data Bisbocci Abroad
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Thursday, April 16, 2015

Side Trip to Ayutthaya and Reunion with a Childhood Friend

          When I was seven years old, my parents decided to travel to Thailand for two weeks and gave me a choice: I had the option of staying at my grandma's house in Eugene with my cousin, or I could accompany them on a trip across the Pacific. 
                  The decision was a no-brainer to me at the time. As a seven-year-old, my grandma's little backyard was my world, and my cousin and I spent countless hours enjoying its every nook and cranny. It is where we climbed our favorite cherry tree, played makeshift baseball with with fallen apples and twigs and filled our desire for adventure by digging holes to China. 
              I saw no reason for accompanying my parents, aunt and uncle across the ocean to Southeast Asia because, to me, there was nothing that Thailand had to offer that my grandma's backyard could not give me. 
                    But as years went by and my worldview began to change, I dreamed of following my parents footsteps and visiting Thailand myself. 
                     Eighteen years later, I had my chance. 

                    My decision to visit Thailand last November was the result of a Facebook thread between myself and an my childhood friend, Camille. Camille had moved away from Eugene when we were in the fourth grade. Yet, throughout the years, we kept in touch--first as pen-pals and later by e-mail and Facebook.             
                  We had always talked about meeting up again somewhere, but—aside from a short visit in seventh grade—our paths never seemed to cross. 
               When I saw on Facebook that Camille had moved to Thailand after graduating college, I remember commenting on one of her photos. In my comment, I asked how long she would be in Thailand and expressed my own desire to visit the country.
                  "I''ll be here indefinitely. Come visit!" was her reply.
              And then I got to thinking. As an airline employee, traveling--even internationally--is essentially free and getting at least two weeks off work can be fairly easy to arrange. Plus, I'd long wanted to go to Thailand--a country that has often been proclaimed as one of the best solo backpacker destinations in the world due to its natural and architectural splendor, its plentiful street food and its unbeatable prices. 
                 There was nothing holding me back, so I replied with an unequivocal yes. 

              Within a few months, I listed myself on a flight to Southeast Asia and traveled alone across the Pacific. For two weeks, I lounged on picture-perfect beaches, visited dazzling temples and found myself at one of the world's great festivals. I ate delicious food, trekked through the mountains and made wonderful new friends.
             But the highlight of my trip was undoubtedly during my last few days in the country—when I reunited with Camille for the first time in thirteen years.     
             Camille teaches at the Panyotai Waldorf School in Bangkok and lives in the outskirts of the city. I stayed with her for a few days, met some of her friends and got a taste of what life must be like as a resident of Thailand’s capital. 

              I also used my return to Bangkok as a time to continue my exploration of the surrounding area and visit Thailand’s ancient capital of Ayutthaya. Since Camille is a full-time teacher and was required to work during my stay, I decided to take a day to visit the historic ruins of Ayutthaya—once a flourishing hub of commerce and trade and the historic capital of ancient Siam. 
Buddha Head Trapped in Tree Roots at a Temple in Ayutthaya
              Ayutthaya lies just to the North of Bangkok and is a popular day trip for visitors due to its accessibility and historical significance. 
              Ayutthaya was founded in 1350 and flourished until the 18th century, when it was invaded and burned to the ground by the Burmese army. Inhabitants of Ayutthaya fled the ancient city for Bangkok and left an extensive and impressive patchwork of ruins in their wake. 
             Today, the ruins of Ayutthaya are incredibly well-preserved. Temples of worship can be found along nearly every street and down many alleyways. Crumbling stupas soar above the rooflines of the surrounding city, adorned with relics of Buddha statues.  

Reclining Buddha in Ayutthaya
Stuppas in Ayutthaya
              I decided to explore the ruins by renting a bike for the day. Though it was excruciatingly hot and I frequently found myself pedaling down roads that I had difficulty locating on the city map, I found biking to be a lovely and rewarding way of exploring the city’s temple-lined streets. 
               I must have visited at least ten temples throughout the day. Some were crowded with tourists and perfectly preserved, while others lay mysteriously secluded and overgrown with weeds.

Ruins of Ayutthaya
               In the evening I returned to Bangkok, where I spent the remainder of my trip. There are other things I would have liked to see in Thailand’s fascinating capital, but I decided to spend my last day in the country visiting Camille’s school. 
               As I stepped into the little courtyard of the Panyotai Waldorf School, I was at once  greeted with a rush of memories and transported back to my childhood. 
                  Camille and I had met at a Waldorf School in Eugene Oregon and, though Panyotai’s setting couldn’t have been more different from that of my little school in the Wilamette Valley, the similarities were striking. Watercolor paintings adorned the colorful classroom walls, recorder music filled the air of the courtyard and students busied themselves in the classroom with lessons ranging from English to painting and from handwork to Math. 
                During the day I spent at the school, I helped Camille’s boyfriend lay the framework for a compost structure near the school’s garden. I was immediately struck by the school’s commitment to holistic education, health and sustainability. 

              Visiting the Panyotai Waldorf School brought Camille and I’s friendship full circle to where it all began—to a Waldorf school where we first met, yet halfway around the world. 
                    It was both the perfect conclusion to my Thai adventures and the perfect rebirth of a friendship that I hope will continue to flourish. 

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Monday, March 30, 2015

Chaing Mai and the Loi Krathong Festival

          Chiang Mai has long been the heart of Thailand's backpacker culture--a sanctuary of sorts that captures the hearts of travelers with its rich cultural heritage and laid-back vibe. 
           Chiang Mai is northern Thailand's largest city, as well as its most culturally and architecturally significant. The sheer number of temples and shrines packed into a tiny radius is simply astounding and it became immediately apparent to me why so many people in my hostel had come to Chiang Mai for a few days and ended up staying weeks. The city sits nestled in the foothills of Thailand's rolling mountains and draws visitors, both for its surrounding natural beauty, as well as for the cultural gems that lay within its ancient walls. 
           Since I didn't have time to do everything I would have liked to do while in the Chiang Mai area, I selected to spend my time between hiking in the mountains with Pooh Eco-trekking, visiting the Ran Tong Elephant Sanctuary and meandering the city's charming streets.

Wat Chedi Luang
             I spent my first day in the city exploring the various crumbling temples and golden shrines that lay scattered about the city center. Wandering on my own, I visited numerous temples including Wat Phra Singh, Wat Chedi Luang and the famous gold-laden Wat Doi Suthep--a temple perched on a hill roughly half an hour from Chiang Mai. 

               Chiang Mai's beautiful temples and deep-rooted history have become a draw for tourists from around the world, but I quickly found that there is something else that keeps them coming back,. Something akin to a magnetic pull. I presume it is a combination of the city's low prices, its delicious and plentiful street food,  its vibrant night markets, its international vibe and its air of spirituality.
               Chiang Mai houses an eclectic mix of Thai university students, partying westerners, retiring expatriates and orange-clad monks. It is worldly, yet deeply traditional. And while enticing tourists with its new world amenities and old world charm, Chiang Mai has managed to dodge the congestion, traffic and pollution of Bangkok to the South.
              Chiang Mai is lovely. Yet, part of the reason that tourists so often find themselves extending their stays, is that adventure abounds outside the city's walls. Whether you are looking to tour traditional villages, partake in cooking classes, join meditation retreats, hike raft or bike, the Chiang Mai area offers something for just about anyone. 

Wat Doi Suthep
             My visit to Chiang Mai coincided with Thailand's yearly Loi Krathong festival--a celebration of lights and waters that has received international renown.
          On the eve of my last day in Chiang Mai, after an eventful morning at the Ran Tong elephant sanctuary and an hour-long Thai massage that cost a whopping six dollars, I met up with a few friends I had made at the hostel a few days prior and, together, we walked down to the river.                          Thousands of people had already gathered at the water's edge to launch their flower boats into the river and release their paper lanterns into the sky.

Woman Carrying a Floating Floral Decoration 
                 Every year, during the twelfth month of the lunar calendar, thousands of Thais make a wish and release floating flower boats into the water.
             The ritual is rooted in the tradition of paying homage to water spirits and, during the festival, stalls lining the river banks sell ornate flower decorations to locals and tourists alike. The Loi Krathong festival often coincides with another festival called Yi Ping--in which thousands of paper lanterns are released at once, drifting sheepishly like jellyfish into the dark night sky.
               I missed the famous Yi Peng lantern release by about a week, but I was able to get a taste of what the spectacle must have been on the last day of Loi Krathong. Though Loi Krathong is a festival of water, it has lately become associated with the release of paper lanterns as well, due to its close overlap with Yi Peng. 

                  My friends and I mingled with the throngs of tourists and locals that poured into the streets. We peeked into temples to see young monks lighting lanterns, stopped by food stalls to buy one too many portions of mango sticky rice, witnessed a parade in which Thais showcased their elaborate floats and stopped every so often to enjoy street performances that ranged from girl scout songs to Hare Krishna chants. 
                The vibe was electric and festivities lasted till the wee hours of the morning. While I perused the stalls of the night markets and cast my gaze upwards at the illuminated night sky, I tried not to think about my early flight back to Bangkok the next day. Or about the closing chapter of my adventures in Thailand's North. 
                 I could have easily been one of those backpackers who planned on visiting Chiang Mai for a few days and, instead, ended up staying weeks. And had it not been for the fact that I had to return to work in a few days, I probably would have. 
              When I finally felt that I could not justify staying awake any longer, my friends and I headed back to the hostel to get some sleep.
              But first, we each bought a paper lantern, walked to the water's edge and, on the count of three, released the floating orbs of light into the sky. 

Lanterns Dotting the Night Sky

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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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