Archive for December, 2006

a Jumbo on a Jumbo

December 29, 2006



So I’ve finally ridden atop an elephant. It was one of the more fun experiences I’ve had here in Laos, especially knowing that the elephants are well taken care of. Tiger Trails is an ecotourism travel agency and owns the elephants and uses them solely for tourism purposes (as opposed to other companies which rent them out for logging). The company usually buys older elephants or those that have some sort of handicap and trains them for tourism. The elephants seem quite happy and to enjoy people. Think of it as a cushy retirement gig.

Laos’ nickname is the land of a million elephants, but unfortunately there are less than 35,000 Asian elephants left in Asia. Loss of natural habitats, poaching, and the difficulty of breeding elephants is contributing what most likely will be an extinction of the species by 2050. There are some efforts being made in Thailand http://www.elephantnaturepark.org/aboutus.htm and Tiger Trails is certainly a step in the right direction. It would be sad to see such beautiful animals gone forever.

On to some more fun and interesting facts about elephants:

*they eat about 10% of their body weight per day about 250-400 pounds of food per day
*they live to about 60 in the wild or 80 in captivity
*they can use sound waves to communicate up to 10 miles away

Go Jumbos and a Happy New Year to all!

Thailand, north and south

December 17, 2006

We’ve been busy since the King’s birthday. I’m writing now from Chaing Khong where we are staying at a guest house along the Mekong river. Tomorrow we will cross the border by boat and enter into Laos. I’m sad to leave Thailand, but excited for a bit more off-the-beaten path travel which I think Laos will offer. Here’s a quick recap of what we’ve been up to.

From Bangkok we travelled south to the island of Koh Phangan. Koh Panghan is on the gulf coast and closer to Bangkok than some of the places that were hit by the tsunami (the Andaman coast). We chose Koh Phangan in the hopes of learning to kiteboard, but unfortunately the wind didn’t cooperate–we only got as far as rigging the kite. All was not lost, however. We snorkelled (I’ve never seen so many fish) and had a bungalow literally 30 feet from the water. I also had a night out with “the boys–5 new British friends” to see a Muay Thai fight. A particular highlight was a massage in which I had three Thai women working out the knots I’ve accumulated from my incredibly stressful lifestyle.

After more than 24 hours of travelling by boat, bus and train we arrived in the Chaing Mai, a city located in the northern part of Thailand. It’s a city of about 1.5 million people that offers so much for so little. Our guesthouse cost less than $5/night and there is an incredible variety of restaurants. Bills rarely pass the $10 mark (for 2!). There is also a good deal of educational tourism–if you want to learn Thai massage or Thai cooking, this the place to do it. We opted to receive massages rather than learn how to give them, but we did attend a cooking class. It was located on an organic farm and we picked ingredients such as lemongrass and galangel before putting them to use. The food was great and the class is one of my favorite things I’ve done so far.

The next post will be from Laos where we will be spending Christmas and possibly New Year’s. Happy Holidays to all!

All Hail the King

December 5, 2006

We’re in Bangkok now, and today marks the 79th birthday of the king of Thailand’s ascension to the throne. King Bhumibol Adulyadejis is a big deal.  He is the longest serving head of a state in the world and something of a renaissance man.  Even better, he was born in Boston at Mount Auburn Hospital (Luke, you got a chance bud).  On every street in Bangkok, you can feel the excitement and everyone is wearing yellow in his honor. Actually, Thais have been wearing yellow the whole year in anticipation of the event. Thais love their king.

Courtney and I have grown to love him too. Yesterday we went in search of Dusit park which Lonely Planet had described as a nice, leafy place to relax and enjoy a nice day. We arrived to hundreds of buses and thousands of people in yellow shirts. I definitely didn’t get the memo (on the shirt) and was subject to more than a few stares with my bright blue polo shirt. Fortunately, a lovely Thai girl who spoke good English spotted us and told us what was happening. The king was speaking later in the day prior to this event, the government throws something of a party, with dozens of food stalls and other events. She welcome us to join in the party and we sampled many different Thai dishes.

I like the king, and I love Thailand so far. We head south tonight for some relaxing on the beach and perhaps a chance to learn to kitesurf of scuba dive.

Sensory Overload

December 2, 2006

My sister Mary and her husband Matt did a Round the World trip a few years ago (check out their site, http://www.austinsonline.com) and India was one of their stops.  They told me it was sensory overload and couldn’t have been more right.  Here’s but a few of my observations using the five senses over the past 9 days in India.

Sight

*Cows, bulls, bikes, rickshaws, autorickshaws, and camels jockey for position on roads built for three lanes but being used for six (or seven)
*Piles of cow dung used for cooking and heating stacked neatly like one might stack firewood or bricks
*Poverty like I’ve never seen before, and not having any clue how to react
*The 5 star Hotel Intercontinental next to a garbage dump where people were rummaging for anything of value

Sounds

*horns (for some reason “blow horn” or “horn please” is usually painted beautifully on the back of all trucks.  Everyone obliges and the the result is a cacophany of horns ranging from that of a buzzer to an apartment building to a cell phone ringtone on steroids.

Touch

*Indians are very touchy, and I like my personal space particulary when it comes to strangers (don’t we all?)  Beggars touch you, children touch you and on the train ride one woman started slapping the top of my head saying “baksheesh.”  For what?  Not giving a tip I got another slap on the knee before she moved on.

Smells

*From the aromadic smells of samosas and other Indian food to the stench of stale urine, my nostrils got a work out.  I wish I could have had a meter telling me when to smell and when not to.

Tastes

*I loved the Indian food…for a while.  I had chiken biryani (a rice dish), lots of naan (warm pita like bread), a variety of curries, and some excellent lassi drinks (yogurt drinks, usually salty or sweet, but also with banana).

Ultimately, sensory overload did just that with that last sense sending me to bed for three days in Jaipur. Our Hotel Pearl Palace (which we loved) was dubbed the Pearl Prison. I was quite ill with a high fever, headache and stomach issues and didn’t leave the room for a good 48 hours. Fortunately I had wonderful care from Courtney–she even arranged a house visit from a doctor certified by IAMAT. Dr. Sen came did a few tests, took some blood and gave me quite the shot. I saw him three times in all–cost of care for medicine, home visit, and the one hour it took for him to get in touch with Blue Cross Blue Shied in the States? About $100. How’s that for health care?

Being sick was a downer, but all was not lost. We were able to see most of Jaipur which is really a beautiful city. It is less crowded having only 2 million people and there are a wealth of sights to visit. Among them was an amazing astrology complex, and some beautiful markets.

I’m writing this from Bangkok, and feeling close to 100%. Sorry for the barrage of posts, but I had some catching up to do. Hope all is well with everyone.

Thanksgiving with the Indians!

December 2, 2006

No, no, not those Indians.  We arrived to Delhi on the morning of Turkey day to watch the sun rise and be driven around in circles by a taxi driver who was trying to get us to stay in a hotel room where he would get a commission (this is common practice).  Eventually, we got our point across and were dropped off in the filthy and crowded tourist ghetto of Parhar ganj.  I was a deer in the headlights if there ever was one.  I consider myself a fairly well seasoned traveller, but I had never seen anything like this.  We dodged cow dung while trying not to get run over by a rickshaw, bull or car as we evenutally found our way to the equally filthy Hotel Anoop.  Courtney and I both napped within minutes of entering the room, partly because of the lack of sleep on the flight and probably more so because of the intensity that Delhi and specifically Parhar ganj, brings to the table.

We set out in the wild world before quickly learing that all roads lead to the tourist office.  The story usually goes like this–A five step guide:
1) Friendly young man approaches befuddled American couple and initiates conversation–“where are you from, what is your name, etc”
2) Set up for more conversation–“I’m practicing my English”
3) Express sympathy for foreigners–“You’ll have lots of strangers coming up to you and trying to sell you things…” wait a minute, aren’t you a stranger?
4) “I don’t do any business with you.” (code for I’ll just get a commission when I take you to the tourist office).
5) “How long will you stay in Delhi?” quickly followed by “Delhi has nothing to see” and then “you should go see the tourist office to get a map and free information.”

We went through this charade a few times before getting really fed up. It is a bit infuriating, sometimes funny, but mostly sad. It is a testament to just how desperate people are to earn a living in India.

We probably walked over 10 Km that day, not really seeing a whole lot, but somehow getting a feel for the city and getting a sense of idea. I’ve never seen poverty so abject or people so desperate. As we sat down to our Thanksgiving meal (I had chicken), it was about as clear as ever just how much I have to be thankful for.