ELEPHANTS AND TIGERS AND BRIDGES, OH MY

RC here, guest-blogging about my too-brief visit to Thailand with Mightydin at the beginning of Feb. 2014. Where to start? It was the first time either of us had been to this remarkable country, and our excursion may not have been particularly typical. We came via cruise ship and never actually set foot in Bangkok. However, our guide and driver (Bangkok Day Tours) did take us through this remarkable city of numerous high-rises where 11 million people live and work. While we drove through the city, our guide talked about the protesters who have been demonstrating in Bangkok for the last two months. I thought he was exaggerating when he said there were millions of demonstrators in the streets, until he showed me pictures on his cell phone of people filling the streets shoulder-to-shoulder for many blocks. In fact, our guide was one of the demonstrators. They have been protesting the prime minister’s policies as to payments to rice farmers.

Bridge over the River Kwai
Bridge over the River Kwai but not the one from the movie

Our first stop was in a western province of Thailand, at the bridge over the River Kwai, the site of some of the terrible events of World War Two. The Japanese forced prisoners of war from England, Australia, Malaysia, and elsewhere, including some Americans, to build a railroad bridge through malaria-infested jungles to serve as part of their supply line. Many, many POWs lost their lives due to malaria, starvation, the dangers of the work, or the brutality of the guards. Many who escaped perished in the jungle. Today, you can walk on the bridge, and look at some of the original bridge abutments, which were subject to multiple bombings by Allied Forces. It’s an incredibly moving place, albeit surrounded by a small town and agricultural fields.

 

The monk distracts the tiger while Mightydin sneaks behind to pet it.
The monk distracts the tiger while Mightydin sneaks behind to pet it.

After lunch, we went on to the Tiger Temple. This is a wildlife sanctuary where Buddhist monks care for tigers, water buffaloes, deer, a bear, wild pigs and other animals. The remarkable thing about it is that a volunteer will escort visitors, one by one, into the area where the well-fed tigers are sprawled in the hot afternoon sun. The guide will show you where to pose and take your picture with the tiger. They encourage you to pet the tigers!

 

OK, so in the first picture, I am not smiling and my hand is hovering about an inch above the black-and-orange stripes of the tiger’s fur. In the second picture, I did manage to stroke the tiger’s fur, which felt just like the fur of a short-haired house cat. It wasn’t until we got to the third or fourth tiger that I’m not only petting the tiger, but also smiling. However, my pulse did not return to normal until at least five minutes after we left “Tiger Canyon.”

Then it was on to the elephant compound, where we began with a ride on an elephant’s back. We sat on a seat and an elephant handler sat on the beast’s neck and guided it around. Our elephant was hungry, so the handler let it eat a bunch of long grass during the ride. Also, we watched as one elephant fed grass to another one. Lastly, it was time for “elephant bathing.” The guide helped me to sit directly on the neck of the elephant, with him sitting behind me. You hang on by clutching the beast with your legs and placing your hands on its head. It takes some getting used to, and is not as easy as it looks. Plus, you are considerably higher off the ground than if you were riding a horse. So it isn’t for someone who is afraid of heights or doesn’t have good balance. The elephants were guided down a steep bank to the river, then into the river. The muddy water came up to mid-thigh level on me, until the elephant submerged everything except its head. Also, the handlers encouraged the elephants to spray water on me and on my traveling companion. You can also sit on the elephant’s trunk, but I opted not to do that.

 

That evening, we stayed at a local hotel. We were up, had finished breakfast, and on the road by 7:30 a.m. to go to the Floating Market. Along the way, we saw many trucks carrying sugar cane to the sugar refineries. Some of the trucks were painted in beautiful and elaborate designs.

Traffic jam at the floating market.
Traffic jam at the floating market.

Upon reaching the network of canals that form the Floating Market, we climbed into a paddle boat. The boatman sat in the back and paddled along the canal where grocers sold their produce from other boats, and others sold foods that they had cooked right on their boats. We passed many stalls selling every imaginable type of tourist item. The merchants were eager to bargain in either Thai baht or US dollars.

 

Our tour concluded with lunch along the highway that led back to another part of Bangkok and thence to the port.

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