Swinging through Singapore

If you have ever thought of going to Singapore, I would encourage you to move it up on your list. If the thought has never crossed your mind, you should really consider visiting. I had only two days to spend in Singapore but in that short time I totally became enamored with the city. Singapore has tagged itself as the Garden City for good reason. I was amazed and delighted to discover how uniformly green the city is. Singapore was on my list for a couple of reasons. One, it is a good airline hub offering flights to almost anywhere guaranteeing reasonable prices and a multitude of schedule options. And two, I had never been there before, heard a lot about it from others, and decided to explore it myself.

And explore it I did. The short two days I was there I tried to cover as much of the city as I could. Despite its relatively small size as a territory, at 278 square miles, it is impossible to walk the whole city. Nonetheless I managed to cover quite a bit of the city center on foot, using the metro only to make big jumps from section to section. As I was staying at an acquaintance’s house, located in the northern suburbs, the metro was also a convenient way to get to the city center. Before I arrived I had done some research about the city and learned that for a relatively small territory Singapore has a lot to offer. I merely scratched the surface, choosing to ignore the more traditional tourist activities in favor of just wandering around. So I did not visit Sentosa Island, the zoo, or take advantage of the safari offerings to name a few of the more well known attractions. I guess that means I will have to go back!

One of the many interesting side streets in the little India/Arab area.

I started my exploration by wandering around in the Botanical Gardens located on the northern edge of the city center. The gardens are fairly extensive and as it was a Saturday when I visited there were tons of people out walking, jogging, picnicing and just spread out on the green spaces. It certainly looked like the residents enjoyed and used the gardens extensively. I visited the orchid garden as it was listed as a “must see” but otherwise just meandered through the beautiful trees enjoying the greenery. The nearly three hours I spent there passed quickly, my stomach waking me up to the amount of time that had gone by. So in search of lunch I headed to the next place on my list “little India”. Convienently adjacent to little India is an Arab neighborhood also of interest. Emerging from the metro at the edge of little India I found a huge food court with an incredible variety of food stalls representing cuisines from all of Asia. Skipping over the Thai offerings, having just come from there, I decided to try something Chinese and supplement the food with an Indian lassi. I loved the variety!

This cake caught my eye in a bakery I passed in the Arab area. Besides being huge it looked colorful, but not being hungry, I passed it by.

Saturday is market day and thus the streets were full of people, tourists and locals both, hurrying in every direction and in and out of various stalls and shops. I was not interested in buying anything so I merely window shopped and people watched, slowly making my way further south to the Arab area. Along the way I took the opportunity to explore the many interesting small side streets, alleys really, that had unique retail and coffe shops as well as bars. During the course of my investigations I stumbled across a collection of tasty looking Mediterranean restaurants, which made me wish I had not already eaten as they all smelled good and I love that cuisine. (Next time!)

After a couple of hours of exploring this area I headed over towards the shopping district, Orchard Street. It is quite famos as a shopping area and I was curious about why it was so lauded. Knowing the general direction I needed to head I picked random streets as my route. I was amazed to discover even more, less well known (and more reasonably priced) shopping centers along the way. When I arrived at Orchard Road, and THE shopping district proper, it was rather overwhelming. There were people everywhere and huge shopping mall after huge shopping mall lining both sides of the street. There was a plethora of the “big” (i.e. expensive) brand stores as well as a bunch of stores I had never heard of. It is hard to describe how big it was, but I can state that from the beginning to the end of the strip of massive shopping complexes I saw two or more of the exact same stores, unusual in such a small geographical area. I have to say that one of the impressions of Asia I take home with me after this extensive trip is that shopping is a major activity and popular pass time, even more so than places I have been in the U.S.

Helicopters practicing for the National Day Ceremony. Fairly dramatic to see them go by. Noisy too!

I did not spend too much time exploring all of the shopping malls since it did not take too long to get a feel for the area and satisfy my curiosity about the environment. It was getting late in the day and I wanted to visit the marina area before returning to the apartment I was staying at. I hopped on the metro and got off at the stop nearest the Garden on the Bay and the Marina Bay Sands, a huge hotel and entertainment complex- yes, with more shopping!- right on the bay. Because of the bridge configuration, pedestrians can walk a full circle around the bay, a great way to see the whole area. The foot traffic across the bridge was a bit disrupted, however, as there was a dress rehearsal for the Singapore National Day ceremony, held in August, taking place at the theater on the water near the pedestrian path and consequently foot traffic was being restricted. I only found out later what the event was, but at the time assumed it was something nationalistic as it involved lots of people in military dress, overflies of aircraft, and at one point three large helicopters carrying a huge Singapore flag flying low level across the water. As sunset approached the crowd started gathering for the nightly fireworks show, delayed 30 minutes due to the dress rehearsal, but I by that time me feet told my it was time to go, so I hopped on the metro and headed back.

A view from a distance of the Gardens by the Bay. You can see the “super trees” sticking up and the domes.

A closer view of the “super trees”. There is a sky walk that connects a few of them.

The next morning, however, I was right back at the marina because I wanted to explore the Garden by the Bay. The Garden by the Bay is a green space adjacent to the water that is kind of a cross between a public park and mini-botanical garden. Of major interest in the garden are the many “super trees” that tower over the surrounding vegetation and which at night are impressively lit up. The super trees, made out of metal, support different kinds of plant life. In addition the garden boasts a Flower Dome and a Cloud Dome. I bought a ticket to the Flower Dome and once inside was so entranced I spent several hours there. It was amazing!!!! The main floral displays located in the center of the dome, which I have been told change every quarter, were so beautiful it brought tears to my eyes. In addition there were flowers in smaller displays, organized via climate, dotted around the perimeter. The dome featured more than flowers, however, including many other types of plants in the climate specific displays. I took a ton of pictures because I could not help myself- even the cacti display was eye catching and arresting. I HIGHLY recommend the Garden by the Bay, especially the Flower Dome if you are ever in Singapore. I cannot wait to go back to investigate the Cloud Dome some day.

The overwhelming beauty of the central display at the Flower Dome. Don’t need to say more!

Three or so hours later after thoroughly investigating the rest of the gardens (minus the Cloud Dome) I finally completed the circuit of the marina I had not been able to do the night before. There were a lot of people out and about so finding a place to grab a quick bite was tough, but eventually I grabbed a chair along the water and watched the people go by. From the marina I headed north to investigate part of the city, the historical area, I had not yet seen. Soon enough it was time to be back at the apartment to meet some friends of friends who had offered to take me to dinner.

Close up of one example of the beautiful flowers. Look closely and you can see so many different shades of purple in one spot. Absolutely amazing are the colors that nature produces.

The next day I flew to Hawaii, where I am now, taking a “vacation” from my vacation. Soon enough I am back in northern Virginia for a TBD amount of time and will discover which direction my life will take next!

This close up of a rose (one of my favorite flowers!) turned out rather nice so I thought I would include it.

Bangkok: Part 2

After wandering around in Bangkok for the last three or so days I can admit that I am finally temple saturated. And market saturated. I am not, however, tired of the street food or the foot massages. These four things- temples, markets, street food, and foot massages, have bracketed my experiences not only in this amazingly diverse city, but for the whole month I have spent in the country. For the last few days in Bangkok I have spent a lot of time walking around but still managed to master three of the four major forms of public transportation: SkyTrain, subway, and boat. The bus system, while extensive, will remain unexplored; today is my last day. Tomorrow I am heading to Singapore.

Earlier in the month as I was planning my return to Bangkok after the elephant volunteer work I did some extensive research on where to stay. Bangkok is a large city with numerous districts, each offering different experiences. As I thought ahead, I knew I wanted to visit some of the larger temples, the Grand Palace, and be located near the river but even with those constraints there were still lots of options. I would like to credit the blog “Nerd Nomads” for help in deciding my base of operations. One of their posts by Maria on February 14, 2016 entitled “Where to Stay in Bangkok- Our Favourite Areas & Hotels” led me to the small boutique hotel I booked. Loy La Long, an old Thai house converted to a small hotel, sits directly on the river and has two open decks perfect for sitting and watching the river traffic go by. I have really enjoyed the atmosphere, especially in the evening, when the brightly lit ships pass by with their full load of passengers taking dinner cruises. In addition to being on the water the hotel is located near Chinatown and not far from two different boat piers, so getting around is fairly straightforward. Finding the hotel was a bit tricky however as it is located on the grounds of the local temple, Wat Prathoomkongka. But once I arrived I realized how lucky I was to being staying there.

View of my hotel from the water. I took this as we cruised by on Wednesday.

View from the hotel second floor deck. Nice place to sit in the evening!

It was dinner time Sunday night by the time I got myself settled so I set off for Chinatown, a short ten minute walk, where every evening street restaurants of every variety suddenly appear. I found an area where the seafood specialists were located, easily identifiable because of the plethora of fresh seafood displayed in beds of ice, and picked a place at random. Looking around it would have been a great place to be in a group- there was lots of interesting seafood on hand to taste but way too much for one person to consume, so I simply ordered a seafood curry. The place was a beehive of activity, clearly a popular place for locals and tourists alike. After eating I headed back to the hotel to catch the evening’s soccer games.

A trip to Bangkok must include a visit to the Grand Palace and that is where I headed on Monday, bright and early, as I had learned earlier from some fellow travelers that a free English language tour occurs at either 10:00 or 10:30 am. A short guided tour providing an overview was an attractive option for such a large, historical site leaving me better informed to wander around on my own afterward. The easiest way to get to the area of the Grand Palace from my hotel was a local water taxi so I set off for the nearest pier to join the locals waiting for the next boat. Already at 9:00 am there were many large groups of tourists, mainly Chinese, streaming through the entrance gate. I was glad I was there in low season as it was crowded enough! Tour guides carrying flags or umbrellas raised high overhead to help keep their groups together were moving every direction and following them people were darting every which way trying to avoid each other. After buying my ticket and locating the desk where English language tours originate (10:30 am for that day) I sat down out of the way and people watched for a while. Being on my own meant that I set my own schedule and had no compulsion to race around frantically as the rest of the crowd was doing. With no time constraints, I had all day to explore the grounds. Over time quite a large group of assorted tourists, not all native English speakers, assembled for the English language tour.

Just one part of the very large wall mural on the inside of the Grand Palace outer walls.

Our guide was quite funny and very personable and it was great to get a bit more insight into not only the history of the Grand Palace, but Thai culture. One of the things I found especially interesting was that every student in Thai schools has to learn the national epic, the Ramakien, a story derived from the Hindu “Ramayana”. Our guide mentioned this because painted along the whole of the inside of the outer walls of the palace grounds was a huge, detailed mural depicting the events of the tale. Granite plaques, mounted on columns spaced along the wall, were inscribed though rather worn and barely readable, with the verses of the epic. He even stopped for a moment to chant some of the versus for us as an example of the recitation he had to do as a school boy. The epic is tied deeply into Thai culture.

After an hour or so overview with our tour guide I retraced my steps to examine some of the interesting structures we had passed more closely. The Grand Palace complex consists of many buildings and statues scattered about inside displaying architectural styles both Chinese and Thai, something I have learned a little bit about during my visit to Thailand. It was fascinating to see the intricacy of both, even though they are very different. The main palace building itself also introduced some elements of European architecture- so it was a mixed bag all together. One of the main attractions of the temple is an emerald Buddha, actually made out of jade, so I dutifully filed in to take a picture of it along with the other tourists, but I was much more interested in the variety of buildings, the extensive mural, and well… people watching in general.

The “palace” part of the Grand Palace complex, which consisted of lots of buildings.

The whole purpose of this building is for the “laying in state” of deceased kings. The king is highly revered in Thailand.

I spent more than half a day there, wandered out to get some lunch and walked south to the next major temple on the tourist circuit, Wat Pho, for short, whose main attraction is the largest reclining Buddha statue in the world. (By the way, names in Thailand are never short. Apparently Bangkok, which is a short version of the city name holds the Guiness Book of World Records for longest city name.) The reclining Buddha pose represents his enlightenment although the reason for the large size escapes me. What was interesting to me however, was that this particular temple served as an early university as well as a center of knowledge on traditional Thai herbal medicine, still functioning today in the later capacity. The grounds were quite extensive and for some reason they have also become the “home of the lost Buddha statues” having gathered up thousands of them from around the country to give them a resting place. With so many statues in proximity it is easy to see the different styles as well as examples of the different Buddha postures, all with their own meaning. Also as it was quite crowded this was another great place to people watch!!!

The huge reclining Buddha. Why, who knows! Lots to surface area to take care of here…..

As the afternoon passed by I slowly meandered my way south towards the main pier area where I wanted to inquire about river cruises, and especially a night cruise and the possibility to see the many temples along the river lit up brightly after dark. I arrived at the time when the evening cruises were leaving but still managed to obtain the information I needed. Where there are crowds, there are street food vendors, so dinner was easy. Back at the hotel, I sat on the second floor open deck enjoying the refreshing river breeze and watched through the evening as those very same boats floated by on their travels.

I hit two more temples on Tuesday, Wat Arun, an important temple more or less directly across the river from the Grand Palace, and Wat Traimit, the location of a three meter, six ton solid gold Buddha statue, making it the biggest golden statue in the world. It was lovely, of course, but since in appearance it looked like a lot of other golden (leaf) Buddha statues, I am pretty sure I did not appreciate this one properly. Clearly it is not going anywhere anytime soon! This temple, on the edge of Chinatown, put me next to the old market area so I wandered through the narrow, cluttered, very active market street where it was possible to find pretty much anything, especially if related to textiles, clothing, accessories or jewelry. I was a bit overwhelmed at the massive amount of “stuff” around me, lots with no practical purpose. I have no idea where all of it goes at the end of the day….

Later I conquered the subway venturing into a completely new part of town to find an English language bookstore. Inadvertently my path led me through the posh part of Bangkok as I found yet another massive multi-level, multi-building shopping complex, but consisting of high end, designer stores and labels. I took time to explore the gourmet supermarket, located in the basement of one of the buildings, mainly out of curiosity of what kinds of foods I would find. It was interesting but expensive, of course. After successfully locating the bookstore and selecting a book I retraced my steps to the Chinatown area and treated myself to a foot massage to end the day. I am pretty sure that I am becoming addicted to foot massages, incredibly affordable at about $10.00 an hour. I highly recommend this as “must-do” if you are in Thailand. It seems that on every street corner you can find a massage business as locals frequent these places as often as tourists.

Temple ruins at Ayutthaya. According to legend it burned for seven days. Certainly the scorch marks are evident.

Wednesday started early. I left the hotel at 6:30 am to walk to the main pier in order to meet the tour to Ayutthaya I had booked for the day. Ayutthaya, the old capital of Thailand (before it was called Thailand), was burned to the ground by the Burmese in the late 1700s, leaving its temples in ruins. Today it is a UNESCO World Heiratage site, thus an interesting place to visit. I had found a tour which included a river cruise during the return journey, a huge selling point for me. Going with a group also meant I was going to get some background and historical context as well as not have to worry about transportation. Hard to beat the combination of those three! Our tour guide was a jolly, well-informed woman who shared not only the history, but some more anecdotes about Thai culture.

One thing I have not figured out yet is the seeming contradictions I have learned and observed about their practice of Buddhism and the teachings. Buddhism is not a religion – it has no creator myth nor did Buddha preach about a deity. Consequently it is actually more of a philosophy on how to live your life. Yet as Donna, our tour guide, giving us her western name as she thought her Thai name was too long and complex, explained, the Thais will go and ask favors from the Lord Buddha as if he was a god who could grant them, a concept completely at odds with his teachings. In addition there are versions of Hindu gods appearing from time to time in the Buddhism practiced here, and in Nepal too, for that matter. Clearly the practice of the lay people has evolved from the formal teachings. I probably need to find a monk to have a conversation with about this at some point…..

I had to sit down for this picture so my head would be lower than the Buddha’s, encased at the base of the tree.

Clearly seen in the ruins of the temple Wat Mahathat in Ayutthaya, was the construction techniques used, the bare brick base structures the only things remaining after the devestation. Having visited numerous temples already I could easily spot and imagine the layout of the grounds amongst the piles of crumbling bricks scattered about. Images of the Buddha are taken so seriously in the country that they had designated a special concrete pad for the storage of any remnants thought to be a part of a Buddha statue, placing that area off limits for exploration. The temple is not only famous for its ruins but also because one of the Buddha heads, having become separated from its body, had been incorporated into a Bodhi tree that had grown around it. As it is not proper to have your head higher than that of the Buddha to get a picture with this phenomenon it is necessary to sit on the ground!
The cruise back was relaxing and it was interesting to see some of the traditional Thai style homes, perched high on stilts to last through the monsoon season, along the route. As we neared the outskirts of Bangkok it was possible to see all kinds of construction occurring as the city stretches north. The traffic on the river got more and more heavy as we got closer to the main part of the city, with all kinds of boats going in multiple directions apparently at random. Somehow it worked although a small local taxi cut right across the front of our ship, close enough for our captain to repeatedly sound his horn.

Some of the houses we passed on stilts along the waterway. We were cruising at low tide as well.

Today is a rest day with the only two items on my agenda being another foot massage and a dinner cruise so I can see the city at night. Then I say good-bye to Thailand.

For those who enjoy pictures:

A view of part of Bangkok from a roof top bar I visited. The city is large and very spread out.

Scattered around in the temples are various types of Chinese statues. Apparently they served the purpose of ballast on trading ships and once here, well what else would you do with them?

Demon guards whose purpose is to guard the temple. I’ve seen these of various sizes at different temples.

Chinese market alley . Motorbikes can apparently make up their own rules. I’ve seen them going the wrong way on one way streets (on the sidewalk!) and in narrow pedestrian zones like this alley. Crazy!

For those of you who like architecture:

Chinese style temple.

Close up of Chinese style- flowers, pastels, plaster shapes.

Another close up illustrating the Chinese style.

Thai style temple. Use of gold leaf, cut glass and mosaic.

A close up version of the columns. Very glittery.

An even closer view.

A Pictionary of Street Food

Every Saturday night Wua Lai Road, just south of the old city, is closed to traffic to accommodate a very extensive night market. I decided to go investigate even though I had been to the nearby night bazaar a few times. The Saturday night market was reputed to contain more artisan and craft goods than the regular night market so I set off to find out what that meant. I must take a moment here to apologize ahead of time to my friends and family who may be expecting massive loads of souvenirs– sorry! Since I am not a “thing” person I find it hard to imagine why anyone else would want souvenir type stuff too. Thus my excursion was not a shopping trip, but a chance to satisfy my curiosity. There was a huge crowd despite the threat of rain and the market was extensive. As I was walking around, I again was amazed at the quantity and variety of street food and decided to photo document for a blog. Unfortunately I was not super hungry so I did not take advantage of all of the culinary experiments I saw. There is still time though….

A quick word about the feature photo: I mentioned earlier that it was possible to find anything on a stick, but even I was surprised to see a scorpion on a stick. I’m not exactly sure how one would eat that.

Enjoy the photos!

I think this was some kind of dried fish, mainly because that is what it smelled like. Not too attractive to me, but some Chinese tourists were eyeing it.

Grilled bananas among other things. Smelled good and looked tasty.

Grilled corn. If I would have been hungry, this would have been something I tried. Smelled like there was tons of butter on it!

Wide variety of “stuff on a stick”.

This is all sausages of various kinds, including the strings of small balls of sausages hung together like Christmas tree lights seen hanging from the top.

Sushi. You pick the ones you want and they add up the total. It is incredibly cheap and pretty good, although there is a weird use of mayo that I don’t understand. I’ve tried some earlier in my trip.

One of the many places to get fresh fruit, fresh fruit juice and fresh smoothies, of any flavors. I have been seriously indulging in fresh fruit juice and smoothies.

A wide variety of seafood was available at this stall including oysters, crab, shrimp, lots of fish, etc..

Lots of variety of meats on a stick. Fried chicken is amazingly popular here (and yes, there are KFC franchises here too).

Dumplings with various stuffing. Another thing I would have liked to try if I had been hungry.

I saw lots of avocados so they must be in season. Interestingly this booth was offering avocado smoothies with coconut added. Also fresh passion fruit juice was available.

I’ve seen several stalls with waffles. Different fillings are available and a sandwich is constructed with the chosen filling. I’ve also seen, and tasted, waffles with the desired flavor incorporated into the batter.

If I read the sign correctly these deserts are made of sugar, gelatin and bean paste, so they really are “jelly beans”. On my list to try before I leave Thailand.

Pad Thai is the specialty of this booth. The large grill surface cooks the dish quite quickly while you wait.

This was quite a large booth with lots of variety. I did get a veggie spring roll, which was not on a stick- until it was delivered to me! So I had a spring roll “on a stick”.

More sausages (of some kind) on a stick. Not sure how you figure out what they are all composed of. Maybe for meat people it does not matter…..

I have been amazed at the size of the prawns they have here. Huge!

As I have previously mentioned, a carnivore’s dream…..

A Tale of Temples

The past few days I have been meandering around the old city of Chiangmai, popping in and out of the many Buddhist temples scattered everywhere. Chiangmai is the temple capital of Thailand, hosting in the 2 km square old city and surrounding area more than 300. There is an expression common across southeast Asia that I became familiar with in Nepal: “Same, same, but different”. This is a perfect description of visiting multiple temples. On the surface they all kind of look the same; there is a large central pagoda-like building hosting inside an enormous golden statue of the Buddha which spans the wall. Surrounding the central prominent Buddha statue are a plethora of smaller Buddhas with various poses made out of different materials. Surrounding the statuary are colorful flower arrangements. In some cases there are also bronze or wax models of important monks or pictures of the royal family. Along one wall down the side of the building are wide platform chairs available for monks wishing to sit or meditate. The main floor is uncluttered and bare, sometimes covered partially with a thin carpet, where worshipers can sit or kneel. Scattered around the building along the rest of the walls are other types of icons, statues, wall paintings or candles. So a quick glance in one temple will convince you that “if you have seen one, you’ve seen them all”. There are differences, however, noticeable on close inspection and I learned more about those differences on a tour I took today.

Old stupa at Wat Chedi Luang.

One of the most important temples in the area is Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, referred to as Doi Suthep for short, located on a hill overlooking the region about 30 minutes from the city center. The temple, or Wat in Thai, is reputed to hold a relic from the Buddha housed in its ornate golden stupa. Because of the temple’s importance and rich history I decided to find a guide for a tour of the complex. My experiences in Nepal illustrated how interesting it was to visit the temples early in the morning so I was happy to find a guide who included as part of the tour exposure to and participation in the daily morning ritual of the giving and receiving of alms.

The golden stupa at Doi Suthep which houses a Buddha relic. It’s hard to get it all in one picture- surrounded on all four sides with smaller statues.

Consequently my guide, Tam, picked me up at 6:10 am and we headed out of the city to Doi Suthep. As it was early there were not many people on the roads, but I saw orange robed monks, young and old, walking down the streets with their alms bowls. Just before reaching the temple, we stopped at a village market to buy some food for giving the monks during alms collecting. While we were doing that I observed nearby four young monks in the process of receiving food from a woman and her child. The food was put in the alms bowl, the woman bowed, and the monks chanted their thanks. After that instructional example I felt ready to participate. We returned to the car and headed up the hill to the temple. Parking at the base of the steps I had a moment of deja vu. The temple, sitting on the top of a hill, required an ascent of 306 steps reminding me of the “monkey temple” in Kathmandu. The steps in front of me, however, were much wider and shallower than those in Nepal making the climb much easier. Perhaps the difference is due to the less abrupt change of altitude in the terrain in Thailand?

Steps of Doi Suthep. By the way that is my “Thai” outfit. Light, loose fitting clothing- perfect for a hot and humid climate.

When we reached the top of the steps and entered the temple complex a family and a few others had already gathered with their offerings prepared so we joined the group. Around 7 am about 20 monks appeared and filed past in a line. Those of us waiting placed our offerings in their bowls as they passed. When all had passed the monks lined up in front of us in two rows and chanted their blessing. Tam told me that they were chanting blessings for health, happiness and success in life. I had gotten quite lucky in my selection of a guide as Tam had been a monk for about 15 years. During the course of the morning as we walked around the temple, he explained the background and nuances associated with monastic life in Thailand. It was an excellent tour as I learned a lot about Thai Buddhist practices which differ from what I had been exposed to in Nepal.

Morning gathering of alms. This is how (and the only way) the monks get food to eat.

Chanting the blessing. The monks have already spent two hours meditating and chanting so the belief is that they are in a “pure” state to pass on blessings to the people providing alms.

What struck me the most about the Thai practice was the extent to which Buddhism and its philosophy was woven into the social, cultural and to a certain extent, political fabric of the country. The monasteries, which admit children as young as six, have been the main source of education for the population for centuries. Historically parents, especially those with few resources, would send their sons to the monasteries for quality education. Monks, in addition to being provided an education, are taught the importance of and expected to do community service. In turn, the communities around the temples support the monks – providing via alms the food the monks eat every day, and occasionally labor or time if needed for projects. So the system is very synergistic for all parties, creating a strong cultural fabric. In addition as monks can decide to leave the monastery at any time and become lay people, this reinforces the importance of supporting the local monastery.

Tam mentioned that the number of young people interested in being monks has declined recently due to the increasing availability of education for all as well as the influence of modern communications. However as Thailand seems to be the center of education for all monks following the Theravada tradition, there are many monks arriving from other southeast Asian countries – Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Japan, China and Sri Lanka – for training. Being female, I had to ask about opportunities for women. Apparently women can be nuns and also female monks (very rare). The difference between the two, I was informed, is the number of rules required to follow. Nuns have only a handful, but female monks over 300. (Male monks have slightly less than 300.)

Samples of different poses you can find the Buddha in.

As we toured the temple grounds Tam gave me a running commentary on the statuary and the purpose behind all of the different poses depicted in the various statues of the Buddha. He also pointed out the differences between the Thai, Burmese, Chinese and Indian forms of the Buddha, something I had not paid attention to before. He showed me the different buildings in the complex, explained their purpose and how they were used. In addtion he shared with me the daily schedule for both the “city” monks, those in yellow and orange robes, and the “meditation”monks, those in the brown robes. It was an incredible morning and I learned so much!

On the way back to the city leaving Wat Doi Suthep we stopped at a meditation temple complete with constructed caves for extended meditation sessions. Tam had been a meditation monk and spent six years at this temple so again I had a great tour. While we were there we ran into one of his former students who was getting set to walk the hour into town to Chiangmai University where he studies at the Buddhist Univeristy located on campus. We offered him a lift. As he was majoring in English we had a nice chat along the way. There are two Buddhist Universities in Chiangmai. One is in the old city at Wat Chedi Luang and the other is part of Chiangmai University. Both institutes sponsor a program called “Monk Chat” , aimed at providing the monks studying English an opportunity to practice by speaking with tourists. I had stopped by and chatted with some young monks the day before at Wat Chedi Luang. Son, Tam’s student who we were delivering to the Chiangmai university campus runs the other one—it’s a small world!

The “monk chat” is easy to find. Look for the welcoming signs. I encourage you to do this if you are ever visiting Chiangmai!

We finished the tour with an early lunch of Pad Thai at a center where young women being released from prison learn vocational skills to help them acquire jobs. At the site we visited, which is in the middle of the old city, women learn massage, cooking, weaving, coffee barista, and how to run your own business. Apparently the massage facility is fairly well known on Trip Advisor and hence there is usually a wait list for appointments. As a monk Tam taught meditation and self-awareness twice weekly in the prison which is why he knew so much about the rehabilitation effort (there is also a parallel program for men too). I quizzed him quite a bit about the program as it was very intriguing. All in all a very informative, interesting morning. Later today, around 5 pm, I am going to place myself at a temple to listen to the evening chanting.

And some more random pictures:

This is a story room. The pictures are used for teaching as the themes of the pictures impart lessons. Tam walked me through a few. It is a powerful way to teach. They include in this room, by the way, other religions and the fact that the basic tenet of all is “be a good person and treat others well”.

A king’s crypt. Yes, the gold leaf is pretty, but the teak wood carving is what impressed me the most. Beautiful!

Another impressive example of craftsmanship is this teak pavilion in an area used for walking meditation by the monks but also offering a great view of the city below.

Different day of the week- different Buddha. Go figure!

I asked Tam about the meaning behind the reclining Buddha pose as I see them, all sizes, everywhere. He told me it is a meditative pose.

I saw this in one of the temples I visited yesterday and did not know what to make of it (so I took a picture). A weird offering or a statement about modern life????

Exploring Thai Cuisine

Even before stepping foot in Thailand all I heard about was the food and recall that in my blog about Bangkok, the quantity and variety of street food caught my eye immediately. Well, after being here for more than two weeks, that impression has only been strengthened. I spent the day in a Thai cooking class, therefore food is a natural topic for a blog (or maybe two!).

No matter where I have been in the country either strolling randomly around Bangkok or walking down the street in the small village ten minutes from the elephant center where I was volunteering, I have seen street food in the form of roadside dining establishments and food vendors everywhere. There is no excuse for being hungry in this country! Any day or night market, and there are tons of them scattered all over the place, have countless food stalls selling almost anything you can think of and several things that would never cross your mind. While staying in southern Thailand at the WFF, a group of us visited a near-by night market one evening, It was a wonderful opportunity to find new things to try. I mentioned this visit, briefly, in an earlier post but only the highlights. The variety of items available was amazing. Included among the weird odds and ends for sale was an assortment of fried bugs, offered by not one, but two (!) vendors. A few adventurous people bought a “variety pack” to sample, but I was not interested. I had tried fried grasshopper at a Mexican restaurant several years back and so my “taste a bug” checklist was complete. Fried grasshoppers, considered a delicacy in Mexico, did not impress me. They were crunchy, had bits that poked me in the mouth as I chewed them, and generally tasted like dirt, so I think my bug tasting days are behind me. (Hopefully.) But the Thai fried bugs got fairly favorable reviews from the group so maybe there was something special about the Thai seasoning!

I had to put this large scale in the blog so everyone could see the wonderful variety of bugs available. Yum!

As I have walked around the various markets and streets making note of the foods being offered one of the things I can say in summary is “if it can be put on a stick, the Thais do so”. Clearly food to go is an important concept. This is especially true for meats of all sorts, encompassing sausages made from who knows what in various shapes, sizes and configurations to the ubiquitous recognizable chicken kebabs and everything in between. If you are a carnivore with a busy schedule, Thailand is the place to be. Numerous fruit is also delivered as a kebab, although small plastic cups are also available, both easily transportable. For veggie lovers, stir fry is the dish of choice, available with rice or rice noodles. Luckily for the stir fry and other cooked dishes there are usually pictures which show clearly what is in each selection. The pictures work well, though, only if it is possible to identify the various vegetables advertised! Besides the mango sticky rice, I have yet to buy sweets from a street vendor. Exploring the colorful, but mysterious, sweet offerings is on my list. Ditto for some of the weird looking fruits, although I have now tried jackfruit so I can check it off my list.

Squid on a stick. Not sure how you eat that gracefully.

A very small example of the variety of meat on a stick. (very small sample!)

I have always liked Thai food and so one of my goals while visiting the country was to seek out a cooking class or two. Consequently this morning at 8:30 am I was picked up at my hotel by the Thai Organic Farm Cooking School. They offer a pick-up service because after a stop at a local market for an explanation of some basic ingredients used in Thai cooking (awesome!) the class gets transported about 40 minutes out of the city to their organic farm where the classes are held. As the class, consisting of six different dishes, consumes the whole day, they deliver us back to our lodgings late afternoon (but well before the football matches start!). Overall it was a great day, I learned a lot, but I returned to the hotel completely stuffed!!!

This is something I have no interest in trying. it’s just wrong…..

The trip to the market was very educational. Fah, our instructor, first explained the various kinds of rice used in Thai cooking, breaking them into two categories, “sticky” and “non-sticky”. She also gave us tips on cooking each. I had worked with some of the varieties before, but not the sticky rice, so I learned something useful only 20 minutes into the class. She next showed us the curries, and for me, more interesting, the sweeteners used in Thai cooking. Rather then white sugar, they use palm sugar, preferably in its fresh, moist, solid state although a dried form is also available. If palm sugar is not available then coconut sugar is used. I am definitely going to hunt both of these items down when I am home. Finally she finished our tour with a discussion of all the different sauces typically used in Thai food preparation. I had already heard of and worked with many of them—soy sauce, fish sauce, oyster sauce, sunflower oil and so forth. But what I had not heard of and was very interested to learn about was the tamarind sauce. This sauce is used in Pad Thai and I had never heard of it before. All the recipes I had ever found for Pad Thai, I dish I really like and make every so often, call for the use of ketchup in the sauce. I had always suspected that ketchup was substituting for an ingredient not easily found in the US. Today that mystery was solved, Fah confirmed ketchup is used sometimes (not in Thailand, clearly) when tamarind sauce is not available. I am looking forward to making authentic Pad Thai when I get home! It was an extremely productive morning even before we started the actual cooking instruction.

Various sticky rice combinations, sweet and savory, wrapped in banana leaves.

The ravioli shaped rice pudding things. Good, but a bit weird at first.

After the informative tour we had about twenty minutes to wander through the market and so I went off to explore. Since today was “all about food”, I satisfied my curiosity about a few items I had seen at earlier markets but had not yet indulged in. One turned out to be sticky rice with banana (they also had tarot and beans in other versions) wrapped in banana leaf and grilled. Another a kind of rice pudding although I did not learn that until I showed it to Fah after buying it. I had become intrigued watching the woman make the small round ravioli looking pieces and had to try them. They were good but a weird combination of sweet, due to the coconut milk, and savory, due to the corn and green onion.

Once we got to the farm, collected our aprons and got settled, Fah took us on a tour of the environs to familiarize us with the different ingredients, all growing on the premises, we would be working with during the day. It was very educational as I had never heard of about half of them. It was satisfying, as she showed them to us one by one, to recognize a few of the mystery items I have been seeing in markets. One plant in particular caught my attention, the pandan plant. The leaves are used to add color (green) to dishes as well as for light, delicate flavoring, similar to how we use vanilla. As Fah explained the various plants to us we tasted them, most I liked, some were stronger than others. The pandan was slightly sweet but not very strong.

Continuing the trend of “Sandy in silly hats” (mainly for my siblings!) this is me just before the farm tour. Hat and apron provided, so why not????

After completing the tour of ingredients we returned to the kitchen for a rice cooking demonstration. For those interested in sticky rice, something new to me: soak the sticky rice in water for four hours, better if overnight and rinse several times before steaming- never boil. Since it is “sticky” use a bamboo steamer if possible and it won’t stick to the container.

Immediately after the demonstration we jumped into our recipe list for the day:

Choice of red, green, or yellow curry (see Featured image)
Choice of soup: either water or coconut milk based
Pad Thai
Choice of stir fry: vegetarian or chicken (see Featured image)
Bananas in coconut milk

In addition, because they were in season we were going to taste papaya salad and mango salad too. All in all a full day of eating. I chose yellow curry because I was least familiar with it. I also chose the coconut milk based soup because I love all things “coconut milk”. It turns out that it is good I like coconut milk as I certainly was saturated in it today! It is in everything in Thai cuisine.

Without going into all of the details of each dish I would like to summarize by saying it is impressive how easy it is to cook really tasty Thai dishes. The ingredients are few, the cutting and prep time quick, and the actual cooking time under ten minutes, sometimes less than that. The key seems to be in first finding the right ingredients and then getting the freshest possible items. Also, the meals we prepared were all very healthy. Ironically the coconut milk, which I love so much, was the highest fat item, even though we used fresh (!) milk. There were no complex carbs or highly processed sugars. So, good for you and tasty too!

The pandan grass. Handy stuff to have around if you’re cooking Thai food.

All of the food was wonderful and I ended the class totally stuffed but fully prepared to use my new knowledge when I am in the position to have a kitchen again. To help me with that resolution, as a parting gift we received a small recipe book, not only documenting the information about the herbs, spices and plants, but also the recipes for all the dishes they teach weekly at the school. So I don’t have to trust my memory, and I finally have a recipe for Pad Thai that does not include “ketchup”.

I like to cook and bake (when I have time!) so I enjoyed the day immensely. Thinking about it I have no idea why I have not thought of taking cooking classes in any of the other countries I have visited over the years. Clearly an oversight and one that I will have to start rectifying. Maybe this will be my new “thing” when I travel! I may even take another one here in Thailand before I leave.

I’ve attached some other random food pictures below.

This guy was making coconut milk at the market. Factoid: You squeeze the coconut meat once and get the “cream of coconut” then you add water and squeeze it again to get “coconut milk”. Only can squeeze twice and used to be done by hand.

Fish, not on a stick here, but it can be and I have seen it on a stick too….

The vendor stall of mostly known vegetables.

Right next door was the stall of mystery vegetables although several were explained to us during the course of the cooking class.

My yellow curry paste. The curry was awesome, mainly due, I suspect, to the quality and freshness of the ingredients rather than any exception mortar and pestle work on my part.

A sweets vendor. Some of these items are still on my “to do” list.

Dink to go? Check out the handy, dandy carrier sleeve.

Elephants are People Too!

I said good-bye to the elephants today, a week early. I had originally planned on volunteering for three weeks, but after two weeks my body told me to stop. As I have previously mentioned there is a lot of physical labor involved in taking care of such large animals- heavy lifting which includes a lot of bending, carrying banana trees – in all forms – everywhere, being on your feet constantly, either standing still or moving around with it all occurring in weather ranging from torrential downpour to tropical heat and humidity. I consider myself somewhat fit (after all I only just finished hiking around in the Himalayas!) but the combination of long days, intense physical activity, and fitful sleep wore me down enough to terminate my volunteer work at two weeks. Regardless of the aching muscles, sore feet and tired hands, however, the experience was awesome and I am glad that I did it. I was fortunate because during the two weeks of volunteering I had the opportunity to work with all of the elephants at least once, spending several days with some. It was really interesting to get to know them and learn about their various personalities.

Every elephant at the center, except for Pen, the baby, had been subjected when very young to the brutal conditioning program designed to instill fear of humans into the elephants for the purpose of establishing control of the animals. The rescued elephants at WFF, all removed from the abusive situations they had to endure during their “working” years, reacted to their changed conditions differently. The oldest elephant, Pai Lin, at around 65, taken from a trekking camp, after so many years around humans, was not comfortable around other elephants when attempts were made to introduce her to a small herd, and consequently is housed in an enclosure right next to the dining hall. Even though she prefers the vicinity of humans, she still has a mind of her own, however. Part of her routine is to take a daily walk, usually around mid-day. Last Sunday she decided that it was time to go so she plowed right through the gate of her enclosure and started meandering up the drive along her normal walking route. As it was lunch time all of the volunteers were on hand to watch the antics of the mahouts as they tried to steer her back into her pen. Rather than hurting or beating the elephant into submission, which is what happens in the “working” world, offering food and gently trying to push them in the proper direction are the methods used at the WFF. By the way, it takes a quite a few people pushing on an elephant to get it to notice- hence then entertainment value of watching the mahouts. It was hilarious- you could tell she just wanted to go and take her walk and it took quite a lot of persuading (food) and pushing to turn her around.

The oldest elephant at the center. Notice how her back has a dip in the spine? This is not natural, her back is supposed to be rounded. The dip is due to having people ride on her back for years, carrying more weight than what her spine was designed to, causing the deformity.

Another elephant, Boon Mee, is also uncomfortable around other elephants. Boon Mee is a very meek, timid elephant and every time the mahouts tried to introduce her into a herd, she broke away and ran back to the enclosure, which is located near the epicenter of human activity. She basically was afraid of the other elephants. When you consider that elephants are natural herd animals it is sad that because of her experiences the instinctive behavior to interact with her own species has been suppressed to such a degree. She also gets daily walks, but at times, even just walking past the crocodile cage (another rescue animal) spooks her enough to send her back to her comfy home. She is a really sweet elephant and extremely gentle when you feed her banana balls.

Boon Mae in her pen, in the center near people. Notice how she is pushing against the wire? This is how the other one got out. There is an electric fence at night but during the day the elephants are under watch.

I was assigned to the Midlands area for several days, mainly working consistently with two of the ten elephants that are located at that site. The Midlands is a nice assignment, if somewhat busy, due to the number of animals co-located. Most importantly this is where the baby, Pun and her mother, Pin live in a small herd with two other female elephants. The baby, rescued with her mother, has never had to undergo the horrifying “re-education” training so her instinctive behaviors are still intact. She is very playful and always taunting one of her “aunts” or her mother by shoving her trunk in their faces, pushing on them with her body, trying to take food from them or once, when they were all in the water together, I saw her trying to climb on their backs. It is hours of entertainment watching her play. She has formed an attachment to Jele, one of the elephants in the next enclosure, and visits with her across the fence. Interestingly enough, the aunts don’t like Jele for some reason, and when Pen is near Jele’s fence, they go racing over, trumpeting loudly the whole time, and force Pen away from the fence line. Some kind of elephant mystery going on there!

I spent a lot of time watching the mother Pin although it made me very sad. Pun is her third baby, her first two got taken from her almost immediately. Along with the abuses she has had, this loss of her children has left a mark on her. She was a trekking elephant and while waiting for customers had three of her legs chained together so she could not move. This happens to working elephants a lot and they develop this habit of moving their heads side to side and at the same time moving their free leg; it is kind of like a nervous twitch. She still does this; all of the time her head is bobbing left to right, up and down while one of her legs is extending. She cannot stand still. She is also very protective of Pun and the additional two “aunts” nearby providing security, is beneficial for her.

My pals, Jele and Wassana.

Jele, with her pen-mate Wassana, are the two elephants I spent the most time with. Wassana is a very sweet, placid, “go with the flow” kind of elephant. Jele is highly motivated by food and every time I fed her she snatched the food out of my hand as fast as I placed it on her trunk. I had to pay attention to ensure she did not unintentionally twist my wrist in her eagerness to get the fruit. What was truly hilarious was that when we delivered their “salad”, chopped up banana tree flavored with vinegar and molasses, she would practically chase us across the enclosure to be at the trough as soon as we were. If she could, she would try to dip her trunk in the tub as we walked. Of course there was a mahout right there keeping her in check (with fruit)! Both elephants got walked in the afternoon, although Jele was not too interested in the exercise—she was smart enough to know she was going to get the fruit no matter how far she walked so only put out minimal effort into the activity.

Two of the elephants in the midlands, Alicia and Malai, got walked daily to the new, wide open habitat area called “Project 4” to spend the day then walked back in the evening. The Project 4 area, which supported other elephants as well, is designed to more or less allow them to roam freely around a fairly large area with minimal fencing. Not every elephant was ready for or capable of this kind of freedom. The final pair of elephants in the Midlands had a very close bond and were very protective of each other. When the occasional large truck or helicopter would be in the vicinity, one would wrap her trunk around the other’s, or put her trunk on the other’s head in comfort. When they are communicating they also emit what sounds like a low growl. I was startled the first time I heard it because it makes them sound angry. But apparently the low, guttural frequencies involved can be heard by other elephants over quite a distance. There was a series of other sounds it was possible to hear from time to time and I always wondered what they were saying to each other…..

This is a “raft”. Made of banana tree parts, it is designed to float. Fruit wraps in some form are placed in the center. The idea is to make the elephant go forage in the water for their food.

The “salads”. I now know 1001 ways to feed an elephant using banana trees and fruit. It’s good to constantly expand your skill set!!!!

The remaining two sites that I worked at, Project 4 and the Newlands, were the locations of the more independent elephants. There were six elephants at Project 4, five of whom roamed more or less freely during the day, returning to their night enclosures in the evening. These elephants knew the routine so well that it was not necessary to entice them with food, although that remains the practice. It was weirdly like watching a big dog moving around to see them responding to the mahouts commands to “go in the enclosure” or “go here or there” or “stop”. I found them also very gentle and very easy to feed. The sixth elephant at Project 4 only just arrived at the WFF in January and does not like being around people at all, having actually killed someone in the camp where she worked. There is speculation that she may be pregnant, as she eats everything and anything, but apparently since the gestation time for an elephant is two years, it is hard to tell! She stays in an enclosure the whole day and receives more enrichments than other elephants since she cannot roam free as of yet.

The Newlands site is the location of the most dangerous elephant that the WFF has in residence, a thirteen year old male. He is very aggressive and no one is allowed to interact with him except the mahouts. Volunteers are normally are prohibited to come within 3 meters of his enclosure walls. The exception is when the banana balls are delivered in the morning and the evening. At such times the mahout lures the elephant, Khan Kluey, to the far corner of the enclosure with a few banana balls, and while he is distracted the morning team runs up to set his remaining banana balls on top of the enclosure wall. Once the volunteers are safely away, the mahout finishes with the food and Khan Kluey moves towards the wall to gather up the rest of the banana balls with his trunk. He has a long trunk and is constantly sticking it over the wall looking for things to grab, whether that is people, rocks to throw, or other items to pull into the enclosure with him. Hence the importance of maintaining some distance from the enclosure. He has an adopted mother, Somboon, theoretically who helps to keep him calm, shares the enclsoure although that did not stop him from ripping up all the trees, leaving the whole area completely barren. The groundskeepers are in the process of re-planting trees in the enclosure, accompanied by large metal cages surrounding the trees to keep him away.

Somboon sneaking up on me. By the way, all these pictures were on different days. I had two outfits I rotated around, minimizing the dirt I was collecting on my meager travel wardrobe.

Somboon is actually a very curious elephant. One day when Khan Kluey safely locked away, we went into their enclosure to do some cleaning. At one point I stood up, glanced behind me to see her standing one foot away. She had walked over to find out what we were doing (the mahout was right next to her, of course). It turns out that elephants, despite their size, can move around quite quickly and quietly. I was certainly startled, but gave her a friendly pat on the trunk to say “hello” when I found her right there.

Finally there are three elephants that are a mini-herd that have a fairly large, natural habitat enclosure and only interact with people when there is food involved. Two of them are quite close and the the third is another meek elephant who tends to get bullied a bit by the other two. Consequently when you feed them it is important to make sure that the meek one gets finished first so the other two don’t try to take her food. I have seen some of the bullying, in the form of pushing her into the bushes, or biting her on the back. Why they do this is another elephant mystery!

One of the three living in Newlands. I am convinced she is testing the integrity of the fence. Since she would not quit when the mahout asked her to, he turned on the electric fence to teach her not to chew on the post. The meek elephant is just on the other side of her.

It was an incredible experience to have an opportunity to get so close to such complex and fascinating creatures, especially to observe the differences from individual to individual as well as some group behavior. Elephants, while massive, are graceful and beautiful as well as being a species under stress. Please remember this as you consider how you are engaging with them in your tourist activities.

The next leg of my journey takes me to Chiang Mai, a city in northern Thailand full of temples and an intact old city center. Most importantly, too, it puts my in a place where I can start watching the World Cup games that started last Thursday! There was no accessible TV at the elephant center and I am pretty sure I missed a couple of outstanding games already. I am also looking forward to a decent shower and having dry, clean feet and clean clothes. (Finally, for the record, I am happy to not be carting around banana trees on my shoulders anymore…..!)

The final haul from the second harvest I participated in. We carried all of those trees out of the fields. It was muddy so I was a mess at the end. A dip in the river, clothes and all, fixed that problem quickly enough.

Team “Girl” filled the truck on this harvest, my second one. My last harvest had only two guys, but we filled the truck up the whole way. Can’t beat it for a good work out!

Elephant Care 101

The most important thing to keep in mind regarding elephant care is: it’s all about input and output. And such a prodigious amount of both! I am sure there are statistics somewhere that state how much an average elephant eats, but from first hand experience I can testify that it’s beyond amazing. The WFF is either fortunately, or by design- and I am not sure which- located in a major banana growing region of Thailand. This is a key point because the complete banana plant, from the stem to the fruit, is consumed by the elephants, or rather, more accurately I should say, passes through elephants.

As a volunteer at the center we are intimately engaged in all of the activities surrounding feeding, entertaining, cleaning, and cleaning up after the resident elephants. The days are long, the work can by physically demanding, but being able to hang out near and interact with the elephants makes it all worthwhile. They are amazing animals!

Banana ball prep. We are squishing up the bananas.

Finished product! Yum.

The day starts early, at 6:30 am, when the teams are deployed to prepare the morning feeding. The elephants eat before we do, of course. The daily teams are assigned the night before and posted on the white board making it easy for you to find your assignment and your team lead. The team leads are volunteers as well, usually those who have worked a few times with a particular group of elephants and knows that routine well. In addition, all of the elephants’ routines are posted on the ubiquitous white boards for those needing reminders. If all else fails, it is possible to communicate with the mahout, the Thai elephant keeper, who is assigned to the team. They have various levels of English capability but even with the least fluent it is possible to make ourselves understood in both directions. (I know this because I have been in that situation already, as a team lead.)

There is a basket of fruit and corn for each elephant waiting in the storage area so the first task is collecting the correct baskets. Wheeled carts are available for transporting the baskets to those habitats that are nearby and a large truck carries the volunteers and their cargo to the more distant sites. My assignments all week have been at the two most remote sites so I have spent plenty of time in the truck bouncing over the back roads of the complex. At the prep site the bananas get separated from the other fruit (pineapple and watermelon) and corn, which get cleaned. Half the bananas are used, along with bran and some special pellets made out of grains, to make banana balls. Making banana balls reminds me of making banana bread, but without the baking. The bananas have to be squished into a semi-liquid state then the bran and the pellets mixed in to create a dough, formed into balls. Since you use your hands to do all the mixing I am anticipating having much stronger wrists and fingers at the end of my work here. The various elephants require different sizes and quantities of banana balls based on their personalities and the dynamics of the herds. For example, we fed a herd of three, but one of them was a very slow eater. As this particular elephant was also meek and easily bullied by the other two, she got three big balls, which we had to make sure that she finished first. The other two got lots of small balls so we could pace how fast they ate. After feeding the elephants and cleaning up we head in for breakfast to feed ourselves.

Feeding time. Generally you hold so they can wrap their trunk around it although for some you place it on the end where their “finger” is. So cool!!!!!

After an hour break for food, we head out again at 9 am to continue our work. The main task involves chopping up the fruit and corn, preparing it for its many uses throughout the day. Chopped fruit is used to manage the elephants when we walk them, shower them and also as the base material for the creation of “wraps, used in enrichments which I will discuss in some detail later. The wraps are basically chopped fruit wrapped in banana stalk. It turns out the banana plant is incredibly useful and entirely edible for elephants,from the stem to the fruit. The trunk, or stem, can be used in several different ways. It can be chopped into shoe box size pieces and fed directly to the animals, it can be peeled into thin half-cylinder stalks used for the wraps, and the larger stalks can be further divided to create, when dried, a sort of string used to fasten the wraps. Hence a “wrap” is a wonderful elephant snack.

While getting the fruit completely chopped and creating the enrichments, due at the end of the day, are important tasks, other tasks require attention throughout the day, based on requirements of each elephant’s schedules. For example, at different times during the day different elephants take walks, whether from one habitat to another, or simply in the case of the oldest resident, a simple stroll down the lane and back. In addition, many of the elephants get showers, some with accompanying scrubbing via a long handled brush. Like dogs, some enjoy it, while others tolerate it for the food, but for all the showers provide some variety to their day.

A peeled banana tree.

But barring those interruptions, enrichment production keeps volunteers busy. The idea behind enrichments is to find a way to deliver food that challenges the elephants to work a little bit. Usually it is only a little bit as what is considered a “good” enrichment is one that lasts more than a few minutes. The power and cleverness of these animals is amazing! I have watched several destroy the most complex enrichment in mere seconds. I have not yet learned all of the standard enrichment designs, but I have learned a few. The wraps, once assembled, can be stuffed inside of large tires, then lined with hay and wrapped tightly with a rope or a wrap. Given enough tires and rope, two tires can even be bound together. Two wraps can be tied together, again with a banana string, and thrown at tree branches to hang as high as possible. Finally, in a time or resource pinch, the wraps can be distributed randomly in the underbrush of the habitats, forcing the elephants to search for them.

The wrap assembly line.

Enrichments can also be made using the chopped fruit and corn directly, without the use of wraps. The chopped food can be stuffed directly inside the rim of a bicycle tire, cut open for that purpose. The tire, once stuffed, no easy task by the way, can then be covered with hay, wrapped in banana stalk and tied with rope or netting. These “star cells” can either be hidden in the underbrush or hung high on poles or trees. Another enrichment, a fruit log, is made from a complete banana plant. The banana stem can be carved out, as if carving a canoe, stuffed with fruit, covered over with a layer of stalk and tied shut. Two small bicycle tires, wrapped around the outside and secured with rope or netting, creates a fruit log with a small obstacle. The more layers or complexity to the enrichment, the better, although it seems we are always limited by available resources. Every day the elephants get the enrichments, and every day they destroy them and scatter them about. It sometimes takes a while to find the remnants and see what is re-usable and what is not.

Besides working on the “input” part of the equation- preparing and delivering food in various forms and methods, we also have to deal with the “output” side, spending time each day cleaning out the habitats. There is a lot of detrious, from the various pieces of banana plants to the stalks and leaves of elephant grass, also used as elephant food, laying about as well as massive quantities of elephant poo. Both are collected and used as compost- gloves recommended but not required! Elephants apparently do not have very efficient digestive systems, only absorbing about 40% of what they eat, so we see a lot of things twice…

It is a bit like groundhog day in that we get up every morning, prepare food and then collect the remnants. But during the process we get to interact closely with the elephants and work near them with the opportunity to observe their different personalities. We do rotate from habitat to habitat and thus our exact daily routines vary from place to place.

Going for a walk. Totally fun to “walk an elephant”. Not as easy as a dog on a leash.

Because elephants require a lot of food and the banana plant is so incredibly useful we go through a lot of trees in a short time. Consequently there is a banana tree harvest every other day to keep an adequate supply in stock. The WWF has agreements with local banana growers to come clear out plants that have already yielded fruit. The center clears out the old plant and hauls it off, providing the opportunity for the new plant to sprout from the remnant and produce more bananas- thus everyone is happy. Harvest starts after breakfast and continues until the truck is full, usually around lunch time. The maximum number of volunteers possible are scheduled, keeping enough back to manage the normal work load and also trying not to burden any individual with several consecutive harvest assignments. I was scheduled this week for the first time and it was fortunate that we had 15 people, the ideal size. It is hard physical work, usually hot, and always challenging. The mahouts, using machetes, chop down the plant and cut off the top. The volunteers then come in and pick the plant up and transport it to the truck. The truck may be close by or it may be across a field full of hills and troughs filled with mud that are hidden by banana leaves. The best way to carry a banana tree is by balancing it on your shoulder. It is possible for one person to carry a whole plant if the center of mass is managed correctly. After a rain the plant is heavy because of the absorbed water, though, and likely two people are required. No matter what the weather, however, the footing is tricky. At the truck two mahouts load up the plants and we all look eagerly to see how much it has been filled. If nothing else it is a great workout!

At the end of the day, enrichments complete, banana trees chopped up, another round of banana balls ready to go, is the final feeding. The elephants get the banana balls first, the chopped up banana pant is thrown into the habitats and the enrichments distributed according to the requirements of the individual elephants. After a final clean up of the work sites we head back to the housing complex, arriving around 5 pm, with time to clean up before dinner at 6 pm. One day a week we can take off. Today is my day off so I had time to catch up on my blog. I’ll write more about the individual elephants as I work with them. This week I have been hanging out with the same five so I could be trained as a team lead on their schedules.

Some elephants go for a daily swim, others….

….get a daily shower.

Intro to Elephants

The taxi arrived at my hotel in Bangkok promptly at 9 am on Sunday morning to pick me up for the three hour drive to the Wildlife Friends Foundation (WFF) in southwestern Thailand, my home for the next three weeks. The WFF, founded 17 years ago by a Dutch ex-pat living in Bangkok, rescues animals, focusing on but not limited to, elephants, and reintroduces as many as possible back into the wild. Those that cannot be released are provided for on the property. The organization supplements its permanent staff with volunteers, a win-win situation for all. Volunteers get a rich experience helping to care for the animals and the organization gets extra labor and a small income stream. I was particularly interested in working with elephants and decided to spend three weeks at the center.

The staff is very well organized and when I signed up to volunteer, received a book detailing the living and work conditions as well as suggested items to bring (hence my shopping list in Bangkok). When I arrived, about mid-day, I found six other newly arrived volunteers. Another showed up shortly after I had checked in. Immediately we found ourselves on a very brief but informative tour of the main part of the center getting some instructions on such important topics as how the scheduling works, what a typical day looks like, how the taxis and related excursions are booked for those interested in exploring on their day off, the meal and food system, and finally our accommodations. We had a short break to grab some food and get settled in before a much longer tour later in the afternoon designed to show us the whole complex.

The volunteer house where we meet each morning to organize the day and where we are greeted as new arrivals.

I was a bit dismayed, but hardly surprised, when I saw a huge crock pot full of rice at the head of the food line. But here at least, unlike Nepal, rice is not the central feature of the meal, and I could chose to ignore it (which I have- most, but not all of the time). The facilities are all open air as the temperatures in this part of Thailand rarely cools down so the dining area is set up picnic style. I was impressed that they offered meat, vegetarian and vegan options for the volunteers. Also available for those who were interested in preparing their own meals was a well stocked outdoor kitchen for volunteer use. I suspect after a couple of weeks of eating the same food I will make use of the volunteer kitchen…..

After a quick bite we were off on the extended tour. I had seen the map, of course, when I read the manual they provided, but the map merely shows the layout without providing a sense of the size of the place. The grounds, originally donated by a monk at the nearby temple, are huge and still expanding. Elephants, if kept properly, require a lot of space but they not only have 23 elephants but also bears, many different species and quantities of monkeys, deer, pigs, lizards, turtles and a ton of dogs and cats. Apparently over the years people have learned of about the existence of WFF and if there is an exotic animal found or no longer wanted, the center gets a call to come investigate. In addition, people drop off unwanted pets, like dogs and cats, at the front gates.

The dining area.

My room. I’m sharing with two British women, who are about my age. One is only staying one week, the other two, so I will eventually have new roommates.

Regardless of all the various activities underway, it was the special focus on elephants that attracted my notice. The elephants in residence, which unfortunately cannot be liberated to the wild, were all rescued from some kind of abusive work situation, whether that was tourist camps, logging camps, begging, or something else. Because of the way they were trained as babies, and it is too horrific to describe in detail, the elephants cannot survive on their own. So instead, they live in large habitats in herds that are carefully designed, taken care of by staff and volunteers. While the goal is to encourage the elephants to bond together and live in large groups, not all elephants are comfortable with that, their natural instincts having been overwritten by the trauma of their training. Two prefer small pens close to the human habitation areas and yet others prefer to be alone. But there are small groupings of two to four that have been successful, including one with a young two year old, that live in a large, and increasing habitat.

View from our balcony. Each of the islands hosts some gibbons in the last stages of being re-introduced to the wild.

There are also some 30 or so bears resident who have also been rescued from abusive situations. Much like the elephants the bears are used as photo props, making money for their owner by attracting tourists. As the bears mature they grow bigger and become more aggressive complicating life for their owners, who cannot always handle them. Consequently, many are abandon at temples where the monks try to take care of them, but nonetheless the situations the bears find themselves in are very poor. Over time, the monks have learned to call the WFF, who then come and take responsibility for the animals. Some of the monkeys that find their way to the WFF are native to Thailand and found all over the country roaming freely, but have gotten themselves in trouble somehow. In such cases the team tries to form small herds from the individuals, and once established, introduce them back into the wild to a larger group. This method has been used fairly successfully. Other monkeys, not of native to the area, are pets that have been let go. Indeed, they even have a small herd of deer, far away from their native Indonesia and alien to Thailand, that is more or less stuck here as it is too expensive to ship them to where they should be. The combination of the world-wide trade in exotic animals and the irresponsibility of humans has created a lot of displaced native species.

A gibbon keeping a watchful eye on us from his island while we were on our tour. They are very territorial, and very noisy!

The animals, when introduced to the center, move through various stages starting with a quarantine period where they are in cages located close to the human habitation area (and the veterinarian office!) that resemble those found at a decent zoo. The vocalization of the gibbons can be heard quite clearly at all times of the day and night! Even though the cages are small compared to their final homes, for many this is the first time they have had freedom to move around or be outside, at all. Once the animals have adapted to their new conditions, they are introduced slowly, via connecting cages or tunnels, to others of their species. This is a critical step and gives the keepers an opportunity to see if there is a chance that the animal will be releasable to the wild. (We were told that they successfully release 60% of their animals.) The keepers also try to introduce mates for the monkeys at this stage, too, as that also facilitates successful releases. As time passes and the animals progress they are introduced into larger, more free-roaming types of habitats, which will be their final home if they are not releasable. Not surprisingly the WFF facility is quite large and spread out requiring trucks, motorbikes and carts to move people and supplies around all day long. Overall the tour was very informative and very impressive.

Some of the volunteers chose to work with the wildlife, which is considered everything except the elephants, but most volunteers are interested in elephants. The elephant work is more “hands on” with the animals, although not all of them. The wildlife care involves less direct interaction. Interacting “hands on” with elephants means feeding and washing them, walking them from place to place, and generally taking care of them. Like others, I was excited about the possibility of working closely and getting to know better such magnificent creatures and thus the “hands on” part was super thrilling. I look forward to sharing my adventures!

The schedule changes from day to day so I will have an opportunity to work with many of them and each one has their own individual personality. Most are older and female, gentle and easy to work with. There is one young male who is considered dangerous and unpredictable, so we do not work “hands on” with him, although we do care for him. As I mentioned there is one young elephant who is protected by his mother and two adopted aunts so care is needed when interacting with that small herd. There is so much to learn- how awesome is that!!!

An example of some of the bears in residence.

Bangkok: First Impressions

In a nutshell it’s all about the street food! It took me only ten minutes of walking along a street in the Ratchaparop district on my way to the hotel after alighting from the airport bus to decide I am going to love Bangkok. There were street vendors everywhere preparing all kinds of food, much of it unfamiliar to me. So many culinary experiences waiting to happen!
The trip to Bangkok was a long one. For reasons I cannot now remember, I took a circuitous route through Kuala Lumpur. Finally, too many hours later to count, I was walking down the streets of Bangkok to my hotel absorbing my first impressions of Bangkok. The streets were busy, filled with traffic, but unlike Kathmandu, where cars and motorbikes were going everywhere, there seemed to be some order to the system. The street vendors were not only selling food, but a little bit of everything and there were people moving around everywhere.

The snack I had immediately on my first day. I found this during my roaming through the clothes market. They are balls filled with various things. I tried crab, mushroom and cheese types.

I had elected to stay in the Pratunum area, the center for the big clothing markets, because I knew that I would likely have a shopping list of things to pick up after sending some of my winter clothes home. My hotel was located right in the middle of the hustle and bustle and I could locate it easily thanks to modern technology- the map function on my cell phone.
After settling in and getting cleaned up I left the hotel to go exploring. It was mid-afternoon on a Friday and as I walked through the narrow cluttered aisles of the old Pratunum market about half of the stalls were closed. I picked directions randomly taking in all of the various items of clothing that were for sale, both retail and wholesale that I passed. As I emerged from one corner of the building, I found myself with multiple options of where to explore next, but all related to clothing malls. The famous Pratunum market does not stand alone. I counted, over the course of the next few days, about 20 different buildings that contained markets or shopping malls, all within a roughly ten block radius. They ranged from wholesale markets where bargining was expected to high end, exclusive shopping malls.

Everywhere I went there were people wondering around and shopping. Clearly the Thai’s take their shopping seriously! As I walked around I made a few mental notes on where to acquire the things that I would need before leaving Thailand, but was not ready to buy quite yet. Most of the time I just looked around in awe at the sheer quantity and variety of goods for sale. I am pretty sure that all 7 billion plus people on the planet could have trooped through this area and found an outfit and there would have been clothes left over.

An example of a mall map in one of the medium sized malls. Ladies note the number of floors of women’s clothing!!

As I was walking across a fairly busy road along an elevated crosswalk I looked down at the sidewalk adjacent to yet another mall and saw a long line of street food vendors. Deciding it was dinner time I went down to investigate. It turned out there was a food festival going on. I could not believe my luck and after examining every booth, picked a fried squid dish that looked interesting. Even better I had coconut ice cream for desert, which is not the simple coconut flavored ice cream that you would get in the U.S. It is vanilla ice cream, served in a young coconut shell after the tender, juicy coconut meat has been shaved from the inside of the shell. The coconut meat is mixed in with the ice cream to which is added mango and peanuts (and sometimes corn, but not in my case). It was quite tasty and I guarantee I will have more of them!

I turned in after dinner as I had been awake for about 36 hours at that point and was ready to get some much needed sleep. In addition I wanted to get an early start the next morning because I was heading to the largest Saturday market in the city, the Chatachuk market. My plan was to explore it and also try to get the remaining items on my shopping list in preparation for my upcoming volunteer activity.

Dinner Friday night at the food festival. Various types of squid from a street vendor.

Coconut ice cream. Yum! It will be a repeater….

Bright and early at 7 am the next morning I headed out to the nearest SkyTrain station to navigate my way to the market. I arrived at about 7:30 am and it was clear that I was early as many of the stalls were still in the process of opening. Thankfully, because it was early, the tourists and large crowds were not yet either. Like yesterday I simply meandered my way around, checking out the various types of items being offerred. I also kept my eyes out for items on my list. Even though there was a map of the market showing what sections had what kinds of goods, I found it a bit hit or miss. There was a lot of tourist related merchandise all over the market, but as I wandered into obscure nooks and crannies I found the local shoppers. Quite frankly I am not sure how I found some of the areas that I found because I did not recall seeing them on the map. I really enjoyed the wood furniture section- there were some incredibly beautiful tables, chairs, and wall hangings of various colors of wood. Luckily I currently do not have a domicile so I could resist the temptation to impulse shop- I had no where to put it! I also found the pet section, which was amazing too. On a whim I wandered into an adjacent building, another mall, and there I was lucky enough to find some of the items I had on my list. Success! I probably spent about three hours just exploring but as more and more stalls opened, the crowds grew larger and I decided it was time to go. Overall the market reminded me a bit of Izmalivia Market in Moscow but with more than just the tourist section.

Chatachuk market as the crowds got a bit bigger.

Next on my list was a visit to the flower market, another notable Bangkok site. It was clear across the city, however, so I had to retrace my steps almost back to my hotel, and then beyond. I decided to walk from the SkyTrain station nearest my hotel even though my map warned me that it was a nearly hour and a half trek to my destination. I had no schedule, I enjoy walking, and it is a great way to explore a city, so off I went. It turned out that walking was likely only slightly better than taking a taxi. For about forty minutes or so I was moving the same pace as a blue bus alongside me! Even though it was fairly hot, I had a great time watching the neighborhoods go by. I passed numerous street markets, mainly focused on produce and street food. I found the carpentry district, where furniture makers were at work, the glass district where I observed windows and doors being framed, and fortunately enough, I stumbled into an area where window decorations, linens and other types of items were on display. One item still left on my shopping list was a mosquito net and as I walked along randomly glancing in windows, I saw one. Unbelievable as I had given up trying to find such an obscure thing in such a big city- but there it was. Mission completed, I was now stocked up for my upcoming volunteering adventure. As I walked around I noticed, as in Nepal, numerous shrines tucked away here and there. What was different from Nepal, however, is that I also noticed that almost every shop, building, or home that I passed also had what looked to be their own personal shrine as well. In addition, many of them had pictures of the king of Thailand featured, surrounded by orange and yellow flowers. I was told before coming to Thailand to be respectful of the monarchy and seeing the plethora of the flower wrapped pictures, the advice makes more sense to me.

I stumbled into the pet section of the market somehow and saw this. Not sure what to make of squirrels in dresses.

Fish for sale.

Eventually, in early afternoon I arrived at the flower market. What was really noticeable were the multitude of yellow, orange and white flowers that are found all over the city displayed at the numerous shrines. The ladies in the various stalls were stringing these flowers into devotional rings, garlands, and streamers. There were other flowers there, of course, and I saw some produce too but the majority of the space was allocated to the devotional plants. Having spent a reasonable amount of time looking around I decided to walk further along the river. I could tell I was nearing a tourist hub because I was seeing more and more westerners on the street. Sure enough after another twenty minutes I discovered two major Buddhist temples and the Grand Palace, along with a pier popular for departures to visit the various floating markets of Bangkok. I simply walked around and took note, knowing that later in June I would have an opportunity to visit when I returned to Bangkok after the volunteer work.

Local market/shopping area that I saw during my walk.

Finally I was done walking and started heading to a nearby intersection to hail a cab. On the way, as I was walking past the Grand Palace, a tuk-tuk driver, upon asking me where I was going (as popular of a question here in Thailand as it was in Nepal) suggested that I take a water taxi down the canal and avoid the heavy road traffic. Since that sounded interesting on many levels, I agreed and he gave me a lift to the pier where the long boat taxi departed, the last station droping me off practically at my hotel. So I got a boat ride on one of Bangkok’s many canals, delivery quickly and efficiently to my hotel, and all at a cost of about 50 cents. Back in the environs of my hotel, I treated myself to a foot massage as a reward for 7-8 miles of walking. There are storefronts offering massages everywhere and for approximately $10.00, including a healthy tip, I had a wonderful, relaxing hour of foot rejuvenation. I am pretty sure there are more in my future. Excellent end to a day of “urban hiking”.

Side canal with water taxi. I have yet to do a full exploration of the waterways of Bangkok. That is coming!

As I left the water taxi station to head for my hotel, I saw yet three more major malls I had not seen before mainly because I had not walked that way from my hotel. I decided to go and drop my purchases in my room then venture forth to the newly-discovered complexes to find something to eat for dinner. Amazingly enough, as I approached the plaza in front of the largest mall I had yet encountered, I saw another food festival of some kind taking place. My dinner plans crystallized in that moment- more street food to try. I examined all of my choices and went with something a bit more traditional, Pad Thai, as it is a dish I really like and I wanted to have it at least once while I was in Thailand. It was fun to watch the vendor deftly pour oil, egg, rice, noodles, vegetables and seafood into the super large wok he was using and see the result moments later. It was rather good, if a bit heavy on the oil. Some of the booths were Thai fusion food so I opted to try a Thai version of a sweet crepe for desert. It, too, was good, although I am not sure I would have thought to pair shredded carrots with nutella.

One of the great things I have discovered is that it is possible to get fresh fruit juice, inexpensively, almost everywhere. Here is an example and even better I have no idea what half of this stuff is. Lots to explore!

I spent an hour or so in and out of the various buildings just to watch people. I was also curiuos about the extent of the three buildings as they looked huge and it was hard to imagine having enough shops to fill just one of them. Inside, just like a Saturday night in the U.S. were tennagers and young people moving all over the place , talking, shopping, and hanging out. Something not usually seen in a U.S. mall, however, was the large shrine in between two of the buildings where, even this late in the day people were placing devotions. As I watched two young women went up to a desk, likely paid some money, then went to the top of a small stage and kneeled down. Behind them were musicians and a troupe of women dressed up in what looked like formal folk costumes. The musicians started playing and the women started chanting. When they were done the two young women kneeling, bowed, got up and walked away. I saw this repeated several times and assumed that the group was somehow involved in some kind of ritual people were performing. My first Thai mystery. (besides the “why does everyone like to shop so much?” question) I am not counting, of course, the food mysteries. I’ll have to keep them separate and do a whole blog or two on food!

An example of a neighborhood shrine. These can be found fairly frequently.

An example of what I will call a “mall shrine”. Saw several of these near malls and other large buildings.

Examples of the flowers that bedecked shrines all over the city.

Kathmandu: Just Pictures

Before I move on to my experiences in Thailand (and I have been in Bangkok less than 48 hours and can tell you there is a lot to write about, not the least of which is the street food!), I wanted to post some more pictures from “roaming around Kathmandu”.

This is the plaza at the bottom of the steps to the Swayambhu Temple. Lots of people were present when we came back down later in the morning.

Inside the window, in the shrine sat a monk. I stood nearby and watched for a while. People would come up and give him a 5 rupee note and he would bless them. The monkey hanging on at the top of the grating received slices of banana from time to time.

Some of the many monkeys hanging around in the temple complex. Some had babies clinging to their backs. They were on the move a lot!

Kathmandu reminds me of Moscow in the late 1990’s- you cannot judge by external appearances. I walked by this building many times without noticing it, but Prem and a friend took me inside one day.

It’s a very special temple that is not open too often, and when open it is early in the mornings. It was incredibly beautiful inside. Prem told me he had never seen the door to the statue open before.

A close up view of the Buddha statue inside the shrine. Its amazing what lies hidden just under the surface of things!

If you re-examine the daytime picture of the Buddha stupa in the previous post you will see the big yellow arcs that form the petals of a lotus flower at the top layer of the structure. Those petals were formed by a guy throwing a bucket of yellow paint in an arc. Funny, simple, yet effective!

There were only a few temples and shrines in Durbar Square in Kathmandu untouched by the earthquake.

Wood carving detail of one of the many beams that support the temple roof. The carvings in Bhaktapur had deteriorated enough that the detail was not discernible, but these were in better shape. Prem had told me that these carvings were tantric and meant to be erotic.
I’ll let you decide…

The detail and beauty of the wood carvings on all of the temples and shrines have been amazing. This is from a temple in Durbar Square (Kathmandu).

A color temple in the square.

An intact temple in Durbar square.