. "What?! You did not see the Big Golden Buddha monastery?? Why not? How could you miss that?!" Michelle has been to Burma about 22 times; she knows it well.
She told me about her tour business, bringing the French to Birmanie, and about her efforts to get locals to change their non-western-tourist-friendly ways, such as introducing them to snorkeling or explaining what white-water rafting is. "The beach in Burma is beyoootiful but they (the Burmese) do not appreciate! They do not go to the beach!! They do not wear bikini!!" Try to imagine the French outrage in her voice. After her 4th cigarette, Michelle asked me if I had tried a cheroot, a Burmese cigar. I said no, because I didn't smoke. That was not a good enough answer for a French woman. Michelle: "It is not drug! It is very good-you should try!" Me: "I know it is not a drug, I just don't like cigars or cigarettes." At the first roadside shop we passed, Michelle asked the driver to pull over so she could buy some fruit, but came back with bananas and a packet of cheroots which she threw on my lap. Thanks Michelle, I'll smoke them when I get to Chiang Mai.
Despite the five police check points and the papers our driver had to sign certifying that we weren't contraband material, we arrived at Tachileik by noon. Michelle was meeting some people from the Thai Tourist Authority in Mae Sai, the town across the border from Tachileik where I'd get my bus to Chiang Mai, and said she would be happy to drop me off at the bus station since she had to go there anyway to get some information
. The humidity was significantly higher at the border than it was in Kyaingtong, and we sweltered away in the Burmese immigration checkpoint as the officials tried to figure out how to sign us out of the country. Not so many foreigners cross the border here, and those that do are usually on a Thai visa run, crossing into Burma just for the day. After about half an hour of checking and signing papers, we crossed into Thailand where instantly everything became a lot easier and I was comforted by the sight of ATMs and 7-11's everywhere. Michelle immediately spotted her Thai contacts and started to bombard the hapless pair with questions in her heavily accented English. After some confusion about who I was and why I was coming in the van with them, we headed off to the bus station. Michelle and the Thai tourism people went off to the information desk while I bought my ticket to Chiang Mai. A few minutes later when I turned around to thank Michelle and say goodbye, she had completely disappeared. The van was still there but no sign of her or the Thais. As I waited for my bus, I looked around for her, but she never reappeared. I thought it was strange that she took off like that without saying anything to me, but then on the other hand...
The bus to Chiang Mai was four easy hours and I got to my guesthouse just as a major thunderstorm broke. Chiang Mai was once upon a time just a small town in northern Thailand with a lot of wats and monasteries, but that was before the Thais discovered the profitability of tourism for westerners
. It seems that half the town caters to westerners: travel agents, tours to hill tribe villages, cooking and massage classes, meditation and yoga, English-language bookstores, bars and restaurants for westerners and it goes on and on. I was staying in Chiang Mai just for 3 days, to recover from China and Burma and get ready for Laos, but it was difficult to get a real sense of the place. It does have as many wats and Bangkok and is a fraction of the size, and it is near the mountains and many tribal villages, but it is so commercial and there are so many westerners, it just doesn't feel authentic. I was looking forward to some really good Thai food but ended up finding everything too watered-down-for-westerners for my taste. I was staying in a touristy area, and like most places, you have to go where the locals go to find the real stuff.
My main goal in Chiang Mai was to see some elephants. I had wanted to do a mahout-elephant handler course at the Thai government's elephant sanctuary, but that involved a lot of advance planning, so I ended up going to the Elephant Nature Park, recommended to me by an English woman running a tour service. I'm very happy that I went because it was a truly unique experience. Besides learning about the plight of the Asian elephant and ending up feeling guilty that I had even considered going to one of the elephant safari theme parks where elephants perform tricks and take tourists on rides through the forest. The Elephant Park is an elephant rescue center and sanctuary founded by a woman from a Karen tribal village whose father was the village shaman. There are 28 elephants in the park now, all rescued from illegal logging (banned in Thailand in the 1980s by the king), being overworked or abused in tourist camps, or from begging on the streets in Bangkok. Yes, elephants beg in Bangkok. Or rather, their owners/handlers use them for begging. How do you keep an elephant in Bangkok? You live under bridges and overpasses along highways outside of town and you chain your elephant to a concrete pillar so it won't wander off
. Elephants must eat 10% of their body weight daily (that's a lot of bananas) to be healthy, and most of the begging elephants get a fraction of that from their owners, and end up getting sick and weak from malnutrition. The logging elephants are mercilessly overworked and given drugs to keep them going day and night, and sometimes the tourist circus elephants must perform for the tourists by day and log at night. After logging was made illegal, many elephant owners were without work and turned to the more profitable, and easier, tourist business of satisfying western cravings to see elephants paint, play soccer, or stand on one leg. It sounds harmless, but many of the elephants are overworked, underfed and abused. And anyway, does an elephant really want to "paint" or perform silly tricks? As our guide at the park pointed out, this doesn't happen to African elephants, why should Asian ones be forced to perform for our entertainment? I also learned that elephants' backs are not really that strong and that carrying two to four westerners at a time, a couple of times a day, every day, is not good for them. All of the elephants at the rescue center have sad stories, and some still have signs of physical abuse. But, on the positive side, the center seems to be really successful, both in taking care of elephants and in getting support, although it is supported more by foreigners than by the Thais. Lek, the woman who runs the place, has had her life threatened many times by elephant safari tour operators who think she will ruin their business
. But the center's main goal is to educate westerners about the treatment of elephants and get tourists to be more cautious and selective about going to the elephant theme parks. Lek is trying to encourage a different kind of appreciation for elephants, one that lets tourists enjoy elephants in a more natural setting.
I only spent one day at the Elephant Nature Park, but it is possible to spend the night there and stay for several days. The park seems to be very popular with the Danes as there were about five families staying there for several days. In addition to learning about each of the elephants and their personal histories, we got to feed them and bathe them (or bathe with them) in the river. There's absolutely no riding or performing involved and we were warned not to "invade the elephants' space" as some of them are justifiably wary of humans. All in all, it was a truly beautiful and enlightening experience and I went away feeling guilty that I had ever wanted to ride an elephant. There were once hundreds of thousands of elephants in Thailand, but there numbers are down to a few thousand now. Wild elephants are less than 5,000 in south east Asia. I went back to my guesthouse feeling inspired-maybe inspired enough to face a two-day boat journey down the Mekong to Luang Prabang.
Michelle showed up with her car and driver at 7:30, like she said she would, but it took about 45 minutes to get out of town. First we had to stop by a teashop to get some crepe-like snacks with condensed milk on top, then we had to swing by the local police headquarters and sign in (or out) for our trip to the border. This was the first of five check-ins on the 200-mile trip. Michelle sat in the back so she could smoke and I sat up next to our driver, who was very adept. It seemed like he knew the road really well, and once we got away from the Kyaingtong traffic, what there was of it, we had the road to ourselves. I had read that the Kyaingtong to Tachileik road was really rough, but the guide book must have been a few years old, because it was one of the best roads I've been on in Burma: paved, almost no potholes, two full lanes, and virtually no traffic. Michelle grilled me about where I'd been and what I'd seen in Burma, and every time she mentioned something that I had not seen (I know I've been there twice, but come on, it's a big country with bad roads!), she tsk-tsked and told me what a wonderful monastery/tribal village/river/town I had missed