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!

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).

Angor Wat or Alone with Chocolate?

Angkor_Wat photo from Wikipedia.

Unlike so many in the world, I haven’t actually travelled very much or very far in terms of mileage, unless you count Finland. For me, getting on a plane is still a very big deal; something to consider with wariness and lots of Ativan of which I have none.

I haven’t experienced severe cultural differences, the kind that come from travelling to developing countries. The closest I’ve been to severe poverty is Chiapas, Mexico and even then, as a tourist, how close do you really get? It was 1997 and a massacre happened, December 22, in Acteal,  not that far from where we were staying in San Cristobal de las Casas. It didn’t seem to phase me.

Tiny little dark-skinned women were selling Zapatista dolls in the zocalo and overnight, after the Acteal massacre, there were men in green army clothing with machine guns surrounding the main square and covered trucks rumbling, one after the other, along the roads in and out of town. At one point, the military boarded the bus we were on and asked for everyone’s passports. That was slightly alarming. What the hell was wrong with me then?  I felt invincible. I must have told myself something like, Hey, I’m a tourist. I don’t live here. What’s it got to do with me? That was my ridiculous, invincible thought process back then.

Fast forward 16 years.

With about a week to go before I board a plane to Thailand and Cambodia, my anxiety level is rising. I want to go. I really want to go. I just don’t want to get on a plane to do it. It’s such a LONG flight. I hate long flights.

Going on this trip is a good idea. I’m not that young anymore. A few year’s back a friend said,  “Do you realize, there’s only about a decade, maybe 15 years when you and I might still be well enough, strong enough, motivated enough to get on a plane and wander around.” Really? OMG. Shut your mouth.  I had never thought of that before. And, so, in the last while, feeling myself slipping into complacency, I really believe that it’s important to rage against that in whatever form it takes.  Having said that, I wasn’t thinking about what would be required in terms of going on a major trip. I’ll be gone 34 days.  Preparing for this trip in the past few weeks has been a trip in itself.

I said I couldn’t go on this trip until I finished writing my Salt Spring stories. Well, they are now at 155 pages and I gotta go even though I’m not done.  The writing has come to a standstill. My focus has shifted, although I am still committed to finishing the project upon my return, somehow.

But for now. Researching. Glued to Booking.com and TripAdvisor  Reading reviews. Shopping. Oh my god. I am practically carrying a small Shoppers Drug Mart.  I haven’t bought this much stuff, maybe ever.  Shots. You  mean I have to get a needle or two? Typhoid. Hep A & B. Pills. Malaria for when I enter Cambodia. Antibiotics for that dreaded Travellers diarrhea  A money belt, because hey, like I need an extra bit of padding around my middle at the moment. A pair of special socks to prevent a blood clot going to my brain or heart and killing me while  I’m about to dig into curried rice on Cathay Pacific.

A whole day searching Robson street for the perfect bag, one that’s small, that can conceal my camera but perfect in all the right ways that I deem it to be.  A new bathing suit, and finding one practically required a booster therapy session.  Researching jet lag. Researching Melatonin.  Buying Deet lotion. Learning about the different types of mosquitoes: night biters and day biters. Familiarizing myself with the train schedules out of Bangkok. Passport photos for a Visa to get into Cambodia.   Should I get an e-visa or just do it there?

Trying on every piece of clothing to determine what I think I’m going to wear to be sure I will be comfortable and not look like the tourist I won’t be able to help looking like while not wilting with the heat even though that’s inevitable. Worry about how I’m going to deal with the withdrawal from my iPhone and Twitter which I will not be taking. Learning about Go-Sim and sim cards and phone companies in Bangkok and thinking I don’t need a phone, not really since I barely use a phone even when I’m here.  Debating where I’m going to go in between the tour of Northern Thailand and the 15 days in Cambodia. Booking the hotel for the time alone back in Bangkok and 2 days alone in Cambodia at the end. Paying all the bills. Getting extra credit cards and bank cards. Researching exchange rates. Can I lie down now?

Wimpering in the corner.

Somebody just get me a bottle of Shiraz, some chocolate, turn on Oprah and maybe I’ll  just sit alone in my apartment; maybe I’ll just stay home.  You know what I mean?

That you see, that way of thinking is exactly why I have to go, why it’s critical.  Oh, and I am really looking forward to seeing Angor Wat  and meeting all those people that one never imagines they’d ever meet before they set foot on a plane.

Got any travel tips for me?