Around 7 years ago now, I decided to sit down and come up with a bucket list. I decided that there would be 100 items on that list and I knew, even before I began, that a lot of those items would involve traveling. In the last year I’ve been fortunate enough to cross 10 items off of that list, and I plan to be crossing off several more before 2015 ends. One of the things I’ve accomplished this year was our trip to Angkor National Park, which was the main reason we traveled to Cambodia for China’s May Holiday. Although I planned on finishing what I had to say (and show) about Angkor in 1 post, once I went through my pictures again, I realized that that would be impossible. There’s just too much to see and too much to tell to do it all in one post. So this will be part 1 of 2 on our stay in northern Cambodia, where we toured temples, met locals and visited a floating village.
The Cambodian Empire
Angkor National Park is all that remains of the Kampuchea empire, which reigned for over South-East Asia for over 600 years. Covering parts of Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and even Burma, the Cambodian Empire was fierce and wealthy, and as such, its kings erected massive temples both in Cambodia and in its conquered lands. The most impressive group of those temples is near Siem Reap (named after a defeat against Thailand at that location), which is where we visited during our stay in Cambodia. Interestingly, during Kampuchea’s hay day, there was both Hindu and Buddhist influence in the area, so these temples vary quite a bit from one to the next, making Angkor National Park a fascinating visit.
UNESCO World Heritage Site
Angkor National Park spans an area of over 400kms square and contains over 100 individual temples, ranging from Angkor Wat (an enormous temple with many buildings within its walls) to small ruins that are merely a wall left over from a previous sight that was destroyed.
Written records weren’t kept at this point in history, and much of what we know about the 9th-15th centuries has come from Angkor Wat and it’s surrounding temples. Carvings in the stone, as well as refinements of past culture still remain in these spots and they’ve told archeologists a great deal about South East Asian history. As someone who studied classical Roman and Greek history in University, I found that aspect of the park to be enthralling. Because of its cultural relevance, Angkor National Park was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and it is preserved and has been repaired as a result. People flock from all over the world to see these sights, which are some of the most famous and awe inspiring temples in the world.
Our first stop in Siem Reap was Angkor Wat, the temple after which the national park was named. It spans 1km square and is the home to several libraries, halls and pools. It’s fared well against the test of time and has been restored through the years, where needed. We were lucky enough to visit Angkor Wat twice…I’ll be writing about our sunrise visit in my next post. Our first stop was a very hot one (the temperatures in Cambodia during the dry season go up to 40 degrees celcius…and stay there…all…day….long…), but well worth the trip. Our guide was a decent photographer too, so we even got pictures of the two of us in Angkor National Park, which was nice 🙂
The heat definitely played a factor in our enjoyment of Angkor Wat (along with our guide’s underestimation of the amount of water we’d need…we ran out early…), but Dave was brilliant enough to make a video before we got too exhausted:
We left Angkor Wat and hopped into a nicely air conditioned van, where we enjoyed the rest of our iced coffees to cool down. Iced coffee is AMAZING in Cambodia!!! Instead of sugar, they use sweetened condensed milk, which gave it a nice flavor. Plus, they get their coffee from Vietnam, which has some of the world’s best :). My favorite part though…it’s served in a bag…
Ta Prohm is, without a doubt, one of the coolest looking places I’ve ever seen in my life. It was built in the late 12th – early 13th centuries and unlike Angkor Wat, which was built under a Hindu King, Ta Prohm was built primarily as a Buddhist school. What makes Ta Prohm so interesting though isn’t it’s Buddhist ties. The fact that the temple has been kept as it was found, wild and grown over by trees, makes it the perfect spot for photos.
Ta Nei is one of my favorite spots we visited. It was a long way away from all the other temples, (our driver had to go down some roads that looked like they were just walking paths in the middle of the jungle in order to get us there), but once we arrived, we saw why it was worth the trip.
Not only were there no other tourists there, but the sight is gorgeous! It’s definitely seen better days, and it hasn’t been restored the way Angkor Wat and Ta Prohm have been, but there is such a rawness to this old temple…I got some of my favorite pictures of the whole trip during this visit.
We loved this sight so much, we even remembered to take a video for it! I love how beautifully quiet it was there 🙂
Bayun (or Bayan) Temple
Our last stop on day one of our Siem Reap Tour was in Angkor Thom, the last (and longest enduring) city of the Cambodian Empire. Although there are several sights to see within Angkor Thom, Dave and I were suffering from pretty terrible heat exhaustion, so we only saw some of them from within the air conditioned vehicle. Our tour guide wanted to save our energy for Angkor Thom’s greatest masterpiece: Bayon Temple (I’ve also seen it spelled ‘Bayun’ Temple).
Built in the late 12th century, 100 years after the building of Angkor Wat (our first stop of the day), this is clearly a Buddhist temple. From afar, it is a beautiful sight to see, but when you see it up-close, you realize how fascinating this temple truly is.
Each of Bayon’s 54 towers has a large face carved into each of its 4 sides. That means that this magnificent temple has a total of over 200 faces. It made for some incredible photos!!
I should add that these faces are enormous…here is Dave and I standing directly in front of what is considered Bayon’s most beautiful Buddha.
I was very happy to have a guide at this point, as he was able to point out some of the best shots. There were so many faces everywhere that I could have easily missed shots like these ones:
He also got some great pictures of the two of us. By the end of this part of the tour, we were both feeling like we did on our wedding day…tired of smiling! But it was all worth it in the end! I would have been devastated had I not gotten some of these pictures!!
So that was day 1 of our Siem Reap stop. I’ll be back next week with Day 2, where we experienced Angkor Wat at sunrise, a floating fishing village and Cambodia’s beautiful ‘Lady’s Temple’.
Well, I can say a lot of things about my life here in China, but one thing I cannot say is that it’s boring! The last 2 days have been a total blur and now that I find myself at our favorite hang out, finally ready to write about ENP, I fear I won’t have the energy to even make it through my intro. In the last 48 hours we have been on: 2 Flights, 2 high speed trains, 7 metro trains and in taxis. I had 2 interviews on Tuesday, April 21st and they were in 2 different cities. I woke up in Suzhou yesterday, Shanghai today and then taught kindergarten in Guiyang this evening! If it weren’t for Shanghai’s INCREDIBLE transportation system and my expert co-navigator, this insane day would have never been possible.
But all the nuttiness and rushing around turned out to be very worth the trouble. Because we were able to make it work, I was able to see first hand what my top 2 choices for employment for next term look like up close. I was impressed with both, but I could only take one job, so after a lot of deliberation I decided to accept a position in the beautiful city of Suzhou. The school feels like a good fit and I was offered a job teaching Drama and English Writing in the Middle School at the Suzhou Foreign Language School, which is sort of perfect for me!! It’s a job I’ve been interested in for some time, and I was thrilled when they offered me the position.
The one bad thing about this whole nutty trip is that this happened to be my last weekend before we leave on our holiday in Cambodia. I can hardly believe that I’m going on vacation again before I’ve even finished writing about the LAST vacation!! Talk about living a spoiled life!!
But I better get on with it, before time slips away from me again and I wake up in Cambodia! I’ve saved the best post for last, so I hope you enjoy reading it 🙂
Elephant Nature Park: My New Favorite Place on Earth!!
Elephant Nature Park (or ENP) was founded in the 1990s by a lovely woman named Lek Chailart, whose love for elephants drove her to do something for them. As of March, 2016 the park is home to 69 elephants, 100+ cats, 400+ dogs and around 80 buffalo. Lek has taken all of the animals in and given them a natural home, where they aren’t abused by humans or used in the tourism industry for trekking or other harmful activities.
There are so many reasons why Elephant Nature Park is a ‘must see’ for anyone who visits Thailand. I’ve decided to sum up why I loved ENP so much into a nice compact list. Here are my top 3 reasons why I think EVERYONE should visit ENP (or somewhere like it). We’ll start with #3…
#3- It’s a great place to Escape the hustle and bustle!!
Bangkok and Phuket were awesome…there was always plenty to see and plenty to do, but with everything being so crazy, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. I was very happy our stay at ENP was towards the end of our trip, because it gave us an opportunity to wind down from all of that. There is so much natural beauty here and it’s really set up to help you relax 🙂
And if the lodging wasn’t quaint enough, the grounds where the elephants live are also gorgeous…
And if natural beauty isn’t enough for you, the Park’s Pets add yet another layer of serenity to the place 🙂
The atmosphere at ENP was definitely one of the perks for me. The beautiful scenery, abundant furry friends and rustic lodging were such a nice change from the rest of our trip!
#2 – High Entertainment Value
Right from our first moments at ENP, the elephants were making us laugh. You’re first introduced to the elephants at the feeding platform, and when it’s feeding time, things can get a little nutty!! THOSE TRUNKS!!!
If you’ve never seen an elephant trying to maneuver itself in water, then you have not properly seen an elephant. These typically graceful creatures become carefree and goofy once in the water. We probably could have spent a day just sitting there watching these guys play!
Baby elephants are especially playful! They have no idea how big they are, so this can sometimes be problematic for the Mahouts, who try very hard to train the elephants not to push around people. As the elephants get bigger, it becomes dangerous if they decide to push aside one of us tiny tourists, so we aren’t allowed to touch the babies…for their safety and for ours!!
The following is one of my favorite videos of our trip. It’s of an elephant named Dokmai (she’s actually a girl, though in the video I thought she was a boy). She just LOVES playing with fire hoses!!
But not all of our entertainment was presented in a comedic fashion. At one point, our group was actually chased down by a group of irritated elephants, who were tired of the dogs nipping at their trunks (a favorite pass-time for ENP’s dogs) We were standing by the river and all of a sudden, 4 or 5 elephants were charging toward us. I didn’t get any pictures of the event (I was too busy running), but I can tell you, it was an exhilarating experience!! Our guide, Apple, got us to run behind a fence, where she thought we’d be safe from trampling, but one of the elephants decided to follow us into the fenced area. She got pretty close to us but then lost interest and went in the other direction. Apple told us later that that particular elephant LOVES to chase people. And that although she often does this, she has never hurt anyone…she always stops when she gets close to her target and then goes on her way in the other direction. Maybe it’s her revenge for the years she spent working for humans in the tourism industry??
#1 – ENP is an extremely educational experience!!!
Elephant Nature Park isn’t just about laughter, relaxation and being chased by elephants. The staff here are very knowledgeable about everything Elephant. Some of the most interesting facts we learned:
That trunk has over 40,000 muscles in it! It is the elephants most diverse tool and can be used for a wide variety of things, like transferring food into the elephant’s mouth, sounding out a trumpet to show predators that they mean business and even for showing affection to family members. A trunk can be soft and flexible (as shown in this picture) or it can be stiff and used to slap the ground to intimidate predators (trunk slapping is very cool…it sounds like a rubber tire being dropped on the ground).
An elephant’s nose is also very well adapted for smelling. Their sense of smell is actually better than that of a dog!! Many elephants go blind in their lifetimes, because their environments usually involve a lot of dust, which gets into their eyes eventually causing blindness. We met many blind elephants at the park (I developed a soft spot for them…) but they manage to survive (and would in the wild as well!) due to their incredible sense of smell!
I’m sure you’ve heard that elephants are very fond of their families…this couldn’t be truer! In fact, they have a similar mentality about family as i do…blood doesn’t have to be all there is to having children or siblings. All of the babies at ENP have several ‘nannies’ who are FIERCELY protective of them. When one of the dogs snapped at Dok Mai, the entire family began trunk slapping and circled around her for protection. I should add that none of these elephants are related by blood…family is just so important to them that they create a family if they are taken away from their original one.
This is why animal advocates are so against zoos that keep elephants alone. I was happy to see that Calgary zoo had found new homes for their elephants, because they were moved to a place where there were more elephants for them to interact with. These are truly social creatures and having them in a pen by themselves is a form of solitary confinement. They go crazy…as I know I would as well.
I think more than anything else though, what surprised me about the elephants were the sounds they can make! You’ve heard the stereotypical ‘trumpet’ that they make. It’s a terrifying sound if it’s made in your direction, I can assure you of that! But they make so many more sounds than just their trumpeting. They grumble and squeak and sometimes almost sound like they’re purring. I LOVED falling asleep to the sound of that grumbling coming from the elephant pen at night. I fought sleep harder than I have since I was a little kid because I didn’t want to miss any of those nice sounds…
I also got a really cool video that sums up a lot of those sounds! One of the elephants got left behind by her herd when they’d gone across the river to eat some greenery. We watched her find them (and them find her) and it was quite the thing to see (and hear!!).
The grumbling you can hear is going back and forth between them. Elephants can communicate this way with one another when they are up to 10kms away from one another! They have very sensitive feet and can feel vibrations in the ground when another elephant is calling to them this way. Pretty cool! I should also add that this is the herd that chased us about 5 minutes after I took this video…they were an ornery group…
But unfortunately, not all of the facts we learned about elephants were pleasant. We learned a lot about the tourism industry while we met different elephants and were told their stories. We met several elephants with broken backs, who were all injured at trekking camps, where they are loaded up with tourists for hours every day, often carrying over 300 pounds on their backs at once (the chair alone weights 70 pounds) Although you’d think an elephant’s back is strong, given its size, it’s actually an elephant’s neck that is powerful and not its back, so many elephants end up with injuries. The chairs used in trekking camps are also terrible for the elephants’ lungs, which are squeezed by the strap that holds the chair onto the elephant. Add in the fact that they are overworked in terrible heat, and maybe you can understand why I refused to go elephant riding while in Thailand…
I know many people who have ridden elephants while in Thailand, or even in North America at circuses or zoos. I have heard many defenses over these types of rides, including things like ‘well THESE elephants were treated well!’ and ‘I rode on the elephant’s neck and not on a chair’. And while those may seem like valid arguments, if you do a little research you discover that every single elephant in captivity has gone through a hellish experience known as ‘crushing’ and that by riding an elephant (even on its neck) you are supporting that industry. Allow me to explain further…
Elephants are highly intelligent and very strong willed. To break an elephant requires a lot of work, and most people don’t believe an elephant can be trained without the use of violence. So when an elephant reaches the age of about 4 (which is VERY young for an elephant…at that age they are still quite dependent on their mothers in the wild) they are put into a wooden cage that completely restricts movement, and are stabbed with sticks (that often have nails tied into the end of them so that the elephants’ tough skin can be broken) and they are kept in that ‘crush’ for anywhere from 5-8 days. They are hit, stabbed with sticks and nails, screamed at and sleep deprived until they have lost the will to fight back. THIS HAPPENS TO EVERY SINGLE ELEPHANT THAT IS BEING USED IN THE TOURISM INDUSTRY.
So even if you ‘ride on their neck’ and even if the mahouts seem ‘really really nice’, these elephants are being tortured for human entertainment, and I know that’s not fun to hear, but it needs to be said. I know that a couple of years ago, I may not have done the research I did this time. Up until I did that research, ‘riding an elephant in Thailand’ was on my bucket list. I changed it to ‘meet an elephant in Thailand’ because I can’t bring myself to support this industry knowing what I know. And that’s why I’m sharing all of this with you. Because now YOU know, and you can do something about it too! Educate people! Encourage people not to support this industry because you now know what happens behind the scenes. It’s the only way any of this will stop, and after meeting all these incredible pachyderms, I had to write something about it. I had to be part of the solution.