Friday, September 9, 2011

4-in-1 safari and Phuket Fantase!

On to my favorite day in Phuket! Friday, July 28th, we enjoyed another excellent buffet breakfast before being picked up at 8:00 for our four-in-one safari! As we neared the little traditional camp with grass huts, we saw elephants walking along the road. The little Dutch girl in our group cried out "oliphant, oliphant!" It was really cute.

First they told us about traditional Thai tea and coffee, and we got to try some, along with the delicious egg pancakes. Coffee used to be imported from Brazil for only the rich people to drink, but in 1979 it started to be grown in Thailand. Now everyone, even the poor farmers, drink it in the morning. They like it really sweat. Whiskey is also popular, but Thai people don’t mix them together. Then we saw how they used water buffalo to plow a rice field:



Some farmers still use water buffalo because they are very ecological, but most use gasoline tractors now. If they can’t afford their own, they rent one. Next we rode in a six-person water buffalo cart! Those are strong animals. While I was waiting for my turn, I played with the cute kittens running around. They were all over the camp.

Then we saw how they harvested the rice and winnowed it:



Winnowed rice (rice with the chaff taken off) can last two years in dry storage. Most grains are like that, which is why they used to make up the majority of the human diet, especially in winter. Vegetables and fruits, apart from being dried, did not keep well until the invention of canning in 1810. Of course in Thailand everything but rice grows year round, but other countries are no so lucky. A pre-industrial non-tropical winter diet might consist of some grain, eggs, milk, dried fruits and vegetables, roots, and whatever meat could be hunted or raised. Subsequently, in nearly all countries that have seasons, the staple grain doubles as their word for “a meal.” This is true for Japan (rice or gohan) Malawi Africa (ensima or corn porridge), South American countries (maize or corn) and even English. The word “meal,” means “ground grain,” as in corn meal, wheat meal, rice meal etc. Waiters often say, “What kind of salad would you like with your meal?” Two hundred year ago, that used to be literal, and in some countries it still is. (Interestingly in Old English, the word “meat,” also doubled as the word for “food,” as in the old Psalm: “My tears have been my meat day and night.” This shows just how important meat was and still is in the British and American diet, and according to historians, King Henry XIII refused to eat anything except meat and bread, which is what eventually did him in. Many historians also attribute the high intake of meat and bread without fruit and vegetables in the Medieval English court to the high number of miscarriages in the royal family, higher than the peasant population.) In China, rice is the meal which is accompanied by several “side dishes” of vegetables or meat. In southern Thailand where it’s warmer and rains more, they can grow two rice crops a year. In northern Thailand in the mountains, only one. Any place that grows rice has to have a rainy season. Wheat requires less rain and cooler climate. Corn (maize) less rain and hotter climate.

Next, we learned about coconuts. There are actually dozens of species and hundreds of varieties. The smaller species that is green upon maturity is good for drinking the coconut water inside, but there isn’t much meat (there’s that word again; see what I mean?) and it’s very soft without much flavor. The larger, brown coconut is good for eating and making coconut milk and oil. They shave the coconut by cracking it open and scraping the meat against a spear or other sharp object stuck point up in the ground. Coconut milk is made by squeezing the shaved coconut meat. So you see, coconut milk and coconut water are not the same. They don’t even come from the same species of coconut!

For coconut oil, you add water to the coconut milk and boil it for a whole day. Something black falls to the bottom of the pot. This is very sweet and used in all kinds of coconut candy. The oil is yellow or white and very good for you. People used to think it was bad because its solid at 70 degrees Fahrenheit. But the body is 98 degrees, so inside you it flows just fine. My doctor actually prescribes for me to eat lots of coconut oil in the winter when my hands and lips get very dry. It’s good for all kinds of skin conditions. It is used in cooking, in lotions, hair products, scented oils, and many other things. They gave us peanuts roasted in coconut oil and they were very tasty. Mom cooks with coconut oil all the time. It adds a sweet flavor.

After getting all these products from the coconut, they use the shell as cups, containers, or as bras for the “lady boys,” our guide joked. Mom could hardly understand a word he said this whole time, even though he spoke English, so I had to translate everything for her.

“Why does he keep saying, “ladies, ladies?” Mom asked. “Is he still talking about those awful lady boys?”

“He’s saying, “like this, like this,” I explained. “He says it every time he demonstrates something.”

You see, totally opposite of the Japanese who always add an extra vowel to the end of their words (it’su hoto today ne?”), the Thai cut off the final consonant. But like the Japanese, the TH sound is hard for them. So “like this,” comes out sounding “Lie dis.”

Next we saw the rubber production:



Rubber trees are also not native to Thailand but are imported from South America, I think Brazil. They cut spiral strips of bark off and catch the dripping sap in coconut cups tied to the tree. They then take that product, boil it, add acid, roll it flat, and sell. The usual rubber farmer owns about fifty trees, which can make one kilogram (2.2 pounds) of rubber every day. Each of those, rolled flat, sell for about five dollars. In Phuket, the number one industry is tourism, followed by rubber, then rice farming.

After that, we saw the Thai cooking demonstration. They passed around some traditional herbs and spices, ground them up, and made pineapple coconut chicken. It was soooo good! I bought a packet of Thai mild spices to try in my cooking at home. Key seasonings in Thai cooking are bay leaves, lemon grass, ginger, and many kinds of peppers. Our guide proclaimed, “We Thai men, we don’t want beautiful or sexy lady. When we walk in girl’s house, we want to hear pestol grinding spices. Hear it? Good cooking, good lady! No spicy, no happy.”

Then we saw a baby elephant show:



So cute! You know how they say elephants never forget? I think I know why. Most animals in shows need constant reinforcements to do tricks. Sealion trainers, for example, keep a bucket of fish on their hip and toss a fish to the sealion every time it does something right, or even just sits there patiently while the trainer explains something to the audience. The same goes for dolphins, river otters, mice, rats, birds, and other hyper animals. They have such short attention spans the trainer has to constantly reward them or they’ll get distracted. Trainers also have to use “targets,” bright objects on poles or their fists as points of reference to show the animals where to stand or that they did something right. The animal does a trick, the trainer puts out the target, animal comes back to touch it, animal gets treat. Elephants don’t need that. The elephants went through the whole show without any treats or targets. They remembered everything perfectly and could stay focused on the task at hand. But you should have seen them run for the guard rail once the show finished. They remembered what was coming! All the audience members lined up and fed them fruit, sugar cane, and coconuts. The elephants were able to imagine that reward and go through the whole show flawlessly in focused anticipation. I don’t any other animal that can do that!

Here’s us with the elephants after we fed them. The elephant on the far right is bobbing its head really fast to say it wants more. Elephants use lots of gestures to communicate between themselves and their trainers:



Then we got to ride an elephant through the jungle:



Here’s a beautiful view of the ocean from on top of the elephant:



So there you go! 4-in-1. Elephants, water buffalo, food production and rubber production, plus a one hour lunch cruise on a Chinese Junk! Again, the buffet was amazing, not to mention the view from the boat:



We met a newly married Egyptian couple. Mom and I wondered if the woman was royalty and the man had somehow married above his station. They said they were Muslim, but the wife must have been liberal because she wore shorts and a tank top, no hijab. She was very beautiful, though chubby. Her husband served her hand and foot and kept taking her picture. She was so aloof, quite snobby, actually. She spoke good English from the few sentences she said to me but mostly ignored my questions. This feeling intensified when we finished the cruise and went with them in the back of a truck to our hotel. The man was very talkative and asked us lots of questions and talked about Egypt, but his wife remained silent and poised like a queen. When it began to rain, the driver pulled down the tarp. The woman laughed a little at getting wet but then she returned to her somber face, giving the general impression that this was all beneath her. They didn’t act like a couple at all. Besides my previous theory, the only other thing I could think of was that they were lying about being newly weds, that she was some kind of princess and he her servant/bodyguard pretending to be her husband for safety purposes? Or maybe I’ve read too many royal scandal novels.

We got back to our hotel about 2:30. Mom and I were hopping to see the Big Buddha statue, supposedly with lots of wild monkeys and cats running around it, but the rain damped our plans so we just too a nap at the hotel. It’s a too thing, too, because the Fantasea show that picked us up at 5:30 kept us out until midnight!

Phuket Fantasea is a theme park open only from 6:00 midnight, but we could have spent all day there! We spent too much time just at the entrance! The ticket booths were gilded in gold and beautifully painted murals. There was also a huge koi pond filled with statues of mythical creatures:





Once inside, there were shops selling everything from local oddities to gorgeously cut glass, street performances, dancing, and several other attractions. We went into the animal adventure, which featured white parrots and crows, white tigers, and hamsters:



Why are they trying to go up those ramps? They have the whole area to play in! But humans are like that too.

We wanted to go into the bird paradise and see the cultural dancing and Prince Kamala magic show, but we didn’t have time. Instead we spent an hour in the MASSIVE buffet! That was the best food and the most food I’ve ever seen in my life! The best was the mushroom chicken, roast beef, barbequed duck, and dark chocolate deserts. So good!

Here’s the buffet hall with its sculpted ceiling and murals:



And one of the statues:



It’s a kinnaree, a mythological woman/bird who sings very beautifully and gives good luck to her possessor. They were said to live in the mystical mythical mountain forest of Himawanta, somewhere in the Himalayan mountains. Evil men try to catch them and make them their lovers, but it is very bad luck to catch a kinnaree.

Wow, three buffets in one day! And all of them so good, but that one was definitely the best. We felt like royalty!

Then it was on to the 9:00 show, the main attraction! There was so much to see and do in the theater. They even had baby elephants you could give fruit to and infant tigers you could hold and feed a bottle to. Talk about a tourist trap!

The show itself was spectacular! The story was about Prince Kamala, his magic elephant, and many adventures. As far as I could research, there was no prince Kamala. Kamala is just the name of the area, but magic elephants are an important part of Thai mythology, and the show featured many other mythical elements. The best scenes were the flying kinnaree women trying to avoid being caught, and the acrobats dressed as glowing stars doing flips from trapezes. Prince Kamala fell in love with a local village girl, and there was a hard-to-get scene somewhat like Curly and Lori’s “People Will Say We’re In Love” from the musical Oklahoma, only Thai style with rice farmers dancing in the background, and chickens, ducks, and goats running across the stage. But the girl was then kidnapped by the demon king, and Prince Kamala had to rescue her. Kind of like the Hindu story of Prince Rama and Sita. All during the battle the elephants were perfect, despite the loud noises, explosions, and other chaos, in perfect time to the music. How do the trainers get them to do that! I wouldn’t want to be around a spooked elephant. Of course Prince Rama won, and in the victory, they brought out a baby elephant, and many children came out to dance with it to the Thai song “Chiang, Chiang, Chiang,” which means elephant. Then, there was a magnificent elephant circus with them balancing on balls and each others backs and such. Wow! As the theme song says, Phuket Fantasea, that’s where I want to be! I highly recommend it.

Here is the theater:



I met another Egyptian woman there, who reminded me of one I met in Japan. Talk about hyper! She spoke a million miles a minute. “Hello where are you from I’ve never been to America but I want to but now I’m here all by myself and my family says I’m crazy to travel alone but I don’t mind because I think it’s fun don’t you?” I don’t even know Americans who talk that fast!

Mom left her bag at the theater, but fortunately when we went back for it, it was still there. I wanted to stay longer but Mom was in a hurry to get back to our hotel since it was late. We got back about midnight. What a day!

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