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The Thai Tour Bus of Hospitality

October 29, 2000

The problem with Thailand," said the girl next to me on a 15-hour bus trip from the southern tip of the country to the central capital of Bangkok, "is that I feel like I'm cheating." What she was speaking about was the sense of Disney Land the tourist route through Thailand inspires. If you walk through any main road in the country you will see at least a half a dozen 7-11s, a few hundred traveler's cafes and travel agents. In between all this, of course, you will see the massage parlors, hawker stalls and young children selling Kleenex; it will not feel that foreign, not as if you were now in the middle of Southeast Asia on the soil of ancient Siam. "It's a traveler's country." I overheard someone say as the bus jerked out of the dinner-stop "West&Thai" restaurant. The real Thailand lurks untouchably just under this surface.

Thailand, like many successful developing countries on the backpacker tourist route, excels at catering to the tourist. Freeways are many and flat, gas stations plentiful and, for the most part, clean, and mini marts abound containing any amount of Cokes and Snickers bars. And, of course, there's the Thai culture. That's why the tourists visit, right? For the culture, the cheapness to which it's available and the ease at getting it.

In a country that pushes its table manners in your face every second, it's difficult to see what happens when dinner's over and the family retires to their usual life in front of the television or reading a book. If you stay in Thailand long enough, search in the right places or are plain lucky you may come across a part of Thailand at its most real. I did.

Allison, a friend visiting from the States, and I ran into the Thai "Tour Bus of Hospitality" in a small northern village in the middle of a pack of elephants.

We had caught a noon bus east out of the city of Chang Mai in hopes of finding the famous elephant-training academy of painting elephant fame. Elephants in Thailand have been retired from the now closed-down logging industry, and camps such as this one are popping up throughout the country to contain the supply of out-of-work pachyderms. The first bus we took was painfully crowded and let us off a few kilometers past our destination. We stood at the roadside, cars and buses whipping past, and stared at the two directions of the freeway that cut through the dense jungle hugging either side of the pavement. "You see any elephants?" I asked Allison, and we padded into the Thai roadside diner to figure out where we were.

From there though, our day picked up. A bus soon picked us up on the other side of the freeway and dropped us at the foot of Camp Pachyderm. By coincidence as we hopped off the bus a center pickup passed and called to us to hop in the back. It carted us the three or four kilometers to the main grounds just in time for the 1:30pm elephant show - a special show held only on Sundays and holidays.

At the conclusion of a sweet little exhibition - elephants moving logs, playing instruments and painting - a Thai woman named Sirin who was taking photos befriended us. We watched the nearly all-Thai audience feed sugar cane to the elephants as she told us she was leading a tour group for her and her husband's tour company Saksit (meaning "Holy" in English), which is also the name of the magazine they produce.

Sirin and I talked while Allison bought a few paintings. The group shuffled through the gift shop before heading to the buses. Sirin, her husband and daughter, and Allison and I followed. In the gift shop Allison and I checked out cards. Sirin found us poking through postcards of elephants and presented us with two notebooks from the Center. It was so unexpected that after they additionally offered us a ride back to the main road I ran to the small snack shop and bought the only thing I thought wouldn't be too obnoxious - chocolate Pockey. They, of course, refused when I tried to give them the four boxes of chocolate covered bread sticks. Instead Sirin and her family brought us on the bus and bought us lunch at a market down the road. Not only that, they gave us a few of their magazines and two bags of the special Thai Golden Oranges, found only in the north of Thailand.

Now, you could argue that this small vignette where two foreigners get to hang out with a crowd of Thais in Thailand - all watching elephants throw paint on paper while tooting a few notes on a horn - is somewhat reminiscent of a theme park (which one I can't say). But I'll maintain that it was more like what those Disney's are looking for when they set out to create their fantasies: nothing premeditated, no cheating allowed, just a part of Thailand, pure and simple.

-Sarah Reed Bargren
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