Elephant Kisses

CHIANG MAI, THAILAND: May 11-27, 2013

Steve: So the honeymoon is over.  Leaving our pseudo-idyllic Southeast Asian paradise in Krabi proved to be a wake up call to the realities of budget travel. We booked a bus back to Bangkok through our hotel and were surprised to find it cheaper than the bus we caught down. We shouldn’t have been surprised when the first two hours of our journey north consisted of being sardined into a minivan that harkened me back to Guatemala where legroom and personal space were all but non-existent (unless of course you were four-feet-thirteen-inches tall like most of the indigenous population). 

As luck would have it we had the pleasure of being accompanied by a couple of German guys on gap year who thought it cool to play tickle-tag in the cramped, steamy van; also an older Portuguese couple on their honeymoon (or overseas affair) who proceeded to make out incessantly while six inches away from my face; and then who can forget the ubiquitous lad up front suffering from early onset hearing loss who graced us with a medley of bad hip-hop from his headphones (maybe they were on backwards?). When we transferred to a large, colorful double-decker bus somewhere in Thailand we thought our woes were over. Unfortunately the spiffy exterior wasn’t matched on the inside where dated seats and a broken bathroom topped the list of amenities; all things said, these were manageable but the fact that water dripped from the ceiling due to the night-long torrential thunderstorm made this ride one for the books.

Upon arriving to Bangkok, not at the terminal I might add, the conductor and his helper started yelling “Bangkok, Bangkok, Bangkok!” and rustling the passengers off of the bus. Bags were being thrown into a massive pile on the flooded street and within minutes the bus was off. Luckily enough we caught our bags before they had a chance to get soaked and we made our way down the street, sleepy but in one piece. We figured out where we were and caught a public bus that would take us near the Tanmuk family’s home—they had graciously allowed us to come back to their house for the day to rest up before our train ride north to Chiang Mai. In true fashion, Dad and Jenny wouldn’t let us take a bus to the train station but instead drove us in the evening traffic and sent us off with a dinner of fried pork, sticky rice and basil leaves.  Kindness like that just can’t be repaid.

After a hectic twenty-four hours of travelling with very little sleep our berths on the train to Chiang Mai were a welcome treat. The train was clean, quiet and fairly roomy (if this guy can lay out then it must be). With our beds set up (the train attendant moved through the aisle deftly maneuvering the upper and lower seats into surprisingly cozy sleeping berths complete with privacy curtains), we popped in headphones and watched several episodes of Game of Thrones before calling it a night. The gentle swaying and rhythmic undulations of the train tracks lulled us into a good night’s sleep and we both woke up fairly refreshed. By 8:30 we were pulling into our home for the next two weeks—Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Leah: We had heard over and over again to head north in Thailand. As luck would have it, one of my best friends, Ellen, her husband, Kevin, their 5 ½ year old daughter, “A”, and 3 ½ year old son, “L” (names withheld for safety at their request) were moving to Chiang Mai after pulling the plug on their life in San Diego. Ellen and Kevin met while studying abroad and had also taken an extended trip around the world; it had always been a plan of theirs to live abroad with kids. Therefore, with Ellen’s new TOEFL certificate in hand and the proceeds from selling their cars and entire worldly possessions in an estate sale, our brave friends packed their young family into a few suitcases and jetted around the world to start their adventure.

I met Ellen years ago when we both worked at Girl Scouts and since then we’ve both seen each other through major life events and our families have become inexorably intertwined. I’ve been a constant in her kids’ lives and she was the first one on the scene when both Jayna and Minger were killed. We’ve championed each other through real and imagined life crises, held weekly date nights where we did laundry and watched crap reality TV, we both were Women’s Studies majors in college and needless to say that we share a common love of travel. Thus, it was only fitting that Steve and I were on hand to welcome our San Diego family to their new home and help them adjust for a few weeks. Ellen and Kevin had also offered us the opportunity to treat this as a Workaway opportunity, so we were ready to roll.

The first few days were the roughest, with everyone jet-lagged and sleep-deprived as Steve and I tried to get them all acclimated to the time change, as well as keep the kids occupied in a 3rd-story hotel room when we weren’t dragging them through the sweltering heat and humidity of the city to find parks and food. Also, before they left San Diego the kids had likened Thailand to Disneyland or Yogurtland (they all end the same after all!), so we found it amusing that they seemed more or less unfazed and unaware that they were a world away from their former home. In the meantime, Ellen and Kevin spent their time looking at various international schools for the kids, setting up coffee dates and lunches with friends of friends and expats they had connected with online, as well as touring city neighborhoods looking at potential homes.

Some days were higher stress than others and in the beginning we had to keep reminding Ellen especially that no, she wasn’t insane, no, we wouldn’t let her get back on a plane tomorrow and yes, in a few months they would look back and laugh at their humble beginnings. I can’t really fault her those feelings anyway, as how many people do you know who are brave enough to start their life over with munchkins in a developing country? Leah and Steve to the rescue! Or, Elah and Steve as it were. When A started talking, she couldn’t pronounce my name and instead called me “Elah”. It stuck and even when she could talk properly we couldn’t imagine my special nickname disappearing, so of course when L was born we all kept up the fake name fa├žade (including Ellen, Kevin, the grandparents & Steve) and Elah I remain. Not quite sure if the kids will ever trust me again when I reveal at their college graduations that I lied to them for 21 years about my identity, but we’ll deal with that bridge when we need to cross it.

So there we were in Chiang Mai with kids in tow exploring this charming haven in the north. We heard from locals that it was unseasonably hot and humid, which did nothing to soothe our sweaty pint-sized charges as we explored the city to whiny tunes of, “But Elah, it’s too hot!” However, as any adult who has spent time with kids knows, they typically adapt to changes far quicker and easier than adults and the whining was soon replaced with queries of “Are we taking a tuk tuk or walking?” It was also fascinating to see this country both through the eyes of children, as well as travel with them. The Thais are notorious for their love of children and everywhere we went people young and old reached out to touch L’s curls, beckoned A to taste their rambutan fruit at the market and generally marveled at these slightly rambunctious but always endearing little people. As their temporary caretakers we were privy to different treatment and experiences than we would have been as a childless couple and I reveled in watching how these guys elicited toothy wide grins from otherwise serious monks, received treats and without even trying and could make any local squeal with delight when saying “thank you” in Thai. Oh, and the fact that L pronounced Buddha as "byew-da" (and had a propensity to fall asleep with his hand down his pants) was almost too cute to stomach. Every day was an adventure with this family, but since we’re long overdue on updating the blog, we’ll keep it to the highlights in the interest of time and space.

ELEPHANTS! The 6 of us hired a little red local bus, or songtaew, which drove us out to the Maesa Elephant Camp, a conservation and breeding facility for Asian elephants. We watched the show, which consisted of elephants doing everything from playing soccer and painting, to demonstrating how they were traditionally used to pull logs and help with construction. Mixed feelings on watching these majestic animals perform, but the relationship these behemoth grey giants have with their mahouts, or lifelong human caretakers, was simply amazing to behold. After the show we were able to feed them bananas and then had an absolutely singular experience in the nursery area where one of the mahouts was walking a little guy and we were able to pet him endlessly, feed bananas, receive kisses (apply trunk to human cheek, breathe in, then exhale) and generally marvel at being the only people there to experience this, all for a $6 entrance fee. That won’t even buy you a Diet Coke at the San Diego Zoo! Steve and I even succumbed and splurged on an elephant painting of a tree. We loved it so much that we went to another place a bit farther out the second week, the Elephant Conservation Center, which also houses six of the King’s ten white elephants. Here we rode them for a bit, watched them bathe in the lake and learned that they nurse for 3 years after being pregnant for 2. Just staring into those eyes, feeling the solid heft of the trunk and petting the wiry bristles on the babies’ heads was a continual out-of-body-experience and more than magical.  

TIGERS! Why stop with just elephants? We took it one step farther and went to the nearby Tiger Kingdom as well where Ellen, Kevin and kids played with the baby tigers and Steve and I went in for the big guns with the full-sized version. Since they are reared from cubs, well-fed twice daily and naturally sleep about 18 hours a day, they were quite used to people and as long as we stayed away from their faces and front paws we were allowed to get up close and personal. In hindsight I probably would have done a bit more soul searching before this one, as I’m not sure how I feel about these guys being bred in captivity to give people like me the chance to socialize with them. But all that aside, laying with a tiger’s tail wrapped around my neck and walking through an enclosure with 5 full-grown specimens was way cooler than Seigfreid and Roy (plus, we didn’t get mauled).

STEVE’S BIRTHDAY! Steve: Although I didn’t have a cathartic, struggling hike up to one of the Seven Wonders of the World, my birthday still felt quite epic as it was my first one abroad (reference Leah’s birthday spent at Machu Picchu last October). In addition I couldn’t have guessed that I would be spending my birthday in the company of familiar faces, namely Ellen & Co. as well as Katie (see next paragraph). I started the day with a Skype date with my family back at home which was orchestrated by none other than my lovely wife—of course it was actually the evening of May 20th back in California but that was part of the fun. I got to open a handful of unexpected gifts such as an Angels t-shirt, a can of refried beans, and a huge bundle of cards from family and friends (again put together by Leah months ago). Later we had dinner at a swell Mexican restaurant courtesy of Ma & Pa McFail where I partook in the best (and only) Baja fish tacos I’ve had since leaving San Diego. Afterwards we rounded out the evening by having a few pints and playing our hand at a local British pub’s quiz night. My birthday was complete though as Leah made my wish come true—to have a drink with some of my friends from back at home. (Leah: And of course he forgot to mention that he did all this accompanied by the most fu manchu mustache he could grow, just because he could. When he opened this birthday card, the unplanned relevance was too much!)

KATIE! Leah: You may remember the appearance of my dear friend, Katie, in our Queenstown, New Zealand blog post? This is my friend who worked at the White House and then quit her job to travel for a bit, randomly coinciding with our time in New Zealand? Well, as our further luck would have it, she was also celebrating the end of her trip in Thailand and happened to be in Chiang Mai at the same time we were. Despite not feeling 100% percent, she was able to celebrate Steve’s birthday with us, participated in pub quiz night, braved the fish pedicure and even obligingly took pictures of us at the night market eating fried insects. In between we heard about the rest of her travels in S.E. Asia and commiserated about how sometimes even a trip around the world doesn’t provide the clarity you seek in regards to a life path back at home. It was joyous to see her again and we can’t wait to reconvene back in the US.

FISH PEDICURE! This was one of the only things I wanted to do in Thailand and now I’m officially an addict—I’m trying to ascertain if I can source the fish in the US for my own personal use because it was that cool. Garra Rufa, or Doctor fish, are found in naturally in some Turkish hot springs and rivers and are sometimes used to treat skin diseases, as they nibble away at dead skin. I went with Ellen the first time and after a foot scrub we plunged our feet into the tank up to the knees and let these little guys nibble away. I immediately loved it, but Ellen was a shrieking, screaming mess due to trying to acclimatize to how much they tickled. After she calmed down, we both marveled at the unreal sensations of having dozens of fish nibbling your body at the same time. It almost felt like immersing your feet in carbonation—it didn’t hurt or tickle me, but it felt like little bubbles popping against my skin at the same time. Too much fun! We went and brought the husbands and the kids back less than an hour later, and then I made Katie go a few day later, and then Ellen and I rounded it out with another visit a few days after that. I’m pretty sure I could reach nirvana if I could just immerse my entire body all at once in a pool with these little guys.

FOOD! In short, we ate a lot of it. From expat restaurants with baked potatoes and pizza, down to local noodle joints and market stall creations, we left no corner untasted. In fact, I can say with confidence that our pants are just a tad tighter than when we arrived, thanks to the propensity of delicious Thai cuisine, our joy at having spicy dishes around again and the proliferation of snacks, fruits and other delectables. Even now I have a giant bag of lychee fruit still on the stem, which I intend to eat myself sick on because I don’t know when I’ll see them again. Besides, paying $1.75 for almost 3 ½ pounds of a fruit that costs almost 20 times that at home for the few weeks you can find them at the Asian markets is too good to pass up, no?

WATS! We mentioned them before, but the wats, or Buddhist temples, are one of my favorite parts of this country. I think that every place of worship-regardless of religion-has its own splendor and significance, but despite being Catholic, I felt more at peace in the wats than in any church or cathedral I've been in. There's something about the suspended prayer strips blowing in the wind, the tinkling of tiny bells, scent of incense, the murmer of orange-robed monks and the towering images of smiling Buddhas that quiets my heart and stills my soul (or maybe it's the lack of a bleeding Christ and depictions of pain and torture?). On top of releasing birds with the kids to honor Buddha (video here) and writing out my own prayers to hang from the ceiling, we were even in Thailand for one of the holiest Buddhist days, Vesak Day, which celebrates the birth, enlightenment and death of Buddha. Worshippers flooded the streets in white garb, every wat was full to the brim with chanting monks, candles and light featured prominently and a festival atmosphere pervaded the city. Yup, definitely love me some wats.

LANTERNS! Being the romantic and thoughtful husband that he is, Steve surprised me one night by hustling me to a beautiful riverside restaurant with a full moon in the background and asking if I’d like to send up a few paper lanterns with him. Seeing as how I’ve never done it before, of course I agreed and a few moments later we found ourselves holding the delicate wooden base of an oversized lantern, our fingers rapidly approaching the singe point as we made a wish and sent our lanterns aloft. Watching them dance across the darkened Chiang Mai sky was a pivotal point for me and my wishes will forever be burned into my brain and that point in time.

All too soon it was time to kiss A and L goodbye and give Ellen and Kevin parting hugs of encouragement. It’s hard to imagine that after being constants in each other’s lives over the last 6 years, we’ll now be separated by 14 hours and multiple continents. However, this family has more guts and gumption than most people I know and I can’t wait to follow their adventures—stay tuned for future cross-promotional blogging! We boarded our swanky and all-too-short Bangkok Airways flight to Bangkok (where I think we were seated next to some sort of young celebrity, as all the flight attendants freaked out upon seeing him and then he was ushered to the cockpit where he remained until we landed).There was so much more that we did and discovered, yet it still feels like our time in this magnificent country was woefully short. From our spoiled days with our adoptive Bangkok host family, to our second honeymoon at the beach and then time with old friends in the north, Thailand’s siren call seeped into my soul. I still have so many questions and places I want to visit after my time here, but this land was a surprise favorite of mine and I firmly intend to return to see what the land of smiles has in store for me down the road.




  1. Love this post! I've always wanted to go to Thailand, and now I want to go even more!

  2. We all miss you SO much - the kids keep talking about you, and Kevin actually said he had a pain in his heart when he realized you were really gone! Today on the way home from dinner A told me about the baby mosquitos in the sewers and said you told her about them and that, and I quote, "Elah can do anything." You guys really made the first two weeks survivable, and we are definitely having Elah Aguirre withdrawal. I wish you hadn't mentioned the huge distance now geographically between us - makes me too sad. Please, please, please come back and see us soon!

  3. @Lauren--you absolutely should and maybe consider bringing the kids? ;-)

    @Ellen--don't make me all weepy! Definitely teared up on the planes yesterday thinking about you guys and all our experiences. Repeat after me: "I am a rockstar!" Love you.


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