Tag Archives: Thailand

Elephants

2 Feb

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Reading today about the man killed whilst riding an elephant in Thailand brought back our recent visit. Reports of what happened vary in the papers but it seems he was thrown from the elephant’s back after it was either teased or beaten.
Most people we spoke to while we were in Thailand had taken the opportunity to ride these wonderful animals while they were there and who can blame them? The chance to get up close and personal with such beautiful and extraordinary creatures is something they will probably remember for the rest of their lives. But I just wanted to add my voice to those urging tourists to choose not to ride them.

Appalling abuse is routine to get the elephants to co-operate but most tourists don’t know about this. As the spokesman from World Animal Protection said in the Guardian “If you can ride it, hug it or have a selfie with a wild animal, then the chances are it is cruel and the animal is suffering.”
The other side of the story is that without the elephants providing an income for the many handlers they would not be able to make a living. And what do you do with all these damaged animals who wouldn’t survive if released into the wild? The answer seems to be the concept of a sanctuary similar to the one we visited near Chiang Mai.

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One of many with irreparable damage to her leg.

While far from perfect, at least here they were free to roam about as they chose, to interact with people only when encouraged with snacks. They were able to form family groups and herds, breed naturally, physical wounds were cared for and the contact with and assistance of other elephants helped to mitigate their psychological trauma. The story of one of these ladies, rescued after being deliberately blinded to make her easier to handle and work, was particularly heartbreaking. She had been befriended by another lone female who had encouraged and helped her into her new, kinder life.

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The sanctuary has to make money to support its animals, though, and it seems only fair to use the tourists. Visitors are shown around in small groups, told the life stories of the different elephants they come into contact with, allowed to get close to carefully selected individuals and bathe those that want to be bathed. Those that don’t or have just had enough simply wander off, cross the river and get out of the way. Other groups are viewed from platforms and it is clear to see the natural relationships that have built up.

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The whole experience is truly unforgettable and riding is not only unnecessary but abhorrent once you know a few facts.
So if you’re thinking of going to Thailand, I urge you to do a bit of research beforehand. It doesn’t take much – a quick look at a popular review site will give you a good guide – and vote with your wallet. Choose not to perpetuate the abuse.

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Koh Phi Phi Leh

18 Nov

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If you’re staying on Koh Phi Phi Don, as we are, you really have to visit the smaller and, as yet, uninhabited island of Phi Phi Leh. Everyone does. And that is the problem. If you’re lucky, though, you can find a long tail boat trip taking only a few passengers that sets out early to avoid the crowds and a guide that really knows his stuff.

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Following a different pattern to most excursions our first stop was to a beautiful bay predictably known as the Blue Lagoon but never has the name seemed more appropriate. Shallow enough in places to step into from the boat yet quickly deep enough to swim comfortably in turquoise water and at the perfect temperature to cool without chilling, could there be a more perfect spot? Well, not until the other boats started to arrive at least.

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It is compulsory to see Maya Bay where “The Beach” was partly filmed. It must have been beautiful at one time but by now the hordes had arrived and any remnant of the original remote paradise depicted long gone. We took the obligatory pictures but, at our guide’s suggestion, didn’t linger to swim among the throngs.

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Instead we headed to a nearby bay known for its sharks and we were going to go snorkeling with them! It took quite a bit of reassurance to get me in the water, I can tell you. Neil’s assertion that they were vegetarians didn’t quite cut it. Besides, we had to don flippers, mask and snorkel then jump off the side of the boat – I’d had enough trouble getting on and off with bare feet and using a ladder. I’m so glad I did, though. With water as beautiful and clear as you can imagine as soon as I’d plucked up the courage I found myself surrounded by such an array of colourful fish that I’d only really thought possible to see in an aquarium. And the truly extraordinary thing was that they seemed totally unfazed by our presence. And, yes, sharks. OK, so not the one from Jaws but definitely sharks! What an experience.

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Our lunchtime stop was a small beach where we picnicked with a lone monkey who solemnly accepted slices of pineapple from us then helped himself to a can of Sprite which he guzzled with practised ease. Quite how he got there remains a mystery but it seemed a dreadful shame he was spending his life in isolation apart from the naked apes that lingered only briefly. There is another bay with smaller monkeys where tourists gather to see them but it was high tide when we passed so we stayed only long enough to see the family groups gathering in the trees and on the rocks.
Then it was time for more snorkeling, this time to see turtles. The water here was deep and the current strong making me regret all the rice I’d eaten at lunch but nevertheless another unforgettable experience. We returned to our hotel in the long tail boat, the breeze drying us off and keeping us cool during the heat of the day, tired but very content.

Photos by Mr Chet, our tour guide.

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Koh Phi Phi

16 Nov

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It was a bit disappointing to find the wet season hadn’t ended in southern Thailand when we arrived. There’d been the odd shower further north but we hadn’t been caught out. Here in the Phuket area the skies were leaden and sweat ran down bodies like waterfalls.  We didn’t let the rumbling clouds deter us, though.
The ferry from Phuket to Koh Phi Phi was smooth and air conditioned, Ton Sai pier organised chaos with not so much organisation and the transfer to our hotel an experience. There are no real roads on Phi Phi so most transport is by sea using traditional style Long Tail Boats which have been fitted with car engines. Shallow hulled, they drive the bow onto the beach and passengers then wade ashore. Except this is not going to be acceptable to tourists if they have to carry their cases at the same time, of course. The solution our hotel used was a trailer pulled through the water, and over the rocks, by a tractor. Not the comfiest of rides but we arrived with dry feet and luggage.

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Koh Phi Phi was devastated by the Boxing Day Tsunami of 2004 but quickly rebuilt from the rubble and the tourists returned in ever greater numbers. An early warning system is now in place and the only indication such an appalling event ever occurred are discrete signs pointing to the evacuation route.
It is certainly possible to spend your entire time here in the hotel “village”, only venturing out on excursions organised by them but to do so would be such a mistake. Find the unsignposted back entrance and you find the rough and ready real village that has sprung up with all the life and soul, not to mention business enterprise, of the local people. Several of the top rated restaurants on Phi Phi are here in this village along with bars, massage parlours, laundries and small supermarkets.

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The weather pattern so far has developed into blue, breezy mornings with the thunder clouds starting to roll in late afternoon. This means we get out and about early: either a walk along the beach here or to one of the other nearby bays. We’d been told of another bay that could be reached via the fishermen’s village but would have missed it completely if one of them hadn’t pointed the way. I’d like to say I made a valiant effort but, in fact, quickly gave up when a rope was required to go any further. Neil reached the top of the cliff easily but turned around when faced with a decent strewn with cacti. I confess to relief at his return.

Thai Bath Time

14 Nov

Is there no privacy?

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Is there no shower curtain here?

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Oh, come on, let me at least do my hair!

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It's not easy, you know..

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Nearly there...

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OK, I'm ready for my profile now.

Chiang Mai

9 Nov

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I have to admit that we have treated ourselves a bit on this holiday. We figured we were unlikely to be back here anytime soon and we wanted to make the most of it. Hence the absolutely beautiful hotel we’re staying in here in Chiang Mai in the north of Thailand. I have never stayed anywhere like it before or likely will do again but when you can get an air-conditioned room for the equivalent of £9 a night, you don’t have to pay a sheikh’s ransom to get something really special.

On the whole this is backpacker territory. Don’t get me wrong, this is a modern city on a more pleasant scale than Bangkok but you don’t really come here for the city itself. This is a city that still has rainforest around it and it has developed activities to bring the tourists in. If you want to hike in the jungle, go rock climbing or swing along a zip wire this is the place. Not being in the first flush of youth, the attractions for us were waterfalls and elephants. We were not disappointed. Just be careful which tours you choose, though, if you don’t want to support the drugging (at best) of tigers and truly tragic abuse of elephants. If an activity is not normal for an animal it has suffered to get it to co-operate. Things do seem to be gradually changing in Thailand but it is a change of mindset on the part of both locals and tourists that is required and is a far from straightforward process.

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It is possible now to get up close and personal with rescued elephants and more are treating their animals better so it is really worth doing a bit of research before booking anything. As it was, we’ve had an amazing time and have even managed a Thai massage and a bit of relaxing by the pool. Now we’re heading for the beaches!

River Kwai Cruise

5 Nov

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When our alarm went off at 5am we thought we were going to have to call the whole thing off. Neil had gone down with the dreaded Bangkok Belly and could barely stand. The thought of sitting on a coach in the heat must have been almost unbearable. How he managed to pull it all together to even attempt it I will never know. Thankfully, the coach turned out to be an air-conditioned people carrier with just a driver, a guide and only one other couple. Even so, luck and the timing of the frequent stops definitely helped.
The morning was given over to the events on the River Kwai during WW2 with stops at the museum, a reconstruction of the POW camp, the war cemetery and the infamous bridge itself. I don’t think anyone could fail to be moved.
This being Thailand there were also visits to temples. Three of them. I forget the names. One featured the corpse of a revered monk in a glass coffin which didn’t gel with my Methodist upbringing at all. And steps. OMG, the steps!
What we were all looking forward to, though, was joining the boat that would be our home for the next three nights. It turned out that we four were to be the only passengers, the crew outnumbering the clients. This meant we were able to take over the room adjacent to ours to store our largely unpacked cases. In fact, we could have had the whole starboard side!
What I hope will turn into the pattern for the next couple of days was established. Wonderful Thai lunch, a few drinks lounging on the deck in good company and a spectacular sunset before more food and an early night in an air-conditioned room. Neil couldn’t manage the food, of course. Or the drinks. But he’s definitely looking better.

Thankfully, Neil was fully recovered after a good night’s sleep. I wouldn’t rave about the rooms. They are pleasant enough but not where you would want to linger except to cool down and definitely could do with a bit of TLC.  The upper deck is much more comfortable with our pick of loungers which means we are able to keep swapping sides to stay in the shade as the river twists and turns.

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I’d thought mosquitoes would be a problem but it turns out that they rarely get them as the river is too fast flowing to allow them to breed. The riverside is still obviously jungle although it probably doesn’t stretch very far back now but the sudden glimpse of the mountains in the distance as the boat turns a bend in the river is enchanting while the sunsets are simply stunning.

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There is development along the bank, much of it floating accommodation for tourists- a bit like a cabin built on a raft. These and the other holiday developments seem mostly empty and the only people we tend to see are those working on the many fish farms and monks on retreat doing their washing. Other boats are rare as hens’ teeth. Of course, this means it is mostly all very quiet and peaceful in stark contrast to Bangkok.

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What we did see was a meteorite crashing into the earth’s atmosphere – a brilliant flash of light that had us running to the edge of the boat to witness the blazing trail as it burned itself out, an extraordinary and probably  a once-in-a-lifetime sight.

This cruise involved plenty of sightseeing, much of it related to the Burma-Thailand railway, of course, but also temples, caves with temples in them and ruined castles with, yep, temples in them. The highlight for both of us, though, was the two hour trip up the river to the national park in a longtail boat, an experience I wouldn’t normally have tried. So glad I did. All four of us decided against getting up at 5am to go to the market to buy food to offer to the monks. If you want me to get up at 5am it’s best not to have marched me up and God knows how many steps the day before!

Bangkok: Day 3

1 Nov

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I can recommend the nightlife in Bangkok. Maybe you have to be a bit broad minded and there were certainly streets where I preferred not to linger but the buzz is amazing. Halloween in a gay bar in Bangkok should be on everyone’s bucket list.
So we slept well. And got up a bit later than planned. And we needed a couple of paracetamol before breakfast. But,hey, we stuck to our plan: boat to the Flower Market then taxi to Vimanmek Palace.
The Flower Market doesn’t actually have any flowers. It should be renamed “the produce and hardware market” so unless you’re into great mounds of onion bags maybe give it a miss. It was easy to get a metered taxi outside, though, and the driver was great, telling us what we were looking at on the drive there, mostly in the language of sound effects!
The Vimanmek is a bit of an ordeal. Security involves bag searches, frisking and airport-style walk through scanners as well as hand held. After all that you still have to leave your bag in a locker, which are in short supply. No photos or mobile phones are allowed and no shoes to protect the floor. Inside there’s air conditioning.
It occurred to us to go to the nearby temple afterwards but a beer by the hotel’s infinity pool sounded much more appealing. Well. We have very full days coming up and this is a holiday!
We’re unlikely to have access to the internet over the next few days but I’ll post about the cruise up the River Kwai when I get chance. Hope to see you then.

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