Thursday, March 16, 2017

Chiang Mai & Kuala Lumpur

Getting this close to an elephant in an open space, not a zoo, was like a dream. But I was wide awake. It happened at northern Thailand's Elephant Nature Park, "an elephant rescue and rehabilitation center." Better name? Elephant heaven.

Some of these elephants limp on a foot mangled by a landmine. A number are blind due to--get this--tourist flashbulbs in zoos and circuses. Many have other problems as a result of being "broken" in order to be ridden. This is a brutal practice. Nothing like breaking a horse. It involves ripping the babies away from their mothers, beating them, inducing pain in a variety of ways... Google it, if you can stomach it. Now that I'm aware, I would never ride an elephant.
We got in the water with them!
I did, however, caress a few that are used to humans. And it was divine. Elephants are walking paradoxes: Gentle giants. Rough skin, tender heart. We have a lot to learn from them--for example, not demonizing one group for the abject behavior of a few.

Most of the mahouts who work with elephants are born into mahout families. The control of elephants through abuse is a tradition. And a vocation. Elephant Nature Park re-trains mahouts and gives them jobs. These guys do a ton of work around the park (along with armies of volunteers), and can even build relationships with the unruly bulls tourists are not allowed to get near. The mahouts learn how to use food, not pain, to coerce the animals to move to the watering hole or feeding platform.

I swear these sweet beasts are thrilled to be living on this beautiful property. They smile. They playfully throw dirt into the air. They roll in the mud and prance in the river. Finally, they are free. No more cages, no more abuse, no more isolation, no more chains.

We got to the elephants from Chiang Mai, a groovy, ex-pat friendly, yoga-fied city filled with beautiful parks, temples, and street food galore. My former SJSU student, Sarah, now lives and teaches there. She landed in Chiang Mai after a year of travel throughout India and S.E. Asia. We have in common the travel-the-world-and-write gene.

Hanging with Sarah at a temple.

Chiang Mai street food

Sunday market...hard to see the wares it was so crowded.
Evidence of Chinese New Year in Chiang Mai.
As much as I enjoyed exploring the city, I was having island withdrawals. A little city goes a long way. And there was more to come: Kuala Lumpur, or KL, for the last few days before we had to wing back to Nanning.

Speaking of wings...our first KL stop was the Bird Park--a public aviary that was much groovier than I'd imagined such a place could be.

Someone wants my coconut.
I'm not a fan of seeing birds in cages, so what a delight to experience free-rangers of all shapes, colors and sizes.
Thousands of birds in the trees, walking along the grounds, floating in the various bodies of water.  A few were in pens, notably the ostriches. When we got close to feed them through a slice in the fence, the fierce way they grabbed the greens, coupled with their I-could-slice-you-up clawed feet, made it clear why they couldn't be running around terrorizing tourists. Ideally they would be out on the range in Africa terrorizing the lizards they eat.

KL has a hop-on, hop-off bus. Pay one price and you can tour around the city, lingering wherever you like and climbing back on when the next bus comes every 30 minutes. We checked out Chinatown (not worth your time unless you want to buy a fake brand-name watch or shirt), Little India (lots of color, nice vibe), the Petronas Towers (the tallest twin towers in the world), and a lot of other interesting architecture.




Our hotel was just a couple of blocks from a massive night street food scene. We waded through thousands of people, checking out stalls and open air restaurants with gargantuan menus representing food of many SE Asian nations. My favorite treat: deep fried banana.

We were also close to a pub street that, at night, rolled back its sidewalks to Vegas-esque pandemonium. We found a street corner cafĂ© and enjoyed floating on a local trio's sweet three-part harmonies. Our last night we stumbled across, of all things, a fantastic German restaurant. Eating a luscious salad and potato pancakes, soaked in a magical ambiance, I had a feeling we could be in anywhere in the world. Every so often that surreal feeling of transcending time and space envelopes me while traveling. In this case it was aided by a German beer the size of a toddler.

I write this four weeks later, buried in my second semester of teaching in China. Whether or not we will stay here for another year is central to our conversations these days. The university has sent me a contract and is nudging me to sign it. I have yet to take up my pen.

This trip reinforced for me what I love best about travel: experiencing new things. That may sound self-evident. But it took me into my fifth decade to live the nomadic existence I always dreamed of. I'm not sure I'm ready to stay in one place longer than a year. A zillion possibilities are swirling about, shining like the universe's bling.

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