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Saturday, March 28, 2015

Ran Tong Elephant Sanctuary

                For most travelers to Thailand, riding an elephant is a top priority. There is something about the notion of lumbering through the rolling tropical hills atop a five ton gentle giant, that elicits imagery of exotic and faraway lands.
                    I'm not going to lie. Like many others, I've thought about it too. Riding elephants has been marketed as a uniquely "Thai" experience and, thus, has kept tourists flocking to the country in order to cross elephant rides off their bucket lists. 
                Having spent a year living in Namibia--in close proximity to some of the world's best wildlife reserves--I, too, became fascinated with the world's largest mammals. So, when planning my trip to Thailand, I made sure to pencil in a day at one of the country's many elephant refuges. 

Mahout and his Elephant
                 Elephants have been prominent in Thai culture and folklore for centuries. Yet, Thailand has seen a dramatic drop in the numbers of wild elephants in recent years. This drop can be attributed to loss and destruction of habitat, illegal poaching for ivory and the sale of animals to tour operators.
                     Until the ban of the logging industry in 1989, elephants were instrumental in assisting their owners with clear-cutting the country's forested areas. Ironically, by working in the logging industries, elephants were involved in the destruction of their own environments and, as a result, contributed to a rapid decline in the number of their kin throughout the country. 
               However, while generally a good thing, the logging-industry ban has acted as a double-edged sword for the well-being of the animals. On the positive side, the animals no longer have to toil laboriously at the hands of their owners to clearcut the very areas where they once roamed wild. Yet, on the other hand, lack of employment in the logging industries has left many elephants hungry and neglected at the hands of owners who no longer have the means to provide them food. Healthy male elephants eat nearly 350 pounds of food every day, which is no small amount for their owners to provide. 
                As a result, many elephant owners have entered the lucrative business of street-begging with their elephants. Today, though illegal, it is still common to see elephants roaming the streets of Bangkok--eating plastic bags, food scraps and any other odds and ends they can find--as their owners parade them through the streets to collect baht. 
              In order to rescue animals from street-begging and heavy labor, conservation centers have mushroomed around the country and taken the animals into their care. 

                     I had originally planned on visiting the Elephant Nature Park--a refuge for elephants that have been abused and neglected in the logging and tourism industries. The park has stellar reviews online and is incredibly popular with tourists to the region. However, since my visit to Chiang Mai coincided with Thailand's yearly lantern festival, the Elephant Nature Park was completely booked when I planned on visiting. 
                 Knowing that I still wanted to spend a day with elephants, I leafed through countless brochures in the hostel lobby to try to find an alternative to the Nature Park. Yet, it seemed that all the other tours functioned more for the entertainment and curiosity of the tourists, than for the well-being of the animals. 
                 After a bit of online searching and consulting with the hostel staff, I found the Ran Tong Elephant Sanctuary. 
                 Like the Elephant Nature Park, Ran Tong is a refuge for elephants that have been neglected, orphaned and physically abused. The center purchases the animals from private owners and seeks to rehabilitate them by providing medical care and nursing them back to health. 

This Baby Elephant Orphan Has Been Virtually Adopted by the Elephants at Ran Tong
             While elephants today do not engage in warfare and are not employed in the logging industry, they have, in addition to street-begging, been recruited in droves for tourism-related jobs. 
                Ran Tong, too, relies on tourists to generate income for elephant rehabilitation and even offers limited elephant rides. I was initially disappointed that Ran Tong makes elephant rides available to tourists, but pleased that the sanctuary at least abides by a series of strict guidelines. 
                  Mahouts (elephant trainers) do not chain the animals. They do not beat, kick or slap them. They do not force them to draw pictures or stand on their hind legs in order to entertain visitors. Instead, they ensure that the animals in their care (most of which have suffered from owner abuse and neglect) are provided with adequate food and given ample opportunity to interact with one another and roam about the center's grounds. 
                   Though the sanctuary offers rides to paying visitors, it only pairs tourists with the healthiest elephants, ensures visitors sit on the napes of their necks rather than their fragile backs and prohibits the use of large platforms for riding. The platforms used by many tour companies are especially dangerous to the animals because they weigh nearly 300 pounds. Many of the elephants I interacted with at Ran Tong had permanent spinal damage due to years and years of hauling tourists around on platform-mounted thrones.

                   Despite the romantic notion of riding atop a three meter gentle giant, I opted to participate in Ran Tong's no riding program--a program designed especially for those who were wary about the negative impacts of elephant riding, yet nonetheless wanted to spend the day interacting with the animals. As a participant in the program, I spent the day feeding, walking with and bathing the majestic gentle giants. 

Elephants Playing in the Water
                 We started the tour with elephant feeding. Our guides provided us with buckets full of bananas so that we could feed the animals out of our hands and begin gaining their trust. The animals devoured the bananas so quickly that I merely had time to pluck another banana off its stem, before I would feel a leathery trunk prodding me for another piece of fruit.  
                 When our buckets were empty and the mahouts felt that the elephants had gained sufficient trust, I paired up with an old female elephant and led her through the muddy fields to drink and play in the water.
              I walked with her barefoot across green fields, my feet squishing in the puddles of slimy mud, until we reached a small river. At the river, I let go of the rope I had used to guide her and watched as my elephant splashed around in the water and rolled in the mud with her friends. 
            I'm sure that sloshing around in the mud, dodging heaps of elephant dung and bathing the large mammals in brown poopy waters is not the romantic image that most people envision when traveling to Thailand. I, too, had thought that riding atop an elephant would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. 
              But I am so happy that I did my research and chose to participate in the no-riding program at Ran Tong. Some things are not worth doing merely so that they can be checked off a list. In fact, after learning about the abuse that elephants throughout Thailand endure on a daily basis due to curious tourists, I decided to remove elephant riding from my bucket list completely. 
Elephant Bathing

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Friday, March 20, 2015

Eco-Trekking in the Thai Mountains

           From southern Thailand's sun and sand, I found myself heading North to Chiang Mai, the country's cultural heartland. 
           The little research I had done before my trip, suggested that Chiang Mai would be a launchpad from where I could begin to learn more about Thailand's rich history and cultural heritage. The region is chalk-full of dazzling temples, breathtaking scenery and tantalizing cuisine. 
            During my first day in Chiang Mai, I decided to join an overnight hiking tour in the mountains along the Thai-Burmese border. 
             But, as with the tours I had come across in the South, I was having difficulty distinguishing between the offerings of the different companies. They all included the same things: transport, meals, an elephant ride, bamboo rafting and opportunities to photograph locals in tourist-crowded villages. The tours all seemed cheap, mass-produced and exploitative of their surrounding environments. 
               Until I encountered Pooh Eco-Trekking. 
              Pooh's treks center around sustainability and cultural immersion. Unlike the other tours that attempt to pack as much as possible into their unbeatable prices, Pooh Eco-Trekking attempts to engage its participants in an immersive experience that is as authentic as possible. Tours are limited to six people and operate in remote and inaccessible areas. And while a bit more expensive than the standard, third-party tour packages that are advertised on every street corner of Chiang Mai, Pooh's tours are still quite affordable. 
              The tour I joined did not include an hour long elephant ride. Or bamboo rafting. Or a photo-op visit with the long-neck people. 
               In contrast, Pooh's tours attempt to engage travelers in a more sustainable type of tourism that reminds me in many ways of what I experienced in Lesotho's Malealea Lodge. The tour focuses primarily on learning about the indigenous Karen people and their environment, contributing to the incomes of the Karen families without creating a dependency on tourism and trekking off-the-beaten-path. 
              And off the beaten path we went.  
            In fact, the trek took us so far off-the-trodden-trail, that our guide, Richard, practically created the path before us, cutting through farmland, fording rivers and wading through waist-high grasses. 
               Every now and again, we would turn the bend and reach a clearing that afforded us stunning views of the rolling, verdant hills. 

            The scenery was magical. Yet, soon the weather impeded our ability to relish the views. Not long into the hike, we began to experience a light drizzle. Then it began to rain harder, and the torrential showers created rivulets that flowed down the muddy paths before us. Rain seeped through my sneakers and soaked my socks. It found its way under my raincoat and drenched my shirt. 
            The skies did not clear all day and the rain persisted until we reached the Karen village where we would be spending the night.

              I expected the hightlight of the trip to be the hiking. However, while trekking--even in the rain--was a wonderful experience, I found the true crowning moment of the tour to lie in the evening we shared with our gracious and welcoming Karen hosts. From the time we entered our host family's home--clothes soggy and hair dripping from the rainfall--we were welcomed with open arms and a large bottle of rice whiskey.
             In the evening, my fellow trekkers and I assisted our hosts in cooking dinner. We all shared the responsibility of chopping vegetables and mixing ingredients, while exchanging information about our respective cultures with the translation help of our guide. Then, we shared the dinner we cooked, took shots of rice whiskey and laughed and talked until the early hours of the morning.

                   The next day at dawn, we headed back into the rain for a second day of trekking, mud-sliding and puddle-dodging. 
                    We passed by hillside villages, trudged around rice paddies and pushed through thickets of dense foliage, stopping occasionally to learn tidbits about the local medicinal plants and crawly creatures we encountered along the path.
                   It was a more strenuous walk than the day before, partly because the terrain was much hillier and partly because it was so muddy that we found ourselves sliding a few feet downhill with every step forward. 
                     At about midday, we stopped for a lunch break and prepared for one of the more unique and exciting moments of our trek--an expedition into a 250 meter long bat cave. Our guides took the time to chop bamboo that we would light to use as torches along the way.

                 The inside of the cave was dark and eerie and silent, aside from the sounds of our feet sloshing in the water below. In complete darkness, we walked upstream through a natural tunnel below the mountains. Along the way, we did our best not to fall on the slippery rocks, as our guides pointed out silhouettes of spiders and sleeping bats. 

               I don't have any photos of the interior of the cave, since I often struggle shooting photos in darkness. But regardless, navigating a 250 meter-long tunnel by firelight is an experience I am unlikely to forget. 

                The rain may have hindered my fellow trekkers and I from enjoying the tour to its potential, but we all agreed that, even despite the rain, eco-trekking with Pooh is not to be missed when visiting northern Thailand. 
                  The fact that we still thoroughly enjoyed ourselves despite the adverse conditions, speaks volumes about the tour itself. If we had such a fun and informative trek in the rain, we could only imagine what it must be like on a beautiful sunny day. 
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Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Around Krabi--Beaches, Temples and New Friends!

               I had only been in Thailand for a few days, when I began to realize the merits of traveling alone. I was enjoying the freedom of being able to do whatever I wanted, wherever I wanted, whenever I wanted. And I was already beginning to understand what fellow travelers so often emphasize--that traveling solo can be incredibly empowering. It allows you time to contemplate and reflect, while granting independence and teaching self-reliance. But perhaps the most beautiful part of traveling solo, is that you are never really alone. 
               At least not if you are open to meeting new people. 
            During the three days I spent in southern Thailand, I found like-minded travel companions everywhere I went. We wandered the streets of Krabi together, explored the night markets together and together, visited incredible sights. 

               Tourism in Krabi undoubtedly centers on the countless beautiful beaches accessible from town--the most famous of which lies in the Phi Phi Islands. I visited the beautiful Phi Phi islands on my first full day in Krabi and I decided to team up with two girls from my hostel, Sudha and Savana, for smaller excursion to the equally beautiful Hong Islands on the second day. 
           Like my tour the previous day, I had the opportunity to visit various pristine beaches, snorkel among schools of colorful fish and swim in aquamarine waters. Yet this time, my newfound friends and I traveled by longtail boat in a smaller group of about ten people. While the beaches were still crowded and the tour still shuttled us from place to place, I found the smaller tour much more conducive to relaxing and taking in the surrounding scenery. 

Longtail Boats
             Toward the end of the day, we visited the expansive stretch of sand at Hong Beach. I even had the opportunity to sit in a hammock for about an hour, absorbing views of the dramatic limestone cliffs, before our return to Krabi. 

Hong Beach
            Southern Thailand may be known for its white sand and crystal waters, but there is more to the region than pretty beaches. After having spent two blissful days in the Phi Phi and Hong Islands, I was ready to explore the cultural side of the region. 
           On my third and final full day in Krabi, my newfound friends and I heeded the advice of a fellow traveler and visited the nearby Tiger Cave Temple.
              The Tiger Cave Temple sits atop a karst mountain. In addition to being one of the most sacred sights in the region, visitors flock to the shrine in order to admire its dramatic backdrop. 

               While the views of the surrounding countryside and nearby bay are stunning, reaching the temple is no joke. It is an arduous climb to the top of the mountain, made all the more grueling by the unrelenting sun of the tropics. 
              One thousand, two hundred and thirty seven steps--many of which are at least a meter high--run vertically up the side of the mountain. Not long into the climb, I began to realize just how out of shape I was. My legs burned, sweat dripped from every pore in my body and my t-shirt stuck to my body as though plastered to it.
              From the looks of those around me, I could tell they were not faring much better.
            Every hundred steps or so, my friends and I saw a marker indicating our progress. And each time we passed the marker, we would stop, catch our breaths, curse at the sweltering heat and then charge forward until we met our next goal.

             When we finally reached the top of the mountain--exhausted-- I found a place to sit in the shade for a few minutes to catch my breath. But, as soon as I mustered the energy to stand and explore the golden buddhas and intricate shrines of the temple, the panorama from the top took my breath away once more.
         Below, we could see miles upon miles of emerald pastures dotted with towering karst monoliths. The vibrant green mountains had a striking resemblance to those I had seen in China's Yangshuo Provice back in 2005. They made me feel as though I had entered the backdrop to a fairy tale.

            My travel companions and I stood at the top of the mountain for a while, taking in the view and admiring the gold buddhas and the numerous shrines adorning the temple. 
            When we couldn't take the heat from the beating sun any longer, we made our way back down the 1,237 vertical steps and headed for a quick swim in Ao Nang Beach before sunset. 

Sunset, Ao Nang Beach
          It was a beautiful finale to three wonderful days in southern Thailand. Three days full of pristine beaches, splendid temples, lively night markets and adventurous new friends. 
            It felt premature to leave the Krabi Province after only four days, but I had already booked my plane ticket to the North. A whole new set of experiences awaited my arrival. 
           And so, reluctantly, I said goodbye to the place that made me fall in love with traveling alone, swapped contact information with the people that made me realize traveling solo did not have to be lonely and boarded a plane northward, toward my next adventure. 
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Wednesday, March 4, 2015

A Day at "The Beach"

               I have never seen the movie The Beach, but I have heard people refer to it thousands of times.
               I know the premise goes something like this: a young man (Leonardo DiCaprio) escapes to Southeast Asia on a life-defining journey. Along the way, he meets someone who tells him myths about a secluded and beautiful beach that lies on a secret paradise island.

           I never heard much about the plot of the movie, though. Nearly all discussions of the 2000 hit drama focus on the beauty of its backdrop--Maya Beach in Thailand's Phi Phi Islands. 
            After its release, the movie propelled Maya Beach to fame. Some called Maya Beach the most beautiful beach in the world and, as a result,  thousands of vacationers flooded the strip of white sand along Maya Bay in search of paradise.
               I wanted to visit the beach partly because memories of the San Blas Islands left me yearning for crystal waters and partly because I wanted to see the alleged beauty myself. 

              Most travelers I met had spent a few days on the Phi Phi Islands, but since I had very little time to research my trip before boarding a plane across the Pacific, I decided to stay in Krabi and figure out day excursions from there. 
               The hostel I stayed at has an affiliation with Barracuda Tours and offers day trips to the islands at a great price. Since I was traveling alone and had limited time in southern Thailand, I figured a day trip would be the best way to maximize my time, while meeting fellow travelers along the way. 
               But, while I enjoyed the excursion overall, I immediately realized that I had just joined the exact type of tour I have often tried to steer clear of in my travels. My tour consisted of about fifty people, the majority of whom were Chinese or Russian package vacationers traveling in groups of ten or more. The tour shuttled us from beach to beach, giving us barely enough time for a quick dunk in the water. 

                Our first destination was Bamboo Island--a beautiful circular patch of green encircled by a stretch of snowy-white sand. It is a stunning beach, made all the more beautiful by the translucent turquoise of its waters. 
                 But it was also extremely crowded when we visited. In the hour or so that we were on Bamboo Island, at least ten boatloads of tourists came to share the beach with us. Hundreds of people on package tours dotted the white sands. They lay strewn about the beach, snapped picture after picture with their selfie sticks and danced around to music blaring from the boats. 
               I needed to get away. 
            So I scrambled over a a few boulders and found my own strip of sand completely apart from the commotion and noise. I swam alone in the warm turquoise waters and experienced a few moments of pure bliss. 
                   Until I heard the leader of my group call out that we needed to get on board to our next destination 
Deserted Beach, Bamboo Island

              And so was the story of my tour. 
         Every time I finally found my own secluded paradise, I would hear our tour guide's shrill whistle and march back to the boat so that we could hurry on to our next destination. 
             We stopped by Monkey Beach, where we had the opportunity to swim amongst exotic tropical fish. Then, we entered  the stunning and dramatic Loh Samah Bay for a quick photo opportunity before continuing on to the crown jewel of our little excursion--the famous Maya Bay. 
Loh Samah Bay
Loh Samah Bay
                Maya Bay did not disappoint. Its main beach sits sheltered by 100 meter high cliffs on three of its sides and boasts some of the whitest sands I have ever seen. Even the traditional long-tail boats bobbing along the shoreline add to the beach's picturesque charm.
               I walked to the far end of the main beach, plopped down in the shade of the monoliths and did my best tattoo the beautiful image into my memory. 
               Until the tour leader's shrill whistle jolted me back into the boat once more. 
Longtail Boat at Maya Beach
Maya Beach
              Cheap tours in Thailand--like the one I fell prey to--are everywhere. They are all pretty much identical and sell the same product for the same price. As I followed the tour from beach to beach, I couldn't help but feel there was something missing in the excursion. It felt mass-produced, impersonal and centered around checking locations off a list rather than absorbing their  unique scenery.
               Which is a shame, because the scenery truly is special. 
           Whenever I found my little patch of beach away from the crowds and simply stared at the incredible nature around me, I would grow overcome with an overwhelming sense of awe and contentment. 
           Perhaps Maya Beach is not as secluded and secret as the 2000 Hollywood hit drama may have you believe, but those movie fans who flocked to Koh Phi Phi after its release were right about one thing for sure. 
               That--crowds aside--the beach and its surroundings truly embody the definition of a paradise island. 
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Thursday, February 19, 2015

Bangkok, Thailand--Welcome to the Land of Smiles

                "Ladies and Gentlemen, the forward boarding door is now closed...." I heard the lead flight attendant call out over the PA. 
                 I let the reality of his words sink in. The door was closed, the plane was about to push back and I had no choice now but to sit back, relax and enjoy the ride. I was going to Thailand. 

                I've traveled a lot in my life. Studying abroad in the Middle East, living in Africa and now working for the airlines has given me a window to the world and has allowed me to experience more than I ever dreamed of. But, perhaps the largest thing missing from my travel repertoire until this point was solo travel. 
                Sure, I'd wandered around alone on layovers throughout Europe, the United States and even in Dakar. I'd spent a year living in a village in the Namibian bush and would go alone from town to town in order to run errands and visit friends. 
                But none of these experiences seemed to equate to solo travel in the way I imagined. In my head, I pictured setting off with few concrete plans, staying in hostels and meeting other likeminded backpackers along the way. I was incredibly excited about the freedom that being alone would provide. Yet, I could't quite rid myself of the nagging worries that burrowed deep down in the pit of my stomach.
                 When I arrived in Bangkok and stepped out of the airport, however, my anxiety seemed to dissipate into the muggy air. 
                  Bangkok is incredibly accessible and welcoming, while still maintaining an air of excitement. It is exotic yet familiar, chaotic yet navigable. The food is fantastic and incredibly inexpensive. It is a city chalk-full of sites and activities that can keep wanderers entertained for days. 
                    The city is intoxicating. Dazzling spires rise from behind gritty buildings. Quiet shrines sit tucked away behind glitzy glass shopping malls and orange-clad monks weave their way through a chaotic jumble of honking cars, motorbikes and tuk-tuks
               I only had one day in Bangkok before hopping on a flight to Krabi for a few days at the beach. And, as the focus of my return to Bangkok at the end of my trip would be centered around reuniting with an old friend, I spent my first day in the city primarily engaging in touristy activities. 
                  At sunrise, I set off with an American traveler I met upon arriving at my hostel. Our first stop was Wat Pho--one of Bangkok's oldest temples and home to the famous reclining Buddha.  

Reclining Buddha, Wat Pho
              We were struck by the grandeur of Wat Pho and ogled at the intricate stupas, the ornate roofs and the thousands of Buddha statues littering the compound. It seemed that we could have spent the whole day wandering about the immense complex. 
                  I'm not so sure what I expected to find at Wat Pho. Likely, I was anticipating finding a single structure housing the famous Buddha. But there were numerous temples to visit, countless nooks and crannies to discover and, the best part is that we did not have to dodge swarms of camera-toting tourists or crane our necks trying to admire the architecture over a sea of people. 
                  I am sure that Wat Pho is not usually so deserted. As one of the most significant attractions in one of the world's most touristy countries, I can only imagine that crowds can be quite common. But this particular morning it was just us, the groundskeepers, an odd tourist or two and scores of orange-clad monks tending to their daily prayers. 

Young Monks in Training
            While my travel companion and I had Wat Pho relatively to ourselves and enjoyed meandering around the premises in quiet, the whole rest of the world seemed to be a block away at the famous Grand Palace. 
                The Grand Palace, too, is impressive and surely merits the attention it receives from the thousands of guests every day. 
                  I was not able to get great photographs of the Grand Palace. In some parts of the structure (such as the iconic Temple of the Emerald Buddha) photography is strictly forbidden. I tried to capture parts of the outer structure on camera, but every single photo I took seemed to be basked in blinding sunlight. 

Grand Palace, Bangkok
                Walking around Bangkok was thrilling, but it was also incredibly draining. The sun shone so brightly and humidity was so strong, that I had to constantly wipe sweat from my brow and peel my clothing from my sticky body.
                  Around lunch time, my travel buddy and I ventured to an shaded restaurant along the infamous Khao San Road, for a plate of Pad Thai and an ice cold beer.

          Khao San Road is the heart of Thailand's backpacker culture. Lined with cheap accommodations, eateries and stores selling anything from tailor-made suites to pirated DVDs, the street pulsates with life. It is the party place for young travelers, yet also acts as a transportation hub for tour companies and local tuk-tuks drivers. 
                   I imagine that the street must come to life even more at night. However, I did not return to Khao San Road in the evening, because I had a dinner appointment with an old friend who was a Thai exchange student at my High School. 
                    We ate dinner at the Siam Paragon--an enormous modern shopping complex that rivals anything I have seen in the United States or Europe. 
                   The Siam Paragon, Khao San Road and the beautiful religious shrines throughout the city are examples of what make Bangkok so unique. The city is a place where polarities collide. A place where one can get lost in the organized chaos of what is arguably one of the most dynamic urban areas in the world. 

                   Thailand's nickname is "the Land of Smiles" and, after my first day in the country, I could certainly see why. The people are incredibly friendly, the sites are beautiful, the hostels are chalk-full of fellow backpackers and the food is simply tantalizing. What's not to love? 
                     I cannot imagine a better place to break into the world of solo travel. 
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