Elephants and Opium

Trip Start Dec 25, 2008
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Trip End Mar 28, 2009


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Thursday, January 1, 2009

After a quick flight from Bangkok on the morning of December 29th, we arrived in Chiang Rai and headed from there to the Golden Triangle - area where Thailand, Myanmar and Laos meet, famous for warlords and the opium ("liquid gold") trade.

We went with a guide (Toy) into Myanmar the next day - just into the border town called Tachileik (as far as you could go). We pretty much just visited a couple of markets and a wat, but it was a really interesting trip. Definitely a noticeable difference from Thailand as soon as you crossed the border - obviously a much poorer country. Apparently the minimum wage in Thailand is $10/day compared to $2/day in Myanmar, so there's been a big refugee issue in Thailand (many checkpoints along the road to the border, where cars are searched for refugees). Lots of Thais were heading into Myanmar along with us (big holiday weekend) - in addition to being a great place to buy cheap cigarettes and other cheap stuff, it's apparently a big gambling spot for the Thai and Chinese (gambling is illegal in Thailand).

Though it was really interesting to walk through the markets, it was also tough to see what was sold in some of the stalls - tiger skins (though they seemed too small to be tiger), shark fins, ivory, monkey skulls, etc. I was surprised that many people spoke English well, but makes sense since Myanmar was a British colony at one point. After Myanmar, we headed to a tiny Lao island in the Mekong called Done Xao. (All of the islands in the Mekong are part of Laos). Not too much to see there, but it's where I had my first tasty Beer Lao (with many more to come later).

The next morning we had an amazing time learning how to be a "mahout" (elephant driver). In addition to being able to wear a pair of really snazzy pants for a while, we learned how to drive an elephant with basic commands ("Stop" of course, being the most important one). We did this at the elephant camp owned by our hotel, which rescues street elephants - many people take elephants to Bangkok and other big cities in Thailand, where people will pay more to feed, touch the elephants, etc. The elephant camp allows the elephants (and their mahouts, who come with them) to earn a living in a safer, more humane way.

For our mahout training, we first went into the forest to pick up our elephants since they'd been eating all night (they apparently eat 250 kg/day) - I'd assumed we'd just help the real mahout lead our elephants out of the forest, but was pretty surprised when they told us to just hop on the elephant and ride it back into camp. (With no instruction or multiple waivers to fill out??? Clearly, we've left the US way behind . . .) It was a little scary at first since there's absolutely nothing to hold on to, but you get used to it quickly. After the guides bathed our elephants for a few minutes, it was time to feed them again (did I mention that they eat a lot?) - and then learn how to drive. Jason and I both shared one elephant for this part (Phusi - a really sweet - and pretty huge - female). We learned how to get on and off Phusi a few different ways (over the top of her head and then from her side while she was standing, sitting, and then lying down) and drive her with some basic commands. It was a really fun experience and a big highlight of the trip so far ...

After getting cleaned up from riding elephants throughout the morning, we headed to the Opium Museum, conveniently located across the road from our hotel. A real multimedia experience (it apparently had received a lot of funding from the Smithsonian Institution) - the museum was sponsored by the King's mother who had started programs to provide sustainable alternatives to the opium trade for the surrounding hilltribes. The museum gives you this in depth account of the history of the opium trade, its impact on the world, and the consequences of addiction - definitely a museum with a message. I forget the stats, but the illegal growth of opium has decreased significantly in the region (especially in Thailand), though it still goes on, primarily in Myanmar.

We then went for a Thai massage (New Year's resolution - get massages regularly when back home) - it was pretty relaxing but I have to admit that I'm still sore from it. Not much time was left to then get ready for New Year's Eve - unfortunately not something we were looking forward to since we were exhausted, aching, and had to get up before dawn the next morning to make our way to the Laos border. But we stuck it out as long as we could - we got to see Phusi again in a celebratory procession of elephants at our hotel and then had our equilibrium restored in a traditional baqsii ceremony, during which village elders tied strings on our wrists, wishing us good luck and a safe journey. To end the night, we released a lantern into the sky (done during a traditional northern Thai celebration), sending off with it all our bad mojo from the previous year.
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