This is our one and only tender port (thank goodness!). The tour today is an elephant safari and it is one that I have really been looking forward to. The difficulty lies in getting everyone off the ship at approximately the same time. One of the couples is staying in a suite and asked their concierge if it would be all right if he led our group off together, which helped immensely. Unfortunately, the woman had a visa issue and was unable to join us. She and her husband hold Mexican passports and the cruise line had told them that they would not need to secure visas ahead of time (Mexico is one of a handful of countries that Thailand requires a visa from in order to enter the country). It turns out that she was given wrong information. Her husband holds dual citizenship and was able to exit the ship; she was not.
We booked with Shore Excursions Asia; the tour guide was waiting for us as we walked off the tender onto the beach. She walked us down a couple of blocks to where the 2 vans would take us to the elephant camp. I had booked the tour for fourteen but two were not there, so I let her know that we would not be paying for those two. She spoke English but did not seem to comprehend the language. I believe I clearly communicated that we would pay for 12, not 14. She made a few phone calls to her company and I assumed that the issue was taken care of.
The drive to the camp took about an hour. I was somewhat surprised to note that cars drive on the left-hand side of the road here. I was very pleased to find out that their driving skills were far superior to those we experienced in India and Sri Lanka!
Our guide, Bina, taught us how to say hello and thank you in Thai. Both must be said with a smile while making the same gesture as a namaste in India (I am not sure what it is called in Thailand). She also explained what we would be seeing at the camp. Although it is an elephant camp, there were quite a few activities in addition to riding elephants that we would participate in.
When we drove into the parking lot we noted that there were several tour buses there already. Uh-oh, it looked like the cruise line used this elephant camp. Nothing worse than being herded through a site with hordes of other cruise passengers! One of the reasons that we like doing independent tours is that the groups are smaller.
It turned out our concerns were not valid. We hardly saw any other tourists all day long. It was fantastic! The following is a list of our activities:
- Ox cart rides around the rice paddies.
- Sitting on a water buffalo (photo op). I am sure you would not be surprised to find out that they took photos of us along the way. We were offered two of these pictures in a souvenir frame for about $18 US. No thanks! We were freely allowed to take pictures of each other; some of the workers also took pictures of us as well. Not much incentive to pay their exorbitant prices when you can take your own pictures for free.
- 30-minute elephant ride. Two at a time, we climbed onto the seat that was sitting atop the elephant while a guide sat in front and guided the elephant through a course. Elephant rides are quite bumpy! Downhill was definitely bouncier than uphill. It was great fun. We tried to take pictures of each other but given the terrain, it was a challenge. For about $4, you could buy bananas to feed to the elephants. Ours kept putting his trunk back for more.
- Elephant Show. The elephants were trained to do a variety of things including dancing, balancing on hind legs, balancing on front legs, kicking a soccer ball into a goal, and tossing darts. I know this will surprise you as well – those elephants were trained to grab tips from the spectators using their trunks. Shocking, right?
- Fish Pedi! No one told me (not in the tour description and not the guide) that there would be fish pedis as part of the tour! I have been looking forward to getting a fish pedi in Malaysia, but now I don’t need to! We all had our feet hosed off and then stuck our feet in a tank of water with little fishies swimming about. Some people’s feet were more popular than others. They did not seem to like the men’s feet nearly as much as the ladies. My feet are awfully ticklish so the feeling of fish nibbling off the dead skin cells took a bit of getting used to. The fish tackled my right foot first, then switched to my left. I am not sure what it says about my feet that the fish seemed to spend way more time nibbling them than almost anyone else’s! I had a blast – loved it!!!
- Thai Boxing. We were led to a boxing ring next for an exhibition of Thai Boxing (Mui Boxing). Thai boxers box only in shorts; bare feet, no shirt. They begin by doing a ritual dance around the ring, wearing a corded thing on their head (it has some type of religious significance). Something I should mention is that the explanations were really hard for me to understand. The guides here were very soft spoken, so I don’t have too many notes about what was explained to us. I couldn’t hear the explanations! Anyhow, the actual fight was 4 rounds long. A round seemed to end when one guy knocked the other to the ground.
After the two men fought, the training round began. They asked for volunteers from the audience. Of course, I volunteered! They put a pair of boxing gloves on me, and on the other volunteer, Sandy. She was a little concerned that we would be fighting each other, but instead, they taught us some of the boxing moves. It was pretty fun and the friend in the audience that took pictures of it did a great job; I think I have about 100 photos of my moment of fame.
- A demonstration of how rice used to be grown and harvested before modern equipment took over. Water buffalo were used to plow the land 3 times before the rice was planted. The rice is soaked in 15 cm of water which opens the kernel. Three months later the plant is pulled up and moved to a second field. Some of it is harvested and the baby rice is used for making beer, milk and other products. The rice is given another two weeks and is then harvested. It gets bundled and hit on a basket to shake loose the rice kernels. The kernels are then put into a wooden contraption that crushes the rice, separating the rice from the shell. It is then put in a basket and shaken by hand to continue the separation.
- Monkey show! And of course, the monkeys were trained to take tips from the guests as well!
And the demonstration of making a Thai papaya salad. We were given samples to taste. It was delicious (and spicy).
- Lunch. We were served a variety of dishes, including Tom Ka Gai, my very favorite Thai soup. I can’t name all of the dishes, but everything was yummy. My only disappointment was that there was no Pad Thai. Fortunately, we will be in Koh Samui and Bangkok, so I have a couple more opportunities.
- Rubber tapping. I was not able to watch this because I was talking on the phone with the tour company. They wanted me to pay for the 2 passengers that were not on the tour. I refused. She insisted. Finally, I told her that if she really wanted the money that she could use the deposit we had made with her company for a tour in Vietnam and that we would be canceling that tour. She seemed to see reason at that point and decided that we only owed another $20. Everyone contributed $2 in order to cover that $20 (she claimed that we were short that amount from what we paid earlier). It had been a perfect day right up to that point. I hate conflict and have repeatedly had to argue with tour companies regarding payment on many of the excursions I lined up. I really wonder whether they think I am getting paid for what I do. I don’t think they realize that mine is a volunteer position and that I have no authority over the passengers that sign up for the tours.
We opted to head back to the port rather than spend any extra time at the camp. We were back by 3 pm. Some people wanted to wander through town, some joined the line to take a tender back to the ship. I walked down the sidewalk a bit but only found restaurants (rather than shops), so went back to the ship myself.
This was a wonderful, wonderful experience. It was a great change of pace from touring sites (fascinating though they may be). If you are not into beach activities, I highly recommend booking a tour like this one.