On St Patrick’s Day, March 17, we arrived in Phuket, an island at the very bottom of Thailand. I know this will be a disappointment for some, but the “Ph” in this name is not pronounced like an “F,” and the name does not rhyme with bucket. The “h” is silent & it is pronounced “Poo’-ket,” which I guess is bad enough. Thailand is the only country in Southeast Asia that was not colonized by Europeans, retaining its ruling monarchy, famous to westerners from The King And I (which is disliked here for its portrayal of their king as a strutting buffoon in need of tutelage from a young European woman).
Phuket is primarily a resort area today, known for its fine beaches. A dozen years ago it was a victim of the devastating tsunami that killed thousands here. Our day here turned out to be sunny & hot.
We are not beach people & there really isn’t much to do on your own here, so we signed up for an excursion to an elephant refuge. In 1989 commercial logging was outlawed, which left a great many elephants (who moved the timber) & their handlers without a job. Siam Safari was opened that year to help them out as a sanctuary & hospital for elephants. In 1994 became the first company to offer elephant trekking in Phuket & it has received recognition for its care of the animals. Today there are between 6000 & 7000 elephants in Thailand, down from 100,000 in 1900.
We set out in the morning for the bus ride to the elephant camp. Near the end of the ride we spotted the 125 foot Big Buddha they have almost completed, sitting on top of a large hill. It is, indeed, very big & very white. We transferred to a smaller vehicle which took us up a mountain to the camp.
We had understood that this was just an elephant camp, but it turned out to have much more than that for visitors. First we met a water buffalo, had a ride in a buffalo card (slow & not too exciting) & were shown a demonstration of how water buffalo are used to help plant rice.
We were shown how rice is husked & prepared for market. They showed us how to prepare pineapple curry, which was really delicious (Rick had two bowls). Then they showed us how rubber is produced, from tapping a rubber tree to rolling it out into sheets in what looked like the top of an old fashioned manual washing machine. They come out in the middle of the night to tap the trees, wearing head lanterns with flames in them. Each day one diagonal line is cut in the tree & a spout & cup are mounted to catch the sap. Rubber trees originated in the Amazon region of Brazil & they prohibited the export of the trees, which gave Brazil a very lucrative monopoly on rubber. But saplings were smuggled out to Britain, who replanted them in Asian colonies from which they spread to Thailand. The guy who smuggled them was a wanted criminal in Brazil, but was knighted in Britain.
Next we were taken to meet a young elephant, who was mostly interested in being fed. She kept moving, walking around her pen then coming back to the people who were there. Asian elephants are smaller than African elephants, have much smaller tusks & have two large bumps on top of their heads. All of the elephants at the camp when we visited were females, with no visible tusks.
We rode elephants through the jungle for half an hour. Our elephant was named Boso. You mount the elephant from a platform & sit on a bench mounted on the elephant’s back . . . easier than stepping into a tender boat from the ship! A skilled handler sits on the elephant’s neck & controls the animal. It seems that the handlers work with the same elephant all the time. The had short sticks with a curved metal point to direct the animal, but this was used gently on top of the elephant’s head to indicate directions. We never saw anyone hit any of the elephants. We were told that we were a very light load for an elephant, who can carry really large weights.
We walked through the woods, swaying gently from side to side. A couple of times our handler asked us to move a little to balance the load. It was easy to slide back & forth on the bench as the elephant walked, but there was (happily) a metal bar across our laps to keep us from falling out. The handler kept his feet behind the elephant’s ears, which probably assists in directing it. Occasionally an elephant would stop to get a bite to eat, or to scratch an itch on a rock, or other rather natural things.
We stopped at a scenic overlook of the seashore. As we approached it we noted the head of the Big Buddha peeping over the trees on top of a nearby mountain. The elephants rested & milled around for awhile at the overlook, while passengers snapped pictures of each other, before heading back.
So then we returned to the camp & dismounted onto the platform. This was a really fun outing.
At the elephant camp we saw quite a bit of pretty flora, and some unusual fauna. In particular was a very large yellow spider, scary but fortunately too far away to do any damage. And there was a very tiny frog. I didn’t see it when taking a picture of a water lily. It was only later when I cropped and enlarged the water lily picture that I noticed what looked like a worm on one leaf. Enlarging it further, it turned out to be a tiny frog, probably only about an inch or so long.
We came down from the mountain & went to lunch at one of the best local restaurants located right by the water. It was delicious Thai food (& lots of it), but not as delicious as that pineapple curry we had at the camp in the morning!
After lunch we visited Wat Chalong, the largest Buddhist temple in Phuket, which was built in 1837. It is very colorful & elaborately decorated.
While we were walking to the temple there was suddenly loud explosions, sounding at first like gunfire. It turns out that there is a tradition here of setting off firecrackers in a small building near the temple as thanks for a wish fulfilled. It was startling (& very loud) at first, but it happened a number of times while we were there, so it must be pretty routine.
Down a short path from the temple is a much more recent building called the Chedi. It is 3 stories, much larger than the temple, & houses in the top story what is reputedly a bone fragment from the Buddha himself. It is in a reliquary & in a room behind glass, so you can’t really see it. But the Chedi is quite beautiful, with the first floor filled with gold colored statues of Buddha & others.
We returned to the ship & sailed away from Thailand as the sun set, ending our sojourn in Southeast Asia & heading for Sri Lanka, with two sea days before us.