Chiang Mai, Thailand
This morning the inevitable happened – I was handed a shovel and told to scoop poop! When I signed up to volunteer at Elephant Nature Park, I no idea of what it would entail except that at some point, I would be shovelling ****. Some would say that my most recent career in politics prepared me well for the task but I can tell you there were no pitchforks in my office (I can’t say the same for the opposition!).
Sticky, the dog, joined us on our rounds staying close for protection against the encroaching packs that seemed to have an unjustified vendetta against this gentle soul. I know it’s nature doing what nature does but I’ve also been raised to fend for the underdog, literally in this case. They weren’t going to get him this time, not on my watch!
Speaking of nature doing what it does best, the actually poop scooping wasn’t anywhere near as bad as anticipated with many hands making light work of it… only it wasn’t light, it was really big and heavy as you can imagine. It didn’t stink though being mostly roughly digested grass and vegetables but I’ll spare you any further details.
After a quick change we reconvened at the minibuses for an excursion to a nearby school. They had arranged a day of demonstrations for us on everything from cooking, singing, dancing, bead making, basket weaving, krathong crafting and massage. Imagine my surprise when my masseuse from last night came up to me to say hello in her uniform! I knew she was young but not this young. In this context she looked as though she couldn’t have been much older than 14yo, if that. I found this confronting and paused to consider the great fortune of the first world to have the luxury of adolescence when so many around the world have their childhoods truncated by circumstances that thrust them directly into early adulthood.
I had taken my hoop along for a bit of fun thinking I could show the children a few of my tricks but before I could even get the lasso above my head, they had made off with it and were performing feats I could never hope to master, even with a hundred years more practice. It was truly astonishing considering my hoop is adult sized and weighted – most children wouldn’t be able to get it spinning at all, never mind twirling here, there and everywhere. It was pure delight watching these natural acrobats put on a show, climbing everything in sight, including me!
Our visit ended with the lighting and release of a giant paper lantern for the Loi Krathong festival which we now had to get back to the camp to prepare for ourselves.
Loi Krathong is the annual ‘festival of light’ held on the night of the full moon of the twelfth lunar month. It’s celebrated by the floating (loi) of elaborate lotus shaped lanterns made on a layer of banana tree trunk and decorated with flowers, joss sticks, candles and coins (aka krathong) on water as a symbol of letting go of bad fortune and welcoming a new beginning…
Once again, I am clearly the victim of perfect timing and perhaps even more so than when they were giving away free booze in the streets of Dijon! Until a couple of days ago, I had never heard of Loi Krathong and I certainly hadn’t timed my trip to coincide with it but here I am in the right place at the right time for an event that embodies my entire reason for being here.
We were divided back into our groups and given a slice of banana tree trunk upon which to build a team krathong. It was clear from the get go that the project had been taken hostage by the high-buns with the rest of us been made to feel superfluous to need. Rather than care about it, Geoff and I grabbed a Chang (beer that is, not an actual elephant) and wandered between the teams still enjoying the festive spirit. Meanwhile, Rachel had disappeared to learn how to make perfect banana leaf roses from the ENP staff who were producing perfect krathongs for sale. She returned triumphant and was permitted back into the team, it being deemed by the top-bun that she had a worthy skill to exploit.
We disenfranchised team players were put to work moving the remaining sections of banana tree trunks into the awaiting and expectant trunks of the elephants that had sniffed them out. It was incredible to see them handle these substantial tree sections as if they were a stick of celery. The fussier elephants stamped on the banana tree lengths to get to the sweet centre and discard the rest.
Over the last couple of days, hushed rumours had been circulating about the possibility of a small tubing excursion down the river. Aik, the more straight laced of the Volunteer Coordinators tried to dissuade us from the idea so we instead prevailed upon the more laid back and accommodating, Chay who was more than happy to arrange it for this afternoon and join us.
About 13 of us loaded inner tubes into one minivan before squishing ourselves into another for a cramped drive upstream. I’d never been tubing before and was starting to feel an anxious excitement as we approached the drop off point. The closer we got to the fast flowing waters edge, the more nervous I became. Luckily Lindsay and Keshia were also freaking out but we were at a point of no return. One by one, we lowered ourselves onto our tubes, forming a string of tyres along a piece of rope waiting for Chay’s command to let go. He gave the command and we let go…
The current carried us off squealing and splashing and clinging to each others tubes before we surrendered to it and realised there was absolutely nothing to be afraid of. Not only was it not scary, it was utterly peaceful and relaxing aside from the squealing and splashing that continued in the name of fun rather than fear.
I should mention that we were all fully clothed in adherence to traditional Thai standards of modesty. We also had absolutely no safety gear in accordance with traditional Thai occupational health and safety standards! It only took about 10 blissful minutes to float back to the familiar bank of ENP. I hadn’t noticed it approaching and nearly overshot it all together. Luckily Mark was on hand to rescue me and my tube from the strong current threatening to wash me out to sea!
There was time for a quick shower and change before the Loi Kratong festivities started in earnest with a very strange custom that was never really explained but seemed to have some significance – all the men were made to dress as women. Of the 30 volunteers, we only had 4 men. Dave managed to successfully vanish but the other three were not so lucky. Tom went first and it must be said that he was pretty to begin with so the transformation was fairly smooth and he embraced it willingly. Next was Mark, a blokes bloke for sure who was in no danger of being mistaken as a women but who carried the look well none the less. Then there was Geoff… 6’3″, shaved head, tattoos, gravel voice – probably not someone you’d want to be on the wrong side of in a dark alley – doubly so as a woman! Add to this his hilarious female impersonation like Marge Simpson on crack and we were treated to spectacle none of us will soon forget… no matter how we try!
Everyone – kitchen staff, bar staff, mahouts, masseuses, day trippers, volunteer coordinators and volunteers – convened in the large meeting room for the presentation of our krathongs by our she-male representatives. A vote was taken on the best krathong – the mahouts won hands down and scored a bottle of Thai whiskey for their trouble.
We made a procession down to the waters edge where our magnificent bonfire was already roaring. Without further fuss or ceremony, we lit up the krathongs and set them afloat on the river. I had bought a beautifully hand made one earlier in the day for my own private letting go ritual. Aside from Rachel, I hadn’t shared my story with anyone else so I quietly stole away to release my krathong. I held in my heart all that I knew I had to let go of and let it go. The fact that I followed it along the shore as far as I could perhaps suggests there’s still more to go but for now, this was enough.
The other ritual of the Loi Krathong festival is the release of paper lanterns into the night sky. We were each given one with a type of candle at the bottom which we lit from small ground fires. I held onto my lantern until it was so full with hot air that it was ready to be set free. We all stood eyes turned upwards in awe at the sky filled with our lights. The symbolism was powerful and the effect stunning. Whilst we were only 50 people compared to the spectacle of tens of thousands in Chiang Mai city, there was nowhere else I would rather have been. Although the city would have been a sight beyond compare (and one which I hope one day to see), I never would have been so involved or granted such a personal experience, the memory of which will stay with me forever.
With the official festivities dispensed with, it was time to get festive around the fire. Those of us who remained from the bonfire building team made sure that people sat on the logs that we dragged into place to ensure our efforts weren’t in vain. The VC’s pumped up the music and the bar staff set up an impromptu bar right there on the beach. It wasn’t long before bottles of moonshine were being passed around and everyone was really letting go.
I got cosy in a conversation with Lindsay, Natalia, Keshia and Steph – a permanent volunteer who looks after the dogs and who gave us the lowdown on the elephant trainer who all the high-buns had been flirting with atrociously. Turns out he’s not into the under-25’s but if any of us would like an introduction, Steph was happy to arrange it. It was tempting just to see the looks on their faces but we all respectfully declined… as far as I know!
Lindsay and I excused ourselves to tend to natures call. As we walked and talked, we shared a little more of our stories with each other before returning to the dwindling few around the fire. Lindsay, Keshia and I were the last of the volunteers still standing at the end of the night. We fumbled our way through the elephants paddock in the increasingly cold darkness to the main building where we found Geoff still awake. We sat around and chatted long enough to finish the last of our drinks before calling it a night though it was already early morning and we had to be up in a few hours.