Our final stop in Cambodia was in Kratie, a small city located North-East of Phnom Phen. We booked our transportation ahead of time with Cambodian Pride Tours and I was glad we did. It was a 6 hour drive from Angkor National park, and I was happy to not have to do it in a crowded van! Being in a car also meant that we could appreciate the countryside more, which was really nice. I feel like we got to see so much of Cambodia while we were there!
Kratie is a lot less touristy than Siem Reap, and it was nice to get away from the crowds. Kratie is both the name of this small city and the province where it’s located, and there isn’t a whole heck of a lot to see here, based on what the internet has to say anyway. Other than the Irrawaddy Dolphins (which I’ll get to in a bit), Kratie’s biggest attraction is that is runs along the mighty Mekong River, and there are lots of great sights as a result.
As happy as I was to get away from all the tourism though, I was just as happy to discover that our hotel was clean, comfortable and uber cute. Also, our hotel had a pool, which we took advantage of in the Cambodian heat. Have I mentioned it was really hot while we were there??? Because it was!!! I especially loved all the pets we had in our room 🙂
We only had 1 full day in Kratie, and it began bright and early when our tour guide, Sithy, met us at our hotel. Before going further, I need to say that Sithy is one of the most passionate and fantastic tour guides I’ve ever met in my life. I honestly didn’t know a tour could BE that enjoyable. If you are reading this because you are visiting Kratie, please do yourself a favor and get in touch with this man. He started this company on his own and does basically everything himself. His prices are fair, he cares greatly about the quality of his tours and he tries very hard to give back to the community. You can check out his website here. or go to www.cambodianpridetours.com
One of the cool things about this tour is how laid back it is. We rented a scooter for the day and rode around the countryside, stopping now and then to see what country life in Kratie province is like. We were able to see how noodles and whiskey are made in rural Cambodia, and we even had lunch with Sithy’s family (his mother provided us with traditional Cambodian food. It was fantastic!). It was a very personal tour for Sithy as he seemed to know everyone in the area. Everywhere we went, children came running out of their homes to say hello and squealed with excitement when we returned the greeting. It was a lovely morning and afternoon and surely not one I will soon forget.
We spent hours cruising around the countryside, stopping to see local homes and seeing the sights in every-day Cambodia. I loved being on the back of that scooter, seeing the rural countryside fly by us and smelling the fresh air. The breeze was refreshing and it was so wonderful being away from the crowds. I was smart enough to catch some of it on video 🙂
The guy riding in front of us is Sithy and when he pulled over, it was so that we could see an old tobacco drying barn. It’s no longer in use, but tobacco used to be one of Cambodia’s biggest exports. The tobacco industry has since been replaced by factories as a primary source of income for the country, so drying sheds like this now stand empty.
After spending the morning and early and afternoon seeing the sights, we boarded the ferry to get to the Irrawaddy Dolphins. The ferry leaves every 20 minutes or so and is the only way to cross the river (where we’d spent a lot of the day). Because bridges are so expensive to build, and Cambodia is so poor, ferries are used to get people across the wide Mekong. Sithy hopes that there will be a bridge built in Kratie before long. Kratie is becoming more and more of a popular place for tourists to stop, so with the rise in tourism, hopefully a bridge will be built, resulting in an easier life for locals.
After disembarking the ferry, we hopped back on our scooters and drove for several kilometers, to a place where dolphins are known to hunt for fish. When we arrived at the feeding pool, we boarded a small wooden boat with a guide and were given an hour to experience the dolphins. Sithy had mentioned on the website that seeing the dolphins was a guarantee but I did not expect to see the number of dolphins we did! There are roughly 25 of these magnificent mammals in this portion of the Mekong, and sadly, that is about 35% of their whole population. The number of Irrawaddy Dolphins have dropped drastically in the last hundred years. Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge killed many of these beautiful creatures to use their fat as weapon cleaner, and many dolphins are killed every year by plastic fishing nets. And to add to the troubles the adult dolphins face, calf mortality rates are very high, so there is a very good chance that these animals will disappear from the earth forever within our lifetime.
Dave spotted the first dolphin within minutes of being in the boat. I missed it and was furious; worried that I’d missed my opportunity to see these rare beauties. But within another few minutes, we saw several more, some far away and some close by. Often, we’d hear them blowing water out of their blowholes before we actually saw them. The experience was amazing and altogether one of the most memorable things I’ve ever done in my life.
I will leave you with a video I put together of the footage I managed to get with our small camera. My biggest regret is that I didn’t have better equipment to capture this incredible experience, but I did what I could with what I had. I hope you enjoy it! And if you’re trying to place the music…it’s from “The Island” soundtrack.
I’ll be back soon with some final posts from Guiyang! We’re coming home in 18 days!!!
We had limited time in Cambodia (7 days is hardly enough to experience an entire country, after all!), and had to pick and choose where we would spend our time during our May Holiday. Although there were several places that we wanted to visit, Angkor National Park was our main reason for visiting Cambodia, so we decided to book a 2 day tour with Happy Angkor Tours, instead of the 1 day tour that we allocated at all our other stops.
Dave and I aren’t usually big fans of tours (mainly because we hate other tourists) but this one wasn’t too bad. Our guide had passable English and knew a lot about the Buddhist history in all the temples. He tried very hard to keep us happy, even in the heat, and ended both days a little earlier than had been planned because we were both dealing with pretty awful sun stroke. This meant that we missed the sunset part of the tour we’d booked on the first day. It’s too bad, as it would have been beautiful to see the sun go down behind Phnom Bakheng, but by the time we had finished at Bayan Temple, all either of us wanted to do was make our way back to our hotel to take it easy. Looking back now, I’m kicking myself, but of course, in addition to the heat, we had spent the previous night on a bus and neither of us had gotten much rest, so the idea of an air conditioned room with a comfortable bed was more appealing than seeing the sun go down.
And it was a good thing that we got that additional rest, because Day 2 of our holiday started an hour before the sun came up…
Angkor Wat – Round 2
We woke up at around 4:30am, showered (we couldn’t do enough of that in Cambodia!!!) and met our tour guide outside our hotel. It was still very dark out and there was nobody in the streets. A half hour later, we were walking up to Angkor Wat again, though we couldn’t see it against the black sky. Our guide found us a fantastic spot on the bank of the man-made pond, we bought some iced coffee from a vendor who was selling them to tourists who were there for sunrise, and we waited.
As it got brighter and brighter we realized not only why it was worth waking up at 4:30am for this, but also that we were not the only ones who’d made this trip. The gratitude I felt for our tour guide, who had gotten us here before the crowds, also multiplied as I looked around me.
Eventually, the sun rose completely, giving us this spectacular view to start our day:
Chong Kneas – A Floating Fishing Village
Cambodia has 2 seasons: wet and dry. The wet season runs from May to October and the dry season from November to April. The Mekong River varies greatly between these two seasons, as Cambodia receives 75% of it’s rainfall in the wet months. So believe it or not, this is the same river:
But human beings have survived for all these years because we are so adaptable. As a species, we survive all over the globe in a variety of environments and conditions, and just like Canadians bundle up into layers of clothes to survive the winter, Cambodia has found ways to survive the rise and fall of the Mekong River.
Entire villages are built on stilts to account of the rise and fall of the Mekong, and we were lucky enough to visit one of these villages. Here, people don’t walk down the street. Instead, they hop into a boat and row to their destination. Even livestock is kept above ground.
Banteay Srei – The Lady’s Temple
Next, we set off to see another temple…and though I’d never heard of it, it is quite famous within Cambodia. Unlike many of Angkor National Park’s temples, this sight was not built by a King of the era…it was built by a Hindu Brahman who happened to be the spiritual teacher of the king at the time. He had the temple built in honor of the Hindu deity, Shiva, but today it is known as the ‘Lady’s Temple’ because of it’s most unique feature: the temple is constructed entirely of hard pink sandstone. It is truly a beautiful location to visit and I got some amazing pictures while we were there.
Banteay Samre – Our Final Stop
Our last stop of the tour was at Banteay Samre, a temple built in around the same time as Angkor Wat. It was dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu and once had an impressive mote surrounding it, that would have made it something to see in its day. The colour of these ruins was gorgeous. Just like at Bayun Wat, I feel like we were too tired to truly appreciate how elaborate this sight is. I guess we’ll just have to go back some day 🙂
So that wraps up our stay in Siem Reap! Next, I’ll be writing about Kratie…home of the Irawadi Dolphins!! Stay tuned!!!
Around 7 years ago now, I decided to sit down and come up with a bucket list. I decided that there would be 100 items on that list and I knew, even before I began, that a lot of those items would involve traveling. In the last year I’ve been fortunate enough to cross 10 items off of that list, and I plan to be crossing off several more before 2015 ends. One of the things I’ve accomplished this year was our trip to Angkor National Park, which was the main reason we traveled to Cambodia for China’s May Holiday. Although I planned on finishing what I had to say (and show) about Angkor in 1 post, once I went through my pictures again, I realized that that would be impossible. There’s just too much to see and too much to tell to do it all in one post. So this will be part 1 of 2 on our stay in northern Cambodia, where we toured temples, met locals and visited a floating village.
The Cambodian Empire
Angkor National Park is all that remains of the Kampuchea empire, which reigned for over South-East Asia for over 600 years. Covering parts of Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and even Burma, the Cambodian Empire was fierce and wealthy, and as such, its kings erected massive temples both in Cambodia and in its conquered lands. The most impressive group of those temples is near Siem Reap (named after a defeat against Thailand at that location), which is where we visited during our stay in Cambodia. Interestingly, during Kampuchea’s hay day, there was both Hindu and Buddhist influence in the area, so these temples vary quite a bit from one to the next, making Angkor National Park a fascinating visit.
UNESCO World Heritage Site
Angkor National Park spans an area of over 400kms square and contains over 100 individual temples, ranging from Angkor Wat (an enormous temple with many buildings within its walls) to small ruins that are merely a wall left over from a previous sight that was destroyed.
Written records weren’t kept at this point in history, and much of what we know about the 9th-15th centuries has come from Angkor Wat and it’s surrounding temples. Carvings in the stone, as well as refinements of past culture still remain in these spots and they’ve told archeologists a great deal about South East Asian history. As someone who studied classical Roman and Greek history in University, I found that aspect of the park to be enthralling. Because of its cultural relevance, Angkor National Park was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and it is preserved and has been repaired as a result. People flock from all over the world to see these sights, which are some of the most famous and awe inspiring temples in the world.
Our first stop in Siem Reap was Angkor Wat, the temple after which the national park was named. It spans 1km square and is the home to several libraries, halls and pools. It’s fared well against the test of time and has been restored through the years, where needed. We were lucky enough to visit Angkor Wat twice…I’ll be writing about our sunrise visit in my next post. Our first stop was a very hot one (the temperatures in Cambodia during the dry season go up to 40 degrees celcius…and stay there…all…day….long…), but well worth the trip. Our guide was a decent photographer too, so we even got pictures of the two of us in Angkor National Park, which was nice 🙂
The heat definitely played a factor in our enjoyment of Angkor Wat (along with our guide’s underestimation of the amount of water we’d need…we ran out early…), but Dave was brilliant enough to make a video before we got too exhausted:
We left Angkor Wat and hopped into a nicely air conditioned van, where we enjoyed the rest of our iced coffees to cool down. Iced coffee is AMAZING in Cambodia!!! Instead of sugar, they use sweetened condensed milk, which gave it a nice flavor. Plus, they get their coffee from Vietnam, which has some of the world’s best :). My favorite part though…it’s served in a bag…
Ta Prohm is, without a doubt, one of the coolest looking places I’ve ever seen in my life. It was built in the late 12th – early 13th centuries and unlike Angkor Wat, which was built under a Hindu King, Ta Prohm was built primarily as a Buddhist school. What makes Ta Prohm so interesting though isn’t it’s Buddhist ties. The fact that the temple has been kept as it was found, wild and grown over by trees, makes it the perfect spot for photos.
Ta Nei is one of my favorite spots we visited. It was a long way away from all the other temples, (our driver had to go down some roads that looked like they were just walking paths in the middle of the jungle in order to get us there), but once we arrived, we saw why it was worth the trip.
Not only were there no other tourists there, but the sight is gorgeous! It’s definitely seen better days, and it hasn’t been restored the way Angkor Wat and Ta Prohm have been, but there is such a rawness to this old temple…I got some of my favorite pictures of the whole trip during this visit.
We loved this sight so much, we even remembered to take a video for it! I love how beautifully quiet it was there 🙂
Bayun (or Bayan) Temple
Our last stop on day one of our Siem Reap Tour was in Angkor Thom, the last (and longest enduring) city of the Cambodian Empire. Although there are several sights to see within Angkor Thom, Dave and I were suffering from pretty terrible heat exhaustion, so we only saw some of them from within the air conditioned vehicle. Our tour guide wanted to save our energy for Angkor Thom’s greatest masterpiece: Bayon Temple (I’ve also seen it spelled ‘Bayun’ Temple).
Built in the late 12th century, 100 years after the building of Angkor Wat (our first stop of the day), this is clearly a Buddhist temple. From afar, it is a beautiful sight to see, but when you see it up-close, you realize how fascinating this temple truly is.
Each of Bayon’s 54 towers has a large face carved into each of its 4 sides. That means that this magnificent temple has a total of over 200 faces. It made for some incredible photos!!
I should add that these faces are enormous…here is Dave and I standing directly in front of what is considered Bayon’s most beautiful Buddha.
I was very happy to have a guide at this point, as he was able to point out some of the best shots. There were so many faces everywhere that I could have easily missed shots like these ones:
He also got some great pictures of the two of us. By the end of this part of the tour, we were both feeling like we did on our wedding day…tired of smiling! But it was all worth it in the end! I would have been devastated had I not gotten some of these pictures!!
So that was day 1 of our Siem Reap stop. I’ll be back next week with Day 2, where we experienced Angkor Wat at sunrise, a floating fishing village and Cambodia’s beautiful ‘Lady’s Temple’.
We opted for a change of scenery today, and have settled in at Cafe Void for the evening, a small coffee shop in Zhong Tian Hua Yuan. The rainy season has begun in Guiyang, and although the temperature is much better now, we are getting several thunder storms a week. A fairly severe one hit while we were having supper tonight at our favorite hot pot place (it’s never too hot for hot pot!!) when it started thundering. Starbucks is about 20 minutes away by scooter, so we chose to stay close to home instead. Void’s got a great atmosphere anyway, and it’s nice to switch it up now and then anyway 🙂
Now, I know I never got around to finishing all of my posts about Thailand, but I think they’re just going to have to wait. I wrote about most of the major stuff already, and the 2 posts I have left to write (1 on the elephants at ENP and one about nightlife in Thailand) can wait until I’m done with our latest trip: Cambodia!!
Cambodia is amazing for a variety of reasons. For one thing, it’s incredible exotic…even for people living in China. Unlike Thailand, which is basically Canada’s ‘Caribbean’, Cambodia hasn’t been open for tourism for very long. They have a rather ugly modern history, and until the late 1990s, people simply didn’t go there to visit. But I’ll get to that in a bit…First, I’ll tell you a little bit about our first stop: Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh
Phnom Penh is a fairly modern city. It isn’t a rich place, but compared to the rest of the country, it has a booming economy. There are plenty of sights to see in Cambodia’s capital, including several markets, monuments and temples and Cambodia’s National Museum. There’s no shortage of places to visit and we had to limit ourselves to a few top choices as we only had 2 days to see the city.
Still, there is extreme poverty here. Many children don’t go to school and instead beg on the street or sell bracelets to tourists. The city is also very dirty, which is common in poor countries.
And when it comes to helping the poor in Cambodia, there is a catch 22 for tourists. On one hand, if you don’t buy the things they are selling you feel like a terrible person. $2 isn’t much to a Canadian, but it’s a small fortune for a family as poor as some that we saw. But on the other hand, by giving in and purchasing items from these kids, you are telling their parents ‘yes, sending your children out to sell things is a good idea. I could say no to you, but I can’t say no to them’. I felt awful every time I gave in, but I couldn’t say no, and Dave and I ended up with a lot of bracelets, postcards, books and magnets.
We met these children in Kratie. They were so cute and so shy. I kept making faces at them to make them laugh, trying to get them to come over and say hello (they were hiding behind some boxes trying to get a glimpse of us). I eventually got them to come over and I asked them their names and taught them a little English. When I left, they came running out and said ‘Goodbye, Teacher!!!’. I met another group of girls who were selling flutes. We bought one flute from each of them ($1 a piece…) and I asked them what their names were and how old they all were. They all lit right up when I gave them that little bit of attention. I doubt they have many tourists ask them about their lives. More often than not, they are just shooed to the side.
But it wasn’t long ago that children in Cambodia suffered a much worse fate than a lack of education. As I mentioned earlier in this post, Cambodia has an ugly past. From 1975 to 1979, the Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia, and the people suffered one of the worst genocides in world history. Millions of people died through starvation, torture and execution and this ugly man was the brain behind it all.
As North Americans, we grow up hearing about Hitler and his atrocities. The Khmer Rouge, however, was completely foreign to me, which is strange given how recently the Cambodian genocide happened. After all, I consider myself to be a worldly minded person…I read the news and keep track of the big things that are happening in the world. But this one I hadn’t heard of. And that’s probably because so little was done by western powers to stop this man. We can’t be proud of bringing down this assailant, like we brought down Hitler, so Cambodia’s story just doesn’t make the cut in our history books.
When the the Khmer Rouge took over the country in 1975, Pot had big plans for its citizens. He believed in a perfect communism that was based on agriculture. Pot thought that anyone educated or anyone who lived in the cities was the enemy and he treated them as such. Many of those people were sent to S-21, one of the many schools that the Khmer Rouge turned into torture compounds. We toured the old school and saw some of the things accomplished there in those 4 terrible years.
There are several buildings in S-21, each with their own brand of horror. Our first stop was a building where high-status inmates were held. This is where they kept people who were suspected of working with the CIA or other foreign intelligence agencies. It’s said that the Khmer Rouge would arrest anyone who wore glasses, because glasses, after all, are a sign of intelligence. And intelligence was not to be trusted.
After seeing many rooms like the one above, we moved to another area of the prison where groups of prisoners were kept. The quarters here were far worse…
The last building we saw told stories of individuals who survived S-21. In total, it is estimated that 17,000 people were kept here, tortured and beaten. Of those 17,000, only 12 prisoners survived. We met two of them while at S-21 and bought their books. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to read them. The things we saw here bothered me a lot. I couldn’t sleep for several nights without dreaming about the things I read. The fact that humans could do this other humans is beyond me.
Like any camp of this sort, the inmates had to abide by a list of rules set by the guards. Some of them are impossible for me to understand…
“You must immediately answer my questions without wasting time to reflect.”
“While getting lashes or electrification you must not cry at all.”
No matter how much S-21 bothered me though, The Killing Fields were much, much worse.
The fields themselves are quite a thing to see. Upon arrival at the Fields, which are just outside Phnom Penh, you are provided with an audio tour (the recordings were very well done and available in many different languages). Everyone has their headphones on and are listening to the stories and history behind the fields. It is completely quiet as you walk through this massacre sight and it feels eerie. If you look up at the other visitors, everyone has the same look on their face. Nobody can quite understand how these things happened. How humans could do this to other humans.
Since the fields were discovered, the individual pits have been carefully excavated, in an attempt to understand what went on in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. Many of the larger bones (skulls and femurs) were removed from the earth, cleaned and examined. Some DNA testing was done to help give families closure, though many families have never found their lost relatives. Once DNA analysis was complete, the skulls were moved into the Memorial Stupa that was built at The Killing Fields to honor the dead.
The smaller bones were left in the ground and when it rains heavily, they move up through the soil. As a result, you are often reminded by signage to watch where you are stepping. You can often see bones on the ground as well as the clothing of victims.
Some of the bigger pits, or pits that were reserved for ‘special’ groups of victims have been sectioned off. On the bamboo posts used to section the pits off, people have left bracelets to commemorate the dead. Many of these bracelets are recognizable from street kids who sell them in down town Phnom Penh.
It was difficult walking around these fields. I feel sad and depressed about it even now, as I write this post. Nearly a quarter of Cambodia’s population was killed during the 4 years that Pol Pot was in power. And because this all happened in the last 40 years, everyone you meet in present-day Cambodia has a story they can tell you. They all have either an aunt, an uncle, a grandparent, a parent or a friend who was killed. The trials against the Khmer Rouge’s top officers are ongoing even today, and Pol Pot was never even brought to justice. He died of old age…he spent his final years with his children and grand children: a right he took away from so many innocent people.
It’s taken me a long time to write this post because of how much it bothers me that these things happened. Visiting Cambodia’s Killing Fields would be similar to visiting Auschwitz or Bergen-Belsen. What happened in Europe in the 1940s is as horrific as what happened in Cambodia in the 70s, but on some levels, Cambodia bothers me more. Not because of the atrocities themselves…but because of my government’s reaction (or lack of reaction) to the Khmer Rouge. Refugees who got out of the country during that awful time were called liars or were accused of exaggerating. Nobody did anything to help the Cambodians…the world didn’t care because Cambodia is so small and far away.
And that’s why, no matter how much I don’t want to think about this stuff…I have to write about it. Through ‘knowing’, we can prevent these types of things from happening in the future. Sure, reading the news can be a bummer, but if you know that your government isn’t taking steps to help people in cases such as this, you can write to your government representative and encourage action. There are petitions to sign and protests to attend. There ARE things you can do to help. Margaret Mead’s words are something to live by:
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
My next post will be on a lighter topic: Angkor National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Sight, and boy were there some sights to see!!
Well, I can say a lot of things about my life here in China, but one thing I cannot say is that it’s boring! The last 2 days have been a total blur and now that I find myself at our favorite hang out, finally ready to write about ENP, I fear I won’t have the energy to even make it through my intro. In the last 48 hours we have been on: 2 Flights, 2 high speed trains, 7 metro trains and in taxis. I had 2 interviews on Tuesday, April 21st and they were in 2 different cities. I woke up in Suzhou yesterday, Shanghai today and then taught kindergarten in Guiyang this evening! If it weren’t for Shanghai’s INCREDIBLE transportation system and my expert co-navigator, this insane day would have never been possible.
But all the nuttiness and rushing around turned out to be very worth the trouble. Because we were able to make it work, I was able to see first hand what my top 2 choices for employment for next term look like up close. I was impressed with both, but I could only take one job, so after a lot of deliberation I decided to accept a position in the beautiful city of Suzhou. The school feels like a good fit and I was offered a job teaching Drama and English Writing in the Middle School at the Suzhou Foreign Language School, which is sort of perfect for me!! It’s a job I’ve been interested in for some time, and I was thrilled when they offered me the position.
The one bad thing about this whole nutty trip is that this happened to be my last weekend before we leave on our holiday in Cambodia. I can hardly believe that I’m going on vacation again before I’ve even finished writing about the LAST vacation!! Talk about living a spoiled life!!
But I better get on with it, before time slips away from me again and I wake up in Cambodia! I’ve saved the best post for last, so I hope you enjoy reading it 🙂
Elephant Nature Park: My New Favorite Place on Earth!!
Elephant Nature Park (or ENP) was founded in the 1990s by a lovely woman named Lek Chailart, whose love for elephants drove her to do something for them. As of March, 2016 the park is home to 69 elephants, 100+ cats, 400+ dogs and around 80 buffalo. Lek has taken all of the animals in and given them a natural home, where they aren’t abused by humans or used in the tourism industry for trekking or other harmful activities.
There are so many reasons why Elephant Nature Park is a ‘must see’ for anyone who visits Thailand. I’ve decided to sum up why I loved ENP so much into a nice compact list. Here are my top 3 reasons why I think EVERYONE should visit ENP (or somewhere like it). We’ll start with #3…
#3- It’s a great place to Escape the hustle and bustle!!
Bangkok and Phuket were awesome…there was always plenty to see and plenty to do, but with everything being so crazy, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. I was very happy our stay at ENP was towards the end of our trip, because it gave us an opportunity to wind down from all of that. There is so much natural beauty here and it’s really set up to help you relax 🙂
And if the lodging wasn’t quaint enough, the grounds where the elephants live are also gorgeous…
And if natural beauty isn’t enough for you, the Park’s Pets add yet another layer of serenity to the place 🙂
The atmosphere at ENP was definitely one of the perks for me. The beautiful scenery, abundant furry friends and rustic lodging were such a nice change from the rest of our trip!
#2 – High Entertainment Value
Right from our first moments at ENP, the elephants were making us laugh. You’re first introduced to the elephants at the feeding platform, and when it’s feeding time, things can get a little nutty!! THOSE TRUNKS!!!
If you’ve never seen an elephant trying to maneuver itself in water, then you have not properly seen an elephant. These typically graceful creatures become carefree and goofy once in the water. We probably could have spent a day just sitting there watching these guys play!
Baby elephants are especially playful! They have no idea how big they are, so this can sometimes be problematic for the Mahouts, who try very hard to train the elephants not to push around people. As the elephants get bigger, it becomes dangerous if they decide to push aside one of us tiny tourists, so we aren’t allowed to touch the babies…for their safety and for ours!!
The following is one of my favorite videos of our trip. It’s of an elephant named Dokmai (she’s actually a girl, though in the video I thought she was a boy). She just LOVES playing with fire hoses!!
But not all of our entertainment was presented in a comedic fashion. At one point, our group was actually chased down by a group of irritated elephants, who were tired of the dogs nipping at their trunks (a favorite pass-time for ENP’s dogs) We were standing by the river and all of a sudden, 4 or 5 elephants were charging toward us. I didn’t get any pictures of the event (I was too busy running), but I can tell you, it was an exhilarating experience!! Our guide, Apple, got us to run behind a fence, where she thought we’d be safe from trampling, but one of the elephants decided to follow us into the fenced area. She got pretty close to us but then lost interest and went in the other direction. Apple told us later that that particular elephant LOVES to chase people. And that although she often does this, she has never hurt anyone…she always stops when she gets close to her target and then goes on her way in the other direction. Maybe it’s her revenge for the years she spent working for humans in the tourism industry??
#1 – ENP is an extremely educational experience!!!
Elephant Nature Park isn’t just about laughter, relaxation and being chased by elephants. The staff here are very knowledgeable about everything Elephant. Some of the most interesting facts we learned:
That trunk has over 40,000 muscles in it! It is the elephants most diverse tool and can be used for a wide variety of things, like transferring food into the elephant’s mouth, sounding out a trumpet to show predators that they mean business and even for showing affection to family members. A trunk can be soft and flexible (as shown in this picture) or it can be stiff and used to slap the ground to intimidate predators (trunk slapping is very cool…it sounds like a rubber tire being dropped on the ground).
An elephant’s nose is also very well adapted for smelling. Their sense of smell is actually better than that of a dog!! Many elephants go blind in their lifetimes, because their environments usually involve a lot of dust, which gets into their eyes eventually causing blindness. We met many blind elephants at the park (I developed a soft spot for them…) but they manage to survive (and would in the wild as well!) due to their incredible sense of smell!
I’m sure you’ve heard that elephants are very fond of their families…this couldn’t be truer! In fact, they have a similar mentality about family as i do…blood doesn’t have to be all there is to having children or siblings. All of the babies at ENP have several ‘nannies’ who are FIERCELY protective of them. When one of the dogs snapped at Dok Mai, the entire family began trunk slapping and circled around her for protection. I should add that none of these elephants are related by blood…family is just so important to them that they create a family if they are taken away from their original one.
This is why animal advocates are so against zoos that keep elephants alone. I was happy to see that Calgary zoo had found new homes for their elephants, because they were moved to a place where there were more elephants for them to interact with. These are truly social creatures and having them in a pen by themselves is a form of solitary confinement. They go crazy…as I know I would as well.
I think more than anything else though, what surprised me about the elephants were the sounds they can make! You’ve heard the stereotypical ‘trumpet’ that they make. It’s a terrifying sound if it’s made in your direction, I can assure you of that! But they make so many more sounds than just their trumpeting. They grumble and squeak and sometimes almost sound like they’re purring. I LOVED falling asleep to the sound of that grumbling coming from the elephant pen at night. I fought sleep harder than I have since I was a little kid because I didn’t want to miss any of those nice sounds…
I also got a really cool video that sums up a lot of those sounds! One of the elephants got left behind by her herd when they’d gone across the river to eat some greenery. We watched her find them (and them find her) and it was quite the thing to see (and hear!!).
The grumbling you can hear is going back and forth between them. Elephants can communicate this way with one another when they are up to 10kms away from one another! They have very sensitive feet and can feel vibrations in the ground when another elephant is calling to them this way. Pretty cool! I should also add that this is the herd that chased us about 5 minutes after I took this video…they were an ornery group…
But unfortunately, not all of the facts we learned about elephants were pleasant. We learned a lot about the tourism industry while we met different elephants and were told their stories. We met several elephants with broken backs, who were all injured at trekking camps, where they are loaded up with tourists for hours every day, often carrying over 300 pounds on their backs at once (the chair alone weights 70 pounds) Although you’d think an elephant’s back is strong, given its size, it’s actually an elephant’s neck that is powerful and not its back, so many elephants end up with injuries. The chairs used in trekking camps are also terrible for the elephants’ lungs, which are squeezed by the strap that holds the chair onto the elephant. Add in the fact that they are overworked in terrible heat, and maybe you can understand why I refused to go elephant riding while in Thailand…
I know many people who have ridden elephants while in Thailand, or even in North America at circuses or zoos. I have heard many defenses over these types of rides, including things like ‘well THESE elephants were treated well!’ and ‘I rode on the elephant’s neck and not on a chair’. And while those may seem like valid arguments, if you do a little research you discover that every single elephant in captivity has gone through a hellish experience known as ‘crushing’ and that by riding an elephant (even on its neck) you are supporting that industry. Allow me to explain further…
Elephants are highly intelligent and very strong willed. To break an elephant requires a lot of work, and most people don’t believe an elephant can be trained without the use of violence. So when an elephant reaches the age of about 4 (which is VERY young for an elephant…at that age they are still quite dependent on their mothers in the wild) they are put into a wooden cage that completely restricts movement, and are stabbed with sticks (that often have nails tied into the end of them so that the elephants’ tough skin can be broken) and they are kept in that ‘crush’ for anywhere from 5-8 days. They are hit, stabbed with sticks and nails, screamed at and sleep deprived until they have lost the will to fight back. THIS HAPPENS TO EVERY SINGLE ELEPHANT THAT IS BEING USED IN THE TOURISM INDUSTRY.
So even if you ‘ride on their neck’ and even if the mahouts seem ‘really really nice’, these elephants are being tortured for human entertainment, and I know that’s not fun to hear, but it needs to be said. I know that a couple of years ago, I may not have done the research I did this time. Up until I did that research, ‘riding an elephant in Thailand’ was on my bucket list. I changed it to ‘meet an elephant in Thailand’ because I can’t bring myself to support this industry knowing what I know. And that’s why I’m sharing all of this with you. Because now YOU know, and you can do something about it too! Educate people! Encourage people not to support this industry because you now know what happens behind the scenes. It’s the only way any of this will stop, and after meeting all these incredible pachyderms, I had to write something about it. I had to be part of the solution.
Guiyang is truly a city of extremes. Just yesterday, the temperature was 30 degrees Celsius, and I had the windows in my classroom open so I could enjoy the cool breeze and the sun’s rays. Today, the view that lies before me as I blog at our favorite hang out (I’ll give you 3 guesses…) couldn’t be more different. People are bundled up, with the arms around themselves trying to stay warm. There was a 20 degree drop over night and Guiyang is once more overcast and dreary. I’m grateful for the little bit of sun we did get, but I am a tad mournful that our two nicest days were the days that I spend inside, teaching back to back classes.
Here are some pictures from our lovely weekend:
And Guiyang now…
But whether isn’t the only way Guiyang likes to shock us with its extremes. For example:
Nope…not even close…
To be fair, the area isn’t usually THIS bad, but one of the businesses in the building is renovating and decided to dump all their garbage outside the back doors. I’m terrified a rat is going to jump out the garbage heap and attack me.
And if garbage heaps aren’t enough for you, there are also these open gutters to scare the bajeepers out of you. The local noodle place and many other little businesses (as well as pedestrians) throw their garbage in here and it’s developing quite the collection. This could be solved by putting a metal grate over the gutter, but that would probably be too much work, so instead I have to hop over this to get to the school daily. I’m not going to lie…the first time I saw it I gagged a little lol. Scooters sometimes drive over it and splash people as they walk by….when that happens, you have to walk around smelling like garbage water all day. Not fun…
But not all of Guiyang is open sewers and garbage piles…if you drive for 10 minutes to HuaGuoYuan, then you get this view:
Or 5 minutes away from the school, this area is also quite new and shiny:
So yes, Guiyang is the city of contrast. But I suppose I should get on to writing about a place that has no contrast at all. The Grand Palace in Bangkok Thailand has one mode: Go Grand, or Go Home!!!
The Grand Palace has been home to Thailand’s Royalty since 1782. Today, the grounds are more of a tourist attraction than anything, but Royal ceremonies and State functions are still held there several times a year.
I was surprised to learn that The Grand Palace is not a singular giant structure, but really a large number of small buildings that vary in a great deal of ways. In the 200 years that the Palace has sat in Bangkok, pavilions, chapels and halls were erected, all reflecting the time period in which they were built. The resulting diversity within the grounds is fascinating.
Also worth noting is the sheer size of the Grand Palace. At 2,351,000 sq feet, it would take several hours to view the whole Palace, a feat neither Dave or myself were ready to take on. We arrived on February 19th, under a scorching Bangkok sun. Between the heat, the tourists and our long pants and shirts (there is a strict dress code at The Grand Palace), we weren’t up for seeing the grounds in their entirety. So we hit up the major attractions and took lots of breaks in any shaded areas we could find.
But if I were to tell you that the diversity of the buildings or the size of the place were the most remarkable things about The Grand Palace, I would be doing it a great disservice. No amount of photography could possible capture the elaborate detail here. Every inch of every building was designed to be beautiful and ornate. It was so Grand that if you didn’t stop and actually look at it, you might not even notice the level of detail at all. It is all THAT detailed!!!
We walked around for about an hour, taking pictures of different halls and structures. We went into a few buildings as well, although we weren’t allowed having our cameras out in them. I understand the reasoning, to an extent. Having cameras flashing while Buddhists try and pray in front of the sacred Emerald Buddha would be incredibly disrespectful. Still, as a non-Buddhist I was a little sad I couldn’t get a shot or two in while in Wat Phra Kaew (The Temple of the Emerald Buddha). I did manage to get one decent shot from outside the building though, and I found a picture online of the different robes he wears, depending on the season.
We also saw some of the Throwns that former Kings used while living in the Grand Palace, which was sort of neat. We also weren’t able to take pictures in those buildings, but one of them had a massive fan where I was able to cool down! It was a highlight of the day for me!! haha!!
There are actual guards at the Palace too. Just like you’d see at Buckingham Palace, tourists were making faces and taking pictures with the guards, as they solemnly stood guard to some of the more important buildings on the grounds.
So that is The Grand Palace. I’m not disappointed that we went, but I can hardly say that it was the highlight of our Bangkok experience. I suppose Dave and I tend to not like the really ‘touristy’ stuff, so that could be why I didn’t enjoy it more. But on the other hand, the history lover in me LOVED seeing the different buildings. It’s definitely worth a stop while you’re in Bangkok!!
My next post is going to be about night life in Thailand! I’ll be writing about the famous Bangla Road in Phuket, Kao San Road in Bangkok and of course, the famed Thai Lady-Boys!!
Well, my second semester at Interlingua is now in full swing and I have to admit it is off to a much better start than the first semester! It’s always difficult taking over another teacher’s classes, but when that teacher is loved by students, management and colleagues alike, it’s a little hard to match up. Somehow I persevered and have proven my abilities.
Since our return from Thailand, I’ve had several parents come to the school specifically asking for me to teach their children. Mostly these parents are referrals from parents whose children I already teach. I’ve also had great feedback from management at the school, who appreciate my organizational skills and diligent lesson planning. I’ve been asked to extend my contract here and even the other teachers have begun to ask for my help when they are having difficulty with particularly shy students. I feel like super-teacher again!! I can’t even explain how great that feels!!!
But none of that can top how valued my students make me feel. My kindergarten students in particular are sweet, affectionate and love coming to my classes. This week I’ve been teaching them family member vocabulary (Mommy, Daddy, Sister, Brother, Grandma, Grandpa…) and then also teaching them phrases that they can use this vocabulary with (Mommy is happy, I have 2 sisters). On Sunday I taught them a new phrase: “I love my ______”. I play a game with them where they have to throw my fuzzy dice at the black board and whichever drawing they hit, they have to make a sentence with it. So if they throw the die and it hits my drawing of ‘mommy’ they have to say ‘I love my mommy’. Of course, I always draw myself on the blackboard as well, so they have a reference as to how these bubble drawings are related to me, and before I knew it, they made it a game of throwing the die at MY picture, so that they could say ‘I love my Marie!!!!’. It was so sweet I could have scooped them all up and hugged ’em forever!!!
But I suppose I’ve gushed enough now. (If you hadn’t caught on yet…I love my job)
BACK TO THAILAND!!!
Ayutthaya was founded in 1350AD by a King trying to escape a small pox epidemic. It became the capital of Thailand or Siam, as it was known at the time. Fast forward to 1767, when the Burmese army invaded and burnt the city to the ground. What’s left today are the stone structures that survived the sack of Ayutthaya…
We took the train down to the old city, which was apparently the cheapest way to get there but provided the best views. It cost us a total of 40 Bhat to get there and only 30 Bhat to return ($1.54 and $1.16 respectively), so we definitely didn’t break the bank on the trip. Also, it’s a fairly popular destination, so it was no problem to get help at the train station, even though many of the staff didn’t speak much English.
I had done a bit of reading ahead of time, so when we arrived in the ancient city, we knew our best option for getting around was by scooter. I would have never been brave enough to drive myself (in Thailand, they drive on the opposite side of the road), but Dave is brave that way, and before long we were cruising around the city, in search of some lunch.
We found a tiny little restaurant (we weren’t even sure if it was a restaurant at first!) before too long, and the woman who greeted us quickly set off to cook us something we hadn’t yet ordered. This was probably for the best, as we know basically none of the Thai language and wouldn’t have known what to ask for anyway. What she brought us was delicious 🙂
Next we set off to find us some ruins…
We found 3 different sites, and each was unique in its own way. Three happens to be the perfect number of items to have on a list such as this, so I shall continue this post in list form. Also, I can’t remember the actual name for each site, so I’ve dubbed them by their defining features instead.
Sight #1: Wat Maheyong
I saw the very first elephant I’ve seen in my life as we drove up to this site. It was being ridden, which wasn’t ideal, but it was still there…He was an enormous male, with long tusks. He had 2 people in the chair and a mahout riding his neck. Before long we saw many more elephants, all being ridden around a beautiful scene of burnt stone and open fields.
We didn’t know it at the time, but these were actually the most plain ruins that we saw the whole day…we were still impressed!!
Before long, we decided to see what else Ayutthaya had to offer, so we began to head back to the scooter. That’s when the rain started…
You know what they say though…February shows, allow Marie to make new friends??? We ran inside where there was shelter. Nobody likes scooting in the rain!!! That’s where I met this lovely lady.
I didn’t want to ride the elephants, but I had no problem feeding her so that’s where we spent our Bhat instead. Elephants are SUCH cool eaters!!! Their trunks are absolutely amazing!!!
When we ran out of bananas, we bid the sweet girl farewell and wandered over through the market for a while. There wasn’t much to see, but we did run into some tigers that were quite obviously drugged for picture taking purposes. I won’t go into too much detail here (I’m planning a whole post on how to be an Eco-conscious tourist in the near future), but neither of us were disappointed when we couldn’t get pictures of the sleepy animal. Instead, we went and visited some more elephants, who weren’t drugged. They were mostly just curious of us (and hoping we had bananas for them!!)
After a run in with some sales people claiming to sell ivory jewellery (see my post: Thailand an Overview Part 1 for more details on that little adventure…), the rain cleared and we left in search of some more ruins. What we found…was more elephants!! (and some INCREDIBLE ruins!!)
Sight #2 – Wat Phra Kam
It wasn’t long after we left Wat Maheyong that we started spotting more elephants. We figured there were probably ruins nearby, so we turned in and found a place to park the scooter.
There was an entrance fee to this set of ruins, but it was well worth the 50bhat ($1.91) we paid to get in. I’ll let the photos do the explaining…
When the Burmese invaded Ayutthaya, they didn’t just burn the city to the ground. The plan was to annihilate the population; nothing was safe. Their buildings were burnt and their culture was destroyed. Not even their sacred places were spared. When I was in Inner Mongolia, years ago, I witnessed the same sort of defilement. When the Japanese army had invaded China during WW2, they destroyed many temples. One particular temple stood out to me…the temple itself is still in Baotou, but every single Buddha that had been carved into the stone (there were hundreds!) had had its nose chipped off. Desecration of religious space is common in times of war.
Sight #3: Wat Barom Buddha Ram
There are so many sights to see in Ayutthaya. Although I’d read online that it was a cool place to visit, I hadn’t realized just HOW cool, so we’d only scheduled a half day to see it all. As a result, we missed out on many of the neat things there were to see. With our tight schedule, we had to pick and choose where we would stop, so after visiting Wat Phra Ram, we quickly zipped over to the most famous sight in Ayutthaya: Wat Barom Buddha Ram. You’ll see why it’s famous in the pictures below.
So that was Ayutthaya! If you’re ever out near Bangkok, I HIGHLY recommend taking the day trip! Especially if you’re a history nut, like me! It’s a neat city and we didn’t even see half of what there was to see! I guess that just means we’ll have to go back…
I’ll be away until next week (I won’t be popular this weekend…it’s test time!!!), but when I return, I’ll be blogging about The Grand Palace in Bangkok, Thailand!
Spring has officially arrived in Guiyang! The trees are all in full bloom, the sun is out and the weather is gorgeous! After 3 long months of rain and feeling like my very bones were cold, I am warm, wearing a skirt and am not bundled in 3 layers of clothing! I couldn’t be happier!!!!
The warm weather has inspired me to write about the highlight of our time in Phuket. Our incredible Hong By Starlight Tour had it all: breathtaking views, adorable animals and fantastic food! The trip TO the Hongs alone was impressive in of itself, but it all went uphill from here.
Now I suppose I should explain what a Hong actually is. We passed many islands during the hour and a half boat ride to the islands we’d be exploring.
A small number of islands near Phuket are hollow inside, and those are called Hongs. They are only accessible by caves and those caves are only accessible at certain points in the day, dependent on tides. Our tour involved seeing three of these Hongs by Sea Canoe…an inflatable canoe, designed specifically to go through caves. They are very tough and can be deflated if the tide is too high and the squeeze is too tight getting in or out of a cave. They are also unflippable…which is always nice 🙂
Though there are several companies who do these tours, we booked ours through John Gray’s Sea Canoe, which has won many awards for eco-tourism and has rave reviews on Trip Advisor, as well as on their website. Of course, we had to experience the tour ourselves to really understand why they’d won these awards.
Talk about a top notch tour! Every aspect of our day exceeded our expectations. The food was fantastic. Not only was it delicious, but because John Gray is all about environmentalism, the fish was net caught (not farmed) and the chicken was free range. This means that everything you are served on this tour is cruelty free and chemical free. A nice touch.
The staff were also incredible. Not only were they knowledgeable and friendly, but they seemed to really care about the company they work for. They asked us to speak quietly while in the Hongs, to not disturb the wildlife. No garbage was left behind and I actually saw our guide, Ole, pick up garbage that had been left behind by other groups.
When you add up these elements of the tour, and add in a truly fascinating and beautiful tour destination, you’ve created quite the memorable day trip. So here it goes…I’ll go one cave at a time 🙂
Cave #1 – Diamond Cave and Lagoon
As we approached first island, I could see the small entrance while still in the canoe, and it made me a little nervous. I’m a tad claustrophobic, so the idea of going into that small opening made me quite scared. I made sure to get it on video so you can see what it was like going into that dark space.
I didn’t have zoom on at all through that video and a moment after I stopped making the video, the ceiling was so close that I would have cracked my head on it if I’d even tried to sit up a little. Quite the experience!!!
But then you make it to the end….
Words fail me here…the inside of these islands is something I hope everyone in my life gets to experience at some point. It was worth every bit of claustrophobia I felt!! And although the scenery alone would have been enough to make my day, Ole had a lot to do with the way we experienced these 2 Hongs as well. He spoke softly so that the wildlife didn’t run away. He paddled softly and slowly so that we could enjoy the peaceful stillness of the Hong. He taught us about the area in a quiet voice and paddled a little behind the other guides so that we didn’t have to be around all the other loud tourists. These were perfect moments.
The way out of the island was a tight squeeze, as the tide had risen a little. We were the last ones out of the Hong and at some points in the journey back to the boat, I thought we were going to get stuck in the cave and drown. I could hear our canoe rubbing against sharp rocks and kept envisioning it deflating. The cave ceiling was close to my nose even while I lay flat on my back, arms and legs tucked. But we made it through! I was happy to discover later one that our canoes are built with those rocks in mind and that it’s incredibly difficult to rupture one badly enough that it sinks. Still…my mind was racing on our trip out of that island!!
Cave #2 – Mangrove Lagoon
After this first stop, I couldn’t wait to see my second Hong! In spite of my excitement, however, I was able to enjoy the moment and take some pictures of our journey to the second island.
Our second stop was in Mangrove Lagoon. I managed to get a video of our entrance into the Hong, although it is a little distracted as Dave was as excited as I was and wanted me to take videos of everything at once!! haha!!!!
This particular Hong didn’t have as much wildlife in it, but what it lacked in primates it made up for in foliage. There were over a dozen mangroves in the Hong, all different sizes and different shapes.
And we did see SOME wild life!
The mangroves weren’t the only beauty this lagoon provided. The rocks were jacked and beautiful and as the afternoon turned to evening, the light in the lagoon made for some beautiful pictures.
Our second island was as gorgeous as the first, and Ole proved to be consistent with his tours. He was wonderful yet again.
We were given a break at this point to swim in the ocean, paddle around in the canoes and take some pictures. We took advantage of all 3 options 🙂
Supper break gets it’s own section because it was that good. And no, for once I am not solely referring to the food! John Grey’s Sea Canoe aims to educate its customers and educate they did! Not only did we learn about the wildlife in the Hongs and see for ourselves what sort of habitats these lagoons provide, but we were also taught about Thai Culture.
The Loi Krathong festival typically takes place in May. Buddists build these offerings and set them out to sea, both in gratitude for all that the sea provides and in remorse for the pollution they have caused it. Each Krathong is different from the next, but they all share commonalities. For examples, most Krathongs will have marigolds, which represent prosperity. The 3 sticks of incense represent the 3 major parts of Buddhism: The Buddha, The Monk and Scripture. Ole explains:
Ole told us that he has been making Krathongs every year since he was a child, so for him, this creation was no big deal. I was amazed at how so little could look so elaborate!! I took pictures as he worked.
Sending Krathongs afloat also has another purpose. As you let go, you are suppose to make a wish. As it floats away, the Krathong takes your bad luck with it. Within a few hours it becomes waterlogged and sinks into the ocean, where it provides food for fish and other sea life. I’d love to see this festival take place in November!! It was such a lovely addition to our already lovely day!!
Once done making our Krathong, we had some free time before supper. During break, we had plenty of time for photo ops, which worked out well because this break was during sun set. Have you ever been on the ocean for sunset? I hadn’t until our Starlight tour, and wow is it an experience!!!
After eating, it was time to head into our last cave and our last hong.
Cave #3 – The Bat Cave!!
Unlike in China, where things are given names that make no sense, this cave was named perfectly. Yup! It was full of bats! I didn’t get many pictures because at this point our camera was dying, but some of these bats were as big as birds! We saw hundreds of them once in the cave, but don’t worry, they were sleeping!!
As the last bits of light disappeared with the setting sun, we head into the bat cave…
By the time we made it through the cave and reached the Hong, it was almost completely dark outside. We could see stars above and we were the only tour group left so it was quiet and peaceful moving slowly through the water in the dark.
Ole lit the candles of our Krathong and we set it in to the water where it floated calmly. The rest of our group were setting theirs into the water as well and when we looked around, we could see fire floating on water all around us. It was quite the scene.
Ole told us to make a wish as we let go of his piece of art, and we had a hard time thinking of anything more we could want in that moment. So we wished for a happy life for all 3 of us. What more could we want?
The tour was nearly over and it was time to make our way back out through the cave. It was completely dark now and the stars were shining above us brightly. We were able to stay sitting up while we slowly paddled through the Bat Cave; it has high ceilings and the tide was low. Ole had one more surprise for us, but it couldn’t be caught on camera so I’ll have to tell you about it instead.
He told us to reach into the water and move our hands, and as we did, little specks in the water lit up. We were surrounded by Bio-luminescent Plankton, that light up when the water is disturbed. We put our feet and hands in the water and watched it light up! Then we splashed water onto the walls of the cave and watched THEM light up! This plankton can only be seen in the dark and I think it was so cool that we got to experience it while in Thailand!!!
Before long we were back on the boat, on our back to Phuket. I felt sad that our Starlight Tour was done, but I comforted myself with the hope that some friends might come visit us next year, and we can all go see this together!! It’s an open invitation, so if you’ve been thinking of meeting us in Thailand…read this post again if you need more convincing!!!
I’ve only got one more post to write for Phuket, and that will be arriving on my page some time next week. Thanks for reading!!
Every now and then Guiyang surprises me. Since we got here, I’ve been called fat more times than I can really count. My students make fun of how much ‘meat’ there is on my arms (thinking I don’t understand Chinese) and adults have done the same. It seems that being a medium build brunette in China makes you the target of insult. I get through it by reminding myself that commenting on someone’s weight is a culturally appropriate thing to do here. I also tell myself repeatedly that I should take it as a compliment when people come up to my husband on the street to tell him how handsome he is, and then turn to me, smile a little and walk away. I will say though…it isn’t always easy.
But every now and then, Guiyang surprises me…
This last Friday, I was teaching a Phonics lesson to one of my level 3 students, Lily. She’s bright and very sweet and is always very curious about me and my life in Canada. As I was teaching her the difference between the sounds ‘d’ and ‘t’, she reached passed me and picked up my Starbucks coffee cup and giggled. I asked what was so funny (I don’t mind interruptions like this during class because it teaches her good conversation skills). She read the Chinese scribble on my cup, which I assumed said something about the owner being a foreigner (they don’t often ask for my name here to write on my cup. I kinda stand out…). I asked what the Chinese meant and she giggled again and said ‘For the Beautiful Girl’.
Sadly, I don’t remember who took my order that day, and I forgot to take a picture of the cup, but boy did that whole thing ever make my day! One more point for Starbucks!!!!
And now after that nice story, I will move onto the ‘Bad’ and the ‘ugly’ portion of our snorkeling tours! Don’t worry…I can find the positive in anything so it won’t be too ranty. But I do want to warn anyone who’s looking into booking one of these tours that there are reasons that paying more can be a good idea, because in Thailand, you truly get what you pay for!
Raya Islands: Trip 1 (The bad)
Our first trip to the Raya Islands was on Wednesday February 11th. It was only a half day tour (I’ll explain why in the second half of my post), but there were 3 different snorkeling stops scheduled, so we were happy as clams. We love snorkeling so much that we actually had my mom send us our gear from Canada once we knew that we were definitely going to Thailand.
Our tour group that day mostly consisted of Chinese tourists. Thailand is a popular destination for Spring Festival, so this was to be expected. What we did not expect, however, was for all our fellow snorkelers to be on their phones…in the bus on the way to the pier…at the pier…in the speedboat! One guy actually ANSWERED HIS PHONE while we were cruising along on our way to the islands! Dave and I brought our phones along to Thailand, mainly to keep in touch with our families now and then. When we were out for the day, our cell phones stayed in our room safe, so this sort of cellular obsession blew us both away.
The other problem we had taking tours with Chinese tourists is that they are (for the most part) not very comfortable around water. The ones who did go in the water needed help getting their life jackets on and we saw one guy try and stick the mouth piece from his snorkel up his nose, because he thought that that’s how it worked! I try not to judge…I grew up around water and it’s easy for me to just hop in the water and go…but their aquatic discomfort really disadvantaged the few of us who could swim and who were not terrified of getting wet.
As a result of our group’s discomfort around water, our tour crew forbid us to go where the water was too deep or where there was coral (we could hurt ourselves on the rocks). We were also forced to wear life jackets, which make swimming a tad uncomfortable. As a result of this bummer location, we didn’t see many fish but it luckily wasn’t a long stop. Before long we were back in the boat and on our way to the second snorkeling location, which we hoped would be better.
But, as I’ve said before, Dave and I aren’t the type to let a minor set back such as ‘no snorkeling’ on our ‘snorkeling tour’ get us down. We decided to sneak off and explore the island during the 2 hours of free time we were given on this beach. This was definitely the most fun we’d had the entire day…
Eventually it was time to leave, so we hopped back onto the speedboat (sitting up in front, where it’s more exciting!) and head back to the pier. We made a video to try and show you the scenery on the way back, but unfortunately you can’t hear anything I was saying. Instead, just enjoy the scenery and get an idea of how bumpy the ocean was for us on that very calm day! At around 0:18, I get a nice shot of the sun…that’s because the whole front of the boat was up in the air! Quite the ride!!
We wound up having quite a long wait at the pier, as our shuttle bus was stuck in traffic, but during the wait we made some new friends 🙂 Jackie and Yaya are a young married couple from Hangzhou…one of the cities we are considering for next year’s contract. They were very excited at the prospect of us visiting them, and even offered to pick us up from the airport if we do! Keep in mind that these are people we spent an hour talking to while waiting for a bus. That’s what I love about China. The people can be so warm and welcoming!!!
Raya Island and Coral Island – Trip 2 (The UGLY!!!)
We learned the hard way that in Thailand…you get what you pay for. When we were booking tours back in China, I stumbled across one in particular tour on a website specializing in discount tours for Phuket. One tour in particular caught my eye because it involved a TONNE of snorkeling and would allow us to see several islands. We booked and hoped for the best.
We were originally suppose to take this tour on Wednesday, so we woke up early, had some breakfast and head down to the lobby to wait for our tour to pick us up (15 minutes before our scheduled pick up time, I should add). After watching drivers come and go for 45 minutes, we decided to call the tour company to see when our driver would arrive. We were told that because we were late, we missed our tour…
We told the operator that we had, in fact, been sitting there for nearly an hour and that nobody had come looking for us (we were sitting on the steps at the entrance of the lobby) and she said once more ‘I’m sorry but you were late and we cannot refund you your money’.
After assuring them that the staff at Sea Pearl Villas would gladly confirm that we had, in fact, been waiting for an hour at this point, they finally conceded that an error may have been made, and allowed us to rebook our trip to Friday instead.
We aren’t entirely sure what happened, but there are 3 possibilities we’ve considered:
The driver screwed up the time, and showed up WAY earlier than he was suppose to.
The driver forgot to stop at Sea Pearl and didn’t want to own up to his mistake
The driver did stop at Sea Pearl…did look for us…but never bothered to ask the very foreign looking people who were sitting on the front steps of the resort if they were the people he was searching for.
I personally think that the 3rd option is the most likely, but on Friday, our driver did show up a full half hour earlier than he was supposed to (interrupting our breakfast), so it could have also been the first possibility. Either way, we had to rebook our tour for later in the week….
We arrived at the pier after an hour and a half on the bus and were greeted by a loud and obnoxious tour guide named Chai. We spent the whole day being barked at, made fun of and bullied by this guy. My favorite ‘Chai’ moment of the tour was when he made fun of a Chinese boy’s attempts at speaking English. The child’s mistake? He called his snorkel mask ‘glasses’. Our 40something year old tour guide stood there and mocked this kid for such a small mistake. I shot him the dirtiest look I could and eventually he got bored and turned around, ignoring us all again. Luckily, I don’t think the kid’s English was good enough that he really understood what was going on…
In addition to bullying young boys, Chai also liked to bully the adults on the tour, treating us like children and shouting at us in a highly condescending fashion. On our snorkeling strops, he even threatened to leave without us if we didn’t return to the boat as soon as he called. On our second stop, we were told we had 30 minutes to snorkel, but I gave up after about 5 minutes and got back into the boat. There weren’t many fish to see, and I’d been stung by several small jelly fish. Dave stayed in the water and waited for Chai to call that it was time to leave. Only Chai never did…he just started packing up and get ready to leave. Luckily, Dave and a handful of other people who were still in the water noticed him pulling up the anchors, and got back into the boat.
I would highly recommend avoiding Nikorn Tours. Pay extra money and go on a tour with a company that will actually care about your experience.
But the whole trip wasn’t a waste. Once we arrived at Coral Island, we were given 2 hours of free time that most people used to book extra excursions. We knew that if we did, Chai would receive commission, so we opted instead to walk around the island and to lay on the beach, working on our tan. It was a wonderfully relaxing afternoon.
While watching the para sailors, we saw the coolest kid doing the craziest thing. It only happened a couple of times, so I was really pumped to catch this 10 (ish) year old acrobat on video!!
Those were the Raya and Coral Islands. I’d definitely recommend looking into the different tour companies before booking…there are SO many tours to choose from! Don’t sweat over paying a couple hundred bhat extra for a proper guide…it’s well worth the extra few bucks!!
My next post will be all about our tour with John Grey Sea Canoe, a wonderful tour company who knows all about customer service and who offer the experience of a life time. I can’t wait to write about it and show you some of the incredible things we saw in Phuket’s Hongs!!!
Starbucks has become an integral part of of our lives here in Guiyang. We sometimes go to other cafes, because they are closer to home or because they have cats to keep us company, but nothing really compares to the atmosphere at Starbucks. The Baristas now all know us by name and we’re always welcomed warmly when we visit. It’s nice being somewhere that not only has indoor heating, but where the customer service is good and the coffee is always fresh. Signs like these are an added bonus:
But Starbucks isn’t just a place to relax. I do most of my blogging and journaling here as of late, and Dave has been working hard to complete is TEFL certification, so that he can do some teaching if he so desires. Teaching is an excellent way to meet people, after all, and the extra income means we can take more trips, so there are really no downsides 🙂
Onto Bangkok, Ayutthya and Chiang Mai!!
The Best of Bangkok First, I must state how much I LOVED Bangkok! There was something about that city that I can’t exactly explain. It’s modernity, liveliness and history all combine to provide the experience of a lifetime. It’s actually very difficult for me to summarize the best things quickly, but I will do my best to try.
As is often the case, the food was a highlight for us. Our first dinner in Bangkok was an incredible array of seafood that was about half the price of the cheapest food we’d eaten in Phuket (where we never actually had a seafood dinner because the prices were so high!). The best meal we had though was at a western style bakery near our hostel. I was actually able to order a smoked salmon sandwich (with capers, REAL mayonnaise and everything!!!) on a toasted EVERYTHING bagel!! They also had cream of broccoli soup, which I hadn’t even dared to hope for in Asia. Once more, this may not be exciting for all of you back home…but good bread is enough to get me excited…never mind a proper smoked salmon bagel!!! And as though the food wasn’t enough, I also found A&W root beer at 7-11! I sipped it and savored every drop!!
But there is so much more to Bangkok than good food! There is a great deal of culture there, and in the markets you can find everything from clothing and souvenirs, to flower offerings and seafood.
The most adventurous thing we did in Bangkok happened our last night there, on Kao San Road (it’s the backpacker’s party road). Although culturally irrelevant, Bangkok has become known for it’s ‘deep fried bugs’. Just as Cuba is known for their wooden carvings (although they are not popular within the culture itself…just among tourists), people flock to Kao San Road to try deep fried scorpion, tarantula, cockroach and grasshopper. The Thais we met thought it was quite funny that tourists will pay to try to these things, but we figured we may as well give the fried critters a try!
The Worst of Bangkok
I actually had to ask Dave what the worst of Bangkok was, because I couldn’t really think of anything myself. In Phuket our options for getting around were to use the shuttle bus (which stopped running at 8pm every day), hop in a tuk tuk, or hop in a taxi. The taxis and tuk tuks there all refused to use meters, and instead just charged a flat rate that they’d all agreed on at some point, so you couldn’t get a better deal from using one over the other. But in Bangkok, taxi drivers are far more honest. They will sometimes try to use a flat rate, but if you request that they use the meter, they do. As a result, the tuk tuk drivers can’t get away with being as greedy, so the prices are generally a lot better.
The only exception is at the Grand Palace. There, the tuk tuk drivers run several scams that involve getting tourists to go with them to jewelry stores and clothing shops, where they are given a cut of your purchase by the shop owners. They’re quite sneaky with this scheme as well…they tell tourists that the grand palace is closed until *x*pm, but that they (the generous tuk tuk driver) will drive you around the city for a nominal fee until the palace is open again. It’s gotten so bad that there are actually announcements played outside the palace, warning tourists of the scams. We had one guy try it with us, but I’d read about it ahead of time so we just walked right by him, but one of the teachers I work with, who also visited Bangkok, did not get off so lucky. He was taken to several stores before he caught on and nearly had to get into a fight with the driver before he finally agreed to drive them back to the palace.
The Grand Palace was also a bit of a downer. Although it’s incredibly beautiful and unbelievable ornate, the crowds are ridiculous, and in the heat of Bangkok in February, it was a little too much for me to handle. Add on the fact that you have to be wearing a long skirt or pants and that your arms can’t be showing, and I was ready to pass out from the heat. We didn’t spend much time there, but I did get quite a few amazing pictures that I’ll be sharing in a future post 🙂
The Best of Ayutthya
Although we only spent 1 short day in Ayutthya, it gets a spot in my ‘overview’ post due to its sheer awesomeness. I encourage anyone who visits Bangkok to take the 1 hour train ride (that only costs 40bhat round trip!!!) to the old city to see the sights. We loved our day there and I wish we’d been able to spend the night. The best part of the city was definitely its ruins. It was once Thailand’s capital city, before the Burmese burnt it to the ground, and has since become a UNESCO World Heritage Sight. We got so many beautiful pictures there!! Plus, we rented a motorbike, so we had a lot of freedom, going where we wanted when we wanted, which was a nice change after all the tours we’d done in Phuket.
The Worst of Ayutthya
I never thought I’d consider seeing elephants and tigers as being the worst thing about a city, but in this case it was. The elephants weren’t terribly abused (from what we saw), but the Mahoots did have long hooks out, ready to hit the elephants in the head with them if they misbehaved. The little shops there also sold toy Mahoot hooks for children, which, to me at least, is horrifying. Teaching children from a young age that it’s appropriate to hit an animal in the face with a sharp hook is not something I think should be done. But it is…
Worse yet, we saw several jewelry shops that were selling curious white rings and necklaces. I went over at one point and tried to look interested. A woman approached me and said ‘Elephant bone. Very beautiful’. I asked ‘oh, they aren’t ivory?’. She replied ‘no, but THESE are ivory!!!’. Dave pulled me away before I could tear her apart too badly, but she did get an earful, and at the very least, she knew that I was NOT impressed. I have a feeling that they weren’t legit ivory, because if they were, they wouldn’t be sold out in the open that way, but just the advertisement that they ARE ivory, perpetuates the trade, and that is not something I can stomach or tolerate.
The Best of Chiang Mai
Anyone who knows me at all, knows where this is going! We probably wouldn’t have visited Thailand’s second largest city if it hadn’t been for Elephant Nature Park. When we decided to go to Thailand for Spring Festival, Dave knew that it would kill me if we went and I didn’t get to spend some time with elephants, so we started doing some research. We are both very against cruelty against animals, and consider the use of animals for human entertainment to be a form of cruelty (I’ll be discussing why I feel this way in an upcoming post), so we were very picky on where we would be spending our money in Thailand (the best thing an individual can do to stop injustice is to vote with their dollar. It’s also why I don’t support companies like Apple and Nike, who have been proven to use child labor in their factories). After a great deal of reading, we found Elephant Nature Park. Instead of riding the elephants and watching them paint pictures (which may seem harmless, but the training they are given to do such things is unspeakably cruel), you get to watch them BE ELEPHANTS. We signed up to stay the night and had the experience of a lifetime. Please believe me when I say I have pictures and stories to share that will be worth reading!!
But the elephants weren’t the only perk to staying at Elephant Nature Park. We were surrounded by animals our whole stay there! We even had a ‘pet’ dog who stayed at our cabin. When we came back in the evening to grab some bug repellent, he ran down the road to greet us…thoroughly happy to see us back! ENP truly cares about animals. They’ve rescued over 40 elephants, 400 dogs, 100 cats and even 70 water buffalo! It was so nice to see animals that were well cared for and who are being given good homes and learning that not all humans are cruel.
The Worst Of Chiang Mai
Like Bangkok, I had do some thinking to think of a bad part of our time in Chiang Mai. We both enjoyed ourselves so much during our stay at ENP, as well as during our time IN Chiang Mai, that it’s hard to think of a negative thing to say. We did have one rather irritating experience though…
We rented a scooter so that we could visit a waterfall near Chiang Mai. About 20 minutes into a trip, we were pulled over by a police officer who asked to see our licenses. We were both wearing helmets and in China, you don’ t need a license to drive these scooters (nor do you in Thailand…we saw many many foreigners riding them and I can’t imagine any of them having international drivers licences). We told him that we had Canadian drivers licenses, but that they were at the hotel (we make a point of never traveling with all our ID in the same place. We had our passports with us, so we left our drivers licenses at home, thinking they wouldn’t be needed).
It turns out the cop only wanted a bribe. He told us we’d have to leave my passport with him, go to the police station and pay a 1000bhat fee for a license. I was not about to leave my passport with anyone I didn’t know (I learned my lesson in China. All of a sudden they don’t know which passport you’re talking about, but if you give them some money, it might help them remember…), so instead we offered to pay him. We knew that’s what he was getting at anyway.
We didn’t have a whole lot of cash left, as it was the last day of our holiday, and he made fun of us for being ‘broke foreigners’. It took everything in me not to tell him off for taking advantage of his position as cop. I wanted to tell him that he should be ashamed for robbing people and leaving us with such a bad impression of a country we’d otherwise really loved. But instead, I shut my mouth and we went on our way. I’ve learned through my travels that lipping off to authority is almost never in your best interest…
So that concludes my overview of our stay in Thailand. There will be much more detailed posts to come, with stories about our Snorkeling Tours (the bad…), our time in Ayutthya (the good) and our day in the James Bond Hongs and at Elephant Nature Park (THE AWESOME!!)
My apologies for the delay in this post. I’ve actually had it done for days, but haven’t had the internet to post it (or to add the last couple of pictures). I had originally planned on posting a lot more this week…but fate seems to be working against me. Or at least the Chinese internet companies seem to be working against me…