Volunteering with Elephants – A Small Venture with Jumbo Benefits

Volunteering with Elephants
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Volunteering with Elephants

For visitors to Thailand, elephants are the epitome of exotic. We tourists can’t help wanting to feed them, ride them, touch them and photograph them. But for the elephants we meet on the tourist trail, these encounters aren’t quite so enchanting. A life of begging in urban centres like Bangkok and Pattaya often means abuse, malnourishment, and health problems from the noise and pollution. Outside the cities, elephants are used in tourist-oriented trekking companies, which can involve more abusive handling and eventual back problems. However, tourism isn’t the only industry that invites elephant mistreatment. These animals have traditionally been involved in rural logging for centuries, but just as the job is hazardous for people, so too are elephants prone to injury, illness, and disfigurement or crippling from landmines. Changes in the industry can leave elephants unemployed. When owners aren’t capable of covering the animals’ hefty food expenses, the elephant is left with few options.

This is where the Elephant Nature Park comes in. Their elephants, disabled, orphaned, blind, or simply too old to work, are purchased from private owners and brought to the park. Here, they are given medical treatment, healthy food, and spacious grounds where they can re-acclimatize to their natural habitat, and the company of other elephants.

The park’s founder, Sangduen Chailert (Lek), opened the park in 1996 near her home village in the Chiang Mai province. Along with a passionate love of animals, Lek’s park has a mandate of supporting local village economies, and does business exclusively with local farmers and tradespeople. She has a core team of local workers caring for the elephants, but also relies on volunteers to help keep the park running. In recent years, her park has received international media exposure, with celebrities like Meg Ryan paying highly-publicized visits to the camp. Among Lek’s awards are the 2005 Time magazine Asian hero of the year, the 2006 Earth Day award, and an honourary PhD in veterinary science, awarded by the prince of Thailand.
    
Since its conception, the park has spawned side projects, the latest being “Jumbo Express.” This initiative provides travelling medical care for elephants in remote areas. Guest veterinarians and volunteers travel into dense jungles, giving treatment to elephants and education to their handlers. The park has a firm policy that, regardless of politics between the people, all elephants have the right to medical aid.
    
The Park’s Chiang Mai office (209/2 Sridorn Chai Road, tel # +66(0)53-818754) organizes a variety of visitor packages for school groups and travellers alike. Individuals can book daytrips or multi-day tours to learn how to care for elephants while exploring the regional tribal folklore. Longer volunteering experiences (up to one month) allow visitors the opportunity to shadow the handlers, build an extensive knowledge about elephants, and live in a beautiful jungle setting in the Park.
    
Elephant-lovers visiting Thailand, take note – while these animals do have an exotic appeal, this park is one of the few places where tourists can see them in their habitat; happy, healthy, and well-loved.  
  
Anne Merritt is Canadian and has an English Literature degree. She has worked as a journalist for a university newspaper. She is currently living in Ayutthaya as an ESL teacher and is sharing her experience of Thailand with KhaoSanRoad.com.

Taking it Easy in Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang, Laos
Luang Prabang, Laos
Luang Prabang, Laos
Luang Prabang, Laos

Tourists arriving off a 2-day slowboat bustle around the town, eager to stretch their stiff legs. Trekking enthusiasts use the town as a base point for their ventures north into the dense jungles and tribal villages. Buddhists and curious scholars flock to Phou Si, a sacred hilltop site where Buddha’s footprint is still pressed into the side of the mountain. Luang Prabang may be a mere stopover point on your trip through Laos, but this town merits a few days for exploring. Veteran travellers praise it as a place they’d visit again and again, UNESCO named it a heritage site, and KhaoSanRoad.com applauds it as one of Southeast Asia’s most charming sites.

The remnants of French colonization are still visible on Luang Prabang’s main streets, where colonial architecture coexists with the gilded or teak points of traditional Laotian buildings. Old churches stand beside older wats, and the result is a picturesque mix of architectural styles. While the city is in rapid development thanks to tourist exposure and foreign business, it still maintains a picturesque, European feeling. On a clear day, the city’s winding streets and pretty rivers make it a photographer’s dream.
 
For accommodation, Luang Prabang has a competitive guesthouse market, and touts will greet you no matter where your arrival point may be. The Merry Guesthouses (1 and 2), on the northern end of the downtown, are fantastically clean, spacious and quiet, with kind and helpful staff. Those looking for a view of the Mekong should try Vong Champa Guesthouse, which is clean, cosy, and impressively cheap.
 
By day, the Phou Si mountain offers beautiful views of the surrounding landscape, as well as ornate Buddha statues, a Buddha footprint, and a solemn cave shrine. Near the main street, the former royal palace of Haw Kham is the stuff of postcards; opulent shrines, murals and furnishings, showing many different traditional styles of Laotian art and decoration.
 
For a bit of downtime, L’Etranger is a two-storey gem with a used bookshop/book exchange on the bottom floor and a comfortable teahouse on the top, which plays smart artsy films on weeknights at 7pm. Located on the north side of Phou Si mountain, the great selection of books, teas and snacks make it well worth a visit.
 
Those looking to get out of the city should book a taxi or rent bikes to get to Kuang Si Falls, 30km outside the city. These perfectly blue, multi-layered falls are set amidst lush jungle, and tourists may find themselves lounging all day in these pools. At the entrance, by the odd yet heartwarming bear zoo, stalls of food and drinks ensure that visitors will not go hungry.
 
Come nightfall, restaurants illuminate their patios, inviting travellers to eat and drink while people watching on Xiang Thong, the main street which hosts a vibrant night market. Here, tourists stock up on anything from handmade quilts to ubiquitous Beerlao T-shirts. Foodwise, baguette is a local specialty, and many restaurants go the mile in western offerings by boasting full French menus, with wine and cheeses among its fare. While the food is indulgently delicious, cheaper and fresher fare is available at the many night markets in alleys branching off Xiang Thong. Here, a vegetarian buffet of fresh produce from the Laotian countryside will cost a mere 5000 kip. These markets host a more local nightlife, where Laotian families gather to eat at tiny plastic tables.
 
Though the city is relatively quiet at night, there are still a handful of good bars. Young and thirsty tourists flock to the funky Hive Bar, beside L’Etranger, or the breezier Laos Beer Garden. When the bars close at midnight, tuk-tuk drivers are ever-available to take tourists to Vietnam Bar, an after-hours speakeasy of sorts with good music, plenty of seating, and the liveliest crowd in town.
 
Though Luang Prabang serves as a stopover point for many, its languid pace and compact downtown make it an easy spot to relax. In the midst of the eco-tourism that makes Laos so famous, this city is a great place to spend a few days sipping good coffee, exploring old buildings, and feeling immediately at home in Laos’ most welcoming town.

Anne Merritt is Canadian and has an English Literature degree. She has worked as a journalist for a university newspaper. She is currently living in Ayutthaya as an ESL teacher and is sharing her experience of Thailand with KhaoSanRoad.com.

Thailand Books for Travellers; a KSR Guide to the Backpackers’ Favourites

For an English-speaker, shopping for books in Thailand is no treat. In the tourist markets that cluster around guesthouses, most bookstalls sell the same thing; copied Lonely Planets, some Dan Brown, some Ben Elton, some Western classics. But in the midst of these books, there are always Thailand-specific novels, memoirs and nonfiction pieces. These become backpacker classics because the author is just the voice you’re looking for; a smart, specific glimpse into Thailand from a western point of view. Some are light, some are gritty, but all of them shed light on Thai culture, especially in relation to Westerners. Here, khaosanroad.com wades through the usual fare in Thailand-themed literature, giving you an easy guide to the books that have become backpacker favourites.   
  
The Beach by Alex Garland
Yes, this novel inspired the movie of the same name, an eye-candy film of lush beaches and lush Leo DiCaprio which likely caused a hefty climb in Thai tourism when it was released in the nineties. But before the clutch of Hollywood, Garland’s novel stood firmly on it’s own feet; a Heart of Darkness meets Lord of the Flies meets Lonely Planet’s Guide to Thailand’s Beaches medley. Amid Garland’s sexy vagabond characters and Edenic beach descriptions, there’s a psychological story that’s both glossy and gritty. With a twisting plot and an immediately likeable wrong-place-wrong-time protagonist, this suspenseful book will leave you grateful for another quiet, lazy day on the beach. A good story told with good style. Plus, your copy might have Leo on the cover.
  
Phra Farang: An English Monk in Thailand by Phra Peter Pannapadipo
At the age of 45, successful English businessman Peter Robinson gave up the rat-race and moved to Thailand and joined a Buddhist monastery. Peter, a likeable, witty narrator to the memoir, has to un-learn all his fast-paced Western tendencies and adjust to the monk lifestyle, tackling barriers in culture, language, and upbringing. The author’s tender sense of humour weaves personal stories with the theories of Buddhism the he picked up in temple. It narrates his journey of spiritual enlightenment in a down-to-earth way, with witty observations about eastern-western differences, and tales of culture shock that any visitor to Thailand can instantly relate to.
  
Backpack by Emily Barr
While the book may strike you as generic chick-lit, and the main character might strike you (in the first few chapters at least) as being immensely dislikeable, Emily Barr has taught me that first impressions can be faulty. As we follow selfish, shallow Tansy as she pouts her way along the backpacker trail, we watch her experience those wonderful epiphanies of introspection and self-awareness that come with being in a foreign land. By the time she finds herself in a burgeoning backpacker romance, you’ll be cheering for the reformed snob.
  
There’s a subplot with a string of murders, each victim a cute white backpacker. It moves the plot along, but the meatiest parts of the story are in the small moments when Tansy, piece-by-piece, shakes off her layers of insecurity and gains a better sense of self. This book is a great read for those who are traveling on a soul-searching life journey. Plus, you’ll laugh out loud at her spot-on descriptions of every hippie-snob backpacker who’s ever joined you at a beach bar.

The Damage Done: Twelve Years of Hell in a Bangkok Prison by Warren Fellows
This book will have you on the edge of your seat (albeit, semi-nauseous) as you see the author go from a dislikeable criminal to sympathetic, suicidal prisoner. Fellows’ memoir is brash and honest; he doesn’t ask the reader for sympathy as he narrates his jail term for trafficking. Rather, his anecdotes range from suffocation-by-sewage to death-by-elephant, are all narrated with a grim honesty. The book is graphic and shocking, the type of story whose hellish details will stay in your mind for ages. The squeamish may find the vivid details difficult to take, but be sure to pass it on to any travelmates lacking in self-control.
  
Bridget Jones; Edge of Reason by Helen Fielding
Though Fielding’s beloved title character may only spend a third of the book in Thailand, it gives you a hearty taste of the Thai tourist experience, gone comically awry. Though Bridget Jones may not be the first person to go to Thailand as an escape from life’s complexities, her fussy, honest reactions to the land of smiles will have you laughing on the outside and guiltily agreeing with her on the inside. As an endearing fish-out-of-water, Bridget calls to attention all the foreigner reactions you’re embarrassed to share out loud.
  
Though Bridget’s stint in Thai prison may come across as summer-camp fluffy, it makes for a funny, sympathetic story. This book may not be the best resource for Thailand-related facts, but for smart, relatable observations expressed in all the wrong ways, Bridget Jones is the master. As a writer of guilty-pleasure reads, Helen Fielding is the master. Ladies, prepare to laugh out loud.
  
Thai Girl by Andrew Hicks
Hicks addresses the age old question that crosses the mind of every single visitor to Thailand; in a white-guy-meets-Thai-girl relationship, who’s really holding the chips? When a tourist splits with his girlfriend on a holiday in Thailand, he finds himself enraptured by a charming-yet-mysterious local woman. The novel’s Thai heroine is a multilayered character, at times passive and helpless, at times wry and controlling.
  
What comes across as a couple wrapped up in mind games will get you thinking about power dynamics in general, and how gender, age, ethnic and economic differences all factor together. The endlessly complex characters will leave you guessing until the very end. Feminists may find this relationship hard to handle, men who date Thai women may find it instantly relatable. Regardless of your opinions on the falang/Thai romance phenomenon, Hicks’ honest dialogues and relatable themes makes this book an absorbing read.  

Anne Merritt is Canadian and has an English Literature degree. She has worked as a journalist for a university newspaper. She is currently living in Ayutthaya as an ESL teacher and is sharing her experience of Thailand with KhaoSanRoad.com.

Swimming in Sihanoukville – Have a Weekend Getaway, Cambodian-style

Sihanoukville, Cambodia
Sihanoukville, Cambodia
Sihanoukville, Cambodia
Sihanoukville, Cambodia

Sihanoukville, also known as “Kampong Som,” is like a Florida resort town dropped oddly on Cambodia’s southern coast, on the Gulf of Thailand. Founded a mere 50 years ago as a deep-water port, Sihanoukville experienced a tourist boom in the 1960s when local and visiting beachgoers headed to the coast, looking for sand and sun without crossing into Thailand. As a result, much of the shorefront property has been scooped up by moderately luxurious resorts. Budget tourists still have plenty of options, however, with a few backpacker hotspots sandwiching the posher hotels.

 
Victory Beach’s charmingly weathered bungalows hearken the area’s heyday as a gathering ground for 70s hippie backpackers. The guesthouses are cosy and the people are some of Cambodia’s friendliest, though the port on the northern end of the beach makes for a mediocre swimming experience. Occheuteal Beach, nicknamed Serendipity Beach, is the newest traveller hangout, with a long stretch of restaurants and bars opening out onto beautiful turquoise waters.
 
There is no shortage of guesthouses on either beach, each with rooms ranging from the basic 3$ fan room to the more luxurious 10$ group-sized suites with A/C. On Occeuteal Beach, GST Guesthouse and Rega Guesthouse are two standout names, located a few paces inland on the road behind the shore. Both have clean rooms and tourist services at the front desk, where adventurous beachgoers can book diving and snorkeling trips to neighbouring islands down the coast. Down on the beach, Sunset Cafe arranges trips to the exquisitely remote Bamboo Island for about 5$.
 
The clean sand, shallow water, and smooth ground on the beaches makes Sihanoukville a popular holiday spot for Cambodian students and young families. Every weekend, the beaches fill up with crowds of people swimming by day and dancing by night. Unlike the party islands in Thailand or the old French resort towns in Vietnam, Sihanoukville is a unique vacation spot where Western and local tourism co-exist along the shore. Chatty restaurant staff practice their English, pick-up games of football are played out on the beach, and children sit beside groups of backpackers to build temples and chedis in the sand. Interactions aren’t all amicable, however.

With tourism as its economic backbone, the beach is a well-trodden path for vendors, encouraging visitors to buy their cold drinks, handmade jewelry, and bright sarongs. The cute-but-aggressive boys who weave bracelets for their customers speak some of the best English in Cambodia, and they’ll use it persistently to make a sale.

  
Pushy merchants aside, Sihanoukville invites a rare social amalgamation of Cambodian and foreign beachgoers. This is the best place to skip the pan-western menu at your guesthouse bar and head to the beach with the Cambodian vacationers for some inexpensive and fantastically fresh barbecued seafood. Tasty prawn, crab, and tuna are par for the course, but daring eaters can sample the more avant-garde local delicacies of fresh-caught shark and jellyfish.
  
The city itself is fairly unexceptional, offering the standard amenities of banks, post offices, and small markets. If the weather takes a turn or travellers get waterlogged from the beach, the town has some standout restaurant/bars that will revive one’s spirits. Angkor Arms is a British pub that fares well with expats. It boasts a comfortable, vibrant patio and all the draught you may be missing from home. Down the street, Dusk til Dawn is a rooftop bar whose liveliness that lives up to its name.
  
Back at the beach, a busy weekend means no shortage of activity along the shores of Occheuteal Beach. It may be difficult to separate the bars from the impromptu dance parties as you walk down the strip, but you will be welcome into either. At the southern end of Serendipity Beach, the Dolphin shack (look for the neon blue dolphin sign) employs some of the nicest Cambodian bartenders you’ll ever meet. Take a seat with the witty owner and let her funny, sentimental stories entertain you all night.

Anne Merritt is Canadian and has an English Literature degree. She has worked as a journalist for a university newspaper. She is currently living in Ayutthaya as an ESL teacher and is sharing her experience of Thailand with KhaoSanRoad.com.

On the Road in Vietnam: Da Lat’s Easy Riders take KSR for a the Ride of a Lifetime

de_lat_vietnam_1For the Vietnamese, Da Lat’s cool altitude makes it an agricultural hotspot, while the pretty vistas and mountain landscapes makes it a honeymoon capital as well. The temperatures, which can dip down to freezing in the coldest months, has attracted overheated expats since the French colonial days. This quirky town boasts layers of personality, and the best way to see it all is with Vietnam’s quirkiest tour group, the Da Lat Easy Riders.
 
First of all, let it be known that you don’t need to go to a tourist office to find the Easy Riders. Odds are excellent that one of the group’s 75 members will find you, spotting your rucksack a mile off and wheeling up with directions to hotels, tips on local food to try, and of course, promotion of their services. Though their touting may seem assertive, especially if you’re just stepping off a long bus ride, these guides are some of the friendliest people you’ll meet in Vietnam.
 
Even tourists who normally drive their own bikes will benefit from the guides’ witty understanding of the city and its surroundings. Whether your passion is rural temples, exotic farms, or waterfalls, the Easy Riders will tell you the most popular sights in the area and help you tailor your itinerary to fit your tastes. Don’t shrug off the odder-sounding sights, like persimmon storehouses or coffee plantations. The spots are likely run by friends of your guide, and they will give you demonstrations and offerings that no museum could.
 
On the morning of my tour, when the rain drizzled down on Da Lat, my guide showed up at the guesthouse with raincoats to spare. Throughout the day, he answered every question under the sun, from “who was Le Loi and why are so many streets named after him?” to “how do Vietnamese people feel about tourism?” with an impressive command of the English language. At the end of the day, with a head full of facts and a camera full of photos, I was all too pleased to sign my guide’s comment book, which was dense with pictures and kind notes of other customers.
 
The Easy Riders will give you a heap of options for how to fill your day. Below are some of Da Lat’s most popular destinations:
 
Crazy House
The daughter of a Vietnam’s second communist president studied architecture in Russia before building this elaborate guesthouse, which looks like the psychedelic set of a children’s show. It’s worth exploring for the Smurf-village-like designs, and the ensuing discussion of “…but is it art?”
 
Lake of Sorrow
For a dose of local folklore, ask your guide to share the legend behind this popular honeymoon spot, where two young lovers met a Shakespearean fate.
 
Prenn Falls
Though waterfall enthusiasts may want to head further out of town for the bigger falls, this spot, a scenic 10km-ride out of town, is surrounded by pretty hiking paths.
 
Silk Worm Breeder
For any traveller who’s dropped a few dong on silk souvenirs, it’s interesting to see the rustic beginnings of this elegant fabric. Here, you can watch silkworm cocoons being boiled to unravel the threads, and ask questions to the patient staff (here, the Easy Riders will serve as interpreters).
 
Persimmon/Coffee/Strawberry Farms
Not only are the farmlands beautiful on the outskirts of Da Lat, it’s interesting to watch the leafy green origins of the coffee plant, or the persimmon’s lyme-curing process. More interesting is the insight you’ll get into Vietnamese agriculture, and how its economics changed after the Soviet Union’s collapse.
 
Old Train Station
If Da Lat’s faux-Eiffel tower has you contemplating French colonialism, don’t miss this French-built train station, which looks more suited for Lyons than Southeast Asia. While the museum-like station is a bit lacking in displays, the old-model locomotives and grand architecture are telling of France’s high hopes for Vietnam as a colony.
 
While Easy Riders tours can vary in price, depending on whether you book several days with your driver. The 20$ I paid for a full day (and raincoat) was well worth it.

Anne Merritt is Canadian and has an English Literature degree. She has worked as a journalist for a university newspaper. She is currently living in Ayutthaya as an ESL teacher and is sharing her experience of Thailand with KhaoSanRoad.com.

Water Water Everywhere – the Songkran Festival Explained

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Songkran Festival Thailand
Songkran Festival Thailand

If you’re traveling in Thailand during April, brace yourself for one of Southeast Asia’s most raucous holidays. For one joyful week, Thai people take to the streets for the Songkran festival, a waterlogged celebration of the Thai new year.

In the midst of parades and street parties, people customarily douse each other with buckets of water and handfuls of baby powder. In Thailand, this is the festival that people spends months looking forward to, and it’s a celebration that visitors are lucky to witness. Social decorum is thrown to the wayside, public revelry/drunkenness becomes a norm, and those conspicuous sweat stains on your T-shirts will no longer be a cause for embarrassment once the water start flying.

Celebrants take no exception, whether you’re a businessman or backpacker, every person on the street is a target for buckets of water or high-tech waterguns wielded by children. In most of Thailand, this holiday lasts for three or four days, but Chiang Mai becomes the Bourbon Street of the country, with festivities lasting up to nine days.

The custom of throwing water originated as a sign of respect. Traditionally, communities would pay respect to elders and children to parents by sprinkling water on their hands as a cleansing of bad fortune and gesture of good luck. However, people may sometimes bypass the traditions of the ritual as they get caught up in the fun. After all, Songkran takes place during the peak of Thailand’s dry season; the hottest time of the year. Though Songkran has fast become a nonstop party of Animal House proportion, the origins of the festival are rooted in the home. Traditionally, the holiday was about honouring parents and elders, with children coming home to see their families and offer gifts to them.

People also go to temples on this holiday, often bringing handfuls of sand to compensate for the dirt they carried away on their feet throughout the year. Visitors pray, offer food to monks, and help clean Buddha images in the wats. If you’re in a city like Chiang Mai for Songktran, don’t be surprised to see Buddha statues paraded through the streets. This allows people to throw water on the statues as they pass by, cleaning them in the middle of the festivities.

Despite the debaucherous atmosphere, one should bear in mind that as a visitor to Thailand, enthusiasm for local festivals is widely appreciated. Friendly, festive Thai people will encourage you to take part in the revelry, but remember that despite the free-flowing water (and whiskey), Songkran is still a family event, and the street parties should remain PG, at least during the daytime. Among Thai people, it goes without saying that daily drenchings are to be expected.

Tourists, however, may need reminding, and should take care to protect cameras, ipods, important tickets, and other non-soakables.
 
While the whole country participates in Songkran, you might find that the most active celebrations take place inland, where Thai people endure the most heat. Cities like Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Sukhothai, Ayutthaya, and Bangkok will all offer good parties day and night. Tourists should be extra-cautious on the roads at this time, as many whiskey-loving celebrants might be driving trucks or motorbikes.
 
Anne Merritt is Canadian and has an English Literature degree. She has worked as a journalist for a university newspaper. She is currently living in Ayutthaya as an ESL teacher and is sharing her experience of Thailand with KhaoSanRoad.com.

Kuala Lumpur: Off the Backpacker Route

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

I went to Malaysia very much on a whim; AirAsia had one of their coveted seat sales and time was permissive. However, I didn’t know what to expect; if the customs of a predominantly Muslim country would accomodate the the anything-goes backpacker mentality of Thailand. What I discovered was one of the most energetic and diverse cities in Southeast Asia. From architecture and culture to shopping and food; Kuala Lumpur (or “KL” to people in the know) serves up eclectic mixes of each. Dense markets and spicy street food in the Indian district, women in full burkas flaunting Fendi bags and Dior sunglasses, and the nicest skyline this side of Manhattan. From my homebase in the heart of the Golden Triangle (KL’s bustling downtown), I spent a few busy days in the middle of it all.

While traveling Malaysia might not be as cheap as, say, rural Vietnam, budget-conscious travellers won’t be shortchanged. In Kuala Lumpur, backpackers flock to the neon lights of Chinatown (Jalan Petaling) for cheap beds, cheap streetvendor wares, and cheap beer on outdoor patios. With all the trappings of a Sino-Malaysian Khaosan Road (minus the Jack Johnson, 24/7), this is the place to meet fellow backpackers. Seeking a bit of tourist anonymity? Jalan Bukit Bintang in the Golden Triange has reasonable accomodation in the heart of the city, a few blocks from trendy shops and chic nightclubs. The funky Number Eight Guesthouse (No 8-10, Jalan Tengkat Tung Shin) may be one of the best (and cleanest) guesthouses in Southeast Asia. KL’s famous East-meets-Middle-East-meets-West population is the stuff of true urban multiculturalism, and this is reflected in its buildings. The Petronas Twin Towers (scaled famously by Connery and Zeta-Jones in Entrapment), one fo the tallest structures in the world and Malaysia’s most iconic, sits at the northern edge of the Golden Triangle. It’s base operates as a very chic, very Western shopping mall. Admission to the Skybridge is free, but involves long line-ups for very limited tickets. Those seeking a view of the city should hit the observation deck of KL tower (on Jalan Punchak) for less crowds and a striking view of the twin towers themselves.

From a bird’s eye view, you’ll also spot the 40-metre clocktower of the Sultan Abdul Samad Building (Jalan Sultan Hishamuddin). This courthouse was the original headquarters of the Colonial Secretariat, and the Islamic-inspired, British-designed building is one of KL’s most stunning landmarks. Also notable on the skyline are the three domes of the Jamel Mosque, modeled after India’s Mogul, and the blue umbrella-shaped roof of the National Mosque, whose Malay-Islamic design breaks the usual Arabic-Islamic architectural mould. Each of these buildings are open to the public and stunning from the inside.

If you want to take in some culture, KL’s Islamic Arts museum (on Jalah Lembah Perdana) displays ethnic artifacts, costumes, textiles and art, along with models of the world’s most famous mosques. The ornate turquoise dome on the roof is the perfect spot for some fresh air and photos.

Those looking for daytrips into the Malaysian countryside have many destinations (and tour companies) to choose from. The famous Batu caves, used as temples by Hindu priests, are full of beautiful statues and the odd monkey. Romantics and entymologists shouldn’t miss a nighttime river tour in nearby Kuala Selangor, where guests board rowboats to see the fireflies that populate the dense mangroves.

Anne Merritt is Canadian and has an English Literature degree. She has worked as a journalist for a university newspaper. She is currently living in Ayutthaya as an ESL teacher and is sharing her experience of Thailand with KhaoSanRoad.com.

Laos Lifts Us Up Where We Belong; the Gibbon Experience of Bokeo

The Gibbon Experience of Bokeo, Laos
The Gibbon Experience of Bokeo, Laos
The Gibbon Experience of Bokeo, Laos

When globetrotters book their tickets to Southeast Asia, they usually anticipate weeks of lounging on beaches, eating delicious spicy food, and touring stunning temples. But as any traveller can tell you, the most rewarding and memorable experiences are often found off the tourist trail. For some people, it’s hard to tear through such beautiful countries without giving something back. Well, eco-minded adventurers take note of the most exciting conservation project on the map; the Gibbon Experience in Bokeo, northern Laos.
The premise sounds a bit like a boyhood Tarzan fantasy; guests climb up to treehouses and don’t touch the ground for days. Instead, they zipline between huts and throughout the conservation area in attempts to spot the elusive-but-adorable black gibbon. But as thoughts of Swiss Family Robinson come to mind, remember that this project is operated with nature and wildlife conservation in mind. The Societe Animo is the brains behind the operation, working with the Bokeo Nature Reserve to help promote environmental awareness and conscienciousness through this hands-on style of eco-tourism.

The organization is located in Huay Xai, across the river from Thailand’s popular northern border crossing. Here you can book your Gibbon Experience package and catch the 3 hour ride into the reserve (trucks leave every other day at 7:30am).

Once you’ve arrived, you can spend hours touring the camp and its environs by zipline, eat delicious fire-cooked meals, and chat with local guides who will dazzle you with their bottomless knowledge of the forest and its animals. A 3-day stay (approx. $110 USD) includes all food and accomodation, plus hiking excursions and visits to stunning waterfalls.

When you’re not swinging through the trees, monkey-style, take a moment to ask the Gibbon staff about their environmental efforts. Animo encourages grassroots conservation; a common goal that should be realized by local inhabitant, not imposed upon them by foreign organizations or NGOs. The emphasis of the project is on the protection of the black gibbon, a species that was once thought to be extinct before it was discovered again. This is different from the hilltribe tourist treks of “ethnotourism,” which Animo believes is an exploitative move to peddle a tribe’s otherness for tourist profit. Animo wishes to draw awareness and respect to the environment itself, not simply the people. All profits of the Gibbon Experience go towards the conservation of the forest, to help prevent logging, poaching, and scorched-earth farming in the area.

If you’re interested in stepping off the beaten path in Laos, why not forego the tribal treks in favour of the Gibbon Experience? Your money will go towards an important cause, and your three days of tree hut living will be an adventure you won’t soon forget, even when you’re back on the ground.

Anne Merritt is Canadian and has an English Literature degree. She has worked as a journalist for a university newspaper. She is currently living in Ayutthaya as an ESL teacher and is sharing her experience of Thailand with KhaoSanRoad.com.

Halong Bay: Vietnam’s Jewel on the Water

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Halong Bay: Vietnam's Jewel on the Water
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The legend of Halong Bay is a fine one. In the time of Chinese invaders, the gods sent a family of dragons to Vietnam’s coast in order to protect its people. The dragons spat jewels and jade into the water, forming beautiful islands which densely filled the Gulf of Tonkin, forming a barrier against invaders. Today, the only foreigners occupying Halong Bay are curious travellers from around the world, who come in peaceful hordes to see Vietnam’s finest natural wonder.

Spanning 1500 square kilometres, the “Bay of the Descending Dragon” lies east of Hanoi and attracts tourists of all forms. Visitors can choose from a simple daytrip boat tour, a 5-day blitz of island exploration, or something in between. If you have time, we strongly encourage a 2 or 3 day tour of the bay to best witness its beauty. While the sky’s the limit in terms of cruise luxuries (and costs), this traveller took a comfortable all-inclusive (minus alcohol, naturally) 2-day trip for 30$USD.

Because tour options are varied, travellers should have no trouble choosing a package to suit their tastes. Couples can soak up the romance of a smaller cruise; nature-lovers can opt for expensive cave tours, and sporty travellers can hike, bike, kayak and swim, all in one trip. When booking a tour, we recommend that you ask the agent to write out everything included in the package; sights to be toured, kayaking and biking options, et cetera. Some tourists are stuck with boat crews cutting back on activities to save travel time.

Once off the mainland and upon a tourboat, options are plentiful. Between big, delicious meals prepared by the boat crew, tourists can relax on the sundeck, swim, kayak, and snap pictures aplenty of the scenic islands. The boats make stops for guided tours of Ha Long’s famous caves, full of stalactites and stalagmites and steeped in local folklore, explained by friendly guides. At night, tired tourists can put their feet up, taste some of Hanoi’s local wine or beer, and looc up at the stars while chatting with other passengers. Your boat crew may speak of a a post-dinner karaoke affair, though be warned that the music is mostly tinny Vietnamese pop. Feel free to decline a turn on the mic, or else dive in and chalk it up to a cultural experience.

After a peaceful sleep in your ship’s cabin, don’t be alarmed if you wake up to the chipper “good mornings” of vendors rowing up to your boat on rafts laden with cigarettes, Coke, biscuits and other western staples. Despite its idyllic appearance, Halong Bay remains an iconic point on the tourist trail, and local people from nearby towns and floating villages know the value of this economy.

The next morning, those on 2-day tours can enjoy more swimming and scenery before the journey home. Travellers on longer trips disembark on popular Cat Bat island for hiking and cycling through its jungle terrain. Depending on the tour, they might also take a kayaking tour through Ha Long’s caves. Whatever the itinerary, and whatever your tourist tastes may be, Halong Bay is a stunning, relaxing, must-see excursion for any traveller.

Anne Merritt is Canadian and has an English Literature degree. She has worked as a journalist for a university newspaper. She is currently living in Ayutthaya as an ESL teacher and is sharing her experience of Thailand with KhaoSanRoad.com.

So you want to teach in Thailand?

Teaching in Thailand
Teaching in Thailand
Teaching in Thailand

Easygoing people, fantastic climate, great cuisine, low cost of living; it’s no wonder so many travellers visit Thailand and decide to stay. Thailand’s ESL teaching scene is on the rise and companies like ECC and English Plus are cropping up all across the country. A teaching job can be fun and breezy for some, stressful and draining for others. Below is a list of tips for potential teachers.
Expect Options

ESL teachers have options in Thailand; those with English degrees and/or impressive teaching resumes should look into university teaching jobs where the students are keener and the holidays are usually paid.

Teachers who work for language schools can expect evening and weekend classes with good resources but a wide range of levels. A typical teacher’s schedule may include private lessons with a 5-year-old, advanced business English for adults, and anything in between.

Teachers who work in public elementary or high schools have lighter schedules but bigger classes; often 40 or more kids per class. These teachers might also participate in school events like sports days or campus television shows.

Expect Variety

Some language schools give you a fantastic course textbook and a library full of additional resources, and all you need to do is teach from the book and add extra activities as you see fit. With other classes, you may find yourself in a room full of students with one pen between them, and you’re forced to design every lesson plan and write up your own tests. You should figure out how much input you want in course outlines, and find a school to meet your expectations.

Expect Surprises

As far as teaching jobs go, you may be told with a few days notice of a new class to teach, a test that’s to be given, or a school holiday. This may be the mark of a disorganized company, but it’s most likely just another difference between western jobs and Thailand jobs. Your best bet is to try and adopt the “mai pen rai,” attitude and not get stressed over small matters.

Expect Visa Hassles

The Thai policies regarding non-immigrant work visas seem to be ever-changing. While your school will handle the application process, you may be asked to produce documents that weren’t required two months ago, like a letter of confirmation from your university, or a letter from your TEFL instructor.

For the many teachers working in Thailand on tourist visas, monthly border runs are a necessary while their paperwork comes through. If you’re close to the embassy in Bangkok, a 2-month visa from Cambodia or Laos can be arranged in advance. If you’re crossing the border once a month, ask your school about their policy on refunding your travel costs, as many will comply and remember – new visa regulations suggest you can only do this for 90 days in any 6 months. All details regarding your work visa should be addressed before any contract is signed. In addition, remember that you can…

Expect the Taboo

If you’re teaching children, it can be difficult to control a classroom. Public schools often have classes of 50-plus students, and Thai co-teachers might treat your class as an optional commitment. It’s said that Thai classrooms are sometimes a bit unruly so even seasoned ESL teachers will have to figure out the best way to keep order. Never touch a student in any way to discipline him or her. It’s best to discuss discipline techniques with Thai teachers before starting and they are likely offer some good tips.

Expect to Make Connections

To live in Thailand, a teacher will see up-close how different things can be for tourists. A smart newcomer will learn the “Thai price” for taxi rides, food stall dishes, and admission costs, and learn enough Thai to haggle it down. Even if you’re living as a local, you’ll still be met with the inflated tourist prices on some goods. It’s smart to master how to count in Thai so that price-bargaining goes smoothly.

You’ll likely be approached for private lessons from many people, and many teachers find it useful to swap Thai lessons with English lessons in order to best pick up the language. If your schedule is full, politely refer the person to your language school, and they can arrange one-on-one classes from there.

Expect Scrutiny

Unless you’re living in Bangkok, Chiang Mai or Phuket, your arrival in town will be discussed and scrutinized. Most teachers don’t realize how much they’re talked about, but the truth is that foreigners stand out a mile away and for Thai people, make great fodder for gossip. Whether you’re arguing with someone at the market or drunk at the pub, don’t forget that people talk. Some discretion on your part will make life much easier. Schools have been known to fire teachers if their public reputations start concerning parents and students.   
  
Anne Merritt is Canadian and has an English Literature degree. She has worked as a journalist for a university newspaper. She is currently living in Ayutthaya as an ESL teacher and is sharing her experience of Thailand with KhaoSanRoad.com.