The day after returning from the island, we went on a day trip to Siam Safari. A safari this wasn't, but we expected as much when we booked it. It felt very "Disney" in that we went from station to station to learn about different industries in Thailand (like rubber, rice, coconuts, and curry) and to watch a short demonstration. Although Siam Safari wasn't totally up my alley, I'll admit that I learned a lot at these demonstrations! The last station--interacting with the elephants in the camp--didn't sit well with me, though. Turns out, I'm not alone--using elephants to generate income in the tourist industry has sparked much debate in scientific communities, government agencies, and animal activist groups.
Before a logging ban imposed by the Thai government in the late 1980's, many elephants worked in the logging industry. Doing so provided for their food and care. Since the ban, the majority of these elephants were out of work and their mahouts (a sort of caretaker that stays with the animal for life) had to find alternate ways of getting enough food and adequate care for their animals. The logging ban coincided with the rise of tourism to Thailand, so many elephants went from the logging industry to tourist camps, which (in many cases) provides employment for the mahouts, a vet for the elephants, and a way the elephant can get adequate nutrition and care. Even though I understand the rationale of why camps could be a good thing for elephants, it still breaks my heart to see such intelligent creatures confined to relatively small spaces, posing for pictures with tourists. And I was one of them. We researched to find the most ethical elephant trekking company in Southern Thailand to find Siam Safari, but I still couldn't suppress a tinge of shame.
Of possible interest:
On a more light-hearted note, the remainder of the day AFTER Siam Safari was one of my fondest memories of our time in Phuket. It was my "we're not in Kansas anymore" realization in Thailand, and the saga goes a little like this...
From afar, Kursten and I had seen the Big Buddha that looks down on Chalong Bay, but originally, we didn't have any plans to go see it. When the Siam Safari peeps picked us up from our hotel and drove us up the hill to their facility, I could see the Big Buddha getting closer and closer. We decided that we would try to hike up to the Buddha statue after our "safari".
**Fast forward to the end of the "safari"**
Assured by of one of the safari "rangers" that we would be able to find a taxi up by Big Buddha, we declined our complimentary ride back down to our hotel and hiked our butts up the winding road. Even for two pretty fit girls, this excursion was tough, and before long we were drenched in sweat.
As the road wound upward, we approached a monkey chained to a nearby tree, which was apparently the road-side shop owner's sad way of attracting tourists. We eyed the monkey from the road for a little while and then Kursten got up the courage to bend down and say hi to the little guy. Before either of us knew what was happening, the monkey grabbed hold of Kursten's pigtail, swung from it like a vine, and bit off her hair tie. I cannot believe I caught this moment on camera--it is 100% candid. Once Kursten pulled free, we scurried along, laughing at what a mischievous little bugger that guy was!
Finally, we reached the top of the hill and entered what I'll call the Big Buddha complex. Monks were roaming the grounds under the Buddha's shadow and we moseyed around before climbing up the stairs to reach the base of the tall marble Buddha.
One of the first things I noticed was the sound, the thousands of brass bells chiming in the wind. Each bell held an inscription in a foreign language, a dedication or prayer it seemed.
The Buddha and the viewpoint itself were spectacular, the breeze giving us a nice break from the stifling heat of the trek up there.
We wandered around for a while, soaking it in, appreciating the craftsmanship that went into constructing a statue of this size. Eventually we made our way back down to the stairs to find the monks chanting in prayer. It was a pretty neat thing to witness.
As we were leaving the Big Buddha complex, we had our "we aren't in Kansas anymore" moment. We learned that the ranger from earlier was wrong. So wrong. You can't just hop in a taxi to take you home. No empty taxis were there just waiting (we felt like silly Americans to even believe that would be true); all taxi drivers had been hired by the day by their customers that were currently exploring the Big Buddha. We would have to appeal to their customers for the driver to allow us in their taxi. It made sense, and we waited around a bit, hoping to approach some random people to bum a ride. Before long we gave up and hiked back down in the way that we came. Our goal was to make it back to the Siam Safari camp and either (a) see if there was any way we could cash in on the ride we had declined earlier or (b) use their telephone to get a taxi to take us home. With that plan in mind, we made a pit stop for a coconut.
And then we walked. And walked. And walked. Until we realized that we had hiked ~1.5 miles further down the hill, missing the entrance to Siam Safari completely. Fail...just...fail. We felt so stupid. At that point, though, we were in the middle of nowhere and had no choice but to hike the 1.5 miles back up to Siam Safari. When the ranger (the one who originally gave us the bum advice about the taxi) saw us approach the Siam Safari camp, her eyes bulged out of her skull in shock. We must have looked like sweaty ass zombies. She felt bad about giving us poor advice, so she pulled some strings to help us out. One of her colleagues was able to drive us down into Chalong so we could hire a taxi to take us back to our guesthouse.
*Locals aren't always right *
*You can't just find a taxi when you need one *
*Always arrange transport or hire a motorbike/car for the day.*
*Thailand has a taxi mafia. Even after we found a taxi stand in Chalong, the driver insisted on calling the owner of our hotel...where we were already staying..to try to scheme a commission for bringing weary travelers to her hotel. *
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