Pai (Feb 27-Mar 1): An Elephant and an Unsolved Mystery

Going to Pai (pronounced Pie, mmmm) was a bit more of a bumpy ride (literally)… I had booked my return ticket online on 12Go because I heard that the buses filled up fast. My bus wasn’t leaving until 11:30am but I decided to leave the hostel at 9:45 in hopes of catching the bus to the bus station at 10am. The hostel owner in Chiang Mai told me to walk to the second bridge, which would take less than 10 minutes. I saw a bus cross the bridge before 10am, which ended up being the one I should have taken, but I didn’t know at the time. There were a set of seats with a Thai sign right in front of the bridge, so I stood there for awhile before questioning whether I was in the right place. I decided to cross the street of the bridge and then further down the street, I saw a sign that said “Bus Stop.” By that point, I realised that I had missed the 10am bus so I found a spot in the shade to wait for the 10:30 bus. At about 10:25, I saw the bus coming down the bridge so I ran to the stop and waved it down. The trip only cost me 20 baht (87 cents AUD) and took less than ten minutes to get to the station. I checked in because I wasn’t able to print out my ticket and therefore had to get one at the counter. All she did was just take a piece of paper, write my seat, bus number and time, and tell me to give it to the driver. I decided to find a cafe to get a coffee and then stopped at the 7-Eleven to grab some snacks/breakfast for my 3-hour busride. My bus cost me 215 baht ($10.05) each way, which was a bit more than the 200 baht offered around the city. I got on the bus (which was a 14-passenger van) and I was in the very back. After about 45 minutes, we got off of the main highway and started the twistiest turns I’ve ever experienced. I was warned about this on multiple blogs, but I was NOT expecting the driver to continue doing all of the turns at full speed! We’d lean left to right, back and forth, forward and backward until the driver finally stopped in a small town called Ban Mae Lao, where we got a 20-minute break (thank goodness!). I was trying to decide whether missing breakfast was a good or bad idea because once again, I started to feel a bit car sick. We all got back into the car and had one horrible hour to go. I swear I got nervous every time I heard a plastic bag crinkle because I knew that if someone ended up getting sick in the car, I’d probably be right there with them. I also noticed how the three of us in the back were leaning back and forth much more than the rest of the people in the vehicle, so I definitely wasn’t lucky when it came to my seating assignment. I arrived in Pai at 2:30 and headed towards my hostel, which was about a 15-20 minute walk outside of the city. Once again, I was questioning why I had chosen a hostel so far away from everything. However, once I arrived, I completely understood why. It was a treehouse-type hostel, with a beautiful common area overlooking the river and hills.

The place was called UP2U Guesthouse and it cost me 180 baht ($8) in a 10-bed mixed dorm. When I arrived, it was a bit hazy and I was told that it was because it’s the season so they burn the rice fields every morning. I sat down for a bit to enjoy the view but by 3:30, I was starving so I walked to a restaurant called Karsa Long Thai Food, where I got a Khao Soi and smoothie for 100 baht ($4.36). After lunch, I walked around the city and enjoyed Walking Street (which happens every night). Pai is another one of those places where you really need to have a motorbike because most of its attractions (hiking trails, canyons, waterfalls) are outside of the city. Pai is definitely catering towards a certain “type,” with vegan cafes, signs that say: “Say No to Plastic Bags” everywhere (yet they still continue serving their street food in plastic), and I even saw a sign for kombucha. And in Pai, you definitely notice a bit more hippie clothes and a bit more dreadlocks. Thailand definitely knows what they’re doing, so I give them props! I headed back to the hostel and met Marlot, who’s from the Netherlands and is new into her trip. We talked for quite awhile and seemed to click right away. She had just road a motorbike to Pai with a Canadian couple who ended up crashing, and it sounded pretty traumatising! Even though there are many places that I regret not being able to ride a motorbike (Pai included), I’m still glad that I didn’t start “learning” in Southeast Asia as I’m not sure how well it would have worked out. Marlot was going back into the city but I decided to stay back because I had already done a lot of walking. I ended up passing out by 10:30 that night and had one of the best sleeps!

On Thursday morning, I had a slow start to the day. I had breakfast with Marlot and a couple of other girls at the hostel, and we ended up chatting for an hour or two (one of my favourite things about having breakfast at a hostel – it’s definitely NOT about the free toast!). I had actually found a really good elephant program in Chiang Rai that I wanted to go to but when I asked about it, they were fully booked until the day I was leaving. Therefore, I decided to spend half of my day at a place called Conserve Natural Forests, which is a non-profit program (however, they ask you to donate a minimum of 1000 baht/$43.63 if you visit). I would be picked up at the market at 1pm, which was about a 30-minute walk from my hostel. I stopped at a restaurant for lunch called Easy Cafe, which was actually run by a British lady whose husband was Thai, so all of her British friends were there having lunch together at one table. Once I saw French Toast on the menu, I was sold! I got that with a fruit salad and yogurt with honey, as well as a smoothie for 140 baht ($6.11) and it was absolutely delicious!

I headed to the market, where there was a small seating area for people waiting to go to CNF. The lady reminded us that we’d have to pay a minimum of 1000 baht (I guess they’ve had problems with people not knowing this in the past) and then our ride showed up, which was a pick-up truck. Three people went into the actual truck and then six of us were crowded around the back – I definitely hadn’t sat in the back of a pick-up truck in ages! The trip to the farm was about 30 minutesand then we met up with four other people so our group was 13 people. We were started with an introduction by Wes, who was actually from the United States but had been working in Thailand for the past 2.5 years in reforestation management. He shared how Thailand’s logging industry ended up booming and within 100 years, they lost 70% of their forests. Then in the 80s, the country suffered a large amount of landslides because there weren’t enough trees holding everything into place. Therefore in 1989, the government banned logging and a whole bunch of loggers and elephants were left without jobs. That was when they moved elephants into the tourism industry, where many were/are mistreated and used for elephant rides (Note: Elephant backs are NOT made to carry the weight of humans, and elephant rides should never be taken, no matter how nice the picture might look on your Instagram!!). The work of the CNF is to fix what was broken, and one of the main things they do is plant trees. Wes is in charge of deciding where new trees should be planted in Thailand, what combination of trees should be planted together, and making sure the different layers of the forest grow properly (starting with the canopy layer) so that it will be able to sustain itself after a few years. The good thing is that the trees they plant won’t be cut down again since it’s illegal, so their work won’t be for nothing. Their goal is to plant 250,000 trees this year and they hope to reach 1 million trees within the next few years. They also have one elephant that they rescued from the tourism industry, and their goal with any elephants (and tortoises) they have (they usually only have one or two elephants at a time because they’re very expensive to buy) is to eventually release them back into the wild. Apparently there are only 6000 elephants left in Thailand, and 4500 are still in captivity, so they are trying to reintroduce them into the wild one at a time. In order to do this, they have to go through a long process of teaching the elephants how to fend for themselves – how to wash themselves, clean out their eyes, find food, practice self-care, etc. We first went to the tortoise area, where they have two types of endangered species. The turtles were pretty hard to find, as they usually find a shady spot to relax in.

Right now, they have one elephant named Kamee who is 33 years old. One thing was very special about her when she was purchased, which they didn’t know and the seller didn’t know either (otherwise she would have cost a lot more money). Kamee was pregnant when she was purchased, and is now somewhere between 21 and 23 months pregnant (so ready to pop at any moment!). They went through the rules about how to handle Kamee – if she wanted to stay with us, we would let her and if she didn’t, we’d leave her alone. Only two people should be around her at one time (and in our case, we only went one at a time). He said that she was quite hormonal, so we wanted to respect what she wanted and she was only allowed to spend a maximum of 90 minutes with people each day. He also had to remind us that elephants don’t express affection the same way that we do so petting, hugging, kissing, etc. was unnecessary. We would all get a chance to feed her, and then we could watch from a distance. We had to walk through a stream/river to get to where she was and within 30 seconds, she was right there!

It was so magnificent to see such a beautiful creature, and she actually had quite a bit of sass to her, and made everyone laugh quite often. We each took a big bunch of bananas (about 10 bananas) and took turns feeding her one by one.

Many times, we were too slow with peeling the bananas so she lost patience and left to cross the river. There, she played in the water for awhile before crossing to the other side, where there was more food. None of us were allowed to cross the river until she was out of the water again, so we headed back over when it was time to go. We continued taking turns feeding her and when she got bored of bananas, she’d reach into the bag of pumpkins. It was amazing watching her put a pumpkin in her mouth and hear a huge crunch, where she’d crush it into smaller pieces and then work on each piece one at a time.

When she got bored of the pumpkins, she walked over to the “bar area” (where they were serving passionfruit gin and tonics) and helped herself to the entire basket of passionfruit. It was quite entertaining to watch – she definitely has a personality! You could see her left side bulging out and sometimes, you could even see it move, which was so cool! Wes said that she normally would eat 200kg of food per day but now that she was pregnant, she was eating about 40kg more. They said that it’ll take three years to ween the baby off of the mother’s milk, and then they can reintroduce them back into the wild (so the process was prolonged a bit due to Kamee being pregnant). Kamee also has two mahouts that are with her 24/7, and who help her learn how to live in the wild.

Such an amazing experience! After our elephant time, we were taken to the tree nursery, where we’re usually asked to plant a tree. However, since it was dry season, the trees likely wouldn’t survive and Wes didn’t want to waste any trees, so we were asked to plant seeds instead. That day, we planted tamarind seeds and were asked to do three pots of three seeds each.

They actually use Kamee’s poo as a fertiliser for all of the plants as well! Our day finished at 5pm, when we signed their guestbook and paid our donations. The great thing about these donations is that it’s only a one-time donation (unless we want to donate again), so if I end up in Pai again at any time in my life, I can go back as many times as I want! I felt so inspired after my day, and it got me seriously considering other careers because I feel like I would really enjoy being a part of a project similar to this anywhere else in the word. It made me realise that I can use my biology degree in other ways! So I might have to look at that in the future… They dropped us off at the market again and I decided to walk to the White Buddha, which can be seen from all around the city since it’s up in the hills and is supposed to have a great view of the sunset. The walk was about 45-50 minutes but after about a half hour, I was starting the incline up the hill (which I’d have to do for the next 15 minutes) and less than two minutes later, a man stopped beside me on his motorbike, asked if I was going to see the sunset, and told me to hop on. Normally, I’d say no and continue on my way but I really wasn’t looking forward to walking uphill for 15 minutes and THEN having to do a whole bunch of stairs, so I hopped on. Less than 2 minutes later, we were there! I took out my sarong and light cardigan to cover up, and started the stairs up to the Buddha. I’m so glad I accepted the ride because even though my phone said that sunset was at 6:30pm, it definitely started shortly after 6pm so I would have ended up missing it. It was really pretty, especially seeing the entire city below us, and I ended up talking to a couple of girls afterwards for awhile.

I then started the walk back into the city and at 7, I met up with Marlot so that we could get dinner on Walking Street. I had noticed a taco stand the day before and decided I needed to try it. We each got taco bowls for 60 baht ($2.62) but the weird thing about them was that our sauce options were sweet chili, mayonnaise, or spicy ketchup. Marlot was going to a festival at 9pm, so we were walking towards the end of Walking Street when someone tapped me on the shoulder. I turned around and it was Abbey, the girl who took the night train with me to Chiang Mai! The three of us checked out a few shops together before Marlot had to leave, and then Abbey and I found a restaurant to get smoothies and catch up on the past few days. It’s nice how seeing a familiar face is such a good feeling, even though we had been strangers less than a week ago! Travelling does that to you though, and I love it! The restaurant ended up closing so we said our goodbyes (and possibly our see you laters – you never know!) and I headed back to my hostel. I had an early morning to catch the 8am bus, so I had to call it an early night. When I got back to the hostel, I went to grab my towel and then noticed that the EXACT towel was two towels down from what I thought was mine. I then spent a bunch of time questioning which one was mine, and even asked everyone who I could find if they had the same towel (no one did). One of the tags said KMart Australia while one just said KMart, so I took the Australia one and hoped I made the right choice! Hopefully I can wash it soon but until then, I’m backpacking so my expectations are never too high 😛 Love always

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