Letters Home: Pai

I’m sitting in an air conditioned van between a fairly new friend and a Thai woman I don’t know. I hate sitting in the middle. The woman is on my left and my left arm is consciously trying to avoid making contact with her baby blue sweatshirt.

My neck is sore from the hard beds in these hostels, or maybe it’s from falling off of that bike yesterday. The last few days have been a little rough. It started with a tour I went on Monday. It was supposed to be three days and two nights of hiking, rafting, swimming and sleeping in one of the mountain villages. Oh, and then visiting an “elephant farm” to ride an elephant. That’s where the trouble began. The following includes a fairly disturbing account of what i saw there:

I was already a bit wary of doing any animal related activities here because of what I had heard of the treatment of the animals used for tourism. There’s a big controversy over whether riding elephants or using hooks (a stick with a sharp 5 inch or so hook on the end that is used to direct and control captive elephants) is ok when done the right way and in the right environment, etc., or if the whole elephant tourism deal is just all bad and traumatizing for the animals. Another big thing here is “tiger kingdoms” where you can go and interact with tigers which are said to be sedated, which the tiger people deny, naturally. I figured I might  not ride the elephants, but it would be nice to see them up close and get some photos and, I don’t know, pet one.

The tour started off a bit strangely. Our first stop was to an orchid farm, where hundreds of orchids hung in rows in a green room, their curly tan roots hanging underneath them. There was a butterfly farm in the next room, which we also visited. The end of our twenty minute trip there could not have come quickly enough.  As much as I love flowers and butterflies, there’s something unsatisfying about seeing them in such a sterile environment. That said, had I known what was coming next, I would have been happy to spend another few hours at the butterfly-orchid farm.

When we finished there, the eight of us on the tour hopped again into the back of the pickup truck with two benches on either side and headed to our next destination. There was a really sweet couple-Laura and Nikos, who were 23-year-old students from Germany; Jeremy, a 25-year-old film production assistant from France; a 30-something Iranian couple, and another German guy and his Thai girlfriend, who were pretty quiet. Everyone was very friendly.

I dozed off as traces of the city disappeared and we moved deeper into the jungle. The truck jerked along on a bumpy dirt road and I opened my eyes to see two elephants standing on the side of the road. Two people in blue Thai pants and matching blue shirts sat on the tops of each of them as a Thai man held onto chains attached to each of the elephants’ necks. As we continued on, we passed a big open field where tourists in the same blue suits sat on elephants led by the Thai men who carried their chains. I hadn’t been sure where I stood on the elephant debate before then, but seeing the blue people riding on their backs for no practical reason-aside from entertainment-felt immediately exploitative. We went on driving for about 15 more minutes, all the while watching elephant after elephant being led down the road with chains.

We finally made it to the part of the farm where we would stay. Laura, who sat across from me near the driver’s car gave me a sad smile before we all filed out of the truck.

“Ok, two people on one elephant,” Wat, our guide,  said cheerfully. He pointed to a platform near us where we would mount the wooden seating structures atop the elephants.

A man in a white shirt on the platform motioned us all toward him. I stood near the truck looking around at all the elephants and their keepers. Here young Thai men, maybe even in their late teens, strutted around in jeans and tank tops yelling with bamboo sticks in their hands. The man in white motioned at me and called again for me to come over. I waved my hand indicating that I would not come. “I’m not going to ride” I told Wat, who was standing near me.

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