Travel by Train

Something we have lost in the U.S. is the art of train travel. Sure we have Amtrak, but it doesn't hold a candle to the network of railways that crisscross Europe. In creating my itinerary, I opted for the unusual route of taking a train from Nice to Paris. My life for the past two years was filled with flights from city to city, so I decided to take it slow and see more along the way. The French countryside is alluring and in my opinion, best seen from the ground.

The train trip began in Nice, meandering along the coastline to Marseilles and making various stops along the Riviera. It was after leaving Marseille that the train accelerated to full TGV speed toward Paris. The trees, farms, and mountains whipped past my seat at what can only be describes as full steam ahead. The train ride took five hours in total, giving me plenty of time to get absorbed in my new book, The Bone Clocks. 

Every once in a while I would glance up from my reading to find a castle or chateau on a hill surrounded by a small village of red roofs and yellow stone or a pasture of sheep. The bucolic landscape was relaxing and the perfect change of pace. The only downside of the train ride? I forgot to pack enough snacks. 

 Sunset on my last night in Nice

Sunset on my last night in Nice

 Passing by red roofed houses

Passing by red roofed houses

 One of the many pastures we passed

One of the many pastures we passed

To Monaco & Cannes

Nice is located on one end of the Cote d'Azur, making it a great spot to take a few day trips to other locations. The two places on my 'to see' list were Monaco and Cannes. From Nice, both were about a 45 minute journey, one by bus and the other by train. After spending a morning on the beach, it was a nice change of pace to travel down the coast for an afternoon of touristing.

My first day trip was to Monaco, the world's second smallest country. It is well known for the Grimaldi monarchy, Princess Grace Kelly, and the Grand Prix, a Formula 1 race. I took a 1.5 euro bus along the riviera coastline, admiring the neverending blue hues of the ocean and sandy beaches as we passed by. The country sits on a port with a plethora of shopping, hotels and casinos for tourists to enjoy. I arrive just a few days after the Grand Prix, but still see all of the staging and stadium seating left along the side of the roads. In total, the country is roughly one square mile in size, so walking around takes very little time. Upon a hill sits the monarchy's palace, public garden and oceanography museum. I purchase a ticket for a palace tour, but given that photos are prohibited, I have no documentation to show. The afternoon itself was lovely, but Monaco feels a bit like an extension of France; the official language is French, there is no visible denotation of the border, and the architecture is very similar. Still, I'm happy to have made the trip. 

 Monaco from above, remnants of the Grand Prix stadium seating

Monaco from above, remnants of the Grand Prix stadium seating

 exploring the gardens of Monaco that overlook the water

exploring the gardens of Monaco that overlook the water

 The royal cathedral

The royal cathedral

The next day I spend the afternoon in Cannes, the beach city of stars and millionaires. Like Monaco, I've just missed the big event; the Cannes Film Festival was held from May 11-22. Despite being late to the show, I still get to see a few stars as I end up in the background as a team films Made in Chelsea. I had no idea what the show was before this, but I'll be on the look out for the episode where they head to Cannes; there may be a girl in the background wearing a blue bikini as the actors pretend to play volleyball with each other. The town itself is packed with people and buildings. As you walk down the main street you find hotels and luxury stores to your left and private beach clubs stretching the entire length of the sand on your right. It seems to me that much of Cannes revolves around money, who has it and where they want to spend it. 

 A Cannes beach club preparing for a private event

A Cannes beach club preparing for a private event

 Filming Made in Chelsea on the Cannes beach #15minutesoffame

Filming Made in Chelsea on the Cannes beach #15minutesoffame

I am happy to return to Nice after each jaunt, the city is welcoming and I already have a few favorite spots. Not to mention, the gelato guy and I are on a first name basis since I visit at least two times a day. Pro-tip, get the raspberry and lemon tart mix, its a winner. I head to Paris in the next few days and again I find myself torn, sad to leave a beautiful location, yet excited for the next adventure.

Nice to Meet You

The French Riviera is a romantic place for many people. It is the location of exceptional wealth and race cars, star spotting and endless tans. I'd wanted to travel to the south of France for some time, I even have a Rick Steves guide book sitting on a shelf at home (where it does me absolutely no good). The Côte d'Azur is also the setting of my favorite Fitzgerald novel, Tender is the Night. Pick it up if you get the chance, I read it as an 18 year old on the banks of the Seine, it's captivating, but regrettably overshadowed by Gatsby. 

My arrival in Nice did not disappoint. The water is fifty shades of blue and the stones on the beach completely smooth from years of crashing waves. The city itself is a mix of French and Mediterranean architecture and despite being a Mecca for tourists there is a leisurely, small city feel. I chose to spend my first few days on the beach, grabbing a towel from the concierge and snacks from the Monoprix. Thanks to my beach time in Thailand I have a bit of tan, so I look less like Snow White next to the topless, French tanners. 

 Countless shades of blue 

Countless shades of blue 

I wandered up the hill to the old chateau to see a beautiful panorama of the city; red roofs, blue sea, grey beach. There are a million steps to get to the top which is a harsh reminder that I should be running more...but it's worth it! I take another hundred photos putting the count on my phone to 700. 

 A Panorama of Nice

A Panorama of Nice

 View of a Nice side-street from my window

View of a Nice side-street from my window

I end my nights with a glass of rosè de Provence and pizza blanche. I think in another life I could have been French. 

Girl in Transition

The idea of leaving Thailand put a pit in my stomach. I researched changing my departure flight and looked for available PR jobs in Bangkok; only when I was in the back of the cab on the way to Bangkok International Airport did I finally resign myself to the fact that I was leaving. Bangkok to Doha to Geneva. Though my itinerary was shorter than before, I didn't sleep as well and felt more haggard. Although part of this could be attributed to the free wine and my movie choice, The Big Short (the world is corrupt and probably ending soon).

 Me on my last night in Thailand

Me on my last night in Thailand

When I booked my flights in January I'd chosen Geneva as my landing pad, it was a safe and familiar place from which to begin my European travels. Although not technically home, as the plane dipped over Lac Lèman I felt a sort of homecoming. I watched the towns pass by underneath; Lausaunne, Nyon, Versoix and finally Genève. Here they spoke a language I could at least pretend to understand, the trains were always reliable and most importantly, there was an abundance of cheese. I only had 12 hours in Geneva, but it was enough time to do laundry, repack my bags and indulge in brie and bread.  

By the end of the day I was ready for my 7 AM flight to Nice, France. So, the only cure for Thailand withdrawal? Getting excited about your next adventure.

 Lake Geneva

Lake Geneva

Bangkok Markets (or How to Spend all your Money)

Thailand is the country of markets: food markets, clothing markets, flower markets, and even floating markets. It should not come as a surprise that I did some serious exploring and purchasing during my time in Bangkok. Some of the markets are similar to those I found in Chiang Mai selling a variety of Thai products and trinkets. However, Bangkok is home to three unique markets that I enjoyed having the chance to see, the flower market, Chinatown and a floating market.

Each day around 4 AM, large quantities of flowers are brought up the Bangkok to the flower market. I've heard thats the best time to visit the market, but given I was unwilling to pull myself out of bed mid-morning had to suffice. The flower market is located in a large open warehouse and is home to a variety of flowers used to adorn temples, hotel lobbies and restaurants. Inside is bustling with buyers and, surprisingly, the number of tourists is small. I took my time wandering the stalls, enjoying the unique flowers and fragrant smells. 

 Stacks of flowers overflowing the tables

Stacks of flowers overflowing the tables

 yellow flowers being made into garlands

yellow flowers being made into garlands

My second market was Chinatown. From the street, the Chinatown market looks unassuming and navigable. That allusion is blown from the second you step off the main road and into the tight alleyways of vendors. I'm generally good with directions, but from the minute I stepped into the world of Bangkok's Chinatown I was completely consumed by the maze. Store after store, street vendor after street vendor; everything blends together. There is barely enough room for two people to stand side by side in most parts of the market, and yet often I found a motorbike coming up behind me. The market sells everything from kids toys to shoes, boneless duck to Louis Vuitton purses. I stuck with more mild purchases, going for a bag of fresh mango and some coconut water. When I had seen all there was to see, I thankfully found my way out of the market and into the open air of Bangkok once again.

 Bags of fresh spices on the outside sidewalk of Chinatown

Bags of fresh spices on the outside sidewalk of Chinatown

 various seafood for sale

various seafood for sale

 Dried squid

Dried squid

 In Bangkok and the surrounding area, there is a network of canals for easy transportation in and out of the city. Among these canals have popped up floating markets where people buy and sell wares from their canoes. On my last day in Bangkok I made my way to Damnoen Saduak to experience one of these famous floating markets. The market itself sells mostly food and touristy items, but the experience of riding in a canoe to purchase things is unlike any other. The waterway was packed to the brim with people and canoes, minor canoe collisions were the norm. I purchased a variety of food including fried bananas, spring rolls, and coconut ice cream. Yum!

 my view in the long-tail boat on the way to the market

my view in the long-tail boat on the way to the market

 a woman on the way to the floating market to sell fruit

a woman on the way to the floating market to sell fruit

 the entrance to the floating market

the entrance to the floating market

 coconut ice cream, eaten out of a coconut!

coconut ice cream, eaten out of a coconut!

After all of the markets I have been to in Thailand, I can expertly bargain to bring down the price of goods and I'm pretty good at navigating the endless stalls. I can also say I've spent most of my remaining Thai Baht. Time to move on to the next destination! 

A Tourist in Bangkok

Bangkok is the city of business and shopping, but it is also home to historical wats and palaces. I took several days to explore the sights and if I had been counting my steps I'm confident I would have been over 20,000 each day. Seriously, I was once the proud owner of white converse; I am now the even prouder owner of well-worn, tan converse. As any good tourist would, I took too many pictures and have included a higher number than usual in this post; bear with me.

The big go-to spots in Bangkok include the Grand Palace, Wat Pho and Khao San Road. All are brimming with tourists, particularly the large groups with leaders waving flags, but that doesn't make the views any less stunning. The Grand Palace was my first stop. It was the official residence of the king and his family, but is now used for ceremonial events. Built in 1782, the Grand Palace boasts numerous buildings, courtyards and gardens. It is also home to Wat Phra Kaew or the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, Thailand's most precious Buddha figure. As is typical with the wats of Thailand, the buildings are ornately decorated and the detailing is stunning. 

 view of the front of the grand palace's main building

view of the front of the grand palace's main building

 Figures surrounding a spire at Wat Phra Kaew

Figures surrounding a spire at Wat Phra Kaew

 beautiful gold leaf wall paper depicting historical stories of Thailand

beautiful gold leaf wall paper depicting historical stories of Thailand

Wat Pho is located just a block from the Grand Palace and is home to the famous reclining Buddha statue. The wat itself is located on a large compound comprised of many smaller temples and numerous gold plated spires. Walking around you come across an endless maze of courtyards filled with Buddha statues. The main feature, the reclining Buddha, is absolutely enormous. It is also impossible to get a good picture, I did my best!

 Looking up at the head of the reclining buddha (it continues for the length of a full body)

Looking up at the head of the reclining buddha (it continues for the length of a full body)

 a courtyard enclosed with seated buddha statues

a courtyard enclosed with seated buddha statues

 an example of the ornate tiling that exists on most Thai wats and buildings

an example of the ornate tiling that exists on most Thai wats and buildings

 A beautiful temple on the grounds of wat pho

A beautiful temple on the grounds of wat pho

From the Grand Palace and Wat Pho I walked the few blocks to Khao San Road, backpacker heaven. It is a tourist centric place with hostels, bars and countless trinket stalls. The streets are packed with tourists from all parts of the world, visiting for all lengths of time. It gave me an opportunity to reflect on my travels as I talked to others over lunch about their plans to go to Chiang Mai and Phuket, places I had just been and loved. 

On my travels I have met a number of tourists from Europe, Australia, and Canada, but surprisingly very few from the United States. In fact, once when asked to take a picture of a group of guys from Utah they exclaimed, "You're the first American we've met here!". If Americans are rare in Thailand, solo, female Americans are endangered. Though don't be nervous that traveling solo was a mistake, I met countless solo, female travelers the UK, France and Germany and never once felt unsafe. 

 The start of Khao San Road with countless billboards and shops

The start of Khao San Road with countless billboards and shops

After a day of touristing (new verb) I am ready to head back to the hotel and take off my well-worn converse. I feel accomplished, exhausted and exhilarated all at once. 

Bright Lights, Big City

Arriving in Bangkok was a jolt from the relatively calm city of Chiang Mai and the isolated beaches of Khao Lak. Leading up to my visit to the city, it seemed as though everyone I talked to either hated or loved their time in Bangkok. My first impression of the city was that I couldn't tell where it started or ended. Sky scrapers pop up like gophers in the sky, there is no delineation of a downtown or financial district as is the case with most cities. This was confusing for me as I tried to map out where to go, what to see and how to get there.

 A view of the bangkok skyline from my hotel balcony

A view of the bangkok skyline from my hotel balcony

My first day in the city was not as overwhelming as most people had forewarned. It's true the streets were busy and cars don't stop for pedestrians. It's true there are shops and people everywhere, always trying to sell you something. It's true that the streets and sidewalks are dirty with trash. But have you ever been NYC? I think I'm used to the fast-paced, city vibe and so I fell right into step with Bangkok.

My hotel was located down the river from the main tourist areas such as Khaosan Road and the Grand Palace. This gave me an excuse to take a water taxi every day up and down the river to get where I needed to go. I preferred this form of transportation to a metered taxi or a tuk-tuk, both of which prey on tourists and charge ten times the realistic amount. 

 Tuk-tuk & Starbucks on the go

Tuk-tuk & Starbucks on the go

 taking a water taxi/tourist boat upriver

taking a water taxi/tourist boat upriver

In my journeys across the city I tried to soak it all in. Thailand is home to huge economic disparities and for the first time I began to see this with my own eyes. As Thailand industrialized it followed the trend of most developing nations, the wealth became concentrated in the hands of a small percentage. Evidence of this was found in Bangkok where shiny new shopping malls are abundant, as are the poorer neighborhoods and the homeless.

 Thai homes near a pier

Thai homes near a pier

As with my time in Chiang Mai, I found that one day brought a million new discoveries and experiences. My itinerary for the five days held countless wats, markets and palaces. And little by little I began to fall in love with Bangkok.

A Day in Phuket

Phuket is one of the most well-known places in Thailand; roughly 30 million people visit the country each year and 40% of them visit Phuket. I stayed at a hotel north of the island knowing I wanted something a bit more secluded, but my rental car allowed me to take a day trip to the island to explore. I met up in Patong with two friends from my time at the Elephant Nature Park, Lucy and Angelique from Australia, and from there we explored the island.

My first impression of Patong was overwhelming and the beach smaller and dirtier than expected. Walking down the street you are constantly heckled by restaurants, tour guides and bars. The stores are packed tightly together and the streets are overrun with tourists. It was an easy decision for the three of us to leave the Patong area in search of other beaches and experiences.

After a lunch on the cliff side overlooking Patong's bay, the three of us went south to explore the beaches lining the coast. The roads on Phuket follow the coastline allowing for beautiful glimpses of the bay, and an exceptionally small and winding road. We drove by Freedom Beach, Kata Beach and Karon Beach, stopping only briefly to watch surfers and walk a bit. From Kata we headed inland in search of the Big Buddha. 

 lunch overlooking the bay of patong (photo courtesy of Angelique)

lunch overlooking the bay of patong (photo courtesy of Angelique)

 Lucy and me on Kata beach (photo courtesy of Angelique)

Lucy and me on Kata beach (photo courtesy of Angelique)

The Big Buddha is exactly what it sounds like, and enormously large Buddha statue located high on a mountain in Phuket. To get there is no easy feat, Lucy and Angelique were very trusting of my American driving as we pulled a variety of legal and illegal u-turns. It's not my fault signage is limited in Thailand, it usually occurs only after you've missed the turn. The trek up the mountain allows for beautiful views of the scenic bays and jungles of Phuket. Unfortunately, we also saw three baby elephants, no more than a year old, chained along the side of the road to be fed and photographed by tourists. It was a hard sight for us having spent the week at the Elephant Nature Park; we knew abuse existed, but it's difficult to witness it first hand.

Upon finally reaching the top, the view was astounding. The Big Buddha is 150 feet tall, weighs 135 tons and is adorned entirely with white marble tiles. Looking down over Phuket was also an amazing sight, you could locate various beaches and see over the numerous mountains covering the island. 

As the afternoon drew to a close, the three of us had to say goodbyes to head in different directions. I drove Lucy to the airport (with just a few more u-turns) for her flight to Sydney, Angelique headed off to Greece, and I drove back up to Khao Lak. Overall a good day in Phuket, spent with awesome people!

 Big Buddha, made entirely of white marble

Big Buddha, made entirely of white marble

 View of the Phuket Jungle from the top of the mountain

View of the Phuket Jungle from the top of the mountain

 View of Phuket City Bay

View of Phuket City Bay

A Little R&R

Thailand is well-known for its pristine white-sand beaches and incredible diving. The next stop on my trip was Khao Lak, a region roughly 45 minutes north of the island of Phuket. I chose this location for its seclusion, hoping to spend some time doing absolutely nothing on the beach. 

To get to the resort I rented a car, I'm here to tell the tale of driving in Thailand so no need to worry as you read. The first adjustment was driving on the opposite side of the road from the U.S., not to mention everything in the car is a mirror image of what I was used to. This didn't cause too many issues, but I'm still adjusting to the windshield wiper/blinker switch. Whenever I try to turn I instinctively flick my left wrist, thus turning on my wipers and giving the people behind me no indication of what direction I'm headed. Thailand legally has rules of the road, but in practice it's a little more of a free for all. The drivers here give Boston a run for their money and tend to make more daring passing moves. It's completely safe to drive, as long as you are vigilant and predict the unpredictable. 

My resort, Pullman Khao Lak, was exactly what I was hoping for. The beach is white sand and uncrowded, the water 50 shades of light green and blue. I've downloaded three books to my iPad and picked my favorite lounge chair on the beach. See you in five days reality!

 A cairn on the beach

A cairn on the beach

 View from breakfast

View from breakfast

 Sand patterns made by tiny crabs

Sand patterns made by tiny crabs

 The resort faces west for a nightly sunset

The resort faces west for a nightly sunset

Chiang Mai in 500 Words (A Challenge)

It is difficult to sum up my time in Chiang Mai. There was so much to see and do, a few blog posts cannot do it justice. But as I leave Chiang Mai for the beaches of the south, I'm compelled to highlight a few of my favorite things about this astounding place.

The Temples - There are over 200 temples in Chiang Mai from small city wats to bigger, more famous temples such as Doi Suthep. Walking through Chiang Mai I constantly came across wats I had never seen before and likely would not be able to find again if I tried. I took to carrying a t-shirt and flowy pants with me when I went out so I would never be without the proper coverage. On a hot day, which was every day, stepping into a cool temple was relaxing and serene, a true reprieve from the busy streets. One morning I had the honor of joining the owner of my guesthouse in giving alms. Alms are a daily collection of food and items by monks that are then dispersed to individuals in the city without basic necessities, the food collected also serves as the monk's one meal of the day. After placing the items in the monk's offering bowl, you are then blessed and perform a water ritual in honor of a loved one. I can truly say it was an experience like no other.

 Wat Raja Montean in the northwest corner of the old city

Wat Raja Montean in the northwest corner of the old city

 Buddha displays and offerings in Doi Suthep

Buddha displays and offerings in Doi Suthep

The Markets - Chiang Mai is well-known for its Sunday walking street, however there are numerous markets during the day and a nightly bazaar located outside the city walls. These are home to a number of clothing and trinket shops as well as artwork and food stalls. Just a block from my guesthouse was a food market where I could find everything from live fish to fruit smoothies. The street food in Chiang Mai is completely safe to eat and some of the most authentic Thai food you can get. In addition, the fruit is unbelievably ripe and I must have had at least two smoothies a day.

 Fresh fruit at a smoothie stand

Fresh fruit at a smoothie stand

 One of the many smoothies I had in Chiang Mai

One of the many smoothies I had in Chiang Mai

The Cost - In Chiang Mai you eat for less than $10 a day; full plates of pad Thai, kol soy and mango smoothies are all less than $3 each.  At the markets, you barter the cost of goods down from 250 baht to 120, ultimately paying the equivalent of $4 for a dress or necklace. Even the cost of lodging is cheap, $14 a night is average for a basic guesthouse and it only goes up to $40 a night for a nice hotel. For a traveler on a budget, Chiang Mai can't be beat!

 A banana spring roll with chocolate sauce = 30 cents

A banana spring roll with chocolate sauce = 30 cents

Chiang Mai's notoriety pales in comparison to Bangkok and Thailand's islands. However, I would argue my time in Thailand would not be complete or authentic without a trip to this city.

Pad Thai for Beginners

One of my favorite aspects of Thai culture is the food. My days in Chiang Mai seem to revolve around my next meal, for which there are no shortage of options. Food stalls, restaurants, smoothie stands and street carts overwhelm your senses as you walk down the street. I've always loved Thai food, but being in Thailand is a different kind of culinary experience. 

At the recommendation of some other travelers, I signed up for a two-hour Thai vegetarian cooking class at the May Kaidee cooking school. It turned out I was the only one signed up for the day and my class became a private lesson, all the better for me to master Thai recipes. My instructor, Nim, was from eastern Thailand where her family farms rice, she had been a teacher at May Kaidee for some time.

We began by reviewing ingredients and preparing the vegetables. I was unfamiliar with galangal and kaffir, one a ginger-like root and the latter a leaf. I am apprehensive, yet hopeful, that I can find these back home in the U.S. as they are key. Many Thai dishes have the same combination of ingredients, so I sliced and diced for four different recipes and laid out an array of seasonings on the cooktop. 

 Pre-cut vegetables

Pre-cut vegetables

 My cooktop area with the ingredients

My cooktop area with the ingredients

First on the menu was Tom Yam soup, a sweet and spicy vegetable soup that is very popular. I quickly learned that instrumental to most Thai dishes was chili paste, more specifically, homemade chili paste. Tom Yam soup uses the paste as both a main ingredient and a decorative topping. Of all the dishes we created the soup was my favorite, it's so flavorful!

 Tom yam in the wok

Tom yam in the wok

Much of the cooking with Nim depended on smell and estimation. "You'll know it's done when you can smell each ingredient," she said of the massaman curry. Coconut milk, chili paste, assorted vegetables, garlic, soy sauce, sugar; I tried to be able to pick them all out, but I think that will come with more experience. The third dish, Pad Thai was surprisingly easy to make and a definite crowd pleaser if I decide to cook Thai food for others. 

The final dish was mango sticky rice, a classic Thai dessert. After eating the three prior dishes I hardly had room, but surprisingly (or not) I finished off this one too. I was shocked at how easy the cooking turned out to be, although I'm afraid without Nim by my side the dishes won't taste the same. If you're willing to be adventurous, I'm happy to test out my new Thai cooking skills! 

 Mango sticky rice

Mango sticky rice

Tale of a Thai Massage

After a week of volunteering and endless sightseeing, I decided to treat myself to a Thai massage and manicure in Chiang Mai. As you walk through the Old City, it feels as though every other store offers a Thai massage, the options are never ending. I did some trusty trip advisor searching and chose the Fah Lanna Spa in the northeast corner of the Old City. Although slightly more expensive than the average street options, it seemed to offer the best overall experience. When it came to my first-ever Thai massage I wanted the 'real deal'. Not surprisingly, as a newbie to the Thai massage world I faced a few quandaries.

First, how do I put on these sumo pants? Upon arrival at the spa I was shown to my own personal room where my feet were washed, I showered, and then attempted to put on the Thai massage clothing. The shirt was easy, a basic tunic. The pants, however, could fit about three of me standing side by side and the only resemblance of a way to make them fit were two strings hanging off the side. I came to a solution that at least kept the pants on and my masseuse didn't make a comment; I'm taking that as a sign I did it right.

Second, am I supposed to be in pain? On my pre-spa form I indicated I wanted a medium pressure massage, a classification I thought was a safe bet. However at the start, Thai massages feel like someone is pressing on the knots in your muscles, except that you have knots everywhere. The massage is described as firm, that is a euphemism. I also found myself contorted into positions for stretches that I didn't think were physically possible. And yet, I was relaxed the entire time. There is something nice about the intense pressure a Thai massage provides and I mentally thanked my semi-regular yoga practice for allowing me to stretch to such extremes. The end result feels amazing, the methods just take some getting used to.

Finally, can I afford to do this every day? From start to finish, my spa massage experience was like no other. For less than $50 USD, I received two and a half hours of total pampering. When you start with a cold pressed juice as a welcome and end with hot tea and crackers, you know you've been spoiled. 

I feel a true Thai massage is a must for the traveler visiting Thailand. Trust me, after a full day of sightseeing you deserve this experience. 

 The interior of the spa

The interior of the spa

 Post-massage tea

Post-massage tea

Elephant Nature Park (Part II)

Days pass quickly at the Elephant Nature Park, but the novelty of staying here and exploring this amazing place does not end. I continue to be mesmerized by the elephants I meet each day, never before have I been so close to such immense and beautiful animals. As a weekly volunteer, my day to day responsibilities rotate. Elephants are 10,000 pound vegetarians and to feed 70 of them takes a lot of food. Several of the weekly volunteering jobs revolve around the food consumed; this includes unloading watermelon and pumpkin trucks, washing cucumbers, and cutting corn. We are also responsible for cleaning up the aftermath of the food consumption, scooping poop and raking up old corn stalks. While these latter two jobs seem unappealing, they were actually some of my favorites as it gave me an excuse to spend the whole day walking around the park surrounded by the animals. Since the elephants have free range of the park, a day spent on the grounds means a lot of time elephant watching and interacting. 

I've gotten to know some of the herds here and I'm proud to be able to identify a number of the elephants. There's Navann, a 3 year old who is constantly getting into to trouble despite the watchful eyes of his mom and nannies. Lucky, a 31 year old who is completely blind from her days in the circus. Hope, a teenage elephant going through an angsty phase that includes throwing dirt at people. And my favorite elephant, Mae Jan Peng, a sweetheart with a red flower placed through the hole in her ear, a hole created by her owner's bullhook. Most of the elephants are completely friendly, although some are still not comfortable around humans and wander in the nearby jungle, never to be approached by visitors. 

I love the late afternoon when the elephant migration begins. At 4pm, each herd walks from their favorite hang out spot in the park to their night time enclosures. It is my favorite time to sit at the main lodge as the elephants pass herd by herd in front of me. Every day I feel fortunate to have spent a whole week here. In 1900, Thailand was home to 300,000 elephants, now there are less than 6,000. It is the least I can do to volunteer my time with the elephants here at ENP and I hope that future education and activism will allow more of Thailand's working elephants reprieve from their inhumane situations.

 Yindee and family enjoying corn stalks

Yindee and family enjoying corn stalks

 Kabu, a 25 year old with a broken leg from illegal logging 

Kabu, a 25 year old with a broken leg from illegal logging 

 A typical meal provided by ENP, the menu is entirely vegetarian

A typical meal provided by ENP, the menu is entirely vegetarian

 Two-week old Dok Rak with his mom and Nanny

Two-week old Dok Rak with his mom and Nanny

Elephant Nature Park (Part I)

The Thai people have a complex relationship with elephants. They are revered animals, adorning the exterior and interior of Buddhist temples across the nation and serving as a symbol of good luck. Asian elephants are entwined in Thailand's history, the country was literally built with their strength. They are also legally considered livestock and treated as such by most owners. 

In planning my trip to Thailand, I knew I wanted elephants to be a part of my experience, but it only took a bit of research to realize riding an elephant would not be on my itinerary. If you are feeling up to it, google Phajaan, colloquially known as 'The Crush', a breaking of the spirit ceremony that all young elephants endure to make them submissive to humans. The owners and mahouts perform this ritualistic procedure so the elephants can then be used for illegal logging, tourist trekking, performances or forced breeding. How is it that a country reveres an animal they simultaneously treat with inhumane disrespect? 

In my research, I found several other alternatives to the normal tourist experience, rehabilitation parks and sanctuaries that take elephants away from demeaning work and allow them to roam free. The Elephant Nature Park (ENP) was started by a woman named Lek Chailert with the intent to provide a safe home to some of Thailand's working elephants. In just 20 years the organization has grown to be a home to 70 elephants; their ages ranging from a two week old newborn to an 80 year old grandmother. Each elephant has its own story, their pictures and narratives adorn the main lodge of the park for volunteers to read. The common thread is tragedy, logging accidents, land mines, forced breeding and years of trekking, but the end of each story is now happy. 

I'll admit my initial decision to visit the Elephant Nature Park for a week was slightly selfish, I wanted an excuse to be near these impressive animals. However, after spending just a few days at this park, I have a deeper love and respect for the ENP mission, the volunteers who give their time to the cause, and most of all, the elephants themselves. 

For more information on ENP go to saveelephants.org. 

 Mah Jan Peng with her mahout

Mah Jan Peng with her mahout

 Enjoying a coconut at the main lodge

Enjoying a coconut at the main lodge

Intro to Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai is the second largest city in Thailand, after Bangkok, with the diversity and tourism to match. After my twenty-two hours of traveling, I find myself with half a day to spend exploring before I head to the Elephant Nature Park Monday morning.

I start by visiting a few of Chiang Mai's Buddhist temples. Northern Thailand is well known for its countless number of temples and truly there seems to be one on every street in the Old City. Having done my research before arriving, I am confident I know the cultural expectations within temples, especially as a woman, but when you approach the large, astounding pagodas it is impossible not to feel daunted. In Buddhist temples, you must remove your shoes and have your knees and shoulders covered. Most temples have baskets of shawls and attachable pant legs for the ill-prepared tourist. My first surprise is the number of white converse sneakers I find outside the temple, I have to be careful to place mine in a unique location so I don't find myself literally in someone else's shoes upon exiting. The entrance to most temples are adorned in gold leaf, motifs of elephants or serpents and through the wide door you can see an enormous seated Buddha on a raised platform. Entering quietly I sit on my knees, careful not to show my feet or toenails to the Buddha figure as the feet are considered the lowest of the low and therefore disrespectful. If you desire, it is customary to raise your hands to heart center and bow three times to the floor. If not, it is acceptable to sit quietly and admire the ornate interior of the temples. Each temple is unique and breathtaking; I take a thousand pictures, but find none fully capture the beauty of the interior as well as I would like. 

My second adventure of the day is to attend the Sunday night market in Chiang Mai. Every Sunday starting at 5pm, entire city blocks are blocked off and vendors stretch farther than the eye can see along Ratchamanka road and the adjacent streets. The colors, smells, people are all abundant and I am confident you could find anything you wanted, and then some, on these busy Sunday streets. I make several purchases, gyoza, shorts and flows pants, all totaling less than $10 US dollars. The market is overwhelming and you could walk for hours without reaching an end, but I love the energy and experience. 

At the end of a long and adventurous day I find myself tired and the serene interior of my hotel is welcoming. I've touched just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Chiang Mai's culture and it leaves me excited to spend more time in the city. 

 The exterior of an old brick temple in Chiang Mai

The exterior of an old brick temple in Chiang Mai

 The entrance to the Chiang Mai Sunday Market

The entrance to the Chiang Mai Sunday Market

 Food (I was not daring enough to to try) at the market

Food (I was not daring enough to to try) at the market

Packed and (Almost) Ready

I made my packing list and checked it twice. Yet somehow, no amount of organizing and reorganizing of my small suitcase will reassure me I have everything. I am notorious for forgetting something, it's a family joke at this point, though thankfully the item usually left behind is necessary, but not crucial. At the airport I take one final inventory of the items in my backpack and suitcase, I have to admit I think I'm ready. 

What lies immediately ahead is twenty-two hours of travel: an eleven hour flight, a six hour flight, a one hour flight and several long security and immigration lines. Boston to Doha to Bangkok to Chiang Mai. The one thing in my favor in this otherwise unappealing flight itinerary is that I am a certified plane sleeper. I can fall asleep on any plane, flying to any destination. In fact, as a consultant I would often be asleep in my window seat before the flight attendant completed the safety instructions. This fact makes the eleven hour flight seem more bareable, just a really long nap with some interspersed airplane meals. I hope sleeping through the flights will help me adjust to the eleven hour time change, but in truth no amount of napping will turn my day into night and night into day without consequences. 

Okay. Passports (Swiss and American)? Check. Wallet? Check. All iThings and chargers? Check. Excitement and enthusiasm for the adventure? Check and check. 

The Next Step

For the past two years I traveled the country as a leadership consultant for Kappa Alpha Theta Fraternity. During this time I visited 20 different states, two Canadian provinces, and 35 college campuses. I am grateful for the past two years of professional experience and the stepping-stone it provided for future endeavors. Leading up to the conclusion of  my contract in May the question I received the most was "So, what's next?". This is a phrase well known by anyone who has ever graduated college or changed jobs, it is the dreaded inquiry you get asked at any social gathering or family interaction. I've certainly heard it a thousand times in the past few months and every time my answer is a little bit different. I've come to the conclusion that it's okay not to have the exact answer, because its okay not to have a perfectly crafted future plan. For me, the end goal is a career public relations or crisis management, but the 'next step'? Well, it could be any number of things.

Sometimes its good to have a crazy dream, buy a plane ticket (or three), and have an adventure. The end of one chapter has provided me the incredible opportunity to take some time for international experiences and work. "So, Aquene, what's next?" Righ now the next step is continuing my love of travel and doing so internationally.  From Thailand to Europe, I look forward to documenting my journey and experiences through photos and thoughts exhibited here. 

 Kappa alpha theta fraternity HQ

Kappa alpha theta fraternity HQ

 2015-2016 Consultant Team for Theta

2015-2016 Consultant Team for Theta