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Saturday, July 4, 2015

Okay, I understand the chanting - but does it have to be so loud!

 Thailand - The Village Sleepover

  Today I’m heading to a rural area near Chiang Mai, and—although I don’t know it yet—to one of my most memorable experiences in Thailand.

  In order to experience ‘everyday village life’ our group is booked to spend the night in a family home—sort of a grown-up version of a kids’ sleepover, except that you can’t phone mom or dad to come and pick you up at two in the morning.

  We arrive and find that things aren’t quite what we expected. Our first surprise is the host family’s home. When we’re ushered inside we discover that the house doubles as a recreational hall and a people zoo.

  All thirteen of us will be sleeping in a row of what can best be described as ‘tourist cages’, blue ones for the males and pink for females. Each one—a 6 x 6 x 4 foot mosquito tent—sleeps two tourists on bamboo mats. I look around to see if there are signs warning people not to feed us or stick their hands into our enclosures.

  After choosing who will take which cage, it’s time to head off on what’s been billed as an ‘ELEPHANT JUNGLE DRIVE.’
  It’s hard to tell whether the entertainment has been designed for us or the elephants. We climb aboard awkwardly—two people per elephant—and are strapped into uncomfortable ‘chair baskets’ made of hard wicker. The drivers are perched on the elephants’ heads like hood ornaments. As we are bouncing and swaying along I comment that I feel like a sack of rice in the ‘chair basket’. The driver nods and says that our seats were, in fact, constructed to carry rice sacks, not people.

  The ‘jungle’ turns out to be a short trail that leads to a large open area beside the village where the elephants wander about, ripping up and eating foliage with us still clinging to their backs. When they’re full or bored—we can’t tell which—they wander back to the starting point and we disembark, rubbing our backsides.

  I make a mental note that money could be made back in Canada by strapping tourists to cows and letting them wander around a meadow.

  After dinner we crawl into our cages and I soon discover that two of the loudest snorers are positioned on each side of me. Fortunately at full volume my iPod almost drowns them out. This works well until 3:45 am, when the battery dies. At 4:00 am the chanting begins.

  It isn’t live chanting. Instead, the first monk to wake up at the hilltop monastery across the way puts on a scratchy 78 record of chanting—complete with drumming and bells—accompanied by loud bursts of ear-splitting feedback from the archaic PA system. Apparently all of this usually starts at 5:00 am, but since it’s Thai New Year, we’re treated to an extra hour of chanting.

  The noise soon wakes up every rooster in Southeast Asia. They join the cacophony and the rooster racket wakes the dogs, who join in as well. This goes on until 5:00 am, when the recording is shut off.

  That’s when the live chanting commences.

  Trying to doze amid the chanting and howling noises outside, and the snoring, farting and coughing noises emanating from the tourist cages is pretty much impossible. After a while the din becomes kind of hypnotic, and I start to detect secret messages buried in the wall of sound—things like, ‘The Pope doesn't wear plaid’, ‘Mercedes hold their value more than Chevys’, and ‘John is dead’.

  At 7:00 am I peer sleepily through the mosquito netting and detect high leaping flames leaping at the far end of the building. Horrified, I debate whether or not to scream, "Fire!" The indecision is due to my track record for shouting false alarms like “Fire!”, “Earthquake!” and “Tsunami!”

  I’m glad I waited. It turns out there was absolutely nothing to worry about—it was just the host family pouring gasoline onto an indoor cooking fire in our dry wooden structure.

At 8:00 am we are served an authentic Thai breakfast of burnt toast and hard-boiled eggs. One of my fellow travelers from California stares for a long time at the plate of eggs and finally asks what they are.

"You don't get out much, do you?" I say. "They're called eggs. If you step outside, I can show you where they come from, but you might not want to eat one after that.”

When breakfast is over and the paper plates are collected, I talk to one of the villagers through an interpreter.

"I can't believe you people pay us to sleep on our floor in cages and eat toast and eggs!" he exclaims.

"Neither can I!" I reply.

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