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!

Here Comes The Planet 66 – Kenya 07

If you’re on a Dragoman overland tour, one thing you’ll quickly become accustomed to is the regularity with which you must set up and pack down tents, at all times of the day and night. Your tent skills are highly important – they can make or break your enjoyment of the trip!

As such, one of our Dragoman tour mates, Pete, has decided to make an instructional video on how to pack down your tent in the most efficient manner. Well. Maybe not the most efficient – but certainly the most effective!

Thanks once again to Pete for giving us his footage to use. I am glad we could immortalise such epic tent packing skills for future generations. 😀

Here Comes The Planet 49 – Tanzania 05

In this episode Team Toto soar above the Serengeti in a hot air balloon and drink champagne like the rock stars they wish they were! An unforgettable experience that we shared with many of our travel companions.

Also, I deliver on a promise I made to amp up the excitement of a balloon coming in to land… 😉

Thanks again to Pete and Deb for letting us use some of their footage!

Universal Studios Hollywood (Luke)

Universal Studios was high on my to-do list ever since we decided we’d be going to the US. I’m a sucker for high-tech rides and coasters. Being a movie fan, though, I was keen to go on the studio tour, which is the reason the park opened in the first place.

We started off early by catching our hotel’s shuttle over to the bus depot, intending to get to the gates before they opened. Unfortunately the buses weren’t running when we got there, and weren’t due to start up for another half hour, so we used an Uber cab to get over there. It delayed us a little bit, but when we got there it was surprisingly quiet anyway, so we needn’t have worried.

Universal Studios Hollywood Park Map 2014

We studied the map beforehand to draw up our battle plans.

We purchased our tickets, opting not to go for the more expensive front-of-line tickets given the thin crowds. We’d read some guides on the best way to tackle all the rides and attractions, so first off we headed for the studio tour. We piled in to a four open-carriage tour bus and set off. The commentary of the tour guide is supplemented by humorous videos staring Jimmy Fallon. We were sitting in the front of the third carriage, and couldn’t really see the TV screen from where we were sitting – however it does give you a good view for everything else. The tour takes you through both the universal front and back lots. The front lots have all the production offices, and the back lots have all the stages and sets, which still get a lot of use. We even went past a crew shooting some TV commercial. I can understand why they still have their New York and European city sets still up – they seem to get a lot of use. But it’s a bit baffling as to why they still have a wild west back lot – I can’t imagine there’s much call for it anymore, and it looks extremely dated. Though it was used in a Community episode, so I guess it’s not completely useless.

Apart from current working sets, there are also some remnants of sets, including the crash scene out of War Of The Worlds, the Desperate Housewives street, and the Bates Hotel out of Psycho. I was a little disappointed that the Back To The Future clock tower no longer features on the tour.

King Kong 360 3D is an attraction coupled with the studio tour. It was designed by Peter Jackson and his WETA workshop to be a mixture of CGI, simulator and practical special effects. The tour carriages pull in to a darkened cave area with two huge IMAX screens curved around the tram displaying the lush vegetation of Skull Island, which is where King Kong was set. Before long though a few dinosaurs get interested in having a chomp on the tour guests, and Kong turns up just in time to stop them. Some prehistoric fisticuffs result, and the tour carriages are knocked around as the fight goes on. The 3D effects aren’t the most immersive, and there’s a lot of stuff going on so if you try to see everything you’ll end up taking in less than you would if you were just looking to one side, but overall it’s a great experience with some excellent effects. Check out this in-depth review for more details.

At the end of the studio tour you get a final video from Jimmy Fallon who busts out a guitar and sings a song for you, wishing for you to “Have a Tram-tastic day!“. Super catchy song which we ended up humming on our way off the tram. I’m surprised it hasn’t made more of an impact online.

Thanks Jimmy Fallon – we will!

Next up was The Simpsons ride, which is a simulated roller-coaster. As you wait to enter the ride, you watch a movie with Krusty explaining how we’re about to ride the new attraction at Krustyland, and the Simpsons are picked to be the first on the ride. However we also learn the murderous Sideshow Bob has escaped from prison and is out for vengeance against both Krusty and the Simpsons. Bob manages to infiltrate Krustyland, takes control of the park and forces us to set off on the ride while he sets about destroying it, as well as everything else. What follows is a manic ride around Krustyland as our coaster cart is knocked all across the park, and then eventually through Springfield itself. Even though the simulator doesn’t actually fall, the visuals fool your brain in to feeling a strong sense of motion and vertigo as you hammer down a large drop or fly through the air. Check out the Simpson Ride Wiki page for more info.

The Simpsons ride was one of our favourites 🙂

After a bite to eat (definitely have breakfast before you arrive if you get the chance, park food is expensive and you can’t bring any food in with you other than fruit and baby food) we saw the Special Effects Stage Show, where they demonstrate a number of both practical (in-camera) and computer-generated effects. This was quite an entertaining show, with members of the audience brought on stage to pretend to rappel down buildings, or to stand in front of green screens to be terrorised by giant monsters.

After that we headed down to the lower part of the park. Seriously lower – you have to go down a series of three large escalators to get down there. On the way is an apparently often unappreciated feature of the park – amazing views over the San Fernando Valley.

Longest escalator ever!

The lower part of the park features three rides – Transformers, Jurassic Park, and The Revenge of the Mummy. Transformers: The Ride-3D (4D really, as it also employs water and fire effects) is another simulator ride based on the Michael Bay movies. While waiting in line you are told that the NEST base which houses an important relic called the ‘all-spark’ is under attack by the Decepticons. You team up with the Autobot ‘Evac’ (the simulator car you’ll be in) to get the all-spark out of the base and to safety. As you move out of the base and in to the city you come under heavy attack, with Decepticons trying to stop you at every turn. The simulator actually moves through tunnels which take you past a series of screens through which you view events unfolding. It’s a really freaking awesome ride which genuinely wowed me. By far my favourite – I ended up going on it about five times throughout the day!

Amanda was too hesitant to come on the Jurassic Park ride at first, so I went on by myself and discovered the joys of the “Single Rider” line. Skipped the queue and got on and off the ride within 10 minutes. The Jurassic Park ride is a water flume ride, and it’s fairly basic. Your boat takes you in to Jurassic Park, you see some relatively unimpressive animatronic dinos, something goes wrong, you get diverted up through an escape route, dinos “chase” you (i.e. pop out from the sides of the track or the roof above you), leading to what the entire ride is really all about – a mammoth 84 foot drop (!!) down to a splash pool at the end. I was riding at the back of the cart the first time, didn’t get very wet and the drop was thrilling but fun, so I got off and convinced Amanda she should come on the ride. We ended up in the front of the cart, which offered a very different experience. We got very wet, and the final drop was buttock-clenchingly scary. Definitely the most intense ride in the park. Lesson learned, we didn’t go on that ride again!

The angle of the exit makes the drop look way more gentle than it actually is. Very deceptive. The screams really should have clued me in.

While Amanda dried out in the sun, I hit the Revenge of the Mummy roller coaster. I was fully expecting this one to be a thrill ride, but ultimately came away a little bit disappointed. After setting off and going through a few ‘spooky’ rooms almost like a ghost train ride, the persistently hard-to-kill Imhotep invites you to join him in everlasting life – but first you have to die. After this bombshell, the coaster rapidly accelerates (woo! Best bit of the ride) and shoots you in to a pitch black room with quick twists and turns, and a few UV-painted glow-in-the-dark monsters overhead. You reach a dead-end, come to a sudden stop, some scarabs attack you (vision of scarabs on screens around you while small brushes swish around your feet to freak you out) and after a few moments roll backwards quickly along the track (switching tracks in the process), slowing to a stop in the dark as a ghostly mist surrounds you. When it clears, you’re at the end of the ride. It was fun, but just not as thrilling as I was expecting. I read that the ride is the crippled version of the one at Orlando, which features an introductory video with the cast of the Mummy, and more footage during the ride. More info here.

Those were the best attractions at the park. Apart from them we went to see;

  • Shrek 4D, which was a 10 minute 3D Shrek movie with some practical effects (like water sprays and moving seats) and was far too loud for my liking (Amanda thought it was fine),
  • The fairly hammy WaterWorld stunt show in which we were very lucky to sit in seats that didn’t get completely soaked in water,
  • The Blues Brothers stage show, with a couple of convincing Jake and Elroy lookalikes who sang very well but failed to get the crowd going,
  • The House of Horrors, which Amanda passed on. Walk through a spooky house while actors jump out and scare you. Also has a few sets from famous horror films to add interest.

I decided to go on the Transformers ride a few more times (so awesome!) then because I managed to get through so quickly, take one more ride on the Mummy coaster. Turned out to be a bit of a mistake – just as I was next up to get in the coaster cart, the ride broke down, and everyone had to get off so the ride could be reset. Though I was first on when it eventually came back online, the whole wait was about 15 minutes. I would have happily skipped that wait to go on either Transformers or the Simpsons rides again. For my troubles I was given a voucher for front-of-line on all but the two best rides (which I discovered only after trying to redeem it at The Simpsons ride), and a free drink from one of the stores, but which stores you could redeem it from was ambiguous. After waiting at one to be told I couldn’t use it there, I was told to go to another, and ended up waiting there in line for ages. All for a small drink. It felt like my reward for all the waiting I did was more waiting. I would’ve been better off not even trying to use the voucher at all.

Universal also has a strip of shops next to the park called CityWalk, where we ended up going for dinner. It was damn near as bright and loud as Las Vegas, with a live band performing on stage, lots of neon signs, dancers, and large crowds. We went to the Hard Rock Cafe for dinner, mainly for the novelty value. As I expected, it’s really not anything special.

Not Las Vegas

Universal Studios Hollywood only sports a few attractions and though they’re fun, they’re fairly tame. If you’re a thrill-seeker looking for lots of heart-pounding rides, you’re better off looking elsewhere. That said, as a movie buff, and someone who loves flashy and expensive rides that exist solely to entertain him, I highly enjoyed Universal Studios and would certainly recommend going if you ever get the chance. Though it does sound like Orlando would be a better pick over Los Angeles.

Blog Competition #2!

Once again I have five funky postcards to send – this time they’re from a Voodoo shop in downtown New Orleans. If you’d like one sent to you just leave a comment stating which of the countries we’ve visited you’d most like to go to and why.

First preference for winners will be people who didn’t win anything in the last competition and of course first in best dressed. If we don’t have your address already just email yours to: a1lenon at

Hooray! Give aways!