Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Asian Adventure: Part One - Thailand!

That's right, boys and girls!  It's travelog time!  Without further delay, I bring you THE ASIAN ADVENTURE!

It all started about two months ago when I flew to Ashland, Oregon (that famous Asian destination) for a few days of fabulous Shakespeare before leaving the country.  I gotta say this year's season is crazy good - King Lear, Taming of the Shrew, Midsummer Night's Dream, My Fair Lady (soooo good), and Streetcar Named Desire in three days?  Yes, please!

Then it was up to Seattle for some baseball (my poor Mariners, one of these years they will get the winning record they deserve) and then it was a little eleven-teen-bajillion-hour flight to Beijing! 

My first week in Asia was spent defeating timezones (I am a rockstar! I got adjusted to all nine hours in one day!) and visiting friends in the polluted concrete jungle that is China's capital city.  I had already been to Beijing on my first trip to China, so I wasn't as worried about hitting the classic tourist sights.  Instead my friend and I made plans to tour Southeast Asia.  So after week one it was off to, you guessed it, THAILAND!!!

We arrived in Bangkok on a Friday evening, settled into our hotel and wandered out to grab dinner at a little sidewalk cafe which had a very loose interpretation of sidewalk - our little folding table and rickety chairs were actually sitting in the street, but the food was amazing so no complaints!  Thai food is my personal favorite of all the Asian cuisines, so I was in heaven.  We popped next door to the 7-11 to grab snacks (seaweed flavored potato chips, anyone? dried tamarind strips?) for the next day (knowing we had a full day tour and they may not feed us regularly).  7-11s were so ubiquitous in Thailand we actually started using them as a unit of measurement.  "How many 7-11s are we away from the hotel?" "Oh, three or four.  It's a short walk."

The next morning, at the crack of seven, we hopped into a cushy minivan (which reminded us not to put our feet up on the bench at the front of the van because that is where the Buddha is) and headed off the Kanchanburi province, west of Bangkok.  The drive itself was fascinating - with construction trucks painted in bright Thai patterns, entire families riding stacked on mopeds (including some with children sleeping draped across the handle bars), and at one point an entire band (including a drum kit and keyboard) playing away while standing in the back of a pick-up truck (I wish I'd been quick enough to grab a picture of that).  We later learned that in Thailand weddings, funerals, any sort of party really will begin with a really LOUD band doing a parade and collecting people.

Sadly, we were not available to be collected.  Our first stop was the World War II Cemetery, followed by the war museum and bridge over the River Kwai.

It was a powerful place to be, where so many had died during that horrible time, but it was also hard not to be taken aback and even amused by the bizarre use of English - including a description of the destruction of the bridge which mentioned bodies lying "higgledy-piggledy" in the water, or this uniquely after-the-fact sign asking us not to kill the Buffalo... skulls?

In the museum, we also met our first example of the local wildlife.  This big fella was just chilling along one of the walkways. 

And right outside the museum, a local safari park was trying to lure tourists in by holding and petting a leopard cub.  With mama prowling only a few feet away...  Isn't she gorgeous?

After that it was off to a floating restaurant for some more utterly delicious Thai food....

And then off to one of the many elephant camps in Kanchanaburi for a ride through the jungle.  (This pic of the mahouts ordering ice cream from this cart is one of my favorites... just a day in the life at an elephant camp...)

We got stuck waiting behind a busload of Russian tourists, so before we could take our turn aboard a friendly pachyderm we wandered over to watch the elephant show - they had one throwing darts at balloons with his trunk, and every time he would hit one, he would stampede toward the audience (who were armed with bananas) and shove his face several rows back to claim his prize.  Then, what should come on the stereo, but Gangnam style.  (I kid you not.)  The elephant "danced" (rising up on his hind legs and rocking back and forth) - which I found kind of disturbing, though it certainly wasn't the strangest thing we saw in Thailand.  

After the show, we were invited over to have our picture taken being picked up in one of the elephant's trunks.  There was a guy standing behind to give you a boost, so I thought, "Sure, okay, I'm not super light, but at least the guy will make sure I don't hurt the animal."  I go over, the elephant wraps his trunk around me and whoosh - I'm four feet off the ground before the guy has a chance to get close enough to spot me.  Those babies are strong.  (This pic is as the elephant is putting me down.)
After the show, our driver came back to pick us up - but we hadn't ridden yet so we were rushed to the front of the line.  The platform is raised and you literally walk right across onto the back of an elephant.  We climbed into the basket on his back and buckled in (yes, there were seat belts).  They took a picture which they would try to sell to us later (okay, yes, we bought it) and then it was off into the trees.  And that was when it got really fun...

As soon as we were out of sight of the main camp, our mahout asked if we wanted more pictures, handed my camera to a mahout on another elephant and we posed for tons of snaps.  The elephant (smart guy) knew all sorts of verbal instructions and would flap his ears or curl his trunk to pose for the camera.  Then the mahout asked me if I wanted to sit where he was sitting.  

Hell yes, I did. 

The elephant reached back and grabbed my hand with his trunk, then we rode for a while.  After a bit I swapped places with my friend (who was bit more timid about the experience) and then we headed back to the platform (putting our seat belt back on) and waved goodbye. 

After that, it was time to visit the Tiger Temple.  The story of the temple is that years ago an injured tiger was brought to the monks, who nursed it back to health and released it back into the wild.  After that, more tigers were brought to the temple when they were injured or orphaned and it became a tiger sanctuary.  Now, all of the tigers who live there (or at least the ones we saw) were born and raised in captivity.  I had heard that the tigers were sedated (not surprising if they are letting tourists touch them), but my fascination with big cats meant this was someplace I had to see.  The temple was interesting - a handful of monks, a bunch of Thai people making money off the tourists, and several international workers (volunteers, I think) who seemed like zoo workers you might meet in any country (though obviously Thailand is not so much with the regulations). 

We were instructed not to wear certain colors (red and yellow were strictly forbidden) and there was a laundry list of things we were instructed not to do - don't approach a tiger head-on or try to touch their face at any time, etc (and we had to sign a waiver promising not to blame them if we were eaten).  But then we went down into this little ravine area where there were probably a dozen sleeping tigers.  A guide takes you by the wrist and leads you through the maze of tigers, making sure you approach the correct way and putting your hands on their backs (my guide seemed to be in a hurry, but I didn't care - I GOT TO PET A TIGER!!!!!!). 

They were so strong, their bodies so firm with muscle, and their fur isn't soft necessarily, though it isn't rough either.  Though I didn't notice a particular tiger aroma, the area they were in had a distinctive scent (sort of like stables tend to eventually saturate with the scent of horse).  There is such an incredible sense of power in them.  And their paws are HUGE.  When one rolled toward me, all of my survival instincts woke up and told me to move the hell out of the way - even though the lazy girl was just changing her sleeping position. 

I didn't get to cuddle with them the way the monk was, but I'm not sure I really want a tiger (this one did not seem particularly sleepy) to be patting me on the head with his gigantic paws.

We headed back to Bangkok after that and finished the day at the bar on the rooftop of Siam@Siam, looking out over the city.  Not a bad way to start our trip... 

We would be back in Bangkok, but next it was off to Cambodia!

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