Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Laem Chabang, Thailand

After a long run of tender ports, we were glad to walk off the ship in our first of 2 ports in Thailand. The main attraction of coming here was it's relative closeness to Bangkok, but like Hanoi, the majority of the day would be taken up sitting on a coach, and so we decided to take advantage of a free shuttle service to the nearby town of Pattaya. Our plan for the day was to spend the morning at an "Elephant Village" and then see some of Pattaya in the afternoon. The shuttle gave us a quick orientation tour and then dropped us at a hotel in the centre of the town, one street back from the main beach. As we're getting closer to the equator again (in the Northern Hemisphere) it's getting progressively warmer and more humid. Today, the temperature started at about 26 and rose to about 32 degrees with very high humidity that constantly made you feel like you needed a shower!

First stop, a bank to get some money out. The Thai Baht is not the most stable of currencies, and so the ship doesn't carry any to change on board, like it does with most other countries. Mission accomplished, and feeling rich with a few thousand Baht obtained, we needed to find a taxi. There were a few parked along the busy road, but the drivers were nowhere to be seen. We approached an official looking taxi stand but they wanted to take us on a tour to a different "Elephant Village" for a great deal more money. We managed to get across exactly where we wanted to go and agreed a price too, but the taxi itself was not very official looking, and so rightly or wrongly, I decided to walk away. Katie wasn't entirely in agreement, but it didn't feel right. Back to square one, and I started to think we should have booked the official P&O tour. We flagged down an "official" taxi and agreed a price with the driver who evidently didn't understand where we wanted to go. We'd done our homework and knew it was only 5 miles outside Pattaya, but he still seemed to protest about how far away it was. Still, he got us there eventually, another magical mystery tour under our belts.

The Elephant Village/Sanctuary itself is located just outside Pattaya in a more rural location, and all of the animals here are rescued because they have at one time been sick or injured. It's well worth a visit if you're ever in the area. We paid the equivalent of 20 pounds each which covered our entry, some local drinks and fruit snacks and an hour long trek on the back of one of the elephants, you can also feed them bananas and get much closer to them than you would in a regular zoo. As I mentioned, there was an official tour heading this way in the afternoon, but in doing it ourselves, we saved about 30 pounds and gained a lot more flexibility in our day. The official tour also didn't include a trek, but instead a show, probably to accommodate the less able bodied members of the group.

Riding on the back of our elephant was really cool (I did ask her name, but I forget what it was). Our guide, who was riding up front, as we sat in a seat strapped to her back, took us in a big circular route, through some water which came up to the waist of the elephant, and through local farms and villages. A few people that we saw waved, but otherwise it was just us. Apart from the constant rocking from side to side and the odd squelching noise from behind us, it was very relaxing. Our elephant was very well behaved, only on one occasion at a water stop (for her, not us) did she decide to assert her authority and turned away sharply in defiance. Nearing the end of the tour, we caught up with a few more elephants which looked like they were being repositioned around the village. One took a liking to the bananas which Katie had next to her, and a stray trunk suddenly appeared over her shoulder, heading straight for the bag! He didn't manage to eat them all though, there were still some left for ours to eat once we had dismounted. In fact, she was so keen to polish them off that before Katie could take them out of the plastic bag, she swiped the whole lot, bag and all. Despite our frantic attempts to stop her, the bananas and bag went whole into her mouth. The staff saw the whole thing but it didn't seem to worry them as much as it did us. Apparently elephants can deal with that sort of thing. Still, I hope it was bio-degradable. After the ride, we had a chance to take photos with the newest addition to the village, which was a 4 month old baby. He came up to my waist, had a hairy head, and was very playful. As we stood next to him, we would head butt our legs and he tried to wrap his trunk around my ankle and lift my leg up!

We got a lift back to town from one of the staff members, it was cheaper than the taxi earlier and a lot more comfortable. He dropped us back at the hotel where the bus had left us earlier. We had a quick, practical lunch so as not to waste too much time and then took a stroll up and down the main road in Pattaya. Much of it was made up of street markets, and browsing them, we have discovered, is one of our favourite pastimes in this part of the world. Katie wanted to go in the sea, so we did that too, although the beach was fairly narrow and crowded.

It was hard not to notice that all around Pattaya, essentially a beach resort, a higher than normal percentage of lone men on the streets. Couples are the norm everywhere we've been, so their single presence was quite an oddity to us. All of them were of a certain age, and most looked like they lived there or were certainly accustomed to the climate and way of life. Maybe this is similar in the rest of Thailand, I don't know, but one can make some assumptions about why they were there in such numbers. It gave the place a rather seedy feel although it never made us feel uncomfortable...

...That was the job of the weather, and with no sign of the humidity or temperature relenting, we were quite glad to make our way back to the coach and then the ship. We managed to get some free WiFi at the port, but only for the 20 minutes or so that we had left before getting back on board. A big crowd of crew and passengers were all sat around, heads buried deep into their laptops, a sure sign of free Internet and a consequence of the expensive and very slow connection on board. As I've explained before, finding free connectivity is like finding a stack of 20s down the back of the sofa. It's not just me, honest!

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