Sunday, February 16, 2014

Trucks, Boats, and Elephants

16 February 2014

We only have a couple of days left in Bangkok, so I signed up for the half-day tour to the floating market.

Our van full of market-goers was driven about 100 km (60 miles) outside of Bangkok to the Damnernsaduak Floating Market (and I have no idea how to pronounce that).

Although we met these gorgeous painted semis along the way.

Okay, the floating markets - Thailand has about ten floating markets, and this is one of those things fairly unique to Thailand.  

Thailand has quite a few rivers.  Various kings decided to have canals dug to expand the river network for transportation - Rama IV, the king about 150 years ago, had a canal dug between the Mekong and Tha Chin Rivers. 

People started building their homes along the rivers and canals, some actually built on pilings and stilts over the water.  They'd grow produce in their gardens or farms, and began to barter their produce from boats.

And the floating markets were born.

And of course it has now become a big tourist attraction - but the bulk of the market focuses on the people selling beautiful fruits and vegs from their boats, as well as cooking snacks and meals and selling those, all right on the boats.

So of course, the best way to see the market is from boat.  We took a longtail boat from the car park into the market, then climbed into paddle boats - sort of an unromantic version of a gondola.  And were paddled around the market.

It's absolutely crazy - imagine bumper cars but these are boats, bumping into each other in all directions.  Bumping into the boats selling goods.  Bumping into boats full of shoppers who are nestled up against a boat full of goods.  Bumping into the boats in front of or next to your boat.  Bumping into oncoming boats.  Just a river or canal full of bumper boats!

And the items for sale - trees - really, whole little trees on boats!  Beer, all over.  Fruits, vegetables, spices, souvenirs, handmade items, mass produced items, and my favourite, the boats where the vendor is cooking items: grilled bananas.  Pho type of soups, with noodles and vegetables and meats.  Fried or steamed buns.  Everything but coffee.  Or ice cream.  But just about everything else!

I don't think labyrinth describes the maze created by the canals - they seemed to be laid out in a grid, but I have a horrible sense of direction so who knows.  We sort of wove around and in and out of canals, until I didn't know which way we were facing.  Then we clambered out of the paddle boats, and had some time to walk around and shop.  Of course, I kept taking photos, although I did have a latte.  

Because this was a photographers paradise!  There was all the activity of the boats coming and going and bumping.  There was the variety of goods for sale from the boats.  There was the light reflecting off the water creating ripples and reflections on the land-based vendors.  And there were the faces of the people - women and men who looked several hundred years old from working in the sun, but probably were younger than me.  Fresh-faced young women who were trying to make a living.  The little girl who wouldn't smile or say hello to anyone until I finished taking her picture - then she smiled and waved hello, and gave me a huge grin when I showed her her photo on my camera.  (Her grandmother was thrilled too!)  I loved the faces of all the people, and focused on that for a while.

And then there was mango lady.  She was too funny.  She noticed that I was trying to get a close up of her face, she had a wonderful face.  She frowned and yelled "No photo!  Buy my mango!"  I yelled back that mango makes me sick, and I tried to mime choking, since mango literally makes it very difficult for me to breathe (as in anaphylaxis) - but of course, she didn't understand all of that, and I suspect she thought I was saying I don't like mango, because she got even madder and picked up a mango as if she was going to throw it at me - so I put away the camera and raised my hands in surrender, and she frowned and grumbled as I walked away.  Just so funny!  (Of course, it was obvious that she didn't think so!)

After walking and wandering (and managing to not get lost, and getting back to the meeting point) we drove on over to the elephant village.  Yes, elephants!  Elephants used to roam wild in this part of Asia, and were eventually tamed and trained to be used as transportation in battle as well as work animals - they were a big part of the logging and construction industries.  But with the onset of machinery, elephants became obsolete.  And while there is still some poaching for ivory, the world market has become educated about the horrors of the ivory trade, and there is less of a market than there once was.

So all of this has left Thailand with domesticated elephants and nothing to do with them.  Nothing for the mahouts, the elephant trainers and riders, to do.  No way to feed these huge animals, who eat tons of food a year.  

This is where tourists come in to the picture.

Tourists, of course, have a romantic view of elephants - lovely, friendly, warm, caring, intelligent animals who should be roaming free in the forest the way they used to.  Except that these are domesticated elephants that we're talking about.  And the wild elephants get into farms and eat produce, destroying the crops and the farmers' livelihoods.  (Plus there was a young woman found trampled in the forest recently - she had been camping and photographing elephants.  Horrible way to die.)

So scattered around Thailand are these elephants villages.  The mahouts live their with their elephants, and other elephant support staff (such as the scat movers - really, this is a job!).  Tourists can spend a day there, learning to lead an elephant around; or just an hour, and pay to ride an elephant.  Because, well, most of us don't have friendly elephants in our country.  And our tourist dollars pay the mahouts, so they can support their families.  Our dollars also pay for the tons of food for the elephants.  

Win-win, pretty much.  Yes, these animals are exploited.  But they are already tamed, and can't return to the wild.  And this way, at least they are taken care of and fed.

So I rode an elephant.  A HUGE enormous elephant whose back came up level with the tower we walked up so we could step out onto the elephant and sit down in the little, well, seating area cage.  Other elephants were smaller, but they went on break.  So I got the giant elephant.  No tusks, so I think it was a lady elephant, and I will refer to her as such.  Her name was something like Nyingnong (nee-YING-nong, but more nasal) - and she was a very nice elephant.  She had a long stride, so we caught up to the elephant in front of us and then slowed down.  And the little contraption you sit in - well, it rocks side to side.  And the elephant steps slowly and deliberately, so you sort of rock back and forward.  Not the most comfortable ride, especially given that this is about 12-15 feet (4 to 5 meters?) above ground.  Feet resting on the elephant's neck.  I will admit that I held onto the metal bars on each side of the seating cage (with a seatbelt!) - and I was holding on so tight, I was afraid to let go and get my camera out.  Or give it to someone to take my photo.  So there are no photos of me riding Nyingnong.  But there are photos of how it looked sitting up there and looking at our mahout and the other elephants up ahead.  Plus other elephants, because after my ride Nyingnong went on break.  We rode in a huge circle, then across the river, then half the circle.  Back to the front of the village, where the fruit vendor fed her some watermelon rind he had been saving.  And then back to the tower, so I could climb off.  All together, it was about a 20-30 minute ride, and it was great!  Crazy, but great!

Oh, the mahout "steers" the elephant by resting his feet on the top of her ears and giving toe or foot signals!  Really, he didn't have to say anything, just move his feet or jiggle his toes, and she knew when to stop, go, turn, go to the river, whatever.  VERY cool!!!

So, our travels are all about trying new and different things.  And having new experiences.  

This definitely was one of those events!!!! 

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