Ravi and I debated at some length what, if any, adventures we wanted to seek out beyond the resort. One of the recent seasons of “The Amazing Race” had an episode in Phuket, and I’d been impressed by the part of their adventure that required them to get a picture taken with a tiger at the Phuket Zoo. We also had a copy of the Lonely Planet’s mini-book on Phuket, which recommended the aquarium. However, we were told the aquarium wasn’t impressive, and it was quite far away, leading us to eliminate it from the list of possibilities. We had decided to the do the zoo until I started reading reviews of it…that the pens were small, the animals malnourished and mistreated, the tiger drugged off its ass in order to safely take those pictures the tourists (and The Amazing Race) so treasure. While Ravi and I are fans of zoos, we elected to take a pass on the Phuket Zoo.
I turned my gaze to the Fodor’s book on Southeast Asia. In its very small section on Phuket they talked about Elephant Trekking, which is a major component of the tourism industry (one of the resorts going so far as to have its own pet baby elephant to draw tourism dollars). Interestingly enough, elephants are not native to Thailand at all. However, they’ve been used as work partners for hundreds of years, and some websites claims there are still some wild elephants in the extreme north of Thailand (although most sources say there aren’t any). With industrialization and urbanization, the elephant, which is even considered a symbol of Thailand (and used to be on the flag and the money), has lost its place in society. And thus has been relegated to a tool of tourism…according to several sources, about only 2500 elephants still remain in Thailand today, almost all in captivity, many taken from their mothers as babies (the mother is usually killed to be able to take the baby).
So with that knowledge the question was whether or not we could do elephant trekking ethically. The Fodor’s guide recommended Siam Safari, which has been recognized for their humane treatment of elephants and efforts to preserve Thai nature and culture. They seemed like a good way to ethically do the trekking, and they offered a longer day trip-for about $70 USD, we could have a six hour adventure that included a ride in 4×4’s, elephant trekking, learning about Thai farming and cooking, and a sunset cruise. I decided to go, and Ravi eventually decided to come with me.
Incidentally, the day we did our trip with Siam Safari was Thailand’s Mother’s Day, a national holiday to celebrate the Queen’s birthday (pictures of her were everywhere), and in honor of which all bars were supposed to be closed.
We were picked up in a jeep where the back had been converted for seating, like the tuk-tuks on the road. Unlike the tuk-tuks, the jeeps at least had doors that closed to keep everyone in and safe.
We were driven about 15 minutes to a base camp where we were divided into the groups that were just elephant trekking and those of us doing the longer tour (the color of our stickers helped). I also took the chance to use a western toilet as I live in fear of squat toilets. We were driven up the same mountain that the Big Buddha sits atop, which had a really steep grade. On our way there, we drove past several other Elephant Trekking tours…including one where the elephants were being housed in a garage that was half fallen in on itself, standing it what was clearly filthy straw, making me feel sick and sad.
We were dropped off at a different camp with no elephants in sight. There was a cow type animal (a water buffalo) and a sign for the “monkey show” along with a notice not to touch the monkey. A monkey was tied off to a fence, waiting for us and the show to begin.
We learned about the various stages of training monkeys to work with humans to harvest coconuts and saw them demonstrate the various stages of the learning process.
He was rewarded with fruit when his demo was over.
We learned a little about Thai farming, and how they used to use Water Buffalo to help pull the plows. Today, there are technologically cheaper and easier ways to farm. But at Siam Safari, you can sit on one and take a photo or get pulled in a Water Buffalo tuk-tuk.
The guide discussed the importance of coconuts to the Thai people. He talked about their various uses, and we saw a demonstration of how they make coconut oil (they were selling a small bottle of coconut oil for about $2USD), Thai Curry with coconuts, and a type of coconut pancake that they serve with sugar. Each of these stations required a bit of a hike through some of the forest they own and preserve.
After boiling the coconuts for hours, the brown stuff below remains, and they use it on top of ice cream. It was pretty yummy. The little boy is a mahout’s son (mahout-elephant driver) and will grow up to be a mahout as well. He was pretty adorable.
A big part of the forest that they’re preserving is planted with rubber trees. We saw how they get the rubber sap and how the sap is turned into what you and I would recognize as rubber. The process is long, and the best time to harvest trees is around 2-3 am, so not only is it difficult work, but it requires working during hours none of us would be happy to work. The payoff for a small piece of rubber is also quite small, and it’s difficult to see why they would bother maintaining the trees other than as part of cultural heritage and tourism (which is essentially their mission).
in the second part, you can hear the guide say that tourism makes more money than rubber
Walking through the forest, especially for a city girl like me was fun, right up until I saw one of these guys (the image is the third spider I saw and the only one not above me in a tree, making me terrified to take a picture from fear it would fall on me). In case you’re wondering, it’s bigger than my hand. Each leg is longer than my middle finger. EEEK.
We moved onto the baby elephant show. The elephants can’t stark trekking until they’re about 8-10, if I recall correctly, so when they’re babies, they do the baby elephant show to get used to humans other than the mahouts and to start learning commands. I realize it’s pure pandering to the tourist who just looooooooove baby elephants…but what can I say…it works. I do just loooooooooooooove baby elephants. They did a few standard tricks, and then we got to feed them a basket of fruit for just under $2 (which I imagine helps subsidize the cost of feeding baby elephants).
You can certainly argue the ethics of all of this–but in my opinion if it’s going to happen regardless, then it’s best to support the people who are doing it humanely. If you remove the elephants from the equation, you have an ethnic group without work or training to do anything else (the Karen people, from Burma or Myanmar if you prefer/upper Thailand), and an animal who suddenly has no value other than its tusks and various body parts without enough forest to support its life in the wild. It’s an ethical dilemma without easy answers.
From there, we moved onto the elephant trekking. We had to walk to where the grown-up elephants and mahouts were waiting for us, and we walked past the Karen’s living area. The Siam Safari attraction isn’t just an attraction…the Karen live there working the rubber trees and tending the elephants 24/7. It felt distinctly strange to walk past people’s homes (which were on platforms about 8 feet from the ground). Especially since at first I thought they were just another part of the tourist show. I wonder how many other people realized they weren’t?
I figured it out when I saw these…
The elephant trekking lasted for about a half hour and basically consisted of trekking down to a point where you had an unobstructed view of Chalong Bay (where we would have our sunset cruise) and a view of the Big Buddha’s head at the top of the mountain. The trek was very clearly cut out of the road, worn down (and muddy at times) from repeated elephant treks throughout each day. Rather than sitting directly on the elephant (and I have no idea why I imagined that), there was a sturdy seat atop a bundle of padding, both to (I imagine) reduce the feeling of a metal contraption on the elephant and to reduce the motion for the rider (although it was still a bit roller coaster-ish at times, especially when the elephant headed down an incline).
The mahouts *do* actually sit directly on the elephant, where the head meets the neck, with their feet resting behind the ears, as you can see. I couldn’t quite understand our mahout’s name as he had very limited English (enough to point to the Big Buddha and identify it, and the same for Chalong Bay), and most of our “communication” was via hand signals and smiles. I was really happy to see that he was gentle with his elephant, letting her stop to eat or to look at something she found interesting (only females are used during trekking-males are too unpredictable and have the potential to do damage with tusks-it is my understanding that they have a few males for breeding, but Siam Safari generally donates males to zoos, who also will take good care of them and use them for breeding). We were told that the mahouts are paired with the elephants from a young age and they tend to work exclusively with the elephant, making a close relationship. An elephant will work in trekking for about 25-35 years and then will be retired to the elephant preserve near Chang Mai run by the government. When the elephant dies, they are brought back to Siam Safari and buried in a graveyard.
Understanding tourist impulses quite well, we all stopped and the mahouts took pictures of each of the teams with Chalong Bay in the background (it was hazy, so the view is a bit hard to see) using the tourists cameras. At one point, someone from Siam Safari also took a moment to take a picture of each of the teams and we were offered copies of the photos back at base camp for about $6 USD, which of course we bought.
Chalong Bay and the Big Buddha’s head are obviously the biggest scenic moments, but it was also cool to see preserved rainforest…
After our ride, we got to feed our elephant (a much bigger basket of fruit for not much more money).
We stopped long enough to get souvenirs and soda, and a bathroom break before heading back to base camp at the bottom of the hill. There, a few more people left (I guess they weren’t doing the dinner cruise) and we had the chance to purchase our picture on Tong Yib. We bought a reusable Siam Safari bag, and a seated Thai Buddha (which looks different from the standard Buddha). The Buddha was the same thing I could buy at any tourist place in Phuket (or Thailand, if I’m being real), but I made the conscious choice to give my money to Siam Safari. Over the course of the day, I tried to keep a critical eye and I have nothing but respect for how Siam Safari does their programs, treats their animals and tries to raise awareness while dealing with tourist who are just there for a good time.
After about 15 minutes at base camp we were driven down to the docks of Chalong Bay and transferred from our jeeps to a trolley that drove us the (not too long) length of the pier to where our ship was docked. I took a moment to enjoy the view and play with my camera. The yellow boat isn’t ours…but I thought it made for a cool opportunity to use the color accent feature. In fact, I’m embarrassed to admit that I don’t have a picture of the boat we were on.
We had full roaming of the deck and it was a big enough boat that no one felt cramped. Ravi and camped out near the bow of the boat, and enjoyed watching the islands and water pass by as we floated out into the Bay.
One of the things I saw was a shack, which I was told was a “Sea Gypsy” home. They, like many groups in Thailand are suffering due to the country’s development and further industrialization. It’s hard to make a living as a fisherman when there are boats that can do five or ten times your catch in a day, and drive down the market price per kilogram of the fish you do catch.
Cruising around, it was easy to see why Thai islands often feature in Hollywood movies. There’s even an island (not where we were) that’s just become known as “James Bond Island” because part of “The Man With The Golden Gun” was filmed there. “The Beach” with Leo DiCaprio was also filmed in Thailand. But the beaches look so deserted, and so wild that it’s easy to see their appeal (and with the strength of the dollar, I’m sure there are plenty of other incentives as well).
We were fed on board (although the food was a bit cold, no big deal) and everyone had a free glass of wine, beer or soda (we generally elect for soda) and we watched the sun start to set over the bay. I took far too many pictures, but here are a few of the ones I like best.
But the shot I’m most proud of is the following. You need to click on it to make it larger, but if you do, you’ll see the Big Buddha atop its hill just to the left of the red anchor.
It was a lovely and relaxing way to end the day. Sadly we didn’t stay out on the water until dark, when the sunset colors are best, re-docking as the sun was still just a bit above the horizon. We got to get into luxury vans as opposed to the jeeps, and were sent home tired and relaxed.
It’s hard to sum up a day like this. On one hand, it’s exactly the kind of thing that appeals to tourists–a brief glimpse of local culture, some education (but not too much), some guilt for us liberals followed by a massage of our ego (but *we’re* helping those who are doing it ethically), feeding elephants and a sunset cruise. Plenty of photo ops, but no real face to face time with the distasteful parts of the local culture that might make us unhappy or unlikely to give them more money. On the other, it’s really obvious how the people of Thailand are suffering as they “benefit” from modernization. iPhones, internet gaming, facebook references, and McDonalds are popping up everywhere…and tourists are bringing big bucks to a part of the country that was practically untouched and unvisited 50 years ago, except those who were interested in tin mining or rubber plantations…but those who live here are sometimes caught in many worlds, none of them representing economic advancement and respect of their way of life both. Supporting companies like Siam Safari seems like a good way to find balance (supporting tourism, ethical treatment of animals and learning about a different way of life) but it still does seem a bit disrespectful to treat a way of life like a zoo or museum exhibit.
Personally, it reminded me how lucky I am.
And for our guide…yes, I’ll show you on facebook…