Saturday morning in Phuket begins just like any morning in the most beautiful places on earth. You wake up at precisely the time required, which is whatever time you dam well please, open the curtains and gaze out at your magnificent island vista. I’m sure you know the picture: snow-white sailing boats silhouetted against the brilliance of the open ocean beyond the headlands; a lone fisherman casts a line off the rocks immediately below the resort as sunrays dance across a glassy sea; before long thoughts like, “why don’t we just stay for another week” or “why don’t we just stay” begin to sound almost reasonable. An hour or so passes and you decide that perhaps it might be better not to let the animals starve and besides, you’re gonna need to sell the house first; with the wet season coming on no one’s gonna be interested in buying it if it’s overgrown with weeds and mildew. Another few minutes of doodling on the laptop and I rouse Carmel and Josie from dreamland and we arrange to meet Aimee and Thomas at the Malika restaurant for breakfast. Think I’ll start with dragon fruit topped with yoghurt and fresh honey with a small side dish of pawpaw and rock melon. I might even try a piece of that other fruit that was added to the buffet yesterday but which none of us quite know what it is. You see, that’s where the problem is. You get down to the restaurant and they’ve gone and added two extra toppings to the freshly cooked pancakes and now there’s not just five different ways to have your eggs cooked, there’s eight! And this is supposed to be stress-free dining? Unbelievable!
Anyway, today is Saturday. Today we ride elephants.
Pick up time is 11:00am so we arrive down at the lobby at about 10:55 – by the way, the elephants don’t actually pick you up, they’re not allowed in the hotel lobby (way too big). As usual, the three or four concierges that seem to be assigned to the each guest enquire as to your plans and direct you towards the correct taxi or tuktuk. The drive to the elephant reserve takes us into the interior of the island so it provides an interesting opportunity to see a little of the ‘everyday’ life of the locals. The urban influence is never far away though as the road winds past almost every conceivable type of business establishment that you could imagine. A fairly large proportion of these are made up of motor scooter hire outlets – by far the most popular mode of transport on Phuket. With this of course goes what would appear to be an over-supply of mechanical repair shops which I notice share few similarities with your average garage in Australia. A little shed or awning sandwiched between a no-frills cafe and a scrap salvage joint with completed motor bikes lining one wall and the rest of the available space, including the footpath if there is one, taken up with partly built engines and bikes in various stages of re-assembly. The majority of the ‘no-frills’ cafes are little more than roadside bain-maries (and I do mean ‘road-side’ – if the taxi driver’s not careful he could easily hook a free spring roll with his side mirror). You’ll see cooked and uncooked meat hanging above a servery as well as fresh fruit – bananas, pawpaws, mangoes, etc – sometimes all within a metre of passing traffic. And believe me, there’s a lot of passing traffic. Of course there are also more sophisticated businesses along the way, from real estate agents to legal firms, clothing and souvenir shops, sit-down restaurants, building supplies, etc, not so different to back home.
The thing that really strikes you is the absolute number of the same type of outlet in one area, particularly the food and cheap clothing stores – competition must be fierce. But then I suppose ‘fierce’ doesn’t really seem to be an apt word to use for anything in Phuket (except for the tigers); ‘constant’ would probably be more suited. As one ex-pat European explained to me (I’ll tell you more about Michael from Greece later); it’s hot here all year round. People just aren’t inclined to rush and race and stress about too much at all – it’s simply far too taxing. Instead, they’re more likely to be ‘constant’ – constantly calm (not even one incidence of road rage during our time in the traffic here – or for that matter, not even mild impatience – and let me assure you, from an outsider’s perspective, there’s more than enough opportunity for such); constantly polite; constantly happy; constantly helpful; constantly working at a un-rushed, steady pace (most people work a six day week); constantly asking “you look sir, you like to buy?” But then again, a polite no thank you is usually all that it takes to terminate the negotiation. Basically I spent most of the taxi trip that morning with my face against the window absorbing as much as I could of this fascinating part of the world.
Anyway, back to the elephants, apparently you can get elephant trekking outings that give you an ocean view from atop your elephant but we figured a look at the scenery inland would be interesting too (to be honest, do I really care what I can see from the top of my elephant? I mean, I’m on an elephant for crying out loud, can you even remember the last time you were onboard an elephant?)
“You know Barry, I just get so bored with the whole forest view when I’m riding my elephant”.
“I hear you Les. Why don’t you try pizza next time you’re on your elephant? I’ve heard they serve it with free beer”, and so on and so forth and etcetera and etcetera…
Now what I’m going to say next will sound like a joke, but I’m not joking; this really does happen. Before climbing onto the elephants (you really don’t have to climb up, you ‘board’ from off a platform so it’s all quite safe), we were taken to see the baby elephants, a three and four year old pair, to feed them pieces of banana and pat (or pet) them. You can even have your photo taken while they affectionately wrap their trunks around your shoulders and give you a kiss on the neck – yes a kiss – their little trunk tip, which I suppose you’d call their nose, sucks onto your neck or cheek with a big ‘smack’. If they wore lipstick, you’d be more than red-faced. Now, back to the thing that you’re not going to believe – they play music! One plays a harmonica and shakes his head to rhythm while the other one beats a drum with a drumstick. Then they swop instruments and do it again (no, they don’t actually swop instruments themselves, the trainers do that for them) – “Hey Benny, you tired of playing that drum yet? How ‘bout we swop for a while, I got a new rift I wanna try out on that mouth blowy thing” – they’re smart but not that smart. And they dance, not quite Michael Jackson, but they actually dance! Now some might ask: were we promoting cheap profit from the exceptional intelligence of one of the most powerful yet gentlest creatures on Earth? Abusing the trust of such majestic giants? Of course everybody’s entitled to an opinion, but I reckon you can tell (as clear as night from day) when a handler truly loves and respects the animal in his charge. These guys were like kindy teachers playing with their students; I’m not sure who was having the most fun, the trainers or the elephants? I’m no elephant psychologist but I’m sure they were having a ball!