Archive for the 'thailand' Category

a day with the ellies

Thursday, June 1st, 2006

what an incredible day!

since we arrived in thailand, i’ve been trying to find a way to spend some quality time interacting with elephants, without supporting any of the practices which are so exploitative (trekking, rides, shows, etc.) I feel so strongly about respecting and caring for these gorgeous creatures that i’d sooner ride a trained tiger than get on one of the park benches strapped to the back of so many of the tourism elephants. so i was beiginning to think i’d end up leaving the country without getting up close and personal with any ellies, when i finally stumbled upon elephant nature park. it’s an organisation run by a woman named lek, and it’s so unique to these parts that it’s been featured by national geographic, the bbc, discovery channel, animal planet and others. and i consider myself so lucky to have found it too.

lek runs a sanctuary for elephants which is devoted to respecting, protecting, and caring for these giants without violence or exploitation of any type. she currently provides a home for around 30 ellies, all rescued from a variety of “work” backgrounds or orphaned. and in the course of saving these animals, she has become a one-woman crusade for changing the treatment and legal protections of elephants in thailand.

as a country which purports to revere the elephant, it is shocking to learn how few protections and resources the thai government grants them. one hundred years ago, there were 100,000 elephants in thailand – today there are fewer than 5,000. and that number is continually dropping as more elephants die from overwork and abuse. the elephant has no more protection than a common cow in the eyes of the law, and in practice, elephants are objects of property, with which the owner can do whatever they like, almost free of consequence. and so the ellies which lek rescues all come from a myriad of horror story backgrounds. deliberately blinded, victims of landmines, orphaned by poachers, shattered by tractor-trailer trucks, even addicted to speed. the one thing they all have in common, however, is as victims of the pujan. the pujan is a traditional rite for “breaking” an elephant – physically, mentally, spiritually. footage of the horrific ceremony makes grown men cry, and once you’ve seen it, it’s impossible to erase the nightmare from your memory. the elephant is isolated, bound into a crate for 4-10 days, nearly immobilised and deprived of all food and water and sleep while they undergo hour after hour of torture. they’re stabbed, burned, and beaten with knifes, nails and sticks. they’re roped and gagged and bloodied. their eyes are wild with fear and pain, and the helpless cries would haunt you. the more they resist, the worse it gets, until finally, there is no more resistance, only a shell of an animal left. wounded, traumatised, and scared. all in the name of creating a submissive elephant which will respond to commands and perform party tricks. almost every elephant undergoes this at the age of two – emerging from it much like a p.o.w., scarred, and like all victims of extreme abuse, potentially dangerous.

this custom is so widespread, yet so little known. and lek is on a mission to eradicate it, by publicising it internationally, and receiving death threats as a result. ( in fact, one of her ellies was tragically poisoned while she was in hiding, as retribution for the negative publicity – a guilt and grief she still carries with her.) she’s out to prove that elephants can be raised and trained with positive reinforcement, and to keep other ellies from enduring the pujan. she’s determined to prove that ellies can be just as profitable to tourism in their natural environment as they can performing on the streets or in trekking camps.

and so our magical day with the ellies was spent feeding them, bathing them, watching them play – just being with them, being ellies. which is really all the universe intended for them in the first place.

again, i can’t endorse lek’s work highly enough. if these stories moved you, please consider donating to her cause. she’s an incredible woman doing incredible things, and i am in awe of her passion and commitment. see the rest of the photos here.

in the “it’s a small blogosphere” category, we met a couple named tim and jessica at the elephant park, and as we we’re talking, i couldn’t shake the feeling that i knew them from somewhere. then, suddenly it hit me: i’d been reading their round-the-world blog before we left on our trip! it was all a bit surreal. we had a great time chatting with them, and wish them well on the last leg of their journey.

thai top ten

Wednesday, May 31st, 2006

the thai are really lovely people – genuinely interested in you and where you’re from (even when they’re not trying to sell you something).

they are, however, ridiculous drivers.

i’ve been trying to think of some uniquely thai cultural observations, but i think that coming off the culture shock of china, thailand feels so… easy to acclimate to, that it’s a bit unfair; i feel like i haven’t given them my full attention or appreciation. so to rectify this, here’s my “top ten things i love about thailand”:

1. the weather – even when it’s raining, it feels exotic and sultry.

2. the beaches – a bit obvious, i know, but they’re beautiful.

3. buddhism – the more i learn, the more i want to know. i took a uni class on buddhism (way back when i was seriously thinking of being a religion major) but this requires some further personal exploration on my part.

4. the architecture – so elegantly soothing to the eye.

5. the street food – we’ve regularly eaten some of the best food from pushcart vendors. pancakes, curries, noodles. yum.

6. papaya salad – i’m addicted.

7. the people are so damn gorgeous.

8. motorbikes – schoolchildren, women in coifs, heels and gloss, little old men who can barely see over the handlebars. everyone drives them. the well co-ordinated drive whilst holding umbrellas.

9. their complete and utter devotion to their king. boy, they sure do love him.

10. songthaews – why don’t we have these in london? cheaper than taxis, more trustworthy than tuk-tuks, these open trucks are hop-on/hop-off shared rides and one of the best ways to get from point a to point b.

so there you have it. i adore thailand, and if i haven’t waxed lyrical, it’s only because it’s so easy to take it for granted. it’s warm and welcoming, and delightful in every way, and i will be very sad to say goodbye. luckily our next flight is out of bangkok, so i don’t have to, just yet.

ants in my pants

Monday, May 29th, 2006

we’re here in chiang mai after another long overnight bus ride (how they can turn a 450 km trip into a 12 hour journey is beyond me, but whatever…) and we’re here for 5 days while we get some errands sorted. i’ve come to the realisation that 4 days is pretty much my limit anywhere before i start to get antsy. so although it’s a nice enough city, chiang mai is frustrating me only halfway through day 2. part of it is due to malaria med complications – i bought some lariam in bangkok, but only a few because some people have bad side effects, so i didn’t want to sink a lot of money into them if i only ended up quitting them. fortunately, i have had no problems with them. unfortunately, i now cannot get any more here in chiang mai, as the official advice is *not* to take chemical prophylaxis (this from the malaria center) and instead get tested after being in a malarial area, and treated only if you’ve picked it up. so i can get lariam after i get sick, but not before. not what i wanted to hear. so i’ve been trying random pharmacies with no luck and kicking myself for not just buying them when i could. (part of me thinks that if i haven’t got malaria by now, i never will – my ankles are an unrecognisable pulpy mess, despite loads of deet.) part of it is jonno’s “wat fatigue” – he’s just not interested in seeing another buddha, no matter how old or historic. part of it is the heat and afternoon rains, which make aimlessly walking the city for hours on end (our favourite pasttime) a lot less fun. all in all, chiang mai is feeling a whole lot like kunming – someplace perfectly nice where i just don’t wanna be. sigh. there is the possible prospect of visiting an elephant sanctuary (after extensive research on my part, because if i see some mahout with a stick talking about “training”, i will *not* be a happy camper) but we may have left it too late to book. we have to idle here until friday (vietnam visas take their own sweet time to arrive) and i’m just a grumpy gus.

please be good to the ellies

Sunday, May 28th, 2006

the abuse and exploitation of the elephants i’ve seen thus far really just breaks my heart. i can’t take it. babies separated from their mommas in the jungle and paraded through the streets of bangkok, crying piteously. elephants chained by the leg in the hot sun, waiting for dumbass ignorant tourists to ride them like common pack mules, being beaten with sticks.

elephants are not domesticated, nor do they exist for our amusement. it kills me to see them treated that way. i really can’t take it.

bridge over the river kwai

Friday, May 26th, 2006

we’re in kanchanaburi, at the famous bridge over the river kwai. and although there’s not much to actually see, somehow that’s even more moving. thirty eight POWs died for every kilometre of track that was laid – and in the end, the brits sold it back to the thais like so much scrap metal, for 50 million baht. less than a million pounds.

the things men do in the name of war do not speak to how highly we prize our life and liberties, but rather to how little we value the lives and freedoms of others.

war cheapens us all.

nemo finds saturday night fever

Thursday, May 25th, 2006

there are some experiences so surreal, that the full impact of the whole thing just quite defies description. for example, i cannot adequately convey to you what it is like to be on a jumbo sleeper bus which is completely decked out from stem to stern in neon purple and hot pink velour quilting and dust ruffles, in seats resembling plush dentist chairs, whilst being serenaded by horrifically schmaltzy thai pop at top volume. it’s like “finding nemo” meets a bad 70’s disco inside a giant lounge-mobile.

utterly bizarre.

the good, the bad, and the ugly

Thursday, May 25th, 2006

there are some surprises that happen on the journey which make a day or experience unexpectedly wonderful – something little, something unplanned, something you could never have written into the script. fr example, this great little secluded beachside cafe we ran across that had wonderful cocktails at sunset, the best papaya salad i’ve had so far in thailand, (and i’ve had a lot), and ambiance galore. it was cheap, delicious, and utterly charming, and i wished we’d run acoss it days ago. the whole evening just left me with the kind of warm glow that you can’t orchestrate.

and there are some surprises that just turn a whole day crappy – where things could’ve taken a right turn, but instead went haywire leaving you confused and anxious and distressed. like when the travel agent didn’t show up on time at the pier so you end up being shunted onto a floating barge instead of the express passenger ferry you paid for, and there’s no recourse, of course, but the whole ridiculous thing makes you want to scream in frustration because you’re already hot and tired and am already long journey just got that much longer.

and then there’s the kind of unpleasant surprise that leaves a bitter taste in your mouth, and just riled up to the point of fury. like the unexpected encounter with the guy who took our 400 baht for a hotel booking which didn’t exist, and after swallowing that bitter pill, we were again confronted with him at the ferry – a shouting match ensued, several choice epithets were uttered… and then we still had to look at his mug all the way to the mainland.

sometimes you get the good, sometimes the bad, and sometimes the ugly. you just gotta learn to roll with the punches baby, because sometimes life gives you a bowl of cherries, and sometimes lemons – it’s all part of the territory. when you invite the unexpected, you open yourself up to the whole spectrum. i’ve never been great at it – but i’m getting better by the day.

sensual samui

Monday, May 22nd, 2006

we’ve spent the past two days on bophut beach, koh samui, trying to get in a little island relaxation before we head north. i was hoping for some quality beach time, as we’re in a little oceanfront bungalow, but the weather hasn’t been entirely co-operating and so far our stay has been somewhat damper than we would’ve liked. still, there is something undeniably magical about turquoise waters, sand between the toes and a salt tang in the air that does the trick every time. i’m fighting a losing battle witht he ants who want to take over the beach hut and the geckoes that follow, but it’s hard to complain when you’re lulled to sleep by the sound of lapping waves just a few metres from your pillow. and really, thee’s nothing in this world that sitting on a porch, drinking a cold beer and listening to some jack johnson can’t cure.

so even though the bikini hasn’t seen much daylight, we’re having fun exploring – renting a motorbike, touring the waterfalls, stopping off for afternoon pina coladas. i haven’t been on a bike in a few years, and while i know driving one is undeniably fun, i’d forgotten that there is something intensely sexy about being a passenger on the back of one. your thighs wrapped around a guy, your chest to his broad shoulders, arms encircling a lean waist, your lips at his neck. the adrenaline of possible danger combined with the excitement of holding tight to someone you love.

j used to own a fairly big bike back in south africa.

we may be looking to buy when we get back to london…

even moses would have withered

Friday, May 19th, 2006

the past 24 hours have brought us trials of biblical proportions.

we thought we’d head a bit off the beaten path for a bit before heading for the beaches after bangkok, so we decided to hit khao yai national park for a day or two. to get there, we had to take a bus to pak chong, then take a songthaew to the park entrance, then once inside the park, hitch the last 14 km to the headquarters and visitor centre. riding along in the back of a pickup, we were greeted by gorgeous views and patted ourselves on the back for being so resourceful. our original idea was to hire a tent and do some camping, but upon learning that the campsite area was 10 km away, we decided to make do with the basic dorm accomodation available nearby. the dorm itself was more or less just an empty cabin with no amenities, but we were assured there was bedding for hire from a lady coming by later that afternoon. so having settled outr accomodation (and having left without brekky at 5am) we dropped our packs and decided to grab a bite of lunch before doing an efternoon hike.

and then the floods began.

as we ate, the skies clotted and opened up, letting loose an unremitting rain like i’ve never seen before. torrential sheets of water, cascading over everything with no letup. they don’t call it monsoon season for nothing. we had coffee. we played 7 games of yahtzee. we read. we played a long and involved game of knock-down-drag-out chess. and still no respite. we spent hours and hours waiting for a break, and none came.

then came the famine.

we became so involved in playing our game of chess that we didn’t notice how late it was actually getting. and we didn’t notice the canteen closing up shop at 6 pm. suddenly, we were shit out of luck, as they say. at 7 we started to ponder dinner options, only to discover there were none to be had. everything shut. our one midday meal and the packet of crisps we consumed during chess would have to sustain us for the next 12 hours. we were damp and bored and hungry and it was starting to get dark. however the rain was finally tapering off a bit, after 7 hours, so we could at least head back to the dorm.

then came the plague of locusts flying ants.

apparently heavy rains bring out the flying ants. millions of them. like something out of a hitchcock movie. they hung in the air like curtains, swarming towards any source of light, sputternig, flailing, falling, divebombing. they were in your face and hair. they crashed into walls and legs. they crunched underfoot. giant toads sat int the grass complacently feasting while hoards of monkeys were acrobating about snatching them in midair.

but flies draw lizards and frogs – which draw snakes. and this is cobra country – really. suddenly it was 7:30 and pitch black and the short path through the woods to our dorm was looking mighty dark. having no torch to guide us, and terrified of getting lost, we slowly, nervously and loudly followed the edge of the path all the way to safety by the light of the ipod.

finally arriving at the cabin, we discovered that our bedding situation could be described charitably as “spartan”, consisting of a straw beach mat, a small wool blanket, and a brick masquerading as a bolster pillow. we turned on the cabin lights only to have thousands of flying ants bombard the screens, invade the floorboard cracks, and wiggle through the corner gaps. we were under attack.

a plan of action was needed, so we killed the overhead lights and turned on the outdoor flourescents as a distraction. in macgyyver-like fashion, we strung up the mosquito netting with dental floss and plasters from the first aid kit. setting up the bedding and widening the net, we managed to establish a small “insect-free” zone. and there we hid for the rest of the night – the only light my tiny travel booklamp, the only sound the patter of wings against the tin roof.

it was a long 10 hours til dawn.

we awoke to arguing monkeys outside, feeling not unlike the survivors in a vampire movie who’ve made it to see another sunrise. but with more overcast skies, the prospect of spending another day and night trapped by rains and ants was more than we could bear, so we reluctantly headed back to the safety and smog of bangkok.

hot blooded

Friday, May 19th, 2006

that’s me. the past few weeks have only served to confirm wha i already knew – I am meant for hot climates. i’m at my best tan, sweaty and barefoot and the heat energises me.

my attachment to the snow is purely sentimental.

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