Asian Elephant Encounter

Of all the things that I was looking forward to experiencing in Thailand nothing was higher on my list than riding an elephant. Elephants have always fascinated me: they’re huge, gentle giants shrouded in ancient myths and steeped in historical tradition. Usually standing between 7-9 feet tall (2.2-2.7 meters) and weighing between 3-4.5 tons they’re massive especially when standing right next to them!

At the recommendation of a colleague we booked our trip with Patara Elephant Fam just outside of Chiang Mai. While elephants of ancient days would work in logging, elephants of today are usually on a different path: circuses, walking the streets as their mahout begs for money from tourists, or giving rides to tourists. Many organizations have sprouted up to care for elephants but as you might expect taking care of a multi-ton animal is prohibitively expensive. They eat up to 330lbs (150kg) per day plus any necessary medical care on top of that. The elephant population in Asia has dropped substantially the last few decades and these magnificent, gentle creatures are sadly considered to be vulnerable to extinction. Elephants are still routinely slaughtered en masse for their ivory tusks. Each year about 8% of the remaining 470k are poached and their greatest predator is unfortunately humans.

Patara is a really cool albeit a relatively expensive company (5800 baht or around $190 USD). They rescue elephants. It used to be the case that an elephant was always trained with a man and his son. An elephants lifespan is roughly equivalent to a humans (60-70 years). So this way the elephant can get to know both men and when the father retires the son takes over. But caring for an elephant is just like caring for a child: it’s a 24/7/365 kind of task. And unlike babysitters for kids or kennels for dogs it’s difficult to find someone else to care for an elephant. Which means that a mahout’s job is a 7 day/week gig. No late nights with friends because they have to work early in the morning. Thus many of the younger mahouts decided they would rather not own an elephant and thus these elephants need to be rescued.

Patara is the only elephant rescue center that always has a greater number of elephants than the number of tourists that come each day. This enables the elephants to have a break and not be constantly over worked. Plus the staff all really cares for the elephants; no abuse of any kind occurred. That may seem like it not even need to be said, but in talking with other tourists who attended other camps I heard that the staff would hit or punch elephants as they verbally abused it. I love a good deal, but I love the ethical treatment of animals much more.

Read More →

Ayutthaya

After spending some time in Bangkok we decided to start the journey up to Chiang Mai with a 6 hour stop in the old capital city of Ayutthaya. 650 years ago this was the seat of power for Siam. It lasted for about 400 years, and now much of the city is in ruins after an invading Burma army destroyed the city in 1767. It’s still an amazing place to explore and learn about its history.

We packed our huge bags, checked out of our hostel (Lub.D), and waited at a bus stop because neither of us had tried the city buses yet. After waiting for a good 25 minutes for a bus that was supposed to come every 11 minutes we hailed a taxi and asked to go to the train station. He said 100 baht; he capitulated after we both demanded the meter be turned on, and it ended up being only 45 baht. We bought our ticket to Ayutthaya in third class for 40 baht and then our sleeper car ticket to Chiang Mai for 796 baht (around $27). When we asked which train to get on the uniformed agent said car 1, 2, 3 as he pointed at each. We thought he meant 1, 2, OR 3, but what he actually meant was 1, 2, THEN 3. So after settling into our comfortable second-class seats and remarking what a good deal it was we were told that we had to move to third class which consisted of non-reclining seats that were nothing more than thinly covered pieces of wood. But it was only 40 baht for a two hour train ride…or roughly $1.30. I wish Europe’s trains were this affordable!

Read More →

My Mountain Top Meditation

45 minutes outside of the historical city of Chiang Mai lies another place stepped in even more history and shrouded in ancient Buddhist lore. Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is a very holy place for locals while also being extremely popular with tourists. It’s a must see when visiting Chiang Mai. Just make sure to go to the street across from the North Gate so that you only have to pay 50 baht/person to get a taxi with 9 of your new closest friends.

The first chedi on this site was built way back in 1383. Supposedly a monk found a shoulder bone that was believed to be from The Buddha. This bone had magical powers: it could glow, vanish, move itself, and replicate itself. When the king found out he wanted to put it inside a special temple but on the way to the king this bone used its magic powers to replicate; it was the same shape but smaller. The king took the original relic, put it on top of a royal white elephant, and let it loose into the jungle. The elephant climbed Doi Suthep mountain, circled the top, trumpeted three times, and then laid down and died. The King took this as a sign and ordered a temple to be constructed upon the same site. In the 600+ years since this compound has continued to be built out and now includes an internationally known Vipassana mediation center. Vipassana means they teach insight meditation versus Zen meditation. The subtly in the difference is lost on me though since I’m still a neophyte.

Read More →

Playing with Tigers

The Tiger Kingdom is an amazing place! You get to go into the cages and play with Tigers. And by “play” I mean walk up quietly behind them and pet their tails, hind legs, and stomachs. This is something that, because of the obviously liability concerns, would never happen in the U.S. One common critique is that these Tigers must be drugged; but the staff and signs at the facility all say otherwise. They seemed as active as I would expect Tigers to be (clearly I’m an expert since I’ve been around a tiger one time now) and they’re obviously over fed so that hunger is not one of their primary concerns. Visiting is obviously straddling the figurative ethical line, but I’m not going to discuss that here; I’d rather tell you about my experience which was a ton of fun. And an about equal amount of terrifying!

TigerKingdom-1

Read More →

Thai Cooking Class

It’s no secret that one of the reasons I wanted to come to Thailand was because I love Thai food. My colleague Maria and I go to this wonderful Thai restaurant in Grand Rapids called Thai Express about once a week. We’re such regulars that unless we specifically ask for them we’re never given menus. In Thailand the food is so good and so cheap that it’s hard to imagine wanting to spend the time creating it oneself. Noodles run $1 or $2 USD. For a good curry add another $1 or so. But I know I won’t always be fortunate enough to have this luxury, so we decided to take a full day Thai Cooking Class with Asia Scenic, so that I can replicate all this deliciousness at home!

They picked us up at our hotel in the morning, and we headed to their kitchen downtown Chiang Mai. We all introduced ourselves and found that our group consisted of Brian and myself, a couple from California Tim and Sarah as well as another couple from Brazil Danielle and Carlos. Our instructor Meow (pronounced just like a cat’s Meow) passed out menus, and we all could craft our very own 6-course feast made up of a stir-fry, soup, salad, curry, dessert, and a spring roll. I chose the pad see ew, coconut milk soup, papaya salad, panang curry, and sticky rice with mango.

Read More →

5 Questions to Answer During My Southeast Asia Sabbatical

“The more one does and sees and feels, the more one is able to do, and the more genuine may be one’s appreciation of fundamental things like home, and love, and understanding companionship.”

– Amelia Earhart

One of the things that we believe at work is the importance of designing one’s experiments properly: if experiments are designed properly then it’s impossible for them to fail. You always learn something and that is, after all, the point of an experiment. So what are some of the hypothesis that I’m looking to test by going through this sabbatical experiment?

Read More →