provided lots of insight into the area.

After a dip in the river with our cute dog-friend, Foxy, it was cave time. We walked to the entrance and hired a guide with gas lantern, a bamboo raft, and some fish food for 800 baht total. Quite possibly the best 200 baht I've ever spent.

Photo flash and other artificial light sources are not allowed inside Tham Lod. Visitors are required to hire a guide and cannot enter the cave alone. Why the rules? It's a fragile ecosystem, home to fish, bats, and swifts. The cave is also potentially dangerous. Safety first!

We had only the light of a flame to follow, our trusty guide leading the way. Piling onto our bamboo raft, we rode along the 600m stream that runs through Tham Lod. Hungry fish swam up to the side of the raft, waiting for us to toss handfuls of food into the water. After a short ride we disembarked to explore the cave by foot. 

Our group tromped up steep staircases and through narrow passageways into the belly of the cave. At times our guide would stop, shine the lantern on a rock formation, and describe it with a single word: crocodile, snake, elephant, milk. Her conversational English was limited so we relied on these shared words to communicate. "Milk" was the most surprising - she uttered it while pointing at a breast-shaped rock, giving us all a good laugh.

                                                                See the croc?

After nearly two hours of caving, we boarded the bamboo raft again and were paddled to the exit. There was a great flurry overhead as we approached. Hundreds of swifts flying in circles - a feathery vortex. At dusk thousands of swifts pour into the cave to claim their stalagmite perches for the night. We considered waiting but had a couple hours to kill, so we wandered back toward the entrance of the park. Only we didn't make it that far. Something distracted us, taking us off course into an unforgettable experience - one of the most memorable I had in Thailand. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Another Slice of Pai

Renting and riding a motorbike in Pai was a breeze. Probably because I had eased into navigating Thai streets by bicycle back in Chiang Mai. I hadn't ridden a scooter in a couple years, since my trip to Turkey. I mentioned this to the attendant at Aya Service where I picked up the bike, hoping for a brief overview. He obliged. 

The guy pointed at the kickstand. "Up."

Then at the left handbrake. "Brake. This one better."

He turned the key, motioning toward the ignition switch. "Start. Go."

And I was off. No mention of the gas tank, which was nearly empty, or how to open the seat compartment to refill it. Nothing about the turn signals or headlights. Minor details. Can't be bothered. It was all simple enough to figure out on my own anyway.

I rode to Pai Canyon in the early afternoon, 8km south of town. Sometimes referred to (rather optimistically) as the Grand Canyon of Thailand, Pai Canyon is an impressive viewpoint and a great place to catch the sunset. I wandered a bit and vowed to come back for sundown, as the midday heat was hovering around 100 degrees. Too hot for this north-westerner. 

Sergio arrived in Pai the next day and I picked him up on my scooter. Riding with two people is challenging for a novice. I swerved as we accelerated, dodging and weaving through pedestrians and other vehicles. No incidents to report, thankfully.

Sergio checked in at Yawning Fields and with nothing else to do, I taught him how to drive the motorbike. He sped off for several minutes, long enough for me to wonder if I'd ever see him or my motorbike again. In the evening we joined a pub crawl, where we met Karina from Eugene, Oregon who just so happens to be a fellow vegetarian. We chatted awhile and parted ways, neglecting to exchange contact information.

The next day we ran into Karina in the street. She was looking for something to do and I suggested sunset at Pai Canyon, so we planned to meet again later. Once 5:30 rolled around Sergio was sleeping soundly in his bungalow, so I went to meet Karina alone. We took the long way there for a change of scenery. As I came round a corner in the lead, I nearly ran into something completely unexpected.

Two Asian elephants were walking down the road, taking up the entire left lane.

I laughed, slowed down, and went around. The elephants' mahouts (trainers) were with them, and it seemed they were just out for a stroll. Like walking the dog. 

Karina brought a bottle of local kombucha and we drank it while watching the sunset. We discussed travel and work and life, and she invited me to join her the next day for an overnight trip to some caves up north. It turned out to be one of the most spontaneous and rewarding decisions I've made so far. The sun disappeared. We rode back in the dark, tired and content, looking forward to our next adventure.

Pai: The long and winding road

My time in Pai was at times exciting, but mostly leisurely and restful. I spent one week there and will do my best to sum it up properly without too much unnecessary detail.

The steep and winding road from Chiang Mai to Pai is said to contain 762 curves. Yes, someone counted. I was picked up from my guesthouse by a songthaew, a covered pickup with passenger seating in the form of two long, parallel benches in the back. Songthaew are the standard mode of transportation for many locals in lieu of buses or taxis. They are cheaper, slower, and less comfortable than most other four-wheeled options. The driver squeezed nine of us inside - me and four couples. With all of our luggage.

I had paid 150 baht for an air-conditioned van to Pai. Imagining riding up 762 rolling curves sandwiched between two smelly hippies in the back of a pickup truck was not my idea of a good time. Fortunately the agony only lasted a short while, as we pulled into a bus station and chaotically transferred to our AC van. Relief.

I'd heard about Pai from friends before coming to Thailand. I had a picture of it in my mind: that hippie oasis in the north where life is easy and the birds sing while you nap in hammocks and eat copious amounts of Thai food. Actually, this illusion is more accurate than one might imagine. But there's more to Pai than that. The people are relaxed and welcoming, it's nearly cheaper than dirt, and once you arrive it's very difficult to leave. Compared to the rest of Thailand it's same same, but different.

After a week in Thailand's two biggest, busiest cities it was nice to slow down and chill out.

I stayed at Yawning Fields, referred by my friends Nathan and Sandy. For 200 baht/night (less than $7) I had a private nature bungalow. Emphasis on the nature part. At any given time I was likely to find geckos, ants, mosquitos, wasps, and other such creepy crawlies in my room. I learned very quickly to use the provided mosquito net. One night I wore a citronella bracelet on my left arm while sleeping. I woke up to a dozen or more bites on my right arm; my left untouched. Forgive the lame pun, but mosquitos suck.

Natural nasties aside, Yawning Fields was pure bliss. Co-owner Ming, a feisty Thai lady, cooks up some mean local and international dishes. Her cooking, combined with their policy of paying nothing till you leave, made it extremely tempting (and dangerous) to stay in Pai for a very long time. I could literally do nothing but eat Ming's food all day without leaving the property or handing over any baht. Too convenient. 

As relaxing as Pai is, I can only sit still for so long without developing cabin fever, wanderlust, or some related disorder. Fortunately, motorbikes are readily available in town for 140 baht per day. I rented a bike for nearly the entire duration of my stay in Pai, exploring every nook and cranny I could get to on two wheels.

Still hungry? Have Another Slice of Pai

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Chiang Mai by Bicycle

I decided to rent a bicycle. I wasn't quite ready to try a motorbike in Chiang Mai traffic. Even a pedal bike was intimidating at first: getting out of the old city is a nightmare. Chiang Mai's old city is a walled-in square mile, full of guesthouses, restaurants, and temples. Portions of the old wall, built in 1800, are still standing and the entire square is surrounded by a moat. Yes, just like a castle. But being inside the walls sometimes feels like being trapped in a box. Must. Get. Out!

Getting outside the box is tricky on a bicycle. It involves crossing two busy one-way lanes of traffic on roads where rules either do not exist or are simply not followed. I had to psyche myself up a bit before plunging in, sweating bullets in the heat and actually pulling over once out of exasperation. 

I can do this. I can ride a bike in Chiang Mai. I've jumped out of a plane. I've hitchhiked across western Turkey. I've worked retail. This is not that hard.

Sometimes a little self-assurance is all it takes. I was off into the traffic, white-knuckling it the whole way as motorbikes and cars sped past me. I had a rough idea of my destination: west, towards the university and a forest temple I'd read about. Along the way I stopped to get my bearings and ended up at a large temple complex. Curious, I rode around for a photo and found a monk, dressed in an orange robe and smoking a cigarette. He asked me where I was from.

"USA," I replied.

"Ah, USA. Smoke?" He said and offered me the cigarette. 

This gesture was perplexing for a couple reasons. First, I was being offered a cigarette by a monk. This doesn't happen every day, at least in my experience. Second, there was the assumption that as an American, surely I was a smoker. Or that's how it came across at the time. In retrospect he was probably just being nice and didn't have any preconceived notions whatsoever about the smoking habits of American citizens. 

I declined, of course, and we attempted to converse but had very few common words between us. He finished his cigarette and walked off towards the temple, leaving a storm in his wake.


I wasn't expecting a storm. The forecast said cloudy and hot with a chance of thunder in the evening, but it was midday. A fierce wind kicked up, blowing hot, dry dust up from the street and into my face. Locals took shelter in their homes, holding a bandana or shirt over their noses and mouths. I had only my bicycle. Better find shelter fast.

Squinting into the dust, I pedaled slowly around to the temple's entrance. There, another orange-clad monk wielding an enormous digital SLR camera was taking photos of the havoc and debris. I smiled, pondering my own ignorance of modern Buddhist practice in Thailand. Monks smoke and own smartphones and cameras. They're human. 

I found shelter at an overpriced coffee shop with wifi, AC, and a toilet. Perfect. I Skyped with my sister and waited for the storm to pass. By this time it was raining quite heavily, a tropical thunderstorm out of nowhere. I wasn't about to ride in it. 

Back on the road an hour later, I headed straight for Wat U-Mong, a forest temple. Ever since playing The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time as a kid, I've secretly hoped to visit a real-life forest temple. U-Mong did not disappoint.


I chained my ride to a tree and set off to the temple on foot, removing my flip-flops before entering. The temple is comprised of a network of brick-lined tunnels said to be built around 1380. Ancient. Above these tunnels a large, impressive stupa presides over the complex. I explored the grounds and ended up at a lake surrounded by hundreds of hungry pigeons. 

On the way back I purchased an ice-cold water bottle at 7-11. I placed it in the basket above my front wheel, thinking it was better off there than weighing down my backpack. Wrong. Speeding down the highway on my bicycle with newly gained confidence, I hit a bump in the road and the bottle flew out into traffic. Oops. I'm sure someone hit the bottle and it exploded, but I was moving too quickly to turn back for a look. I had only taken a couple sips and was waterless once again. Major bummer.

Water woes aside, I was having a great time. I stopped by Chiang Mai University for some more water and a few selfies, then pedaled back into the old town.

For dinner I met a Couchsurfing acquaintance, Laury. She'd heard of this great vegetarian restaurant called Cooking Love and recommended we go there without any knowledge of my self-imposed dietary restrictions. Perfect!

Cooking Love's tofu fried rice was among the best meals I've had in Thailand. I highly recommend the place. After dinner we went to an Irish pub for a beer. I was disappointed to see that Guiness cost twice as much as domestic brews, but wasn't at all surprised. I begrudgingly ordered a Chang, sat down, had a beer and felt sorry for myself (not really).

Laury and I met a French girl at the bar, Rosianne. We got to chatting about plans in Thailand and the girls decided to meet up the next day for a tour. I was leaving for Pai the next day and couldn't join them, but agreed to meet Rosianne in Pai later that week. Little did I know that several days later I'd be cruising up the highway on motorbikes with Rosianne, Sergio, and another character you'll soon meet. This is the backpacker life, where strangers become instant friends. This is Thailand. 

Chiang Mai Markets + Munchies

Day two in Chiang Mai was a busy one. We checked out a local market, Wararos, where goods are a fraction of the cost compared to more touristy markets. I ate mango sticky rice for the first time and fell in love. Now I eat it every few days for breakfast or dessert. Such a simple pleasure: sticky rice topped with fresh-cut mango, with coconut milk poured over the top. Sometimes they add little crunchy things too. All for 40 baht. Heavenly.


The real highlight of the day, though, was my first Thai massage.


Later Sergio and I perused the Sunday evening walking street market. It's basically a long street with shoulder-to-shoulder tourists flashing money and local merchants eating it up. Fun to see once, but I tired of it after all of five minutes. I guess I've been in Thailand long enough that the tourist markets annoy me more than they impress. I much preferred Wararos, the local market we'd visited earlier in the day.

Sergio departed for Chiang Rai the next day, leaving me solo yet again. It's always bittersweet to say goodbyes, not knowing when (or if) you'll see the person again. It turns out that I would see Sergio again later in my travels, and a bit sooner than expected...

Some more photos from Chiang Mai: