Thailand

Babar: in live-action

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On our way in to Chiang Mai, and even beforehand further South in Thailand, we passed tons of elephants on posters, artwork, keychains, t-shirts, and every imaginable bauble and trinket.

Now we were going to meet the real thing. An event that in 1850 wouldn’t be cause for excitement as there was an estimated 100,000 domesticated grey, wrinkled beasts around at that time. Today, however, there are more images of elephants in Thailand than elephants themselves.

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Current estimates peg domesticated Thai elephants at around 3000, and wild elephants between 2000-3000. Like most stories of environmental degradation, we’re largely responsible: from population expansion, which decreased the elephants’ natural habitat, plus our appetite for ivory, which not only played its part on pianos until the early 80s, but was used as source material for sculptures made in the Far East (Japan and China). And still drives illegal trade today.

Another factor in Thailand was war. Minefields line the Southeastern Thai-Burmese border plus there’s still a large amount of unexploded bombs from the American/Vietnam war on Thai’s opposite border with Laos. All of this spells bad things for big beasts lumbering around looking for food, oblivious to politics and national borders.

In 1989, the Thai government, recognizing the rapid destruction of their own forests, banned any further logging. The practice was dominated by domesticated elephants that were trained, in a stroke of irony, to clear land (their own natural habitat) for human development. The result was that thousands of domesticated elephants no longer had a purpose – and being domesticated meant they were no longer wild enough to roam freely and survive on their own.

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For villagers who owned the elephants, this was a problem. Elephants can eat up to 150kg a day and drink 100-150 litres. Without the revenue they were getting from renting out their elephants as de facto Tonka trucks, excavating land and throwing trees around, it would cost them thousands of extra dollars a year to keep them alive.

To make up the difference, many villagers rented out their elephants to tourist outfits or started a tourist program themselves that allowed people to visit the grey, wrinkled beasts up close. In this realm, however, we learned not all elephant tourism companies are created equal.

Many offer elephant rides where tourists get on a saddle above an elephant and amble through the jungle, while others offer a chance to ride them without a saddle, or others the opportunity to walk next to them.

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Rose and I researched what was available, and learned that a lot of the tourist spots that offer “rides” either mistreated their elephants by sticking them with sharp objects to keep them submissive (something that many admit is the only way someone could get on an elephant – by having someone jab him/her into submission) or those that claimed not to intervene in any nasty way with them, used saddles which with the weight of a tourist on top of it, could put an undue amount of weight on the elephant, particularly if they’re carrying this weight for hours at a time, day after day.

So, instead, we opted for an outfit that had a big acreage for older elephants, or injured elephants to live out their days in peace.

We started by feeding them:

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And getting a glimpse and sense of how much 150kg of food really is:

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We then toured the grounds next to them. I was really leery about this at first, wanting to keep my distance – because they’re hugely powerful animals. One whip of the trunk, and I’d be nursing my own broken ribs for lunch.

It was awesome to be in front of them, but at the same time, in my mind, I was encouraging our photographer as he lined up the setting and the composition to get on with it, anxious to be facing them once again, in case an elephant felt the photo put her in an unflattering light, and wanted to do something about it.

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We wandered some more, and got a chance to wash them as well:

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Once again, the sun was relentless. We eventually wandered into some shade, though not in as daring a way as the trainer:

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After saying goodbye to les elephants:

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Rose and I set our sites our next stop, a quick stop in Bangkok before visiting a country that I think no amount of advance planning could prepare us for: India.

Talk soon

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Buddha’s back…Alright! (dunh dunh na na na*)

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* read to the tune of Everybody (Backstreet’s back)

We travelled only 26 hours plus to see him. You’d think to garner this much attention he’d have done something. But Buddha did the opposite: he literally achieved nothing.

An accomplishment that from a particular point of view might stir the heart of lazy bastards, but, from the point of view of the early Thai empire, stirred visions of a massive statue to commemorate his amazingness for sticking a big middle finger at the material world.

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Ok, the Thai engineers decided to keep his middle finger down. But, look at those fingers. Oversized Toblerone bars don’t stand a chance.

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11 metres wide and 15 meters high, Wat si Chum (aka. Big Buddha) is the biggest statue on display here at Sukhothai Historical Park, but it’s only one of over 193 ruins scattered around the place.

After our tuk tuk, train, bus odyssey the day before, Rose and I changed things up with a new addition to the transportation roster:

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Also a UNESCO site, Sukothai Historical Park is accessible on bike, which made our tour easy, but also helped us slow down a bit from our normal hurtling caravan of activity that operates at speeds a lot higher than 5km/h.

I thought the setting was really tranquil – (For Buddhist ruins, a handy compliment) with few tourists around, and Rose and I took advantage, meandering along, and finding shade wherever we could.

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Since we no longer had the help of a big body of water to cool things, we’d returned to the sweat gushing days we’d experienced in Laos and Cambodia (as you can tell from my photo with Buddha above).

However, one highlight that was worth the sweat was this stupa – Wat Sorasak.

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Elephants figure heavily in Thai culture, once used in parades to project power and majesty during royal ceremonies and also in more practical terms, as construction equipment to clear land. From a Buddhist angle too, elephants were seen as protectors.

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A worthy ally I would think: but sadly not one for us on this day, as the big beasts were no match against the sun that by this point had crisped Rose’s skin into a deep mahogany, and mine into the skin of a Yukon gold potato.

We pushed on to a Hindu site – Wat si Sawai one of the oldest in the park.

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Interestingly, similar to the blending of Buddhism and Hindu which we saw in Angkor Wat, next door in Cambodia, this one had similar style, which was moving away from Khmer architecture to a more Thai style – reflecting Buddhist themes.

Of course, Buddha was in abundance everywhere else:

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We spent a couple of days touring the park, and met another Canadian couple, who had been visiting for five days. While 800 year old statues are their own draw, I’m not sure we would have spent another three days exploring them at length.

However, we learned, neither was this couple. After touring the ruins for a couple of days, they they’d supplemented their days by going birding. As we roamed through ruins taking photos of everything around us, they also walked through the ruins, but were only interested in them if a bird was using one as a pit stop.

After one of them declared: “There’s a bird over there on that fallen pedestal” – I scrunched my eyes but didn’t spot anything. Seeing my wrinkled face getting nowhere, the same birder offered me his binoculars, and I had a peek.

As he sat over my shoulder, holding his breath in anticipation of my seeing this bird, which had now from all the preparation taken on mythic status, I expected I’d be looking towards some ornithological marvel: a toucan, a condor, maybe a vulture?

When I said: “Um. I’m not sure I see it”.

“Yes it’s that blue coloured bird. It’s small”, he repeated

Sure enough, it was a little bird perched in a way that I had completely overlooked it.

“Oh right. Yeah I see it”, I replied, doing my best to sound excited.

“It’s got a nice colour”

“Yeah, blue”, I said, maybe a bit too atonally.

I handed him back his binoculars. While I appreciated their enthusiasm, it was clear that I have a way to go before I get the same thrill.

Rose and I toured around a bit longer, once again tipping our hat to the master of the big nothing, who just to underline his empty contribution also seems to be forming the number zero with this fingers in the image below:

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We eventually made it back for our third shower of the day, had a really good dinner at the guesthouse where we stayed, and plotted our next move. A visit to Chiang Mai and more elephants – but this time the real thing.

The island’s Khan. Khao Phang Khan.

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We’d taken a ferry over to Phuket, and were now on another one with friends, Gillian and Craig, to another island off Phuket’s coast, popularly known as James Bond Island.

Part of the job of being a marketer is to make connections between things that make one thing seem more interesting than it really is. Often this can be tenuous: “Hey the shape of that island looks like a Walter PPK”, and voila this could be logic of how the island was named.

However, in this case, the hard work was already done for the marketers: a Bond film, The Man with the Golden Gun had been shot there.

Right, you’re thinking. Which one was that?

This clip might help:

Still blank? There’s more YouTube where that came from – I leave it up to you.

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On the island I couldn’t bring it to mind either, though Gillian had said it was her favourite Bond film. I don’t remember anyone re-enacting the scene above: pacing away from each other then spinning around. Of course, I also wasn’t attuned to what was happening since I had no idea of the plot upon arriving (admittedly: not that uncommon for me in most circumstances). So there could very well have been Bond geeks acting it out, I just wasn’t paying attention.

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In Phuket I wasn’t as disciplined about pre-studying spots and sorting out where everything was: ultimately we were just catching up with friends, and wherever that happened, whether on the island of a Bond villain or in a restaurant with a steaming bowl of coconut curried chicken was fine with me.

To that end, lo and behold, here’s the next place we’d do it in:

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It was a fun tour through some of the limestone islands, sometimes dropping underneath little cave openings:

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We zinged around the water for a while, finally reuniting with Gillian and Craig:

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A well established tourist spot, Phuket has a lot high rises, big hotels and all kinds of other tourist attractions, meaning its far from the laid back spots we’d just come from on Koh Lanta. Interestingly, Phuket gets a ton of Russian tourists, such that the restaurant signs and menus on the beachfront road are all bilingual in English and Russian.

This of course gave me free reign to practice my English/Russian accent whenever I could: “You vill enjoy thiz vudka. From mai hummtoown. Good ya?”

We also got a view from one of the highrises after meeting two Australian women who were having a ladies weekend with other friends, and had pooled together their money for a rooftop spread that looked over the beach, and more or less everything else.

They invited us up for drinks where we hung out, swam in their outdoor pool that happened to be ridiculously freezing while staring up at floating lanterns, which people light with flames on the beach and let them go as the flame’s heat sends them, really, wherever it wants.

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As the lanterns swayed over the city, heading more inland, they looked really cool lighting up the night sky, but I couldn’t help thinking they were a really bad idea for anyone who owned flammable property.

It’s true that in the majority of cases, the lantern burns out in the air, and no harm is done through flame. However, there have been cases where it has happened, plus lanterns are made of wire casing which plop down anywhere, including the ocean making a big mess.

However, one of the side effects of alcohol is losing interest in the wider world, and so soon enough I cared less about a city-wide bonfire, and kept one eye up to make sure one didn’t land on us.

Luckily for us, the night ended sans feu.

The next morning, however, Rose and I did spark one of the longest, most complicated trips between places on our entire trip. I’d written previously of a 24hr+ jaunt across islands by ferry and bus in Indonesia, which had its own surreal moments from being so tired and having nowhere comfortable to sleep en route.

We’d be more comfortable this time around, but it would rival Indonesia for its epic scale of trying to be on time to catch a connection to the next connection to get the next connection and so on.

Here’s how it went. We said goodbye to Gillian and Craig after breakfast and set off on a local bus, much like the jeepneys we’d ridden in the Philippines:

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And, similar to Phillippines they were jam-packed, which meant Rose and I hung on to the back of it, looking as if we were two garbage men, with the difference that we were each carrying our own mighty backpacks weighing around 15kg each.

I’d love to share a photo, but you could probably understand our hands were a little full at the time. Mine, white knuckled hanging on to the back of a railing, while noticing that the platform I was standing on below was flopping up and down a bit like a diving board. On her side, Rose stood intentionally pinned behind a ladder to give her support while her bag sat in front of her.

In short, we were stunt tourists.

Bus 1 dropped off us of at a boulevard where we had to catch the same local style bus at a specific time, which we managed and also got indoor seating. Impressive.

From there, Bus 2 brought us to a larger bus station where we caught Bus 3 for another two hours to the nearest train.

So far so good. We caught the train, an overnight to Bangkok, which came with sheets, had good food in the restaurant car, but also unfortunately for me, had an air conditioner unit pointed directly at me on the top bunk. I put on more layers for the night, but didn’t manage to get a great sleep.

However, the better news was that we made our train connection the next morning from Bangkok to Phitsanulok – the town that brought us nearer to our last stop: Sukhothai.

The train journey went ahead without much funfare, but our arrival wasn’t quite as smooth. At the train station we had to get to a bus station to continue the leg, which meant negotiating with a tuk tuk driver for a good price and to drive as quickly as he could.

I’d previously read in travel guides that rickshaw drivers were known at this bus station to extort tourists for much higher prices than normal. And, unsurprisingly negotiations opened at three times the level price. Rose, however, had been refining her bargaining techniques throughout our entire trip, and far from shrinking away from the exchange, considered it a thrill, and another chance to subdue a worthy opponent.

After parrying back and forth, Rose agreed on a price, in enough time that we could get to the next leg: our bus station where we’d catch a bus to New Sukhothai.

In my same reading of the dubious rickshaw dealers, I spotted another blurb which said that someone would hang around the outside of the bus station, where we were next headed, saying: “SUKHOTHAI follow me!”, which would trick tourists into taking a private bus that was much more expensive than the local one.

Exiting out our rickshaw at the bus station, sure enough, I heard the siren call: “SUKHOTHAI! SUKHOTHAI!”

Impressed with myself for being armed with this inside information that would repel me from his spell, I shouted back at him: “NO! NO!”, and walked around the station, feverishly looking for the Sukhothai stand.

This same man followed my every step. “SUKHOTHAI over there!”, he pointed. Again feeling proud of myself I barked more loudly: “NO! NO!”.

I spun around like a top for a few minutes walking around looking for the signboard at the ticket counter. All the while the man was on my heel saying the same thing, pointing in the same direction, while I instinctively kept shouting “NOOOOO”

It was beginning to look like we were in an Opera. Me rebuffing the advances of a suitor again and again with an impassioned stance.

Then reality. After feeling worn down by this man’s insistence, I finally glanced the direction he was pointing.

SUKHOTHAI, read the ticket counter.

“Oh fuck”, I said in my mind.

I looked over at the man sheepishly, said: “Thanks. That’s great” to which he must have thought I was the deafest man he’d met.

We got on the bus for another two hour haul, before being dropped off at another bus station where we had to connect with yet another guess what.

Again we were encouraged by drivers in the parking lot to take a private bus for 4 times as much as a local bus. After I chatted with other locals, they steered us in the direction of a local bus, which was good timing, as the rain started and we thankfully stood inside while new passengers would get on dripping from head to toe.

Eventually we got off this one, and caught a final tuk tuk to our guesthouse, arriving at our final spot: Old Sukhothai, the earliest seat of the Thai empire in the 13th Century – where we promptly dropped our bags and ourselves into a deep sleep.

If it were an equation, this is how it would appear:

Bus 1 + Bus 2 + Bus 3 + Tuk Tuk + Overnight train + Day train + Tuk tuk + Bus + Bus + Tuk tuk = 26 hours straight.

The following morning we’d take a breath, and slowly explore Sukhothai at a pace we could both agree on: by bicycle.

Until then, we snored.