Elephant Nature Park – Eco Tourism at its Best!

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.

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The busy Shanghai Train Station…which also happens to be their airport and a metro station!! So convenient!!
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The train behind us goes a whopping 268kms an hour, taking us 100kms in just 30 minutes!!
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The subways are a quick way to get around. Shanghai is so modern and awesome 🙂

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.

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Suzhou is in Jiangsu Province…it’s located 100kms from Shanghai, but it only takes 30 minutes to get there by high speed rail 🙂
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Suzhou is famous for it’s canals and is known as The Venice of the Orient. Gorgeous city!!
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Nothing is quite like China at night! Lanterns and lit up buildings make for beautiful walks along the canals.
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Yup…I can handle living here!

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.

This is Lek.  In case you were wondering, THIS is what a good person looks like!
This is Lek. In case you were wondering, THIS is what a good person looks like!

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 🙂

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Our cabin for the night
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A balcony facing the Elephant pen, where they sleep at night. We could hear them snoring from our bed 🙂
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A comfortable mosquito netted bed 🙂 We found a cat curled up in our bed the following day when we stopped in to get some bug repellant. She’d crawled in through the window and seemed quite pleased with herself. We couldn’t bare to kick her out…
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The beautiful dirt road that lead to our cabin. It may not seem like anything special if you’re sitting back in North America, but after living in China for 6 months, it was nice to breath clean air and listen to the birds chirp 🙂

And if the lodging wasn’t quaint enough, the grounds where the elephants live are also gorgeous…

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The landscape is gorgeous. These elephants have a forested mountain as their backdrop
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The hills in northern Thailand are really quite nice
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Elephants LOVE water so having a creek run through ENP was a MUST.
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This old girl is living out the rest of her life in a beautiful and natural habitat.

And if natural beauty isn’t enough for you, the Park’s Pets add yet another layer of serenity to the place 🙂

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ENP has more than 400 rescued dogs on the grounds. This was one of the friendlier ones. Sadly, not all were so calm…we were snapped at by a few dogs, who had clearly learned to mistrust humans at some point in their lives.
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There is a whole area reserved for Cat Kingdom, where over 100 rescued felines spend their day being lazy and awesome
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We spent a lot of time in Cat Kingdom…I could have done a whole post on just our time there haha!!
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What a ham!!

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!!!

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I felt trunks tap my bum or bump up against my hand more than once walking along that platform!

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!!

This adorable little girl loves to slowly walk over to tourists and then charge them at the last second.  Fun for elephants!!
This adorable little girl loves to slowly walk over to tourists and then charge them at the last second. Fun for elephants!!
Here she is again, trying to get her Mahout to play with her! haha!!
Here she is again, trying to get her Mahout to play with her! haha!!
This is baby Navann peeking onto the feeding platform.  A few moments later, one of the dogs came over and started harassing him.  Did Navann run away?  NOPE!!  He grabbed a shovel and started swinging it at the dog!!!  Brilliant little boy!!!
This is baby Navann peeking onto the feeding platform. A few moments later, one of the dogs came over and started harassing him. Did Navann run away? NOPE!! He grabbed a shovel and started swinging it at the dog!!! Brilliant little boy!!!

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:

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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).

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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!

This beautiful old girl was covered in mud.  I sort of lucked out and got to see her on my own while everyone else was resting.  The park's photographer saw me taking pictures from the feeding deck and called me over :)
This beautiful old girl was covered in mud. I sort of lucked out and got to see her on my own while everyone else was resting. The park’s photographer saw me taking pictures from the feeding deck and called me over 🙂

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.

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The heard protecting their precious baby from the mean ol’ dogs

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.

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Love 🙂

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!!).

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B0-Z3SA8KtI

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…

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Doesn’t that 70 pound chair look comfortable for that beautiful animal!!??

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…

Add in the fact that the Elephant knows that it'll be stabbed in the head with that hook if it misbehaves, and then you get better image of what elephant trekking is like for the elephant
Add in the fact that the Elephant knows that it’ll be stabbed in the head with that hook if it misbehaves, and then you get better image of what elephant trekking is like for the elephant

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…

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This is what the Elephant Crush looks like. This is how Elephants are taught to be ridden. This is also how they’re taught to paint pictures, be used in water fights and be used for begging…it all boils down to THIS practice, people!!

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.

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I’m sorry if this image bothers you. If it does, please don’t be mad that I posted it…be mad that it happens!!!

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.

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Here are some elephant bums to make you smile 🙂

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Ayutthaya: The Ancient Capital of Thailand

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.

This is Amanda.  She's very bright and loves learning English (she especially loves hangman!!).  At the end of last semester she got really worried that I wasn't going to come back after my trip to Thailand.  I promised her I'd be coming back and she grabbed me in a huge hug thanking me.  I love my students!!
This is Amanda. She’s very bright and loves learning English (she especially loves hangman!!). At the end of last semester she got really worried that I wasn’t going to come back after my trip to Thailand. I promised her I’d be coming back and she grabbed me in a huge hug thanking me. I love my students!!

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!!!

These are 3 of my students:  Coco, Kyle and Lily (left to right).  I introduced them to Dave while he was at the school one day, and when I came back from recess, I found this lovely mural on my chalk board!  They'd spent their break making it for me :)
These are 3 of my students: Coco, Kyle and Lily (left to right). I introduced them to Dave while he was at the school one day, and when I came back from recess, I found this lovely mural on my chalk board! They’d spent their break making it for me 🙂
One of my higher level students, Zoe, made me this bracelet :)  When she gave it to me she said "I made it for you by myself (we'd learned that phrase last semester)"  and added excitedly "I hope you like it!!".  Clearly, I do :)
One of my higher level students, Zoe, made me this bracelet 🙂 When she gave it to me she said “I made it for you by myself (we’d learned that phrase last semester)” and added excitedly “I hope you like it!!”. Clearly, I do 🙂

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!!!

This was one of the family pictures I drew.  As you can see, I'm quite the artist!!  (also...my mom isn't always sad...I was just getting them to talk about emotions!!  "Mommy is sad" and then "Your mommy is sad".  My brilliant little monkeys :)
This was one of the family pictures I drew. As you can see, I’m quite the artist!! (also…my mom isn’t always sad…I was just getting them to talk about emotions!! “Mommy is sad” and then “Your mommy is sad”. My brilliant little monkeys caught on so quickly 🙂

But I suppose I’ve gushed enough now.  (If you hadn’t caught on yet…I love my job)

BACK TO THAILAND!!!

Ayutthaya is located roughly 2 hours away by train.  A lovely ride :)
Ayutthaya is located roughly 2 hours away from Bangkok by train. A lovely day trip 🙂

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…

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The city Burma left in ruins is now a UNESCO World Heritage Sight

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.

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Waiting for the train
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A Thai train ticket. I love their writing 🙂

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.

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Clearly, I was pretty excited 🙂
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Our scooter for the day. It was smaller than our scooter in Guiyang, but it runs on gas (ours is electric) so it had WAY more power!
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I got this shot while we were moving. I love it because it shows so much…a tangle of power lines…a line up of public phones (do those even exist in Canada anymore??) and a 7-11….Thailand is a neat place!

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 🙂

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Pickled peppers and spices on the table
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Dave, chillaxing at our table
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Lunch 🙂 Seafood fried rice 🙂 You can’t go wrong with that!!

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.

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His mahout stopped for a moment so that I could take a picture…I think he was hoping I’d go pay for a ride if he did. The elephant’s eyes looked sad to me…or at the very least, he looked distant…not present at all, like the elephants we saw at ENP.
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A neat scene

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!!

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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…

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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.

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This is the first elephant I ever really ‘connected’ with. She seemed much happier than the one we’d met on the trail…probably because she didn’t have hundreds of pounds of weight on her back. One of the staff told us that she is 90 years old, and that that’s why she wasn’t being ridden anymore. From what I learned about elephants at Elephant Nature Park though, I can tell that she’s quite young. She’s also quite small, as elephants go, so I think that THAT’S why she wasn’t being ridden…not because she’s too old.

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!!)

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Perfectly timed photo! He thought my scooter helmet was a basket of fruit, I think!
This funny boy kept throwing grass on top of his head.  Elephants do this with dirt (it's a natural sun screen for them), so maybe that's why he was doing it?  Elephants also tend to get a little nutty at trekking camps, which could have had something to do with it.  One of the mahouts came over and took the grass off his head and the elephant immediately (and kinda definatly) threw more back on top of his head.  He was a funny guy...
This funny boy kept throwing grass on top of his head. Elephants do this with dirt (it’s a natural sun screen for them), so maybe that’s why he was doing it? Elephants also tend to get a little nutty at trekking camps, which could have had something to do with it. One of the mahouts came over and took the grass off his head and the elephant immediately (and kinda defiantly) threw more back on top of his head. He was a funny guy…

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.

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We watched this poor elephant sit down for a photo op. I thought she was going to fall over during the transition from standing to sitting.
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We walked through a lovely park on our way to the ruins

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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…

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The entrance into the ruins. I had no idea it would get so much better from here!
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There are burn marks on a lot of the stone but so much of the structures are still intact. I went so camera happy that I managed to kill our battery before making it out of this park! We had to charge the camera at a little shop so that we could take pictures of the 3rd set of ruins!
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One of my favorite pictures of this sight. It was such a beautiful day, and the green trees and the red stones were just beautiful together!
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The blue sky made an excellent backdrop!
I am the coolest :)
I am the coolest 🙂

 

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Looking at ruins through the ruins 🙂
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If this is all that’s left of this place, I would have LOVED to see it in all its glory.
This is the main building amongst many smaller ones.  It was huge!
This is the main building among many smaller ones. It was huge!
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A couple offered to take a picture for us up near the top of the structure. We had to climb many stairs but it was worth the photo!!

 

The remains of a religious artifact
The remains of a religious artifact

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.

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The setting sun also made for gorgeous pictures!  Dave kept trying to move me along, but this Buddha was too gorgeous to leave!!

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Dave is the 2nd coolest :p
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There were dozens of headless and broken Buddhas here.
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His lips are still gold!
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My camera isn’t tilted on this one…the building is!
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Some of the plaster is still visible on this one. We think they might be restoring it

 

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This is why Wat Barom Buddha Ram is so famous. This fallen Buddha head had a tree grow around it 🙂

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!

Hope to see you back soon!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Spring Festival 2015: An Overview (Part 2)

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:

This sign is posted in the bathroom.  Many Chinese people don't like western toilets because they are 'dirty', so they hop up ONTO the toilet and squat over that instead.  The result is a very dirty toilet seat.
This sign is posted in the bathroom. Many Chinese people don’t like western toilets because they are ‘dirty’, so they hop up ONTO the toilet and squat over that instead. The result is a very dirty toilet seat.

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 🙂

It's like they understand coffee here!  Also...it's nice to get away from the smokey haze that seems to be everywhere in Guiyang
It’s like they understand coffee here! Also…it’s nice to get away from the smokey haze that seems to be everywhere in Guiyang

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.

Bangkok is located in the center of the country.  It's further north than Phuket but it's actually quite a bit hotter there.
Bangkok is located in the center of the country. It’s further north than Phuket but it’s actually quite a bit hotter there.

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!!

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This dish was made of crab and finely ground egg. It is honestly one of the best dishes I’ve ever had, and I’ve had some incredible food in my time!!

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I don't know if I have EVER enjoyed a sandwich this much!!!
I don’t know if I have EVER enjoyed a sandwich this much!!!

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.

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Some cooked fish for sale
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Hearts, Stomachs, Livers and Kidneys for sale
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We saw this cool little cat walking along the canopy above the night market as we were crossing the pedestrian street bridge. He’s so stealthy 🙂
Flower offerings like this are everywhere in Bangkok.  They are bought and put on Buddhist shrines as well as shrines dedicated to the royal family
Flower offerings like this are everywhere in Bangkok. They are bought and put on Buddhist shrines as well as shrines dedicated to the royal family
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I actually felt very overwhelmed when we first got to the night market. I hadn’t felt that way since our first days in China. It’s an odd feeling when everything around you (the smells, sights, sounds…) are all foreign.

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!

We tried the silk worms (the small ones near the top of the plate) and the bamboo worms (the fat ones).  Both were alright...not anything I`d go out of my way to order, but they definitely weren`t as appalling as some may assume!
We tried the silk worms (the small ones near the top of the plate) and the bamboo worms (the fat ones). Both were alright…not anything I`d go out of my way to order, but they definitely weren’t as appalling as some may assume!
They also had centipede, tarantula and cockroaches, but I didn`t care to try any of them haha!
They also had centipede, tarantula and cockroaches, but I didn`t care to try any of them haha!

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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.

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The tuk tuks in Bangkok only have 3 wheels and run on propane. They’re a cool little vehicle to be driven around in!

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.

These signs are posted at hostels and around the palace as well.  It's quite the problem!!
Scams in Thailand These signs are posted at hostels and around the palace as well. It’s quite the problem!!

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 crowds at The Grand Palace were a little crazy!  It was like being back in China!!
The crowds at The Grand Palace were a little crazy! It was like being back in China!!

The Best of Ayutthya

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The train ride to Ayutthya is a trip worth taking in of itself. Seeing Thai countryside is an interesting glimpse into ‘real’ Thailand

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.

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A sneak peak into some of the beautiful ruins we saw in Ayutthya
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Blue skies make the most beautiful backdrop
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A vacation isn’t a vacation if Dave and I don’t rent a scooter at some point!

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…

That metal hook above the elephant's head is called a 'Mahout Hook'.  They use to to stab the elephant in the face if it misbahaves.  Many elephants have had their eyes gouged out by these hooks.  They are commonplace in trekking camps.
That metal hook above the elephant’s head is called a ‘Mahout Hook’. They use to to stab the elephant in the face if it misbehaves. Many elephants have had their eyes gouged out by these hooks. They are commonplace in trekking camps.

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.

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I’ve always been against the ivory trade, but if you want a real eye opener, this is the edition of National Geographic that made me become more vocal about it. Too many elephants die every year so that rich people can wear pretty jewelry and religious fanatics can carve religious symbols into something that costs an animal it’s life…just for the sake of decoration.

The Best of Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai is located in the north of Thailand.
Chiang Mai is located in the north of Thailand.

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!!

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Two young elephants cuddling in the river
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Some of the first elephants we met. I don’t know any of their names, but the middle one was not fond of pumpkin, and every time I tried to give it to her, she’d spit it out and look for more watermelon! haha!!
Me and one of my favorite elephants (the one to my right).  The elephant to my left helps take care of Jokia...she's blind.
Me and one of my favorite elephants (the one to my right), Jokia. The elephant to my left helps take care of Jokia, as she was blinded by a mahout years ago.

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.

This is the sweet boy who hangs out outside the cabin where we stayed.
This is the sweet boy who hangs out outside the cabin where we stayed.
A cat stuck up in a tree.  I got the picture at the exact right moment lol!
A cat stuck up in a tree. I got the picture at the exact right moment lol!
They have signs like this up all around ENP
They have signs like this up all around ENP

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…

Banana Plantation
Banana Plantation
Scooting down some back roads near Chiang Mai
Scooting down some back roads near Chiang Mai

 

The old city walls still stands around the ancient part of the city, where we were staying at a hostel called Gong Kew Home
The old city walls still stands around the ancient part of the city, where we were staying at a hostel called Gong Kew Home

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).

The falls where we'd been heading.  They are nicknamed the 'Sticky Falls' because there is a type of algae on them that is so sticky that you can actually climb the falls.
The falls where we’d been heading. They are nicknamed the ‘Sticky Falls’ because there is a type of algae on them that is so sticky that you can actually climb the falls.

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.

For any new travelers reading this:  You will never realize how important your passport is, until someone else has it and won't give it back.
For any new travelers reading this: You will never realize how important your passport is, until someone else has it and won’t give it back.

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…

This seems very appropriate to describe how I was feeling in that moment
This seems very appropriate to describe how I was feeling in that moment

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…

Until next time!