When our hotel pick up arrived outside the hotel, I didn’t want to believe it. For the last few tours we had been picked up by air-conditioned minibuses. We had been waiting in the foyer for about half an hour when a tuk-tuk arrived. The air was like melted caramel: hot, heavy, sticky, with that sickly sweet smell specific to Patong streets. I was already pulling my singlet away from my skin trying to coax some kind of breeze. So it wasn’t until the driver came inside, ten minutes after he pulled up on the opposite side of the street, that I resigned myself to travelling by tuk-tuk. For those of you who don’t know, a tuk-tuk is a ute with an elongated tray that’s been covered by a semi-rigid plastic canopy and has benches bolted to the left and right edges of the tray. Sitting in the tuk-tuk, I felt for sure that I would melt into a ratatouille of skin, muscle, and bone right there on the seat. But then we started moving. And travelling by tuk-tuk is easily the most interesting way to travel in Thailand. You can see the death-defying acts attempted by motorists on a minute-to-minute basis and have a more panoramic view of the landscape surrounding you. We even had a brief exchange about seatbelts and safety with a lovely British gentleman on a motorbike as we were stuck in Phuket traffic. And everything I was saying about how hot it was? The wind that the tuk-tuk created wrapped us in a cool blanket all the way to our morning tour.
Our almost-friends from our Phi Phi Island tour told us about the elephant trek they went on with a company called Siam Safari. Before Dani had found our full day tour of Phuket, I had been looking at the Siam Safari website, checking prices and debating with Dani which tour was the best value for money. Turned out we needn’t have bothered. The second tour I booked for us back in Australia was actually with Siam Safari. And it was nothing like the description.
Visit Siam Safari Elephant Camp, meet the elephants and the mahouts who care for them. See monkeys pick coconuts, and cruise on a traditional wooden junk in Chalong Bay.
No where in that description does it allude to riding elephants. And we didn’t see any monkeys. But the tour was fantastic. Better than the description.
Like I said, we weren’t expecting an elephant trek but I was glad that we got a second go. It was less frightening this time and the views were infinitely more impressive.
Also the mahouts, the name given to the men who ride the elephants, seemed to treat their elephants with a lot more respect than the riders at the first place. And this is apparently because mahouts and their elephants are paired for life. That wass one of the many differences between Siam Safari and the place we went yesterday. One of the other differences was that we were given a lot more information. For instance, what I took to be discolouration due to malnutrition on the elephants’ trunks from the day before is in actual fact the elephant version of wrinkles. And I didn’t have to feel sorry for the elephant we were riding yesterday who was being slapped about the ears by what looked like a stunted, blunt scythe; an elephant’s hide is basically an inch thick and they couldn’t really feel it. But I didn’t know any of this yesterday.
Today was also the first time on a tour that we had been taught how to say hello and thank you in Thai. I can’t spell it, but if I ever run into you off-screen I’d be able to tell you. And even though I can say it now, my instinct is still to say thank you in English. Unless the people we talk to say something in Thai first. Then I remember.
After our elephant trek, we got to meet some more baby elephants and see how they are trained. These elephants can pick up numerous objects with their trunks, including their mahout‘s hat and then put that hat back on their mahout‘s head. They can play soccer, paint pictures, and even play the harmonica. No, seriously.
A photo op with these cuties later, we moved on to see how rubber is tapped from trees. I had always thought that rubber is synthetic. It comes out of the rubber tree like sap. Rubber tree farmers can only cut into their trees a little bit per day otherwise they’ll shock the tree, meaning it’ll die. And next time you complain about having to get up early for work, just remember that rubber tree farmers have to start at about 2AM because anything past 7AM is too hot and the sap dries up. This will definitely put my 5.45AM starts into perspective. And rubber is not a lucrative crop. From about an acre of trees, the rubber farmers will only earn about ten dollars. And if there’s been too much rain or too much heat, the rubber farmers may not even get that.
After learning this very humbling fact, we went to see how coconuts are processed. There is a lot more to it than I thought.
Coconuts have to be de-husked and then cracked with a spear. The “meat” is then ground out of the coconut and squeezed to make coconut milk. The coconut water has been drained by this point. Coconut milk is then boiled for a few hours, but to get the oil, the milk is boiled for longer, 6-9 hours. The oil is siphoned away and the coconut residue, is kept and dried for use in Thai desserts. At each point of the coconut processing, we got to try the products. Coconut juice is too coconutty for me, as crazy as that sounds. The meat tastes like moist desiccated coconut and the residue tastes like what it looks like: dried brownie crumbs.
What shocked me the most about the coconut processing show was when Tick, our tour guide, told us that the younger generations of Thai people are “lost”. They opt for convenience and are letting the traditions of their people be taken away by machinery and canned goods. It was such an honest moment full of an ancient sadness. Because loss of culture is happening everywhere. It’s one of the negative side effects of having a “global village”.
Next was a cooking demonstration. There wasn’t much cooking to be done seeing as we were outside, but we got to see what goes into real Thai curry paste and got to taste an amazing chicken coconut dish. There was this one woman who kept trying to nail down the recipe. I felt like scoffing. Like it would be possible for us to even attempt to replicate freshly made Thai food. But whatever keeps you happy I suppose. I’m pretty sure all of us, except for the tiny children, had seconds. Maybe some of us even had thirds. Some of us even braved the fresh made orange curry paste. I wasn’t one of them. Especially when Tick, not only our tour guide but a Thai local, was struggling with the heat.
We also saw how rice is husked. It was a pretty time consuming practise back in the day. Thai women used this contraption that looked like a see saw on brackets to get the husks off the rice once the kernels had been stripped from the plant. They pressed down on one side of the see saw and a hammer-type apparatus lifted on the other side and slammed down into the wooden bucket filled with rice. They would pump this thing for half an hour at a time before using a pan, like a goldpanning pan, to separate the husked rice from the naked rice. Nowadays the locals use a machine for the dehusking business.
We had a coffee break after this. Real Thai coffee, strong and sweet. I thought it would be much too bitter, despite the half inch of condensed milk (made from palm oil, not milk) on the bottom of the glass. But it was the most delicious coffee I have ever had. Even more so than the honey coffee I tried yesterday. So delicious that it wasn’t around long enough for me to take a photo to make you all jealous. There were little coconut pancakes dipped in sugar as well. Like pan-fried coconut jelly. We sat on our sturdy wooden picnic tables and watched as water buffalo demonstrated how rice was ploughed back in the day. Before machinery. It was like a trip to days gone by.
Next was the part of the tour that was the most beautiful. We took a junk, a wooden motorboat, around Chalong Bay. I was terrified that there’d be a repeat of Phi Phi Island but the bay was so calm and the boat was so slow that I was fine. Which was great because we had a delectable lunch to eat while looking at the bluest, calmest ocean and the lushest green blobs of island that guarded the bay from rips and waves.
Well it wasn’t that calm. My drained coke cup tipped onto the bench between Dani and I. Ice went everywhere. Dani was pretty upset and I did feel a little bad about it. That is until Dani’s pretty fucking full coke cup tipped onto the bench between us and spilled coke all down my leg. Which was great. At least Dani had the grace to look sheepish.
There was this one beautiful green blob of an island that reminded me of a story I’d written when I was a kid. My mum had given me this beautiful leather bound day planner/calendar. I was about eleven so I didn’t have to plan for things. But what I did have to write down were my stories. And this story that came to mind was this one I scribbled over dates and empty to-do lists about a tropical island that seemed to appear one day half a millenium ago. Eventually the locals just accepted it and people started living on top of it. But one day, in the not-too-distant past, the island started to move and fall apart. Turned out that a giant tortoise had stopped in the middle of the bay and fell asleep, occasionally snapping some of the fish population for sustanence. It got too comfortable to leave until one day it just got bored.
The story had a lot of plot holes and faults in logic, but what I do remember was how the island looked. I tried to scrawl the image over the lines and dates in my planner but my artistic skills have always been sub par. So when I looked out over Chalong Bay, I was transported to the past when I saw this:
My turtle island. Officially Crab Island. I kept staring and staring until the boat turned around and it faded back to the horizon.
When we got back to the hotel, Dani had a nap and I washed the coke from my body. Once I no longer smelt of chemicals and sugar, I caught up on my blogging and my reading. There was also a fair bit of grade A trash on the English channels so I flicked through those as well. Just waiting until we could be picked up for our Phuket FantaSea.
I was expecting a theatre with a restaurant attached. What I got instead was massive cultural theme park. The entrance was lit up with neon shapes welcoming us and just beside the ramp leading to the FantaSea wonderland was a pool so full of koi that I’m not entirely sure it’s 100% fair to the iconic fish. It looked like there was a huge block of koi fish drugs dropped into the pond and they were all swarming trying to get a hit.
Then we got inside. Holy. Crap. It was huge and magnificent and fabulous. There were shops and stalls and people in costume and fancy neon lights and elephants all dressed up, available for the visitors to ride. There were a few restaurants and dessert places scattered around tempting us in all the while we had to try and find the buffet that we’d paid for. It took a while, given the enormity of the FantaSea empire, but once we found it, I was astonished.
I have never seen such a richly decorated eatery. Nor one so massive. There were at least 250 tables that each sat eight people and along each wall was a different buffet. I went to one for dinner and one for dessert. I wish I’d been able to eat more but it was enough to sit there soaking up the decadence, sipping on my 150THB ($6AUD) cocktail. Six. Dollars. And it was delicious.
Because Dani thought it’d be a good idea to wear heels we just sat at the table for a while, talking about nothing and everything. All those things you tell your siblings. It was nice to get all that stuff off my chest; cleansing. But it would have been nice to talk and look around at the sumptuous decorations as well. We listened to the PA system announce a mini show in four different languages three different times until finally there came the announcement for the show. So we walked (well I walked, Dani hobbled along gripping my arm like an octopus) out of the restaurant and went looking for the Prince of Elephants theatre. When we found it, and it wasn’t that difficult, we wormed our way through the crowd and into the velvet room inside. As we moved further inside, I noticed that the engravings on the building, as beautiful and as detailed as they were, were old. Which made me wonder how old the theatre was, and then how old FantaSea was, and then whether one came before the other or whether they both started at the same time how ever many decades ago.
I should never be allowed to think for too long.
In the velvet foyer, my train of thought crashed and burned. Once you’d passed through security and had your ticket stamped, there were all of these booths were you could get souvenir photos taken. Dani and I managed to hold out until the very last one.
“Have your photo taken with a baby tiger! Only 700 baht!” (A little less than $30AUD)
Dani and I looked at each other, asked if they took Visa, and then hurried behind the golden rope. Baby tigers are so soft. And so small! I had its tail wrapped around one hand and the other hand on its soft, warm torso. Dani got to bottle feed it. But it lasted only a minute before we were shooed away so the next tourists could have a go.
Finally, it was time for the show. The cast walked through the crowd, emerging from the smoke holding flames and drums and were led up on stage by at least a dozen elephants. There were elephants on stage. I wondered what the stage was made out of for a millisecond before the show started.
There was acrobats that glowed in the dark above our heads, dancing, muay thai, pyrotechnics, stage rain, elephants dancing and being ridden, a love story, explosions, traditional puppets, intricate costumes, and haunting music. All of this wove together to create a show that I was just happy to experience. All of the singing was in Thai so I could only guess what was happening but I was more dazzled by the glimpse into Thai culture. The hour and a half flashed by and before I knew it, we were hurrying to our designated pick up zone so we weren’t stuck trying to get to our hotel alone. Dani’s feet were not happy.