Each morning the mahouts at the Elephant Conservation Center in Lampang begin their day by paying homage to the shrine of Ganesha, the elephant-headed deity of both Hindus and Buddhists. There are several different stories that explain how Ganesha lost his head, none of them suitable for the squeamish. One might question his father’s choice of an elephant head as replacement, but it is generally not wise to argue with Shiva—you’re better off with the head of a pachyderm.
Ganesha is the Lord of Obstacles. He both removes obstacles from your path, much as an elephant would do, or he places them squarely before you, just like a stubborn elephant. So, it seemed appropriate that I joined the mahouts at the shrine before beginning my mahout training course. As the fragrant incense from the joss sticks swirled into the sky, my prayer to Ganesha was simple enough: “Please, go easy on me.”
A few minutes later I was introduced to my elephant for the day, Pang Jan Pen (Full Moon), a 54-year old female, that was described as both “stubborn” and “afraid of trucks.” Great. Her mahout was a joyful little guy named Peng; he had a startling resemblance to Ernest Borgnine. The first thing I learned was the basic commands in Thai that I was told Pang Jan Pen would understand. . . but not necessarily obey.  I stood close to her, patting her, gazing into her gentle, dark eye, trying to work my charms on her, but I don’t think she was having any of it.
Then it was time to climb aboard. There are several ways to mount an elephant, none of them easy. Peng patiently showed me how to perform each one and not so patiently hoisted my posterior aloft when needed. Once aboard I sat right behind Pang Jan Pen’s head, my knees behind her ears, my hands placed on her massive head. Wow! Sitting so high up there, looking down on miniature Peng, it was easy to feel like royalty. I could feel the awesome power of this animal even as she silently stood there unmoving. She was Ganesha incarnate; every obstacle would crumble before her.
“Pai! Pai!” and some pushing behind her ears got Pang Jan Pen moving forward. Over the next several hours I rode my mount down roads and into the forest, over rugged trails. I would like to think that I was in complete control of my elephant, but I know better. Miss Pen was merely humoring me. And her real mahout, Peng, was never far away (thank Ganesha!).
After awhile, though, it felt as though the elephant and I had agreed to work as a team. I could see the world as she saw it, as though looking through her eyes. I could feel her caution as she maneuvered over slippery rocks in a creek, could feel her happiness in cruising down the open road just like the world’s largest ’57 Chevy. And, of course, she became my legs as we merged into one creature—Ganesha-like.
At one point we entered a lake to give her a bath. While I clung desperately to her ears, Pang Jan Pen submerged completely, the waters of the lake rising up to my chest, while Peng stood on the elephant’s back and scrubbed it.
After her cool bath, I rode her back to the Training School where she would relax for the rest of the day and I would try to repair my leg muscles, stretched like rubber bands to the consistency of wet spaghetti. With the command “Tack long,” Pang Jan Pen rolled her trunk and dropped to her knees,  her head lowered to the ground so that I could slide off it.
“Dee mak, Pen,” I said, very good.
Walking by the shrine to Ganesha, I murmured my thanks that he had, indeed, gone easy on me.

Everyone should have a traditional Thai massage once in their lives, if only to remind themselves never to do it again.

Wipe out all those salacious images of Thai “massage” that you might be harboring in your mind (“rub-rub” as it’s known in Bangkok’s red-light district); the real McCoy is serious business. Ja was a middle-aged handsome woman with the complexion of polished teak and the triceps of an arm wrestling champion. Her polo shirt and warm-up pants could not disguise the firm, compact body that was about to own me for the next sixty minutes at the price of $200 Baht, roughly seven dollars.

After changing into a pair of baggy pants and t-shirt, Ja had me lie on my back on a mat and before I knew it, I was in trouble. She was friendly and spoke English fairly well, yet still did not understand my grunts and groans as she proceeded to pummel, poke, and punch my legs, often twisting them into pretzel shape. She sat with her back to me and wrapped my leg around her with a choke-hold she learned from Seminole alligator wrestlers.  She kneaded every nerve and pressure point I had, making my leg twitch and jump just like an experiment I conducted in my college biology lab with a muscle dissected from a frog’s leg. But that lucky frog was already dead and couldn’t feel the pain.

The next thing I knew Ja was sitting between my legs, doing who knew what. Other than my wife no other woman had ever occupied that position. But Ja was still all business and continued to professionally inflict pain upon me in a casual, good humored way. She chatted amiably with me and warned me to be careful in Bangkok where political demonstrations between Red Shirts and Yellow Shirts were once again turning violent. As she worked on my arm, bending it behind my head in the half-nelson style of Hulk Hogan, I wondered if I wasn’t better off taking my chances with the protesters.

Ja made me roll over onto my belly and then she proceeded to beat me up some more, working up my legs, my back, my shoulders. Her elbows and drill-like fingers dug into my flesh, sending sudden shock waves of pain shooting through me. It was so awful that I didn’t know if I should laugh or cry. Stars really did flash before my eyes.

Finally, I was again conscious and I realized it was over. I felt like I had tried to nap in a cement mixer. Ja patted me a few times on the back, as you would to a child who had just woken from a nightmare and said, “All finished. How you feel?” And this is the funny part; I felt great, really and truly great.

Not likely to repeat the thrill any time soon, though.

John Kachuba
The Somewhat Battered Metaphysical Traveler

Tomorrow I leave Cincinnati for a two-month visit to Thailand. You would think that The Metaphysical Traveler would have some kind of “Star Trek” teleporter to get me there in a hurry, wouldn’t you? No such luck. There is nothing metaphysical about almost two days in an airplane traveling “coach” but my hope is that the destination will be well worth the inconvenience.
There will be much to inspire my spirits in Thailand, where Buddhism is the predominant faith and the saffron-robed monks one sees everywhere are so highly revered that almost every Thai male spends some time in the monastery, even if only for a few weeks. The contemplative and meditative monasticism of Thailand is a beacon to people of other faiths as well, who come from far and wide to learn the ways of the monks.
One such inquisitive student was the Catholic monk Thomas Merton who came to see much value in the Buddhist method for his own contemplative life. Ironically, it was in Thailand where Father Merton died—accidentally electrocuted in his hotel room– while attending a conference on international monasticism.
Last summer, I had the wonderful experience of a private spiritual retreat at the Trappist monastery in Gethsemani, Kentucky, the monastery that Merton called home. I had been reading several of his works—most notably The Seven Storey Mountain— before arriving at the monastery. I will write more about that retreat later, but suffice it to say that one could sense Merton’s spirit everywhere.
The last Merton book I read was The Asian Journals, which recounts his travels throughout Asia prior to the monasticism conference. Now, I will be following in his sandal-steps. It will be interesting to compare my observations of Thailand with his, although I will be there much longer than he was and will have the opportunity to learn more from the Thai people; at least, that is my hope.
So, off tomorrow for the “Land of Smiles.”  I’ll stay in touch!
John Kachuba
The Metaphysical Traveler