Monday, March 23, 2009

SE Asia Chapter 3: The Road to Bangkok

Ok, so where did I leave you? Ah yes, the phenomenal week Amanda and I spent at Elephant Nature Park. I should mention that there was one casualty that week: my digital camera. I wish I could say it was lost when we ran to escape a stampeding elephant or was swept away by the river while we were dissembling rafts. But no, there wasn't even a breeze when my clumsy fingers fumbled it and it fell onto the sharp edge of large rock between my feet. So the rest of pictures of the trip belong to my friends Amanda and Ali.

We left the park feeling bittersweet and headed back into Chiang Mai on Sunday evening. We shared a room with a friend from England at Top North Guest house in the old city. We found the Sunday Market more lively than usual as the annual Flower Festival was being celebrated at Tha Pae Gate with a stage full with dancers and a chubby vocalist and substanstial live band all saturated painfully bright colors. We met the other volunteers we'd worked with over the last week at the Rooftop bar (whose decorating scheme had an unmistakable rastafarian influence) across from the market. On monday, Amanda and I headed into the centre of the old city looking for the temples we'd been diverted from seeing with Beer the last time we tried. First we stopped at a post office to ship from things back to Korea and lightened my backpack considerably. We found Ratchadamnoen Rd peppered with temples and shrines (and chickens and dogs and scrap metal sculptures Aliens and Predators!) but Wat Chedi Luang was the big one we were looking for and it didn't disappoint. It's an impressive structure on its own, but we were told by a friendly local that current commotion at the temple that day was due to a prominent Monk's death the previous week. His body was being kept at the temple for buddhist followers to come and pay their respects. Also on the grounds was a tree garden with Buddhist proverbs painted on sign posts. It was a great afternoon of sightseeing and some last minute shopping (Chiang Mai had the BEST markets of our entire trip!), but soon it was time to catch the 6:00PM sleeper train to Lopburi. Lopburi was the first leg of our trip south to Bangkok to meet up with Ali, Susan and Jennifer who'd left ENP on the third day and gone south to enjoy some time on Thailands famous beaches.

We kept entertained during the first few hours playing a make shift game of cribbage, while 3 of the train crew members watched us intently trying to discover the rules of our game. As night fell the crew made up the bunks. Amanda and I headed to bed, as we were scheduled to arrive in Lopburi at 4AM. I had no luck at sleeping though. The rattling and rocking of the train, the passenger snoring in the bunk beneath me, and the blinding light that defeated my curtain kept me tossing and turning until our train arrived in Lopburi at 5:30AM. The sun was not up when we left the station, which sits across the street from some beautiful ruins. A sign near the ruins pointed to a tourist information centre. We got some plastic wrapped breakfast from the 7-11 and, though it was a long shot, decided to see if the tourist building had some kind of map so that we could find our way to Phra Pramg Sam Yod. We didn't have much luck, but we did find a quiet spot to eat our pre-packaged pastries and watch some seniors practice thai-chi in bright pink exercise clothes. As we listened the drone of "hummmm-heeeee...." Amanda spotted something that looked promising: a monkey on a roof top. After a somewhat arbitrary deduction about what direction the city centre might be in, we headed down a main street. We didn't walk further than two blocks before we saw a monkey running along a telephone wire. And then two on a post, and then several more along the windowsills of a hotel's 3rd floor. Soon monkeys were everywhere and we knew we were headed in the right direction. When Phra Prang Sam Yod appeared before us, it was clear that my "lonely planet" had understated. It wasn't merely a "gang" of monkeys, there were hundreds of them! We were the only tourists onsite at 7:00 AM and the friendly gateman gave us a stick to whack away ambitious monkeys. It was a great morning. We were throughly climbed over and investigated by the youngsters. My notepad, M&M's and hand lotion were looted by one monkey who happily took my notepad to the top of the ruin and ripped it to pieces, letting the pages rain down on the other monkeys below, who made it their morning snack.

Across the street we found a temple complex where more monkeys were bouncing on vendor umbrellas like trampolines and picking their way through piles of fruit delivered by the locals. The monkeys are feed by the people and generally left undisturbed because they are considered lucky. I was running low on cash and my Mastercard hadn't been working, so after we'd taken a few hundred pictures with the monkeys, we headed further into the city to find a bank. We hopped aboard a brightly colored bus blaring loud music and hopped off again at a busy looking intersection. We found some goodies at a bakery and then found an internet cafe and was informed that my korean bank card was completely useless outside of Korea. Wonderful. The new mission for the morning was to call Mastercard to find out why I couldn't access those funds. This turned out to be a lot more difficult than expected. Convenience stores everywhere sold plenty of international cards, but none of the cards matched to correct brand of payphones on the streets. I was duped. And becoming very frustrated. By noon, Amanda and I were ready to move on to the quiet city of Ayutthaya, the ancient capital of Thailand and home to some fantastic ruins. I was sure I had enough funds to get to Bangkok and if there was anywhere where I could get connected to Mastercard, it would be there.

Getting off the train a tuk-tuk driver offered to take us to a cheap guest house near the cities priniciple ruins. We felt alittle weary, but we had not made plans ahead of time, and there was no harm in looking at a room. Luck was in our favour. "One Coffee Love" Guesthouse had paid drivers to fish for tourists because there were brand new and so would not be in any listings. The rooms were clean and bright, and directly across the street from Wat Mahathat. We spent the evening at the night market and ate dinner at an italian restaurant. I was feeling guilty about eating pizza in SE Asia, but Amanda reminded me we were on vacation from Korea, not Canada, afterall.

The next day we went bicycles for $1 and toured the major ruins of the city. There were moments that felt really transportative, like you could just imagine what the city had looked like 900 years earlier. We also took our bikes across the river that surrounds the city centre and saw some of the poorer side of town. We also stumbled across a temple being restored that housed a very large reclining buddha. It made us even more excited to head to Bangkok and see the world famous golden reclining buddha there. We stopped at a restaurant for lunch and I had their speciality dish: Joon Zap. It's a delicious soup you make yourself. They bring you a bucket of hot coals and place a large bowl with broth on top, then bring you all the veggies and seasonings on the side along with your meat (I had pork). It was one of the best meals I had all month! We were alittle sad to leave Ayutthaya. We'd found our short time there to be very relaxing and beautiful. But we needed to be in Bangkok to meet the girls at New Joe Guesthouse by 6PM that day, so soon we were back on the train. Despite not having a place to sit, I really enjoyed our times on the train. As I watched the landscape go rolling by I felt exhilerated to be doing more than staying in one place for this trip. And there was still so much more ahead of us!

We arrived in Bangkok and with a girl from Germany we'd met on the train, we got a cab to Kho San Road, the tourist centre of Bangkok, where Suze, Jennifer and Ali were meeting us. Immediately the traffic, noise and concrete of the city engulfed us, and Ayutthaya felt far away. We managed to get a cab driver who would put the meter on for us after a few attempts (tourist scam #1) and arrived at Kho San Road only alittle late. Kho San Road feels abit like a circus and a lot like a pond, where you are the fish and there are alot of hooks in the water. It was overwhelming to wander the market. Tour guides, tuk-tuk drivers, bars, restaurants, guest house owners, masseurs and street vendors all call out to you for your business. The streets are so crowded with people you can't see more than a few feet in front of you. We had been warned, but by the end of the evening I felt claustrophobic. And I had a very difficult time keeping my composure when we came across a street begging baby elephant, fear in his eyes. I had no desire to stay in Bangkok any longer than we had to.

We had a rough plan and we stuck to it. The following day we were up early to see the Royal Palace and Wat Pho, where the golden reclining buddha is housed. At the entrance some very legitimate looking gentle tried to divert us and tell us we could go in that gate. Going to another gate a man invited us to take a boat tour instead and come back when the palace was open (Tourist Scam #2). We went back to the main gate and walked in, ignoring the conmen trying to convince us to turn around. The buildings were absolutely exquisite, take a look at the pictures on the link at the bottom. I can hardly begin to describe it. I'd never seen anything like it in my life. Wat Pho was a short walk from the Royal Palace grounds and was equally breathtaking, even before we entered the main complex housing the reclining buddha. Jennifer had stayed back due to a stomach bug, and we had arranged to meet up with her at one of the largest malls in Bangkok. There I enjoyed some great shopping, including picking up two pairs of jeans that fit! (Finding pants for western women in Korea is a real plight, they just don't make pants for women with hips here!). We decided we would leave early the next day to make our journey to Cambodia, but there was one more thing we felt we needed to do before leaving Bangkok and that was of course: see a Ladyboy cabaret show! Thailand's drag queens are world famous, but I was surprised at just how openly accepted they were by the country itself. In the Thai language, there is actually a third gender included, so that women speak a certain way, men speak another and there is another set of words for the ladyboys to use. We were delivered to a fancy hotel for our show, and though there wasn't any actual singing (all lip-synched), I thoroughly enjoyed the campy show. We had a blast!

The end of the night was a real treat though. The alley in which you could find our guesthouse, was also the address of many massage parlours. I found one still open at quarter to midnight and went in for an hour long oil message. Faaaaantaaastic!

The pics are here:

I want to thank you guys for reading with these posts with so much patience, I know I'm very behind! Next Chapter: Cambodia. Coming soon, I promise!

Sunday, March 15, 2009

SE Asia, Chapter Two: Elephant Nature Park

I have no idea how I am going to write about this part of the trip. There are no words or pictures that will do it justice. The experience is lodged in my guts and my bones now. But I will try. I will just preface it by saying, my week at Elephant Nature Park as a volunteer was the best week of my life.

After signing some additional paperwork, donning our free t-shirts and playing with the office puppies, Amanda and I got in a van with about 8 other volunteers and our guide, Brad. Brad does his best to warm us up, but his jokes are stifled by a mix of eagerness and summer-camp-esque self-conciousness from being around new people. Well I speak for myself, Amanda was shaking hands and introducing herself to everyone like a prostar! The 1.5 hour drive to the park went by quickly, I was engrossed by the beautiful scenery of small rolling mountains and lush jungle encroaching on plantations and farmers fields. Imagine how much more beautiful it must be outside of the dry seaon!
As we come around the last bend in the battered road, the park reveals itself like the "Great Valley" at the end of "The Land Before Time": nestled between jungle-covered mountains and a river running through it that reflects the morning sunlight beautifully.
The park's mandate is to promote ethical Elephant Tourism in Thailand, where the wild Asian Ele has dwindled to as little as 1500, and the domestic Ele population has the same legal protection as any livestock: none. The economics of the Ele tourism industry combines with tribal traditions for "taming" the elephant to create conditions that are truly cruel and apalling. An unaware rich tourists create demand for it by going to elephant trekking camps, watching elephant shows, buying elephant paintings or buying food for "street elephants" in the larger cities. The crazy part is that none of these Ele Tourism options offer the level of interaction with these beautiful animals that a visit to ENP does. I won't go into it at great length, but there are some excellents videos worth watching on the subject that feature the work the Park and Lek, ENP's founder. You can see once released by National Geographic here:

At the park, the elephants are never forced to perform circus tricks or trek for miles with guests on their backs. Instead, guests and volunteers are involved with basic elephant care by feeding the elephants by hand and bathing them in the river twice daily. And in participating in these activities, guests can get the kind of up close and personal contact they want but would never get on a trek or from watching a show. On my first day, I quite literally hugged an elephant while I scrubbed it's hide in the river, as it calmly lay in the water. At the end of the day, Amanda and I sat up in our bamboo hut, thrilled we'd be there for six more days, and the other girls had extended their stay for another night.

The entire week we ate amazing food, the best food we had the entire time we were in south east Asia. And we learned alot. As volunteers, Amanda and I had signed up for pitching in on chores and projects that the park needed some extra hands for. Our daily tasks included:
  • scooping elephant and buffalo poo and cleaning shelters
  • cutting down spent corn fields with machete's for Ele dinner
  • working on the fire break (cutting an 8 foot path through brush to stop fires from crossing into park land)
  • dismantling bamboo rafts to use as building supplies at the park
  • cutting down banana trees (with machete's once again!) for Ele dinner
  • hauling rock and reinforcing a water resevoir
  • shucking corn in the elephant kitchen
  • picking up garbage around the park
  • teaching at the nearby village elementary school
It's hard to explain why you would pay money to do hard labour, but every experience was fun and rewarding. And we could do it happily knowing that our work and money was directly supporting the elephants who live at the park. And truth be told, the most hard labour we ever did in a day was 3 - 4 hours. On top of the daily feeding times and bath times, we had many other special experiences with the elephants. Like...

1) Participating in an Elephant rescue from a trekking camp just up the road from ENP. Two of the elephants there had fallen very ill from malnutrition and a skin fungus infection. The manager of the camp had asked Lek to care for the sick elephants, as ENP also acts as a free hospital for these gentle giants. Providing free medical care ensures the Eles will get the care they need and creates opportunities for Lek to influence trekking camps and teach them about humane Ele care. As with every elephant that comes to the Park, Lek will try everything to buy the elephant from the owner so that it can stay at the park. Sometimes she is successful and the animal never goes back to work. Sometimes though, the owner knows they can still make money by leasing the elephant to a Tourist camp and won't sell her until she is too old to earn any money. Going to this camp, after spending just a few days at ENP, was heartbreaking. The elephants were kept chained in close quarters when they weren't trekking, babies chained to their mothers and working alongside them. Many of the elephants were underweight, often kept this way so that they are not too fat for riding. Our first rescue, named Golden Leaf, went into the truck without a fuss and we successfully transferred her to the park without a problem. After the vet had a good look at her, we bathed her in the river with medical soap and then rubbed a medicated location on her skin to treat the fungal infection. The next day, the second elephant was brought to the park and both Ele's were docile and subdued as we bathed and treated them. And several of the resident elephants insisted on joining us in the river, in order to meet the newcomers. However, Amanda and I weren't actually there for the second rescue because....
2) We went up to the Elephant Haven overnight. Elephant Haven is where Lek began, with four Elephants she had rescued from tragic circumstances (Two babies and two aunties, three of which accompanied us: Hope, Mae Perm, and Jokia. Another family of four, Mom and two aunties of baby Aura, also went with us.) It is a small bamboo hut nestled in the jungle on a mountain side that is a 2 hour hike from where the park now exists. Here the elephants can roam in the jungle and forage for food naturally. It was surreal enough hiking along with the Ele's, but it was a real treat to go out at night to find Hope with the mahouts, as Hope sometimes wanders too far from the safety of the Haven mountainside at night. We located him fairly quickly, but discovered it was best friends Mae Perm and Jokia (blinded by her previous owners) who had wandered off. No problem. Hope's mahout, Dam, tracked them down within a few minutes, stopping to show us the snapped vegetations and tracks in the ground that led the way. Nothing but moonlight, jungle and a couple of the worlds largest mammals. The mahouts also played music for us after cooking an amazing dinner. That night we slept on the floor, under mosquito nets, listening to Hope's family trumpeting from above us back and forth with Aura's family, who had settled in further down the mountain for the night. On the hike back the next morning, we were given orange scarves blessed by buddhists monks to tie around the trees around the haven to protect them from logging.

Other park highlights:
  • traditional Thai massage for $4/hr
  • over 50 dogs to hang out with
  • cuddles from Mae Keaw and Kha Moon and others
  • waking up to the sunrise hitting the Ele shelters behind our hut
  • baby elephants checking us out freely on our Park walk around.
  • learning the elephant song and legend from Pom, Lek's second in command.
  • welcome ceremony including music performed by village teenagers and a blessing from the Shaman.
Pictures from my week at the park can been seen here:

Album #1 -

Album #2 -

There were so many special moments, I'd be happy to recount them for you at any time. I just need to bring this entry to a close. I know I will return to the park. Being there was like realizing a childhood dream. I hope after I have paid off my school debt, I will be able to stay there and work there for longer than a week.

Stay tuned for Chapter 3: featuring pick pocket monkeys, reclining Buddha's, tourist scams and drag shows!

Friday, March 13, 2009

South Asia: Chapter one

"Alright, Lisa. Smarten up. It's halfway through frikkin March and you STILL have not written anything about your travels through South East Asia in February on your blog. Your family and friends have been very patient with you so far, but I'm pretty sure they will get their virtual torches and pitchforks out soon if you don't get off your lazy butt and starting writing!"

My conscience may have a point.

There are many perks to living and working in South Korea: free rent, tasty foods (most of the time...), a great expat community and mountain ranges far as the eye can see. And if you are one of the fortunate folks to have a contract with the public school system, the greatest perk is undoubtably the five weeks of vacation time written into your contract. If your school is nice (like mine) you'll get more vacation than this, but you aren't technically supposed to leave the country except for vacation time as indicated in your contract. Four of the five weeks in the contract are allocated to Febuary while schools are on their winter "break" (which includes January for the lucky folks). Myself and four other Canuck gals working in SK decided this opportunity to travel was not to be wasted. We found ourselves planning to spend our 26 days in Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam in a whirlwind cross-country adventure sure to be the trip of a lifetime.

My travelmates were Amanda, Jennifer, and Ali who all live in Suncheon with me, and our friend Susan, who is working in Wando. Of the five of us, I was the least travelled. I had never been anywhere besides Canada and few of the northern states of the USA. I hadn't even seen the ocean! Well, technically I guess I saw it when I was in NYC, but I don't feel like Manhattan harbour really counts. So I did a whole lot of prep, like picking up a copy of Lonely Planet's "South East Asia on a Shoestring" two days before departure and sewing shut a large whole in my $30 backpack at 3 AM the night before departure.

Side note: My cat Mokah was looked after by my good friends Stephen and Jodie while I was away. While I was very grateful to them for this, Mokah was less gracious, and after about a week of destruction and noise in their apartment, she was moved back to my place where Jodie and Stephen visited her frequently. Our seperation and reunion were much more emotional for me than I had expected them to be. Strange the way your heart becomes attached. The poor schmoe's out there who have tried to date me know well that I can be a cold-hearted wench when I should be filled with affection. My friends and parents can vouch for the fact that I often keep people, including those I love most, at arms length when my emotions are running high. And for some reason, this crazy little furball has got my heart. I cried like a baby when I got home to her.

Korean Air Flight KE667 was right on time and delivered us to the Chiang Mai airport in northern Thailand at 12:30 AM on February 1st. Our taxi successfully dropped us off at the hostel we were booked into, but when we arrived we found the office locked and no employees to be found. We soon discovered that the hostel thought we were arriving at 1PM on Sunday, not 1AM. We were SOL in the middle of the night in Chiang Mai city with no map in a part of town low on hotels and taxis. Ali had kept her eyes open on the drive from the airport (thankfully) and remembered seeing an upscale hotel down the alley from where we'd been dropped off. We gratefully crashed there for our first night in Thailand at $12 each.

Eating my continental breakfast of fresh fruit and toast on the patio the next morning and staring at the hotel's beautiful gardens, it hits me: I'm in Thailand. Not thinking about it, not talking about it. I'm here. We found ourselves falling quickly in love with Thailand during our first day in Chiang Mai. The heat, the vegetation, the friendly people (who speak English without fear or hesistation!) and the food, oh my goodness the food! After getting Suze, Ali and Jennifer booked in for their overnight at Elephant Nature Park (Amanda and I had already booked our 1 week stay), we hired a guy named Beer to show us around a few of the local Temples. All five us piled into his tiny toyota sedan (Amanda and Jennifer shared the front bucket seat) and sped up a winding moutain road for 30 minutes to see Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai's most famous Temple which overlooks the city from the north. The steps leading to the temple were lined with vendors selling souvenirs, jewellry, fresh fruit, and anything else that might fetch a price. The main stairway had railings made of dragon scales. We paid a donation of 30 baht (approx $1 CDN) to enter the temple. I let the pictures do the talking:

We removed our shoes and were given scarves to cover bare shoulder and low necklines. Beer was indespensible as he explained the offerings of insense, flowers and money and prayers made by the local Thai people, and showed us how to participate in a monk's blessing and show respect inside the temple rooms. After the monk blessed us with holy water, a white string was tied around our wrists, the threads has been blessed to give us protection and good luck and we are instructed not to take it off for three days. There were bells everwhere (rung for good luck) as well as dogs sleeping throughout the complex who were cared for by the monks. Children played music and danced for donations to their schools. The scenic lookout reveals a smoggy Chiang Mai and some beautiful mountainside vegetation. On the way back to the city, Beer tells us that the other temple we want to see inside the old city is closed today for the Sunday Market, and just as our guidebooks predicted, instead takes us to a silk factory. We are given a demonstration of how silk is traditionally made from start to finish and then have to walk through the large store to exit. It was cool to see, but we knew the real reason we were there was that Beer would collect a comission for taking us there, becuase the owners are hoping we'll spend our money in the overpriced shop. He also tried to detour us to a tailor shop but we tell him we're tired (which we are) and are ready to head back to our hotel. Once we get back to hotel Suze, Amanda and I decide we want to check out the Sunday Market inside the old city, and we make plans to meet Ali and Jennifer for dinner at Riverside restaurant.

Chiang Mai's old city is surrounded by a moat and some ruins of the old walls and gates still remain, the most famous of which is Thai Pae gate, which is also the entrance to the popular Sunday market. It was a blur of colours, sounds and lights. It was the best shopping we found the entire time we were in Thailand and I quickly found myself snapping up jewelry, bags and clothing, unable to avoid being sucked in by the price. I also found myself enjoying bartering with vendors. We were also bumped into by a pretty convincing pick-pocket who took a nasty spill into us from behind, and after we helped him up, he hobbled along with his cane and then did the same thing to a wealthy white couple about 60 feet ahead of us. Thankfully we didn't keep anything worth snatching in our pockets.

We hopped in a tuk-tuk, a 3-wheeled motorized vehicle with a bench seat in the back, and headed to Riverside to meet the girls for dinner on a boat. It was delicious food and lovely view of the riverside night life. Our hotel was nicely situated within the city's night market district, so we did some more shopping before calling it a night. Jennifer and I also enjoyed 1/2 hour foot massages for about 3 bucks each. We went to sleep excited to head to Elephant Nature Park the next morning.

To be continued....