attack_of_giant_leeches_lc_01I’m a big fan of rain. Rain, you’re awesome and I would totally hound you for an autograph, write you heart-bursting poetry, take you home to meet the parents if only you would look at me and see how true and deep I am, not like all the others.

I melt with you, rain.

I melt with you, rain.

I love you, rain, in the happy sun shower times. I love you even when you are angry and all hurricane-y. I even think it’s cute when you piss down on everyone, like how you do to the English all the time.

And then dear rain, in Thailand, you turn on me. You bring leeches with you.

Rain in Huay Pakoot.  How could you, rain?

Rain in Huay Pakoot. How could you, rain?

In my second week in Huay Pakoot, the rainy season finally kicks in. Clouds move into the village and start pushing people around. It begins to rain several times during the day. The storms can be as short as ten minutes. Overnight, heavier rains give the jungle a good thrashing.

That means that it’s party time for the leeches.

Leech.  The stuff of nightmares.

Okay, maybe not ‘giant’. But look at it. It’s horrifying.

Bugs I can learn to deal with, leeches just don’t have any good qualities. They’re sticky, slimy, and stubborn. And they turn me off of Italian food. The reason is because they look like cooked spaghetti—sickly gray-black cooked spaghetti that has come to life and wriggled out from the bottom of a trash heap.

Worst of all, their primary trait is a particularly nasty one: blood-sucking. Leeches are the closest real creatures that the jungle has to zombies. Like zombies, they glom on to you as they start sucking out your life force—only they suck out blood instead of brains.

Zombie eating brains.

Zombie eating brains.

While zombies are cool in books and movies, let’s face it, a real-life zombie attack would kind of suck. Leeches in the jungle are a real-life zombie attack. They slither out of the dead leaves and the mud, moaning as they swarm your feet and ankles.

Okay, maybe not moaning, but seriously, they grope for you… I have watched their little wormy torsos feeling for me, twitching and stabbing at the air for just a little piece of me to grab onto.

A groping leech.

A groping leech.

Our first hike with the leeches we have to stop every five or ten minutes, because someone has a leech squirming on them.

Contrary to popular belief, their favorite hangout isn’t water, except for the leech that rose up and took Chuck Norris down in Braddock: Missing in Action 5, The Leechening. They are most commonly creeping around in fresh mud or dead, moldy leaves.



Even leeches can't stop Chuck.  They can only hope to contain him.

Even leeches can’t stop Chuck. They can only hope to contain him.

Their first move is usually to hug the back of your shoe. That’s why on a hike when there are leeches prowling around, everyone looks like they’re checking their feet every minute or so to see if they’ve stepped in dog shit.

From the back of the shoe, leeches can worm in anywhere. Some like to slither into your shoe and go spelunking in there. Others burrow into your ankle—at least you can usually spot them there at some point.

One volunteer comes well-prepared for the leeches: good hiking boots protected by gaiters, which are worn over the lower leg and ankle. They’re usually meant to keep snow out of your boots, but he uses them to keep out the leeches. I think it’s a brilliant plan.

An hour into the hike he stops, unfastens the gaiters and begins to peel them away: three leeches in there. They writhe spastically as their secret hiding place is exposed. I scream. This guy is lost to the zombie leeches. I pull out my gun, before he turns into one of them.

–Okay, I’m getting carried away. But you get the idea what these creatures do to me.

They can be sprayed off with a DEET chemical repellent, kind of like using a flamethrower to remove a mole. This method gives leech and victim instant cancer, but at least the leech curls up and drops off.

The mahouts make a game of leech control, flicking them off with a machete, toying with them for minute like a cat with a mouse, and then severing the little bastards in half.

I laugh and laugh. I guess I’ve found my limit to loving all creatures.

On this first hike with leeches they get all of my fellow hikers. They drop, one by one. Somehow I escape. I slam the door of the Outhouse-Plus, sweaty, tired, and leech-free, with the music on the soundtrack crashing into silence. I am safe.

Now I can celebrate my leeching near-miss by dumping polar ice cap-cold water over my head for a ‘shower’.

I start peeling off my clothes. I notice that my khaki pants have flecks of red in them.

Uh oh. I tug the pants completely off. The ‘flecks’ are actually large red blotches. I rip off the rest of my clothes like I’m on fire.

There he is.

A leech is wrapped snugly around a section of my upper thigh, sucking face on my leg. He is glistening and plump, and has grown from a cute little spaghetti into a strapping young penne pasta… because now he’s full of my blood.

I pause for precious blood-siphoning seconds, not because I’m unsure of what to do, but because I am terrified of doing it: touching him. I actually have to touch this slimy baby alien monster if I want to rip him off.

I know—he’s already touching me, because he’s eating my leg for lunch—but at least he’s not moving much. If I try to peel him off, I’m sure he’s going to wriggle around and… here’s where my brain goes: He’ll jump into my mouth. Ahhhhhh!… okay.

I have to do it.

I grab hold of him.

Sure enough, he wriggles and hugs me even tighter. I pry, scrape, fumble, juggle, and flick the fat little bastard from my leg to my finger to my shirt hanging on the wall, back to my finger—before I finally jettison him out of an opening in the Outhouse-Plus.

I take a breath, feeling very Sigourney Weaverish. She kicked an alien off a space ship, I bounced a leech out of an outhouse.

I run my hands all over my body—and I mean all over, dreading the feel of another slimy bloodsucker. When I find no more leeches… I check my body again. Five more times.

A leech eating me.

A leech eating a person.

After this trauma, I feel heavy dread every time it rains. Although to my credit, I never pass on a hike when it’s raining, so I am constantly coming face to face with my bogeyleeches.

I Agent Orange my hiking shoes with DEET before each hike, acquiring instant cancer.–It’s okay, once I get back to L.A. a shot of wheat grass juice will knock that right out.

I wear shorts so I can see the leeches sneaking up my leg. I stop often to carefully examine my boots (dog shit check). And I develop a sixth sense for detecting leeches. I can spot them from yards away and many of them I can avoid, even if it means taking huge circling detours.

Days later I am on another hike, helping a girl perform a health check on an elephant. She is checking off something on a clipboard. Fwop. A leech plops onto the clipboard, practically dotting an I.

She freezes. Looks up.

Shivers run down my spine. Not much I can do when they’re falling out of the sky.




Mana.  Mana would turn out to be the most photogenic elephant.


There are about 3000 domesticated elephants left in Thailand, down from 100,000 at the beginning of the twentieth century. The wild elephant population is down to about 3000 (or even as low as 1000 by some accounts) from 300,000 in the same span of time. This qualifies the Asian elephant as endangered.

Most captive elephants in Thailand are now in tourist camps, a $15 billion-plus industry. When logging was totally banned in Thailand in 1989, the elephant trainers/owners, or mahouts, turned to the tourist camps to make money. In tourist camps elephants usually undergo cruel and abusive ‘training’ to make them perform tricks, give ‘rides’, and pose for pictures.

baby dirt bath

The babies give themselves a dirt bath. Dirt and mud protect the elephants from the sun and keep them cool.

In Huay Pakoot the elephants won’t have to do any of that. Neither will they be forced to paint, play soccer, or beg in the streets. They will never be completely wild, either. They are here and the mahouts are here because people like me are paying to visit the village and follow the elephants around as they forage in the jungle. The goal is to turn the business of this paid volunteerism over to the people of the village itself. That’s in the future.

In the meantime, the mahouts get paid a wage comparable to what they would make if they took their elephants to the tourist camps. So the real benefit to the mahouts in this program is not the money, but the opportunity to stay at home with their families. The elephants get the best deal, since they get a chance to live better lives, free from abuse and servitude.

In Huay Pakoot, there are eight elephants in this man-made herd. The oldest are Tong Dee and Kam Suk, both in their mid to late 50’s. Kam Moon is Kam Suk’s female offspring, she’s in her 30’s. Then there’s Mana and Sen Jap, also in their 30’s.

Mae San Jep.  The 'Mae' means 'Lady'.

Mae Sen Jap. The ‘Mae’ means ‘Lady’.

Tong Dee.  She was exploited for logging until it was outlawed.

Tong Dee. She was exploited for logging until it was outlawed.

Kam Moon.  The largest elephant of the herd.

Kam Moon. The largest elephant of the herd.

Kam Suk.  Her mahout is feeding her bark.

Kam Suk. The oldest elephant of the herd. Her mahout is feeding her bark.

There are three baby elephants: Bpee Mai, Mario (the only two males), and Lulu. They are five, four, and three respectively. Kam Suk, Kam Moon, and Lulu, three successive generations of elephants (Lulu is Kam Moon’s offspring), are brand new additions to the herd, and they have been here for only a couple of weeks. All the elephants are from tourist camps except for Tong Dee, who was used as a beast of burden for logging. Lulu has never been in a forest until only a couple of weeks ago.

Bpee Mai.  He is the "veteran" baby, and the other babies often follow his example.

Bpee Mai. He is the “veteran” baby, and the other babies often follow his example.

cute Mario

Mario. Mario was always curious about us volunteers.

Lulu.  Lulu had never been in the forest until now.

Lulu. Lulu had never been in the forest until now.

The first time I meet the elephants I am allowed to feed them, which is thrilling beyond belief. I feed Tong Dee, who looks the oldest, even though Kam Suk is slightly older. Maybe it’s all the hard labor Tong Dee has had to endure. Her skin is saggy and wrinkly, her eyes big and sad-looking. She nudges me with her trunk for the bananas in my hand. A nudge from an elephant is like a shove from a dock worker named Moose. Tong Dee snorts, chews noisily, her trunk poking at me for more. I stare up at her.

Feeding Tong Dee.  She became one of my favorites.

Feeding Tong Dee. She became one of my favorites.

In Hinduism and some other disciplines the god Ganesha takes the form of an elephant. He is known, among other things, as the Destroyer of Obstacles.

Later I see the photos of me feeding Tong Dee and I don’t recognize them. There is a strange smile on my face that I have never seen before. It’s like I’m looking at a different person.

I will snap hundreds of photos and videos of the elephants, but every one seems to fall short of what it’s like to actually be in the presence of one. When you see one up close and in person—and not in a zoo cage– you feel like you are looking at an animal not of this time, as if you are suddenly seeing a dinosaur stomping out of the forest.

Elephants are massive, slow, deliberate, and surprisingly quiet. Take your eye off them and they will surprise you. More than once I will pick out an isolated jungle observation post from which to safely view the creatures from a distance, only to turn around to find an elephant on top of me.

They forage at their own, relaxed pace, hoisting their trunks up like periscopes to periodically sniff the air. They are curious about us and they touch and smell each other. They snort when eating, trumpet when frustrated, squeak for who knows why. It is alarming to hear rodent sounds (albeit a large, steroid-gobbling rodent) coming from the belly of such a massive beast. They even growl when agitated or giving warning, but it’s not like say a big cat growl. It has a basso profondo rumble to it, like a giant awakening from under the earth.

Seventy percent of the day they spend eating, so they do a lot of that. Sometimes they take a few steps and just stop, pausing, eyes darting, trunk gliding a few inches off the ground. With their tufts of hair at the fringes of their lumpy heads, they look to me then like wise old men lost in thought. Every time I am near one I am struck with a sense of peace and awe.

Mario stomps on a tree branch to make it more bite-sized.

Mario stomps on a tree branch to make it more bite-sized.

Kam Moon touches her mother, Kam Suk.  Kam Moon never strays far from her mother.

Kam Moon touches her mother, Kam Suk. Kam Moon never strays far from her mother.

Each day there are elephant hikes, some longer (six hours generally), some shorter (about four hours). I go on all of them. This alone keeps me busy, and there are many other things to potentially do, including attending lectures, teach English to the children or the mahouts of the village, help my host family cook, weave baskets, and more.

In 2010 I quit smoking. I had smoked for over twenty years before quitting. Up until this week I had still been chewing Nicorette nicotine gum, usually two pieces per day. I had debated whether to buy another box before I left because I had counted them all out (as an addict will do), and had almost exactly enough for the whole trip, if I kept on the two a day dose.

Quietly, almost without me noticing, I stop chewing the gum. I don’t miss it. I am among the elephants every day and I am thinking about the phrase, Destroyer of Obstacles.

Who is this man?

Who is this man?


I have returned from my trip to Thailand with the elephants. A lot has happened and there was a lot to absorb. I’ll be blogging about my week to week experiences in Thailand in the days to come.

iphone_June25 071


I realize that I am part of something special the Wednesday of my first week in Thailand. A heavy tropical storm has just struck, shooting bullets out of the sky, and I am kneeling on the floor, helping to chop lettuce for a girl cooking dinner for me and three other ‘gollas’, or foreigners. I look out the window to see a baby elephant munching on sugar cane leaves and scratching himself. He lifts one hind leg to scratch the other, almost human-like, snorting in the cool air, his muddy gray skin darkening to a dark chocolate brown in the downpour.

It hits me. I’m eating dinner with an elephant in the backyard.

Five days earlier:

I arrive in Chiang Mai, Thailand, after 22 hours on a plane. I check into the hotel and I walk around in a daze. Part of it is jet lag, part of it is culture shock, part of it is I see no one who looks like me in the first hours at the hotel. The white people are all twenty-plus years younger. High school and college kids mostly, an endless gabbing, hard-bodied, partying parade of them. At breakfast I see a guy in his mid-thirties. We share the look of the damned. The old and the damned.

I conquer my fear of eating at a restaurant where no English is spoken nor found on the menu. The owner and I grunt, smile, and gesture at each other until somehow there’s some pad thai in front of me, and it’s delicious.

I meet other people in the volunteer program, run by GVI, Global Vision International. We’re all here to help elephants. I have signed on for a month with these strangers. I’ll be sharing meals, hiking with them, hanging out with them. They are from New York, Massachusetts, Vermont, Canada, Great Britain, Ireland, Denmark, Australia, Switzerland, and there’s a person from California, like me. The British contingent outnumbers all other nationalities, probably because GVI is based in the United Kingdom.

I arrive at Huay Pakoot, a tiny village in the mountains of northwest Thailand. It’s 3300 feet up, and there’s no flat land anywhere. This would be a good retirement community for mountain climbers. On my casual walks around, casually gasping for breath and casually waiting to hear the snap of a leg tendon, I get lost four times. I get lost looking for my family’s house, finding Base Hut (where the volunteers hang out), looking for the road that climbs up to the school. I get lost after a hike, which means I have another hike after the hike.

Huay Pakoot

Huay Pakoot

The blessing ceremony

The blessing ceremony

There is a dinner welcoming ceremony, where a few members of the village come to base hut to welcome new people and give blessings. The ceremony involves blessing a bowl of rice and going around a circle of us volunteers, tying strings around our wrists as a symbol of blessing and protection. I stare admiringly at the little twine ball around my wrist like it’s a Rolex. I do feel blessed and honored to be here. And I’m excited by string. My cats would be so pleased.

Base Hut

Base Hut

I meet my host family and they show me to my room. It has a thin not-quite-a-mattress on a floor, and a sleeping bag for a blanket. The key feature is the mosquito net surrounding the mattress and blanket. There are no such things as screens on the windows, so the mosquito net is my only sanctuary from the myriad of insects that swarm my room every night. Geckos prowl the walls and ceiling, announcing themselves with one of two strange calls. They sound either like an overstimulated squirrel or a frog that has taken voice lessons. They snap up some of the bugs but there are just too many of them.

By the end of the first week, with all the Brits around, I am helpless against the tendency to start spouting British expressions. I say things I would be shot for in America, like ‘sort out’, ‘have a go’, and ‘Hey gov, your googlies are well tarrowed in the henpot’. That last one I made up, but hearing the Brits speak I feel like they just make up words and expressions anyway.

After a few hikes, which I handle okay, and better than many of the younger people, the age gap fear fades. Does this mean that I’m okay to hang with younger people only if I can hike mountains?

Hiking in the clouds

Hiking in the clouds

Still, I am uneasy around the new volunteers and terrified of the veterans, some of whom are here for six month marathons. I am eager to score even minor social points with my fellows, so I accept an offering of some sticky toffee and chocolate candy that I have never heard of. Most likely it’s British. Here’s how that goes, roughly: “Hey Mike, want a barmy whompun-pat*?”

(*Not the name, but it could be. I’m telling you, they make this shit up.)

Does an elephant shit in the woods?” I quip smartly, and with a self-satisfied flourish, pop the unknown candy into my mouth. In my eagerness to impress, somehow I’ve forgotten that my teeth, through a combination of genetics and bad living in my twenties, have had to be systematically repaired and replaced over the last two decades, so that now they are like rows of pearly white condominium facades. They look pretty good, but one touch and everything collapses in a dusty cloud of porcelain veneer. The candy feels like a small rock liberally coated with Krazy Glue, and on chew number two I spit out the candy, and one of my dental crowns with it.

So I have to go to the dentist. The procedure should be simple. The crown is still intact, it just needs to be cemented back into place. Simple maybe, but this is the point I realize just where we are and how hard it is to accomplish certain things. There is a dentist in a little town about an hour’s drive away. The villagers are asked their opinion of this dentist.

Some of these villagers, incidentally, chew betel nut. Chewing betel nut looks roughly like chewing tobacco while wearing lipstick as your gums bleed. The locals also smoke thin, foul-smelling cigars, and have more than a few early check-outs from the Hotel Pearly White. They give this guy a thumbs-down. He must be a medieval torturer.

Next plan is another town where there is a small hospital. There is also a dental clinic there. Apparently for this dentist the whole dental gig is just for fun though, since the clinic is open only one day a week. Maybe.

So eventually I am shipped back to Chiang Mai. The clinic there caters to western ex-pats, in fact all the people I see in the waiting room are white. After a short wait I am called in and the procedure is simple, it takes about ten minutes. Total bill: $13.20. My dentist in L.A. would charge me thirteen bucks just for reading a magazine in his waiting room.

The ride back to the village is my first ride in a Sung Tao, probably the most common mode of transport in Thailand. A Sung Tao is a truck enclosed on the top and sides, with the back open. Benches line the two side walls, and there are railings attached to the ceiling. The railings are extremely effective in pretending that I have a sense of safety and control as I am spun, yanked, and thrashed around in the back of this truck on winding mountain roads. Lovely greenery shoots by in an acid-strobing blur, the tailpipe pumps in exhaust fumes unfettered by oxygen, and driving over gaping potholes allows my face to eat generous helpings of my knees.

I never thought I would rate a trip to the dentist higher than a scenic ride through the country, but I’m learning a lot about myself here.

View from Base Hut

View from Base Hut