Monday, July 30, 2012

The Golden Triangle

I was meeting up with the elephant people in Chiang Rai but I spent my first few days in Chiang Mai so I had to get from one to the other.  I could have flown, both towns have airports, but I decided to take the bus instead.  The VIP line ticket cost me a whole $9 and took us through some beautiful countryside and through villages that could be plopped down most anywhere in the world (except the US) and wouldn't look out of place.

While waiting for the bus music started to play over the intercom and everyone stopped what they were doing to sing along.  It was the Thai national anthem (apparently it's played daily in public places).  Even the feral dogs hanging out at the bus station joined in.

From the bus station I took a Tuk-tuk to the Chiang Rai airport to meet up with the group.  Then it was another hour drive to the small town of Sob Ruak at the very center of the Golden Triangle.

The Golden Triangle is an area that used to be known as a center for opium growing.  The Thai government has stepped in and come up with alternative ways for locals to make their living and now they are trying to make this area a tourist area.

At the Golden Triangle Myanmar (Burma), Laos and Thailand all come together, separated by rivers (the Mekong between Thailand and Laos and the Ruak between Thailand and Myanmar).  You can't get there from here, however.  There are no boarder crossings in this area despite the presence of a casino on the Laos side and two top-end resorts on the Thailand side.

I did get to travel up to a land boarder between Thailand and Myanmar.  The Thai side has a military outpost and a fence.  The Myanmar side has a military outpost and a sports court.  When the countries are at peace the military stationed here get together and play sports.

The road along here runs right along the boarder between Thailand and Myanmar so depending on which side of the road you're on you can be in either country.  There is no barrier on the road.  Since Thai people consider lines on the road to be suggestions everyone in our van got to be in both countries at some point along this trip.

Not sure what the sign says - it's supposed to say something like this is the end of Thailand.  The mountains behind me are in Myanmar.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Birding Doi Inthanon

On my last free day before the elephant portion of the trip I hired a birding guide and we went up the highest mountain in Thailand.

After having birded in Central American tropics I was disappointed by how few birds we saw.  It looked like a tropical forest but the birds just weren't there.  There is just too much deforestation in the area.  The area used to have a lot of teak trees but they sold for too much money and they have been removed.  And it used to be easy and profitable to grow poppies for opium.  Now there are better laws and the forests are coming back but the wildlife lags behind.

My birding guide has bought up several acres of land and planted it with teak trees.  They won't be  harvestable in her lifetime but perhaps her children or her grandchildren will be able to profit from them.

Doi Inthanon (Doi means mountain) used to be called Doi Anh Ka (the place where the crow baths, roughly).  Back them Thailand was two different countries - Lannathai (now northern Thailand) and Siam (now southern Thailand).  King Inthawichayanon of Lannathai was concerned that the British might take over his country so he sent his daughter south to be married to the King of Siam, thus united the two countries against a possible British invasion.

King Inthawichayanon loved the mountains and upon his death his cremated remains were interred near the top of the highest mountain, which was then renamed in his honor.  Fortunately for us foreigners they used a shortened version of his name.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Chiang Mai, Thailand

I arrived in Thailand a few days before the Elephant Adventure so that I would have time to get at least partially over jet lag.  I stayed at a FABULOUS resort in Chiang Mai, Thailand.  This place cost about what a Holiday Inn would cost but the rooms and grounds were gorgeous and the restaurant was top notch (mmmm, apple pancakes).

Chiang Mai is the second largest city in Thailand.  I was in the historic old city sector.  The old city is surrounded by remains of a wall and moat.  It makes it relatively easy not to get too lost.  The streets are narrow, though, and the signs are in Thai script so I couldn't read them when there were street signs.

Fortunately I figured out early that my hotel was two blocks from the biggest Wat in the area so all I had to do if I did get lost was to find that Wat and I was good to go.

The first morning there I was wandering around and two young women came up to me.  They were college students who had an assignment to talk to a native English speaker.  So I got interviewed.  As I wandered around I was approached several more times for the same reason so I had to learn to politely decline or I could have spent my whole day demonstrating how to speak American English.

There are several night markets in Chiang Mai.  These are a collection of shops that open at night and sell, well, everything.  I went to the "Walking" market.  This one gets put up on a street once a week - the street is closed and the vendors have canopies or just tables lining the streets.  It's the "walking" market because it moves to a different place every week.

The vendors sold lots of tourist stuff but also food, shoes, clothing and other things the locals might want to buy.  It was a crowded street scene so no good pictures.  The weirdest thing at the market were the places selling old CDs - they would blast out (mostly bad) 80s pop and easy listening.  

I only found one stall selling insects as food.  It was surrounded by tourists who would pay a few Baht (the Thai currency) to sample the insects and have their friends take their pictures.  I did try the crickets (no photos, sorry, I was by myself).  Crunchy and lightly flavored with spices.  Not bad but not exciting, either.

The street food was pretty good.  I had some delicious quail eggs with a soy sauce based sauce.  Yum.  And a fruit smoothy that was freshly made.  You picked out a cup with cut up fresh fruit and they blended it right there.  Best smoothy I've every had.

The clothes for sale included some really neat looking skirts and pants in beautiful fabrics.  Unfortunately I am a tall American woman and I towered over the local Thai women.  The clothes were made for the local women.  

It's quite the adventure to stroll down a street market at night in a foreign country.  I wish John had been there with me so I could have egged him into sharing my snack of insects.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Link to Video

One of the other tourists got a video of me while we were bathing the elephants.  I'm not sure how to embed video but here it the link:

Wat's Up

One of the interesting things to do in Thailand is to visit Wat Complexes (a Wat is a Buddhist relgious center).  It consists of a collection of buildings within an enclosure.  The Wat will often house monks, small shops, and often open areas where people can gather.  

The Wats that I visited showed the most complex and distinctly Thai architecture that I saw.  They were all very welcoming to visitors even when they were in use.  I witnessed people receiving blessings from monks and learning about Buddhism and participating in rituals.  I did not take pictures of these.  

At one Wat the monk enjoyed having foreign visitors.  I was with a guide that day so she helped me interact with the monk.  I wrote down my name and country of origin for his "list" (I'm not sure what he did with the list, I think he put it somewhere within the Wat complex) and he performed a blessing ceremony.

The ceremony was in Thai and all I know is that he dipped a brush into water and then splashed it on to me and ended up with him tying a beaded bracelet on my wrist (without touching me, monks do not touch women).  The guide explained that the blessing did not necessarily mean that something good would happen to me, it might mean that something bad would not be as severe as it could be without the blessing or that I would have strength to deal with an upcoming bad event.  

Each Wat complex had a few things in common.  A large gong that could either be struck or rubbed (if you rub it just right it "sings"), bells (large and small) and lots of images of the Buddha.

Images are from several different locations. 


Monday, July 23, 2012

Back from an Adventure

I believe in living life on the Edge, moving outside my Comfort Zone and doing things that most people would never be brave enough to try.  This summer it was a trip to Thailand.  Oh, I have stories to tell and even photos of gardens to post but I'm still very, very jet lagged so I'm posting some highlight photos.  Yes, that is me and yes, those are Asian Elephants.  I'll tell the story of what I was doing later this week.  But for now, I'm showing off. 

First day of meeting elephants.  I forgot to write down this one's name.

 This is the "baby," her name is Am

 We did a vet check on this girl, her name (spelled phonetically) is Poon - Lau

 I got to take her temperature.  I'm not sure which of us was more thrilled.

 At the Research Center - we were testing how elephants think about the world

 Poon- Lau again.  One perk of working with elephants is getting the chance to ride one.

 The Mahout stayed close by so I got to relax and enjoy myself and not worry about controlling the elephant

 We rode the elephants to the pond for their daily bath

 I got soaked

This is the big male, Pooky

 A smaller male, Pepsi

 The females can have small tusks, called Tushies
This is Thangmo

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Chimpanzee attack

I've worked with wild and captive exotic animals in a variety of settings - zoos, sanctuaries, veterinary situations - so whenever an exotic animal mauls a keeper or caretaker I try to analyze the situation to make sure I never make the same mistakes.

If you haven't heard - a graduate student was mauled by two adult male chimpanzees at a facility in South Africa called Chimp Eden.  It takes in abused chimpanzees rescued from the pet and bush meat trade.  It does really good work.

File:Adult male chimps in mahale.jpg

This situation is harder for me to analyze.  I've never worked with chimpanzees.  I do know that they are highly intelligent, they use tools and they plan ahead.  And they are STRONG. 

So what happened at Chimp Eden in South Africa?  The photos and videos from there show what appears to be good fencing.  There must have been some weakness where the event occurred.  Possibly some weakness created by the chimps and hidden from the staff (chimps have been known to hide things from their keepers before).

What I do know that the grad student did wrong were two things:  1)  he stepped too close to the fence and 2) he turned his back on chimps.

Most facilities that allow public access have two  barriers between the public and the animals.  The fence of the enclosure and a secondary barrier that keeps the public at a safe distance.  You probably don't even notice these at zoos but they are there.  The grad student who was mauled was between these barriers and therefore too close to the chimps.

The grad student was leading a tour and witnesses state the he had his back to the cage.  This is a major no-no.  If you aren't at a safe distance (and heck, sometimes even if you are at a safe distance) you always watch the animals.

[The few occasions I led tours I would stand sideways to the cage - one eye on the animal and one of the people.  Of course I was working with exotic cats at the time and some of them would...  um... hose you down.  And that would reach further than the safety barrier!]

Do I blame the the grad student?  No, he made mistakes.  He got too comfortable.  He paid the price.

Do I blame the facility?  No, from what I can see most of their procedures and fencing are good.

Do I blame the chimps?  Ha!  No.  They've come from horrific backgrounds and are probably mentally unstable.

So where should the blame fall?  I don't have the data to determine that.  Did the grad student break procedures?  Did the facility not adequately take into consideration the risks?  What triggered the incident?  We may never know.

Hey, I know who to blame!  Let's blame the people who perpetuate a trade in exotic pets and meats and who contributed to the trauma that these chimps had to endure before ending up in the sanctuary.  As a species we really should be doing better by our close relatives.

[image from wikimedia commons - thanks to Caelio]