Elephants, oxen, tigers and Donald Duck

Alex cried out in agony,as if he were burning. Nothing we gave him could ease his pain.

No, he hadn’t been thrown unrestrained through the car window on a busy Thai road. Nor was this a consequence of falling down a ledge on to concrete. He hadn’t been trampled by an elephant, or slipped off the back of one, plunging to the ground below. He wasn’t run over by the wheels of an ox drawn cart or drowning in a river filled with elephant poo. No tiger had mauled him, no tuk-tuk had run over him and he was not trapped under the rubble of a building felled by a magnitude seven earthquake.

Alex had bitten a raw green chilli.

Fortunately for him, we knew the antidote. This is a powerful drug, so addictive that I used to devour six litres of it in a week.

We gave him ice cream.

It’s funny. We came to Thailand to escape the consequences of the earthquake and the risks of the radiation leak. Those risks are small, quantified and should not apply to the southern areas. Yet today in Thailand we faced every one of those situations described earlier, and more if you include the risks of contaminated food and the general pollution that is so bad the sky is tinged brown.We are far more at risk of injury in Thailand than we would be in Japan.

As I type this at about 11pm local time I can feel another aftershock of today’s 7.0 magnitude earthquake in Burma.

Yesterday we organised through the man at the hotel tour desk a driver to take us out to the Maetaman Elephant Camp outside of Chiang Mai. It turns out that he was to be our driver. We climbed into Khong’s big four wheel drive and set off first for Chiang Mai’s railway station to allow me to buy us a ticket back to Bangkok. We passed some interesting looking food areas that were serving the day’s breakfast. Then it was out through colourful local streets where shops often had no walls and washing machines were sold next to groceries.

Then along highways and rice paddies that presented a classic image of Asia. A large army camp where a cavalry unit still kept horses. Wats and wet markets, the streets of Thailand are fascinating places.

The winding road up the hills to the elephant camp was very rough and reminded me of country Queensland. There had been some burning in the area and the air was full of haze and dust.

This was not our first visit to an elephant camp. Back in 2008 we had caught a tour from Bangkok to Kanchanaburi where we rode on elephants. This was a chance for Alex to experience it too. He was excited when he saw them and immediately wanted to ride.

Instead we bought some sugar cane for him to feed the elephants. B was lifted up by a couple of elephant trunks.

We were watching the elephants play by the river when one of them began spraying the crowd with river water. I took a step backward to avoid the muddy spray and collided with B and Alex who were standing behind me, sending them over the edge and down to a concrete step a couple of metres below. I heard a crack or two and immediately thought the worst, of broken skulls or necks and immediately jumped down. Unbelievably it seems that there were only bruises and grazes, B breaking Alex’s fall.

Where we were standing was, in retrospect, obviously unsafe for such activities, only a useless low barrier between the mound and the drop and quite crowded. It just highlights how much attention you need to pay towards your own safety.

We were lead up to the ticket office to get some antiseptic for the grazes, though I ended up supplying our own sticky plasters as they lacked any. Scary how inadequate their first aid kit was.

Once Alex was a bit more settled down we returned to see the elephant show. They were kicking soccer balls, hauling logs and doing surprisingly good paintings (or where the mahouts guiding their trunks?).

Then it was finally time to ride. Up the stair to a high platform where we stepped across on to a bench strapped to the elephant’s back. There was only a bar across to keep us in, insufficient for Alex so we had to hold him. Then we lurched and bumped our way out. It’s kind of scary as the elephant plods down the steep slopes, across the river and up into the hills along dirt tracks. It’s also a lot of fun.

We walked through the scrub, past little villages where hens ran free with their chicks and women sold elephant food from high platforms. The mahout jumped off and took photos of us while we nervously sat on the still moving elephant. The same thing happened last time, but this time we had Alex with us.

After a surprisingly long ride we stopped at a shelter full of trinket sellers, using young children to sweetly sell their wares. There we transferred to an ox drawn cart. The cart had no suspension for its big wooden wheels, but the ride was short and sedate, if rather bumpy.

A non-spicy, but still tasty buffet lunch was provided back at the elephant camp, with Alex being supplied a steady stream of watermelon (one of those risky fruits for E coli, if it concerns you). Then it was time for rafting on the river.

Probably the most sedate transport we’ve had in Thailand and certainly the smoothest, we sat on a flat bamboo raft as it drifted down the shallow river, punted along by two men. We passed tourist villas along the road, two westerner girls having carried their deck chairs out into the river itself to sun bake. We all called out “crocodiles!” as we passed. Young boys swam in the elephant dung filled river, sometimes the big balls of dung sat on top of the rocky shoals.

Khong collected us from the rafting terminus and as we drove back towards Chiang Mai we all fell asleep. Our next stop was the Tiger Kingdom. There we had to chance to go into cages and stroke a couple of tigers. Alex was restricted to a four month old tiger cub, while B lay with fully grown tigers

I’m not going to get into the animal activist criticisms of the Tiger Kingdom or elephant camp. I wonder if either species will be viable by the time Alex is our age. At least he experienced them now.

We were all tired, so we headed back to the hotel, past some interesting market areas around Chiang Mai. It was time for a swim in the pool, good for washing away the day’s dust.

As we walked out of the hotel on our way to find dinner we say a white squirrel running along the powerlines. To the right of the hotel is the ornate Wat Bupparam. Various stone figurines have been placed around the temple gardens. Standing proudly amongst them is Donald Duck. I must have missed that episode where he travels to India and brings back an important scroll. Wonder if chanting in duck can bring enlightenment.

Which brings us to the chilli incident at Antique House, a somewhat upmarket restaurant in an old teak house. A couple played traditional Thai instruments in the courtyard. The food was nice, but obviously spiced down for westerners, except for that chilli!

By the time we walked back to the hotel via the Night Market Alex and I were both exhausted. B seems to adapt much better, so long as she can sleep in. The market was full of tourist trinkets the same as anywhere else.

We had just stepped into our room when the building began swaying. Was it a couple upstairs engaging in particularly energetic coitus? I stepped outside to check. No, the pool was sloshing, the lamps were swinging and other guests were looking around.

Shortly afterwards we saw that a 7.0 magnitude earthquake had struck in Burma to the north of us. I had to laugh. After changing our plans from earthquake ravaged Japan, we get an earthquake in Thailand! Everything down to the ground is bumpy in this country!

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