Tuesday, July 25, 2006

It's off to Chiang Mai to give a few elephants a bath or two!

July 25th - 31st. Taking the overnight train tonight to Chiang Mai - and phew, thank goodness it was nothing like my Sapa trip! In fact, almost felt like being on the Orient Express. Met Katherine, a fab girl from Liverpool so we chatted the night away, and made plans to meet up after she had finished her trek.

Hilarious morning as I sat in the cafe car of the train having breakfast, and talking to the crew. Realised after a while that only Katherine and I were passengers, everyone else was crew, with most folks getting their food delivered to their sleeper! Apparantly there was a dance carriage on the train last night, oops how did i manage to miss that! Talked with the manager - wow, he loved his 80's hits i have to say, in fact everyone in the carriage sang and danced away that morning - talk about being happy in your work!

Arrived in Chiang Mai and took a saangthaw (2 seater type of tuk-tuk but a bit bigger) to my guest house...then went for a potter. Met a new found friend, Florian, a classical opera singer from Vienna, so we went out for a look around town together and then visited yet another wat (oops do i sound a wee bit watted- out...)? They are all so gorgeous and a big part of each town you visit, but there are quite alot of them i have to say! We checked out Wat Phra Singh, which was really beautiful and we arrived, just as lots of the monks were coming out of prayer time..have to say their orange robes really do work well with the golds and reds of many of the buildings...(ahem, my fashion note for the day!).

July 28th. Up and at 'em today - its my Thai cookery course - a staple activity here in Chiang Mai, but I'm quite excited as it is at the local organic farm and some friends i met ('member Pat and Carolien!) highly recommended it so yellow curry, tom yam soup - here I come! Great group - 6 couples and me surprise surprise but we had a fab laugh together! Started off at the local market, gotta love these places for great photo opps! Then on to the farm with our fabulous teacher, Su! Very funny girl and happy to make fun of the daft tourists and their low tolerance for spicy food. Note to self - when using really fresh chillis no need to overdo it - one of my curry dishes was blow-your-mouth-off hot! Really lovely as we walked around the organic garden picking our veggies - do you like our sun hats? Then it was down to business. We made so much food - all really delicious and really easy. Don't worry folks - i have the recipe book so I'll definitely be trying them out on you when i get back! After my civilized day out, I headed back into town and met up with Katherine where we had a mini-pub crawl around town....lets just say another one (or two) of those lovely 'bucket" drinks was involved. What is wrong with a glass, people!

July 29th. Yippeee - i know i always sound excited when i do something new, but this was what i was waiting for - my 2 days as an elephant helper had arrived! Incredible time - don't know where to start except to say that I took way, way, way, too many pictures (dont worry, I won't make you all sit through them (about 400 elephant shots maybe...) but you couldn't help snapping. These creatures are just so majestic and gorgeous - and so human too, the more you hang out with them. Michelle, an Australian woman who lives at the sanctuary took us through the background of the park, and what Lek, this tiny wee Thai woman, has been through in order to save 32 elephants (so far) from awful situations. I could go on and on about this experience. It was really amazing. Not only did we feed the elephants (those trunks are mad, with over 70% of the animals sensitivity there)..but we jumped in the water and washed them - which they really like apparantly. However, contrary to popular belief, they don't like to be patted, it does nothing for them. So many stories to tell here. The elephants themselves. Lily; a drug addict who had two owners; one used her during the day for trekking with tourists, the other at night for illegal logging so she was pumped full of amphetimines to keep going. Jokia, already blind in one eye, who wouldn't get up 'cos she was so grief stricken when she miscarried, so her owner blinded her in her other eye to punish her! So now she is completely blind, but has a great wee pal, Maeperm, who never leaves her side and keeps her in the know as to what is going on!

And then there is Lek. What a woman. Very low key and hands on with all the "mahouts" aka trainers or individual handlers for each elephant. Ostracized by her family, all of whom work in the trekking/tourism business, she has spent her whole life trying to save these beautiful creatures from terrible lives. Never mind the fact she is on a government hit list...for trying to disrupt the multi-million dollar tourism industry here. Things have gotten a little better for her since recently being highlighted as one of the top 25 influential women in Asia but who knows what will happen in the future as she continues to raise awareness about this issue! There are now only 2,500 elephants left in Thailand, and because more and more tourists visit, and part of the Chiang Mai experience is to trek and ride an elephant (which i have to say i really wanted to do but now i just couldnt after hearing some of these stories)...then the elephants are being trained earlier and earlier, and they die sooner because they are being worked harder; so its not really the smartest strategy as Thailand will very soon run out of elephants and indeed, there is plenty of smuggling going on between Myanmar, and Malaysia right now, to get more elephants for tourism in Thailand. Hey - i certainly dont mean to come across as a boring non-fun person, but once you see these animals you really feel bad about how they are treated (of course we know people do worse things to each other, but every little bit of good helps, right?). Now i sound like a cross between Pollyanna and Debbie Downer (a character from Saturday Night Live who ruins everyone's good times!). Sorry! Check out the sanctuary at www.elephantnaturepark.org. Oh yes, also met some very interesting people here! (and i just love my flower shot so thats why its here). But more about the elephants - day 2 we took them for a walk into the forest, so cool. But so weird walking right next to a giant creature with the biggest feet you have ever seen! Too funny when we had a wee traffic jam as they stopped to eat and eat and eat - you have no idea how much food these animals pack away.. something like 150 kilos a day (hmmn not sure if that is right..) but its a lotta food anyway. Oh yes and we saw the trees tied with material, blessed by monks so that none of the local logging people will cut them down. Lek went to see the head monk in Chiang Mai and not only did he bless all the material, he and all the monks from the surrounding wats came to the sanctuary and helped tie them around the trees themselves! Of course, there are those cynics who said it won't take long for the owners to bring in Christian or secular workers who dont care about Buddhist blessed trees, but for now at least, there has been no more logging in and around the sanctuary! So what can i say - clearly this has been an incredible few days that everyone should be lucky enough to experience....elephants, you just gotta love them!


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