Saturday, January 23, 2010

A Small Elephant Story

Since trekking by foot isn't really an option, we've been experimenting from time to time with Asian alternatives. Having started with ponies and progressed to horses, we decided last week (the midway point of our trip) that it was time for the grand finale: elephants.

There are plenty of elephants around Chiang Mai, a pleasant university-town in northern Thailand that in other respects is mildly reminiscent of Portland, and we signed up for a tour that promised plenty of excitement. First, we played with the elephants (or they played with us, depending on how you look at it), petting one another's heads, grasping their trunks and feeding them bananas and other treats. Then, once they were fat and happy, we and our fellow tour members climbed onto precarious wooden benches perched on their backs (two to a bench) and set off across a shallow river.

About half-way across the river things turned ugly. A series of explosions, either hunters' gunshots or, more likely, mischievous youths playing with firecrackers, scared the elephants tremendously. The elephant directly in front of us was especially scared: it reared on its hind legs like a horse, began trumpeting loudly and spouting water out of its trunk, and started running back towards us and the shore.

The unfortunate and terrified mother and son on the bench hung on for their dear lives. A chain reaction ensued and our elephant too began beating a hasty retreat towards shore and trumpeting, albeit on a smaller scale than elephant 1. In the end, the guides calmed their beasts down before calamity struck, but elephant 1's passengers were too shaken to continue. We proceeded onward, over some hills and through some woods, generally enjoying the ride except when our guide made jokes about us going “boom boom” from the elephant, whenever the bench swayed or the elephant got slightly alarmed by some noise.

On another note, one of the main tourist attractions near Chiang Mai is a visit to the Hill Tribes, most of whom reside around the Golden Triangle, where Burma, Laos and Thailand meet. Many guesthouses and tour agencies offer trips to see "Long Neck," and many tourists, strangely enough, are very excited to see people with long necks.

Unfortunately, a few google searches reveal that "Long Neck" refers to a group of female Burmese from the Padaung tribe who wear many brass rings around their necks and who essentially live in a zoo, selling tribal handicrafts and being photographed by tourists. According to a report we found in some Asian newspaper, the Thai government opposed the UN Council for Human Rights' effort to resettle some members of the community in New Zealand and Australia, presumably because “Long Neck” is such a profitable tourist draw. Despite all this, visiting “Long Neck” continues to be a very popular tourist activity.

Anyway, after traveling for three days on a “slow boat” from Chiang Mai we are now in Luang Prabang, Laos, a peaceful and lazy town off the Mekong River where legend has it that you often have to wake up the restaurant owners and taxi drivers and convince them to serve you. Luckily, we've got an electric pot and have rented a two-person bicycle.

If you didn't get your fill of elephant pictures with this blog, click here for some more and also a few of us at an Orchid Farm and cooking class.

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