a peek inside the fishbowl

01 Nov, 2019

The messenger

By andrea tomkins in Misc. life

I was killing time and looking at my phone while I was waiting in line at the coffee shop.

“So how is your day going?”

I looked up, startled. I hadn’t expected anyone to speak to me and I was doing the very thing I had promised myself I wouldn’t do, that is, surf mindlessly while out and about, participating in life.

Suddenly, here was this perfect stranger asking me a direct question out of the blue. He was a younger man, with frizzy hair escaping from underneath a ball cap. His eyes were a deep hazel. He looked tired.

The words came out of my mouth before I’d even had much of a chance to think. “I’ve had better days, actually,” I said, not really knowing where this conversation was going. I surprised myself by my honesty, and for not opting for the usual “I’m good, thanks,” which would have required a higher level of cheer that I didn’t possess at that moment.

“What about you?” I asked. “How is your day going?”

He paused, tipped his head back, and frowned, just a little. “I just found out my dad has cancer,” he said.

“Oh no, I’m so sorry.” I was unsure about what else I could add. “How are YOU doing?”

He said he was actually doing okay. I asked him if he had brothers or sisters who could help, and he told me he had one brother he didn’t speak to very often, and three sisters.

“It’s good have family to turn to when times are tough,” I offered.  He thought about this for a moment and nodded his head. And just as suddenly as our conversation began, it was over. It was his turn to order a coffee.

Before I left I told him I hoped his dad was going to be ok.

I’ve been thinking about this fellow ever since, and how important it is to make these small connections and embrace our shared humanity. Talking to strangers can be healing, and even inspiring and enlightening, don’t you think?

The Thailand diaries continue! To read past posts in this series, click here.

In my previous post I wrote about a questionable spa treatment we received while we were in Thailand. Thankfully, nothing bad happened as a result. (Yay us!) I know a few of you are probably wondering AT WHAT POINT THIS TRIP GETS OFF THE GROUND. Well, spoiler alert, this day was like a dream come true… and I don’t say that lightly.

Our alarms were set for an early wake-up call because we were booked for a very special excursion that we’d arranged months before. Our destination: The Green Elephant Sanctuary.

Thankfully, part of our booking included transportation, which was a huge relief. Our driver picked us up at 7 a.m. and off we went. The drive took about an hour but it was so scenic that the time went by very quickly. We zipped past roadside food stands and temples, shops, hotels, schools, dense jungle, the sea. We saw elephants from other tourism outfits, bikes pulling carts laden with durian, stray dogs, and ordinary people doing ordinary things. It was really cool.

There was a bit of a traffic snarl before we arrived, but we made it. As we were pulling in I realized this place was BIG.

[By the way, click any photo to view an enlarged version…]

Entrance to Green Elephant Sanctury

Honestly, I can’t say enough good things about the Green Elephant Sanctuary. Everything from beginning to end was expertly organized. It’s a high-calibre operation, and, elephants aside, every aspect of a visitor’s experience is thoughtfully considered from secure lockers to hold our stuff, coolers of drinks, rows of luxury washrooms and similarly pretty shower stalls (with good soap!).

I will explain WHY an elephant sanctuary has shower stalls in a moment.

Upon arrival, we were ushered to a large covered area with rows of tables. It easily accommodated all of the tour groups, which were timed to go out to different areas of the park. (In other words, there were a lot of people but we weren’t tripping over other groups.)

Waiting area, Green Elephant Sanctuary

It was easy waiting while people changed into swimsuits and stowed their stuff. At one point I was ushered into a small office (everything was super professional) to pay the other half of our booking while the youngest checked her Instagram on the free wifi. (Obvi.)

First on the agenda, getting to know the elephants and their stories.

Green Elephant Sanctuary

Our guide gave us a brief introduction to each elephant resident and each story was heartbreaking. And I’m not just saying that because I’ve been dealing with lifelong trauma after seeing Dumbo as a child. If you’ve read anything about elephants at all you know that they are intelligent creatures. They show empathy, mourn their dead, and cry when they’re lonely. The elephant residents at this sanctuary are all rescued; purchased from owners who used them for logging or entertainment purposes. All of them suffered years of hard labour and daily corporeal punishment. Babies were always separated from their mothers. Sold. Chained up.

Many elephants in Thailand lead lonely lives and die a sad death. The Green Elephant Sanctuary buys these elephants and gives them a good retirement. You could argue the elephants still “entertain” tourists here. They’re fed snacks by tourists and pose for photos, but it’s actually a small part of their day. Our visit with the elephants also included a dip in a mud bath, swim, and a shower (hence the bathing suits!) but there is no elephant riding here.

But I’m getting off track. After our introduction, it was snack time for our elephant group.

Each elephant was positioned in a shady part of the park with a basket of mini-bananas and corn on the cob.

How can I describe what it feels like to feed and touch an elephant?

I will say that the elephant trunk is an amazing limb. (I think I’m going to use the word AMAZING a lot in this post, because it was the one word that hovered at the top of my mind throughout this whole experience.) It’s massive; all muscle. It’s so strong and powerful yet seeks out your offering so gently and with great care and tenderness.

Feeding the elepants, Green Elephant Sanctuary

Feeding the elephants, at Green Elephant Sanctuary

It’s been months since we were there, but it brings tears to my eyes just thinking about how lovely it was.

Mama and baby, Green Elephant Sanctuary

Mama and baby, Green Elephant Sanctuary

The elephant hide is rough and tough; thick old wrinkles and stubby hairs that feel like brush bristles. You haven’t felt anything like it.

Feeding the elephants, at Green Elephant Sanctuary

I have to explain what happened in the photo below. It was taken precisely after the elephant standing behind me created a GUST OF WIND by flapping its massive ear:

posing for pics, at the Green Elephant Sanctuary

Next, we went for a walk to see their enclosures. Each elephant has its own space at night (although mamas and babies stay together).

I learned something that really surprised me. Elephants are always paired with a person called a mahout. This is a trainer/caretaker/friend of sorts, and it’s a lifelong bond. Green Elephant Sanctuary pays for the elephant AND the mahout and gives him and his human family a place to live on the premises. In fact, the mahouts live in small homes directly across from the elephant pens, which are seriously spacious and impressive. I was very happy to see how well-built they were.

Then it was spa time. This was a multi-part undertaking. First up: the mud bath. We were all led to a shallow pond that is very squishy and muddy at the bottom. Visitors were encouraged to pick up handfuls of mud and rub them on the elephants. The mahouts were there the entire time and we never felt unsafe, although we were cautioned to avoid the tail, hindquarters, and legs.

Staff photographers were on hand to capture all the muddy glory, and high-res downloads were made available to us afterward, free of charge.

Mud bath, at Green Elephant Sanctuary

Mud bath, at Green Elephant Sanctuary

After the mud bath there was a quick hose down before venturing into a second, less muddy pool of water, where we were given buckets so we could scoop water and help rinse off the mud (from ourselves as well as our elephant friends).

Elephant rinse, part one

Elephant rinse, part one

Mud bath, at Green Elephant Sanctuary

There was more. If you can believe it, we were led to ELEPHANT SIZE SHOWERS. It reminded me of a car wash with no roof and rotating bristles. We had the option of borrowing scrub brushes (short- or long-handled) for a round of what I can only call Elephant Exfoliation. They got more snacks at this point… mini pineapples. They seemed quite pleased with all of this pampering.

Elephant shower, Green Elephant Sanctuary

Elephant shower, Green Elephant Sanctuary

Elephant rinse, at Green Elephant Sanctuary

Elephant shower, Green Elephant Sanctuary

After this, we humans enjoyed our own solitary luxe showers (in private shower stalls, no elephants allowed), got changed, and ate a traditional Thai buffet lunch and fresh fruit for dessert. It was delicious.

While we were eating, the handlers took a mama and her baby out for a snack and cool-down rinse. I can’t recall the specifics but I believe this pair was kept from the bigger crowds until the baby got older… but that’s no reason NOT to have a nice rinse, right? I took about a hundred photos because the toddler was so funny and curious. Here is a small selection, to give you an idea:

Mama and baby, the Green Elephant Sanctuary

Mama and baby, the Green Elephant Sanctuary

Mama and baby, the Green Elephant Sanctuary

Mama and baby, the Green Elephant Sanctuary

Mama and baby, the Green Elephant Sanctuary

Mama and baby, the Green Elephant Sanctuary

This might be weird to say but I was secretly pleased there was no gift shop, no souvenir t-shirts, no photo packages to buy. It made it feel more like a rescue mission and less like a business. As we were getting ready to leave, the owners (or managers?) simply came out to say thank you for supporting the sanctuary and if we liked our experience, to leave a review on Trip Advisor.

I have to give my daughter credit for finding out about Green Elephant Sanctuary. She did all of the research, and it exceeded our expectations. It was an AMAZING way to spend a few hours. We learned a few things, had an unforgettable experience, and helped support a really good initiative. I give it a 10/10, and if you know me you know that I’m a tough customer.

27 Oct, 2019

Weekend reading: October 27 edition

By andrea tomkins in Weekend reading

On the nightstand: Prisoner of Tehran: A Memoir, by Marina Nemat

20 Oct, 2019

Weekend reading: October 19 edition

By andrea tomkins in Weekend reading

On the nightstand: My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh

19 Oct, 2019

Fish feet

By andrea tomkins in travel talk

The Thailand diaries continue! To read past posts in this series, click here.

Lynn‘s comment on my previous post made me wonder if I was making our trip out to seem perfectly horrible. Yes, we got stuck on a hot train in Paris while we were practially fainting with fatigue and jet lag. Yes, I had to use a squat toilet when I really didn’t expect it. Yes, we broiled under the Thai sun and clutched our stomachs as we decided what ramen we were going to buy at the 7-11. Yes, we were afraid to cross the street for the first two days. I’m serious when I say that these things may have been uncomfortable, sure, but this wasn’t a horrible trip. We were challenged in ways that were new to us, and that isn’t a bad thing. I was learning things about myself, and this is something that’s important to me.

This might seem like a no brainer but the kid and I swiftly figured out that we had to slow down. We do things quickly here at Casa Fishbowl. We are fast walkers. We get out and get things done. Well, guess what? When you’re in a hot climate all that rushing might kill you. So when we walked, we forced ourselves to slow down. It was hot there, really hot, and we would exhaust ourselves if we kept our usual pace.

Hot climates demand a slower pace. Different breathing. A leisurely attitude. And as I learned, the occasional mango popsicle, which helped a lot.

There are massage parlours on every other corner in Patong, especially as you near the busy more touristy area near the beach. Many of them look the same. They’re set up like a shop, the front of which is a wide glass window. Sometimes, the staff (mostly female) stand outside the store to entice customers. Sometimes they are all dressed alike in a loose uniform, like jean shorts, or neon pink t-shirts.

They call out to passersby in their distinctive Thai accent: “Massaaaage? Massage?” Sometimes they wave laminated menus, or hand them to you as you walk by, which is an arm’s length when you’re walking down the narrower sidewalks near Patong Beach.

There are signs outside the shops that list of what kind of massages are available. Given the reputation that Thailand has in this area, some of them are more direct (“NO SEX”). Inside, the sides of the shop are generally lined with massage tables and Lay-Z-Boy style chairs for foot massages.

The youngest was interested in getting a massage but it never actually happened. We did, however, opt for another service they offer there: a fish spa, a.k.a fish pedicure. We had passed it on the way to Patong Beach and thought it’d be a fun and memorable experience during our adventure in Thailand.

What is a fish spa? Well, it’s simple. You sit on a bench that overlooks a very large aquarium that’s populated with an army of small fish (I learned afterwards they are toothless garra rufa fish) that nibble the dead skin on any part of your body that is submerged in water.

How fun!

How novel!

What a great memory this will be!

And it’s cheap, too!

We paid our money (10 minutes cost us each 100 Thai baht, which was about four bucks each), took off our sandals, sat down, and plonked our feet in the water.

First dunk in the fish spa, Thailand

IT TICKLES, fish spa, Thailand

The swarming was immediate and complete. Words fail to fully describe the feeling of fish nibbling on my lower quarter. It didn’t hurt, in fact, at first it was terribly ticklish, especially when the little buggers got between my toes. It felt like someone lighting tapping a hair brush over my legs and feet, or someone pulling scotch tape off my skin.

I encourage you to pause and try to imagine what it feels like to have hundreds of tiny sucking fish mouths EATING DEAD PARTS OF YOUR BODY.

dunked in the fish spa

Fish spa fish tank

I tweeted about it and someone made a comment. I can’t remember what she said but it left a bad feeling. THAT was when I decided to Google fish spas in Thailand. (I recommend you do yourself a favour and not look at photos from articles about fish spas, including one about a woman who had to have her toes amputated after having a fish pedicure.)

I suddenly wondered why, of all the dozens and dozens of massage parlours we’ve seen during our forays into the city of Patong, why this was the only fish spa we’d seen. And if fish pedicures were so awesome, why haden’t I seen them at home?

I was pretty upset with myself afterward. Normally, I research these kinds of things beforehand, but this time I didn’t. And here’s the worst part: The youngest also had a blister on her toe from her new sandals. I seriously questioned my parenting, or lack thereof. After all, I let my daughter dunk a FLESH WOUND into a fish tank full of tiny piranhas and maybe even fish poop and bacteria and clearly I had to start considering the possibility of amputation in a hospital where little English was spoken. Would our insurance even cover medical care related to something so idiotic and self-inflicted?

Ugh. Anyway. After that we walked the rest of the way to the beach. I prayed to god that the exfoliating properties of sand and a good swish around in the salt water would be enough to disinfect her feet.

(Here’s where I should point out that I shouldn’t have worried so much because we were both FINE. For the record, we still have all of our toes. Sigh.)

It rained while we were at the beach (more water on our feet, yay!). We sought shelter under a large beach umbrella and stayed to enjoy the view. It was pretty.

Patong Beach in the rain

We got soaked but forged ahead to the local shopping mall, where we dried off (a bit). (How they deal with the deluge that comes with monsoon rain over there has to be a whole separate post.) We picked up a few things at the grocery store and went home. On the way, the youngest saved a frog from imminent death. It was on the sidewalk, about to hop into the road. It was a reminder that even though we were surrounded by traffic we weren’t actually far from wilderness.

That night I crashed at 8 p.m., which was a good thing because we had an early start the next day. We had something very exciting planned! I didn’t know it at the time but it would turn out to be one of the highlights of our trip, one that made the heat, the exhaustion, and the fish feet all worthwhile.


Stay in touch

Me and my pet projects

Ottawa Bucket list

Subscribe via email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

The Obligatory Blurb

My name is Andrea and I live in the Westboro area of Ottawa with my husband Mark and our dog Piper who is kind of a big deal on Instagram. We also have two human daughters: Emma (20) and Sarah (18). During the day I work as a writer at The Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre. I am a longtime Ottawa blogger and I've occupied this little corner of the WWW since 1999. The Fishbowl is my whiteboard, water cooler, and journal, all rolled into one. I'm passionate about healthy living, arts and culture, family travel, great gear, good food, and sharing the best of Ottawa for families. I also love vegetables, photography, gadgets, and great design.

If you'd like to contact me, please use this form. If you're so inclined, you can read more about me here. Thank you for visiting!


E-book alert!

Shopping Embargo e-book promo

My right hand is actually a camera

Connect with me at these places too!

Piper is on Instagram

On the nightstand

All hail the mighty Twitter