Chiang Mai, Thailand: A Day At The Elephant Nature Sanctuary.

This was our first trip to Chiang Mai and I hadn’t heard a bad word about it from anyone – but I also didn’t really know what to expect either, except for markets, markets and more markets. My only goal for the week was to find a decent tailor and Lea wanted to spend a day with elephants.

Flying into Chiang Mai was certainly more impressive than landing in smoggy Bangkok. Big green hills covered in tropical forest sit quite close to city and, for the second largest city in Thailand, it has a relatively small airport and few tall buildings.

We caught a taxi to our hotel – Rimping Village. Sitting just over the Ping River from the heart of the city, the hotel had quiet and green grounds and a decent sized pool sheltered by an enormous rubber tree that was filled with epiphytes.

The hotel grounds were full of orchids of various colours, shapes and sizes as well as several frangipani trees. A little oasis in a very busy city.

One of the first Chiang Mai icons we became familiar with was the Iron Bridge (locals pronounce it ‘eye-ron’, this is important to know when telling a taxi driver where to go!), which didn’t look at that impressive to us by day but certainly attracted hordes of self-taking teenagers and fishermen at night. It also just seemed, despite being quite narrow, to be a place to just hang out. People of all ages draped themselves like wet socks over the rails as soon as dusk descended.

While the locals assured us it was winter (ha!) and did indeed walk around in jeans and jackets, it was still 34 degrees during the day and felt about 40 if you were out in the sun in the breeze-less city. We mostly stuck to the pool during the day and wandered out at night.

The Elephant Nature Park

This was our only whole day, relatively expensive, excursion in Chiang Mai. There are many elephant parks around the city but this one is exceptional as a refuge for elderly, injured, and mistreated animals (dogs, cats, buffalo, horses and more as well) and the respect and love the staff have for the animals is evident everywhere. If you are thinking of visiting an elephant sanctuary I highly recommend this one.

We were picked up at 8:30 from our hotel and our group of six for the day included a nice couple from the UK – Duncan and Fiona. During the hour’s drive out into the forest we watched a video on the rules of how to behave around elephants – most of which we ended up breaking at some point during the day.

Our guide was a funny young man named Dave whose love of elephants became more and more obvious as the day progressed. He told us about his favourite elephant dying recently of old age and how, for weeks after, he could not talk about him without crying.

Our first stop was a walk along a forest track with three female elephants. Dave and the mahouts gave us bags of bananas and sugar cane to put in the elephants’ trunks. It was a bit intimidating as they could almost eat them faster than we could get them out of the bags and being followed closely by a hungry elephant is quite a memorable experience.

Pete is pestered by a persistent pachyderm.

Next was a tasty vegetarian lunch in a hut where we waited for the next group of elephants.

We helped prepare food for elephants who were on a high-calorie diet after being semi-starved by their previous owners who wanted to keep the elephants small to make it seem that they were younger than they really were – younger elephants can be sold for more money.

We chopped up watermelon and made balls of rice and dried fruit that had to be put directly into the elephants’ mouths so they didn’t fall apart.

Apparently elephants don’t have to wait an hour after eating before going for a swim as we went straight to the river and got in with buckets so we could splash water all over the elephants. One went out into the deepest part of the river and completely submerged itself and rolled around. I was very glad to have my reef shoes for this part of the day as submerged and slippery rocks were a bit of a hazard.

To get to the main camp we got into rubber boats and did a little bit of white-water rafting down the river, passing some bathing elephants along the way.

The Elephant Nature Park lets most of its elephants roam free around the reserve with their mahouts, who are there to protect and help feed them. Newcomers are restricted to the inner grounds and sleep overnight in shelters with sand heaps(for lying against), water and four nightly feedings.

Dave with one of the oldest elephants at the park. I think she was in her 80s!

It was interesting to learn that the elephants at the park choose their mahouts rather than the other way round. Some mahouts come with their elephants to the park and some meet when they arrive. All the mahouts seem to spend most of the day lying in little cabana shelters or wandering next to their elephant. It would have been very interesting to talk to one of them about their job.

The last thing we did was walk around the sanctuary and see the newer or more injured elephants. One was completely blind thanks to a cruel owner’s punishment. Another had a deformed foot after stepping on a land mine. While the stories at the ENP are often tragic, it is heartening that places like this exist and so many people come to volunteer their time to take care of the animals.

An incredible and emotional day that we all enjoyed!

To finish, here are a few of the gorgeous dogs that are up for adoption should anyone visit the sanctuary and want to take them home.

Every one of the 600+ dogs at the sanctuary is named and many are adopted by people in other countries, especially Britain. No surprise to me after seeing all the dogs in the UK!

Doing Nothing At Lebua In Bangkok

View from our balcony.

I have almost nothing to write about Bangkok because we planned on doing nothing and barely ventured from our hotel.

Luke’s parents, Lea and Pete, were meeting us there and we were all travelling through Thailand together for three weeks.

Luke and I arrived first in the mid afternoon after a ten and a half hour flight from London on which I slept almost the entire way. There is an immense feeling of satisfaction when this happens – like performing some kind of magic trick that makes a whole lot of boredom and discomfort disappear. Luke’s parents arrived late the same night so we met them at breakfast the next day.

The first morning we woke up to huge pink thunderclouds. The view from our balcony was magnificent.

As I have written previously, Lebua does an excellent breakfast buffet, even by Asian hotel standards. There’s food from almost every continent and whether you want crepes, bagels, hummus, roast pork, sashimi, salad, wonton soup, curry or even a bowl of humble cereal, your tastes will be catered for. Thanks to 3am jet lag every morning I made it down in time for a light six am breakfast then a return at eight or nine for food with everyone else.

Breakfast by the pool.

Speaking of jet lag, even though Luke and I came from the same time zone it seemed to affect us completely differently. I struggled for a week and a half with waking up super early and feeling like a zombie at 4pm, Luke sporadically woke up at midnight for several hours and had trouble getting to sleep in the evening. Why is this so? If you know please leave a comment!

After breakfast I would spend an hour walking up hill in the gym while Pete and Lea would hang out by the pool and Luke did some video editing. Pretty soon it would be time for the complementary afternoon tea with all drinks included.

The balcony outside the restaurant where we had afternoon tea.

Lea discovered she quite likes pina coladas (I mean, who doesn’t, amirite?) and we’d all get a bit squiffy before a quiet evening of looking at the view from our balconies and going up to the roof bar and trying to take photos while avoiding buying any overpriced drinks. And I do mean overpriced! The cocktails were all $20-$30 and one of the glasses of champagne was $100.

So, not the most thrilling post I’ve ever written but you can see why we like to stay here – complete indulgence! Although we didn’t spend a huge amount of time outside the weather was noticeably cooler than it is in April (on our other trips), being around 34 degrees rather than 40. Walking around at night (we did leave the hotel a couple of times) wasn’t a sweat-drenched nightmare.

Next we headed to Chiang Mai to experience a different side of Thailand.

Turkey: Istanbul

After six weeks in Africa on what I came to think of as the ‘plague truck’ and not getting ill, I was most dismayed to develop a cold and cough a couple of days into our stay in Istanbul. I didn’t really get the most out of the city, particularly since we stayed an extra two nights after Nikki and Leigh left, just to see more stuff. Still, we did make it to a few notable sights and the place certainly made a good impression.

The view from our first apartment.

The weather was pretty good – a trifle hot but it was August after all, and the nights were cooler. Our first apartment had 70 steps to climb (and me with 20kgs of luggage), so I was very happy that our second place was on the ground floor. We chose the ‘Cheers Hostel’, very close to the Aya Sofya and the Blue Mosque. Mosques in Istanbul were much quieter than Dar Es Salaam and provided more of a nice touch of  distant foreign flavour rather than a blare of tinny screeching at 4am.

In the ‘old city’ where we stayed at Cheers, there were some really beautiful buildings. Turkish people know how to go to town with colour and I’ve been totally inspired with regards to home furnishings and craft projects for when I get home.

If unicorns became architects they’d design houses like this.

At night all the lamp shops and bars with lamps and just general abundance of lamps made the place look magical. I may have even bought a few lamps myself, but about 97 less that I actually wanted.

Lucas, Luke and I decided to buy a ticket for a ‘hop on hop off’ bus to see more of the city. It was a bit rubbish, to be honest. The buses seemed to run in different directions each time we got on so there was some back tracking and the recorded commentary was dreadful. For a city with three thousand years of history you’d think there’d be something interesting to say but I can remember almost none of it – and usually trivia sticks in my mind. Heck, with an hour on the internet *I* could’ve done a better tour.

Every time I saw the Istanbul horizon I thought of football because of the pairs of minarets, which is ludicrous because I don’t even think about football when I see people playing football.

However the tour, for a small extra cost, came with a boat trip that we took in the evening. Despite looking like we were going to be crammed aboard a boat like sardines into a can (although that’s a bad simile, because if the can sank the sardines would’ve been fine, unlike us) it turned out that there were multiple boats and the view was great and the guide was ok too. Although I was feeling rather sorry for myself by this point and fell asleep for part of it, the boat did go under a bridge that was huge and did fantastic light displays every half hour with a huge number of LEDs. We’d seen it from our Taksim apartment but getting to get right up close to it was excellent.

This photo does it no justice at all.

Apart from that I basically slept most of the days away or dragged myself around like a snot-producing zombie. One of the things I did quite like was the Basilica Cistern, a huge cavern underneath the middle of Istanbul which was, as the name suggests, a water storage area.

About 1500 years old, it shows how we really don’t make things like we used to. Plus there were big fat fish swimming in the metre or so of water under the walkways. They were a bit creepy. Apparently the place was used in ‘From Russia With Love’, many years ago.

Apart from that Istanbul was notable for the vast number of cats everywhere, the fact that everyone’s brother/cousin/uncle’s-father’s-former-roomate-in-college had a carpet shop we should definitely visit, and the foooooooood. Turkish food is great – and dramatic. They do this thing called a ‘testes kebab’ (yes, I know what you’re thinking, but no!) which is a casserole cooked in a clay pot and then the pot is broken when served. We have also been loving the turkish delight and baklava. I’ve always thought baklava seemed like a good idea but never really had much of it. Until now!

On the topic of food, but only just, Lucas and Luke became addicted to something I dubbed the ‘squishy burger’. These were sold at street side kebab and sandwich vendors and would be stacked, pre-made in a bain-marie. They looked … well, you can see for yourself.

Bun, meat and tomato sauce, left to sit in a glass cabinet all day. It’s hard to believe nothing went wrong.

Not exactly appetising. But they were super cheap (the equivalent of $1 each I think) and I’m ashamed to say that I, too, thought they tasted alright. I limited myself to a single one but the boys had at least one a day, by my reckoning.

I’d like to assure all the parents out there reading this that we ate this kind of thing more frequently:


Farewell drinks with Nikki and Leigh.

Next stop: Cappadocia!

Last Night In Bangkok.

Our last day has consisted of not much due to torrential rain and blackouts. We headed out after breakfast to look for camera stuff but came home empty-handed. Three hours of high tea and endless wine made us feel better and we sat in the pool as the sun went down and then watched a movie so we could enjoy our lovely room and view for the last time. A bit sad I guess, but we need a bit of time before tomorrow’s flight to get stuff in order and finish up the Asia part of our trip.

View from Lebua.

For the most part I’ve really enjoyed our time here. The highlights have been the food (duh), the beaches, the flowers, the people we’ve met, and the sunrises and sunsets over beautiful landscapes. Oh, and how affordable most things are.

Pretty much everyone I know who has been to SE Asia raves about it. I can see what they like about the place but there’s a few things that have driven me crazy, such as the heat, the pollution and frequently feeling as though we’re being ripped off. Despite this I’d come back. Not to Saigon, mind you, but Hoi An and Bangkok definitely. Somehow I wasn’t really expecting to like Bangkok as much as I did. I like the bustle of the place, the sights and smells, the great public transport and the friendliness of the people.

I think what this stage of the trip has taught me is that just because some people – and perhaps everyone else – enjoys something, that doesn’t mean I will. It doesn’t mean I won’t, either, but I have to judge activities on what I know about myself and go from there. There are some things I’ve done that just weren’t my thing – I probably could’ve lived without the trip to Halong Bay, for example – though it did result in meeting Andrew and learning that buses are to be avoided at all costs.  And I did get to kayak and see fish… I’m starting to realise how much I like water-based activities and fish. It’s not something I’ve really thought much about before.

Lion fish at Ocean World.

Photography has also been a learning experience here. I used to think it was crazy, the way Asian tourists took photos of everything they saw, but there’s a lot of freedom for a photographer in a society with that viewpoint. It’s taken me a while to come to terms with the fact that no one here seems to mind having their photo taken and, in fact, a number of times we’ve turned around to find ourselves being photographed. I do think life should not be experienced through a lens but it’s hard to deny the power of photographs when it comes to recalling experiences and keeping memories fresh.

On to the next chapter – Europe! It’s 10 degrees and raining lightly in Munich right now and 27 degrees here. We leave here at around 2 in the afternoon and get there at about 8pm but we’ll fly for 11 hours. It’s going to be a long, 29 hour day! We have one coat, one hoodie and one pair of jeans each. Our first task in Germany will probably be buying some winter clothes.

Time to go pack!

 

First Night in Bangkok

Bangkok is definitely the most easily commuted city we’ve visited so far. We had no difficulty getting to our hotel, just across the road from mega-mall MBK. Although once we stepped off the train I did refer to a compass to get my bearings, for the first time in my life. While I lack skills in things as simple as accurately recalling three digit numbers, I’m pretty good with map reading and orientation and I quite enjoy the challenge of navigating around a new city.

Our hotel, Wendy House, is… uh… serviceable. Our room has fake wood paneling of a style that looks about 40 years old and we have no windows and a bright florescent light. You can imagine how charming it is, I’m sure. The staff are nice though, and it does come with free breakfast and a flight of the steepest and narrowest stairs I’ve ever seen in an establishment that has no lift. Fortunately they changed our room from the 4th floor to the 1st.

I lied – there is a window but it opens onto the corridor and you can barely see through it so I don’t think it counts.

We showered then headed down the road to MBK where there appeared to be a Cosplay convention happening right outside. Naturally, since we’d only gone down to do a preliminary reconnaissance, I didn’t take my camera. Fortunately Luke got some video. After a couple of hours of wandering around we sat down in a restaurant on the ground floor and watched all the people in elaborate costumes walk past. There seemed to be more photographers than actual cosplayers and the event seemed to comprise of nothing more than giggling and taking photos.

In the evening we wandered down the road and ended up buying some packet noodles, some fresh mango and a few drinks to have in our hotel room. We the forgot about the noodles, drank quite a few drinks and watched a few episodes of the IT Crowd and then went to bed, ready for Chatuchuck Markets in the morning.

Angkor Wat

Before I relate yesterday’s adventures, I’d like to do a quick plug for another blog, The Adventures of Lames McFuzzy, written by another Australian couple who, sadly, have just finished their 3 month tour of SE Asia. I’ve really enjoyed reading their adventures and if you’re planning on visiting the same part of the world they include lots of good travel tips. Whenever I have time, which isn’t often, I like to search for good travel blogs and this one is a lovely read.

Speaking of having time on my hands, Luke’s gone out temple-touring today while I sit in our room in close proximity to the bathroom. Just in case. People tell me this is bound to happen on any trip to SE Asia, I’m kinda grateful it’s happening while we’re staying in a four star hotel with reasonable wifi, room service and all the other mod cons.

Anyhow, enough about my bowels, on to Angkor Wat, reputedly the largest religious site in the world.

The thing to do (and it certainly seemed that everyone was doing it) is to get up at 4:30 in the morning and drive out to the main temple to watch the sunrise. An picked us up at 5:15 and we went to the kiosk along the way to buy our tickets. $20pp for one day’s entry to all the temples and they take your photo and print your ticket with your picture on it – very high tech!

There’s a pool of water right in front of the main temple structure and so the reflections of the sunrise look great. We were in a crowd of at least 2 or 300 people so there’s wasn’t a whole lot of serenity to enjoy, unfortunately. At least the dozens of people selling guide books sort of leave you alone at that point.

Even at dawn the weather was hot. It was 32 degrees, which climbed to about 38 over the course of the morning. After grabbing a few shots we wandered around the temple. The restoration works are much in evidence but are clearly very well done. The whole thing reminded me of Tomb Raider (the game), which I spent one Summer in Canberra watching my housemate play. There are parts of Angkor that look as though they should be filled with water and there’s so many swimming scenes in the game that I was half hoping to spot some kind of secret lever or trap door 😉 .

I don’t know whether it was the onset of my stomach issues or just being a wuss, but the heat was making me feel woozy. I didn’t take many photos and eventually went to the line of drinks stall in the hope of getting some ice for my neck scarf. After I bought some water and tried to explain what I wanted, the lady sawed off a piece of ice (they come in enormous blocks here) the size of a housebrick. Smaller please! I ended up with something the size of maybe 4 Mars Bars bundled together which was a bit awkward but heavenly nevertheless and there’s nothing like icy water running down your spine to perk you up in baking heat.

Luke and I wandered off down one of the side roads and found a run down little part of the wall where there was a gate and a gorgeous view over the lake. With no one else around it was extremely peaceful and lovely. From there we wandered around the outside of the walls back to the main entrance.

From there An drove us to another temple where the wall carvings were in excellent repair, even thought there was no roof left to this building. While driving us around An told us that all these ruins had lain in the jungle, completely unknown to anyone for over 200 years before a French Archeologist discovered them last century. Due to a war with Thailand everyone had left the area a long time ago and so even the local people had forgotten them. I can’t imagine how that explorer must have felt, coming across these buildings for the first time. It would’ve been magical.

We walked through two more complexes. One was the ‘Tomb Raider Temple’, featured in the movie and currently undergoing huge restorations, the other was the ‘Smiling Face’ temple (probably not it’s real name but handily, I didn’t write down anything An told us), which I walked around the bottom of and Luke went through. I have a minor phobia of steep flights of stairs and this one had lots of steep, slippery, narrow stairs.

But this time it was about 12 and An took pity on us and drove us by a few other sights before dropping us back at our hotel. He had been a great driver all day – unending bottles of icy cold water, lots of local information and even told us about his family and what happened to them under the Khmer Rouge. I was very glad I’d spent a while reading about the history of Cambodia on our way here. I’d heard of Pol Pot but I’d had no idea just how atrocious the history of Cambodia was. Seems like they’ve been at war for a very long time, and when it wasn’t other countries trying to take over it was their own leaders commiting genocide.

A very instructive, interesting and active day. I was very happy to get back to the hotel for a shower, swim and a nap before our evening excursion.

The train to Da Nang (or not, as it turned out).

We’re sitting on the train from Hanoi to Da Nang. We are in a sleeping cabin, a ‘soft berth’. Apparently the beds are marginally thicker than the ‘hard berth’ beds and there are 4 to a cabin in 2 bunks.

As soon as we got on last night a family asked us to swap so they could all be together, which was fine. Luke and I moved to another cabin, which we ended up sharing with an older man and a grandmother with her granddaughter. They were very quiet room mates. I slept like a log – the beds on the train are much softer than the ones on the Halong Bay boat.

We had dinner before we got onboard at 11pm last night and bought some bread rolls and cheese to eat for breakfast. We also had to buy a cutlery set yesterday so we could slice the cheese and spread our margarine. Another thing I should’ve thought to bring.

Yesterday we had to check out of our hotel at midday, so we sat around in the morning doing research and various things on the internet then left our bags at the hotel and caught a taxi to Saint Honore, a bakery highly recommended on Trip Advisor. I thought that, while we were in Vietnam, we should check out the bakeries as they are reputed to be the best in Asia. Which isn’t saying much if my experiences in Thailand and Japan are anything to go by.

Saint Honore was lovely. Certainly not any better than any specialist bakery in Australia, but definitely a cut above the street bread in Hanoi, which only comes in white baguettes and white (rather sweet) loaves.

We bought ourselves some take away lunch then walked south around West Lake, where it became apparent that Vietnamese people will grow anything anywhere, anytime. Even the small squares of dirt by the side of major roads where an ornamental tree had been planted, was also filled with tomatoes or mint or something I didn’t recognise but was undoubtedly edible. We walked past an allotment right next to the Hanoi Intercontinental. The garden was probably the prettiest thing I’d seen in Hanoi. Rows of herbs and vegetables with tiny white cabbage moths fluttering everywhere, which probably wasn’t doing the garden any good but they looked lovely.

City allotment.

We headed through a Japanese temple then past the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, which wasn’t open at the time. I’m not that into seeing dead bodies anyhow. Then to the Temple of Literature, the oldest University in Vietnam as it started in 1070 AD.

Flowers at the Japanese temple.

As we wandered around the central lake we were accosted by a group of young university students who asked if they could speak to us in English. We stood there for a while, laughing and chatting with them. More people gathered around to listen to what was going on and we ended up with a small crowd. We headed off after about half an hour and wandered through the back streets of the Old Quarter. The streets there are arranged by trade/goods, so if you’re looking for kitchenware you go to one particular street and all the shops sell saucepans etc.

We headed up to the cityview café for the last time to watch the sun go down and so I could take some long exposure shots of the traffic. We debated going to the place Sarah recommended but figured 19 floors up would be too high to get good light trails. Next time perhaps! It certainly did look nice in the photos.

A hand held 30 second exposure. Talk about a steady hand!

We picked up our gear then headed to a restaurant near the station where I finally tried Pho (pronounced ‘fur’). It was ok, but Luke and I both agreed that Bun Cha (BBQ pork in a thin soup) was much better.

Dinner was nice but made much more entertaining by the fact that we could see into the area where the waiters and waitresses were standing around and we watched them flirting we each other like high school kids and laughing lots. It was charming.

…ooo000ooo…

To jump forward in time, I am now writing from Hoi An, where we arrived last night. Our train journey ended in what we thought was Da Nang. We heard the announcement, gathered our bags and got off the train at the right time. Before we got off I asked the fellow in our compartment if this was Da Nang and he pointed to the exit, then I tried to ask another passenger who flat-out ignored me. So we jumped off. To cut a long story short, it wasn’t Da Nang, it was the previous stop, Hue, which we should’ve reached 2 hours prior. ARGH. We caught a private taxi into the town centre for $2.50 and then bought bus tickets for around $8 each. The bus was cramped with no airconditioning and took about 3 hours to get us to Hoi An.

We were both feeling pretty fed up when we got here but it turns out Hoi An is the prettiest place in Vietnam (in our experience). So clean and in such good condition it almost looks like the Disney version of what Vietnam should be. More on Hoi An later. With a million photos!