Thursday, December 11, 2014

Twas the 6th of December

I think I just stared at this blank page for 25 whole minutes. My most frequent thought while dismally estimating my word count has been "my lord, did all that happen in just two weeks?" To try and appease the nausea that accompanies the overwhelming amount of things I should recount, I think I shall just have to leave much of it in the past, perhaps recall some of the more amusing and important stories at a later date, and just stick to a satisfyingly detailed account of this weekend. Just know that my birthday was wonderful, and I now have a seven-year-old student who brings two chocolate milks up to my office--one for him, one for me--every day for lunch (purchased with his own money). Then we sit and drink them together and talk about video games and Pixar films.

This past Friday was a national holiday--the king's birthday--and so I was very keen on traveling. After much financial finagling and being convinced by Kirsten, I took a 23 hour bus ride up to Chiang Mai, the largest city in northern Thailand, to go on an adventure with two of my friends. I regret absolutely nothing, and am SO glad I didn't pass up this opportunity. It is definitely on my list of top 3 best weekends ever.

After enduring 23 hours on two buses--made better by a complimentary box of 16 chocolate and cashew cookies and running into my friend Sam at the stop we made in Bangkok--I arrived Friday night in Chiang Mai. I met Kate and Kirsten at a Mexican restaurant which one can locate on Mun Mueang Road by simply scanning the street and finding the biggest, boldest sign that says simply in all caps, "BURRITO." Advertising was not false; there were indeed burritos in there, along with nachos, chips and salsa, and quesadillas--luxuries that can hardly be found in a country like Thailand--and the three of us almost died a cheesy jalapeno death of happiness.

After catching up and getting a handful of hours of sleep, we woke up at o'dark thirty for one of the few things that can inspire 23-year-olds to wake up at such an hour; elephants and tigers.

At 6am sharp, our driver and guide Kai from Blue Elephant Tours picked us up at our hostel. He was very friendly and his English was quite impressive. He stopped at a market to buy bananas for the elephants, and then took us to another market to buy us breakfast. When the tour said "breakfast included," I was thinking maybe some fruit and light carbohydrates, but Kai kept stopping at stands and asking us if we liked this or that, and before I knew it, Kai was carrying bags of fried chicken, rice, pork skewers, dragon fruit, rice cakes, Thai rose apples, and a sweet sticky rice and custard creation for dessert back to the van for us. I've always been terrible at traveling in a vehicle with food and having to wait to eat it--my housemates of last year know that I never made it the mile and a half from McDonald's back to our house without eating at least half of my hot fudge sundae--so it was quite tortuous smelling the sweet  and fried goodness wafting from the front seat to the back of the van. Luckily, I had the view to distract me.

Everyone is always telling you about how beautiful Northern Thailand is, and I guess I always imagined Chiang Mai as this mystical mountain city, frozen in a time hundreds of years ago, an apparition you spot through the mist as you splash through a river or trek through tropical foliage. I was wrong about the "frozen in time" part--Chiang Mai is very hip, urban, and modern--but once you move into the country side, I'd say my imagination wasn't too far off. Mountains in Thailand aren't like mountains in the Pacific Northwest; there is no snow, no rocky cliff faces, no pointy peaks. Instead, they're more rounded, rolling, like hills, but much steeper and impressive, and completely covered with jungle. So when we emerged in a river valley, surrounded by this dark green fortress, sun hardly risen, you can imagine how breathtaking it was. No photograph could capture the mist rolling off the backs of the water buffalo wading into the stream or the elephant trumpet that rung out somewhere in the jungle below. I simply can't show you the mountains peeking through shifting clouds or the sound of cornstalks being crushed as they are being pulled forcefully and folded into mouths with a 60,000-muscled trunk longer than you are tall. Just come here if you get the chance, okay?

We ate our feast overlooking the valley, and then were introduced to Bobby, our main trainer for the day. He wrote all our names in Thai on our arms with a blue whiteboard marker. Between that and the coarse, blue outfits we had to adorn ourselves in, we looked a bit like prisoners, but whatever. The whole group looked classy together.

Bobby taught us how to give the elephants commands in Thai (left, right, stop, forward, backwards, no, open your mouth so I can feed you, put your leg up so I can get on your back...). It was a bit overwhelming at first, but I managed to retain enough to not run my elephant into a tree. We met several elephants before riding them, however, and fed them bananas with our new vocabulary. We also were led by Bobby under one of the elephants because passing under an elephant is believed to bring good luck. It clearly worked for me, considering how awesome the rest of the weekend turned out.

Next, we practiced guiding elephants. We each mounted--of which there are two ways, the second of which will be demonstrated later by the statement "a picture is worth a thousand words"--by commanding the elephant to put up it's right leg so that you can step up, grab a rope at the top of the elephant's neck with your left hand, and grasp the top of the elephant's right ear with your right hand, and hoist yourself up. Elephant skin is extremely thick, so they don't feel hardly anything when you tug on them, but it still makes an inexperienced elephant rider nervous. I mean, I wouldn't want someone climbing all over my face, but I guess that's why elephants are better than humans. 

Most tourist destinations featuring elephant rides involve those hideous basket creations that fasten to the back and head of the elephant and provide a covered, "safe" seat for the riders. This is all a bunch of BS and isn't very comfortable for the elephants either. At Blue Elephant, you ride elephants naturally, the way they've been ridden for hundreds of years--bareback--with nothing to hold on to but the head of your animal. At first it feels precarious, but once you tuck your knees behind her ears and place your palms on the two rounded lobes of her head, it starts feeling quite comfortable.

If horses are the Toyota Camrys of the animal transportation world, then I think that makes elephants Hummer Limos. Except riding an elephant doesn't make you look like a douchy redneck with too much money. So, maybe not the best analogy, but I don't know how else to communicate exactly how thrilling it is to ride an elephant, even if you're going maybe 7 miles per hour at best. For the trek through the jungle, Kirsten and I boarded the same elephant--her on the neck and me on the back--although, technically, we road two elephants because ours was nine months pregnant (elephants are preggers for 2 years, so don't think we were too big a load for her--it's just beginning for our poor maternal friend). Straddling an elephant's spine isn't nearly as comfortable as being perched on the neck, but it is pretty cool to feel each vertebrae move as the creature plods along. And laying down was actually quite peaceful, so I did that whenever my butt started to hurt.

Our elephants led us through a river and into the jungle, and our lovely guide, Kai, faithfully followed us with Kate's iPhone taking more pictures than any of us probably would have, so we owe him for that. I think between Kirsten and I, "I love my life" was said about 8 times in a matter of half an hour.

On our way back to camp, we crossed back over the river, then instructed our elephants to lower us into the water. AND THEN WE BATHED THEM!!! I bathed an elephant!! I splashed around in the water as they all rolled about and let us scrub them. It was surreal. I doubt I will ever do anything so magical ever again. Unless, you know, I find myself swimming with dolphins in the wild. That's next, guys.

After we returned to camp, we got changed, ate some fruit, sang an elephant song Bobby taught us in Thai, and then packed back into the van to go to Tiger Kingdom. Yes, you read that correctly: Tiger Kingdom. As in, a place where you get to go socialize with tigers. Could this day really get any better?

In a lot of ways, Tiger Kingdom was everything the elephant training camp wasn't. It was extremely touristy and crowded, it was very impersonal, and it felt a lot more like a zoo in atmosphere and population. Elephants at Blue Elephant have a mahout (rider/trainer) that typically stays with them from birth until the end of their life. They are only chained down at certain times of the day, and only have one or two tourist visitations a day, and even then, minimal effort is required, they are rewarded with food, and then they get to wander wherever they please. And let's face it, there is no good way to keep tigers in captivity. Ever. They are solitary predators with a wide radius of territory that can never be artificially replicated. That being said, I think Tiger Sanctuary in Chiang Mai does a decent job, all things considered. They do not sedate their animals--which a lot of places do now a days--and the tigers are given free reign and time to play in the early morning before tourists arrive. And they do sleep 18 hours a day, so that certainly makes things easier. 

Despite the guilt I was feeling from the morally ambiguous situation, petting tigers was still an experience I could never regret. If anything, it makes you more aware of a primal fear you didn't even know you had, because when a tiger is alert, when you can see it's tail swishing, when it starts to pace on paws the size of pancakes, when you look into his amber eyes, you know you're facing a truly wild animal, and it's awe inspiring and also terrifying. Everyone who knows me knows how much I love and respect animals, and I don't think I ever quite knew what it felt like to truly be afraid of an animal until I sat next to one such tiger. It really made me realize that just because I've done research in anthrozoology and consider human interactions with wild animals a special interest of mine, I am no better, wiser, or safer when facing a wild creature.

First we socialized with tigers between the ages of 6 and 8 months. They were pretty much all asleep, but you could still tell from the way they slept in groups and from their hilarious contorted positions that they were still babies. Granted, babies almost as long as I am tall. We got to pet them with the guidance of their trainer, and gave them belly rubs, which apparently are their favorite. But the trainer stressed "hard" belly rubs; if you pet them too softly, it tickles and they don't like that. And lord knows you don't want to make a tiger angry.

Then we got to go see the full grown tigers. Wow. Just, wow. You don't realize exactly how big these cats are until you are literally laying next to them. Which I got to do. No big deal. Actually, I lay ON them (under the instruction of the trainer). And pet them some more, and it never, EVER got old. It was incredible. I still can't believe I did that. 

After leaving the Tiger Kingdom and saying goodbye to our guide, we were starving, and Kate and Kirsten recommended we check out a restaurant across from our hostel which had served them an excellent breakfast the morning before. I got a BLT with avocado (which I have yet to find elsewhere in Thailand), and it tasted (if this is possible) even better than the Mexican food the night before. Then we saw the cooks taking pies out of the oven...pies...and not just any pies: pumpkin and apple pies. Now, I didn't have a Thanksgiving dinner this year, and the only things that I really missed were the stuffing and the pies. It was a no-brainer, so we ordered a slice of each and ended up with an extra slice of apple. I never thought I'd say that one of the best pumpkin pies I'd ever had was in Thailand, but that pie was INCREDIBLE. And, I mean, obviously the apple was awesome too. But seriously. I still cannot get over that pumpkin. I don't even have anything witty to say because I'm still speechless thinking about it.

That evening, we went out and wandered the giant night bazaar and were tantalized by clothing, artwork, and general touristy things our teacher salaries weren't going to cover. But we got some solid Christmas shopping done, so that was a bonus. We then went to check out the night life. Needless to say, it was a very fun night meeting other foreigners from around the world, drinking ridiculously cheap margaritas at a place called "Loco Elvis" with a Thai band covering American pop songs, and lots of people-watching, but there is one amusing story I think I'll focus on. At one point in our people-watching stage in an outdoor venue, we found ourselves near a table of young Chinese women, out for a rare celebration. I say rare, because it was obvious they didn't get out much. They were in very conservative, long dresses with ungodly tall wedge-heel sandals that were maybe cool in 2007. There were maybe a dozen beers in front of the eight of them, but they were swaying to the music and laughing like they'd each downed four tequila shots in a row. They saw us looking at them and waved and we waved back. One of them scurried over to us with her phone and asked if we could take a picture. So Kate took their picture, and then they wanted their picture with us, so we smiled and agreed. But after we'd both settled back down at our respective tables, a couple of the Chinese girls started to dance. They were still sitting, but were moving their arms, doing a timid "raise the roof" move back and forth with starry eyed expressions. "How many beers do you think they've had?" I asked Kate and Kirsten as we watched them giggling hysterically, standing up to add a side-step move to their routine. "I really hope more than one," Kate said, but I think we all had the sinking feeling that these were the lightest light weights any of us ever had or ever would see. We tried really hard not to laugh. They were endearing--it was both sad and adorable. Then, I believe it was Kirsten who said with a slow nod, "We should dance with them." So....we did. We just got up and danced over to them, slipping in between and juggling invisible weights in the air with our palms to God knows what American pop song. They were thrilled! We were all smiling and laughing and looking like absolute idiots but no one was watching; they were too busy talking with friends over buckets of liquor or making out with strangers. It was awesome. When the song ended, we all hugged and pretty soon the Chinese girls headed out, and offered us their table. And, of course, on this table, we found about 10 full bottles of beer that had been opened but hardly touched. Then we burst out laughing and drank a lot of really, really terrible Chinese beer. 

Well, the next day was Sunday, so Kirsten and Kate had to leave early to catch the one bus that goes back to their town in the middle of nowhere (I had a flight home Monday morning), so I had the day to myself. I started with breakfast at the pie and sandwich restaurant, and had delicious mango French toast in the company of two guys from Michigan who are taking some time off to travel through Southeast Asia. It's really impressive how many people I've run into on my travels in this country who have just up and left a place, a job, a lifestyle, and traveled somewhere completely different, often on a whim. It's one of the really cool things about being in Thailand; this is a country that draws travelers of every kind, and meeting and chatting with them is really fun and enriching.

I took a bus up a mountain to a very impressive wat (temple), and then wandered around town and visiting two other absolutely stunning wats. I think I'll just let the pictures speak for themselves. 

Then, in the evening, I took a Thai cooking class! Along with a couple from New York, a couple from Montreal, and a family of four from Singapore, I received a tour of a local market and learned how to identify different spices, vegetables, and sauces, then returned back to the culinary institute to chose what four course meal I wanted to prepare. I ended up making cashew chicken, fried spring rolls, seafood coconut soup, and Chiang Mai curry noodles. It was so much fun and I didn't burn anything or poison myself! I did break a bowl, but is that really a surprise coming from me? Making the curry paste was by far the most time consuming and physically strenuous part (lots of chopping and mincing and grinding and pounding), but it was worth it because the Chiang Mai noodles were out of this world. Hands down one of the best things I've eaten in Thailand, and you must recall this was my fourth and final course so I was already stuffed. And the course left me with a fantastic cookbook that includes the recipes for the meal I made as well as dozens of others! I've already recreated the coconut soup and cashew chicken back at my apartment, and it's so nice to have an authentic basis on which to start my cooking adventures here in Thailand. My electric wok and I are about to become best friends.

Alright, well I feel better now that I've finally got this done. I'm going to go substitute for my fellow MEP teacher in Math, which is going to be humiliating seeing as these second graders probably know more math than I remember, so it will be an adventure. Wish me luck!


  1. Melanie- what a great adventure you had. So glad you are having the very best time and enjoying the country. Hope your holiday with Crystal and your dad was great. Blessings for you this New Year!!!!

    1. Thanks, Wendy! It was definitely nice having Crystal and Dad here :) Happy New Year!