Signoff

December 24, 2009

Looking back on our trip, some things seem surreal. Did we really do that? We’re already starting to forget some of the details of the things we experienced. We’re glad that we have many photos, a journal, and this blog to help us remember.

People we meet ask us, “What was your favourite country”? We find this impossible to answer. Rather than a particular country, it’s been more about the individual experiences that we’ve had and the people that we’ve met. We started to compile a highlight list, but the first cut had over fifty items on it! Trimming it down to a top ten list would be very difficult.

This is the first time we’ve written a blog, and it’s been great. It was more work than we expected, but definitely worth the effort. We thought that it would be a way for family and friends to stay connected with us, and it has been that. It has also been a terrific way for us to stay connected with you. We’ve been able to share our experiences, thoughts, and emotions and get feedback as we go. It’s like you’ve come along on the trip with us. This has been a great comfort at times, especially for Diane. It’s ironic that while we’ve been travelling we’ve had more interaction with some people (generally those who don’t live near Vancouver) than we would probably have had if we’d been at home. We’d like to keep up these communications when we get home.

We’ve met many people while traveling. In a few cases, this has developed into friendships. We hope to maintain and enhance these going forward, rather than see them fade over time. We will do our best to not let the pressures of day-to-day life get in the way.

We are planning to do some presentations about our trip. We have lots of stories and photos that we’d like to share, many of which didn’t make it into the blog. We’ll be sure to let you all know when and where.

Looking back, Diane was surprised how many times she’s voluntarily done things that were beyond her comfort zone (canyoneering in Petra, rock climbing in Wadi Rum, tracking black rhino on foot in Zimbabwe, riding motorcycles in the Himalaya, spelunking in Laos, etc.) For a while she kept asking, “How did I get myself into this, again?” In these situations the expression “Bloody Hell” unconsciously become a new part of her vocabulary. Does she regret having done them? No. But would she do them again if she had the chance? Probably. In fact, Diane has already said that she’d be open to doing another trip like this in the future.

People are already asking, “What are you going to do next?” We have ideas, but no specific plans yet. We came home with a to-do list of over 100 items, which includes both the urgent things necessary to move forward with our lives, as well as making decisions about our future. We definitely want to travel again – South America, Central America, Europe, Australia, Canada and The United States. So many amazing places and so little time.

Travelling has been an education. We learned about the world, humanity, culture, religion, relationships, and most importantly, about ourselves. There is much more to see and experience, and we still have a lot to learn.

We feel truly fortunate to have had this opportunity. Thank you for all your emails and comments along with way. Sharing our journey with you made it even more rewarding.

Your humble bloggers,
Diane and Patrick King


The American War in Vietnam

December 14, 2009

Vietnam became a colony in the 1880’s, when France took control by force. Like most of South East Asia it was occupied by the Japanese during World War II. After the war, Ho Chi Minh, leader of the Viet Minh, communists from the northern part of Vietnam who had resisted the Japanese, declared Vietnam independent. They were not prepared to continue being a colony of France. Patrick thinks that this must have been due, at least in part, to the fact that the French had not been able to defend Vietnam from the Japanese, and that they were undoubtedly more concerned about defending French territory in Europe. This resulted in a war between the Viet Minh and the French, who didn’t want to give up their valuable colony. The French were supported in this war by money and weapons donated by America. In 1954 the Vietnamese captured many French soldiers forcing a negotiated settlement called the “Geneva Accords” requiring French withdrawal and temporarily dividing the country into North and South at the Ben Hai River until elections could be held. The neutral territory on either side of this river was called the De-militarized zone (DMZ). When the anti-communist leader of the South refused to hold these elections, the temporary division became a de-facto permanent one, creating North and South Vietnam.

The North Vietnamese were communists trying to ‘liberate’ their countrymen in the South, only some of who wanted to be liberated. In 1960, they began a military confrontation to reunite Vietnam under their leadership. America worried that if the North succeeded in defeating the American-supported leadership of South Vietnam that the resulting ‘domino effect’ could see all of South East Asia eventually become communist. This was in the late 1960’s, at the height of the cold war. America fought the war in Vietnam from 1965 to 1973 before a cease-fire was agreed to in Paris. Without American support, it was only a matter of time.


North Vietnamese tanks crashed through the gates of the presidential palace in Saigon, capital of South Vietnam on April 30th, 1975. Soon after it was renamed ‘Reunification Palace’ and opened to the public. It has been preserved in the state it was then. Saigon was also renamed Ho Chi Minh city, but most people still call is Saigon.

We visited the War Remnants Museum in Saigon. It is billed as a museum about the atrocities of war. What they don’t say is that it is a museum only about American atrocities from the war in Vietnam. This makes it even more interesting because it presents only the Vietnamese government’s perspective on the war. It displays much captured American weaponry including tanks, planes, helicopters, and small arms, implicitly reminding people of who won the war.


It highlights American war atrocities including bombing of civilians, torture of captured soldiers and civilians, and the use of toxic defoliants like Agent Orange. It displays many pictures of injured Vietnamese civilians, especially women and children, and of birth defects purportedly caused by toxic chemicals. The most gruesome artifact is the bodies of two still born children with physical disabilities attributed to dioxin, floating in a tank of preservative. We wondered what both the Vietnamese people and American tourists milling about thought of these exhibits. Did they feel the same things?

The Vietnamese and much of the world believe that America engaged in an illegal war in Vietnam. Undoubtedly their opposition, referred to here as ‘Vietnamese Communists’, ‘Vietnamese Patriots’, or ‘Liberators of South Vietnam’ and by American soldiers as ‘Viet Cong’ or ‘VC’, committed many atrocities too, but these are never mentioned here.

Today both French and American tourists are welcomed in Vietnam, which has diplomatic relations with both of these countries. There are a lot of French tourists here, probably because Vietnam was a former French colony. French tourists we’ve spoken to say that they do not sense any animosity or resentment from the Vietnamese.


Things you can do on a motor scooter

December 14, 2009

We’ve seen a lot of things done on a small motor scooter during on our travels. Here are some of them:

  • Lean against it while trying to look cool for the opposite sex
  • Make out with one’s boyfriend or girlfriend in the park while balancing on the kickstand
  • Pull a carriage behind it to transport tourists
  • Pull a cart behind it to transport goods
  • Carry huge lengths of bamboo, pipe, or reinforcing bar, like a modern day knight and lance
  • Transport a family of five at the same time
  • Take your dog for a ride in the front basket, so he can feel the wind in his face
  • Transport live animals, including poor ducks who strain to avoid scraping their bills on the pavement
  • Transport dead animals — Diane saw a scooter loaded with dead dogs going to market
  • Operate a motorcycle taxi service
  • Pull your friend riding a bicycle
  • Let your toddler stand up in front, holding onto the console, while you drive
  • Rent it to tourists without insurance or helmets
  • With thousands of other scooters, make it virtually impossible for pedestrians to cross the street

Observations about Vietnam

December 14, 2009
  • The government here is communist (or heavily socialist), but the economic system is capitalist.
  • Vietnam has been repelling invaders for the last two thousand years — the Khmers, Chinese, French, and most recently the Americans. They are fiercely proud of this fact.
  • Vietnam is one of the largest rice exporters in the world, which is amazing considering the amount of rice that they consume locally. Sometimes it seems that everything here is made of rice.
  • The Vietnamese love their soups, especially Pho, which is usually eaten for breakfast.
  • Coffee is very popular here, especially iced coffee. Vietnamese coffee is prepared using a simple drip device above the cup and is usually very strong and served with condensed milk.
  • A lot of women in Vietnam wear the traditional conical hat woven out of natural materials. They wear a scarf across their chin to hold it on.
  • They play a lot of easy listening music and ‘musak’ here. As we write this, we’re listening to instrumental versions of ‘Love is a Many Splendored Thing’ and ‘Feelings’
  • There are more motor scooters in Vietnam than anywhere else we’ve seen. Especially in Hanoi, where crossing the street requires one to just wade out into the sea of scooters, trusting that they will swerve to avoid you.
  • In Vietnam, traffic priority is based on vehicle size – perhaps not from a legal perspective, but certainly from a practical one. Larger vehicles have (or take) the right of way. For example, a larger vehicle will pass using the oncoming lane even if a smaller vehicle is coming in the opposite direction. The smaller vehicle will be forced to give way, which usually means running up on the shoulder. As the smallest vehicles, motorbikes get no respect. They spend most of their time driving on the shoulder and being ready to drive into the weeds if necessary.
  • The Vietnamese love little dogs. They are everywhere. They also eat dogs. We wonder how they decide which ones to love and which ones to eat. Perhaps they do both (love first, eat later).
  • Motor scooter taxis (called ‘xe om’ in Vietnamese) are common here. Diane and I both rode on the back of the same tiny scooter (with a driver) in Hanoi.
  • Ho Chi Minh, the man who led the fight for Vietnam’s independence from France and the war against the Americans, is revered here. Many people have his picture in their homes. His embalmed body is on display in Hanoi (against his wishes), just like the other two in the holy trinity of communism — Stalin in Moscow and Mao Tse Tung in Beijing. Uncle Ho’s body is transported to Russia for a couple of months each year for touchups (the guy has been dead for 30 years and he still takes an annual vacation!)
  • We met a Danish man here who is married to a Vietnamese woman and living in Denmark. He said that the Vietnamese are a ‘cruel people’ both in their treatment of animals and one another. We haven’t experienced these ourselves. An Australian living here said that the Vietnamese can be cold, but once you become their friend, they treat you like family.
  • Vietnam may have the cheapest beer in the world. On the street corner in Hanoi you can drink ‘bia hoi’ (draft beer) for 3000 Dong per glass (about 15 cents Canadian). At six for dollar, we can have a wild evening for just two dollars!
  • The Vietnamese eat dog, turtles, and fertilized duck eggs in various stages of development. We sat in a bar and watched, and smelled, a woman consume three of these eggs by breaking off the top and eating the contents with a tiny spoon and salt. The developing duck is clearly visible inside, and it’s the luck of the draw whether you get an early one (soft and squishy) or a late one (meaty and crunchy).

Quotes from His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama

December 14, 2009

These words are from the leader of Himalayan Buddhism, a man who describes himself as ‘a simple Buddhist monk’. They had resonance for us, so we wanted to share them with you.

“This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness.”

“I believe all suffering is caused by ignorance. People inflict pain on others in the selfish pursuit of their happiness or satisfaction. Yet true happiness comes from a sense of peace and contentment, which in turn must be achieved through the cultivation of altruism, of love and compassion, and elimination of ignorance, selfishness, and greed.”

“I believe that the very purpose of life is to be happy. From the very core of our being, we desire contentment. In my own limited experience I have found that the more we care for the happiness of others, the greater is our own sense of well-being. Cultivating a close, warmhearted feeling for others automatically puts the mind at ease. It helps remove whatever fears or insecurities we may have and gives us the strength to cope with any obstacles we encounter. It is the principal source of success in life. Since we are not solely material creatures, it is a mistake to place all our hopes for happiness on external development alone. The key is to develop inner peace.”

“For those who may not find happiness to exercise religious faith, its okay to remain a radical atheist, it’s absolutely an individual right, but the important thing is with a compassionate heart — then no problem.”

“In the practice of tolerance, one’s enemy is the best teacher.”

“Nowadays the world is becoming increasingly materialistic, and mankind is reaching toward the very zenith of external progress, driven by an insatiable desire for power and vast possessions. Yet by this vain striving for perfection in a world where everything is relative, they wander even further away from inward peace and happiness of the mind.”

“I truly believe that individuals can make a difference in society. Since periods of change such as the present one come so rarely in human history, it is up to each of us to make the best use of our time to help create a happier world.”

“Every day, think as you wake up,
Today I am fortunate to have woken up,
I am alive, I have a precious human life,
I am not going to waste it,
I am going to use all my energies to develop myself,
To expand my heart out to others,
To achieve enlightenment for the benefit of all beings,
I am going to have kind thoughts towards others,
I am not going to get angry,
or think badly about others
I am going to benefit others as much as I can”

“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”

“If you have fear of some pain or suffering, you should examine whether there is anything you can do about it. If you can, there is no need to worry about it; if you cannot do anything, then there is also no need to worry.”

“Be kind whenever possible…It is always possible.”


Observations about Cambodia

December 14, 2009

Here are some things that we’ve noticed about Camdodia:

  • Cambodia is officially a democracy, but the Cambodian People’s Party seems to control the place. They have signs up in every village and then win every election.
  • Much of the country is flat. It is covered with rice patties as far as you can see.
  • The food is very good. Our favourites are ‘amok’ – fish cooked with coconut milk and lemon grass in a banana leaf, and especially ‘lop lak’ – beef with lemon pepper sauce.
  • Cambodian food is generally not spicy, unlike its neighbouring countries, but you can add chili sauce or raw chilies at the table.
  • People eat using a spoon with the fork only to help maneuver food onto the spoon. Chopsticks aren’t common.
  • The Cambodian currency is the ‘riel’, with about 3500r to the Canadian dollar. US dollars are also widely used here. Many tourist attraction and hotel prices are quoted in US dollars but they will accept either currency. Change less than one dollar US is given in riel.
  • Tuk-tuks in Cambodia, rather than being an integrated 3-whelled vehicle, are a 2-wheeled cart pulled by a 100 cc motor scooter with driver. They are very comfortable (lots of leg room) and have better views than the tuk-tuks we’ve experienced anywhere else.

  • Some Cambodians appear resentful of their more prosperous neighbours Thailand and Vietnam. This may be rooted in history, as these regions have been fighting for thousands of years.
  • The official state religion of Cambodia is Buddhism, but for much of its history it was Hindu or Brahmist. The famous Angkor Wat temple is a Hindu temple.
  • Cambodia was a French colony from 1884 to the 1950’s. At that time the Cambodian King left the country and refused to return until the French left, which they did due to international pressure.
  • From 1974 to 1979 Cambodia was the site of a terrible genocide orchestrated by a group called the Khmer Rouge. During this period the country was called ‘Kampuchea’, and it widely recognized by foreign governments despite the atrocities committed here.
  • Anti-personnel mines (land mines) and UXO (UneXploded Ordinance, like bombs, mortar shells, grenades, etc.) are still common in Cambodia. There are estimated to be between 3 and 6 million land mines left in the country, most of which are unmarked. Many civilians are injured each year by land mines. Tourists are advised to stick to roads and marked trails only.

Observations about Laos

November 27, 2009
  • Laos is a communist country, but like most communist countries today, capitalism is alive and well. Communist flags fly from the front of many buildings.
  • The major tourist locations are quite developed, providing most of the services of Thailand.
  • There are far more tourists in the northern part of Laos than we ever would have imagined.
  • Luang Prabang is full of expensive guest houses and older tourists on packaged holidays.
  • Most travelers stick to the north, often as a side trip to Thailand.
  • Laotian people are lovely – mild mannered, even tempered, and quick to smile and laugh. When Patrick asked for a discount on a hotel room recently the woman looked at the floor at said, “My boss would get mad at me”.
  • Laos is a bit more expensive than Thailand. The currency is the ‘Kip’, with 7,500 Kip per Canadian dollar. We changed about $300 US recently and received 2.5 million Kip! A nice meal for two costs about 50,000 Kip ($7 Canadian). Large ‘BeerLao’ (650 ml) costs $1.5 Canadian.
  • Good food is plentiful. The staple here is sticky rice, which is eaten by rolling a small ball with the right hand and dipping it into the sauces of your dishes. Noodles, curries, and barbeque are common. No part of the animal is wasted. Would you prefer the ‘tripe on a stick’ or a ‘chicken head to go’?
  • It isn’t as warm here as we expected. Cooler than Northern Thailand. Last night we actually used sheets!

Spelunking

November 27, 2009

We rented a scooter and headed north out of the popular backpacker hangout of Vang Vieng in Laos. Thirteen kilometers later, after passing through several poor villages, we turned off onto a dirt road. We were following the hand drawn map provided by the young woman who had rented us the scooter, sans insurance or helmets. After about 800 meters of red dirt road punctuated by mud puddles we arrived at the bank of the Nam Song River. Here we found a man willing to watch our scooter for 5,000 Kip (under a dollar). This wasn’t really necessary, but we felt it a wise investment at that point, thinking that paying money might avoid an unfortunate ‘accident’ from befalling our only transport home. Diane thought it was a ‘parking fee’, but there was no shortage of space to park along the river bank, so it seemed more like a protection racket to Patrick, who begrudgingly paid the fee. We crossed the river on a small bridge covered in woven mats.

Using the bridge cost us 5000 Kip each (death by a thousand cuts!), but one used to have to pay a boatman before the bridge was built, and the return trip across the bridge was included.

We arrived in a small village, home of Tham Sang. ‘The Elephant Cave’ is in a small rock outcropping at the end of the village. There is a large Buddha statue inside and a rock formation that really looks like the front of an elephant, tusks and all.

We walked on, picking our way through the rice paddies and following trails through the jungle, heading in a generally north westerly direction, looking for another cave called Tham Hoi. We started following some locals that we thought might be going in that direction, but they stopped and sent us back. Tham Hoi is a long thin cave that goes three kilometers underground to a lake. It has a generally level floor of mud, not smelly, but slippery in places. It didn’t have the smell of bat guano which is now familiar to us. The interior of the cave was filled with stalactites and stalagmites, and many formations that looked like melting candle wax. The cave is completely dark once you progress away from the entrance and we were all alone. We went in a few hundred meters using our headlamps before Diane decided that it was time to turn around.


Nearby Tham Loup is a cave reached by climbing up the lower reaches of the cliff then descending some wooden stairs into a cavern in the darkness. There were two guided groups deeper in the cave which we could sense from their distant voices and lights. At the rear of the initial cavern it was possible to climb through some tight squeezes to another cavern behind. Diane was a bit freaked out because this cave had a slippery floor with occasional jagged holes waiting to swallow us up. Tham Loup was very pretty inside, but had sustained some damage from previous visitors. We followed the faint lights and voices of the other groups, but we struggled to keep up. Patrick was concerned we’d get lost and Diane was just about to panic. Fortunately the rear chamber had another exit that looped back to the first cavern, and we found our way out unscathed.

Our final cave, Tham Nam, known as ‘The Water Cave’, was about half a kilometer away and was a bit of a surprise. It has a wide, low opening with a tributary of the Nam Song running from it. For a small fee we rented inner tubes and waterproof headlamps from a young woman who lived nearby. Each headlamp looked like a torture device, with a large, heavy battery worn on a string around the neck, and wires running up to the light attached to the head with a tatty old bit of elastic. The batteries had exposed contacts with bare wires twisted around them, which was disconcerting because they lay balanced on our chests as we pulled ourselves on the tubes through the low entrance and into the darkness.

We made progress against the current by going hand-over-hand on a rope. The cave was about fifteen meters across and one meter high, cut from the rock by the water over the eons. Diane led the way as we tugged ourselves upstream and into the unknown.

Eventually Diane reached the end of the rope. We thought perhaps that we’d missed something, but found that the water was now shallow enough to walk. The cave roof was not high enough to stand so we splashed upstream bent over at the waist.


We found a small piece of dry ground to leave our tubes on, hoping that they wouldn’t wash away before we returned, which would result in a rather scary swim. The roof gradually lowered to the level of the water, and the river rushed from under the wall, so we turned around. On the return journey we just floated downstream, waiting for the sunlit opening to appear. Diane thought that she’d be most freaked by this cave, but it was the one that she enjoyed the most.

Overall, we had a very enjoyable day. Diane recently said that we haven’t had as much ‘adventure’ on our trip recently. Her comfort zone must surely have expanded on this trip if this isn’t exciting enough for her! Perhaps she just recovers quicker.


Elephant Training

November 27, 2009

We’ve been looking for the right opportunity to get up close and personal with elephants. We wanted to find a place where the elephants were not there just for tourists to sit on like an amusement park ride, and we wanted to go only where the elephants were well cared for. We found such a place outside of Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand, an elephant camp where elephants that used to work in logging, a practice which is no longer employed in Thailand, are given a new home and something to do.

Elephants are revered in Thailand. They are a cultural symbol for the country. All elephants in captivity are licensed. The Thai government has an elephant training school and a hospital where any elephants can be taken, and also traveling veterinarians because it’s tough to transport an elephant! Elephants with certain physical characteristics are considered ‘royal’ and are turned over the King.

Elephants were commonly used for logging in the past. Because of their great size and strength, they would literally push trees over with their foreheads and then drag them around with their trunks or with chains. Logging is a tough life for an elephant though, and these elephants typically only lived to about 40 years of age. If they are well cared for, elephants can live to be up to 80 years old, and so there are many of them (and their trainers called ‘mahouts’) who need work now that they are no longer logging.

The elephants here are of the Indian variety and are found in the wild throughout south Asia. Indian elephants are smaller in stature that African elephants, with bigger heads and smaller ears. It is because of their larger head (and brains) that they are highly trainable and have their famous memories (‘an elephant never forgets’).

We drove for an hour out of Chiang Mai to reach the elephant camp. There we changed into denim ‘mahout’ clothes, not only to keep ours clean, but to protect both us and our clothes from the equally abrasive elephant skin and stiff bristly hair.

On the day we visited there were six guests including us and five elephants, one of which had a baby that was six months old. We each fed all of the elephants bananas and sugar cane to that would become familiar with us and like us (yes, they do remember you and the fact that you’ve fed them).


We then received a lot of information on the lifestyle of the elephants in the camp and their behaviour, before being given detailed training on how to ride an elephant. We were here not just to get a tourist ride on the back of an elephant, but to actually sit on the elephant’s neck and to direct it like a real mahout, so we needed to learn the basic commands to mount and dismount, go forward, stop, back up, and turn left and right. Riding an elephant is done with a combination of voice commands (in a mix of Thai and local hill tribe languages), foot and leg movements, and pressure from a small bamboo stick with a hook on the end. The hook is not used to hit or hurt the elephant, but to apply sufficient pressure so that the elephant can feel it (their skin is about 2 inches thick).

Here, in a nutshell, is how to steer an elephant. To go forward, say “Pie” while resting the stick across the top of the elephant’s head and squeezing with your legs behind its ears. To go backwards, say “Toy” with a rising pitch. To turn, hold the ear opposite to the direction you want to go with your hand and also hook the top of it and pull, then kick behind the other ear. And most importantly, to stop, say “How” while resting the hook in the indent in the middle of the top of the elephant’s giant head.


Equipped with our newfound knowledge, we each took turns getting on and off an elephant. In response to a verbal command the elephant raises its right leg which we step up on while holding on to the top of its right ear. Repeating the same command get the elephant to raise its leg higher, like an elevator to the vicinity of the head. From there you kind of fling yourself leg-first over its back, and then slide forward on the neck until your legs are tight behind each ear.
A key point is that even the smaller Indian elephant is way bigger than it appears from a distance, especially when you’re scaling it or perched on its neck! We each made some turns left and right and walked forward and back to get a feel for the ride.

After lunch our plan was to ride our elephants up and down a nearby mountain. We each rode our own elephant except one couple who shared (one riding on the neck and the other on the back). Given the opportunity to share, Patrick was impressed that Diane elected to ride her own elephant. Patrick was assigned the elephant with the 6-month old baby, which seemed a bit risky. Who knows what she would do if she lost sight of her baby or if something happened to it.


We rode out of the compound and started up the hill into the jungle with Diane leading the way. The path was very narrow, and cut diagonally across the steep hill, so the downhill side was very, very far down. Patrick’s elephant was apparently hungry and was eating anything that she could get her trunk on. Unfortunately the best food was on the downhill side, so she would turn sideways on the very narrow trail and reach out over the edge as far as she could. This while Patrick was teetering at least 10 feet above the drop off! She particularly enjoyed bananas and bamboo, and not just the leaves or branches. She ate a banana tree by ripping the entire thing right out of the ground with her trunk, then dragging it along until she could consume it all. She did the same with bamboo. The 20 foot long bamboo in her mouth made it difficult for her to walk down the narrow trail as it kept snagging on trees! During our walk she ate two entire banana trees and a small forest of bamboo. Despite this feeding frenzy, she was always looking out for her baby, who usually ran along in front, but did end up behind occasionally, causing Mom to turn around and look back with Patrick on her swinging head.

Despite their size, elephants are afraid of small things that move quickly. They can startle if they see a little animal or snake, and may run quickly. We were told that if our elephant decided to go on a rampage that we should stay on it as long as possible. It’s way too high to jump, plus there’s some risk of being trampled.

Considering their size, riding an elephant is surprisingly unstable. Because the shoulders alternately rise and fall (a considerable distance) with each step, its important to sit high on the neck, just behind the huge head. The ears are like cowboy chaps, protecting the legs from passing trees. Staying on is difficult, and Patrick almost came off a couple of times. He was determined to stay mounted because he’s fallen off both a horse and a camel recently, and if he fell off an elephant too that could appear to be a bit of a bit of trend and people might start to talk…

After surviving the steep descent from the mountain we walked along a road briefly, as cars drove by. We’re not sure who was more scared — the drivers of the cars going by, vehicles much smaller than our pachyderms, or us, praying that our elephants wouldn’t startle.

We walked down to the river, and quickly doffed our hats and cameras, because the elephants weren’t stopping and were looking forward to a bath. We rode down some stairs and straight into the water, and were told how to get the elephant to sit down. It involves reaching as far back as possible and smacking the elephant on the back (their ass is way too far out of reach). Hopefully they sit just long enough for us to jump off before they start rolling in the water and crushing us.

Elephants love the water. We splashed them and they sprayed us with their trunks. We had a water fight by pointing our elephant’s snouts at one another, pausing between blasts to reload by dunking them under the water. A water fight with 2 tonne squirt guns.

In the interest of self-preservation, we needed to constantly be aware of where the elephants were and what they were doing. We were standing in the midst of a tight pack of elephants that were standing, sitting, and rolling, and it would have been easy to get squished. At one point another elephant sat on the baby, who got trapped beneath the water, and started to thrash. Although she’s only an infant, she weighed at least 700 pounds — more than enough to cause some serious damage. It was also important to stay away from the murky water and giant elephant turds that would occasionally belch to the surface!


On the ride back, within sight of the camp, Diane’s elephant started to run for no particular reason. It may have startled because a coconut was rolling on the ground. Perhaps it just did what Diane does when she’s running, which is to speed up on the home stretch (within sight of the barn!) Diane hung on until it settled down again, yelling “Ho” to no effect (the stop command is “How”).

We had a fun day and a great experience at the ‘elephant training camp’. We think that’s a bit of misnomer though, because the elephants are already trained, and it’s the tourists that need the lessons!


First Impressions of Bangkok

November 10, 2009

Bangkok is a very different place than when Patrick traveled here twenty years ago, and very different than the other large cities we’ve been to on our travels.

  • The city is very modern looking. There are a lot of sky scrapers. The shopping area looks like a futuristic version of Epcot Center. Overall the city looks more developed and modern than Vancouver, London, or New York.
  • Public transit is excellent. There is a Skytrain which is wider, nicer, and more elevated than the one in Vancouver. Overhead walkways are common at major intersections (like on the Las Vegas strip). There is a large, modern subway, efficient buses, and a high-speed water taxi on the river.
  • The city is very clean compared to those in Africa and India.
  • For the most part, drivers follow the traffic rules and signals.
  • There are street food stalls almost everywhere serving cheap and delicious food. We’ve only eaten in a restaurant a couple of times. Soups, noodles, curries, vegetarian dishes, and bar-b-qued chicken and duck are common.
  • There are a couple of bars located on the roofs of skyscrapers, something not found elsewhere due to the obvious safety issues.
  • You can buy fried insects on the street including larvae, crickets, grass hoppers, and scorpions.
  • Many sidewalks are lined with street vendors. Common items are food, clothing, and jewelry. You can still buy pirated CDs and DVDs, and copies of designer clothes and watches. You can also have music and movies loaded onto your iPod.
  • You can buy brass knuckles, switchblades, throwing stars, and tasers on the street, all of which are illegal Canada.
  • You can also buy Viagra and Cialis on the street, which may or may not be real.
  • Vendors are polite and not pushy. Negotiating is a friendly process.
  • You can get a fish pedicure here. For a few dollars you soak your feet in a tank of small ‘doctor fish’ from Japan that eat the dead skin from your feet.
  • We ate bird’s nest soup in Chinatown. This is a gelatinous ‘noodle’ soup made from the boiled nests of sea birds. The nests are made from bird saliva and are harvested by men who climb high in seaside caves.
  • Beer is sold almost everywhere, even at street stalls. It isn’t clear if premises need to be licensed.
  • Foreign fast food is commonly available including McDonalds, KFC, Subway, Pizza Hut, and Swenson’s ice cream parlours. McDonald’s serves beef (unlike India) and hot pies, but instead of apple they are filled with broccoli or corn.
  • Coffee shops, including Starbucks, are common, contributing significantly to Diane’s enjoyment of the city.
  • There are 7-Elevens everywhere. Apparently there are almost 4000 throughout Thailand, and they sell cheap beer!
  • There are large, modern shopping malls filled with international stores, luxury products, and luxury prices.
  • It is still common to see foreign men of all ages with beautiful, young Thai women (some of whom are also men). Some foreign men retire here for this reason.
  • There is a visible police presence, especially in tourist areas. They appear to here to assist and protect the tourists, rather than extort them as in many other countries.