I was on a day tour recently with a young generic family of four from a first world, highly industrialized city. The parents were my age, if not slightly younger. They were on holiday in Thailand and had a few questions for me regarding the Khao San area I was staying in. I told them it was a great area, plenty of little shops, lots of restaurants. I explained that it was a hub for backpackers and really catered to the traveler. “You are in the middle of all the action”, I said. They wanted to visit and maybe have dinner there, but would it be appropriate for the children? (2 girls, 10 & 12, I’m guessing). They approached the evening plans as if attending a dinner theatre. They seemed hesitant and concerned about the noise. The backpacker thing hit a nerve, I think. As we drove by a group of six young guys sitting on the sidewalk talking to each other the mother pointed out ‘the hobos’ to the children. Am I missing something? These people come from a country where it’s still a right of passage to backpack for months at a time. Does the term ‘hobo’ mean something different in Australia than in the US? Something like ‘pissed’ is either angry or drunk depending on where in the world you’re from. Or are backpackers a lower class, something to be wary of?
“Don’t touch the kitten! You don’t know what diseases it has.”(something else that was said along these same lines.). The kitten approached me as I was sitting and waiting for the van to be filled with gasoline. I gave her a scritch on the head and she purred and nuzzled my leg. Inevitably, one of the girls came over to pet the kitten. You can’t keep a 10 year old girl away from a kitten, now, really. And it’s my guess, in a few years Mom won’t be able to keep her away from the hobo, either.
A little sightseeing, a little shopping, a lot of sweating! 45 degrees means something different to me being from Boston. That translates to about 113 degrees Fahrenheit. Brutal. The Grand Palace was a beautiful, golden, shimmering, dizzying, heat stroking wonder.
I wandered about an hour and a half before I bailed. Not bad tolerance, really.
I have wanted to do some shopping for fabric and this seemed like my best opportunity. The Tuk-Tuk driver brought me to a fabric store/tailor that was open. Apparently, many places are closed the day after the Songkran holiday. I ended up with 3 meters (for the price of 2) of gorgeous pale pink silk. The driver waited for me outside the store while I shopped and then drove me around the city. I don’t have much of a schedule, so we kept chatting and he kept driving.
I did wonder if he was going to try to alter the agreed upon price after the unexpected tour, but he didn’t. We agreed on 50 Baht for the fabric ride and he stuck to it despite the fact that I was with him for 45 minutes of a heart pounding, white knuckle tour. Mind you, 50 Baht is about 1.60 US dollars. A Boston cab won’t even take you next door for that!
I continued my shopping at a few little shops across from the hotel. Here’s what I bought today.
I think I’ll wear one of the dresses tonight 🙂
We left Baan Tha Klang early this morning to make our way back to Bangkok. The program is over for me. The week is up. Oddly, it feels like culture shock to return to the city during Songkran. The festivities continue. Today is the last day. The way the holiday plays out in the tiny village compared to Bangkok is worlds apart. Streets are closed. The Black Eyed Peas are blaring from every amp stack on every corner.
Khao San Road is Thai’s Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras. There is no way to move forward. You are a sitting target for sprays of water and clay smeared on your face. My hotel is right in the middle of the action (that’s good and bad). It was a struggle to get to the hotel with the bag and not get a little pissy when people are dumping water on you and everything you possess for the trip. I got there without any damage and so now I’m enjoying the party a bit more.
I settled into the room and said goodbye to a fellow volunteer. So sad. I decided to try to relax some after the eight hour bus ride to the city and the stressful drenching I received trying to get to the hotel by scheduling a Thai massage. Well that did the trick! I still have one problem. I’m hungry. Do I dare enter the mayhem again? The crowds seem to be growing as the night rolls in. How is that even possible?! I have a feeling I’ll venture out. And once I’m in it, all will be good.
We are here for Songkran entirely by accident. It’s the Thai New Year April 13-15. The holiday is a water festival celebrated as the dry, hot season is ending and the rainy season will begin. It’s ritually a time for cleaning and renewal. Thais will bathe images of Buddha and give the house a good cleansing. Water is meant to ‘wash the bad away’.
So, what does this mean for the westerner… It means you get drenched… Everyday, wherever you go. People stand on the side of the road as if waiting for a parade to start. Thai children have barrels of water with bowls for throwing it like American children set up lemonade stands. The vehicle is stopped in the street and not allowed to pass until there’s been a proper soaking. The only way for us to participate is to fight back, so armed with the water guns purchased at the Big C at the beginning of the week and an arsenal of drums filled with water, we started out. Basically, you drive around and try to fire before fired upon. No one wins. Or maybe everyone wins, but no one is dry. That’s for sure.
After our regular morning chores we had a couple of shorter walks with the elephants. The first, before lunch, was through the forest. There’s always a trade-off. This was bugs for shade. It’s amazing to watch the elephants eat bamboo (one of their favorites). They wrap their trunk around a stem of the bamboo and pull, but with just enough strength to strip the leaves off and leave the thick branches. It’s incredible what they can do with their trunk! It’s like an arm and hand, no bones, very muscular and flexible. The manipulation is fascinating.
The second and slightly longer walk was after lunch. We spent more time on the road. Imagine seeing that come down the highway at home! It was HOT, so we were all glad to have this end in another swim to bathe the elephants.
There’s a lot of elephant butts in my photos. 🙂 There’s a reason for that. You would much rather be behind them than in front of them if there’s someplace they want to go. We get phenomenally close to these elephants, but that does not mean they are ‘safe’ from being an elephant. You must constantly be aware of your surroundings and on the walks especially. For such a large animal they are very quiet coming up behind you. It’s a bit of a shock to look over your shoulder when you sense someone is trying to pass you and what you see is a blurry glimpse of a trunk and ear as they try to catch up with their friends.
My morning task, along with two other volunteers, was to water the plants around the enclosure. Simple enough, right? I do this at home. I have a wonderful garden and I water the plants all the time. Nope. Here are three buckets. There is the pond. The pond is within the enclosure and the plants that need tending surround it. There is no irrigation system. WE are the irrigation system. It’s brutally hot and it’s 8:30am. Done. I have a new appreciation for my 100 foot hoses and hose connectors at home.
My 10:00am task to ‘shift poo’ at one of the fields was put on hold since the truck got stuck in the mud. So many questions… There are bins of elephant poo used for compost and the paper factory. This needs to be transported and broken down for use. We got the truck out and moving again and returned to the village. Too risky to keep going if it’s muddy. We were a group of five volunteers and a coordinator. Too many people to go missing, so we went back.
The elephants had a nice walk today. Certainly not as long as yesterday, but they’re happy to get off the chains for any amount of time. The walk ended at the enclosure and there’s alway sugar cane and swimming for any elephant that wants it. And what elephant wouldn’t.
I fed one of the babies today. This little guy was taken from his mother when he was about a year old. Babies will stay on mother’s milk for about three years. As a result he is malnourished. The owner can’t care for him properly and has agreed to let the Surin Project give him free food and care. He gets four bottles of rice mush with milk powder every morning. Have you ever seen anything so adorable?!
It was a quick trip out to the sugar cane field to cut today’s food for the elephants. The mahouts came with us and brought their machetes. We let them cut the sugar cane…they seemed to know what they were doing. 🙂 Within minutes they had cut enough food to fill the truck. That’s where we came in. Load the truck.
Today is a long day for the elephants off their chains. We do a 5-6 mile walk with the elephants that ends in a swim… for everybody. This was incredible. The elephants LOVE the water and when we go in with them we can bath them. Basically, we give the elephants a good scrub with our hands. An elephant massage, really. After the long walk we were all enjoying the river.
Finally, before dinner we hit the local market. They sell EVERYTHING! From fruit and vegetables to donuts and pig’s heads, clothes to tools. Feeling a bit parched, I ordered a soda. It was given to me in a bag with a straw. Not the can or bottle in a bag, mind you. No. The gentleman opened the bottle and poured it over ice into the bag and put a straw in it. I browsed around, not looking for anything in particular as I sipped my bag of soda.