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.
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.
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?
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.
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.)
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!
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:
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!
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.
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!!!
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.
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.
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
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…..
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 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!
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 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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!!!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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!
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”.
Today I’m leaving Nepal after nearly two months of wonderful adventures. As opposed to gracefully fading away, however, the last four days after returning from Bhaktapur have been exceptionally hectic. Not only were there several interesting historical and cultural sites that I wanted to visit in Kathmandu, but I had agreed to do several talks during the last week of my visit. Thus the last four days have been anything but slow as Prem and I have been trying to squeeze in both sets of requirements. Actually as I sit here and start writing this blog post, I can barely remember what I did four days ago, we have been that busy!
We returned to Kathmandu on the 27th . I had some shopping to do to prepare for the next leg of my journey and the afternoon of the 27th was one of the few free moments available. Most importantly I was in need of some new footwear as I was departing company with my beloved hiking boots, along with some other items I no longer needed. Before leaving Kathmandu I planned to ship home the boots, my sleeping bag and the winter clothes I had brought with me for trekking. My next stop, Thailand, a hot and humid climate, is no place for down jackets. Prem took me to some of the local shopping areas where I could find a reasonable pair of tennis shoes to replace my boots. We also looked at Pashima shawls, a popular gift item from Nepal. The trip was successful enough that I felt a little less anxious about being able to finish my list.
The rhythm of the next few days was fairly constant- dividing the time between sightseeing and the lectures I had agreed to present. Early in the morning on the 28th, around 6:30 am, Prem, a young lady he brought along who was the cousin of a friend, and I set off for the Swayambhu Temple. This is popularly known as “the monkey temple” but that name is not favored by the locals as the temple is not dedicated to monkeys, they just inhabit the place. It was an approximately 45 minute walk to the temple, which sits on top of a hill offering wonderful views of all of Kathmandu. The 233 steps leading to the temple complex were easy compared to the other vertical climbs I had earlier experienced in Nepal. Even though it was fairly early, the city was alive with people moving around, sidewalk vendors setting out their wares, people hauling things around, and most importantly, similarly to Bhaktapur, people at the local temples and shrines at their morning devotions. It is amazing how many local shrines, temples, and devotional spaces there are in the city of Kathmandu. It is not obvious during the day hours, but in the mornings when people are performing their rituals, it becomes evident that these holy sites are on almost every corner. I highly recommend that anyone coming to Kathmandu get up early and wander around the city—it is a very living cultural experience.
Climbing the stairs we passed a constant stream of people coming and going. At the top was quite a crowd, mainly locals but some tourists scattered here and there. Over the next few days as we visited more Buddhist sites I would see the crowds grow larger and larger because May 30 was a day of celebration of the Buddha’s birthday, the final day of a month long celebration of the Buddha. Furthermore, for the Tibetan branch of Buddhism, his birth day, his day of enlightenment and that of his death all occur on the same date, making the 30th a very important day for those in that belief system. Anyone performing devotions at this auspicious time receives much merit. Consequently during the last week of May, as the 30th grew nearer, people were flocking to the temples. Already at 7 am as we stood on the temple grounds at the top of the long, steep stairway, were a significant number of people circumambulating (clockwise!) the main stupa. Several monks were performing rituals off to the side and a group of musicians were performing devotional songs. Unlike the group that I saw in Bhaktapur, which were all men, this group was co-ed. The complex had many different shrines and smaller stupas targeting different objects of devotion and they were all busy. True to its popular name, monkeys were roaming freely, both on the ground and above, basically all over the place. But in residence as well were a plethora of dogs and a large flock of pigeons. The pigeons were well fed as people would buy corn and rice to feed them although sometimes the monkeys would interfere. It really was amazing to be at such a special place at such a special time!
As the morning wore on the crowd became a bit thinner as people left to go to work. Eventually it was time to return to the hotel to get prepared for the afternoon talk I was scheduled to give at a local Buddhist Monastery school; a co-ed school whose students consist of both lay people and monks and nuns. But the most important feature of the school is that the children, who are from poor mountain families, attend free of charge. As the school was located near the famous “Great Buddha Stupa” I had an opportunity to get a glimpse of this amazing religious site as we navigated through the crowds after exiting our taxi. The stupa is the largest Buddha stupa in the world and a major place of devotion for the Tibetan heiritage of Buddhism. There too, even though it was only the 28th and early afternoon, I found a healthy crowd of people walking clockwise around the structure. We passed quickly by the stupa, however, as we had to get to the school. I would have more time with the stupa at a later.
I enjoyed talking to the students- I always enjoy talking to students! Before the talk started, I finally got to meet another “friend of a friend” who I had some email correspondence with before arriving in Nepal, an Everest sherpa, recently summitted in April for the second time. After the talk it was great to see the kids crowded around him too, pelting him with questions about climbing Mt. Everest. They learned a lot that afternoon, I think. Afterwards a group of us went for tea over at one of the cafes surrounding the stupa so I had another opportunity to watch the circumambulating crowds before departing.
I was delighted to discover the following day that we were returning to the same area with time to spare for exploration of the stupa and environs. It was early afternoon when we arrived and again a large crowd was circling, even compared to the day before. It was obvious that people came from distant lands to participate in this ceremony as a huge crowd of orange-capped Chinese walked by chanting. Prem and I did a few rotations ourselves, ascended to the next level, did a few more, then decided to select one of the many roof top restaurants surrounding the stupa, have a drink, and watch the activity. We had an hour or so to kill before we had to be at a local hotel for my next speaking engagement, a discussion about science and Buddhism with a small group of people interested in both.
The discussion turned out to be very enjoyable as it was extremely informal and very conversational, centering on a sharing of perspectives and thoughts rather than an attempt to reach absolute conclusions. I was also thrilled to learn that we were going to dinner at one of the restaurants surrounding the stupa, which was fast becoming my favorite place in Kathmandu. As we returned to the square it was approaching evening, and I was excited to have an opportunity to see the religious rituals in full swing, with people everywhere. According to Prem much merit was also received by being generous at this time so people in need were sitting on the ground near the stupa and from time to time I would witness someone stopping to give money or food. It seemed to happen randomly but I am not sure I watched long enough to establish any patterns. The stupa was beautiful, lights and flowers were strung all around it, giant streamers of prayer flags spread their wings from the top to each corner and there was even an electronic screen dynamically displaying what I was told was some kind of visual mantra. The crowds circling the stupa were huge, spreading way beyond the sidewalk bordering the structure. Watching them from above was like watching one huge living organism snaking around in a circle. It was incredibly interesting and I could have watched for hours, but not wanting to be rude to my hosts, soon settled myself back at the table.
The following day was my last scheduled lecture, a talk at the Nepal Academy of Science and Technology. I had met the chair of the Nepali Astronomical Society several years ago at an International Space Conference and she had asked me to visit the country to lecture. Unfortunately at the time, my then current job kept me too busy to travel so far away. Knowing of my interest in Nepal, however, I kept her card handy and when I established plans to visit the country, I contacted her and offered my time if she was interested. Consequently we set up an event for the 30th, as I preferred to wait until I was finished with most of the my personal travel first. Arriving at the Academy building for my talk, I was very amazed to find out that they had reached out to students all over the country about the event and thus had gathered quite a cross section. Given the conditions of the roads and the problems with traveling by car in Nepal I was hugely impressed that these students, and their teachers, made the trip! It was a busy day, with the program including talks by some of the local technical leaders discussing the Aerospace activities ongoing, presentation of awards to some of the students, presentation of awards to women in science (which I was happy to see!) and then my lecture along with a question and answer session. Everyone was wonderful, I met a lot of great people, and made sure to spend a bit of time with all of the students. I do have to admit, though, I was really tired at the end of the day and ready to have a quiet night.
Prem met met me early the following morning, again at 6:30 am, to walk over to Durbar Square, and as with the square of similar name in Bhaktapur, a UNESCO World Heiritage site and the location of many shrines and temples. Also like the one in Bhaktapur, it was significantly affected by the earthquake and many of the buildings were either totally destroyed, had some amount of rubble around them, or had braces holding up walls. There were only a few that remained completely untouched and intact. The state of devastation did not deter the morning devotional crowd, however, as usual, I saw many people attending to the temples and shrines. Again I noticed that there were not that many tourists out and about—people really do not know what they are missing!!!! Prem had informed me that we were going to have tea with a Buddhist nun that morning, something I agreed to readily, and after touring the square, off we went. What I soon found out, when we arrived, that this was not just any nun, but the longest serving Buddhist nun alive in Nepal, at 85, highly revered at home and abroad. Wow! She wanted to learn more about my experiences and how I came to have such an affinity for Buddhism. I also found out, when we arrived, that several members of the local community were interested, so I ended up doing another lecture. Since I am good on the fly it was no problem especially as the request came from such a special person.
All in all it was a busy, but amazing and special series of days.
We were on the move, both by foot and taxi, so much over the past four days that I have seen quite a bit of the city, well beyond the small district of Thamel that most tourists confine themselves to. As we wandered out and about I was constantly looking around and observing. On the way to the Swayambhu Temple we passed an area that I will call “the laundry area”. A woman was washing sheets in what looked like a homemade washing machine- a big metal barrel turning on some kind of axle set-up accompanied by lots of clanking. On the way back, the hanging lines where full of drying sheets and towels. Hilariously enough, because the lines were full, what I assumed were newly washed sheets and towels were also spread out on the ground drying in the sun. As part of the ground they were lying on was composed of dirt, one wonders why anyone would bother washing them in the first place! We traipsed through different neighborhoods, passed shrines that were not obvious unless you saw people worshiping, watched as temporary markets appeared then disappeared just as quickly as the shop keepers arrived to open their store fronts, and observed school children in a myriad of uniforms on the way to school. I was delighted to have one of the few of my remaining open mysteries solved at last. During the course of our travels, I passed three men working on one of the many spaghetti strings of wires strung overhead everywhere. I approached them and politely asked them how they knew what wire went where and which one to work on. They smiled and informed me that they marked the wires with different colors as well as their company’s name. So there is a system, of sorts. Good to know!
I have to say good-bye to Nepal, at least for now. It has been a wonderful two months, with new experiences, new friends, and chance to see some amazing parts of the Earth. I am now off to Thailand for a month and am equally excited about what awaits me there. I am going to spend some time in Bangkok hopefully locating some cooking classes and wandering around the city. While I look forward to that, the bulk of my time in the country will be volunteering at an elephant sanctuary; a place of refuge for elephants rescued from abusive situations. Stay tuned!
Visiting Bhaktapur was really a treat. It is an extremely old city, dating back centuries, an ancient capital of Nepal and has been listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. In addition the old part of city is not only still intact but also still functioning as a residential area for lots of people. While the main palace has been turned into an art museum, the city’s numerous temples and other sacred Buddhist sites are very much in use. I was there for two days so had an opportunity to witness the rhythm of life, including daily morning devotions by the local population. While Bhaktapur is located only about six miles from the Kathmandu city center, the trip to get there was an adventure in itself!
Prem met me at my hotel on Friday morning and we set off. Since I was only going to be gone two days and was checking back into the same hotel when I returned to Kathmandu I left most of my stuff at the hotel. For such a short trip I could really travel lightly; I only needed my daypack and a small shoulder bag. It was nice to be even more minimalist than usual! We walked to the local bus stop, about 30 minutes from the hotel, through streets I had not seen yet, well out of the heavily tourist-centric area of Thamel. Another local bus meant another crowded bus and that is what happened. Luckily we got on at the beginning of the route so we had seats, but soon the bus was full, with people packed like sardines in the aisles. (It was like this on the way back, too.) I was near the window and it was fascinating to watch at each stop how many were exiting versus those boarding. It seemed that the number getting on was always greater and I have absolutely no idea where on the bus those people were placing themselves, as I could not discern any unoccupied space, anywhere. But everyone made it work, somehow. Those in the back of the bus wanting off squeezed up the center aisle like a salmon swimming upstream, it was slow going to move forward.
After about an hour or so (only six miles!) we got to our stop, where fortunately, a bunch of people also got off so we did not have to fight our way out, bags and all. A short walk found us at the main gate of Durbar Square, the palace square for the old city. Prem had gotten the name of a guest house from a friend so we set off through the narrow bricked streets to find our lodging. I had a map, handed to me when I bought the ticket, but it was not too helpful. After calling our hostess we re-oriented and soon arrived after passing through several interesting, temple lined public squares. Exploration would have to wait until we got settled in, which we did in short order once we figured out how to navigate properly to our destination.
It was late afternoon by the time we finally ventured out to wander around the city. The sun was shining brightly and it was fairly hot so the activity level of city was low and the crowds were sparse. It would get livelier in the various public squares as the sun started setting and the air got cooler. As we walked from one of the many main squares to another I admired the architecture of the buildings. The local craftsmen are known for their intricate woodworking skills, especially related to windows. I found that artistry on display everywhere, on both buildings and temples. The buildings were a mix of old, new and rubble. Like everywhere else in Nepal, Bhaktapur received a lot of damage from the earthquake and like everywhere else I had been I could see various stages of construction ongoing. Bricks, sand, cement mix, steel reinforcement rods, and rocks of varying sized were piled up all over the place. I don’t know how long it will take Nepal to fully recover from that disaster but there are people all over the country working on it….
After poking our noses in lots of nooks and crannies, we wandered back to the main square nearest our guest house, Taumahdi, to hang out. There were two large temples located on the square, one of them the largest intact temple in the city. It featured stairs that allowed you to climb up to the top level, quite high actually, to a ledge perfect for sitting and watching the world go by. The top spot was a very popular not only with the tourists, but also with the local teenagers. Both groups intermingled as people passed up and down the steep stone steps. We liked the idea of crowd watching for a while so climbed up and plopped down at one of the corner posts to relax and observe. As it grew cooler more and more people came out, including the sudden appearance of a local market as farmers arrived from somewhere bringing vegetables and produce to sell. Over the course of the next two days we actually spent a lot of time in that square as it was the best people watching place in the city. Friday the square was mainly occupied by locals, but as the weekend arrived so did the tourists.
One of the activities that Prem suggested I might like was to wake early the next morning, Saturday which the one day a week people are off from work and kids off from school, and wander around the city to observe the morning devotions that take place daily, but more so on the free day. I agreed enthusiastically and at 6:30 am Saturday morning we were back out in the square. I would like to comment that I have noticed the day starts early in this country, in general. No matter where I have been I have routinely observed that people are out and about starting around 5 am (and yes, that means I have been awake at that hour, too) and by 6 am or so it seems like the whole population is moving around. So by 6:30 am the streets of Bhaktapur were already quite busy, with especially dense crowds in front of the various temples and shrines, preforming their devotions.
The devotions consisted of offering something to the temple deity, whether that be plants, rice, other food such as bananas or mangoes, the colored powder that is used to mark foreheads, or lighting candles. In addition, each temple and shrine had bells in the vicinity, which the postulants would ring as part of their ritual. Consequently as we moved around the city watching this activity at the various religious sites, the sound of bells was constantly following us. As the bells were all sizes and shapes, the result was quite musical. There were large bells with deep tones, whose gongs resonated through the open spaces. There was the light, whimsical tinkle of small,delicate bells, a melodic collection of notes mimicking wind chimes. Bells of some sort were constantly ringing for most of the morning.
Prem explained that there was a circuit that the residents traversed through the city stopping at the shrines important to them. Different families and professions had different deities. In addition, apparently the different deities had preferable offerings. It sounded complicated and something that could only be understood by osmosis; living there and absorbing the traditions as part of the community. I won’t go into the details but Prem further explained that the rituals and practice in the city has morphed and evolved over the centuries, incorporating a bit of Hindu and Bon philosophy. It was fascinating and I was trying to capture the experience with my camera, but in a non-intrusive way. Walking around the city later Prem also pointed out to me the small square stones in front of almost every house, that also serve as a small type of shrine where devotions are also practiced closer to home. Interestingly enough, I only saw one other tourist the whole morning. Those that sleep late in Bhaktapur are missing the whole point of being there!
We went back to the guest house for a late breakfast where I got introduced to another specialty of Bhaktapur called “King Curd”. King Curd is buffalo milk yogurt and the Bhaktapur version throughout Nepal is acclaimed as the best in the country. It is made in clay bowls (also produced in the city) which are only used once. I asked about this and was told that it was because the bowls can only absorb moisture appropriately one time, so there is something going on during the yogurt production that has to do with the clay’s porosity. In any event, it was, by far, the best yogurt I have ever had. We liked it so much we split a liter of it for breakfast the next morning, adding bananas and basically stuffing ourselves. And yes, a liter of yogurt is a bunch of yogurt, but Prem wanted to go for it, so we did. (I did not eat much the rest of the day, though!) The buffalo milk yogurt is not to be missed if you are ever in Bhaktapur.
The two days passed with the same lazy rhythm, exploring the city and sitting still watching the crowds. I roamed around for a while by myself, using the rough map to find all of the hidden and small side streets. That is where I saw some of the devastation the city was still recovering from. In all my travels around Nepal I have found the people to be incredibly friendly and Bhaktapur was no exception. With my light brown, almost blond hair, I was clearly not a native so people would say “Hello” in English as I passed. The most popular questions I encountered, which may have something to do with English language skills as much as curiosity, have been “What is your name?”, “Where are you from?” and “Where are you going?”. This last one has constantly perplexed me, and I assume is part of a language instruction class somewhere, because it is such a random question. (Except as I was climbing the mountain from Besisahar to Gaunsahar—that is an obvious place villagers don’t expect to see Westerners- wandering around on their mountain outside of tourist areas.) The kids were especially keen to try out their English skills so I always answered them and asked them questions too. There have only been a few times when kids have asked for money or candy and my reply was always “no”. My Nepali friends were quite firm in advising that these kind of requests should always be denied so as to not build bad habits in the young people.
As I walked around the city I found the site by the river where cremations are carried out, an area also currently under construction, lots of goats and chickens, some really nice houses and some really dilapidated ones, craftsmen at work in their shops, and old women husking rice. I passed a small group of people gathered around a large blue tarp spread on the ground, on which two men were sitting and finishing off the butchering of a goat. I assume that the crowd were there to receive some of the resultant piece parts. A woman was working with a bucket of the entrails. I did not linger even though it was an interesting scene. Old men were gathered here and there around the city in small groups near some of the temples, sitting and talking or playing chess. Even though it was kind of hot, I enjoyed just walking around and soaking in the atmosphere.
I met up with Prem later and we went back to our perch in Taumadhi square. Saturday night some local men showed up with drums, cymbals, and a pipe, parked themselves near the main temple, and proceeded to sing and chant. Prem told me the songs were mantras and the men were singing devotionals. Listening to them I realized that is what I had heard frequently in the mornings in Gaunsahar too. Saturday evening was social night at the square and everyone was out, tourists and locals, young and old. The farmers market had appeared again out of nowhere and people were shopping, talking, lingering, the teenagers were flirting with each other and the tourists were running around taking pictures. It was a bee hive of activity and fun to watch.
Bhaktapur is well worth a day or two for those traveling to Nepal.
The following pictures are just some small examples of the many different kinds of temples and shrines scattered around the city.
The past three days I have spent in Sauraha, Chitwan, a place totally opposite of the cool, mountainous area of Nepal I left. It is flat, super hot and extremely humid. I felt like I was back in Houston. The town is the main entry point to Chitwan National Park, an approximately 1000 square meter area of protected preserve in the south of Nepal. The town is a popular place for Nepali and foreign tourists to stage out of for visits to the park. Like all of my travels in Nepal, getting from point A to point B was an adventure.
Sunday morning in Besisahar I promptly arrived at 5:30 am, as instructed the day before during my recon ops, at the micro-bus ticket booth. I informed the attendant I was interested in going to Chitwan and he pointed at a guy in a yellow and white striped shirt while informing me “He will manage you”. The appointed person, who turned out to be the driver, collected me and put me in the back row of a small, 16 or so passenger mini-van. Another guy got in, sat across from me in the back row, and we left the station. I was a bit surprised as I was informed that the bus departed at 6:30 am, and as we pulled out it was only 5:40 am. In addition, we were heading out in the wrong direction. I had a map up on my cell phone and it was easy to tell as there were not that many possible roads to take. I decided to wait and see what happened next before asking any questions. Sure enough we ended up doing a circuit of the town to collect more people. Around 6:15 am, with a full load of people, we were headed out of town in the right direction and I felt more confident I was where I was supposed to be. More than once here in Nepal I have been glad that I am an “early bird” sort of person as schedules seem to be guidelines more than anything strictly adhered to!
The micro-bus was scheduled so early because of known construction driven road closures at 10:00 am. Nonetheless even though we got to the construction zone around 9:30 or so the traffic was already in a huge snarl. Actually it should not have been surprising as everyone, being aware of the road closure situation, also starts early. Based on my observations, it seems that the whole country is on the roads in the morning! I was sitting on the right side of the bus (they drive on the left in Nepal) and as we were sitting in a stalled line I could see the road ahead for quite a distance. There was a huge, miles long line of buses and trucks waiting to pass in the opposite direction.
It was a long morning. Several times we simply sat there, with the engine off, waiting for the line to move. Also several times the driver, along with some other small vehicles, would jump the line, racing ahead as much as possible in the opposite lane before squeezing back into the line again. In these instances, I simply mentally sighed as this kind of action only added to the snarl problem, in general. The real issue was the construction and several narrow bridges so creating a new bottleneck was not going to solve the problem. Thankfully I did see someone official trying to control the flow, slow as it was. The other passengers were chattering the whole time, likely about the traffic, but since I was the only one in the bus that was not Nepali, I’ll never know. In total we probably were delayed about two or three hours or so. Prem, who was waiting for me at the bus park, tried to call several times to find out where we were, but unfortunately I had no signal, so he simply had to wait.
Once Prem and I found each other at the bus park I discovered my travel day was not over. We had three more bus journeys to complete to get to our final destination, Sauraha. I think by now I have been on almost all type of mechanical conveyances, with the exception of motorbikes, that you can be on in Nepal. For the final stages of the journey we took local buses, something that is only easy to do if you are a native or with one. Navigating local buses without knowing the language is extremely difficult due to the informal nature of how things run. Our last conveyance was a tuk-tuk, the first I had seen in Nepal.
Prem is from the Chitwan area and as such knows much about the environs so he managed the logistics for the trip. I was pleasantly surprised when I walked into my room at the guest house to find air-conditioning, hot water and a modern bathroom. True luxury, especially after my mountain experience! The hotel is located in a quiet area just outside of the main part of the town which is very nice. After settling in we headed to the park headquarters, a ten minute walk to the other end of the town, to meet our guide and organize the jeep safari for the next day. As it was still afternoon and thus very hot and humid, there were not a lot of people out and about. As I walked down the street it was easy to see that this was a popular tourist destination; the main street was lined with hotels and restaurants. It was also clear that Prem was from the area. He was constantly being greeted by people as we walked along. The park HQ, which was located adjacent to the river that marked the park boundary, was surrounded by restaurants and cafes. The various establishments had tables at the waterfront along the river, providing a relaxing place for people to hang out in the evening or after returning from the park. After Prem had found our safari guide and made arrangements we sat there and had an early dinner. Even though it had cooled off a bit by evening, it was nice to return to the air-conditioned room at the end of the day.
The next day we headed out early, re-tracing our steps to the river, to meet our guide and start a full day of jeep safari. The most sought after prize on a safari in Chitwan is to obtain a glimpse of one of the 40 or so Bengal tigers that roam through the preserve. But the park also has abundant monkeys, rhino, deer, some elephants and sloths. There is a large variety of birdlife as well. I was looking forward to spending time in the jungle and seeing a different side of Nepal. When I first came to the country I never would have connected the words “Nepal” and “jungle”! Luckily, as the day dawned the sky appeared overcast, offering to minimize the heat. We were one of the first jeeps to leave although since May is the start of the low season the crowds would not be suffocating.
The jungle was very green and I enjoyed the change in scenery from the mountains. The park is rife with elephant grass which grows taller than I am so it was hard to spot animals even with the height of the safari jeep helping. However, the rhinos, with their light gray hides, stood out easily. Over the course of the day we saw lots of rhinos wandering through the grass munching as well as wallowing in the various watering holes that we passed. In the more forested areas we saw a multitude of spotted deer and different kinds of monkeys. The few elephants we saw were “working elephants” which meant that they were employed by the government to help manage the park. The elephants are apparently used for corralling the rhinos if needed, moving wood around, patrolling for poachers and general transportation. The Bengal tiger eluded us, unfortunately. We were staked out a popular tiger watering hole at the river, but as time passed it threatened to rain, making our secluded post precarious and we prudently decided to move on. Overall though, despite not being able to find a tiger, it was an enjoyable day in an extremely green and beautiful place.
In the evening I attended a local cultural program featuring regional dancing. It turns out that one of Prem’s friends runs the program so I went as his guest. I enjoyed the show and what made it especially nice was the background information that Prem and his friend provided on both the dances and the dancers, who basically do the show for fun more than anything else. I think the audience enjoyed it because at the end of the last dance, many went up on stage to participate. It was quite a mob scene and fun to watch.
Tuesday was a lazy day and I finally caught up on some of the writing I could not get to in Gaunsahar because of the busy schedule. I spent the morning relaxing and later in the day Prem and I went to visit the government’s elephant breeding facility. This is the home of the “working” elephants I had seen the day before in the park as well as a breeding center. Since during the day the elephants are out in the park we timed our arrival for late afternoon to see them coming back to the camp. Several had babies who were being trained to the expected work program. After reading about how the training was done I have to admit I was a bit horrified despite the pragmatics Prem explained to me behind using elephants to help manage the preserve. There are local hotels that operate elephant rides for tourists and those entities, apparently, according to Prem, mistreat their animals, whereas the government has rules and so forth. Clearly we had a culture gap on this subject because I hated to see the elephants working at all. Interestingly enough, he could not understand our practice of neutering dogs and cats, even if they were strays- and saw nothing wrong or unnatural with strays, which are all over the place in Nepal. Another cultural gap.
Tomorrow it is back to Kathmandu for a few days. I am speaking at a school as a favor to friends. The principal has invited Prem (who is a friend of the friends; they all know each other, long story- small community!) and I to dinner at his home so I am looking forward to that experience. After we will go to visit Bhaktapur, a city famous for its temples and religious sites, before returning again to Kathmandu. Even though my remaining time in Nepal is short, there is still a lot to do!