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Bangkok and back again, plus elephants

August 26, 2013

Thailand knows how to fake it like no other country. I’ve just had my hair cut in a salon owned by a very glamorous lady-boy who minced around in stilettos and a sequin miniskirt and earlier inspected the ‘MAC’ cosmetics on sale on the stalls in the MK Centre. The lipsticks look and smell like the real thing, but DSC_0103they’re selling them for only 100 Baht. Outside, on a stage between the shopping malls, a band of young Thai guys is doing a pretty good cover of a Linkin Park song, cheered on by teenage boys in space-age get up and pastel-coloured wigs. I didn’t think I’d like Bangkok but this sprawling metropolis where they sell eggs painted pink has a strange attraction, despite the snarling traffic jams and the soulless Siam Square shopping malls. They have the thing in some of them: Chanel, Marc Jacobs and the like, but down on Patpong market you can still buy the fakes, along with almost anything else.

DSC_0091I was staying way down Sukhumvit road, well away from the infamous backpacker gauntlet of Kao San, so I’m sad to say I didn’t get to sample the legendary Bangkok night-life. These were my first days in Bangkok and I spent most of the time in between visiting temples and markets, trying to decide where to go next: head north for elephants and the jungles of Laos or south for diving and the tea plantations of Malaysia? My decision was determined by what train tickets I could get – Thailand’s trains are busier than China’s and there were no tickets to Koh Tao at all for the next few days and only seats on the twelve hour day train to Chiang Mai in the north. I had to keep moving so the day train to Chiang Mai it was. This, though it stretched to thirteen hours, wasn’t so bad as it passed through some lush jungle and you got refreshments like rolls filled with pastel pink cream (they do like pink things here).

Pink refreshments on the Bbk-Chiang Mai train

Pink refreshments on the Bbk-Chiang Mai train

My stay in Chiang Mai included a night out at a Thai reggae bar where I shared my first bucket with Georgia, a cool Aussie girl I met in the hostel, then almost throwing up before the next day’s early morning departure for an excursion to the overrated Golden Triangle, which was necessitated by my need to renew my Thai visa stamp by nipping over the Burma border and back. The excursion was crap and trying with a hangover so I can’t even be bothered to write about it. The bit of Burma I saw was a mirror reflection of the knock-off market on the Thai side – fake Ice watches, Ipad accessories, blokes selling boxes of fags. I’m sure all of Burma isn’t like this though.

DSC_0184Anyway, the main reason I visited Chiang Mai was to go to the Elephant Nature Park, a centre for elephants rescued from the illegal logging trade or the tourist industry. It was scary at first, being so close to these majestic beasts, but by the end of the day, when our little tour group was standing knee-deep in a river, splashing water over them, we were all pretty comfortable being around them. Some of them had been terribly abused, like the female elephant Jokia, who was blinded by her captors for refusing to obey their orders. When she arrived at the park she was instantly adopted by an older female elephant and the two are now inseparable. Such kindness to each other is just one interesting facet of elephant behaviour. At the end of the day we were shown a video of an elephant being ‘crushed’, the traditional ‘taming’ procedure where a wild elephant is captured, trapped in a tiny cage and beaten and stabbed with nails until it learns to obey human commands. It was heart-breaking to know many of these gentle giants had been through that, and they say an elephant never forgets, but hopefully with the care and affection they receive at the Elephant Nature Park, the physical and psychological wounds will heal.

That evening I took the night bus (as there were no train tickets) back to DSC_0238Bangkok. It was better than the horrid night bus in Vietnam but I do wonder why they thought it was a good idea to show Oblivion starring Tom Cruise at alternate times loudly dubbed in Thai, at times loudly in the original English, then with the sound so quiet I couldn’t tell what language it was in, meaning no one could watch it and it just disturbed everyone. Back in Bangkok I decided to track down a showing of Only God Forgives, Nicholas Winding Refn’s follow-up to Drive. I’d been waiting for this all year and as it is set in Bangkok, I was excited about seeing it here. I trekked all the way to a cinema in the Bangkok suburbs and, well what can I say, I was really disappointed. Some plot would have been nice, for starters.

Nor had I been that impressed with Thai food so far – but one of my favourite

Pink taxis in Bangkok

Pink taxis in Bangkok

moments in Bangkok was stumbling into Lumpini Park. There was some event going on, so I went over to have a look and found myself being ushered towards some food stalls where friendly Thai people were plating up various dishes for free! Imagine my delight when I discovered one stall was totally vegetarian too. There was a guy on the stage singing melodic Thai music and everyone seemed to be in great spirits, waving Thai flags and enjoying this hospitality even when it threatened to rain. I never found out what that was all about, nor why there were stalls outside whose sole product was Guy Fawkes-style masks, but it was good fun. I think parks in Asian cities are one of the best places to see local life happening and taking a walk around this one I saw old people practicing Tai Chi, health fanatics jogging past me and one very nimble man pulling all kinds of contortionist positions on a gym mat he’d set down by the lake. In this lake there was scary-looking lizards like small crocodiles. I think they must have been some species of non-dangerous cayman but it seemed unwise to get close. As the evening set in and the tall office blocks and sky rise hotels began to light up above us I headed back to my minuscule room in a guest house near Chinatown. The next evening I was heading to Chumphon for the ferry to Koh Tao… my train was to arrive there at the totally ridiculous time of three a.m. Find out how I learned to scuba dive and party Thai island style in the next instalment!

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