I had the opportunity to participate in the Elephant Owner for a Day program at Patara in Chiang Mai. Elephants are one of my favorite animals because of how similar they are to people. They show emotion, they mourn the dead, they value community. In one of my many daydreams, I quit my job and head to Africa to work on conservation for this amazing species. Now I had the opportunity to actually get an introduction in how to care for elephants. I was debriefed about the organization and the elephants and was assigned an elephant and their respective trainer. The gorgeous creature I was paired up with was named Metit. She had a young calf that stuck by us the whole time. I learned how to identify when an elephant is healthy and happy: flapping ears, wagging tail, "tears" coming from their eyes, sweat from their toes, a dirty side from where they've slept for only four hours a night.
I learned some necessary commands in Thai that I'd later use to feed and praise them. As I was feeding Metit from an overflowing basket of bananas, sugar cane, and tamarind, her son kept sticking his nose in and grabbing some goodies for himself.
We trekked through the jungle together and came to a little river where I'd bathe Metit and have lunch. Metit was a bit of a trouble maker, going off path a couple times to grab some grasses on the side. The elephants really seemed to love the bathing, laying on their side and putting their heads down just as a dog would do when you're rubbing them.
Next was my turn to wash off. I hopped in a small water pool underneath a waterfall and let the sweat and dirt run off me while I watched the elephants play about in the river. It was a really wonderful experience and something I'll never forget. As dirty, intimidating, and sometimes ridiculous as it seemed, this was one of those moments I was able to connect with the country, the trainers, and the elephants who were gentle and playful.
Among this incredible day, one of the highlights was actually on the ride to and from the camp, where our driver, Sun, told us his story of growing up in the Karen tribe. This is the only hill tribe in Thailand that specializes in working with elephants. He shared his life with me. He told me about getting married, about how his father used to own an opium farm and became addicted to amphetamines and when the government made it illegal, his family was left with nothing. That's when he decided to go to school and get a job with Patara. His wife is pregnant and once she gives birth, they will return to the tribe. They still use the barter system.
It's moments like this I search for. The Thai people are so open and friendly, they want to share their story with you. Life is completely different in this country, but still they are the most warm, helpful, and cheerful people.
I awoke on a sleeper train headed to northern Thailand. Outside the window lush jungle and bamboo huts passed by. Moments like this give me the greatest appreciation and a realization of exactly where I am in the world at that moment.
A woman appeared in the doorway with breakfast -- rice soup. At first I thought it was an odd thing to eat in the morning, not to mention it's ~100 degrees. But I knew I'd be eating rice three times a day for the next two weeks and I embraced it. Rice is a staple here, when locals ask each other how they are doing, it translates to "have you eaten rice yet?"
Arrival in Chiang Mai, another day for exploration around a foreign city. You don't have to walk far before you stumble upon a temple and take a detour to explore. Entering the temples and wats gave me a feeling of tranquility. Maybe it was the quietness, maybe it was the fact that it was exotic, maybe it was the giant Buddhas smirking at me. Whatever the reason, I was overcome with peace. I sat in each one, staring up at the mosaics and flowers that adorned each altar.
That night I took a Thai cooking class. My guide and head chef, Pham (pronounced palm), led a field trip to the local market where he taught about the local fruits and vegetables. We collected the items we'd need for the menu and walked to our cooking venue.
Pham then proceeded to teach me how to whip up four delicious Thai courses: pad Thai, hot and sour soup, red chicken curry, and mango sticky rice. Pham had a fantastic sense of humor and told us about his life. He spent a brief time as a monk in order to study philosophy and English. From there he decided to become a chef in a small restaurant, and eventually made his way as an instructor at Smart Cook. The people here are very kind and welcoming. They want to share their life with you, and I'm all ears.
Traveling has long been a passion of mine, as well as a healer. The opportunity to change your environment gives you the opportunity to change your perspective. It had been about seven years since I left the country to study in Australia, and it was about time to shift my angle once again.
With only a month to book tickets and brush up on local language and etiquette, I focused on nothing else. The hope that I'd get on that plane and return with an enlightened outlook is a traveler's dogma. Two ten-hour flights and I had arrived in Bangkok, an insanely familiar yet abruptly foreign city. With only one day to spend exploring, I headed to Chinatown. I wandered through the busy markets with a wide-eyed glare at each unusual piece of produce laid out for tourists and Thais alike. I barely had time to register my surroundings as motor bikes and quick feet whizzed by.
I walked down an uncluttered alley for a clear breath. There was a woman handing out bowls of soup from behind a food stall. I watched a steady stream of locals take their bowls, sit on small plastic stools, and top their meal with fresh bail and chili. This was it, this is where I was going to have my first meal in Thailand. I gave the woman 35 baht and she handed me a bowl of broth with noodles, bean sprouts, scallions, and something that tasted like chicken. I took a seat at the table and it instantly felt like a scene out of No Reservations. I was overwhelmed with a feeling of appreciation. I had made it to southeast Asia.