The Great White Mahout: Our Travels in Thailand

If you’ve been following our Thailand adventure, this is part 2. We last left off at a small hostel in Hua Hin, after haggling for a bit of R&R. Our next stop was an Elephant Sanctuary near Phetchubari, Thailand, where we would be volunteering for the next week. We were super excited; I mean seriously it’s working with ELEPHANTS! From Hua Hin, we hoped on a train to Cha-am. Thailand trains are nothing like the ones we had ridden before. The train arrived looking like it had time travelled from 50 years ago – rusty, worn and rickety to the point where I thought it might just topple off the tracks. But we boarded and luckily found a seat next to an adorable little girl with her father. Cart after cart of exotic Thai foods rolled by with interesting smells, but only a few teasing our appetite. But at 6 baht each (20 cents), we really couldn’t complain. By the time we got to Cha-am, we were dropped off on the side of the tracks in what looked like a cow pasture and waited for our next ride.

We soon received a phone call that our ride was here, and we were quickly whisked away to the jungle and the wildlife that awaited us. The sanctuary was home to many rescued elephants and wildlife. Our first activity was a guided tour of the wildlife areas, and a slight list of ground rules. For example, Mama the holler monkey did not like women, so don’t go within an arm’s reach of her cage unless you like a sharp hair pull. We saw rescued bears, otters, monkeys, civets and of course elephants! The animals were all beautiful, and I could tell that they were happy at the sanctuary. After hearing some of the rescue stories, I could see why. Some of the animals could be rehabilitated and were released back into their natural habitat. But for the ones who couldn’t, I was glad that they had a good home at the sanctuary and protection from further torture. The rest of the day we spent just getting situated and roaming the grounds. Matt and I had a room to ourselves, which basically included 2 beds, a toilet and a shower head. An upbeat review might call it “rustic”, but they were pretty uncomfortable compared to even the cheap stays we were used to.

The next day we were up at 5:45 am! Our first task was breakfast for the elephants out in the Newlands. This was a huge “enclosure” that resembled living in the wild to improve the quality of life for the elephants. There were about 8 elephants in this area, including Pin and Pun – a mother-son duo who lived with their two aunties. Pin was about the cutest elephant I’d ever seen, and you could really tell how protective the three lady elephants were over him. We made elephant breakfast balls out of bananas, grain and pellets, and got to hand feed them to the gentler elephants. Afterwards we got to participate in composting, which is really picking up elephant poop…what a joy! Thankfully it was not as smelly as you would imagine, and we could wear gloves. Next we cut up fruit to make treats for the elephants’ bath. When it was time for them to bathe in the small lake, we threw the fruit in to entice them. Honestly with this heat, I doubt they needed much coaxing, and some wouldn’t even get out!

The rest of the week continued with much of the same work. Feeding, bathing, picking up shit, and gardening around the sanctuary. Three times, we got to experience Harvesting, where the group took an open-roofed truck an hour away to cut down and pick up banana trees for the elephants. It was hot, laborious, and seriously if it wasn’t for the amazing group with us, it would’ve been torture! The only “reward” for Harvesting was a dip in a river on the way home, which was brown and definitely home to a few creepy crawlies…needless to say we passed on that. But we did get some quality time with the elephants as the week went on. I got to walk an elephant name Boon Me, a gentle, older female who followed any lucky person with a bucket of fruit. We got to observe some incredible elephant behaviors, and really enjoyed marveling at their beauty. For me, the best part was hearing the success stories of the elephants who were rescued and are now flourishing in their new life. We greatly appreciate the intense work that this organization does to protect the local wildlife, and making every effort to save them from cruelty. While we left with some mixed emotions about the stay, we were so happy for such a unique experience and, hoped we enriched the lives of a few elephants from our time there.

Our next adventure took us to the island of Ko Pha Ngan for the FULL MOON PARTY! If you haven’t heard of this yet, it’s a monthly party celebrating the full month (easy to guess, I know!) It started with just a few guys celebrating on the beach and is now a world-renowned party complete with endless alcohol, fire ropes and body paint. I had been looking forward to this party for years since I was last in Thailand and couldn’t wait to see it! Yet luck would have it that the party was altered this month due to the death of the Thai King, Bhumibol Adulyadej. At the end of his 70-year reign, the entire country went into mourning, which meant wearing black, and refraining from alcohol, music and partying. We were told the Full Moon party was cancelled and that we shouldn’t bother going to Ko Pha Ngan. Of course, we wanted to respect the mourners, but with our tight timeline, we were optimistic that the party might still go on. We met up with Matt’s brother, Corey and some friends from the Elephant sanctuary and headed off to see… Well, mourning or not, the party was in full swing. We got our bodies painted, found some buckets, and sat on the beach. The only thing missing from this party was music, but people remedied the situation with personal boomboxes for their group.  Our little tribe danced, drank, watched people getting messed up by the fire rope. Seriously, this little Thai woman who was swinging the rope had a devilish look in her eye as she changed the tempo of the swing, surely singeing legs hairs of the drunk jumpers. We partied with our friends, and the Great White Mahout, until the wee hours of the morning. While the party was definitely smaller scale that I was expected, we all had a fabulous time celebrating the full moon!

Our last stop on this Thai adventure was the famous city of Bangkok! With Corey in tow, we took a 3-hour ferry and a 10-hour bus ride to get there! Once we checked in, we headed out for a crazy night on Khao San Rd. Me and Khao San Rd have an interesting past, as the last time I was there, I blacked out so bad that I woke up in Japan the next day…but that’s a story for another time (you’re welcome Dad). Thankfully this time, the partying was toned down a bit again due to the King’s passing. We hit up a few bars, drank some buckets and enjoyed the BEST street Pad Thai! The next morning, we decided to go explore some temples and shrines around Bangkok. But the city was filled with mourners from all over the country, everyone in black…except us. Matt can really rock an orange shirt, but maybe today wasn’t the best day for it! The temples we attempted to see were all closed, except to mourners, of which we were clearly not. While we did our best to respect their grief, we all felt the angry glares of the locals as we passed by, so we decided to head back.

That night we wanted to take Corey to the Sky bar featured in the Hangover movie. We took a tuk tuk for what seemed like forever to get there, just to be denied at the door for our apparel. So, in true Crawford fashion, we went to a local mall and bought new outfits complete with closed toe shoes. We went back with our upscale ensembles and were finally let in! The views from the top of the building are phenomenal, and my favorite of the city. The bar has this amazing glass floor that jets over the side of the building with nothing below you but the streets of Bangkok (and a very long fall). We grabbed a long couch, had some swanky cocktails and took the obligatory Hangover picture in the elevator! The boys then decided they needed to see the racy side of the Bangkok, so we continued our night in Patpong – Bangkok’s red light district. We roamed the night market full of phallic souvenirs until we found a club advertising “ping pong” shows. If you don’t know what these are…they are similar to a magic show, but the magic is what these exotic women can do with various props. Need I say more. The promoter was offering the boys a free preview to see if they were interested, and they decided to take him up on it. I agreed to wait outside for them, which wasn’t long until they realized exactly what the show entailed. When they came back out, we hit up some bars and watched the craziness around us. To finish the night, we meet up with some friends from the elephant sanctuary and drank until 4 am!

After getting Corey off to the airport, Matt and I had 2 more days to explore Bangkok. We finally saw some of the temples we had missed before and visited some very cool night markets. My favorite was Chatuchak night market, which is filled with food, shopping and souvenirs. I was very excited to find tea pullers here, and finally get to watch their performance in person instead of on YouTube. Tea pullers gracefully dance and slosh tea between two cups while moving the cups further away from each other without spilling a drop! It was beautiful to watch, almost mesmerizing, and the tea was awesome too! At a different street market by Khao san, we found fried scorpions! Matt just couldn’t pass it up and got his first taste of insects. I don’t think it’s a lifestyle change, but definitely a good story!

Our month in Thailand was a truly amazing experience, full of highs and lows, panic and serenity. I doubt that the experiences we had here could ever be forgotten, or even duplicated in other countries around the world. As our first experience in Asia, it really couldn’t have been better! While the lifestyle and culture are vastly different than ours, we met some amazing people, tried incredible food, and had many unique adventures. I can guarantee, this will not be our last trip to Thailand. Until then, khwap khun and jee gan mái!

Matthew & Stephanie

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