Wednesday, December 30, 2009

One night in Bangkok and the world's your oyster

After Kanchanaburi and the River Kwai we headed into Bangok. The taxi driver who'd driven us out, whiny kids, cranky parents and all, insisted that he would like to bring us back. Why I am not sure, but he quoted a fair price so we went with him.

It's been so long since I've posted about running that I'm having withdrawal symptoms, and I do have a story abour running, which happened, yes: one night in Bangkok. Indulge me, won't you?

Much appreciated, my friend.

Sooooo, I was worried that my running would suffer from being on vacation.

And it did. Training went totally out the window.

I was also nervous about running in a strange country, about getting lost (and not speaking the language), about getting run over (a very valid concern, noting how often Thai drive on the shoulder of the roads and on the left side to boot), and so forth.

All this said, I really wanted to get at least one run in, for crying out loud, so I surfed the web to see if there were any groups whose weekly runs fit with our travel schedule. I have found that running is an amazing way to see places up close and personal, without the distance you get from being inside a car, or with a guide.

I found a run on a Wednesday night. A hash run with the Bangkok Harriettes.

What is a hash run, you ask?

This is a good question. I wasn't really sure, but I was about to find out.

Hashers are "drinkers with a running problem." There are hash groups worldwide. Harriettes are the feminine version, and the hash I was going to was a "mixed" hash run: men and women. The point is a social run followed by, well, yes, social drinking. For folks of all abilities. This counts for the running part of the equation too.

The idea of drinking after a run wasn't that all appealing, to be honest. Don't get me wrong...I like to earn my beers, and they are truly enhanced by hiking or mowing the lawn on a hot day, but after a run I want water.

And, OK, I admit it. I'm not much of a drinker.

I figured I could maybe nurse one beer and nobody would really notice, right?

An email, a phone call, and I was all set with directions to the start of the hash run. Mike indulgently sent me out to meet my fate. From the hotel I would need to take one boat, two trains, and finally a 15 minute walk. In a new and strange city. Sure, I could do that.

This is what I was telling myself.

The boat was easy enough, down the Chao Phraya River to the Skytrain crossing, which we could see from our hotel window.

On the Skytrain I was shaking like a nervous horse. I was that worried about messing it up and getting lost, and couldn't even fool myself into thinking otherwise. Pathetic but true. Honestly, some world traveller I am. On the train at Saphan Taksin station, past Surasek, Chong Nonsi, Sala Daeng, and Ratchadamri, switching trains and getting on a different line at Siam Chit that was going towards On Nut station, through Lom Phloen and Chit, then off at Nana station.

Thank goodness the station names were written in English as well as in Thai letters. I doubt I would ever have been able to sort the letters out in time and then I would be going off my nut instead of toward On Nut, which, considering the thought process that went into deciding to go out and do this run in the first place...yeah.

Once off the train I floundered around trying to find the correct street, finally got my bearings and set out on foot. The streets were narrow, full of motorbikes, with tons of places obviously catering to Western tourists looking for nightlife. Nothing too crazy, but that's how it was.

Worried about going the wrong direction, I couldn't have been more relieved than when I finally came upon men in running gear hauling boxes of beer. Obviously I was in the right place. I introduced myself to many a chuckle of "Ho HO! A virgin!"

It didn't stop there.

The runners were greeting each other by their "hash names," rather than those ones their mummies and daddies gave them when they were sweet little babies. These names were, by design, of sexual inuuendo and gleefully immature. Very Austin Powers.

This was becoming interesting.

The Grand Mistress, Hash name "No Meat" (one of the more publishable monikers of the evening, though none were truly obscene, to give them credit) greeted me and asked if I knew what I was doing. I confessed total ignorance, to which she laughed loudly and said none of them did either.

She ruled the members with an iron fist, roughly demanding "skid marks" (payment for the run) and giving each member a good tongue lashing, saving the primest tidbits for her husband, which he accepted and gave back with alacrity. Obviously verbal abuse was the name of the game, though with much laughter on both sides.

The whole thing was reminiscent of playing pirate.

When the run started I immediately began to ingratiate myself with as many of my fellow runners as possible in a ploy to not get left behind or lost. They were all perfectly nice people, curious about where I was from and was this really my first hash run and what was Dubai like and so forth.

I could also tell I could keep up just fine with the group, which was a real relief. It was more humid than our Dubai winters, but I'm well used to running in thick air, and settled in for a good run through the streets and palm trees.

We were to follow chalk arrows and also "tape", scattered bits of white shreds on the ground like this:

The Hashers and Hashettes showed the standard, but what I have always thought to be a foolish, penchant for running with less concern for the traffic than I feel large vehicles in motion deserve. Runner vs car = car wins, in my book. I was also a little taken back by the total disregard for the police officers gesturing runners to stop at crossings. The runners just went around them like they weren't even there.

I kept my head down and followed, feeling I'd broken the law, and paid attention to not looking the wrong way for vehicles as they were coming from the right instead of the left, a sharp lookout for stray dogs, and, most importantly, keeping up with the guy in front of me.

The route took us along a murky river, through poor neighborhoods with the locals out cooking on their doorsteps, working on their motorbikes, smoking and watching us go by with the bemusement, and sometimes pity, I often see as a runner from non-runners.

I loved that we were running though neighborhoods I would never have gotten to see had I stuck to the tourist areas, and thoroughly enjoyed myself. The locals were exceedingly helpful in pointing out which way those before us had gone, and through some shook their heads, they also, like all Thai, smiled at us.

The Thai whose soccer game we ran through were, perhaps, not so welcoming. I ran next to the stands, but some of the hashers ran right across the field, and there was some shouting from the spectators and players, though no one tried to stop the runners. Insanity.

On on, as the hashers say, we ran up a series of stairs and over bridges, the sun setting over the city. Someone had kicked a goodly amount of the white tape down some stairs as a false trail and one of the fast runners followed it, and I followed him. Then I followed him back up the stairs while he demonstrated his swearing talents, which were impressive.

Finally we were back near the Skytrain and town area. Avoiding the motorbikes was becoming a real game of Frogger, but we all made it back to the start. I chugged a water and was slapped on the back for holding up well. A few folks jumped into the pool.

The beer drinking started in earnest, Heineken, Tiger or Chang poured into plastic cups. Another water for me. It was dark now, and eventually the group assembled for the traditional Hash Circle and singing. I was given a beer and began to drink it in tiny sips.

I was starting to catch on to some of the vernacular, (the runners are "hounds" and the group is known as a "kennel", for instance) and understood that basically these were sound folks letting it all hang out while going running in an attempt to balance out their drinking. As the running bit is already, admittedly, an insane practice, it all fit in a tweaky, goofy sort of way.

Sarah, (the only other American there) who had given me directions to the run, and had laid the trail for us to follow, (therefore referred to as the "hare") implored the runners to keep the volume to managable levels as the nearby neighbors have children. She was already shiny-cheeked and having a good time. I'm pretty sure the Hashers did their best but didn't really succeed in being quiet enough by any stretch of the imagination.

The Circle worked like this: a person or persons was called into the center for songs, down-downs, and accusations. The singing of hash songs was led by a runner with a great baritone voice, sung in the "I'm in the shower and no one can hear me" style. It was getting downright silly and vulgar in the way that only the British have mastered, and both increased exponentially with time and alcohol consumed.

If one was called into the circle you had to chug your beer before the song, sung with much vigor, was finished and then turn it upside down over your head to prove it was empty or wear the consequences.

As a first-timer "virgin" I was in the circle pretty darned quick. I had to say how I felt about the proceedings and had my answer all ready: "I'll never forget my first time!" I averred. This went over well, but then, oh criminey, I was required to slam down not only the beer I had intended as a shield to last the entire evening but also the other one I was handed.

Oh dear oh dear oh dear.

Then I was back in the circle to explain how I could be a virgin and be the mother of two. I was in serious danger of getting the hash name "Immaculate Conception". Another beer, chugalug, and cup clapped atop my head. Then another in my hand as I left the see how this was going. All intentions of being healthy and sober slipped away, which is fitting, considering it was Bangkok. It also seemed like my glass was magically refilling, though I thought I was doing a good job of emptying it.

At one point I was called into the circle again, this time nominated for "Tit of the Week". My crime was being "The lady from Dubai," where, an Irishman accused, "all our financial troubles have originated". Not having kept up with the news, (hey, we were on vacation!) I was blissfully ignorant of the Dubai debt woes hitting the newstands all over the world that week, and probably looked like a idiot, but also fit in nicely.

The Grand Mistress quietly assured me in my ear that it was just a nomination. This did not reassure me in the least, but it was meant well.

Two others were nominated, and fortunately another was chosen for the honor. I say "forunately" because the man upon whom the title was bestowed had to strip down to his skivvies and don a pink underwire bra and sarong. I get the feeling that his six-pack stomach muscles sealed the deal in that case.

In and out of conversations with all sorts of different people, I was told in hushed tones that this group was actually quite a conservative one. I must have looked disbelieving, particularly in light of Sarah in the circle down on her knees, hands behind her back, picking up a beer with her teeth that she then drank; punishment for a drummed-up charge. Oh, no, they said, this is nothing. There are hash groups in Dubai, you should check them out!

Hashing in an Islamic country? Were they serious?!

Sarah and Natalie

I decided than and there that while hashing is interesting, I could entirely see the appeal, that these were good people and I'm glad I went, it's not really for me.

All in all the drinking took approximately twice as long as the running had and many of the runners were looking markedly glazed by this point. The hilarity factor was at a high, and it was decided that the group should continue the party at a local pizza parlor. I felt that this would be a good time to excuse myself and go back to the hotel where Mike was devotedly watching our kids while I was out, no longer running but boozing. Not deliberately, but still. Guilt reared its ugly but inevitable head and I said my goodbyes as the group peeled off to the restaurant and I continued on to the Skytrain.

I have to say, having those beers after a run made all my aches and pains disappear. Knees? What knees? Suddenly running was so fun! I was running, effortlessly, all the way back to the train, up 6 flights of stairs, and on.

I highly recommend feeling that good, if not, perhaps, the method by which it was acquired.

On the train I tried to keep my arms tightly down at my sides so as to not stink out my fellow passengers. They, being Thai, neither stared nor frowned at the odd American in shorts and soaked shirt, but sat politely. I concentrated on breathing through my nose. Watching the stations, I made it back through both trains and to the boat with no problem at all.

Which, considering that, like I said, I'm not much of a drinker and was probably totally sloshed, was a pretty good trick.

Boarding the hotel's courtesy boat, I plopped myself sloppily down onto the luxurious leather seats and watched the river go by. The conductor took one look and fetched me a water. Oh, those easy courtesies of well-trained hotel staff. I do love them so. He also offered to take my photograph:

Which pretty much summed up the entire night. I felt I had gone out, conquered some fears, dealt with the unknown, and come home relatively unscathed. I was pretty darned proud of myself. But then, perhaps that was the beer talking. A real Bangkok-esque experience for me.

And on that note, enjoy your New Year's Eve, and cheers to you for 2010!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

I really love your tiger feet

Tiger snacks?

Right about now I'm thinking my more devoted readers are throwing up their hands in disgust and saying great, where are the TIGERS?!!! For God's sake, woman, you promised us tigers!

OK! OK! How about this fuzzy little fellow for you?

Is he not adorable?

After long deliberation with myself, some imput from you, many conflicting viewpoints from the internet, and even talking with Mike about it, I decided:

No Tiger Temple. At least, not to go with the kids among the adult tigers. What if something went wrong? Was it really worth it to expose Bethy and Thomas to these animals? Could we perhaps just see and handle the tiger cubs? That would be memorable. They'd love that, right?

I went to Djo, our hotel owner, with my question. I am too nervous about having our kids around adult tigers, I said. What are my options?

We hemmed and hawed back and forth. On impulse I asked about the Kanchanaburi Safari, the one that had allowed us to pet that beautiful leopard cub back at the bridge on the River Kwai?

Oh, he said, my kids are nuts for the safari. They want to go all the time.

Magic words. Works for me. I arranged a driver for the next morning, and what did we see when we first pulled up to the Safari?

The enormous and unmistakable orange and black striped shape of a full-grown tiger, draped majestically over a low lying table.


Well, in the words of Dr Seuss, what would you do?

Oh, oh no you di'nt, you say.

Yeah, yeah we did.

And it was just fine.

The tiger was not soft, more coarse haired, but warm and utterly, dangerously alluring with those eyes, that patterned fur, those giant, giant paws...

Then, without any sort of remorse whatsoever, we did this:

leopard cub

and this:

(for the record, baby tigers drink very fast!)

and, what the heck, this:

feeding a lion cub

with these little guys too:

It was 100 baht for group photos with each animal. All of 3 bucks,$12 total, and despite how the pictures look, it felt very, very safe.

None of us could believe it.

When some other tourists showed up and were more interested in photographing Thomas and Bethy, the animal handler jokingly made us understand, with gestures and broken English, that we should charge 100 baht for photos of our kids.

Hmmm. Tempting.

Oh, and then we went on the Safari.

Seriously, I don't know what the Tiger Temple offered, but after paying a minimal entry fee I plopped down 20 baht for a nice bucket of bananas and a little bus drove us through herds of eager deer, bears, lions and tigers (the driver rolled up the windows for those last 2 sections), buffalo, of all things, and then to the section where I'm pretty sure I laughed the hardest I have ever laughed in my entire life. Ask Mike.

No, really, bar none. I laughed with such abandon it's lucky no one with the authority to put me in an asylum was present.

What made me laugh THAT hard?

The giraffes.

These gorgeous beasties, immeasurably gentle for their great height and size, stuck their large heads and long necks right into the bus without hesitation and began politely eating our bananas.

I honestly have to say this is the funnest thing I can ever remember doing. At one point I had one giraffe head behind me and two in front of me, with their soft fur and long lashed eyes, asking for food.

If I had room we would SO have a giraffe for a pet.

I mean, this was total happiness, right here.

Happy holidays everyone, wherever you are, and, for the new year, Happy Year of the Tiger!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Welcome to the jungle

Hiking in the jungle. How awesome is that?

Being from the Pacific Northwest, it is our birthright and obligation to crave a certain amount of hiking. Living in the Middle East, we are way, way behind on meeting our quota. This causes us spiritual pain. Even with his broken toe, Mike was game.

Like I said, what a guy.

Bethy and I had both drooled over the photo in our guidebook of one of the series of 7 waterfalls at Erawan National Park. Churning white waters and pools the color of cloudy turquoise. I figured that it was just a good angle and skilled photographer, that it couldn't possibly be that beautiful.

It was.

Incredible twisted roots and vines, thick jungle, and waters that strange but jaw-dropping shade of blue.

Thomas playing swing on a jungle vine

The kids were having a ball trekking along. We'd signed on with the same tour agancy that had taken us to see the elephants and were reunited with the same driver and guide. Bethy had insisted our guide's name was "Poo". I firmly retorted that there was no way, that she must have misheard, and asked the the tiny, darling Thai guide to spell her name.

"It is P-o-o, ma'am," she said.

Alrighty then.

As it turns out, Poo is a common nickname and means "crab" in Thai.

Twisted, chain-like jungle vine. Very cool.

Other common nicknames ("playnames") include Moo ("pork" -especially appropriate for a fat baby), Dum ("black") and Rat ("gemstone"), names lovingly given at birth.

A rose by any other name, I guess. Thais have real names too, but they are infrequently used.

Poo told us, enthusisatically, that we could get a "fish spa" at the first of the seven falls.

I assumed that that meant there would be some sort of New Age-y commercial thing where you would put your feet into a bucket of the "doctor fish" who would then nibble all the dead skin off in an exfoliating sort of process. I guess all the cool kids are doing it.

Not even. The first of the seven falls was breathtakingly beautiful. Not a commercialism in sight, with all sizes of fish in the waters.

Dutifully, I stuck my feet in and was immediately and in the most ticklish fashion, swarmed.

The fish lined up like piglets to a sow on all aspects of my feet and didn't so much as nibble but scraped on me with their mouths. It was somewhere on the spectrum between hilarious and unnerving.

Eventually I got used to it and could keep my feet still enough for the fishies to do their job. Before that I was giggling and squealing in a most undignified manner which earned me several alarmed glances from nearby Asians.

Bethy tried it too, and we were just a couple of girls getting our jungle spa lovin'.

When I figured my feet were beautified enough, I pulled them out of the water. Lots of red marks, but smooth, and besides, the fishies seemed happy.

Moving on, we gloried in the wild beauty of the jungle, keeping our eyes and ears open for wild elephants and tigers.

Alas, not even a monkey came to ransack our backpack or make scary faces and noises at us. I hear that often happens. It was not to be.

Both kids got to swing on vines like Tarzan,

and Thomas apparently felt some deep primitive pull from eons gone by and insisted on hiking barefoot,

much to the amusement of the assorted groups of Asians walking by in either direction who then (yes, you know what I'm going to say next) had to take his photograph.

I swear, there are more photos of our kids wandering around than anyone can possibly appreciate. And what on earth do the Asians do with the photos later? Scrapbook them? Show their friends?

There were shrines next to some of the falls by villagers, which we made sure not to disturb,

and by the time we reached this glorious waterfall,

well, see that speck where the water is cascading into the pool ?

Yeah, that would be me.

The water was cool and lovely and I had it pretty much to myself. Score!

I found a bamboo raft floating along the mud and limestone shore, and braving the insistant attentions of the spa fish, (and they were both impertinant and as persistant as frat boys!) swam it over to Bethy and Thomas and gave them a ride all around the pool too.

If only we had had more time. Sadly, we hadn't managed to hike up to all 7 levels of the falls nor gotten to see the limestone caves; time was pressing and our tour group had a schedule. After a tasty Thai meal with our group at a local place, and, in keeping with the sacred hiking tradition, beers, we had to move on.

Beers really do taste best after hiking, or physical activity in general. Ask the rest of our tour group. They saw us with ours and boy did that spark a flurry of ordering in several languages, including gestures and deep sighs of contentment.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Sentimental journey

Mike and I are interested in history, and the town of Kanchanaburi and its surrounding area are rife with memories of the Japanese occupation there during WWII. There are well-tended cemeteries, memorials, and museums. Soldiers still come to pay their respects to their lost comrades and to remember.

I had come out of the JEATH museum wanting to learn more about Sir Edward "Weary" Dunlop, an Australian medical officer who had saved hundreds of men from death in the prison camps from 1943-1945, a surgeon fighting tropical disease, starvation, wounds from maltreatment and accidents, a man who, in the words of one of the prisoners became "a lighthouse of sanity in a universe of madness and suffering."

In other words, a hero.

We made a pilgrimage to the Hellfire Pass Museum, an Australian tribute to "fallen mates" and others: the many who were lost building the Burma-Thailand railway under the Japanese, the railway better known as the Death Railway. It was a professional, stark and moving memorial to more than 100,000 perished souls.

Hellfire Pass is so-named because the noise and eerie lights and shadows from the men working all night long to cut through a seemingly impassible section of rock resembled the "Fires of Hell". It was probably the very worst portion of the inutterably horrific construction of the Death Railway.

A station on the Burma-Thailand Railway

We removed our shoes and walked slowly, solemnly, through the exhibits. Actually, Mike and I did: our guide watched Bethy and Thomas for us. Our children are, in many ways, strangers to the concepts of slow and solemn.

After we left the museum we hiked through the bamboo forest along the same path the emaciated prisoners traveled to a dangerous 18 hours of forced heavy labor each day, around the clock. Once a day they were given a handful of rice to eat.

Sometimes they would give their handful to a mate who was ill and go without themselves.

Sometimes they would ask for the share of a man who had just died.

It was here that Weary Dunlop tended to the men, even taking beatings for his patients when the Japanese guards insisted deathly ill men would have to work or be beaten. He kept a secret and detailed diary; had it been discovered he would have been executed. In it his Aussie humor comes out in wry ways: "Because I was pretty tall I had to bend over so the Japanese could hit me."

One of Weary's patients was a man named Bill Griffiths who had lost both his eyes and his hands. After his accident, the Japanese decided that he was of no use to then any more. Weary had saved his life once when he operated on him after the crippling accident, once when he convinced Bill to live and not give up, and this was the third time: he stood between bayonets and Bill and told the guards that if they were going to kill his patient they would have to kill him first.

It was at Hellfire Pass that Weary Dunlop's ashes are scattered, so many years after he had somehow survived, after he had served and saved so many.

It was a strangely quiet, and in many ways, a sacred place. I looked at the metal plaque honoring Weary Dunlop afixed to the stone walls of the passage and breathed a silent sort of thank you to him. The hope that he gave outlives even the war, even his life, an example of compassion and courage to us all.

Worn out from carrying the kids and perhaps from the emotional debt of what we had learned, we were glad to get back into our bus and ride to our next destination, a cave used by Allied medics during WWII to nurse the sick and wounded prisoners of war.

Inside the cave was a giant golden buddha, bats squeaking from shadowed crevices high above, a little girl selling jasmine garlands at the entrance. There was no echo of its history: it was just a cave to us now.

Emerging from the cave into the light, Thomas made two new friends who wanted photographs with him,

and then we waited for a train to come to the station. It was a jolly ride, fans oscillating overhead, the fields of tapioca, photographers going crazy out the windows to photograph the scenery going by, the conductor and the beer seller coming by.

When we got off the train I realised, my God, we just rode on the Death Railway. The Death Railway. I had nearly been moved to tears at both JEATH and the Hellfire Pass museums, yet not once during that trip along the railway did I think of all those men who died to build it. Those were sons, brothers, fathers, how could I not think of them?

Mike agreed, he hadn't given a moment's thought to those men the entire ride either. What was wrong with us?

Back at the hotel, I asked Evelien about it.

She agreed. I do not know why, she said, but it is true. You never think of them on that train. Then she added at least you are not the Japanese tourists making silly faces posing for photographs at the Hellfire Pass Museum.

That was true, we were not that. But it was sobering nevertheless.

Do you think that sort of, I suppose thoughtlessness would be the correct word, is a consequence of not living somewhere but of being ... just ... a tourist?

Friday, December 18, 2009

Elephants, I like elephants....

Yes, yes, we did ride elephants. See this?

That's Mike and Bethy on their pachyderm. (Is that not the best word ever? Say it with me: pachyderm.) And you know these two characters sitting atop a new friend:

Now, I know that the elephant is considered the most dangerous animal in the zoo by keepers, but these were absolutely lovely, mellow creatures. We were picked up from our hotel by a tour group and after about an hour of driving came to a village along the river with the massive beasts waiting patiently for us, their handlers riding casually astride their great heads. We were handed out in groups of one or two to sit in seats with metal bars across the front, not unlike the bars they put across you at a carnival ride.

Our seat tended to tip, and as the elephant began to walk down the hillside to lumber briefly in the river, her russet-skinned handler, carrying a stick with a wicked looking hooked blade, turned and did his best to steady the seat as it wavered unsteadily. I was doing my darndest to keep the thing centered and our weight evenly distributed: I think our elephant had naughtily taken a sneaky deep breath while they were tying the rope around her middle that served as a girth.

I had thought that I would only get photos of Bethy and Mike riding, but as it turned out, once we were on the flat grassy hilltop and our seat seemed willing to stay on the top half of the elephant, our handler hopped off with impressive and enviable agility and began taking photo after photo of us with my camera as the elephant walked slowly towards him.

More than once I hugged Thomas and said to him, "Buddy, we're riding an ELEPHANT! Right through the jungle. Isn't that cool? "

Thomas agreed. It was cool. And we both agreed that yes, yes, the elephant is very, very big.

After taking the photos our handler climbed back up, stepping first on her trunk and then being lifted to her head as if it were the most natural thing in the world. He turned around and showed me a braided ring fashioned from the stiff black hairs from his elephant. "100 baht!" He said proudly, "you look."

Just as he handed it to me, I dropped it, off the elephant, and into the deep grass.

Oh heck.

He obviously thought the same thing. He looked pained for a moment, then, halting our giant gray ride, lept nimbly to the ground and after only a few seconds of searching found the ring.

He carefully handed it to me for the second time. "100 baht OK? Is OK, you like?"

Of course I bought the ring. Happy to. Three bucks. And probably doubled his take for the ride; those folks make almost nothing and were as sweet as could be to us. The little village children had led us by the hand to the elephants and had given Bethy and Thomas tiny flowers.

Yes, I am a sucker for that sort of thing, but you know what? I spend a heck of a lot more than that for a coffee at Starbucks. Happy to hand money directly to those who care, do a good job, and can really use it.

And I'll bet you don't have an elephant hair ring, now, do you? It'll be the hot accessory of next season, just you wait.

After our ride we went back to the elephant stand to get off, and walked down to the river where we stripped down for the even cooler part of the tour.

Yes, there was an even cooler part.

We got to wash the elephants.

Oh yes, we did.

Riding without the metal seat was actually more comfortable, even without anything for me to hold on to. I felt much more connected to my bristly friend.

Thomas had gotten geared up in the smallest life jacket they had, which was still much too big, and after starting out in my arms got to ride with the handler on the head of our beautiful elephant. She had already gotten soap and a scrub from two other riders, and now we were to give her the washdown.

She was obviously looking forward to it, because when she got deep enough into the brown swirling river she suddenly submerged her head with just her trunk sticking up.

Great for her but for Thomas, who was already nervous about going into the water, suddenly the elephant was disappearing under him, and the cold water flooded up. With that his buoyant lifejacket got pushed up around his head and he couldn't see anything.

So, like any self-respecting child, he began to scream bloody murder.

Mike and Bethy made it into the river on their elephant. Mike left his shoes on to stabilise his broken toe. Then the real fun began. Obviously we weren't bathing the elephants; they were bathing us.

Our handler gave Thomas back to me and was explaining with decriptive arm movements that we were about to be doused "for bath, OK, OK?"

I was OK with it but Thomas wasn't.

Thomas clinging like a limpet for dear life.

I didn't know Thomas could scream that loud.

Trunkful after trunkful of cold river water up and over and directly onto us. I think our poor elephant didn't quite get the bath she wanted, but Bethy and Mike's did.

Bethy bracing for the next impact

And now for the action shots:

What cracks me up is the handler getting out of the way and us as tourists getting facefuls. My elephant handler gave up on Thomas, and by extension me, as hopeless and urged his lady from the water.

Thomas, still terrified. Me looking only slightly guilty, and otherwise having a killer time.

Our elephant lumbered up to the stand along a steep hillside that was supposed to make it easy for us tourists to get on and off. I handed Thomas off first, then went up on one knee, sticking the other leg over to the bamboo stand. As soon as I had a toe on it I straightened up and reached for the stand. The elephant, possibly piqued that she'd had to listen to the Thomas noise and that she'd been cheated out of a proper bath, started to walk away.

Now, I had one toe on the stand, all of my weight shifted that direction, and one leg still on the elephant. This was a bad place to be. I was going to fall down between the elephant and the stand and the steep hillside and among the feet of the world's largest land mammal. In the slightly less down direction was the possibility of being squashed like a bug between the elephant and the stand or hill. Neither appealed.

Like a drowning woman grabbing for a lifeline I threw myself towards the man on the stand who was already holding Thomas and grabbed his shirt until I could get both feet on the stand. I am sure it would have been desperately funny if someone had been videorecording us. I should have asked around. At the time though, it was heart-stopping. The elephant handler was already yelling at his elephant who moved back to lean on the stand like she was supposed to, exactly as I was afraid she would had I fallen. I would have been mincemeat for sure. It didn't matter, it was over, and I could even give our large ride a friendly little pat of thanks.

Bethy and Mike got off their elephant in a far more graceful fashion, and I dressed the shivering kids who were happy to be done. One of our fellow riders, a Polish fellow who worked in Bangkok and had brought his mother out for a weekend, told us it was the best time he'd ever had, and that he's ridden elephants many times, but never washed them.

That made me feel pretty good about choosing the tour. I thought it was the experience of a lifetime.

The kids, however, well, they just wanted more garlic bread.

All bundled up after our elephant encounter.

PS. I can't help but recommend a really wonderful and beautifully written tale here: the novel Water For Elephants by Sara Gruen. One of my "read-again" favorites.