Thursday, March 16, 2006

Hunting an elephant

Once we were done with the temples we all hopped in a mini van and started the long 12 hour drive to the dusty logging town of Taungoo. The drive could have been worse, we were sitting in an unairconditioned vehicle baking in the 40 degree heat but the scenery more than made up for the sweatiness.

Sweet faced white oxen with dark eyes pulled old fashioned carts with huge spoked wheels, ladies in yellow face paint and elegant straw hats and parasols walked the streets, men in long sarongs and checked shirts sat in tea shops on the sides of the road and although we were on the main road between north and south were were virtually the only traffic apart from the odd Ox.

On our way to Taungoo we passed the small town that is now the capital of the Union of Myanmar. Back in December, people in Yangon (the original capital) noticed Government buildings emptying out - lights not being switched on and numerous trucks carrying everything from building materials and people heading north. In late December the Military Junta announced they had moved the capital to the tiny town of Pyinana - just like that. Of course foreigners are not allowed anywhere near the place and even the town nearby when we stopped for tea was banned for overnight visits. All very spooky and so typical of the regime here. When we asked our guide about it all he said "I don't want to talk about it here, maybe when we are in the jungle I can talk."

So to the jungle, after having another enormous burmese lunch where no less than 43 plates appeared on the table for just 7 people we planned our jaunt up into the teak logging areas of the country. People were doubtful we would be allowed in the area cause the govt had just built a new dam but things weren't good where we were staying in Taungoo either and I was happy to take a chance. Two bombs and two cases of arson had happened over two days - the day before and the day we arrived - everyone was jumpy.

The next morning we set off into the jungle, after paying the appropriate bribes we headed further and further away from civilization. After the truck carrying all our stuff broke down in the dirt for the third time and our very silly guide just giggled I started to feel like I was in some reality TV show where they dump a bunch of celebs in the wilderness and through challenge after challenge into the way.

After a stop at a village where Lek played doctor handing out eyedrops, paracetemol and lots of toys to the kids and an interminable wait to see if we were going anywhere we were off again. But where were the elephants?

Off in the dusty truck again, bush bashing and wondering if we had enough water to last us the next two days we travelled for a few more hours. Stopping at a roadside to cook lunch and there finally emerged an elephant - a young girl of about 6 years old wearing chains around her neck. She is part of the blackmarket logging operation we are to visit.

Back in the car for the final trek and our moods are brighter - then we stop and take a walk into the jungle to the elephant camp. After a 20 minute hike the "camp" our guide promised turned out to be a flimsy bamboo shelter with three very young and very suprised Burmese boys living in it. "Did they know we were coming?" we ask Mong Soe the guide...."uhhh yes" he says looking shifty.

Before we can argue suddenly the heavens open up and it is pouring with rain, we are in the jungle (probably illegally), we have no real shelter and no option to go anywhere. At that point the shelter us big foreigners are sharing with the little Burmese guys collapses. Chas the englishman goes beserk and I feel even more like a contestant in a reality tv show.

Interesting to watch the different nationalities react, Chas the Englishman totally freaked, Ed and I were feeling pretty hopeless, Jeff was being stoic and Canadian and trying to help whilst Lek and Chom, being Thai, barely batted an eyelid and nor did the Burmese guys. As soon as the rain stopped the guys were off cutting bamboo and rebuilding the shelter, while the normally glamorous and urbane Lek conjured a fire out of soggy firewood and got cooking making her own implements out of bamboo and managed to rope me into roasting some tomatoes. All in all these guys put us to shame, what a useless lot us westerners are.

By sunset there was dinner on the fire, a shelter, beers in hand and lo and behold - two more elephants, magic.


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