Saturday, April 21, 2012

Chiangmai, Thailand: The Greatest Show on Earth (And Not Just Because of the Animals!)

You know you've been thoroughly entertained when, over the course of an afternoon in Chiangmai, Thailand, you've seen elephants score soccer goals, shoot hoops and paint landscapes on a canvas with their trunks. The monkey business was no less impressive. One of them lifted weights, another showcased monkeys' numerical skills (someone in the audience of five would pick a number -- say, "seven" -- and the monkey would pick the card with "7" on it, even when it was face down), and yet another one, "Monkey Jordan," shot hoops and made them all except for one. (What is it with Thai people and basketball, anyway?)

The animal shows made me cheer and cringe, too. The pets appeared to be happy and eager to show off how smart they are, but something about it seemed off, like their primary purpose in life is to entertain us. The chains around the monkeys' necks didn't help. They only highlighted the fact that they are the prisoners and the Thai people who ran the conservation centers, as loving and gentle as they might be, are their captors.

I tried to forget all of this as Lori and I sat on Oz, the beautiful 20-year-old elephant who took us on an hour-long ride up and down the mountains of Chiangmai. We sat in a compartment chained around Oz's body while Deng, a 22-year-old local who has been Oz's daily companion for four years, sat on his back, riding him like one would ride a horse and assuring us that despite our weight on Oz's back, the elephant was not only comfortable but happy, too.

Aside from the part where they played around in the water, the tigers that Lori spent an hour petting at the tiger conservation center had far less taxing things to do than entertain us. For the most part, they lounged around their living rooms, waiting to receive guests, who would pay from 420 baht (or $14) to nearly 2,000 ($66) for the honor of petting them. (Never fear, as one of the workers, an American expat, told Lori, they are all under 2 years old, which is the age when they become too unpredictable not to pose a threat to interlopers.)

By the time we left, Lori was tearing up over everything she'd seen. My eyes were dry, but I was choked up, too. Not over the animals, though. As impressive as they were, they weren't the main cause of my emotional state. It was the Thai people who worked with them; Danny, the guy who had spent all day driving us around from attraction to attraction in the van; the precious Thai children we'd seen throughout the day. I couldn't believe how beautiful and well behaved they were, like perfect little angels.

I've been living in Thailand for the better part of the last 10 months, and for the first time since my arrival, in Chiangmai I felt that I finally got the Thai people. I'd known that they were kind, friendly and gentle, but this was the first time I truly realized how content they are, how proud they are of their heritage and their country.

Here was Deng, a 22 year old who lives to take care of an elephant. His home is on the grounds of the conservation center, with his elephant charge, in conditions that I assumed were somewhere around half a star, making 4,000 baht (roughly $130) a month. He hasn't had a day off in four years, yet he seemed like one of the happiest people I've met in a long time. He has no girlfriend (or boyfriend), and his parents live far away in Myanmar, yet I didn't get the impression that he felt alone at all. Even if he hadn't been so friendly and gorgeous, he still would have been unforgettable.

As I listened to Deng try to tell us in English what life was like for him and Oz, I thought of the lives I'd left behind, in the U.S., in Argentina, in Australia, even in Bangkok. I thought about the people there, the ones who are so obsessed with making money and spending it. They look for happiness on the job, in accumulating wealth, in material possessions, in overpriced homes, in picking up strangers in crowded bars and clubs, in chasing celebrity (and celebrities). So few of them seem truly happy to me.

Mikey, the hyperactive 2-year-old monkey circling the small raised platform, barely stopping to catch his breath, and Sonny, the 4-year-old who knew exactly what to do when he was told to "kiss" visitors, seemed more full of joie de vivre than any Western human being I can remember seeing in years.

And all they had were the chains around their necks.

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