So to mark the midway point of our Thailand trip, and to celebrate overcoming our jet lag from the day before, Dani and I embarked on a full day tour of Phuket and only Phuket. And this was the day that the sun decided to remind us all it existed. I felt smothered in the humidity just sitting in our foyer. Clambering into our air-conditioned bus was like diving into a pool filled with refrigerated water. And this was before 9AM. Joy.
Our first stop was the one I was most excited about. I have wanted to ride an elephant since my friends, who went to Thailand back in July, told me it was possible. So when Dani told me this tour let us ride elephants I was all for it. I was a little surprised when we turned off a road halfway up a massive hill and I saw elephants roaming around with blankets and benches strapped to their backs. There were a few two-storey wooden structures scattered around the edges of the sandy carpark/welcome area that barely held back the press of tropical trees and other greenery threatening to engulf us all. But as we moves from the bus and up into one of the structures, I realised the place was a lot bigger than I thought.
Getting onto the elephant was a scary business. We had to stand for a second or two on the elephant’s back before we could manoeuvre ourselves into the bench and buckle ourselves in. And the initial lurching sensation was terrifying even though elephants move so slowly. It’s like being on a trotting horse on a boat being rocked by a slow but strong current. And even though Asian elephants are a lot smaller than African elephants, you are still at least three metres off the ground, swaying on a rickety bench.
The trek only lasted half an hour, impressive considering our elephant really didn’t want to take us anywhere, along a muddy track that every once in a while was adorned by coloured buckets filled with perfectly spherical balls of elephant faeces. Which was really fun on a day with temperatures in the mid 30’s (about 95º Farenheit) and humidity at least at 80%. The view wasn’t anything spectacular, but I suppose we weren’t there for the view. Then before I knew it, we were back at our wooden platforms and on our way to our first monkey show.
I wish I could tell you what kind of monkey it was that we saw. He was so intelligent. He opened and closed the show banner, did push ups and sit-ups, lifted some weights, spun coconuts in his hands and feet, and balanced on his handler’s arm and head before giving him a quick peck on the cheek. And the lips.
Then you know how most of these animal shows work: they call for a volunteer. So Dani went up and sat in the chair that the handler and MC had put in the middle of the sandy arena. He, the handler, then proceeded to tie Dani’s hands together and the little monkey had to untie her. Just like a magic show. Well, sort of. After he manages to free Dani from her frayed shackles, he then climbed onto her head, sat on her shoulder, and then kissed her. Once on the cheek and once on the lips. After another volunteer who copped similar treatment and the monkey went around and got his tips from everybody, it was off to the snake show.
I don’t know how many of you saw snake shows in primary school but I did. It was one guy who draped a python around his shoulders and let us pat it, then drawing out a red belly black snake or baby brown snake with a y-shaped plastic rod and telling us that snakes hunt through vibrations and are “more scared of you than you are of them”. Which I think is bullshit. A Thai snake show is nothing like that.
It started the same way, with the guy using a python as a scarf, but then it went off on a totally different tangent. He put the python in the middle of the ring we were watching and started to bait it. Pythons are pretty slow, but even a python only two metres long can swallow a whole chicken. I think that translates to an adult’s forearm. Once the python had had enough, the man pulled out a smaller “jumping” snake. Not poisonous but damn fast. They coil themselves up like a dilapidated slinky and can strike at distances up to five metres. Even though I knew that the snake wasn’t deadly, I was still terrified for the guy. He was fine in the end, but the jumping snake did get him on the forehead. And I thought that was it. Especially when they told us they were going to show us a cobra and then gave us all a heart attack by throwing a plastic one at us. Seriously. I almost blacked out. But then the guy that had been sitting at the edge of the ring walked into the ring and pulled out an actual cobra from a wooden container. So, the kind that can kill you in half an hour. I can’t even put what this guy did in words. So here’s a picture of the scariest part of the show. I’m surprised I didn’t have nightmares:
Just before we left, probably so that we could all start breathing again, we got to meet the baby elephants! It looked as though they were grinning at us the whole time. Especially when Dani started feeding them some baby bananas. They thanked her with some hugs and kisses with their trunks. It was definitely a sight to see. And then it was my turn. Not to feed them, but for some elephant love. I got a kiss from both of the babies at the same time. It was kind of amazing. And an elephant’s trunk is a lot heavier than I thought it would be.
The next stop for us was the Big Buddha. But the name doesn’t really do it justice. If you’re on the right side of Phuket, no matter where you are, you can look up and see him watching over you. He is forty-five metres tall and twenty metres wide. Construction started in 2007 and won’t be completely finished until 2020. You can give money to the Buddha and help with its construction. You can also pay about 150THB and write on a marble square that will eventually become part of the Buddha statue.
I always feel like such a tourist at religious landmarks. These places mean something to so many people. At the Buddha, there were actual monks in the middle of meditation and you could hear their prayers from everywhere on the Buddha site. Then there were people being blessed by the monks or bowing to the various statues of the god or lighting incense and dropping their heads to their clasped hands. And there I was rotating through the beautiful sights and holding my breath as I stared up at the immensity of the Big Buddha. I can feel the spirituality in a place like the Big Buddha, and I respect the people who travel to Buddha and sites like it for worship, but I don’t feel a connection. I don’t know how many of you are aware of the actual meaning of the word “awesome” but the official dictionary explanation is:
Inspiring an overwhelming feeling of reverence, admiration, or fear; causing or inducing awe
That is basically how I would describe seeing the Big Buddha: traditionally awesome.
Besides the terrifying grace of Buddha watching over us all, I was incredibly impressed by the way the employees (I think they’re volunteers) treated the guests who arrived. If the women had too much of their arms and legs exposed, they were given shawls and sarongs to cover themselves up. And I thought that was incredible. Because we were standing on a holy site, even though most of us were only there for photo ops and trivia to take back home. And as such, it is our responsibility to observe the customs and traditions of the religion that owns the site that we were documenting with our smartphones and digital cameras.
We got the same treatment at our other religious sites: Wat Chalong, the oldest Buddhist temple in Phuket; and the Chinese temple. In fact we were actually instructed to remove our shoes when we entered both of these places. And, again, I felt as though that was our responsibility as tourists. I felt absoluted appalled when I got pulled up for leaning on the temple as I tried pull my shoes off.
“No touching,” our guide, Eve, said with a small gesture of her hands that translated to ‘get your fucking hands off that temple!’.
I learnt my lesson and as I came back out, I found a dry spot on the marble stairs and sat down to pull on my socks and joggers.
Our next stop was a cashew factory. I love learning about the process of things at factories. It’s why I’ve always wanted to go to a chocolate factory. Anyway, what I learnt at the cashew factory is that all cashews have to be processes by hand because the nuts are so small. So all those bags and bags of cashews you see at Woolies and Coles? Yeah, they were husked by hand. I also learned that cashews come from a fruit. Absolutely, without one word of a lie. And if you want some proof:
I’m not sure how well you can see those tiny yellow and red baubles but they are actually the cashew fruit. They look a bit like mushrooms, if you sculpted mushrooms while on some grade A hallucinogenics. And these fruit make the weirdest juice I have ever tasted. Even though I think the juice was only weird because they mixed it with soda water. And soda water, as we all know, is what the devil serves in hell.
Dani and I tasted the other products that come out of that little factory and oh my God! I wanted all of them. Even the wasabi and nori (seaweed) flavours. But I was good and only bought the sour cream and onion flavour. Dani bought the barbecue. I also bought some coconut soap and coconut balls, but that has nothing to do with anything, so I’ll move on.
Our last stop before lunch was canoeing. I couldn’t tell you where we were and why we went there but the activity itself was memorable. For two reasons:
1. Because Dani refused to let me help. She kept saying I was throwing her off. Even when the current turned against us. So my oar just sat on my lap feeling as dejected as I did.
2. Because of the wildlife. We saw monkeys on the wooden lattices that I assumed were holding nets so that the locals could catch fish. And we also saw flying fish. Little ripples of silver that flitted through the air for a few seconds before diving back into the murky depths of the river.
On our way back to our point of origin, Eve’s (our guide) wooden speedboat pulled up next to us and offered us a lift. Given the heat and my feelings of utter uselessness, we accepted. Thankfully one of the couples on our tour with us had been picked up first. The other couple actually reached home base long before we did. But I think they’re one of those athletic couples.
Lunch was next. We got to sit for a while eat and amazing Thai food next to an amazing view of the beach and feel the amazing seabreeze on our sunburnt and sticky skin. It was utter bliss. So we just sat, watched the army of crabs march along the sand, until Eve herded us all back onto the tour bus.
By this time, we were all pretty wiped out. Dani had already suffered from a sun overdose when we were at Wat Chalong. Thankfully there were stalls lining the boundaries of the holy site and she was able to grab an orange juice to stop the shaking in her legs. So when we pulled into the honey factory and felt the force of the wonderfully frigid air conditioning, I think there was a collective slump of relief. Moments later we were ushered outside to see a sight that was almost as terrifying as a man kissing a cobra:
If you are attuned to your bug nemeses as I am then you will know that what that man is holding is a screen full of bees. I didn’t care that they were bug-drugged out of their minds, when he asked us if we wanted to hold the screen I almost ran the whole, soupy way back to my hotel. Thankfully, after one brave man from the audience took a turn, we all went back inside and tried some of the impressive honey products. I came out with chocolate covered honey, duh, and almost bought honey soaked coffee beans that made the only coffee I’ve ever been able to drink straight. But, after being told that I couldn’t take my cashews back to Australia with me, I didn’t want to buy the wonder coffee only to have it confiscated by the guards at customs. If I couldn’t have it, they couldn’t either.
Our last stop was to Kathu Falls. If you guys have ever been to a regional waterfall and gone for a dip at any of your home towns than you will know what Kathu Falls was like. The only differences were that the kids were shrieking in Thai and there were about a million stairs to climb until we reached the falls. Which were actually man-made I think.
I left out the souvenir shopping and other such things because there is absolutely no way I can write about that in any way to make it interesting. But I will say this: whose idea was it to make it a custom that after you have saved all your hard-earned money and paid for accommodation, airfares, and even managed to scrape together a bit of spending money, you have to then go and spend a significant chunk of that money on other people? And not only that, but stress about making sure that you buy them something they’ll like? I mean, on this trip it’s not such a big deal because this trip is actually a 21st present and I didn’t actually have to spend much of my own money at all (yep, a little spoiled. But it doesn’t happen often. Which is why this trip is so awesome) but on any other trip, what most people ask you when you arrive safely back on home soil is “Well, what did you get me?”.
When we finally got back to the room we had some room service sent up (actually not as decadent as it sounds; the meals are incredibly reasonable) and collapsed in front of a movie. Because day six will be a tour and a show.