Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Elephants, take three

We have been to MaiSa elephant camp (baby elephants), Lampang elephant camp (elephant hospital) and now to the Elephant Nature Park.
So here is what I have been learning. Not all elephants camps are good for elephants. There are degrees of friendliness. Mai Sa had the elephants performing, and pretty much only exists to make money (except that the elephants are generally well looked after)-the capitalist camp. Lampang, which has a free hospital, so the healthy elephants perform to raise money so that sick elephants can receive free care- the socialist camp. And then there is the Nature Park, where the elephants do not perform at all, they get to run free on the property, and tourists get to interact by paying money, feeding the elephants, learning about elephants, and helping out by doing things like washing the elephants. This is perhaps the Utopian camp
[babies playing in the river- they aren't doing what you think] The Nature Park is the only one of its kind in thailand that is like this. I sincerely feel that there is room to transform many of the camps away from the capitalist style camp, to the utopian or at socialist camp. Most spectators want only the best for the elephants (this is why we go to the camps) and want to be with these amazing creatures. Since 99% of the camps have elephants performing, we go to these because there is no other choice (sort of like buying an inefficient car in the states- there aren't a lot of other choices). Additionally, most people don't know what goes on behind the scenes, and well hey, it beats extinction. So just as I truly feel that car companies are crazy to not create super efficient cars for the public to buy, I feel that elephant camps should restructure their ways to be more friendly to the animals. There is no reason not to except that the momentum exists to create camps that have elephants who are submissive and doing a show.
We went to the nature park with our Thai friend Sian. He knows a woman who works there. How could we pass that up?
The day began by driving in his truck to a local market and buying many many kilos of sugar cane to feed the elephants. As Jeff and I carried said sugar cane through the market, there was a steady stream of giggles from all the thai folks in the market, I'm not exactly sure why the entire market thought it was funny for two farang to be carrying loads of cane, but I can only guess that it was a rare site. It was pretty fun.
Then we drove up to the park with guavas, pineapple, watermelon and cane to donate to the large beasts. The elephants park is in an incredibly picturesque valley (exactly what you might think of when you think of a valley full of asian elephants). There are elephants everywhere. Elephants eat something like 6 million kilos of food everyday, so our small donation was nothing much, but it was like being the ice cream man since our treats were some of the elephant's favorite types of food). Actually, the ice cream analogy goes a bit further. After feeding the elephants our treats, the visionary behind the camp, a woman named Lek, bought a bunch of ice cream bars, and proceeded to feed them to the elephants. Apparently orange popsicles their absolute favorite food. Jeff even got a kiss in exchange for the popsicle.
Then we learned a bunch about these sweet creatures and how they become amazing friends. There is a blind elephant who has been adopted by a younger healthier elephant and in the last 5 years, they have never been more than 100 meters apart. As we were watching the elephants, we heard a loud elephant roar as the caretaker elephant realized she was 50 meters away, and took off across the field to be close to her blind friend. It still makes me weepy to think about it. What an amazing sight.
[Jeff and I washing them down] It was then bath time, and we all dove into the river along with the elephants to scrub them down. They love being scrubbed and the either sat there patiently as you rubbed them down, or they would gently play with you by splashing about or rolling around in the river. As big as they are, I always felt like they are super aware of where I am in relation to me and that they would never run into me. It is a cool feeling to be so close to them.
[looking for more to wash] The whole day was an incredible experience and I can't wait to go back. So if any of you come to visit, we will schedule a trip up there and perhaps even stay the night. Apparently, elephants can snore quite loud.

I'm a working man

I know this may seem hard to believe, but I actually worked 4 days last week, and it is looking like I will be working 4 this week. I seriously need a vacation. Fortunately, I am headed down to Krabi to climb for a week in early march.
Last week, I had the pleasure of substituting in a high school for an ESL class. I taught literature and Social Studies to a mix of Korean and Thai kids whose english is not yet up to par to fit into the main part of the international school. It was a blast. It is amazing how easy it felt to work with High School aged students after my short stint as a kindergarten teacher. I mean, I could actually reason with the students as opposed to resorting to jumping and dancing. And get this, they had an assignment to do, and they actually did it. I'm not saying that all kindergarten students are a bunch of miscreants who nothing more than to create bedlam, but I am saying that I have no idea how to work with those little dark angels.
I think the rowdiest part of the time was when we had about half and hour to kill and played a fun game of "Where's Pruie." This is a game that gets kids to close their eyes, walk around a room, and essentially try to figure out who is who. It is an opportunity to touch each other, which has its own set of red flags, but is also quite good at breaking down barriers.
[A good round of Chalk talk to see what the kids knew] Anyway, good stuff. It isn't that it feels good to work again, but rather that it felt good to be working with kids who are genuinely interested in what you have to say. I didn't take any pictures, but you'll have to picture me sitting around in a room with 15 teenage thai and korean kids talking about things I should do and not do in Chiang Mai (the number one thing to do is to be patient. the thing not to do is to loose my temper- interesting that that is what the kids want me to learn).

We went to a white trash party

Here are some pictures- party on Wayne!

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Megan's critter pictures

He followed us around the paddies for a while
Dog on a fence

We had a long conversation
Scary Buffalo

Cat on a poll
this kid played with this cat like this for about 15 minutes, then the cat walked off

Tubers or Tubers

Some interesting stuff has happened in the last few weeks: Megan got some flowers, we defined tubers; I understand what rabbit traps and UXO have in common; I figured out where dead race car drivers reincarnate; a monk made important predictions; muddy water, diesel gas and chicken can make you sick; and thailand suddenly seems quite sophisticated.

You probably already figured it out from the clues, but, yes indeed, we went to Laos last week. Just as aside note, why did the maker of the english language decide that Lao needed to be spelled Laos and that Lao people (who call themselves Lao-both singular and plural) need to be called Laotians. Lao doesn't even border an ocean (get it: Lao-ocean) and why add all those extra letters in? Why can't we just call it what it is called? We call people from Thailand Thai.

So Lao... it took a 12 hour bus ride, followed by a 1 hour bus ride, followed by a 15 minute Tuk-tuk ride, then another 5 minute bus-ride, then a 20 minute tuk-tuk ride, then a fun 5 hour bus ride to get there. no big deal. On the way, we passed through lots of thailand at nighttime, crossed the first bridge to go over the Mekong River, became quite confused at the border as to how one actually gets into Lao, Quickly passed through Vientiane (the Loa capital) and found ourselves quickly escaping from any sign of civilization until we arrived at our first destination of Vang Vieng. I have to admit that I didn't know much about Lao before going there, but it appears that Lao was once colonized by the French, secretly supported by America during the Vietnam war and then just as secretly deserted and left to massive decay under the Soviet regime, then became an independent communist single party government after the fall of the wall. The current government is still pissed at the remote hill tribes that America promised to support during and after Vietnam. In fact it regularly does sweeps and imprisons children whose families fought in the war. As recent as last year large groups of Hmong Hill tribe people give up and surrender themselves to the government for Guantanamo Bay style imprisonment.
So why would we want to go there? Because of tubers. Small potato like objects? Well, yes, but also because white backpackers have found this lovely spot called Vang Vieng where they can rent inner-tubes, buy some beers and float lazily down the river passing the day away and offending all the local people with exposed bellies. Actually, it looked kind of fun, but we were there to climb. See, since the tubers have taken over, this area has become a tourist friendly kind of place, and since some tourists like to climb, there have been some routes established on the beautiful looking limestone that frames perfectly set valleys full of rice paddies and smiling children.
We had heard rumors of rock climbing, but didn't know too much about it. Well, as it turns out, the climbing isn't the greatest but it is set in some wonderful locations. One such location happens to be right by the river where the tubers come floating by. Because these tubers tend to wash up on the shore and need a place to restock their beer, relieve their bladders, and jump off pretty rope swings, locals have set up bars along the river. We were essentially climbing in a bar that when we got there in the morning was a pretty sleepy place. But the tubers come down in packs, and when the employees see them coming, Bob Dylan is played at high volume to attract the tuber in. Megan and I wanted to make a sighting of a tuber in action, so we'd sneak along the cliff and try to make spotting. Then the tubers, would stop, or not, and float off on their way. The music would stop, the employees fall back asleep on the tables and we'd go back to climbing. Then suddenly we'd hear Bob Marley and it would happen all over again. Oh yeah, and the climbing was chalky and not so well protected, but whatever. We got to see tubers.
At one of the climbing areas we had to bushwhack through some jungle when I was reminded of the fact that there is some ungodly amount of unexploded ordinance (UXO) nicely deposited by foreign entities (including the US) over the years. As I was pondering the thought, I saw a strange log propped up precariously with thin wire and trough dug underneath it (i know this doesn't give a good visual, but it is too hard to explain, and we didn't take a photo). After closer examination I think it was a rabbit trap, that when tripped swings a giant log into the trench. Oh how treacherous. At least it took my mind off the UXO.
After three days of climbing, exploring caves (if you don't know, caving is about the coolest thing in the entire world for me- about the uncoolest for megan), drinking Lao coffee and eating wonderful baguette sandwiches, we departed Vang Vieng for Luang Prabang. For reasons I'm still not sure about, we found ourselves sitting in a Minivan tearing off down the road towards the ancient capital of Lao. Yeah, we wanted to take the public bus, yeah we tried to get out of sitting in the two fold out seats in the minivan, yeah the road is sort of paved, yeah it is only 200 km, but no it wasn't pleasant at all. Strange really, the driver would actually accelerate when he saw that we were approaching any one of the 30 or so hilltribe villages lining the road. I think he must of figured if he just laid on his horn, put the gas pedal to the floor and swerved towards the running children, we would think the ride was that much more fun and tip him more on arrival. At one point I hear megan apologizing to the person next to her, as her fold down chair unfolded under the g-forces of the tight turn and thrust her into the lap of the sleeping german tourist. But 7 hours isn't too long and soon we arrived. Strange though, nobody did end up tipping the driver.

Luang Prabang was lovely and we wanted to stay for a few days. We did need to be back in Thailand after a few days, so we decided to suck up the price of a plane ticket. But wait, no seats available for the next 2 weeks. Therefore, we could either travel back the way we came, probably a 2 day bus voyage, or take the boat up the Mekong River to the thai border and then a 4 hour minibus home. Unfortunately, this was a 3 day option, but worth it to avoid having to backtrack. This left only one day in one of the most beautiful cities that I've been to. Luang Prabang is about the size of Bellingham, right along the Mekong and Namkham rivers, completely full of old temples and somewhat built up by the french in colonial style. We rented bicycles and rode around lazily for a day playing with kids and soaking it up. Lovely place. I'd recommend it.
But what I wouldn't recommend, is taking the boat along the Mekong for two days and getting food poisoning during the overnight stopover in Pakbeng.
There is no road that covers the 200 or so km of mekong we travelled. In fact there isn't a road anywhere within a 100 km corridor of big chunk of it. Pretty remote wilderness except for the small villages dotting the river here and there. Lovely, and for two days we soaked it all in.

So that was our trip to Laos. One thing that did surprise me was how much like coming home it felt to return to Chiang Mai. Also, how sophisticated Thailand is compared to other places such as Lao. They have paved roads here, hospitals here, coins, and quite a bit of organization when it really comes down to it. Since it felt like coming back to a modern country, I can't imagine what it will feel like to eventually show up in the states. I'm certainly not ready at this point. That is for sure.

Oh yeah, I almost left out the details on the flowers and the monk prediction. Well, Megan caught the bouquet at a friends wedding, she tried not to catch it, but it really did just end up in her arms. She tried to give it back, but couldn't. She caught the bouquet.
The monk, well we ended up talking with a nice novice monk (he was 18) for a while in Luang Prabang and he predicted that we will have a son in the next year.
Hmmmmm... fat chance.


dyed silk drying
another boat on the Mekong
bubbs and bubs