Chiang Mai Official

Today was my last touring day. I was told that I haven’t really visited Chiang Mai unless I visit the Doi Suthep Temple. First stop of the day was the summit overlooking Chiang Mai where the temple sits. Really beautiful in every aspect, the temple had a serene and peaceful quality to it, despite the large number of visitors. I was told by my guide that I got lucky because it wasn’t “too crowded”. I think his idea of crowded and my idea of crowded are vastly different.

We walked the grounds and took in the peacefulness of the surroundings. I was able to get some beautiful photos of the temple as we walked.

When we were on the backside of the temple, we came across a monk reciting his prayers. His voice was deep and lulling and no one else was around to hear him chant — except his dog companion, who seemed to be lulled to sleep by his voice.

Dogs really are man’s best friend.

As we left, I saw some tribal children playing together at the base of the Naga steps (the stairs that lead to the temple). Their mother was sitting close by watching them, while feeding their baby sibling. Ning, my guide, said that they are Hmong, which are a hill tribe.

Before I left, I was able to see how far we climbed to the temple. I can’t wait to show my fitness trainer, Roxanne, that I got my steps in on vacation!

Once we left, we took a quick trip to the botanical garden, where I was able to see beautiful orchids and butterflies. Anyone who knows me knows that my name means butterfly in Greek, so I’m always happy when I see those beautiful creatures.

Last stop of the day was the sticky waterfall. Apparently, it’s supposed to not be slippery and you are able to climb the hill in the water. I cannot attest to this because I did not bring a change of clothes and chose to stay dry. It was beautiful nonetheless.

Before we left the park, we saw a beautiful natural spring that has many different colors. Today, I could just see blue – but what a blue!

I feel like I got to see everything that I really wanted to see on this trip. I don’t feel like I left anything out or any part of this 2nd week was lacking in any way. Tomorrow is a much needed spa day before jumping on the plane and heading home.

Final thoughts to come!

Climb Every Mountain

Since I live in the foothills and so close to forests, you’d think that I would think it’s boring or old to hang out in the forest all day. Not so! What a great day. The tour group was smaller than anticipated due to 4 people cancelling at the last minute. We drove about 1 hour to the Doi Intanon National Forest with our first stop at Vachirathan Waterfall. What an incredible site! So much power pouring from the top of the mountain. After, we went to see Siritharn Waterfall, which required us to “hike” into the forest a bit.

As we climbed higher up the mountain, we made it to a local farm where they sell fantastic fruits and vegetables, so of which I’ve never seen. Like Thai strawberries! They’re slightly red/green and have a sweet and sour taste. I bought some fresh dehydrated mangoes – YUMM!

Afterwards, we stopped at the White Karen Tribe village. They are similar to the Long Neck Karen Tribe – except for the whole long neck thing. The female tribe members used to wear white until such time as they marry. It was a status symbol for them to make beautiful white dresses. It showed their ability to care for their families and made them desirable as a spouse.

They are known for their ability to make beautiful blankets. Most take about 2 or 3 days to make, depending on the intricacy of the blanket. The one I bought took about 3 months and cost only about $75!

Finally, we made it to the highest point in Thailand. There was a beautiful alter, as well.

Last stop was the King and Queen’s pagodas. We were advised to see the King’s pagoda first, as it was far grander. But, I thought the Queen’s was far more beautiful. Can you tell which is which?

The views were spectacular from atop the mountain.

The air was cool and crisp and clean. There were far less people and everywhere we went today was calm and peaceful. Definitely the highlight of my tourism so far!

Last day of playing tourist is tomorrow. Stay tuned!

Journey to the Golden Triangle

When I was planning my trip, I knew I wanted to see some of the highlighted points of interest before leaving Thailand. I signed up for a 3-day tour (sung in my best Gilligan’s Island voice) and day 1 was a trip to see the White Temple, the Long Neck Karen Tribe village and the Golden Triangle.

Chiang Rai is about 3 1/2 hours away from Chiang Mai and is complicated by a long stretch of road construction. You are diverted to a stretch of dirt road, which slows down the drive considerably. The roads are windy and I don’t think I’ll ever get used to seeing headlights coming from the opposite direction. I automatically think they are on the wrong side of the road and coming for us head on. We had a fantastic driver, though. I never felt unsafe and really trusted him to navigate what I would have freaked out about.

The first stop was the hot springs – which, honestly, I could have done without. Upon exiting the van, I was almost knocked over by the overwhelming smell of sulfur. There wasn’t much to see or do unless you wanted to dip your feet in hot spring water and boil an egg.

Made our way to the White Temple. Really an amazing site to see. It’s a privately owned temple that was designed and paid for by a private artist who has spent a ton of his own money to build the temple. It reminds me a lot of the story of Dante’s Inferno where there’s the level of hell and then you can be elevated to heaven.

We wouldn’t have asked for a better blue sky back drop.

After leaving there, we headed to the village of the Long Neck Karen tribe. The women of this tribe wear brass coils around their neck starting from a very early age. As they grow and mature, they add more and more coils to elongate their neck. The coils are very heavy and are worn 100% of the time, including during bathing and sleeping. In learning about the practice, there is a theory that during the wars between many of the tribes, women chose to wear the rings as a way to make themselves less attractive and therefore not a target for trading or slavery. Now the women seem to be revered and people come from all over the globe to see them and purchase their wares.

Lastly, made it to the Golden Triangle, the area where Laos, Myanmar (Burma) and Thailand converge. We took a boat to Laos and was told that there is a great deal of similarity between the Laos people and the Thai people. I actually couldn’t disagree more. When we arrived in Laos, I noticed right away that there was a pushy nature of the market vendors that I have not experienced by Thai vendors. The stuff they were selling was just cheap name-brand knock off items and not regional artistic items that I had found so far in Thailand. There was trash everywhere and I really didn’t enjoy going. I will say, though, the view from the shore was beautiful!

Stay tuned for day 2 of me playing tourist!

The Derek Walk

All week on the chore board, I saw that on Saturday we were scheduled for a “Derek Walk”. No one could really explain what that was aside from an “ele walk with Derek”, whatever that means. So, today at 1:45 our group met out on the main lawn and took a group photo and then were told to meet on the platform at the meeting place (the hub of the start and end of every day) to meet with Derek.

Turns out, Derek is Lek’s husband. He’s a white guy who is tanned and leathered by years of work in the sun and was walking around in board shorts, a very worn Woodstock 1994 concert T-shirt and a pair of old flip flops. Really, he looks like an old surfer dude from Santa Monica. He and Lek have been married for many years and he is the brawn to her brain. He’s a contractor by trade and is responsible for the infrastructure for ENP in addition to having an amazing commitment and love for each of the animals here. He is there for every rescue and doesn’t sleep until the elephant is home and stable. If that means he’s up for 32 hours, then he’s up and with the elephant for 32 hours.

One of his relationships came from a special herd that was rescued and to this day, all they need to do is hear his voice and they will come running and surround him as a member of the herd. I was able to witness this today. They swarmed him, encircled him – all rubbing him with their trunks and uttering noises of love and affection. At one point, he was seated on the ground, between the front legs of one of the elephants and was perfectly safe. One of the elephants holds his hand with his trunk and walks with him, side by side. It was truly a beautiful site and brought tears to my eyes. All week I’ve been saying that all I want is an elephant hug, but today I got to witness one. Simply amazing!

We walked nearly the entire 8 acres of the main part of the sanctuary today listening to Derek and his vast knowledge of every elephant and their histories prior to coming here. I know that with great reward, there is sometimes great heartache. There were a couple of times today that I could see someone had touched a nerve with their question and he had to fight back his emotions. I honestly don’t know how he and Lek do this every day. I would get so attached, that my heart would break every time one of the elephants die. My soul would be crushed if I got to one “too late” and they never had a chance to know a life of freedom, love and peace. I am thankful for people like Lek and Derek for doing the hard work to save these majestic animals.

It’s hard to believe that this is my last day here. I could sit and watch elephants all day. But tomorrow begins the 2nd leg of my journey!

“My Religion is Love”

When I arrived, I had no idea what I was in for. Sure, I knew I would see elephants and do some work. But what I have experienced goes so much deeper. Upon first glance, ENP looks like a small city. And, in reality, it is. It’s one of the largest single employers in the region. Families all work here, the kids all go to school in a nearby village and everyone just makes this work. Trust me, there’s a lot of work. It’s like a well-oiled machine, day in and day out. It’s clean and peaceful and there are tourists who come for the day or for the week to feel like they are part of something bigger (including me).

What you don’t know is that even though many of the elephants are near death upon arrival, Lek and her team are able to provide peace and solace for elephants for years and years to come. Last night, she told us about an elephant near death (he had been given about a week to live) she was trying to rescue. The owner was insisting that Lek pay $10,000 US, and after some stern negotiations, she was able to acquire him (and a female and her baby) for $3,500 US. She brought the bull to ENP where he proceeded to live an additional 7 years in peace before he passed away at the age of about 90. Lek says that she doesn’t care if she has them for 1 day, 7 days, one month or 10 years. Every moment that she can give them peace is worth her fight.

When an elephant is nearing the end of their life here, they will choose where they want to be laid to rest. She is with each one when they pass and then she plants a tree to remember them. Each tree is then fenced in as a memorial for the elephant.

ENP is like elephant heaven and the religion is love.

Whistle While We Work..

I’ve been at the sanctuary for 4 days. Monday was a bit of a whirlwind just getting checked in and acclimated. Chores started at 8 am on Tuesday morning. Each person was divided into 4 groups and each group was assigned different tasks for completion twice per day. Tuesday morning, my group started off cleaning up elephant poo. I promise you this, I will never complain about picking up my dogs’ poo ever again. If you consider how much elephants eat (200-600 pounds of food a day), that gives you an idea of how much they poo. But, as the old saying goes, “many hands make light work” and before we knew it, our group had walked the entire property and cleaned up everything. Tuesday afternoon, we did an elephant walk. This involved us being guided through the property to observe elephants at a close proximity and learn about them. All but 3 elephants were acquired and rescued from private owners. Depending on the elephant’s age, the cost can vary between 300,000 Thai Baht (about $9,000 US) to 5M Thai Baht (about $153,000 US). The reason ENP decides to purchase the elephants is because it gives them ownership rights and no one can ever come and try to take them away. Three of the elephants have been born here and have only known humans to be loving and caring. Each elephant chooses its own mahout. A mahout is someone who cares for and tends to the elephant. These mahout are trained by generations who came before them and the elephant picks their own mahout. ENP never forces an elephant to be paired with someone they dislike or distrust.

The baby, currently 2 1/2 years old, plays with his mahout, follows him everywhere and truly loves him. I was able to get a photo of the two playing on an elephant size jungle gym.

ENP is the first to say that they are not perfect. Unfortunately, due to the abuse these elephants suffered before their arrival, they cannot be left in the wild. So, there are enclosures to keep them safe at night, but during the day, they are free to roam as they like. Ideally, the elephants would be freed and live out their days without any human contact. But many of the elephants need constant medical care and supplemental dietary additions. But, the elephants here are treated with love and respect and seem peaceful.

On Wednesday my group assisted in the “elephant kitchen” to prepare some of the supplementary food that the older elephants, without teeth, get to aid in their daily health. Some of this food consists of bananas, melon, squash, and sticky rice prepared in coconut milk.

Afterwards, we were escorted to one of the oldest, more gentle ladies and able to feed her by hand. She graciously and gently accepted bananas from each of us. I could have visited with her all day. I could feel her breath through her trunk, and the power she possessed, but at the same time she had such a gentle spirit. Her skin was tough but fragile. She is blind in her left eye, but trusts her mahout to keep her safe.

Today it’s raining, and I chose to stay under covered shelter and have some alone time to reflect on my experience so far. It’s truly been an experience of a lifetime. I sit here with the rain pouring down beside me, and elephants trumpeting in the foreground. It’s so surreal. I have dogs curled at my feet and wish this was my everyday life. Sadly, this time is passing all too quickly and I’ll be home before I know it. Until then, I’ll relish every moment.

There’s 2 Seasons in Thailand…

I was picked up this morning and 90 minutes after leaving the hustle and bustle of Chiang Mai City, saw my first elephant. Not a circus elephant. Not a trekking elephant. Not a logging elephant. Just a sweet old lady who is living out her days with as much freedom as she can after years of horrendous abuse and being unable to return to the wild.

There she was, just giving herself a dusting and hanging out in the sun. So miraculous!

After getting checked in, assigned to a room and a fantastic lunch, we had our orientation. I knew it would be hard for me because I knew this is where we learned about the atrocities that elephants endured before being rescued and brought to ENP. Within 20 minutes, I was in tears and had to listen to 40 more minutes of story after story of what happened to these beautiful creatures. The last 30 seconds was video of Lek (founder of ENP) singing to an elephant as the elephant died. It was truly heartbreaking. I just don’t understand how humans can do some of the things that they do.

Afterward, we had some free time, which I needed to sort through some of my feelings about what I had just watched. Luckily, our Volunteer Coordinator, Art, started things off on a lighter note informing us that we need to be careful as we work because Thailand has 2 season: hot and fucking hot. Lucky for me, I think I arrived in the hot season since I haven’t completely melted yet. Tomorrow work begins!