These last three weeks, I’ve enjoyed having my parents in Thailand visiting me and exploring this new country that I’ve come to call home. My parents arrived on on March 11th and we spent a solid week on the go. As was to be expected, it took them a few days to get used to the heat and time difference, but once they had their feet under them, it was non-stop action!
Our first day, we visited the beautiful Wat Pho (pronounced wot po), which houses the stunning and most impressive reclining Buddha image. It was, as is the usual these days, extremely hot, so we tried to stay in the shade and explore the many buildings that make up the wat. Truly the most exception part was the Reclining Buddha itself. 45 meters long and 16 meters high, the entire figure is covered in gold leaf and the soles of its feet are fashioned from mother of pearl. It was simply stunning to see up close, and I was glad to start my parent’s trip out with such an exquisite example of Thai belief and craftsmenship.
My folks stayed in a lovely hotel called the New Siam (much recommended if you’re considering visiting Bangkok) along the Chao Phraya River. My dad got a kick out of all the boat traffic on the river, and took at least half a gig worth of photos of tugboats, coast gaurd vessels, and merchant ships cruising up and down past their windows. Their hotel had a lovely pool, and we discovered that the best way for ‘farang’ to beat the heat is to relax poolside all afternoon with a smoothie (called ‘shakes’ in Thailand) in one hand and a good book in the other. Sometimes life simply cannot be improved upon!
Since my mom only had a week for her visit, we decided to head to Ko Chang for the better part of a week. Ko Chang is located south east of Bangkok, and is about a five hour drive by bus. We booked through a company which picked us up at their hotel, and dropped us five hours later at a pier where we took a 30-minute ferry ride across to the island. There, we caught another “taxi” (really a songteow) to our hotel. I was a little anxious about how my parents would handle the lack of “civilized” transportation and crazy driving/traffic in Thailand, but I had nothing to worry about it. I think I sometimes forget to give my parents the credit they deserve for having survived this long in crazier situations that I’ve probably been privy to hearing about!
We spent the next day snorkeling off some absolutely breath-taking islands south of Ko Chang proper. While the eco-tourism industry isn’t quite as developed in Thailand as it is in the states, the locals seem to understand and respect the environment. Our guides seemed to be aware of the impact they could have on coral and fish, and while they did have some bad practices (feeding fish, touching sea urchins, etc.), they didn’t drop their anchor on the coral, and cleaned up all the trash from our included lunch). While there were lots of fish (especially since they are used to being fed), the variety wasn’t particularly impressive. What WAS awesome was the spectacular size and color of the coral. It was a fun snorkeling experience, and had me wishing for an underwater camera.
The next day, we visited an elephant preserve to feed, bathe, and ride the animals. I was nervous since I didn’t want to end up in a “preserve” that was cruel to their animals, but after we arrived I could see that I didn’t have anything to worry about. The mahouts (pronounced ‘ma-hoots’) were friendly, chatty, and seemed to enjoy their jobs. Each mahout owns their animal and is soley responsible for feeding and caring for the giant creature. If you’ve never seen or been in the presence of a live elephant, it is really quite an experience. Even the smaller Asian elephant (in comparison to an African elephant) is a HUGE beast, and their trunks are simply marvels of evolution. They can do just about anything with them, and seem to make up for a lack of hands and thumbs quite well. Each animal has a very distinct and noticeable personality, and it is tragic to think of them being tortured into submission for use as laborers in tree-harvesting operations.
Our experience began with washing the elephants in a small but deep natural pool. They walked us down to the water and lead the elephants in. Both animals immediately sank down into the cool water and seemed to be waiting on our group to figure out what to do. The mahouts – in their broken English – directed us to get into the water and “wash” the animals with rough scrub brushes. Most of our group (about 10 of us) weren’t wearing swim suits, and so had a little apprehension about getting in the water. Dad, who had been warned by our family doctor to avoid bodies of fresh, still water, was considering just watching from the bank…at least, until his daughter was the first one in the water and climbing up on an elephant! Mom was the second one in, and so, not to be upstaged by his wife and daughter, dad finally (and reluctantly) got in the water and waded out to his elephant to scrub. Being ON the actual elephant while they spray you with water was, well, weird! Their skin is thick, covered in long bristly hairs, and it is difficult to wrap your mind around the fact that you’re scrubbing a huge animal. Their trunks, once you get past the snot factor, are simply magnificent. The mahouts even have a command for the elephant to reach back and kind of fondle your hands and face with their trunks, and so post-bath, the elephants were a little cleaner, but we were pretty disgusting.
After the bath, we headed back up to the main camp area, and were ushered on board our elephants in pairs. Since there were an odd number of visitors, I had my own elephant and the mahout let me play the role of “Mahout Hannah” and ride on the neck and head of the elephant where he would have traditionally ridden. I learned a few commands, though the elephant wasn’t quite as cooperative for me as she was for my guide. We rode through some lovely rain forest for about an hour, ending our walk by lumbering (elephants aren’t the most graceful of creatures) through a rubber tree grove. How NEAT to see the ‘sap’ flowing out of the trees, already feeling like silicon! The eco-geek in me came bubbling out, and I was grabbing at every passing tree to get a closer look at the sap and examine the rubber properties.
Feeding bananas to hungry, hungry elephants! Those trunks make them extra grabby.
Once back at camp, we fed the elephants bunches of bananas and had to say goodbye. The next day we departed, but not before a lovely meal and stroll on the beach. Matthew is coming to visit me on Sunday (!) for two weeks, and I plan to take him back to Ko Chang so that he too can fall in love with a giant pachyderm and swim with the fish!
It was awesome to have my mom here, and I’m excited that I got to share a bit of my exciting new life with her, even if only for a week. The older I get, the more I enjoy time with my parents, especially when they get to visit me on my turf. It seems that when we’re young, our parents are everything, and as we grow older we forget that. Now that I’m past those teenage years and out of college proper (for now), the importance of guidance and unconditional love in my love comes rushing back. I think we’ve worked out that I’ll keep moving to interesting places, and they’ll keep coming to see me. Thanks for visiting, Mom and Dad!