A Travellerspoint blog

March 2013

The Journey South

So where were we? Ah yes, the bus journey from hell. Technically, it started with a night boat, which we were encouraged to take because "it has beds and you'll be able to sleep". It turned out the word 'bed' was a bit of an exaggeration.

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There was very little sleep to be had. We then boarded a small shuttle bus, that was filled with other passengers and all of our luggage, which, since the boot was too small, was stuffed into the aisle between our seats. As we set off with our knees pressed against the back of the seat in front, we refused to believe that this tiny bus was going to take us the 6-hour journey to Penang. We were right; but only half-right; it stopped in Hat Yai where we were transferred onto an equally tiny bus to complete our journey. As we rattled into Georgetown, every bum in the road jolted us almost out of our seats, and even though we were dropped off on a random street with no map and no Malaysian currency, I've never been so relieved to finish a journey in my life. Luckily our hostel had the best shower in Asia to brighten me up.

Penang was a real mixing pot of cultures; like most of Malaysia it’s a combination chiefly of Thailand, India and China, but influences from the Middle East and Britain can also be seen. The best indicators of the city’s multiculturalism are found in its architecture and its religion; on our first day we walked a Heritage Trail around Georgetown, Penang’s main city, and found many British-style buildings, constructed during Penang’s time as a colony, such as the Town and City Halls. On our walk we also discovered a wide range of places of worship; churches, mosques, Taoist and Buddhist temples mingle in the narrow streets as if religion had never caused a war in all of history.

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One of the most interesting features of Georgetown is the clan jetties, where various Chinese clans have built small towns on the wooden jetties that stretch out into the river. Mazes of streets have actually been constructed, and contain houses, shops and even the odd café. Entire communities live on these jetties, but they do feel a little fragile; indeed, one of the clans was asking for donations to replace the wooden supports that were rotting in the sea water. We ventured onto the boards with a little more trepidation after that.

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After a few days we moved on to Kuala Lumpur. The capital has clearly had money poured into it, and it’s now a daunting maze of glass skyscrapers and giant shopping malls. Therefore it seems only fitting that the city’s main attraction, The Petronas Towers, combines both of these features; the impressive towers play host to an up-scale shopping mall at its base, housing the likes of Louis Vuitton, Armani and Chanel.

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Although we did find areas of peacefulness and beauty at the National Mosque and the Perdana Botanical Gardens, for us Kuala Lumpur exuded a cold and impersonal air that we had rarely encountered in Asia, and we soon escaped to Melaka, a small town further down the west coast. The town is fairly small, but has a vibrant Chinatown and a ruined old church with beautiful views over the city. Our hostel was one of the best we’ve stayed in; the owner was so friendly and organised nightly trips to various street markets around the town, where we could sample authentic Malaysian food and get to know other residents. It was with a slight pang of sadness that we departed the hostel and headed for Tioman Island on the east coast.

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Tioman was perfect. Quiet, rustic, undeveloped; it was everything we hoped the Thai islands would be. We were without internet for the duration of our stay, which in this day and age is fairly close to being off the map. The beaches were small but sandy, and the water was so clear you could swim out until you were treading water and you could still see the sea bed. We went diving and had our best experience yet; the visibility was incredible and we even saw our first turtle! Its only in water of this clarity that you can truly get a sense of how vast the ocean is, and how little of it we are able to explore.

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After three days of blissful relaxation, it was time for the final leg of our Southeast Asia journey, to the decadent city of Singapore. Like Kuala Lumpur it was a shopper's heaven, but it was also so much more. The city had a vibrancy that was missing in KL, and the architecture was simply stunning; we found ourselves marveling at offices and shopping centres.

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The bay area is particularly spectacular; a 'garden' of huge trees that light up at night have been constructed, with a real garden circling their base and a view of Singapore's wheel in the distance. Although we didn't get to see them at night, they were impressive enough during the day.

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We enjoyed a final cheap-but-delicious meal of chinese chicken curry and rice at a popular place near our hostel, and with that we left for the airport on a high. Goodbye Asia, and hello Australia!

Posted by kate1401 13:24 Archived in Malaysia Tagged kuala_lumpur singapore penang scuba_diving melaka tioman_island Comments (0)

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)

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