Thursday, January 31, 2013

Ancient Village, Chiang Mai

After a lunch of yellow curry with chicken, a Thai speciality, at a place recommended by our driver Yo we drove to look at the "Ancient Village". Looking for something to fill in the last part of our day, it was difficult to get a handle on what the Ancient Village was until we saw it. Apparently the original capital of Chiang Mai was located here hundreds of years ago. Continual flooding though saw the capital relocated to its present position. This left an area affected by regular flooding available for people to take over, so now there are a lot of properties. A small percentage quite new and obviously, by Thai standards, quite expensive. Others seeming to be homes for people with very little by way of money or household possessions. The unique thing about the Ancient Village though is that the entire village is build around half a dozen or more ancient ruins of brick temples and small palaces. These were obviously abandoned centuries ago and are in a state of disrepair, or have been excavated and reclaimed.
The interesting thing is that the main way of travelling around the village to see the ruins is in little pony traps. Quite weird, but being too far to walk, and with narrow streets, a viable option. It really was quite a strange experience driving from site to site, stopping to take photos (or not), ruin temples juxtaposed with houses, then moving on to the next site until finally returning to the starting point - another temple. This time gleaming in white and gold, not a brick in sight! 30.1.2013

Bo Sang

The village of Bo Sang is famous within Chiang Mai as the main umbrella production area. Here you can walk around the different production sections watching an umbrella being made before your eyes. Using traditional materials such as bamboo, silk or lacquered paper, the finished product is what I would call a parasol. Beautiful and fun, but not able to withstand torrential Queensland rain. The construction process was quite interesting, and if you wanted to, rather than buying off the rack you could select your own designs to be applied to your umbrella, or iPhone case, or even t-shirt according to one savvy salesman once he realised I had no phone with me. Not sure how it would survive the Omo in the spin cycle. Bamboo bits and pieces come together, to make an umbrella or two.
Well worth a look though as was the main street of the village adjacent. Very similar to what is fast becoming the norm in Chiang Mai. Lots of road side stalls selling food and drinks, with most shops seeming to be the converted garage of houses, and most selling the same limited range of Chinese imports. As the Thai's have a way of saying, "same, same, but different".
As for traffic, it too was what I am beginning to see as the norm. Lots of it, with many variations on loading trucks, utes and motor scooters. Always busy! 30.1.2103

Thai handicrafts

Following the temple visit we decided to look at some traditional Thai arts and crafts, so I dragged Frank around a jade showroom. Who knew jade came in "Imperial", "apple", "lavender", "blue", "white", "gold", "black". Not me, and I am a jade fan. Prices were up there, however all products did come with an authenticity certificate. Next we visited a silk factory, Jolie Femme, and saw the silk making process and again a gorgeous showroom, this time making a couple of purchases.
There is a strong connection to the French in Thailand, and I have also noticed a lot of French tourists. Probably more than any other nationality except for loud Americans. My favourite destination for shopping though turned out to be Baan Celadon. This style of ceramic is traditionally Thai, with a pale green glaze being what celadon is known for. Apparently now a shade of blue is in production and proving to be very popular. We did purchase a few pieces here, and are actually shipping home a couple of things. Fingers crossed they arrive safely. Again, seeing pieces in production was interesting and I was able to explain some of the basic processes with regard to glazing to Frank which was nice.
The artisans are highly skilled, so I was glad they had finished lunch and were again working. Unlike the silk factory where after arriving at lunchtime a bell went off and the workers downed tools and disappeared in a matter of seconds. No public service lunch time flexibility here. 30.1.2013

Dogs, dogs and more dogs.

At the base of the temple, is a market. Predominantly set up for temple visitors and tourists it still provides a good feel for Thai markets and lifestyle. Full of food and the obligatory Chinese import souvenirs. That said, it is colourful and well worth a look around. I bought what I thought was 6 postcards for about the price you would pay for one in Australia, only to find when I got home they were little note books. Bonus! You can also see Red Taxis lined up waiting for passengers and donate to the food collection for the temple dogs.
Dog count for the day was high, with my all time record destined to be broken. It seems that the poorer the area the more dogs, and with the temple dogs added to the tally the final score was 110. Beats my previous all time record of 83 dogs in Italy. 30.1.2013

Wat Phra That Doi Sethup

Today's adventure was based on our decision to spend a day with a driver out and about exploring Chiang Mai. We booked Yo for the day, the driver who we had from the airport to the hotel. He speaks passable English, and has a sense of humour so we figured we would enjoy his company for the day. Being born in Chiang Mai he was bound to know some special points of interest. We had arranged to meet Yo at 9.00am and when we went up to reception we passed the water buffalo out for their morning constitutional. After reading about them in the hotel brochure it was nice to see them. After a quick pat and photo it was off in the car. We decided to visit the Doi Suthep area first. A large National Park at the top of a mountain it is popular for trekking, bird watching and as the site of a famous temple. With the torrential rain the night before we figured bird watching and trekking might be hard going so we settled on the temple.
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is one of the most revered Buddhist sites in Thailand. Being mid week, and initially overcast, the usual number of tourists was less than normal which was a bonus.
Access to the temple is via a cable car which takes 2 minutes, or you can walk the dragon staircase which takes 15 minutes and lots of stamina. Being sensible we rode up, then walked down. The dragon staircase has beautiful ceramic panels simulating "scales" as the hand rails beside the stairs. Well worth seeing.
As a sign of respect, all shoes must be removed before entering the temple. As you enter you must step over the doorway, not on the door step, as spirits live here and you don't want to awaken them.
The temple complex boasts many murals within the cloisters depicting scenes from Buddha's life. The central "chedi" or dome is stunning in pure gold. Gold leaf is available for pilgrims to purchase to add to elements around the temple as they desire by means of earning merit.
The local Thai people will walk around the chedi three times, holding what I think is a lotus flower, while saying prayers. They have a special little area fenced off from the main thoroughfare around which they walk. There are also points outside this area where you can stop and pray.
To enter any of the side prayer rooms is acceptable, so long as you lower your head below any Buddha within the room. As the representative of Buddha you must also remain lower than any Monk. They are generally seated on a raised platform, and you kneel respectfully before them. Another fact of interest, you must never point your feet towards Buddha, hence you kneel before the enlightened one, with feet neatly tucked facing away.
A highlight of our visit was being blessed by the Monk. Without the appropriate language skills this was less about religion than a calm, emotive experience. With heads bowed we were flicked with water, the Monk prayed, ending with "happy happy life, luck" or something to that effect. A happy way to end a prayer in any language.
Sai sin is the name of the white thread given to us at the temple. They are tied on to your wrist and signify safety, health and good fortune. The Monk applies the sai sin to men, however being unable to touch women, an assistant will tie them on for women. Frank received an extra personal blessing from the Monk as he had his sai sin tied on. It seems that the point of removal of the sai sin is up to the individual, although you must not remove them immediately or while at the ceremony in which they were applied. This tends to be for temple visits, blessings for major purchases and family celebrations, funerals etc. Auspicious points for removal seem to be three or nine days after application, or just let them wear off naturally. 30.1.2013

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Elephants forever

Yesterday we spent another day with elephants, this time at Baan Chang Elephant Camp. In the Thai language Baan means "home" and Chang is "elephant", so the name seems pretty fitting. Two sessions with elephants in two days was a lot, but both were good in different ways. As a result my mahout skills have been further developed. New muscles I was unaware of have started complaining at their overuse, and now, thanks to a different riding style I have lost some "bark" off the inner edge of my knees. Luckily for me I kept them covered today so we could visit a temple. Skinned knees is not a good look. Baan Chang is set up more for backpackers and as such has a camp kitchen and accommodation available. We spent more time practicing mounting and dismounting safely, and fed a large range of elephants before being allocated one each to ride and bathe.
Bun Ward, pronounced Bun Won, was mine for the day. In her early thirties, she was smaller than Boon Pat. She did however move quite differently and as such swayed around more. She also is rather fond of bamboo leaves, which I found out when she stopped on her walk and very nearly dislodged me in her efforts to reach up high. Good thing I grabbed onto her ears quickly. It was the only thing that stopped a minor catastrophe. We learnt further manual handling techniques too in order to request our elephants to move left and right. The command given is the same for both - "kwey", however the accompanying movement varies. Similar to riding a horse, you use pressure from you right leg, and kicking with your left, to turn right, while saying "kwey". Then to turn left you do the reverse, that is, apply pressure with your left leg, and kick with your right. Simple really. Until you realise that this huge animal is under your control and you don't really have any idea what you are doing. Luckily our mahouts were walking alongside, so I was quietly encouraged when mine started singing. It made me thing that maybe I was doing ok enough that he could sing and not keep correcting what I was telling the elephant. Mahouts earn about 4500 Baht a month, plus receive free accommodation and one bag of rice a month. That's less than $150 a month. Based on the accommodation for paying guests, I am guessing a shack in the forest might be all it amounts to. Seems to me they work for the love of it, not the big bucks.
We walked through forest terrain which was interesting, and saw nice vistas across the valley, then did the steep decline thing again. The ride ended at the pool, after passing by the new elephant house, currently under construction. Once finished this will allow safe, dry sleeping quarters for the entire herd.
For me, the water was the highlight of the day. As we were the only two in our group we had the pool to ourselves which meant there was less need to be aware of the activity around us. I could focus on being in the water with Bun Ward. She lay like an angel and didn't move, which suggests she was enjoying her scrub down. Occasionally her trunk snorkelled around me, that was it. She just lay watching me as I moved around her. Once clean, our guide for the day, Tum, invited me to not only lie on her, but also to stand up on her back. I happily obliged his request. How happy was I!

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The 150 kg "baby"

Today a baby elephant sat on me. How often do you get to say that in life? Never! Must be good luck! The most incredible way to top off a fantastic day, we were invited down to meet a new Mum and her baby. At 10 weeks old, baby Tara already weighs in at 150 kilograms. Not a small baby by any standards, but still exploring and finding out about her world. She was ultra cute, raising smiles and laughter wherever she went becoming quite boisterous in her attempts to get attention. Mum stayed quietly on the side munching sugarcane until she thought danger was imminent, when she would quickly come over and touch Tara, putting her bulk between the baby and the perceived point of danger. The message to back off and stay out of her way was loud and clear.
Benz, our guide from Patara, invited me to sit on a rock and wait for Tara to come over to say hi. Which she did, before promptly turning around and sitting in my lap. The photo says it all. I was one happy girl, full of smiles and laughter at the sheer joy of the experience. What a way to end the day! I feel like I will smile forever! 28.1.2013

Doo wah diddies

Lunch was a traditional Thai picnic, with food wrapped in and served on banana leaves, in a bamboo hut down by the river. Quite beautiful, and very unique. A chance to talk and relax for a bit before getting back into it.
The main activity for the afternoon was to take our elephants for a " walk". Translate that as climb on, let them walk, and concentrate on balancing on not falling off. The motion of an elephant moving is quite unlike anything I have yet experienced. Add height into the equation and you will begin to see just how challenging this was. It took a little doing to get the hang of balancing along with the elephant, but on the whole it is a great experience. We went up the hill then once everyone was together, crossed the road. Yes, across both lanes, and gently stepped over the guardrail, then headed up the hill and into the rainforest. The trail through the rainforest was beautiful and provided a unique view of Chiang Mai.
The only sound was our elephants breathing, squeaking from the enjoyment of being out and our mahouts checking "you ok?" from time to time. The terrain went from steep on the uphill, to incredibly steep on the downhill.
So steep I doubt I could have walked the route without sliding down on my bottom. The elephants found it hard going, as did we as we tried to stay glued on. Ultimately I left it all to Boon Pat, trusting he knew what to do. As for the mahouts, they did it in thongs, Crocs and slip on plastic shoes. Amazing! As we came out of the rainforest we stepped over the guardrail again, this time staying on the asphalt as we walked along the road. By this time I was grinning with joy, and inspired by the continual "D D Boon Pat" started up my own version of Manfred Mann's "Do wah diddy diddy" complete with elephant appropriate lyrics and lots of "D" "D"s.
Two hundred metres later we turned off the road and into the home paddock, but not before we were passed by a motor-scooter driven by a man whose dog was perched in front of him, hind legs on the base board, front paws on the handlebars. Chiang Mai certainly is an amazing place. 28.1.2013

Who needs a Thigh Master?

A healthy elephant is a clean elephant so next on the agenda was to learn some basic elephant skin care. Apparently elephants don't sweat like humans, excluding sweat only at the point on their body that their toenails join their foot. If you look carefully you will see a sweat band at this point. An elephants skin is approximately two inches thick, except for behind the ears. Here it is half an inch thick carrying lots of blood vessels which are used by the elephant as a cooling system when it flaps it's ears. The breeze created helps to cool the blood before it circulates further. Pretty neat. Their skin, needs to be kept clean in order to more easily check the elephants health and condition. Another key cooling mechanism is to throw dust up and over their back from their trunks. This accumulation of dust, twigs and potential insects is easily removed via scrubbing. First off there is a manic slapping of a hand held "brush" made from bunches of leaves. slap, slap, slap, to cries of "harder, harder" from Benz. as far as brooms go though it worked a treat with dust and grime vanishing with each swoosh. Then off to the pond we went with bamboo bucket, scrubbing brush and swatch of tree bark which believe it or not makes a form of natural soap once wet and rubbed harshly across the elephants skin.
Elephants into the water, people into the water and lots of splashing to follow. The scrubbing is actually hard work, and to do it properly you actually have to scrub hard, except for around the eyes. There is also directional attention to be paid, following the grain so the speak. Except for the exceptions like the trunk where it seems to be ok to scrub across the grooves. Much more exertion required than you think. Working with elephants definitely has it over Weight Watchers or a Thigh Master. It is hard work, strenuous, physically demanding and I am sure that I will twinge as I move tomorrow. 28.1.2013

How to climb onto an elephant

Next lesson for the morning was how to climb onto an elephant. There are a surprising number of ways of doing this, none of which involve a ladder, tree stump or trampoline. Each mahout/trainer has their own preferred way of climbing onto their elephant. Some elephants will accept a number of methods depending on the skill and ability of the person climbing on. Others will only allow the use of one, and frankly, who is going to argue? Most skilled, is the mounting option where the elephant lowers its head down onto its trunk, and the trainer facing the animal, vaults up and onto its head face on. This sees you "land" on top of the elephant's head facing the rear. The trick then is to do a u-turn while up in the air, by swinging one leg over the elephants back and scooting around until you are facing the right direction. All at a great height and hopefully without tumbling off. Luckily for me my prowess was not put to the test as Boon Pat didn't know this way of working. Frank though, mastered the leaping on. Once up there though it was a challenge for him, heights not being his thing. Next option is where the elephant sticks its trunk out, you step on and the elephant, operating like a crane, hoists you up, then you leap onto its head. Another highly skilled manoeuvre. A variation on this is when the elephant bends its knee, allowing the mahout to step onto its leg and it raises the trainer up to the point that he can climb on board. More sedate is when you utter "Non Long", asking the elephant to lie down, and it very kindly let's you grab an ear for leverage then step on it's leg, letting you scramble up, over and on to it's head. Then the command "Look" and the elephant clambers to it's feet. Very inelegant on a large fellow like Boon Pat I am sure. My fault, not his. Once up the idea is to hold on to the elephants ears, and wiggle your way forward until you are high on its head. Then it's a matter of finding your balance and you are off.
The commands used by mahouts in Chiang Mai are all Burmese, rather than Thai, due to the connection with the Karen tribe. A few more key phrases are essential around now. " Pai pai" (phonetically "buy buy") is the command for "go forward". "Hoh" is "stop", while "Ma" is "walk forward" if you are leading the elephant by the ear. "D" "D" is the equivalent of "good" so "D D Boon Pat" is "Good boy Boon Pat". This phrase I used a lot as with my mount being huge and only 14 years old, I figured it was best to err on the side of caution and give him lots of encouragement. The funny thing was that mid afternoon I heard Frank also uttering "D D Boon Pat". When I asked him why he kept talking to my elephant he said he couldn't remember his elephants name, so using mines was reassuring - for him! I nearly fell off Boon Pat I was laughing so much. What's more, Frank still can't remember his elephants name! 28.1.2013

Elephant school continues

So, how do you feed an elephant? You say the magic word "bon" in a firm voice and miraculously these amazing animals open their mouths, tilt their heads and trunks up, and expose their fleshy pink tongue. You gingerly at first, and then with more confidence, place the piece of food in and onto the tongue, and then withdraw your hand as quickly as you can. All while trying to keep out from under their feet, duck their trunk, and in my case - tusks, and try to look cool and smile for the camera. If you don't get the timing right you then have to remove your hand from a very firm, but gummy grip, wipe off the slobber then start again with the next piece of food. Luckily for us, elephants teeth are located further back in their mouths, so it is hard for them to bite you. Elephants eat approximately 300 kilograms of food each day. The bananas and sugar cane we give them being but a snack or reward for the work they are doing. Serious eating happens later with grass, banana leaves and bamboo leaves all part of the menu. As Benz assured us, eat like an elephant, be healthy like an elephant and live a long time. So, next part of the lesson in elephant do you tell if an elephant is healthy? You look for any or all of the following: dust marks along their side which indicates they lay down to sleep. With such a weight to move around, lying down is tricky so a sick elephant generally won't bother and as such will sleep standing up.
The best indicator however, is the good old elephant poo test. This is multi part. First you count the poo "balls". Six to nine balls of poo is a good number, indicating that food is moving through the animals system correctly. Four or less is an indicator that something isn't quite right. Then you look at the consistency of the poo. If it is firm and even in texture all is good. Uneven sized pieces within the poo can indicate that the elephants teeth are not working as they should. Tis may be from age or other causes. Moisture level is also important from the perspective of the amount of liquid contained within the poo. A healthy elephants poo will drip liquid if squeezed. I know this from watching Benz demonstrate, not by testing for myself. The final indicator is the smell, and yes, I did sniff elephant poo. It was totally unlike anything I have come across to date. Very sweet and grassy. Thank goodness for that. A large stinky elephant poo would be too much to cope with! 28.1.2013

Your elephant chooses you

Next it was on to learning how to determine which elephant would be ours for the day. The trick to elephant allocation, according to our guide Benz, was to feed an elephant for five minutes. By this time, he would have a clear indication of whether "our" elephant would accept us - or not.
So, first to be allocated an elephant was me. I followed Benz with a basket of bananas, to find myself stationed in front of the biggest elephant I have ever seen in my life. He was huge, and yes, he was a male. He also had the biggest tusks I have ever seen, and was in fact the only elephant with tusks. So, five minutes later, after he had demolished all of the sugar cane and bananas I looked to Benz to see whether I was "in". Sure enough this huge guy accepted me, so from that point on Boon Pat and I were buddies for the day. Well, Boon Pat and I and our personal trainer, and what a day it was! 28.1.2013

Patara Elephant Farm

Today was our first visit to see the elephants that Chiang Mai is so famous for. Scheduled to visit Patara Elephant Farm, we were picked up by our driver at 7.30am with a trip of about an hour ahead of us. I am finding the view from a vehicle, out into the world, an entertaining one, so happily spent the trip peering out at the traffic chaos surrounding us. We arrived at Patara and the fun began. We were barely out of the car and the elephants being brought in to work with us for the day came past us and down the hill. These animals really are incredible. So huge, up close, but also exuding a calm presence. It was inspiring just to be near these animals, knowing that they would accept us as part of their world for the day. Other couples joining us for the day were from all over the world. In our group we had two couples from Bordeaux, France; one from New York and one from the UK. So, with Frank and I from Australia, a truly international bunch. The local Karen tribespeople from the mountains of Burma Thai border region of Chiang Mai are the traditional elephant keepers of the Mai Sim area. These people are also known for their beautiful woven fabrics, so it was no surprise to see we were allocated a cotton tunic each to wear for the day. The official reason give was that the elephants would "see" us as a Karen trainer. Somehow I think that the elephants were to smart to be caught out by this....apart from the fact that when we went swimming we all took our tunics off! So, we passed around the bundle of tunics, selecting whichever colour appealed to us. For some reason, although I am usually a red girl, I selected a green tunic, only to be told that "elephants like green, because they think of you as a banana leaf". I responded "Great - I'm dressed as elephant food!" Everyone laughed.
We all had a chance to feed some sugar cane to one elephant who had very kindly stopped for us, then it was over to "elephant school" for a while. The trainers were great, taking great care to teach us how to recognise the signs of a "happy" elephant. So, flapping ears and swinging tail are good. You can approach, touch and feed the elephant. If you don't see these signs, don't go near them. Elephants too have bad days, mostly for the females as they can get hormonal as part of their cycle. Makes sense, especially when you realise that a pregnant elephant has up to 24 months gestation for a male calf, and slightly less (a month or so) for a female calf. The things you learn. 28.1.2013

Monday, January 28, 2013

Dog days

I am quietly encouraged by the number of dogs I have seen in Chiang Mai. Today's dog count was 63, pretty high as dog counts go. Seems to me that the gene pool could do with a little expansion though. Most dogs are of the generic black and white scruffy variety. It is evident that they have a pretty tough life. Thankfully few seem to be strays, many seem to belong to someone, laying out I the sunshine in small groups out the front of shops and houses. It was interesting to see that as we got out into the mountains around Mairim en route to Patara Elephant Camp that the type of dog changed. Less cur with a unique look. Dogs I saw seemed to have a streak of Akita in them. They were quite large and distinctive and had quite unusual coats with fur a standard length, like a bear coat Sharpei, and more standardised colours. Solid black, solid cream etc. They were quite good looking animals. 28.1.2013