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sea gypsies




Maybe I thought that Burma would be a little sunnier. Or that the Sea Gypsies inThailand would be a little more pirate-like. Or that the ladies in the “Chiang Mai Womens Massage Center by Ex-Prisoners” would be a little more Orange is the New Black-er. But I couldn’t have imagined a better look on my wife’s face than when she played with her very first baby elephant. The last few weeks have been a fantastic blur…

Indeed, when they say it’s monsoon season in Myanmar (Burma) late-July…they’re not joking. But the steamy, afternoon showers just made those brief windows of light that much more delicious when the sun did decide to peak it’s little head out. And after a hellish (to say the least) overnight long-distance bus-ride, we arrived at the ancient empire of Bagan. 

Described by Marco Polo back in the 13th Century as “one of the finest sights in the world,” the lost city of Bagan remains a Serengeti-like expanse, teeming with hundreds of Buddhist stone-temples. The place is like a Game of Thrones set but, like, 100 degrees with 110% humidity. And even though an e-bike is somewhere between Crocs and e-cigarettes on the international Scale of Coolness…we explored the joint by e-bike. Worth it. 

Before we knew it, we were out of Burma and down south in Thailand. I had heard of the Sea Gypsy clans before this trip. The Moken or Urak Lawoi people are an ancient minority in Southeast Asia that, once nomadic, still lives virtually on or around the sea. They gained global notoriety shortly after the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami (which took over 200,000 lives) for escaping without a scratch. According to the Sea Gypsies, they had seen the tsunami coming and headed for high ground. Sensationalist new outlets swarmed them after this and purported that their young learns to swim before they can walk, and that their underwater vision is better than most people’s regular vision. 

There was a Sea Gypsy village not far from where we were staying in Thailand, and we decided to pay them a visit. After minimal schmoozing, they took us out on their boat during their daily catch and we got to observe them in their element. We watched a couple of the men dive down to dizzying depths with no fins. Men that were hooked up to ghetto compressed air contraptions, gathering all the fish caught in the traps that they’d set a week prior. Indeed, a dangerous-ass way to making a living if I’d ever seen. They were kind and welcoming, though, and in the end, they gave us a parrot fish parting-gift.

Having moved north to Chiang Mai and not far from our hotel, we passed a peculiar sign that read: “Chiang Mai Women's Massage Center by Ex-Prisoners.” Naturally, we had to see what THAT was about. Cause who doesn't want a Thai full-body-rub by an ex-con at least once in their life? And for 200 Baht ($5) — c’mon! Thus, the receptionist penciled us in, and sure-enough, this establishment — a program started by a prison guard to help ex-cons get employed after prison — was entirely run by ex-prisoners out of the nearby women’s correctional facility. Rachel said her massage was amazing, but honestly, I think my gal was going too easy on me.

And the elephants? How can I put this…The feeling you get when playing with baby elephants is like hearing Michael Jackson’s “Pretty Young Thing” for the first time after a life of only ever listening to elevator music. A rebirth of sorts. We took a trip to the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, a reserve nestled in a lush mountain valley 60km from Chiang Mai city in Northern Thailand — and got reborn. The place is an ecological refuge where Asian elephants are protected from ivory poachers and tours involving elephant-rides…but they were not safe from swooning. And yeah, Rachel’s expression interacting with those special beasts: priceless. 

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*Stay tuned for the next Planes, Trains, Ball and Chains: The Mongolian DiariesIt’s gonna be a pisser!