Friday, October 23, 2009

Will the Real Thailand Please Stand Up?

In a tiny village 2 hours north of Chiang Mai, a fellow tourist turned to me and said, “Now this is the Real Thailand.” The thought struck me as odd. What does that mean about the rest of Thailand? That it’s not real?

But I got her gist. She meant that because this village is removed from busy city life, it is more authentic in some way. That old traditions are slower to vanish high in the hills. That the way of life of villagers is a glimpse into Thailand’s past.

I agree to an extent, but I don’t think it’s quite that clear or simple to define what is “real.” Outside a straw hut, with pigs roaming in the yard and rice growing in the fields, there was a satellite dish. MTV and CNN now flash before the villagers’ eyes nightly. Call it modernization, Westernization or globalization… they all indicate the same phenomenon: influence of the new on the old. Although the old women of the village still dress in the traditional costume, the young people wear Adidas and Levis.

In a former life at Reed College, I read many versions of this same story. Anthopologists tend to seek out the most remote, isolated, “authentic” cultures. There is a desire to understand ways of life so completely foreign and removed from mainstream society. But there are very few places in the world where MTV and Levis don’t exist. And I sort of find the whole thing a little ironic. It’s as if Westerners are searching for the most remote and removed people to get a glimpse into the “real” way of life, and the people who live in these places are longing for Western influence to understand what’s current and cool. It’s a viscous cycle, because once the isolated village is discovered, it is no longer isolated.

I’ll stop with the academics for a minute and get to the point. I think the “real” Thailand is everywhere, not just tucked away on a dirt road up in the jungle. The real Thailand for me is the kindness of the people, the way they greet you with sincerity. It’s removing your shoes when you walk into a store or covering your shoulders when you enter a temple to signify respect. The real Thailand is the women parked in front of their massage parlors, hollering “Massage for yoooouuu, I give you good price” in their nasally English. It’s the chaotic markets and street food vendors displaying their dried squid like badges of honor. It’s everything and everywhere.

After 25 days in this amazing country, I will say goodbye tomorrow. I will head north and spend one last night on the edge of Thailand before entering Laos and cruising on a slow boat down the Mekong to Luang Prapang. Thailand is beautiful country and I hope someday I can return to uncover more of its magic. But until then, I just want to say thanks Thailand… for keeping it real.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Plight of the Domesticated Elephant in Thailand

Once upon a time in a land called Thailand, there was a beautiful young elephant named Jokia. She roamed freely through the jungle with her mother, grazing on grass, bananas, watermelon or whatever she could get her trunk around. She loved to bathe in the river, especially on hot days.

Then one day she was taken captive by humans and sold to a logging outpost. Her future became bleak, and the long days spent in the river were gone. She never saw her mother again.

The loggers wanted to use her to haul huge logs out of the jungle, but first they had to train her. Training meant locking her in a very small cage and stabbing her with a stick that has a nail attached to the end. This was repeated daily for weeks until her soul had been "broken" and she would obey human command.

By the time Jokia was broken and put to work, she was pregnant. When she went into labor while pulling a log up a hill, the loggers wouldn't let her stop working to give birth, so the baby rolled down a cliff to its death. Jokia sat down and refused to move, stricken with grief. Her keeper then stabbed her in one eye and partially blinded her in order to get her back to work. When she refused to work again another day, her keeper stabbed her other eye and blinded her completely for life.

Logging in Thailand was outlawed in 1989 and suddenly Jokia found herself blind and out of work. Eating about 300-400 lbs of food a day, she became an unwanted expense. But she couldn't return to the jungle, as she had no herd and her domestication left her without the proper tools to fend for herself.

If only this were a fairy tale... But don't fret, there is a happy ending to this story, at least for Jokia.

One day Jokia met a woman named Lek, who would change Jokia's luck for the better. Lek rescues domesticated elephants and brings them to her sanctuary north of Chiang Mai, where she sees that they have proper medical care, nourishment and the freedom to become wild again. It is a magical place. Jokia found happiness, and even got pregnant again at Lek's sanctuary, something that would not have happened if she still felt threatened and scared.

I met so many elephants and heard so many heartbreaking stories, that I could fill a novel with their darkest moments. Lek has 32 rescued elephants: some that stepped on land mines, some that were orphaned, some whose tusks had been poorly poached leaving them with deep infections, and many who were used for tourism and are too old and run down to work any longer. The stories of their plight and rescue are both heart-breaking and inspiring.

There are approximately 2,500 domesticated elephants in Thailand. Some beg for money with their keepers on the streets of Thailand. They drink polluted water and don't get enough vegetation to eat, nevermind the ill effects of the city sounds and lights. Some are used for trekking tourists through the jungle. Others are used for elephant shows, where they play music and paint. All of these trades utilize the same training methods used on Jokia.

But there is no easy solution. Domesticated elephants cannot be released into the wild because there is not enough jungle for them to survive within given the extensive logging practices pre-1989. So unless there is a serious shift in tourism and people are educated about the conditions, tourists will continue to fund their torture. Lek cannot solve this problem single-handedly. Until there are more elephant sanctuaries and fewer elephant shows, the mistreatment of elephants in Thailand will persist.

If any of my faithful readers ever visit Chiang Mai, I strongly urge you to spend a day at the Elephant Nature Park and soak up its beauty. I spent the day feeding the elephants, bathing them and admiring their majestic grace. They are amazing creatures and my reverence of them has grown infinitely deeper after this experience. They are enormous, yet docile. Playful and mischievous. Wise, yet innocent. Their love of Lek and the mahouts who care for them is both visible and enduring.

I have lived so many incredible experiences during this journey, but only a handful have given me the sort of inspiration that will touch me forever. This is one of them.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Calm Gets Calmer in Chiang Mai

Thailand in 3 parts… First came paradise in the islands. Then came controlled chaos in Bangkok. Now, it's peace in the jungle. It’s easy to understand why so many Europeans and Australians settle permanently in Chiang Mai. It is both lively enough to be engaging, but calm enough to be peaceful. The old city is a mile-wide square block of narrow cobblestone streets that randomly curve into each other. Each turn of a corner brings a new set of guesthouses, massage parlors, and fresh juice bars. It is a city where the number of bookstores outweighs the number of 7-11’s. It is a city where an entire day can pass without notice.

I wasn’t planning to update my blog until I had experienced a few of the incredible excursions I have planned over the next few days. But then I realized that the way I’ve spent the last few days in Chiang Mai perhaps better exemplifies life here than any of the adventures slated later this week.

Sitting next to an infinity pool as still as glass, eating fresh pineapple and listening to the silence, I have officially settled into the northern way of life. Clouds fill the sky and a thunderous rain quenches the earth for an hour or so each night. Shopkeepers nap in their plastic lawn furniture, unsure whether a customer is worth the waking. Vanilla-scented incense wafts slowly out of windows. Tuk-tuk drivers recline with a cigarette and watch the market-goers stroll by, more content to people-watch than keen on securing a fare. I enjoy my sweet, Thai iced coffee each morning and languidly linger with a book. When it's time for a change of scenery, I find the next cafe and repeat the process. The weather is warm, but not sweat-through-your-t-shirt-by-9:00-in-the-morning-hot like the islands. The people are kind, not like the where-are-you-going-do-you-want-to-buy-some-fake-jems-overbearing people in Bangkok. The food is spicy and the massages are cheap. At $8 a night for accommodation, $3 for a used book and $1 for a cold beer, it's probably less expensive for me to stay than to leave. Except, of course, I may run into a problem with my Visa eventually expiring. Details.

Today I took a cooking class. Tomorrow I will visit an elephant sanctuary. The day after, I will tour the secluded hill tribe villages. Perhaps I’ll find a day to mimic the monkeys and zipline through the jungle. So much activity may come as a rude awakening to my blissed out being. But I may invest in a few extra days here just to breathe in the calm and savor the silence. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in Chiang Mai so far, it’s that slow and steady would win the race, if there were a race, but there’s not… so just relax.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Alone Again in Ayuttaya

Apologies for the dead air space. But as you may know, I spent the last 2 weeks with my dear friend Megan. It’s certainly difficult to find the time to blog when you have a travel companion. So, if you have been checking for updates recently, you can blame Megan for your disappointment.

Having travelled for 2 months on my own, then having travelled for 2 weeks with a friend has drawn a strong contrast for me. I get asked the question all the time, “Do you like travelling alone?” The answer is, “Yes and no.” There are things I love about travelling solo: the freedom to go where I want when I want, the ease of choosing a restaurant, the people I meet… because I have to. But there are times when it all just feels difficult: I can’t go to the bathroom at the airport without bringing all of my belongings with me, I inevitably miss a spot on my back when applying my own sunscreen, there is no one to consult the map with when I’m lost, and mostly… there is no one to share the experiences with.

I said goodbye to Megan on the streets of Bangkok and I was instantly struck with homesickness for the first time this trip. Knowing I would need to get back into the swing of making every decision, peeing with my backpack on and getting odd shaped sunburns suddenly felt overwhelmingly challenging. In the taxi to the train station I got a little teary-eyed. Having the comfort of a friend, then feeling abruptly alone in this big world made me wonder if I was ready to pack my bags and catch the next flight home.

But then something happened. Sitting on the train from Bangkok to Ayuttaya, I watched the city fade away to beautiful grasslands and rice fields and realized that this is what I signed up for. The struggle. I wanted to challenge myself in different ways. Hence bungy, hence ice hiking, hence getting on a train and facing the unknown alone.

When I arrived in Ayuttaya, I checked into a beautiful guesthouse and met a lovely English woman with whom I had dinner, and all of a sudden, I wasn’t alone anymore. We had a couple Singhas in the garden of the guesthouse and laughed like old friends about the lady boys, ping pong shows and other sexual transgressions of the Thai. I went to bed ready to conquer the next chapter of this adventure with total affirmation that I am not done yet. Northern Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam await.

I can’t possibly fill you in on everything I’ve experienced so far in Thailand. But I will say that camping on “the beach” (where the movie with Leonardo DiCaprio was filmed), swimming in a hidden bay of warm turquoise water and playing cards into the wee hours with new friends on Ko Phi Phi Leh was one of the best nights I’ve had this trip. Listening to chilled out house music, perched atop the Mellow Mountain Bar and watching the fire jump ropers below at the Full Moon Party in Ko Phag-nan, was an experience burned as deeply in my memory as the scars on the people who missed the right moment to jump over the flaming rope. Eating crispy spring rolls while watching the sun quietly set behind majestic cliffs, eating a Thai pancake smothered in Nutella while wandering the cobblestone streets, having the most amazing foot massage of my life in a perfectly air-conditioned room , or climbing to the top of Phi Phi Don to see the panoramic view of this paradise island… these are the memories from Thailand that I will carry with me when I eventually move on. And although I know that traveling alone is making me stronger, I am grateful that there was a witness to a piece of this journey, and that for a while, I had someone to share the memories with. Thank you Megan, for watching my bags while I used the toilet, for thoroughly applying sunscreen to those hard to reach areas, and for sharing a piece of this incredible adventure with me. You are truly a great friend and a good sport, given that I kicked your ass about a hundred times in hand and foot :)!

Tonight I catch the overnight train to Chiang Mai where I plan to take a cooking class, take daytrips to tribal villages and visit an elephant sanctuary. Should be blissful!

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Doing Nothing Well in Perhentian Kecil

From Kuala Lumpur, I took a monorail to a train to a plane to a taxi to a boat to an island called Perhentian Kecil, which is off the north east coast of Peninsular Malaysia. I knew the journey had been worthwhile when the speedboat pulled up to an island paradise covered in lush rainforest that reaches almost to the turquoise sea, barred only by a strip of soft, powdery, white sand.

There really isn’t much to this island. About a half dozen “hotels,” an equal number of dive schools, 4 bars and 3 restaurants dot the shore. The reason why I’ve used the term hotel loosely is because the accommodations are actually what Malaysians term chalets, which is a grandiose way of saying they are groupings of wooden A-frame structures that I would more aptly term “shacks.” My shack comes complete with a light bulb dangling precariously from the bathroom ceiling from which I shocked myself trying to close the bathroom door, a faint smell of mildew permeating the walls and bedding, and a requisite 5-foot long lizard who lives underneath the building (if the photo frightens you, imagine waking up to this every morning).

It’s clear the island has not quite figured out the meaning of infrastructure. Electricity on the island is powered by grumbling generators and for the most part, no electricity is available during daylight hours. Wires are loosely strung along pathways that if you’re taller than 5-feet, you have to duck to avoid. Trash is also a major problem. What isn’t burned is taken on boats to trash stations in the middle of the sea… occasionally. So there are piles and piles of trash bags that lay in waiting behind the beachfront façade until the owners scrounge together enough cash to pay a water taxi to haul it away. Let's just say a nose plug would have come in handy at times.

But none of this seemed to matter when I was laying on the beach under an umbrella and pondering absolutely nothing. Or when I was wading in 75-degree, crystal clear water watching the clouds roll slowly across the sky. Or when I was sitting at a beach front café eating spicy curry and sipping on a watermelon smoothie. Or when I was snorkeling, imagining that I, myself was actually a fish (I want to be one of the blue and pink bio-luminescent ones whose shit glows).

The questions that passed through my mind during the course of the day were very deep and philosophical. Questions like, “Is it time to reapply sunscreen?” “What do I want to eat?” “Do I want to go back in the water or lay here and read?” Tough choices were made every minute of every day.

What the island lacks in refinement it makes up for in beauty. The sun is about to go down on my last day on the island and I have to admit, I’m a little sad to leave it behind. With the jam packed days of New Zealand, Australia, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur behind me, it’s been quite nice to ease into this life of leisure. And it’s not a lifestyle I plan to relinquish anytime soon if I an help it.

Next up: meeting Megan (hooray for the first, and likely, only brave soul to join me in this adventure!) and heading to the full moon party in Ko Phagnan, Thailand. No doubt island life will take on a slightly different slant with 30,000 revelers filling the beach with their glow sticks and blinking necklaces, but I’m certain it will be a memorable experience.