Angkor National Park – Cambodia’s Treasure (Part 1)

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.

We started our trip in Phnom Penh and then traveled to Siam Reap by overnight bus.
We started our trip in Phnom Penh and then traveled to Siam Reap by overnight bus.
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This is a night bus. It’s not the most comfortable way to travel, but it was better than the one I took in China. Also, it gave us the benefit of traveling while we slept…we only had 7 days to see 3 cities so time was of the essence
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Angkor Wat is so representative of Cambodia, that it is even on their flag

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.

The Cambodian Empire from the 9th-15th centuries...
The Cambodian Empire from the 9th-15th centuries…
Cambodia now...
Cambodia now…
A Buddha we encountered in Angkor Wat
We saw this Buddha as we entered one of the main buildings of Angkor Wat….
But saw these carvings depicting stories from the Hindu Vedas a few minutes later
But saw these carvings depicting stories from the Hindu Vedas a few minutes later

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.

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This is Krol Romeas, one of the smallest ruins left in Angkor National Park
Angkor Wat before sunset, Cambodia.
Angkor Wat Temple before sunset, Siem Reap, Cambodia.

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.

Apsara are relevant to both Buddhism and Hinduism. We got to see a traditional Apsara dance while in Phnom Penh.
Apsara are relevant to both Buddhism and Hinduism. We got to see a traditional Apsara dance while in Phnom Penh.  This carvings tell a story of the culture in ancient Angkor
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The entire interior of Angkor Wat is gorgeous…so many stone carvings
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In this carving, a king is shown being waited on by his servants.  It took 30 years to build Angkor Wat, and over 350,000 workers.  With the amount of detailed carvings there are in the temple, it does not shock me that there were that many people involved in its creation.
Some carvings tell stories about battles that were won (or lost) by the Khmer Empire
Some carvings tell stories about battles that were won (or lost) by the Cambodian Empire

Angkor Wat

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 🙂

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Dave and I outside one of the front pools. During the dry season (we caught the end of it), there shouldn’t be any water left in these pools, but apparently tourists were complaining on Trip Advisor that they couldn’t get reflective photos, so the Cambodian Government decided to fill the pools with hoses. Tourists complain too much, I think…
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These are just 2 of the many libraries at Angkor Wat. Although they are fairly empty inside now, I loved being in them. It’s some of the only refuge we got from the blistering hot sun.
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I dislike that our guide chopped off the top of this library. Otherwise it would have been an awesome picture. I still like it though…we both look so purposeful. For me, my purpose was mostly just to get out of the sun 😛
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Restoration was being done in some of the buildings.
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These were both taken at the exact center of Angkor Wat. Our guide decided to pop his foot into the picture too haha
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The ceiling here was beautiful.

 

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More intricately carved buildings.
The view from the top tower, which in its time, was reserved for the Royal Family alone.  Sadly, I was feeling pretty heat stroked at this point so I wasn't able to enjoy it as much as I would have liked.
The view from the top tower, which in its time, was reserved for the Royal Family alone. Sadly, I was feeling pretty heat stroked at this point so I wasn’t able to enjoy it as much as I would have liked.

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:

Ta Prohm

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…

Yes...that bag is full of a bag of coffee haha!  (They put it in a plastic bag, put that bag into a paper bag and then put that one into another plastic bag....)
Yes…that bag is full of a bag of coffee haha! (They put it in a plastic bag, put that bag into a paper bag and then put that one into another plastic 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.

The way the trees have grown over and through the temple is why Ta Prohm is so famous today
The way the trees have grown over and through the temple is why Ta Prohm is so famous today
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One unfortunate thing about Ta Prohm is that it is incredibly tourist. We had to wait almost 5 minutes just to get this photo because Chinese tourists kept cutting in front of us and hogging the area of selfie after selfie…our tour guide eventually told them off so we could get our 1 picture in haha!!

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Huge trees!
Huge trees!
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The outer walls are something to see. Most of the stone used to create the temples in this time period is either Lava Stone or Sand Stone. This is Lava Stone.

 

 

It's possible you recognize Ta Prohm from Lara Croft Tomb Raider.  This is where it was filmed :)
It’s possible you recognize Ta Prohm from Lara Croft Tomb Raider. This is where it was filmed 🙂

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Ta Nei

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.

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A lot of what’s left of Ta Nei is rubble.

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And, like Ta Prohm, there are beautiful trees here
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Beautiful and enormous

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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).

Bayon Temple from afar
Bayon Temple from afar

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.

Every tower at Bayon Temple has a beautiful Buddha face carved into it.
Every tower at Bayon Temple has a beautiful Buddha face carved into it.

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!!

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A photo taken from within one of the many halls. One of my favorites of the trip

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.

IMG_5714I 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:

IMG_5671 IMG_5721 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!!

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In of the Bayon’s beautiful windows
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Bayon in the background
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This Buddha was far behind us
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I like this one of Dave 🙂
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At the most famous entrance of Angkor Thom

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’.

Thanks for reading!!

 

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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