Tag Archives: exotic vacation

An Elephant Caretaker (Mahout) For The Day

6 May

Probably the most amazing experience we had while living in Thailand was visiting Baan Chang Elephant Park.  They rescue elephants and protect them from poachers who are willing to kill them  for money.  They also take in elephants who worked in the logging industry and are no longer able to.  We were able to get up close and personal with the elephants, feed them, ride them and bath them.   It was such a great experience that we want to share  it with you.

There are a few elephant rescue organizations in Chiang Mai and we decided on this one based on cost and good reviews from Trip Advisor.  This sanctuary  is serious about protecting and preserving the Asian elephants from poachers.  Each elephant has its own handler, called a “mahout”.  The mahouts live on the property to care for the elephants 24 hrs a day.  When we arrived, it was explained to us that the elephants are chained to an area for several reasons:

  1. To not walk off in the jungle and be killed
  2. To not wander into the village and cause any harm
  3. To not fight and kill one another
Our guide getting bananas ready

Our guide getting bananas ready

They do exercise the elephants 3 times a day, but until they can gain more funding to buy more land, this is the best protection for them.  They provided us a change of clothes as caring for elephants is dirty business.

Ron feeding bananas to an elephant

Ron feeding bananas to an elephant

We were first given a large basket of banana bunches and pieces of sugar cane to give to the elephants as their snack.  We were told to hold out the banana bunch to them and place it on their trunk and they will grab them and put them in their mouth.  So, we grabbed as many bananas as we could and set off to feed the elephants that were in the far back.  As we were passing the other elephants, they would stick their trunks out to us hoping to have some of our bananas, so we fed them on the way to the back and realized we didn’t have much left after passing all the “beggar” elephants and had to go back and replenish.  The elephants really enjoyed the bananas.  One of them didn’t want the bananas in his trunk, so he let it drop to the ground.  His mahout said he likes to be fed in his mouth, so Ron picked up the bananas and put them directing into his mouth!

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Dee feeding sugar cane to the elephant

After snack time, we practiced how to sit on an elephant bareback (touristy places have bamboo seats that we were told actually harm the elephants), the commands  to make him turn, move forward and stop. The command to make your elephant lay down is “nah long”.  You have to repeat it and do it loudly and your elephant will kneel down so you can climb on.  It was a bit scary at first sitting 2 stories high on such a large animal, but you get use to it quickly.   One of the elephants we were practicing with walked up to the tree in front of us and started scratching herself like a dog would scratch on a post.  She even wiggled her behind.  She was very funny to watch.

After lunch we were ready for our trek into the jungle on our elephants!  Ron and I shared an elephant and once we got on, off we went.

Riding bareback

Riding bareback

The mahout led us as we walked the path into the jungle following the other people in our group on their elephants.  We stopped after a half hour to give the elephants (and us) a break.  When we finished the trek,  we walked the elephants to a pond where we were each given a bucket and brushes to brush down our elephants.  They really seemed to enjoy this since it was quite hot out and they know their routine that dinner comes next.

Our mahout ordered our elephant to lay down in the water and we got along side her and brushed her in the water.  I decided to climb on top of her and brush her from up there and after 10 minutes or so, without warning, she stood up with me on her!  I was like, “whoa, where ya going?!” But our mahout ordered her to lay back down which she did.  Afterwards the facility provides a simple shower for you to get cleaned up and back into your dry clothes.  As all animals, these are amazing creatures and we are grateful at the opportunity we had to meet them up close.  Here are some more pictures from our day:

Riding along

Riding along

Bath time

Bath time

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Goooood Morning Vietnam!!

9 Apr

Why Vietnam, you say?  Well, we flew 18 hours to Thailand and decided while we are here for 3 months, we should take advantage of seeing more of Southeast Asia.  Who knows when we will make the trip back, right?  Okay, okay, but that doesn’t answer why VIETNAM?  Well, from what we’ve read and the people we have talked to who have been there have said, its suppose to be a cool place to visit.  Nice beaches, affordable, friendly locals, so we said, why not?

Map of Southeast Asia

Map of Southeast Asia

Just so you have an idea of where we are, on the map you’ll see the mainland of Thailand.  If you look at the peninsula to the left and follow that south, there is an island called Phuket.  We are currently living in Phuket in a town called Kamala.  We flew from Phuket south to Malaysia to transfer to a flight to Ho Chi Min City.  From there we flew just into Nha Trang, Vietnam.

Nha Trang beach

Nha Trang beach

Nha Trang is a seaside resort town with wide sidewalks, coffee shops, long uncrowded beaches and inexpensive food and lodging.  It has the feel of being in a European beach town. Since Vietnam was ruled by France for years, it till holds a European charm to it.  What we noticed here vs. Phuket were more coffee shops and seaside cafes  for relaxing and people watching had replaced the many bars that are the norm throughout Phuket.

DSCN1903Our plan in Nha Tran was to just chill out for a few days.  We sat by the pool, used the hotel sauna and jacuzzi and read.  Since playing golf in Phuket could cost you over $150pp to play, we decided to try golf in Vietnam instead.    So, we took a ferry across to a resort called VinPearl where every hole has a view of water.  It was a gorgeous course.

Ron teeing off while his caddie watches

Ron teeing off while his caddie watches

We were required to use caddies, however.  It was my first experience of someone handing me a club they suggested I use and placing my ball for putts.  We had a very enjoyable if not HOT day on the course.  One note of interest:  Asian women go to great lengths to keep from the sun.  They do not want to be tan at all, so we noticed the majority of them out during the day wear a face mask, similar to a surgical mask and long sleeves to cover their skin.  In the stores I noticed beauty products specifically for “whitening” your skin.

IMG_3475We spent the evenings walking around Nha Trang.  Along the beach is a park with walking paths, pine trees and benches.  This is where we found a lot of locals enjoying the evening with their families.  There are night markets you can stroll through and more inexpensive restaurants to choose from than you’ll ever need.

Dinner at Texas BBQ

Dinner at Texas BBQ

Since we’ve been away for a couple of months now, Ron was craving for some “home cooking”.  We found a Texas BBQ restaurant online that received great reviews.  So, we took a long walk one evening and tried it.  The owner is American, been living in Vietnam for years and had a bustling business.  Ron ordered the rib and chicken platter and I ordered the chicken quesadilla.  We were in heaven!  We liked it so much we returned another night.  Our other favorite restaurant was called Lanterns.   It’s a Vietnamese restaurant that is highly popular.  We haven’t had Vietnamese food before but decided we loved it.

Dinner at Lanterns Restaurant

Dinner at Lanterns Restaurant

Lots of fresh fish, lemongrass, spices, etc.  We found in Phuket a lot of local restaurants cook by frying and the Vietnamese cook more by steaming their meats and fish.  The food prices were less expensive in Vietnam and interestingly, most of Asia uses chopsticks to eat with and Thailand does not.  Story goes the King went to Europe and saw the Europeans using forks and spoons and liked it so much that when he returned he started the trend in Thailand.

We next headed to Ho Chi Min City.  It was previously known as Saigon until the end of the Vietnam war when the city was renamed after a general.  Most of the people still refer to it as Saigon.  We had 2 days of non stop tours here.

Pine, our Saigon tour guide.

Pine, our Saigon tour guide.

On the day we arrived, we had booked a free city tour with Saigon Hotspot.  The company offers free tours with university students to enable them to use and improve their English speaking ability.

Our guides name was Pine.  He was also employed at the US Embassy in Saigon. He took us to the Unification Palace, the War Remnants Museum, the Notre Dame Cathedral and an indoor flea market in the city.  One interesting thing we noticed was the amount of scooters in Saigon!  Most locals cannot afford a car so they drive scooters.  This creates an insane amount of scooter traffic on the roads.  The city has “tourist police” set up to help the tourists cross the road because doing so is very daunting.

Having Pho for lunch and using chop sticks!

Having Pho for lunch and using chop sticks!

Here’s how you do it:  You wait for a small break in the scooter traffic and step out.  At this point you are committed to continue and surprisingly the flow of traffic will move around you as you cross the street. It’s definitely not for the faint of heart!!

I wanted to try a traditional Vietnamese dish called Pho (pronounced Fa) for lunch.  It’s  a simple broth soup with noodles and either chicken or beef.  Pine took us to his favorite restaurant and we all had the same thing for lunch with soda and beer for $12.

Saigon Arts Building

Saigon Arts Building

The city of Saigon was pretty cool.  It reminded me of an older Spanish city with tiled sidewalks, small shops, bistros and even some very modern skyscrapers.  Our hotel was in the center of the tourist district, easy walking to all the sights and restaurants.

Luis Vuitton

Louis Vuitton

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Our Sheraton hotel in Saigon

There were some high end stores I didn’t expect to see in Vietnam like Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Coach, etc just around the corner.  We had no problem with the language as most of the younger people spoke English and were very warm and helpful.

IMG_0860Our next tour was with Tiger Tours.  It was a 4 hour evening food crawl to local restaurants around Saigon.  We each had our own guide on a scooter and drove to 5 different restaurants and an outdoor flower market.  On our first stop at a restaurant that has been in business for 30 years,  we had a platter to make Vietnamese Nems.

Vietnamese Nems -spring rolls.

Vietnamese Nems -spring rolls.

You take a piece of rice paper and load it with the lettuce, herbs, meats on the platter you want and roll it up.  Then you dip it in either the sweet or spicy sauce and enjoy.  We loved this!  So after a few of these and some beer, our “drivers” took us to the next restaurant to try some local dishes sitting among the locals.  The girls ask us what we’d like to try after describing some of the dishes.

Dinner on our food tour

Dinner on our food tour

We could have tried a delicacy called “duck eggs”.  It’s a custom to eat a duck egg with a baby duck inside…Blah!  No way we were that adventurous, but we did opt for the goat udder.  Let me explain.  They brought out a tabletop bbq and cooked small thin pieces of marinated goat udder with okra for us.  Well, we tried it.  The taste was fine, the texture was rubbery so we didn’t try any more.

Prawns on the bbq

Prawns on the bbq

Next up: prawns on the barbie!  Out comes a platter of freshly skewered prawns who were still ALIVE!  They cooked them over the bbq, peeled them, gave us the dipping spices and we liked them.  We had scallops on the 1/2 shell that were awesome, fresh sugar cane juice, seasoned crab claws until we couldn’t eat any longer.  We next took a scooter ride through the flower market.  As most of the population is Buddhist, it is their custom to pray with flowers a few times a month so flower markets are a popular inexpensive alternative to flower shops.

Having dinner with the locals.

Having dinner with the locals.

And finally we reached Ron’s favorite food…dessert!   A lot of the desserts are fruits set in coconut milk over ice or gelled coconut milk served back in the coconut.  It was interesting and different.

Fruits in a glass of iced coconut milk.

Fruits in a glass of iced coconut milk.

We passed so many outdoor restaurants where the locals sit outside on kindergarten size tables and chairs and eat their meals that I asked our guides if most locals eat out or cook in.  She said most people eat out.

Saigon River Tour

Saigon River Tour

Our final tour was a daylong boat trip on the Mekong Delta on the Saigon river to head an hour outside the city to visit a local village, see inside someone’s home, try rice whiskey, visit an orphanage run by monks and enjoy lunch made by them.  We had a very enjoyable day leaving the city and seeing farms, rice paddies, farmer’s markets and learning that families all live together in their homes, all of the generations.  We met a 90 year old blind grandmother, her daughter, and her baby.

DSCN2034We stopped at a small village bar and did shots of rice whiskey!  The locals were warm and welcoming to us.  An elderly man was so intrigued by us, he started to follow us down the path!

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Buddhist temple outside Saigon

We were sorry to leave Vietnam.  We  had only just started to explore the south and decided we will need to return some day to visit the quaint trading port of Hoi Ann, who every 14th of the lunar month trades electricity for lanterns, the beautiful waters of Halong Bay and the big city of Hanoi.

If you notice the shoes outside the temple at the entrance, its a custom we’ve found in Thailand and in temples throughout Asia that people remove their shoes before entering someone’s home.

Dinner at Ciao Bella in Saigon

Dinner at Ciao Bella in Saigon

We met a lot of backpackers in Vietnam. It was interesting to hear what they are doing, where they have already been and what’s next on their agenda.  A lot of them are from Australia.  What surprised us the most was that we came across more Americans in Vietnam that we have in Phuket, Thailand.

Our last meal in Vietnam at Ciao Bella

Our last meal in Vietnam at Ciao Bella

On our last night, we found a wonderful Italian restaurant right down the street from our hotel.  The owner is from the U.K., but use to live and work in California.  He then opened a restaurant in NYC but had to return to the U.K. for family reasons before heading out to open his restaurant called Ciao Bella in Saigon where the food is just as good as any Italian food I’ve had in the US but for 1/2 the cost, of course.  Until next time Vietnam…

Up next: Chiang Mai and Bangkok, Thailand.