Adventures in Thailand

A Pennsylvania family journeys halfway around the world and discovers that even in a vastly different culture, some things are still the same.

Southeast Asia

January 19, 2003|By Cindy Ross | By Cindy Ross,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The sound of muffled pounding woke me from my sleep, like the rhythmic beat of a native drum.

I sat up in my sleeping bag and peered through the thin mosquito netting across to our Thai neighbor's grass hut. A tiny fire illuminated her workplace, the same as half a dozen other huts within sight.

The 13-year-old girl was pounding rice for the day's meals. Her muscular leg stomped down on the log beam that caused a pestle to strike a deep bowl containing unhulled rice.

For an hour she must do this, every day, to hull about 2 quarts of rice. Hard work for a young woman. Our guide, Phenta, told us last night on our tour of this hill tribe village that the 13-year-old was just married.

This fact amazed my 11-year-old daughter, Sierra, (two more years!) who found the Far East culture of Thailand far different from her own middle-class life in Pennsylvania. But then, nearly everything in Thailand was amazing.

The country isn't the typical destination for a family adventure, I'll admit, but my girlfriend, Susan, moved there on business and invited our family to visit. I was intrigued by Thailand and announced that if I were going alone, and traveling around the globe, I was staying much longer than a "long weekend."

Perhaps my family should consider accompanying me, I wondered aloud. My very cautious husband, Todd Gladfelter, read the guidebooks, listened to doomsayers and feared the worst when it came to contracting diseases. But we did our homework, ordered a few shots, bought a box of 1,000 alcohol wipes and a few quarts of antibacterial no-water hand soap, (one quarter of which came home) and left the rest to trust.

Trust was what I had to call upon when the work elephants with the heavy chains around their necks and feet arrived at our hut a few hours after we woke. The mahout, or elephant driver, with a cloth wrapped loosely around his head, turban-style, tattoos up and down his arms and rolled-up smoking leaves between his teeth, made eye contact with me and motioned for my young son. He wanted me to lift 9-year-old Bryce up over the elephant's head and put him in the basket behind him. We were off for a half-day ride through the jungle.

This was part of our three-day adventure in the deep mountains of northern Thailand, which our guidebook billed as "the most authentic Hill Tribe adventure you can find."

Maesot Conservation Tour drives tourists five hours from Mae Sot on the most winding, nauseating mountain road to the village of Umpang in Tak province. Besides riding elephants, you hike from village to village on ancient dirt foot trails and raft through a lush canyon full of hanging gardens, waterfalls and monkeys.

The mahout bounced on the elephant's neck and sang to her in an eerie chant as he drove. The elephant's baby followed close behind, and we occasionally stopped for her to nurse.

We rocked and swayed with the animal's large, purposeful steps. The big, leathery ears flapped back and forth across our lower legs while our feet rested on the animal's great head as if it were a footstool. Orchids hung from the trees and were easily visible at that height.

The mahout turned around, and with his stained and missing teeth, smiled at us, unable to communicate in any other way. He took my son from the basket and placed him on the elephant's head in front of him. Bryce turned and beamed at me, and I knew I had made the right decision to bring my family to this wonderfully strange country.

Advance arrangements

Months before, I contacted the Thai tourism office in New York to get information. They advised me to study guidebooks and decide which places and activities most interested our family. The agent would hand over our itinerary to an English-speaking cultural and academic travel service in Thailand, called Trikaya, based in Bangkok, who would arrange everything and charge us a blanket fee.

We were met at the airport by a guide, in our own rented van (a sign stating "Ms. Cindy Ross" sat on the dashboard, making us feel like diplomats) and were driven all over the country.

Hotel reservations were prearranged (including breakfast) and tour reservations made for the lump sum of $3,000 for four people for an entire month. This included not only a guide, but a driver, gas and entrance fees for most attractions.

We took care of our own lunches and dinners but these amounted to literally pennies -- the finest buffet lunches in the best hotels cost $1.50. Most of the hotels we stayed at were rated three and four stars.

Even the flights were less expensive than flying to, say, Switzerland. The children did not fall apart during the 24 hours of flight time, as we feared, but were continually entertained by movies, meals, games that the flight attendants handed out and their own busywork. This included a month's worth of schoolwork (one of the best times to visit Thailand is during the American winter).

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