Saturday, 21 December 2013

The Final Chapter- Singapore

After a hectic few days in Bangkok, we flew into Singapore and to be honest, I had very few pre-conceived ideas about the country, having always thought of it as more of a transit city than an actual destination. The only reason we opted to visit was because it was where we could fly home from for a reasonable price.

To be honest, I was very underwhelmed. For a country with such a diverse population situated in between Malaysia and Indonesia I was expecting it to have a similar vibe to these countries- something of a cultural fusion. I was disappointed that I didn't get anything from Singapore. It's incredibly clean with huge skyscrapers, malls, neon etc - what you'd expect from a big Asian city. I think what I missed though was the chaos- the hustle and the bustle, the street corners filled with street carts and people going about their daily business. Obviously Singapore is incredibly developed with one of the highest GDPs of any Asian country, but it didn't have any charm- I felt completely disengaged with it as a destination and found it to be almost sterile in it's serenity.  Unlike Japan, which has a similarly strong economy, it hasn't retained any of the charms of the East and that was what I found lacking.

Of course, the experience of any country is completely subjective, and I can imagine that if I were to live as an expat in any of the countries we had been to, Singapore would probably be the place where I would be most comfortable. It's clean, everyone speaks English, it's got everything you would need to live comfortably. As a tourist however, it doesn't offer a huge amount! It was also one of the most expensive places we had been to, after Japan and Hong Kong, but it didn't offer the same value as these amazing places.

I feel like I've had a bit of a rant there, and to be honest, with the end of the trip approaching and the excitement of going home paramount in our minds, perhaps I didn't give it a fair shot. My mum and I also got really severe food poisoning while we were there which completely obliterated one of the three days we had there. This again really marred our experience, as ironically it was the only time I've been ill over the last 5 months (ironic that it was in one of the cleanest cities in the world).

Here are some of the things we did enjoy though during our limited time:

1) Gardens by the Bay

Directly opposite the glitzy Marina Bay Sands (a luxury hotel, shopping and casino complex) lies Gardens by the Bay. It's a gorgeous set of gardens complete with man-made 'supertrees', separate gardens with plants from different countries, and some very strange sculptures! It's pretty to have a wander around, and free entry to all the outside spaces. The conservatories are apparently the best place to see but due to the rather sizeable entry fee, we gave these a miss.

One of the many plants in the gardens
An 'unusual' sculpture
 2) Raffles Hotel

Raffles is a Singapore Institution, and unable to afford the £300+ price tag for a room there, we visited for dinner and drinks one evening. We went to the Italian restaurant (mostly because it was the only reasonably priced option) and while the food wasn't anything amazing, it was lovely to sit in the courtyard of the huge colonial building, observing the well-heeled clientèle and passing the multiple designer shops within the hotel's interior! We then went for Singapore Slings (a cocktail invented at Raffles) in the Long Bar and appreciated the history of the bar where so many famous faces have frequented!

The façade of the hotel decorated for the festive period! 
The Famous Sling 
3) Singapore Zoo

Consistently voted as one of the best zoos in the world, Singapore Zoo definitely lives up to its name. With no cages and very few man-made enclosures, the zoo looks like a rainforest and the animals are cleverly separated with streams or other natural barriers. There's a huge range of animals including white and Malayan tigers, Asian elephants, proboscis monkeys, free-ranging orang-utans and even a polar bear! We had a great day here and it's definitely worth a visit!

All in all, there is interesting sights in Singapore. It definitely wasn't my favourite city but I love the chaos and the challenges of other destinations we have been to and this isn't what Singapore is about!

Flying home and thinking about everything we have seen and done over the last five months, I can't believe how lucky I have been. From seeing endangered species in the wild to visiting spectacular temples, from eating gorgeous food to meeting amazing people we have managed to experience so much and are both truly grateful that we have had this opportunity. Since we got home everyone has asked us where our favourite places have been and we want to get it down in writing, so once Christmas is over, we're planning on doing a mini-series on highlights etc. This should take us through to the middle of January when it'll be back to more of a solo blog as I'm going on my next exciting adventure (more on that to follow) so keep reading because it's not over yet! 

Monday, 16 December 2013

The Bangkok Bonanza

Hi all,

A lot has happened in the few weeks since I last updated this blog. Rob and I are now home safe and sound and have even managed to recover from jet-lag. We've both spent the last week catching up with friends and family and basically haven't got round to finish documenting our adventures in the midst of all the excitement of being back on home turf!

Leaving Chiang Mai was the end of a part of our travelling experience. We flew into Bangkok Don Muang Airport to meet my Mum, June and brother, Adam and from then on it was a different, although no less enjoyable, last two weeks. For a start, we left cheap guesthouses and hostels behind and checked into a luxurious (for us) 17th floor apartment in Downtown Bangkok. We were also reunited with some home comforts which they kindly brought in their suitcases for us! We had a great time in Bangkok and not one to leave anything unfinished, I thought I'd update you on some highlights from the week which we spent there!

Bangkok is an amazing city. We'd heard so many mixed reports about this 'marmite city' (you either love it or hate it) so we were pretty apprehensive about visiting (particularly with my brother who isn't one for new experiences)! Travellers talk about the chaos, the pollution, the seediness and it's all there in spades but if  you get through that there are some fantastic sights and experiences to be seen and had including:

1) Perusing the market stalls at Khao San Road

Bangkok is the main backpacker hub of South-East Asia, and it seemed that everyone we met travelling was due to or had spent some time here. Khao San Road is a Traveller's Mecca with everything you could possibly need. It attracts a really 'interesting' crowd and was a great spot for people watching. We went once during the day and once at night and in the evening it really comes alive with so many bars, cafes and stalls that you don't know where to look. Even if you choose not to stay there (and I'm glad we weren't) definitely head along for the evening!

At the edge of Khao San Road and it was already manic
Quite the USP
One of the more interesting stalls
2) Visiting the Grand Palace and Wat Pho

Bangkok has a lot to offer in terms of culture and while we were thoroughly 'templed out' by this point, my Mum and Adam were keen to take in some of the larger historical monuments. Wat Pho is home to the worlds largest gold reclining Buddha and it is gigantic.

The reclining Buddha at Wat Pho
The Grand Palace is in a similar style to the Palace we saw in Phnom Penh and it was just as spectacular. One the memories which I will always have of Thailand is the gold which you see everywhere and the Grand Palace was one of the most concentrated examples of this. It is so quintessentially Thai and a definite must-see if you only have a few days in Bangkok!

The golden stupa at the Grand Palace
3) Checking out the infamous Patpong Night Market

Unfortunately, Bangkok is one of the sex tourism capitals of the world and it's reputation is definitely lived up to in it's multiple red light districts. Wanting to see a taster of this (you can't really not when in Bangkok), but not wanting to be hassled to death by touts, we opted to visit Patpong 2 (yes it exists) the less seedy, younger sister of the original Patpong Road. Patpong 2 still has the sex shows, the men offering 'fire breathing shows' and 'ping pong shows' but there are less of them. It's still a red light district but there's also a great market there with some good souvenirs and it's not as in-your-face as Patpong 1.

4) Seeing the view from above at one of Bangkok's many skybars

There's not much better in Bangkok than sitting on the 70th-odd floor of a skyscraper at night with a cocktail and seeing the view below. Bangkok is a really flat city so you can see for miles and miles and it makes you feel as if you are in a movie. We went to the Banyan Tree Hotel's Vertigo Bar and it definitely lives up to it's name. It isn't cheap but a cocktail will set you back about £12 and a beer about £6 and it's worth it for the view alone! Even if you're on a tight budget, fit this in.

5) Sampling some of the many culinary delights

Thailand is definitely up there with Japan for my favourite cuisine and Bangkok has some amazing food! On Khaosan Road there are a huge number of street stalls selling classics like Pad Thai or Pork with Holy Basil. There's also hundreds of budget cafes selling great currys for a couple of quid each. Outside of the cheaper areas every mall (of which there are hundreds) tends to have a food court with great, cheap food. Bangkok also has some amazing restaurants serving other types of cuisine and we went to a great one called Above Eleven (above Sukhumvit Soi 11- one of the major party districts) which served Peruvian food- would highly recommend!

6) Doing some shopping...

There are some amazing shops in Bangkok selling everything from the usual array of tourist souvenirs, to amazing knockoff bags, watches and DVDs and pretty much every brand name in the world! We went to quite a few indoor malls including Siam Paragon, MBK and Terminal 21. Siam Paragon is huge and one of Bangkoks major new landmarks with thousands of shops, loads of restaurants and even a luxury car showroom on the top floor. MBK was better though as this was essentially an outdoor Asian Street Market, but indoor. It sold anything and everything for cheap prices but with the luxury of air conditioning which was much needed! We also visited Chatuchak Market which is the largest outdoor market in the world spanning 27 acres, but to be honest it was so big it was impossible to find anything and MBK was far better!

Apart from that we just wandered around the streets of Bangkok (it's a great city to just sit and watch the world go by), visited the different districts and essentially had a great time catching up and making the most of some of our last days in Asia! After Bangkok we spent four days in Singapore before flying home, so that will be the next entry.

Sunday, 24 November 2013

Chiang Mai: Chapter Two

While in Chiang Mai, we have also done a few more things worth mentioning. A couple of day trips, a fun evening at a festival and I even squeezed in a cookery course (due to Robs allergies it wasn't really worth it for him).

Starting with the festival which took place on Sunday Night. I mentioned a couple of blogs ago that we were in Chiang Mai for Loy Krathong which is a local, annual lantern festival. It goes on for four days but the busiest day was definitely Sunday. We headed to the riverside to join the festivities passing by Chiang Mai's notorious bar street on the way which is the first glimpse we've had of Thailands sex tourism industry.

Reaching the river it was incredibly busy with food stalls and small bars set up selling pitchers of Chang, and countless people selling handheld fireworks and lanterns to set off into the sky or down the river! We grabbed some food from a street BBQ and washed it down with a pitcher of Chang before heading to the bridge. 

Dodging the fireworks (health and safety isn't really an issue here) we grabbed a paper lantern from one of the vendors and set it off to join the thousands of others lighting up the night sky. It was quite an amazing spectacle. After this we stood back to watch for a while, browsing the small markets set up on each side, marvelling at the carefully put together flower arrangements floating down the river and watching the ornately decorated boats coming under the bridge.

After it started to get even more rowdy with kids throwing fire crackers into the water to start mini tsunamis and me nearly getting hit in the face with a handheld rocket launcher, we called it a night. Bright and early the next day, I headed to a nearby farm for my cookery course stopping for a quick market tour on the way. We saw tons of different vegetables we don't have at home including eggplants the size of peas, fresh roots such as turmeric and Thai ginseng and others which I don't even know the name of! 

I absolutely love Thai food- with the exception of Japanese it's been my favourite cuisine, so it was great to learn how to cook everything properly and hopefully I'll be able to replicate it at home (although sourcing some of the ingredients might be a challenge). I learnt how to make: Tom Yum (or hot and sour) soup; fresh papaya salad; massaman curry (grinding the curry paste means my arm still hurts); chicken with holy basil; pad thai and sticky rice with mango for dessert! Needless to say after cooking and sampling everything I was stuffed!!! 

The following day, being a bit more active, Rob and I headed for a day trip up to the highest mountain in Thailand, Doi Inthanon. Not fancying the walk up 3000 metres, we took a van to the top stopping at a few key attractions along the way. The day got off to a panicky start with us sleeping in until 8.42am when the bus was due to pick us up at 8.30! Thankfully, they were running a bit late too so we made it in the nick of time. 

The first stop of the day was to a huge and powerful waterfall. Standing anywhere near it you got soaked but it was definitely a good view!

After this we headed to another hill tribe village but thankfully we weren't there very long...

We then stopped at another gentler waterfall which is in the middle of a forested area and very scenic!!

We quickly stopped at a local market before lunch which had some cool foodstuffs- a lot of different types of fruit wine, different dried fruits and some good juices! The stallholders kindly allowed us to sample some of the produce and it was all really good- we even purchased some of the strawberry juice (although we struggled to finish it as it was 20% sugar)! 

After lunch we continued the drive up the mountain reaching the summit after about half an hour. The road up is paved so it was a smooth ride surprisingly! The difference in climate from sweltering Chiang Mai was apparent as soon as you left the car- the temperature dropped a whole 25degrees and we both regretted wearing shorts! 

After walking around the summit, we headed slowly down and stopped at a couple of pagodas which had been built for the King and Queen of Thailand. Thai people love the King and it is still illegal to insult him in any way- an expat recently got decades in prison for it!! We went to the cinema last week and before each film, they play the thai national anthem accompanied by footage of the royal family and everyone stands and claps. The pagodas were a lovely place with well-kept gardens aptly named the royal project. Unfortunately the view was marred by the descending mist, although this did afford the mountain a very creepy vibe!

Heading back to Chiang Mai, we checked out the Night Bazaar that evening which is huge and set over 4 streets. We finally finished our Christmas shopping so that is a relief!

We had one more busy day in Chiang Mai and that was a trek into the nearby jungle. We were picked up by a Songtheaw (a local 8 seater pick up truck) and driven about 90 minutes north. We started the ascent from a local village passing through some fairly dense jungle. Thankfully our guide had a machete to hack through the overgrowth while donning some pretty jungley attire!

The trek was hard work because we were often having to scramble up rocks and slide down muddy verges. The path was through some very spiky plants so we had to be very careful where we were walking as at times there would be a sheer drop on one side of you and a thorny bush on the other!! 

It started off very well with us both leading the pack and we were still in the lead when we reached the halfway point and stopped for lunch- banana leaf wrapped rice which we ate sitting on the jungle floor.

We continued walking down to a small waterfall where we had a much needed break eating some delicious local oranges. Getting back up from here was a much bigger challenge however as we essentially had to climb up a sheer rock face! We then walked further up to get the view from a good vantage point at a tiny village where only 25 people live! 

Heading back with our quads and calves aching, we went for some more delicious thai food and a much needed sleep! Apart from this, we have spent our time in Chiang Mai wandering through the old city and passing the numerous wats and markets, visiting a Saturday night market where the hill tribes come to Chiang Mai and sell homemade crafts and foods, eating a lot of street food from the collection of stalls near our guesthouse and Rob has even found an amazing cafe which will make him Thai curry without the coconut! Definitely check out Jimmy and Jengs if you're in Chiang Mai- they will make you very welcome! We're flying to Bangkok later today and I'm expecting a huge contrast from Chiang Mai but we're both very excited! We're also meeting my Mum and brother there so we might be living a slightly more luxurious lifestyle :) 

Close Encounters at Elephant Nature Park

Animal tourism is big business in Thailand, particularly in the North. Every travel agency advertises various different tours involving animals from zoos and safari parks to elephant trekking. Two of the most popular animals are tigers and elephants. There is a place near Chiang Mai called Tiger Kingdom, and a similar enterprise called Tiger Temple north of Bangkok. At both they offer you the opportunity to get close to a range of tigers and pose with their heads on your lap etc. After some research and reading various reports of the tigers living in terrible conditions, we decided that the novelty of the photos wasn't worth the suffering endured by the animals and that we didn't want to support this business. 

Similarly, elephant tourism has a terrible reputation in the region. A lot of reviews of different trekking  companies and elephant camps state that mistreatment is common and the elephants are noted to be clearly in distress. Again, we obviously didn't want to take our business to any park which was like this. We also weren't interested in riding elephants after reading a few articles about how they are 'broken in' to become docile enough to allow humans to ride them. This is commonly known as the 'crush' and this article explains the process pretty well-

I might sound like a hypocrite as I rode an elephant in India back in February, and I feel so guilty about this after doing some research into the suffering that these elephants go through daily. Needless to say, now I know more about it, I wouldn't consider doing it again!!

We thought initially that we weren't going to be able to have any kind of ethical elephant experience, until we found out about Elephant Nature Park. Set up by a Thai woman called Lek in 1995, this sanctuary started out as a home for four formerly mistreated elephants. There is now a group of 36 there, mostly females but with four males. This gender discrepancy is because more female elephants are put to work as they are easier to train and more placid. Therefore, they generally require sanctuary more often. Lek predominantly rescues mistreated elephants from the illegal logging industry, circuses, street begging and those who have injured by landmines, meaning most of the elephants have noticeable injuries. 

We had originally looked to do an overnight stay, however due to the popularity of the camp this wasn't possible and we were restricted to a one-day visit. The booking process was simple and although the cost was higher than any other day-trip apart from Borneo (about £60) we were both still keen and knew our money was going to a good cause! The bus picked us up bright and early and the hour-long journey to the park passed quickly as a documentary about Lek and the elephants was shown. This highlighted the issues which elephants face and the industries which they are forced to work in. Street begging has thankfully now been outlawed but there are many elephants who used to do this and they all now need new homes. The contradiction driving to the park was really apparent as we passed numerous elephants plodding along the main road with large wooden boxes strapped to their backs sometimes supporting the weight of 3 or 4 people. 

When we arrived at the park, we were struck by the lovely setting it is in. Nestled in a valley between forested hills, there is greenery everywhere and it's a refuge from the bustling city of Chiang Mai. All the elephants at the park are free roaming with no confines or chains to keep them in one place. Therefore when we walked into the park we were instantly greeted by the sight of many different elephants all having the time of their lives munching on the leaves and playing with each other. 

We were left to observe the elephants for a short while and then Andy, our guide, brought over a bucket of food for us to start feeding the elephants. The 36 elephants consume several tons of food a day (each needing 10% of their body weight each day) meaning feeding is a regular occurrence. This was lucky for us as it gave us plenty of opportunities to interact with the elephants having never fed them before! The first elephant we fed was a geriatric in her late 70s. Her teeth were in poor condition so she had a special diet of watermelon chunks, peeled bananas and other soft fruits. You can tell the difference between older and younger elephants because of the indentations in their skulls (bigger when older) and the number of wrinkles they have. This elephant was very placid and happy to wait for us to feed her. Holding out the pieces of fruit next to her trunk, she would then promptly stretch her trunk out and wrap it round the food transporting it to her mouth.

The next elephant we fed was much younger, about 30, and much more wilful. She kept going for the basket if we were taking to long to feed her, and when taking fruit from your hand she quite often nearly took you with it! Her grip was incredibly strong showing that while these animals are generally not dangerous, you wouldn't want to do anything to incur their wrath! 

After they had polished off every morsel of food (their intelligence is very apparent as if you show them the empty basket they promptly wander away) we were then directed towards the medical area. The park also is a rescue centre for cats, dogs and water buffalo so walking through the grass you see copious amounts of these.

Arriving at the medical centre, we saw another old, female elephant who had multiple injuries. She had a large abcess on her right, front leg, injuries on her feet and an infection in one of her eyes. There was charts up detailing the treatments she was undergoing and most of the money raised by admissions goes towards veterinary care which is very expensive! She again was very gentle and happy to be stroked and fed. 

In a nearby field was another elephant just hanging around with her mahout (lifelong carer). We stood for a while and just observed and stroked her. She was pretty happy to pose for photos and looked genuinely happy and content, just how she should! 

Since the inception of the park, there have been four successful elephant births, the most recent of these occurring 3 months ago. There is also an 8-month old, a 3-year-old and a 4-year-old. We were able to see the youngest with his mother and 'auntie' (not really related but part of the same herd so fulfil different family roles). The young elephant was tiny and very boisterous! He kept coming towards us and every time he did we had to move as getting too close could encourage the mother to become aggressive to protect from the perceived threat. The relationship between the mother and son was amazing to watch with the son teasing the mother, nuzzling into her and always looking to her for approval when he moved too far away.

When we weren't watching these elephants, another one nearby was giving itself a bath in a nearby pile of mud to cool down from the hot day. Each trunkful contains about 2 gallons of liquid meaning she was able to give herself a proper soaking!! 

Tearing ourselves away we followed our guide who showed us the safest way to feed elephants directly to their mouths. They obviously have a very special relationship with the elephants who are content to follow their instructions. There wasn't a bullhook in sight, no physical violence or even so much as a raise of a voice and the camp believes solely in positive reinforcement in dealing with the elephants i.e. rewarding for good behaviour rather than punishing for bad. 

Heading for lunch, a strictly vegetarian affair due to the parks affinity with all animals, we took the opportunity to play with some of the dogs from the rescue center. One was hilarious and kept jumping on the table much to the chagrin of some of the volunteers. During our 'break' we also walked to the elevated platform through the park to observe some of the elephants. There were three elephants there who form one smaller herd. They all have horrific stories about their origins. 

The first, eldest elephant is blind. She was working in the logging industry and was forced to work when pregnant. This induced premature labour and she lost her calf. She refused to work after this and became quite aggressive. In order to force her to continue, the loggers would fire slingshots at her eyes as this is their most delicate spot. This caused her to become completely blind. On arrival at the camp, she was 'adopted' by an elderly female elephant who now follows her around. This elephant has bad scarring on her legs from mistreatment at a different elephant camp who forced her to give rides. Again one of the many horror stories we were given. The third member of the herd was probably the most obviously disfigured of all the elephants at the park. She again worked in the logging industry and ultimately was forced to enter a very cruel breeding programme when she was no longer fit to work. Left alone at too young an age with a huge and aggressive male elephant, her hips and legs were broken and one of her legs is far shorter than the others as she was still growing at the time. 

After observing for a while longer, we went to see the other baby who, along with her mother, is part of the largest herd at the camp with 9 members. They were being fed again and were playfully fighting over the food. We also got to meet Lek, the founder of the park who was sat next to one of the elephants. You can see quite how close her bond is with them as one of the elephants placed the end of her trunk over Leks mouth (maybe trying to give her kisses) and was clearly seeking her attention! Lek is tiny- maybe 4ft8- but she's still in control at the park!!

The last part of the days programme was the chance to give one of the elephants a bath. A daily ritual for the herd it basically involved throwing buckets of water over her to rinse off the mud which would then be put straight back on again!! On occasion we got more wet than the elephant but it was fun all the same. 

After giving her a bath, her mahout gave us some fruit and opportunity to feed her directly to the mouth. This was quite scary but she was obviously pretty experienced and cared more about the food than who was giving it to her! Her tongue was huge and felt pretty rough and her jaws were very strong so you had to get your hand out quickly!!

After a quick final feeding and covered in mud, we headed back to the bus and back to Chiang Mai taking some amazing memories of our day with us! In the future we would love to go back for longer and are both jealous of everyone who has volunteered at this amazing place!!