Landing in the Land of Smiles – Thailand Part 1

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Landing in Thailand – nearly a month ago now – I hadn’t decided whether to attempt to jam-pack Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia into 30 days, or to take a bit more time to see Thailand and Cambodia and save Vietnam for its own trip. As has been the theme of this entire adventure, I had done little no research leading up to decision time, but as soon as the wheels touched down on the tarmac, every homesick thought lingering from Australia dissolved. I had a feeling there would be far too much for me to see in Thailand in 10 short days and also felt that Vietnam deserved more of my time than a 3-countries-in-one-month trip would allow. But being back in Asia felt like coming home. Strange to think about, given that Australia was so similar to Canada culturally and Thailand is very much not like home. Maybe my newfound ability to flow and relax has me craving places which move at slower speeds.

Bangkok, it would turn out, is no such place. Maybe I’ve been missing my math (aside from currency conversion, which I’m getting very good at), but here are some quick stats, and forgive me if I’ve botched any of these figures, I’m rusty. Thailand is not very big. Altogether the land area is about 500,000 square kilometers. This is smaller than Alberta (about 650,000 square km; Canada is about 10 million square km). Thailand is home to 68 million people and Bangkok alone houses 8.2 million. Canada has grown to nearly 36 million people. So, per square km, Thailand is over 38 times more densely populated than Canada. And Bangkok is almost 3 times more densely packed than Calgary and 21 times more packed than the similarly sized Alberta. Obviously what I’m getting at is the sheer number of human beings occupying a relatively small space. And the resulting chaos that is Bangkok. (Also, I made a graph but the numbers were so extraordinarily far apart on the spectrum of concentration that  the graph was essentially meaningless. I digress.)

It was vibrant and crazy and lights and noise and smog but with true essence of culture. And it would be the beginning of some pretty important lessons in extreme thinking, standing up for what I believe in and trusting myself. I know, just when I thought I knew everything.

I had been told that, at some point in my travels, I will be “had”. I will somehow get tricked or duped, overpay or generally end up in a situation I do not want to be in.

Me: Ha! I am far too smart for that.

Zeus: Get me my lightning bolt.

Enamoured with being back in Asia and eager to get my tourist toes back in the water, I set out early on my first day in Bangkok. I was going to see ALL the temples. Experience ALL the things. Feel ALL the Thai smiles and culture. But first, I met Somsi. On the street as I was walking towards the Grand Palace. What I would come to find, is that there is a very common scam in Bangkok, whereby extremely friendly people will wait near common tourist attractions and approach potential customers. They will tell you the attraction you are trying to visit is closed that morning due to some kind of religious/political event but that it will be open in the afternoon (I can’t quite remember the details now, but for me it had something to do with the King moving between places that particular day). Delighted that I had avoided walking all the way to a closed Grand Palace, the suggestion that he arrange a tuk tuk driver to take me around to some smaller sights for a couple of hours for the low price of 20 baht (less than $1 CAD) seemed perfectly reasonable.

Now, typically what happens is that they take you to some completely irrelevant or unknown monuments, then take you to some kind of jewel shop that will pressure you heavily into making large purchases of probably-fake gems. Apparently this can go on elaborately for hours and involve multiple parties. I got a lightened up version: After riding around in the tuk tuk, seeing a monument I actually chose instead of Somsi’s suggestion, which the driver seemed strangely annoyed by, he then asked if I wanted to stop at a tailor shop. I did not need or want a tailor, but I was being polite and knew I wasn’t going to buy anything, so what would 5 minutes hurt? I had some time to kill and riding around the city was fun. We stopped, I got told how beautiful I was from the man in the shop trying to sell me a jacket/scarf/robe and I declined to try anything on or look around any longer. I knew for certain this was arranged at least with the driver, but the joke was really on them: I have become far too cheap to overpay for anything, much less something I don’t want. The entire adventure actually turned out to be a great way to get my bearings around the city, and was also my first tuk tuk ride. (After hearing about them for years as a child from Papa Q, I was probably the giddiest girl in BKK, happily inhaling exhaust and kicked up dirt, weaving dangerously from lane to lane). Obviously this would have been very different if the scam was more elaborate or aggressive, but nonetheless, that evening when I did some gut-instinct googling, I found this and felt nauseous. I clearly hadn’t done enough research, and I felt very stupid and small and foolish on my first day in Thailand because I should have known better and why was I so trusting. I was mostly angry that these people probably thought I was a stupid naive tourist. Because I’m totally not; I’m way too smart for that. So I beat myself up for a couple of hours, considered never mentioning it to anyone as long as I lived at risk of ruining my reputation as an intelligent human. But really, the only foolish thing I did in this situation was beating myself up at all. Mel, you were right, I got had! On day one! I am not immune to the quirks of travel, and it made me more aware for the remainder of my trip that not everyone is as rose-coloured as I like to think. But that’s ok.

Initial hiccups aside, and despite hearing some somewhat mixed reviews of Bangkok, I loved it. The city (Thailand overall, actually) has a lot of temples. A lot of temples. Some are sparkly, some pure white, many I had no idea what they were until I looked them up hours after wandering through them. I did not see every temple in Bangkok. Not even close. But I did hit the “big” ones and the Grand Palace, I wandered down Khao San road (and had some European guys sing the Canadian national anthem to me), and took myself on a date to the tallest tower in the city, revolved around the top to see the thousands and thousands of lights (this was also my first experience of tourists and their children wanting to take pictures with me), and had a very blue, very strong cocktail and stumbled home through an enormous night market. I saw unicorns and the floating markets and bought a skirt with butterflies. Then it was time to head north to Chiang Mai.

 

As might be clear in my reaction to my experience in Bangkok, generally when things don’t go to plan I tend to paint entire experiences as stupid and meaningless. This is, of course, extremist and can be really harmful in the way I see my journeys: in life, love, and recently, travel. Specifically, my trekking experience based out of Chiang Mai is a really good example of what this could have spiralled into and the apparent strides I’ve made in this type of black and white thinking.

There are two things I knew I would not be doing in Thailand. 1) Posing or participating in activities with sedated tigers/monkeys/any living thing and 2) Elephant riding. I’d read and seen enough to know the torture involved in animal entertainment overseas, and my veggie-and-animal-loving heart was in no way interested in supporting this type and magnitude of cruelty. So, when planning my trekking adventure tour in Chiang Mai, I was explicit in my request to take part in one which visited an elephant rescue or sanctuary for abused animals, and not an elephant camp. “No, no riding.” I was told. “No riding?” I would ask again. “No.” “Sanctuary? Rescue?” I would ask again. “Yes, yes rescue. No ride.” This was the exchange I had with the man who booked my tour for me, and the same exchange I had with the coordinator at my hostel when I arrived in Chiang Mai after the overnight train from Bangkok (which, by the way, isn’t really too bad aside from the coffee being overpriced and being almost unable to sleep because the train feels like it might be toppling off the tracks). Upon meeting our guide for the following day’s excursion set-off, I asked again, thus far feeling as though the lack of specifics on which exact sanctuary we would be visiting might be more than a lost-in-translation gap (gut feelings abound). I was told by my guide, in no uncertain terms, that there would be no elephant riding and that I can stop asking because his English was “very good” and he can understand me. Well, then.

Early in the morning, tiny backpack filled with only the most bare necessities (I mean bare, as in extra shorts and my rain poncho and water), our little group piled into a songthaew, and off we went. After a quick pit-stop, we arrived at our first destination: The Maewang Elephant camp.

Wait. This isn’t right. They promised. I asked so many times.

“Who will ride?

I still couldn’t believe where I was. I was devastated.

Sidebar: my camera was purchased in 2012 before a Europe trip, so megapixels on an average point and shoot have literally doubled in the last 5 years. Nonetheless, I hope there is something to be gained from the below photos from the camp.

They weren’t going to make us ride if we didn’t want to, but it was clear that at least half of us on the tour had been misled. A lovely couple I met from Dublin (who are both gifted photographers) had had this happen to them twice. And I was really, really visibly upset. These were the conditions you hear about and see in documentaries. The camp workers were not even attempting to hide the welding of bullhooks, the animals were chained by their ankles on chains less than a meter long. I could see their poor torn ears and open wounds on their backs and shoulders. So while the remainder of the group hesitantly agreed and began their rides, myself and my soon-to-be Dublin friends paced around as close to these beautiful creatures as we could, taking pictures and exchanging a few words about our breaking hearts. I had never in my life been this close to an elephant, and all I wanted to do was scream at someone to let them go.

So I thought while we waited about whether to demand to be taken back to Chiang Mai immediately, or to use the experience to share some awareness having seen first-hand what these animals go through, and hope for what was to be made of the remainder of the trek. I decided that rather than 3 days, I would join the majority of the group for the 2-day trek and use the third day to find and visit the actual elephant sanctuary. In my mind, that way I would contribute in a way I had originally intended, and see the full spectrum of reality.

It was the best decision I could have made.

To be continued!

 

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