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There was something strange about Thailand that stood out immediately to me, and once again it involved meal times.
Every time we sat down to eat, whether it be at breakfast, lunch or dinner, we were never offered a knife. Everything we ate had to be with a fork and a spoon. I never did discover why this was, nor did I have a problem with it, but it was something odd worth noting. Imagine trying to eat your morning sausage and eggs with a spoon.
Actually, to come to think of it, sausages were another oddity. Never before did I realise how unique our sausages are in the U.K. Not once during our entire travels did we come across something even remotely similar. There were a lot of things we expected to be different but sausages we had taken for granted. Out there, they are more like hot dogs. This is not something unique to Thailand either.
With hindsight, this seems obvious. You're not likely to find a Cumberland or Lincolnshire sausage in Bangkok, are you? Still, at the time I hadn't thought of it. This is one food at least that the British gets right.
I wish I could say that my culture shocks were always so tame. Unfortunately, though, as with all places, there is a darker side to Thailand.
It makes me cringe now to think about how naive I was, but something I always wanted to do was to ride an elephant. For some reason I saw this as a sign of freedom; a magical experience that only true adventurers would be able to undertake. The image I had in my mind was severely warped from that of reality. The truth is, it's nothing more than exploitation. Really.
Like 'true adventurers,' it started with us booking a tour. The tour in question started with a visit to Erawan falls and bamboo rafting before ending with the main event; elephant rides. The latter being the one I was most excited for.
Upon arrival, I saw that the elephants were fenced off. The enclosure had been cleared of trees and was far too small, especially for the number of elephants they had living there.
Our tour guide passed us on to one of the men working there who then led us up to a platform. From here I could get a better view and noticed a worn dirt track that followed the boundaries of the enclosure. It reminded me of a go-kart track.
As I was studying my surroundings, something by the river caught my eye. It was a young elephant chained by its leg to a tree. It was swaying its head to and fro in obvious distress. When I asked the man about it, he told me that the elephant had been bad. My mind filled with scenarios with what it could have done wrong.
After a while, the man called over an older elephant that parked itself beside the platform. It faced the fence in front with its head dipped in a subservient way. The man climbed on its shoulders, gesturing to the carriage set on the elephants back behind him.
Reluctantly, Jane and I climbed on, still holding on to the hope that somehow we were reading the situation wrong. In a way, I'm glad I followed through with it, this experience opened my eyes and taught me a lot. On the other hand, I will always feel guilty for the part I ignorantly played.
In solemn silence, the man made the elephant follow the dirt path. Some distance ahead of us was another couple on another elephant, behind us was the same image. It was then that it dawned on me that this was these elephants' lives. Every day they were forced to walk the same path, circling back to drop the tourists from their backs to be replaced with others. Rinse and repeat. I couldn't help but think about what an empty and shallow existence that must be.
About half way round I noticed that beneath the surface things were even worse. I don't know how I hadn't spotted it before, but on top of our elephants head was a nasty wound. It was a circular indent, the scab still fresh. Around it was a huge purple bruise that covered most of the top of its head. I wondered how it received such an injury but didn't have to wonder for long. Hanging at the driver's hip was a curved blade, similar to an ice pick. Clearly this was how they trained these animals, and I subtly pointed it out to Jane.
Soon after, we came to a stop. The couple up ahead had climbed off their elephant and were posing for photos. Their driver shouted something in Thai and the elephant posed on its hind legs before curling its trunk in the air. The pose made the elephant look as though it was smiling, although it was nothing more than an illusion. There was absolutely no doubt in my mind about how exactly they had taught that elephant to do that.
As we sat there watching, our driver turned around to ask if we too would like to pose for photos. Quickly we declined. We didn't want to be a part of this anymore and were keen for it to end.
After what felt like an eternity, we finally made it back to our platform. We dismounted with an empty thank you, (because we are still British after all,) and descended the stairs.
While we waited for the others to finish, I stood on the other side of the fence where our elephant had parked itself again. It had hung its head over the fence and tears were running down its face. I couldn't help myself; I approached and began to gently stroke its neck. I wondered when the last time this magnificent beast received any kind of love at all. It tore at my heartstrings, and I hated leaving him there.
Unfortunately, this is not the only example of animal exploitation in Thailand. A lot of tourist attractions had men standing outside with birds locked in cages. We soon found out that you could pay these men to release one which supposedly brought you luck. It was a specific type of bird, but I forget which one exactly. The men would catch this breed from the wild and make money releasing them for tourists. They then go out to catch them again and start the whole process over. One time we saw a bunch of these cages abandoned, the birds inside dead.
As with every country, tragedy is nothing new to Thailand. Being a man with a keen interest in history meant I also had to visit the river Kwai bridge. The museum they have there is an homage to the victims of the forced labour induced by the Japanese during the second world war. It was fantastic and eye-opening and I encourage all who visit this part of the country to go and have a look.
Behind glass cabinets displayed various weapons used at the time; from rifles and handguns to an assortment of different swords. There were paintings on the walls depicting the horrors of the forced labour as well as dummies acting out different scenes. Outside you're allowed to walk across the bridge itself, although trains still run along it. Often a train will come while flocks of tourists are still trying to cross. Without any way of reaching the other end in time, you are forced to stand to one side as the train passes. It's kind of thrilling to be so close to a moving train that you can reach out and touch.
Thailand isn't all tragedy of course, it is actually a remarkable place with a lot to offer. While some areas may be regressive, others are very progressive.
The Trans movement, for example, is huge in Thailand. Jane saw some tickets on sale for the Calypso Cabaret and really wanted to go. We took a taxi and then a ferry to get to Asiatique where the show took place. I wasn't too keen myself but must admit that it was better than I expected. The whole show followed the theme of acceptance and openness. It was entertaining; full of dance and music with an underlying yet powerful message. In fact, it's the kind of acceptance you can expect to find anywhere you go in the country.
Returning back from the Cabaret was the first time we truly got lost. There were no taxis or Tuk-Tuks at such a late hour so we opted for the Skytrain instead. We thought being on a train that soured above the city would be a fun experience. In a way, it was.
We were so sure we had got it right. We both agreed on the train and the destination, but after some time travelling we started to doubt ourselves. We decided to get off to get our bearings and realised we had no clue where we were or what direction we had to walk. At the time we didn't have any maps on our phones either.
After walking in a circle a couple of times deciding which way to go, we spotted a McDonald's that offered free WiFi. Jane bought a burger to get the code, but the internet was poor and gained us nothing. The only option we had left was to pick a random direction and walk it. It would undoubtedly make things worse, but there was nothing else we could do.
Leaving McDonald's, we prepared to make our fateful choice. But then, Jane spotted a taxi driver finishing his dinner outside a restaurant. It looked like he had finished his work for the day, but still we thought we would try our luck. He looked shocked when we told him we wanted to go to Khao San Road and told us "no" when we asked which way to walk. He said it was too far to walk and that he would take us instead. Well aware of scams by now, we weren't sure if he was lying just to receive our custom. Given our position however, we didn't much care.
As it turned out, the man proved to be honest and was extremely nice too. We took more turnings than I can remember and the journey was long. We couldn't understand just how badly we had got it wrong and felt lucky to have found him.
We thought we had learnt a valuable lesson that evening, but it wouldn't be the only time we would get lost while travelling.
Another big thing in Thailand is Muay Thai, which is a form of kickboxing. It is their local sport and something I had been eager to see ever since we had landed.
After queuing to buy our tickets one evening, the event organiser had us stand to one side with a few other tourists. He seemed to wait for the queue to die down a little and we waited there patiently. Once satisfied that no more tourists were coming, he finally led us down to the arena. As we walked, he informed us that the locals could get rowdy at times, especially if they lost a bet. For our own safety, we were to be separated and given our own area.
The area the events manager led us to was ringside. In our seats sat a fight card and a young woman walked the rows to take our drink orders. It was a far cry from where the locals were. They stood a floor above us with a view that surrounded the ring. They were crammed in behind a caged fence with no waitresses for themselves. I would be lying if I said it didn't feel we were getting special treatment.
When the fighters came out, they showed tremendous respect. As they entered the ring, they appeared to follow a cultural tradition that I still do not understand. To the sound of small chiming bells, they moved from one corner to the next bowing at each one. Their movements were in rhythm to the bells like that of a dance. They seemed to do this for some time before finally meeting in the middle once the chiming stopped. There, they bowed to each other before bumping fists.
It was a long night with a lot of fights and all of them started out this way. It felt spiritual, almost ritualistic. From the beginning of each fight to the end, the crowd cheered and roared wildly. It was only during the ceremonious bowing at the start did they remain relatively settled.
Jane didn't enjoy the experience as much as I did, she was too afraid of seeing someone get hurt. Towards the end of the night, she was faced with that fear when one of the fighters was knocked out. After a swift kick to his head, his legs buckled beneath him. Paramedics immediately rushed into the ring and carried the man off in a stretcher.
This was the first time I had ever watched a martial arts fight and the thrill of it swept me up.
As our time began to draw to a close in Bangkok, there was still one more thing we were yet to see; the floating markets of Amphawa. Once again, we booked through an agency.
Our group was the only one there when we first arrived; the markets just stirring in the early hour of the morning. Either side of the river Amphawa was a wooden walkway with an abundance of shops and stalls overlooking the murky waters. Small vessels were docked here and there selling everything from fresh food to little trinkets. Some even doubled as small restaurants.
Under the morning sun, we strolled along the decking, browsing all the different foods and items that were on sale. It was a peaceful day, and the first time we came across fire ants. They were large and fire-red in colour, with a bite that was reportedly said to burn. Suffice to say, we made sure not to touch them.
When the afternoon came around, we ducked into a restaurant that required you to leave your shoes outside. The seating was little more than cushions on the ground and you ate from your lap. It was fun, and another example of our cultural differences. Yet it was only after the meal did we see someone washing the crockery in the river. Nice.
As the sun began to fade away and the sky began to darken, we were invited on a boat trip. The boat in question took us away from the vibrant markets and deep into the river proper. Along the banks in the shallows were children splashing and playing gleefully. Some were still lathered with soap, clearly mid-way through their evening bath.
Soon, the evening fully took hold, the stars shining brightly in the sky. That was when I first noticed them.
Along the riverbank at seemingly regular intervals, stood isolated willows. In those willows were glowing fireflies that reminded me of fairy lights at Christmas. Once one lit up, the rest seemed to follow. Before long, hundreds of tiny white lights brightened up the trees, their beauty reflected in the still water below. The entirety of the boat watched on in breathless silence. It was an amazing way to end an equally amazing week.
From different types of food to the mistreatment of animals. From dark history to progression and acceptance. From temples to floating markets and beautiful landscapes. Bangkok had taught us a lot. But by now our visas for Cambodia had been accepted and it was time to move on. There were other lessons to learn, and other sights to see.