One of the big draws to Thailand, at least for me, is their elephant population. At the beginning of the 20th century it is estimated that there were over 100,000 pachyderms calling Thailand their home. Due to numerous reasons, experts guesstimate that there are only 4,000 left today and only a third of that number can be found in the wild.
Thai people have incorporated elephants into their culture and sometimes everyday life. Historically, elephants were used for transportation and war and reigning monarchs maintained a large elephant corps. Next they were used in the logging industry until the Thai government outlawed it in 1989. Today the majority of elephants are used in the tourism industry with the options of being street performers and performing in circuses being the most common occurrences.
There are also a lot of options, even today, to ride on an elephant. As I first started researching things to do in Thailand, I am ashamed to admit that I was really excited at this prospect. How cool would it be to ride on the back of one of these majestic beasts like in some James Bond movie of old. Surely I would feel like a feather and the experience would be amazing.
Then I dug a little deeper…
A general misconception is that these amazingly large beasts are so powerful that they can withstand the most brutal conditions, hence their uses in war, for transportation and to haul giant fell timber for logging companies. This is however not true. An elephant’s skeletal system is weaker than expected with their backs being a particular vulnerable area. They are already hauling around a great amount of weight that even an average sized person can be dangerous and cause damage, much less a group of people on let’s say a carriage of sorts.
There is also the domestication process which in and of itself is pretty horrific. There is a process that is generally used to break the animal’s spirit and make it more susceptible to learning commands. The animals will be chained for weeks, unable to move. The trainers will then start delivering commands and using a short stick with a cutting blade at the end to get their point across. This is done pretty much carte blanch across the country whether it is a street performing elephant, a circus elephant, in the logging industry, which even though outlawed there are still occurrences of elephants being used, and especially for riding camps.
There is hope though…
There has been a shift in thinking by some people working with elephants in Thailand and there are places, while still considered touristy, that are working to change the perceptions and interactions with the animals. One such place is Elephant Nature Park. Founded by Lek Chailert in the 1990s, the sanctuary and rehabilitation center sits on 250 acres outside of Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. Somewhere around 200 elephants have been rescued since its opening and the change affected by Lek and her team is starting to grow into a new understanding and appreciation for these majestic animals. The most visible of these changes are the number of no-ride, rehabilitation and rescue parks in the Mae Taeng valley, Thailand in general and surrounding countries.
There are many ways to support the park through financial donations but the best and most rewarding way is to visit and volunteer.
The park offers numerous visits from one day excursions, overnight stays and week long volunteering stints. The park not only has elephants but a dog rescue as well as water buffalo and other animals.
I really wanted to spend a week volunteering to feed, wash, clean and take care of these animals but with timing being what it was for this trip I finally had to opt for an overnight stay. It’s a good middle ground option that allows you to get a little more intimate with the park. The morning started early with a ride from Chiang Mai into the Mae Taeng valley where the park is located. After finishing the final paperwork and check in process the group I was in were given our first glimpse of elephants. From a platform we were able to hand feed Lucky.
Lucky was born in 1985, she worked in a circus since she was only 4 years old. In her late teens, she developed an eye infection and was still forced to work under the bright spotlights, which further irritated her infected eyes. The combination caused total blindness in both her eyes. Performing while blind was very stressful for Lucky. Her former owner stopped her from performing but stayed with a circus using her for rides and posing for pictures all day long. Finally, the owner realized that this job was too much for her and brought her back home. Unfortunately, she was kept chained in the back yard all the time. With no income, they decided to sell her because they could no longer afford to feed her. Lucky has been at ENP since 2013.
We were then taken on a tour of the facilities by our guide Sai and visited the various herds and families. We watched them cool off in the river, take dust baths, eat and eat and eat, we fed them and even got to bathe one with buckets (note that this is no longer an option as of April 2018).
As the day came to a close and the single day visitors started to leave we were given a chance to visit the dog rescue and play with the puppies for a while before dinner. At dinner we sat with all of the week long volunteers. There were people from all over the world, France, Gibraltar, Australia, Scotland and Canada, just to name a few. The group dispersed after dinner and I opted to hang out with some of the volunteers as we sat overlooking the river and watched the sun go down. We stayed up late into the evening, telling stories and drinking.
Elephants are like big roosters sometimes. I bet you didn’t know that. Neither did I. That’s why I sat bolt upright in my bed at 4 a.m. the next morning to the unexpected sound of elephant’s trumpeting the new day to all that cared to hear. After breakfast (another family style meal), the volunteers made their way to their different jobs while my group covered the park once more. With around 75 elephants at the park, there were plenty of new faces to see and herds to meet. Once we got to the edge of the park proper we started to hike through the surrounding rain forest along a steep, but walk-able, mud trail. We carried bunches of bananas with us for there were some elephants living in the forest and they needed their lunch as well. We hiked to two different family units and fed them as many bananas as we had before stopping for lunch at a spot overlooking the valley.
After getting back into the main part of the park, we crushed bananas and rice into balls and peeled soft bananas to take to the older residents. Behind us a large group of the volunteers had gathered to unload a truck stacked high with fresh cut bunches of the yellow fruit. They started unloading the truck as we mashed the balls together and stacked them in a bright blue basket. As a final treat we took our delicacies over to Lucky and some of the older elephants and hand fed them their favorite meal.
This is one of my favorite moments from this trip. Although short, the time spent at Elephant Nature Park, will stay vivid and last a lifetime. The softness of an elephant’s skin, the deep orange and bright yellow of their eyes that burns like a fire in the sunshine. An early, still morning before the care taking begins, the 4 a.m. wake up call, getting to meet Lek and her partner Derek in person. All of these moments over two short days.
Chiang Mai is a bustling city during the day, but at night, the streets come alive with smells of street vendors cooking, the sounds of music wafting through the air near the gates to Old City and so many colorful scenes that the eyes strain to comprehend and take it all in.
Like Bangkok, Chiang Mai has numerous temples tucked away down side streets and alleyways. So many in fact, you would almost miss them taking a tuk-tuk or red truck. I would suggest walking. As twilight falls, the temples are lit and the glow of the tall spires climbing towards the sky can be seen in between restaurants, hostels and houses as I make my way from my hotel into the center of Old Town.
As I near Rachadamnoen Road, the crowds pick up. This is the main section for tourists and it is busy. Street vendors sell their wares at stands and one or two mini night markets pop up along the way. Restaurants line the street as people enjoy meals while people watching. I walk until I come to Hot Chilli. You can’t miss this place. The sidewalk in front of the restaurant/bar is completely covered in fantastically colored umbrellas hanging from a trellis that runs the length of the space. Inside feels like a posh lounge as servers run back and forth to tables full of people carrying different delicious smelling dishes. I stop in for a cocktail and to take in all that the space has to offer.
Finishing my drink, I start to wander again. I start to notice the sound of a band playing what sounds like live music. I follow the sounds until they lead my through one of the city gates. A crowd of people has gathered and in the center sits the band Tuku. Made up of a guitarist, a drummer and two didgeridooists, the band is full of energy and has an original sound, at least to my ears, thanks in part to the aboriginal instruments. They play a 45 minute set and I stay for its entirety before wandering on.
To say one has choices when it comes to evening activities in Chiang Mai is an understatement. You can wander the streets like I did most evenings, choosing whether or not to get lost in the city or to head for the crowds of night markets and Rachadamnoen Road. You can also choose to catch some of the action at a local sports arena, which I also did. Muay Thai is huge, not only in Chiang Mai, but across the country. The combat sport, known also as the Art of Eight Limbs, started as a hand to hand combat fighting style and eventually transformed into a more traditional form of competitive fighting which has its own rules and governing bodies. Similar to kickboxing, Muay Thai is the national sport.
The Chiang Mai Boxing Stadium is renowned for showcasing some of the best local and international fighters in the world. For around $26 USD, you can be picked up from your hotel, whisked away to the stadium and watch the fights from the grandstands surrounding the ring. For under $50, which is what I opted for, you get all of the above, but you get to watch the action from the VIP section, which also includes unlimited alcohol (whiskey and beer) and a chance to enter the ring before the first fight to get photos taken. The photos taken and the drinks procured, I sit from an elevated vantage point to watch the carnage ensue. There are around eight fights the evening I went including one with Canadian Brett Ireland. The bouts start by weight class the best I can tell and the fighters ranged in age, some of whom only looked like young teenagers. For the next three or so hours, the crowd cheered for their favorite fighters as the booze flowed. As the night drew on, the more experienced combatants entered the ring and surprisingly there was only one knock out in all of the matches.
Although Colorado isn’t technically the Southwest, it holds a lot of similarities to those states. There are cowboys, open land, desert climates, cattle, horses, wild terrain, native americans and a whole host of other parallels that bring to mind olden days of cowboys riding in to rough towns, driving cattle across the desert, buffalo grazing on plains and native people surviving and thriving in great number.
The picture I am painting comes to life in art each year during the Colorado Indian Market and Southwest Art Show. This year at the Denver Mart, 130 or so painters, metal workers, musicians, jewelers, potters, weavers, photographers and other artists came for a long weekend to sell their wares. Not only art, but the weekend was full of performances from Inka Gold, two brothers from Ecuador who play the guitar and pan flute, the Ehectatl Aztec and Bearsheart Hoop dancers, and even Grammy Award winning songwriter Michael Martin Murphey. A full sized teepee was set up, live birds of prey were on display, and food, including Navajo fry bread, was enjoyed by those attending.
Barcelona Wine Bar has come to Denver and it is hopping. I originally encountered the concept while living in Atlanta and there are quite a lot of similarities. Denver is actually the 15th location for Andy Pforzheimer and Sasa Mahr-Batuz’s flagship but you wouldn’t be able to tell that from the line out of the door on a Friday night in RiNo. The wine bar has over 400 selections when it comes to vino and pair that with a Spanish style tapas menu and you have a recipe for success in the Mile High City.
I spent an hour or two a few Fridays ago to check out how the restaurant was doing as there has been a buzz since it has opened. I was greeted to a line that was starting to head out the door. The kitchen was a flurry with activity as the chef constantly called out new orders to his troops. The wait staff didn’t have a moments rest as they deftly maneuvered the crowded space. The bartenders also kept pace as every seat at the wraparound bar was occupied and constantly changing as people pounced on any open spot the moment it became available. There were celebrations with family, date nights and friends hanging out. It was a symphony of organized chaos.
From right before Thanksgiving until right before Christmas eve, the corner of 16th St. and Arapahoe is transformed into a wonderful German holiday market to shop, drink, dance, eat and get into the festive season. The Christkindl Holiday Market has been around for 18 years celebrating all things Christmas with a German twist. Craving some gluvine (hot spiced wine)? Or some stout beer? Or hand crafted ornaments, garments and toys? The market has you covered.
Want to hear some live music? Members of Denver Symphony Orchestra have been spotted up on stage. So have polka bands, accordionists, and some local celebrities such as the mayor, radio personalities and newscasters. Hungry? There are plenty of authentic German food vendors serving salmon, sausages, and so much more.
You get the idea….
For those of you who are wondering what is a Christkindl I can be of some help. In Germany, Switzerland, Austria and other countries of that region the Christkindl is the traditional bringer of gifts during Christmas. The literal translation is Christ Child but thought of more as a sprite like child usually depicted with blonde hair and angelic wings, dressed in white. The Christkindl usually visits on December 6th to bring presents to children in the same way Santa Claus visits on Christmas Eve. The market is regularly visited by the Christkindl, as well as St. Nicholas and Krampus.
January 20, 2019 a wonderful astrological occurrence happened on a clear cold, night across the United States. The Super Blood Wolf Moon heralded the first celestial spectacle of 2019 for skywatchers all across the Americas. The total lunar eclipse will be the last one until May 2021, and the last one visible from the United States until 2022.
There are nights when the wolves are silent and only the moon howls.
— George Carlin
The Dairy Block in Denver is getting a taste of Sonoma Wine Country as brothers, James and Mark Blanchard, and winemaker Jene Chapanar, open Blanchard Family Wines. Sourcing grapes from different areas around Sonoma county in California, the Blanchard family is starting with eight different varietals with four coming from the Russian River Valley and two from Alexander Valley. The space is small but intimate, moody and approachable giving it a unique feel with room for around 50 at a time. The tasting room menu will spotlight flights, wine by the glass, as well as bottles and growlers to take home. There will be food choices as well provided by Colorado and California cheeses and Il Porcellino and Elevation Meats and sweets from Ruby Jean Patisserie and The Chocolate Therapist.
Josh Pollack grew up in New Jersey and went to high school with chef Nick Severino. Pollack already has Rosenberg’s Bagels and Delicatessen under his belt in Five Points and now the two are making waves with a Jersey style deli aptly named Lou’s Italian Specialties. Named after Pollack’s grandfather, Lou’s has everything an East Coast inspired deli should. Freshly shaved meats, sandwiches stuffed with toppings, a slew of delicious treats to take home, a bakery counter with house made cannoli, buffalo mozzarella made in-house and plenty of sides to go along with it all. The Cole neighborhood better get ready for an influx of Jersey-tastic tastes not seen in these parts as of yet!
It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas here in Denver and to start off the holiday season I put on my fanciest digs and headed downtown to attend the 1940s White Christmas Ball! This is by far, one of my most favorite events in the Mile High City. I’ve had a chance to check out the World War II era ball thrown each summer in Boulder but this was my first go at the winter version. I must say it did not disappoint. There were big bands, impersonators, dancers, food, singers, “gambling”, photo sets from It’s a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Story, shopping, a balloon drop and much, much more. Attendees dressed in their finest 40’s attire, hair was fine tuned with curls upon curls and the magic of Christmas came to life in a big way!
Boulder has its own version of Frosty this holiday season. Walk around town and you may see Freezy the Snowman walking about and interacting with people as they shop along Pearl Street Mall. This year, Freezy had his own festival with children’s activities, crafts, music, train rides and more not only around the outdoor mall but at Central Park a few blocks away. As the sun set over the Flatirons, more than 200,000 lights started to twinkle in the park while bands played music and musicians sang songs to get everyone in the holiday mood!