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Trip 16 -- Inner Indochina and Japan

Part 1: Playing with pachyderms
1 June 2014

Except for a few extra soldiers on the streets, and the curfew, a traveler arriving in Thailand last week may never have known that the country was newly under military rule. Business went on, schools reopened after the weekend, and the blazing May heat made everyone sweat as usual. The strongest advice I got was from a Thai friend who told me about the coup and wrote, "Please be couscous" -- his phone's automatic-correction function was clearly programmed by a Moroccan chef. I valued my friend's advice and watched the BBC and followed to-the-minute Twitter reports of where the action was, but nearly everything seemed to be in a different neighborhood of Bangkok from where we were staying, and we would have only one full day in the capital anyway. Outside Bangkok, travelers learned of the developments when the bars they were patronizing abruptly closed at 10 p.m. and they had to ask why. After a couple of days the curfew was pushed back to midnight and all but ignored outside the capital anyway.

So we carried on as normal with our temple- and museum-hopping. Near the train station, where we bought tickets north with surprising ease and no wait, we climbed the three stories of Wat Traimit to its five-ton solid-gold Buddha. It was made in the 13th century and hidden in plaster, and no one knew what was underneath until part of the covering broke in 1955, at which point, as I like to imagine, someone brought it onto "Antiques Roadshow" and it was appraised at $10 million.

Near our neighborhood bordering Banglamphu and Chinatown, we visited Wat Suthat and observed the rusting remains of the Giant Swing, where competitors used to swing up and catch bags of gold with their teeth. We headed over by the Grand Palace to the Museum of Siam and had a look at its fun games, dioramas, and costumes related to the ancient kings, temples, and trades; learned about the wars with neighboring Burma; and saw how the relatively modern city of Bangkok -- which dates from 1782 -- was modeled after the old capital of Ayutthaya, which we would visit a couple of days later. We took the ferry down to the ritzy area of Silom and had dinner just in time to get back before the curfew kicked in.

As the next day was Sunday, we made the long trip out to the weekend floating market in Amphawa. It's most interestingly reached by a train, a ferry, another train, and a bus. The first train waddles its way for an hour through the countryside, usually with no parallel track, before passing a couple of pretty temples and reaching its terminus in the middle of a covered fish market in Maha Chai. We walked through the stench of dried seafood products and I bought a giant bag of freshly steamed mussels for the remainder of the journey, far more than I could eat -- Charlie might have helped me but her stomach hadn't quite adjusted to Asian food molecules and didn't want to chance the shellfish.

We took the ferry and walked up past what seemed like a monastery's graduation ceremony -- there was the peculiar cacophony of a live Thai orchestra and recorded karaoke tracks -- to the Ban Laem train station, only to find that they'd changed the schedule in the past month; we'd missed our connecting train by about 40 minutes and the next one wasn't for four hours. We'd have to take a minibus back on the other side of the river. As we got on the ferry, I gave the remaining mussels to a teenage beggar who had been sitting on the pier and bowing frantically, as if in prayer. He didn't look at me, but he nodded in acknowledgment and put the bag behind him until the ferry left; then he began eating them.

I'd hoped Amphawa's floating market wouldn't be as touristy as some of the others, but I was wrong. It was a long line of souvenir stalls along both sides of a river; boats sidled up for the day and grilled seafood for the people onshore. There was a little bit of what I wanted to see -- people bringing produce in on their boats and bartering it away -- but it was mostly an affair organized for visitors. We joined a temple tour mainly for the pretty boat ride along the backwaters, so we could see the houses on stilts and get a glimpse of the surrounding orchards. The temple tour caters to Thais who make wishes by sticking gold leaf on the multitudes of Buddha statues, but I enjoyed the variety of the five temples. The first had a portal topped by a majestic Garuda, the mighty mythic bird; the second had a delightfully pudgy Buddha and scores of painted Buddha scenes; the third had cows to feed, a gaudy rotating wheel of wax monk statues, and a gold-leaf Buddha footprint; the fourth and most impressive had been completely consumed by Bodhi tree roots and had its own zoo of live animals, including camels and goats; and the fifth had richly colored reflective tile.

The tour took three hours instead of the promised two, and so there wasn't time to do much but eat grilled squid by the river before taking the bus back to Bangkok. The bus got caught in a traffic jam about 30 miles out -- I was afraid it was everyone trying to beat the curfew, but we picked up speed as we passed the culprit, a load of coconuts that had fallen off a truck. Still, we got back to Bangkok 45 minutes past curfew. There were still plenty of taxis and other traffic and we encountered no problems getting to our hotel.

We left Bangkok the next morning and took the train up to Ayutthaya, the royal capital and strategic trade center from 1351 to 1767, where we'd spend the day before taking the overnight train to Chiang Mai. Charlie wasn't feeling great, and we found her a hotel room to rest in while I temple-trod in the heat of the day. First up was Wat Ratburana, built in 1424 by the king as a way of thanking his elder brothers for killing each other in an elephant-back fight so that he could take the throne. I climbed up the side and down into the crypt, which smelled like pigeon droppings and contained the remains of black-and-white murals. Across the street was the complex of Wat Phra Mahathat, a jungle of headless Buddhas and brick outbuildings leaning in all directions.

A few blocks west were the three majestic chedis (stupas) of the 15th-century Wat Phra Si Sanphet, built to house kings' ashes, and what remains of the palace, which isn't much -- the Burmese destroyed it in 1767 and many of the materials were hauled over to build the new capital in Bangkok.

We checked Charlie out of the hotel, and she felt well enough to eat from the food stalls across the street. Nearby a restaurant promised "jumbo hotdog pizza" -- a fully loaded pizza with hot dogs baked into the ring of crust.

"That's more American than anything we have in America," Charlie said.

I still want to try it.

Second-class train cars in Thailand are a good balance between conviviality and privacy. As we boarded, we met our neighboring passengers, one of whom taught me how to make a toast in Thai: "Chorn gau!" It literally means "two glasses." When we were under way, an attendant converted the seats into beds and added curtains, so we weren't sleeping in view of others. I walked back toward the dining car for a beer but was stopped by a group of Thais who handed me a cup of whiskey.

"Chorn gau!" I said. They all applauded.

And so we came to Chiang Mai, with more temples and a thriving old quarter surrounded by a square moat. We'd booked into the Suriwongse Hotel, a $35 steal on Orbitz -- a four-star room, a lobby smelling of eucalyptus and mint, a welcome drink of butterfly-pea tea, friendly staff, and a huge buffet breakfast. It was next to the night market, where I bought a tiny backgammon set to get us through the long train and boat rides ahead. But the real reason for coming up here was the point of this entire trip: "I want to wash a baby elephant," Charlie had been saying for years. And I was eager to participate in a traveling activity I probably wouldn't have thought of on my own.

And so we planned two days at the Elephant Nature Park, which was founded in 1995 by a woman named Lek to provide a home for abused and neglected elephants. Thailand outlawed elephant logging in 1989, putting the animals out of work, and many ended up on the streets with their owners, begging. Others' masters continued to log illegally. Elephants have traditionally been put through a training ordeal known as the phajaan, in which they were subjected to torture with hooks and sticks to break their spirit and teach them to obey.

The sanctuary has 39 elephants, 34 female and five male, 34 adults and five babies, ranging from seven months to 78 years. Many are partially or totally blind, owing to attacks by their owners or repeated spotlight flashes in the circus. Many have injured legs as a result of stepping on land mines, being forced to trek or log excessively, or being made to mate with males too big for them. Some have scarred backs from carrying tourists on wooden chairs -- indeed, we chose the Elephant Nature Park because it seemed to be the only elephant camp that didn't offer rides. (If we'd really wanted to sit on an elephant, there's one that offers them bareback, which is better than the chairs.) I'd ridden an elephant long ago and haven't decided whether humans belong on elephants' backs. Maybe not, but how far does it go? Should we not ride horses, either? Should I not have gone on a camel safari a few years ago? It's difficult to decide where to draw the line.

The park is also a sanctuary for rescued dogs and cats, and there are pigs, one leopard, and a herd of water buffalo. Most of the dogs are gentle; the staff puts ribbons around those who are prone to biting. A sign in the park's dining hall says, "The animals in the world exist for their own reasons. They were not made for humans any more than black people were made for white or women created for men."

The elephants stay mostly in clusters of five or six and have a strong sense of family. The adults surround a baby they feel is in danger. When Jokia, an addition to the herd who had lost her baby while working and her sight from her master's slingshot, arrived scared and scarred one day, an elephant named Mae Perm felt her all over with her trunk, calming her and reassuring her that she would be all right. They're now best friends.

Looking at these beautiful creatures straight on, I felt if I were gazing at something prehistoric. Smaller than African elephants, Asians are still huge beasts, standing nine or ten feet tall. They often have pink ears with black spots, and they have inch-thick grey skin with bristly hairs. They have giant toenails and padded feet, so they walk silently. Only the males have tusks, and even some of those don't -- those lacking them are called "ladyboy," as are Thai cross-dressing men. The sanctuary has one misbehaving male named Jungle Boy, who is kept in solitary confinement and is popular with the ladies -- "He walks on five legs," said our guide.

The Asian elephant has a tough, leathery trunk and a wet nose with one short probing "finger" (the African has two). Those at the sanctuary are kept on a daily diet of 400 to 500 pounds of bananas, watermelon, pumpkin, corn, and grass. Most eat these whole -- rind, peel, seeds -- and whack the banana-tree stalks against their legs to loosen them, but for the older elephants and those without good teeth, the staff peel the bananas, remove the rinds, and steam the pumpkins. Asian elephants go through six sets of teeth in a lifetime. They eat 18 to 20 hours a day, sleeping only two to four. Mothers-to-be are pregnant for 18 to 24 months (the longer end of the range when the baby is a boy) and, because of their size, aren't visibly pregnant -- one staff member got a surprise when he went to check on his elephant early one morning and found her giving birth.

During our two-day stay, we fed the elephants, cooked for them, and washed them in the river. For the basic feeding we were given buckets of watermelon slices. I took one and an elephant stretched out its trunk toward me. I placed the slice toward the base of the trunk -- not right on the nose -- and it curled the trunk around the food and hoisted it up to its giant, cauldron-like mouth, slobbering me with its nose in the process. It flopped its ears happily. Somehow elephants in good spirits seem to always look happy, and it made us happy to look at them. It's no wonder they are revered and put on display. Even the word "elephant" is fun to say. In Thai it's "chang," which is also a brand of beer that uses the elephant as its logo.

We prepared food for a toothless elephant by peeling and mashing ripe bananas, coating them with cornmeal and rice flour, and molding them into tennis-ball-sized bites.

We washed the elephants by taking them to the river and hurling buckets of water at them, taking care to avoid their eyes -- and standing clear of the luggage-sized cubes of elephant droppings floating downriver. Ever clumsy at water sports, I managed to hurl the bucket itself, but the elephant didn't seem too perturbed by it.

The staff fed us huge buffets of well-spiced vegetarian food -- the first food in Asia that Charlie could eat confidently -- and housed us in rustic cabins with mosquito netting, friendly dogs, and the occasional spider and gecko. The stone shower didn't inspire us, however, and the odd timing of the whole experience -- we checked out of our rooms before getting muddy washing the elephants -- meant that we saved cleaning up until we were back in the spa-like Suriwongse.

The following day, we took a bus up and down a couple of mountains for six hours to get to Chiang Khong, a small town across the Mekong River from Laos. We stocked up on snacks for the longboat journey to the temple-festooned ancient city of Luang Prabang, and after a hearty dinner and a glimpse of an Al Jazeera headline stating that Thailand's military chief didn't expect the country to hold elections for at least a year, we watched two geckos mate on our hotel window and settled in for another peaceful night in Thailand.

Go on to part 2: Will we ever arrive, and why are you dropping us so far from town?