Walking with Elephants

Elephant Nature Park, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Elephant Nature Park, Chiang Mai, Thailand

The day we left home, a full year stretched out endlessly before us.  I’d noted the halfway point…barely; too mesmerized by Rwanda’s turbulent beauty to truly appreciate the milestone.  For the last nine months we’d lived almost exclusively in the present — our minds swirled, permanently suspended in sensory overload, with the vibrancy of each new destination.  Now, we entered the autumn of our travels and, grounded again by the concreteness of our inevitable return, our appreciation of each incredible moment was heightened even further.

We took a deep breath on our arrival in Chiang Mai, Thailand.  The air was cooler and invigorating.  The ever-present dusty heat of Cambodia gave way to verdant, rolling hills — the “mountains” of Northern Thailand.  Chiang Mai is a small city whose Buddhist temples and yoga studios are the yin to the yang of buzzing markets and increasing numbers of tourists and ex-pats.

There are plenty of cozy backpacker havens in Thailand, but we were drawn to Chiang Mai by a woman, Sangduen “Lek” Chailert.  Lek opened the Elephant Nature Park (ENP) in 1996.  Her tireless quest to save the Asian elephant and to change traditional attitudes toward animal cruelty made her Time Magazine’s 2005 Asian Hero of the Year.  The backstory to Elephant Nature Park is a long and brutal one which I’ll abridge.  Suffice it to say, elephants don’t volunteer to carry tourists on their backs or dance in the streets. Continue reading

Freckles and Sweat

the Southern Gate of Bayon Temple

the Southern Gate of Bayon Temple

At 5am I reached over to switch off the alarm.  The pitch black darkness was pure — unbroken by street lights, traffic noise, or industry.  I lay back in bed as the disorientation of deep sleep gradually lifted.

Where am I?  Soft bed…nice sheets…must be a hotel.  And if we can afford a hotel…hmmmm…..Southeast Asia. 

Too quiet for Vietnam….we’re not in Laos….I don’t hear any chickens.  

Ok, must be Cambodia then…..Siem Reap?  Yep, Siem Reap. Continue reading

Angkor Wat

Sunrise at Angkor Wat

Sunrise at Angkor Wat

We left Phnom Penh early the next morning aboard a bus bound for Siem Reap.  It was one of the nicest and cleanest buses we’ve ever been on.  Wireless was included (although it didn’t work), along with movies, air conditioning, and even seat belts.  It only cost $10 for the six-hour journey, but the trade-off was frequent and unnecessary stops at restaurants and shops owned by the bus company, which extended the trip by an extra hour and a half.  Still, it was a comfortable and safe, minus the moment we fishtailed to a stop in order to avoid a stray cow wandering on the highway. Continue reading

Killing Fields

Genocide Victims at the Killing Fields

Genocide Victims at the Killing Fields

From peaceful Laos we moved on to frenetic Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia.  We needed a break from the tourist trail, so we spent our first night chilling at Flicks, a hipster movie theater tucked into a converted house near the Mekong River.  There were a few rows of chairs, but Mandy and I preferred sprawling out on a mattress in the front.  Drinks and coconut milk curries were hustled up from the bar & restaurant below as Django Unchanged (amazing movie) played on the big screen.  Every five minutes, the words “thank you for your consideration” flashed across the screen, which, Mandy informed me, meant we were watching a bootlegged copy of the version provided to Oscar judges.  Oh well, it wouldn’t be Southeast Asia without a little movie piracy, right? Continue reading