Unlike at the end of many holidays, where I’ve been a little depressed to return to ‘real life’, I am totally thrilled to be back in Suzhou. I’m only one week into the new semester and I’m already finding work challenging, rewarding and fun. The number of students who greeted me by jumping out of their seat and cheering blew me away. How did I end up working for a school with students this cool? I don’t remember ever loving teachers enough to cheer for them!? These kids are just so great…and it helps that I love teaching Drama and writing…and even Food and Nutrition (when I’m in the classroom!!!).
My 7th grade all-girls class. They have improved so much in the kitchen, learning how to clean properly and how to make safe food
One of the girls was looking for extra point on their final exam at the end of last term. It says ‘Love Marie’ in Honey Dill sauce!!
Anyway…after 30 days away from home, Poe and Hugo are very pleased to have us back! Poor Poe was very anxious from us being away, I think, and our first few nights back were sleepless. She needs constant reassurance and is always worried that we’ve left. She wakes us up in the middle of the night…seemingly just to see if we’re there. I wonder what she went through at that shelter to have so much to worry about! Hugo, on the other hand, could not be more relaxed. Although he’s the one missing a leg, you’d never guess that he’s seen a moment of trauma in his life. Nothing phases him…I guess cats are like people in that way…some handle stress better than others.
Hugo, cuddled up and purring like a mad-man
You better not be thinking about leaving me!!!!
I have such a derpy cat!!! lol!!! If this isn’t total relaxation…what is!?!?!?
Hey Guys…where are we going!?!?!?
The following few posts I’ll be putting up will be about some of the most incredible parts of our trip. It felt as though writing about these things from my tablet wouldn’t do them justice…not only because the internet was constantly a struggle and my photo editing tools are all on my laptop (which we didn’t bring along), but I wanted to be able to write about these things with some distance from India. Our trip had a lot of ups and even more downs, but I know that with some distance, things won’t seem as though they were so bad. The following two posts will be about our time in Agra and our time in the Thar desert…and they are both stories that deserve to be to told without residual frustrations tainting otherwise beautiful experiences.
Suzhou’s most iconic building: The Pants
Goodness, I missed Chinese food!!!
I hope you enjoy reading about these adventures as much as I’ve enjoyed documenting them through both writing and photography.
Well, I can say a lot of things about my life here in China, but one thing I cannot say is that it’s boring! The last 2 days have been a total blur and now that I find myself at our favorite hang out, finally ready to write about ENP, I fear I won’t have the energy to even make it through my intro. In the last 48 hours we have been on: 2 Flights, 2 high speed trains, 7 metro trains and in taxis. I had 2 interviews on Tuesday, April 21st and they were in 2 different cities. I woke up in Suzhou yesterday, Shanghai today and then taught kindergarten in Guiyang this evening! If it weren’t for Shanghai’s INCREDIBLE transportation system and my expert co-navigator, this insane day would have never been possible.
But all the nuttiness and rushing around turned out to be very worth the trouble. Because we were able to make it work, I was able to see first hand what my top 2 choices for employment for next term look like up close. I was impressed with both, but I could only take one job, so after a lot of deliberation I decided to accept a position in the beautiful city of Suzhou. The school feels like a good fit and I was offered a job teaching Drama and English Writing in the Middle School at the Suzhou Foreign Language School, which is sort of perfect for me!! It’s a job I’ve been interested in for some time, and I was thrilled when they offered me the position.
The one bad thing about this whole nutty trip is that this happened to be my last weekend before we leave on our holiday in Cambodia. I can hardly believe that I’m going on vacation again before I’ve even finished writing about the LAST vacation!! Talk about living a spoiled life!!
But I better get on with it, before time slips away from me again and I wake up in Cambodia! I’ve saved the best post for last, so I hope you enjoy reading it 🙂
Elephant Nature Park: My New Favorite Place on Earth!!
Elephant Nature Park (or ENP) was founded in the 1990s by a lovely woman named Lek Chailart, whose love for elephants drove her to do something for them. As of March, 2016 the park is home to 69 elephants, 100+ cats, 400+ dogs and around 80 buffalo. Lek has taken all of the animals in and given them a natural home, where they aren’t abused by humans or used in the tourism industry for trekking or other harmful activities.
There are so many reasons why Elephant Nature Park is a ‘must see’ for anyone who visits Thailand. I’ve decided to sum up why I loved ENP so much into a nice compact list. Here are my top 3 reasons why I think EVERYONE should visit ENP (or somewhere like it). We’ll start with #3…
#3- It’s a great place to Escape the hustle and bustle!!
Bangkok and Phuket were awesome…there was always plenty to see and plenty to do, but with everything being so crazy, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. I was very happy our stay at ENP was towards the end of our trip, because it gave us an opportunity to wind down from all of that. There is so much natural beauty here and it’s really set up to help you relax 🙂
And if the lodging wasn’t quaint enough, the grounds where the elephants live are also gorgeous…
And if natural beauty isn’t enough for you, the Park’s Pets add yet another layer of serenity to the place 🙂
The atmosphere at ENP was definitely one of the perks for me. The beautiful scenery, abundant furry friends and rustic lodging were such a nice change from the rest of our trip!
#2 – High Entertainment Value
Right from our first moments at ENP, the elephants were making us laugh. You’re first introduced to the elephants at the feeding platform, and when it’s feeding time, things can get a little nutty!! THOSE TRUNKS!!!
If you’ve never seen an elephant trying to maneuver itself in water, then you have not properly seen an elephant. These typically graceful creatures become carefree and goofy once in the water. We probably could have spent a day just sitting there watching these guys play!
Baby elephants are especially playful! They have no idea how big they are, so this can sometimes be problematic for the Mahouts, who try very hard to train the elephants not to push around people. As the elephants get bigger, it becomes dangerous if they decide to push aside one of us tiny tourists, so we aren’t allowed to touch the babies…for their safety and for ours!!
The following is one of my favorite videos of our trip. It’s of an elephant named Dokmai (she’s actually a girl, though in the video I thought she was a boy). She just LOVES playing with fire hoses!!
But not all of our entertainment was presented in a comedic fashion. At one point, our group was actually chased down by a group of irritated elephants, who were tired of the dogs nipping at their trunks (a favorite pass-time for ENP’s dogs) We were standing by the river and all of a sudden, 4 or 5 elephants were charging toward us. I didn’t get any pictures of the event (I was too busy running), but I can tell you, it was an exhilarating experience!! Our guide, Apple, got us to run behind a fence, where she thought we’d be safe from trampling, but one of the elephants decided to follow us into the fenced area. She got pretty close to us but then lost interest and went in the other direction. Apple told us later that that particular elephant LOVES to chase people. And that although she often does this, she has never hurt anyone…she always stops when she gets close to her target and then goes on her way in the other direction. Maybe it’s her revenge for the years she spent working for humans in the tourism industry??
#1 – ENP is an extremely educational experience!!!
Elephant Nature Park isn’t just about laughter, relaxation and being chased by elephants. The staff here are very knowledgeable about everything Elephant. Some of the most interesting facts we learned:
That trunk has over 40,000 muscles in it! It is the elephants most diverse tool and can be used for a wide variety of things, like transferring food into the elephant’s mouth, sounding out a trumpet to show predators that they mean business and even for showing affection to family members. A trunk can be soft and flexible (as shown in this picture) or it can be stiff and used to slap the ground to intimidate predators (trunk slapping is very cool…it sounds like a rubber tire being dropped on the ground).
An elephant’s nose is also very well adapted for smelling. Their sense of smell is actually better than that of a dog!! Many elephants go blind in their lifetimes, because their environments usually involve a lot of dust, which gets into their eyes eventually causing blindness. We met many blind elephants at the park (I developed a soft spot for them…) but they manage to survive (and would in the wild as well!) due to their incredible sense of smell!
I’m sure you’ve heard that elephants are very fond of their families…this couldn’t be truer! In fact, they have a similar mentality about family as i do…blood doesn’t have to be all there is to having children or siblings. All of the babies at ENP have several ‘nannies’ who are FIERCELY protective of them. When one of the dogs snapped at Dok Mai, the entire family began trunk slapping and circled around her for protection. I should add that none of these elephants are related by blood…family is just so important to them that they create a family if they are taken away from their original one.
This is why animal advocates are so against zoos that keep elephants alone. I was happy to see that Calgary zoo had found new homes for their elephants, because they were moved to a place where there were more elephants for them to interact with. These are truly social creatures and having them in a pen by themselves is a form of solitary confinement. They go crazy…as I know I would as well.
I think more than anything else though, what surprised me about the elephants were the sounds they can make! You’ve heard the stereotypical ‘trumpet’ that they make. It’s a terrifying sound if it’s made in your direction, I can assure you of that! But they make so many more sounds than just their trumpeting. They grumble and squeak and sometimes almost sound like they’re purring. I LOVED falling asleep to the sound of that grumbling coming from the elephant pen at night. I fought sleep harder than I have since I was a little kid because I didn’t want to miss any of those nice sounds…
I also got a really cool video that sums up a lot of those sounds! One of the elephants got left behind by her herd when they’d gone across the river to eat some greenery. We watched her find them (and them find her) and it was quite the thing to see (and hear!!).
The grumbling you can hear is going back and forth between them. Elephants can communicate this way with one another when they are up to 10kms away from one another! They have very sensitive feet and can feel vibrations in the ground when another elephant is calling to them this way. Pretty cool! I should also add that this is the herd that chased us about 5 minutes after I took this video…they were an ornery group…
But unfortunately, not all of the facts we learned about elephants were pleasant. We learned a lot about the tourism industry while we met different elephants and were told their stories. We met several elephants with broken backs, who were all injured at trekking camps, where they are loaded up with tourists for hours every day, often carrying over 300 pounds on their backs at once (the chair alone weights 70 pounds) Although you’d think an elephant’s back is strong, given its size, it’s actually an elephant’s neck that is powerful and not its back, so many elephants end up with injuries. The chairs used in trekking camps are also terrible for the elephants’ lungs, which are squeezed by the strap that holds the chair onto the elephant. Add in the fact that they are overworked in terrible heat, and maybe you can understand why I refused to go elephant riding while in Thailand…
I know many people who have ridden elephants while in Thailand, or even in North America at circuses or zoos. I have heard many defenses over these types of rides, including things like ‘well THESE elephants were treated well!’ and ‘I rode on the elephant’s neck and not on a chair’. And while those may seem like valid arguments, if you do a little research you discover that every single elephant in captivity has gone through a hellish experience known as ‘crushing’ and that by riding an elephant (even on its neck) you are supporting that industry. Allow me to explain further…
Elephants are highly intelligent and very strong willed. To break an elephant requires a lot of work, and most people don’t believe an elephant can be trained without the use of violence. So when an elephant reaches the age of about 4 (which is VERY young for an elephant…at that age they are still quite dependent on their mothers in the wild) they are put into a wooden cage that completely restricts movement, and are stabbed with sticks (that often have nails tied into the end of them so that the elephants’ tough skin can be broken) and they are kept in that ‘crush’ for anywhere from 5-8 days. They are hit, stabbed with sticks and nails, screamed at and sleep deprived until they have lost the will to fight back. THIS HAPPENS TO EVERY SINGLE ELEPHANT THAT IS BEING USED IN THE TOURISM INDUSTRY.
So even if you ‘ride on their neck’ and even if the mahouts seem ‘really really nice’, these elephants are being tortured for human entertainment, and I know that’s not fun to hear, but it needs to be said. I know that a couple of years ago, I may not have done the research I did this time. Up until I did that research, ‘riding an elephant in Thailand’ was on my bucket list. I changed it to ‘meet an elephant in Thailand’ because I can’t bring myself to support this industry knowing what I know. And that’s why I’m sharing all of this with you. Because now YOU know, and you can do something about it too! Educate people! Encourage people not to support this industry because you now know what happens behind the scenes. It’s the only way any of this will stop, and after meeting all these incredible pachyderms, I had to write something about it. I had to be part of the solution.
Spring has officially arrived in Guiyang! The trees are all in full bloom, the sun is out and the weather is gorgeous! After 3 long months of rain and feeling like my very bones were cold, I am warm, wearing a skirt and am not bundled in 3 layers of clothing! I couldn’t be happier!!!!
The warm weather has inspired me to write about the highlight of our time in Phuket. Our incredible Hong By Starlight Tour had it all: breathtaking views, adorable animals and fantastic food! The trip TO the Hongs alone was impressive in of itself, but it all went uphill from here.
Now I suppose I should explain what a Hong actually is. We passed many islands during the hour and a half boat ride to the islands we’d be exploring.
A small number of islands near Phuket are hollow inside, and those are called Hongs. They are only accessible by caves and those caves are only accessible at certain points in the day, dependent on tides. Our tour involved seeing three of these Hongs by Sea Canoe…an inflatable canoe, designed specifically to go through caves. They are very tough and can be deflated if the tide is too high and the squeeze is too tight getting in or out of a cave. They are also unflippable…which is always nice 🙂
Though there are several companies who do these tours, we booked ours through John Gray’s Sea Canoe, which has won many awards for eco-tourism and has rave reviews on Trip Advisor, as well as on their website. Of course, we had to experience the tour ourselves to really understand why they’d won these awards.
Talk about a top notch tour! Every aspect of our day exceeded our expectations. The food was fantastic. Not only was it delicious, but because John Gray is all about environmentalism, the fish was net caught (not farmed) and the chicken was free range. This means that everything you are served on this tour is cruelty free and chemical free. A nice touch.
The staff were also incredible. Not only were they knowledgeable and friendly, but they seemed to really care about the company they work for. They asked us to speak quietly while in the Hongs, to not disturb the wildlife. No garbage was left behind and I actually saw our guide, Ole, pick up garbage that had been left behind by other groups.
When you add up these elements of the tour, and add in a truly fascinating and beautiful tour destination, you’ve created quite the memorable day trip. So here it goes…I’ll go one cave at a time 🙂
Cave #1 – Diamond Cave and Lagoon
As we approached first island, I could see the small entrance while still in the canoe, and it made me a little nervous. I’m a tad claustrophobic, so the idea of going into that small opening made me quite scared. I made sure to get it on video so you can see what it was like going into that dark space.
I didn’t have zoom on at all through that video and a moment after I stopped making the video, the ceiling was so close that I would have cracked my head on it if I’d even tried to sit up a little. Quite the experience!!!
But then you make it to the end….
Words fail me here…the inside of these islands is something I hope everyone in my life gets to experience at some point. It was worth every bit of claustrophobia I felt!! And although the scenery alone would have been enough to make my day, Ole had a lot to do with the way we experienced these 2 Hongs as well. He spoke softly so that the wildlife didn’t run away. He paddled softly and slowly so that we could enjoy the peaceful stillness of the Hong. He taught us about the area in a quiet voice and paddled a little behind the other guides so that we didn’t have to be around all the other loud tourists. These were perfect moments.
The way out of the island was a tight squeeze, as the tide had risen a little. We were the last ones out of the Hong and at some points in the journey back to the boat, I thought we were going to get stuck in the cave and drown. I could hear our canoe rubbing against sharp rocks and kept envisioning it deflating. The cave ceiling was close to my nose even while I lay flat on my back, arms and legs tucked. But we made it through! I was happy to discover later one that our canoes are built with those rocks in mind and that it’s incredibly difficult to rupture one badly enough that it sinks. Still…my mind was racing on our trip out of that island!!
Cave #2 – Mangrove Lagoon
After this first stop, I couldn’t wait to see my second Hong! In spite of my excitement, however, I was able to enjoy the moment and take some pictures of our journey to the second island.
Our second stop was in Mangrove Lagoon. I managed to get a video of our entrance into the Hong, although it is a little distracted as Dave was as excited as I was and wanted me to take videos of everything at once!! haha!!!!
This particular Hong didn’t have as much wildlife in it, but what it lacked in primates it made up for in foliage. There were over a dozen mangroves in the Hong, all different sizes and different shapes.
And we did see SOME wild life!
The mangroves weren’t the only beauty this lagoon provided. The rocks were jacked and beautiful and as the afternoon turned to evening, the light in the lagoon made for some beautiful pictures.
Our second island was as gorgeous as the first, and Ole proved to be consistent with his tours. He was wonderful yet again.
We were given a break at this point to swim in the ocean, paddle around in the canoes and take some pictures. We took advantage of all 3 options 🙂
Supper break gets it’s own section because it was that good. And no, for once I am not solely referring to the food! John Grey’s Sea Canoe aims to educate its customers and educate they did! Not only did we learn about the wildlife in the Hongs and see for ourselves what sort of habitats these lagoons provide, but we were also taught about Thai Culture.
The Loi Krathong festival typically takes place in May. Buddists build these offerings and set them out to sea, both in gratitude for all that the sea provides and in remorse for the pollution they have caused it. Each Krathong is different from the next, but they all share commonalities. For examples, most Krathongs will have marigolds, which represent prosperity. The 3 sticks of incense represent the 3 major parts of Buddhism: The Buddha, The Monk and Scripture. Ole explains:
Ole told us that he has been making Krathongs every year since he was a child, so for him, this creation was no big deal. I was amazed at how so little could look so elaborate!! I took pictures as he worked.
Sending Krathongs afloat also has another purpose. As you let go, you are suppose to make a wish. As it floats away, the Krathong takes your bad luck with it. Within a few hours it becomes waterlogged and sinks into the ocean, where it provides food for fish and other sea life. I’d love to see this festival take place in November!! It was such a lovely addition to our already lovely day!!
Once done making our Krathong, we had some free time before supper. During break, we had plenty of time for photo ops, which worked out well because this break was during sun set. Have you ever been on the ocean for sunset? I hadn’t until our Starlight tour, and wow is it an experience!!!
After eating, it was time to head into our last cave and our last hong.
Cave #3 – The Bat Cave!!
Unlike in China, where things are given names that make no sense, this cave was named perfectly. Yup! It was full of bats! I didn’t get many pictures because at this point our camera was dying, but some of these bats were as big as birds! We saw hundreds of them once in the cave, but don’t worry, they were sleeping!!
As the last bits of light disappeared with the setting sun, we head into the bat cave…
By the time we made it through the cave and reached the Hong, it was almost completely dark outside. We could see stars above and we were the only tour group left so it was quiet and peaceful moving slowly through the water in the dark.
Ole lit the candles of our Krathong and we set it in to the water where it floated calmly. The rest of our group were setting theirs into the water as well and when we looked around, we could see fire floating on water all around us. It was quite the scene.
Ole told us to make a wish as we let go of his piece of art, and we had a hard time thinking of anything more we could want in that moment. So we wished for a happy life for all 3 of us. What more could we want?
The tour was nearly over and it was time to make our way back out through the cave. It was completely dark now and the stars were shining above us brightly. We were able to stay sitting up while we slowly paddled through the Bat Cave; it has high ceilings and the tide was low. Ole had one more surprise for us, but it couldn’t be caught on camera so I’ll have to tell you about it instead.
He told us to reach into the water and move our hands, and as we did, little specks in the water lit up. We were surrounded by Bio-luminescent Plankton, that light up when the water is disturbed. We put our feet and hands in the water and watched it light up! Then we splashed water onto the walls of the cave and watched THEM light up! This plankton can only be seen in the dark and I think it was so cool that we got to experience it while in Thailand!!!
Before long we were back on the boat, on our back to Phuket. I felt sad that our Starlight Tour was done, but I comforted myself with the hope that some friends might come visit us next year, and we can all go see this together!! It’s an open invitation, so if you’ve been thinking of meeting us in Thailand…read this post again if you need more convincing!!!
I’ve only got one more post to write for Phuket, and that will be arriving on my page some time next week. Thanks for reading!!
Happy Time-Change for my international friends! All of China is on the same time zone, and there is no time change here, but we are still happy for Day Light Savings to begin, because it means we are one hour closer to our friends and family back home 🙂 It can be difficult arranging Skype calls at a time that is both early enough for us, but not so early that our families need to get out of bed at an ungodly hour. Until today, we were 14 hours ahead of our families back in Manitoba, and that one hour difference means we can go to bed at midnight again, instead of 1am.
There was plenty to celebrate in Guiyang this week as well…Spring Festival officially came to a close with The Lantern Festival last Thursday. This festival was actually the most beautiful celebration I experienced when I lived in Xiamen, but unfortunately, Guiyang does not put on the lantern show that is commonplace on the East Coast. Instead, the citizens of Guiyang set off fire works….for hours!! Our neighborhood was so smoked out by the time they were done, there was a haze in the air that was probably quite unsafe to inhale!!
Things have settled down now, and as Spring Festival came to a close, Spring itself began to creep in. The trees are blooming and the temperature is on the rise. We are less cold at night as well, which is a relief because our good space heater started shooting out sparks and smoke upon our return from Thailand! Luckily, we shouldn’t have to go to bed in layers of clothing for much longer!
Speaking of Thailand…
We went on 4 day tours while we were in Phuket, and 3 out of 4 of them were for snorkeling. I’ve been on several tours like this in the Caribbean, but I’d never experienced any in Asia, so some aspects of the tours were surprising to me. I’m going to write about 3 of them now and save our best tour for its own post (because believe me…it deserves its own post!!)
The Phi Phi Islands (The Good)
The Phi Phi Islands are world-known for both their beautiful cliffs and crystal clear water. We booked this trip for our last day in Phuket because it was suppose to be the most beautiful sight to see in that part of the country, and that turned out to be quite true. After a long bus ride to the pier, we were happy to meet our tour guide and set off to our first stop, Maya Bay (where Leonardo Dicaprio’s movie “The Beach” was filmed).
After a bumpy ride to the island (that left my back very sore for our trip to Bangkok the next day), we arrived at our destination. Our guide told us we had 50 minutes to explore the island and take pictures and then we would be setting off for Monkey Island. We stepped off of the boat and were greeted with Maya Bay and all its beauty…
Still…I’m not one to waste a photo op, so I set off on a mission. I was determined to get photographs of the island that showed its beauty, because regardless of the fact that its become such a popular tourist destination, it really is a beautiful place. Under all the swimsuits, umbrellas and beach blankets, there is soft white sand and gorgeous mountains surrounding the beach.
Once back in the boat, we head off to an area where we were supposed to snorkel, but the tide was out and the speedboat couldn’t get into the bay where the snorkeling was good. I settled for getting some more beautiful shots as we cruised around this fabulous area of islands.
Our next stop was Monkey Beach. I was particularly excited for this portion of our trip, although a little bit nervous. As I mentioned when I first started blogging (back in October), no matter how much I love monkeys, I don’t trust them. Monkeys can be little jerks!!! They’re too smart for their own good and they aren’t afraid of people in Thailand, which makes them dangerous. Still, I couldn’t resist getting off the boat (even after being warned that if we get bitten, rabies shots are a must) and we met this little cute guy, who was eating some peanuts left behind by another tourist.
The monkeys didn’t seem at all concerned that there were nearly a hundred people surrounding them and taking pictures, and they came right up to us, hoping for an easy meal.
Of course, I didn’t exactly leave that island unscathed….
About 2 seconds after taking the picture above, I was still squatting and watching the monkeys, when an adult jumped onto my back for a piggy back ride! All I could think of were the rabies shots, so I very slowly stood up, hoping that straightening my back would discourage him from using me for a free ride around the island. It didn’t….instead, he grabbed onto my hair and used it as a vine to swing from! He eventually jumped down but in the meantime I was pretty darn terrified!!! I think it was probably the most fun he’d had all week!!
We continued our tour, stopping to snorkel in an unfortunate spot. They let us out of the boat where the water was very shallow, and I nearly stepped on a sea urchin more than once while I struggled to get my mask and snorkel on (something that isn’t an issue if I’m just treading water…but it wasn’t deep enough for that). After cracking my shins on the coral several times, I gave up and went back into the boat to clean up my cuts and scratches.
Lunch was served on yet another island, where we were also given some free time to enjoy the beach or go swimming. When we arrived, I’d hardly taken 10 steps off the boat and a local was placing a young monkey into my arms. This is pretty common in these tourist areas, and I strongly disagree with the practice, as it uses animals for human entertainment. Being passed from tourist to tourist (most of whom have no idea how to handle a monkey) isn’t a healthy or fulfilling life for any animal, least of all one as intelligent as a primate. This particular monkey was screeching as he was placed into my arms, but calmed down very quickly as I held him closer to me. He cuddled in and got quite comfortable with me. Probably a little too comfortable, because when I passed him back to his ‘owner’, he screeched like mad once more, breaking my heart in the process.
One thing I will say in defense of these particular people is that they seemed to be very good to the animals. It turns out that there were actually 3 guys there, with 3 different primates. The one I met when we first arrived was the only baby and two adults we saw were different types of monkeys. One of them had been trained to sit facing out and to reach up and wrap his arms around your neck (kind of like the stuffed toys they give away at carnivals). His owner came over to me and put the monkey into my arms (a popular sales tactic I suppose) and I shook my head and said ‘no thank you’ (they charge you to take pictures). The monkey leaped back into his arms and started hugging him with joy. The man hugged him back. The two seemed to have a very good relationship, and that made me extremely happy. Although I disagree with using animals in this way, it was good to see that some of the people doing this as a form of income do care about the animals they are using.
That’s it for the Phi Phi Islands. In Part 2 of this post, I’ll be writing about the other islands we visited: The Raya Islands and Coral Island. Check back soon!
Well, I’m back! I had no intention of taking this long a hiatus from my blog, but life is sometimes best spent living. Although I went to bed every night wishing I’d had the time to write, I knew that I had good reason not to. For most of our 2015 vacation, Dave and I were up at the crack of dawn and on the move until the early hours of the morning on a daily basis. Our adventures spanned a wide range of interests, from speedboats to spas and from palaces to pachyderms, and the result was probably the most interesting 3 weeks of my life! There’s far too much for me to describe in one day or even in one week, but I need to start somewhere, so here it is: an overview of our 3 week holiday. For now, I’m going to stick with a summary of each city where we spent time; a bit of a pros and cons list for each. From there, I’ll start writing about specific experiences we had during our Spring Festival vacation.
1st Stop: Kunming, Yunnan Province
As some of you may already know, we had a bonus week added to our holiday at the last minute. The winter classes that my school had planned to offer ended up not panning out, so we were given the option to take a week of unpaid holiday (in addition to the 2 weeks we WERE being paid for). The alternative was to spend that week at the school, doing next to nothing, so Dave and I jumped on the opportunity and decided to visit Kunming during our bonus holiday. Our flight to Thailand was departing from Kunming so it made sense for us logistically, and we’ve both always been very interested in living in Kunming, so there was really no reason to go anywhere else!
The Best of Kunming
Kunming is not only beautiful, but also clean and sunny. The temperature doesn’t dip as low as it does in Guiyang, which was a welcomed change after our last weeks before the holiday (we’d both begun to feel like we would never feel warm again). We spent as much time outdoors as possible, taking in the vitamin D and enjoying Kunming’s beautiful parks and clean streets.
One of the other perks of being in Yunnan, is that there are more Lao Wai than in Guizhou, and where there are foreigners, there are foreign comforts! We managed to find several wonderful things from back home, including western-style bread (bread in China is sweet) and avocado. I even saw root beer on a menu at Salvador’s Restaurant (but they were sold out :(). More than just the food though, the people are more western. There is so much less spitting, honking and smoking in Kunming and we were both grateful for the break.
Of course, that’s not to say that Kunming was all sunshine and roses…After all, we are still in China!!!
The Worst of Kunming
The reduced honking, spitting and pollution was a wonderful change, but not all of the things that annoy me where I live are solely ‘Guiyangian’. I was nearly peed on by a little boy who had decided that the middle of the sidewalk was a good place to take a pee, and Dave actually pointed out the washrooms to a couple who had decided that the garbage can just outside the bathrooms were an appropriate place to have their 3 year old relieve herself. The funny thing about the second story, is that this happened in a mall that has a Rolex store. China can be such a mixed bag!! Kunming is so much cleaner than Guiyang in so many ways, but still, I saw the most terrifying toilets of my life while in the West Hills:
Of course, this is just what it’s like living in China. You get used to this sort of stuff surprisingly quickly. This particular bathroom was all the way up a hill, in the middle of nowhere. It’s the Chinese version of an outhouse…and I’ve seen some pretty nasty outhouses in my time too! And believe me…the woman who was using the washroom when I walked in did not look very impressed with the situation either…and she was Chinese! So please don’t get the idea that all of Kunming was this gross, because it definitely was not!!!
One other exception to the ‘I LOVE KUNMING’ statement I made above, was the hostel where we stayed while we were visiting Spring City.
The Hump looked like it had it all: good prices, great location, private rooms with double beds…I booked without much hesitation, because most of our hostel experiences in China have been good ones. Of course, our experiences at The Hump have now made me a little more nervous about booking hostels, as the experience was a far cry from what I’d seen in Xiamen and Guilin.
To anyone reading this blog for travel advice: I’d avoid this hostel. There are plenty of other options in Kunming that are much better, where you will get the room you paid for, where the staff will be willing to help you without first giving you a dirty look, and where, when the menu says ‘bacon’, you will be served bacon!!! (more on that in my Kunming post!!)
So that sums up Kunming! It was a great trip and I would highly recommend Yunnan Province to anyone who is interested in traveling China. Visiting Spring City just made both Dave and I even more determined to find a job there next year.
The Best of Patong Beach
Our first stop in Thailand was on the island of Phuket. More specifically, we stayed at Sea Pearl Villas resort in Patong Beach. The weather here was beautiful: warm and sunny our entire stay! The food in Patong was probably a highlight for both of us (other than one tour which I will be dedicating an entire post to….stay tuned). Not only was there fantastic Thai food to enjoy, but because Phuket is such a popular destination for European tourists, there are many western food options available as well! While there, we enjoyed sushi, shwarma, samosas, burgers, curries, falafels and pasta! I LOVE Chinese food, don’t get me wrong! But I didn’t realize how much I missed variety in my diet until we got to Patong beach and discovered how many options there were!
Our hotel was also a highlight for our stay on Patong Beach. I’ve mentioned in past posts that comfort isn’t really a ‘thing’ in China, but in Thailand, we experienced a comfortable bed for the first time since we were in Xiamen (and that had only been for 1 night!). Our king size pillow top was a thing of beauty and I truly felt sad when we said goodbye to it when our stay in Phuket was done.
The resort in general was very comfortable. Resorts in Thailand get a lot of flack because they aren’t all inclusive, like the ones in the Caribbean. While this is true, it also wouldn’t make much sense for resorts in Phuket to offer all inclusive packages, because people wouldn’t want to stay in the resort when there’s a chaotic little town to discover just down the hill! Still, Sea Pearl Villas was a fantastic place to relax after dealing with the mayhem in Patong Town, and we enjoyed the jacuzzi on our balcony on a daily basis, as a way to unwind and admire the city below.
Although the comforts and relaxing qualities of our resort were among one of our favorite parts of being in Phuket, it is not to say that Patong Town was a quiet, quaint place. Outside of the resort, Patong Town is the craziest place I have ever been. I won’t go into much detail now, because if I did this post would double in length, but the nights we had on Bangla Road and at the markets were anything but relaxing! I think it’s honestly the contrast between the two (the relaxation at the resort and the excitement of Patong Town) that made our stay in Phuket such a cool experience.
This was another street performer we met at the end of Bangla Road. He was pretty amusing. When he was done with the YMCA, he moved on to Gangnam Style.
The Worst of Patong Beach
There are two sides to every coin though, and although Phuket is somewhere I can’t regret visiting, it’s also somewhere I don’t know that I’ll visit again.
I worked in sales for a good chunk of my 20s, selling everything from natural cosmetics to cell phones to environmentally friendly cleaning products, but I can honestly say I’ve never seen sales like it’s done in Patong town. Everywhere you go, people are trying to sell you clothes, watches, DVDs, swimsuits, luggage and souvenirs. The worst of the worst are the Tuk Tuk drivers (who are trying to sell tours), the taylors (you want a custom suit? Very cheap!) and the massage parlors (You want a massssaaaa?????). Everywhere you go you are being sized up by hundreds of people who all want your money.
The prices were the other thing that really ground my gears in Phuket. This was our first stop in Thailand, so we didn’t know what the prices were like elsewhere, but even so…we knew they were high. Tuk Tuks charged 300 bhat ($11 Canadian) to take us on a 10 minute ride up the hill to our resort. That may not seem like a lot, but we had to pay it every night. And when you compare it to Bangkok, where we got all the way across town (about a 30-40 minute ride) for 200 bhat…
Even our resort, which was for the most part fantastic, found the need to overcharge us for services that are a norm elsewhere. We asked about getting to the airport on our last night there, and we were told that it would be an insane 1200bhat to get there (we’d only paid 380bhat to get from the airport to the resort)!!! We found out later that most taxi drivers will charge 800bhat (still high, but quite a bit lower) and that the hotels pocket the difference for bringing the taxis the business. I was pretty fed up with this behavior by this point, so Dave and I found our own way to the airport…it didn’t go as well as I’d hoped…
We did have several Thai people apologize to us for the behavior we saw in Phuket. The tuk tuk drivers are especially looked down upon by Thai people and I read several websites that were regretful that so many farang (people of European descent) leave Thailand with a bad taste in their mouth due to this gouging. Most Thais want you to feel welcomed and want you to enjoy your experience in their country and I’m very glad I experienced other areas of Thailand and that Patong Beach wasn’t my only view into Thai culture.
As usual, I have run out of time before I am done writing, so I will be posting part 2 tomorrow! Stay tuned to hear about Bangkok, Ancient Ruins and Thailand’s second largest city, Chiang Mai!