A Travellerspoint blog

Malaysian Rojak

By Lis


View World Tour 2010-2012 on Lis.L's travel map.

Travelling South from Thailand, the landscape began to change. The gold roofs of Buddhist temples were traded for minarets, as the majority of Malaysians are Muslim. We were looking forward to learning about another religion, especially since the stereotype of a Muslim is an Arab with a long beard. What would Malaysian people be like?

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In our first stop of Georgetown, we learned that most Malaysians fall under one of three different categories: the Muslim Malay majority, the descendants of Buddhist Chinese immigrants, and the descendants of Hindu Indian immigrants. It was fascinating to watch these distinct groups live with each other, often in direct contrast. For example, pork is a staple of Chinese cooking, but avoided by the Muslim majority. Therefore, each restaurant which was halal and did not serve pork was clearly labeled by the front door. Food stalls, hotels and other shared-space buildings would request that pork products not be consumed or brought on the premises. Another distinction we noticed was in the norms of dress. Chinese Malaysians were comfortable in tank tops and shorts, while the Malay Muslims always covered their arms and legs, and women also covered their hair. I couldn't help but wonder if these groups ever felt that the other was off the mark, misled or just plain wrong.

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In this Islamic country there were strict rules and times for non-Muslim visitors wanting to see inside mosques, but once the rules were met you were made to feel truly welcome. Often mosques had a rack of "graduation gowns" that visitors could borrow to cover their legs and arms. Either a hood or scarf was provided for women to cover their heads. In several mosques we were greeted by friendly volunteers or caretakers who offered to show us around and tell us a bit about Islam and Malaysia. In Putrajaya, a kind lady spoke with us for over an hour, giving us her perspective on women in Islam, polygamy, Islamic law and requirements of Muslims. We really appreciated her honesty and enthusiasm! She gave us several books for further reading. When we ventured into the off limits area, a friendly man approached, asked our country of origin, asked if we were Muslim, then gently told us we should stay in the open areas.

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Crossing the border into Malaysia, and again when heading into Singapore, we saw women wearing veils in the immigration line. Intrigued, I watched to see what the protocol would be. Both times, after the woman approached the counter, the immigration officer looked at the passport, made a gesture, the woman lowered her veil for about 5 seconds, then with the nod from the official placed it back on the bridge of her nose. It seemed like this was a happy compromise for the identity check, one that other countries are currently debating, though I didn't get the chance to ask the woman how she felt about showing a stranger her face.

It was interesting for me to watch these women in veils, often with young, modern-looking husbands. I was curious as a young couple entered the theme park in the Times Square Mall, she in full niqab, he wearing trendy jeans and a polo shirt. In Putrajaya, a group of men chatted around a lunch table while their wives sat in silence, staring at a wall, putting each mouthful of food under their veil. I need to speak to these ladies before making a judgment, but it piqued my curiosity since it is far from what I am used to. Veiled women were the minority in Malaysia, as most women wear a headscarf of various styles over modest clothes.

In Malaysia I started to gain another perspective about Chinatowns. A staple in North America and South East Asia, Chinatown is a burst of colour that has attracted me as a tourist - or someone looking for some quality Chinese food! I have always enjoyed seeing the joss sticks burning in front of Chinese-style temples, Chinese signs, red lanterns hanging, lucky cats, and the large gate announcing the entry into a new community. After spending some time in China, seeing a Chinatown brings me back to the best memories of that visit. But in Malaysia, I started to wonder if the host country is ever annoyed or insulted that the Chinese immigrants and descendants don't adopt more of the new culture, and perhaps feels threatened by the strength of the Chinese community. In Malaysia, it was common to see Chinatowns, Little Indias, and in Melaka, strong Baba-Nonya cultural ties.

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Malaysia's tourism slogan, "Malaysia - Truly Asia" started to make sense to us as we explored the different areas of each city. The cities themselves represented a mix of attractions as well - the Colonial cities of Georgetown and Melaka, the mega-city of Kuala Lumpur, the national parks such as Taman Negara on the peninsula and Gunung Mulu and Kinabalu NP on Borneo, the "fruit basket" of the Cameron Highlands, the wild rainforest on Borneo and the beaches on the coasts.

At the Asian History Museum in Singapore, an interactive media display compared Malaysia to a rojak. A rojak is a fruit salad made of small pieces of fruit covered in a black sauce. Each culture is like a piece of fruit, and retains its original flavour. The black sauce is Malaysia, unifying it all and complimenting each flavour.

Speaking of rojak, the food in Malaysia is first class! You can find it all, from Chinese, Indian, Baba-Nonya, and Malay dishes to other Asian and international cuisine. There were so many combinations of noodles, rice, spices and sauces that we were spoiled for choice and rarely ate the same thing twice. Food courts, bursting at the seams, were a godsend and often the focus of our days. Cendol and ABC were unique creations that may seem like a strange combination of ingredients but work together surprisingly well. Just like Malaysia.

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Now a practical note for readers planning on visiting Malaysia - and so you should! While we went through the peninsula booking our accommodation the day before we arrived, things changed on Borneo. I recommend booking your flights to and accommodation in Gunung Mulu NP, Mount Kinabalu climb (don't bother with an extra night in Kinabalu NP - overpriced and not worth it), and Turtle Island on the East Coast far in advance. We didn't go to Turtle Island because it was fully booked for months. Be forewarned, if you add those three activities to your itinerary, your costs per day will skyrocket! For budget travellers, stay on the peninsula and you'll be just fine.

Posted by Lis.L 02:40 Archived in Malaysia Comments (2)

Southern Thailand's Beaches

By Lis


View World Tour 2010-2012 on Lis.L's travel map.

Any trip to Thailand would be incomplete without spending some time horizontal on one of its many sandy beach escapes. We were overwhelmed with choice and didn’t know what kind of atmosphere we wanted or what level of luxury suited us. When you have nothing but time, you can sample it all!

We spent three weeks in Southern Thailand and found some places that suited us perfectly. However, the majority did not. The elusive perfect beach does not exist, and all of the places that were hideaways in the ‘70s have gone upscale and commercial. Travelling on a budget means something has got to give – the beach may not be perfect, accommodation may be simple or the location may not be convenient. If the main beach doesn’t give you what you’re looking for, be adventurous and rent a long-tail boat to take you to see the other beaches – we wish we had done that more. Tourists flock to areas where it is easy to travel and it doesn’t get much easier than Southern Thailand. The downside to this is that the type of tourist we encountered in our travels in the South was often culturally insensitive or ignorant. They wanted a beach, and it didn’t matter what country it was in. Too many people come to Thailand and don’t learn any Thai words, don’t try Thai food, don’t respect Thai modestly norms (topless sunbathers are a common sight in Phuket although Thai tourists swim fully clothed), don’t keep their calm, don’t have patience for the English skills of Thai people, or don’t learn anything about Thai history. In a series of upsetting events we saw a spirit house with a sign indicating, “This is not a garbage can”, girls on a day trip who needed to be yelled at to return their snorkeling gear, passengers on a ferry who put their bags on seats instead of freeing them for the standing passengers, travellers who gagged at a Thai dish of food, travellers who refused to pay for a taxi because they failed to negotiate a fair price first, travellers who threw cookies overboard to attract fish and travellers who collected shells and coral from the beach. The effect of these behaviours is that many Thai people who work in the tourism industry in the South have little “affection” for their customers, something that is noticeable in other big cities in Thailand but pleasantly absent in other areas of SE Asia. Honestly, I don’t blame them.
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If you do travel to Southern Thailand, I recommend a few essentials that you can purchase as soon as you arrive. Buy a bamboo mat for lying on in the sand, a heavy-duty waterproof shoulder bag for day trips, lots of sunscreen as everyone, including us, seems to get a sunburn, and sandals to be worn 24-7 in rain puddles, while hopping off long-tail boats into the water, and to slip off in shops and guesthouses.

I should also explain my use of the word “expensive” when describing food options. In other parts of Thailand, two people can have a cheap meal for $3. A fair-priced meal for two in a nicer restaurant is around $6. An expensive meal, in my mind, is over $9. I understand that, when compared to prices paid in North America or Europe, this is quite cheap, so take it with a grain of salt... or sand!

Northern Gulf of Thailand

Pattaya – As the closest beach to Bangkok, it offers a convenient bus to BKK airport. However, it feels completely taken over by expats and sex tourists. Walking Street is the infamous heart of the sleazy town centred on sex tourism. The beaches are not pristine; they have pebbles and no space. There is a distinct North American feel to the malls, food courts, and styrofoam take-out containers. The grocery stores feature imported products. Prostitution is out in the open along the beach at night. Not recommended for women, couples, families, or men with morals.
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  • We stayed at Chateau Dale. We paid 1400 baht (~ $47) for a suite by the gorgeous pool. Features: A/C, kitchenette, living area, private patio. It is off a main road, and is walking distance to Jomtien Beach, which has many restaurants to choose from.

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Gulf of Thailand – East Coast Islands

Koh Tao – We stayed at Hat Ao Mae, south of the main pier. It was a convenient location for transport, eating, shopping etc. The beach, however, was developed and not conducive to swimming. It felt like it was still under construction with piles of debris. The main road along the beach has lots of small buildings close together. The island is known for scuba diving, so many places cater to divers. We went on a snorkeling day trip, which we highly recommend. The busy roads are full of farang on motorbikes and 4 wheelers. Tourism is seemingly the only economy on the island. Electricity regularly went out for brief periods.
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  • We stayed at Utopia Suites. We paid 600 baht (~$20) for a standard double room. Features: Fan, wifi. No view, not beachfront, but they do offer that in another building for a more expensive cost. Their expensive restaurant was below us, but there were many other options nearby. With only a single lock on the door, the cleaning staff walked in on us on one occasion. This also happened to our neighbour. Our room was especially hot due to the single window not providing much air circulation.

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Koh Pha Ngan – While Koh Pha Ngan is known for throwing the party of all parties (Full Moon monthly parties on Haad Rin), we picked Haad Thien, a private beach for some quiet time. Since the pier is at the town (Thong Sala) instead of the beach, everyone ends up being shuttled around the island to their destination anyway. The West coast, where we stayed, has the sunset and still waters, while the East coast has the sunrise and rocky waters. In hindsight, the privacy and luxury we got here cannot be found on larger islands for the same price.

  • We stayed at Haad Thien Resort. We paid 700 baht (~$23) for a double bungalow. Features: A/C, porch, TV, swimming pool, wifi. All bungalows have a decent view of the beach. They have an expensive, extensive restaurant (which is the only choice if you don’t have a motorbike), beside the attractive pool at the centre of the resort. The resort is down a long, private road, far from anything else, and surrounded by trees. It was very quiet and peaceful. We got the impression that many guests return every year. Highly recommended.

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Koh Samui – This large island has been a tourism hub for a long time. Prime real estate is taken up by expensive resorts. Chaweng Beach is very built up featuring Western chains (e.g. McDonalds, Starbucks, Boots Pharmacy) and if you don’t stay on the beach it is difficult to have beach access. Fisherman’s Village is a cute boutique area with pricey restaurants. We stayed at Big Buddha Beach, which is close to the airport. The infrequent noise didn’t bother us at all, but helped lower costs in the area. Big Buddha beach is nice to look at but is muddy and not ideal for swimming. We took a day trip to Ang Thong Marine National Park, which would have been nice if the weather was better, but was pricey at $45 pp.
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  • We stayed at Samui Mermaid Resort. We paid 1400 baht (~$47) for a double room with beachfront views. Features: A/C, porch, TV, fridge, swimming pool, wifi. While we liked our comfortable room and enjoyed the view, we felt that $47 would get you more elsewhere. Many restaurant choices were within walking distance, while the hotel boasts two restaurants and room service.

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Andaman Sea – West Coast Beaches and Islands

Phuket – As Thailand’s best known beach town, we had high expectations for Phuket, but this was our least favourite stop. Phuket is a large city surrounded by beaches, but each area, connected by highways, retains the city feel. We based ourselves in landlocked Phuket town, simply to save some money. The town boasts the most affordable accommodation and eating options, but other than some interesting Sino-Portuguese architecture, offers little to entertain. We took the public sorng-taa-ou to Patong Beach for a day. The beach is nice but is packed with tourists. Opposite the beach is an area packed with restaurants, shops, malls and resorts. The walking street was less shocking than the one in Pattaya. The public sorng-taa-ou stops running at 5 pm which means an expensive private taxi if you’re not staying in the area (300 baht, $10).
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Next we moved to Kata beach to seek out budget accommodation near the beach. Unfortunately, the massive Club Med property dominates the beachfront, and while the beach itself is public, the walk around the Club Med property makes it very inconvenient to reach. The plethora of restaurants near our hotel were all overpriced, and due to the absence of local Thai people in the area, didn’t even offer a “plastic chair” option.

We took a kayaking day trip to Ao Phang Nga, featuring James Bond Island (one of the movies was filmed here) with Two Sea Tours. We highly recommend this specific company, as the crew was amazing, lunch was great and the boat was very comfortable. They went out of their way to make us happy, and it was the cheapest tour we found at 1200 baht (~ $40 each).
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  • We stayed at Phuket Backpackers in Phuket Town. We paid 700 baht (~$23) for a double room with an industrial, minimalist feel in their second building. Features: A/C, wifi in main building. This well-run place is a clean option, with an affordable breakfast, common area in main building and attached restaurant/bar for socializing. Public sorng-taa-ou leave from next door, making it a convenient transport link to the rest of the island.
  • We also stayed at Jinta Andaman in Kata Beach. We paid 900 baht (~$30) for a deluxe double room in a brand-new building. Features: A/C, TV, balcony, fridge, kettle, wifi. This small, new hotel gets all of its business from internet booking, because it is tucked away from the main foot traffic of the area. The gorgeous room and helpful staff were the highlights of this uninspiring area.

Koh Phi Phi – This could be the perfect beach – but it isn’t. The karst peaks, jungle backdrop and clear water are appealing to the eye, but the thumping bass of a party every night of the week became a thorn in our sides. We were even willing to look past the garbage that litters the budget areas. Koh Phi Phi is one of the most expensive islands to stay at in Thailand, but does offer affordable food and has a very laid-back vibe. We took a snorkeling day trip around the Phi Phi islands, including Maya beach on Phi Phi Leh, the setting for the movie, “The Beach”. The rain was the only downside to this picturesque day. We paid 550 baht for a ferry boat, but would recommend splurging on the speed boat in order to have more time to spend at each beach and less time on the boat.
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  • We stayed at Good View Hotel. We paid 1300 baht (~$43) for a double room – with a good view! Features: A/C, TV (but it didn’t have cable), balcony, and free breakfast. This family-run hotel seemingly had the perfect location with the beach in front of it, mountain behind it, karst peaks beside it and views of the whole bay, but the acoustics of such an area meant that the music from a party on the opposite end of the beach felt like it was right under us.

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Railay Beach – You could stay in Krabi town or Ao Nang, but don’t – come here! This beach features the same karst peaks as Phi Phi, but not as much noise, development or cost. There are no roads, a handful of beaches to choose from, and accommodation for every price range. The weather was rainy during our stay, but even the rain couldn’t hide the beauty of this place. If you have ever wanted to try rock climbing, this is the place for you.
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  • We stayed at Viewpoint Resort on the east beach. We paid 1200 baht (~$40) for a large room with wifi (it’s optional - you pay 200 baht less without it). Features: Fan, TV, balcony, swimming pool, free buffet breakfast. They have helpful staff, a good location, and something for every price range. For a splurge, try their BBQ dinner with salad bar starting at $6 per person.
  • We also stayed at Hello KR Mansion in Krabi town due to transport delays from flooded roads. We paid 400 baht (~$13) for a double room. Features: Fan, TV. This place was a great change of pace – we got back to cheap accommodation, cheap food at their restaurant, and helpful staff. The town itself is cute and offers tons of tourist accommodation and travel advice, but is only a transport hub and not a beach town.

Posted by Lis.L 12:14 Archived in Thailand Tagged beaches Comments (1)

Monk Chat in Myanmar

By Lis


View World Tour 2010-2012 on Lis.L's travel map.

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“Why do you like to travel?” the monk asked, innocently enough. His question was a loaded one as the reality for most Burmese people is that they will never set foot outside Myanmar’s borders. The passport application process requires a lot of money and time for something that may not be granted. One estimate we heard was $2000 and 2 years of waiting.

“Well, travel is a great way to learn new things, to experience things we can’t back home. When we travel we can see historical sights, learn about cultures, food and religion, and explore natural wonders. We also get to meet so many wonderful people.”

Monks have played a key role in recent Burmese history. In 2007 they banded together to protest the outrageous rise in gas prices crippling society in Myanmar. When the government reacted with beating and killing around 30 monks, the country was aghast. This was beyond low. Since then, the number of monks in Myanmar has decreased, as they were “encouraged” to return to the homes, but it is my prediction that their strength has not waned. Perhaps the change that is needed in Myanmar is in the hands of these spiritual leaders. We were fortunate to meet many monks during our travels.

While on a day trip to the Pindaya Caves on the outskirts of Kalaw our driver pointed out one particular house by the side of the road, which was decorated and had many people around it. We stopped to check it out. It was the celebration for a 7 year old boy who was about to become a novice – the first step in monk-hood. Just as the Buddha was a prince before giving it all up to attain enlightenment, families also celebrate by treating their young sons as princes for the day. The boy, nervous and silent, was dressed in an elaborate traditional costume fit for a prince. The people of the village stopped by to congratulate the family, offer a small donation, and partake in the feast. We too were invited to sit and eat with the family. We saw that their house was bare, but they offered us tea, sweets and food with such generosity. When the young boy emerged wearing his second outfit, a mere hour from the walk to his new monastery, the mother and father sat beside their only son and asked us to take their picture. They also asked if there was any way we could print the picture for them, as they didn’t own a camera, none of their neighbours owned a camera, and they wouldn’t have a lasting memento of this monumental day. Humbled by this opportunity, we set out to find a place to print the picture in Kalaw, and left three copies with our friendly driver to deliver to the family the next day.

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Later, after completing two days of a three day trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake, our group settled our belongings in our shelter for the night: an active monastery for young novices. We would be sleeping on the floor of their large prayer hall. While the group washed up and admired the sunset, I sat beside another traveller and watched an equally entertaining sight. The young boys, some orphans who will remain monks out of necessity rather than choice, were asked to clean the floor of the prayer hall. They did so as only young boys can; by pulling each other around the room on their monk robes, shrieking with joy. It reminded me that regardless of country, religion or clothing, kids are kids all over the world.

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While climbing Mandalay Hill, we met a friendly monk who was looking for foreigners to help him practice his English skills. We chatted about superficial things, including music. He was a fan of Westlife, and some other singers I didn’t recognize. Then he mentioned Lady Gaga – he had seen her on the internet. “Do you like her?” I asked.
“I like her songs, but I don’t like her. I think she is stupid. She does stupid things,” he replied.
“True,” I said, “but she does those things to get attention. The attention is good for her because the more people talk about her, the more music she will sell. She is a good business-woman.” Then I stepped back from myself to think about the conversation I was having with a Buddhist monk, and I laughed.

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Later on Mandalay Hill, a group of three monks was eying us with curiosity. While there was a massive group of foreigners at the top of the hill for sunset views, only Toby and I appeared to be under the age of 65. I smiled at them and they came over. “Excuse me, may I practice my English with you?” Our chat lasted for about an hour, with the most fluent speaker taking the lead, while the nervous monk asked rehearsed questions like, “How many seasons are there in Canada?” It felt like a game of 20 questions. At one point, the nervous monk asked me to tell him a funny story so that he could practice his listening skills. I did my best to recall a humourous anecdote, and he chuckled at all the right places. Another monk asked me to tell him the story of Christianity. I laughed and asked how much time they had! After the glorious sunset, we were the last people at the top so we walked down together, still chatting and laughing together in the growing darkness. They were sponges, eager for some “general knowledge” as they put it, and ready with a new, unrelated question once the last one was answered.

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The next day we took a ferry to Mingun, across the Arrewaddy River from Mandalay. A monk approached us and we chatted about the typical subjects, including our ages and nationality. He introduced us to his family, including 80-year old grandma, but left them to wander around the sights with us. On the top of the ruined Mingun Paya, a local boy was showing us around. He climbed a steep section of brick and held out his hand for me to climb. Barefoot (as is customary at all Buddhist sites), I tentatively took a few steps, but chickened out and told Toby I would wait for him at the lower level. Our monk friend walked to the edge above me, crouched into a squat and said the two words I needed to get my butt up there: “Try harder.”

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Later, at a paya which I won't name, we met a monk with a deep question; “Tell me, what is the difference between an optimist and a pessimist?” We stuttered through a literal answer, while we walked into a dark area at the back of the temple. With alert eyes constantly darting around, he started to talk. He told us about the government’s biased rules (they can cut down and sell teak trees but the locals go to jail if they do), the lack of support for poor people (they die from drinking unclean water, but no one cares), the lack of opportunities for educated people (they drive trishaws while family members of government officials get all the jobs), the relocation of villages for logging, the lack of funding for monasteries, the refusal of outside aid, and closest to his heart, the jailing of two of his teacher monks. He told us that he participated in the 2007 protests, but now feels powerless to ignite change for fear of punishment. “We have big problems,” he stated over and over. It was our turn to be like sponges, soaking up his information, digesting the realities of life in Myanmar, and promising to share the word with the outside world.

This was not the first time we heard these stories. Any trip requires some pre-departure research, but we researched Myanmar more than any other country we’ve been to so far. Using our Lonely Planet and some Free Burma websites, we debated about whether it was ethical to visit a country that has such a corrupt, often brutal government. The list of human rights offenses is shameful. Deciding that we could minimize our financial contribution to the government, and could raise awareness by experiencing it first hand, we decided to go.

Our second last stop in Myanmar was accidental due to a missed ferry. We stayed the night in the small town of Pakokku, at a guesthouse with the friendliest neighbourhood imaginable. We were two of six tourists in the entire town, and the locals treated us as celebrity guests. But even celebrity guests have to follow the rules: don’t go to the monastery. As the monks here are credited with starting the 2007 protests, any foreigner on the premises means trouble for the monks, the guesthouse owner, and the foreigner. Plain-clothes police officers monitor the area constantly.

Leaving Myanmar was harder than I thought it would be. As I continue to travel and turn my eyes toward other countries of the world, the people of Myanmar continue to suffer in isolation. Poverty is unavoidable, corruption is rampant, and freedom is withheld. As the next generation of Burmese people go online, create dialogue, examine foreign ideas, “try harder” and remain optimistic, it is my hope that democracy is over the next horizon.

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Posted by Lis.L 08:48 Archived in Myanmar Tagged monks government round_the_world Comments (1)

Elephant Nature Park

By Lis

sunny 30 °C
View World Tour 2010-2012 on Lis.L's travel map.

Rounding the corner, I looked out the window of the minivan, down to the valley below. Giant trees covered the slopes of the mountain, but at the base the greenery was short and a river followed the curve of the landscape. I scanned my surroundings, anticipation coursing through my veins, until at last I saw them. There, below me, walked the largest mammals to roam present-day earth: elephants.

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Elephants have a long history in Thailand, filled with royal white elephants fit only for a king, sacred elephant images at Buddhist temples inspired by the Hindu god Ganesh, and working elephants who helped create and shape the logging industry in Asia. Today the majority of Thailand's domesticated elephants are labouring in another industry: tourism. In any city in Thailand (and parts of Laos) when perusing options for day tours of attractions, one can hardy avoid "elephant ride" on the itinerary. It doesn't take a special license to own elephants, and it seems the handling of elephants can be done with as little as a pick (to hook onto the elephant's ear), a strong chain, and a brutal training session to break the elephant's spirit. I didn't know all of this until I arrived at Elephant Nature Park outside of Chiang Mai.

In December my parents announced that they were going to meet us in Thailand in January. Excited, Toby and I made a list of "must-dos and must-sees", and elephant rides were on the list. So, leading up to our reunion in Chiang Mai, Toby and I opted out of the elephant rides included in our day tours so that we would experience it with my parents for the first time. We watched as groups of tourists climbed the platform to sit on the bench atop an elephant's back. We saw how rough some of the handlers were when the elephant showed a little bit of personality. We saw the worn skin from ropes that encircled their backs and the chains that held them in place whenever they were not giving a ride. My mind went back to my experiences riding camels and horses, and the fact that after I dismounted the animal I inevitably felt waves of shock, guilt, empathy and anger. I always try to avoid being a part of animal suffering. There had to be another option.

Using our Lonely Planet guide as a start, we researched facilities that offered a different elephant experience. In Lampang, the Thai Elephant Conservation Center offers mahout training and tourist shows with the emphasis on education and care. In Chiang Mai, Patara Elephant Farm allows you to adopt an elephant for the day and feed, bathe and ride the elephant for a hefty fee. Other locations in Chiang Mai offered affordable daily tours with the emphasis on caring for elephants, some vocally against elephant rides and shows. With my parents' enthusiasm and support, we picked the award-winning Elephant Nature Park, and I am confident it was the right choice for us.

On the hour and a half drive to the park we watched a short video about elephants in Thailand. We learned that some people bring elephants into the cities to beg for food for them. Tourists buy food for the sad animals, but it isn't enough and the profits are pocketed. These creatures live under highway ramps and often go crazy from the vibrations they pick up through the city pavement. The video gave us a brief introduction to the founder of Elephant Nature Park and her work with other animals and environmental causes. It concluded with information about the declining numbers of wild elephants, still roaming parts of Thailand's jungle.

When we arrived at the park we saw the massive creatures anticipating their first meal of the day. The most obvious observation we all made was that they were free. They roamed the acres of land, mahout always close by, naturally forming herds, free to find shade, scratch on a tree, play or retreat. We helped carry the baskets of fresh fruit and vegetables to the feeding platform. Each basket had an elephant's name on it, and each elephant ate at the same spot each day. The long-term volunteers are responsible for the huge task of preparing the food and filling the baskets. As we fed, we learned the history of a few of the elephants.

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Hope is the hardest to control, so the center keeps him away from tourists, and he has his own feeding and bathing schedule. Jungle Boy was rescued from the jungle after his owners could no longer afford to care for him. He was wild at heart, but was won over by gentle, persistent training. Jokia was blinded when her owners attempted to curb her unruly behaviour by stabbing her in the eyes. She was "adopted" by another elephant at the centre who never leaves her side. Malai Tong lost part of her back leg when she stepped on a land mine by the Cambodian border. She manages to walk on the remaining leg, but sways it back and forth when standing still, aware of it always. Another animal has a branded R on its backside. Many elephants were rescued from logging camps, tourist riding and trekking camps, shows and circuses. Some were drugged with stimulants in order to work all hours of the day. They were abused and tortured. A small elephant "dances" non-stop, because she was tortured if she didn't at the circus. The saddest sight was of the elephant with disfigured hips and back legs, who was bred too young and her bones were crushed when the male elephant mounted her. She walks slowly, with great effort, but her trainer tells us that her swinging ears show that, "She is happy here".

My family found a private spot to spend some time with Grandma, the oldest and gentlest elephant at the centre. We fed her hand to trunk, and my dad even placed some food gingerly in her mouth. Amazing photo-ops aside, we marveled at the calm presence of the mahout, the efficiency of the centre, and the life that still shines in each of the 34 elephants' eyes.

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We were treated to an amazing buffet lunch (mostly vegetarian -score!) before changing our clothes to bathe the elephants. We walked into the river, the water up to our calves, and threw buckets of water on the elephants. They quietly enjoyed the cool water, or joined in by splashing themselves with their trunks. As we became more comfortable with the animals, we touched their rough skin and accepted a kiss from the elephant born on Valentine's Day, but mostly watched the elephants from a viewing platform. After enjoying round two of feeding and bathing, we were sad that the day had gone by so quickly. The elephants were calmly walked into their pens to be chained up for the night. This, we were told, is the only option to keep the staff and elephants safe. Lek, the founder, sat under the newest baby elephant and sang her a lullaby. Our minivans drove away, but life continues at the Elephant Nature Park, where the dignity of Thailand's elephants is honored and restored.

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Posted by Lis.L 06:40 Archived in Thailand Comments (4)

Minority Villages

By Lis


View World Tour 2010-2012 on Lis.L's travel map.

Crossing the border from Laos in the North meant our first stop in Thailand was Chiang Rai. It would be our base as we explored the golden triangle and minority villages surrounding it. A friendly travel agent hooked us up with a one-day itinerary that sounded perfect: White Temple, Long-Neck Karen village, and golden triangle. With a knowledgeable guide and a private car we had high hopes for our pricey day.

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The White Temple was packed and deservedly so - it was amazing with its modern take on Buddhist architecture. Next stop was the minority village and a steep $10 entrance fee. "Where does the money go?" I asked our guide. "Do the villagers get a percentage of the profits?" "We give them rice." was the snarly reply, hesitatingly translated by our guide. That should have been my red flag. I should have walked back to the car then and there. But we paid the $20 and walked in.

Down a short path was the first village, of the Lahu people. "Why do the tribes live so close together?" I naively asked. Then the truth came out. The three villages we saw were the artificial creation of a rich man who paid for the land and set up this tourist trap. While the villagers are free to come and go, they are restricted to selling souvenirs, performing dances for tips and posing for pictures. My stomach sank. It felt like we had entered a zoo, where human beings were on display. We didn't want to buy anything, and felt guilty. We tipped the dancers, but felt awkward applauding their lack-luster performance. The "villages" were set up so that we walked through a row of huts where each resident sat in anticipation of a sale.

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The only redeeming aspect of this circus was that we had a great guide, who, being "from the mountains" herself, brought an element of authenticity. Her gentle nature was evident as she sat beside several women and interpreted our questions. We were able to ask about their feelings, family and history. The Long-Neck Karen women, we found out, were moved from Myanmar and historically didn't live in Thailand. They are far from their hometown, but are optimistic that this life is better for their children. They giggled nervously while explaining that yes, the rings hurt very much, but it is their duty to maintain the tradition.

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My thoughts lingered on these women while we toured the golden triangle: Mae Sai (border town to Myanmar with a great market), Chiang Saen (home of ancient ruins) and Sop Ruak (location of three-way border between Laos, Myanmar and Thailand and site of historical opium trade). I felt angry at myself for contributing to the exploitation, frustrated with the travel agent for not explaining the true nature of the site, and embarrassed on behalf of all tourists who desire to see "different" people so much that this rich man became richer. I wondered how, in 2011, can we truly have a view into the traditional way of life of minority people while traditions, and tourism, evolve around them.

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Back in Chiang Rai, we spoke with another travel agent who was candid about the difference in minority villages. "If you want to see real villages, you have to do a multi-day trek and get away from Chiang Rai." We signed up for a two-day, one night trek.

I believe that the group makes or breaks the trek and we had a great group of 11: friendly, enthusiastic, and energetic. We started with a boat ride and got off at an elephant camp. Four of us who opted out of the elephant rides took a tour of the village. Friendly men chatted with us, our guide let us taste and smell plants, and explained the daily life in the village. We were off to a great start.

During the two days of walking, we walked through villages without interfering too much with the lives of the villagers. We saw that they have trucks, plumbing and electricity, but still lack Thai i.d. cards to get government support or education. We slept in a single-room bungalow above a village where our talking and laughing in the starlight wouldn't disturb the sleeping villagers. Our guide's family cooked for us and took care of us and we appreciated having that connection to the rural landscape. We had bamboo walking sticks for the tougher terrain, and we relaxed in a waterfall and then a hot spring at the end of day two. Overall, we paid much less for a much richer experience.
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In Chiang Mai a few days later, now travelling with my parents, we visited two mountains in the area. On Doi Suthep, a village tour was part of the itinerary, but it was quite obviously a tourist market while the villagers lived removed from the tourist trail. On Doi Inthanon, however, our guide took us to a real Karen village where people have lived for generations. We met an English speaking man who was sorting garbage, a duo of weaving ladies, and a 98 year old woman who was living out her days on the porch of her home while her son lived next door.

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The moral of the story became very clear; if you're looking for authenticity, ask your agent before you book, expect modernization in small doses, and don't support sites that treat minority people as side-show acts.

Posted by Lis.L 04:14 Archived in Thailand Comments (1)

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