Bring on the Elephants

By: leelefever on June 18, 2006 - 5:18am

Though they say that the classes are sold out until August, I somehow got myself into a three-day "homestay" elephant mahout training course, starting tomorrow.  It's through the much-respected Thai Elephant Conservation Center, which offers 1 day, 3 day and 10-30 day courses where you learn to care for, bathe, ride and train a single elephant.  This should be really, really interesting.  I do love those beasts. 

  Sachi isn't going to join me, so she is going to party solo in Chaing Mai for a few days- our first (even hours) apart in six months.

More info on the course here

Monk Chat, Chiang Mai, Thailand

By: leelefever on June 18, 2006 - 4:34am

I can't say I had ever talked to a monk.  We see them a lot in Thailand, with their orange robes, shaved heads and quant smiles.  I have been curious about monks and buddhism for a while and this was my chance to learn about their daily life. 

The MCU Buddhist University in Chiang Mai has a program called Monk Chat, where laypeople such as myself can go and talk to monks for a bit in a relaxed environment. The monks are all students at the University, which has the longest name evar: Mahachulalongkornrajvidalaya Buddhist University.

I had the pleasure of meeting Souk (above), who is from Loas and in his 4th year at the university.  His English as very good (the program is, in part, meant to help their English) and he was no different that the nice guy you'd meet in the street.  In fact, he takes great pride in presenting himself with humor and laughter as it enables people (like me) to feel more comfortable in his presence.  I talked for about an hour with Souk and his friends and got a feel for their student life, which involves a lot of early mornings and meditation.  He knows more about the World Cup than me and seems to be more of a typical college student than I would have thought.  He imparted some of his philosophy in saying that as a monk, there a number of rules, but the most important thing is to do good and serve as a positive example. I consider Souk a friend and I hope he is reading this. Hi Souk!

Monk Chat occurs every Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 5-7 pm. The University is beside Wat Suan Dok, which is nice for a visit as well. I recommend it wholeheartedly.

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Trekking From Chiang Mai

By: leelefever on June 15, 2006 - 7:21pm

Chiang Mai is the northern city that makes up the mountainous part of what I would call the Big Three regions of Thailand:  Bangkok, Southern Beaches and Northern Hill Country.  The city is manageably small and surrounded by a moat.  It is cheaper than any other place we’ve visited in Thailand- last night we enjoyed 3 thai dished for 117baht (about US$3.00).

From the moment we arrived, we started to get a good feeling for Chiang Mai.  It doesn’t have the colossal population, traffic and pollution of Bangkok or the made-for-tourist ease of the south.  Within the city there is a bustling night bazaar, an awesome selection of food, over 100 wats (temples) and a number of cooking, massage and language schools.  We’re about to start a multi-day cooking course with the much-venerated Chiang Mai Thai Cookery School.  

Chiang Mai is also the jumping off point for the surrounding mountains that offer access to the Thai Hill Country Tribes, rivers, elephant camps and beautiful scenery.  After seeing so much of the beach, it was nice to venture up into the mountains recently for a one day trek (US$25 per person).  Trekking is big business in Chiang Mai and we were a bit overwhelmed with all the choices.  In the end, we choose a day that included a visit to an elephant camp, two hill tribes, a waterfall and a trip on a bamboo raft.  We were skeptical and the tour exceeded our expectations.  Here are some of the things we saw: 

After an hour or so in a minivan with a fun group of Aussies and Austrians, we arrived at an elephant camp.  I have a soft spot for elephants and I get a little conflicted when it comes to riding them and seeing them used purely for human amusement.  The fact is that most of the elephants in Thailand are working elephants used in the lumber industry, which was banned in 1989.  This left a large population of elephants unemployed and many were abandoned by their owners.  Tourism offer a sustainable way for the domesticated elephants to remain healthy and live quite well with their life-long companion, the mahout.  Here is a mahout with his bathing elephant trying to get completely sumerged:

 There are a number of hill tribes in Northern Thailand and most migrated from China and Burma. The Karen tribe is the largest and has a few hundred-thousand members.  We learned that they are traditionally animist, meaning that they believe in the spirits of living things.  However, about 80% have recently been converted to Christianity.  While they see tourists every day, it seems that their village life is still quite traditional and tourists aren't allowed in most areas.

 We did visit what was called a "hill tribe" but resembled more of a gift shop with a few huts around it.  Not great.

One of the highlights was floating down a river on a bamboo raft.  Touristy?  Yes.  Fun?  Very much so.  I got to do my best to be the aft guide...

 We did some trekking through the woods, where Sachi tried her best to avoid bugs:

We crossed some super-sketchy bamboo bridges...

 And had a better time than we expected. 

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