Friday, December 28, 2012

In Which I Travel to Thailand and Breakfast with Elephants

I'm typing this in Phuket, Thailand, from a ridiculously luxurious resort that makes me a little sad.

Allow me to explain.

I flew from Los Angeles to Bangkok a little over a week ago. The trip took nearly three days thanks to a delayed flight in LA. So my travel buddy Wendy and I had to spend the night at the Radisson in Tokyo. Could have been way worse, but it was extremely tiring. I did, however, get to try out an amazing Japanese toilet in my room which had a heated seat and various settings to rinse you in various places. The dang thing could probably make toast in the morning if you tried.

By the time we got to Bangkok it was late, and we had to fly out the next morning to Sukhothai, a town in the central plains area of Thailand, about 90 kilometers from the Boon Lotts Elephant Sanctuary, our ultimate destination. So we found a cheap airport hotel in some suburb near the airport called The Cottage which had a restaurant called Amigos that served delicious panang curry.

The air here is warm and damp. This is neither the hottest nor the coolest time of year - it's the dry season. Which means we've seen no rain, but the air is still pregnant with moisture. Growing up in Hawaii made me accustomed to humidity, but not like this. Hawaii enjoys trade winds thanks to its location in the middle of a vast ocean. Thailand enjoys no such relief. I have come to understand the atmosphere in The Bridge on the River Kwai all too well.

I find this sort of heat a bit paralyzing. Also I was very tired because I don't sleep well on planes or sleep well in general.

Then we got to Boon Lotts, or BLES. Oh my dear readers. It is a wonderful place, an elephant sanctuary that is truly all about the elephants (and the five dogs and 14 cats). As beautiful as Phuket is (and more on it in a bit), everything else pales in comparison to the wonder of BLES.

First, the advisory. BLES does not ask its elephants to perform, because that's not what elephants are made to do. You won't get to ride them or see them paint or even get too close to some of them because they're trying to release them back into the wild. There are three elephants, however, that you do get to touch and chat with and feed. They are Lotus, Pang Dow, and wonderful Wassana. The first two have foot issues they are slowly overcoming due to years of abuse before they got here, so they won't be able to go back to the wild, and they are very gentle and accustomed to people. Wassana is their joyous friend.  Here I am giving her a banana bunch early one morning.

And here I am leaning against her. (Keep in mind it's early, I'm tired and wearing no make up. BLES is not a make-upy sort of place.) That's Lotus's butt on the right. Pang Dow is just off camera.

They're eating from the banana trough, and if you go there, you can hand them bananas and chat with them and just hang out like you're old friends. Here's our friend Dan sharing a secret with Lotus.

And the other elephants are ridiculously entertaining just wallowing in the lotus pond or scratching their sides against a river bank or ducking their head under the water. Here's flower girl Lom (she's been known to pick flowers and toss them on her head) playing with baby boy Mee Chok, who is nearly completely submerged.

And here is lovely little Mee Chok. He has the most amazing eyes.

When I say little, that means he's only three, at which time an elephant should still be with their mother. He's a rescue, so the lovely Lom and slightly older Pang Tong are his family now, with bull elephant Somai as a kind of father figure. They make a charming, devoted family.

Mee Chok weighs an estimated 2000 pounds, and is growing handsome tusks. Only male Asian elephants grow tusks you can see. The females have tusks in their cheeks that never grow out.

Sometimes the family of four would hang out together just below our cabin. Here's Wendy watching them.

If any of this interests you and you can afford it, I can't recommend visiting BLES enough. The water you bathe in is tepid at best, and the weather is hot. But the vegetarian food is delicious, the host and elephant/animal activist Katherine is inspiring and warm and welcoming, and you'll get to really know some amazing creatures. It also turns you into an elephant radical. Because seeing elephants get to be elephants made it tough when you later see them forced to perform (often drugged or coerced or abused to make them do these unnatural things) in other places

Which brings me to why the beautiful Phuket makes me sad. Thanks to Wendy's accumulation of award points, we're staying at a five-star resort for free. It's gorgeous - long white sand beaches, greenery everywhere, amazing service and delicious food.

But I've seen two baby elephants here, younger than Mee Chok, probably drugged to keep them from being too rambunctious, taken from their mothers far too soon, forced to pose for photos and entertain the guests here. The guests haven't been to BLES or haven't done research and so don't understand that these tiny babies need to be with their families for years after they are born. Seeing this adorable hairy baby elephant walking up and down the beach with its mahout makes me, and the others who went to BLES, very very sad and a bit angry. We've seen how the older Mee Chok still needs his doting adopted parents, how affectionately the elephants touch each other, how very social they are amongst themselves. To think of these babies here, and other elephants all over the world, ripped from their families or left alone in zoos or other attractions is truly tragic.

I can't even bear to post the photo I took of the baby elephant in Phuket. I don't want to encourage any kind of further exploitation of these amazing creatures by posting his cuteness.

I want to take the babies here and whisk them off to BLES to lead the life elephants should. But I can't. So I'm going to buy the BLES calendar and continue to contribute to Katherine's mission in whatever way I can. I'm also going to write a letter to the resort here, asking them to consider banning baby elephant performers.

We have to start somewhere. The city of Los Angeles just banned the use of performing elephants inside the city. It's just one small spot on the map, but maybe awareness will spread.

There's more to the Thailand trip - ancient temples, cool markets full of nifty things, biking down tree-lined boulevards, visiting monasteries, and so on. It's a land full of fascinating history and culture. Hopefully I'll post more on that soon.

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