Two in One!

Well, it has been awhile since my last update as I have been at elephant camp without any internet so I have two posts for you today! I hope you enjoy them!! Also, the internet wasn’t fast enough to upload any photos but next time I have some decent wifi, I’ll make sure to upload some!

Chiang Mai
My last blog left off in Ayutthaya as we were getting ready to board an overnight train to Chiang Mai. Well, the train wasn’t half bad and actually was quite a bit of fun! I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect but fortunately the train had air conditioning which made the trip a thousand times better. We each had a top bunk and most of us were in the same train car so we were able to hangout in our train car before heading to the dining car where we spent the rest of our night before heading to bed. We were nearly to Chiang Mai when we were woken up so the thirteen hour train ride went rather quickly. We got all checked into our hotel before grabbing breakfast and heading out for a day of exploring. The greater Chiang Mai district is quite big and has a population of more than one million people so there is plenty to see! A group of us walked around Chiang Mai, exploring a few of the temples and different roads throughout the city. We came across a walking street and everyone was busy setting up for the weekly Sunday night market that we would come back to that night. We spent a bit of the afternoon relaxing at the hotel by the pool before I took off for a quick hour massage… oh boy am I going to miss those when I get home! We met up with the entire Stray group and headed back towards the main street area for dinner before checking out the weekly night market. The Sunday night market was huge… it stretched for a good half of a mile with side streets containing lots of stands as well. Most of the stands had souvenir-like things so the market was geared towards tourists. We didn’t even make it to the entire market before heading off to our next adventure, a Cabaret Show. Thailand is well-known for their “Lady Boys”–some of which are now transgendered. Thus, a big attraction here in Thailand is a lady boy or Cabaret Show… which was certainly an experience. I probably wouldn’t have gone to the show alone but as my entire group was going, it was something I couldn’t miss out on! The dancers (males who have turned female) were excellent and their costumes were elaborate. Most of the dancers were quite convincing and had I not seen them at a Cabaret Show, I would never even guess that they had undergone a sex change. Next, we were off to watch a world cup game. One of the travelers in our group is from Mexico and is a huge soccer fan. He had been talking about the game since the first day of the trip and we all agreed to watch and cheer with him! Being that we are half-way around the world, the games are at pretty crappy times: 11pm, 2am, and 5am… but fortunately this one was at 11pm! As we were driving down the street near our hotel trying to find a place to watch, we came across a sports bar that was filled with Holland fans… literally packed with probably 200 or so Holland fans… I still don’t understand why there were so many Holland fans in Chiang Mai and how they all knew about this one sports bar but everyone was there. The bar was even decorated with Holland flags, balloons, and signs. So, we joined… and the bar now consisted of countless Holland fans, one Mexican and his fellow travelers who were also cheering on Mexico. If you watched the game, you know it was an exciting one! Holland has been doing extremely well in the World Cup so when Mexico took the lead 1-0, there was a bit of tension in the sports bar… in a good way though. We were extremely respectful and Jamie (the guy from Mexico) made quite a few Holland friends throughout the night. In the last few minutes of the game, Holland scored two goals and ended up winning the game and holy mackerel, I don’t ever think I’ve seen a celebration quite like this one. When the bar closed (right after the game), the celebration continued into the street and I could imagine for much of the night to follow. The next day, I planned on exploring some more and taking it easy. I had to go to the bus station to get a ticket for the following day and a tuk tuk to the bus station and back would be more expensive than simply renting a motorbike for the day. Well, I was pretty hesitant as I don’t know the city at all, the streets aren’t marked well at all, and the city is quite big. But somehow I got roped into it and for $5, I rented the motorbike. It was great fun although I was lost the majority of the day. My 15 minute journey to the bus station took about an hour as I tried to figure out what streets were what… a very difficult task when streets are unmarked. I walked around a shopping area for a bit before seeking shelter in an air conditioned mall to cool off as it was quite a hot day. I was pretty surprised when I walked around the five-story mall and found that it consisted of nothing except for electronics and software (printers, computers, cameras, CDs, DVDs, software). The “old town” at the center of the city is surrounded by a moat and old, destroyed city wall which is lined by major, one-way roads on each side which essentially makes a box… this makes for an excellent racetrack. I felt like I was in a live game of Mario Karts driving around the track. I drove around the racetrack probably fifty times, working to perfect my Thai motorbike driving. The driving is no where near as crazy as Bangkok but still the rules are rarely followed as people tend to drive wherever they want, rarely signaling what they are doing in the process. Essentially motorbike driving is a big game of chicken as motorbikes drive between the cars, even when it seems like there is no room to do so. Although I played it safe most of the time, I’d have to say that I was pretty impressed with my motorbike driving skills. Although I was lost most of the day, I still really enjoyed driving around on the motorbike for the day. That night we headed out for dinner as a group and then I headed to the daily night market. Others were heading to Thai boxing (which didn’t really interest me) so I said my goodbyes to some of the passengers that are leaving tomorrow. Stray works as a “hop on, hop off” bus so if you want to spend extra time in a specific place you can simply catch the next bus (or the bus after that, etc) to continue the journey. I am heading off to an elephant camp for three days so I will be hopping off here at Chiang Mai and catching the next bus. Probably half of the bus is hopping off so I will continue the journey with those individuals but for the people continuing on tomorrow, I won’t be traveling with them anymore… kind of a bummer as you meet great people but for only so short. The night market that I went to was the same that I remembered from five years ago and filled with shops that lined the street… I’m amazed by how many shops and stands are there every night as this night bazaar covers a good half mile as well. After looking around, I headed back to the hotel and packed up my things as I leave tomorrow at 6:30 in the morning for elephant camp for three days! I had a wonderful time in Chiang Mai with some great people but I’m really excited about spending some time with elephants 🙂

Off to elephant camp I go,
~Susan

Elephants, Elephants, Elephants
Summer camp was a huge part of my life growing up as I spent a week at camp each summer before I was old enough to volunteer there. Once I was able to volunteer, I spent 3-4 weeks each summer working with horses in the barn before I went on staff when I graduated from high school. Although I loved the camp I went to, nothing quite compares to elephant camp. For the past three days, I have spent my time learning about elephants and how to ride them… a once in a lifetime experience that I’ll never forget! On the first day, I was introduced to my elephant (Wanalee) and my mahout (Tiam) and was with them for the entire three days. Mahout means one who works with, rides, and cares for an elephant… so I was referred to as a “junior mahout.” Wanalee is a beautiful Asian elephant who is 18 years old and currently 12 months pregnant with her first baby… which is incredibly exciting. Unfortunately for her, a baby elephant can be in the womb for 18-22 months and then nurses for three years following… so she has quite an adventure ahead of her! Although Asian elephants are smaller than African elephants, Wanalee stood at an impressive three meters (about 10 feet) tall… this made it quite the challenge each time I went to get on. Over the years I’ve gotten pretty good at being able to jump up on horses but elephants… that’s a different story! Fortunately I was able to get off much easier–my favorite method was sliding off the front of her face like a slide! Just like real mahouts, we sat on their neck with our feet dangling just behind their ears to help control them. The balance-thing was a little funny at first but I caught on with time and by the end, it seemed to be second nature… however, elephants have a bit wider of a body than horses which makes holding on with your inner thighs a little different! Tiam, my mahout, was absolutely wonderful! He has been with Wanalee since she was just one month old so Tiam knows her inside and out. He was able to teach me a lot about her and elephants in general… a topic I loved learning more about! After we were introduced, we were given a rundown of the elephant commands that we would be using the next few days. For instance, “bai” means walk forward while “ben” means turn left or right. Of course we are quite lazy here at elephant camp and if we drop something we simply say “geb bone” and have our elephant pick it up for us. I was surprised to learn that you simply wear sandals or go barefoot around the elephants… I could just see myself with a broken foot in the near future but fortunately that didn’t happen! It was much easier grasping the elephant barefoot so we often just kicked off our sandals while we road then had the elephants pick them up for us when we wanted them… if only I had some sort of system like this at home! The spots for being junior mahouts are quite limited as there were only three of us–a couple from Australia and myself. Further, the couple from Australia only did the two-day program so I was by myself the entire last day which certainly has its pros and cons! The days were pretty repetitive but despite the routine, they were absolutely wonderful! My alarm went off at 6:15 in the morning and I dressed in my mahout suit (or elephant suit) to meet the group by 6:30. We had two junior mahout coordinators who basically spent the entire time with us–they took us from place to place, took our photographs, and made sure we were well hydrated and fed… they were wonderful to say the least! At 6:30 we met up with the mahouts and armed with bananas, we headed to the forest to fetch our elephants. The walk was quite far and our elephants stayed deep within the dense forest, through a river, and up a few steep hills. They were chained up from the previous night but their chains were plenty long to let them graze and have space to walk around. The mahout would undo the chain and Wanalee would pull it towards her to gather up the chain… even if the chain got caught on a branch, she would whip the chain free then continue pulling it towards her… what a smart girl! Then she was commanded to lie down so we could clean her off… elephants tend to put dirt and leaves on themselves to protect them from the bugs out in the forest… which are huge and pretty disgusting. Then we’d jump on and ride through the forest to the river. Elephants drink 200 liters of water per day so the elephants had a bit of time to drink… and have a morning bath… which meant we enjoyed a nice morning bath as well… aka we were soaked! We rode them back to the stall area where they were hooked up. Then we got some time to go back to our homestay area, take a shower, and eat breakfast before we headed back down to the stalls and got onto our elephants. We usually had a bit of time so we walked around the complex and enjoyed the morning before it was time for our first event–the elephant bath. Tourists gathered as they got to meet the elephants, pet the elephants, and feed them. Then they watched as the elephants (and ourselves) went for a bath in the river. The elephants would dunk themselves and us in the process which meant we were soaking once again. The first day was actually quite a nice day weather wise (high 80s… which is a nice break from the consistent high 90s or 100 degree days that I’ve had for the last six weeks or so!) so we didn’t dry off as fast as the following two days which were in the normal high 90s. During bath time, the elephants would drink, spray themselves, spray the elephants around them, and of course spray us… each time it turned into one big elephant water fight. I caught on quickly that the elephants knew a command for this and especially the last day when I was the only junior mahout, I got soaked by ALL of the elephants… the rest of the mahouts were having a hayday with it… but I didn’t mind and it was quite fun! Afterwards, one or two of the elephants would carry water in their trunk and spray the visitors… always quite fun reactions there! Then we stood off to the side and allowed the visitors to line the street as it was time for the elephant parade. One of the young elephants stood in the front waving a Thailand Elephant Conservation Center (TECC) flag as three elephants followed–two elephants which were carrying a big drum and another in the center banging the drum with a mallet… Wanalee and I had the job of carrying the drum a few times! The rest of the elephants followed as we headed towards the elephant show arena and it was time for the big event–the elephant show! All of the visitors made their way from the parade area to the arena in high anticipation (but really… there were quite a few kids and as in my own experience five years ago, visiting the elephants is certainly a highlight of any trip!). The show began by a young elephant lifting the TECC flag on the flagpole before each of the elephants were individually introduced. Then the elephants made a single file line, grabbed the elephant’s tail in front of them and we walked around the arena and each of the elephants posed as a welcome. Then we demonstrated how to get on and off of our elephants in both the traditional manner (the elephant lifts his/her leg and you step up or down via the elephants leg… this was difficult!) or the fun way (slide down the front of the elephant’s face then jump over the face onto the neck then turn around). All of the other elephants then demonstrated how their elephant can sit down, lie down, and sleep… however Wanalee wasn’t allowed to participate in these demonstrations due to the baby. Instead, we had our own part of the show. I got off of Wanalee and she took my mahout’s hat then walked up and placed it on my head then she put her trunk on my shoulder and we walked off of the stage together… it was actually quite cute! The rest of the show involved elephants throwing balls into baskets, elephants catching sticks, elephants walking and turning around on logs, and an elaborate demonstration of how elephants are able to pull, push, and stack logs. Afterwards, five elephants played a lovely tune using different toned chimes and their trunks. Then came everyone’s favorite–elephant painting. Three elephants would take their place around the arena with a blank canvas and go at it–they painted lots of elephants, flowers, and trees. I was quite impressed with the painting abilities of the elephants which far surpass anything I could ever paint! The elephants rotate the days that they paint and Wanalee got to paint the second day so I got to join her and Tiam at the canvas as Wanalee painted. Tiam would get the paintbrush ready then Wanalee would grab it with her trunk and proceed to paint. Tiam would talk to her and guide her through voice commands on where to paint and what shapes to paint… it was pretty incredible. In fact, I was amazed at how well trained all of the elephants were. It takes six to seven years to fully train an elephant and a great bond between the mahout and elephant. As I said, Tiam and Wanalee have been together since her first month of life and they know each other inside and out. As much as I would like to say that I could control my elephant, I really didn’t do many of the commands as Tiam was in constant communication with Wanalee. Whether Tiam was right by our side or across the arena, Wanalee could immediately recognize Tiam’s voice and follow his directions… this made it easy for me as I got to ride and enjoy without much of the “work”… ha. Of course I bought a piece of Wanalee’s artwork and it will be a great reminder of the fabulous time I had at elephant camp. To finish the show, we all bowed then headed to the front of the arena and let the visitors touch and feed the elephants once again. This is Wanalee’s favorite as she gets to eat banana after banana after banana. Of course she has to pose for a few photos in between but those bananas make it all worth it. I’d guess she eats anywhere from one hundred to two hundred bananas each day… and oh boy does she love them! Wanalee goes so far as intruding other elephants spaces to persuade visitors to give her the bananas… and she’ll even grab the entire bundle of bananas if a visitor isn’t careful! I’m not sure if this is normal behavior for her or her pregnant food obsessions but either way, she lives for those bananas! She also loves sugarcane which is her nightly treat before heading back to the forest! After the show, we had a bit of free time before lunch (which was always delicious)… and then it was time to repeat the schedule! The afternoon was the same as the morning so we’d start with an elephant bath before walking in the parade and performing the show. I can’t hear the commentary very well during the show (as the speakers are pointed towards the audience) so I’m not exactly sure what they say about the “junior mahouts” but it is something along the lines that we are learning how to train the elephants because after one of the shows, I had a group come up and talk to me… they asked me where I was from (in English) and then they proceeded to ask me if I was learning how to train elephants here in Thailand to go back to Nebraska to train elephants… haha, well if only that was my life! In actuality, I’m really just a tourist like them that has spent just a few hours on an elephant… ha… but I figured it was at least a good sign that I maybe looked like I knew what I was half-way doing? Ha. When we finished with the two shows, it was time to return the elephants back to the forest for the night. We took them back through the dense forest, through a river, and back up the steep hills to a large area where they could graze. We spent a bit of time just giving them some love before heading back to the homestay area for the night. We had some free time before dinner so we showered then got to see other parts of the complex. We visited the elephant dung paper factory where they turn elephant dung into paper and use it for various things. The poop is collected then the large fibers are removed before the poop is put into a rotating chamber with water to make it a thinner consistency. Then the poop is washed with more water before being spread out on a tray for drying. It takes about two days for the paper to dry then it is ready to go! A pretty neat process for some sturdy paper! We also got to see the elephant hospital. Because the center is owned by the Thai government, the center collects hurt elephants from all across the country and transports them here for care. They can have about ten or so at a time. They don’t kill the elephants or put the elephants to sleep but rather they care for the elephants until they are stable enough to move to retirement aka a jungle where they can live well for the rest of their life. We saw a few of the hospitalized elephants–one of which was in his eighties and was at the hospital for an eye problem. Because the center is owned by the Thailand government, all of the money earned from the center goes right back to the elephants for their feed, for medication, etc. I knew I wanted to do something with elephants when I was in Thailand so I did quite a bit of research prior to coming which elephant center was the best and almost all of the results pointed towards TECC. The main reason was for the treatment of the elephants–they take such good care of the elephants and I was able to see that firsthand throughout my time at TECC. Further, as this is a government center, the king of Thailand actually keeps some of his white elephants here in a portion of the complex called the “Royal Stables”… visitors (myself included) aren’t able to visit the stables but I can only imagine that they’re living quite the life! The complex also has a nursery currently with three babies… four in just a few months! The babies now range from 14 to 19 months and the babies will be kept in an enclosure with their mother until they are three years old when the baby stops nursing. The babies were full of energy–they were climbing on the fencing, chasing roosters in the enclosure, playing with soccer balls, and of course bothering their mothers! Baby elephant fur is actually pretty long making them look all pokey and a bit funny… like a porcupine. But, they were absolutely adorable… as were their mothers! I made a few trips here throughout my three days to see the babies!

When I got back to Chaing Mai and was able to get some WIFI, I researched a bit more about Thailand Elephant Conservation Center (home to more than 50 elephants) and Wanalee herself. TECC was founded in 1993 by the government of Thailand (Thailand’s only government-owned elephant camp) and has close ties to the Royal Family as TECC takes care of six (of ten) of the King’s royal “white” elephants. Because of the ties with the government, many school children get to visit and learn about elephants and conservation. TECC was the first place in Thailand where elephants learned how to paint. TECC plays a big role in creating public awareness about elephants and aims to improve the quality of care given to elephants here in Thailand and around the world. TECC is also involved in elephant research focusing on reproduction and the movement of animals. I was shocked to find out that Wanalee herself is also considered a “royal elephant” as she was adopted by Her Royal Highness Princess Galayani, the elder sister of His Majesty the King of Thailand… thus she is often referred to as the princess. Her nickname (princess) goes along with her personality which was very evident over the three days that I spent with her–she loves her bananas and the staff seems to absolutely love her… so they sneak her a few extra after the shows! She also loves her baths… and often doesn’t want to come out for the show… she would rather play in the water and eat bananas all day! But she has the sweetest personality so everyone loves her anyways! I also found out that Wanalee is considered one of the top three elephant artists in the world and her paintings have had international fame… dang! She was the best selling elephant artist from 2005-2009 and continues to be in the top 3 each year. She paints both abstract and realistic works. One of her paintings sold for more than 1,000 pounds (about $1700 or more depending on date of the purchase) at Bloxham’s Gallery in London. Little did I know that I spent a few days with Thailand Royalty!

Elephant camp was spectacular–three days that I’ll never forget! I had a wonderful elephant and mahout which made the entire experience that much better. I still have to figure out how I can get an elephant on the plane as I’m not sure it will fit under my seat or in the overhead bins as my carryon… fortunately I still have about a week and a half to figure it all out!

Tomorrow I’m off to Laos for more adventures!
~Susan

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