Thailand is a place I’ve wanted to visit ever since Year 5 when a group of people visited our school to talk about the Boxing Day Tsunami that killed hundreds and thousands of people. I remember sitting in the gymnasium, two rows from the front, listening closely to the god awful natural disaster that had occurred a few months before. The ended with the woman playing an easy fact quiz so that we could win little keychain with elephants etched into them. She had asked how to tell the difference between Indian and Asian elephants and within seconds I shot hand up, like Hermione Granger in potions class, and answered that “African elephants have much larger ears”. Each time I looked at my new keychain I thought about how moments before the tsunami hit Khao Lak elephants let out terrified shrieks and broke free from their chains to run for the hill.
Seeing an elephant with my own eyes and not via a pixelated image has thus always been high on my dreams list. Yes, I could have gone to a zoo to view one but do I believe seeing an animal through a cage is humane? Definitely fucking not. A rant about zoos can be for another time. I thought perhaps I could visit a “sanctuary” whilst visiting Thailand and began researching into the 55+ that surrounded the Chiang Mai area in Northern Thailand. The first thing I did was click the bad reviews and my heart sank. One bad review completely spoiled it. I began reflecting on the principles of elephant sanctuaries and how unfair it all seems. There is often 10-15 people to 1 elephant and you would usually walk through a forrest with them constantly petting them, bathing them and chucking mud on them. Most (not all) sanctuaries pressure these elephants to do such things for tourists and it simply isn’t okay. Elephants are on this schedule twice a day 7 times a weekend it seems like a fabricated prison. I accepted that I wouldn’t see ellies this time that was until Rosie, a wonderful women I studied at Plym Uni with, came crashing into my DMs to tell me about Chang Chill.
Chang Chill is a huge jungle home where the 6 resident elephants can graze freely, bathe and play upon their own accord in the hills of Chiang Mai. The company is open about their past as Happy Elephant Care Valley where visitors interacted with the elephants directly however since discussing elephant welfare and a new ethical tourism model with World Animal Protection the owner decided to switch up the ways in which it operates. This new model provides a completely ethical way of living for them. It was by chance that I shared the day with 3 representatives from World Animal Protection – 2 from the UK office and 1 from the Brazilian office. They gave me the lowdown the things each office campaigns for. Each office focuses on different issues depending on the country and the wildlife that they can work to protect.
The day began with us hiking up into the jungle with our guide, she had a walkie talkie in hand to communicate with the “mahouts” and figure out where the elephants were having their morning munch. Our guide’s face felt warm and comforting to me and I couldn’t quite pin point why for a while until I sat and studied her features. My brother. She reminded me of my lanky gormless (although she wasn’t) sibling. Tiptoeing through the jungle and waiting on that radio message felt a lot like being on CITV’s Jungle Run in the early 2000s. Our guide squealed when the first radio communication, locating the first elephant, came through inevitably making me flappy and excited too. There has been a huge shift in the behaviour of the 6 elephants according to the guides – they are happier, calmer and their body language when grazing is much more relaxed. We observed the hungry giants by crouching in bushes close by and shimmying backwards whenever they came close. Elephants rarely go a minute without grabbing leaves and shredding corn to shovel into their mouths via their trunk (a lot like when there is a packet of crisps in front of me), and when they’re empty “trunked” it’s extended towards their mahout in confusion as to why more food has not been provided. Later that afternoon after we had made treats and watched them play joyfully in the mud one elephant extended her trunk over the bamboo fence and gestured towards the hose pipe. The mahout clocked her intentions, turned on the tap and placed the hose close to her nostrils. Refreshingly cool water gurgled like a bath tub being emptied as it filled up all 12 litres of her trunk. She returned to the hose way over 10 times to quench her huge thirst from the burning heat.
I left Chang Chill in absolute awe of these incredible creatures and ecstatic that I was able to study them without the selfishly eager hands all over their bodies.
A three hour drive on a route with hundreds of stomach churning bends lead me to the small mountain town of Pai. An unwritten rule of Pai is that you’ll want to extend your stay and that there is a risk that you will get stuck in the infamous Pai-hole. I had met a handful of people in Myanmar, one of them being the wonderful Aussie Kate, who strongly recommended I stay at a place called Nolo Hub ran by her childhood friend Jordin. Note that when I say strongly I mean she advised I cancel my pre-existing booking and change to get a spot at there. This has been up there with one of the best decisions I have made so far on my skits mission. The moment I stepped foot into the newly built hostel (Jordin quite literally bought a plot of land, watched a ton of architect videos on youtube and got to work) I was greeted with smiles from the Thai staff and a spaced out encounter with Jordin, who suffering from a 2 day hangover. I knew Pai, and Nolo for that matter, would be a place that would lure me into drinking alcohol and for the first night I did well at resisting. Travellers from all over volunteer in hostels across South East Asia and there were around 5 sick people volunteering here. The squad take you under their wing and lead you on bike tours, pub crawls and general shit chat.
Andre was leading the bar crawl on my first night and despite his best efforts to have me drink shots I refused. As we passed through the first two bars a couple of the guests and volunteers questioned my dismissal, except for Margot. Margot had approached me earlier that day and opened the conversation with “tell me about your first love” immediately inviting me into an 8 day dialogue of deep and insightful conversations. That night Margot had also decided to have one or two bevs then call it quits and, like me, got intoxicated off of the atmosphere and music loudly filling our ears. The soundtrack of my first night in Pai started by getting my blood fired up with DnB and techno and then it carried my huge feet and long limbs moving till 2am with throwback classics. At least 3 people staying at the hostel came to me with what I assume was an impressive tone and said “you’re dancing the most in this bar and yet you’re sober!”
Before leaving China I promised myself that I wouldn’t drink heavily, if at all, after I acted like an incredibly shit human towards people I love a few weeks before. Drinking alcohol and getting slaughtered has never boded well with me. It’s like I turn into this monster can only exist by seeking men to fancy me without a care about who I tear down or get bitter over in the process. It’s really not nice. I don’t like that person nor the pit of depression I drunkenly fall into the few days after it.
I felt accomplished that night as I rejected beers and shots from what would be my temporary family for the week. To top that though, and this is how I came to realise that not drinking was a great decision, I confidently rejected a guy without using the word sorry. Yeah, he was a stereotypically attractive masculine guy but the moment he breathed the word “slag” any banter we’d had in the previous hour had vanished into thin air. Using derogative and sexist language towards women after you’ve been wronged suggests that (and this includes women referring to women too) you think of yourself as superior and lack respect for them to begin with. So nope, good bye. Absolutely not interested.
Pai itself is densely packed with atmospheric hostels, healthy eateries and bars with sick vibes but the gorgeous sights are situated waaaay outside town. I’d hired a scooter for the entirety of the stay to tackle this obstacle and had the best fucking time beep beeping around. One bike tour, led by Scouse Tash and Aussie Trent, had us drive 45km higher into the mountains to visit an incredible viewpoint at Ban Jabo village. 30 minutes in Trent pulled us over and warned us in a serious Dad voice that the road ahead had lots of sharp hairpin turns and was steep as fuck. He wasn’t wrong. My grip on the handles tightened and my jaw locked up each time a hill or a bend came into sight in fear that I’d topple right over. There WAS a face scraping crash on the way back but it wasn’t me – a guy named Sidd, who had gotten on a scooter for the first time the previous day and was running low on petrol quickly, had succeeded in climbing the STEEPEST mother fucker on the route but flew off his bike after driving too fast over gravel. He told me he had no recollection of falling off and when he came around he was on the verge of freaking out because he thought his teeth had broken. He recalled hesitating in emptying his mouth in apprehension that white shards would be swimming in his spit. Luckily it was just gravel and he came out of the accident with a fat lip and a really grazed arm.
Friday came around quickly and I’d chosen to extend my stay from 3 days to 7 days by this point mainly because leaving before the weekly jungle rave would be a ridiculous idea. The hosts keep the location a secret because in the past dimwitted foreigners have gotten into accidents thinking they’re invincible on a bike when they’re slaughtered. This is way too common in travelling culture, especially the boozy lads holiday kind. Why drink drive in a different country if you wouldn’t drink drive in your own? Cool, put your life in danger by climbing a cliff but don’t put others in danger by getting on a bike or in a vehicle. Each event has a different music vibe – Boomland was techno music (the week before was DnB and jungle which I was deeply gutted about). Before getting to Boomland almost the entire hostel was buzzing off of the good communal vibes and funky music at Nolo. Jordin had gotten out the neon paint and transformed us all into glow sticks ready to get our funk on whilst Dennis and Nathan (a volunteer from Coventry) was dragging everyone to take part in killer pool. My glittery crop top made an appearance and I was insisted on yet another night of setting my long limbs free to move like one of those wind powered inflatable things outside of car dealers or garages.
As we jumped out of the taxi and descended through the forest the bass was surging through the ground and up through our feet lifting our spirits even higher after our game of “Never Have I Ever” in a bar. Colourful aluminous letters spelt out Boomland above our heads and further inside strobes of blues and green illuminated the crowd of legless, pinging bodies below. Crowds at gigs, raves or festivals have me in two minds the first being that I want to be in the midst of the sweaty action subconsciously riding a mutual high with hundreds of other people… the second being that I want to close my eyes, let music cascade through my body and dance with as much space as possible. The latter was exactly what I chose to do and with the company of Nathan who made me belly laugh the entire night with his ridiculous hat and our metaphorical table tennis game with banter being the ball. The temperature had been dropping rapidly over the course of the week and it was painfully fucking cold when the stars came out to play. As the night pressed on more and more people began to gather around the 3 fire pits located in the field. No amount of dancing could have breathed life back into my frozen toes and fingers and so we packed our night in at about 3am.
Monday was originally supposed to be my last night and so I treated it as much. Every evening at Nolo there is something different going on whether it be family dinner, a shit shirt social or (a new one) Speed Dating. That night was the first time Jordin and the team introduced Speed Dating/Friending as an activity and it went down so well. Absolutely no one signed up to take it seriously, Margot took one for the team and acted straight for the evening which tackled the problem of too many men to women. The lights were dim and the music was smooth, several candles lined the centre of the huge family dinner table waiting for two faces to ask awkward questions and gaze intently at each other. One of the question slips dedicated to my candle was “Tell me 3 things you like about me and I’ll tell you 3 things I like about you.” At first I thought selfishly, of course, because I’m a Leo and we thrive off of compliments and attention therefore I was incredibly keen to know what 3 things someone would say. Then I thought about having to reciprocate 3 likeable things and began to panic, granted I already knew and had bonded with a handful of the guys so it would be okay but what about the ones who perhaps I wasn’t into that much?! I reckon I’ve gotten better at starting and withholding conversation but at an element of “romance” and I become this awkward human who doesn’t know how to communicate. Some of the likeable things I received from the “dates” brought out the tomato in my face and really made me feel good about myself. It’s too common that as humans we latch onto one negative comment made against us as opposed to the tons of lovely things said to support us. I made a note of some of the things that were said about me and I know that sounds creepy or ridiculous but it helps.
This method of noting nice and positive compliments I’m given came in handy literally 24 hours later when I overheard someone really going to town with chatting shit about me. Whether this person thought I couldn’t hear or was intentionally being loud I don’t know but it made me feel awful. The moment I heard “why would he go for a girl like her?” it felt as though my insides were caving in. I struggled to breathe as the echo of this sentence grew louder and became screaming repetitively in my head. My eyes were stuck on the floor in front of me and I couldn’t seem to move them. I was numb. It was as if someone had taken my soul and dragged it backwards in time to when I was 14 and I read/overheard people at school doing the same thing. The way this sentence and scenario made me feel is something I never want ANYONE else to feel in their life ever. It’s HORRIBLE. I recently read a book by Brené Brown called Braving The Wilderness and she writes about “inextricable connection” which is where a group of people become connected through something higher. An example of this would be the moment hundreds of people in Manchester city centre sang “Don’t Look Back in Anger” in memoriam of the bombings, or when a group of strangers are silently watching the sunset together. However, it’s so important that we don’t find ourselves forming connections, and then relationships, over verbally butchering someone else. What good is that doing for you? Honestly, what is going through your head or body when you slag someone off? Bleh, so yeah. THAT SUCKED.
My night (Tuesday) up until that point was full of euphoric and unreal amounts of love. Margot, Tash and Trent collectively pulled my rubber arm and convinced me to stay another night after I kept complaining that I wanted tacos. Although tacos WERE being made and I would’ve suffered immensely from FOMO syndrome if I didn’t eat them, tacos was definitely a code word for “staying in the presence of these amazing people one more night”. A few days before Nathan had told me that he makes amazing tacos and I hesitated to believe him yet that afternoon he was indeed on chef duty. As Margot and I spent the afternoon playing pool Nathan would occasionally approach me with spoonfuls of salsa, chilli cheese and “meaty” mushrooms to try and report back on. When those “meaty” mushrooms were absorbed by my tastebuds I knew that I made the right choice in staying one more night. Oh, another huge achievement that day was absolutely smashing Dennis and Andre during a game of pool with Margot after Dennis had been spouting out chat all week about how good he is at the game. My stomach was bulging with incredible food, yes, Nathan absolutely killed it on the tacos, and I was ready for a night of hanging out by the fire. Margot invited me to stay at Pleasant Hill because at the time Nolo didn’t have a bed available for another night. We made our way up there after Andre ushered everyone out for the bar crawl and equally contributed to the purchase of Thai rum to accompany us for the remainder of the night. The flames of the fire licked the sides of my frost bitten face and everyone around me was beaming with content and blissful happiness. At around 1am Andre came thrashing through the complex like a “wrecking ball” with a huge smile on his face. Within seconds he disappeared again but reappeared with 3 people holding an accordion, a gutter and one of those piano tube blowy things, a heap of questions were running through my head the main being “how on earth do you travel with a fucking accordion?” I didn’t voice them though because I became willingly bound by the music that they began to play.
It was beautiful. Every pair of eyes around the fire was locked on these 3 talented people who selflessly sent us into a beautiful trance. We were all there together swaying gently with smiles upon our orange lit faces. That is the inextricable connection Brené Brown talks about.