We arrived in Thailand to our first destination- Chiang Mai. It is the first time in a long while that the newspaper clearly reflects free speech. This along with so many other items jump out as being so different to Cambodia. We realize how rich our decision was to visit Thailand post Cambodia because they too are descendents of the Khmer Empire and you get to see the contrast of a nation ravaged by war versus one with a relatively peaceful history.
Our hotel is sweet- some preplanned post Cambodian recovery. Sweet, but with all the attention to plush they overlooked a major detail- the place is teaming with standing water and consequently mosquitoes. I hate their little black bodies with the white stripes on their legs. Our room smells like DEET. The smell is addressed by a little card that indicates in room spraying every night. There is also his and hers insect repellent amongst the freebies and punk coils burning by the door. We swat a good 15 of them just at dinner. I assess what I am up against and do consider releasing myself from the worry of Dengue more than once but front page was that it is currently endemic in Chiang Mai and my youngest is quite run down. She has been struggling for a while with some sort of allergy- on and off since Sydney really. I plan to deal with that in Singapore, but for now I want to keep her already taxed immune system from being overwhelmed with serious illness. She is extremely desirable to mosquitoes and despite our best efforts probably bit 20 times since hitting Dengue territory. I have to do what I can as little as that seems.
I appreciate the amazing resort but really yearn for something less fancy that actually has a useable laundry service and enjoyably priced massages. We did some quick math and figured to send our laundry out would be $1000 USD. One thousand more worthy splurges flash into my mind so we make like the Beverly Hillbillies in our 5 star resort and fill up the immense jacuzzi with the cascading lights then dump our laundry and some shampoo inside and turn on the jets. The mood lights change from red to blue to green and the whole scene looks like a roller disco as our knickers churn in the tub. After a while we ring the load out and look for suspension opportunities. The luggage rack is a wooden structure with 5 straps, which makes it darn near a clothesline. We load it up and once its filled we use every hanger and hook to hang the rest. DEET detail is 8PM so maybe we will get bonused with some antimosquito impregnation into the fibers.
There are some freebie classes available at the resort so we comb the list and cipher. My husband flags out the couples massage class. I still marvel at his conversion. He was long the antagonist when it came to massage but embraced it during an Austrian ski week and is now slowly becoming a junkie. Wouldn't it be spectacular for me if this were his mid life crisis! I always promote the couples massage..especially in Vietnam..the land of the happy ending. Inside the resort, life is good but we push ourselves to venture out. We are pretty much templed out but do have the chance for some monk interaction so take an afternoon to temple surf. The temples in town are such a different flavor than in any of the other countries we have been. They are big into relics and have photos of strange pebbles and crystals that are said to have sprung from the ashes of special monks when cremated. My husband has a number of theories for this from scientific to the bold accusation of enlightenment impostering. The likenesses of several of the holy men have been duplicated lifesize in wax and sit in a glass case like some sort of twisted Madame Tussaud display. There are tween boys, maybe ages 10-12, sitting on the floor of one temple in their orange robes. They are being lectured and their limited attention spans reveal they are far from enlightenment. Their minds boyishly wander to mischief and are periodically redirected by mix master monk's foreboding look. Some of the boys' families are present and beaming as they look on from the back of the temple sitting along with us on the floor. The kids are on summer break from school so this must be their visitation to vacation monk camp. Soon the orange globs on the floor are released to go sweep the streets and perform other humbling tasks. This is clearly age appropriate monk-light; their time will come when they are asked to do more. In Thailand, every man is expected to become a monk at least once in his life for a short period. Optimally this occurs between the time he finishes school and the time he starts a career or marries but can happen and does happen at any age or time. Traditionally, the length of time spent in the wat is three months but nowadays with hectic lives it may be as little as 1-2 weeks. This custom is fully integrated into Thai culture and participation is high. As I learn about this tradition my thoughts immediately go to a young male family member whom I dearly love who is drawn towards the military feeling such service will be a rich character building experience. I can't disagree and honor those who choose this route but selfishly would prefer to see him in an orange robe here in Chiang Mai gaining a rich character defining experience shrouded in peace and awakening. Becoming a monk is not just accessible to the local Thais. All are welcomed; anyone can come and do this in Chiang Mai.
After town we make our way up the tallest mountain to have a monk encounter at Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep. We are going to offer food and by doing so make merit. There is a bunch of people doing this so we get to watch and learn. The old monk is sitting inside one of the temple rooms and we bring our baskets to him as we make an approach from our positions on the floor towards his perch slightly higher than us on a pillow. He accepts our gift saying a prayer in Sanskrit to us then dips a cat-o-nine-tails into water and shakes it at us numerous times at close range. He then prays over some white string, calls it holy cotton and ties it on each family members wrist, except mine. He drops it into my hands from afar- he cannot touch me so tells my husband to tie it on. It's a cool experience, plus my husband and I immediately adopt into our vernacular the phrase holy cotton. We then move to another part of the temple where many of the monks gather to begin their 6pm routine. I think they chant for an hour than meditate for an hour. One westerner is sitting on his bum with his feet pointing out towards the monks. Some sort of administrator points to him and his girlfriend punches him prompting him to correct the offense. The old monks have an amazing amount of stamina. They surely cannot eat past 12 noon and grow fat, they will never be able to maintain these folded up positions. The whole scene really amazes me. Our Asian tour has been quite Buddhistic- something I really didn't consciously plan. I consider why I may have subconsciously driven it here and best I come up with is that I always have been such an anxious person and just had to take this rich opportunity to explore a way of being in the world that accompanies such an amazing track record of delivering peace, calm and patience to its followers. You cannot deny these qualities in practicing Buddhists. I want me some of that. Now (haha). On the way home with our holy cotton we stop at Tesco Lotus and buy some lightweight long sleeved clothes. Some of our wash never quite dried and now has quite an odor. It is cheaper to buy new at Tesco than to wash the old. Besides, the resort responded to the conversion of our suite into a laundry factory by leaving the dirty laundry bag and list in a prominent place on our bed.
The next day we relax, but day after that venture out again, this time to stop at a human zoo and see some hill tribe people- the Karen Padaung. I fully admit to sinking quite low on this one. There are all sorts of reasons why we should not support this- but we just had to see the elongated ringed necks. Starting at age 5 or 6 the rings are stacked on. Their necks do not really elongate from this but rather their rib cage pushes down deforming the upper ribs. Their arms and knees are ringed and deformed too. They look a bit bored and annoyed and I am pretty sure they are forced to dress up and maintain this custom against their will. It's a bit embarrassing and uncomfortable to participate.
After this digression we head for an elephant camp. This and the hill tribe were last minute plans so minimally researched. We did dig enough to choose to opt for an interactive camp versus an anthropomorphistic show where the elephants are asked to paint onto easeled canvases and play football. A holier than thou attitude was just a flash and later I realized not appropriate by any means for this choice. Once we were underway and I had some time with my thoughts I realized the camp we chose has elephants still not acting as elephants. Instead of forcing them to animate into humanish artists we are on our way to force them to cart us around the jungle like horses. But they have lost their jobs in logging and this is how they get money to feed them I tell myself. It works.
We arrive an hour later and are given Little Drummer Boy clothes to change into and some mahout training. The hook is central to this instruction. We will not be using it so I tune out. There are 2000-3000 wild elephants in Thailand; these ones are not. I do think they are cared for when they comply. I feel bad about what happens when they don't but have some merit on my account from yesterday to see me through. Before I know it we are being shown to our elephants. Mine is HUGE. To everyone in Asia, I am huge. They always ask me where I am from like they have a counter in their pocket and advance it a click registering another large American. The mahout says sit here, not here and points as far forward on their neck as the do spot and the space behind that between neck and back as the don't. But that is where I want to sit! I don't have time to process the disconnect and do as I am told and mount the beast. Now readers, please indulge me. Sit in your chair normally with your thighbone perpendicular to your stomach, leg bent at the hip. Feel the protection afforded your low back in this position. Now take your legs and place them super wide out to the side straightening your leg as you do making them right in line with the vertical drop from chest to your toes. Tell me, what happens to your low back? Now imagine an extremely large elephant moving with an immense stride plunging you forward in this delicate and vulnerable position. If you have performed this simulation correctly you should be afraid for me, oh so afraid.
I don't have time to entertain my discomfort and donate all my energy to follow the rules. I have more respect for this beast than anything I have ever encountered. My youngest daughter is now behind me holding a rope at the elephants mid back region. We are underway and I am totally trapped in this awkward position. I ask the mahout if I can shift and he doesn't know what the hell I am saying. Because the elephant is so wide my legs do not drop down and wrap around it at all, they are pointed out like outriggers. Consequently, I have no side-to-side stability to follow its lumbering gate. I feel like a relentless tide is sweeping me back and forth and my ability to keep from being tossed onto the sand relies on just one vertebra in my lower back. It has been cornered into performing this task by the acutely arched position my increased lordosis and the crazy position of my legs forces. My daughter's legs are out so wide they almost are a T. She clings to her rope. Now fully appreciating the great movement I frantically look for something such as her rope to stabilize myself. When nothing presents I extend both of my arms behind my back and join her lifeline shimmying my hands under the rope. It tightens and then slacks with every other stride of the massive grey tide. During the motion of tight my hands are trapped.
In case my subtle art of giving you my reader enough information and trusting you to draw conclusions is not working let me make it resoundingly clear- thus far this elephant ride SUCKS. Ring neck karma has come to get me, or maybe its Ganesh himself pissed at my earlier posts. The mahout sees my spasmodic rope clutching strategy and yells at me in the same voice he reserves for the elephant using motions to redirect my hands to the elephant's spongy protruding forehead. The hairs are prickly but that is not what deters me from trusting my life to this place. My legs are on plane with my hips and out to the side thus rendered useless in stabilizing me front to back- they are only mildly able to stabilize me side to side. So the only front to back stabilization tools I have are any core muscles that anchor to my crotch then just inches ahead of it resting on the spongy eyebrows are my hands. The tripod of the crotch-hand-hand contact points are not wide enough apart to be stable. I am an ill built stool in danger of toppling. The stakes involved in toppling are high. In front of my hands there is a BIG drop off. An abyss that if fallen into will result in my body being churned and flattened by this enormous pachyderm.
I scan my mind to try to recall if elephants can put their heads down like horses. If so, I am done. I am in essence sitting 6 inches in front of the pommel of a saddle like a fool sitting in a dunking booth waiting for the stability of their perch to be stolen and my bath will be a pool of my own blood. It is so unsettling. I am an animal lover and accomplished horseback rider yet I sense no goodwill from this animal. Quite the opposite, I sense it won't miss a beat as it squeezes my body so hard under foot that my skin breaks open and my flesh leaks out. Unable to recall the neck structure and sphere of movement of an elephant I plan my escape should I have to bail out quick. I am comforted that my daughter is behind the rope- she will stay on its back long enough for the mahout to rescue her.
The elephant stops midpath, the mahout yells and it lurches forward. My vertebra is pissed. The grey demon starts to lumber off the path running me into the electrical wires neck high that stretch precariously between 2 poles. I make a muffled plea and the mahout growls at the grey beast. I don't want to be on this thing if that hook gets implanted into it but must admit its presence now comforts me. I feel like it is the only thing keeping a rampage at bay. The path narrows and thus leaves less available ground to land in should I decide to throw myself off this ridiculously unstable perch to safety. I scan the sides for an escape route. The left side is now sheer incline- I will bounce off of it and tumble under its feet. The right side is staked- I will be impaled. I curse myself for being slow to discard the health-and-safety-won't-allow-anything-unsafe delusions I hold onto as firmly as I do my tipping custom. Wake up idiot- there is no health and safety that has reviewed this ride- the 5 star hotel referral means nothing in this jungle world. Just then some information pops into my head to validate my stupidity. I can always count on myself to kick me when I am down. I remember Trailfinders back when we booked our round the world ticket telling me they wouldn't book a neck ride elephant camp- only a box on the back ride due to safety. I can't believe this information slipped my mind.
My other girls and husband are on lesser beasts and in more comfortable poses. I am grateful they are safe. I keep trying to change my pose into dressage rather than starfish but cannot fight the great grey tide. We are in the rear and the gargantuan beast keeps stopping and turning sideways on the narrow path, the mahout urges it to move on. Its reaction to the mahout tears at my spine. As we lumber up the hill a feeling grows in the pit of my stomach. It does not want to do this. What does it know that I do not? Mice ahead? Can't be.
It's Newton's Law. This elephant knows that what comes up must come down- and that ain't going to be easy with this American on my back. I consider this elephant's gravitational proposal that our uphill terrain will turn downhill but discard it. Again I hold fast to my 5 star hotel referral health and safety myth. There is no way they can have us ride these elephants downhill perched so close to the frontal abyss.
I am in the zone- endurance mode- every muscle in my core has been enlisted to keep the sacrificial vertebrae from giving out. Then, I see it. The front elephant disappears. On the horizon is a substantial vertical drop. There is NOTHING to hold onto out front so I once again grab the rope behind, this time twisting to desperately find a way to make the tripod more broad and stable keeping one hand on the spongy head and one behind. The downhill action tosses my daughter forward onto me and the life giving rope follows suit as the pachyderm's leg slides forward. Our hands are both holding onto and slightly trapped under the rope, which is now under my buttocks. The elephant struggles down the rocky uneven vertical descent. I feel like I have nothing more to recruit to keep my daughter and I from spilling over the front….