Jan 072008

Mae Hong Son

The day’s schedule was full: floating down a river on a bamboo raft, riding an elephant in a seat made for two, a bit of shopping, lunch in town, then a three hour jungle hike near the resort, the second Buddha talk, and dinner back in town. When would there be time to process photos or lounge on the Internet?

We ate quickly at the resort’s buffet. One egg over hard, two bowls of rice porridge, and some strong tea would have to tide me over until our first mid-morning snack. Near the banks of the Mae Pai (Pai River), we ambled down a dirt embankment to a motley assortment of “rafts” built from long poles of thick bamboo with lashings and a few narrow bench seats facing forward. You could put your feet on the side poles, or let them get soggy on the bottom poles. Either way, ants inhabiting the raft would seek higher ground on our seated parts.

The rafts are steered gently downstream by a driver in the front using just a paddle. Without the clackety-clack of a longtail diesel engine, we could enjoy the misty solitude, bird calls, and a little light conversation. The surrounding forests are punctuated by shacks here and there, and a few resorts, but for the most part this province remains quite wild (in the natural sense). Photography was tough with the dark conditions and motion. As we neared the end of our journey, the sun peeked through the fog and we headed toward our next mode of transportation for the land portion of our journey.

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Asian elephants are said to be more docile and easier to train than African elephants. The older elephants in this group had worked in logging, but now they lug tourists. On the neck or head of each elephant rode a mahout, an elephant handler who coaxed and steered the elephant along a slow journey through the forest. The first few minutes, however, are sheer terror as you are barely settled in your perch — a steel box for two with a seat pad — when the mahout urges your elephant down a 30 degree slope toward the river. Your seat is “secured” with a belly strap and a rope around the base of the elephant’s tail, and feels completely insecure. You can put your feet on the elephant’s shoulders to help stabilize yourself, and of course you can grip the seat railings as if that might help you. Anyway, we survived the initial descent and a baby elephant, perhaps three feet tall, rolled around in the river in front of us. Very cute, but we did not know how the other elephants would react. Everything turned out okay as we climbed the opposite bank and watched the baby blow dust over its head. We were very thankful that our elephant did not follow suit.

As our elephants strolled along, they regularly grabbed bunches of grass and other foliage and stuffed it into the mouths. Often they felt no need to complete the process of chewing and swallowing for quite a while. Our mahout used his feet behind each ear to help motivate the elephant to proceed on its prescribed course. If that didn’t work, he used an unpleasant-looking metal hook to prod the elephant in the forehead. Come the revolution, the elephants are not going to let humans do that any more.

Along the way, we had more moments of fear descending into gulleys pockmarked with large elephant footprints, but everything was going smoothly when we noticed the elephant in front of us had paused, spread his legs, and was extruding immense green blobs. He then proceeded to hose down the trail (it was very obviously a “he” as evidenced by the large hose). After he finished his business, our elephant had to move up the same trail, and we couldn’t help imagining what it might be like if our elephant were to slip. Bleah. The lead elephant soon graced us with some thunderous flatulence, the scent of which we will not soon forget.

At our disembarkation point, we purchased elephant snacks (bananas and sugarcane) to “tip” our elephant, and we gave a little cash to our mahout, since he was a good sport with photos and of course had positioned us perfectly for the potty viewing. The elephants were not too choosy about whose tips they ate, and there’s nothing like some slime from an elephant’s trunk, groping you for food, to make you think about a change of clothes.

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We rolled back into town and had a bit of shopping/internet time before lunch at Kai Mook. This was a good place on a busy corner, and we started with a prawn and lemon grass salad. Two very unusual dishes were a fish sausage, served inside the fish skin, thickly sliced, with the head and tail preserved for crunching, and a pig’s foot with the bone removed and replaced with an orange squash or pumpkin. These were both delicious and fun. A jungle curry with chicken and mixed vegetables was very hot, while a stir fry of snow peas and sliced mushrooms was perhaps a bit bland. Finally there was a plate of pork with deep fried holy basil.

After lunch we returned to Fern Resort, and about eight of us headed out for a 3 hour hike. Up the hill from the resort is the Nam Tok Mae Surin National Park. For 20 baht per head, we purchased tickets to hike the Mae Sakut Nature Trail, a loop trail of varying quality, ranging from leafy hillsides to rock and dirt steps, from bamboo slat bridges that cracked and crunched under foot to solid branch bridges. We made it to the first pair of waterfalls in a little less than half our allotted time. We then labored uphill toward “Station 11,” the Para Rubber Tree. When we told our guide we wanted to go back, he pointed up the hill toward the tree. So close and yet, not worth the extra 5 minutes. Returning home was faster, but still quite a bit of work. Two days later, my sweaty shirt still has not dried. (Oh, sorry, you probably didn’t want to know that.)

After a cold towel wipedown, I checked a little email, then joined a Bay Area couple for a sunset cocktail at the resort’s “Rice Terrace” lounge, which has a very nice view, more open than the view from most of the other public areas. At 6:00 it was time for our second Buddhism talk, wherein we learned about the four truths, the eight-fold path, the law of karma, and many other concepts surrounding the practice of Buddhism in Thailand. And also that it is difficult to translate the concepts into modern English without changing their meaning. The house dogs were tussling nearby, and occasional loud, low growls sometimes seemed to suggest that we were becoming quite hungry and ready for dinner. It was time to head back into town to the Fern Restaurant. I don’t think we have repeated a dish so far.

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