The quiet side of Thailand

Travel
Michelle and Hema atop an elephant on a trek through a forest on Koh Lanta. The elephant is native to northern Thailand, but many are brought down south to work as part of the tourist industry. Our trek lasted two hours and included an hour-long ride and an hour-long hike into the woods to a waterfall.
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Michelle and Hema atop an elephant on a trek through a forest on Koh Lanta. The elephant is native to northern Thailand, but many are brought down south to work as part of the tourist industry. Our trek lasted two hours and included an hour-long ride and an hour-long hike into the woods to a waterfall.

The quiet side of Thailand

by: Teri Weaver | .
Stars and Stripes | .
published: May 09, 2012

Editor's note: This is the second in a two-part series on

visiting Thailand, from the street vendors and bars of Bangkok to the

spas on Koh Lanta.

On our third night on our island

paradise, we found ourselves tucking into a beach-side barbecue

buffet and wondering aloud if our resort would be kind enough to

adjust our spa appointments for the next day.

Michelle brought us back to reality.

"You can order up an elephant, for heaven's sake," she quipped,

making it blissfully obvious that there was no end to the hospitality

or extravagance we had found on the southern tip of this island

facing the Andaman Sea.

Michelle, Hema and I met in Thailand in October for a two-part

holiday: four nights in Bangkok and five nights on the beach. We'd

spent our time in Thailand as typical first-time (female) travelers.

We stuffed ourselves with cheap food and beer, shopped so much that

we mailed boxes home ahead of us, and caught a few of the capital

city's shrines and museums. (Sorry, our Thailand trip was rated PG.)

By the time our boat pulled up to Koh Lanta, we were ready to forget

the belching buses and muffler- less taxis of the city and lie around

in paradise.

Earlier in the fall, we had typed several e-mails debating which

beach would be best for our holiday. Friends who already had traveled

to Thailand suggested that the farther south we went, the more

beautiful the water and beaches would be. Michelle also found out

another helpful, yet tragic, tip. The massive tsunami last year not

only lowered some hotel rates, but the cleanup afterwards had left

the western shores even more pristine.

So we opted for a five-star resort at the southern tip of Koh Lanta,

an island off the western side of Thailand. It was a mix of summer

camp and cruise ship -- snorkeling and kayaking that ended with

French- inspired Thai cuisine at the end of the day.

We relaxed into our little corner of the island with ease. I read two

books in two days. Michelle took a cooking class.

Hema opted for just watching the waves. "I would read, but it would

get in the way of doing nothing," she wisely said. She managed to

pull out her sketchpad instead. The thrill of each day came at

sunset, which varied each night from baby pink to deep

purple. It was like watching a color wheel in motion.

At the risk of becoming completely pathetic, we did pull

ourselves away from watching the changing tides to see a little more

of our surroundings. And, so, we ordered up a couple of elephants.

Already sunburned and still queasy from the previous day's snorkeling

trip (and probably the wine from dinner), we were all a little

uncertain about perching on top of an 8-foot-high animal.

Maybe we should have trusted our instincts. Riding atop an elephant

feels like, well, riding atop an elephant. If the elephant were

wearing roller skates. And jumping moguls. All while moving like a

child taking his first bike ride without training wheels.

Still, I trusted the elephant was better prepared for the trek than

I, and in about 20 minutes we were safety deposited inside the

forest. After Hema fed the elephant a pineapple – in one bite,

stalks, husk and all -- we went looking for a small waterfall.

Along the way, we spent time with a guide who grew up on Koh Lanta

with dreams of visiting Paris. He spoke wonderful English, which he

said he learned from talking with other tourists. We asked him about

the tsunami, and he described how high the wall of water was and how

he had scrambled into the trees for safety.

Then he asked us the most stunning question of all. "How did you know

about it?" he said of the wave that killed more than 200,000 people

last year. "Did you see it on TV?"

His view of his world brought us back to reality more quickly than

any of our compliments about the scenery or fumbling attempts to tip

well could.

As did my elephant.

My ride was a 30-year-old male who was born in the northern part of

Thailand but brought south just so he could take tourists like me 20

minutes into the woods. The routine must be tedious, and the handler

riding on the beast's neck constantly urged him on. Once, while the

elephant was stalled contentedly in a mud hole, the handler again

ordered the elephant forward.

Instead, he brought his trunk around under one ear, pointed it toward

us and let out a frustrated snarf. If ever an elephant snarfs toward

you, you'll realize it's not a dry breeze capped with scents of

jasmine. The handler and I both laughed as I used my shirt to wipe

myself clean, and the elephant resumed his rocking gait.

Safely back in paradise, and a little embarrassed at all the riches

we'd enjoyed for the past few days, we turned on CNN and began to

pack for home. It took an hour boat ride from the island, another

hour in the bus to the Krabi Airport and nearly two hours on a plane

before we were back in Bangkok, where we had to say good-bye.

We sadly went our own ways for separate flights. I went to spend my

last few baht on Christmas gifts, and Hema and Michelle headed for a

massage parlor. It was hard to say good-bye to each other, and to a

country where even the airport offers the comforts of home-cooked,

spicy food with fresh lime juice and foot massages in every terminal.

Tags: Travel
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