It’s been nearly a year since my trip to Cuba and my failure to write a travel entry on the country (tisk tiskkk). In all fairness, most of the trip turned out to be a near disaster and I did not want to write an entry based on a negative impression. So instead I’ve decided to present the beautiful country of Cuba through some of my favorite pictures from the trip.

It's often impossible to figure out which buildings in old Havana are inhabited. This is just one example of a beautifully decrepit corner building. Photo credit: Tazi Phillips

It’s often impossible to figure out which buildings in old Havana are inhabited. This is just one example of a beautifully decrepit corner building. Photo credit: Tazi Phillips

The sun setting behind a church in old Havana. For most of our time in the old capital there was no electricity, forcing shops, restaurants and museums to close, and us to eat by candlelight each evening. Photo credit: Tazi Phillips

The sun setting behind a church in old Havana. For most of our time in the old capital there was no electricity, forcing shops, restaurants and museums to close, and us to eat by candlelight each evening. Photo credit: Tazi Phillips

The main square in Trinidad, on the southern coast of Cuba. Also my favorite town we visited. Photo credit: Tazi Phillips

The main square in Trinidad, on the southern coast of Cuba. Also my favorite town we visited. Photo credit: Tazi Phillips

Riding bikes through hordes of crabs on the road to get to this beach near Trinidad, Cuba. Photo credit: Tazi Phillips

Riding bikes through hordes of crabs on the road to get to this beach near Trinidad, Cuba. Photo credit: Tazi Phillips

Say hello to the '50s. Vintage cars and taxis lined up in Havana, Cuba. Photo credit: Tazi Phillips

Say hello to the ’50s. Vintage cars and taxis lined up in Havana, Cuba. Photo credit: Tazi Phillips

Mom talking to a local in the streets of Trinidad, Cuba. Photo credit: Tazi Phillips

Mom talking to a local in the streets of Trinidad, Cuba. Photo credit: Tazi Phillips

Horse and buggy suffering under the hot sun on the cobblestone streets of Trinidad, Cuba. Photo credit: Tazi Phillips

Horse and buggy suffering under the hot sun on the cobblestone streets of Trinidad, Cuba. Photo credit: Tazi Phillips

Dogs dressed as a tourist couple wait to take pictures with passersby. Photo credit: Tazi Phillips

Dogs dressed as a tourist couple wait to take pictures with passersby. Photo credit: Tazi Phillips

More architecture in Havana, Cuba. Photo credit: Tazi Phillips

More architecture in Havana, Cuba. Photo credit: Tazi Phillips

So, it’s been quite a while since I last posted. I’ve moved to Los Angeles, rented my first apartment without a roommate, leased my first car, rode every rollercoaster at Six Flags, went to my first shooting range, made new friends, reconnected with old friends, ate at my first food truck, went to my first art walk, was a (faux) contestant on a tv show, met several celebrities, watched 4 sets of fireworks on the Fourth of July from a beach in Malibu, swam in hot springs, experienced true LA traffic, among a ton of other experiences both good and bad.

And on Friday I will be heading out of the country for the first time since April 2011, over a year ago — the longest amount of time I’ve remained in the US for a period of time. And I’m itching for an adventure.

Where to? CUBA!

I’ve wanted to explore Cuba for years now. And now my current job and the changes to the Cuba embargo have allowed me to visit the country, finally! So come Friday I shall be traversing the streets, beaches, churches, countryside, and whathaveyou of Cuba for ten glorious days. Stay tuned.

Hey all! I’m in ‘Muricah!

This is a documentary that my friend Sike created from our week of volunteering at the Elephant Nature Park in Chaing Mai. The video includes close ups with the elephants, statements from some of the park’s pivotal individuals, a visual summary of our daily activities, and it includes some shots of me!

Video credit – Sike Sillanpää

Check it out, and after visit ElephantNaturePark.org for more information on how you can help these amazing and wisehearted animals.  You can also watch this somewhat tongue-in-cheek (could you pick more dramatic music?) volunteer video made by the Elephant Nature Park organization.

Also – for those interested I have a video showing the actual, violent training of elephants filmed in a small village that I acquired at E.N.P. Because of gruesome images and copywrite issues, I don’t think I’ll post it here. But if anyone would like to know further about this kind of treatment, please feel free to contact me and I will get you the information.

On a happier note – elephants are ‘da coolest!

This week, as I prepare myself to go back home, I’ve had a lot of time to think about this trip and what it has meant to me.

There are two people whose words before this trip have stayed with me, and who I am especially reminded of as I reflect upon these past months. The first is an old friend who, upon hearing that I was going to be traveling for 5 months abroad, told me to read about the philosopher Seneca, one of whose dialogues reflects on the shortness of life, but how any amount of time is sufficient if you live it wisely. My friend told me that he wished he had traveled before he had started his professional career, before he felt that it was no longer an easy option, and that he was happy that I was taking advantage of the time.

The other words I remember well were those that came in the form of a letter from a client of mine before I left. He had told me that he felt that I had a great deal of good to do in the world, and that it was a relief to know that there were people out there who had a good grasp of the world, who knew right and wrong, and who don’t settle for what the world thinks they should do.

I’m not pretending that I’m an example of what these people were saying, and I’m about the last person who wants to sound preachy. But they are certainly good things to work towards to in my mind. I’ve tended to steer myself on the course that I believed the people around me thought was the “right” one. Get good grades in high school, participate in extracurriculars, go to college, start a career. But I’ve always found myself deviating from the path – transferring schools, taking a year off after high school to travel and work, finding myself bored with college and not always fitting into it’s social life, delaying a move into a career-oriented life… But what I’ve found is that all this stuff – the “right” and socially acceptable stuff – usually does not make me happy, and therefore it doesn’t matter much in the greater scheme of things.

For me it’s moving. Traveling. Seeing new things and people and places. Maybe I have a short attention span. But in all honesty I think it has just become a part of who I am over the years. (Thanks to my Mom for dragging me around the world since I was a babe) But a piece of advice – and this is for myself just as much as anyone reading. Don’t wait for the things you want to do until it is too late. Don’t think too much about what will or will not happen with your job, your friends, your family. I’m a firm believer that things have a way of working themselves out (as cliché as it sounds). But above all – Explore. Do the things you’ve always wanted, or maybe didn’t think you wanted. Watch a picture perfect sunset in a place you’ve never been. Rest your head on the pulsating stomach of a tiger. Touch the trunk of an Asian elephant, who’s most likely experienced and learned more about life than you have. Go diving with the chance to see anything from a sea turtle to a white-tipped reef shark to a giant Mola mola. Learn a new language.

So I guess what I’m saying is – life is short but it does not have to be restricting, as Seneca said, and I’m trying to do as much as I can in the little time I have. In some small way, I hope in the past 5 months I’ve lived up to my client’s words, and continue to do so throughout my life. And I hope to impart a little bit of my knowledge along the way.

beach paradise, southern Lombok.

Fair winds and following seas.

 

The countdown has started. David and I have just 9 days left before we get on a flight back to the States. My best bud Eliza left a few days ago to head back to NYC after a fun week snorkeling on Gili Trawangan and swimming and celebrating my birthday in Kuta, Lombok. And now David and I are hunkering down with our last dollars and preparing ourselves for our next culture shock. Home.

Eliza and I on the boat to Gili Trawangan

It has been an amazing and unforgettable 5 months.

I’ve started to make a list of the things I will miss.

Dodging potholes on the motorbike. The drive at night on the motorbike back home from Yeye’s in Uluwatu, looking up at the starry sky. Sweat. Banana juice. The smell of incense. Being barefoot. Calling out “cow” or “monkey” while driving. The sound of flip-flops. Nightly rain showers. The friendliness of the Balinese. The deafening sounds of nature. The ease of starting conversations with other travelers. The smell of satay sizzling on the street. Vivid colors everywhere. Smiling and highfiving children. Ants in my food. Hearing Indonesians sing Justin Bieber. The feeling and sounds of life everywhere – plants enveloping you and thousands of bugs crawling and flying, geckos scurrying, chickens clucking and roosters crowing, rust-colored cows, algae and mud covered water buffalo, dogs barking or sleeping, leggy goats.

David and Eliza on Gili Trawangan

It’s going to be weird going home. Real life. Ugh.

Sorry for the brief sabbatical in blog entrying. I promise I’ll be better. Since arriving back to Bali from Thailand a month ago, David and I have been incredibly busy playing host and tour guide to friends who arrived from other parts of Southeast Asia as well as friends who flew all the way from the States to visit little ol’ Dav and Taz.

David and Eliza in Nusa Lembogan

Our first arrival was my best bud and home girl Eliza O. who flew from NYC and met David and I at our trusty home at Susie’s Beach Inn in Bingin Beach. I had been looking forward to her arrival for months, and was ecstatic that this lady friend had decided to stay for a month – long enough for us to show her around most of Bali, as well as do a side trip to Gili T. and Kuta, Lombok.

The first day Eliza arrived we met up with two friends that David had met while traveling down the Vietnam coast, Dain and Tesha from San Francisco. We spent the days between swimming at the pool at their Westin Resort in Nusa Dua, and swimming in the ocean at Uluwatu and pooling it on our turf of Bingin. Dain and Tesha left a few days after and flew to Australia and are currently spending the year living out of a van and working down the coast of Aussie.

After a few days in Bingin and getting sunned out on the Bukit peninsula, we three headed up north to Ubud where we spent a few days getting us$5 massages and facials, buying monkey masks, loving a little dog we named Boners, and making a second trip to the delicious Naughty Nuri’s for some more bacon cheeseburgers and the subsequently unavoidable food comas.

Shane, Jenna, and Eliza at Espresso Bar. Kuta, Bali.

We then made a stop in Kuta where David and I planned to extend our visas as well as show Eliza the not-so-great part of tourism in Bali. Surprisingly however, we spent two nights here discovering the most-delicious-and-best-for-your-money-restaurant I have been to in Bali, the Smiling Frog, and our late-night-live-music-bar, Espresso Bar. The Smiling Frog on Jl. Benesari is an unexpected breath of fresh air in the noisy and sense-assaulting streets of Kuta. Owned by the generous and personable Alex of Italy and his wife, David, Eliza, and I stumbled upon this restaurant one evening and never looked back – frequenting at least 5 more times and raving about it to our friends. The ingredients and preparation of the food make this restaurant stand out from what would appear to be similar establishments throughout Kuta. Everything from the welcome drink to the fettucine al funghi to the chicken curry hits the palate just right, and Alex hands-down has the best arak madus I’ve tried throughout my travels. Finished by a cup of Italian coffee and the best (and also complimentary) desert of a rich, fudgy, thinly sliced chocolate cake make the whole experience a decidedly good one.

Our favorite late-night hang out spot is the Espresso Bar, a hole-in-the-wall dive that has the best (Indonesian) cover band singing renditions of everything from Lady Gaga to Rage Against the Machine, always with their own hardcore rock twist. They are a blast to watch, and the whole vibe of the place is far cooler than the nearby clubs that make you want to Purell your body. Literally, 40 year-old prostitutes in police outfits and young Australian guys in tiki skirts and Mr. Miyagi headbands. Literally.

(Left to Right) Eliza, David, Arlene, Shane, and Aram. Breakfast at Villa Kresna, Seminyak.

After Kuta we took the boat to Nusa Lembogan to chill out in the cleaner sun and sand for a few days before my good friend Aram and his friends Shane and Arlene flew from L.A. to meet us for a fun-filled 5 days in Bali. Aram helped treat David, Eliza, and I to a 2-bedroom villa with a private pool at Villa Kresna, the most beautiful hotel I have ever stayed at (and also the best breakfast). David’s friend whom he had met traveling in Vietnam – Jenna from San Francisco – also joined us for some time while we were in the Seminyak area. I had some of the best days of my trip hanging out and going on adventures throughout southern Bali with our gang. Thank you guys so much.

Aram and David walking on Uluwatu beach, Bali.

And now it’s back to David, Eliza, and I. Tomorrow we head to the Gili Islands and then to Kuta, Lombok to relax for a bit and show Eliza my favorite spots of Indonesia (so far). It has been a great experience and a fun time being the tour guide to both friends and acquaintances for the past month. Some people have already been traveling for months in Asia and are just on a stop in Indonesia; some are on a short work vacation from the States; some people have traveled a lot in their lives, and others not at all. Regardless, sharing my knowledge about traveling (especially if it is my favorite place in the world) – whether it is about the people, the food, the language, the environment, the religion – gives me a rush. Perhaps it’s an adequate reason for not noticing that I hadn’t posted a blog entry in a while. Too busy doing what I love.

Today David and I made a realization. We only have 3 weeks left of this epic adventure of ours. I don’t think either of us are ready to say good-bye quite yet.

….And my birthday is in 5 days!

Ah, Cambodia. What a different place from the others I’ve traveled in Asia before.

Phenom Penh. A sprawling, buzzing city crammed with low cement and wooden buildings, many displaying a heavy French architectural influence. I opted to stay at a guesthouse recommended in the center of the city, knowing that I’d hopefully be away from the hoards of backpackers that I had started to get tired of back in Thailand (shout out to Khao San Road). A five-minute walk from the Tonle Sap river, I often walked the boardwalk next to the river, staring out at the large barges or small fishing boats and the ever accumulating trash. There are a string of restaurants, cafés, and bars along this route that I liked to frequent. Khmer cuisine, Indian, Western-style restaurants advertising pizza and Mexican food, bakeries, etc.

The first full day there I spent my time trying to walk the city, making it to the Royal Palace, National Assembly, and Liberation and Independence Monuments. Not much to see, and it was hot as hell. Plus I had cable for the first time back in my hotel room (I know, lame. But HBO!).

My second day I hired a tuk-tuk for the day to take me to the Killing Fields, the Russian Market, and the s21 Genocide Museum. The Killing Fields are in a small town outside of Phenom Penh called Choeung Ek, and besides for the memorial that was erected to house all of the bones and skulls found at this site, the only indication that something monstrous happened here are the excavation pits that have not been filled in along with numerous placards explaining their significance. If you look closely too, you come across stray bone fragments, teeth, and scraps of clothing on the paths that are continuously uncovered by the rains and by time. It’s pretty creepy. It was here in 1980 that the bodies of 8,985 people, victims of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, were exhumed from 86 mass graves. There are still over 40 graves that have been left untouched.

a look through the hallways of the S21 Genocide Museum

Next, my tuk-tuk driver and I headed to the Russian Market where we both had lunch before heading to the S21 Genocide Museum. The museum was originally a secondary school that was turned into a prison during the Pol Pot regime. Men, women, and children came here to be tortured and killed from all different areas of society – monks, students, farmers, teachers, doctors, and generally anyone who had an education.  It is said that over a million people passed through this prison, and there are blood marks still upon the tiles and walls as proof. Very few escaped with their lives.

The Khmer Rouge were the ruling communist party in Cambodia from 1975-1979, whose goal was to turn the country into an agrarian utopia through radical social reform, dissolving the monetary system, education, religion, and any professions that had the mark of capitalism. The Khmer Rouge are responsible for the deaths of around 1.5-2 million people through starvation, forced labor, disease, torture, and murder.

Because of all of this unnerving history – including the photos of Phenom Penh as a literal ghost town when the city was evacuated – I felt pretty uneasy here, which is not common for me in places I’ve traveled. I couldn’t wait to continue on my trip – so, obviously unnecessary,  I left by bus to Siem Reap the following day.

But my hasty decision paid off. Siem Reap is a wonderful city on a much cleaner/smaller scale compared to the capital. The city is divided by a small river, with most of Siem Reap’s attractions focused along its banks. I stayed in a dirt-road neighborhood packed with clean and comfy guesthouses (also with cable!), that was a leisurely 15 minute walk to the Psar Chas (Old Market) and the center of town that was the focal point of all tourist activity – packed with restaurants, cafés, fish and massage spas, clubs, and the notorious Pub Street (I think the name is self-explanatory).

Wahoo! Angkor Wat.

David met me in Siem Reap the night after I arrived after his tour through Vietnam, and the next morning we headed to the ruins of Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, and Ta Phrom. Hallelujah. I have wanted to see these sites for as long as I can remember, and I can finally cross them off my bucket list. Angkor Wat, in all of its magnificence, was actually less magnificent than I had imagined. Most likely due to the hoards of tourists that file through the entryways and clog up the narrow hallways. But nonetheless, the temple and the huge moat that surrounds it was a pretty spectacular site to see.

Sitting in Bayon

Dav and I outside the gate to Angkor Thom

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Angkor Thom and the main temple of Bayon was without a doubt my favorite. With far less tourists and intricate bas-reliefs stemming from Hinduism and Buddhism, including the many stone faces that rise above the temple, it was a (please excuse the phrase) “magical” place.

Next was Ta Phrom, the temple in the jungle that has largely been left as it was found (except for the massive amounts of looting of statues that is found at all of the temples), with shimmering silk cotton trees and their roots weaving in and out of the stone architecture. David and I did some exploring here, passing down dank and crumbling passageways to eventual dead-ends, or climbing piles of stone to sit and look out at the view of the ruins. We were both in awe of the beauty, the detail, and the age of these temples – both so happy to have seen these places first hand.

Ta Phrom

David exploring Ta Prom

Let me first preface this entry by saying that my words cannot do justice to this place or the amazing woman who founded it. Also be forewarned – this is a long entry…

Tiger Kingdom

After a week spent in Chiang Mai – the second largest city in Thailand based in the north – David headed off to Vietnam and I decided to stick around for a while at the beautiful house of a family friend’s just outside of the city. They even took me to the Tiger Kingdom – a park outside of Chiang Mai that is home to all ages of tigers, many of whom you can take photos with, even laying down on their belly(!). On Monday I started a week of volunteering at the Elephant Nature Park, a sanctuary for maltreated, injured, and orphaned elephants from Thailand and Burma that is found just an hour outside of Chiang Mai. The park is home to 35 lucky elephants that have been rescued from awful situations and now have the opportunity to roam the large valley that is surrounded by mountains and bordered by a river. In addition to these large inhabitants, the park is also home to 70 dogs, over 20 cats, a sun bear, a small horse, and 2 pigs that have come to this animal haven for one reason or another.

Lek with one of the calves

The park was founded by an incredible Thai woman named Lek (small in Thai). She is certainly small, but her spirit and her aura of strength, persistence, and a deep caring of all animals is apparent through her voice and the way she commands her surroundings. Lek – who has been named Asian Hero of the Year by Time Magazine, and who’s story has been featured on such channels as BBC, Animal Planet, Discovery Channel, etc. – works at the park each day with her long black hair braided, wearing a flannel shirt and galoshes, and immediately captures your undivided attention as she seamlessly integrates herself into each elephant family – herself made a member over the years. She whispers to them, or sits under their legs feeding them treats, or sings the young calves lullabies at night until they eventually fall asleep. Her love for these animals in unconditional and quite a powerful sight.

A little Thai elephant history (which was new to me) – Elephants are a big religious and cultural symbol for the Thai people. However, a century ago there were 100,000 wild elephants in Thailand, and today there is an estimated 2,500. Like in Burma, elephants in Thailand were domesticated to work in the logging industry. But in the 1980’s when logging was banned in Thailand, a whole lot of elephants found themselves out of work with not much forest to go back to. They were integrated into the tourist industry and now no longer have more rights than any other domesticated animal, like a cow or chicken. They give tourists rides on their back (something that I am guilty of – even if I was naïve at the time), dancing, painting, walking on tightrope, and selling items on the streets of busy cities to make money for their mahouts (their Thai or Burmese owner and caregiver). Many of these animals are supplied from Burma, where logging is still legal, and where the animals can easily cross the border to make more money for their owners in the huge Thai tourist economy.

What happens when an elephant walks on a landmine

What most people never see is how these animals are trained into performing these entertaining acts. Elephants are taken from their mothers at the age of 3 and forced into a wooden enclosure no bigger than themselves, feet tied to the posts, and kept their 24 hours a day for around a week in order to “break” the animal’s spirit. Hence the name for this training – called “the crush”. Villagers and the mahouts tie chains around the young elephant’s legs in order to train them into certain acts – stabbing them with sticks that have nails protruding from the ends, or with long hooks into their heads, bodies, or the sensitive area around their ears. Many people are told to believe that because the elephant’s skin is so thick that none of these actions are painful. Absolutely untrue.

Old ladies

The young elephant is driven to madness through the brutality and stress of this process, often not recognizing her mother after she goes through her training. Even if she does, she and her mother are immediately separated into different camps or villages. Female elephants have it the worst, as males are usually too difficult to keep under control. They are worked through the entire 22 months of their pregnancy, often miscarrying or participating in infanticide – killing their babies when they are born which is thought as being a result of the mothers not wanting the same fate for their offspring. Females are also often force-bred, their legs tied to posts and knives piercing her belly and the sides of her head in an effort to prevent her from struggling while the male elephant mounts her. One of the elephants in Lek’s park walks with a severe limp as her hip was broken during one of these breedings.

All of this just for the money that comes from entertaining tourists.

Lek began rescuing elephants in the 1990’s, starting with 3 in 1995 and now with 35. She was disowned by her family (who still own and work at an elephant riding camp for tourists near Lek’s park), and received constant death threats from those who worked in elephant camps all over Thailand. The Thai government gave her no support and fined her any time they could. She told stories of when a UK company donated milk for a young elephant (the milk is available but expensive in Thailand), but no Thai airlines would fly the donation to Thailand. And when British Airlines flew the milk for free, the Thai government and airport officials made Lek jump through so many hoops and pay so many fees that in the end she and her elephant never got the milk even though she ended up paying 3 times in fees for a donation for what she could have bought on her own in Thailand. Another story she told was when she traveled to rescue an elephant from a man who she had already made a contract with but who demanded another 20,000B (around US$600) when she arrived. Not having the money and upset that there was already a contract in place, she contacted the police who would only help her for a bribe that dwarfed that of what the elephant’s owner was asking for. Not knowing what to do, she contacted the Thai mafia with a plea for them to help her. Knowing about Lek and her mission, they did, the mafia telling her, “We only take money from criminals, not good people.” The next week, Lek received her elephant without any complaint.

Twilight at the Elephant Nature Park

Lek’s Elephant Nature Park now gets day-trippers and volunteers from all over the world. The price to volunteer here is not cheap, but once you understand how much it takes to take care of 35 elephants, it is a small price to pay. The park costs US$250,000 a year to run, and a lot of that is for elephant food. To rescue an elephant, Lek must buy them – a baby elephant costs US$20,000-30,000, and older elephants can range from US$3,000-10,000. Not cheap.

I get a kiss on the first day

And the work at the park is fun! Where else can you be around elephants 24 hours a day, waking up to their trumpeting and seeing them play in the mud like children? Even shoveling elephant poo is much more pleasant than my previous job of picking up dog poo…smell wise… Here is an abbreviated schedule of my week at the park:

Day 1- Arrive to the Elephant Nature Park. Tour, elephant feeding time, and photo ops with the elephants. Welcome ceremony performed by a monk from the village. Game of “street” Jenga with a group of friends. Documentary on elephant use and abuse. (I will post it here as soon as I can download it onto a computer)

Day 2- Cut corn stalks for elephant food at nearby fields and have a fun ride on the truck on the way back. An elephant walk around the property in the afternoon, learning about each elephant. Film about Antoinette, one of Lek’s first volunteers, and how she went on to create her own organization.

Day 3- Watering plants around the property, chopping and peeling banana trees for an elephant snack, and peeling tamarinds to mush into balls to feed to the elephants. Hand feeding the elephants at lunch time. Making mud bricks to use for future construction (more like playing in the mud). Tubing down the river to help get some of the mud off.

Day 4- Shovel elephant poo out of the enclosures. Trip to a nearby elementary school where I made cookies and played with girls in the kindergarten. More peeling tamarinds.

At a village school near the elephant park.

Day 5- Cleaning watermelon, cucumber, and pumpkins for the elephants. Peeling and mushing bananas to make fiber-rich banana balls for the elephants. More peeling tamarinds. Watching a Burmese mahout wedding with a huge celebration after.

Kids swimming on our hike to elephant haven.

Day 6- Volunteering to shovel elephant poo again (what was I thinking?!). Watching a volunteer video made of our group during the week we were there (I will hopefully put this up for everyone too, once I get it from a friend). 2 hour hike with a small group to elephant haven – a small plot of land in the jungle that some elephant families from the park get to visit for a night and roam free. Very rustic, but quiet and fun around the campfire listening to Pom – Lek’s right hand woman – tell stories about her and Lek’s experiences since they started rescuing elephants.

Day 7- Searching for the elephants in the morning at elephant haven (turned out to be an hour hike in straight up jungle). Hike back to the truck to get a ride back to the park. Group photo. Lunch, packing, and saying goodbye to everyone. 2pm bus ride back to Chiang Mai.

Hiking to elephant haven. The monks started the practice of tying blessed cloths to the trees to prevent them from being cut down. Now volunteers also get to pick a tree with their own monk cloth.

I can’t stress enough how awesome of an experience this was for me and all of the volunteers who I talked to about it (about 45 one-week and two-week volunteers in total). I am already planning to go back and hopefully work at the park for a longer period of time or perhaps get them connected to educational or tourist groups back in the U.S.

The park has received numerous awards from institutions such as the Smithsonian. Lek was named Asian Hero of the Year by Time Magazine in 2005 and the park has been featured in many international publications including National Geographic magazine as well as feature documentaries from Discovery Channel, National Geographic, Animal Planet, BBC, CNN, and others. Videos of the founder and the elephants can be found here, as well as on YouTube. This is such a great organization and I urge people to learn more about these elephants, and pass along the word to others. The site also shares ways to help the organization in its mission – especially by donating, adopting an elephant, or volunteering.

More pictures from my week of volunteering can be found here.

After Bangkok David and I headed west to Kanchanaburi, a town known for its role in WWII, where the Japanese used POW’s and Asian laborers to build a railroad from Thailand to Burma that would supply their troops with enough food and supplies in Japan’s effort to siege India. We splurged on our first organized group tour, led by the eccentric Ana who immediately started off the tour with poop jokes that had me laughing until I cried, as well as speaking in her broken English in the most serious and strange way – after every sentence looking everyone in the eye and saying, “Yeah? Uh huh…”

David and I at the waterfall outside of Kanchanaburi

Our first stop was a pretty unspectacular waterfall that shared the same area with an old WWII train and dozens of food stalls selling various styles of banana and yucca chips. We then took an hour long minibus ride to Hellfire Pass, a museum and world heritage site that documents the history and the horrors that came from the construction of the railroad line from Thailand to Burma. Although there were dozens of POW camps around Southeast Asia and many in Thailand, this area that lies about 45 km from Burma was known as being particularly gruesome and got it’s name from the ghoulish scenes of emaciated POW’s carving away the mountainside, their bodies lit only by the makeshift bamboo lamps in the dead of night. The carving of the mountainside to make way for the railroad as well as the actual construction of the rail and the many bridges that are found along the way was all done by hand with simple tools by men who wore little clothing and no shoes.

Hellfire Pass and a remnant of the original railroad which was later destroyed by the Australian army after the war.

WWII bridge and rail still in use today.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dav and I were stunned that neither of us had ever heard of this rail line of the many POW camps that resembled the Holocaust. Emaciated bodies, foot and leg ulcers, cholera epidemics, malaria, beri beri, dysentary, and the origin of the word “jap happy” – coined from a sort of loincloth that the POW’s invented when their own clothes had rotted away from the jungle environment.

Hanging with Kat

Awesome.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On a lighter note…After our sobering history lesson, we had a quick lunch of Thai food at a local restaurant and then headed to a small village where David and I had the time of our lives riding elephants followed by a ride down the river in a bamboo raft. The elephants were mother and daughter – Manush aged 45, and Kat aged 21. I rode on Kat’s head through the jungle and through streams with her large ears slapping against my legs. When she peed, it looked like she had got rid of ten gallons of liquid. It was all quite an experience.

Manush and I staring deep into eachother's eyes.

After the bamboo ride down the river we started making our way back to Kanchanaburi, not before taking a train ride along the original WWII rail line and seeing the bridge over the River Kwai that had been bombed various times by the allied armies. It was a fun, full day, and we were utterly exhausted when we finally make it back to our hotel. Alas, we still had enough energy for dinner and dancing the night away with a fellow Emersonian of Dave’s and his friend from Philly. Small world, eh?

I’m in Bangkok. Home of every vice or want you could desire.

After arriving to Banglamphu and finding a hotel after a long search through sign after sign of “No Vacancy” and “Full” (with a mattress that was about as comfortable as a dining room table), David and I headed out to explore the notorious Khao San road and surrounding area.

Khao San. Sensory overload. Life on Khao San starts when the sun goes down and does not stop until the last dregs of the large tourist community head home in the early hours of the morning. You pass tourist after tourist. Thais surround you with their roaming food carts, in clothing stalls, or offering bracelets or tuk-tuks or ping pong shows. If you look closely you can usually find a good amount of the famous Thai lady boys who usually require a second look to see through the high heels and makeup to make sure you are seeing right.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you can get used to the music, the lights, and the crowds, your attention will immediately be drawn to the vast amounts of carted street food that cram into every corner of Banglamphu and the surrounding areas. There is fresh fish, grilled fish, dried fish, smoked fish. There are noodle carts where you can get some of the best pad thai for under $1US. There are banana pancakes, pastries, ice cream, and fresh fruit carts that make a darn good fruit smoothie. There are noodle soups with vegetables, beef, and pork balls.  There are dumplings, meat satay, and spring rolls. And the cart I dare not approach – the scorpion, grasshopper, larvae, creepy crawly cart. Kabob carts can also occasionally be found if you want to switch up tastes and textures. The smells and sights are amazing.

breakfast soup of champions

Bangkok will steal all of my money make me a fat kid for sure.