Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Hilltribe Villagers

Elephants in Chiang Mai

The elephant is a very sacred and respected animal in Thailand as it is revered for it's distinct intelligence. Many local people we encountered wanted to make it known that Thai people traditionally consider the elephant to be equal to a human. Everywhere you look as you travel through Thailand, there seems to be an elephant motif. There are tiny metallic elephants embroidered on pillows, strings of elephants marching across table runners, elephants carved into teak wood, large, beaded, pearly elephants on wall hangings and imposing, mirrored elephant sculptures flanking entrances. While in Thailand, it seemed appropriate that we visit one of the many elephant "training camps" in and around Chiang Mai.

Chiang Dao , the particular elephant camp we visited is in the mountains north of Chiang Mai city and is home to 32 Asian elephants. Upon arrival, we crossed a swinging rope bridge stretching the length of a football field (much to Oteil's dismay) and began to see elephants of all sizes making their way down to the Ping river for their morning bath. Spattered across the green landscape were brilliant reds and yellows, as the "Flame of the Forest" trees were in full bloom. We slowly made our way across the bridge and, back on terra firma, walked for a few minutes through the forest and reached a clearing. Here, we were met by several baby elephants, flapping their ears and stretching their trunks in our direction. It is popular for visitors to purchase clusters of bananas to feed the elephants. For 20 baht a visitor can purchase 2 clusters, which the elephant would politely take from your outstretched hands with their deft trunk and swallow in one large gulp. One juvenile elephant was known to take the baht out of your hands, trot up to the banana stand and pay for his bananas himself. Ruchee, our guide, told us that a visitor once gave this baby elephant a random scrap of paper, trying to trick him into believing she was handing him a 20 baht note. The elephant, hip to her attempted deception, politely took the note, walked into the forest and threw it away.

I was taken aback by how human-like an Asian elephant's eyes are. A beautiful light amber hue, they peer out at you from behind large lashes and are strikingly different to that of an African elephants. Whether African or Asian, meeting their gaze, you feel that you are undoubtedly looking into the eyes of a sentient and highly intelligent being. We were regaled with many anecdotes demonstrating their intelligence when we visited the camp outside of Chiang Mai. Ruchee spoke to us about the tsunami that struck Thailand in 2004. Before the earthquake erupted under the Indian Ocean and the tsnumani hit on December 26th, Ruchee said the people of Chiang Mai could hear the elephants trumpeting loudly in the surrounding forests, late in the evening on the 25th. In southern Thailand, the elephants began to move to higher ground, with many other species of animals hot on their trail. According to Ruchee, the only animals "dumb enough" to stay behind were dogs and humans.

Considering the elephant's remarkable intelligence (they have been documented using tools, mourning and burying their dead, have complex, hyper-sensitive methods of communication and are self-aware - meaning they can recognize themselves in a mirror), I felt a bit morally conflicted about visiting an elephant "training camp". Although many Thai's insist that the elephant is on par with the human, placing saddles on their back for rides through the forest and having them perform tasks for the entertainment of tourists seems to speak otherwise. The camp was initially created to exhibit the elephant's skills in teak logging. After we slowly meandered through mountainous forest on the backs of these powerful animals, we made our way back to a makeshift stage at the center. All of the elephants marched into an expansive, dusty area and demonstrated their ability to pick up tree trunks and carry them from one place to another, to send a tree trunk flying across the "stage" with one explosive kick. They painted pictures and performed various other tricks, much to the delight of the other tourists. I just couldn't help but sit there feeling guilty that I had paid for this, and thus supported their exploitation. I'm not sure what I expected though.

I do want to include that the elephants at Chiang Dao all seemed to be in excellent health and psychologically sound. They spend their mornings "working" and the rest of the day and evenings, they are free to roam and live in their natural habitat. At the Thai's insistence, I really did want to believe that the elephant is an exceptionally respected animal in their country. Unfortunately, as is many species of animals across the world, they are targets for exploitation. Almost every evening we walked through Chiang Mai's famous night bazaar, we encountered a baby elephant, chained and slowly squeezing his way through the crowded streets. The babies are brought into the city to "raise money for the elephants" and there, they inevitably succumb to the harsh existence of the concrete jungle. Accustomed to the dappled light in the forest, they become blind from the unfilitered, blistering sunlight in the city. Used to the quiet of the forest, they become deaf from the overpowering city noises. In the wild, elephants will eat 300 to 500 pounds of vegetation a day. Fed pieces of sugar cane and clusters of bananas from tourists, their bodies waste away.

The elephants are such a ubiquitous part of Thai culture, their reverence for or lack there of seems to span the whole spectrum. I feel so fortunate to have been able to spend time with the elephants. Truly, a visit to Thailand would not be complete without it. Their gentle nature and kind, intelligent eyes really moved me. As humans, I feel that we must do all that we can to preserve this ancient, majestic species.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Protests in Bangkok & the Media

May 18th, 2010

I feel I must apologize to all you sweet folks back home for our lack of communication during the remainder of our Thailand adventure. With the protests and ensuing violence in Bangkok (and the media's success in blowing it completely out of proportion) there's no wonder that you guys began to worry when the blogs stopped coming! But I can assure you that we are safe. We've been hanging out in paradise in southern Thailand (with little to no internet connection) and having the time of our lives!

(Over the course of the next few days, I will be updating the blog with our excursions in Chiang Mai and the islands....)

But back to it...

Both times we traveled through Bangkok, we never encountered any inkling of the turmoil. Aside from the sporadic red flag flapping behind a local's scooter -indicating it's owner's protest of the Thai government and support of the red shirts (followers of Thaksin Shinawarta, the ousted mega-millionaire former Prime Minister who is now in exile in Cambodia), we would have had no idea that there was any unrest at all. In their sensationalized reports, what the media fails to include is that Bangkok is comparable in size to the city of Los Angeles, and although we hear that the conflict is slowly spreading, it has been previously isolated to a few blocks. The city was never evacuated (as we heard on one news channel while we were in Phuket) and the Bangkok airport was never closed down (an untruth claimed by the media that caused tons of international tourists to cancel their trips).

This isn't to say that there is not real violence occurring in Bangkok. There have been lives lost and many people injured and displaced in that area of the city. But after traveling from the top of Thailand to the bottom, and speaking with so many locals who are seriously struggling from the blow to their country's tourism, it is difficult to not feel frustrated about the sensationalized reports (and in some cases blatant untruths) being spread globally by the media.

With that being said, we just wanted everyone to know that we are safe and that we appreciate all of your concern. We've made it back to Atlanta and I am writing this sitting comfortably at my desk in my office at home. As I begin to sort through all the photographs, I will get them posted asap!

Lots of love from the Burbridges...

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Muay Thai

Instead of a first night shnazzy-big-city-dinner, we opted to wander deep into the heart of Bangkok to catch a traditional Muay Thai match at Lumpinee Stadium. The main event of the evening was a bout between two famous Thai fighters and somehow, we lucked out and were able to find ring side seats. A Muay Thai boxing match is an experience unlike any other. You can feel the energy pulsing through the stadium and around the ring before the matches even begin. The Thai fighters seemed to be surprisingly young and entered the ring draped in tropical florals, circling each other and preforming a ceremonial dance before bowing to each of the four corners in prayer. The incredible heat that pervades this country only seemed to fuel the intensity of the evening and their muscular, taut bodies were glistening with sweat before the fighting even began. The fighters began to circle each other and the beating of the traditional Thai drums pulsed through the crowd while a single Thai flute rang loud and clear, both increasing in pace and intensity as the fight progressed. The fighters lunged and attacked like tigers, wearing masks of pure aggression while the crowd would scream in unison at each kick or punch, the roar vibrating the whole stadium. Each explosive blow created sprays of sweat and blood that shimmered in the light. Needless to say, Oteil was beside himself with excitement! We witnessed one "knock out" and the fighter was carried out of the ring, completely unconscious, on a stretcher.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

The Grand Palace

Our first morning's excursion in Bangkok to the King's former residence, The Grand Palace, was an outstanding start to our Thai adventure. Oteil and I were both astounded by the oppressive heat and humidity here. I was amazed that the sun's intensity surpasses that of Africa, which is really saying something. Your clothes are drenched in sweat in a matter of 10 minutes. Indeed, it is truly the land of 5 showers a day if you try to uphold your accustomed standard of comfort.

Nonetheless, we were thrilled to be exploring the tropical flower laden streets of Bangkok, a city that is a peculiar blend of ancient culture and the best of Asian technology. Bangkok assaults your senses like no city I've ever experienced. Walking the busy streets, your path weaves through diminutive Thai vendors aggressively hawking their wares. The air is thick with the exotic smell of simmering spices mixed with the scent of burning incense. The tinkling of Thai bells resonate from every rooftop and somehow ring through the bustle of the big city. Buddhist monks, barefoot and draped in bright orange swathes of fabric, scurry through the streets on their way to and from the myriad temples peppering Bangkok. Exotic tropical plants thrive in the bright sunlight and fill the streets with a stunning show of fiery pinks, oranges, yellows and reds. The plants seem to competitively grow into otherworldly sizes, creating a horticulturist's fantasy land. I can't help but think about how our mothers would delight in the beauty of the Thai's native fauna.

We traveled to the Grand Palace via a water "bus" that runs the length of the Chao Phraya river, carrying locals and tourists alike through the city of Bangkok. From the river we walked several blocks in the heat before stopping to purchase paper parasols to shield our skin from the scorching sun. After squeezing through rows and rows of street vendors, we rounded the corner to see the Grand Palace stretched out before us in all of it's ornate glory. I have to admit that once we were inside the walls, I found it a bit difficult to photograph because we were completely overwhelmed by the amount of gilded detail, you simply didn't know where to start. The entire compound was beyond impressive, truly a king's stomping grounds. The Grand Palace is still a destination for practicing Buddhists to come to meditate and give offerings. After removing our shoes, we quietly slipped into the back of a temple to witness the show of devotion. Monks of all ages knelt in reverence and filled the temple with deep guttural chanting that echoed off the gilded walls and made the hair on our arms stand straight up. The Buddhist men and women filled the temple, their arms piled high with exotic flower offerings, and one by one, they dropped to their knees and lowered their heads to the colorful mosaic floor in reverence of their Buddha.

Remember you can click on the images to make them larger!

Thursday, May 6, 2010

I am in SIAM

11:30pm Bangkok time

We are staying in an absolutely stunning hotel, The Mandarin Oriental (thanks for the recommendation Derek!). When Oteil and I walked into the lobby tonight, we both stopped short, our mouths agape. I've never seen such an impressive hotel interior. It's no wonder it was voted the best hotel in the world for multiple years in Travel and Leisure. Situated overlooking the Chao Phraya River in an area of the city famous for it's Asian antiques, we will certainly be scouring the streets tomorrow for special treasures. Also on the agenda: a visit to the Grand Palace and Wat Pho (Temple of the Reclining Buddha), a dinner cruise along the river to check out Bangkok's myriad temples lit up in all of their nighttime glory, and hopefully, if we can squeeze it in, a Muay Thai boxing match!

8:00am Bangkok

After doing a little reading up on Thai culture, we've discovered a few important "Do's and Don'ts" that visitors should adhere to to avoid behaving offensively. One should never touch the heads of Thais (not even the children). Women especially should never touch a Buddhist monk. In Thailand, the feet are considered the dirtiest part of the body and you are never to sit with the bottoms of your feet facing anyone, particularly pointed towards an image of Buddha. (That would explain why the Thai gentlemen across the aisle from me on the airplane stared at me when my bare feet were propped up on the armrest.. oops!) The king's anthem is played twice a day, at 8am and 6pm, and one is expected to stand during this time, wherever you may be. Although the monarchy lost it's power in 1932, the Thai king, Rama IX (the longest reigning monarch in Thai history) is still immensely popular and remains a beloved figure to the Thai people.

The more we read about the city last night, the more excited we became. It will be a feat to pack in all of the amazing sights and experiences today. I'll leave you with Oteil's words "Man, we are SO in the coolest place on Earth!"

Off to explore the city...

Love from the Burbridges!

Flight to the Far East

4:30pm Tokyo time

We landed in Tokyo and have a short layover before heading onto Bangkok. Had a little sushi (my first sushi in Japan!) before hopping onto the next plane. Presently, we are flying over the East China Sea and just caught a glimpse of Mt. Fuji to the north.

6pm Bangkok time

Our 22 hours of travel have been relatively painless, the international excursion made much more enjoyable than my last because I'm not flying solo, but instead have one of my favorite people in the world by my side! Although I can't say he's been the best conversation partner seeing as a combo of white wine and xanax has knocked him out for the duration of both flights to Tokyo and then on to Bangkok. :) I was able to polish off David Grann's "The Lost City of Z", a remarkably well written, intensively researched account of British Colonel Percy Fawcett's exploration of the Amazon in the early 1900's. Although our well-planned, relatively safe "adventure" is a far cry from Fawcett's exceedingly dangerous, potentially lethal excursions into the unforgiving Amazon, reading about his expeditions poured a little gasoline on my adventurous spirit's fire.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Thailand bound!

Time to fire up the ol’ blog again cause we’re Thailand bound! We’ve got a whirlwind adventure planned, complete with excursions to Buddhist temples, elephant rides through the northern Thai countryside, traditional Thai cooking classes, bike rides to rural hilltribe villages, waterfall hikes, traditional Thai massages, a Muay Thai boxing match, snorkeling, sea kayaking and windsurfing in beautiful Phuket and of course some much needed beach-lounging, soaking-up-the-sun days. And maybe if we’re lucky, we’ll find somewhere to rent motorcycles and journey via our preferred mode of travel! We’re going to be photographing a ton and will keep the blog updated as long as we still have Internet connection so stay tuned folks! J

J Shouse Photojournalism on Facebook!