Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Plight of the Asian Elephant Part 1

Land mine victim since 1999
Land mine victim since 2011
When most people think of elephants they think of the giants of African plains and Asian rainforests. I’ve never met someone that didn’t like an elephant. They draw big crowds at zoos and oo’s and awes on safaris and no one goes to Southeast Asia without coming back with a great elephant trekking story. Well I’ve returned from Southeast Asia and I don’t have an elephant trekking story to share. I did not sit in a wooden throne balanced upon an elephants back, nor did I watch in wonder as an elephant guided his paintbrush into a bucket of paint and across a blank canvas. I saw no elephants play soccer or dunk basketballs. I am one of a few travellers that  ventured to Thailand without any intention of buying into the typical elephant tourism.  Ok I admit that I was interested in the painting aspect but that was until I read more about it.

Did you know that a century ago 100,000 elephants roamed the forests of Thailand? Did you know that a decade ago that number was down to 25,000? How about in 2011, how many Asian elephants do you think survive today? 20,000? 15,000? How about 5,000. It took 90 years for 75,000 elephants to fade into memory and only 10 for 20,000 to vanish. It is scary to think that within this decade they may disappear altogether.

Broken back from over breeding
The Asian elephant is to Thailand what hockey is to Canada. It is a national symbol existing proudly as one of the most important cultural icons. At one time they were the nations loggers, tractors, tanks and above all, most sacred creatures.  Today they are losing their fight to have a place in modern Thailand. It is not uncommon to see a young elephant begging for money on the streets of Bangkok and Chiang Mai. Carrying bags of fruit an elephant and his mahout approach tourists who pay to feed the elephant. It is an excellent way to make money but elephants weren’t meant to live in a city. They are too sensitive to vibrations and sounds to be completely engulfed by them and this environment is enough to drive an elephant mad.

Land mine victim since the age of 11 months
Elephant trekking camps exist all over the country, especially in Thailand’s second largest city, the northernly located Chiang Mai. You can’t walk 10 feet in Chiang Mai without coming across a poster and brochures embezzled with phrases like “Train to become a mahout!” “See the jungles of Thailand onboard your very own elephant!” Your very own elephant? Well how can anyone resist that! I mean I’m sure everyone has at one point in his or her life thought, geez I want an elephant! “Play soccer with the largest animal on earth!” “Watch as our elephants create masterpieces right in front of your eyes!” It’s tempting and all the hype can overwhelm even the most conscientious traveler.

Many people are unaware that many elephants used for trekking are worked nonstop. They head out with a rider or 2 and have a half second of rest before the next interested party hops onboard. Often elephants are guided by mahouts to paint using a nail concealed in the mahouts hand and pressed against the elephants trunk. People treat their cars better than many elephant trekking and elephant tourism places treat their elephants.

Of course before an elephant can be used to haul equipment or people they have to be trained. To train an elephant many believe it’s important to break its spirit. They are taken away from their mothers and put into an enclosure just big enough for them to fit. Then they are tied, beaten and starved for days until they are willing to submit to their masters. It is a shockingly cruel procedure that many deem a necessity. 

Stressed aggressive male
There is some hope however with more and more tourists jumping on the eco-friendly tour bandwagon. In part 2 of this entry I will tell what some amazing Thai's and foreigners are doing to ensure that these fantastic beasts are around for years to come! Trust me when I say you can have an amazing elephant related holiday without the hype, cruelty and cheap factor.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

A Day with Giants

I feel truly lucky to have had the opportunity to spend the day at the Elephant Nature Park just outside of Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. 
There is no elephant trekking. No elephants paint or play soccer or even dunk basketballs. 

The elephants stand where they'd like.

They tell each other secrets.

They swim in the river.

They stick together. 

They play like big children.

They laugh.

They take in the scenery.

They cool off with a nice bath.

They will forever rest their tired backs and broken spirits at the park.

Saturday, June 4, 2011


I’ve met many different people from all over the world but no one comes close to the Cambodian people I’ve encountered on my travels. I truly believe their national slogan should be “Cambodia, Kingdom of Smiles” but I’m sure they’d never be taken seriously again!

When you pull out your camera they are happy to be photographed, smiling easily into the lens. They say thank-you when you refuse their services and they say yes please when you order something. Now this could very well be a lost in translation thing and they’re actually mentally flipping you off and their smile actually means get the hell out of my country you cheap foreigner. Yet I’d put a great deal of money on the fact that they are not thinking that at all!

We bought a few books off this kid. He was such a charming good lil' salesman! "I'll see you when you see me!" he said before heading out of the restaurant. We saw him the next day across town and he came in to say hi!

Over the course of our month in “Cambodia, Kingdom of Smiles” I’ve lost track of how many times one of us has happily expressed how nice the people in Cambodia are.

The people at our guesthouse were lovely, very attentive and never missed an opportunity to say hi “Hello Ally!” “Hello Morgan” (Megan is apparently a difficult name to pronounce!). The guesthouse across the road where we ate countless meals was even friendlier. We weren’t even staying there and they treated us like queens deserving of 5 star service. They didn’t care that we were clearly budget backpackers wearing the same thing for the 4th day in a row. One day we were just walking by and our favourite tiny waitress stuck her head through the wall of foliage to say hi, her smile literally stretching from ear to ear. Although now that I think about it they could have been ridiculously nice to us because we were amazing tippers… but we were amazing tippers because they were so nice to us… it’s a vicious circle but I think we’re all winners!

I think we could all learn a great deal from the Cambodian people. Like how to let bygones be bygones and live for the moment instead of letting the past live for us.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Cambodia's Dark Past

A school is a place where people can better their lives through education. School can lead to a good job with a good house and a well looked after family. So how does a place of learning turn into one of horror and torture? S-21 in Phnom Penh had been a high school. By 1975 it had turned into a place where academics, doctors, teachers, students, factory workers, monks, engineers, etc. were tortured and interrogated before being executed.

It costs $2 to visit S-21 a place I would gladly pay $5-10 to see. Upon entering the first building it is obvious that this is not going to be your typical museum. There are no pristine artifacts securely placed behind bulletproof glass, only signs asking visitors to please not touch the instruments of torture. Everything has been left just how the Khmer Rouge left it. Visitors are asked to keep quite, a rule that most observe and the silence while standing in a room that would have once been filled with the screams of victims chills you to the bone. 

The third floor of Building A still somewhat resembled a school with no torture devises on display and blackboards still firmly attached to the peeling walls. It even had that old school smell. So many feelings came over me all at once as I walked from room to room, confusion, sickness, bitterness, sadness, shock and hatred

The looks on the faces of prisoners ranged from horror and shock to fear and confusion and in a few instances amusement. The amused faces are hard to take in because you know their fate. You know that while at the time they may have been thinking it couldn’t be that bad that it was in fact that bad and perhaps worse.

All the pictures are hard to look at but perhaps the hardest to view were those of the children. You can't help but stare at them and think what could these children have possibly done to earn such a fate? How could someone torture children? Oh how they must have screamed for their mothers, their mothers who were locked away in cells far away or haphazardly buried miles away in shallow graves. How do you explain why such horrible things are happening to your children when you don’t understand them yourself?

You wander through room after room of primitive yet destructive torture devises and photographs of the mutilated bodies of prisoners who never got a fair trial or explanation. It was the very worst of human behaviour in great detail on display for everyone to see.

Next comes a place with a name that leaves nothing to the imagination. The Killing Fields.

The field looks like a battleground. Every few feet there is another huge divot. It’s as though hundreds of bombs were dropped during a war but then you learn that there were no bombs, no army blitzed the area. These are the shallow graves where thousands of innocent people were disposed of like compost.  Signs tell of the bodies recovered from several sites. There were 405 found from this one, 166 headless corpses from that one and over 100 naked bodies of women and children from that one over there.

There are 2 trees on the property that served cruel purposes. One called The Killing Tree was used to beat children. One observer described how the tree was covered with blood, brain matter, skin and hair. The other tree was called The Magic Tree, which was used to blast noise from a loud speaker that would drown out the moans of those being executed.

The Killing Fields are quite small and eerily peaceful. Butterflies flutter around mass graves traveling from one delicate purple flower to another. Chickens peck around trees used to hang the outspoken and beat the children while nearby students laugh and run around their schoolyard.

And as an observer you take it all in as you walk over shards of bone that have appeared over night brought out of their shallow graves by heavy rains and you look around marveling at a world at odds with the past.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Leave the Attitude but Pack the Humility

The word thank-you is a powerful one. It is a word that stretches across land borders and language barriers and yes while it sounds different in different countries it means the same thing. Showing gratitude for something is not culturally exclusive. So why then is it so difficult for a large number of travelers to show gratitude? To simply say thank-you? To just acknowledge in some way or another that they are happy the tuk tuk driver got them to where they wanted to go, the waitress served them with professionalism or the flight attendant brought them the pillow they asked for? There are even ways to show gratitude without using spoken language. A simple nod of the head or smile are powerful tools when it comes to acknowledging that someone has done something for you.

There are far too many people that believe the world owes them and why should they show gratefulness  towards those who help them out a little. Well honestly unless you've developed a cure for one of life’s many diseases including impoliteness then the world owes you nothing.

If at home you thank the fast-food guy for your hamburger meal or the gas station attendant for pumping your gas or even the border guard for letting you pass without asking you to actually declare how much you're bringing back into the country. Then why not thank the young Cambodian who brought you the steamed fish or the Indonesian guy who drove you around for 19 hours.

Why do people seem to think that a ticket to an exotic place gives them license to be a complete ass. The golden rule of treating others the way you'd like to be treated shouldn't only be meant for your backyard but for anywhere you find yourself. The nicer you are to others the nicer they'll be to you. It's simple!

Remember these things:
* We’re all humans and deserve to be treated as such.
* Traveling to a country with the “Underdeveloped” or “Developing” label doesn’t mean the people are your servants.
* The happiest people you’ll ever meet are the ones without what many of us deem as necessities for a happy fulfilling life.
* If you’re rude to someone and they continue to be kind and polite to you it’s not because it doesn’t bother them, it’s simply because they are a bigger person than you!
* Money does not make you a better person and therefore above everyone around you.

To end I'll borrow a couple lines from a Dickens classic
"What right have you to be merry? What reason do you have to be merry? You're poor enough?"
"What right have you to be dismal? What reason have you to be morose? You're rich enough!"

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Captivatingly Spectacular Siem Reap

Siem Reap has captivated me. I had a feeling it would, after all “OMG, I LOVED it there!” was a common response when I told other travelers where I was going. I can’t even tell you how long this quiet city has been on my MUST SEE list. I’m a sucker for a place with a tumultuous past after all. Now I know what you’re thinking, don’t all places have tumultuous pasts? I suppose in one way or another they do but not all places have seen just how evil human beings are capable of being. Cambodia is a country of phoenix’s, spirits rising from the ashes of despair to rebuild the lives they want for themselves. Some people at home are incapable of that following a bad report card or dentist visit, geez I dwell on the news of a cavity like it’s the end of the world then after think “Oh woe is me I have to get a little needle and sit in the dentist chair for an hour boooowhooo.” Pathetic!

Anyway back to the fabulous place that is Siem Reap and away from the dentist office. If I could wrap this place up and give it as a gift I would. I’d bundle it in banana leaves tied with the ancient vines that curl possessively around the crumbling stone of the Angkor temples and garnish it with the mango that narrowly missed my head as it fell from the tree at my guesthouse. But who would I give it to? Perhaps the friend that needs to be cheered up by the smiling faces of those who are happy you stopped by. Or the friend that seeks adventure by searching ancient ruins for tangerine clad monks. No, no, maybe the friend that wants to be pampered while surrounded by quiet sophistication. Although maybe I’ll just keep it for myself and use the banana leaves to steam some fish amok, let the vines continue their support of the temples and make a shake with that mango!

The temples of Angkor Wat are beautiful, mysterious, eerie and awe-inspiring. There were times I forget that it was 2011 and was practically transported back to the 12th century. Honestly there was one time I looked down at my camera and thought “What the HELL is this thing?” Luckily some old Chinese woman pushed me out of her way and brought me jarringly back to reality. There are huge trees that grow effortlessly around stone structures, their branches and roots twisting and turning acrobatically through cracks and glassless windows. Children run after you asking you to buy bracelets and postcards or rather aggressively suggest you give them candy while counting to 10 in 7 languages. They’re pretty receptive to the words no and thank-you though so they get an A+ for “getting it!” And while we didn’t find monks meditating in any nooks and crannies we did get to witness a mass almsgiving ceremony with about 700 monks taking part. There was orange everywhere I looked and I LOVED IT!

You know a place is great if you’re reminiscing about it while you’re still there! It is so great that it immediately buries itself in your heart and refuses to leave. Like a parasite or an infection… if those things made people happy when they caught them! And even though our guesthouse owner calls me Morgan and it's hotter than inside a dutch oven  I’ve caught Siemreaperson and I’m loving every second of it! 

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Feelings of Love and Hate in Siem Reap

I find myself thinking daily of the things I both love and hate in Siem Reap as I walk down its streets. So I thought I'd share some of these feelings! 
I love the way the tuk tuk drivers in Siem Reap say you’re welcome when you tell them no thank-you after they ask if you need a ride.
I love how people smile just because you waved at them.
 I hate seeing young kids pulling carts, picking up garbage or begging for money. It’s heartbreaking to think these kids will never get to experience the magic of childhood because they’ve been forced into adulthood too early.
I relish in being called beautiful, knowing full well that it’s due to my wretchedly pale skin and not because of anything else.
I truly enjoy being in a place that feels exotic yet has most of the comforts of home. This is not because I NEED said comforts but it’s nice to have them around if I find myself wanting them and let’s be honest there are definitely times when you’re travelling where you think, “If I have to put one more grain of rice, satay skewer or strange root past my lips I’m going to freakin’ lose it!”
I love watching street kids taking a break from their jobs by flinging themselves off the twisted branches of trees, into the Siem Reap River.
I hate saying no to someone who has been the victim of a landmine. However if I didn’t then I’d find myself peddling books and paintings on the streets annoying people.
I love how little kids will run up to you and hold onto your pant leg as they look up into your face with amazement painted across their faces.
I detest automatically feeling sorry for a landmine victim. They lost a limb not their dignity and I feel like that “awe poor you” feeling I get somehow strips them of their dignity whether they realize it or not.
I love seeing buildings that were constructed thousands of years ago and revered to this day by the decedents of those who dreamed them up.
Most of all I love to see how the strength of the human spirit can overcome the most atrocious acts of pure evil. To arrive in Cambodia and know full well what happened here not so long ago and not see broken souls haphazardly drifting from place to place is inspiring. It would be so easy to forgive people for being cold, untrusting or jaded, after all we in the west would see it as human nature. The Cambodian’s have taught me that while the tragedies of the past play a role in our present lives they do not control us. If we allowed such events to dictate our daily lives we’d all be like looming black clouds on the horizon, ready to explode with uncontrollable fury at the hint of sadness.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Angkor Wat

I'm adding to the overflow of pictures from Angkor Wat! Sadly the front of Angkor Wat is undergoing a facelift so my dream pictures did not get taken. Thankfully the temples are impressive enough to still photograph nicely despite the ugly scaffolding and green tarps!

Sunrise at Angkor Wat

Front um... gate(?) at Angkor Wat

Robed stone buddha at one of the temples of Angkor Thom.

The Tomb Raider temple Ta Prohm

Siem Reap

I don't have much to write about as of yet but I figured I'd share some photographs of our Siem Reap experience so far.
Delicious sandwiches at The Singing Tree Cafe
Ruins of Angkor
Pint sized grounds keeper
The beauty of nature wrapping itself around the creation of man.
Real life for the other half of Siem Reaps citizens.
Siem Reap cyclist
Monkey on a spit... anyone hungry?
The kids who seem to be in charge of recycling pick up in the city having some down time.
Brother and sister riding around the streets of Siem Reap
Our favourite mode of transportation! 
Cambodian orphan