Angkor National Park – Cambodia’s Treasure (Part 2)

We had limited time in Cambodia (7 days is hardly enough to experience an entire country, after all!), and had to pick and choose where we would spend our time during our May Holiday.  Although there were several places that we wanted to visit, Angkor National Park was our main reason for visiting Cambodia, so we decided to book a 2 day tour with  Happy Angkor Tours, instead of the 1 day tour that we allocated at all our other stops.

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After all, there are hundreds of temples to see in Angkor National Park. Even 2 days wasn’t nearly enough time to see everything we’d wanted to see.

Dave and I aren’t usually big fans of tours (mainly because we hate other tourists) but this one wasn’t too bad.  Our guide had passable English and knew a lot about the Buddhist history in all the temples.  He tried very hard to keep us happy, even in the heat, and ended both days a little earlier than had been planned because we were both dealing with pretty awful sun stroke.    This meant that we missed the sunset part of the tour we’d booked on the first day.  It’s too bad, as it would have been beautiful to see the sun go down behind Phnom Bakheng, but by the time we had finished at Bayan Temple, all either of us wanted to do was make our way back to our hotel to take it easy.  Looking back now, I’m kicking myself, but of course, in addition to the heat, we had spent the previous night on a bus and neither of us had gotten much rest, so the idea of an air conditioned room with a comfortable bed was more appealing than seeing the sun go down.

We stayed at Villa Medamrei while in Siem Reap.  The hotel was beautiful and the staff went above and beyond (letting us check in about 6 hours earlier than they had to so we could shower before our tour started).  If you're looking to stay in Siem Reap...I strongly urge you to check this place out.  Great pricing for a beautiful stay!
We stayed at Villa Medamrei while in Siem Reap. The hotel was beautiful and the staff went above and beyond (letting us check in about 6 hours earlier than they had to so we could shower before our tour started). If you’re looking to stay in Siem Reap…I strongly urge you to check this place out. Great pricing for a beautiful stay!

And it was a good thing that we got that additional rest, because Day 2 of our holiday started an hour before the sun came up…

Angkor Wat – Round 2

We woke up at around 4:30am, showered (we couldn’t do enough of that in Cambodia!!!) and met our tour guide outside our hotel.  It was still very dark out and there was nobody in the streets.  A half hour later, we were walking up to Angkor Wat again, though we couldn’t see it against the black sky.  Our guide found us a fantastic spot on the bank of the man-made pond, we bought some iced coffee from a vendor who was selling them to tourists who were there for sunrise, and we waited.

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At first, we could only see the beehive shaped outline of Angkor Wat

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As it got brighter and brighter we realized not only why it was worth waking up at 4:30am for this, but also that we were not the only ones who’d made this trip.  The gratitude I felt for our tour guide, who had gotten us here before the crowds, also multiplied as I looked around me.

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Eventually, the sun rose completely, giving us this spectacular view to start our day:

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Chong Kneas – A Floating Fishing Village

Cambodia has 2 seasons:  wet and dry.  The wet season runs from May to October and the dry season from November to April.  The Mekong River varies greatly between these two seasons, as Cambodia receives 75% of it’s rainfall in the wet months.  So believe it or not, this is the same river:

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The Mekong as we saw it
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The Mekong River at the height of the rainy season.

But human beings have survived for all these years because we are so adaptable.  As a species, we survive all over the globe in a variety of environments and conditions, and just like Canadians bundle up into layers of clothes to survive the winter, Cambodia has found ways to survive the rise and fall of the Mekong River.

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A Cambodian home in the dry season
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A Cambodian fishing village during the wet season

Entire villages are built on stilts to account of the rise and fall of the Mekong, and we were lucky enough to visit one of these villages.  Here, people don’t walk down the street.  Instead, they hop into a boat and row to their destination.  Even livestock is kept above ground.

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The type of boat we took to the village
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Us, in said boat
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This was a convenience store of sorts
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These fishing villages are quite multicultural. Many of the fishermen here are Vietnamese and this is a Korean School
A fishing trap used by locals
A fish trap used by locals
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We also got to see some of these traps outside the water. I honestly still don’t understand how this one works haha!
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This is Sap Lake. There are several fishing villages on it, including the one we visited. It is fed by The Mekong, which begins all the way up in Southern China and flows all the way into the South China Sea

Banteay Srei – The Lady’s Temple

Next, we set off to see another temple…and though I’d never heard of it, it is quite famous within Cambodia.  Unlike many of Angkor National Park’s temples, this sight was not built by a King of the era…it was built by a Hindu Brahman who happened to be the spiritual teacher of the king at the time.  He had the temple built in honor of the Hindu deity, Shiva, but today it is known as the ‘Lady’s Temple’ because of it’s most unique feature:  the temple is constructed entirely of hard pink sandstone.  It is truly a beautiful location to visit and I got some amazing pictures while we were there.

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The temple is also famous for its intricate carvings
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All windows had an odd number of pillars. This one has 5, but many have 7. Odd numbers are lucky in both Buddhism and Hinduism.

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So many beautiful structures in this “small” temple

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The pink sandstone was so beautiful! It made the whole temple glow 🙂

Banteay Samre – Our Final Stop

Our last stop of the tour was at Banteay Samre, a temple built in around the same time as Angkor Wat.  It was dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu and once had an impressive mote surrounding it, that would have made it something to see in its day.  The colour of these ruins was gorgeous.  Just like at Bayun Wat, I feel like we were too tired to truly appreciate how elaborate this sight is.  I guess we’ll just have to go back some day 🙂

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There were so many beautiful buildings at Bateay Samre
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Many of the towers are shaped in the same fashion as Angkor Wat
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This sight was restored quite effectively a few decades ago, though it hasn’t had any restoration for a while now.
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The spikes on many of the roofs are what stood out for Dave. I honestly hadn’t noticed them at the time but they definitely added a lot of texture to the buildings
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The back entrance to Bateay Samre

So that wraps up our stay in Siem Reap!  Next, I’ll be writing about Kratie…home of the Irawadi Dolphins!!  Stay tuned!!!

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!!

 

Phnom Penh – Our Introduction to Cambodia

We opted for a change of scenery today, and have settled in at Cafe Void for the evening, a small coffee shop in Zhong Tian Hua Yuan.  The rainy season has begun in Guiyang, and although the temperature is much better now, we are getting several thunder storms a week.  A fairly severe one hit while we were having supper tonight at our favorite hot pot place (it’s never too hot for hot pot!!) when it started thundering.  Starbucks is about 20 minutes away by scooter, so we chose to stay close to home instead.  Void’s got a great atmosphere anyway, and it’s nice to switch it up now and then anyway 🙂

Now, I know I never got around to finishing all of my posts about Thailand, but I think they’re just going to have to wait.  I wrote about most of the major stuff already, and the 2 posts I have left to write (1 on the elephants at ENP and one about nightlife in Thailand) can wait until I’m done with our latest trip:  Cambodia!!

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Cambodia is bordered by Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and the Gulf of Siam. It’s most famous for Angkor National Park, which I’ll be getting to in my next post 🙂

Cambodia is amazing for a variety of reasons.  For one thing, it’s incredible exotic…even for people living in China.  Unlike Thailand, which is basically Canada’s ‘Caribbean’, Cambodia hasn’t been open for tourism for very long.  They have a rather ugly modern history, and until the late 1990s, people simply didn’t go there to visit.  But I’ll get to that in a bit…First, I’ll tell you a little bit about our first stop:  Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh

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Located on the Mekong River, Phnom Penh is very different from the rest of the country

Phnom Penh is a fairly modern city.  It isn’t a rich place, but compared to the rest of the country, it has a booming economy.  There are plenty of sights to see in Cambodia’s capital, including several markets, monuments and temples and Cambodia’s National Museum.  There’s no shortage of places to visit and we had to limit ourselves to a few top choices as we only had 2 days to see the city.

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The national museum was one of our stops. Unlike the grand palace and the temples, there was no dress code here, and with the +40 heat, I was glad to not have to wear long sleeves!
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I like that they used shrubs for this elephant’s body 🙂
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Some very nice architecture at the museum!

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Still, there is extreme poverty here.  Many children don’t go to school and instead beg on the street or sell bracelets to tourists.  The city is also very dirty, which is common in poor countries.

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We saw this type of thing both in the city and in rural areas. This was a particularly bad area, on a river bank. Nearby is a fishing village built entirely on stilts
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The garbage provides income for families who are too poor to send their children to school. Although education is free (and compulsory) in Cambodia, families keep their children at home to help earn income to keep everyone fed. This young girl was looking for things she could sell in town.
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Similarly, these children are sifting through plastic and garbage, looking for anything valuable that has the potential to earn them some income.

 

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We met this group of boys in Kratie. They were very friendly and very excited to see foreigners. We saw them on the weekend, so I don’t know for sure that they don’t go to school, but we saw many groups of children just like this during the week, who asked us to buy things from them so that they COULD go to school.

And when it comes to helping the poor in Cambodia, there is a catch 22 for tourists.  On one hand, if you don’t buy the things they are selling you feel like a terrible person.  $2 isn’t much to a Canadian, but it’s a small fortune for a family as poor as some that we saw.  But on the other hand, by giving in and purchasing items from these kids, you are telling their parents ‘yes, sending your children out to sell things is a good idea.  I could say no to you, but I can’t say no to them’.  I felt awful every time I gave in, but I couldn’t say no, and Dave and I ended up with a lot of bracelets, postcards, books and magnets.

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We met these children in Kratie. They were so cute and so shy. I kept making faces at them to make them laugh, trying to get them to come over and say hello (they were hiding behind some boxes trying to get a glimpse of us). I eventually got them to come over and I asked them their names and taught them a little English. When I left, they came running out and said ‘Goodbye, Teacher!!!’. I met another group of girls who were selling flutes. We bought one flute from each of them ($1 a piece…) and I asked them what their names were and how old they all were. They all lit right up when I gave them that little bit of attention. I doubt they have many tourists ask them about their lives. More often than not, they are just shooed to the side.

I'm not sure what's worse...sifting through garbage, or being treated like garbage...Either way, these kids don't have the life I wish they did...
I’m not sure what’s worse…sifting through garbage, or being treated like garbage…Either way, these kids don’t have the life I wish they did…

But it wasn’t long ago that children in Cambodia suffered a much worse fate than a lack of education.  As I mentioned earlier in this post, Cambodia has an ugly past.  From 1975 to 1979, the Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia, and the people suffered one of the worst genocides in world history.  Millions of people died through starvation, torture and execution and this ugly man was the brain behind it all.

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Meet Pol Pot: the world’s 6th most murderous dictator of all time.  In just 4 years, he killed nearly a quarter of Cambodia’s population.

As North Americans, we grow up hearing about Hitler and his atrocities. The Khmer Rouge, however, was completely foreign to me, which is strange given how recently the Cambodian genocide  happened.  After all, I consider myself to be a worldly minded person…I read the news and keep track of the big things that are happening in the world.  But this one I hadn’t heard of.  And that’s probably because so little was done by western powers to stop this man.  We can’t be proud of bringing down this assailant, like we brought down Hitler, so Cambodia’s story just doesn’t make the cut in our history books.

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One of many famous quotes attributed to Pol Pot.  Another depressing one: “It is better to kill 10 innocent men than to let 1 guilty man escape”.

When the the Khmer Rouge took over the country in 1975, Pot had big plans for its citizens.  He believed in a perfect communism that was based on agriculture.  Pot thought that anyone educated or anyone who lived in the cities was the enemy and he treated them as such.  Many of those people were sent to S-21, one of the many schools that the Khmer Rouge turned into torture compounds.  We toured the old school and saw some of the things  accomplished there in those 4 terrible years.

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This is S -21…the most infamous prison of the Khmer Rouge period. It’s since been turned into a Genocide Museum in an attempt to educate people about the genocide here and give voice to the victims who died in these walls.

There are several buildings in S-21, each with their own brand of horror.  Our first stop was a building where high-status inmates were held.  This is where they kept people who were suspected of working with the CIA or other foreign intelligence agencies.  It’s said that the Khmer Rouge would arrest anyone who wore glasses, because glasses, after all, are a sign of intelligence.  And intelligence was not to be trusted.

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This is the bed an inmate was given (there was never a mattress). But that was the least of it. The people who were kept in these cells were tortured on a daily basis…water boarding and beatings were a regular occurrence. And the female prisoners were raped and forced to eat their own excrement. All because they had an education…

After seeing many rooms like the one above, we moved to another area of the prison where groups of prisoners were kept.  The quarters here were far worse…

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Because this was originally a school, S-21 didn’t have cells right away, so the Khmer Rouge had them built. This is one of many that we saw
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When they weren’t being tortured, prisoners were left alone in these cells. It was forbidden that they speak to other inmates and if they were caught,t hey were beaten further.

 

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Cell 18

The last building we saw told stories of individuals who survived S-21.  In total, it is estimated that 17,000 people were kept here, tortured and beaten.  Of those 17,000, only 12 prisoners survived.  We met two of them while at S-21 and bought their books.  I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to read them.  The things we saw here bothered me a lot.  I couldn’t sleep for several nights without dreaming about the things I read.  The fact that humans could do this other humans is beyond me.

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Some prisoners would have been able to see some of the yard from their windows.
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Stories from the prisoners of S-21concentration camp

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Like any camp of this sort, the inmates had to abide by a list of rules set by the guards.  Some of them are impossible for me to understand…

You must immediately answer my questions without wasting time to reflect.”

While getting lashes or electrification you must not cry at all.

No matter how much S-21 bothered me though, The Killing Fields were much, much worse.

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The Memorial Stupa in the Phnom Penh Killing Fields

The fields themselves are quite a thing to see.  Upon arrival at the Fields, which are just outside Phnom Penh, you are provided with an audio tour  (the recordings were very well done and available in many different languages).  Everyone has their headphones on and are listening to the stories and history behind the fields.  It is completely quiet as you walk through this massacre sight and it feels eerie.  If you look up at the other visitors, everyone has the same look on their face.  Nobody can quite understand how these things happened.  How humans could do this to other humans.

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What could be a lovely park, is actually several mass graves where nearly 9000 bodies were found. This is only one of Pol Pot’s many killing fields. In total, it’s estimated that he killed 1.2 million people in fields like this. The other 500,000 people who died under his regime died of starvation and exhaustion in the rice fields.

Since the fields were discovered, the individual pits have been carefully excavated, in an attempt to understand what went on in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge.  Many of the larger bones (skulls and femurs) were removed from the earth, cleaned and examined.  Some DNA testing was done to help give families closure, though many families have never found their lost relatives.  Once DNA analysis was complete, the skulls were moved into the Memorial Stupa that was built at The Killing Fields to honor the dead.

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9000 skulls can be found in this memorial stupa. They all have different coloured stickers on them, which indicate the way each individual was executed. The Khmer Rouge didn’t want to pay for bullets, so most victims were hacked to death with farming tools or with weapons made of bamboo or sugar cane branches. That’s one of the things that haunts me the most about this genocide. These were not quick deaths…

The smaller bones were left in the ground and when it rains heavily, they move up through the soil.  As a result, you are often reminded by signage to watch where you are stepping.  You can often see bones on the ground as well as the clothing of victims.

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The employees at the Fields routinely look for bones and clothes that have come up from the ground and stack them respectfully like this to remind people to watch where they are stepping.
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They also collect some of the bigger pieces of bones and the clothing and put them in display cases for people to see. Notice on the left hand side, in the front, there is a pair of children’s shorts…they’re hard to miss…

 

We saw a lot of clothing in the pits.
We saw a lot of clothing in the pits.

Some of the bigger pits, or pits that were reserved for ‘special’ groups of victims have been sectioned off.  On the bamboo posts used to section the pits off, people have left bracelets to commemorate the dead.  Many of these bracelets are recognizable from street kids who sell them in down town Phnom Penh.

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This was the first grave we came upon. Over 200 victims were found in it. The bracelets have been left by visitors.
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Women and Children were found in this grave. They were killed the same as the men…with bound hands.  They often had to watch their children die first.  They weren’t important enough to keep alive, but they were somehow special enough to have their own burial space.  So much insanity on the part of their captors…
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Many of the victims in this grave were found wearing guards clothing, so it’s assumed that they were people who had been found guilty of somehow opposing the revolution. Perhaps they tried to help a prisoner escape, or showed kindness to a woman or child.  Even the people running these camps and killing fields weren’t safe from Pol Pot’s grand scheme.
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This is the saddest thing I have ever seen in my life. This tree is located right outside the pit where women and children were found. This tree was used to murder babies.

It was difficult walking around these fields.  I feel sad and depressed about it even now, as I write this post.  Nearly a quarter of Cambodia’s population was killed during the 4 years that Pol Pot was in power.  And because this all happened in the last 40 years, everyone you meet in present-day Cambodia has a story they can tell you.  They all have either an aunt, an uncle, a grandparent, a parent or a friend who was killed.  The trials against the Khmer Rouge’s top officers are ongoing even today, and Pol Pot was never even brought to justice.  He died of old age…he spent his final years with his children and grand children: a right he took away from so many innocent people.

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The rest of the world wasn’t listening…and to keep the locals from hearing what was happening every night in this field, the Khmer Rough blasted loud ‘Revolution Music’ from speakers hanging in this tree. The end of our audio tour played that type of music, along with the sound of a generator running in the background, so that we could hear the last thing all those people heard. Talk about making an impact…

It’s taken me a long time to write this post because of how much it bothers me that these things happened.  Visiting Cambodia’s Killing Fields would be similar to visiting Auschwitz or Bergen-Belsen.  What happened in Europe in the 1940s is as horrific as what happened in Cambodia in the 70s, but on some levels, Cambodia bothers me more.  Not because of the atrocities themselves…but because of my government’s reaction (or lack of reaction) to the Khmer Rouge.  Refugees who got out of the country during that awful time were called liars or were accused of exaggerating.  Nobody did anything to help the Cambodians…the world didn’t care because Cambodia is so small and far away.

The number of bracelets left behind by tourists is an indicator that I'm not the only person who was affected by this visit.
The number of bracelets left behind by tourists is an indicator that I’m not the only person who was affected by this visit.

And that’s why, no matter how much I don’t want to think about this stuff…I have to write about it.  Through ‘knowing’, we can prevent these types of things from happening in the future.  Sure, reading the news can be a bummer, but if you know that your government isn’t taking steps to help people in cases such as this, you can write to your government representative and encourage action.  There are petitions to sign and protests to attend.  There ARE things you can do to help.  Margaret Mead’s words are something to live by:

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

My next post will be on a lighter topic:  Angkor National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Sight, and boy were there some sights to see!!

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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Bangkok’s Grand Palace

Guiyang is truly a city of extremes.  Just yesterday, the temperature was 30 degrees Celsius, and I had the windows in my classroom open so I could enjoy the cool breeze and the sun’s rays.   Today, the view that lies before me as I blog at our favorite hang out (I’ll give you 3 guesses…) couldn’t be more different.   People are bundled up, with the arms around themselves trying to stay warm.  There was a 20 degree drop over night and Guiyang is once more overcast and dreary.  I’m grateful for the little bit of sun we did get, but I am a tad mournful that our two nicest days were the days that I spend inside, teaching back to back classes.

Here are some pictures from our lovely weekend:

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People are planing vegetables
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Our garden in Zhong Tian is green and beautiful once more
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Even the buildings weren’t as drab this weekend. Everything was brighter when the sun was out.

And Guiyang now…

But whether isn’t the only way Guiyang likes to shock us with its extremes.  For example:

"Is this a dump", you might ask yourself.
“Is this a dump”, you might ask yourself.

Nope…not even close…

It's the entrance to the school where I work
It’s the entrance to the school where I work

To be fair, the area isn’t usually THIS bad, but one of the businesses in the building is renovating and decided to dump all their garbage outside the back doors.  I’m terrified a rat is going to jump out the garbage heap and attack me.

IMAG1651And if garbage heaps aren’t enough for you, there are also these open gutters to scare the bajeepers out of you.   The local noodle place and many other little businesses (as well as pedestrians) throw their garbage in here and it’s developing quite the collection.  This could be solved by putting a metal grate over the gutter, but that would probably be too much work, so instead I have to hop over this to get to the school daily.  I’m not going to lie…the first time I saw it I gagged a little lol.  Scooters sometimes drive over it and splash people as they walk by….when that happens, you have to walk around smelling like garbage water all day.  Not fun…

But not all of Guiyang is open sewers and garbage piles…if you drive for 10 minutes to HuaGuoYuan, then you get this view:

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Fountains and lit up buildings

Or 5 minutes away from the school, this area is also quite new and shiny:

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And then of course, there’s the nicest building in Guiyang…
Whiiiccchhhh caught fire the other night...
Whiiiccchhhh caught fire the other night…

So yes, Guiyang is the city of contrast.  But I suppose I should get on to writing about a place that has no contrast at all.  The Grand Palace in Bangkok Thailand has one mode:  Go Grand, or Go Home!!!

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In addition to gorgeous architecture, the Palace is home to many gardens and carefully trimmed trees.

The Grand Palace has been home to Thailand’s Royalty since 1782.  Today, the grounds are more of a tourist attraction than anything, but Royal ceremonies and State functions are still held there several times a year.

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Despite the high fees to get into the palace, tourists flock here. Trip adviser probably has something to do with it, as the palace is considered Bangkok’s #1 attraction.

I was surprised to learn that The Grand Palace is not a singular giant structure, but really a large number of small buildings that vary in a great deal of ways.  In the 200 years that the Palace has sat in Bangkok, pavilions, chapels and halls were erected, all reflecting the time period in which they were built.  The resulting diversity within the grounds is fascinating.

For example...
For example…

Also worth noting is the sheer size of the Grand Palace.  At 2,351,000 sq feet, it would take several hours to view the whole Palace, a feat neither Dave or myself were ready to take on.  We arrived on February 19th, under a scorching Bangkok sun.  Between the heat, the tourists and our long pants and shirts (there is a strict dress code at The Grand Palace), we weren’t up for seeing the grounds in their entirety.  So we hit up the major attractions and took lots of breaks in any shaded areas we could find.

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The perimeter walls were covered in elaborate murals. Seeing as how this was one of the few places where we could find shade, I spent a great deal of time admiring them.
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Most of the murals showed Buddhist mythology and war stories during different king’s reigns.

But if I were to tell you that the diversity of the buildings or the size of the place were the most remarkable things about The Grand Palace, I would be doing it a great disservice.  No amount of photography could possible capture the elaborate detail here.  Every inch of every building was designed to be beautiful and ornate.  It was so Grand that if you didn’t stop and actually look at it, you might not even notice the level of detail at all.  It is all THAT detailed!!!

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You can easily see that this building is gorgeous without even having to look at it closely.
But up close, you can see that all the colour on the columns going up the building are actually designs made one small piece of stone at a time.
But if you move closer, you can see that the colorful parts going up the building are actually elaborately designed flowers…

 

Similarly, this building is covered in small stones..it isn't just paint that makes it look so ornate...
Similarly, this building is covered in small stones..it isn’t just paint that makes it look so ornate…
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This steeple is beautiful in of itself.
But if you zoom in closer you see an insane level of detail on each of the mythological creatures
But if you zoom in closer you see an insane level of detail on each of the mythological creatures
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Here is a close up on one of the tours of one of the smaller buildings on the grounds

We walked around for about an hour, taking pictures of different halls and structures.  We went into a few buildings as well, although we weren’t allowed having our cameras out in them.  I understand the reasoning, to an extent.  Having cameras flashing while Buddhists try and pray in front of the sacred Emerald Buddha would be incredibly disrespectful.  Still, as a non-Buddhist I was a little sad I couldn’t get a shot or two in while in Wat Phra Kaew (The Temple of the Emerald Buddha).  I did manage to get one decent shot from outside the building though, and I found a picture online of the different robes he wears, depending on the season.

He isn't very big, but he is very beautiful.
He isn’t very big, but he is very beautiful.
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There are 3 distinct seasons in Thailand, so there are 3 robes for the Buddha to wear

We also saw some of the Throwns that former Kings used while living in the Grand Palace, which was sort of neat.  We also weren’t able to take pictures in those buildings, but one of them had a massive fan where I was able to cool down!  It was a highlight of the day for me!! haha!!

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More of the beautiful buildings we saw
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The cloud cover didn’t help very much with cooling us down.
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To understand the size of these buildings, look at the people in the front of the building for reference.
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A photographer’s heaven 🙂
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I love the style of this building

 

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The guards at the front gate
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A close up of one of the guards

There are actual guards at the Palace too.  Just like you’d see at Buckingham Palace, tourists were making faces and taking pictures with the guards, as they solemnly stood guard to some of the more important buildings on the grounds.

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We couldn’t go into this building. I think this is one of the places where Government meetings are still held now.

So that is The Grand Palace.  I’m not disappointed that we went, but I can hardly say that it was the highlight of our Bangkok experience.  I suppose Dave and I tend to not like the really ‘touristy’ stuff, so that could be why I didn’t enjoy it more.  But on the other hand, the history lover in me LOVED seeing the different buildings.  It’s definitely worth a stop while you’re in Bangkok!!

My next post is going to be about night life in Thailand!  I’ll be writing about the famous Bangla Road in Phuket, Kao San Road in Bangkok and of course, the famed Thai Lady-Boys!!

Thanks for stopping by!!

 

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!

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly: Snorkeling Tours in Thailand

Every now and then Guiyang surprises me.  Since we got here, I’ve been called fat more times than I can really count.  My students make fun of how much ‘meat’ there is on my arms (thinking I don’t understand Chinese) and adults have done the same.  It seems that being a medium build brunette in China makes you the target of insult.  I get through it by reminding myself that commenting on someone’s weight is a culturally appropriate thing to do here.  I also tell myself repeatedly that I should take it as a compliment when people come up to my husband on the street to tell him how handsome he is, and then turn to me, smile a little and walk away.  I will say though…it isn’t always easy.

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The boys get it too sometimes, but not as bad as us ladies do!!

But every now and then, Guiyang surprises me…

This last Friday, I was teaching a Phonics lesson to one of my level 3 students, Lily.  She’s bright and very sweet and is always very curious about me and my life in Canada.  As I was teaching her the difference between the sounds ‘d’ and ‘t’, she reached passed me and picked up my Starbucks coffee cup and giggled.  I asked what was so funny (I don’t mind interruptions like this during class because it teaches her good conversation skills).  She read the Chinese scribble on my cup, which I assumed said something about the owner being a foreigner (they don’t often ask for my name here to write on my cup.  I kinda stand out…).  I asked what the Chinese meant and she giggled again and said ‘For the Beautiful Girl’.

Sadly, I don’t remember who took my order that day, and I forgot to take a picture of the cup, but boy did that whole thing ever make my day!  One more point for Starbucks!!!!

Talk about making my day!!!
Talk about making my day!!!

And now after that nice story, I will move onto the ‘Bad’ and the ‘ugly’ portion of our snorkeling tours!  Don’t worry…I can find the positive in anything so it won’t be too ranty.  But I do want to warn anyone who’s looking into booking one of these tours that there are reasons that paying more can be a good idea, because in Thailand, you truly get what you pay for!

Raya Islands:  Trip 1 (The bad)

 Our first trip to the Raya Islands was on Wednesday February 11th.  It was only a half day tour (I’ll explain why in the second half of my post), but there were 3 different snorkeling stops scheduled, so we were happy as clams.  We love snorkeling so much that we actually had my mom send us our gear from Canada once we knew that we were definitely going to Thailand.
Dave was really starting to miss it....
Dave was really starting to miss his favourite pass time….

Our tour group that day mostly consisted of Chinese tourists.  Thailand is a popular destination for Spring Festival, so this was to be expected.  What we did not expect, however, was for all our fellow snorkelers to be on their phones…in the bus on the way to the pier…at the pier…in the speedboat!  One guy actually ANSWERED HIS PHONE while we were cruising along on our way to the islands!  Dave and I brought our phones along to Thailand, mainly to keep in touch with our families now and then.  When we were out for the day, our cell phones stayed in our room safe, so this sort of cellular obsession blew us both away.

Several cities in China are actually trying out 'cell phone lanes' to help fix pedestrian traffic issues. If you think North America's bad....
Several cities in China are actually trying out ‘cell phone lanes’ to help fix pedestrian traffic issues. If you think North America’s bad….

The other problem we had taking tours with Chinese tourists is that they are (for the most part) not very comfortable around water.  The ones who did go in the water needed help getting their life jackets on and we saw one guy try and stick the mouth piece from his snorkel up his nose, because he thought that that’s how it worked!  I try not to judge…I grew up around water and it’s easy for me to just hop in the water and go…but their aquatic discomfort really disadvantaged the few of us who could swim and who were not terrified of getting wet.

I find a Chinese person's fear of water to be ironic; they recommend hot water as a cure to everything from colds, to food poisoning to spasmed necks....
I find a Chinese person’s fear of water to be ironic; they recommend water as a cure to everything from colds, to food poisoning to spasmed necks….

As a result of our group’s discomfort around water, our tour crew forbid us to go where the water was too deep or where there was coral (we could hurt ourselves on the rocks). We were also forced to wear life jackets, which make swimming a tad uncomfortable.  As a result of this bummer location, we didn’t see many fish but it luckily wasn’t a long stop.  Before long we were back in the boat and on our way to the second snorkeling location, which we hoped would be better.

Nope...our next 'snorkel' stop was at the beach...the crowded beach...
It wasn’t…our next ‘snorkel’ stop was at the beach…the crowded beach…

But, as I’ve said before, Dave and I aren’t the type to let a minor set back such as ‘no snorkeling’ on our ‘snorkeling tour’ get us down.  We decided to sneak off and explore the island during the 2 hours of free time we were given on this beach.  This was definitely the most fun we’d had the entire day…

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One of the taxis we saw on the island. A local family runs a little store and restaurant and offer shuttle services to people staying on the island.
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The local store, which mostly sold what appeared to be things that tourists left behind. Used fins, old books…that sort of stuff

 

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A sweet little bench. This part of the island was so pretty and quaint!
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For my Whovian friends! I’ve decided to start taking pictures of ‘police boxes’ in every country I visit!!
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The weather was beautiful while we explored the island. I couldn’t have been happier to enjoy the sunshine 🙂

Eventually it was time to leave, so we hopped back onto the speedboat (sitting up in front, where it’s more exciting!) and head back to the pier.  We made a video to try and show you the scenery on the way back, but unfortunately you can’t hear anything I was saying.  Instead, just enjoy the scenery and get an idea of how bumpy the ocean was for us on that very calm day!  At around 0:18, I get a nice shot of the sun…that’s because the whole front of the boat was up in the air!  Quite the ride!!

We wound up having quite a long wait at the pier, as our shuttle bus was stuck in traffic, but during the wait we made some new friends 🙂  Jackie and Yaya are a young married couple from Hangzhou…one of the cities we are considering for next year’s contract.  They were very excited at the prospect of us visiting them, and even offered to pick us up from the airport if we do!  Keep in mind that these are people we spent an hour talking to while waiting for a bus.  That’s what I love about China.  The people can be so warm and welcoming!!!

We exchanged contact info and hope to see them again in the future
We exchanged contact info and hope to see them again in the future

Raya Island and Coral Island – Trip 2 (The UGLY!!!)

We learned the hard way that in Thailand…you get what you pay for.  When we were booking tours back in China, I stumbled across one in particular tour on a website specializing in discount tours for Phuket.  One tour in particular caught my eye because it involved a TONNE of snorkeling and would allow us to see several islands.  We booked and hoped for the best.

I did find a very good Spa through this website, but I would caution people to look around before booking through them. They are happy to take your money, but not very keen on helping you when things go wrong.
I did find a very good Spa through this website, but I would caution people to look around before booking through them. They are happy to take your money, but not very keen on helping you when things go wrong.

We were originally suppose to take this tour on Wednesday, so we woke up early, had some breakfast and head down to the lobby to wait for our tour to pick us up (15 minutes before our scheduled pick up time, I should add).  After watching drivers come and go for 45 minutes, we decided to call the tour company to see when our driver would arrive.  We were told that because we were late, we missed our tour…

I've been watching a lot of House...
I’ve been watching a lot of House…

We told the operator that we had, in fact, been sitting there for nearly an hour and that nobody had come looking for us (we were sitting on the steps at the entrance of the lobby) and she said once more ‘I’m sorry but you were late and we cannot refund you your money’.

We were getting less friendly...
We were getting less friendly…

After assuring them that the staff at Sea Pearl Villas would gladly confirm that we had, in fact, been waiting for an hour at this point, they finally conceded that an error may have been made, and allowed us to rebook our trip to Friday instead.

We aren’t entirely sure what happened, but there are 3 possibilities we’ve considered:

  1.   The driver screwed up the time, and showed up WAY earlier than he was suppose to.
  2. The driver forgot to stop at Sea Pearl and didn’t want to own up to his mistake
  3. The driver did stop at Sea Pearl…did look for us…but never bothered to ask the very foreign looking people who were sitting on the front steps of the resort if they were the people he was searching for.

I personally think that the 3rd option is the most likely, but on Friday, our driver did show up a full half hour earlier than he was supposed to (interrupting our breakfast), so it could have also been the first possibility.  Either way, we had to rebook our tour for later in the week….

We did call this number from the website, and I also sent an email regarding the whole ordeal...they never bothered responding. This is why I'm so upset...they could have made things right by at least apologizing...instead they just blamed us and accused us of being irresponsible.
We did call this number from their website, and I also sent an email regarding the whole ordeal…they never bothered responding. This is why I’m so upset…they could have made things right by at least apologizing…instead they just blamed us and accused us of being irresponsible.

We arrived at the pier after an hour and a half on the bus and were greeted by a loud and obnoxious tour guide named Chai.  We spent the whole day being barked at, made fun of and bullied by this guy.  My favorite ‘Chai’ moment  of the tour was when he made fun of a Chinese boy’s attempts at speaking English.  The child’s mistake?  He called his snorkel mask ‘glasses’.  Our 40something year old tour guide stood there and mocked this kid for such a small mistake.  I shot him the dirtiest look I could and eventually he got bored and turned around, ignoring us all again.  Luckily, I don’t think the kid’s English was good enough that he really understood what was going on…

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If only I’d brought my trusty club!!

In addition to bullying young boys, Chai also liked to bully the adults on the tour, treating us like children and shouting at us in a highly condescending fashion.  On our snorkeling strops, he even threatened to leave without us  if we didn’t return to the boat as soon as he called.  On our second stop, we were told we had 30 minutes to snorkel, but I gave up after about 5 minutes and got back into the boat.  There weren’t many fish to see, and I’d been stung by several small jelly fish.  Dave stayed in the water and waited for Chai to call that it was time to leave.  Only Chai never did…he just started packing up and get ready to leave.  Luckily, Dave and a handful of other people who were still in the water noticed him pulling up the anchors, and got back into the boat.

I would highly recommend avoiding Nikorn Tours.  Pay extra money and go on a tour with a company that will actually care about your experience.

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In addition to having terrible staff, Nikorn also overbooks their trips. This was our tour group…
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Seriously…avoid them…

But the whole trip wasn’t a waste.  Once we arrived at Coral Island, we were given 2 hours of free time that most people used to book extra excursions.  We knew that if we did, Chai would receive commission, so we opted instead to walk around the island and to lay on the beach, working on our tan.   It was a wonderfully relaxing afternoon.

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Although Chai shouted at several other tourists who’d gone to explore the island, we snuck off to see what there was to see.
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There are many shops and a couple of restaurants on the island, and we found where they live.

 

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We found some broken lounging chairs to sit on (so we didn’t have to pay 200 bhat each…). Mine is propped up with a coconut haha!!!
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Our seats were a prime location to watch the para sailers come in. I’m very glad I didn’t do it, because it was 700bhat a person, and the whole ride lasted about 30 seconds.
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Instead, we sipped smoothies and relaxed, after a stressful morning with a stressful man. This was so much more our pace.

While watching the para sailors, we saw the coolest kid doing the craziest thing.  It only happened a couple of times, so I was really pumped to catch this 10 (ish) year old acrobat  on video!!

Those were the Raya and Coral Islands.  I’d definitely recommend looking into the different  tour companies before booking…there are SO many tours to choose from!  Don’t sweat over paying a couple hundred bhat extra for a proper guide…it’s well worth the extra few bucks!!

My next post will be all about our tour with John Grey Sea Canoe, a wonderful tour company who knows all about customer service and who offer the experience of a life time.  I can’t wait to write about it and show you some of the incredible things we saw in Phuket’s Hongs!!!

I’ll be writing again very soon!