Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Mahouts and their Elephants, Pai, Thailand - 16-18 May 2011

It's quiet and I'm all alone sitting in the restaurant of the guesthouse enjoying scrambled eggs on toast and a wonderful banana shake whilst waiting for my bus to Pai.  I'm feeling like third of a man as I look to my left and to my right noticing that no Alex Ferguson praising Mancunians are sitting next to me.  A shiver runs up and down my spine and small uncertain bubble pops in my stomach as my mind naturally wonders whether I will meet anyone else along my trip.  It is, of course, a stupid uncertainty as it is highly likely that I will meet more fantastic people along my path. 

A man rushed into the restaurant area with a clipboard and greeted the girl behind reception.  The girl had always been very kind and approachable to me.  She lent me a free towel the previous night and gave me a nice double room for a cut price.  I was beaconed over and introduced to the man whom was going to take me to my bus.  I gently shook the girls hand, thanked her, said farewell and walked down the driveway to the pickup truck.

My wonderful bamboo hut
Choosing the right spot to sit on a minibus is vital, however, when you are last to board you have no choice and unfortunately you tend to get the worst seat.  This time, I was the last to board and yet I found an excellent spot at the back of the bus all to myself.  However, as the bus was travelling around the winding hills and sometimes bumpy road up the mountain to Pai I suddenly realised my bum had probably spent most of its time about two inches above the seat.  There was no resting available as I sat over the wheel and every bump was exaggerated and I would fly up into the air ever few seconds.  I'm not usually travel sick but the journey up to Pai certainly tried its hardest to churn my stomach.   Despite the uncomfortable nature of this journey it was quite humorous. 

Pai's street market
We reached Pai a few hours later and were dropped off in the centre of the town.  My first impressions of Pai were that it was certainly built to accommodate tourists as there were tourist shops selling tours of all sorts everywhere.  My main reason for coming up to Pai was to meet and ride some Elephants.  Alan, whom I had met in Saigon and travelled with into Cambodia, suggested that I stayed in some huts across from the river and gave me a name of where he stayed.  I headed through to the extremity of the town and crossed a rickety bamboo bridge connected the other side of the river and these huts.  I followed the signs, however, there was absolutely nobody around, everything was closed up so I had no choice but to turn around and find alternative accommodation.  On the same side of the river were two more sets of huts and I greeted a man and asked him about his.  We agreed on a price and he showed me to my bamboo hut, fully equipped with ensuite hose, toilet and wifi.  I found it strange to be in a bamboo hut, practically in the middle of nowhere and be able to connect to the internet on my netbook.  The weather was unfortunately dismal and the rain had set in with no sign of stopping.  I opened the hatch to my hut for a while and relaxed watching the rain drench the lush surroundings for an hour or two.  The river that separates me with the rest of Pai runs besides me and I can just hear the trickle of the water quickening in pace as the rain continues to fall. 

My plans for Pai were simply to relax and ride an elephant.  I was now sitting in the passenger seat of a car being driven by a Burmese refugee who was in Thailand to earn a little money for his family who were all in the refugee camp at the border.  He was anxiously awaiting news from the American Embassy that their asylum sponsorship had been granted so he could take is his family to a brand new life. 

Harder than you think...
I soon found myself clambering up an elephant leg, being assisted by the Mahouts that were going to provide my training.  I never really thought about it, but as soon as reached the elephant's summit, it dawned on me how tall these magnificent animals are.  There were three elephants here, all of which have been in the family since they were born and were actually older than the female owner who had inherited them from her father who has long since passed away.  Unfortunately, these may be the last three elephants as they are all female and no feasible males to mate with nearby.

My Elephant, Mahout and me
Whilst I was back in the office in Pai, the lady gave me a little notebook and made me write down several useful instructions that the elephant will understand.  These words would direct the elephant to ‘go’, ‘stop’, ‘left’, ‘right’ and ‘spray!’.  As the rope keeping the elephant from escaping was released, I had to put what I had remembered into practice.  I had a stubborn elephant that didn't really want to listen to any of my instructions.  Luckily I had four experienced mahouts surrounding me and my elephant as we slowly made our way up a path to the rear of the property where I practices getting on and off the elephant.  The Mahouts make it look extremely easy, I suppose practise makes it easier although going to work out on my upper body strength would also help!  You can climb up upon the elephant in a few ways, one by using the elephant’s leg and ear to pull yourself up, and my favourite is by using the trunk and getting virtually launched on top. 

Not sure if this was someone's back garden...
With the first part of my training complete, my Mahout trainer, my elephant and I headed out onto the road to begin my hour long ride through the surrounding countryside.  The elephant picked up a branch and continuously swung it, slapping my legs every now and again.  I was concerned that it was because she hated me but the mahout told me in extremely fragile English that she was beating off the massive mosquitos that kept trying to feast on her blood.  As the journey went on I became more and more concerned for my safety.  I precariously balance on the elephant’s neck as we start going up and down slopes.  I haven’t felt this scared since Hanoi where I rode that motorcycle for the first time.  I always thought that elephants were smooth to touch, but they are actually covered with coarse hair just like a wire brush and after a while you skin on your legs become thoroughly exfoliated. 

The journey culminated at the river where I became the object of entertainment for the Mahout who barked order at me and proceeded to laugh his head off.  I had no idea what he was asking me to do but the elephant was spurting water into my face and throwing me off into the river.  Back at the farm I was given the time to relax in the hot bath where I discovered that I had one massive hole in my swimming shorts from being thrown off into the river.  Despite the fear of falling off, it was an excellent experience which, in retrospection, I thoroughly enjoyed it.  The day ended with a walk to the nearby river where the elephants were allowed to roam freely and graze on the grassy banks as we sat watching them from afar. 

The farm...
It wasn’t until after I bought my bus ticket to Bangkok did I notice that my only other pair of short also had a massive hole in the crotch.  It was time to do a repair job on them!  I’m glad that I wasn’t going commando as the girl selling my ticket may have got a sight she wouldn’t forget.  My short time in Pai, was over.  Unfortunately I had to shoot south as you only get a two week visa in Thailand if you cross the border, so I needed to head across the border into Burma to get another two weeks but first I had several other destinations to visit first.  Pai is a wonderful relaxing place with fresh air and plenty of outdoor activities to keep the most active person going.  I would definitely recommend this place to anyone.

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