Snap judgements on Vietnam

It hardly seems real, but I’ve landed in the last country on the K10 travels – Vietnam. I’m leaving a bit earlier, for a number of reasons, so I won’t be going from Saigon to Hanoi as previously planned; instead, my dad and I started south of Saigon, in the Mekong Delta, and hit up HCMC right before heading back. (AAAAH!!!). It’s going to tie with Laos for the country I’m spending the least time in – just about 3.5-4 days, depending on how you count it. (Laos was about 3.5 days, Cambodia was about 11.5 days, China was 8 days, and Thailand got a month and a couple of random days, that saucy minx.)

Since I have so little time here let’s play a game of Judge a Book by its Cover! 
The people in Vietnam: SO NICE and REALLY family-focused. (At least in the south.)
Far and away the friendliest people on my trip have been in southern Vietnam. The first day my dad and I walked down the street of Chau Doc (a tiny town that was our stopping point between Phnom Penh and Saigon), people kept waving at us and shouting HELLO! My suspicious mind assumed they were just touts trying to get us into a boat/motortaxi/taxi – and sometimes they were – but most of the time it was just friendly people and adorable children saying hello. It might have something to do with the fact that as Westerners, we were a bit of an oddity in this small town. Either way, it was lovely.

They are also very, very family-focused. Every time we talked with a Vietnamese person, they would ask almost immediately if I have siblings, why Dad’s wife wasn’t there, etc. We did an awesome street food tour and the lovely owner of one of the carts was very interested in setting me up with her son. Apparently she thought I was very beautiful and that I have the ideal look: very white skin (CHECK!), tall, and a narrow nose. Oh, go on then.

(Side note re: touts: we would also get stopped in the park by people asking if we wanted a shoe shine. We would just look down at our sneakers and go “…what are you going to shine?!” Total mystery.)

My future mother-in-law

Motorbikes are the way to travel
As mentioned, we did a street food tour where we zoomed around on the back of motorbikes through the crazy streets of Saigon. Words can’t describe how crazy traffic is in Saigon. Waiting for a break in the scooters is a losing game; instead, you just walked slowly and steadily across and trust the motorbikes will go around you. (This does NOT work for buses. They will NOT go around you.) Riding around on the back of one was the perfect way to see the city.


Life is lived on the river

At least in the Mekong Delta. We took a speedboat from Phnom Penh to Chau Doc (definitely the way to travel), and as we approached Chau Doc around dinnertime the river was peppered with people cooking over fires, bathing, or just enjoying a twilight swim.

Luxury hotels are truly luxurious
For our stay in Chau Doc, Dad booked a luxury resort (luxury for Vietnam; the prices were what you would pay for a Hampton Inn in the States. Hampton Inns do have great bedding, though. It is indeed like sleeping on a cloud.). This meant we didn’t do much else except soak in the luxury. I spent a full afternoon languishing by the pool that overlooked the river, having food and drinks brought out to me. It’s the kind of place that hires a musician to play in the lobby to set the mood. It has its own pier. I could get used to this.

Vietnam is a-okay with me! 
You guys, I’ve really enjoyed Vietnam. It might be the fact that it is at the very end of my trip and so I’m excited to be going back and looking at travel nostalgically; it might be that the food is great and I spent half my time in this country staying in a luxury hotel; it might be that one time when Dad and I went to cross the street, a police officer immediately hurried over to escort us across and at the end said, “Welcome to Vietnam!” It’s fair to say I am going to try to make my way back here, friends.

Welcome to the Jungle: Glamping in Kep

I woke up at 3.30am, desperately needing to pee (there’s your ladylike lede right there, folks!). I tried squeezing my eyes shut and convincing my bladder it could wait another few hours, but no dice. I carefully untucked the mosquito netting wrapped around my bed, groped around for the flashlight on the floor, and tiptoed across the wide-paneled wooden treehouse down the wobbly stairs slick with rain. After paying a visit to the garden (read: open-aired) bathroom and examining the back of my leg for a possible mosquito bite, I crept back up the stairs and shrieked loudly as a bat – yes, a bat – flew at my face suddenly before veering away. Yes, folks: I went glamping in Cambodia (that’s “glamorous camping,” for those not in the know).

As I type this, I’m sitting in one of those wicker round chair things on our treehouse balcony looking off into the valley as the sun dips lower and birds chirp merrily around me. I have to admit, my life could be worse. 
When my dad first started planning his part of the trip, he immediately booked a treehouse in an “eco-resort” in the seaside town of Kep. Yes, I keep saying treehouse. We are in a bona fide, no-fourth-wall, perched-up-on-stilts, treehouse. I promise you it isn’t as glamorous as it sounds. And that whole eco-lodge thing means that electricity is mostly for lights – no A/C – and WiFi in a non-starter. We decided before arriving to cut our trip short a day, in order to split up our travel to Vietnam over two days. So when we arrived to find our, ahem, rustic accommodations, I was glad we were only staying for a day and a half.

Even though I was eager to leave, I have to admit that all in all it was a pretty relaxing 36 hours. Although we had to endure several bumpy tuk-tuk rides on the very rutted dirt road leading up to the lodge (I can’t even begin to describe how bumpy that road is), we had some enjoyable relaxing time on our balcony, rode in a tuk-tuk through the countryside to a pepper plantation (Kampot pepper, guys, it’s a thing), enjoyed some meals on the sea, and most importantly, sussed out restaurants with WiFi and went crazy.

So the verdict on glamping in Cambodia? Definitely not something I’m eager to do again, but it certainly has been a once-in-a-lifetime experience to kick off my last week abroad.

P.S. Re: my Facebook query a few days ago, I did decide to start taking malaria pills. Can’t tell if I am having wildly hallucinogenic dreams or not; my dreams have certainly been vivid, but I’ve always had pretty vivid dreams. Bummer, huh? But no malaria yet (touch wood!).

Laying down some TRUTH on SE Asia

With less than one week to go before I am back in the U.S. and enjoying a delicious meal of Hamburger Helper (CRAVINGS I HAVE THEM), I’ve been reflecting a lot on what it is like to travel in this region. I’ve been bouncing around here for the past two months, minus that interlude in China. (Oh yeah, that thing.) Southeast Asia is a tourist mecca for a number of reasons – there’s a well-trodden backpacker’s trail, plenty of varied food options in the larger cities, relatively cheap costs (you can live a mid-range lifestyle for well under $50/day) and you can always find someone who speaks enough English to help you out when needed. Plus it’s a pretty gorgeous region.

Despite that, I was surprised by the unexpected difficulties and just how foreign this region can be. Crazy concept, huh? The very act of walking outside is an assault on the senses. It’s oppressively hot (and yet Cambodian women most often wear jeans, two long-sleeved tops, a scarf, and GLOVES when I would rather be naked than wearing shorts and a top I stole from my friend last year). The act of walking down the street is hard, as you navigate broken or missing sidewalks – and where there is a sidewalk, it’s usually covered with parked cars and scooters – forcing you to walk on the street. Dirt kicks up and cakes your skin as you pray no cars hit you. You can’t go two steps or stand still for five seconds before being ascended upon by tuk tuk drivers shouting and waving “TUK TUK? TUK TUK LADY?!” And saying no once doesn’t matter, because the thirty after him still think maybe I’ll say yes to them. Even if you navigate the streams of people, the exhaust spewing out of vehicles, and the heat, the smell of trash, street food cooking, and just plain humanity is enough to knock you over. So, who’s ready to go visit?!

It’s not a surprise that I’ve often taken refuge in places that exude the calm environment or the atmosphere at home. My dad and I were giddy walking through the nicest hotel in Phnom Penh after drinking at the bar, inventing our alter egos in case anyone asked. Even now, I’m happy as anything sitting in a huge Western-style coffee shop, sipping on an iced chocolate coffee and tapping this out on my phone.

I partly feel like a failure for wanting to escape to the nice when so many around me don’t have the option. I recognize I should be more adventurous when it comes to getting out of my comfort zone. But I have had my share on perching on a plastic chair on the street eating food from a cart and walking steadily across the street without getting hit. Sometimes baby needs to reward herself by sitting in an awesome café and watching the Lizzie Bennett Diaries (everyone, please. Watch them.). Cause you know what? That gives me just enough juice to jump back into the next level of crazy and prepare myself for this last week abroad. 

The light and the dark of Cambodia

Along with Laos, I knew incredibly little about Cambodia before making the decision to come here. Heck, I couldn’t even pronounce the name of its capital – Phnom Penh – until a couple of months ago. (For the record, it’s Pa-nom Pen.)

To me, Cambodia is a layered country, especially from the point of view of the tourist. Phnom Penh in particular is full of these contrasts around every corner. At first glance, it’s a gorgeous capital city with tree-lined streets set in a friendly grid pattern (thank you, France). The luxury hotels are truly luxurious, with graceful bars, soaring lobbies, and multiple infinity pools by the veranda. 
Dig a little deeper, and you see the rough edges of Phnom Penh, the indications that this is a poor country in a poor region of the world, beset by environmental challenges, diseases, and the ravages of war. Traffic is insane, but most people drive their family of five around on a tiny and cost-efficient motorbike. As you ride through a tuk tuk around the city, you pass streets teeming with food carts and open-air markets, trash and suspicious smells. I finally understand the phrase, “Assault on the senses.”
Then you dig even more, and hit the core of Cambodia, that which darkens its past, colors its present, and defines its future: the Khmer Rouge and the horrors of the 1970s.
I don’t know about you, but I knew nothing about the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot except the vague understanding that it was a bad thing somewhere in Asia a while ago, and Pol Pot was referenced once on Gilmore Girls. Before arriving, I tried to read up on that period to have a better idea of what happened. But nothing can prepare you for visiting the sites of tragedy. 
In a nod to the phrase dark tourism, visiting sites where tragedies have occurred has become quite popular, whether for educational purposes or memorial purposes. Two such sites rank as the top attractions in Phnom Penh, despite their sadness: S-21, or the Tuol Sleng Prison, and the Killing Fields. 
You can read more about the Khmer Rouge and the atrocities they committed on your own – I’m certainly not educated enough about them to educate you. What I can share were my thoughts upon visiting these sites. Rather I should say, I wish I could share my thoughts. But all I can summon are brief impressions that profoundly impacted me. 
Things like walking around a school-turned-torture-chamber-and-prison, where the museum curators have posted dozens of walls of pictures of the prisoners. Hundreds of faces stare out at you: some boldly, some accusingly, some with tears in their eyes. All I could think of to whisper was, “I’m sorry.”

Things like the museum exhibitions with pictures of Pol Pot and the other leaders – and their faces have been angrily scratched out by visiting Cambodians over the years.
Things like walking past the two-foot-wide wooden prison cells, the doors swinging open. Touching one of the doors softly and realizing who had touched it in the past.
Things like walking past the groups of visiting Cambodians, from the elderly to schoolkids on a trip to young children. Realizing that these events are entirely in the memories of all Cambodians, that we are only a generation removed. 
And that’s the thing: these atrocities were so recent. Trials for the leaders still haven’t concluded. In 2013! In fact, a big news story today is that one of the leaders who was on trial just died. 
But despite the heartache and the soul-crushing tragedy, Cambodia goes on. It certainly is a place for everyone to visit, if only to learn more about the worst of humanity but how goodness overcomes and marches on.

Next Life

To kick off our tour of Cambodia and Vietnam, my father and I decided to start out big: exploring the temples of Angkor. This massive area in the western part of Cambodia was the original seat of the Khmer empire and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the world’s largest religious monument, and the site of historical and cultural significance in Cambodia and, arguably, in all of Southeast Asia.

We hired a car and a tour guide (I love getting to splash out now that Dad is here. Hello, rose and lemongrass martini.) and set off exploring on Dad’s first full day in country. Just to make sure he would really feel the jetlag, it was – as always in SEA – miserably hot by approximately 11am and a hellish inferno by 1pm.

Despite the oppressive heat, we managed to explore quite a few temples over the two days we had our tour guide. From intricate narrative carvings, to temples of thousand faces overlooking the area, to jungle temples with trees entwined as part of the landscape, to taking in the mass of the famous Angkor Wat, I think it’s safe to say I can call myself a tomb raider. (Fact: Angelina Jolie’s Tomb Raider was filled over two months in the temples of Angkor. I know this to be true because our guide said this fifty thousand times, and Cambodia in general is fairly obsessed with that fact as well. As Dad and I have not seen that movie, we can neither confirm nor deny.) It’s also safe to say that by the time I get back, I’ll probably have bug spray permanently affixed to my skin. My hypochondria has kicked in big time, you guys.

As we wandered the temples, we also chatted with our guide about his life and experiences. One of the things that struck me the most was how he would often say “Next life!” with regards to a specific experience he had not had. I’m not sure if he was being glib about it, or as a man living in a Buddhist country, referring to a deep-seated religious belief.

Either way, the things he had never experienced but hoped to in his next life, if his karma sticks out, ranged from amusing to thought-provoking.

“Do you get snow in your home town?” [Exclaims over a photo my dad shows him of 3 inches of snow outside the house] “Ooh! I never seen snow! Next life.

“Those apartments over there [really gorgeous three-story townhouses] are very expensive. $11,000 a year! Next life.”

“How long was your flight here? THIRTY HOURS?! Wow! I never take a flight before. Next life.” 

[In response to my dad’s question if he has ever been out of Cambodia, such as to Thailand, which is an easy bus ride away] “No, all my money saved to pay for kids’ schools. I never leave Cambodia. Next life. 

[After asking if we would come back to Cambodia and in response to my dad saying he should come to the United States] “Next life, I will be BORN in the United States!” 

Needless to say, it was a humbling experience. I’m sure I will have more to say about the challenges of being seen as a walking ATM but also about understanding more about the incredible poverty modern-day Cambodians face, on the heels of the horrors the country has experienced so recently. But even this side-comment by the guide had me thinking about both the privilege I have by simple virtue of where I was born, and also the importance of doing what is possible in this life with what I have been given. Considering those things include watching the sunrise over Angkor Wat, I am a lucky girl indeed.

At this point I’m basically just cycling across Asia

I am fully aware that my bicycle tours are just getting ridiculous. After doing a night tour in Bangkok and a half-day tour in Chiang Mai, I figured I would be prepared enough for the big mama of bike tours: a full day, 37 km ride around Vientiane, Laos.  As a side note, 2 out of 3 times on these tours my guide was from Holland. At first I was surprised by the coincidence but considering the Dutch are literally born cycling out of the womb, I guess it’s not so weird.
Obviously that assumption that doing an eight hour tour would be fine was totally false, because I’m Kristen after all, but I did learn some good tidbits about Laos (and myself) throughout this day – even if by the end I was ready to just call a cab.
More templey-goodness and the lives of monks


In Southeast Asia, you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a temple or a monk (or is it throw a dead cat? Either way, if you have a dead cat, a temple is nearby). It’s no surprise that I have been to a fair few temples and seen a lotta Buddhas on my bike tours. I also learned that monks only eat twice a day (once early in the morning and once around lunchtime)… FOREVER. Or at least as long as they are monks. That just wouldn’t fit in with my grazer stomach and tendency to pack yum-yums wherever I go. As an example, at this moment I have a package of butter biscuits, a box of crackers, two apples, a muffin, a pack of Thai chocolate wafers and half a bag of M&Ms. All in my bag. At this moment in time.
Of course, there are many reasons why I couldn’t be a Buddhist nun, the least of which being that the sole purpose of the nuns is to serve the monks. Girl’s gotta do her own thang, you know.
Also, there is such a thing as a Buddhist pope. I don’t know if the guide meant the head monk in Laos or what, but this is where he lives.
Thai/Laotian Pranks 


Thailand and Laos are basically full of a bunch of pranksters. This statue is of a famous Lao king or prince or something (my services are available as a tour guide, you guys), on the Mekong River. In Vientiane, the Mekong separates Laos from Thailand – and it’s surprisingly narrow at that point. So this statue is not facing the city, but has its back to the city and is facing Thailand. While I thought at first his outstretched hand meant he just wanted some skin, our guide told us that this is basically like giving the big “F.U.” and the finger to Thailand. In retaliation, a little while ago some Thais snuck up the statue and tried to saw the hand off. This is basically like letting chickens loose on the hallway during senior week. (CHICKENS! IN THE HALLWAY!!!). Or like William and Mary putting a statue of TJ facing away from UVa. I love it.
The eternal question – what to do with all this cement?!
In the 1950s, the U.S. was all over Laos like sticky on rice (sorry) but then decided to pull out, halting a lot of airport construction plans. They left behind a whole mess of concrete meant for an airport. The Laotians took it and decided to build a monument fashioned after the Arc de Triomphe. This baby is called the “Vertical Runway” and, amusingly, a “monster in concrete” – literally on the sign on the side of the monument. Apparently they copied the entry out of the English Lonely Planet book without translating it first. It’s been up there for years.
All the bumpy dirt roads… not great for the bum.
In contrast to Bangkok and Chiang Mai, we rode almost exclusively on dirt roads – meaning bumps, rocks, and holes. All that bumpiness meant a very sore bum the next day. But happy, tired muscles.

DON’T YOU WORRY – more bike tours to come!

Little Laos

Before I decided to come to Laos, I knew literally nothing about it, except where it was roughly located. As I did my research, I learned a little bit more: former French colony (the “backwaters of Indochina,” as it were); current communist nation; one of the poorest countries in the world.

Most importantly, and most tragically, Laos is the most heavily bombed country per capita in the world in history. 

For nine years, bombs were dropped every eight minutes, 24/7.

The country that did the bombing? The United States, during the Vietnam War.

Now, I don’t know about you, but in most of my history classes we extensively covered up through WWII, then rushed through the major events of the latter half of the twentieth century before taking the state exam. (I still don’t really know what happened in the 1980s and 1990s. Complete blank.). As I got my degree, I was lucky enough to take a bunch of different history classes, but most were either of a wide breadth – like International History of the Cold War – or way back in history, like the Roman Empire (guilty of majoring in IA and minoring in Classics). So while I learned about the Vietnam War quite often, it was never in depth enough to know about the role Laos played – and the effects the country still faces today.

VERY simply put, in what was called “the Secret War,” U.S. troops heavily bombed Laos during the Vietnam War in order to try to damage the Ho Chi Minh Trail. (This is a massive simplification – you and I both know that events have far more causes and effects, for both sides, than can be boiled down to a few words).

What is easy to describe, but not easy to swallow, is the impact that the bombings continue to have on the nation. See, a lot of bombs didn’t go off when they hit the ground. A quarter of villages in Laos are still contaminated with UXOs; post-war, 20,000 people have been killed or injured by bombs, 40% of them children.

A number of international groups and a government national group are tasked with clearing the lands and diffusing the bombs, which I am sure you can appreciate takes a lot of time. In the meantime, despite the education people receive on the UXOs, people are killed and injured far too often. Some find a bomb and try to sell the scrap metal for pennies to feed their family for three months. Some are simply farming and hit a bomb by accident. Some people have even been killed when they have been cooking over a fire in their house, not realizing a bomb – activated by heat – is buried below.

I learned all of this when I paid a visit to the COPE Center in Vientiane, an educational and rehabilitation center for amputees. What surprised me is the lack of blaming that I saw in the exhibits – the U.S. was referenced maybe only once or twice, and never in a negative way, simply factual. (This is in contrast to the Lao National Museum, which only referred to the U.S. as the “U.S. Imperialists.” It’s cool, guys.

I know this isn’t chipper or shiny, but it’s the truth about Laos. Despite the horrors that the country faced, there’s still hope, especially with the help of centers like COPE.

Sculpture made out of old bomb metal…

And yes, the U.S. has done terrible things to other countries. But I’ve never seen the point of feeling ashamed about what my country did in its past. What is important is the positive impact that I can have in the future. More than ever, I’m loving my role in life as an educator. There’s so much I don’t know about the horrors of human history, but by educating myself and then educating others… maybe, just maybe, I can have an impact. When you travel, I encourage you to peek under the tourist veneer and learn more about the heartbeat of the country – its scars and its spirit.

Kristen’s Exercise Series: Colors of Chiang Mai

After doing the delightful night tour of Bangkok by bicycle in my first few days in the country, I decided to give it a go in its neighbor to the north, Chiang Mai. This time around, I booked a half day trip cycling around the northern Thai countryside in the early morning (well, early for someone who has been unemployed for the last three months, at least…). The conclusion? I’m basically Lance Armstrong, minus the scandal. And some other bits.

So what made this tour so special?

TEMPLES! 

In case you couldn’t guess it, Thailand is full of a lot of temples. I’ve found that these are best viewed in moments of quiet – like what you get when you arrive at one far away from the city center at 9 in the morning.

FOOD! 

The guide totally knew his audience and took us to a number of places for noms, including a market, a bakery, and a candy factory. Besides getting to see the teeniest little puppy on the planet in the bakery, I also got to discover just why diabetes is such a health risk in Thailand (every wonder why pad thai is so delicious? BECAUSE OF THE 15 TABLESPOONS OF SUGAR, THAT’S WHY!).

Not that I’m complaining. After all, eating a sugary butter roll during a bike ride is basically like eating celery – it’s negative calories.

THE LESSER-SEEN THAILAND! 

In addition to the typical sites, we also got to explore some of the bits of Thailand I would have never seen otherwise: rice paddies, cauliflower fields, banana tree plantations.

And my favorite bit, going to a Thai school! Normally I dislike going to places that feel like they are catering to tourists, or where we may be disrupting normal life. But the tour (of a very small group) was timed perfectly to when the kiddos were at recess, and the guide has been coming to this school for the past four years – he’s basically a member of the family. So many little girls came up to him begging to the thrown into the air (which was particularly funny when the older girls, who have known him for years, would come up and demand the same!). The little girls crowded around us while the boys pretended to be too cool for school. I quickly became the “flower lady,” as dozens of giggling girls scampered up to give me a flower and a shy smile – soon my hands were literally overflowing! Of course, going to this school had me itching with dozens of questions about the public/private/religious school divide in Thailand, the system of education, and the tracks from primary to secondary to tertiary education – but the international education nerd in me will just have to look that up 🙂

This tour is also when I had my first This is your life, Kristen moment. Strangely enough, it happened when I was watching the guide throw food to some catfish in a pond (CATFISH!) and laughing. I looked at my clock and realized it was 9am on a Wednesday, and the only thing I was doing – the only thing I had to do, at that moment, was enjoy the simple pleasure of seeing scarily large creepy fish jumping up for food.

After that, we rode down small paths cutting through the fields and past small, simple houses with the sun shining down. Every time we passed someone, they shouted, “Sawatdee!”, smiling and waving vigorously. Everywhere I looked was an explosion of color, as tropical flowers bloomed proudly along the side of the road, and banana trees gracefully lined the path.

This is your life, Kristen.

The Thai Sneak Attack… Updo.

You guys, something weird happened to me in Chiang Mai.

After settling in for a few days, I decided to do a treat-yo’self day (you know… to relax from my busy life of being unemployed) and spring for a spa package. I was promised pick-up and drop-off at my lodging, a body scrub, massage, and facial, all for about 1/4 of what I would pay in the U.S. AWESOME!

On the day, everything seemed to proceed normally – although I did feel a bit overwhelmed by just how accommodating everyone was. It’s Thai culture to give a bow after serving your customer – even for something like at the supermarket – so pump that up to the max at a spa and there I am sitting in my throne, having my feet carefully placed into a flowery water bowl by a kneeling Thai woman.

I blissed out for a couple of hours as my skin became silky-smooth and my limbs turned to rubber. As we wrapped up with my facial, I figured the experience was just about over. NOT SO FAST.

First, the masseuse started to gently untangle my hair. Okay, pretty normal – it was just up in a hairnet for my body scrub (DON’T WORRY I HAVE A PICTURE) and a headband for the facial, so it’s a little tangled.

But soon the untangling grew into a sensation that was very familiar… what…? Why, yes, she IS braiding my hair across the crown of my head. Well, okay, go on then.

I had no idea why it was happening but figured I would go with it. After finishing, she wrapped the blanket around me and gestured for me to sit up… so she could sit behind me on the table in a sort of Thai slumber party and finish the hairdo, of course!

Cue her putting my hair up into an elaborate updo… including flowers tucked into the top, of course.

Then, just when I thought I was leaving… they present me with the most delicious thing to come out of Thailand, mango with sticky rice. And of course my masseuse gently washed my hands with a hot towel, lest I have to do anything myself. Well, I did have to feed myself.

I decided that yes, this was a little weird, but who am I to complain over having an impromptu hair styling session? Plus it meant I was the prettiest girl at yoga that evening!

My Time with the Elephants

After languishing for two weeks on a beautiful beach in Koh Lanta, I knew I wanted to take advantage of the myriad of activities available in and around Chiang Mai. Top of the list? The Elephant Nature Park.

This beautiful park, 60 km outside of Chiang Mai, is a sanctuary for elephants (more on that later). Set in a valley surrounded by mountains and with a river flowing at the foot of the park, it’s easy to see how it got the name of “Elephant Heaven.”

So how did I spend my time with the largest mammals on EARTH?! (To be fair, the Asian elephant is only the second largest land animal, after the African elephant. I was going to make a really off-color joke about that but in deference to my mother, I shan’t. Just know it’s there.)

After being picked up at my hotel and loaded into a van, we took the 1.5 hour bumpy drive out to the conservatory. Our guide briefly explained what we would do and then popped in a video that Animal Planet made on elephants in Thailand, including a highlight of the ENP, to prep us. My favorite part of the video is that the entire time they kept teasing about the “conservatory music video” they would be showing at the end, which was basically just shots of Thailand and elephants rolling through music and credits.

After arriving at the park, we jumped right into feeding time! This basically involved hesitantly putting the food in the elephant’s trunk and then delighting as they stuffed it into their mouths, or rejected it (elephants are quite human-like in that some just don’t have a taste for watermelons or bananas, for example). Also… the inside of an elephant’s trunk feels kind of weird, you guys.

 After that, we did a tour of the sanctuary – including the medical area where we all got to feel an elephant’s tooth, which I think should be added to Clue as a possible murder weapon. It was Colonel Mustard, in the library, with the ELEPHANT’S TOOTH!

One of the highlights? A very hairy baby elephant had been born four months ago! A few fun facts:

1) This may not be true for all elephants, but at the park a lot of the babies will have both their elephant mom and an elephant nanny who basically decides to be an auntie to the baby, and they all hang out together and protect the baby. I can’t wait for Hollywood to make the movie Elephant Nanny, personally.

2) It’s pretty impossible for us to know if elephants are pregnant – they can assume if the elephant is getting fatter and her breasts are, you know, milky, but they don’t really know – and didn’t know in this case – until the kid pops out. I’ve heard this one before.

After tucking in to a delicious vegetarian Thai buffet, we came to the main event: bathing the elephants. Essentially this involved standing in the river and throwing buckets of water over them.

 At one point, someone in our group mused, “Do you ever think the elephants are like, ‘…Why are these humans doing something to me I can do myself?'” But as they sat there munching on their watermelons while getting bathed, I thought, you know, I wouldn’t mind that lifestyle.

So why does this sanctuary exist? Despite the veneration elephants receive in Thai culture, and the important role they have played in Thai history – both warfare and work – they have an exceptionally tough life. The elephant population in Thailand has dropped 95% over the past century. However, only wild elephants are counted as endangered; domesticated elephants are considered livestock and have little to no rights, and there are very few legal punishments for misuse or abuse.

As logging was made illegal in the late 1980s, elephants who previously had been used for work have been shifted to tourism – trekking, rides, and street begging. However, the methods used to break the elephants of their connections to their mothers and make them submissive is absolutely horrifying. I won’t preach at you, but I encourage you to do your own research into the technique known as elephant crushing.

Anyway, the vast majority of elephants who have been rescued by ENP had pretty tough lives before – broken backs from giving rides (or from men elephants getting too rough with the females…), broken legs from logging or chains, blindness from their cruel owners shooting rocks into their eyes to try to get them to work faster, or from the lights at elephant shows. You can see the previously broken back of one of our elephants below – once they are broken, they can’t be reformed back into proper shape.

So to round out this kind-of-depressing post… I’m so glad I did this. It was by far the most expensive thing I’ve done on this trip, but knowing what the money goes towards – and seeing how happy these elephants are – made it worth it. Once these elephants get to the sanctuary, they get an awesome life of just romping around, forming herds, eating, and getting love.

 THE END.