This is a bug of Thailand.  He's very cuddly.

This is a bug of Thailand. He’s very cuddly.

The bugs are everywhere. They include flying ants, moths, mosquitoes, flies, bees, beetles, centipedes, millipedes, ants, and on and on. Butterflies are easy to get along with, obviously, and thankfully they are common as well. The worst are the flying ants. They come out in swarms at night after a rain, and their huge papery wings have a creepy rustle as they whap into the walls, lights, the mosquito net, and my face. But if I’m going to get along here in Thailand, I just have to let go of my ick factor and accept them as my neighbors. Once I do this, things get a lot easier.

Flying ant.  Each morning I would find my bedroom floor littered with their wings.  I crafted a lovely papyrus stationery out of them.

Flying ant. Each morning I would find my bedroom floor littered with their wings. I crafted a lovely papyrus stationery out of them.

Mosquito net surrounding my bed.  Note the gecko poop on the top.

Mosquito net surrounding my bed. Note the gecko poop on the top. It’s a good thing.

Until I meet the beetle that hisses at me when I try to flick him off my sweatshirt. I flick again, he spits at me and digs his legs defiantly into my shoulder. I wriggle out of the sweatshirt and run away. It’s his now. There’s a USC logo on it, so maybe the other beetles think he went to college. It’s possible–with that hissing he practically talks.

View of the bug entrance to my bedroom.  I would find flying ant wings on the floor each morning.  I made a lovely papyrus stationery out of them.

View of the bug entrance to my bedroom. If I turned the light on, they had a neon sign guiding them, and they could invite all their friends.

In Los Angeles’ more temperate climate, applying the ‘live and let live’ philosophy with bugs is quite a bit easier. A few wayward ants in my office back in Los Angeles and I can rush to the rescue with my sheet of paper, fast-walking the little critters to the other side of the building and the exit outside.

Another bug of Thailand.  Adorable.

Another bug of Thailand. Adorable.

But in Thailand, there are red ants that rather enjoy gnawing on your flesh, so when they do get on you and get busy, it’s hard to resist screaming, “Die, fucker!” as you slap your body like you’re putting out a fire, trying to squash the little bastards.

And there’s the bees. In my experience, if you meet one bee in Thailand it won’t sting you but it won’t leave you alone… ever. You can hike three miles and he’ll still be circling your eardrum, taking off and alighting on your arm. Might as well offer him some lunch, he’s not going anywhere for a while. If you meet more than one—well, I guess they don’t want to look like pussies in front of their friends. So they sting the shit out of you.

After careful observation, and getting zapped myself, I learn that the bees have a thing for rotting logs that are alongside or partially submerged in rivers or streams.

eye butterfly 1

Butterfly. There are many different species in Thailand, and they’re everywhere. They are good bug role models.

During one hike we are walking along a river and I am behind a girl who is heavily fatigued. Her pack hangs low to the ground, unbalanced, and her steps are leaden and clumsy. I spot a fat, moldy log just up ahead of her, half in, half out of the water—potentially a creepy little haunted bee house.

Before I can say anything, this girl tries to scale the log, swinging her leg on top of it, and I hear a loud fwump. The girl’s entire leg sinks into the rotted log, the moldy wood swallowing her up to her waist. I offer my hand to help her out, breaking out in a fresh sweat, as I imagine a cloud of stirred up bees glomming onto her leg, stingers angrily tattooing her flesh.

Nothing happens. I’m thinking, Get her!

–No, not really. I am actually pleasantly surprised that there appears to be no one home.

Slowly she extricates herself from the log. The moldy wood reluctantly gives up her leg with a heavy sucking sound, pieces of rot cracking and falling away.

I look up to see the mahout wildly gesticulating at us.

Come on!” he’s panting, in heavily accented English. “Hurry!”

I’ve watched this scene many times. One or two times I helped to make a scene like this, since I used to be a movie trailer editor. I start running forward—we are all running forward—only I can’t help but stop to look back over my shoulder.

More rotting wood is splintering from the log, and the sizable amount of wood that is falling away–as well as the sizable amount of movie scenes stored in my head–suggest to me that this is a horror way more terrifying than mere bees. That some…thing… has been disturbed… awoken… and it is bursting out of the rotting log… 

My mouth opens.   I’m staring.  My fellow hikers run by me.  I’m that idiot in those horror movies who freezes and is the first to go, staring stupidly up at the huge thing as it springs and devours me.  I’m forgotten a half hour into the movie. 

Alien, I’m thinking.

Nope. Bees.

They stung three people, including the mahout. I was left alone this time. The girl who had served up half her torso for the bees to tenderize when she fell through their roof—she also walked away unscathed.

Tracks photographed near the river.  Frog... or baby alien?

Tracks photographed near the river. Frog… or baby alien?



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?


In week one I eat my first meal prepared by the matriarch of my host family, Apah. She is told that I am a vegetarian. No eggs, either. She laughs, and after a translation, I am told she has said in her language: “Then what do you eat?” Throughout my stay she smiles, laughs, and tries to joke with me. Despite the language barrier, I understand her warnings about the low ceilings everywhere in her house.

At six o’clock every day I arrive for dinner, and every day I bonk my head on the low ceiling. Apah rolls out a rug onto a sort of porch area of her house. It begins to sink in that there is no furniture anywhere. People in the village sit on the floor to eat, relax, hang out. There is a lot of squatting. Tigers used to prowl the jungle here fifty years ago. After they were hunted into extinction, it looks like everyone went after the chairs.

My host family's house

My host family’s house

Apah and her daughter, Tee Ta Poh.

Apah and her daughter, Tee Da Poh.

I love Apah’s cooking, and from this vegetarian’s perspective the key to the food is not necessarily what it is, but how it’s flavored and spiced. Some of my favorite dishes are spiced potatoes, spiced pea puree, spiced peppers (perhaps you’re seeing a theme here), and sometimes Apah makes a cold paste out of red chilies that goes well with anything. Occasionally there is fruit, usually mango, pineapple, or watermelon, which is delectable and balances the other dishes well.

I have a striking view of surrounding mountains from where I eat. During this first week, a staff member eats with me and my family. After that I will be on my own, so I can either try to learn some of the language, or go the other way and just get down some really cool blank stares and grinning idiot poses.

The staff member knows a lot of Packinyah, which is the native language spoken by the Karen people that live here. As the staff member and my host family converse in fits and starts, I write down as many words as I can and practice pronouncing them. Packinyah is not a written language, so I write down the words phonetically. It’s hard to figure out grammar rules. A lot of it sounds like some weird version of French, like if Pepe Lepew had invented his own language.

One phrase I manage to get down is ‘Da bleu!’, which is a good all-purpose phrase, since it means hello, goodbye, and thank you. One little wrinkle is if you slightly mispronounce it, if you say ‘Ta bleu!’, you are calling the other person crazy. After a few days I’m da bleuing all over the place.

My view while eating dinner

My view while eating dinner

Apah packs my lunch for the day hikes in a pink Minnie Mouse plastic container. Breaking out a Disney lunch box in the jungle is a bit off (another British expression, I can’t stop myself), like if I clopped into a Disney board meeting with hiking boots and a backpack. (That might be my next trip.) All the other volunteers are jealous of my Minnie Mouse container, and they should be, with their plain no-mouse-eared food containers. I am very proud of it, beaming as I unscrew Minnie’s head. Lunch is eaten cold, either out in the jungle on the hike or at base hut if the hike is shorter. The food is good no matter what, even if you imagine it’s Minnie’s little mouse brains, which I would never do.

Minnie pre-lobotomy

Minnie pre-lobotomy

Canon_June 28 151

And post-lobotomy

The bathroom facilities are in a separate building from my host’s house, in what is for all practical purposes an outhouse with ‘shower’ facilities. So, Outhouse-Plus. Here I am introduced to the squat toilet. This is a happier meeting than I expected–I thought I would be actually crapping down a hole. It is at least a toilet, made of porcelain, and even imprinted with the manufacturer’s name. ‘Otto’ is the manufacturer. Strangely, in the city, the toilets are imprinted with ‘Cotto’. The brothers Otto and Cotto, twin toilet titans of Southeast Asia. The toilet is set into the floor and the squatting takes some getting used to. I consider it a victory that I somehow escape crapping on myself.

The ‘shower’ is a big barrel of ice cold water in the corner across from the squat toilet. A little plastic pot is used to scoop up the water and pour it over myself. I start the week ‘showering’ (you can substitute ‘dump arctic water over my head’ if you like) once in the morning, and once after the hike.



By the end of the week I shower only after the hike. Morning showers are bracing but pointless, since I am clean for all of thirty minutes before the hike begins. They do get my attention. I stifle a shout as the poured ice water bashes me like a baseball bat made of ice. This feels great after a hike—or at least less like electroshock therapy–but only if I walk directly from the jungle into the shower without breaking stride. If my body temperature cools down even a little while I’m hunting down soap, towel, fresh clothes, etc.–then I will suffer an ice cold water beating once again.

After all the intense hiking, I am a little concerned about my protein intake. Since all the chickens are free range around here—and I’m serious, they’re walking around everywhere, in and outdoors, pecking, tending to their chicks, bumming cigarettes—I ask the staff to tell Apah that eggs are okay. After I lift the egg embargo my weekly egg intake goes from zero to a metric shit-ton. I get served rice and eggs, vegetables and eggs, egg omelets, fried eggs, hard and soft boiled eggs, eggs with a side of eggs.

Clockwise: rice, egg omelet, soup with egg, spiced pea puree

Clockwise: rice, egg omelet, soup with egg, spiced pea puree

There are a lot of other animals around here. All the village families seem to have chickens and pigs. Some families also have buffaloes, which look and behave roughly like cows. And there are stray dogs and cats everywhere. Or, sort of stray—it’s unclear. Many of them are fed to a degree and hang around certain houses, but when I stop to pet a dog or cat, invariably the animal’s initial reaction is to go stiff, as if unsure of what to expect from my contact. It’s clear that they don’t get much affection, especially the cats. The dogs are all of similar breed and on the small side. The cats are shockingly small, about a third the size of one of my cats. The pigs are confined in tiny cages or tied to stakes and are barely allowed to move.

Buffaloes often just lounge under the houses

Buffaloes often just lounge under the houses

Piglets at least have some freedom

Piglets at least have some freedom

I have to bite my tongue on this stuff, obviously I can’t be Mr. Animal Crusader around here. On the plus side, I am told that the people in the village don’t eat their pigs (they get pork elsewhere). I don’t know if it’s true or not, but I like to think it is.

There’s one famous chicken in the village. His feathers have grown out in a strange, almost afro-like fashion. He is dubbed ‘Blow-Dried Chicken’. When I first encounter him, he gives me a suspicious, sidelong stare and a wide berth, like a movie star avoiding the paparazzi.

Da bleu!” I bellow cheerfully at Blow-Dried Chicken, testing out my Packinyah on every soul I meet.

He waddles away, clucking imperiously at me.

Blow-dried chicken ducking the media

Blow-Dried Chicken ducking the media

Blow-dried chicken escapes after pecking attack on paparazzi

Blow-Dried Chicken escapes after pecking attack on paparazzi


SCENE OPENS on a typical Airbus A380 jet flying an international route.  Mr. Animal Guy, a mild-mannered dude (except when he is not) in his 4o’s, is alone in seat 3A when someone–or maybe something–seems to float down the aisle and sit  next to him.  As this shadowy form sits, a gust of wind buffets the jet sharply, all the babies on the plane begin to cry in unison, and Gerard Butler sashays across the little airplane screen in a rubber surfer suit in “Chasing Mavericks”.  The shadowy form stares a few moments at Butler’s modern hippie ‘do, shadowy hand perched over the barf bag, before turning to face Mr. Animal Guy.

MR. FEAR GUY: Thailand? You’re going to Thailand? What, are you crazy? Why are you doing that?

Mr. Animal Guy rolls his eyes, turning to face his new companion.

MR. ANIMAL GUY: Oh, you againYou’re really not looking well.  If you must know, I want to help some elephants. I’m an animal guy and I think elephants are one of the coolest animals on the planet. In Thailand there’s a program that helps them, and so I’m going.

MR. FEAR GUY (rubs hands together sinisterly): Oh, this is gonna be good. You know, I’ve got like a million reasons why this is the biggest mistake of your life.

MR. ANIMAL GUY (sighs): Yeah, I know.

MR. FG: They speak a foreign language. You don’t know Thai.

MR. AG: I know a few phrases… and the people in the program said they would teach me.

MR. FG: You don’t know shit. You’ll look like an idiot. You won’t even be able to get to the hotel. They’ll laugh at you, you know how you loooove that.

MR. AG: Is the sarcasm necessary?

MR. FG: Oh, I haven’t even started, big boy. Your life was good. You had a nice house back there in Los Angeles. You should’ve stayed there. Locked the doors and pulled the drapes even. Hide under the bed. Get serious brother, you need to be safe.

MR. AG: Hide under the bed? Seems excessive.

MR. FG: I’m looking out for you. There could be earthquakes back in L.A. Leprosy outbreak. People, for god’s sake. People. Stay away from them, they can be nasty. They can talk to you or even give you leprosy. But you’re changing the subject. Let’s just stay on this trip to Thailand and how you’re fucking up big time.

MR. AG: Clock’s running on you. I hear you talk, you kind of sound like you’re full of it.

MR. FG: Am I? What about this? You’re 45. Jesus, you’re 45! Holy crap, you’re old! Anyway, point is, these kinds of things are done by kids. You can’t hang with them. You can’t do the physical stuff, and you sure can’t talk to them. Nothing in common there.

MR. AG: I’m in the best shape of my life.

MR. FG: Mosquitos will eat you. Or the teenagers. They’ll eat you alive. You should see them when they strike, they can unhinge their jaws and swallow you whole.

MR. AG: Mosquitos or teenagers?

MR. FG: Teenagers. The mosquitos suck your brains out of your skull with their proboscises. Just like a Slurpie.

Mr. Animal Guy looks doubtful.

MR. FG: Check this. You’re leaving your cats back there in L.A. to be taken care of by total strangers. They won’t feed them right. Lyle’s finicky. What if he starves to death? What if someone breaks into the house and hangs everybody? I’m talking not just the cats, but even the cat sitter. At least it would serve him right for starving Lyle.

Mr. Animal guy says nothing, shifting uncomfortably in his seat.

MR. FG: Ah, I got you there. That’s a familiar one, isn’t it? You’ve had that one for years. Broken windows, home invaders, and cat hangings all around.

MR. AG: Yes. But you know, I’m starting to realize how stupid this all sounds when you say it out loud.

MR. FG: I have a cold. I’m all nasally.

MR. AG: I really think that this trip might be pretty cool. And as long as I’m open, I think mostly some pretty cool things will happen. And I don’t know what it is, but I’m just not buying your line right now.

MR. FG: Smooshed.

MR. AG: Smooshed?

MR. FG: You’ll be smooshed by an elephant. Flattened. Trampled to death.

MR. AG: I have to go. Plane’s landing now.

MR. FG: Is it landing, or just maybe… is it crashing?

MR. AG: Your voice cracked on that. Kinds ruins the effect.

MR. FG: (sighs) Are you gonna eat those nuts? I’m hungry, like, all the time.

MR. AG: Yeah, I know. Sure, have a nut and then crawl your ass back to coach. This is business class, dumbass, and you don’t belong here.

Mike feed 3