Monday, February 27, 2006

The Union

Well Edward and I are packing our bags in anticipation of heading towards the mysterious
"Union of Myanmar" tomorrow - I am looking forward to the trip but do have a sense that it will be an interesting time in a slightly sinister way - what with the situation in the country at the moment.

But we will be travelling in good company - it's not everyday that one of Time Magazines Heroes of Asia invites you on an elephant adventure to Burma. Ed and I will be making the trip with Lek, the fearless founder of the Elephant Nature Park and her right hand man Jeff, a Canadian engineer who is usually seen carrying a baby chicken around town. Accompanying us will be Lek's brother, resident crazy man around town Chom whose favourite activities include chatting up the ladies, doing life threatening things, trying to cuddle and kiss Ed and shouting ''Oh my god!'' in several different languages - he is going to be the team interpreter (oh my god indeed...), Also along for the ride will be mad englishman Chas who runs a charity called "eleaid'' and the lovely Laura from Seattle who suprisingly seems quite normal.

Lek has promised elephants galore, wild elephants, working elephants, training camps and even some beautiful white elephants that live down in a temple in Yangon. We are visiting villages out in the middle of nowhere and delivering toys and medicine to the kids there as well. Jeff has promised that we will also be in for blackouts galore, extreme heat and some potentially interesting times with the authorities.

As for my blog - things will be a bit quieter for the next 2 weeks. Y'see the internet is pretty much banned in Burma, you even need permission from the Govt to own a fax machine or even a phone (which is usually tapped anyway..) so it will be back to the dark ages for 14 days for us.

But do not fear, I'm sure I will return with many a story and many a picture and even a year older as Ed and I will both celebrate our birthdays while we are still in the arms of the mysterious ''Union''. Until then...................

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Yellow Suprise

Caught up in a whirl of red tape, yesterday Ed and I found ourselves in the position of having to leave Thailand and go to Burma in order to leave Thailand next week in order to go to Burma...........confused? So were we. Yesterday with one hours notice we made the five hour bus ride up to the Golden Triangle to go over the border, get our passports stamped, put our feet on Burmese soil for 15 minutes before coming back to the Thai side to get a new four week long visa so we are able to send away for a Burmese visa so we can visit the country properly next week. All in all a pain in the arse but one thing made me laugh.

When we checked into our overpriced, seedy, grotty border hotel we were given a complimentary bottle of water. Housed in an opaque, slightly grubby plastic bottle the waters brand name emblazoned across the front was....... "Yellow Suprise".

We chose not to partake.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Oh baby, baby

The absolute best thing about being at the park for me would have to be the baby elephants. I cannot think of a more adorable creature on the planet. They are perfectly proportioned, hairy, fiesty, look like gummy old men and have such an attitude even when they are only a few weeks old - the babies are playful and not always that trustworthy which keeps things interesting.

There are six babies at the park at the moment - they are divided up into the categories of "Baby" which are the three 5 to 6 year olds who are about the size of a VW combi van, are very naughty but still need the attention of their adoptive mothers and aunties in the family. Then there are the "baby babies" a pair of almost 1 year old little sweeties who are about the size of a Harley Davidson who are still growing teeth, only eat bananas and are very, very playful. Then there is my favourite the "baby, baby, baby" at only 6 weeks old he is already 100 kilos, very agile and quite fond of sneaking out from under his mothers belly to try and trip us over.

The best time to play with the "baby, baby, baby" is in the late evenings when his mum and very protective aunties are chained up for the night and are preoccupied with eating their dinner. At this point the curious little BBB likes to peep out and see who there is to play with. After giving us a determined look he will charge out and barge his head straight into your bum while his little legs dance about trying to step on your feet. He will lean on you, try and trip you up and grab onto your arms with his little trunk before he gallops off looking very happy and back to the safety of mum.

He is also an amazing football player, his mahout would often kick a little basketball to him and out he would trot, dribbling away, using all four legs and his trunk. It is quite astonishing how developed these babies are considering they are not considered fully mature until they are about 17 (just like people).

The "baby babies" were fun too but a little bigger and a little less trustworthy. They were particularly fond of swimming under water towards you in the river and then leaping out all wild eyed waving their trunks about right under your feet - this always got a scream from me which they seemed to love. The baby babies also love sneaking up behind you and ramming you, trying to steal backpacks and generally making trouble.

The Babies are the scariest, with enough size to kill you but the mind of a little kid. Hope and Jungle Boy like to spend a lot of time rumbling with the bigger elephants and causing trouble. One lucky group of volunteers had to hide behind trees for safety while Jungle Boy tried to charge cause he didn't want to return from his walk - just like a typical teenage boy. Lucky he is just so cute.

The Jumbo Express

Life at the Elephant park isn't, suprisingly, always just about elephants. Lek, the fearless founder of the park is often accused of caring only about elephants and not people and to manypeople in the area she is seen as a threat because she wants people to stop using elephants for trekking and street begging, this does not make her a popular woman at times. So this is where the Jumbo express comes in, on a regular basis Lek and her volunteers pack up the trucks and head way out to the hill tribe villages to deliver medicines and help for the local people of the area.

On Thursday we travelled four hours north into the hills up near the border of Burma. As scenic as it was, let me tell you four hours in the back of a pick up truck jammed in with cooking pots, boxes of medicine and 2 other people is no fun for your bum. Not to mention the nice coating of dust we received on the way. But it was all for a good cause and it was more than worth it to just to watch Ed do his Mother Teresa impression by de-worming the local children.

The people in this area are Karen people. They wear amazing colourful clothes, speak their own language (called Karen funnily enough) and their culture and race crosses the borders between Burma and Thailand. The village we visited was quite basic but rather beautiful with old teak houses and small gardens surrounded by bamboo fences. But even though it was charming it was badly lacking in facilites. One of the volunteers on our trip was a doctor and he was kept busy with a steady line of about 50 locals who had never been seen by a doctor before. This fabulous old lady rocked up in all her yellow beads and finery and proceeded to tell the doctor about her eye problems. When he asked her age she replied that she was 60 years old, Lek later told us that she is actually 80 - she was hilarious, fiesty and loved the attention from us visitors.

After not so comfy and chilly sleep on bare bamboo floors we were off the next morning to the local school where Ed got to try out his de-worming skills again and then we visited the kindy age kids. After a nice song from the children welcoming us to the village Lek said the kids were asking for us to sing a song for them. At this point our little group of Canadians, Danes, Americans, Kiwis and Indians looked very uncomfortable.....what the hell were we going to sing?The kids sat looking expectant as the seconds ticked over until out of desperation one of the american girls finally suggested "Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes". Not really an inspiring choice but off we went, singing a very out of tune version complete badly co-ordinated hand movements - it wasn't much of a hit I'm ashamed to report but the bemused kids clapped politely anyway. I wonder what they thought of us?

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Elephant Heaven

Elephants are everywhere in Thailand. They appear on flags, on company logos, as ornaments for sale in the markets, on books, in paintings, sculptures and even in place names. Of course there are also the real elephants who are also seen taking tourists on rides and working with locals - the Elephant is everywhere in one shape or form. Because of this here in the budhist, Land of Smiles it would seem that the Elephant is a beloved and cherished animal, but since we have started work at the Elephant Nature Park we have discovered that this is a long, long way from the truth.

For starters the Thai elephant is in danger of becoming extinct. Numbers are dwindling with an estimated 2000 elephants thought to be left in the country (at the turn of the century it was more like 10,000) and the population is still dropping at a scary rate. For the elephants that are still here they have a very rough lot in life. Most elephants working in the tourist parks are underfed, often ill treated and are forced to lug tourists around on their backs all day wearing badly fitted and uncomfortable seats which rub their skin and hurt their spines. To make matters worse, the traditional "training" most elephants receive is brutal. Young elephants are seperated from their mothers and put in a tiny wooden pen called a "crush" for up to seven days - during this time they are kicked, beaten with sticks, blocks of wood with nails and sometimes even burned with hot metal bars. We were shown a video of this ritual on our first day at the park and it was hideous, in fact this process is so bad almost half the young elephants that are put through it don't even live. Those that do survive then have about 80 years of life being worked into the ground to look forward to and are probably completely screwed up in the head. Some are fed amphetamines so they can work longer, others are seperated from their babies way too early or give birth while they are working, some of the males have their tusks sawed off and others have stepped on land mines or have been in car accidents from being sent into the traffic choked streets of Bangkok to beg.

It's sad and sobering stuff, but at least the one bright spot of hope for these lovely, intelligent creatures is a one woman dynamo, Lek Chailert, who seems to be one of the few people here that is concerned about the plight of the Asian Elephant. Lek and her staff at the Elephant Nature Park are endevouring to buy and treat sick, maltreated elephants and to give them a home where there are no hooks and sticks, no saddles, no playing musical instruments or painting or any other crap and they can simply just be elephants. The park hosts volunteers like Ed and myself as well as daytrippers who can get to see happy, healthy elephants doing their thing and this is just wonderful.

One week into our visit and Ed and I are happily living in a simple bamboo treehouse in a lush green valley with an elephant who lives right outside our door. Each morning we wake up to the amazing sound of the ellies trumpeting and calling to each other as the day breaks, it's a magical place.

Our days pass picking up poo, helping to dig a mud bath for the ellies to bathe in and the highlight of the day - feeding time. It's quite a sight having 20 odd elephants all crowding around, waving their trunks about trying to steal from the food baskets. Everyday the ellies receive about 60 kilos of fruit and vegies which we hand to them from the feeding platform. They are very funny, some are total pigs and will wolf down whole hands of bananas, spiky pinnaples and six cucumbers at a time. Others are picky and will wave a discerning trunk over whatever you offer and then reject it by dropping it back into the basket or onto the ground.

Elephants also love to bathe so twice a day they wander down to the river and we jump in with them with buckets and a scubbing brush. They roll over in the water or completely submerge themselves and just leave their trunk out like a snorkel - very cool little appendage to have. After bathing it's a good scratch on a tree and then they like to coat themselves in dust, kind of an elephant sunscreen, unsuspecting volunteers can also get covered in it if they don't stay clear. All in all the days pass in a rather lovely fashion.

On Tuesday we also got to go on a trip into the hills to the Elephant Haven, a place the park owns where the ellies are free to wander about unfettered at night which they just love. We walked them up there and then slept overnight in a tiny bamboo hut - in the night you could hear the ellies wandering about and calling to each other. In the morning the elephants either come back down from the hills to meet us or their mahouts go looking for them. Unfortunately with my usual superb timing this was the night I managed to get sick which was a real downer - but every negative has a positive and in this case being sick meant that me and another volunteer got to hitch a bareback ride on two of the elephants on the way back down rather than do the hike.

This was an amazing experience, the park doesn't usually let people ride the elephants so I was very lucky to be given an exception - you sit on their neck which is stronger than the back and then try and hang on to their heads. It's a bloody long way down and it's rather precarious which was all a bit hard to deal with while I was feeling like I was going to chuck, but despite that it was still incredible. I was also very grateful to my elephant Mae Keow that she behaved herself in the river while I was aboard.

The park is also a haven for other kinds of animals who need a helping hand. At last count there were 39 dogs, four cats (one of whom had his eyes poked out by his previous owners) and two little cows who were lucky enough to fall off the back of a truck on their way to the slaughterhouse and were rescued by Lek. Add to this a bunch of volunteers from all over the world, a hilarious Australian couple who act as the park managers and a bunch of crazy Thai guys and you have a little piece of elephant heaven.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Flower Power

Chang Mai, Thailands second biggest city. And on first impressions it also appears to be the New Age destination of choice amongst our American friends.

A pretty city, surrounded by a moat, old wooden buildings and narrow streets but unfortunately also filled with the sights of way too many baggy hemp trousers and sounds of earnest but whiny american accents asking for soy latte decaf cappucinos or 'erb tea. The cafes are filled with organic, no egg, no oil, no dairy, brown rice, no taste, no fun muffins and frankly it's not unlike being at a branch of the equally annoying and earnest Macro Wholefoods in Bondi Junction back home in Oz. But the payoff for all this hippy interest is that there are some cracking vegetarian restaurants here which suits moi right down to the ground. As long as I can stomach it whilst perusing all the signs on the wall for Bio Engegetics, yoga, 'men understanding men' meetings, Dhamma light energy healing and group meditations that is.

But on the bright side the city is not all herbal wannabes. Today is the day of the Chang Mai flower festival and all kinds of silliness can be seen on the streets. Thousands of flowers tacked onto massive floats for a parade, towers of colourful petunias that would make my Dad weep with jealously, displays of roses, sculptural looking orchids and of course being a Thai festival mountains of food and some good shopping. I like it.

It seems the Modus operandi is to admire the float and then get right in front of it or even better onto it for photos....

Getting in on the act......they even put down cushions for when you are posing!

Lindsey would love these petunias...

Weird Thai-lish t-shirts on sale at the festival - funny, I never knew that a Koala was considered a "Family Bear" or in fact a "Big Daddy", I learn something new everyday.

Sign at our hotel, tellin' it how it is "in-the-house"..................

Go Elephant

Kate: "Hey Eduardo"
Ed: "Yes Browne"
Kate: "Do you think we've done everthing there is to do in Thailand?"
Ed: "What do you mean?"
Kate: "Well I'm just checking this list here and we've been to Cambodia, we've been on the bus to Bangkok, we've been snorkelling and we've been in the jungle........ but I just have a feeling we haven't done something yet..............":
Ed: "hmmmmmmm"
Kate: "Argh! We forgot to 'Go Elephant'!"
Ed: "oh my god! We'd better 'Go Elephant' right away"

And so we did.

We are now in Chang Mai anxiously awaiting the start of our new jobs that begin tomorrow. From then Ed and I will be officially employed as "Elephant Helpers" at the Elephant Nature Park which is dedicated to rescuing and saving poor jumbos all across the land. I am hoping that A: the park will be slightly safer than it's Bolivian cousin and we won't just be sent up into the jungle with an angry wild animal alone for the day with no training or assistance and B: the ellies are as nice as the ones in the Babar books that I loved as a child. Well I mean I'm not expecting them to be wearing crowns and suits or anything like the ones in the book but I am hoping they will be well mannered, refined and grateful for my existence. And not be as unbelivably disloyal as my hissing howling bitey Ocelot who couldn't have cared less that I dedicated my days to caring for him - bless his nasty little soul.

In other words - I am happy elephants don't have claws. Please don't let one of them sit on me.

We love the King!

The King of Thailand has got to be the best loved Monarch ever. All through Thailand there are huge colourful pictures of the king, statues of the king and paintings of the king. Every shop and business has a framed portrait of the King, and his wife and if the shop owners are elderly they usually have a picture of the old King as well...I guess old habits die hard.

Now although the current King is adored, I have to say just quietly he doesnt look very kingly. While his dad was a rather handsome, striking looking man the current king with his gangly frame, awkward body language and thick glasses looks more like a computer programmer for an insurance company or a bank clerk. I suspect he must be a bit of a frustrated artist as well as many of his standard portraits feature him in a safari suit which a large black camera slung around his neck. In fact just about every picture of him being casual you can be guaranteed that camera will be there too.

There are shops that are purely dedicated to selling King stuff but the devotion doesn't stop there. In the cinemas everyone has to stop and stand while the national anthem is played usually accompanied by a visual homage to the king. Sometimes it is a sweeping shot accross a faux photo album showing a montage of pictures of the king with his beloved camera, another cinema chose to depict the pictures of the king as a series of fat rain drops falling across the screen while a very emotional choral version of the national anthem played. It was so sweet I didn't know whether to giggle or to cry.

And even right now as I sit at this computer there is a photo tacked to the wall above my head, it is a black and white picture from the late fifties showing Elvis Presley (in full army uniform) sitting with who else but the King of thailand. The King with The King! Legendary stuff, but I bet I can make a safe guess about who is more popular with the people of Thailand.