After Christmas, which we spent rock climbing, our friends Kurt and Sumi came out to Thailand. We spent 4 fun days with them north of Chiang Mai at Cave Lodge. We crawled on our bellies through a cool, wet cave, hiked around taking 3 hours for a 1 hour hike, and also visited a small Karen village. 

Returning to Chiang Mai, we spent the craziest New Year's Eve ever!

This picture shows some of the insanity of the evening. The yellowish lights are not stars, but paper lanterns, lit by people for good luck in the new year. These paper cylinders are about a meter long and 500 cm in diameter. There's a big chunk of paraffin soaked cloth at the bottom to provide the candle power to lift it into the air. The Thais light them and they drift off into the sky, taking your good wishes up to heaven. 

Being New Year's Eve, other people can't let good enough alone and light them wherever they are, even if that's under a power pole. After we saw 3 lanterns burning on the power line, we decided it was time to move to somewhere a bit more safe.

You see, besides paper lanterns, there was an abundance of cheap, powerful fireworks. This being Thailand, you are more responsible for yourself and can buy most anything if you have enough money. This being New Year's Eve, you are encouraged to consume large amounts of alcohol. This being Thailand, Red Bull is extremely cheap (10 Baht/bottle). Mix all 3 and you get a severe dilution of common sense.

After a while, firecrackers and M-80 bombs became commonplace. Roman candles (handheld tubes that shoot fireballs) became mundane. Rockets became blah. As we walked around the road that rings the old city, we noticed real fireworks. You know, they're the ones that get launched in a mortar and shoot up hundreds of feet into the air. In the States, you have to be a 1/4 mile away where they ignite them. Here in Chiang Mai, you can buy these fireworks in Chinatown. People were walking into the middle of the street and lighting them. We would hear the whoomp of the mortar going off, then a big boom as the explosion rocked us.

It was all very pretty, but we weren't drunk enough to forget that quality control isn't always that good. Sure enough, one of the fireworks exploded close to the ground, showering folks with hot sparks. We got away clean, but heard tales later of really drunk people pointing those rockets at low targets like tuk-tuks.

 

On that note, my son James came to visit us for a couple of weeks. Between semesters in his second year at Humboldt State University, James had accepted our offer to spend his winter break in a warm place. We had lots of ideas, but no set plans. Better to let him have a say in what we were going to be doing.

First, we went to Crazy Horse, our favorite climbing area in Thailand. The rock is less polished than at Railay and the cooler climate is better for me and Val. The 3 of us set out one morning in the Sang Teow provided by CMRCA, the local climbing shop. Another climber there was looking for a partner so we became two groups of 2 instead of a threesome. That meant more climbing for me as our new friend, John, climbed much harder than us. Alas, roped climbing is not really James' cup of tea, so we didn't return again.

Instead, we hopped in a minivan and headed up to Pai, where we found an incredibly laid back town. Val found us a nice quiet guest house and we checked in for the duration. Prices were a little higher than Chaing Mai, but still pretty cheap. We got James his own room too, which was best for all of us. Who wants to share a room with his dad and stepmom anyway?

The main reason we were in Pai was elephants. We'd read about riding them and it seemed incredible that you could spend time on such a large animal. My good friend Michelle had come up here and spent time at Thom's Elephant Camp. After trying to figure things out online and then having a little trouble communicating on the phone, we found Thom's office in Pai and booked a day where we could become mahouts. Early the next day, we went to Thom's and were driven up to their camp, a few kilometers outside of town. We were encouraged to get to know the elephants by feeding them. 

It was a bit intimidating at first. Elephants are big! They weigh around 3 tons when fully grown and are over 3 meters tall at the shoulders. When they saw us coming over with some snacks, they all stretched out their trunks to us. It's kinda like when a big dog runs towards you. Even if you really like dogs, it can be a little intimidating. When a 3 ton animal moves towards me, I tend to keep my distance. Better safe than sorry.

Turns out that the elephants at Thom's are like big puppies. They really, really love to eat and so it was easy to make friends with them by feeding them. We handed them some bamboo and watched as they stripped the papery leaves off with their trunks and shoved them into their mouths. Thom says they eat all day, needing about 250 kg of food a day. It certainly appeared that way to us. 

We got to ride the elephants too! With the command of *Song*, my elephant raised her right leg so I could climb up and onto her back. Too cool! We took a walk around the farm and then went down to the river. This was by far, my favorite portion of the day.

On our way to the river:
 

Then the fun began. The command "Bon" will get you wet:

 

 

The real mahouts had some other commands they didn't teach us too:
 

James tries to stay on

Val
 

 

We stayed all day, helping with more feedings and hanging out when they went on a walk. In time, we came to really enjoy their company.

We ended our day by taking the elephants to their night time pasture and helping cut some food for them. 

Like it so much, we went back the next day to feed them some more when we went out scootering.

Our next day in Pai, we rented scooters and took a long trip through the countryside. It was so different from scootering in Chiang Mai. Hardly any cars and lots of beautiful scenery.

 Let's ride!

 

Next: James learns to dive!