Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Koh Yao Island - Day Five - So Big It Needs Several Posts!

We woke early with big excitement in our hearts. Today was the day we were to see the world from an amazingly large perspective, an Asian elephant. Having ridden elephants once before, we knew that we were in for a great time.

Our guide for the day would be Man, an islander whom we met in 2004 and developed a bond with. The local environmentalist, Man spent a lot of time on our last trip discussing some of the issues plaguing their oceans and forests. Man was responsible for this excursion, knowing that tourist dollars brought to elephant camps save other elephants from a lifetime of abuse.

We hopped onto the long tail boat and set in for a long boat ride over to Krabi province. Knowing full well that my favorite activity in the world is hanging out on the bow of long tails, cruising through the water, listening to my iPod, and gazing at the scenery, Man set up pillows on the bow for me to lounge away on. I popped my headphones into my ears and spent the next 55 minutes with such a huge grin on my face that my cheeks hurt.

We passed fishing operations, both individual efforts and those of hundreds aboard commercial fishing boats. We passed islands jutting straight out of the ocean, sometimes with a lone home perched on the edge. One home was on a cliff so steep that their only tsunami escape paths were huge bamboo rods stretching up the cliffs.

The tsunami…How different the islands were from 2004 when we left just days before the waves hit the sands our toes had just walked through. Back then, we had commented on the lack of tsunami evacuation plans. Used to vacationing in Hawaii where escape routes are on the back of every bathroom door, we had come up with our own plan just in case. This time around, there was no need for an individual one and nowhere was this more apparent than Krabi which was hit the second hardest by the waves. From the second we stepped off the boat, we were greeted by tsunami evacuation signs. Walking past one beach, we passed a stone sign that filled me with sorrow: Krabi Tsunami Memorial. A bronze hand sticking out of water, reaching for safety. As the artist explains, “This tragedy reminds us how fragile our lives are and how little we can do except to hold onto each other. These hands say I will not let you go, but do not abandon me. Keep your grip. Hold me close forever and ever.”

The Thai tourism industry has not recovered. Many tourists are from other Asian countries and hold beliefs that the dead walk the beach. We were often thanked for returning to Thailand despite the tsunami. The baht surely shows that Thailand is struggling…it never gained back momentum.

Using our tourist dollars to help the economy and save elephants, we headed into the jungle to visit the elephant camp. Step one: climb up to a large platform. Step two: remove your shoes because nothing feels as nifty as running your toes over an elephant’s hairy back. Step three: board elephant…hook camera to a safe place.

David got elephant sickness the last time we rode one. I told him to let his body go loosey-goosey and just go with the elephant flow. Pretty soon, he was snapping photos like crazy. When we came across the macaw monkeys, I pulled the video camera out and started to make the Blair Elephant Project…a wobbly film set deep in the jungle with crazy monkey sounds emanating from every direction. The macaws are the third species of monkey that we have run across in our travels. They struck me as more humanlike as they sat there eating bananas off of the trees.

Moving on, we somehow came across a lizard. While the lizard may actually look calm in this photo, not a second later he turned into the devil. Flailing around with his hood up, he securely latched his teeth around David’s finger. I belly laughed while he screamed and tried to shake the lizard off of his index finger. Eventually, the thing let go and went flying through the air. It is a long drop to the ground from the back of an elephant if you are human…imagine that poor lizard. Between my gecko experience and David’s experience, we were starting to get a bad rap in the lizard world.

I enjoyed the rest of the ride from the best vantage point, on top of the elephant’s head. The mahout had changed places with me, leading to my discovery of perfect elephant balance. If I’m ever in need of work, I think I can be Thailand’s first white, female mahout. It would be a great job if it wasn’t for those damned elephant mosquitoes.

[1] Mahout: elephant driver.

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