Tag - exotic

Koh Pha-ngan, Thailand

Koh Pha-ngan, Thailand
Koh Pha-ngan, Thailand
Koh Pha-ngan, Thailand
Koh Pha-ngan, Thailand

Famous for its lively full moon parties at Haad Rin Beach, Koh Pha-ngan has a chilled-out hippy atmosphere that combines nightly hedonism with day time water sports and lazing on the beach. Situated in the south of Thailand 20 kilometres north of Koh Samui in Surat Thani Province, this is an ideal destination for travellers who enjoy less crowded, more private beaches. The best way to reach Koh Pha-ngan is from Koh Samui and the boat trip takes about an hour.

Haad Rin is Koh Pha-ngan’s most popular beach. Lined with beach bars playing a wide assortment of music, the white sands can get pretty crowded. Luckily, Koh Pha-ngan offers many more secluded stretches of white sand for those who prefer a little privacy. Ao Thong Nai Pan is perhaps the second most beautiful beach on Koh Pha-ngan reachable by boat or songthaew from Thong Sala Pier.

Another extremely beautiful and tranquil beach is Ao Si Thanu, whilst the nearby tiny island of Koh Tae Nai can be reached just 5 minutes by chartered boat. This island offers jungle-covered hills, a long stretch of golden sandy beach and colourful coral reefs, perfect for diving or scuba diving.

Koh Pha-ngan has some extremely pretty jungle waterfalls waiting to be discovered including Than Sadet Falls, Phaeng Falls, Than Prapat Falls and Than Prawet Falls. A great way to see the falls and the rest of the island is to take a guided boat tour. Boat trips usually take around 10 people, last all day and include snorkelling and lunch. The boat trips are also a great way to meet fellow travellers and exchange tall tales and travelling tips.

Wat Khao Tham is a cave temple located on the hilltop of Khao Kao Haeng. There is a monastery here that is ideal for meditation amidst the well-preserved nature. The monastery offers 10 days meditation retreats and can be found near the pretty village of Ban Tai.

Another interesting temple is Wat Madio Wan, where a replica of Lord Buddha’s Footprint is enshrined on the hilltop Mondop, whilst jungle trekking up to the island’s largest mountain of Khao Ra is a great way to see the island.

Many people stop at Koh Pha-ngan for a day or two before heading on to Koh Tao, which lies 45 kilometres north of Koh Pha-ngan and is known as the best diving site in the Gulf of Thailand. Koh Tao, which means Turtle Island in the Thai language, is very small and covered with palm trees and pristine white sand, the perfect exotic island.

Hanoi by Foot

Hanoi, Vietnam
Hanoi, Vietnam
hanoi_vietnam_3
hanoi_vietnam_4
Hanoi, Vietnam
Hanoi, Vietnam
Hanoi, Vietnam

Further north than Bangkok, Hanoi is refreshingly cool and is a perfect blend of colonial French and Asia at its exotic best. I’d heard horror stories about this ancient city but couldn’t find an awful lot wrong with it. My only complaint was that I’d not bothered to visit sooner.

The taxi from the airport to Hanoi centre took about 45 mins and cost US$10. The fare each way is pretty much standard so ignore any driver trying for a higher price. I checked into the Old Darling Hotel in the Old Quarter. I’d found the place on the internet and it sounded reasonable at US$15 a night for a room with en-suite, fan and air-con and a TV.

Hanoi’s Old Quarter is something along the lines of a local Khao San Road, but bigger. It’s a network of narrow streets with guest houses, hotels, food outlets, cafes, art galleries and travel and tour companies. The French influence is strong. Caf? culture is alive and kicking, art galleries are two a penny and I saw at least half a dozen old Vietnamese decked out in waistcoats and berets.

The traffic is something else. There are traffic lights and directions painted on the roads but it’s not immediately clear why as no one seems to pay any attention to them. Motorbikes and mopeds rule the roads. Young Vietnamese girls glide through the streets on Vespas and their latest Japanese equivalent with a truly Parisian grace.

At intersections traffic moves in from all angles simultaneously. It seems impossible but it works. A friend who studied engineering once told me about some daft theory whereby if all the molecules of two solid objects were facing the same direction the objects could pass through one another. This is exactly as it seems to happen on the streets of Hanoi.

The best way to cross the road is slowly. Just position yourself on the pavement pointing in the direction you want to move and then slowly advance. Traffic will somehow move around you. It’s scary but it works. I’m convinced you could close your eyes and get across unscathed; but never did pluck up enough courage to test the theory. Try it back in Bangkok and you’ll get flattened.

The best place to observe Hanoi’s vehicular chaos from is the excellent Papa Joe’s caf?/restaurant on Cau Go, overlooking a ridiculously busy intersection and the scenic Hoan Kiem Lake. From the balcony you can watch Hanoi bustle by whilst sipping on a fresh juice or coffee.

Daytime the streets are alive and teeming with people. Street markets provide the familiar aromas so common with many Asian cities. Street vendors weave their way between pedestrians, carrying baskets of goods slung from poles across their shoulders. Everywhere you look someone is selling something and calling for your attention.

The streets were alive at night with foreigners and locals alike. Restaurants were generally busy and early in the evening gangs of people gathered for a gossip and some beer at street stalls selling the famous Bia Hoi.

Apparently the Czechs taught their knowledge of brewing to the Vietnamese and now there are micro-breweries everywhere. This un-preserved draft beer is available all over Hanoi. It’s dirt cheap at something like 13 baht a glass (half litre) and is so smooth you’ll want to keep them coming all night. 100 baht will get you almost 8 beers! These street-side beer stops are a very multi-cultural affair with locals mixing happily with backpackers and tourists.

By nine at night the streets had changed. Office workers and the night’s early shift had dined, supped and moved on home, leaving party goers and less desirable types to come out to play. The only annoyance I encountered was the continual attention from motorbike taxi guys who are everywhere and seem to think that every foreigner is in need of a lift somewhere. Oh, and a street hooker and her pimp tried coercing me into a quick sex session which, I felt, would have left me severely out of pocket one way or another.

Out by six the next morning in time to watch the sun rising. Traders were getting into their stride, cafes and restaurants preparing for the early morning trade and motorbike taxis still hawking for business. On the wide path at the top of Hoan Kiem Lake ladies were practicing Tai Chi with red fans. It’s therapeutic just watching.

Apart from art galleries and cafes the Vietnamese also inherited a love of fresh bread from their old colonial masters. Every few yards there were women with baskets of freshly baked crusty baguettes for sale. The smell is very inviting and hard to resist.

East of the Old Quarter on Pho Bien Dien Phu is the Army Museum. It’s worth a look. It’s basically a celebration of the most recent Vietnamese victories over first the French, then the US and finally China. There is a collection of captured and shot-down US and French hardware including a helicopter, rocket launchers, and numerous pieces of aircraft shot down and piled together as a piece of art. There are also weapons used by the Vietnamese in their military victories.

As expected the picture painted of the noble Vietnamese soldier is nothing short of saintly whilst the opposition are always evil, cloven hoofed and horned monsters hell bent on torture and destruction. One thing for sure, the Vietnamese are clearly a force to be reckoned with whatever they are armed with.
 
 
A long walk south from the Temple of Literature is Lenin Park. This is a huge recreational area set around Bay Mau Lake. This is where locals come to exercise, dance, eat, listen to live music, watch traditional dancing and generally chill. The entrance is lined with stalls selling local produce, ready to eat food, and gifts.
 
On a large stage by the top of the lake local girls were demonstrating traditional dance, similar to Thai dancing. Another stage had a modern singer belting out local favourites at deafening volume. Many people are simply using the park for exercise, a past-time that seems to be taken quite seriously here.
 
Back up to Hoan Kiem Lake and it seemed that the Vietnamese who weren’t exercising in Lenin Park were here. Hundreds of locals were marching anti-clockwise around the lake in a grand display of communal fitness. Early evening has a very Chinese feel to it with families coming together for exercise and general interaction.
 
On the last morning I head out on foot again, after an excellent breakfast at the Paris Deli, for the Vietnam Revolutionary Museum and the Vietnam History Museum. Both are interesting and well worth the hike, despite the formers somewhat one-sided view of things.
 
This was my first visit to Vietnam and will certainly not be the last. The people are surprisingly welcoming and at the same time don’t smother you with attention (with the exception of book sellers and motorbike taxis).
 
The level of English is lower than Thailand but there is more chance of a stranger trying to strike a conversation even if they can’t speak a word of English. On several occasions I was invited to join people on the street for tea and a chat. No catch, no con and no payment, they just wanted buy me a tea, chat and try to learn a few words of English.
 
Hanoi can be a cheap destination. There are cheaper places than the hotel I stayed in and to be honest, it wasn’t really worth the money. Food is very affordable and even the classier restaurants aren’t prohibitively priced. As for beer, I doubt anywhere in this region can compete on that front.
 
With Air Asia offering return flights for around 5,000 THB all in it is no more expensive to get to than Singapore, Vientiane or KL.
 
There are many things to see in Hanoi alone even before venturing up country and I only touched on what the city has to offer. The leading tourist attraction is Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum. As much as I wanted to see it the queue was too much just to see another jaundiced communist leader stiff as a board in a glass case so Uncle Ho will have to wait until next time. 

Seeing Kanchanaburi through the Eye of the Tiger

Tiger Temple Kanchanaburi
Tiger Temple Kanchanaburi
Tiger Temple Kanchanaburi

Animal-lovers, take note. If you’re looking to see exotic wildlife on your Thailand trip, there are no shortage of opportunities on the tourist circuit. But if zoos seem to simulated and the odds of a jungle-trek encounter seem uncertain (and dangerous!), a new middle ground exists. In the growing trend of tourist-friendly wildlife sanctuaries, visitors can witness Thailand’s most exotic creatures in a safe, unexploitative manner. Even the tiger, the most dangerous and regal of Thailand’s wildlife, can be observed and admired in this setting. Kanchanaburi’s Wat Wat Pa Luangta Bua Yannasampanno, widely known as the “tiger temple,” allow tourists to act out their childhood Jungle Book fantasies by getting up-close and huggy with a tame pack of Indo-Chinese tigers.

This temple was converted into a tiger sanctuary in 1999, as a home for tigers who have been rescued from poachers in the jungles west of Kanchanaburi. Around the Thai-Burmese borders, these beautiful animals are coveted by hunters, which can leave orphaned cubs fending for themselves in the jungle. Managed by a team of monks and volunteers (both Thai and western), the Tiger temple provides a protected habitat for these coveted animals. The Abbot Pra Acharn Phusit Khantitharo, who founded the sanctuary, is in constant interaction with the tigers.

The grounds themselves are a dusty 30-minute drive from downtown Kanchanaburi. With the admission fee of 300 baht (and a waiver to be signed at the gate; a standard procedure when tiger-touching is involved) visitors are led through the wide, sparse grounds. While visitors may be stumped in a search for a real temple (the word seems to be synonymous with “sanctuary” in this case), there’s no shortage of awe-inducing tigers.

The tigers are taken to a quarry each day to enjoy the sun, stretch their legs, and bathe in the small pool. It is here that tourists can watch the tigers interact with each other. Separated only by a thin rope, volunteer will guide visitors close to the tigers and invite them to pet the animals and pose for photos. The presence of the volunteers is valuable, as tourists can get nervous in such proximity to the tigers. The temple staff with explain that the tigers are raised from infancy by the monks, and so they adapt to the presence of humans and the daily routine of being approached by temple visitors. It is true that in this unique environment, the tigers seem genuinely unfazed by human company. These nocturnal animals are restful in the quarry, often sleepy or sleeping, while the head monk sits with them. The tigers will often be slow to acknowledge the people around them, even as they’re being approached and touched.

Tourists are forever in dispute about the tigers’ tame demeanor, which seems so contrary to their natural instincts. The temple staff will assure visitors over and over that the tigers are pacified by the calming influence of the Buddhist monks, instilled in them since they were cubs. Still, animal-conscious visitors will argue that the tigers must be sedated by more than just meditative power, and are in fact fed drugs which render them sluggish and passive.

Despite these speculations, it is clear from the temple environment that the animals are well-fed and healthy. Visitors to the temple receive a souvenir booklet which profiles each of the 17 tigers and cubs in the tiger temple family, explaining the animal’s birthday, the origins of its name, and a lovingly-written description of its personality. The temple staff maintain the ultimate goal of expanding the temple grounds and facilities into a 12-acre area where tigers can live in a safe version of their own habitat, free from cages. Details of the “New Home for Tigers” project can be found on the temple’s website, http://www.tigertemple.org/Eng/index.php, a site which also cites quotations from the Abbot on his compassion and respect for animals.

In addition to tigers, this temple hosts a family of boars, goats, birds and other creatures. The monks exercise a policy to feed all hungry beings who approach them, animal or human. Volunteering opportunities are available for English-speakers with a background in biology or animal care and a respect for the Buddhist ethics exercised at the temple. Please contact the temple for more information.

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.

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.

A Solo Woman’s Guide to Thailand

Sisters Are Doin It For Themselves!A Solo Woman’s Guide to Thailand
  
I salute any woman who travels Thailand alone. On a solo trip, she faces the challenges of navigating an exotic country, language and culture. In addition to this, she will notice that while Thailand can be fawningly friendly to visiting males, it’s harder for the lady tourist to find her place in the scheme. Still, every girl’s experience of Thailand should be a great one. From the bustle of Bangkok to the blissfully lazy islands, here are a few tips I’ve amassed along the way.
  

DO be prepared to get stared at

  
For Westerners this may seem rude, but in Thailand, it’s appropriate to comment frankly on a person’s appearance. Step into a clothing shop and your body will no doubt be scrutinized aloud by saleswomen. This is sometimes done with whispers, sometimes with an uncomfortable poke in the stomach. Back home it would be invasive and rude. In Thailand, however, this is not unusual behaviour.
  
Likewise, a white woman will hear the line “you’re so beautiful” on a daily basis. While it might make you blush, this comment is mostly harmless, made by leering men and gawking schoolchildren alike. Many Thai people don’t bother concealing their fascination with other races. Don’t be alarmed when people touch your lighter skin or wavier hair.
  
DON’T be careless when it comes to possessions
  
Bag theft is common in Southeast Asia, and women are especially vulnerable, since purses are worn over one shoulder, and can easily be grabbed or cut. If you’re using this advice as an excuse to shop for new purses, I’d recommend a bag with thick straps that fastens or zips shut. Hold your bag close to your body, especially in tight crowds, and remember to carry a one-shouldered bag on the inside of the street. Thieves will sometimes attempt a drive-by grab by motorbike
  
DO know when to blow the budget
  
It’s true that by Western standards, goods and services in Thailand are fantastically inexpensive. Still, any tourist worth her malaria meds can tell you a story or two about getting ripped off. Few things are more frustrating than trying to haggle a price with a smugly unsympathetic cabbie or waiter. Sometimes, however, it’s best for your own safety to suck it up.
  
Walking at night to avoid inflated taxi costs is a bad idea, period. Opting for a guesthouse that’s cheap but shady is also unadvisable. You’ll likely be fine, but the risk just isn’t worth it. If you must compromise something on the budget, try eating at local foodstalls instead of tourist restaurants for a few days. There’s no point in compromising safety to save a few baht.
  
DON’T be afraid to lie a little
  
East or West, there are some universal truths. Despite cultural differences, any man should know that “I’m meeting my boyfriend” is a nice way of saying “stop talking to me, please.” However, there’s no need to whip it out like a can of mace for every man who tries to speak to you. Sometimes you’ll meet solo male travelers looking to chat, or local men who are simply trying to be kind. While it’s smart to keep some details to yourself, like your guesthouse and room number, many of these conversations will turn out to be harmless. Despite what your grandmother might have warned, men aren’t always after one thing.
  
DO seek the company of other solo females
  
You’ll not only have an ally in finding cheap rooms and worthwhile sights, you’ll be in great company. It takes an independent spirit to embark on a solo trip, especially as a woman exploring cultures in which gender roles are so different from those in the West. Nine times out of ten, women who travel alone are a cool, confident bunch. Don’t be shy about striking up a conversation at random, as most solo travelers are also seeking to socialize. You can also share your insights on other woman-friendly travelspots, or laugh over tales of trying to pronounce the Thai word for “tampons.” (It’s tairm-porn)
  
DON’T get too disheartened
  
Yes, Thailand boasts beautiful landscape, humbling temples, and fantastic cuisine. However, one can’t help but notice that some tourism is geared at less innocent pursuits. The prevalence of hostesses and go-go dancers in the most relaxed of bars can make a girl uncomfortable. Most women who travel through Thailand leave with a new perspective of Asian tourism, often a negative one. While it’s hard to ignore, I can only advise that female travelers seek out good company and take it in as a learning experience. Bear in mind also that this industry is a small portion of Thailand’s national identity. At the very least, it gives a girl a new appreciation of equal rights.

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.