Feb 212019

It’s our last full day in Phuket, and there is so much we won’t be able to see and do on this island. Today we will visit with elephants, shop for souvenirs, have massages by the pool, and share one last home-cooked dinner at the villa. Everything else will have to wait for “next time.”

Thursday, February 21, 2019

We started our day with another substantial breakfast of eggs, bacon, sausages, sausages wrapped in bacon, fruit, toast, etc. If we were staying longer, I might ask our house managers to prepare a Thai breakfast, as I’m sure locals do not eat like this. But we’re not complaining. Our van arrived, and we soon were en route to the Eastern side of the island with one extra cell phone on board. But that’s a story for another day.

Elephant tourism is unavoidably controversial. Whether forced to perform tricks in a circus, or to carry tourists in uncomfortable chairs on their backs, elephants that have avoided or retired from logging work may nevertheless have a difficult, painful and/or unhealthy life in tourism. We don’t want to patronize attractions that may be cruel to animals, so we’ve been directed to a sanctuary. The term means different things to different people. Based on Geneva’s research, we will be visiting the Phuket Elephant Sanctuary (“PES”).

PES rescues (buys) elephants who are no longer fit for other work, due to injuries or old age, and provides them a sort of retirement. Tourist dollars support their acquisition, food and healthcare, and in exchange, the elephants tolerate being moved from place to place for better viewing and photography. There might come a day when someone pays for these elephants to return to the wild without being put on display for tourists, but that time does not appear to have come yet. So we pay to observe the elephants and in so doing, we make this kind of place possible.

After checking in at the office, we climbed aboard 4WD vehicles and headed into the forest. At the sanctuary, we gathered with other tourists in the open-air dining room for an orientation. PES currently has eight older female elephants here, and after watching an introductory video, we had our first encounter with them. The guide for our little group (Boy?) handed us several pieces of fruit from a large basket, which we then offered one at a time to an elephant. When offered a banana, the elephant daintily clasps it with the end of her trunk and places it into her mouth. Her approach to a much larger wedge of watermelon is different: she cradles it in her trunk and somehow avoids dropping it before it passes her lips. In our line, there was a young girl who seemed terrified of the elephant, which I can understand if you’ve ever had a trunk grope you looking for a snack. These elephants were well behaved, but she wasn’t convinced. I don’t think it helped that her mother told her this was her one opportunity and she would never have the chance to do this again. Is fear of life-long regret really the best way to handle this situation? But you probably know I should not give parenting advice.

My hand got slimed by elephant snot, so I took quick bathroom break before we headed over to the “Hydrotherapy Pool,” an accommodation for elephants who cannot safely use the natural pond on the property. Tourists could help cool down the elephants with a sprayer, and watch the elephants eat slippery cucumbers. Unfortunately, the elephants didn’t return the favor and spray the tourists; that would have been much more exciting.

We set out on a hike around the property in our “wellies” — rubber boots we all put on because it was a bit muddy. We paused in shelters for shade and watched elephants eat leaves and stems. There also was some other wildlife to photograph: birds, dragonflies, and a dog that accompanied us from time to time. When we were just about worn out from the heat, we returned to our starting point to change back into real shoes, visit the gift shop, and enjoy a vegetarian buffet lunch.

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Before returning to the villa, we had time for a little shopping. Along the road back, we detoured toward Bang Tao and the resort area of Laguna, which features large international hotels around a set of golf courses and man-made lakes. Our driver abruptly stopped at Lagoon Plaza, a half-vacant shopping center that held little interest, other than plenty of parking. There was a 7-11 nearby for quick drink, and has anyone ever heard of Kenny Rogers Roasters?

According to Google Maps, there were several other shops up the street. I headed in the direction of a handicrafts center, but I got distracted by Meerz, a shop specializing in imports from Kashmir. Their stock ranged from elaborately painted paper mache elephants in every imaginable size to a room full of hand-made carpets. The salesman seemed starved for human contact and proceeded to tour me around the store pulling out any imaginable thing he thought I might be willing to purchase. Eventually, we got to the scarves. Pashmina. Cashmere. Silk. Blends of silk and cashmere. It was a bit confusing and overwhelming for a guy who knows nothing about scarves. He offered a 1,000 baht discount on a cashmere scarf, which lowered the price from 2,800 to 1,800. I protested that I didn’t have a wife or girlfriend to whom to give a scarf, and he pitched me on scarves being unisex. And now the price was 1,600. Okay, but I didn’t have 1,600 on me, I would need to return to the van for my second wallet. Reluctant to let me leave without making a sale, but also not wanting to take every last baht in my wallet, he sold it to me for 1,150. Now I just need to find a girlfriend.

By the time I escaped the shop to the van, everyone was anxious to get home. When we reached the villa, our masseuses were waiting. Once we had been poked, prodded, squeezed, stretched, and rubbed for 90 minutes, we recuperated on the couch. This is how to relax.

For dinner, I was desperate for something more exotic, and at least one spicy dish. I had discussed the menu at length with our house managers, including alternatives in case the first ideas didn’t work out. We had to nix the goat curry due to the difficulty and cost of getting goat meat, so instead we would have a red curry with duck. Water mimosa wasn’t available, so we reverted to morning glories. For something spicy, they agreed to make kua kling with chicken, which would bookend our first night’s dinner at Khua Kling Pak Sod. The chicken didn’t turn out very spicy, but it proved to be the most popular dish of the set, so it was totally worth it. I also introduced my friends to winged bean salad, and we had “crystal noodles” (mung bean threads) with sadtaw beans — very Southern — and shrimp. For dessert, we had some sweets from the market, including “layer cake” made with agar-agar, and rich coconut custard. I hadn’t been feeling well all day, so I couldn’t eat as much as usual. Whether for that reason or due to making extra large portions, our house managers got a good amount to take home.

Tomorrow we leave our sanctuary here on the hill and return to Bangkok. I need to leave Thailand on Friday before midnight because my visa waiver expires, and Geneva will be flying back with me while our four travel companions spend one more day in Thailand. How much more can we squeeze in before heading back to the States?

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