Several people advised us to spend as little
time in Bangkok as possible, that it was a noisy, congested city with ALL
of the problems of an over-sized and unplanned city. But we had our Lonely
Planet guidebook that we counted on to steer us in all the right directions
and there were at least a few sites we felt we needed to take in before
we headed to the northern part of the country. High on the list of hotel
recommendations was the Atlanta Hotel, described as the first hotel in Bangkok
to have a swimming pool, and appealing to traveling professors on a budget,
with classical and jazz music played daily, art deco furnishings, a gourmet
menu written to educate about Thai cooking and a movie nightly. All this
and for very little money. We were looking forward to it. But another part
of our plan was to not make advanced reservations and "wing it." Once in
the airport, we called and confirmed they had vacancies. Following our guidebook
we determined the most economical way of getting there was via a shuttle
bus which dropped off at various locations around the city. Only problem
with this was that it was about 1/2 mile, lugging our luggage, between the
bus and the hotel and we had now first hand experience with the heat and
humidity of Bangkok. But we were excited and undaunted. The other thing
that became immediately apparent when we got off the bus was that this was
"hooker land" and that many of the hotels in this area were geared toward
the hooker trade. Any man walking alone and even some accompanied by a
woman would be considered as potential clientele. I was propositioned several
times on the main thoroughfare before getting off onto the side street our
hotel was located on.
After making the long trek and working up a pretty
good sweat, walking into the lobby was pretty much as the guidebook described
except that the phone system turned out to be art deco as well as the furnishings.
This was truly an antique switchboard phone system and here you see the
operator posing for us. Because the Atlanta is trying to maintain higher
standards than some of the neighboring hotels you can see the posted rules
(above). Well, they did have a room but none with a/c., though they promised
to put us on the waiting list. The price was right, $8 a night. We were
eager to get to our room and unpack and relax. Well, what a room! Up
3 flights of stairs, no elevator and as we walked through the door, it was
tiny--barely any space around the bed, the walls were pealing off and clearly
hadn't been painted in decades, the shower was cold water only. There really
wasn't much room for our bags. Our room didn't come even with an antique
phone much less a TV or radio. We now fully understood what it meant to
be a "budget traveler". The first night in the hotel Tina didn't sleep
so well. It turned out that there were plenty of "single" men staying at
the Atlanta who didn't follow the rules and had "guests" staying with them
for part of the night. For all we know they could have been "catamites."
What the heck is a catamite anyway?? Without an English dictionary we weren't
exactly sure but we assumed it wasn't very nice. That first night one of
the lady "guests" was asked to leave and started yelling at the top of her
lungs to complain. So much for sleep! That next morning the single men sheepishly
shuffled in and sat alone for breakfast, not talking to anyone.
Among the things we were determined to see
while we were in Bangkok was the National Museum. Housed at the
site of an ancient Palace, it occupied a number of buildings of which
this was one. This collection is reported to be the largest in Southeast
Asia. The most interesting to me were the large funeral wagons and ornate
elephant seats. At the right side of this picture there is an elevated platform
which was used by the king to mount his elephants when this was a palace.
Inside this building which is used now as a temple were large and old murals
depicting the stories of the Ramayana. Bangkok was a really big city with
really heavy traffic. We got around using taxis and a trip from the hotel
Atlanta was about $5 to get here and about $8 to get back. Taxi drivers would
not use meters at certain times due to increased traffic and so you had to
negotiate a rate at the outset. We came to understand that whenever we were
forced to negotiate rates that there was a presumption that as a tourist
we should pay more because we were ignorant of what the local market rates
Figuring out what constitutes appropriate attire
for visiting a temple was not always easy. At first we thought a long
skirted dress and shoulder cover were sufficient. When in Vietnam, Tina
had to purchase a T-shirt to get into Ho's mausoleum because her blouse
exposed too much shoulder. But visiting the temple of Wat Phra Kaew where
the Emerald Buddha is located exposed us to another wrinkle. Our thongs
were not covering the ankles sufficiently and we had to rent foot coverings.
But it was worth it!! This golden statuette outside the temple was a good
example of the amount of gold ornately decorating this temple. This temple
of the Emerald Buddha is a must see and thousands make the pilgrimage daily.
The Emerald Buddha itself isn't very big, maybe 3 feet high but in a highly
elevated position within the temple and surrounded by other golden Buddhas.
Entering the temple and sitting on the floor with the throngs, careful not
to let your feet rest in a position facing the Buddha which is considered
disrespectful and a serious no-no, just soaking up the ambiance and gazing
on the countless Buddhas was a memorable and intoxicating experience. Photographs
inside any of the temples or buildings were not permitted.
From the temple above we went to the Vimanmek mansion,
famed for being the world's largest teak mansion. This was previously a
palace of the king's and although open to the public for visitation was obviously
still under governmental control as there were numerous soldiers on the
grounds providing security. We had the most remarkable experience while
having lunch in a small cafe on the grounds. A group of obviously wealthy
Thai ladies showed up in chauffeur driven cars, some carrying their own food
brought from home. They took a table in a corner of the restaurant though
Tina had a direct view of their table from her seat. They were largely ignored
by the restaurant staff. We finished our snack and continued to tour the
grounds. The next building we visited was a "house" that had previously
been used by one of the King's family but now housed the King's (an
amateur photographer) photograph exhibit. To our surprise, the queen
who was in many of the king's photos was one of the same women we had just
seen in the restaurant moments before. Also on the grounds was a delightful
Thai dance performance and before the dances this young lady was demonstrating
her ornate carving of various fruits and melons. It was even more beautiful
than these pictures can possibly display.
From time to time we will try to share a
picture of our accommodations to give you a sense of our living conditions.
The next leg of our journey took us from Bangkok to Chiang-mai, the major
city in the north and one of the most delightful destinations in our journey
through Thailand. The picture above is not of Chaing-mai but of the elephant
camp we stayed in north of Chaing-mai for two days. The area on the left
side of the picture is the "kitchen" and the area just behind the man on
the right was our bedroom--a spartan wood floored arrangement with the added
luxury of a mosquito netting around our sleeping bag bedding. The fellows
in the picture were the mahouts who doubled as chefs and were setting about
the preparation of our dinner.
This particular leg of our journey started in Chaing-mai
while strolling through the market area. I happened to notice a travel agent's
office who had pictures out front showing tourists actually riding elephants
bareback, not on a riding contraption, and in the river with
the elephants bathing them. We strolled in and found ourselves not in just
anyone's travel agency but the office of Lek Chailert, the foremost elephant
conservationist in Thailand whom we came to know as a dedicated and courageous
protector of the elephant way of life. It so happened that she was personally
accompanying a group to her elephant camp in order to see the latest baby
elephant, now just 4 days old. We were thrilled to join the party. We traveled
first by van north of Chaing-mai to the jungles just south of Burma. At
the base camp there were a large number of elephants used for the traditional
1-2 hour ride on a loop in the jungle, riding on a platform saddle. Also
at the base camp were several baby and juvenile elephants who were as playful
and frisky as puppies. They would chase each other, try and steal bananas
from each other and thoroughly investigate any human with food. Then when
finished or perhaps called by their mothers, they would race back to the
large elephant holding area, duck under the fence, and find their moms.
This was our first exposure to the beautiful, sensitive world of well cared
for elephants. After feeding the elephants a truck load of bananas and fruit
Lek had brought, we were taken to the river, introduced to our own elephants,
and invited ot help wash them. What a great experience that was. We were
waist deep with these massive, happy pachyderms, scrubbing their thick but
sensitive skin while they luxuriated in the water.
From the side of the river we mounted the elephants
guided by our mahouts, crossed that wide river and headed up into the jungle
mountains. At first they were on the elephants with us but when they became
confident that we weren't going to fall off or freak out they hopped off
and left us to ride solo. We rode up the hills, and had a panoramic view
of a canyon to the left. At one point we heard some rustling noise and saw
some bushes moving, and there on the opposite hill was an elephant feeding,
totally free. It was like a scene from a dream, primeval and perfect. The
rhythm of the elephant's walk was unique, unlike a horse's and took some
getting used to. It also took some flexibility because of the width of the
elephant and forward tip of the pelvis from riding just in front of the
withers. The mahouts manage to stick their feet behind the elephant's ears
to guide them, with perfect balance, but we found it impossible. So our
feet hung down on the elephant's neck and squeezed tight. You could feel
the heat of the elephant radiate up from your bottom, and watch as she fanned
her ears and sampled grass along the way. Each elephant had its own personality,
and some were really interested in being first on the trail. Mine was not,
so we fell further and further behind. However, never was a mahout allowed
to beat or harass an elephant to hurry it up. Each was allowed to move
at his or her own pace. The respect Lek had for her elephants was so beautiful
and touching. At a point on the trail, the elephants stopped walking and
started digging at the dirt bank. They would take a front foot and shovel
down, then up, loosening the dirt. Lek had all of us get off our elephants
and said we would walk the rest of the way to camp on foot. This was her
elephants' dirt bath, and the point where they were turned loose to graze
in the jungle. So we set off on the trail on foot, and dropped down into
the jungle valley. The elephants had long since disappeared. The trail
became very narrow and seemed to wind all over, to the point where we had
no idea where we were going, or where we had been. I became separated from
the group for a minute, and came to a fork in the trail, and had a genuine
fear of getting lost.
A short way before we arrived at camp, we came upon the
mother and new baby elephant, along with their mahout. Here he was, the beautiful
4 day old little fellow, with his surprisingly trusting mother, allowing
us to pet him and take pictures. He was quite curious about us and would
wobble out from his mother's legs to check us out. Lek said if the mahout
had not been there, our reception would have been different. The elephants
trust their mahouts totally and are absolutely devoted to them. In fact,
we heard the story of one elephant that Lek rescued from an abusive mahout.
When she took the elephant away, the elephant stopped eating and was in danger
of dying, she was so depressed. She didn't want to be separated from the
mahout, their bonding was that strong and complete. So Lek had to hire the
character for a month to stay with the elephant while she slowly got used
to a kind, new mahout
When Lek was done meeting and photographing the baby, and
we were done cooing to him, we continued on to the camp The hike lasted about
an hour and a half.
Here Lek was preparing and feeding rock salt to one
of her "children". Once the word was out, other elephants started circling
the kitchen looking for their share. Lek also brought medicine from a
chemist to treat some of her sick elephants. One old bull elephant she
rescued had been drugged, had one of his tusks sawed off at the gum line,
then was shot with a shot gun. He was left for dead but some how survived
with a massive infection in his mouth and abscessed shot gun pellets riddled
over his body. We made a poultice and mouth wash from plants collected in
the jungle, at Lek's instruction, and she and the mahouts treated this incredibly
patient and agonized poor elephant. She had many tales of abuse, sadly,
as there are no laws in Thailand guarding the elephants. They are considered
"property" of their owners, to be treated however deemed necessary. Since
logging has stopped, there have been many unemployed and very expensive
elephants, who's traditional owners, the Karen tribe people, can't afford
to keep. So they are sold, sometimes to cruel, untrained Thais, who don't
know anything about them. Lek, who is of the Karen tribe herself, raises
money through her various businesses to rescue elephants and educate everyone
about their plight. She has been interviewed by many newspapers and magazines
around the world, received awards for her efforts and was one of the most
inspired people I've ever met. Her passionate opinions are a threat to some
other large elephant owners, and her family sometimes fear for her safety.
Dian Fossey's fate comes to mind. Seeing her relationship with her elephants
though, you just know she knows what she's talking about. These elephants
are intelligent animals who know Lek is on their side.
Here is a picture of the kitchen "begging" that happened
once the herd knew Lek was there. The elephants wanted their salt, and
any other treats possibly available. They were so gentle with their trunks,
sniffing everything and everyone within reach. Never were they rough or
aggressive. Their dexterity was amazing, they could pick up rock salt the
size of peas with their trunks.
The 4 other people who came to the elephant camp were
there with much forethought. Sam, a young man from Australia, was there for
2 weeks as a paying volunteer. Chrissy was also a volunteer, from Great Britain.
Two others from G.B. were Samantha, an experienced tour guide and consultant,
and her friend Marie. They all knew much of Lek's reputation as the leading
conservationist. She has a rule that visitors and volunteers can only stay
for two weeks at a time, so the elephants don't become too attached. Some
had tears in their eyes when it was time to say good-bye. I think the attachment
was definitely mutual.
This is a picture of Jokia, a most amazing survivor.
When she was younger, Jokia was owned by an uneducated, cruel man who used
her for logging. She became pregnant but her owner didn't care, and kept
using her until one day she gave birth while hauling a log up a steep road.
The baby rolled down the hill and Jokia tried to follow her, but the owner
wouldn't let her. The baby died and Jokia rebelled against the man. He used
a catapult with stones hitting her in one eye over and over, trying to control
her, but she wouldn't obey. Infection set in and she was blinded in that eye.
Because of her rebellion and refusal to work, she was sold to another man.
But he too, was cruel and when he couldn't control her, he shot her in the
other eye, permanently blinding her. She was sold again and Lek found Jokia
being used for logging even though she was blind. She set out to free her,
and finally with the help of Amanda De Normanville and others from the Santa
Rosa-North Bay Area, enough money was raised to buy her, about $2500. Slowly
Jokia learned to trust Lek and a new mahout, and even learned her way around
the area using her other senses. Soon she amazed everyone by being able to
find her way all the way from the base camp up to the top. Last year Jokia
made a visit to base camp to see a" bull friend" of hers and she chose him
to father a new baby for her, as elephants do! She is now about 4 months pregnant,
and as happy as she can be. She has chosen an elephant midwife to help her
with the birth and raising of the calf, also what elephants do in the wild.
I asked Lek why she kept putting grass on her forehead and she said, " why
she 's dressing up, she thinks she's pretty". She was so happy and comical
with her grass hats, she'd put the grass up there, then slowly let it slide
down and catch it and eat it. She did this over and over, sometimes standing
there with one front foot crossed over the other. How this beautiful creature
can possess such grace and charm after her heart wrenching ordeals, is unbelievable.
This is the magic we saw.
Oh how I wanted to cuddle with her, but this was
the best I could do. On our first night we had a great feast prepared by
the mahouts over an open fire. Lek shared stories about her life as a Karen
tribe member and about the lives of the mahouts. They too, were Karen tribe
people, the only ones to traditionally own and train elephants. These young
tribal Burmese men were basically refugees who had lost their families,
were in a desperate situation and in need of help. Their people are in frequent
conflict with the Burmese government in a seemingly classic story of indigenous
people verses the government. The Karen people, like other tribes that live
in the mountains of Burma, Thailand, southern China and Vietnam, have a
history of wandering the area without borders, for thousands of years. They
have traded amongst each other unhampered, while lowland governments have
come and gone. Lek hired them to help with her elephants and their skills
as mahouts were awesome. They would track the elephants in the jungle by
sound, by vegetation disturbance, by foot print, by knowledge of the particular
animals and the environment. The stories we heard as children, of the native
American's skills at tracking were played out in real time, right before
our eyes. The mahouts were very small in stature, but incredibly strong.
They moved through the jungle with so much silent speed, I couldn't keep
up. And they always found their elephants! Not that the elephants always
wanted to be found...A number of the clever ones figured out how to stuff
their wooden bells with grass at night, to sneak around quietly. But many
did not, and in the morning, we awoke to the sound of distant clanking bells,
and the smell of a smoky open fire. After crawling out from under our mosquito
netting, we had some hot tea, and toast! Lek's husband is English, so she
knows the diet. We took turns in a secluded outdoor shower, of clever design:
a bamboo pipe running from the stream up hill from camp. Very cold and refreshing!
After collecting the elephants with the mahouts and the herbs for their
treatment, we had lunch and then Lek took care of her brood. Sadly, before
long it was time to head down the hill for base camp.
This is a picture of the river we had
to cross, this time without our elephants, who were left at camp. After hiking
for some time, we came to the river and crossed, one at a time, sitting on
the trolley platform. What a ride it was! The mahout here would haul the
trolley by hand to one tower then lock it in place, using the metal spike
you see in his mouth! One person would clamber up the tower, sit down, and
hold on as it sailed across most of the river. The last few feet required
hand pulling up to the opposite stanchion, then down you'd climb. And so
it went, till we were all across. Our mahout was still in great shape at
the end. We were exhausted but in total awe of what we had learned and experienced
with Lek, her elephants and mahouts in just two days.
For more information on the Elephant Nature Park and Lek
Chailert, go to: www.thaifocus.com
, and under Conservation, click on Elephant Nature Park, and related sites.
We spent a considerable time in Chaing-mai, as a
home base while we were in the north of Thailand. While there we took a
one day cooking class in Thai cooking. As part of the class we started out
at the local market. The fish are fresh as you can see. Chilies in all
sizes, colors and degrees of spiciness. The cooking class was absolutely
delightful and we ate everything we made, eating the equivalent of a 4
course lunch and 4 course dinner. The Thais like their food very, very
hot and we were obliged to cut the chilies to 1/8.
These are the shopping carts used at the market
for the serious shoppers who are buying serious supplies in Wall-mart quantities.
The main things we purchased at the market were fruits, especially mango
and bananas. There were two major markets in Chaing-mai--the day market
for food and the night bazaar for everything else. The night market was
just down the block from where we were staying and went on till late in
the night. This particular location had a very long and unbroken history
having been on the silk trade route between China and the coast for more
than 800 years. Tribal people came in to sell their wares. And like every
market or bazaar of this type in Thailand, prices were all subject to negotiation.
Many of the marketers set up their stands in metal carts some time in the
late afternoon and at the end of the night they would fold up all their
unsold goods, and wheel their metal carts down an alley for safe keeping
till the next day. The night bazaar was where we first saw Osama Bin-Laden
T-shirts being sold and tragically also being worn.
Above are the two most popular forms of transportation in Chaing-mai,
the songthieux on the left which is a covered pick-up truck with two benches
and will hold about 8-10 passengers. They function pretty much like a
rolling cab picking up people on busy streets for a set fee of 10 or 20
cents and you get off where you want while more people are flagging down
the driver and hopping on. For more personalized transportation there
is the cyclo, pictured on the right which is essentially a motorcycle cab
that has one passenger seat holding two people comfortably or 3 people uncomfortably.
Both of these are quite plentiful and inexpensive. The cyclos require some
negotiation as there is no meter and drivers are wont to charge tourists
about twice what the locals pay for the same distance. It always seemed to
us that there was a presumption that foreigners never walk anywhere as we
were always being asked if we wanted a ride even when all we wanted to do
was to walk. And in case you hadn't noticed, yes there was a Starbuck's in
town, no comment!
Chaing-Mai has its share of temples--one on every
block it seems. We decided to rent a motorbike for the day and visit a
few of them. This was the Wat Suan Dok. It was a beautiful day and the
blue sky and white clouds gave the perfect contrast to the aging white
There were still blue skies when we visited this temple, the
last of the day. We lounged on the grounds and then headed back to our hotel.
Then out of nowhere came a cloudburst. We thought the rain would be short-lived
and decided to keep going, in spite of the fact that almost all the Thai's
on bikes had stopped at shops or wherever to be sheltered. Well, our thin
plastic rain ponchos ripped and blew off and we looked like two drenched
rats when we finally got off our bike. It was pretty hilarious actually.
We 'shook off 'outside the bike rental office, and we and everyone there
There were two ancient capitols in the kingdom of
Thailand, Ayuthaya and Sukhothai. We decided to fly to Sukhothai which
was the capitol from 1257 to 1379. Located in a large historical park covering
many, many acres are numerous temples. While staying in the town of Sukhothai
about 8 miles away, we rented a motor-bike to travel to Old Sukhothai.
It was a breathtaking experience to saunter throughout these temples and
ruins, some partially restored.
We spent an entire day visiting the various temples of Sukhothai.
It was our first taste of what we imagined it might be like to visit Angkor
Wat. This beautiful stupa was in the middle of a large park-like grassy
area where we rested from the hot sun in the shade of a tree. As wonderful
as the temples were, we must admit, the interludes on the motor-bike were
important. Traveling at 30-40 mph we could cool down once again. Fresh from
our stay with the elephants we were struck by the use of elephants in the
design of this stupa. Elephants were symbolic guardians and protectors and
were frequently placed in the 4 corners of a temple ground but this design
was unique in the number of elephants used.
On the way back from Sukhothai we took this picture of a "spirit
house" store front (upper right). Spirit houses are very important in Thailand.
Virtually every business and home also has a spirit house in a corner
of the property. Spirit houses are meant for the ancestral spirits to
inhabit. It is thought that if one does not provide a spirit house for
the ancestors to live in then they will live in the main house and potentially
cause trouble. The spirit house is a miniature house which also must include
offerings such as fruit, incense and rice on a daily bases. Those who maintain
their spirit houses with such offerings on a daily bases are able to keep
the spirits happy and this brings benefits to the home or business. Those
who do not, suffer the consequences. We definitely saw this in practice.
Businesses that kept up their spirit houses generally looked prosperous;
those who did not, looked dismal and run down. The Thai belief is that
the spirits who are cared for bring prosperity to the business.
Every once in a while we would splurge on our accommodations.
This was one of those occasions. The Ping River Resort was just $10
more than we were paying in Chaing-mai ($25/day) but it had tropical gardens
and a wonderful swimming pool and a spacious room and importantly to us,
free internet. We decided to spend 3 nights here, work on our web page and
spend every day in the pool. It was about 1 hour north of Chaing-mai with
free transport both ways. We experienced quite a range in accommodation
costs, mostly between $10 to $25 per day. To this point, this was the most
expensive at $35 but the cheapest (a picture to follow) was $2.50. Because
this was such a long trip we consciously made a choice to keep the costs
down, sometimes sacrificing niceties like hot water or air-conditioning.
We frequently found ourselves traveling with the young backpackers--the
same age as our children. To this point, we seldom ran into Americans in
our travels. Europeans and Australians were the rule.
Now you can take a look at a $2.50 per night guesthouse. This
little beauty features a shared verandah, currently being occupied by Tina,
a shared bathroom, not shown and a mattress on the floor with fan. We found
this little place in Mae Hong Son which was a small town north of Chaing-Mai
which drew us because of the long- neck tribal people whom we wanted to see.
The town was absolutely delightful, quiet and scenic and we found that some
of these small out of the place locations were our favorites. We stayed here
These two lovely Padang girls lived in a village about 1/2 hour
outside Mae Hong Son. The Thai government has enticed people of the Padang
tribe over the border from Burma. They are considered a 'tourist attraction',
which sounds terrible, but given their life in Burma, it is no doubt a plus.
The villagers had many souvenir stands set up and were doing a brisk business
with the foreign visitors. The brass coils they wear around the neck are
a form of adornment. It is an optional fashion statement, and if chosen,
begun when girls are young, with a single coil. The effect of the coils is
that they push down on the shoulders and upper ribs, giving the illusion
of a long neck. The origins of this are lost in history.
This is a picture of 16 year old Majon and her mother. Majon was a
remarkable young lady who was conversant in 7 foreign languages! She told
us her family has had many foreign visitors stay with them, and that's
how she learned her languages. She has had only 2 years of formal education,
which is not uncommon. We asked her if she was interested in more education
and moving to a city, given her great potential. She said no, she wanted
to stay where she was and liked what she was doing. While we were there,
a European camera crew was there filming. Majon was a star in her village
and would be anywhere, actually.
What a small world it is sometimes. When we first arrived in
Thailand we went to a book store to see what was available about the mountain
tribe people. One book really grabbed my attention. Dale suggested to copy
the name and author so we could order it on line when we return home. ( our
bags have been too heavy since we left!) I was amazed to find the author
was an old friend from Los Angeles, Richard Diran. He was a very talented
artist back then and studying at Cal. Institute of the Arts. That explains
the beauty of this book. What was even more surprising was the discovery
that he and Junco his wife, were living in Bangkok. Small world! After
failing through the Thai phone system, we proceeded to try to make contact
via the internet. We continued that effort for the next 3+ weeks and finally,
the night before we left Thailand, we were successful. Unfortunately, it
was too late for a visit, but at least we were able to complement him on
a wonderful book.
Our next destination was Bali, Indonesia. We were so excited to see
this famous tropical paradise, AND to see Sarah for the first time in 5 months.
She had finished her semester at the University of Queensland and was scheduled
to fly to Bali to meet us on break.