Going to lump days 3 and 4 together so I’m less behind. Also because day 4 wasn’t that interesting, since it’s the day the conference started.
The third day of my trip to Thailand was the one day I had actually planned out – I had booked an “Elephant training day” with one of the elephant camps around Chiang Mai. The place I chose was Baan Chang, which I chose because it’s against the practices that a lot of the other camps have of teaching elephants to paint and dance and play music for visitors. I was scheduled to be picked up from my hostel at 8:30, so around 8:10 I went out quickly to pick up breakfast before they showed up. When I returned, I was ready to go, except I had forgotten that it was also the day that I was supposed to check out of the hostel and move to a new hotel. I ended up being late because I had to very rapidly pack up my room, but after that mishap, it went pretty smoothly.
After driving around Chiang Mai for a bit to pick up the rest of the people who were visiting the park that day, we drove for about 30 minutes or so north of Chiang Mai and reached the elephant park. They provided us with bananas, coffee and tea for breakfast, so my 7-eleven sandwich went uneaten, and then the first task of the day was feeding the elephants. We weren’t providing them with their usual food, which appears to mostly be leaves and parts of the plant life around the camp, but treats of bananas and sugar cane. It turns out that (unsurprisingly), elephants eat an absurd amount of food. According to the mahout in charge of our group, they have to feed the elephants at least once an hour, and the elephants are always ready for more food. After feeding, the mahout explained a bit about Baan Chang and how it got started and what their philosophy on raising and caring for elephants was. After that, he taught us how to get on an elephant and what voice command to use to tell it to lay down, and then we learned to ride them in a circle around a tree. There were eleven of us, practicing on three elephants, so this took a while. After we had all practiced both getting on and off and guiding an elephant in a circle both clockwise and counterclockwise, we had a lunch of fried chicken, vegetable soup and vegetables and chicken in a sweet sauce with pineapple for dessert. We had a short nap in hammocks, and then it was time to ride the elephants more seriously. The next couple hours were spent riding the elephants up a mountain and then down again. It turns out that riding an elephant is actually really hard work, and your legs get really sore. Our ride ended in a shallow pond, and then we washed our elephants and ourselves and then headed home.
Upon reaching my hostel, I grabbed my stuff from storage and got a tuktuk, which are these sort of hilarious three-wheeled vehicles to my new hotel: the Porn Ping Tower (yes, laugh. It’s a really strange name – one letter away from being really really bad). Turns out the tower is right up against the night market, so I wandered that again for the rest of the night. I made a very serious search of the area for mango and sticky rice, but couldn’t find it and had to settle for some mango gelato (in Thailand. I know, the shame).
While I was out, there was a parade going through the Night Bazaar, probably in preparation for the Loi Krathong Festival, which I think is on Friday. It was really interesting to watch, although a bit difficult due to the crowds, especially since the only other Asian festivals I’ve really seen were in Japan. The Thai parade was actually much more modernized than the Japanese ones I’ve seen – the floats were made of modern, lighter materials like plastic and lit with electronic lights and a lot of the music was blasted through speakers on trucks. The floats were carried by fewer people than in Japan, since they’re lighter, or on trucks, and trucks with generators followed everything, with extension cords trailing everywhere. (I’ll try to find photos online to post later – I don’t have my camera with me this trip, so all the photos I’ve got are terrible pictures taken with my phone).
Wednesday was the start of the conference, so I woke up early again, got breakfast from my hotel and took a tuktuk to the Shangri-La, which is an incredibly posh hotel. I’d expected registration to be a hassle, but there was no line and it was really fast. They gave each of us a handmade bag and a small ceramic replica of a traditional Thai plate along with the usual conference stuff, which was pretty cool. I attended the Machine Learning and Text Mining talks, some of which were more useful than others, and ate lots of really fancy food. During the coffee breaks, the conference actually provided mini pastries along with the coffee and tea. I managed to meet some random people during the poolside cocktail reception, and a PhD student from Austria and I ended up wandering off and exploring the city some after the conference. It was raining, so not much was happening, but it was nice to hang out with someone.