To Trek is Dreck Though Elephantine is Divine

Trip Start Dec 31, 2004
Trip End Apr 22, 2005

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Monday, February 7, 2005

I am not a trekker in the traditional sense but I do crave adventure. The last time I rode an elephant was in the wilds of the Kalmia Plaza parking lot in Aiken, South Carolina. I was maybe 10 years old and even then amidst the broken down Impalas and scruffy rednecks on scorching August asphalt it was undeniably thrilling to me. Since then whenever I've seen photos of people on elephants I have dreamed of really riding one in earnest. Yesteday I did just that and this time it was through a stream and up and down hills in northern Thailand.

My van arrived to pick me up for the hour long drive to the elephant camp as planned at 8:15 in the morning. We'd eventually pick up eight other people from their respective hotels en route for our day long excursion. The people I would meet and share this experience with would prove to be as enjoyable as the actual destination.

The camp itself was massive with upwards of maybe fifty elephants in total and about triple that amount of tourists mostly shipped in on double decker buses. Our tour, mercifully at only nine people was far more manageable and intimate and there was much to bond us as a tribe. Once we'd walked around a bit and watched the elephants bathe in the stream we were told that the show was about to begin. The hoard of motley tourists took their places on bleachers and waited as the elephants came together and began their performance. They demonstrated logging, they danced, one "painted" a picture, they marched in formation holding one another's tails with their trunks, tipped their hats and one even sported an erection the girth of a double sized bottle of Singha. Other than the hardening protuberance that was impossible to ignore were the Israeli tourists bedecked in gold and every form of artifice known to man. One woman in red floral spandex, gold chains, with creeping underwear and a stir-fried blond perm stood at the front of the chain and screamed and whooped it up. I've seen wind-up organ monkeys crashing their toy cymbals with more decorum and they were certainly better dressed. This septuagenarian monstrosity "wooooo-HOOOOOOO-ed" every step and move as though she'd raised the heard from calves and I was begining to wonder if she was recalling the days of conception. At the slightest rumblings of rhythm she would leap to her feet and begin clapping urging on a crowd that stared at her in utter disbelief. She and her brunette cohort who was wearing an embroidered ill-fitting cap posed in the dirt with legs cocked up, heads tossed back and caps gleaming while they writhed in varied poses. It was truly astounding. I remember little else about the show other than a sickly feeling that the pair induced. I actually took a pain killer because I began to feel ill.

Only seconds before the show was ending our guide whisked us away to a bamboo river raft ride to avoid the crowd and promising that we'd return to ride the elephants. The retarded side show at Elephant World was just what our little group needed to bond us. On the trip down to the river I showed them how I'd digitally documented the cartoons and we all had a good laugh at their expense.

I got on the bamboo raft with two British girls, an Australian guy and a sweet unintelligible middle-aged Dutchman whose tenuous grasp of English served as no hindrance to his overconfident conversational skills. The ride was delightful and relaxing as our navigator prodded us down tiny bubbling brooks under shaded trees and we all were saying how pleasant and smooth the journey was going. I even commented, This is so peaceful that I could do this for several hours. I'd spoken too soon. Out of the bushes from the banks of the stream came wadding waist-high a family of seven with tribal handicrafts held high above their heads. They chanted the usual, "You buy, you buy!" followed by the price of each object. They got up close and followed us for a few minutes before returning. One little boy of about ten walked backward, with a lugubrious expression plastered on his face looking right at me chanting, "You buy --only 5 bahts." "Oh all right for crying out loud!", I huffed. I bought two hideously hippiefied string bracelets that I'll either use as bookmarks or give to the first lesbians I see.

We continued gliding along when we spotted a sign that read "Beer 40, Fanta 20, Water 15" etc. One of the girls in front said laughingly, "What's next -- is someone going to come out with drinks, too?" As a matter of fact, yes. No sooner had she spoken than a man with a cooler floated up with some refreshing beverages. The sweet befuddling Dutchman popped his beer open and mumbled something with a jovial lilt and we all chuckled politely though we knew not at what. Where there are travelers within earshot you can bet that there's a Thai with his ear to the ground and an armload of something to sell you. I thank God every morning that I had a full night's sleep without whole families creeping from under my bed skirt screaming, "Cold drink, Lady?! You want cold drink, lady?! Tweeenty baaah!! You buy!!!"

An hour later we came to a bend and climbed out onto a pier for what would prove to be one of the most feckless thirty minutes of my life. It was an oxcart ride up a semi-circle though a lightly wooded area where we were chased unrelentingly by savage children. First of all an oxcart ride is not enjoyable in the least. The cart's octagonal and oval wheels were rattling some of my crowns and gave me a headache and were it not for the shrieking moppets in our wake diverting my attention from the motion sickness I may very well have thrown up. In between the terrorizing tots' death threats the Dutchman said something about oxcarts in Holland and Austria. Hours later when he was gone we rehashed that monologue though none of us could quite make out what the hell he was talking about. The children were without a doubt the most irritatingly tenacious brats I've seen thus far. They would not take no for an answer and they had a comeback for everything we said. "You buy!" We told them we already had one. "You buy more." I told them I didn't need one and that I was fine. "I'm not fine", they yelled. We told them we didn't want any. "You buy something from me!!! FIVE BAAAHHHT! YOU BUY!!!" Repeat. Repeat louder. When all four had worked themselves into a collective frenzy I uttered, "Oh my God!" I was immediately mocked with louder "OH MY GAWD!!!" The oxcart driver flipping her scarf over her mouth to filter the dust actually chuckled. This asinine journey we were later told was also an authentic visit to a hill tribe. None of us believed it and we let our guide know that we were not that stupid. At lunch however the Dutchman was still perplexed by this and suspected that they were Chinese since they were "so small". We informed him that they were children and that children are generally small. He didn't seem convinced.

On the ride back our guide had refreshments waiting for us and then it was back to the elephant camp for the real excitement. It was not as terrifying as I thought it would be and it was ten times better than I expected. I was a bit nervous about being up so high in a basket that was only being held up by a few chains and rope that slid up under the elephant's tail. Daniel the Aussie and I rode together, Lisa and Helen were mostly in front of us, the sweet British couple and German couple were all over the place. Pulling up the rear was the giggling Dutchman yammering on about only God knows what. We had just climbed into the seat when Daniel mentioned an hour might be a bit much. I concurred heartily as we were jolted back and forth and I held on tight white-fisted. Only moments later as the pachyderm waded into the stream were all doubts immediately alleviated. It was thrilling and we quickly adjusted to the languorous rocking.

The mahouts (elephant drivers/trainers) made the hour-plus journey even more exciting. Some of them were challenging each other in mini races around and through ponds, over and around narrow paths and hills. It made for some rather tense moments followed by nervous laughter as one elephant would head the other off at the path then lumber down a hill and into a small pond. Some inclines we exceptionally steep and there were even tiny little foot bridges that if the elephant were clumsy in the least we'd have surely been crushed to death in mere seconds. While I never really felt I was in any sort of danger per se I did think several times that with one false move there could be a catastrophe though it seemed unlikely.

Some people had better mahouts than others. Either our mahout was a complete ass or our elephant had an attitude. I'm inclined to believe the former. Along the way there were high outposts that were at our eye level selling snacks for the elephants, "Bah-naNAS! You buy! Tweeenty BAAAAHTS!" Daniel had our driver pull up so he cold buy some. Apparently our elephant got a little overexcited and there was a confrontation with our mahout who ended up yelling and throwing Daniel's bananas in the bush. We were appalled and I was worried that our elephant would charge off down the hill and snatch them up. We continued on without incident but I pretty much detested our mahout from then on. I would like to take this opportunity to say that I wish him the very worst in life because he was mean to a sweet and loving pet.

The British couple had the best mahout who was a real character. When they were coming down a steep hill he was yelling, "Oh NO! Oh NO!NO!" We weren't on his elephant so it was hilarious. At one point he saw some hill tribes walking through the woods and he hollered, "You have baht? You have baht for me?!" Other mahouts joked with us and while our elephants relaxed under some trees and cooled off for a moment we noticed one of them suddenly got an erection. This thing was tremendous and it was spotted black and white and you'd have to be a prude not to notice and comment on such a thing. It would have been like ignoring the proverbial elephant in the room -- but with an erection it'd be even harder not to notice.

By the time we began to head back I was sad it was ending as I was practically starting to relax in between being thrown around a bit. After we climbed off we all headed for the air conditioned van smiling and saying how much we all enjoyed it. It was exactly what I'd wanted.

We stopped at a lovely resort for what looked like a beautiful buffet that was included in the price of the tour. Our guide told us to "eat as much as you want and as much as possible." We would have but most of it was inedible. The worst part about the entire thing is that it was election day and on election day in Thailand it is illegal to serve alcohol. I'd forgotten and ordered a Campari and soda and was immediately reminded that it was verboten. Once the Dutchman was told that the people chasing us were not Chinese but Thai children he had yet another bitter pill to swallow that he clearly couldn't fully comprehend: No alcohol today. The English girls tried their best to make sense of it for him but to no avail. It must have been a seriously confusing day for our poor Dutch friend.

On the way back our guide told us that we'd be stopping at an orchid farm and butterfly conservatory. I wanted to see a hill tribe instead but that wasn't going to happen. The Brits had been actually told they'd see the long necked Karen tribe by their agent and were seriously disillusioned. I'd have been upset, too if my travel agent had told me that but she didn't. At least we were chased by vicious tiny Chinese people in an oxcart around someone's driveway for 30 minutes of sheer hell.

The orchid farm was beautiful and I almost felt like an ass for having complained about going to see it. It was really something to see so many gorgeous varieties of varying pinks, purples, lavenders, oranges, yellows and of course pristine white orchids. The butterfly conservatory was no more exciting that pulling a moth-covered sweater out of winter storage. I feel pretty certain that half of those things were moths anyway and I was more interested in the cocoons and that got me thinking about silk, which made me want to go shopping. The souvenir shop had the tackiest crap I've seen in a gift shop in recent years. There were gold-plated resin-coated actual orchids fashioned into broaches and though they were really orchids they were still really stupid looking. There's a joke about "gilding the lily" but I don't know what it is and frankly I haven't the strength to come up with anything. Suffice it to say that the best thing about the store were the framed insects --at least they were worth a laugh. We were all debating which ones were more terrifying and wondering who the hell hangs a three pound month with a one foot wingspan on their wall. I think that some of those things weren't even bugs but just a ruse to make fun of white people. I bet those menacing Chinese hill tribes had their diminutive hands in it.

By the time we got back into town it was time for a shower and then Helen, Lisa and Daniel and I decided to meet for dinner at 6:30. We thought that since the prime minister had been reelected that we were free to drink so we went to a great little restaurant across the street from a white walled wat and I ordered a gin and tonic. Forget it -- the ban was for the whole day. A wave of disappointment and virtual disgust crashed over the table. Moments later we stopped pouting and started enjoying each other's company and the delicious food. After dinner we headed to the night market and found a cart that was selling God's gift to Southeast Asia: The Banana Pancake. Oh, Sweet Holy Beard of Moses [thanks Daniel!] those are tasty treats!

Lisa and Helen and their friend (who's name escapes me though I thought she told some terrific stories) knew of a place where we could still get served hooch so we headed over. On the way we looked in the stalls and I bought a skirt and in another stall that sold ridiculous weapons we were playing with the double knives and brass knuckles. We had somehow offended the owner so much and had clearly irritated the living hell out him that he told us to leave. He sells knives for chrissakes we didn't argue.

Sure enough we were able to have a nightcap and though there wasn't any gin I ordered the Thai wine. It was a wine cooler. I'm not kidding. I actually drank it from a vase so the cops wouldn't bust the owner. No, seriously -- I actually drank a wine cooler from a ceramic vase. So, it's finally come to this, I thought.

We all exchanged website addresses and emails and parted ways. The next morning I checked my email and Lisa has written to say that having "interesting people to talk to made
the elephant ride all the more fun." I couldn't agree more. It was trekking at its best as far as I'm concerned --less hard work but amazing single-serving friends, laughter, excitement and an anecdote that we'll tell at a cocktail party years and years from now and smile. I'd like to echo the sentiments of the tacky woman in red at the elephant show as she elbowed all unsuspecting victims out of her way, plopped herself down and struck a pose. She'd toss her head back and wild-eyed she'd yell, "WOOOOO HOOOOO!" and start clapping.

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