Part One: Northern Thailand
February 7, 2012
Dateline: Atlanta, GA
Latitude at Atlanta: 33.75 degrees North, Longitude 84.39 degrees West
We drove to the Comfort Suites on Virginia Avenue near the airport to spend the night since our connecting flight to Bangkok via Dallas left at 6:00 a.m. It was a good deal on the room, but the great deal was that it included parking for 30 days at the hotel. In the La Fiesta Restaurant attached to the hotel we had excellent margaritas and Mexican food. We suspected this would be our last chance at it for the next month or so –and the excellent part – well that would indeed prove to be true, and we should have known since we do have some faux Mexican experience in foreign countries. Rule of Thumb: One should not order Mexican food in Bangkok – more on that later.
February 8, 2012
Dateline: International Dateline
We had to get up at 3:00 a.m. to catch the airport shuttle and we departed from Atlanta on American Airlines on February 8, but crossed the international dateline (Longitude 180 degrees and the dividing line between East and West) and so during the night and we lost at day. We would get a day back on our return trip to the US. The flight from Atlanta to Dallas was a little over 2 hours and then we had a 2 hour layover. The flight from Dallas to Tokyo was 13 hours and 30 minutes and we were thankful to be in Business Class. The flight was made a little better with 3 movies and some light sleeping, but it was long no matter what we were doing. Upon arriving in Bangkok, we would be about 10,000 miles from home with a 14 hour time difference. We would have another layover of 4 hours in Tokyo and then a relatively short hop to Bangkok – just over 7 hours on JAL.
February 9, 2012
Dateline: Bangkok, Thailand
Latitude at Bangkok 13.75 degrees North, Longitude 100.46 degrees East
We arrived in Tokyo’s Narita Airport seriously bleary eyed and stumbled to the Admiral’s Club where we were able to ascertain what time it was (12 hours ahead of Atlanta), when our next flight was leaving and from which gate. This would be our second time in Tokyo, but both timeswe were just passing through so we can’t really cross that off our “Been There Done That List”.
We arrived in Bangkok at 11:00 p.m., which was not in time to catch a flight to Chiang Mai, and thus our plan was to spend the night in Bangkok. While it was on our itinerary to tour Bangkok, it was to be at the end of our trip. This visit was just for transit purposes. We got our bags and found the shuttle to our hotel, the Novotel Suvarnabhumi at the airport. Suvarnabhumi is also the name of the airport and its pronunciation sounds something like “Soo-Var-Nah-Boo-ME” . The hotel lobby was a grand affair with orchids and ficus trees, market umbrellas and soaring ceilings and marble everywhere. A quick tooth brushing revived us and we enjoyed a great meal of pad Thai, (one of many to come) in the hotel restaurant for around 1400 baht ($46.00). The exchange rate is roughly 30 baht to the dollar. The baht is divisible into 100 satang. Bills come in denominations of 1000, 500, 100, 50, 20 and 10.
Our room was enormous and had the interesting feature of not only a glass enclosed shower, but also a glass enclosed toilet. We decided this was so you can make sure your spouse/traveling companion has not fallen asleep on the toilet, nor is reading War and Peace waiting for Nature to call. We then collapsed into bed at 1:00 a.m. with a dose of Ambien to deal with the jet lag.
The area that is the Kingdom of Thailand was formerly called Siam (as portrayed to some extent – in the old 1956 movie The King and I). Thailand today is a constitutional monarchy. The king was in his 80’s when we were there, but the frequently seen pictures of him around the country are of him in his much younger days – kind of like those you see sometimes in obituary pictures in the U.S. They do have elections here but with you have to try not to titter when they have trouble with “l”s and “r”s and call them erections.
February 10, 2012
Dateline: Chiang Mai, Thailand
Latitude at Chiang Mai 18.79 degrees North, Longitude 98.99 East
We awoke around 8:00 a.m. and adjusted our watches to 12 hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time, and so from a time zone perspective, we found we were half way around the world. We had a quick buffet breakfast and took the shuttle to the airport to fly on Thai Airlines to Chiang Mai. (pronounced “ching-my”). It is the second largest city in Thailand after Bangkok. There we met our delightful guide, Nikki, who greeted us with jasmine leis, and our driver Lak (pronounced “lake”). Later we would be joined by our friends Stu and Sharon who had a direct flight to Chiang Mai and would be arriving in the wee hours.
We checked into the Bodhi Serene Hotel in the heart of Chiang Mai, where we could step outside and become totally immersed in a different culture from our own. Chiang Mai is an ancient city built in1296. The name means New City and it was the capitol of the kingdom of Lanna. (whose name means 1,000 rice fields. The city was once walled and surrounded by a moat. There is little left of either. Most of the remaining walls are in the corners and there are 5 surviving gates. The city was built on the Ping River which is a tributary of the Mekong.
There are 44 temples within the 4 square kilometers of the city and it is not unusual to see the orange robed monks everywhere. Sometimes the setting is a little incongruous, like our sighting of a dozen of them riding in the back of a battered pick-up truck, but it keeps touring interesting.
Nikki, like many of the locals, carries a parasol to keep the sun off her face. Tourists on the other hand wear hats and sunscreen – and of course with Western tourists, the dead giveaway is we are the big people looming over the crowd by about a foot taller and several inches wider. Nikki told us that darker skin is more prevalent in the south of Thailand (Indian influence) and lighter skin in the north (Chinese influence). The lighter skin is considered more desirable.
We had a short nap and then walked down the street with Nikki for a massage at a local place called Lilli’s for the modest price of $12.00 for a two hour massage, plus a tip of $1.30.
Nikki told us that Lilli hires ex-cons to train and work as masseuses, but that we should not be alarmed. These are drug offenders trying to go straight. Apparently Myanmar (a.k.a. Burma) is their Mexico with regard to illegal drugs and Thailand has very strict laws regarding drug use. Lilli’s salon is part of a parole program to provide jobs for parolees.
There was no massage table – the patrons are expected to stretch out on mats on the floor with a teeny pillow for the head. Patrons first don some pajama like garments, sort of resembling medical scrubs. The bottoms which have a drawstring they call fisherman’s pants. The top is a button-up loose fitting shirt, orange for me and blue for Gary. Once we were attired, the masseuses more or less climbed aboard our bodies and went to work. The masseuses were tiny women, as agile as gymnasts who sort of climbed over our prone bodies using their knees and elbows to work out the kinks. I could not stop thinking about Gulliver and the Lilliputians in Gulliver’s Travels. It sounds painful, but it was really very relaxing – you can get a lot of knots and kinks in your muscles from that marathon plane ride to get here. Amid the thumping and kneading of my muscles by these very strong women, I figured they would have been very tough in a prison fight.
There is an abundance of what they call tuk-tuks here. They are called that because that is the noise it makes at it putts down the streets. It is essentially at a three wheeled vehicle – sort of like a motor scooter with a backseat cab with a bench – like a motor scooter attached to a horse buggy. There are also a lot of pedicabs – where a person on a bicycle replaces the motor scooter, but we chose to walk, so as to better to take in the sights, of which there were many. We stopped en route for some refreshments and Gary pronounced the local beer, Chiang, to be good. We also made a stop at an ATM to refresh our supply of baht.
We seemed to experience an exotic sensory overload as we walked. Orchids abound everywhere on the streets. The colors seemed brighter, the scents were stronger and even the frogs are louder that we are accustomed to. Nikki explained some local customs to us such as: The head is considered a sacred part of the body – you should not touch anyone on their head, even small children. Feet are the dirtiest part of the body. You should not touch or point at anything with them, although since few of us are nimble enough to point with our feet we were safe on this point of etiquette. You should remove your shoes before entering a temple. You should never raise your voice, even in a disagreement. You should always dress conservatively – especially in temples. You should never pass in front of someone kneeling in a temple – in other words, don’t walk between them and the Buddha.
Nikki also showed us the “Wai”, that is the gesture of bowing slightly with your hands together – a sign of thanks and politeness. The older or more important the person you are greeting, the higher your hands should be. Hello is “sawatdee” and you add “ca” or cha” depending on whether you are addressing a man or a woman. It also means goodbye – kind of like their version of aloha.
We took a tuk-tuk to the night market of Chiang Mai, which proved to be an absolute assault on the senses – people, merchandise, food, crafts, brilliant colors. We took the plunge and sampled a few exotic food items. We tasted dried bamboo worms which we found tasteless, but silk worms were slightly salty and looked like noodles. Feeling really adventurous now, we decided to try the much touted fish pedicure and chose an establishment called Garra Fish Therapy. The process is this: You have your feet thoroughly washed and scrubbed and then you sit on a bench to immerse them into an aquarium with a few dozen goldfish, which nibble away at the dead skin on your feet. This replaces (or so they say) the need to use a loofah or pumice stone to soften your feet. You can dangle your feet for about $3.00 for half an hour. The sensation is sort of a tickle – you can’t feel a “bite” at all.
After the fish spa, Nikki took us to a local noodle shop, where we were the only non-locals there. We were looking for authentic and found it. I had pad thai and Gary and Nikki had a noodle dish. The name of the place was written only in the Thai alphabet (very different from ours) so I didn’t get a record of the name, but Nikki told me is translates something like “Rich Fat Lady” which is also the Thai name for water chestnuts. We shared an icy sort of dessert topped with lotus, condensed milk, coconut and lychees. I won’t say I didn’t like it, but suffice it to say I didn’t ask for the recipe.
We went back to the night market (a.k.a. night bazaar, but it could just as easily be called the night “bizarre”) for one more pass before going to the hotel and the scene had changed a bit from PG 13 to R. There were a number of transvestites dressed like Vegas showgirls working for tips from tourists. We suspected they might be trying to get enough money for some implants since their cleavage was practically non-existent. We even saw a cocktail truck – sort of like a food truck in the U.S., but here the truck pulls up, the bar folds out and patrons climb on stools to be served a beverage. We would later see a variation on this – a mobile cocktail truck where the bar stools are equipped with bicycle pedals. Assuming the patrons can peddle in unison, the whole thing can be propelled down the street. The method of actually steering it was unclear to us. It was clear, however, that this is a novelty for tourists – no locals were seen taking part.
We bought a teak carving of a Buddha face for our library – one of many purchases to come. We have found the craftsmanship of the artisans here to be extraordinary and the prices are well below reasonable. We then walked back to the hotel avoiding puddles from a rain shower and a flock of hookers – young attractive girls propositioning older Caucasian guys. My husband Gary fit the profile so Nikki and I sandwiched him between us as we walked to indicate he was already taken.
February 11, 2012
We met our friends, Stu and Sharon, for breakfast and began our first full day of touring. Our first stop was an old colonial building that housed the Chiang Mai National Museum. The city of Chiang Mai was founded by King Manga Rei in the 12th Century here in what was believed to be an auspicious place, with the mountains to the west and the river to the east ( in accordance with feng shui principles). In this case the river is the Ping River. There are a lot of myths and stories around the city’s founding which I largely missed the gist of. There was something about an albino deer and fawn spotted here and then something about rats the size of cart axles and their offspring. I much preferred the deer story to the rat story since we were spending several days here.
Chiang Mai was the capital of what is termed the Lanna Kingdom from the 12th to the 18th Century which at that point covered parts of what is today Burma (or Myanmar) and Northern Thailand. The architecture and culture of Burma and Northern Thailand today are much more similar than that of Northern and Southern Thailand. Today it is the capital of one of Thailand’s 77 provinces and home to the largest number of expatriates in the country. Chiang Mai is a walled city which boasts a number of wats (or temple complexes). Wats typically have a stupa which is a type of pagoda built like a step pyramid. The stupa is also sometimes referred to as a chedi. Its purpose was to house religious relics (such as the ashes of the Buddha or royal families), a temple with sometimes multiple Buddha statues, cloisters where the monks live and meeting rooms.
We visited a temple called Wat Phra Sing the largest in Chiang Mai which was begun in 1345, whose highlight was the revered Phra Buddha Sing. We were instructed to take off our shoes, but we could take all the photos we wanted. Surrounding the Buddha was incense and flowers, gold leaf and dragons, elephants and bells and all manner of decoration. We walked to another temple called the Chedi Luang, where within the temple compound, there is a monument to a king who was struck by lightning while riding his elephant to the market. The king died – no word on the elephant. The most notable sight here is a replica of the
priceless Emerald Buddha, which we would see later in Bangkok. We walked by several lesser temples which included one which boasted the oldest stupa in Chiang Mai. Thailand is 90 per cent Buddhist, 4% Muslim, 1% Christian. The other 5% are listed as “none” and” other”.
The local university has a program called “Monk Chat,” where they encourage English speaking tourists to spend some time chatting with a local monk enrolled in the school. The idea is that they can give us information about his life, religion, country and so forth and we can give them practice with English and make them more fluent. They are all self-taught and are actually easier to understand than many who have taken English lessons, attributable, they say, to the daily practice with native speakers such as ourselves.
The monks take turns (or shifts) sitting at an outdoor table and the tourists come up and plop down for a chat. We met the very delightful Supot Hongsa, a young man of 20, who told us that many young boys become monks in order to get an education. They can choose to stay a monk or go into private life, to work, marry and have a family. He said there is a 50% dropout rate of boys who enter monk training.
We learned several things from Supot, including that the goal of Buddhism is happiness. They are tolerant of all religions and do not proselytize. They wear no jewelry or watches. We asked how they get to class on time and Supot reached into his robe and produced a cell phone. We had a little chuckle with him over that and asked where he keeps it. He showed us a plain white tee shirt under his orange robe with a chest pocket . I guess it’s a good thing that when the rules were made up for monks, there were no cell phones or they would likely be banned as well. The whole idea behind the ban on watches was to keep them focused on spiritual matters, but then they can always Google religious topics. For his other necessities, such as books, he carries a simple cloth bag.The primary courses of study at the University are sociology, philosophy and religion, but there are courses that prepare them for medicine and engineering in colleges elsewhere.
They have very strict rules regarding contact with women – there is to be none, including family members. He told us that when he visits his mother and sisters, he cannot touch them which we must have gawked at because he sort of shrugged and explained that zero contact is easier to manage than making rules for family and non family. When we sat down, Nikki had told us where to sit so that the two men in our group sat on either side of him instead of one of the women. He said he is on Facebook and offered to give his email address to Gary to “Friend” him. I was the one with the pen and paper, but I could not hand it directly to him. Stu took it from me and handed it to him. Odd we thought, but we always like to discover the odd things, the exotic things. I couldn’t resist asking what they do on a crowded bus when we see people wedged in like sardines. Supot said this is a minor offense and is no big deal.
We ate a lunch of local food at a local place. It was sticky rice (we love it) and noodles and chicken soup– family style. Nikki shared some local points of dining etiquette with us such as:
If you are dining in a private home, you should wait for the host to invite you to eat before starting. Eat all on your plate so the host is not insulted. When at a restaurant, the person perceived to be the wealthiest is presented with the bill. If someone else is paying, one should not offer to help, or the person paying will lose “face”. If there are elderly women in the group, you let them order food for group (a tradition). Serve yourself from dishes on the table. Do not pass them and take only as much as you can eat in 2 or 3 mouthfuls. Use a fork only to push food onto your spoon. Never put the fork directly in your mouth. Eat slowly. We noticed restaurants bring food when it is ready and you are expected to eat it while it is hot. No need to wait for others to get their orders. And finally, do not leave chopsticks in your bowl – it is considered bad luck since it symbolizes death. Having told us that, she told us to do whatever we like – Thais are very indulgent of foreigners with a special soft spot for Americans.
We are surrounded by the exotic and are just soaking it in. We loved the incongruity of it all – it delights, amuses and amazes. Here are just a few examples:
Small Spirit Houses – people keep these in their homes and their places of business with the same detailed features as the larger ones seen in temple complexes. They are used as a shrine to ancestors and people will leave small offerings such as flowers and seeds and in one place I saw cupcakes. Nikki told us that it is not unusual for people to leave favorite foods of their deceased relatives at the spirit house shrines and temples.
Transportation here is always interesting. In addition to the tuk-tuks and pedicabs, there are thousands of bicycles, motor scooters and few motorcycles, but always small – no full dress Harleys here. We saw a German Shepherd sized dog riding in front of a gentleman on a mo-ped. We saw a pickup truck bed full of monks. We saw a motorcycle with a side car loaded with eggs, we saw a broom seller on a bicycle. People here drive on the left – a holdover from British occupation.
Electrical wiring here is quite a nightmare. There doesn’t seem to be any conduit and very few electrical poles here and there. The wires mostly just hang from the eaves in snarled clumps. There is a lot of visual pollution which can be charming at times, unsightly at times, but always interesting.
We saw massages being performed out in the streets, particularly at the night markets, where patrons recline on lawn chairs. This is a $4 per hour service or you can splurge on the mats on the ground for $6. There were eating enterprises everywhere, some commonplace such as sticky rice and some exotic such as quail eggs cooked to order in little fry pans with a side of little crunchy worms.
Toilets are referred to as the Happy Room. We were glad that our guide knew the kind that made us happy, i.e. those with a toilet seat, toilet paper, sinks, soap and towels, because the locals are not so picky.
We visited the Warorot Day market which is the grocery store for locals since they do not have supermarkets, but it also sells crafts and clothing. Gary decided he could use another pair of shorts and found a pair he thought would work (which was no small feat given the diminutive stature of Thai men) and he proceeded to search for a dressing room to try them on. Apparently they only have dressing rooms on demand here at the Warorot, since two Thai men whipped out a large sheet and held it up for him to hide behind to try on the shorts. He ended up not purchasing them since he discovered that XL in Thailand is not what it is in the USA. Crafts sold here include wood carving, lacquer work, weaving, textiles, antiques and jewelry. We went back to the night market so Stu and Sharon could enjoy the Fish Therapy and then to a local restaurant. Gary ordered a whole fish and I stuck with the dependably good – no surprises Pad Thai.
Today we had learned about “nagas” which are mythical protective serpents – looking sort of like a snake crossed with a dragon. They adorn many of the temples and palaces throughout Southeast Asia and are believed to protect against bad spirits, and they are significant in both the Buddhist and Hindu religions. The way the story goes is that a “garuda” (a mythical bird) attacks and subdues a naga that is trying to harm the Buddha. After this attack the naga goes over to the other side and becomes protective of Buddha and the king of the nagas, the improbably named Mucilinda, grows several heads in order to shelter the Buddha from a thunderstorm. Nagas are also believed to control rainfall and provide water for crops when appropriately worshiped.
February 12, 2012
Today we arose and left the hotel before sunrise in order to “make merit” with the monks from the Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep Monastery as they began their walk on the streets of Chiang Mai. To do this we had to stop by the local market and buy fresh produce. Part of their daily duties is to go forth among the people every morning seeking offerings of food. The do not grow food or buy food – they only eat what is provided in their bowls, in a Trick or Treat sort of fashion although they do pool their gatherings, plus the senior monks who do not go out share in the food as well.
The ritual is this: we would kneel on a blanket and ask them for permission to give them food. They graciously accept our offer and offer us a blessing to us in return. In this manner we “make merit”, i.e. receive blessings. The blessing is chanted and asking that we have Long Life, Happiness and Energy. The monks are all male – ranging in age from 6 to their early 20’s. They always look down and there is to be no talking. They all wear orange robes and have shaved heads. They walk barefoot so to be aware of where they are placing their feet in order to avoid injuring any living thing such as even the tiniest insect (of which there are multitudes) The female counterpart of the monks are the nuns who wear white. Novices don’t get to talk until they turn 20 – prior to that they are to listen and learn. Children in Thailand only complete school through Grade 9. If anyone wants any education past that, boys can become monks, girls can leave the country. It is not uncommon for monks to leave the monastery if they decide it is not for them.
We had a short drive out in the country for a scenic hike in the Doi Suthep Doi Pui National Park. The hike was only 3 kilometers (just short of 2 miles), but it was all uphill and it took us 4 hours to reach the summit. We had a park guide who cut bamboo walking sticks for us to use en route.
We saw several waterfalls and so many tropical plants only seen in nurseries at home growing and going wild. There were also figs and bananas growing wild and a fruit we had never seen before called jackfruit which tastes sort of like a lemon flavored pear. There was a lodge at the top where we had a picnic lunch with some of the ubiquitous, but always delicious sticky rice, along with chicken, delicious mangoes and a rice caramel dessert.
There is a temple founded in the 14th Century at the very top of a the highest peak (5,250 feet) called Wat Doi Suthep, where the monks we made merit with yesterday live. We took the funicular up and walked back down via the elaborate Naga Staircase of 304 steps. While we were there, a few of the monks were touching up the paint job on the nagas on either side of the entrance. The wat’s central chedi is a multi-tiered dome-like structure, embellished with filigree and gold leaf, which is lovingly applied by pilgrims who come here to worship. It is said to enshrine sacred relics, in this case some of what are believed to be some of the ashes of Buddha, which appear to be very widely spread given the number of temples that claim them. A chedi somewhat resembles the US capitol dome without
the rounded edges and without the building underneath it. There is a bell tower called at ho rakang used to toll the hour and with a row of small bell used to call the monks and people to worship, which today visitors ring for good luck. There is also a wihan, or assembly hall where there are multiple Buddhas.
Among the numerous Buddhas, we found our personal Buddhas, based on the day of the week we were born. Gary’s was the Monday Buddha who is standing with one hand raised. Mine was the Thursday Buddha who sits and meditates.There are other assembly halls reserved for monks called bots ,which are demarcated by bai semas (sacred stones) used to identify consecrated ground. There are also
the cloisters which are the monks living quarters and various “salas” for pilgrims to gather and religious lectures to be held. We also saw the White Elephant Monument at the temple which was comprised of a life-size elephant who was said to be the personal transportation of King Ku Na. The elephant so the story goes, in 1390 charged up the hill and selected this site as the appropriate place to build a temple. In some versions of the story, Buddha was aboard the elephant at the time. He reportedly trumpeted loudly on his arrival at the summit and turned 3 times – so there was their sign to build right there.
The temple was bustling with activity in some apparent celebration with dancers and acrobats performing in the courtyard. There were also plenty of worshipers as evidenced by the mounds of shoes around the door since shoes are always taken off before entering a temple or shrine, as well as the mounds of offerings at the various shrines.
We enjoyed our massage yesterday so much, the 4 of us , plus our guide Nikki, decided to go back for a group massage in the afternoon for a price roughly equal to $6.00 for two hours. We were given those same pajama like outfits to wear for the massage and laid on the cushioned mats on the floor – all 5 of us in a row. The masseuses would kneel either next to us either on on or astride our backs, but they were so tiny, we hardly felt that there were there. I must confess I did peek at the others stretched out beside me with their tiny jockey-masseuses and I had to choke back a snort of laughter when I conjured up images of Seabiscuit in the big race.
Since today was Sunday, we were treated to a special Sunday Market lasting from 4 p.m. to midnight. There were hundreds of stalls with hand made goods and food, drink and entertainment. Chiang Mai seems to be a continuous stream of markets – e.g. Night Market, Day Market, Sunday Market . The latter was to be found along Walking Street, where we strolled and marveled. There were a number of blind musicians who were very young men, but who had worked as welders without the benefit of eye protection and consequently became blind at a young age – just a widely accepted occupational hazard here so Nikki told us. We had earlier noticed a business called Pooh Trek – which recycled dung into paper and it also doubled as a massage shop called Pooh Massage Therapy. They advertised that their massage therapists are blind (former welders no doubt). We would hope they don’t get their therapeutic mud mixed up with any elephant or other animal by-products since it is all under one roof.
We also saw row after row of outdoor massage chairs – not what you see in the US where seated massages are offered, at airports for example. These could double as lawn chairs with cushions and there were rows of them, filled with customers. The going rate here was only a dollar or two depending on the service desired. We also saw people selling eels and birds, which Nikki told us are sold to provide as offerings to Buddha, but rather than being prepared to be eaten, they are turned loose.
We had dinner at the Tamarind Village Restaurant where almost everyone enjoyed a local exotic dish – so exotic in fact a few meals got mixed up and no one knew the difference. I was the one exception and ordered a ham and cheese sandwich with French Fries since my palate needed to give the Thai food a rest. Tomorrow I would be prepared to attack it anew.
February 13, 2012
Today I proclaimed to be one of the best days of my life – and I certainly have been blessed enough to have some good ones. This proclamation was issued while perched on the back of my own elephant for the day, a hulking guy named Bun Pak, as part of what is known locally as the Mahout for a Day program. A mahout is essentially an elephant trainer and caretaker. Usually they are assigned to an elephant at a very young age and remain with him throughout his working life. Elephants in Asia, as opposed to Africa, have been used for work in logging, hauling and transportation for centuries and are quite docile by comparison to their African counterparts. Elephants were used in hunting in previous centuries since they can run at about 12 miles and hour. Elephants also figure largely in the Buddhist and Hindu religions and white elephants are held in particular regard and were considered sacred
and only the king could own them. There is also a god in the Hindu religion called Ganesh, who is the Hindu God of knowledge, as well as the creator and remover of obstacles in life. He has the body of a boy and the head of an elephant which can certainly make you do a double take while touring a temple. An elephant did not have to be solid white, but certain parts had to be close to white to qualify as a white elephant. The origins of labeling something a white elephant come from this tradition. Since only kings could own elephants, they were of no use to anyone else – thus the label “white elephant” is applied to things perceived to be large and useless.
The experience of this day was one of the best ever – there simply aren’t enough superlatives to describe it. As a mahout for the day, our task was to do all the things for our assigned elephant that their mahout would do which included, feeding, bathing, exercising, checking their health which involved looking at their dung for signs of illness. It sounds worse than it was. Interesting enough elephant dung smells like fresh hay. They told us that you can tell the age of an elephant by examining its dung, but we didn’t delve too much into that research.
Our day started by driving about an hour out of Chiang Mai into the countryside to a place called Patara (pronounced Pah Ta Rah with the accent on “Pah”) Elephant Camp. Their goal is to preserve elephants in Thailand by having tourists come to experience them and spread the word while spreading the dollars. They are not trained to do tricks, but are trained to accept humans. They have been protected by law since 1921, but with continuing deforestation, their numbers have been reduced to just a few thousand. We started our elephant experience by having the opportunity to play with baby elephants. There were 5 there with their mothers. It was a very wise move on the camp manager’s part because we needed to get our ” elephant awe” under control so we could perhaps pay attention to our guides and listen and learn.
Surprisingly the elephant moms were not the least concerned about us swarming around their babies – well swarming is probably hyperbole – there were only 6 of us “mahout wannabes” that day. One baby in particular that they told us was 9 months old was the youngest and the most playful. His favorite play seemed to be wrestling. He would use his trunk and one leg to try to take down any challenger. Gary fared the best since he was more in this little guy’s weight class. The rest of us had to be rescued by the handlers to keep from getting pinned. All of the elephants seemed so affectionate – leaning against us, stretching out their trunks for a greeting, calmly looking at us with those big liquid eyes, seeming to invite us to come closer (and of course if you had a treat like a banana, they were extra friendly). We didn’t see any of the protectiveness that makes animal mothers in the wild so dangerous (e.g. a bear with a cub). It seems the elephants were watchful, but trusting with the confidence that they can easily address any threat we puny humans might present. Elephants have a two year gestation period so even that process is laid back.
After baby elephant recess, we proceeded to the serious business of mahout training. We were given special clothes to wear, and as we would learn later, they were not just for ornamentation. The shirts were pullover colorful hill tribe weaves made by the Karen Tribe. The pants were heavy canvas “fisherman’s pants” – very loose fitting, and very unflattering.
Our first step was to bond with our assigned elephant. We did the bonding by feeding our charge a bushel basket full of bananas by hand. We didn’t hand them to them to take with their trunks, but rather we stood beside them, with a cluster of 6 or so unpeeled bananas in hand and gave the command, “bon”, which means something roughly equivalent to “open wide”. The elephant would then obey the command and we were to place the bananas in its mouth, which is quite large, wet and squishy. The real mahout would watch to see if the elephant bonded with us. That is, would the elephant, obey commands from us. As
a test we were to address the elephant by name to see how the elephant responded. A good response would be acknowledgement with the elephant making a small trumpeting sound and/or gently flapping of its ears and swinging its of tail. Or it might make a gentle rumbling sound, roughly equivalent to a cat purring, although sounding more like a dog growling. Our instructor told us that sometimes elephants don’t like people and won’t even take bananas from them. A big time elephant rejection of a potential mahout for the day is marked by rapid flapping of ears and loud trumpeting, in which time a full retreat is in order by the would-be mahout. Fortunately for us, all elephants liked all potential mahouts and we could proceed.
I was assigned to a male elephant named Bun Pak which means handsome man and Gary was assigned a female elephant named Maha Pak which means beautiful flower. With Asian elephants, only the males have tusks and Bun Pak had quite an impressive set of them. Both elephants were young by elephant standards, and among the largest in the herd. Bun Pak was 16 and Maha Pak was 32. Elephants have longevity comparable to those of humans with an average life span of 85 years. Bun Pak and Maha Pak both wolfed down an entire basket of bananas apiece and then frisked our pockets and private places for more that might be hidden. Once the mahouts indicated we were compatible, we were ready for our next step – the health check.
Elephant health issues mostly center around their feet, which are prone to infection if injured and digestive issues if they have over-eaten or eaten something not good for them. The feet are visually inspected and the poop is as well, where you are looking for firmness and straw content. Elephants can also suffer from loneliness and depression and so there is constant attention paid to the elephants’ mental well being. We also learned that elephants sweat only around their toenails so that is something to be watched to make sure they are not getting over-heated. We also learned to check for sleep patterns – healthy elephants lie down alternating sides about every 30 minutes and will have dirt evenly distributed on both sides. A sick elephant will sleep standing up, as will elephants desiring only a quick nap.
We were told we need to bathe our elephants in a four-step process. The first step was to dust them off. Elephants throw dust on their back to act as a natural sunscreen and so we were given “dusters” made from thin tree branches with leaves still attached and we set to work. We all had to have some remedial work here. We started out like we were dusting Waterford Crystal, but the mahouts showed us we need to used the dusters more like flyswatters and really slap them against their hides, sort of like you would beat a contrary mule. They assured us that unlike horses, they would not bolt and trample us into the dirt in the process. With their thick hides, they don’t even notice and in fact, they kneeled on the ground so we could reach their backs more easily.
Step Two involved rinsing them off with a garden hose and they really had fun with that. Bun Pak insisted on drinking his rinsing water directly from the hose, but after a few dozen gallons, he let me have it back to spray on him.
Step Three was perhaps the most amazing thing of this amazing day. These elephants are entirely unrestrained – no chains, no hooks, no hobbles. They operate strictly on verbal commands. Our job was to walk our elephants down to the river ( a distance of maybe 500 yards) and go into the water with them and give them a good scrub. Walkng
them to the river involved grabbing the elephant by the ear and issuing the command “Mah” which means “ come” or in dog language “heel”. When you consider the size of the elephant – 21 feet long, 10 feet tall and 11,000 pounds, it totally blew me away that this creature would allow me to hold onto his ear and amble down a path with me like an extremely well trained dog, simply because I told him “mah”. But “mah” he did, and we proceeded down the trail.
Arriving at the river, we began Step 4. There was a waist deep pool below a waterfall and all the elephants knew the drill and they plunged right in and squatted down in the water so we would have full access to them. We were given a bucket with a scrub brush and got to work with a one way brushing motion which the elephants liked best. To the elephants this seemed to be the equivalent of a dog having his ears scratched. I was a little concerned that in that dark water, one of these creatures would step on my foot and crush it to mush, but they were amazingly careful with their feet. The mahouts told us they have very sensitive feet and when they step where they can’t see, they feel around to make sure of their footing. They walk on rocky areas to wear their toenails down to keep them short.
Since I had the only male elephant in the group, he required some special tusk cleaning, and so Gary helped me gather sand from the river bottom to polish them up. The mahouts had some fun with all of us, posing us by the waterfall for picture taking and then having one of the more playful elephants named Lucky to give us a good surprise shower from her trunk. We had the opportunity for a little rinse off in the upper pool (above the elephant’s bathtub) before our lunch break.
The mahouts took the elephants away to dry and have their lunch and we sat down to ours – no chairs, we sat on the floor of the porch of a hut. Our table cloth was a series of banana leaves with a veritable feast of fresh fruit, sticky rice and fried chicken laid out before us. After we ate, we were offered special hill tribe coffee which was brewed in a section of bamboo (which we learned has individual chambers) over a camp fire. The coffee mugs were also made from a single section of bamboo. We were responsible for cleaning up after lunch which involved discarding chicken bones and rolling up everything else into the bamboo leaves to feed to our elephants.
After lunch we were reunited with our elephants, so we gave them their snack and it was time to go for a ride. When most tourists go for an elephant ride in Asia, they generally ride in a “howdah”. This is a contrivance with a seat and raised sides, which is strapped on the elephant’s back like a saddle , only it is a saddle that will hold two people seated on a bench. In olden times, the howdah’s size and decoration would reflect the status of the riders, with the king having the most elaborate of all howdahs with a roof or at the very least a parasol. Our ride was to be sitting directly on the elephant, right where his neck joined his shoulders, just like in the circus. The first task was to get on board. They told us there are
three ways to do this. The elephant can lower its trunk and sort of flip you up there (not recommended for males due to tusk interference), the elephant can be commanded to go belly down on the ground and you can climb up or the elephant can be commanded to raise one leg any you can step on the bent leg, grab an ear and haul yourself up. We both chose option 3, but I have to admit I did have to have some serious boosting assistance from the mahouts, who I am sure were having a good chuckle.
Once we were on board, it became apparent why we needed the canvas pants. Elephants have sparse hair on their bodies, that feels like little toothpicks poking into your skin when you apply pressure to them. The canvas pants assure a more comfortable ride, comfort being relative since the elephant’s back is so broad that even the tallest of riders cannot avoid having his or her knees stick out at right angles, which does get tiring after a while.
Before we set off, we had to learn the basic commands to use on our ride. The mahouts very ingeniously wrote them out on our forearms with magic marker to ensure we could access them easily to remain in control. The commands are not in Thai, but in Hindi, one of the languages of India. The reasoning is that they don’t want the elephant to hear a couple of locals talking and think they are talking to him, and thus perhaps pay no attention to his mahout or rider.
The commands were:
Pai (pronounced Pie) which means go (or in cowboy parlance “giddyup”. You could give a few “pai’s” strung together to offer more encouragement)
How which is pronounced just like it sounds and means stop
Non Long – which means down and is key for a non-disastrous dismount
Look – which means is up – the command opposite “non long”
Toy – which is the command to back up
Yana – which means no, in case you have occasion to scold a naughty elephant – maybe one who wants to graze instead of giddyup.
Didi – which means “good elephant” , always useful praise for good behavior
We took a ride into the jungle, with our real mahouts trailing not too far away in case any of our elephants decided to go rogue and run off with us. We were told the best way to ride is sitting on the neck with our legs drawn up so our feet are just behind the ears. Easy for them to say since the tallest of them is probably 5 foot nothing. We taller people found it more comfortable to have our legs dangle and the elephants didn’t seem to mind.
To start moving, we were to simply tap on the elephant’s ears and utter “pai-pai” and off we went. I did have to give Bun Pak a few “Yanas” since he was tempted to graze, but we moved pretty well. My mahout caught up with us and gave me some treats he had picked to give to Bun Pak, who somehow knew I had them since he kept lifting his trunk up to get some. He also knew when they were gone and went back to the occasional foray into the bush. We rode for around two hours which was both wonderful and tiring, very hard on the thighs and knees at that 90 degree angle. We had nothing to hold on to but the ears and a rope behind us encircling the elephants girth, but the elephant’s back was so broad, and he moved so slowly, you’re really have to work at it to fall off, no matter how steep the trail got.
We had a short rest and the elephants were given an afternoon snack of bamboo and then we had a second ride. This time I told Bun Pak he needed to “non long” (come down) so I could get on. For this ride, the mahouts suggested we sit on the elephant’s head for a different experience. This was a much narrower and more precipitous perch, especially when Bun Pak wanted to detour for a snack. Fortunately we were on a flat trail along a lake so it wasn’t as conducive to a spill as the steeper trek earlier in the day. We had to take care to have our legs positioned to hang between their eyes so as not to obstruct their vision. With great sadness, we said goodbye to our elephants and their real mahouts and rode back to Chiang Mai.
Local wisdom says mankind would do well to be more like elephants in the way we proceed forward and eat. That is, take each step carefully, and only eat vegetables. We promptly ignored this and went to the Mandarin Oriental Hotel to pamper ourselves with a luxurious carnivorous evening after an exhausting exhilarating day of “mahouting”. It was a beautiful hotel, but we much preferred staying in town at the Bodhi Serene with real life right outside your door. At the Mandarin Oriental, real Thai life was kept at bay with a high fence, luxurious gardens and guards at the entrance.
February 14, 2012
Dateline: Chiang Rai, Thailand
Latitude at Chiang Rai 19.90 degrees North, 99.82 degrees East
Today we started our anti-Malaria medications since we would be going to the lowland areas of Southeast Asia in a few days time. We left Chiang Mai early to drive to Chiang Rai via the scenic route in the northernmost provinces of Thailand and an area called The Golden Triangle. This area borders Burma and Laos and the point where the Mekong River flows out of China to Thailand’s borders. The first Thai settlements were also here. The ride afforded us some really exotic scenes – mountains, rice paddies, jungle – as we shared the road with what the locals jokingly refer to as Japanese Water Buffalo – that is, Yamaha and Honda motorbikes. Nikki explained to us that the local people here train monkeys to
harvest their coconuts and we told her we would like to see that , to which she gave here standard response of “that is possible” no matter what we asked to see or do.
We took route 107 north paralleling the border with Myanmar (a.k.a. Burma). Our route would take us through the villages of Mae Rim, Mai Taeng, Chiang Dao, Fang, Mai Ai and Mai Chan before stopping for the night in Chiag Rai. All of them sounded ultra exotic, but I was particularly interested in seeing what Fang looked like. It turned out to be a tiny market town, with no hint of violence one would associate with “fang”.
We stopped at an Orchid Farm just outside of Chiang Mai where we saw the most beautiful collection I have ever seen of truly wonderful specimens. The orchids are grown from tiny seeds and are put into a growing medium such as agar in a bottle to germinate. Their roots thrive in air and require little or no soil. There were acres and acres of them in every size, shape and color and it was quite lovely to see. Orchids grow wild in many parts of Thailand, but are also largely cultivated and orchid poaching is not uncommon since some of the varieties are extremely valuable and the local people are extremely poor. We had a snack on the grounds in very serene garden setting. Our snacking would continue throughout the drive to Chiang Rai.
Our next stop was not so lovely, but really interesting and not on our itinerary, but Nikki made it possible. We had been told that Thai people waste nothing including elephant poop and we made this stop to see just what was being done with it. We met an older gentleman who was in charge (at least he looked older) and he showed us aground with great pride. We noticed he had on a tee shirt proclaiming the superiority of the Purdue Boilermakers. He had no idea what either one was since he got the shirt at a flea market, so we proceeded to try to explain through Nikki as our translator. He got the University part, but we weren’t sure Nikki was able to adequately explain what a “boiler maker” was.
So here is the scoop on the poop, elephant poop that is. At this facility, it is recycled into paper in a multi-step process that goes something like this: It is bleached, boiled and cooked down to a thick gravy-like substance that is spread on a screen to dry out in the yard. Once dry it is dyed and cut and fabricated into boxes, paper, albums and so forth. They do make stationery, but it makes for pretty lumpy writing.
We also made a sticky rice stop at a roadside place near the village of Chiang Dao that Nikki told us makes the very best in the country. The place is nothing fancy and it is strictly stand and eat or take it out. The workers either squat or seat themselves on low plastic chairs – very low like they came from a kindergarten class room. To make the sticky rice they add the desired ingredients to the rice to make it sweet, spicy or whatever . The ones we had were sweet. They place the rice mixture in bamboo stalks and soak it overnight. They then cut it into sections and make a stopper out of coconut fibers and cook it over an open fire. The tough outer part of the bamboo is then cut away, leaving only a thin membrane-like lining that can be peeled like a banana when you are ready to eat it. It was as advertised – delicious and the price was a mere 30 baht which was less than a dollar. Nikki says we would make good Thais since we always enjoy eating. Nikki did tell us that the new generations of Thai people are growing bigger as they have more access to protein and calcium supplied by Western food. She said pretty soon no one in Thailand will fit on an elephant any more.
The countryside became more scenic and more mountainous as we progressed toward Chiang Rai. We passed teak wood groves, prosperous-looking farms, and verdant fields of lychee, garlic and lavender. There was also a profusion of wild blooming trees and shrubs such as jacaranda (lavender color), golden shower (yellow gold), and bauhinia (purple). The mountains are largely limestone karsts that formed interesting silhouettes on either side of the road.
Nikki told us about the opium trade that once flourished here and how the government is implementing programs to try to stamp out addiction and production. Programs include farm assistance in getting alternative crops established. The king’s mother travels here frequently by helicopter since redirecting the efforts of the former opium farmers is one of her pet projects. We were told that the locals call her “Mother From the Sky”. Nikki has a really delightful expression in English to describe any number of rule breakers and that is that they are “naughty”. Naughty can apply to drug smugglers, orchid poachers, corrupt government officials, pedophiles, pickpockets, monks texting during prayers and illegal aliens. We found it really charming that Nikki hasn’t lapsed into English slang and expletives to describe wrong-doers. There is something so kind and gentle about the word “naughty”.
Smog is a problem in the area, but it is not from automobiles, but rather from farmers burning the fields to get rid of stubble from crops already harvested. Most of the native people in this area are Hmong (prononouced “mong”), who are believed to have migrated from China. Another prominent hill tribe is the Karen people who are noted for their custom of using brass bands ( as much as 16 pounds of them) to elongate the necks of their young women, from Age 5 through 25. It was considered a sign of wealth to have the women in your family stretch their necks in this manner. A long swan-like neck was also considered beautiful back in the day, but the health problems associated with this practice (atrophy of neck muscles and strain on shoulder muscles) and influence from the outside world have made it far less popular today and women typically only do it to make money from tourists for photo opportunities.
There is a third tribe quite populous here called the Akha who hold holistic beliefs about their relationship with the natural world. Collectively, the hill tribes do not have a religion as the Western world knows it, but many have been converted to Christianity. We stopped at a couple of Hmong roadside markets to sample some of the local products including other types of sticky rice, jackfruit, custard, dragon fruit, tapioca, peaches and mango. They are also noted for raising fighting cocks, of which we saw a plentiful supply in cages at the market place. They are very resourceful here. We saw a strange contraption that looked sort of like a Smart Car pickup that had a tiny truck bed, a seat atop motorcycle engine, and some handlebars, all sort of haphazardly welded together with a family of 4 driving off with the day’s shopping done at the market. This was just a few yards from a farmer turning into the market on his mo-ped dressed in baggy pants and shirt, flip flops and a straw hat with a hoe over his shoulder. We stopped at a noodle shop for lunch and our tab came to a whopping $9.00 for 6 people.
Just before Chiang Rai we stopped at the Doi Maesalong Nok tea plantation for a tea tasting, very similar to a wine tasting in a tasting room set upon a mountain top overlooking the vast acreage of cultivated fields. The land was immaculately groomed and terraced and we saw temples on just about every hill top. Nikki told us that tea grows well in this climate, but there is a constant battle with naughty caterpillars. Each plant is hand trimmed and harvested and different flowers and spices are combined with the tea leaves to create special blends. This was such a tasteful, serene, and tranquil retreat, but we have learned to expect contrast here and were not disappointed. Upon leaving the tasteful serenity of the tea
room, we saw a koi pond which we also thought to be tranquil, serene, until we noticed that the fountain supplying water to the pond was coming from a tea-pot which had two bare boobs on the side with water coming from the nipples and splashing into the pond. So much for tasteful I guess.
We stopped at a market that Nikki said was run by Chinese from Yunnan province and immediately became aware of the difference in sales styles between the Hmong and the Chinese – on the one hand a shy smile and a nod (Thai) and on the other hand an all out hawking and stalking (Chinese). We did buy some roasted peanuts at this market to keep our feeding frenzy going, but we then beat a hasty retreat to the safety of our van. Nikki says 10% of the population in this area is Chinese and many are naughty illegal immigrants.
And speaking of naughty – we had to go through a road block where Thai drug enforcement was stopping cars looking for drugs being smuggled in from Burma. They just took one peek at our Caucasian faces and waved us through. Apparently we did not fit the profile, but there were plenty of pat-downs being conducted on locals and those who could pass for local.
We had one more stop before Chiang Rai for another, you guessed it, snack. This time it was tiny pineapples at a roadside stand that were so sweet, you would swear they had sugar sprinkled on them. They were also selling tiny little sweet bananas which we sampled too. We asked Nikki if there was anything not grown here and she said they had to import cotton – it’s not dry enough here and also crops that like cold weather such as apples and pears don’t do well here. There used to be acres and acres of rubber plantations and few do still exist, but they have been largely replaced by petroleum products. Nikki says the biggest problem the farmers face in this region are naughty rats who eat their crops.
We drove into Chiang Rai at almost dusk and were struck by the number of 7-11 stores – just one more incongruity in a day that continued to be filled with them. There were cars driving around with Las Vegas Style Lights – enough to make you want to put your sunglasses on.. Then there was a billboard in English encouraging people to log onto www.DEArewards.com to snitch on opium growers we presume. It sounds like the DEA needs to get some of those naughty rats to start eating opium poppies. Then we saw a billboard advertising a doctor who would perform sex change operations at a very reasonable price, complete with before and after pictures. Nicky told us that this is really a big business here, along with plastic surgery for breast and other implants and almost all of the customers are foreigners. We speculated on how that would work with the visa and passport system. If you come in with your gender designated “F” and you leave as a man, do you have to change it? There were rows and rows of roadside business selling rattan products. Nikki told us these merchants are mostly parolees who learned this trade while in prison for drug trafficking and now have a new line of work.
We checked into our hotel, the Legend Chiang Rai Resort situated on the picturesque Kok River. We just dropped off our suitcases and rejoined Nikki to visit Chiang Rai’s Night Market. There were dozens of food stalls – sort of a Thai Food Court and we each picked our own food – shrimp for me and a whole fish for Gary, along with mounds of French fries (which is what they call them here too).
Looking around at the tables we commented on the large number of Caucasians, but on second glance we saw a marked absence of Caucasian women, and for that matter, young Caucasian males. All the Caucasians seemed to be portly balding men over 55. Their companions were local young women in their twenties and thirties. Nikki told us it is very common here for foreign men to move here and take a much younger wife or mistress. They can live like kings on $12,000 per year. Quite often the woman in question is a single mother. Apparently there is no such thing as child support in Thailand and the woman is totally responsible for any children she may bear and a child’s father can just walk away, which they apparently do in droves. While our Western sensibilities were telling us this was wrong in so many ways, we had to adjust our thinking. Nikki explained to us that while we might feel the men are taking advantage of the young girls, that it is actually an arrangement to benefit both. There is no public school for girls in Thailand for the most part. With no education and no skills, they can choose protection (male expat) or prostitution. Thus the man gets a trophy wife he could never afford back home, and the woman gets a life-style far beyond her wildest dreams and her children have more opportunity than they would otherwise. When seen from that perspective– it forces you to step back and be a little less judgmental, which is never a bad thing.
February 15, 2012
We used Chiang Rai as our base to explore the Golden Triangle where the countries of Laos, Burma and Thailand meet. The town was founded in 1262 by King Mengrai who made it the capital of his Lanna Kingdom, but the capital was moved to Chiang Mai after only 34 years. We found it interesting that Thailand was never colonized, not even by the British. Instead a series of kings ruled kingdoms of varying names and territory for many centuries until democratic elections were held in 1988. Monarchy in Thailand continues, it just doesn’t rule. There were at least 5 tourist-worthy wats (temples) in Chiang Rai, but we were close to suffering from “temple overload” and so we set off exploring the countryside instead of these particular temples.
Our first stop was the home (and now museum) of Thailand’s most famous artist, Thawan Duchanee. His art was known for his use of things from the natural world – shells, animal bones, skins, and horns and the extensive use of teakwood. There was a gallery of his paintings where the colors he used were almost exclusively red, black and white. The grounds of his house were filled with gardens, temples and various buildings that house his collections and his work which included painting, sculpture and applied art such as drums and baskets.
We did make one temple exception due to its historic significance in the complex called Wat Jedeelhoung, which was largely in ruins, understandably so since it dates back to the 13th Century . The complex is set among centuries old teak and banyan trees. At one time it was a walled city on the Mekong River with Laos on the other side, but the river has since changed course. We found ourselves some sticky rice vendors on the grounds (sesame sticky rice this time) and some salted pineapple which was unexpectedly tasty. We also bought a small spirit house here to take home – about the size of a birdhouse, but very elaborately detailed like a miniature pagoda. They are used in Thai homes as a shrine to the protective spirit of a place.
The Mekong River originates in Tibet, flows though China and then to Southeast Asia, creating the border between Thailand and Laos before continuing south through Cambodia and Vietnam. There is an ongoing battle with the Chinese, who have been building dams on it and causing low water levels to the other countries. We stopped at the point where the 3 countries meet (Thailand, Myanmar or Burma and Laos) to take in the view and then we continued to a spot on the riverbank to see the largest Buddha in Thailand, built to honor the Queen of Thailand. We have seen a number of statuary images of Buddha in many different poses. Today we learned that each pose has its own significance. There are four basic postures: standing, sitting, walking and reclining. The first 3 are associated with Buddha’s life on earth and the 4th, the reclining position represents his final moments on earth when he has achieved nirvana (ultimate wisdom). The four postures are combined with hand and feet positions to create a variety of “mudras” or attitudes. One king had written up a manual of sorts identifying 40 of these, but most sculptors employed only a dozen or so.
The seated image referred to as “touching the earth” is the most common one. In it Buddha sits under a tree with his legs cross in the lotus position, his left hand on his lap and his right resting on his leg pointing downward toward the earth. However if he is seated with legs in the lotus position with both hands palms up, the right over the left, this symbolizes meditation. Another fairly common one is Buddha standing, touching a thumb and forefinger to make a circle which is said to represent the: turning of the wheel of law” . Buddhists believe is perpetual reincarnation, where each life is influenced by the actions and deeds of the previous one. This cause and effect philosophy is called karma and is symbolized by the wheel of law depicted in the flag of Buddhism. When Buddha has one hand extended palm facing you (like The Supremes performing “Stop in the Name of Love” it is intended to convey reassurance. However if both palms are extended forward, it refers to Buddha restraining the flood waters.
Enlightenment (nirvana) is the final state of evolving when the pinnacle is reached and the cycle of rebirth is ended. The goal of Buddhists is to develop the 3 pillars of their belief: morality, meditation and wisdom. They do this by following a code of behavior in each of their reincarnated lives, utilizing the virtues of tolerance and non-violence. Thai people practice Theravada Buddhism, which originated in India and incorporates many beliefs of other religions. As for Buddha’s time on Earth, he was born a prince in India in the 6th Century BC. He gave up his riches to seek Enlightenment, and after 10 lives, he achieved Nirvana. His teachings from those lives are followed by Buddhists today.
From there we went to the House of Opium, a $10 million dollar museum built by donations from the Japanese and is dedicated to telling the story of opium and how it has crippled generations and almost destroyed the country. There are hundreds of artifacts, photographs and articles telling the stories. Opium was first grown in the highlands of Thailand in the late 19th century by the hill tribes and became a major cash crop. It was outlawed in 1959, but continued to flourish well into the 20th Century in the Golden Triangle. There were many bloody power struggles for control of the poppy fields in the century prior to its being outlawed, including the Opium Wars with the British for control of the drug trade in the mid-19th Century. The British won giving them control of trade in China. Opium was legalized in China and opium dens sprouted up across Southeast Asia and addiction ran rampant. It seems the Chinese partook of the drug and British didn’t and thus the Brits achieved domination of China while the Chinese they were fighting mostly got too stoned to either care or notice.
More recently the Kuomintang Army from China fought a local drug lord in 1967, giving the Golden Triangle further notoriety. The drug lord retreated to Burma and the victory here eventually allowed the government to gain the upper hand and begin the long process of eradication of both growing and using. Since the 1980’s the hill tribes have been incented by the government under the rule of King Bhumibol to grow other crops, but the area remains active in the trading, if not the growing, of opium.
After lunch Nikki gave us the option of crossing a short bridge and briefly visiting Myanmar which we thought was just the thing to do. To get to Myanmar, we drove to the Thai border town of Mae Sai, separated from Burma by the Sai River. The town was bustling with trade, the main street lined with food vendors and all manner of goods for locals and for tourists, with most of the merchandise coming from across the river in Myanmar. We stopped at Thai immigration and got the necessary paperwork done to walk across the bridge. Then we stopped at Myanmar immigration on the other side of the bridge to do the same. However we had to leave our passports with them which caused a little frisson of alarm, but Nikki assured us all would be well.
Myanmar is actually the old name for the country, which means strong health and happiness. The name Burma came about, as so often happened when the British came to colonize. In 1989 it was changed back officially to Myanmar, which is much closer to the historical name in the local language The capital city was originally Yangon, which the British changed to Rangoon for whatever reason. Now it is back to Yangon.
The town on the Myanmar side is Tachilek and like its Thai counterpart on the other side of the bridge, it too is bustling with trade. A major difference is that in Tachilek there is a thriving black market for pirated goods and knock-offs which Nikki advised us will be promptly seized when a person re-enters Thailand, a nation which has partnered with the West to try to protect patents, copyrights and trademarks. There are no such niceties observed in Myanmar where it is open season on Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Gucci, Oakley, Viagra, Marlboros and a host of other name brands. whose pirated or knock-off products can be purchased for pennies on the dollar.
The main attraction in Tachilek is a massive temple called the Tachilek Shwedagon Pagoda, sitting upon a hill overlooking the town. We hired two tuk-tuks (small vehicles that are like a powered rickshaw – a motor scooter in the front attached to a small truck bed with a seat) to take us up to the temple. They don’t haul much of a payload since at one point we had to get out and push to get up a hill. It seems these tuk-tuks don’t have much horsepower, but then again, we Americans present quite a payload for hauling. We decided it would be a good idea to pick the skinniest of the skinny drivers and maybe put one passesnger per tuk-tuk to avoid having to push. We could easily have been in the music video for Salt-N-Pepa’s song, “Push It Real Good”. We definitely had to push it real good going up that hill.
The temple and its setting were beautiful , so we left our shoes at the entrance and enjoyed a walk around the grounds. We bought incense and flowers from local sellers to pay our respects at the temple, whose stupa (chedi) was a replica of one in Yangon. Here we had the opportunity to locate the statue of our personal Buddha, based on the day of the week we were born. Each of the 7 sites has a large statue of Buddha, with flower vases and incense burners on either side. In front of that there is a basin full of water with a small standing Buddha statue in the center of it. Below that is another basin with an animal, a different one representing each day of the week. We each sought out our birthday Buddha, and Nikki showed us the appropriate process for paying our respects.
Here were the instructions:
1) Stand before the Buddha and bow 3 times with hands together in a Wai position
2) Put incense in the jar and flowers in a pot provided
3) Dip out 3 cups of water and pour on the little Buddha
4) Dip out 2 cups of water to put on the hands of the Big Buddha who is holding a shell
5) Dip out one cup of water and pour on your Burmese Zodiac animal – in my case it was the rat, and Gary’s was a tiger.
We also had out picture taken with what is sometimes called the Double Buddha, but it is actually larger than life sculptures of two jolly and seemingly frolicking monks. This is said to bring good luck and if that wouldn’t do it, we also rang the large gong to bring even more. You can’t have too much good luck.
We were besieged by postcard sellers who insisted we must buy their product so we gave them a dollar or two just to go away, but this only produced more post card sellers who not only wanted to sell postcards, but they also said were also hungry to boot. Gary offered to buy them something to eat, but they declined that offer and went back to hawking postcards. We beat a hasty retreat to our tuk-tuk for the trip back to town with no pushing since it was all down-hill.
We retraced our steps and retrieved our passports at the Myanmar Immigration office. They passed each passport out individually, carefully studying the face of the claimant to make sure some Burmese peasant was not trying to pull a fast one. It was quite interesting since most of us strive to not look like our passport pictures since they are usually so unflattering. We also had an interesting time at Thai customs where they looked through all our possessions to make sure we were not bringing back any contraband cigarettes, designer bags or erectile dysfunction meds. I am glad to say we were declared innocent on all counts and allowed back into Thailand.
We had a little free time before dinner so we enjoyed some relaxation at our hotel where they had set up lounge chairs along the River Kwok to enjoy the peace and tranquility of the evening. After dealing with the tuk-tuk pushing, the respect paying and the hungry post card sellers, it was nice to relax. We noticed that everyone here is busy – no loitering, no lollygagging. Aside from taking time for a massage or meditation, hardly any locals sit still for any length of time. Everyone appears to be industrious and creative, which may be a reaction to the bad old days when everyone was almost comatose on opium. There is a genuine warmth and graciousness of the Thai people that we have come to admire during our stay here and we had time as we lollygagged by the river to reflect on it. Tomorrow we will bid farewell to Thailand and cross the Mekong River to begin our tour of Laos.