Landing in Bangkok was a shock to the system after the slower pace of life enjoyed in Vietnam and Cambodia. The wide stretches of tarmac roads, interchanges and flyovers that greeted me were lacking the vibrancy and energy of the mopeds and road side markets. It made me notice the contrasts and yearn for the friendly laid-back chaos I’d left behind. A journey by plane, I’d also missed the transition from countryside to city.
In a whirl I was being led around the Grand Palace, waking me from my post lunch slump with a glittering sweet shop of mirrored mosaics, golden turrets and ornately decorated temples. A whole city of incredible colour, decoration and grandeur. A walk around the compound brought us to Wat Po, the site of the reclining Buddha, which stretches an incredible 46 meters length and 15 metres in height. Like Alice in Wonderland, it dwarfs everything around it, only just squeezing into its abode. The base of the feet ornately inlaid with a myriad of mother of pearl images, there is nothing if not attention to detail at every turn.
Grand Palace (Louise Kenward, 2013)
Seeking a different perspective on Thailand, and keen to get back to something I can keep up with, I head to Chiang Mai, an altogether smaller city, and filled with market stalls and organic cafes. I feel like I’ve stumbled into the after party at Glastonbury.
Keen to head further up into the mountains, I have signed up to a week with the Elephant Nature Park (www.saveelephant.org), for a programme called ‘Journey to Freedom’. Not entirely sure what to expect, it is described as a home-stay, supporting a more traditional relationship between the Karen hill-tribe and the elephants. It brings in an alternative income to renting the elephants for tourism and maltreatment, as well as offering support with veterinary surgeons and all things that go with a sanctuary nearer Chiang Mai that cares for sick and injured elephants unable to return to the wild. Lists of potential activities are numerous and include several community projects in the village and the school to improve or build facilities and promote skills in handicrafts, as well as elephant related activities of planting and harvesting food, in turn supporting this new/old lifestyle.
After a six hour journey by bus and another hour and a half on the back of a pick up truck, we arrived in darkness, hungry and tired to find our accommodation was an open wooden hut on stilts. As the generator rumbles into gear, a single light bulb stirs into activity over head and a pile of mattresses in the corner of the hut are noticed, it dawns on us that this is it. We make up our beds and string up mosquito nets before going about preparing dinner. I am heartened by my fellow colleagues, despite feeling weary, no one is complaining and good spirits bubble under the surface.
Awoken at 4am by a crowing cockerel, this is repeated at 5.30am, and this time the pigs join in, it must be breakfast time. I open my eyes to an unhampered view of the mountains in the distance, as the sun begins to rise. After watching for a short while, motionless, I am compelled to get up and sit outside. We are high up, clouds and mist surround the mountains and tones of blue and grey brighten to pinks as daylight grows and the lush greenery of the forest surrounding comes into focus.