Koh Phangan: The Island That Set My Soul on Fire

As I sit in the Denpasar airport in Bali, I struggle with how to begin this post. There hasn’t been a place on this trip that has affected me like the island of Koh Phangan. Thinking of this enchanting place, the words magical and miraculous come to mind. It felt like a place where dreams come true- as cheesy as that sounds. I look back on pictures, and I long to be on the sandy beaches, wading through the crystal clear turquoise water, and letting the wind blow freedom through my hair as I zip around the winding roads on a motorbike.

koh-phangan-12

The journey to the island was a long one- 33 consecutive hours and every form of transport imaginable. We went from Pai (in northern Thailand) all the way to the southern island of Koh Phangan in one shot. The trip consisted of a 3 hour bus ride from Pai to Chiang Mai in the morning, where we took a taxi to the train station, and boarded an overnight sleeper train to Bangkok. The train was 16 hours long, and ended up being one of my favourite forms of transportation thus far. The landscape of Thailand scrolled by, and the sun set over the mountainous jungle as we rattled through. The seats got folded into beds, and one bunk came down from above. In the evening they put up tables between the seats, and we got served a huge dinner. The beds were surprisingly comfier than our beds in previous hotels and hostels, and you had your own little curtain to pull closed when you were ready for bed. In typical Thailand style we arrived almost 2 hours late, at 7am the day after we had left Pai. The train station in Bangkok was buzzing with people, and dozens of tracks met up here, with trains of every colour parked at the station.
kohphangan2

We found a cab from the station and drove to the airport through the hectic Bangkok traffic. A man on a scooter got sandwiched between our cab and another car, and the guy chased after us screaming at our driver. This must be a pretty normal occurrence as our driver calmly looked forward and completely ignored the enraged man beside him. Once on our plane to Bangkok, I watched as the seemingly endless city stretched out and away below us. The urban jungle transitioned into forests of palm trees covering every inch of the landscape below, and we landed outside Surat Thani in the southern mainland of Thailand. After a long bus ride to Donsak Pier, we were finally welcomed by the bright turquoise water of the Pacific Ocean. Seeing the same ocean that surrounds my home in a completely different setting was a little bit surreal. The ferry took us across the sea and we finally stepped onto the island. The pier was in the main town, and our taxi wove through the bustling market. The roads were bumpy and hilly, lined with trees, and we travelled along the ocean, the blue water coming into view with every break in the tree line. We finally arrived at our resort, an adorable place called Seaflower Bungalows on the ocean on the west side of the island. The first thing we did was throw on our swim suits and run into the ocean. The water was unbelievably warm, and in the ocean’s waves I felt at home.
kohphangan3

Our first day on the island was one of complete relaxation. We lounged around in hammocks and on the beach all day reading, ordering food and drinks. I realized how lucky I was to be able to live like this, if only for a little while. Its so easy to forget and to stop living in gratitude when you get to wake up in beautiful new places everyday. In the evening we went by the dive shop that we did our PADI Open Water Certification through, and picked up our manuals. We ended up having to read and do quizzes all night, but finally got sleep, our minds buzzing with depth and pressure relationships.
kohphangan4

In the morning we walked back to the dive shop for day one of our course. Our instructor Thomas was an enthusiastic young guy from Paris with a thick French accent. In the morning we did classroom work, and after lunch we got fitted for wetsuits, fins, goggles, snorkels, BCDs and regulators- all of which made no sense to me at first. We drove up to a pool at another resort, and spent several hours going over different skills. I had only scuba dived one other time in Mexico, and getting back in the water was both exciting and nerve wracking. Trying to maintain a constant buoyancy is harder than it seems, and we had fun floating and swimming around the pool.

DCIM859GOPRO

On day two of our scuba diving we finally got to dive for real in the ocean. We had two dives planned at 12 meters each, and I was filled to the brim with nerves and excitement. We got picked up early in the morning, and piled into the open taxis with the other divers, our gear in bags in a trailer behind us. The ride through the island was lined with palm trees, huts and shops. The mountains of the island came into view, and we eventually made it to the pier where multiple diving boats waited to go out to the dive site. We boarded our blue boat on the glistening water, and left for Sail Rock, a popular dive site around a huge rock in the middle of the ocean, teeming with life all around. An hour ride later, we pulled up next to the boulder where several other diving boats were docked as well. We went down to the lower deck where all of the gear was, and set up our tanks, regulators and BCDs. Finally we were ready to dive, and I took a giant stride off the back of the boat into the warm ocean water. I put my mask under, and immediately I was struck with the image of hundreds of fish below me; an entirely new world right below the surface all along. I took my last breath above water and descended into the underwater paradise that awaited us. I couldn’t believe my eyes or stop smiling and laughing out of pure disbelief. The rock was covered with coral, clams, pink and purple marine plants that swayed gracefully with the current. Schools of hundreds of fish and huge barracuda swam around us, as if we were one of them. At one point Thomas pointed up to the surface, and right above us, its tentacles stretching meters long, was a ginormous pink jelly fish flowing fluidly through the water. I never wanted to come back up. Our 48 minute long dive felt like 5, and once we reached the surface we all rejoiced about how insanely awesome what we just did was. I couldn’t believe how in love I already was with diving- I wanted to go back under right away. After lunch and a rest, we did our second dive where we saw more of the small marine life; plants and sea snails stuck onto the sides of the rock. The colours were unbelievable- there was an overwhelming scene to take in every way you turned.
kohphangan5

Day three of diving included more classroom material and our final exam, which we passed with flying colours. Thomas had decided that instead of the pool we would do a shore dive off the beach and practice some skills in the ocean, then explore the nearby reef with out remaining air. We were so excited, and after lunch we got suited up and walked to the beach with all of our gear on. We had been warned that there were baby jellyfish in the water, but we went to check it out anyway. It turned out to be infested with them- we were constantly surrounded by hundreds of brown baby jellyfish. They stung every bare section of my skin, and although a couple of bites isn’t too bad, I got dozens of them. With no success in finding a better spot, we swam back to shore where I looked at my legs. Red streaks marked the places where their tentacles had zapped my skin, and my legs broke out in hives. One bite on my arm swelled up into a huge welt, and I tried not to give off how much pain I was in. At the shop I doused the bites in vinegar (a preffered option to having someone pee on you). We had to take all of our stuff of and go do our training in the pool again. It was definitely an experience I will never forget. That night was the full moon, and it blared a red tinged white in the dark sky, lighting up the night. Sitting on the beach soaking up its powerful light, I was so filled with potential and gratitude.
kohphangan6

When our last day of diving came around, I found myself unusually sad. The experience had been so eye opening and exciting that I didn’t want it to come to an end. We were back on the boat for two more dives, this time to 18 meters. Unfortunately the visibility wasn’t good at all that day, and we mostly stuck to the rock and surrounding reef. By our second dive the visibility had gotten so bad that I could barely even see Thomas in front of me. Looking out into the open water I could see only dark blue, foggy nothingness, so I focused my gaze on the rock and on Thomas in front of me. The current was incredibly strong as well, and swimming against it took it all out of us. When we were finished our dive and got back on the boat, we were congratulated on being officially certified divers! Back at the shop we filled out some paperwork over beers and got our pictures taken for our certification cards- we were sunburnt and tired and the pictures weren’t our best. We thanked everyone repeatedly for the incredible experience, then drove back to our resort.
kohphangan7

That night was the famous Full Moon Party, so the first thing we did was nap in preparation. We took a taxi out to the south end of the island where the party is held, along with almost 20 other young people from our resort. We were dropped off on a street filled with shops, food and drink stands, and of course body painters. We got our arms painted with flowers, lizards and stars and headed down to the beach. The music reaches you before anything else- thumping and deafening, it shakes the whole beach. The entire beach is lined with neon bars, and different music is played at different spots along the water. We each got a bucket, a deathly mix of liquor, mix and red bull, and joined the thousands of people dancing and hanging out on the sand. Fire dancers spun burning flames around their bodies, the waves moved up and down the shore, and the moon hung white, bright, and beautiful in the sky. After a few hours and one lost friend, we were exhausted and ready to head home. We found a taxi, and joined a guy so drunk that his lanky limbs flailed around as he zigzagged down the road, finally collapsing on the bench in the back of the cab. We had to wait around for the cab to fill up, and we finally left for our resort with a bunch of other partiers. We were all very grateful for our beds, and we slept until late morning.

DCIM100GOPRO
This is as close to a picture as I got, but once again I took a ton of videos which will be in our travel video!

The next day was for recovery, and we all lounged around the resort reading and taking in the ocean. A sadness had crept in that I couldn’t identify- so many amazing things coming to a close, perhaps. Sadness is an interesting thing; the more you fight it, the heavier it gets. I’ve found that accepting your state as it is is the only way to become truly free. Realizing you are not your emotions is extremely powerful, and allows you to move on, even with those feelings accompanying you. That evening I swam way out into the ocean while the sun was setting. I find my centre in the sea. The way the water supports you and reminds you that it will always move with the tide, and that the sun will always rise and fall with brilliant strokes of orange and pink and gold. I felt gratitude slip back in.
kohphangan9

Our last day was all you could hope for on a beautiful tropical island. We rented motorbikes, which none of us had ever driven before, and drove to the dive shop where they let us rent snorkelling gear for free. We drove to the remote Haad Kohm beach, up and down hilly dirt roads filled with huge potholes and deep ridges. Finally at the beach, we parked our bikes and walked down the steep hill to the water.
kohphangan10

The beach was in a bay, and the sun shone on the water, creating a glistening turquoise. We went out into the water with goggles, snorkels and fins, and swam a fair way out into the sea. Below us were fish of different shapes and colours, clams, corals, rocks and huge sea slugs. We swam around for quite a while, then hung out on the beautiful beach. It was the most picturesque scene, with the bright blue water, sunny sky and jungle around. On our way back from the beach we took a different route, and this time we drove down perfectly paved roads lined with palm trees. This is paradise. In that moment I knew I would have to come live on the island in the future. We went for lunch at a vegetarian restaurant in a treehouse-like setting, then dropped of our snorkelling equipment. That evening we went for a sunset swim, and again I let the ocean teach me both the fleeting and steadiness of life. I said goodbye to the ocean and went up to bed.
kohphangan11

For the first time on this trip I felt a strong resistance to going home. The island reminded me about the limitless of this life, and of the infinite possiblities we have during our time on Earth. I felt stifled by my regular life, by the seemingly boring routines and day to day obligations. I realized with an almost painful clarity how much more adventure I crave. How I ache to meet people with wild dreams and a fearlessness for life. I uncovered so many truths about myself during our time on Koh Phangan. Dreams and desires that I hadn’t yet become aware of. Possibilities and infinite potential- opening my eyes up to the miraculous. We need not be held back by the norms or by judgements. It is up to us and only us to take control of our own lives. Nobody is going to hand you the life you have only dreamed of- it is yours to go out and create. The potential is there, we are here to manifest it into reality. Some flame was ignited inside of me during my time on Koh Phangan, and I don’t think it is ever going to die.

kohphangan1

Advertisements

Chiang Mai (Part 2) & Life in Pai

I think Chiang Mai will always be ‘home’ for me in Thailand. There is something about the politely crazy drivers, the way the Old City retains the magic of its history, and of course the beautiful, smiling locals that treat you like family. The most amazing part of our time in Chiang Mai, and one of my favourite parts of the trip so far, was going to  Buo Tang waterfall, or the “sticky waterfall”. A bumpy hour and a half drive north of the old city, Buo Tang waterfall is a 150 meter tall waterfall with limestone deposits that actually make the rocks sticky! As we made our way out of the heavy, hot city air, the air flowing through our taxi (which is basically a bench in the back of a closed off pick-up truck) became cooler and fresher. Rice fields and mountains came into view, and the only buildings in sight were wooden huts with straw or tin metal roofs. Finally in the jungle, the air got even cooler and damper, and the pot-holed road we were on sent us flying around in the back of our taxi. Surrounded by dense, tropical forest, we could hear the sound of the falls in the distance. Once we finally made it to the park the falls are part of, we got out and walked toward the top of the falls. Below us, the falls rushed downward over the rolling rocks between the trees, with mountains soaring up all around. We walked down some old, wooden stairs to get to the bottom of the falls, and started our way up. The deposits allow you to literally climb up and down the rushing waterfall with your hands and feet, and not fall down. It was incredibly steep at some points, but you barely notice as you climb with the support of the sticky rocks. My first step onto the rocks was like being a kid again- I could not stop laughing and smiling and I started running up, down and around the rocks like a happy idiot. Getting down to the very bottom, I let the falls cascade over me, cleansing so much of the worries that had accompanied me on the trip thus far. As we made our way up, I felt more and more trust in the rocks under my feet, and quickly ascended the steepest parts of the falls. We found a spot where the water was flowing well, and sat on the rocks, allowing the cool water to rush around us. The sun shone through the lush, green world around us. There is something so magically peaceful about the quiet, jungle world. Everything is well at the waterfall.

IMG_5187.JPG
I wasn’t able to get any good pictures on the falls (due to the water), but I did get some great go pro videos that will make their way into the travel movie we are making. Stay tuned!

The next day, we did our first (and last) guided tour. We decided to do a full day trip including hot springs, the famous White Temple, the Golden Triangle, a market, and the Baanam Museum. The tour went northeast of Chiang Mai, and turned around all the way at the point where Thailand, Laos and Myanmar meet. We left Chiang Mai early in the morning , and drove for about an hour to make it to the hot springs. This ended up being a couple of holes full of bubbling water in the middle of a parking lot with a 711. After that, we drove another hour to Wat Rong Khun, or the White Temple. This ended up being the coolest part of the tour, and made the whole thing worth it in the end. The White Temple was built by an artist from Chiang Rai, and is made entirely of white material and reflective glass. The result is spectacular- like a white castle in a fairytale. The amount of tourists- many disrespectful of the no photography and conservative clothing rules- was somewhat disappointing. Nevertheless, the temple was breathtaking. You first walk over a bridge, with “hell” below you, into “heaven”. Creepy clay hands reach up all around you, and devil’s horns line the entryway.

img_5297

Entering the temple, you first see a monk sitting cross legged in front of you (which I believe was a wax sculpture) with two Buddha statues above. The walls are one giant, unbelievably intricate painting depicting this generation. Life-like paintings of spider man, batman, and every other character you can imagine from our time have a place on the walls. On the wall opposite the Buddha are the eyes of the devil, one encompassing Osama Bin Laden, the other George Washington.

img_1114

After the white temple we drove another hour to the Golden Triangle, where the Ruak River and Mekong River converge and join the borders of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar. We took a boat across to Laos, where we visited a questionable black market where they sold whiskey made with scorpions, lizards, snakes, turtles and tiger penises (yes really). Shop owners yelled at you to look at their knock-off hand bags, and children begged for money on the street. It was somewhat of a disturbing experience, and we were happy to be on our boat back to Thailand, where we got on our bus again and drove to the Baandam Museum, or the Black House.

img_1206

An artist- apparently an animal-loving Buddhist who died 2 years ago- bought a huge area of land in Chiang Rai and on it built many different buildings. Most of the building material was black, and the structures were made of different woods, including teak. There were some interesting art pieces and animal bones, furs and skins everywhere which really gave me the creeps. I appreciated the eccentricity of the architecture, but I had a hard time understanding the need for animal carcasses in every nook and cranny- I guess us artists really are just crazy.

img_5251

Our last stop of the tour was a hill tribe up in the mountains, which we were unaware was part of the tour. They had long-necked women as an option which we opted out of. The disturbing aspects of the tourism industry became very apparent that day, and to show up in a tour bus full of foreigners to exploit somebody’s culture wasn’t really my thing. The drive back to Chaing Mai was a long 3 hours, but the stars shone brightly outside my window and I felt grateful for the experience. The next day was our last full day in Chaing Mai, and we finally got around to doing some temple walking. We picked a few of the more prominent temples to visit, and set out in the morning after a big breakfast at our favourite cafe called Blue Diamond.

img_5320

All three of the temples we visited were similar, and it became clear why the acronym AFT is so popular among tourists (another f-ing temple). One of these temples was Wat Chedi Luang. The modern temple was huge, with red carpet flooring and rising golden pillars that stretched up to the high ceiling along both sides. Glass chandeliers glittered from above, and a beautiful, gigantic Buddha sat before us at the centre, with a smaller one on each side. Behind the temple was the most amazing part- a stone pyramid structure that was built in the 14th century. The bricks had crumbled off the corners, and the golden buddha at the top glittered in the sunlight. We got to chat with a local monk- a personal dream of mine- and ask him about his culture while we learned about ours. The last temple we visited was the oldest in Chaing Mai, built in 1297. This one too had a modern temple as well as a stone structure behind. It was stunning, with golden trim along the top and elephant carvings along the base. The ancient history was astounding, and I felt very lucky to be able to experience it.

img_1303The next day we finally said goodbye to Chaing Mai, and headed up in a bus to a little mountain town in northern Thailand called Pai. The roads up to the town are narrow, steep and winding. The sharp turns are notorious for causing car sickness, but luckily nobody on our bus got sick. The ride was stunning, with lush mountains cropping out of every break in the dense jungle trees. As we drove into Pai we noticed how the roads held more people than motorists, and all of the cute little street food vendors and cafes lining the street. We got dinner (I’m going to miss two dollar pad thai) and then explored the night market. It was very much like a mini Chiang Mai, but with more hippies and much quieter. Every person we met- shop and cafe owners, servers and other travellers- were extremely welcoming and helpful. On our first day we had already found our favourite spot- a cafe called Art in Chai that really did have the best chai I’ve ever had. That night I got the biggest, most delicious falafel I have ever had, and we explored the energetic night market again. The streets transform from quiet during the day to bustling, sparkling markets at night.

img_5391

Unfortunately, the next day we were all plagued with some sort of sickness. I got too much sun and was in bed with heat exhaustion for a few hours. My poor dad woke up to a panicked phone call from me at 4am his time in which I asked him if I should go to the hospital. Thank god for calm and supportive parents. I eventually started feeling better, but as soon as that happened both of my travel buddies were hit with food poisoning. Needless to say it was a brutal night, in which none of us got much sleep, and we ended up missing our waterfall and canyon tour. The next day while both of them were still sick in bed, I did a bit of solo sight seeing. I went for a big breakfast and then headed to a garden cafe to read. I decided to hike up to Wat Mae Yen, a temple up in the mountains of Pai with a white buddha.

img_5468

The walk up was beautiful, crossing streams and up winding roads surrounded by jungle and mountains. The town behind me, I reached the entrance to the temple. There was a huge white stone staircase leading up to the white buddha, which rewarded me with a beautiful view of Pai and the surrounding area. The mountains in the distance and rolling hills below were magical. The mountain air and sunshine cleansed my soul and ignited new hope for what was coming. I hope to return to Pai one day and see more of what the beautiful landscape has to offer.

img_5513

I can’t believe how fast this trip is going, and I’m trying my best to soak in every second of this wonderful adventure. I really have fallen in love with Thailand, and I know I will be returning soon. My next post will be all about the unimaginably beautiful island of Koh Phangan (which I have already left- I’m very behind, I know!) that I have decided will be my home soon. As always, I am so grateful to all of you who take the time to read these posts, and I hope you feel like a piece of you is here with me (because it is).

Chiang Mai: The City Unchanged By Time (Part 1)

Change of pace. Change of scenery. Change of heart.

Chiang Mai gave all that and more to me. In fact, the 10 days we spent in Chiang Mai were so full of adventure and emotional shifts that I have divided the time into two posts. Peeking over from the isle seat on our bumpy flight north from Bangkok, I caught my first glimpse of the lush, rolling mountains below. Flooded with the feeling of excitement and the familiarity of the mountains back home in Kelowna, I could feel this place had something special to offer. Walking into the airport and seeing only a few luggage belts, instead of the chaos that awaits you in the Bangkok airport, I breathed in the first calm I had felt in days. We stepped out into the heat wave that seems to sweep through with increasing vigor everyday. After our taxi driver figured out where we needed to be taken, through bouts of yelling, laughter and hand signals with his fellow drivers, he led us to our cab through the hoards of cars and people on the airport parking lot. The short drive into the city took us down brick roads, past soaring gold temples, and past hundreds of locals zigzagging their way through traffic on scooters. After about 15 minutes, we came to a crumbling wall made of redding brick that formed a gate through which we entered into Chiang Mai’s Old City. Inside is the oldest part of Chiang Mai (although Chiang Mai means “new city”, it was actually founded in 1296) , bursting with culture, street food, markets and the most ancient temples. We turned down one of the alleys that make up most of the roads in the old city- cobblestone, quiet and winding- and arrived at our guesthouse. Directly beside our terraced, white home stood a temple of horses. Golden horse statues gleamed from every post along the temple’s white concrete fence, and palm trees popped up from various points along the fence. The huge, gold trimmed, bird-winged roofs of the temple soared into the blue sky. After putting our stuff inside and exploring the adorable 3 story meditation house with a rooftop yoga area, we ventured deeper into the old city to meet up with a friend from home.
img_4883

The most wonderful part of the city is the way it has retained its culture and personality through time. There are few modern buildings or restaurants; street carts rule the roads, and the buildings show their history through their chipping paint and crumbling brick. Few shops have doors, but rather sliding metal garage-like doors that they pull open in the mornings, and close up at night. The fences surrounding houses and temples are concrete and chipping, and even the clothing of the locals has resisted the western style that has made its way into so many countries. There is a sense of pride in the unwillingness to conform- a confidence of the city that assures you it is exactly how it is supposed to be- and you whole heartedly love it just the way it is.

img_4870

Our first day consisted of finding a huge plate of vegan food for one dollar, and wandering around the relatively quiet streets. The old city is one perfect square in the heart of Chiang Mai, with the remaining parts of the old walls surrounding it, and a canal running down all sides. Inside the walls are countless hostels, guest houses, restaurants, temples, night markets and bars. Our first night, we walked to the night market near the center of the old city. While we waited for the market to begin, we grabbed beers at a pub close by. By the time we left, the sun had set and the scene outside had completely transformed. The lit up street shops stretched on for blocks and blocks in all directions. It seemed that every turn opened up to a new market with different clothing, bags and jewelry of all colours. Thai massage shops that offered hour long massages for $8 seemed to be in every second building. Every kind of food you could imagine seemed almost within sight at all times. Thai food stands offered pad thai for a dollar, while fancier places will still get you a huge meal for four or five. I was constantly impressed and excited by the endless vegan places in the area. Not a day has gone by that we don’t drink at least a smoothie or two. Chang beers- the local brew- go for a few bucks at a restaurant, but you can get them for less than two at any 711. You can also walk around the street, beer in hand, which wasn’t so bad either. one of the highlights of the whole trip so far has been the Thai massages. For $8 you can get a one hour Thai massage- and yes, they really do bend you into pretzel shapes and step on you. We went two nights in a row they were so good.

img_5157
I think you could walk for hours- and we did- and never get bored in Chiang Mai. The city pace and energy is the perfect mix. There is always something happening and places to go, but there is this constant undercurrent of calm and kindness. One night as we were walking we noticed thousands and thousands of candles lit all along the canal, leading into a community square where young people sat on stage playing different woodwind instruments, and people lit candles in different forms on the ground. We still don’t know what it was for, but it was beautiful and amazing nonetheless. The air is also fresher and less congested, a huge relief from the heaviness of Bangkok. The streets are almost always full of cars, tuk tuks and motorists, and cross walks are few, but we soon learned that if you simply start walking across the impossibly busy streets everyone will somehow stop- and happily. I have never known a kinder people, and feel honoured to meet and interact with the local people here everyday. And the food! Every meal here is a feast for a few dollars. Talking with my dad over facetime, he constantly remarks how he is living in the wrong country. I found myself feeling extremely comfortable and relaxed here within a couple of days. There are few things better than wandering around the sunny streets of a beautiful, cultural city in the mountains.
img_4909
Perhaps the highlight of the trip so far was The Elephant Nature Park- an elephant sanctuary north of Chiang Mai in the jungle, where elephants rescued from the circus, logging and riding industries come to recover and live free. The first sight of these gentle giants ignites that childhood giddiness in you like a spark. It’s hard to believe you’re so close to the creatures you have dreamed of meeting for years. We started by feeding them watermelon, pumpkin and cucumber, and they wrapped their huge trunks around the fruit in our hands with precision and gentleness. There are around 70 elephants at the park, and they range from a 6 week old baby that was only waist height, to a 5 tonne grandma elephant born in the 40’s (she stuck around for all the scraps). We walked out into the 200 acre park with our guide Jan, passing elephants walking along the same paths we were, and got to pet and take pictures with a couple of the well adjusted ones. Their skin was rough and kind of hairy, and they constantly used their trunks to check your hands for food. They lost interest pretty quick if you didn’t have any to offer them, so the guides continuously handed us food to feed them. Elephants spend about 18 hours a day eating 10% of their body weight in food (600-800 pounds a day)!

img_1018

We watched a baby elephant and his mom playfully pushing each other into the river, and a herd splash around and take a bath together. Elephants are much like humans in that they form their own social groups, and it can be very difficult for a new elephant to be accepted into a family. Bathing the two oldest elephants was definitely the best part. Dozens of us, buckets in hand, followed the beautiful beasts into the river along the sanctuary and threw buckets of water onto their backs (they are too old to bathe themselves). Laughing and splashing around, I got soaked along with the elephants.

img_1060

Learning about the crushingly sad past of the elephants in Asia was as eye opening as it was sickening. To put it briefly, in order to train an elephant to respond to commands from its trainer, it must undergo a process that results in ‘breaking the spirit’ of the animal. This involves capturing a baby elephant from the wild, and killing its mother and any other guardian of the baby. The poached elephant is then attached to a contraption (usually out in the jungle) that holds the animal from all angles. For a week the elephant is starved, dehydrated, beaten, stabbed, burned and made to walk in circles until they forget their family and see their trainer as their master. And no, riding elephants is never okay. The weight of the saddle and the people on its back combine to about half of its body weight, and it has to walk around under that weight for 8 plus hours a day. The elephants will be dehydrated and beaten in order to work up to standard, and their spine shape makes this level of weight extremely painful and unsafe. Plain and simple, elephants are wild animals and don’t do tricks or follow human command naturally- it must be forced and tortured into them. So all I can ask is that if anyone decides to visit elephants anywhere in the world, please be an informed tourist and don’t exploit these innocent animals. They are not ours for enjoyment (just like the poor drugged up tigers at “Tiger Kingdom”), and the industry only survives if there are people like you and me willing to support it. Sorry for the rant, but please do stay informed!

img_1015

As the days in Chiang Mai went on, I became more and more at home. I found the tightness in my chest and the twisting in my stomach that had become constant companions begin to fade away. I was able to smile easier, laugh fuller, act with more truth. This confidence that I have had to dig and dig for has finally broken through the hard earth. I’m realizing the human potential for change is immense- far greater than I could have ever dreamed. I wish I could go tell myself a week ago that everything passes. The good and the bad. All of the bullshit that crowds your mind, that convinces your courage it isn’t strong enough, and shoves your confidence to unreachable depths: it passes. This is just the way it is. Life is waves. Fighting the waves gets us nowhere- fast- and frankly it’s just really, really tiring. You’re allowed to just float, just feel. You’re allowed to let go.

img_5174
The October Moon: “Travel Moon”. The time when the leaves are falling off of the trees, and the seasons are shifting. For me this is a time of letting go of that which no longer serves you, and the opportunity for new beginnings. “Kiah” also means season’s beginnings, so I found this very fitting for my first tattoo.