Temples, Street Food, Night Markets, and Spas in Chiang Mai

I’ve reconnected with old friends and met a lot of wonderful people on this trip, and it’s all been great. But there’s nothing like seeing a familiar face, and that’s what had me most excited about going to Chiang Mai. I met up with my Chicago friend Hannah and we spent just under a week exploring the northern Thai city together. We’d never traveled together before, and I was a little worried, because Hannah’s laid back, and I’m… less so. But that turned out to be a great combination, and we  focused on finding tasty food and seeing one or two interesting sights each day.

Hannah and me at the bottom of the stairs to Doi Suthep

Hannah and me at the bottom of the stairs to Doi Suthep

We stayed in Eurana Hotel, a step up from the guesthouses and hostels I’d used so far. It had a pool and was next door to Sumphet Market, in the tourist-flooded northeast corner of the old city. We mostly stuck to this part of town, and if we’d had more than five days I’m sure we would’ve explored more, but there was plenty to see just in that area. Our first two days we lazed in the pool area, poked around in Sumphet, and bought tons of souvenirs at the Saturday and Sunday night markets.

Poolside

Poolside

Our chef at the cooking school talked about the different kinds of rice used in Thai cooking.

Our chef at the cooking school talked about the different kinds of rice used in Thai cooking.

Sumphet Market, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Sumphet Market, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Around 3pm the streets are cordoned off and vendors set up card tables, some with awnings and backdrops, and displayed their wares: coin purses, t-shirts, jade statues, lamps, bedding, hippie pants, chopsticks, wood carvings, scarves, paintings, silver jewelry, pillow cases, and on and on. The food stalls usually clustered in their own areas. We ate a lot of delicious things (wonderfully described in Hannah’s guest post).

I can get into shopping if I'm buying gifts--or books & music, of course

I can get into shopping if I’m buying gifts–or books & music, of course

At the market

At the market

chiang mai

The Sunday market was located on Rajdamnoen Road, starting at the eastern gate (Tha Pae Gate) and carrying on down the road for what seems like miles when you’re shouldering your way through the massive crowds. Several temples line this street, and the food stalls set up on the temple grounds, so you can munch on your mango and sticky rice next to the crenellated head of a dragon, which we found really cool. We watched a man make sugar cane juice–he took giant stalks of sugar cane, peeled off fibers, fed them into a clattering pressing machine, and caught the juice that was squeezed out.

Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai

Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai

Wat Doi Suthep is located atop a mountain 15 kilometers outside of town. Legend says that King Nu Naone sent a white elephant out into the jungle, bearing a religious relic. The elephant climbed Doi Suthep, trumpeted three times, and died, which the king took as a sign. He ordered construction of a Buddhist temple in 1383, and this beautiful set of buildings was made. Apparently there’s a tram you can take to the top if you want to avoid the 309 steps, but I didn’t see the tram and anyway the steps weren’t so bad.

Blessings from a monk

Blessings from a monk

Walking around the stupa (or chedi) and chanting prayers

Walking around the stupa (or chedi) and chanting prayers

Hannah and I paid the small entrance fee (“Foreigner Buy The Ticket Now” said the sign at the top of the stairs), removed our shoes, and went inside. We marveled at the gold leaf on everything, the little hearts people had  donated money to write their names on, the small jade buddha, the bank of small file drawers labeled with the different causes you could fund with your donations, the flowers and incense sticks adorning various altars. We sat in the main shrine, our feet tucked behind us, as a monk chanted over us and splashed holy water on us. He said, “for good luck, for good luck” at the end and smiled at us, and we smiled back and thanked him. At the main stupa in the center of the complex, we picked up a pamphlet of prayers and walked around the stupa three times, reading the prayers out loud.

A teenage novice and his friend have a chat

A teenage novice and his friend have a chat

Choose your cause

Choose your cause

We walked around the outer courtyard and watched people ring the bells along one of the walls. We checked out the view of Chiang Mai below, but it was a hazy day and we couldn’t see much. We watched three puppies eagerly  play around the ankles of their favorite monk, a young man more properly called a novice (you’re a novice until age 25). A statue of the legendary white elephant stands to the left of the entrance, standing guard over her temple.

Sweet set-ups at the spa

Sweet set-ups at the spa

Thailand is well-known to western tourists as a place to go for cheap spa treatments. I hadn’t done much of this kind of pampering before, but I did learn to appreciate a pedicure while there. Hannah and I also went to Lila Thai Massage, which is a small chain of spa shops that employs formerly incarcerated women. My massage there wasn’t as peaceful as it might have been, since the masseuses all chatted among themselves as they went to work on six of us in one long room, but for $6 you can’t complain too much. We tried a different place later in the week, where Hannah had her first Thai massage and I got a pretty pedicure.

Free Bird Cafe is a lovely little place

Free Bird Cafe is a lovely little place

Lots of vegetarian paraphernalia at Taste of Heaven

Lots of vegetarian paraphernalia at Taste of Heaven

We went to a couple restaurants that cooked for a cause. Taste from Heaven donates its proceeds to the Elephant Nature Park, and it papers its walls in photos of animals and posters beseeching people to become vegetarians. Free Bird Cafe is part of Thai Freedom House, which provides education to Shan refugees from Burma. The restaurant also houses a small thrift store. We ate the Shan specialties recommended on the menu, and they were delicious.

Hannah makes the curry paste

Hannah makes the curry paste

I made a coconut soup and tasty penang curry

I made a coconut soup and tasty penang curry

We went to a four-hour cooking class with Asia Scenic Cooking School. I’m glad we did it, especially because Hannah enjoyed it so much, but we did seem to spend an awfully small amount of time actually cooking. Perhaps the full day course involved more time at the stove. Still, it was fun to learn about the different spices used in Thai cooking, and to experience first-hand how labor intensive grinding curry powder is. Also, we made delicious food and got a cookbook so we can try these on our own back at home. The book even includes some substitutes you can make if you don’t have access to the necessary herbs and spices.

Muay thai boxing

Muay thai boxing

We went to see muay thai boxing, which is one of the few sporting events I’ve actually made it to on this trip. We both sort of knew what to expect, but we were still surprised by the violence of the kicks to the ribs and knees to the groin, especially as we couldn’t see so much as a mouth guard on any of the participants. We sat on one side of the ring with a bunch of other dazed Westerners, and followed the lead of the Thai people to our right, who clearly knew what was going on and had money riding on the outcome.

Silk worm cocoons

Silk worm cocoons

So many choices!

So many choices!

On our last day together, we went out to Shinawatra Silk Showroom. We watched a woman pull the impossibly thin threads of silk out of worms, and another woman work a foot-powered loom to weave colored threads into long skeins of colorful silk. We then entered the showroom and spent a really long time picking out silk for ourselves and presents for others. We held each other’s hands and breathed deeply as our purchases were rung up and our credit cards run through, but we made it relatively unscathed.

At one of the many temples in Chiang Mai

At one of the many temples in Chiang Mai

Thai cover band--they tore through rock hits for a good hour

Thai cover band–they tore through rock hits for a good hour

Hannah and I visited other temples in town–including one with a stupa supported by giant stone elephants–and had fun getting lost in the alleyways. We went out to a few bars and heard some fun cover bands while enjoying Tiger beers. We caught up on each other’s lives and enjoyed the luxury of vacation time.

I had a great time in Chiang Mai, finding the right mix between relaxing and sightseeing, and I’m so glad I got to explore the town with Hannah.

Guest Post: How to Eat in Thailand

Hannah Esper is a good friend of mine from our days working together in Chicago. She’s now a journalist and editor living in Michigan. She visited me in Chiang Mai in February this year, and we had a wonderful time seeing the sights and sampling the tastes of Thailand together. I asked her to write up something about her week there, and she obliged with this lovely piece on the things she learned about food in Thailand. Thanks, Hannah!

Many people asked why I had chosen Thailand as my destination to meet Lisa on her trip. The decision was an easy one for me as I had worked as a server at a Thai restaurant when I was younger and had become accustomed to the food and culture. Thai food is still my favorite cuisine and I felt rather knowledgeable and excited about it going on this trip.

As was a main goal of mine, Lisa and I ate a lot during our week in Chiang Mai. Most everything was as delicious as I was hoping for. There was also a couple disappointing dishes as well. The following is list of what we discovered on our culinary adventure:

1. Atmosphere is not a good indicator for quality/taste.

Vats of delicious curry

Vats of delicious curry

One of the best meals we ate was at this tiny place that was near our hotel. I wouldn’t quite call it a restaurant, as it was more like the back of someone’s house, as many places were. There were two tables in the alley that was basically a woman’s backyard. We were served on mismatched plates and silverware, and served our dishes one at a time, since there was literally one person cooking the food. It was pretty common in Chiang Mai, in fact, for dishes to come at all different times, which made eating with others interesting.

The worst meal of the trip was at a cute, kitschy bar called “The Wall” that was owned by a Westerner. Adorned with Pink Floyd memorabilia, the bar served mostly Western food, including french fries without salt, and a terrible attempt at Pad Thai.

2. You often will not receive what you order, but it’s fine!

One of the vegetarian places we tried

One of the vegetarian places we tried

As was true at the backyard “restaurant,” mentioned above, you often don’t receive the exact dish that you ordered. The menu might say the chicken is fried, but it comes out grilled. Or the menu says the dish has broccoli in it but you actually get broccoli, carrots, and mushrooms. The most exciting surprise is… when you ask for mild spice and it comes out burn-your-insides spicy! The food was always delicious, though, so we didn’t mind these modifications.

3. Vegetarian options are plentiful; you just have to look for them.

Massaman curry, yum

Massaman curry, yum

Thai food is great for both meat-eaters and vegetarians alike. The Thai restaurant I worked at in high school was a hot spot for all the vegetarians and vegans in town. In the states, tofu is a common protein option in most dishes at Thai restaurants. In Thailand, however, most food vendors serve dishes with the traditional protein that is intended for that particular dish. Tofu is often served in Pad Thai but not many other dishes. Fortunately, there were many restaurants in Chiang Mai that served strictly vegetarian food. After a couple days in town, Lisa and I got better at finding them. At these restaurants, traditional dishes were served with meat substitutes, but we found that most dishes were so flavorful that it wasn’t even necessary. We were content with just the rice/noodles, vegetables and curry.

4. Expensive does not equate to better.

Hannah with the best meal of the week

Hannah with the best meal of the week

Probably the best food we ate in Chiang Mai was bought on the street, and cost less than $2. The first night I was in town, Lisa and I went to the Saturday night market, which had many vendors selling cheap eats on sticks. I did not partake in the meat-on-a-stick, but Lisa enjoyed it. I did, however, eat fried banana with condensed milk and it was quite possibly the best thing I’ve ever tasted. The Sunday night market had even better food and we enjoyed the best Pad Thai of the trip. The cook had a huge bowl of the pre-made ingredients, which she tossed in the wok with some fried egg and sauce and served up in a banana leaf.

5. Fruit shakes – a surprising delight.

One of the many fruit shakes consumed that week

One of the many fruit shakes consumed that week

On every corner. Every fruit combination. All delicious and cheap. Check out our favorites.

6. Nobody cooks Thai likes Thais.

With the meals we cooked at Asia Scenic Cooking School

With the meals we cooked at Asia Scenic Cooking School

Since moving to Mississippi a few years ago, my mom has been going through Thai food withdrawal. We bought her a wok and she’s begun to cook her own Thai dishes. She’s even started teaching other Mississippians who’ve never had the pleasure of having good Thai, or any Thai, for that matter. Her dishes are good… but it’s just not the same.

Over the years, I’ve attempted to replicate dishes from my old restaurant. I picked up a few things while working there, but I just can’t get the tofu as crunchy or rice as sticky. During our trip, Lisa and I took an excellent cooking class at one of the local schools. We learned to make a couple traditional dishes, including curry paste, and were sent home with a simple recipe book. Everything we made that night was incredible. Now that I’m home, I will try yet again to recapture the tastes of Chiang Mai.

My Top Ten Firsts of the Trip (So Far)

In no particular order:

1. First time driving on the left

Coromandel Peninsula, New Zealand

Coromandel Peninsula, New Zealand

2. First time eating sushi (the real kind, with raw fish)

Kyoto, Japan

Kyoto, Japan

3. First time riding in a tuk-tuk

Chiang Mai, Thailand

Chiang Mai, Thailand

4. First time using crampons

Attaching metal spikes to my feet

Fox Glacier, New Zealand

5. First time drinking sake

Kyoto, Japan

Kyoto, Japan

6. First time riding a motorbike

Phuket, Thailand

Phuket, Thailand

7. First time eating kangaroo and camel

Yulara, Australia

Yulara, Australia

8. First time sailing

Whitsundays, Australia

Whitsundays, Australia

9. First time snorkeling

Kailua Kona, Hawaii

Kailua Kona, Hawaii

10. First time feeding an elephant

Elephant Nature Park, Thailand

Elephant Nature Park, Thailand

Volunteering at the Elephant Nature Park: Days 6 and 7

This week is all Elephant Nature Park (ENP), all the time. Every day will be a detailed post on a day or two of the seven days I spent at the park in February 2013. I hope that those researching volunteer opportunities will find the detail helpful in determining if this is a week and $400 they want to sign up for. In my opinion, it’s totally worth it! Once again, thanks so much to donors who made this week possible. For more info on the ENP, you can visit their site here and learn more about the individual elephants here.

Day 6 and Day 7

On our last day of work, we had ele poo duty in the morning, and a group photo in the afternoon. That night, we had a farewell dinner, sitting on the floor and watching dance performances by girls from the local village. Chet MC’d in a spangly vest and bow tie, which I coveted.

The farewell dinner dance

The farewell dinner dance

We had one last bit of excitement, as we did one last job on day 6. One of the elephants was really sick, and needed sandbags under her to keep her supported as she lay down in her last days. (Sadly, she died a week later.) We walked far out in the field to the riverbed and poured sand into old flour sacks, and then heaved the sacks up on the two trucks the volunteer coordinators drove out there. Suddenly, an elephant wandered over to us, curious as to what we were doing and possibly intrigued by the gray truck that looked vaguely elephantine. The VCs shouted for the mahouts to come over, and all of us volunteers circled the trucks to get away. It was a comical little dance, until the rest of the herd came over too. Then it got a little scary: the mahouts were sprinting across the field, shouting “hut! hut!” and the VCs were yelling at us to run, and we all hoofed it in the opposite direction. We arrived back at the main building a little out of breath but okay, and laughing about the close call that even a safe haven for wild animals can provide.

The volunteers of the week of February 25, 2013

The volunteers of the week of February 25, 2013

What else can I tell you about the experience at the park? There was an activity most evenings, which you could join or not, as you chose. One night, the VCs taught us about Thai culture, and we ended the evening singing a song called “Dance Banana,” which was as silly and fun as it sounds.

Me and Sammyi

Me and Sammyi

Another night, founder Lek spoke passionately about her work here and how we all make a huge difference in what she’s able to do and the elephants they’re able to help. Her whole ethos is one of respect and caring, and it’s no wonder everyone who meets her is inspired to help.

Navaan, the youngest elephant of the park--until a few weeks ago, when a new baby was born!

Navaan, the youngest elephant of the park–until a few weeks ago, when a new baby was born!

The rooms were more comfortable than any of us had expected—a few people got their own rooms, but most of us bunked with one other person, in a room with twin beds covered in mosquito netting. Western style toilets were also a pleasant surprise, as was the wifi sometimes available in the dining area. You’re roughing it, but not as much as you might expect to.

Luke, me, Charlotte, Jane, and Claudio

Luke, me, Charlotte, Jane, and Claudio (Thanks to Christine Barnett for the photo)

Elephant shelters are right outside the rooms, so you can see them standing there every time you go to the bathroom. You can even spy them through the windows in the showers.

The accommodations

The accommodations

They do have a laundry service, which I used, because I simply didn’t have enough clothes that I could bear wearing again when they got as dirty as they did. Pro tip: bring at least 2 pairs of pants or shorts, so you can alternate, and be sure to bring at least one pair of pants and one long-sleeved shirt; you’ll want them when you’re cutting corn and bamboo.

The "gray nomads" of Victoria, Australia played mahjong a few times, and Eric from Guangzhou joined them once (I loved these ladies--inspirations for sure)

The “gray nomads” of Victoria, Australia played mahjong a few times, and Eric from Guangzhou joined them once. I loved these ladies–inspirations for sure. (Thanks to Julie Warren for the photo.)

There’s plenty of leisure time. I wrote in my journal, read, chatted with fellow volunteers, and sometimes napped. Some volunteers went up the road to the dog shelter, and others went up to the store outside the park for their cigarette and salty snack needs. Women from the village come to the area above the dining room each night to give massages (at the cheapest rates I saw in Thailand), and a woman sells beer and snacks til about 9pm.

Elephant bathing on its own--one of Lek's goals is to dredge the river deep enough to make it possible for the eles to bathe themselves, bringing them one step closer to their wild selves

Elephant bathing on its own–one of Lek’s goals is to dredge the river deep enough to make it possible for the eles to bathe themselves, bringing them one step closer to their wild selves

I had a wonderful time volunteering at the Elephant Nature Park. I met a lot of wonderful people and had some great conversations. I saw one of the loveliest moonrises of my life. I watched a baby elephant practice using his trunk. I was exhausted the whole time, yet almost always contented.

Jane, Toby, Mix, Chet -- our Volunteer Coordinators

Jane, Toby, Mix, Chet — our Volunteer Coordinators

I was nervous going into it, but I was able to keep up with the rest of my group and I can look back and proudly say, “Yes, I was witness to the grace and beauty of elephants, and I did something tangible to make the world a better place for a short time.” That’s about as good as it gets, isn’t it?

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Volunteering at the Elephant Nature Park: Days 4 and 5

This week is all Elephant Nature Park (ENP), all the time. Every day will be a detailed post on a day or two of the seven days I spent at the park in February 2013. I hope that those researching volunteer opportunities will find the detail helpful in determining if this is a week and $400 they want to sign up for. In my opinion, it’s totally worth it! Once again, thanks so much to donors who made this week possible. For more info on the ENP, you can visit their site here and learn more about the individual elephants here.

We chopped that food the elephant is enjoying

We chopped that food the elephant is enjoying

Day 4

Ele poo duty today! We carted wheelbarrows, shovels, pitchforks, and a couple rakes out to the shelters where the elephants sleep. They were off bathing and eating and generally having a good time, so we were free to shovel it all in to the wheelbarrows—softball-sized turds and the green leaves covering them. Some of those leaves were the corn we’d cut for them; eles only digest 40% of what they eat, apparently. There are a lot of jobs that are tough on the back here, and shoveling shit is one of them. We collected from piles around the different shelters, and a couple people worked up an “Every day I’m shoveling, shoveling” line to that wretched LMFAO song, and we all did little dances with our farm implements.

Top-notch shit shoveler

Top-notch shit shoveler

We saw Hope across the river. Hope is an adolescent male who just can’t get over his hormonal ways, and they call him “naughty boy” here—along with Jungle Boy, who also has to be chained separately and watched carefully so he doesn’t try to mount the females. One day after lunch, one of the young bulls knocked down an entire wooden shelter. We all heard an almighty crash and when we looked up, a few young elephants were casually walking away from the demolished shelter, clouds of dust rising in the air. There’s always something exciting going on here.

Hope's mahout sliding off his shoulders (it doesn't hurt the elephant to be ridden there, just on the back)

Hope’s mahout sliding off his shoulders (it doesn’t hurt the elephant to be ridden there, just on the back)

After lunch, we unloaded a truckful of green bananas, the bunches of which were carefully counted so we could pay the farmer correctly. 90% of the food here is from organic farmers in the area, 5% is grown by the park, and 5% is from markets in Chiang Mai.

The notches say how many banana bunches there are per stalk

The notches say how many banana bunches there are per stalk

We went on a walk with Jane in the afternoon. We took a couple of bunches of bananas each, so we could feed the eles we met along the way. We stopped by Navaan and his mother in their concrete sleeping area. The mother’s foot was mutilated when she stepped on a land mine. We fed her but not Navaan, because at three months old, he’s still on a diet of mother’s milk only.

Nursing

Nursing

We walked out to see Jungle Boy, but before we got even a little bit close, we had to back off, because he roared at us when we were at least 100 yards away. An elephant roar is an amazing sound—a low, guttural noise that crescendos to an almost howl. It’s different from trumpeting, which is a sound they make when they’re concerned about something but not yet angry.

There's a herd of water buffalo at the park too--I swear I never heard them make a sound. They just grazed all week and occasionally sat in the mud pit.

There’s a herd of water buffalo at the park too–I swear I never heard them make a sound. They just grazed all week and occasionally sat in the mud pit.

We had to trot a bit as Mae Perm walked over to us, with her mahout too far behind to keep her in place. Then Jokia, faithful friend of Mae Perm, joined us, and we fed the two of them and stroked their trunks. These two are always together. Jokia was blinded by her former owners, and Mae Perm acts as her eyes and guardian.

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We went down to a mahout hut, where some of them sat in the shade watching 7 or 8 eles gather a little down the way, next to the river. We watched people riding eles on the horizon, at the edge of the property where some of the resorts are. It was striking to see the difference between those downcast beasts of burden and the herd peacefully grazing near us.

Mae Perm and Jokia

Mae Perm and Jokia

Day 5

On our fifth day of work, we had ele food duty. The elephant kitchen is a smallish platform (everything but the kitchen for human food and sleeping rooms is open air here), with long metal shelves holding pineapples, small watermelons, and bananas. The trough was full of purple water—the purple is some kind of cleaning agent because although the farms they buy from are organic, nearby ones may not be, and pesticides drift. We did a quick 1-2-3-4 scrub around each melon and pineapple and put them in baskets. A plank of wood was laid across a chair and used as a chopping board as a couple fellow volunteers got to slicing and dicing.

Purple fruited trough

Purple fruited trough

Once our hands were dyed a yellowish-brown that made us look jaundiced, we picked yellow bananas off bunches and put them individually into two large baskets. Next, we helped two employees take green bananas off the shelves and pile them in a large tarp, presumably so they can ripen. Meanwhile, a few people sat on the floor, peeled bananas, and mashed them up in tubs. Then they added rice flour, crushed corn, and salt, and mixed it all up. They formed that mash into large balls for the older and sicker eles who have trouble handling solid foods. We were grooving to Chet’s laptop for the whole morning—Beyonce, Kelly Clarkson, club hits. Everything’s better with a dose of Kelly Clarkson.

Group C--love ya! (minus Christine, who had to leave early)

Group C–love ya!
(minus Christine, who had to leave early)

Good thing the morning job was easy, because the afternoon job was terrible. Poles ‘n’ holes—and yes, we did snigger when we said it. Earlier in the week, the other volunteer groups had dug holes around a sad-looking little tree protected by a barbed-wire fence. The park is mostly empty of trees, and of course Asian elephants thrive in jungles, so the ENP is slowly trying to add more trees. But the elephants tend to tear down the slim trees that dot the park, so the park workers put up barbed wire fences around the trees to protect them, and they’ve started building stone pylons around them as well. That’s what we were making today.

Our wobbly pylons

Our wobbly pylons

We mixed up water, sand, and cement, and took buckets of the cement over to the holes. We poured some cement, stacked large rocks in a square around the metal grid forming the backbone of the pylon, layered on more cement, and stacked more rocks on top. The pylons are also used as scratching posts by the elephants, so the rocks have to stick out for easier scratching.

My roommate Annika and I make cement

My roommate Annika and I make cement

Some of us went around near the river and picked up rocks to add to the piles back by the tree. It was hot, and the work was tedious, and we kept looking at the machinery down the other end of the park and wondering if this couldn’t all be done a lot faster if they just used those. Oh well, as we reminded ourselves any time the work was rough, it’s all for the elephants!

VC Chet was a celebrity at the park

VC Chet was a celebrity at the park

Mix tried loading buckets of water on a pole and lost them all in the most hilarious slapstick fashion. It was like watching a Buster Keaton routine.

Mix tried loading buckets of water on a pole and lost them all in the most hilarious slapstick fashion. It was like watching a Buster Keaton routine.

Volunteering at the Elephant Nature Park: Day 3

This week is all Elephant Nature Park (ENP), all the time. Every day will be a detailed post on a day or two of the seven days I spent at the park in February 2013. I hope that those researching volunteer opportunities will find the detail helpful in determining if this is a week and $400 they want to sign up for. In my opinion, it’s totally worth it! Once again, thanks so much to donors who made this week possible. For more info on the ENP, you can visit their site here and learn more about the individual elephants here.

Day 3

Our second day of work, our group started with a leisurely walk across the park, visiting with some elephants along the way. I watched one ele pick plants with her trunk, gathering more and more without dropping a single stalk, and then she swung it all into her mouth. She patiently let us stroke her side and her trunk, but she was focused on eating that grass. Eles do eat 5-10% of their body weight each day, after all.

Good morning

Good morning

Then we were on mud pit duty, which as far as we could tell, was the only straight-up busy work they gave us. When elephants bathe, they get out of the water and head straight to a pit of mud, which they fling all over their bodies. The mud acts as natural sunblock and cooling aid, and it also keeps parasitic bugs from laying eggs in the folds of their skin. So our job was to make the mud pit more comfortable for the eles, but I don’t really see how we did that.

Mud pit

Mud pit (thanks to Christine Barnett for the photo)

We waded into the muck and scooped water out with buckets, chucking it into the grass. A park employee then immediately refilled the hole with a hose that sucked water from the river. Next, we dug in the muck with our fingers and pulled up any rocks we found—although they were as likely as not to be clods of manure. All this work for the half of the mud pit that we never saw the eles enter; they stayed on the other side, out of the water, on solid ground. So what were we doing? The only possible response to such a seemingly pointless task was to go all in, so of course we got in a mud fight. Followed immediately by a dip in the river and a quick shower. No shower, no dinner!

This doesn't look like work, but trust me, I'm searching for rocks with my toes. (Ow.)

This doesn’t look like work, but trust me, I’m searching for rocks with my toes. Ow. (Thanks to Julie Warren for the photo.)

That afternoon, we stood up in the back of a pickup truck and drove out of the park for about 10 minutes, and parked in a lay-by. We scrambled up the bank of the hill on the side of the road and everyone started hacking away at bamboo with small shears and secateurs.

Standing in the back of a pickup was scary

Standing in the back of a pickup was scary

We formed a human chain and passed armloads of leafy bamboo branches down the hill. I stood at the bottom and threw them all in a ditch to form a large pile, which we later trucked back to the camp.

Cutting bamboo

Cutting bamboo

We stripped the leaves off the stalks in the ele kitchen and put them in baskets for the eles with high blood pressure. That done, we went to the skywalk outside to watch the eles use the mud pit we’d fixed up that morning.

Founder Lek is the woman in the center of the photo

Founder Lek is the woman in the center of the photo

The baby elephant, Navaan, was 3 months old and mischievous. He would run to the pit, nuzzle his mom and the two elephants who acted as nanny and grandmother, then awkwardly canter out again, and the mahouts would have to chase him back. The adult eles formed a protective circle around Navaan in the mud pit, and while they stood still and moved only their trunks in lazy arcs, to slap mud on their backs, the little ele never stopped moving. He just fit under the stomachs of the adults, and he’d push his way through from under one patient ele to the next, nibbling at the mud with his trunk, scratching his side against the leg of his mother, and generally having fun. It was delightful to watch.

Mud pit nuzzling

Mud pit nuzzling

There’s one mahout per elephant, and it’s meant to be a lifelong partnership of trust, although of course it doesn’t always work out that way. We learned about the awful ways most mahouts learn to interact with their eles, starting with the phajaan and through to using the metal hook when they’re riding or guiding them. Phajaan, or “the crush,” is the breaking process whereby a young elephant is taken from his mother for the first time in his life, put in a wooden cage almost too small for him, and beaten with sticks topped with nails by many shouting men. The beating goes on for at least three days, during which time the elephant is denied sleep and food, and must learn to obey commands to step into shackling ropes to limit her own movement. This is the traditional taming method used by elephant trainers in India and Southeast Asia; its proponents believe that an elephant must fear its mahout in order to ensure obedience and the safety of the mahout. When we drove out to the cornfield on our first day of work, we saw tourists riding in chairs on the backs of elephants from the nearby resorts, and the mahouts who sat on the ele necks beat the ele heads and ears with their hooks. How you could see that and continue riding on the elephant, I don’t know.

enpThe mahouts at the Elephant Nature Park have had to relearn how to interact with the elephants, and they mostly use a reward system of bananas. They all carry cloth bags full of bananas, which they toss out to their elephant any time they want to encourage the elephant to move somewhere—to the river, away from the river, etc. They also use verbal cues, a short call that sounds almost exactly like the “hut! hut!” of a quarterback at the snap. (Which makes perfect sense, according to this article on how “hut” is a normal animal training sound adapted by the military and later by football teams.) Many of the mahouts at the ENP are Burmese refugees; it’s nice to be in a place that provides security for humans who have escaped persecution, and animals that have been saved from mistreatment.

Leading by banana

Leading by banana

A herd heads in for meal time

A herd heads in for meal time

Volunteering at the Elephant Nature Park: Day 2

This week is all Elephant Nature Park (ENP), all the time. Every day will be a detailed post on a day or two of the seven days I spent at the park in February 2013. I hope that those researching volunteer opportunities will find the detail helpful in determining if this is a week and $400 they want to sign up for. In my opinion, it’s totally worth it! Once again, thanks so much to donors who made this week possible. For more info on the ENP, you can visit their site here and learn more about the individual elephants here.

Day 2

One of the newer features of the ENP is the addition of a lot of dogs. There’ve always been a few rescues, but in 2011 Lek rescued hundreds of dogs who were abandoned by their owners during the floods in Bangkok. She set up a dog rescue shelter at the edge of the property, right when you enter from the road, and a lot of dogs stay up there, but at least thirty other dogs roam freely around the park and main food area. A few of them wear red bandanas to indicate that although they look cute, they will bite if you try to pet them. Most of them don’t wear bandanas and really are friendly. Their coats are brushed and they’re clearly well cared for, but they still have ticks and fleas, and a lot of people in the volunteer group wouldn’t pet them despite being dog lovers. But most people loved the dogs and found them all adorable, if a little intrusive.

A small number of the many dogs who roamed the park

A small number of the many dogs who roamed the park

As for me, I’m actually a little afraid of dogs. One on one, or even with a couple, I’m okay, and I appreciate how fun they are. But if they get too excited, or if there’s a whole pack of them, I get very tense. They just have so many teeth and they’re so unpredictable. These dogs, too, would often growl at one another and have little mock fights, which did nothing to calm my nerves. Apparently the website mentions the dogs, but I never saw it, and I wish they’d make it much more obvious what you’re in for when you sign up. Also, what about the poor people who are allergic? The dogs sit on the tables where you eat, the chairs outside your rooms, anywhere.

The other thing that made the dogs a hot topic of conversation was their tendency to bark, in unison, during the night. Sometimes right outside the dorm’s window. Every morning, without fail, they’d bark somewhere between 5 and 5:30 for a solid five minutes, and nearly everyone woke up for it. It was an early wake-up call, since most of us didn’t have to wake up til 6:30 to be ready for breakfast. Imagine how much I love sleep, and how hard it is for me to fall asleep in the first place, and how hard it is for me to fall asleep again once I’ve been woken, and how much I dislike barking, and you will have a pretty good idea of how I felt about that situation.

If I had to be up that early, I'm glad this is what I woke up to

If I had to be up that early, I’m glad this is what I woke up to

Our first day of work started with the 5:15am chorus of barking, and more formally with the 7am breakfast. We split into our groups at 8, and my group—Group C—started the week off with the toughest job. Nothing like getting it over and done with! We climbed into the back of a large open-air truck, picked up a few employees who do this daily, and rattled down the road to the main highway, then farther along for about 30 minutes until we reached the cornfield. The corn itself is harvested and sold in market for 10 to 15 baht an ear (about 30 to 50 cents), which raises money for the park. What we were there to do was cut down the cornstalks, tie them into bundles, and toss them in the truck. The elephants eat corn and grass as their main food, and the fruit visitors feed them throughout the day is a supplementary snack.

Machete modeling

Machete modeling

Our volunteer coordinator, Jane, did a quick demonstration of swinging the machete at the corn, then sent us off to find our own rows. They’re double rows of corn, so I cut down a few stalks on the right, then a few on the left, and put them all in a pile behind me, at a right angle to the rows. Swing the machete in an arc and slice the cornstalk at an angle, if you can. Sometimes I just pulled up roots, though, or had to hack at the stalk a few times. I never got into a rhythm more than 4 or 5 stalks in a row. After maybe 45 minutes we took a break, drinking water and eating tasty rice crackers drizzled with sweet syrup.

My double row of corn, half done

My double row of corn, half done

We only cut for another 20 minutes or so after the break, by which time we’d cut enough for the day. The next step was to take the bundles of corn up to the truck and toss it all in the back. The full-time employees had followed behind us as we’d chopped, tying the bundles up with thin rope and, when that ran out, strips of bamboo. The corn was unwieldy and heavy; you could carry it on your shoulder/back like the Thai employees, under an arm balanced on the hip, or dragged on the ground. This was tough work, especially since the ground was uneven earth full of bumps and rocks and potential holes. We did most of the front half of the field, then as we wandered to the back I suggested we do more of a tag-team thing; some of us moved them from the back half to the middle, and some moved them from there to the front.

At the break

At the break

After about 40 minutes, all the corn was loaded in the back of the truck, and then it was time for everyone to climb up and sit on top of the corn for the ride home. That looked fun, but also like a climb that might kill me, so I rode in the cab of the truck on the way back.

A full truck--and 10 people sat up there on the way back!

A full truck–and 10 people sat up there on the way back!

Our reward for cutting corn was a tubing trip. We grabbed inner tubes, the kinds with the metal knobs sticking out, and stood up in the back of a small truck for the drive upriver. I hadn’t been tubing in years, and it was great fun. The river meandered at a leisurely pace, except for a few exciting spots with mini-rapids to rush down. We floated along in nothing but swimsuits and tubes, passing tour groups from nearby resorts in helmets and lifejackets, presumably returning from whitewater rafting trips, but they still looked overdressed.

Children played in the river and yelled out “hello!” as we passed, and at one point a whole gang of them rushed up to each one of us as we passed and splashed until we were entirely soaked. One boy appointed himself captain of my tube, and steered me down the river for a ways. When I rounded the last corner before the park, a couple elephants were being led down to bathe in the river. I sat and watched them in the late afternoon sunlight, feeling totally at peace.

enp

Volunteering at the Elephant Nature Park: Day 1

I spent a week volunteering at the Elephant Nature Park north of Chiang Mai in Thailand, and it was one of the best weeks of my trip so far. Despite the fact that I am neither a big animal rights activist nor remotely useful in manual labor, I decided that this was how I wanted to contribute something useful while on my trip. I read up on the volunteer experience on blogs and decided I could handle the work, and I don’t know anyone who’s immune to the charms of elephants, myself included.

Welcome to the Elephant Nature Park

Welcome to the Elephant Nature Park

This week is all Elephant Nature Park (ENP), all the time. Every day will be a detailed post on a day or two of the seven days I spent at the park in February 2013. I hope that those researching volunteer opportunities will find the detail helpful in determining if this is a week and $400 they want to sign up for. In my opinion, it’s totally worth it! Once again, thanks so much to donors who made this week possible. For more info on the ENP, you can visit their site here and learn more about the individual elephants here.

Day 1

I got myself to the ENP office in Chiang Mai at 8am, filled out the paperwork and finished paying, and then packed into a minivan for a little over an hour drive to the park. We watched a documentary by a couple of self-serious North Americans, about the park and founder Lek’s work.

Once at the park, we got to meet elephants almost immediately (and we learned that workers often abbreviate “elephant” to “ele,” so I’ll sometimes do that in these posts too). The first day fairly closely resembles a day trip visit, and work begins in earnest on day 2. We walked out below the skywalk that leads to the main platform, and the mahouts (ele trainer/handler/friend) led their elephant friends up to us. You’re supposed to stay on one side or the other of their trunk, not right in the middle, because it agitates them and one swing of the trunk can knock you out—or worse. Also, don’t stand behind them, obviously, just as you wouldn’t with most any animal.

Common sense and good reminders

Common sense and good reminders

Gosh, they’re beautiful! Smaller ears and smaller stature than African elephants, but still 6-8 feet tall, and massive. One of the ones we saw had a broken leg and ankle from illegal logging, and apparently it can’t be fixed so she limps, and looking at her from behind, her hide looks like an ill-fitting suit with the bones jutting out at odd angles. Very sad.

Painfully broken hip

Painfully broken hip

Next, we helped feed the elephants snacks—chopped watermelon and pineapple, whole bananas still in their skins (although some baskets have food a little more prepared, if the ele is particularly picky). You stand behind the red line so the ele can’t grab you along with the food, and you lean down and hold out the fruit. The eles are on the ground beneath the concrete platform, so their head is about level with your hand. They curl their trunk around the fruit and pull it into their mouth. One ele insisted on taking two pieces at a time. The trunk was super strong—don’t hold onto the fruit!—and had tougher skin and harder general feel than I’d expected.

Feeding time

Feeding time

Now it was lunchtime for humans. Employees laid out a large buffet, and there were no labels on the dishes, so I just took a bit of everything. It’s all vegetarian here. Some stuff was better than others, but it was generally good (which is a relief, because it’s a small rotation of the same dishes for the whole week, so you want to like it). I sat with some volunteers and chatted. It’s an overwhelmingly female volunteer group, with the men mostly halves of couples.

Lunch time

Lunch time

After lunch, we got our room assignments and put our stuff away, then we went straight down to the river to bathe the elephants. There were several groups of day trippers bathing pairs of elephants, and the large group of volunteers was assigned a pair as well. Take a bucket and heave the water into the air with it, and don’t get water in the ele’s eyes or they might get infected.

I look almost as tall as them here, but they still felt massive when I was right there next to them

I look almost as tall as them here, but they still felt massive when I was right there next to them

This was the first time I touched an elephant’s side, and I was surprised by how much flesh I could feel beneath my hand; all the wrinkles and the way the skin hangs, it seemed like it would feel much looser, but the muscle is right there on the surface. Also, the skin is covered in bristly black hairs. Their ears are a lighter brown/almost pink color on the lower half, with little brown dots on them, like freckles.

enp enp my hand, dwarfed by elephantWe watched a National Geographic documentary on the park and other elephant conservation places in Thailand. Then we helped unload a truck full of watermelon, tossing the fruit out and passing from person to person until it reached a pile in the corner. Also, we picked out the yellow bunches of bananas from the huge shelves full of them and passed them along for storage too.

Everyone pitches in when food arrives

Everyone pitches in when food arrives

We worked with four volunteer coordinators during the week. They all chose Anglicized nicknames for us to use—Jane, Mix, Chet, and Toby (all men). At around 4, Jane sat us down on the main platform of the skywalk and told us the rules of the park and the basic schedule for the week: 7am breakfast, 8-10 work, 11:30 lunch, 2-4 work, 6:30pm dinner. He emphasized the importance of keeping clean during this week of dirty work, and said, “No shower, no dinner. Save water, save the world, but not here—shower 2 times a day, 3 better.” We would all come to agree wholeheartedly with these sage words over the course of the week.

Hello, beautiful

Hello, beautiful

At 6:30 we gathered for a welcoming ceremony. Some young kids played traditional instruments for a little while, and the assistant manager of the park welcomed us and explained the ceremony about to take place. The shaman of the local village would take all the bad luck in the group and put it in a little arrangement of plants and flags in a banana leaf container, and then he would put good luck on a larger floral arrangement and a collection of white threads. Elder women of the village would then tie those threads onto our wrists—left for women, right for men—and we should wear them for at least 3 but no more than 7 days. Do not cut the thread to remove it, but pull it apart (or I just slid mine off), and then keep it in a good place, rather than throwing it away.

The shaman chanted rapidly during the first part of the ceremony, then transitioned into a song that he kept going for almost as long as it took all 55 of us to get threads, and then he walked around the room, singing and tossing water on us with a collection of grasses that looked like a large paintbrush without the handle (similar to the kind I’ve seen Buddhist monks use).

For luck

For luck

We all stood up with our extra luck and met in the conference room to introduce ourselves—name, country, how long in Thailand—the usual traveler details. Chet asked if anyone wanted to try naming everyone after we’d all gone ‘round twice saying our names, and I gave it a go. I’m pretty good with names and faces, at least in the first few days of meeting someone (might not be if I see them again weeks later). There were about 50 names for me to repeat, and I got all but four. People seemed to regard this as a minor miracle, and for the next three days any time I talked with someone new, they made jokes about taking me to Vegas so I could count cards. Good grief!

Moonrise

Moonrise