Thai Elephant Conservation Center

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On my month-long trip this past February, I went to this Thai Elephant Conservation Centre outside of Lampang, Thailand by about an hour’s drive.

As soon as you arrive, it’s as if you’ve been transported to another world. Elephants of all shapes, ages, sizes and colouring are wandering around. There’s even an elephant hospital.

Of course, in order to make money to support their work, they have to cater to the tourists so the first thing you see is the elephants being washed in the big lake and at the end of what started as just a daily washing and cool down becomes an all out water fight between the elephants and the trainers.

After that you get to ride the elephants which requires you to access their backs from a two-story bamboo structure that allows you to climb straight into the basket positioned on their back.

It’s a little bit scary at first when you head straight down into the lake, a trainer at the front to make sure the elephant behaves.  Natalie, who I was with, wasn’t paying attention and literally almost fell out of the basket when it was headed down into the lake.

The elephant lopes side to side and the basket moves to and fro and it doesn’t take long to get in the groove of its movement the way you would when you’re a passenger on a motorbike, learning to go with the flow, lean, no resisting.

It’s a beautiful place and as we entered I noticed that you could actually stay at a nearby Giraffe resort if you were intent on spending a lot longer with the elephants than just a few hours.

As fall arrives, my mind is wandering back to warmer climes. And it hasn’t even started raining yet here in the rain forest uh oh!

Walking Interruptus in Phnom Penh

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Walking down the street in Phnom Penh isn’t really what those of us who grew up on Lucy and Leave it to Beaver re-runs imagine when we think to ourselves, mmmm, I think I’ll just take a little stroll down the street. You don’t just walk down the street in Cambodia’s capital city because that would imply that you’ll take a carefree little jaunt  in a straight line.

No. No. No. Instead, you take some steps, you look around, and in the middle of the busiest tourist area near the Royal Palace and the National Museum, you can not walk down Sisowath Quay without being continuously approached, but in the nicest way, mind you.

“Tuk, Tuk? Tuk Tuk, Madame?” Where you going? I can take you there. Where are you going later? How about tomorrow? I could take you on a city tour?”

It is imperative that you smile and remain as pleasant as possible all the while continuing to say “No thanks” while one eye maintains an awareness of what your feet are doing to avoid stepping in dog shit or tripping over broken pavement or avoiding the wires dangling down, or slipping on the coconut husks that haven’t been picked up from the pile near the curb or the kind of slant in the pavement that the wrong shoes could translate into a broken arm.

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“Tuk Tuk? Tuk Tuk, Madame?”

It doesn’t matter whether you have said “No” to the four tuk tuk drivers parked ahead of him and he’s seen and heard you decline, one after the other, the most ambitious soul will  just keep asking as if maybe you just didn’t like the looks of the first three and that gives him hope beyond hope that you will change your mind because surely you will see that he is a superior being in comparison to them. Sometimes, even from a distance, far enough away without the use of binoculars or any other device, one will spot you and his arm will raise even though you are half a block away. “Tuk Tuk?” You have to admire the tenacity. It becomes a bit of a joke but only after you find yourself saying, like your father would have in your short-tempered way, “Jesus, if I wanted a tuk tuk, I think I’d just ask for one. Harumph!”

At night if you sit in one of the open air cafes along the main strip near the riverside, little children carting red plastic bins of photocopied books with titles like, First They Killed My Father, about the Pol Pot regime, will try and sell you a copy. If you are foolish enough to buy just one, a swarm of children materialize from the ether to try and sell you more and different titles as if they think the library in your mansion back home in America needs populating. Only when you are energetically resolved and steadfast in your “No” and they sense it, only then will they leave you alone if you have refused to buy their books, and bracelets and scarves.

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“You’re mean. Do you see that I have no leg?” asked the little girl. Actually I hadn’t noticed.  Looking down, wondering if that would have made a difference to me, thinking that yes, indeed, it would have.

You will always have to look both ways before you cross the street, not just once or twice as you would in any major urban centre in the world, but at least three times, and quickly, as if you’re playing a game of musical chairs with traffic. When you feel it is not safe, because it is definitely not safe, but let’s say then that when you determine that your chances of being killed by a scooter carrying a monk or a naked baby being held by its mother or a motorbike with two men balancing a refrigerator vertically between them, or one man balancing two double mattresses and a picture to be framed, or another with PVC tubing balanced on his shoulder like a trapeze, only then, when your chances are lesser, do you then take a deep breath, step out and keep moving, without ever looking behind you, and just having faith that Buddha is on your side and praying that Mercury is not in Retrograde that week.

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You must step around vendors selling the most exotic array of fruit, step in between parked tuk tuks  and other tourists holding maps and wandering like drunken zombies and Land Rovers parked half on/half off the sidewalk and you must get out of the way of the man pushing his cart of small fresh snails that are drying on racks propped at a 45 degree angle.

Nearing the end of my trip, I stayed in a neighborhood about 15 minutes away from the tourist area. I came out on the street one morning only to hear a loud crash. I looked across at what looked like a bank where it would appear half the ceiling had fallen down. A dubious construction or renovation project perhaps?  All the people, an entire extended family, made their way out, en masse, from the shop next door as if they were tied together, wanting to see what all the ruckus was about. When they took it in, saw no casualties,  they laughed and joked among themselves in a language that I couldn’t understand, probably Khmer, and then turned around and went back inside.marketsmallchickens

The smells that sometimes assault you are so pungent, a combination of pavement and sweat and shit and humanity and exhaust and dried fish and breezes off the Mekong, that they catch you off guard; I have never smelled anything as putrid as what would sometimes sneak up one nostril and race down and out the other side.

When you walk down the street with your money belt around your waist and your purse slung across your body, you feel as if you might as well be wearing a flashing neon sign: Bank of America, right here. Open. Discount. And you can’t help but think about the poor young tourist who was dragged to her death a few years back when gangs  on scooters snatched her bag and she couldn’t untangle from it. When you have that thought,  you change the position of your bag to the other shoulder, away from the street-side.

But, after all that, on an evening when you’re alone, and a little sick of your own company, you think, well, maybe I’ll just get a tuk tuk, for entertainment, to observe, to feel the breeze, and so you do, but not, of course, without negotiating the price first which is a comical exercise when the price is almost always just two bucks U.S.

Asia Rookie wide-eyed with Cambodia and Thailand

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I’ve been home for a week from a fascinating 33 days away in Thailand and Cambodia. It’s now time to get even more real than sitting in a Tuk Tuk in the middle of Phnom Penh can be. Feeling so present, then, in the vortex of scooters, motorcycles, and NGO Land Rovers and Toyotas. Movement. Human beings two stepping through the symphony of motion across four lanes, Gangnam-style, leaving me holding my breath as I watched their safe arrival to the other side.  There really should be  umpires on sidewalks  in Phnom Penh yelling “Safe” when you make it, alive.

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On my own, at night in Bangkok, I felt the alienation of sitting in an open air hole in the wall, every ubiquitous red plastic chair taken, except for the one I claimed, the only female, the only Caucasian surrounded by feasting Asians who must have wondered what that woman – me – was doing there, alone. Like them, I was hungry after a day of jostling on the commuter boats that plow up and down the klongs depositing the world to one famous golden site after another.

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At the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre, I touched their grey suede skin and felt the strength in the gait of the one  I sat on, high in a basket on its back,  as it plodded down an incline into a lake.

I arrived in Phnom Penh early evening and caught a taxi with a woman I met at the airport, also in line because she’d missed the plane. Maggie Fletcher of Scotch Creek, B.C., in the Shuswap, returning to Cambodia after renewing her visa and happy to re-experience the amazement with me, the newbie, as I stared wide eyed and let out at few expletives experiencing the orchestrated chaos for the first time from the back of my first Tuk Tuk ride. I will never forget that.

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In Phnom Penh I heard unbelievable tales of torture inflicted by Pol Pot’s regime couldn’t help but notice how the guide looked around too nervously as he spoke near the end of our time there. I visited the killing fields and wondered about the silo of human skulls and hundreds of  friendship bracelets hanging along the fences and the senselessness of absolute power’s corruption.

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Then  Siem Reap, rising like a movie set, Angkor Wat, the largest religious complex in the world and all those Buddhist monks and nuns sitting in shadows ready to exchange coloured strings they’d wrap around my wrist mumbling their blessings in the Khmer language through particles of cloudy incense.

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I sat with 10 others in a river boat that had just a bucket for the “happy place” that left Battambang on a seven hour visual documentary of rural poverty.  Halfway through the journey, I bit into a dry baguette purchased from a street vendor the day before and noticed, after I’d eaten it,  very busy black ants undulating. Phafff! Thought they were poppy seeds at first. No big deal, really, especially after seeing the crispy tarantulas piled high along the rest stop at Skuon, for some a delicacy. Just ask Chef Gordon Ramsey. And, the markets, oh the markets and the assaulting aromas that arise from them.

MrTengsmallIn a homestay in Sambor Prei Kuk, close to where the oldest ( 7th – 9th Century A.D) temples are crumbling or were destroyed by civil war, twelve of us slept side by side, mosquito nets draped, while barking dogs underneath the house on stilts made it almost impossible to get any shut eye and then just as I dropped off, Cambodians, up early, ready to work. Always hustling. Our interpreter, Mr. Teng, so proud to show us his one room palm-sided house, the well he made, his village of 1,543. So proud that he could explain his history in English. Hope. Distinctly hopeful  in a country that based on its history, should have none left.

limestonesmallI was blessed to receive a tip from David Murphy, a man who traveled with my friend Mac in the 70s who came across my blog and decided to invite me via e-mail for a drink in Chiang Mai, a few days too late, but then directed me to a wonderful little town called Prachuap Khiri Khan when I said I despised Hua Hin. He then  recommended a hotel with an unobstructed view across the Gulf of Thailand with captivating limestone mountains in the distance. It was there that I raised my beer in a low-key nod to myself as I ticked off another year, older, all the while recognizing how lucky I was because I am not some young thing on a gap year but decades past that and still here, still exploring, even by taking a ride to see the sunset on the precarious Bamboo Railway.

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I returned every single urgent and excited high-pitched greeting, “Hello, Hello” of small dark-skinned children who ran towards me as I cycled the bumpy red roads of Mekong Island as part of a Grasshopper Adventure tour and found a place that’s as close to my definition of paradise as I could ever imagine I’d visit at  Koh Ta Kiev.

Already, I’m pining for the endless supply of white rice, spicy green and red curries, the subtle flavours of coconut Amok and the freshly sliced mangoes,  papayas, bananas, Jack fruit, pineapple often available with sweet chilli sugar.  I ate so much moist fresh-water fish, catfish and barracuda and delicate shrimp and calamaari and became addicted to the subtle flavours of lemon grass and lime, Lok Lak and Morning Glory. Eating is an Olympic sport in Asia.

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This of course, doesn’t even come close to detailing the experiences. Travel is just so life affirming, even on those days when it’s not.

Is there a scene from your own travels that sticks with you. Describe it. I’m curious. Leave a comment (above).