A Travellerspoint blog

Chiang Mai, the Islands, and a Change of Heart

After returning from the Elephant Nature Park, we spent a few days exploring the city of Chiang Mai, Thailand's second biggest city after Bangkok but thankful a lot less chaotic. We had a reminder of home on our first evening when we were surprised by a sudden downpour as we were wandering around the Sunday Walking Market; the streets descended into chaos as customers ran for cover and street vendors rushed to pull waterproof sheets over their products. We took shelter for a while, then decided to head home regardless (we are English after all).

The next day we had a dose of culture; Chiang Mai has countless temples but we limited ourselves to three to avoid getting 'templed-out'; a term seemingly common among backpackers in Southeast Asia. Our first stop was Wat Chedi Luang, an impressive old brick structure with four staircases leading up to the centre, where a Buddha statue is housed. We then moved on to Wat Phan Tao and Wat Phra Singh, both impressive temples with gold Buddha statues and incense abound.

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We then decided to treat our aching limbs to a Thai massage...at the Chiang Mai Women's Prison. While it hardly sounds like the most luxurious way to relax, Chiang Mai runs an admirable rehabilitation program for its female prisoners by teaching them the art of massage, and thereby giving them an employable skill for when they are released. The massage parlour is located across the road from the prison in a tranquil garden setting, and the massage was as good as any you'd find in Chiang Mai.

For our last day in the city we had booked a cooking school, and I cannot recommend it enough. We were picked up from our hostel by a member of staff from the school, taken to a local market to select ingredients, then to their school where we each had a cooking station and were able to select our dishes from a list of options. I chose Thai vegetable soup, red curry (with paste made from scratch), sweet and sour stir fry, Thai big noodles and mango with sticky rice.

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Although the demonstrations were quick, it was easy to follow as Thai food is actually amazingly quick and easy to cook; most dishes just involve throwing all your ingredients in a pan, and only take about 10 minutes to cook. We also got a recipe book to take away with us, so we have no excuse not to cook for everyone we know when we return.

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That night we began our long journey to the island of Ko Tao on the east coast; after setting off at 7pm we finally arrived on the island at 4pm, 2 coaches, 2 taxis and a ferry later. We stayed in the busy village of Sairee by the main beach, so our opinion may be slightly biased, but we found the island to be extremely touristy, overpriced and westernized. The highlight of our trip was the scuba diving; we found a lovely dive schhol filled with friendly staff and took a boat out to two dive sites - 'Japanese Gardens' and 'Twins'. The water was beautifully clear, and we saw lots of fish, and even a few stingrays!

The next island, Ko Phangan, was similarly touristy, but as we arrived shortly after the Full Moon Party, the island was pretty quiet; just how we wanted it. We stayed in a gorgeous Thai bungalow for just £7 a night, and had a lovely few days lying on the beach and recharging our batteries. We also caught some beautiful sunsets over Haad Rin Nai.

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However, we still couldn't shake the feeling that the islands had fallen short of our expectations, and so came our change of heart. We had planned to go to Ko Samui, the third island in the Gulf Coast cluster, but after being underwhelmed by the previous two, we decided to head to Malaysia, and see what lay in store for us there. The only thing standing between us and the island of Penang was a bus journey from hell...

Posted by kate1401 12:04 Archived in Thailand Tagged chiang_mai scuba_diving ko_tao ko_phangan Comments (0)

Volunteering With the Elephants

After leaving Bangkok we headed to Chiang Mai, where we basically slept all day to recover from our hellish night coach journey before reporting to the Elephant Nature Park Main Office the next morning for our week-long volunteering project. We had booked to work at the Park through STA Travel without knowing much about it, and had no idea the reputation the place and its owner, Lek Chailert, had built for themselves. More on that later.

Our first day was gifted to us as a free day; we checked into our rooms and were shown around by the Volunteer Coordinators Jane, Toby, Mix and Chet, who were to become our family for the week. Chet is also the most fabulous man I have ever met; he called everyone 'honey', had a different pair of sunglasses for everyday of the week and was not afraid to wear tiny shorts for manual labour. We were also treated to a traditional Thai welcome ceremony; the shaman from the local village came to lead the ceremony and we were each given a hand-woven string bracelet that is supposed to bring good luck.

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The next day real work began. For the whole week we were up at 7am for breakfast, with work starting at 8. We scooped poo, cut bamboo and corn in the fields, made mud pits and prepared food for the elephants. This last job sounds like a breeze, but the average Asian elephant eats around 300 kilos of food a day, and there were 32 elephants living at the park. I have never seen so much fruit...

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I have to admit though, we got a pretty good deal. We had been led to believe we would be roughing it, so we were pleasantly surprised when we arrived to discover we had our own rooms, three meals a day prepared for us by the Park staff, a beautiful veranda on which to eat looking out across the elephant territory, and even wi-fi. These are all signs of the extent to which the Park is prospering, despite the fact that the owner, Lek, is somewhat infamous in the area for her unconventional beliefs.

Many Asian elephants in Thailand live in domesticity and are used in the farming and tourism industries, and while wild elephants are protected as an endangered species, domesticated elephants are classed as livestock and therefore have the same rights as donkeys or cattle; none whatsoever. Thai people use an age-old method called 'Phaajaan' to break in young elephants, which involves trapping them in a cage preventing them for moving for days on end, jabbing them with blades and hooks, and depriving them of food, water and sleep until their spirit is completely broken. Lek rightly believes that positive reinforcement is a better training method; at her park the elephants are rewarded for good behaviour instead of punished for bad. Unfortunately most of the elephants at the park have already been put through the Phaajaan, and were rescued by Lek only after years of hard labour and maltreatment. Lek told us the story of one elephant at the park who gave birth on top of a mountain while working in the logging industry. The baby rolled down the mountain and died, and the mother was so stricken by grief that she refused to work; her owners jabbed her in the eyes with sharp sticks until she was blind.

Due to her forceful activism against these horrific traditions, Lek is fairly unpopular in Northern Thailand; the government charge her higher prices for purchase of land and after releasing video footage of the Phaajaan she even faced threats of physical harm. It is in the face of all this adversity that she has built this amazing park and rescued 32 elephants, with plans to expand. Her story and her spirit are truly inspiring.

However, her best work in my eyes is the message she is spreading through those who visit the park. The majority of elephant parks in Thailand advertise trekking as their main attraction, where elephants are forced to carry tourists on a large wooden frame. Although this, and smaller performances such as elephant painting, appear harmless, it must be remembered that all these elephants have been put through the torture of the Phaajaan in order to become controllable, and are still controlled with pain throughout their lives. Therefore I have to urge everyone to do your research when going to an elephant camp. Choose an organisation that does not offer trekking or any kind of gimmick. The elephants we lived and worked around were treated as the wild creatures they are, and seeing them wander around free from chains was infinitely more rewarding than riding them. Instead we got to see how they acted of their own free will; how they formed their social groups and how they rushed to protect the babies when a stranger approached.

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And so, after spending a week working in these amazing surroundings, it was with heavy hearts that we packed our bags on Sunday morning and boarded the bus back to the hustle and bustle of Chiang Mai. Eating a meal will never be quite the same without an elephant wandering past in the background...

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Posted by kate1401 20:46 Archived in Thailand Tagged volunteering elephant_nature_park Comments (2)

"Bangkok has them now"

What to say about Bangkok? If Bangkok were a song, it would be Dick Dale's 'Misirlou'. It’s loud, brash, and unashamedly so. The first night we arrived we only had time (and energy) to venture out for food in our hostel’s district of Silom before collapsing into bed, and I have to admit I was outfaced. Bangkok’s nights are dominated by street markets and food stalls, so the city’s 8 million people are compelled to conduct their evenings around the tables and tents and kitchens on wheels that occupy 80% of the pavements. There must be no such thing as ‘quickly popping to the shop’ in Bangkok, as it takes an age to get anywhere through the throngs of people. We retreated to our hostel that night with a slight sense of relief.

However, a new day brought a new perspective. Having slept away all our plane fatigue, we armed ourselves with a map of the city’s transport system and set about getting to grips with the extremely efficient train network; a combination of a skytrain, metro and airport link train allow you to get almost anywhere in the city. After whizzing across to Hua Lumphong Station to book our coach tickets to Chiang Mai, our next stop, we spent the rest of the day exploring Pratunam Market, a typical Bangkok street market selling everything imaginable. We snatched up some vacated seats at a busy street vendor and had two meals and two drinks for the small price of 140baht (just under £3), and I bought some beautifully comfy and ridiculous trousers for our temple trips the following day.

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The next day we set out to tackle the temples in the old city of Bangkok, Ko Ratanakosin. In an attempt to preserve the old city, modern public transport has not been developed there, so the only way to get there is to jump on a boat down the Chao Praya River. It’s a picturesque journey, passing traditional Thai huts nestled amongst glass skyscrapers and the towering Wat Arun on the other side of the river.

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Although the Grand Palace and Wat Pha Kaew are Bangkok's main attractions, the high entry price and stories we had heard of the rampant tourist hordes compelled us to merely take a quick wander around the entrance area before blowing it off in favour of Wat Pho, a smaller but underrated temple a short walk away. Its main boast is the largest reclining Buddha statue in the world; 15m high and 43m long with mother-of-pearl inlaid in the feet.

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Although this building is constantly filled with people, the rest of the temple grounds were quite different. In contrast to most tourist cities, visiting this tourist attraction was actually the most tranquil experience of our Bangkok trip. Once away from the Buddha buzz you find spacious courtyards and quiet worship spaces where you slip your shoes off and quietly explore while monks go about their business around you. The detail of the buildings is amazingly intricate and perfectly preserved; the building was built in the sixteenth century but the colours look as good as new.

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That evening John dragged me to Muay Thai Boxing at Lumpini Stadium, which actually turned out to be quite a fun evening. I had next to no clue what was going on, but we slowly picked up on the basic rules and when in doubt cheered when the locals cheered. The Thai regulars run an unofficial gambling system in the stands, which is almost as interesting to watch as the boxing; all across the crowds people are making hand signals, shouting and passing money around, and somehow everyone seems to get what they're entitled to.

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After spending our last day getting lost in the maze of stalls that is Chatuchak Weekend Market, we made our way to the bus station for our night coach to Chiang Mai, where we are undertaking a volunteering project at the amazing Elephant Nature Park. Til next time...

Posted by kate1401 12:17 Archived in Thailand Tagged bangkok wat_pho muay_thai Comments (0)

Port Elizabeth to Johannesburg

So, after a gorgeous but exhausting trip along the Garden Route, we finally reached Port Elizabeth to spend a week with John's friends Tom, Jaquie and Jono and get some relaxation time! Port Elizabeth is a small but beautiful town on the south-east coast that a lot of tourists rush right through, or just spend a couple of days in, but for us it made a perfect rest stop. Our hosts were lovely; Jono took us to the beach on an ill-fated mission to teach John to surf, and at the weekend we took a trip to Addo Elephant National Park for a day of safari. I was disappointed in my quest to see a lion, but we did see elephants, warthogs, kudu, zebra, and huge tortoises taking a casual stroll down the roads. A contender for the best moment of our trip was when a group of elephants appeared out of the bushes right by our window, forcing us to quickly reverse or be crushed. They gave us a dismissive glance before strolling across the road right in front of us.

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That was pretty much the end of the relaxation time for me, as I had the daunting task of completing my PADI Diver Open Water course in just 2 days. On my first day I learnt all my skills in the safety of a swimming pool and then went to the beach to do one dive in the sea, then got up bright and early on day 2 at 6am to do another three dives before lunch. I was exhausted, and my back ached from carrying the weights and air canister in and out of the water, but I was a qualified diver! Who knows, it might even be the beginning of a perfect six-pack.

The next day we set off for Durban at 7am. It felt like the longest coach ride in the world but we made it, finally stumbling into our hostel at 11pm. Our hostel was pretty close to the beach and an impressive new centre called Ushaka Marine World, a water park/swimming pool/shopping mall/food court that offered plenty entertainment. It was also clear why Durban is seen as a surfer's paradise; the waves are huge and pretty much constant. Having said that, we weren't really enamoured with Durban; it's noisy, dirty, and it rained quite a lot. If only we could surf...

As our time in South Africa drew to an end, we just had time for a one-night stopover with my Grandad and his wife Louise, who gave us a bed for the night and took us walking in Klipriviersberg, a local nature reserve in Mondeor. The reserve was beautiful and felt so far away from the world, and John even made some new friends when we stopped for a snack.

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It was definitely a flying visit; that night Louise dropped us off at the airport and we were on our way to Bangkok, where I now sit writing this blog. Updates on our Thai adventures coming soon...

Posted by kate1401 00:24 Archived in South Africa Tagged diving safari johannesburg durban port_elizabeth Comments (0)

“Fear is temporary, regret is forever”

On our last day in Nature’s Valley, with a slightly sick feeling in our stomachs, we travelled to the 216m high Bloukrans Bridge for our bungee jump. After we’d been strapped into our harness, we were led along a long metal grid bridge, which gave us a stomach-flipping view of what was to come and bounced slightly, just in case we weren’t feeling nervous enough.
Once at the bridge, everything happened pretty quickly. I had already been tagged to go first, so I was pulled aside and tied to the bungee rope as someone turned on the ‘get psyched’ cd. The guys working on the bridge were clearly aware that time spared is time to hesitate, so as soon as I was tied up they helped me to the edge, and with my heart pounding in my chest I half-jumped and half-fell off the bridge. I will admit that John had much more poise than me.

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The weird thing is that once you jump all the fear melts away. The adrenaline kicks in, the world seems to spin around you and you feel completely free…for about 6 seconds. Then the bungee cord pulls taut, all the blood rushes to your head and you feel like your eyes are about to pop out. Within 20 seconds a guy had dropped down on a winch, clipped me to his belt and begun the ascent back to the bridge, which ironically is more terrifying than the jump. When you’re jumping you don’t have time to think, but when you’re hanging from a single clip looking down at the valley below getting slowly further away, there’s plenty of time for your mind to go into overdrive. Suffice to say I was happy to reach the bridge.

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Exhilarated and triumphant, we made our way back along the bridge onto solid ground, and my adrenaline buzz lasted for at least the next hour. It may be a short experience, but it's definitely sweet.

Posted by kate1401 10:47 Archived in South Africa Tagged bungee_jumping bloukrans_bridge Comments (0)

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