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Elephants in Thailand

Monday, April 11th, 2011

© Frank P. Schneidewind

Elephants used to roam all over the country and they were out in abundance in Thailand. Today the kingdom has a few elephant concentrations left, usually where tourists go and spent their holiday budgets. Elephants sure do not chose the sites but their operators and handlers. Elephant rides is a show being promoted by all sorts of tourist information outlets and the nationwide touting agencies. Some of these elephant centers do actually appear to me, like they were beneficial to these gentle giants. Others though appeared to me just like another created "activity" for tourist only. In my years in the kingdom, I have actually witnessed so called elephant camps, where animals didn't seem to be taken care of well (judging by their scars, limps and general appearances) and others, where the elephants seem to me like they were taken care of very well (predominantly north or east of Bangkok).

Although the signage on Phuket's roads, implies that the pachyderms are taken care of, it is one of the few places I've been to, where those elephant camps have their animals to cross public roads with regular traffic. On top of that observation, it was also the only place in Thailand, where the elephants were being saddled with heavy strap-on seats, despite visible sores on the upper part of their front legs. Handlers were constantly pulling their elephants around by the ears, but not in a gentle way. Also it appeared to me that the animals weren't fully grown yet, but I am not a biologist or vet that may judge those things.

While elephants elsewhere were always found to munch on a vegetable and leaf mix. The ones on the rich tourist island of Phuket, were fed just a low nutrition bland local diet of fresh cut palm leafs, cut on-site or near (hardly any rainforest left there).

As with a lot of tourist geared operations on Phuket, I had plenty of reasons to find things objectionable there. And that was not the wild pricing for short trips on the pachyderms!

A young calf was acting erratically and staring bewildered away from humans. It banged the head later against a huge stack of unused iron seats that were previously used for other adult animals to generate touristic revenue. A staff member yelled at the calf and pulled it away by the ear to a location not accessible for me, they got nervous now with me taking pictures of things they rather like to hide.

Riders then showed up and forked over their fees before boarding their animals.

The experience will surely be unique for them and the dude previously roughing up animals here was now the guy on stage. Well not on stage, but on the neck. He was all smiles now, his pockets stuffed with cash.

These creatures are huge and majestic, yet extremely gentle and co-operative to the herder's demands. Occasionally there were human lifes at stake, when these giants freak out. Tourist's fatalities on Phuket island were reported in the past. I begin to blame that on unqualified and uneducated cash hungry animal handlers and not on the elephants. The longer we spent time with the grey giants, the more Melona and me liked them. Feeding them and toying with them became a sideline on many trips to follow.

One day, we were biking along the southern outskirts of Pattaya (towards Sattahip), we stumbled on a small group of elephants, being readied to go on their tourist treks. It was time for us for a short break and the elephant handler in charge welcomed us to hang around. Melona seized that opportunity to toy with the giant bull, he appeared very peacefully minded and that encouraged Melona to overcame her initial fear of those creatures. In her former home (Philippines), there are no native elephants. She checked his leathery ears and listened well to the mahout's instructions, while I shared a cigarette with him nearby and took these pictures.:)

Melona developed quickly an affection for the giant and the bull didn't mind her touches and actions at all. This intensive encounter was not planned at all, like so many of our unique experiences "on the road in Thailand". Just a lucky coincidence and a friendly elephant trek operator. It became a true highlight of the day, when the mahout instructed Melona do do some minor tricks with the animal, they all seemed to have a ton of fun.

Lifting his tail triggered a response and the bull raised a leg to help her climb aboard. She found black bristles at his tail-end and wondered if they were inserted or natural.

Another occasion brought us to the beaches of Rayong. Here on the "Eastern Seaboard" the beaches are wide and a lot less crowded. Some have an exceptionally good quality of sand and the existing infrastructure meets basic requirements. I do personally object the close proximity of Thailand's heavy and chemical industry here, their hotspot is "Map Tha Phut" and located a few stone-throws from here. We accompanied our friend Ruedi Thaler and his family and dragged our nice Jane-Kim along with us. It was a fun filled day on the beach and a baby elephant was brought here for his daily beach excercise by his handler. A much welcomed break for Ruedi's two boys and our girl.

Initial contact was "eyes only" because even the baby elephant had an impressive weight and muscle-mass. The calf was extremely playful and seemed to enjoy his time on the beach as well. Ruedi's big boy quickly was brave enough to touch and interact with the animal. The umbrellas in the backdrop gave shade to beach-dwellers and guests of the snackerias there.

The handler (in the striped shirt) encouraged the kids on site to ride the calf and even Ruedi's younger boy went for a joyride along with a Thai kid. He will have stories to tell when he returns to his native Switzerland.

The unexpected elephant encounter lasted well over an hour and the pachyderm baby loved to cool off in the shallow waters in between playful actions in the soft sand.

Jane-Kim (yellow shirt) tried to copy the elephants moves and that alone was funny to witness, she wasn't brave enough yet to accept invitations for a ride, but she sure was fascinated by the animal.


The calf stormed trumpeting into the cooling waters occasionally, only to wait for the kids to follow, we all had a great day out on the "Eastern Seaboard" and were happy about this wonderful experience.

Many more elephant interactions dot our time and trips in the kingdom, if you're interested in more elephant pictures and stories, please let us know!

Pattaya 2011

Sunday, January 23rd, 2011

© Frank P. Schneidewind

 

Pattaya today is a magnet for all kinds of people. Unfortunately, not all of them are wanted by all groups. The nightlife here is without any comparison elsewhere in Asia, but the red-light presence, accounts for a majority of the tourists here and that is very visible. We do not want to report on the thousands of sex workers in town, on the GoGo-bars, sleaze-shows or perversions of the sex trade, as media already has an overflow of that. We want to give you a detailed report on the situation here, regarding the tropical beaches. After all, Pattaya isn’t being marketed as a huge whore house, but as a beach community with some holiday destination character. So we looked deeper into this matter and visited all the major shores in 2011:

Part 1: Wong Amat, North Pattaya or Naklua

The seaside resort of Pattaya attracts a lot of visitors, tourists and holiday guests from many nations on this planet. The beaches were untouched and almost free of people, when the US soldiers came here in the 60’s and 70’s on a break (R&R) from the nearby fighting zones in Vietnam and Cambodia. The birth of Pattaya as a touristic destination fell into this time frame. Coconut trees, sand and shallow shores provided everything, the early soldiers and few backpackers needed.

From small straw-huts to two floor-hotels to mega-towers for thousands at a time, the transition period was relatively short. Today’s Pattaya hotels have every thinkable option of accommodation for you, offerings to suit every taste and budget are present.

The three major beaches are Wong Amat, Pattaya and Jomtien beach. Wong Amat in the North has just witnessed some huge developments, predominantly for their visiting Russian clientele. Russian holiday seekers do now control the northern part of Pattaya, also known as Naklua. This used to be a holiday ghetto for German and Austrian tourists, but their numbers continue to dwindle further. Some signage on older buildings remind onlookers of those times, when Deutsche Marks and Austrian Shillings were the currencies of choice here. Marks have vanished and along came the Euro, of which the Russian tourists bring big bundles. Nobody there likes their own, worthless Communist currency, so they bring stacks of € and US-$. The Russians do score big with any vendor here and gladly pay any inflated prices asked. Most signage visible these days, is in Russian or Thai, even the former German or other European food temples, now feature Cyrillic (Russian) signboards.

Every square meter of beach is used to generate money, expect hawker goods to be labeled in Cyrillic fonts (Russian) here. Vendors roam the sun loungers and restaurant tables on the beach, selling copied software or cracked Hollywood movies on DVD and sun-screen and ice-cream to the folks. Touts for tours and time-share condos walk their rounds too, peeking for potential prey.

It was peak season here, but many tables remained empty. Not everyone fancies a menu in Russian, Thai or Chinese language and/or sky high prices. A 100 Baht daily rental fee for a sun lounger has to be forked over here, these prices seem to be charged citywide though. Cheaper beach chairs still run 30 Baht a piece per day.

Part 2: Pattaya City Beachfront

Pattaya does have a large beachfront, which is fully developed and commercialized. The so called Beach Road, stretches along the Pattaya Beach and the bumper-to-bumper traffic here, is a sheer nightmare to cross.

Seventeen pedestrian traffic lights along the main roads, are supposed to reduce the fatalities and accidents in Pattaya. But although located on zebra-striped crossings, their sheer existence is wildly being ignored and the law enforcement does absolutely nothing about that. Red light isn’t a signal to stop for a Thai driver, it is merely a colorful dot of light that is to be ignored. We observed even police pickups and motorcycles, running a clear red light. They make great model citizens to others!;(

Once pedestrians make the dash across Beach Road in on piece, they face a concrete path, flanking the road on the beach side, before the forests of umbrellas on the beach itself. The beach is making headlines as a crime scene weekly and is noted to disappear further. Ocean currents take their toll and flush away massive amounts of sand daily.

The thin stretch of coarse sand did not appear as dirty, as on previous visits. During the day, some sun worshippers come here for a tan. The Jet Skis here are world famous for their inflated prices and extortion of tourist’s cash with fake damage compensation demands, read our own Jet Ski Scam report on this matter!

Powerboats with oversized twin outboard engines, ferry new tourists to outlying islands, like in the old days. The few swimmers, that do not have health concerns about the water contamination, are now restricted to cordoned off sections of the water. But hardly anyone braves the floods here. I don’t blame them at all! Occasionally, some Arabs or Indian tourists can be seen swimming, but the warm water has lost it’s appeal to most guests.

The former beach and nightlife GI R&R resort of Pattaya, is now one of Thailand’s foremost cash generators for international tourism. The thousands of hotel beds offered, are fighting hard for occupancy rates. The sleazy red-light districts attract probably more touristic interest, than the mediocre beach itself. Hence Pattaya’s public image remains low in the western world and lots of rather violent crimes, discourage many families to come. Police here has since long seem to have left the “to serve & protect” standpoint, as is accused frequently with corruption and extortion too. That they turn a blind eye to openly visible underage prostitution, child pornography and other side effects from society here, is known and documented well by others. At times, imported law enforcement commandos from the capital Bangkok, do raid large discotheques, entire whore house avenues or run so called sting operations. But their success is always very temporary and therefore limited. Whole loads of night club visitors were forced to give urine samples to check for substance abuse in the most recent past and road accidents with fatalities or serious injuries outscore the counts of much larger cities by far. Local transport appears to be a big scam in itself. Inner city bus lines were forced out of business and their passengers were bullied by the omnipresent blue “bahtbus” society. Except for a few fixed routes, they charge as much as 150 Baht for 2 or 3 km. That is for rides in the back of a pick-up truck! Extortion and scams follow the visitor here at a close pace. This is maybe on reason that the hotels have a hard time to fill their rooms outside the peak season.

Several international hotel chains run objects here. While some have built their guests a new place to stay, others have resorted to a quick-cash operation and refurbished an older beach road tourist hotel. One of those is the Hard Rock Hotel (shown below), that tries hard to hawk the well-known brand amongst the newcomers with bigger budgets.

Cafes, restaurants and gourmet temples all want their piece of the potential profits here, while only a few accomplish their goals and satisfy their customers well – others opt for a quick buck and rake in whatever they can.

Discos have cheap or free drinks for single ladies to lure the abundance of girls for the night into their halls, but male guests pay way above average for their drinks. GoGo Bars and Beer Bars with “hostesses” are offering sex and drinks citywide and often open until late. Our own sleep in a very remote part of town (North Pattaya) was disturbed until 4 AM by some ultra-loud Karaoke Bar nightly.

Part 3: Jomtien or Chomtien Beach (South of Pattaya)

The only real part of Pattaya, where we considered the beach clean enough for our baby, was several km south of Pattaya at Jomtien. Here the red light and sleaze seemed to be less dominant, we enjoyed time spent here very well. Plenty of others liked it here too and the beach appeared fairly full. If ever we have to stay in Pattaya again, it sure will be clear away from the city. At least up on Pratamnak hill on the way to Jomtien.

The sand here is also fairly coarse, but that was actually better for our youngster. He found other kids to play with, anytime we needed a break. We did not have a boring minute here. Chairs were 30 Baht per day and drink prices were reasonable as well. The ocean’s water appeared clean and free of any plastic trash and oil slicks.

Nothing real nice, if compared to the much prettier island beaches of Koh Chang or Samui for example. But surely good enough for a picnic at some beach as well as some chillout and fun in the sand.

As an essence, we would like to state – that unless you are a single traveler, looking for a hired female or male company, Pattaya can not be a serious holiday choice or destination for anyone. Pattaya’s public image as Asia’s biggest whorehouse, is a very true statement by some. A few man-made attractions around (zip-lines or wooden temples) do not change my opinion. Public transport is extremely substandard and mafia-style in terms of exaggerated fares. Send Pattaya’s politicians to Penang or Georgetown for a learning experience about these issues.

Location of your accommodation does make a big difference here, a wrong choice and there goes your nightly sleep. If you want to party wild, Pattaya may be a place to hang around. But if you want to spend a holiday by the sea, there are hundreds of much  better options alone in Thailand. A positive aspect for some is the above average availability and selection of ethnic foods from all over the globe, but we like Thai food and that is being sold here in remote areas only. Folks that fancy African Couscous, Arab Shaowarma or Russian dishes can really dig in here. Good Pizzas, Schnitzels and Steaks are also to be had everywhere.