Part Four: Saffron Robes and Elephants
By Gyn Gerhardt
Chiang Rai is the north
most large city in Thailand, bordering on Myanmar (Burma) and Laos,
and making what is known as the Golden Triangle. It is the Mekong
River that separates the two countries. Here, battles were won and
lost through the centuries on the backs of elephants, indigenous
to the area.
waited at the border to Burma while Nu, our guide, took our visas
to the border patrol. Once allowed to enter, Nu led us down the
road where our transportation awaited. We climbed into our Trishaws
and off took our drivers, legs pumping the pedals, whizzing down
the road to visit the town of Tachilek, the Shan-style temple, and
a hill tribe village. The tribesmen were colorfully dressed and
we visited with a shy young girl as she drew water from the communal
well. Many homes had a trishaw (Rickshaw attached to a bicycle)
under their eaves and even here we saw young Buddhist boys in their
saffron robes. We purchased a few decorative purses from the friendly
women and were then on our way back to Thailand.
Boarding our boat, we
headed to Laos down the Sai River that feeds into the Mekong. Here
we purchased memorable crafts from the Laosians at the dock. I treasure
the hand crocheted hats and purses ($3 each) as well as the teak
elephant carving that hangs over my den door. Soon it was time to
return to our hotel for lunch.
The major cash crop (the
gold) of the Golden Triangle, was and is still opium and continues
to be grown on denuded hillsides by the Hill Tribes. We visited
one of the tribes and while we were there, two opium lords arrived
on a Harley looking very much the slick Hollywood type with their
wraparound sunglasses, white shirts and colorful gabardine pants,
cigarettes puffing away. Such a contrast to the hill people in their
signature tribe clothing and painted faces. The King, Rama IX, is
working to stop the erosion on the land by teaching the tribes handicrafts
to sell to the tourists. The tour group I travel with also contributes
to this educational endeavor. The tribes are given land by the King
in exchange for not growing the opium.
Perhaps because 92% of
the 60 million Thai people as well as the King (by law) follow the
Thevada Buddhism religion, which is a most kind and gentle version,
there exists a reverence among the Thai of a respectful attitude
towards others. Extended families are very closely knit and this
family tradition has literally eliminated the beggars and homeless
on the streets I find in most other countries as well as my own.
is difficult not to see the many saffron orange clothed Monks in
the streets. Men and boys can join the order at any time in their
life and for a period of from 3 weeks to life. They can join for
many reasons as to dedicate one's life to attain enlightenment,
to further education, for short term training in the laws of Buddha,
and even for fun. They can leave when they want and return when
they want. It is a very open retreat.
There are some 30,000
Wat in Thailand. Their presence glistens in the sunlight everywhere
like jewels. They are very open and ornate, consisting of many colored
mirrored pieces of mosaic and 24 karat gold. We visited many of
the well known as well as some not frequented by tourists. It is
always necessary to remove ones shoes when entering and the bending
served to add to ones exercise for we ate much wonderful Thai food.
Even a couple of the restaurants required us to be shoeless. Those
who had shoes with ties soon wished for slip on sandals.
Later that night we rode
out of town to the countryside for a dinner at the summer home of
a Bangkok attorney. While he wasn't there, he entrusted our care
to his two nieces and the house staff. We were warmly greeted by
our hostesses with glasses of lemon grass tea. The house had been
relocated to the site from another part of the country and was an
excellent example of the typical country home on stilts. After viewing
the elegant living quarters, we retreated to the balconies to catch
the orange glow of the evening sunset as it dipped into the far
Torches were lit on the
estate as we sat down to dinner under the stars. The gourmet food
was outstanding with different curries, vegetables grown on the
estate, selected meats and fish and the ubiquitous jasmine rice.
After dinner, Nu brought out his surprise, a mini hot air balloon.
He stood on a chair to hold the large white funnel while James and
Kop lit the fuel.
Finally, off it went
upward, high in the cloudless evening sky. We followed the balloon
into the distance, its glow only matched by the light of the moon.
Further and further it went until we could see it no more. As we
strode back down the torch lit walkway to our waiting bus, we couldn't
help but wonder if there was someone somewhere reporting the sighting
of a UFO.
next morning we were on our way to Chaing Mai and my highlight of
the trip, a visit to the working Chaing Dao Elephant Camp. When
we arrived, we saw the elephants much like puppies, lightfootedly
playing together. We saw mothers with thir babies moving freely
in the open camp and we saw how these pachyderms work in the jungle
using their weight and trunks to build. We saw them bathe in the
river before chores and how they are easily commanded by voice and
hand signals to do the mahouts bidding.
A young 4 year old boy
was being trained under the watchful eye of his father to be a mahout.
He sat on the head of his elephant and controlled the movements
by tickling the base of the elephant's ears with his toes. Looked
easy to me. I also learned that the eye of the elephant is constructed
so as to make us humans extremely large and therefore not to run
up or wave
frantically at the elephant as it may frighten him into charging.
The name of my elephant
was "Monsieur" and the mahout "Mee". Mee is
23 years old and Monsieur 30. Mee bought the elephant three years
ago and they live together in the camp. Eagerly I climbed into the
wooden bench saddle and we proceeded to the river where Monsieur
drank his fill of water before he would follow Mee's repeated direction
to proceed to the jungle. Seems my elephant was still a kid at heart
with a mind of his own. Finally we were on our way.
After about an hour,
we encountered a hill tribe selling bananas for the elephants. Monsieur
proceeded hastily to get to the bananas, eager to tear down the
platform to achieve his goal. I quickly produced the required payment
of 20 Bot (50 cents) and Mee said Monsieur thanked me after he had
downed his two bunches. it certainly was a wild ride for a time,
Selling tourists bananas
is another trade for the Hill Tribes and their stands on stilts
to elephant height are found in the jungle where they live. They
also have stands with handmade trinkets for the tourists, but I
didn't want to interrupt Monsieur's walk to purchase the colorful
hand crocheted items. After a time, Mee jumped down and asked me
if I would like to slide down Monsieur's neck and sit on his head
for the rest of the ride, using my toes to guide him home. Now,
what do you think I did?
visit to the elephant camp culminated with a leisurely ride down
the river on a bamboo raft. I recognized Mee at his home along the
river and Monsieur strolling with him in the compound. I waved and
he eagerly returned my greeting. It was a splendid afternoon in
the jungle of Thailand, one I will never forget.
After lunch, we had the
opportunity to visit a Water Buffalo Camp and it was easy sailing
in comparison. Two babies, just a week old, greeted us and I suddenly
missed my puppies at home as they played with the elderly gentleman.
Just like puppies, they licked his arm and butted their heads at
his shoulder as he sat on the ground. The grown buffalo were just
as gentle, nudging our arms for a tickle of their ears. We watched
them perform the ancient duties of preparing the ground for planting
the rice and then the grinding of the rice into flour. I did ride
one of the buffalo bareback and they are very comfortable, lots
of fat covers their bones.
Once settled into our
new hotel, Nu suggested another adventure with a Thai massage before
dinner. It sounded so good after our busy day with the animals and
14 of our group of 16 decided the $15 for the 2 hour massage was
a real bargain and boarded the bus for Kop to take us there. When
we arrived, we were instructed to go up the stairs to the third
floor. We entered a large room and 14 beautiful Thai women beckoned
us to their mat on the floor. We were given shirts and pants to
don and we giggled like school children as we shyly changed our
clothes. We had spent 12 days together so far and this adventure
just added to our family of experiences. The women went to work
as they manipulated every weary bone and muscle and too soon the
two hours were over. Ten years younger we slipped back into our
clothes and headed for the bus and another wonderful Thai dinner.
The next morning brought
us a sad note as Kop drove us to the airport for our flight back
to Bangkok. This would be the last we would see of Kop and James
Bond as they had a 12 hour drive back to Bangkok. There were hugs
and fond farewells by all and a tear or two sprang from appreciative
eyes. With that we passed through security and Nu went to obtain
our flight passes.
Part One: Bangkok
Part Two: The River Kwai
Part Three: The Golden Triangle
Part Four: Saffron Robes
Part Five: Reflections