Daily Archives: April 30, 2008

A visit to Mae Sa Elephant Camp

The elephant is Thailand’s national animal: its image appeared on the old flag of Siam. Nowadays, elephants are endangered, with their numbers dwindling constantly and less than 1000 elephants living in the wild. A couple of thousand more elephants are domesticated and live on farms such as the Mae Sa Elephant Camp near Chiang Mai. There is no better place to see these magnificent animals then in their natural habitat, even though they are not allowed to roam free.

Last week, we visited Mae Sa Elephant Camp with some children participating in summer school. I had also been there several times previously, taking visitors, as this elephant park is the closest to the city: it is about 30 kilometres from Chiang Mai, or 12 kilometres from the small town of Mae Rim, on the verge of Doi Suthep-Pui National Park. They have around 70 elephants, ranging from babies to huge beasts in their 60s, their names and photos are displayed on a huge billboard. They need over six tons of fresh grass, bananas and sugarcane each and every day! Each elephant also needs 200 litres of clean water a day as well. The costs must be enormous to keep the elephants well-fed, fit and healthy. To cover these costs, they charge children 80 baht, adults 120 baht – the complete lack of signs at the entrance made me suspicious, but a few inquiries revealed that the prices are the same for foreigners and Thais.

There was a large crowd at the entrance before 9:20, with several tour buses, but then the large area of the camp swallowed up a couple of hundred people and it wasn’t really overwhelming. There are souvenir stalls right after entering, with reasonable prices, you can also buy a bunch of bananas or sugarcanes for the elephants for 20 baht. Then you cross a shallow stream, where elephants take their baths 20 minutes before each show, at 8:00, 9:40 and 13:30. The elephants are really playful and some enjoy splashing the watching crowd! If you sign up for a one-day mahout training, you may join the bathing as well. After the stream, you pass by a large pen, where you can touch and feed the elephants, they also enjoy snatching your hats and then putting them back on! You can also ask the mahouts questions, or have your photo taken with an elephant’s trunk hugging you. If you would like to give a tip, the trunks are dexterous enough to pick up a coin or a banknote and hand it to the mahout. I’ve even seen two elephants fighting for a 20-baht note held by a little girl at a distance, it was more funny than disturbing. The elephants and mahouts are happy to play with you even if you don’t give a tip.

Then we went on to see the show, which lasted about 40 minutes. To be honest, it used to be much better when I first visited in 2001, long bits have been cut and much of the fun is not in the show any more. But probably if you see it for the first time, it is quite entertaining. It is not amazingly spectacular, like the show I saw in Bangkok’s Samphran Elephant Ground, it is rather slow pace, relaxed, much like the everyday life around here. About twenty elephants welcome you dancing and playing music. Mahouts showed us how elephants obey commands, holding out their trunk or legs to help the mahout get on and off. Young elephants played football, hoops, darts, and relay picking up sticks: children especially enjoyed the football part, cheering for the strikers. Elephants revealed their personalities and temperaments, making both children and adults laugh, gasp, or clap.

One elephant demonstrated how to give a massage, elephant style, now, I wouldn’t like to be at the receiving end of its trunk, then feet! Older elephants, who used to be employed in the logging industry before logging was abolished, showed us how they used to drag and stack trees, working as a team with each other and with their mahouts. Their strength and accuracy is amazing.

Probably the highlight of the show is when seven or eight young elephants paint pictures. It takes only about five minutes, and the pictures are then quickly sold for 2,000 baht each, not bad for a wage! These were much, much cheaper a few years ago, but on second thought, I cannot really blame them for the price rise as there are plenty of rich package tour tourists buying these paintings happily for any price. I just really hope the income goes to caring for the elephants. Some elephants are abstract artists, favouring lines and a rainbow of colours, others paint pretty trees or flowers. They all seem to have their individual style. Eight elephants actually set up a world record in 2005, making the largest ever painting by a group of elephants. There is a gallery and a shop where you can admire and buy their artwork.

At the end of the show, the elephants came up to the audience, and there was another opportunity to feed them, take pictures, get hugs. The children were very scared at first, even though the mahouts made sure that we got youngster elephants at that section of the show area, not the huge fearsome males. After a few bunches of bananas, children dared to touch the elephants’ trunks, but hugs proved to be way too scary for them. We had a great time and shared quite a few laughs interacting with the animals.

After the show, you can go for an elephant ride: 600 baht for half an hour or 1000 for an hour, per elephant. The route actually takes you to some pretty steep sections of the surrounding “jungle”. Elephants have a funny stride, the ride actually becomes uncomfortable after half an hour. You can almost get elephant-sick! The mahouts are really nice and you can ask them to take your picture with your own camera, no extra charge. Or you can get professional photos taken, I think the price was 200 baht, these pictures come in a nice silk frame.

At the camp, you can always see a couple of baby elephants with their mothers in separate pens. One or two babies are born each year, and they stay with their mothers for two years before being separated and starting their training with their mahouts. Children especially enjoy touching elephants who are their own size! Two years ago, one of the mothers got really protective and had it not been for the mahout, there could have been a stampede. So, you need to be careful with the kids here. You can easily spend two or three hours at the camp, watching the show, going for a ride, visiting the pens, playing with the animals. Elephants come and go at all times along the footpaths, so you need to be very careful. Obviously, mahouts are very careful as well and they can control the elephants well.

The elephant camp closes at 14:30, so if you are not on a tour, you need to make sure you make your way here on time. You probably need to rent a car or motorcycle. You can also take a yellow songthaew (pickup truck converted into a taxi) that goes from Chiang Mai to Samoeng, and ask to be dropped off at the elephant camp. I think a rented motorcycle is cheaper though. Certainly for two people. You will need about one hour from Chiang Mai. Head north towards Chiang Dao for 12 kilometres, then turn left after the town of Mae Rim and continue another 10 kilometres. The roads are clearly signposted and not very busy.

‘We Love The Tha Cheen River’

Just in case you were thinking that my only loves in life were blogging and drinking, I hasten to inform you that yours in name here also a bit of a fancy for the environment – and the protection of it. One of the latest groups I’ve joined up to help with is this one ‘We Love The Tha Cheen’ River which is assisted by a close friend environmentalist buddy of mine and fellow blogger Nicky Somboonwit (OkNation Blog)

Just in case you had never heard of the Tha Cheen River, it goes through 4 provinces in the central region; Chainat, Suphanburi, Nakhorn Pathom and Samut Sakhorn. Quite funny in that the river actually has four different names, but it’s most frequently called Tha Chin – named after a small Chinese immigrant village in Samut Sakhorn. It once played a major social and economical factor. Just a few decades back before paved road were built, the Tha Cheen River was essential for those traveling from the likes of my town Suphanburi…. to Bangkok (the river also joins the Chao Phraya). Not just that of course, the river was important for the transportation of goods.

According to “We Love The Tha Cheen River”, one of Thailand’s major environmental problems is the sub-standard state of its rivers. Ever since the capital’s factories got the boot out of Bangkok quite a while back, the factories decided to relocate in neighbouring provinces…….. such as the banks of the Tha Cheen. Very appropriate indeed, as for tens of years, factories with a hundreds of tonnes of waste have been able to simply chuck it all in the river – a far better idea than having to pay for proper disposal. Only in very recent years have some folk actually joined hands and tried to do something about this barbaric behaviour committed by factories. Three of the worst offenders are textile dye, chemical and fertilizer companies.

One of those local organizations trying to get something done is the one I belong to ‘We Love The Tha Cheen River”. One of their major objectives is to educate the young about how villagers, but mostly factories are destroying the environment all for the sake of money. Well my friend Nimit, has invited me to some funky seminar at Mahidol University in a few days with a nights paid accommodation etc… so it’s only right that I help out with advertising the seminar in English a bit. Makes a difference from writing a book review I suppose!

So, what is this show all about? Well, Nimit has finally, after a year’s hard work put together a fine educational publication for use in every school in the vicinity of the Tha Cheen River, and this show is to both discuss this nice piece of work and of course how they can continue promoting public awareness. As you can see from the pics here, it’s really user-friendly reading for the kids. Teaches them about the history of the river, the most polluted parts, a map, the types of fish, surrounding agriculture, lots of facts and figures and of course…. how you can help preserve it. So, after Nimit has helped me with stacks of ideas for articles and blogs before, I thought I’d do my best by sticking this on the Internet. Thus showing, I’m actually doing something for the organization and not just drinking their friend alcohol.

If you fancy coming along to learn more about the preservation of the Tha Cheen and joining in the activities, you are most welcome to come along at 8-12am on 18 January at Mahidol University, Saraya Campus in Nakhorn Pathom. It will be presided over by the Asst Minister of the Environment.

Thailand’s Teachers…Part One

(Typical ‘in-company’ English teacher)

Well, there was certainly a slight delay there with this new blog of mine as it was that time of the year again to run around like an intoxicated beaver to renew my visa etc.. For those of you readers who have had to do this yourself, you will know just how painstakingly boring the procedure just is.

So, im back as soon as possible after a dear Farang friend of mine from the Nation newspaper in his last e-mail quoted: “You will have to start blogging more frequently and catch up with that Mr Richard fellow who posts at the rate of 27 blogs a day”.

For a lot of you students out there just wondering to the ‘ins and outs’ of that spotty white-faced teacher of yours I thought I would enlighten you today and give you all, in part one, a behind the scenes look at that not so endangered species: the hungover Farang teacher.

Having spent a heck of a long time teaching here in the Land of Smiles you could well imagine how many frivolous Farang teachers ive had the pleasure of knowing. Here is the story of just a few of them.

A long while back I had a ‘journo’ friend of mine, Tim, who on realising he wasn’t exactly going to strike it rich writing, decides one day to put on a shirt and tie and go look for a teaching job out there in the concrete jungle of Bangkok. Unfortunately for him he wasn’t the most popular of teachers and hastily got himself sacked from four jobs within the spate of four weeks. On one occasion it was cause he had all the kids stand on their heads for half an hour as punishment (of course half the class went on to vomit their breakfasts up!) and then another time after he locked the kids out of the school’s back door, unluckily for the kids a rain storm soon arrived.

He had also scooped an evening job at a private snobby school on Silom which was far more to Tim’s liking as most of the classes were adults. Sadly for him he wasn’t too popular there neither with the grown-ups and was nicknamed ‘smelly sock’ before getting the boot cause of the air-pollution he was causing! Feeling deflated Tim soon struck it lucky when a couple of pretty uni. students asked to study with him at his gaff on Samsen. The class went well but his girlfriend was berated that she had been relegated to stay put in the bedroom for the whole two hours. A punch-up soon followed after his girlfriend claimed that he had spent the two hours admiring his students’ legs and flirting with them. To this day Tim is still here in Thailand, writing.

Talking about keeping a job, or the lack of being able too, I know this Farang over there in Thonburi that once boasted to me that he had taught at over a hundred schools in his ten years in Bangkok. Nothing too much to brag about when he’s been sacked from every one. On our last meeting I heard him groan on “I just don’t know where to apply now”. On top of that, he informed me last year that since he spends all his earnings on beer and girls, his visa is well over due so being of a rather paranoid nature, locks himself up in his room in his spare time hoping Bangkok’s finest aren’t going to single him out and bang him up before deportation

I remember at my old school a couple of funny teachers we had come in there. The first, a Scotiish guy who on getting the job decides to get sick five days in the first three weeks. Furthermore he wasn’t too popular with the kids as he would call them ‘buffalo’ for not understanding his commands such as “You stand up”. When I asked one of his kids “Well, why don’t you just stand-up then ?” replies “We don’t know who he is talking too”, of course the poor fellow was actually cross-eyed!

Then at another school of mine we had this Australian come to teach, but she only lasted a week. Why? Cause she refused to take out this stupid looking ring of hers prodded out of her eyebrow. Being her boss, I was the one left to explain to her that such jewelry just wasn’t acceptable at a government school, only to get a right ear-bashing of “Bla bla bla women’s rights bla bla bla” and walked out never to be seen again.

“Hey mate, gimme a teacher job”

Then after her, in comes this funny looking big bald-headed Dutch guy, who is a friend of mine to this day. His idea of a lesson plan to wake the kids up was for them to sing along while he played the electric guitar. “Well that’s a bit different I thought” but after a couple of weeks of this the kids did get fractionally bored. His other two passions in life were cooking and Buddhism. Now this guy could talk, I mean he could go on and on and on. For a whole darned hour he could stand there and just waffle on about the best way to make sweet green curry while half the class fell asleep while the other half read cartoon books. As you could imagine he wasn’t invited back for the next school year.

Quite a few years ago after a longish stint up there in the north-east and a nice lengthy holiday to go with it, I had arrived in Bangkok at a hazardous time of the year for finding a decent teaching job. Before long however, after plodding around looking for the odd bit of work here and there I soon picked up a couple of hours at a branch of ABC schools.

One evening, shortly after just starting, I was informed ten minutes before one of the classes by the receptionist “Mr Plonch from HQ is here today and he wants to observe your class”. Oh no… as my students were a bunch of randy guys from a company nearby, my lesson plan for the day was something like ‘dos and don’ts of chatting up a Farang girl’. Knowing this wouldn’t be taken too well by Mr Plonch I decided instead on the spur of the moment to have all the students ask Mr Plonch 3 questions each using the language I had taught them.

So in comes this sturdy serious looking English guy who sits down at the back of the class as if no-one had noticed. Perplexed as the students were, to which bus he had just fallen off, I explained to them in Thai who he was. After a few of the students asked Mr Plonch questions such as: Do you like Thai girls?” “No, then you must like Thai men then?”, “Why you come to Thailand?” and “When you go home your country?” it was obvious that Mr Plonch was getting rather irritable. As for me and the students, we were having a right laugh as usual.

A few days later I was handed by the secretary a ‘letter of observation’ from Mr Plonch himself. It went something like this.

Dear Mr Stephen,
I’m writing in regards to that class of yours of which I observed a few days ago. Firstly, when I go to observe a lesson, I go to observe it and observe it I do and NOT assist in the teaching. Even though your students enjoy your classes that is not the policy objective of ABC schools, but learning is. Having me sat in your class and to be made a mockery of is not to my liking. Furthermore any distasteful jokes about my neck-tie and hair-style are completely uncalled for.
Finally, NEVER speak Thai in class, the students have paid their money to learn English NOT for you to practice your Thai. When I next come to observe you I want to see a vast improvement in your teaching techniques.


Mr Plonch

As you could have imagined, ABCs aren’t as popular as they used to be and now half of their upcountry branches are now defunct.

Fortunately for Mr Plonch he never did have to observe another class of mine after I landed a ‘proper’ teaching job a couple of weeks later. Ever since then it has been me myself that has to do observations and hire the applicants.

Talking about just some of the foreigners ive met hoping for a job, well… I could go on and on about a few of the bad-breathed quackwacks ive had the not so enviable task of interviewing. My main criticism is that so many of them come along to the interview with a stick-insect so-called girlfriend of theirs who is obviously some Nana Plaza a-go-go dancer! There she is stood outside with a frightening short skirt half way up her bottom, covered in tattoos and smoking away. I’ve honestly had to tell a couple of guys “The job, should you get it, is at a government high school, so sorry, whatever you do, DON’T have that girlfriend of yours pick you up at the school gates after work!

Another thing I really hate to say about govt schools and most other schools is the fact that they are not in the habit of hiring our friends from Africa just cause of their skin colour. Ive had the unfortunate task of having to turn a few of them down, who were real nice guys and had to make up excuses over the phone of why they weren’t recruited. Just a few days back on responding to my ad at a teacher’s website I had one guy from West Africa repeatedly call me about the position available and didn’t well believe me on how the position had so suddenly been taken.

Finally, the guy gave up but not before brawling down the phone “It’s cause im from Africa, isnt it?, you don’t want me just cause its my skin colour right?, shame on you man” and hung up. I felt rather saddened for him and a little hurt myself but what else could I do when the Director had instructed me to the likes of “No Africa man, he would scare the living daylights out of the grade one children!” So, I just didn’t want to have the poor fellow travelling all the way from Sukhumvit to Suphan for nothing.

Finally, going back to Farang. The couple of English guys we had teaching here last year did such a fine job that we decided that for the next school year we would hire a couple of Filipino girls instead.


Painstakingly (adv) = extremely
Fellow (n) = man
Ins and outs = behind the scenes facts, usually best not to be known
Journo (n)= ‘journalist’, ones of the likes in Bangkok who think us teachers are a right bunch of losers.
Gaff (n) = room, flat or condo etc.. usually found in a right mess
Flirt (v) = to put on a show in front of someone of the opposite sex, hoping therefore that he/she will be attracted to you (usually has the opposite effect to the one wanted when performed my the male)
Paranoid (adj) = very afraid
Sack (v) = dismiss from the job
Glutton (n) = someone who eats far too much
Binge out (v) = eat (with a resemblance to a half-starved dog)
Doze off (v) = unintentionally falling asleep for a while
Waffle on (v) = to talk and talk and talk, to the complete boredom of the listener
Plod around (v) = walk around, with no real direction in sight

The amazing tale of Suvarnabhumi

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Cowardly Military Junta

Whilst proudly being feted (with his wife of course) by the Burmese military. I wonder if Thai General Boonsrang spared a thought for the truely elected leader of Myanmar, AUNG SANG SU CHI?
Did he even have the guts to question the way his Burmese General “buddies” are treating this gracious lady.I read now that the Burmese Generals have decided to charge her with illegal tax evasion just because she has told her sons who live abroad, to spend the money awarded to her outside of Burma. Shame on these dictators and their sniveling “flunkies” from other countries who honor them with “pat on the back” red carpet visits!
No one should be surprised how Thailand’s new leaders were feted in Burma. They are all cut (Thailand’s new leaders and the Burmese leaders) from the same cloth. Anti democratic dictators one and all.
Thailand’s military and privy counsel cohorts destroy a legally democratically elected government and pretend they are our saviors. Soon they will expect us to accept that Pigs can fly.