“BEHIND THE CODE: AN ECPAT ADVOCACY JOURNEY TO THAILAND”, November 7-17, 2015
by Karen Weiss
I was lucky enough to participate in ECPAT-USA’s first Advocacy Journey to Thailand, focused on learning about the issue of trafficking and the work being done to combat it. I thought a day-by-day synopsis of the trip might to helpful for people considering joining a future Advocacy Journey.
Overall, the trip can best be described as AMAZING, INCREDIBLE, and THRILLING!! It combines the excitement of visiting a fascinating country with a rare opportunity to broaden your understanding of the problem of human trafficking. Traveling with ECPAT-USA opens doors to an education that would not be available to the average traveller.
We were a group of nine, including my 25-year-old daughter, a New York City writer, two employees of a corporate travel company, the Chairperson of the Board of ECPAT-USA, and three others who have a focus on stopping human trafficking or work in the field. I am an attorney and have volunteered my services to ECPAT-USA for several years. We were accompanied by ECPAT-USA’s Director of Development, Sarah Porter, and Altruvistas’ local guide/interpreter, Adisak Kaewrakmuk, who goes by the nickname, “Dee.” Despite the differences in age and backgrounds, this bunch of strangers gelled wonderfully as a group. And of course, we had the common interest in learning about and how to end human trafficking, and taking this advocacy back to our communities.
Getting There and 5 Nights in Bangkok
Bangkok’s airport is enormous! But out of the crowd appeared Sarah Porter, wearing her ECPAT-USA t-shirt. She was a sight for travel-weary eyes! We arrived the evening before the official start of the tour on the 7th. I’d recommend doing this as it allowed us to go to bed on Thai time and helped us overcome the jet lag caused by traveling for 20 hours to a location twelve hours ahead on the clock.
Altruvistas arranged transport for us to the Sofitel Hotel. Despite being travel weary, I was enthralled with the view from the taxi. I had never before been in Asia or to any country classified as “emerging” by the UN. I was struck by the juxtaposition of modern high-rise buildings and run-down low buildings. The narrowness of the streets once we left the highway was also remarkable. I could have reached out the window and grabbed a snack from a street vendor. The Sofitel (an Accor hotel and member of The Code) was a beautiful modern hotel and the staff could not have been more friendly and helpful. We checked in and crashed.
Day One: Saturday, November 7
We awoke to a beautiful room, with a view of the city and the hotel 9th floor pool. We made our way to the dining room and enjoyed a delicious and extravagant buffet-style breakfast. The choice of foods was staggering, and from all different regions of the world, made by amazing chefs. I discovered my new favorite food: steamed custard dumplings! Yum! Because the official tour did not start until the evening, we had a free day. And since it was Saturday, we took the opportunity to travel, via Sky Train, to the huge Chatuchak Weekend Market.
While we were lucky to have the assistance of Sarah, who had already learned the ins and outs of the Bangkok Sky Train, this mode of transportation is not difficult to understand. Indeed, it is much less confusing that New York’s complex alphabetical/numerical subway system and riding the Sky Train is a good opportunity to take in the views and the atmosphere of the city. However, whenever in doubt about getting around, do not hesitate to ask a local for help. Much English is spoken and Thais seemed to love to help.
The Weekend Market is enormous and teeming with activity. There are thousands of vendors and all types of goods are for sale. Fortunately, it is divided in sections by the type of goods sold (e.g., home goods, clothing, etc.). We headed first to the artist section and I would recommend that choice to all visitors. You will see many of the goods sold in this market all over the streets of Bangkok, but the artist section contains some unique items, including traditional Thai handicrafts and modern art. And the artists are present and available to discuss their work. We purchased some beautiful gifts and souvenirs at very reasonable prices.
Tip: Thai vendors expect to bargain. While I am not a skilled haggler, my daughter was successful at getting a slightly reduced price with every purchase. Give it a shot, especially if you are buying more than one item from the same vendor.
After the market, our group of tired, hot shoppers returned to the Sofitel for a refreshing swim and snack at the hotel pool. They were having a pool party that day and we were treated to some free rum drinks. It was much enjoyed as the temperature reached close to 90 degrees every day in Bangkok, with very high humidity. Pack your sunscreen!
By that evening, the group had arrived and we all met for dinner. Dee had chosen “Grandma’s Restaurant” for us to have a wide variety of authentic Thai food including curries, pad thai, tom ka soup, wing bean salad, and many other dishes that I don’t remember the name of! We deferred the ordering to Dee (a practice we followed for much of the trip), who took into account our general inability to handle the degree of spiciness enjoyed by most Thais. The food was delicious! It was a great opportunity to get to know our fellow travelers, go over the itinerary, and review Thai culture and customs.
Day Two: Sunday, November 8
The whole day was dedicated to exploring some of the spectacular sights of Bangkok. We started at 9 a.m. and traveled together by van. As we drove through the city, Dee pointed out sites and filled us in on Thai history and culture. He was a fountain of information. What I found most remarkable about Bangkok was the juxtaposition of the modern and the traditional; shacks are next to high rise condos or luxury hotels. And the roads are covered with colorful taxis (neon pink and orange) along with tuk tuks (small, open carriage-like vehicles with an electric motor). The modern/traditional dichotomy is also readily visible in the types of businesses visible along the streets. Seven-Eleven stores and Starbucks are everywhere, but they are right next to street vendors selling traditional foods and goods or small Buddhist shrines, called Spirit Houses
First stop – Wat Phra Kaew, home of the Emerald Buddha, and the Grand Palace. Wat is the Thai word for temple. These attractions are on the same expansive grounds, which include many buildings. The Temple, Palace, and all the surrounding buildings are simply spectacular. The detail of the work is astoundingly beautiful and intricate. But it is almost always packed with tourists, so a little patience is required.
Second stop – The Reclining Buddha and Wat Pho. Wat Pho is one of the oldest wats in Bangkok and is a complex of extravagant temples and beautiful structures. Another extremely impressive sight. The Reclining Buddha is in a separate Wat and is golden and 150 feet long! It’s unlike anything else I have ever seen.
Third stop — Wat Rajabopitsathitmahasimaram (“The Royal Temple of the Highest Rank”). This wat was a striking contrast to those previously visited because there were very few people there. It was so quiet that you could hear birds. This was only temple that we saw today that we were allowed to take photographs inside. Dee talked to a monk who happened to be inside decorating the altar, and he gave us permission. The experience felt very peaceful and meditative.
Tip: Entrance to all temples requires covered knees and shoulders and taking your shoes off. The covered knees and shoulders rule is strictly enforced so be prepared. It helps to always have a sarong or shawl with you just in case.
Fourth stop – Lunch! Dee brought us to a typical Thai roadside restaurant. He was familiar with their specialty and, while the choice was limited, the food was very good. Different kinds of roasted meat over rice, with some spices and sauce on the side. Thai noodle soup is usually an option too at most places.
Fifth stop — We ventured to the outskirts of Bangkok to a floating market and boat tour of the canals. This was different from the floating market visited by most tourists and this particular market was only patronized by locals. It was so interesting to see wooden boats filled with produce for sale. We all climbed onto a long boat, steered by oars for a peaceful ride. We saw an abundance of nature, including a crane (an omen of good luck) and a swimming monitor lizard. Along the shores were homes of many types that provided some insight into how residents in that area live. The canals were filled with huge catfish and near the launching pier, a vendor sold bread to feed the fish.
After a long day of sightseeing we headed back to the Sofitel. In anticipation of a long day ahead, it was early to bed for this tired, still jet-lagged group.
Day Three: Monday, November 9
Our day started with a meeting at the office of ECPAT International with the Executive Director, Dorothy Rozga. Ms. Rozga impressed us with her expertise in the field of child sex trafficking and protecting youth from exploitation. She provided us with the history and evolution of ECPAT. We learned that in 2016 a global study of child sex tourism will be launched. She brought up the need for implementation of a method to identify known pedophiles who travel internationally and discussed the growing online problem of images of sexual assault of children.
Our next stop was Thailand’s Ministry of Social Development and Human Security. Due to time constraints and traffic, we elected to eat lunch in their cafeteria, a somewhat uninspiring meal, not unlike government cafeterias at home. But there were several Thai stalls to choose from, and it was more interesting than what we would get at home.
Funny aside: We had noticed that huge portraits of the King and Queen are all over Bangkok. Thais generally hold the King and Queen in high regard, referring to them as Dad and Mom. We noticed a plethora of “Bike for Dad” billboards and t-shirts. A huge bike ride is scheduled to celebrate the King’s birthday later this year. Many in our group were interested in buying the t-shirts as souvenirs. That interest morphed into an idea (enthusiastically supported by Dee) that we should all wear “Bike for Dad” t-shirts when we visited the Ministry. Due to the language barrier, we can only accept Dee’s word that our gesture was met favorably! We were greeted with smiles all around.
The meeting was held in a conference room and was conducted in a formal manner. Despite the fact that the room was small enough for participants to speak to each other, every seat was equipped with a microphone. The employees of the Ministry were dressed in military-style uniforms. The presentation was led by Mrs. Suwaree Jaiharn, the Director of the Division of Anti-Trafficking in Persons, who led the presentation “Combating Trafficking in Person in Thailand” and an overview of the Thai government’s response. The information was very general, and somewhat bureaucratic. We heard a much different story from the NGOs working on the ground, so this actually provided a very interesting contrast. The most interesting fact I learned was the existence of a hotline number, 1300, the “One-Stop Crisis Center, for assisting vulnerable members of the public”, for domestic violence, child abuse, begging, and trafficking. After the presentation, we were escorted downstairs to the “war room,” where we were introduced to more government employees whose job it was to answer the 1300 hotline and respond to the calls. In the evening, small groups went their separate ways. My daughter went for a Thai massage at a place recommended by Dee. Then we wandered about the huge mall that was walking distance from the hotel and ended up at an Indian restaurant for dinner.
Funny aside: Near the beginning of her presentation, Mrs. Jaiharn listed the three types of trafficking as “sex, labor,” and (what I heard in translation as) “bakers.” The list was not on the power point and I made a note of it with a “?” next to the word “bakers.” When we got to the question/answer part at the end, I expressed curiosity as to why bakers would be subjected to trafficking, as I’ve never heard of this. A bit of laughter followed when Dee clarified that the word was “beggars” (as in forced begging). It was a lost-in-translation moment that led to repeated emphasis on the letter “g” for the remainder of the trip.
Day Four: Tuesday, November 10
We started the day with a meeting at the office of The Code (“The Code of Conduct for the Protection of Children from Sexual Exploitation in Travel and Tourism”). We met with Damien Brosnan, the Program Coordinator, and Marc Joly, the General Manager. They explained the history of The Code and the significance of hotels signing onto The Code and training their staff to recognize when someone might be a victim of trafficking.
Nicha Ratanakul, the Corporate Human Resources Support Manager for the Accor Corporation, a large French hotel company, was also present. Accor is a leader in fighting human trafficking in the hotel industry. She showed us one of the videos used in the training of hotel staff on how to recognize and respond to suspected child sex trafficking situations. Clearly, a lot of time, effort, and money had been invested in training, and Accor is to be congratulated. Hopefully, all hotels companies will follow in their footsteps, as it has some meaningful impacts.
From the Code Offices we headed to the United Nations Headquarters. After lunch, we headed to the Office of the International Labour Organization (ILO), where we met with Simrin Singh, Senior Specialist on Child Labour for East and South-East Asia and the Pacific. Ms. Singh is, without question, a dedicated expert in her field. She shared a recent report on migrant and child labor in Thailand and we learned that at least 70% of the Thai economy is “informal,” i.e., no company registration, no taxes or social security paid. These factors greatly add to the difficulty of achieving the goal of ending child labor. She also noted that the recent focus on abuse of laborers in the fishing industry has diverted attention and resources from the problem of children being abused in the sex industry. I walked away from this meeting feeling that Ms. Singh, and many of the advocates we met on this trip, are unsung heroes. Against all odds, they continue the fight every day.
In the evening, we again broke into small groups according to interests and energy levels. I could not leave Bangkok without seeing Wat Arun (“Temple of Dawn”) and riding in a boat down the famous Mae Nam Choa Phraya river. Luckily, one of my fellow travelers felt the same way. So, off we went on the Sky Train to the fast ferry, to the little ferry that crosses the river and lands near Wat Arun. We arrived at the Wat at about 5:40 p.m. and, although the official closing time is 6:00 p.m., we not allowed to enter. But that was not a problem since we could wander the grounds and the primary draw of this site is its beauty when it is illuminated at night. The lights went on while we were on the cross-river ferry and it was gorgeous. A great photo opportunity! Our timing was perfect because we saw it in daylight and then saw it brightly and beautifully lit in the dark as we rode the fast ferry back. We went one stop in the wrong direction on the Sky Train and two local Thai insisted on walking us to the correct platform to help us find our way. We were back at the Sofitel in time to join our friends for a quick bite at the bar. Then it was off to bed in anticipation of an early wake-up.
Day Five: Wednesday, November 11
We had an early departure from Bangkok airport to Chiang Rai, a city in the North, near the border of Myanmar (Burma). The traffic in Bangkok necessitates scheduling extra time to catch planes or arrive on time for meetings. It is a crazy place to drive! It makes New York City driving look easy.
TWO NIGHTS IN CHIANG RAI
It was a smooth one-hour flight to Chiang Rai, where the small airport is beautifully decorated with orchids. Our van was waiting, as well as a truck to take our luggage to our next hotel while we heading to our first stop of the day, the ECPAT Foundation, which is the local office in the north of the country.
There we were welcomed by Ms. Katesabee Chantrakul, who goes by the nickname “Soo,” and her staff. The modest office is beautifully decorated with the artwork of the children who attend the programs held there. She told us about how the Foundation came to exist and the work they perform. They put great emphasis on preventing child sex trafficking by educating children and providing a safe place.
Ms. Chantrakul spoke directly to the problem of child sex trafficking in Thailand and its connection to how minorities are viewed. We learned that members of the Hill Tribes are a very vulnerable population and that Hill Tribe youth are targeted by traffickers. The members of Thailand’s 20 identified Hill Tribes are not recognized as Thai citizens and do not have identification cards. Thus, even if they were born and raised in Thailand, these people are essentially stateless. Lack of Thai identity cards can exclude these children from public education and any type of benefits provided by the government.
After taking some nice photos with Soo, we moved on to our next stop. But our travel was soon delayed by the appearance of a huge tea plantation along the route. It was marked by a gigantic statue of a golden dragon. We didn’t take the time for the official tour, but stopped in to admire the beautiful scenery. Dee, who is originally from Chiang Rai, had a lunch spot in mind, where he once again, “worked his magic”. This time it was with a Northern Thai twist; the famous dish, Khao Soi, along with the most flavorful sausages.
Funny aside: Following lunch, we headed out to see some of the local sights, but, as we were driving down a busy street in Chiang Rai, Dee suddenly yelled, “there’s my sister.” He told the van driver to pull over and identified the woman working at a smoothie stand by the side of the road as his sister. He asked us to order smoothies and to bother her with lots of questions. We did so, and then he popped out and surprised her. They were clearly happy to see each other and, as a bonus, Dee’s father and brother-in-law were also there. Dee introduced everyone to his family members and we looked around the brother-in-law’s antique shop that was attached to the stand.
We headed to Wat Rong Khun “The White Temple.” This is one of the most famous Wats in Thailand. Near the end of the 20th century it was in poor condition and an artist, Charlermchai Kositpipat, completely re-built it. The main building, accessed by a bridge, is all in white, made with glass set in plaster. It has a wonderland aura about it and looks like a fantasy world. Inside the murals are most unusual because they include depictions of modern buildings and characters from recent Western culture. This is a do-not-miss sight.
From there we headed 10 kilometers North of Chaing Rai to Baan Dam, ”The Black House.” This too is the work of an artist — Thawan Duchanee, who was a student of Charlermchai Kositpipat. This sight is a large compound of fifteen buildings and a gallery. It is not a temple, but is just as impressive. The atmosphere is in direct contrast to that of the White Temple — dark and foreboding. There are live animals, such as snakes, owls, and horses on the premises and lots of bones, horns, and skins included in the décor. Although it might sound a bit weird, it really was intriguing and artistic.
We finally tore ourselves away from this fascinating place and headed to the Golden Pine Resort. The style of the resort was quite appealing. It consists of individual thatched roof bungalows. The pool is beautiful and a number of our group jumped in immediately upon check-in. The next stop was the well-known Chiang Rai night market. While some of the group tried the local pizza (with favorable results), a few of us took our chances with the street food in the market. The night market is terrific! There was an amazing variety of inexpensive, but beautiful, goods, and a stage with music and dance performances.
A word about street food: Before traveling to Thailand I was given all kinds of advice about the ever-present street food — “eat it,” “don’t eat it,” “eat only the vegetables,” “eat at only the busy stands where the locals eat.” Dee’s advice, based upon our distance from the ocean and poor transit refrigeration, was to eat everything except the seafood. Ultimately, I (and several others in our group) ate everything. It was delicious and no one got sick. But other members of our group steered clear of street food completely. Maybe the best advice is to just know your own body and exercise discretion accordingly.
The resort was very tranquil. It is located in a rural area and the view from our small patio is across a beautiful field and rice paddy. But beware — there are also mosquitoes. This is the only place where we needed bug repellant in the evenings.
Day Six: Thursday, November 12
I awoke at 7:30 a.m. to the chanting of monks. Very cool! First stop was The Daughters’ Education Program, founded and headed by Sompop Chantraka.
We were greeted by Mr. Chantraka’s assistant and shown an interesting photo display in the school’s large gymnasium. DEPDC (“Development and Education Programme for Daughters and Communities Centre”) was founded in 1989 and was expanded to include boys in 1998. The school was built to provide education and a safe haven for children regardless of their citizenship or ethnicity. The underlying premise is that girls could be saved from trafficking and exploitation if they were allowed to stay in school.
We moved to a large classroom where we met Peter, a German student who has been working at the school for a year and a half while also working on his Master’s Degree. He has written a dissertation on the Hill Tribes of northern Thailand. He spoke about the founding and history of the school and the many programs run there. We were then joined by Mr. Chantraka, a soft-spoken man who has the aura of a kind-hearted professor. He spoke off-the-cuff about the problem of abused and neglected children and the need to come together as a community to solve the problem. Our meeting was followed by a tour outside where we could see their very large garden and the children playing on the grounds.
After lunch, the next stop was the office of Child Life, in Maisai, in Chaing Rai Province, located near the border of Myanmar (Burma). Child Life is a direct intervention service-providing project founded and led by Nutchanad Boonkong, known to everyone as Kroo Nam. In Thai, Kroo means teacher. Our meeting was held in a small office/house/school maintained near the Burma border, but the main campus is in a distance south, where the organization has a large shelter and school facility. They service up to 150 children at any given time. I do not want to deprive future travelers of the thrill and amusement of hearing Kroo Nam’s story of how Child Life got started so I won’t repeat it here. Suffice it to say that tears were shed and all went away amazed by her bravery.
For the last fifteen years, Child Life has focused its efforts on rescuing and educating children, many from Burma, who lived in desperate circumstances, begging or selling sex to survive. They were also the targets of drug dealers who entice them with offers of money to deliver drugs, but at the risk of arrest and incarceration. We also got to meet one of the first boys rescued by Kroo Nam, who has now graduated college and has returned to help in the rescue of abused, vulnerable children. She also uses art therapy to help her child client overcome the trauma they have suffered.
Since we were so close to the Golden Triangle (the geographic convergence of Thailand, Laos, and Burma), in Chiang Saen, we could not leave without seeing it.
First, we drove up to the Temple of the Scorpion, which is located at a high elevation and provided a great view over the city and the border crossing. As with many temples, this sight was a compound of ornate buildings and intriguing statuary, including a giant statue of a scorpion. Unlike most, there was a monk on a loudspeaker inviting people in.
Next, we drove up a mountainside to the official Gate of the Golden Triangle. Routes in this area are steep and windy. While the Gate of the Golden Triangle is a prime tourist destination and, therefore, crowded, it is worth the trip. It is fun to take photos under the beautiful gate with a diagram of the area and to take in a view of three countries at once. An ancient (8th century) temple, Wat Phra That Pu Khao, is also at this location and atop a somewhat dilapidated staircase. Very interesting to see the ruins of the ancient temple.
Back at the Golden Pine, it was time to get in the pool for part of the group.
Day Seven: Friday, November 13
The Golden Pine was the only hotel on our trip that was not a Code member, as there are no hotels that are a signatory to the Code in this region. Upon checking out we all signed the advocacy letter ECPAT-USA has for travelers which asks the hotel to join. Sarah, our ECPAT-USA leader, spoke to the general manager and presented him with all our letters, urging his hotel to join The Code. Hopefully our efforts will result in another hotel training their staff, and we can stay there again next year!
We piled in the van and were off to our next adventure – the Mirror Foundation. It’s a beautiful drive through the Thai northern countryside. We met with one of the original founders of the organization, Parisutha Suthimongkol, who goes by the nickname Moo. She provided a history of the Mirror Foundation and told about their many projects, which include a project to combat trafficking in women and children. Much of their work focuses on the Hill Tribes. We were educated in the history of these stateless people, who are treated as second-class citizens in Thailand. The refusal of the Thai government to recognize them as Thai creates enormous difficulties, including a greater risk that the young people will suffer sexual exploitation. She provided us with a fascinating example of their work. In the past, Thai citizens were eligible to obtain official identification cards at the age of fifteen, but the authorizing signature of the village elder was required. A fifteen-year-old girl came to the Mirror Foundation and reported that her village elder was demanding sex in exchange for the required signature. The Mirror Foundation successfully advocated for a change in law that allows for any respected community member, such as a teacher or doctor, to sign the identification document. Thus, that girl, and likely many more, were protected from sexual abuse and now have more opportunities.
Moo invited us to visit the traditional village of the Ahka Hill Tribe. Our van followed her truck up a steep narrow dirt road until it was no longer passable. We then got out and walked a short, but vertical, distance to a small village primarily consisting of small buildings with dirt floors and thatched roofs. Moo and several villagers directed us to the only concrete building. While the climb to the open second floor area on rickety steep steps was a challenge, the villagers were very welcoming. They had set the room to serve us a meal in an area with rugs on the floor. We removed our shoes and they brought out large round bamboo trays loaded with food. We separated in several groups around the trays and feasted. Dee identified the foods, and warned us about dishes that were highly spiced, which was not an underestimation! The villagers sat around and spoke, through Dee, words of welcome.
Funny Aside: One of the young women in our group spoke Japanese and, much to our surprise, so did one of the young male villagers. He did not speak English, but Dee learned that he had worked as a guide for a group of Japanese trekkers and they had taught him Japanese. So, he and our Japanese-speaker began conversing. Later she told us that he flirted with her, suggesting that they should go for a walk. She politely declined.
After the meal, we were invited into one of the homes in the village. They are open-air with low ceilings and dirt floors. They showed us some of the traditional handicrafts that they make and sell, including jewelry and fancy traditional headdresses. The older women, dressed in traditional colorful costumes with elaborate headwear, came out to greet us. Our ability to communicate was zilch, but they clearly conveyed their happiness at meeting us. Many photos were taken and there was even some dancing. With reluctance, we finally pulled ourselves away. They insisted on giving us bunches of the small sweet bananas that grow there for our car ride. On the ride to Chiang Mai Dee suggested that we stop at one of the many hot springs that are common in this part of the country. It was delightful! We relaxed along a river of very hot flowing water and soaked our feet. And the area was nicely decorated with flowers. There were pools of hot, steaming water where people boil eggs in baskets, sold on the spot. What an extremely interesting sight!
THREE NIGHTS IN CHIANG MAI
We arrived late afternoon at Khum Phaya Resort & Spa in Chiang Mai. This hotel quickly became my favorite. The lobby looks like a temple and is open to the outdoors, very beautiful and inviting. Our room, on the first floor, had a small balcony in the back on a stream, right in front of a waterfall. The stream had large colorful fish and I loved sitting out there with my coffee in the mornings.
The pool was also delightful. It was huge and meandering, like a lagoon, with a swim-up bar at the far end. Some of the rooms have little balconies that are right up against the water, allowing you to jump right in from your room. The swimmers of the group quickly changed and jumped in, and a few swam up to the bar to relax.
Later, some of the group chose to stay at the hotel for dinner, while five of us ventured out to a large outdoor restaurant. There were young women in traditional dress demonstrating ancient music and arts. The whole area was beautifully decorated. The restaurant had Northern-style food and tables. We sat on cushions on the floor and were served various dishes in a large round bamboo tray. We were also given packages of sticky rice. Dee explained that traditional Northern-style eating involved making a ball of the sticky rice with your fingers and dipping it in the food. I failed to master this technique, but luckily we had spoons and forks. By the way, Thais eat with their spoons and use the fork to put the food on the spoon. Chopsticks are only used to eat Chinese food. It was an all-you-can-eat family style and, as usual, Dee made sure that we were well fed. We re-ordered several of our favorite dishes. We were entertained during the meal by musical performances and traditional dancers, representing the styles of all areas of the country, as well as people dressed in huge animal costumes, such as llamas!
Day Eight: Saturday, November 14
The first stop of the day was the Thai Elephant Conservation Center about an hour’s drive outside Chiang Mai. There are many places that you can see elephants in Thailand, but not all of them are reputable. This tour was careful to choose a place where the elephants are well treated, and has a rehabilitation aspect, as elephants have been used in Thailand in the logging industry and some mistreated in the entertainment industry. The Conservation Center runs a hospital for injured elephants, and has a nursery too. There was much excitement in our group about this visit and nothing is cuter than a 3 month old elephant!
We got to feed some young elephants and the Center has inexpensive baskets of food, a variety of vegetables and bamboo and you can hand feed them. The elephants loved it and were grabbing it with their trunk!
Then they held an elephant show, part of which demonstrated traditional logging techniques that were widely practiced in Thailand for hundreds of years, before deforestation became a problem, until logging was banned in 1989. Unfortunately, with the decline of lumbering, many elephants were abandoned because the owners could not afford the huge amount of food they must eat every day. Thus the need for places, such as this sanctuary, arose.
The show announcer alternated between Thai and heavily-accented English and called for volunteers, to which my daughter jumped at that chance. They went out onto the staging area and played catch with the elephants. Well, the elephants threw balls with their trunks in the direction of the volunteers who ran around with large baskets trying to catch them. The elephants also painted pictures on large heavy pieces of paper with their trunks. Then we went to the elephant ride area where very large elephants were outfitted with seats that can hold two people. We did a half hour ride for two and the path passed through a pond. Very exciting and a bit unnerving experience to be on an elephant and have it go through water! After our half day there we left for Pun Pun organic farm and restaurant in Chiang Mai. The restaurant is under a large covered porch, with a large garden and a little shop. The food was delicious and the smoothies were out of this world. We then headed back to the Khum Phaya to wash off the scent of the elephants in the pool.
For the evening we went to Chiang Mai’s night market. The market is two-stories tall and huge, but it was not so crowded as the markets we had visited in Bangkok and Chiang Rai. The goods were, for the most part, quite high quality and still reasonably priced. But some of the vendors, while happy to bargain, were very “assertive” in their selling style.
Interesting Aside: Dee worked in the Chiang Mai night market for several years after graduating college. Although he had studied English in school, he was not fluent. So when he interacted with English-speaking foreigners in the market he would offer his services as a guide in exchange for a promise that they would converse with him in English and help him perfect his skills. Thus resulting in the fluent English-speaking and clever Dee we had grown so fond of.
Day Nine: Sunday, November 15
After another yummy breakfast at Khum Phaya we drove to the Mountain Top Wat (“Wat Phra That” at the top of “Doi Suthep”. It is a steep climb to drive there and a steep climb (300 steps) to the entrance. The statuary and decoration is just spectacular. This is a do-not-miss sight.
This site has been an active Buddhist monastery since the 14th century and it contains a copy of the famous Emerald Buddha. There is also a shrine to the White Elephant. As legend has it, in the 14th century, a King place a relic of the Buddha on a white elephant who climbed to this site, trumpeted three times and dropped dead. This was an omen that the temple should be built at this location.
Interesting aside: At the bottom of the staircase, where there are huge dragonheads, there were children in traditional Hill Tribe costumes. They appeared to be accompanied by adults and I naively assumed that they were with their parents and playing dress-up. In fact, they were inviting people to pose with them and asking for money in return. It was a sad reminder of children being used for begging in Thailand. We saw several foreigners, seemingly unaware, happily pose with these small young girls, no older than 6 or 7.
After walking through the Wat and around all the beautiful buildings, we headed back to the City of Chiang Mai for lunch. We then visited Wat Pra Singh, a 700 year old Wat in the heart of Chiang Mai. From there we split into groups to explore the city. I found Chaing Mai to be an attractive interesting city. It was more walkable than Bangkok, and the shops and vendors sold more authentic art and handicrafts. My companion and I wandered into a Lanni house, a traditional wooden Thai home. This house was large, open to the public for free and filled with historic photographs.
Since we returned to the hotel a little earlier than usual, some of us took advantage of the opportunity to experience a Thai massage. The spa at the Khum Phaya is full-service and very pleasant. The experience, which began with a foot scrub, was intense. The young woman masseuse was amazing. She climbed right up on the table for part of the treatment. I am glad that I had the authentic (and intense!) experience while in Thailand. When I was finished, I joined our group for dinner at Khum Phaya’s restaurant. By this point of the trip I had eaten a lot of Pad Thai but this version, baked en croute in a thin egg wrapping, was my favorite.
Day Ten: Monday, November 16
Back to Bangkok! It was a quick one-hour flight back. Our last night was at The Hotel Muse, a beautiful modern hotel, decorated with antiques with a 1920’s French feel. The rooms, including the bathrooms, are quite large, but the pretty infinity pool is small. Hotel Muse is also an Accor property.
During this last afternoon, my daughter, Sarah Porter and I decided to visit to Lumphini Park, Bangkok’s version of New York’s Central Park, which was a 10-15 minute walk from The Muse. While decidedly large, the park was not nearly as big or crowded as Central Park. It did, however, have something Central Park will never have (I hope) huge monitor lizards. They were up to 3-4 feet long and seemed to be everywhere you turned, in water and on land. Having been warned that they bite, we kept a safe distance while trying to get photos.
That evening we had a private room at Cabbages and Condoms, a funky, somewhat famous and truly unique restaurant. It was conceptualized to promote understanding and acceptance of family planning. It is decorated with artwork, including life-size sculptures made entirely with condoms and boxes of condoms, and is a large very popular restaurant. Profits go to support these types of programs in Thailand.
We had a private room and both the service and the food were absolutely delicious and flavorful. It was a nice opportunity to review our adventures and share our thoughts on the tour with one another. Later that night, many of us headed up to the outdoor rooftop bar for a final toast to Thailand and the Behind the Code Journey. Although we were ready to go home, we were a little sad to see it end. It was a chance to tell our leaders, Sarah and Dee, thank you and our fellow travelers how much we enjoyed getting to know them.
Day Eleven: Tuesday, November 17
We packed up and checked out. We allowed ample travel time for our trip to the airport. Shockingly, there was little traffic so we arrived early. This allowed for spending the last Bahts at the airport shops for lunch and treats to bring home.
THE BOTTOM LINE
This was a life-changing adventure. If you are debating whether to go, I encourage you to Go For It! You will not regret it. Plus, you will have the benefit of adjustments made from the lessons learned during this inaugural trip.
I have been asked whether the tour, given its theme, was “depressing.” I assure you that it was not. While we heard about at-risk and abused children, we met some amazing people who, against all odds, get up everyday and devote themselves to helping these children and preventing abuse in the future. I was overwhelming impressed by these people, who I came to refer to as my “hero of the day.” They are heroes, unsung humble ones. The overall effect was that I was uplifted and inspired. And I think you will be too.