Our shoulders relaxed the moment we touched down in Thailand. We were home. Seriously- the airport had a Krispy Kreme, McDonalds, and Starbucks. And not just any Starbucks- it was the first one we’d encountered in several months, and it had been Christmasified! The employees were wearing red aprons with their reindeer antlers and Santa hats. I hadn’t been homesick until now; my Skinny Venti Peppermint Mocha tasted like the Declaration of Independence.
We spent a night in Chiang Mai so we could take a bus around 762 curves to Pai, a hippie haven near the Burmese border. Rumors circulated of good vibes in Pai, so good that people go for a few days and stay for a few years. We physically felt those good vibes in the van, the moment we crossed Pai’s county line.
Through WWOOF (Worldwide Organic Farming) we got in touch with Thom’s Elephant Camp in Pai, the first camp where visitors could ride ellies bareback. We took a taxi (converted flat-bed truck) from the Circus to Thom’s and were enchanted right away. Nicole had never encountered an elephant before, and the elephants seemed to sense this. He waved hello with his trunk, reaching out to pet Nicole’s hand. Within seconds of arrival, the elephant swept us off the ground with its trunk! I flew through the air, clinging onto his wrinkly skin, and smacked into a wooden pole. The elephant kept swinging me, over the fence into his cage. What a lil rascal. I gave my new friend a hug and some bananas.
We needed to find some humans to talk to, since we’d prearranged to volunteer at Thom’s Elephant Camp. Yoko Ono came to our rescue when they’d overbooked volunteers. Yoko Ono’s name is Ae, and she’s Thom’s sister who runs the elephant camp. Ae exemplifies the saying “beautiful on the inside and out.”
Ae and Thom went above and beyond to welcome us. As we were heading to bed our first night, we heard someone shout, “Hey! Hey! Want to come to festival at my temple tomorrow? Will be very fun, very big. Be ready at 7 AM.”
Never ones to turn down a vague “local experience” offer, we piled in Thom’s SUV with the fam at 7AM. This was our first time in a real, air-conditioned, airbag-equipped car since Los Angeles. Ahh, the little things that taste so sweet. We drove an hour to the temple, where Thom and her family were definitely V.I.P.’s. After all, Thom’s is the oldest elephant camp in Pai and definitely helped put Pai on the map. Nicole, Silken, and I were the only white people in attendance, and sat in the front row eating deep-friend snacks with Thom’s entourage. Schoolgirls from five local tribes performed traditional dances, and afterwards Thom presented them with a large check.
Then Thom summoned us to join the crowd congregating towards the temple’s gates. People were carrying money trees (shout out to Kendrick) and flower sculptures, anxiously dancing in place until the parade began. Us three gringos led the parade, trying to parrot the locals’ dance moves. I don’t think we fit in, but they seemed to thoroughly enjoy our attempts to do so. After we circled the temple five times, the procession entered the temple. We were instructed to kneel, clasp our hands, and tie white string around our heads. The temple’s ornate holiday decorations included white yarn hanging from the floats and rafters, which everyone had to wrap around their skull. The sermon lasted a couple of hours, with a Buddhist monk chanting in Thai but not a minute passed without someone snapping a picture on their iPad.
We really didn’t know what we got ourselves into. We had a lovely post-ceremony lunch with Thom’s extended family, monks, and other V.I.P.’s of the temple. They were incredibly generous, with Thom shoving 7 juice boxes into my purse to “drink later.” They brought us to another temple, where they were donating a refrigerator. The monk blessed the fridge and several more iPad pictures were taken. Next we were brought to their friend’s house, where we watched an hour of Muy Thai boxing on TV while eating more deep-fried snacks. Lastly we got out at a hot-spring geyser, for an iPad photo opp. By the time we returned to the elephant camp, all of the chores were already done for the day!
Sunday is a day of rest, but we’d been resting for a month now. It was our first and last day of “work.” We were summoned to clip the elephant topiaries. Actually, they didn’t trust us with that. We were summoned to sweep up the other volunteer’s scraps from clipping the elephant topiaries.
Next we joined an elephant tour, walking beside the ellie to snap pictures of the tourists and direct the ellie. Except whenever the mahout (elephant handler) disappeared, the elephant wouldn’t move. So much for being the next great elephant whisperer.
The highlight of volunteering was taking the elephants up to the mountain at dusk, where they’d graze and sleep. Nicole, Silken, and I each climbed aboard elephants and rode them bareback up the mountain. We had a million-dollar 360-degree-view: our elephant’s hairy head below, Kelly-green grassy meadows ahead, and sun-streaked mountain ranges above. As the sun went down, we helped the mahouts cut bamboo for the elephants. We were in a trance watching these majestic beings in their natural habitat, and it was hard to say goodbye to our ellies, Ae, and Thom after they’d taken care of us like their own children.