On the last day of a romp through Thailand, my husband and I had a couple of hours to spare before heading to the airport in Chiang Mai. Lanna, our guide, suggested a stop at an orchid farm on the outskirts of the city. I noticed a billboard for Elephant POOPOOPAPER Park.
"What's that?" I inquired.
Lanna giggled. "You can make paper out of elephant poo," she said.
Gross turned to curiosity. Ditto for my husband, Dilip. That 12-year-old who lives in all of us was about to win the day.
Ten days earlier, we had flown into Bangkok for a tour of Thailand's highlights. On this first visit to a region we always wanted to see and whose food we enjoyed, we spent most of the time exploring culture, temples, and nature. Bangkok's Grand Palace Complex, once home to the king of Siam, was eye-popping with its intricate carvings, rows of golden Buddhas, and temples that include the revered Emerald Buddha and, nearby, the largest Thai reclining Buddha, a splendid 150 feet long.
Instead of the typical visit to Thailand's beaches to the south, we made our way north to the ancient kingdom of Sukhothai, where tourists were sparser. We wandered the historical park of 13th-century ruins, which included giant Buddhas, lakes, and temple remains that incorporate Khmer and Sri Lankan architecture and Hindu elements. Next, we drove to Chiang Mai, a mountainous city of 130,000 in the northern reaches.
At the must-see Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep, a Buddhist temple dating to 1383, we climbed the 300-plus steps flanked by fierce-looking nagas (snakes) and took in city views. The working temple glowed, awash in gold domes and gold Buddhas and gold filigree. Over the next two days, we traded temples for natural beauty, visiting a hill tribe, hot springs, and scenic Huai Nam Dang National park and its canyon. In nearby Pai, we went spelunking through Tham Lod Cave, both on foot and then on bamboo rafts that floated mere inches above the inky subterranean river.
After all that, poo-poo paper was not the expected finale.
Lanna was bewildered. To keep her happy, we quickly toured the orchid farm, which was lovely, and then decided to take our chances next door on what could easily have been a stinker in more ways than one.
We had fallen for tourist traps before, some with mixed results. The half hour wait for the $8, rather dry (or is that how it's supposed to taste?) slice of "original" sacher-torte at the Sacher Hotel in Vienna. The $35-per-person Reversing Falls Tour in St. John, New Brunswick, that was not much of a falls and a further disappointment when we failed to see any reversal. The World of Coca-Cola Museum in Atlanta, well worth the visit, especially for its yummy tasting station of products from around the world and the souvenir glass bottle of pop.
We had never, however, paid to happily place ourselves in deep doo-doo. The 45-minute POOPOOPAPER tour, which really does not need to announce itself in all caps to grab attention, started in the gift shop, where straw baskets were heaped with brown balls of dried dung. Of course, there was plenty of potty humor. And lots of giggles. Plus ewwws! Each basket was labeled with the word poop in any number of languages from around the world. Cacca in Italian. Szar in Hungarian. Lort in Dutch. The park proclaimed that it "takes the oo out of poo."
I could tell already this was going to be my kind of fun.
After we bought tickets (a reasonable 100 baht each — $3), the sarong-wearing park guide offered a sticker in the shape of an elephant made of colorful paper — poo paper. He stuck it right on my T-shirt.
Gross! was my reflexive reaction.
Nothing smelled, though. I tentatively touched it. The texture was bumpy, and flecks of brown fiber dotted the surface.
"Follow the elephant poo," our guide happily instructed as we left the gift shop. The park, set in a tropical garden, had several interactive stations to explore the transformation of elephant dung into paper. He pointed toward a trail of poo balls that led to the first station, the Poo Shed.
We learned that several animals, including horses and cows, could provide the building blocks for poo paper. But the best, apparently, is elephant waste because the vegetarian creatures digest only half of the leaves, grass, and other food they consume, making for plenty of fiber-rich waste.
"No smell," he said, holding up a large, sun-dried ball of excrement for us to test out. I sniffed. He was correct — no pungent odor.
"Touch it," the guide urged. "Don't be scared."
I ventured a quick poke. It felt like straw. When I survived, Dilip gave it a try.
While the attraction was clearly the chance to play with something yucky, the park also had a serious environmental message. Paper made this way is more sustainable. The park, which gets the raw material in exchange for sugar cane from local mahouts in this elephant-heavy locale, argues that the fiber-rich dung offers an alternative to cutting down trees for pulp.
Next up was the Boil and Clean station, where dung is soaked in vats of water overnight. The fiber that floats to the top is collected and rinsed several times, then placed in a pot of boiling water for about six hours to kill any bacteria. We took turns using a long oar to stir the pot of "poo soup" before walking to the Mixing and Coloring shed.
The clean, dark brown fibers, left in the sun to dry, are then put into a mixing machine along with water, a little recycled paper, and food coloring, the guide explained. A few hours of agitation produces soft pulp. This is shaped into the "poo balls." Several baskets were piled with blue, green, yellow, red, and purple spheres looking like balls of yarn.
Finally, it was time to make paper. At this shed, a long table had multiple basins of water. I broke apart a red poo ball and spread it evenly atop a screen submerged in the water, making sure to pat the pulp down to fill in any gaps. When we were done — Dilip had a green ball — we carried the frames to a low fence and leaned them there to dry.
This can take a few hours. The guide presented an already dry screen (another tourist's labor, no doubt), and I lifted a corner to peel off the sheet. Voila! The famous POOPOOPAPER.
In the final station, it was arts and crafts time. Products made of poo paper — sun visors, greeting cards, wallets — are available for purchase at modest fees. We chose a yellow photo frame and decorated it with colorful cutouts of leaves, flowers, letters that spelled out Chiang Mai, and, of course, elephants, all made from poo paper.
With our one-of-a-kind souvenir in hand, our tour was complete and Lanna took us to the airport, thoroughly amused at our enjoyment. The POOPOOPAPER tourist trap had turned out to be, well, anything but crappy.
Back home, our frame holds a smiling picture of Dilip and me standing in front of the Elephant POOPOOPAPER Park, next to a heaping pile of poo balls. I show it off to family and friends, and only after they've thoroughly handled the frame do I reveal gleefully, "It's made of elephant poop."
Of course, the reaction is universal: "Ewww!"
Contact Lini S. Kadaba at LKadaba@gmail.com. Follow @KadabaLini.