Monday, March 4, 2024
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Koh Samui, Thailand

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I am on the island of Koh Samui which is off the east coast of southern Thailand. It has been overcast the past few days. I have enjoyed some down-time, sleeping, reading and walking around the island. It is very touristy and pricey. I am told Koh Phangan is very different.

I met my fellow students and teachers tonight at a beach restaurant down the street from my hotel. Everyone seems nice. The 15 students represent countries including, Japan, New Zealand, Spain, England and the US. We take a 45 minute ferry over to the island of Koh Phangan tomorrow. It will be my home for the next month. I am looking forward to checking out my jungle living accommodations, i.e. hut and starting the Yoga teacher training program. In addition to no alcohol, meat and caffeine, I just found out we are also not allowed to have any SUGAR for the next month!!!???? Oh my…NO chocolate???? Thats SO not right!

Volunteering at Elephant Nature Park…an AMAZING place in Northern Thailand

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I just left the most incredible green pastured oasis, surrounded by jungle mountains called Elephant Nature Park (http://www.elephantnaturepark.org/aboutus.htm).  It is a haven for abused elephants who once worked in the now illegal logging industry and others mistreated by various owners.  There are 33 elephants (including 2 baby elephants born in May) on the 50 acres in addition to cows and over 50 neutered cats and dogs…all playing and getting along.  This sanctuary was founded in the 1990s by Sangduen (Lek) Chailert, a small, in stature, Thai women with a big heart.  She has won Time Magazines Asian Hero Award and has been featured in numerous documentaries from National Geographic, Discovery and Animal Planet.

Getting to ENP required a bumpy 75 minute van ride from the city of Chiang Mai.  Its out there and very rustic.  I stayed in a little bamboo hut on stilts and slept on a simple bed, under a blue mosquito net.  I did have a modern bathroom but the water pressure was nonexistent so I pretty much took sponge baths for the 4 days I was there.  I helped feed (pineapples, watermelon, pumpkins, corn and bananas) and bathe the elephants in the river twice a day.  I spent 2 days with other volunteers building a barbed wire fence around a large cornfield and also helped out in the kitchen chopping vegetables and making banana bread treats for the elephants.

There were about 30 volunteers from all over the world…some came for 1 week, 1 month and others longer.  One women from England came for a month and has stayed for 5 years!  There were several mom and daughter teams including a 14 year named ‘Paige’ from Canada, a professional singer named Kyla from Australia and her mom and a mom and dad with their 18 year old son, the only other American’s there…another coincidence…from Philadelphia.  Most of the volunteers are women…though a few men were representing, including a funny, 30 year old Colombian lawyer, a few college age boys from England and a fit, 64 year old, grandfather of 5 from New Zealand who has been coming for 3 years.  I was impressed with the amount of women traveling by themselves including 2 childhood friends from Canada.  These girls are just 20 years old and have spent the last 4 months in India, Vietnam and Thailand.  I would love to see more American girls traveling abroad.  I think a lot of people in the US tend to be intimidated by not speaking a language or not understanding other cultures…especially any which are so different then ours.  Its not hard getting around and not scary.

The elephants are so gentle…although during bath time in the river, they liked to play and roll around a lot. You had to be careful they didn’t roll on top of you!  I learned a few interesting fun facts about the elephants:
1.  Asian Elephants are smaller then their African Cousins
2.  Pregnancy lasts 18-22 months!!!!!
3.  They can live up to 80+ years and on some occasions…100 years.
4.  They eat about 10% of their body weight a day.

Fell off a Bridge & into the Mekong River…Rat for Dinner Anyone???

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Who does that????  Yes, I literally rode off a bridge and fell into the Mekong River!!!!  I swear, I am the most accident prone person I know.  Ughhh!!!  To be fair, it wasn’t a huge bridge but it was very narrow and I had issues with changing gears.  Thankfully, it was on the incline so I didn’t fall to far. I missed hitting a metal pylon with my face by 3 inches.  I really thought the edge of the water would have been shallow, but it must have been more then 6 feet ’cause I totally went underwater and hit the muddy bottom. Fanny pack and all!  I think I scared our guide more then anything.  Everyone was freakin out as they thought I had hurt myself. Shockingly, not even a scratch!  I must be a cat with 9 lives…and probably down to 2.



Aside from that mishap…we made it to Saigon yesterday in one piece (well me…just barely.  The night before was really unique as we spent the night at the Kinh Family’s Bed & Breakfast, type Inn on AnBinh Island in the Mekong River.  The island is not beachy.  5,000 residence live there and are mostly fisherman and small merchants.  The 12 of us shared a 1 room, open-air pavillion set up with 12 cots and indivdual blue mosquito nets.  They had these rickety, old fans on the ceiling for additional ventalation.  It was great!

We enjoyed, red-rice wine and beer, riverside on stone benches and tables before dinner.  We ate this tastly, barbequed meat a little, old, Vietnamese women cooked in a metal-bowl like grill on the ground.  It was RAT!!!  It was REALLY good!!!  So much better then spiders.  We also had elephant-earred fish, grilled prawns, spring rolls and vegetables.  We celebrated one of the Dutch girl’s 35th birthday with a surprise birthday cake we picked up in Chau Doc. Our Vietnamese guide then taught us how to play a local drinking game involving cards, spoons and snake, blood whiskey. We laughed into the early evening and went to bed by 11pm as we still had to ride in the morning.

Vietnam…Mosquitoes, Monsoons & Communism

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We had nothing but HOT, HUMID, 100+ degree weather while cycling to the rural Cambodian boarder town of Phnom Den.  It wasn’t so much a town, but a green country side full of rice paddies, ducks, a bridge with crossing gates and an immigration shack.  Very different from the hectic, city one we crossed into by the Thai boarder.After passport formalities and officially being welcomed into Tinh Bien, Vietnam…it started raining.  No big deal.  We all through on whatever rain gear we brought and continued cycling.  Then the skies opened and the true meaning of monsoon season showed itself.  Hard rain..I mean hard rain!… poured down on us as we desperately navigated our bikes through flooded, bumpy roads and villages.  The locals must have through we were crazy…but I look at it this way…when am I going to have the experience again of cycling in a monsoon??
Thankfully, the rain rolled through and the sun came out the last 10km before reaching the hotel in Chau Doc.  I have to say, the Vietnamese people are very beautiful, friendly and greet you with big smiles and say”hello”…one of the few words they know in English.  Kids would run out of their little, wooden homes on stilts and wave at us.  Many would line up on the streets and want to touch our hands as we cycled through their villages.

We had dinner last night at this rustic restaurant on the water called Thuan Loi.  I’m told its the finest restaurant in town and for $5 I had a yummy 6 course meal.  I had the bonus experience of a little lizard dropping from one of the rafters and onto my ponytail.  Nice…I know.

Aside from my new pet and mosquitoes biting up a storm, we had a pleasant evening. We had an interesting conversation with our local Vietnamese guide, Tom, a 31 year old, english speaking, university graduate about the “American War” aka Vietnam War.  Tom is from Mai Lai (yes…where the massacre happened) and his parents were part of the Viet Cong.  As my group is made up of all Europeans, they didn’t really know much about the war.  Tom and I gave them a review.  It was a neutral conversation and I was happy to hear he and most Vietnamese don’t hold any animosities towards Americans.  I wasn’t sure if I was going to have to say I was ‘Canadian’

Anyway, over the next 4 days I am sure we will have more dialog…especially tonight as we are taking a ferry to reach our homestay on an island in the Mekong Delta.  I’ll write again when I reach Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) in a couple days.

Khmer Rouge Education & Fanny Packs

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Ok, I ate a spiced, bbq tarantula leg.  If it was cooked with different spices…it might be tasty!


So, I am writing from Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia.  The name means “Hill Temple/Pagoda”and Grandma Penh was a beloved widow they named the city after. My hotel is on the river confluence of the Mekong and Tonle Sap.  There are a lot of motor scooters racing up and down the streets (Have yet to see a stop light). Outdoor markets are bustling with locals buying and selling fruits, vegetables and raw meat kept out in the open, including skinned frogs, pigs heads, chickens, fish etc.  It is still VERY hot (100 degrees) and sunny.

Now I am going to get a bit educational on you as I love to not only learn about other cultures, but also the history in the counties I visit…..Today we went to the Genocide Museum, Tuol Sleng, also known as S-21 (Security Prison).  It is one of the saddest places I have ever visited.  It was a high school with 5 classroom buildings before the Khmer Rouge took it over in April 1975 and used it to to house, interrogate and torture anyone viewed as a threat to Pol Pots regime.  The now run-down buildings are haunting and echo with pain and suffering.  Classrooms became cells and torture chambers.  Playground equipment became gallows.  Of the 20,000 people who went through this prison between 1975-1978 only 7 survived.

Over 2 million people died in the 3 years, 8 months and 21 days of the regime.  I write the exact number as that is what the Cambodians say. They don’t round up to 4 years.  It was such a terrible time, they counted the days to be free again.  Tomorrow we pay our respects to the largest ‘Killing Fields’, mass graves, located 15km outside the city.  It is so heart wrenching to see these places and it amazes me even more how we, as people, keep letting it happen again and again… We never learn.

Ok, so on a BRIGHTER side…we have enjoyed our time in Cambodia.  The food is great and last night I spent $2.50 on an amazing Thai-Cambodian meal.  You can get 1 hour massages for $7.  Internet cafés charge only $.75/hr.  Tuk-Tuk (rickshaws) rides are dirt cheap and you feel safe walking down the street…at least I do… but I am also used to NYC.

We have had a few learning experiences along the way…

  • 2 of the British guys rooming together had a ‘lady-boy’ (transvestite) follow them back to their hotel room from the bar one night.  The prostitutes can be aggressive with the guys.  Its amusing, as a female, to sit back and watch them awkwardly handle these situations.
  • The vendors also sell a lot of pretty scarfs which a couple of the girls bought.   They wore them out as shawls one night until a sweet, older Cambodian women nicely told them they were wearing tablecloths Oops!
  • I have learned NOT to use the term “Fanny”pack around my new British friends.  Their eyes all shot up with a look of surprise the first time I said it.  Then they started laughing. …Apparently in their country, the word “Fanny” is slang for a female body part.  I had no idea.  So now I use their term, ‘Bum Bag’.

That is the update for now. After our morning excursion we start cycling again to the Vietnam boarder.  We’ll cross into the country mid-day, cycle another 20km to a small town and spend the night.  Hope to write again tomorrow