Elephants…Tuk Tuks…Temples…Video…off to Laos

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It is 8p.m. here in Chiang Mai, Thailand.  My Mom, Susan, departed from the airport this morning on her way back to our home in Telluride, CO.   Yes…they have an international airport here.  A big one.  Where 747s land from around Asia.  They take off as well.  It is internationally known.  I saw her off and then came back here to the hotel to stay for one more night before taking off myself – by bike – for Laos in the morning.  I will dine on Cornflakes, French Toast and Coffee tomorrow morning – all included in the “&B” part of the “B&B” here at the 3Sis Bed and Breakfast.  Put differently, breakfast is included with the cost of your room and it includes all of those things.  And it is good and I am excited.  Then I go to Laos!  Keep reading to hear about the past 9 days in Chiang Mai with my Mom…
A video of the past 9 days in Chiang Mai – music provided by, song = The Art of Gardens.

Chiang Mai was awesome.  My Mom and I spent the first couple of days touring around the city with our friend Esther White from Telluride enjoying as much Yoga, meditation, food, and sight seeing as possible.  We also took a day to visit Elephant Nature Park, which was basically the most spectacular thing that I will ever do in my life.  Chiang Mai wound up becoming an experience, among other things, of seeing other charities – besides Seize The World – in action.  One of these charities was a place called Elephant Nature Park.
Elephant Nature Park is an elephant sanctuary located about 15 miles from Chiang Mai in a beautiful green valley.  It was started by a Thai woman named Lek Chailert, who is a local celebrity in Chiang Mai.  Her story has been featured in Time Magazine and also in National Geographic.
Lek has rescued elephants from various horrendous situations and taken them to two different sanctuaries that she established.  Elephant Nature Park (E.N.P.) and Elephant Haven.  The former is a tourist attraction / recovery site with facilities for volunteers, meals, etc.  The latter is a wilderness reserve – imagine Jurassic Park – where elephants can live in conditions similar to those they might experience in the wild.  However, in Elephant Haven, they do not face threats from poachers, labor, etc.
The 35 elephants of E.N.P. are, unwittingly, doing a great deal to help their fellow endangered Asian elephants by making the plight of their species very personal to every tourist who meets them.  While Elephant Nature Park may not be able to save all of the Thai Elephants, it is spawning more and more people who are bought into the idea that saving elephants is something that should happen.  And Elephant Nature Park is selling lots of tickets every day for $60 each.  $60 is a lot of money in Thailand.  This may be the true salvation for elephants in Thailand and Asia: money.
We encountered this Elephant at the Doi Suthep Temple above Chiang Mai.
Although the population of elephants in Thailand has dropped from 100,000 a century ago (estimate) to around 6,000 today, you cannot fail to notice that there are elephants in one form or another all over Thailand and that everybody is profiting from them.  You can buy products with elephants everywhere: pillows, carvings, tours, treks, and, now: conservation-themed tours.  Eco tourism is big business in Chiang Mai.  It seems that everybody in the city is working to save Earth by wearing t-shirts that say “Save the Planet,” and that every tourism company is now offering tours that are ecologically friendly in order to cater to tourists who are concerned about the environment.  I do not know how much most eco tours really accomplish toward this end or how much most save-the-planet-t-shirt-clad-people really care, but it is clear to me that caring about the environment is the respectable, cool, trendy – and profitable – thing to do here in Chiang Mai.  That is a very strong start.
While my mother and I were being walked through the Elephant Nature Park, one of the stops along the way was a clipboard with a piece of paper to petition the Thai government to pass laws that would outlaw the cruel treatment of captive elephants in Thailand – sort of an elephants’ rights petition.  Wild elephants enjoy various protections as endangered species, but captive elephants are classified as property similar to livestock and have no such protection.  Therefore, captive elephants are not really protected by law, but I suspect that this will soon change as more and more tourists flock to Thailand and start paying for tours that can offer conservation-based themes rather than expedition-style “let’s go trekking on elephants, set the jungle on fire, and hunt for Bengal tigers” type themes.  It seems that tourists are where the money is in Thailand, and it feels like they want the elephants not only to survive but to do so in a humane fashion.
Moving back toward the forest after a river sesh.
Another interesting aspect of E.N.P. is that travelers can volunteer there for periods of a week, a couple of weeks, etc. to feed elephants, to clean elephants, and to maintain the park in exchange for room and board.  Always interesting to learn about places where you can stay for free or for not very much during your travels.
Moving along, after our visit to the park, my mother and I took a rest day.  We decided to go watch the movie District 9.  Highly recommended and you need to see this movie.  It is a combination of two amazing genres.  On the one hand, it consists of a strong research/realism feel that you might expect from the best documentaries of the past 20 years such as Best in Show or This is Spinal Tap.  On the other hand, it brings in strong elements of alien invasion components similar to Independence Day.  At first, my thought was, “why has nobody make this combination yet?!”  But I suppose that it is a unique combination…
This is also a unique combination.  Energy drinks in Thailand cost 25cents each and come in containers that look like medicine bottles to make you really feel like you are powering up.  So beautiful!
The following day, we went to a meditation course.  On our first day in the city, we had gone with our friend Esther – a Yoga instructor – to a Yoga class.  This day was a more relaxed evening meeting to gather with a group of people who meet each week to meditate at a Yoga studio.  It was remarkably peaceful, sitting in a relaxed open room, focusing on breathing.  I had meditated once before, and it is interesting to spend a solid chunk of time with nothing but your thoughts.  It occurred to me as I was meditating that perhaps this is why I might enjoy riding my bicycle sometimes…it is meditative.  After the course, the group has a tradition that they come together to support a cause each week by making charitable donations.  They decided this week to support Seize The World.  It was a wonderful surprise to have that happen, and to receive the donation from the entire class after the course.
While I was talking about the bicycle ride after the course with a few people, I met a man from the Netherlands named Gaston who has been living with epilepsy since age 18 (now 28) and who has been seizure free for the past 3 years.  Gaston had lived for seven years with relatively frequent seizures (sometimes every two months or so) but has now made lifestyle changes involving meditation, climbing, and not drinking alcohol.  Gaston climbs 5.12 routes here in Thailand, and can be found back country snow boarding when he is in Europe.  I had the opportunity to record an interview with him about his experience living with epilepsy, using meditation as a means of reducing stress and controlling seizures, and about life in Thailand.  It will be a little while before the story and video are ready to go online, but this was a great encounter with a very active person who is managing to control their seizures and to live an active and fulfilling life in spite of epilepsy.  The meditation class became another experience with charity in Chiang Mai.  While reading up a little bit on the possibilities of meditation as a seizure therapy, I came across a few websites that may be of interest for the Seize The World community.  If you are interested in looking for more information about meditation, here are a couple of places to start your search.  I will post more info soon in a video interview that I recorded with Gaston Schmitz, the man here in Chiang Mai who has met with great success in using meditation to reduce stress, control seizures, and improve his quality of life.  Links:
The day after our meditation course, my mother and I visited the Doi Suthep Temple in the Sky.  This Temple is a Buddhist temple that was carried, in part, to its location atop a large mountain, by an elephant according to the story.  The temple contains a relic of what is reported to be the larger half of Buddha’s shoulder bone.  The story is that the bone was carried on the back of a white elephant over the course of three days to its location atop the mountain.  The elephant stopped there and died.  Monks therefore knew that the location was the right spot to construct the temple.  On the temple grounds, my Mom and I saw a statue of the white elephant which showed the elephant transporting the relic.  It was also transporting the Chedi – or Stupa – of the Temple as well as the four surrounding towers.  The white elephant must have been gigantic.  The most interesting parts of this temple, however, were not actually the copper-encased stupa or the relic within, which is said to have been able to replicate itself.  The most interesting parts were a huge tile courtyard outside overlooking the city of Chiang Mai from atop the mountain, a series of sacred bells next to the temple, and, most of all, a straight Dragon-flanked staircase composed of 300-stairs.  We enjoyed our visit there.
Stairs leading to Doi Suthep Temple
Throughout our time in Chiang Mai, my mother and I enjoyed visits to Wawee coffee, a coffee shop near 3Sis Bed and Breakfast where the foam on $1 lattes is applied in such designs as small flowers, panda bears, and lotus flowers.  We hit that place hard.  At night, we went to a variety of restaurants.
It takes a little while to get used to traveling in Asia in the sense that every time you make a purchase, you are surprised by how little you just spent.  Nowhere is as cheap as India, but Thailand is a great compromise.  Roads here are nice, hotels are comfortable, general noise is much, much lower, and yet things are still very cheap.  This is, perhaps, a very selfish assessment/comparison.  But it is what you notice out here.  So, we noticed the prices at each restaurant, and were surprised, happy, etc. by low prices.  Thailand is the ideal compromise…very cheap, very comfortable.
Being linked into the Yoga community – and being in Thailand – we consumed our share of vegetarian food at delicious  restaurants such as Pun Pun (Pan Pan?  Not sure here…) and Taste of Heaven, which is a restaurant that benefits the Elephant Nature Park.  We also found, of all things, a really good Italian restaurant that our friend Esther recommended.  Although you might not expect to find Italian food in Chiang Mai, Thailand, it is not surprising to find it once you arrive.  There are lots of students, lots of backpackers, and a large expatriate community to support the development of all kinds of things that appeal to these groups.  In this sense, Chaing Mai is a paradise for travelers and expatriates.  I have never been anywhere else in the world with such a rich abundance of coffee, ice cream, massage, free WiFi, cheap (good!) hotel rooms, internet cafes, restaurants, bookstores, and similar things that make life easy for travelers…
Lattes at our favorite coffee shop came with portraits of us...Hello Panda...
You get the idea fairly well I think.  Chiang Mai was an excellent place to recover, regain strength, see my Mom for several days, and recharge before setting out across the rest of Southeast Asia.  My journey will take me first from Chiang Mai to the border of Laos at Chong Kiang, then through a narrow slice of northern Laos, from Chong Kiang, Thailand to Dien Bien Phu, Vietnam.  From there, I ride east across a small northern slice of Vietnam to the Chinese city of Chongzuo.
Map of the 600-mile route from Chiang Mai to Chongzuo, China Tomorrow morning, I will depart around 9a.m. to begin this leg of the journey.  I am not sure exactly what to expect, but as one guest at Elephant Nature Park told me, “Don’t expect…EXPERIENCE!”  Okay…I will do that!  Stay tuned for twitter and facebook status updates as I update my location with my SPOT device each night when I camp!  If you are not following Seize The World yet on facebook and twitter, just click the buttons in the upper left hand corner of this page to get on board!  Thanks!
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