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Adventures in ThailandAdventures in Thailand
Part Four: Saffron Robes and Elephants

By Gyn Gerhardt

Chiang Rai is the north most large city in Thailand, bordering on Myanmar (Burma) and Laos, and making what is known as the Golden Triangle. It is the Mekong River that separates the two countries. Here, battles were won and lost through the centuries on the backs of elephants, indigenous to the area.

We waited at the border to Burma while Nu, our guide, took our visas to the border patrol. Once allowed to enter, Nu led us down the road where our transportation awaited. We climbed into our Trishaws and off took our drivers, legs pumping the pedals, whizzing down the road to visit the town of Tachilek, the Shan-style temple, and a hill tribe village. The tribesmen were colorfully dressed and we visited with a shy young girl as she drew water from the communal well. Many homes had a trishaw (Rickshaw attached to a bicycle) under their eaves and even here we saw young Buddhist boys in their saffron robes. We purchased a few decorative purses from the friendly women and were then on our way back to Thailand.

Boarding our boat, we headed to Laos down the Sai River that feeds into the Mekong. Here we purchased memorable crafts from the Laosians at the dock. I treasure the hand crocheted hats and purses ($3 each) as well as the teak elephant carving that hangs over my den door. Soon it was time to return to our hotel for lunch.

The major cash crop (the gold) of the Golden Triangle, was and is still opium and continues to be grown on denuded hillsides by the Hill Tribes. We visited one of the tribes and while we were there, two opium lords arrived on a Harley looking very much the slick Hollywood type with their wraparound sunglasses, white shirts and colorful gabardine pants, cigarettes puffing away. Such a contrast to the hill people in their signature tribe clothing and painted faces. The King, Rama IX, is working to stop the erosion on the land by teaching the tribes handicrafts to sell to the tourists. The tour group I travel with also contributes to this educational endeavor. The tribes are given land by the King in exchange for not growing the opium.

Perhaps because 92% of the 60 million Thai people as well as the King (by law) follow the Thevada Buddhism religion, which is a most kind and gentle version, there exists a reverence among the Thai of a respectful attitude towards others. Extended families are very closely knit and this family tradition has literally eliminated the beggars and homeless on the streets I find in most other countries as well as my own.

It is difficult not to see the many saffron orange clothed Monks in the streets. Men and boys can join the order at any time in their life and for a period of from 3 weeks to life. They can join for many reasons as to dedicate one's life to attain enlightenment, to further education, for short term training in the laws of Buddha, and even for fun. They can leave when they want and return when they want. It is a very open retreat.

There are some 30,000 Wat in Thailand. Their presence glistens in the sunlight everywhere like jewels. They are very open and ornate, consisting of many colored mirrored pieces of mosaic and 24 karat gold. We visited many of the well known as well as some not frequented by tourists. It is always necessary to remove ones shoes when entering and the bending served to add to ones exercise for we ate much wonderful Thai food. Even a couple of the restaurants required us to be shoeless. Those who had shoes with ties soon wished for slip on sandals.

Later that night we rode out of town to the countryside for a dinner at the summer home of a Bangkok attorney. While he wasn't there, he entrusted our care to his two nieces and the house staff. We were warmly greeted by our hostesses with glasses of lemon grass tea. The house had been relocated to the site from another part of the country and was an excellent example of the typical country home on stilts. After viewing the elegant living quarters, we retreated to the balconies to catch the orange glow of the evening sunset as it dipped into the far away hills.

Torches were lit on the estate as we sat down to dinner under the stars. The gourmet food was outstanding with different curries, vegetables grown on the estate, selected meats and fish and the ubiquitous jasmine rice. After dinner, Nu brought out his surprise, a mini hot air balloon. He stood on a chair to hold the large white funnel while James and Kop lit the fuel.

Finally, off it went upward, high in the cloudless evening sky. We followed the balloon into the distance, its glow only matched by the light of the moon. Further and further it went until we could see it no more. As we strode back down the torch lit walkway to our waiting bus, we couldn't help but wonder if there was someone somewhere reporting the sighting of a UFO.

The next morning we were on our way to Chaing Mai and my highlight of the trip, a visit to the working Chaing Dao Elephant Camp. When we arrived, we saw the elephants much like puppies, lightfootedly playing together. We saw mothers with thir babies moving freely in the open camp and we saw how these pachyderms work in the jungle using their weight and trunks to build. We saw them bathe in the river before chores and how they are easily commanded by voice and hand signals to do the mahouts bidding.

A young 4 year old boy was being trained under the watchful eye of his father to be a mahout. He sat on the head of his elephant and controlled the movements by tickling the base of the elephant's ears with his toes. Looked easy to me. I also learned that the eye of the elephant is constructed so as to make us humans extremely large and therefore not to run up or wave
frantically at the elephant as it may frighten him into charging.

The name of my elephant was "Monsieur" and the mahout "Mee". Mee is 23 years old and Monsieur 30. Mee bought the elephant three years ago and they live together in the camp. Eagerly I climbed into the wooden bench saddle and we proceeded to the river where Monsieur drank his fill of water before he would follow Mee's repeated direction to proceed to the jungle. Seems my elephant was still a kid at heart with a mind of his own. Finally we were on our way.

After about an hour, we encountered a hill tribe selling bananas for the elephants. Monsieur proceeded hastily to get to the bananas, eager to tear down the platform to achieve his goal. I quickly produced the required payment of 20 Bot (50 cents) and Mee said Monsieur thanked me after he had downed his two bunches. it certainly was a wild ride for a time, believe me.

Selling tourists bananas is another trade for the Hill Tribes and their stands on stilts to elephant height are found in the jungle where they live. They also have stands with handmade trinkets for the tourists, but I didn't want to interrupt Monsieur's walk to purchase the colorful hand crocheted items. After a time, Mee jumped down and asked me if I would like to slide down Monsieur's neck and sit on his head for the rest of the ride, using my toes to guide him home. Now, what do you think I did?

Our visit to the elephant camp culminated with a leisurely ride down the river on a bamboo raft. I recognized Mee at his home along the river and Monsieur strolling with him in the compound. I waved and he eagerly returned my greeting. It was a splendid afternoon in the jungle of Thailand, one I will never forget.

After lunch, we had the opportunity to visit a Water Buffalo Camp and it was easy sailing in comparison. Two babies, just a week old, greeted us and I suddenly missed my puppies at home as they played with the elderly gentleman. Just like puppies, they licked his arm and butted their heads at his shoulder as he sat on the ground. The grown buffalo were just as gentle, nudging our arms for a tickle of their ears. We watched them perform the ancient duties of preparing the ground for planting the rice and then the grinding of the rice into flour. I did ride one of the buffalo bareback and they are very comfortable, lots of fat covers their bones.

Once settled into our new hotel, Nu suggested another adventure with a Thai massage before dinner. It sounded so good after our busy day with the animals and 14 of our group of 16 decided the $15 for the 2 hour massage was a real bargain and boarded the bus for Kop to take us there. When we arrived, we were instructed to go up the stairs to the third floor. We entered a large room and 14 beautiful Thai women beckoned us to their mat on the floor. We were given shirts and pants to don and we giggled like school children as we shyly changed our clothes. We had spent 12 days together so far and this adventure just added to our family of experiences. The women went to work as they manipulated every weary bone and muscle and too soon the two hours were over. Ten years younger we slipped back into our clothes and headed for the bus and another wonderful Thai dinner.

The next morning brought us a sad note as Kop drove us to the airport for our flight back to Bangkok. This would be the last we would see of Kop and James Bond as they had a 12 hour drive back to Bangkok. There were hugs and fond farewells by all and a tear or two sprang from appreciative eyes. With that we passed through security and Nu went to obtain our flight passes.

Part One: Bangkok
Part Two: The River Kwai
Part Three: The Golden Triangle
Part Four: Saffron Robes and Elephants
Part Five: Reflections