Sawasdee krab, Thailand! We have been looking forward to the delicious food, tiny napkins, inexpensive accommodation, “moats” around sugary dishes, ultra cheap massages, and helping herds of elephants.
From Sydney, we flew fancy pants business class to Bangkok. Thank you again credit card points! We only had three days in Bangkok this time. Most of it was spent in Seacon Square Mall having boba tea, eating, getting 2 hour massages for ~$15, eating, relaxing around the house, eating, running errands, eating, dancing (Rumpuree Salsa), or eating. We continued the tradition of having goose and “marshmallow tacos” on the way to the airport. Be sure to have the bittermelon to counteract the poison in the goose. No, I’m not making that up.
Next, we took a quick one-hour flight to Chiang Mai. At this point, nearly everyone is wearing a face mask to protect themselves from the coronavirus. We joined the mask party.
After we landed in Chiang Mai, we took an official cab to our $15 per night hotel. Yep… $15 per night, total, for both of us. The room was fine. It was clean, had a private bathroom, hot water (after we flipped the correct switch in the fuse box), a reasonably comfortable bed, refrigerator, complimentary tea/coffee, and free WiFi. Laundry was offsite. The only catches were that the hotel was around a mile from the old city center and had a religous theme (bible quotes on water, signs depicting Jesus with a point system for your life, and a room for church services). A little walking was welcome after the food-extravaganzathon in Bangkok. Ironically, we walked directly to the night bazaar for more food (som tam and coconut smoothies) with a friend from Los Angeles. Over the next few days, we hopped into the red truck taxi-ish vehicles, visited Catmosphere Cat Cafe, Doi Suthep, enjoyed the local dish (khao soi), and wandered around Chiang Mai.
We have a primary reason to visit each country on our itinerary. For this particular trip to Thailand, it was to volunteer with the Elephant Nature Park. We heard (no pun intended) about it from a friend and read about it online. Being in close proximity to elephants and assisting with the chores sounded great, but the experience exceeded our expectations. The park is ~90 acres filled with many large piles of poop, 84 elephants (total), 500+ dogs, 600+ cats, thousands of pounds of fruits, and about 70 volunteers weekly from around the world.
A shuttle picked us up from our hotel in Chiang Mai. An hour and a half later, we arrived at the Elephant Nature Park. The first day was primarily an orientation. We watched a video where a cartoon tourist did everything wrong and was repeatedly critically injured by the elephants. We got the message. The park provided basic accommodation and three vegan meals a day. I thought that I would be dissatisfied with strict vegan meals, but they were all very good (see all Thai food). Each night, we had an activity like a movie (Love and Bananas), a Thai culture lesson (we learned a very catchy Thai children’s song https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x5f24pv), traditional dance performances, and a talk/walk with the founder of the park, Lek. Overall, it felt like adult camp with elephants. Also a unique place to celebrate my birthday.
6:30. Wake up. Walk by the Cat Kingdom and “platform dogs” to the breakfast area.
7: Breakfast. Tea and coffee were available all day.
8-10:30 or 11: Work morning shift.
1-4: Work afternoon shift.
7 to 8 or 8:30: Nightly entertainment. This was prime time for a one-hour massage. Some people even had a cat on their stomach kneading while they were getting a massage. Jyn very badly wanted that experience.
Around 9:30: Start thinking about going to bed. We would walk back to our room, check to see if a climbing cat had sneaked inside through the roof (happened twice), shower, and go to bed by 10:30-11ish.
Numerous dogs and cats kept us company throughout the day. The schmedium sized dogs usually chased the huge water buffalo away for fun. We even witnessed the classic “dog chase cat up a tree” scenario. Priceless.
The work portion of each day consisted of jobs called “Elephant Poo”, “Elephant Food”, “Clean up Park”, “Elephant Sinks” and “Fire Break”. Each job is reasonably self-explanatory, but scaled up to level elephant. We can see why a small army is a necessity. For example, “Elephant Food” could mean sorting a thousand pounds of bananas into yellow or green piles, cleaning 100 pumpkins, washing squash, peeling bananas, or unloading a truck full of watermelons with your team. In my opinion, fire break was the most physically demanding as we had to clear a 40-foot wide strip through the edge of a dense forest, uphill, for a 100 meters. Long sharp thorns punctured my shoes. Branches, vines, and shrubbery full of bugs eroded the skin on my legs. All of the dust and particles in the air stuck to us like rocket grade adhesive (I still have some actual rocket adhesive on my khaki shorts from a year ago). The “elephant poo” job was not that bad. We shoveled hundreds of pounds of poop into a trailer with a bunch of new friends. Crappy friends. It reminds me of the famous book never written called “the Brown Spots on the Wall” by Who Flung Dung. Some of the turds were the size of grapefruits. If the excrement was left to bake in the sun for a few hours, it was solid enough to juggle. I knew there was a higher calling for that skill beyond my high school talent show.
After a week of being around the elephants, we had many stories. We watched a group of elephants huddle around Lek, who rescued them, and hug her with their trunks. If she sat on the ground, an elephant would carefully stand directly over her as if she were part of the herd. We watched an elephant named “Guey Hom” (translated means “Banana”) play in the river with his mahout like a little kid spraying water everywhere and flopping around. Then, he decided to get out, roll in the mud, deliberately knock over a clothing line, and join in a soccer game instead of going to his enclosure for bedtime. Since no chains or metal tools are used on the elephants, it can be tricky to maneuver the multi-ton pachyderms on a set schedule.
Elephants can live as long as humans. We met Yai Bua, who is 104 years old. She spent the first 99 years of her life logging and trekking before she was rescued. All five of her calves were taken away at birth. However, after she arrived at the park, she was finally able to look after a young elephant as if it were her own. She was much happier. Elephants form deep bonds with each other and are very empathetic. They will mourn the deaths of others and even designate another elephant to watch after their loved ones when they pass. Yai Bua may not live much longer due to a number of inoperable issues. In an additional effort to make her remaining time as enjoyable as possible, she gets everything that she wants from her favorite sliced melons and peeled yellow bananas to blankets and a warm fire at night.
During an educational stroll through the park, an elephant chased our group. The elephant was named “Chana”. Our guide noticed that Chana was walking towards us without his mahout (trainer/keeper). We were told to walk away, which we did. We crossed small bridges to create separation, but Chana kept following us and getting closer. Then, our guide, says “Ummm… Running!” Our group ran down the nearest path as Chana was ushered in a different direction. Would Chana have harmed us? Probably not, but a little extra cardio was good for everyone.
On multiple occasions, we fed the elephants. It was impressive and hilarious to witness the dexterity of their trunk. They would carefully take a single banana from you, hold it, and wait for others because a single banana wasn’t worth retracting their trunk. You could hand them an entire bushel of bananas or an entire pumpkin. Elephants eat about 10% of their body weight per day. That means a five-ton elephant eats about 1000 pounds of food per day!
Pro Tip: Do not ride elephants, buy their paintings, or pay for their shows/performances. We had no idea about the cruelty that is required to get elephants to do those tasks. Literally, ALL of those elephants have a common history of intense torture. The Elephant Nature Park rescues the broken, disabled, and/or old elephants and gives them the best treatment they can for the remainder of their lives. The elephants are treated so well that they have become picky. They won’t eat unwashed pumpkins, unripe bananas, or squash that is too green. No chains, ropes, or metal tools are used on elephants in the park. Rather, they are guided with love and bananas. The park also rescue dogs, cats, goats, and water buffalo. If you want to volunteer, check their website to reserve your spot (https://www.elephantnaturepark.org/)
On our way back into town, we stopped at the Karen Hill Tribe’s New Years party with Lek. We were blessed with string bracelets and offered food inside their homes.
After we returned to Chiang Mai and following the complete sanitization of our elephant poop-dusted belongings, I went to the gym (relatively expensive, $6 for one use), we practiced the elephant song, went dancing, and had boba tea in Nimman. Nimman was our favorite area of Chiang Mai. It is clean and modern yet retained a Thai feel. Plus, we found fun and free salsa dancing on Sundays (One Salsa One Nimman on Facebook) in a covered pavilion at 1 Nimman.
Thailand was delightful as usual. Time to get to the airport to go to the first country that neither of us has ever been to, Vietnam. Exciting! The seven-kg carry-on limit for the plane, not exciting! Bonus picture… Here is what packing feels like Every. Single. Time.