Thursday, May 23, 2013

Magical Moment 625, "Thailand - the Elephants"

Needless to say, my favorite part of our Thailand vacation, was our week long volunteering at Elephant Nature Park!

The logging industry was banned in Thailand in 1989, leaving thousands of elephants unemployed. These elephants are now used for tourism. You may have heard of elephant shows featuring the animals playing soccer or painting pictures with their trunks. They are no doubt amazing to watch, but the sad truth is that these elephants have gone through a series of torture and abuse to "break their spirit" by their trainers. This short clip is very hard to watch, but it will give you an idea of what the elephants in captivity in the country of Thailand go through.

The only elephants in Thailand who do not endure this, are the very few baby elephants who are first generation born in "safe captivity" at places like Elephant Nature Park. Every other elephant at this park has been brutally abused. Some have been blinded by their owners, legs broken and never properly healed, and one is even being weened off methamphetamine that she was given in order to force her to work long hours. These elephants will never return to the wild, but will live happily in a caring and open sanctuary. The ultimate hope is that their offspring can someday be taught to live in the wild.

Elephant Nature Park has rescued over 30 elephants, and has used the support of tourism to help the animals rather than exploit them. We were given jobs such as working in the elephant kitchen preparing food, or cutting corn for them. But we also had a lot of free time, and usually we worked right along side the elephants so we could stop to feed, bath, or take photos with them. (Click to enlarge) 
Left: washing pumpkins and melons, Right: the shelves in the Elephant Kitchen

This elephant showed off for Eddie

Most of the elephants here are gentle and happy to be around visitors. But there is a herd of about 5, that no longer trust humans and their behavior is too unpredictable to be around tourists. We encountered this herd accidentally, led by the elephant appropriately named Naughty Boy, one day on a small work detail. We drove a truck to a remote part of the river to collect sand. When Naughty Boy spotted the group, he led his herd toward us. Our guide immediately got nervous and told us to stay behind the truck. When they kept on, he told us to get in the truck. When they kept on further, he drove the truck towards a nearby tree house and told us to climb up!

Our group taking refuge in a tree house

That was our excitement, but there were plenty of tender moments as well. The 2 new babies stole our hearts. This is 1 month old Dok Mai and her mother. They are kept in confinement until she is strong enough to be with the herd.

And of course, 6 month old Navaan. In this video, he playfully strolls to the river.

And I found some very special elephants that didn't mind me showing my affection.

Mae Perm and Jokia especially touched me. Jokia was blinded with a slingshot by her previous owner. When ENP rescued her, she met Mae Perm who immediately accepted her. They are never apart now. Mae Perm leads her tenderly around the park and does not leave her side for a moment.

Jokia's eye, hard to look at.

This is the park's only "white elephant." She's really only about 30% white elephant. True white elephants must be turned over to Thailand's Royal Family.

The issue of elephant abuse certainly tugged at my heart and I was happy to contribute. These magnificent creatures have changed my life and made me see things in a different way. It has made me more conscious of what I do or don't support with my time and money. And has made me more aware of not only how animals are treated, but all living things.

A friend of mine so eloquently captioned this photo for me, in the words of Sir Mix A Lot...
"I like big butts and I cannot lie."

I'm sure you will see more of my elephant photos in the future!

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Magical Moment 624, "Thailand - Music and National Parks!"

We stayed in the city of Chiang Mai for a few days at a hotel near the Tha Phae Gate, which is the remnants of the ancient city that dates back to the 1300s. On Sunday evenings, this gate is the beginning of an enormous walking market. This mostly caters to tourists and is a chance for them to see and purchase authentic souvenirs made by the local people. Eddie and I got the chance to go 2 different Sundays. It goes for miles and we never even got to all of it. (click to enlarge)


Here, we witnessed some pretty interesting things. At one point, a loud speaker announced something in Thai. Suddenly, the thousands of people that filled the streets stood to their feet in silence. We realized they were playing the Thailand National Anthem.

We saw and heard so many interesting musicians in Thailand. I wished I could have recorded them all.
 Left: This man stopped his traditional Thai song when he saw me with a camera
and began playing jingle bells...way to read to your audience,
my fellow street musician! He got a tip from me.

But the most interesting was this man...I was so impressed with his multi-tasking!

One of the most memorable experiences with music that I had, was when we stayed at Elephant Nature Park and I noticed an old, acoustic guitar at the office. I discovered it was one of the employees, whose dream it was to become a performing musician. I asked if he knew any American songs and he said yes. He learns them to improve his English. So together we sang and played "Stand By Me," "Poker Face," and a few other random songs (whatever we both kind of knew and I could strum...which is not much.) Funny how musicians always find music, no matter where they are.

Since we got a chance to see so much of what I do and love, we also got the opportunity to visit one of the National Parks for Eddie (who is a U.S Park Ranger). We went to Doi Suthep Pui National Park, just outside of Chiang Mai. (If you enlarge, you'll see that Eddie's hat has a US National Park crest on it similar to the one on his left.)

Here, we visited Huaykeaw Waterfall, which I enjoyed climbing and exploring. See me?

Eddie, ever the park ranger, followed the rules however. Oops.

We saw this sweet boy staying cool in the heat.

There were some great opportunities to identify with people from the other side of the world. I guess there's always something in common, no matter how different we are!

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Magical Moment 623, "Thailand - the Temples!"

The Buddhist religion is an enormous part of Thailand's life and culture. We saw more temples than I could keep track of. They're beautiful and ornate. Most are open to tourists to visit. They ask visitors to cover their knees and shoulders and remove their shoes out of respect. (click to enlarge)


Another interesting aspect were the numerous Spirit Houses that were kept in businesses, homes, even open fields and roadsides. It was explained that these houses are more or less tributes to ancestors and those who have passed on. You will always see water bottles, meals, even beer or fried chicken sitting on these Spirit Houses as gifts to those gone. They may be to passed away loved ones, or to unknown spirits. If someone is building a business, they will also make a spirit house in tribute to whoever lived and died on that land before them, though they never knew them personally. 

This was a large Spirit House by our hotel in Bangkok

These workers take a break near a small Spirit House

It's also common to see monks. Buddhist in Thailand (which is around 90% of the population), the men  are required to be a monk for a period of time. We were told the minimum amount of time is just 1 week, but it's a major part of a Buddhist's life. I wanted to get better photos, but I felt a little odd trying to snap their picture. That's why these are from behind!

This group of monks sat in front of us on the plane ride from Bangkok to Chiang Mai

I admit, I never knew much about the Buddhist religion, and still don't really. But I learned that they do teach love and respect for all living things. This makes the common practice of elephant abuse and torture all that more puzzling, considering the elephant is not only a national symbol of pride, but a religious god as well (Ganesha). However, there are probably just as many Christians in the world who don't practice Christ's teachings of love and acceptance. I guess in any case, human nature gets in the way and no one has the right to judge. 

Monday, May 20, 2013

Magical Moment 622, "Thailand - the Markets!"

We got our first true taste of Thailand in Bangkok. We knew we only had a short amount of time here and wanted to make the most of it, so we went straight from the airport to Taling Chan where we visited a floating market. This cab ride was most interesting because our awful American pronunciation of "Taling Chan" did not register with this cab driver. He made several cell phone calls (while driving through the terrifyingly chaotic streets of Bangkok) to friends who had a better understanding of English, and finally we made a connection!

We were mesmerized when we arrived and wandered around (suitcases and all) through the Taling Chan Floating Market. Here we met a Thai woman working at a stand who spoke impeccable English. She kindly offered to keep our bags safe with her while we explored unhindered. Of all the scary stories we'd heard of Bangkok, thefts, and scams, she certainly proved there were exceptions to that stereotype.

Floating markets are numerous throughout Thailand, and it's amazing to see the traditional way of selling vegetables, fruits, and all kinds of other goods. Fresh, as well as cooked food is prepared right in their boats and they sell to passers by. It was beautiful.

Daily fresh food is a must in Thailand, as refrigeration is rare in many places.

It was 100 degrees, Farenheit. The cooking raised the temperature by 10 at least!

Decorated boats

The catfish were jumping!

This is where I experienced my first meal in Thailand. And thus began my love of wandering from stand to stand, experimenting with new and strange foods on a stick! And Chang beer! Of course, for the first meal I played it safe with pork, a spring roll, and what I can only describe as a spicy hush puppy. Most markets are extremely cheap. This meal probably cost the equivalent of $1.50 and it was delish!

The Taling Chan Floating Market also had a regular street market, which was just as charming.

80 baht (Thailand money), is about $3.50 USD.

Don't you want to try something?!

The next morning before our flight, we went to one more market near our hotel. This was HUGE and indoors. It was interesting, but after a while, the mix of the smells started to get to me. There were no tourists in this area, so I feel like this is a more accurate representation of a typical Thailand market.

These are called Rose Apples. We tried one and it tasted a lot like a pear. This is 50 baht for 1 kilo of fruit. So, about a dollar a pound. She let us just buy 1 for 5 baht.

This guy was nice enough to strike a pose for the "farang" with a camera. That's Thai for "gringa." :)

These poor little guys were probably someone's lunch.

The stands went on forever. We spent over an hour here and didn't even get to half of them. There were also clothes and household goods sold here, but we mainly explored the food.

The food tastings weren't as successful at this market. We tried something that looked like a hot dog in a was not a hot dog...and it was not a bun! We finally were able to be satisfied with a toast stand. That's right. Toast, butter, and sugar. Hard to go wrong there! The nice thing was, everything is so cheap, you can try many things and not be out much money if you don't like it.

Markets are a huge part of Thailand daily life and culture. They don't buy in bulk at Wal Mart and keep it in the freezer for later, so it's important to have fresh food daily. Even the 7/11 stores have a market feel to them.

Our first impression of the markets in Thailand really set the scene for the rest of our trip. It helped us begin to understand the people and way of life. I loved walking through them, trying new things, and watching the people who made their living selling goods. 


Sunday, May 19, 2013

Magical Moment 621, "Thailand - the Journey!"

I meant to take the summer off blogging...and ended up staying away for over a year! A complete accident and I can't believe it's been that long already! But I HAD to return to blogging now in order chronicle the amazing vacation that Eddie and I recently took to Chiang Mai, Thailand. 

Eddie and I had been wanting to take an overseas vacation for years. It's always been my dream to visit Venice and when the time came to choose our destination, I was sure that would be our selection. Just in case though, we went through a few other suggestions and suddenly, the thought of interacting with wildlife seemed like a no-brainer. We're both animal lovers. We've seen whales, sea lions, dolphins, and a heap of other animals in the wild here in the US. So we wondered, what else could we see that would be a once in a lifetime opportunity? Elephants!

We chose to spend 1 week as volunteers at the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai Thailand. This is an elephant sanctuary that rescues abused, injured, and exploited elephants. We thought, what better way to support responsible tourism? 

Here is a little teaser of what's to come in a few posts:

But first, I'd like to share about our journey to and from Chiang Mai. I want to give the elephants the time and care in a post that they deserve. If you're curious about where on earth we were (geography is not my strong suit), these were the 4 flights that it took to get us there! (click to enlarge)

NYC to Osaka, Japan

Osaka, Japan to Taipei, Taiwan

Taipei, Taiwan to Bangkok, Thailand

Bangkok to Chiang Mai (no fancy airplane screen for this sir.)

We flew way above Canada, I searched out the window to see if I could spot Santa at the North Pole. No Santa, but I'm pretty certain we saw some glaciers. I can't be sure of course, it could just be a lot of snow for all I know, but I was excited just the same. 

Unfortunately, we only got a glimpse of Osaka from the plane as well. It was interesting that in our 18 hours of flying, the sun never set on us! :) 

Luckily we were able to spend some time in Bangkok, Taiwan, and the city of Chiang Mai (not just the northern mountainous jungle where Elephant Nature Park is located). Tomorrow I'll share all the amazing sights and sounds from the colorful markets that cover the streets. Hope you enjoy the photos. It's great to be back blogging, and I can't wait to catch up on everyone's posts!