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Thai Sensory Adventure - Thailand
(2015 - Winter Issue)

Writer: Chris Ryall

“What does this tell you about the elephant’s health?” asks the Patara Elephant Farm mahout (elephant rider) as he hands me a giant snowball of elephant dung.  

He takes my cupped hands, which are holding the dung, and lifts them close to my reluctant nose. I instinctively retreat. Inhaling a good whiff of elephant dung is not in my nature. He pleads. I cautiously bring my nose closer to the dry straw-like dung in my hands. Surprisingly, there is little smell. Mind you I can’t see them marketing any elephant dung cologne anytime soon. 

The mahout explains if the dung is very moist that could indicate an illness. Elephants have an enormous appetite; they can eat about 200–250 kilograms of food per day and excrete 50 kilograms of dung a day. Dung is used and processed for many things: fertilizer, paper for notebooks, bookmarks and even coffee. 

My Thailand sensory adventure has taken me to the Patara Elephant Farm located on the outskirts of Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. Participating in their “Elephant Owner for a Day” program I am learning about elephant breeding, training and approaching an elephant, elephant behaviour, feeding, healthcare, walking an elephant, bathing and its role in Thai society.

My hosts first give me a red-infused chambray mahout shirt to wear with my boxer-style bathing suit. They explain the elephant’s role in society, both ceremonial and how it was used extensively in the logging industry. The farm breeds the animals and is also a home to abused elephants. Thankfully, those looking for a little elephant dance or trick won’t find it here.

The mahout explains key Thai commands for the elephants. Realizing my Thai language skills are extremely limited, I write them in ink on my arm. “Goy” and “how,” meaning slow down and stop, are two commands I use frequently on our two-hour trek traversing the forest and creek beds. “Bai,” which means go, is one I use occasionally when my enormous companion seems to want to take the day off and laze around. During our picnic lunch stop at a creek I join in the elephant’s water antics. I enjoy slipping and sliding across the back of my elephant but am careful not to fall under him, which I almost do. Being crushed by a more than 4,000-kilo behemoth is not my idea of fun. 

Floral Discovery

No one would ever accuse me of being a floral guy! I trot out one morning with my cup of java and sit near Chiang Mai’s Narawat Bridge in the city centre by Suan Buak Haad where the annual Chiang Mai Flower Festival takes place the first weekend in February.

My subdued interest changes immediately when the first of more than 25 colourful floats passes metres away. My camera shutter is clicking fast and furious. It is one of the most incredible visual displays of colour and pageantry I have ever seen. Floats are lined with intricate floral displays of vibrant orchids, white and yellow chrysanthemums and pink damask roses. Thais from various hill tribes dressed in traditional costumes also take part in the parade along with stunningly beautiful Thai women vying for the Miss Chiang Mai Flower Festival crown. The festival is a visual sensory overload and a photographer’s dream.

Temples of Opium

Many visitors miss the lesser-known city of Chiang Rai and the Golden Triangle area where you can see Thailand, Laos and Myanmar from a scenic lookout. Chiang Rai is a small town, however it features authentic Thailand from the mountainous hill tribal villages surrounding Chiang Rai to the spectacular White Temple (Wat Rong Khun).

One of the most fascinating places to visit, the Hall of Opium Museum exhibits opium-smoking paraphernalia through the ages. In fact, the opium trade dates back 5,000 years and the museum stands as both a history and moral lesson on the devastating effects of opium. 

Tasty Thai

Travelling southward from the lush green mountains and valleys of the north, I head to bustling Bangkok. This capital city, with its metropolitan population of more than 10 million, is a sensory assault. Chaotic but incredibly intoxicating, it’s where tuk-tuks zigzag through traffic, vendors sell their wares at street flower and fruit markets or at numerous restaurants, and takeout places serve up delicious Thai cuisine. 

While there are hundreds of fine-dining restaurants throughout Bangkok, it is also possible to find simple and inexpensive Thai delights. On a busy side street in downtown Bangkok, I sit with a few locals on flimsy plastic chairs, which are designed more for slender Thai bodies than this middle-aged, overweight one. I order a Chang beer, a refreshing and popular brew in Thailand. Complimenting my liquid refreshment is a large plateful of curry chicken and rice. Simple, delicious and bursting with flavour. The damage to my wallet for my meal including beer is about 110 baht or around CDN$4.00. 

Why just eat Thai food when you can learn to cook it as well? Cooking schools are located throughout the country and range from quick half-day sessions to weeklong programs. To reach the Amita Thai Cooking Class school, I hop on a Thai long-tail boat, called a Ruea Hang Yao, for a wild ride through Bangkok’s Chao Phraya River and adjoining inland waterways. Along the way we pass by people’s homes and temples, large and small.

Today, I’m the only student attending this half-day cooking lesson with its outdoor cooking stations. I visit the herb and spice garden first with Tam, the resident owner/teacher. She demonstrates how to prepare and cook the four courses—then it’s my turn. By the look on her face, I think she either sympathizes with my lack of culinary prowess or she is just worried I don’t slice off a finger when cutting up vegetables. Despite my limited talents, I do surprise myself with four traditional Thai dishes that include green curry chicken and a mango salad that are actually edible and robust with flavour.

The Spiritual Touch

Thailand is a very spiritual place where you cannot escape the strong and mesmerizing influence of the Buddhist culture. Bangkok’s Grand Palace built in 1782 houses many buildings including the magnificent Temple of the Emerald Buddha. Giving alms to Buddhist monks is a very common practice here even among visitors. You just need to get up before sunrise but it’s worth it. 

Ultra luxurious hotel spas, ranging from spacious, well-appointed couples’ spa suites and peaceful gardens to island settings and mountainous spa retreats are found throughout Thailand. Ko Lanta, Ko Samui and Phuket are the more popular islands for spas. 

My body is in tactile heaven at Bangkok’s S Medical Spa as two skilled therapists work their magic on my stress-worn body.

While luxury spas and spending days at one are wonderful, sometimes all you need is quick relief without all the bells and whistles. For the price of a couple of beers many places throughout the country offer both body and foot massages for less than CDN$20. Have achy, scaly feet? Pop into one of the many fish spas located near the street markets and let the garra rufa fish nibble away.

Thailand captivates, surprises and relaxes but never disappoints. It lures me back to discover new adventures and tantalizes me with its spicy dishes, diverse landscape, spirituality and fascinating culture. Thailand is also easy on my penny-pinching ways. It’s luxury at an affordable price. Thailand simply brings me to my senses.

Travel Planner

For more information, visit:

Tourism Thailand: na.tourismthailand.org

Amita Thai Cooking Class: amitathaicooking.com

Patara Elephant Farm: pataraelephantfarm.com

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