Category Archives: Thailand
We were greeted at the Phuket airport by a driver from our hotel, the Avista Hideaway Resort. When we arrived at the hotel 45 minutes later we were handed a cold towel, fresh pineapple and fresh juice as we waited for check in. It had been decided that the Phuket portion of the trip would be our luxurious relaxation honeymoon time so we splurged and got a room next to the pool.
The Fancy Honeymoon Suite
What we didn’t know was that a friend who had stayed at the same hotel a couple weeks prior had told the hotel staff that it was our honeymoon and they had fully prepared the room. We had a drawn bubble bath with rose petals in the bathroom, a slice of cake and a bottle of wine waiting next to a bowl of fresh fruit and some flowers on the bed as well! Most importantly, we were able to walk directly out of our room into the pool where we had personal lounge chairs! Everything was so fancy.
Exploring The Hotel
We had gotten into the hotel late the night before so we took the next day to relax and wander the hotel grounds. The hotel breakfast was lush and where our obsession with passion fruit began. After eating, we wandered around checking out the many pool options. The breakfast dining area looked out over a large infinity pool and then, even further, to a nearby beach. There was also an “adults only” pool and a very fancy spa like you would see in a magazine with little platforms where the massage beds rise just out of a pool of sparkling water. We decided we better try the infinity pool just outside our room first. We spent the day relaxing by the pool and drinking from the swim-up bar.
Patong and Phuket
In the evening we ventured out to Patong. Our resort was a 10 minute drive from the main street so we took the free shuttle they provided. Walking along the streets we took in all of the food and souvenirs for sale. Patong is so full of tourists it would be easy to forget you were in Thailand. About 10 minutes in it started raining and about 2 minutes later we were caught in a torrential downpour. We got drenched. Some sweet old lady managed to rip us off and sell us ponchos for way too much money. It’s hard to even be mad, that’s just good business. We didn’t stay out long because wet clothes aren’t very comfortable but we did get dinner at a lovely little restaurant. AJ got pineapple fried rice that was just ok but I got Tom Kha Gai soup that was TO DIE FOR!!
Island Hopping with Captain Mark
We had an all day adventure planned next so it was a good thing we had rested the 2 days prior. A driver from Captain Mark’s Tours picked us up at our hotel and we drove a solid 2 hours to the East coast of Phuket Island. We were on a boat with about 10 other people and the bay was gorgeous! Our first stop was a private beach where we could swim in the warm, clear waters.
Monkeys and Mangroves
Our next stop was an island covered in monkeys. We walked and waded through a watery cave into a lagoon with mangroves and steep cliffs! The mangroves were beautiful and there were walking fish in all of the little pools. At our next stop we moved into canoes that were paddled by some of the locals. Our paddler specifically pointed at AJ and wanted to take him in a canoe. His name was Bob Marley, or so he said, and he was quite the character. He was talking to all the other paddlers and joking with us and everyone we passed. He paddled us through caves and lagoons and other hidden places.
The next stop was “James Bond Island” which is known for being in one of the movies. We did not go ashore and am so glad we didn’t because we could see how busy it was from the boat. We did a quick little drive-by and our guides made us pose for some touristy pictures.
Muslim Stilt Village
For lunch, we boated over to a Muslim stilt village. This was one of my favorite parts of the day because the history was so interesting. It also helped that it was a photographer’s paradise. Lunch was very good and had several traditional dishes to choose from. After lunch we took a quick tour through the village with our guide.
The entire village is on the water. The structures are either on stilts or literally floating on barrels. It is also entirely Muslim so there is no alcohol and people dress very modestly. There is a little market, mostly for the tourists, and the first floating soccer field! After the tour we wandered around and took in the sights. It is such a unique place and it has its own gorgeous golden mosque just floating right in the middle of the village.
On the way back to land we made another quick stop at another private island where we spent some time snorkeling and swimming. It was a very long day but it was so great. The weather and the water were perfect and it was a great addition to our relaxing island vacation.
Bangla Street and Phuket Town
The rest of our time in Phuket was mainly spent relaxing at the hotel pools and nearby beaches. We took another trip down to Patong Beach and Bangla Street, where all of the tourist and evening shenanigans take place. You know those videos online and those stories you hear about the sex workers doing weird shows and shooting things, like ping pong’s, out of their bodies? That’s Bangla Street and it actually offers more than that but it is definitely all about the night life. We also made a trip to the Phuket Town night market our last night in town. It had the most amazing street food! We also found a very drunk old man that was carving these amazing elephants out of teak. My gorgeous elephant ended up being my favorite souvenir from the trip!
The ground began to rumble beneath me as the pack of elephants raised their trunks in distress. The day had started so calm and I had started to become familiar with these magnificent animals. As the intensity rose I was quickly reminded of their sheer power and wild nature.
But let’s start at the beginning many months ago during the planning phase of this trip. And in fact, even before that, when I began to imagine my “dream honeymoon”.
Elephants have always fascinated me. On a prior trip to a wildlife refuge in Ghana these mysterious creatures had eluded me for 3 days on safari. I was as devastated as you could be after spending 3 days on a Ghanaian Safari (so not that devastated because it was still an incredible experience, the warthogs comforted me). Thailand was my chance at redemption. Although these would not technically be “wild” elephants they would be astonishing.
I researched hard as I would encourage you to do as well. Responsible tourism is hugely important and although there is a ton of misinformation about “humane” elephant riding, it is exactly that…misinformation. Let’s make one thing clear right now, THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS HUMANE ELEPHANT RIDING. I love elephants with all my heart, I am intrigued and mesmerized by them and the last thing I wanted to do was to ride one. To witness them in the wild, to see how they live, to romp through the forest and bathe in the river, THAT is really experiencing an elephant. That is seeing an elephant as it is and respecting its dignity. That is what Elephant Nature Park (ENP) provides.
An True Elephant Sanctuary
Your Elephant Nature Park experience will begin, as it should at any wildlife rescue, with education. The ride from Chiang Mai into the forest is about 90 minutes. This time is wisely used to show a video about the park itself and its mission as well as Lek, the founder of this paradise. It’s a tearjerker and a little tough to watch but it is important to know the elephant’s backstories in order to appreciate their present circumstances.
As the video finished and we continued to drive further and further into the Thai jungle I reflected on the experience I was about to have. There are several options to choose from when you book with ENP but for me it was a no-brainer. There are few things I have anticipated more than this and I was prepared to spend as much time as I could here. The thick jungle greenery banged against the van windows waking me from my thoughts as we pulled off the road next to a small hut. The excitement in the air was tangible as we stepped out of the van. We haphazardly applied sunscreen and bug spray, in a rush to get to the main event.
It’s Elephant Time Baby
There was nothing… The river running next to the hut was deafening, where are the elephants? Please don’t tell me I am going to miss them again, I don’t know if my heart can take it!
In hindsight this was the perfect way to begin the day. We were waiting on them. These elephants were just going about their normal daily activities with their pack and their mahouts. We were observers, this wasn’t about us and this wasn’t about me. We were being invited into their lives; it was a privilege not a right. Their morning walk through the forest was a leisurely one; after all they were in no hurry to see me, why would they be? I was on elephant time now and things were going to slooooooow down.
CRASH. SNAP. THUMP. They had arrived.
My heart skipped a beat. Through the lush, overgrown forest a line of striking Asian elephants began to emerge. They were coming right at me! No wait, they were definitely coming towards the 5 picnic tables stacked with mini watermelons and bananas. This feast would serve as a morning snack for the 4 large female elephants and 1 elephant calf tromping their way to the clearing. As they got closer and closer it became obvious that a human companion, their mahout, followed each elephant.
If you are looking for the coolest job in the entire world look no further than the elephant mahout. I like to think I was one in a former life, maybe that would explain the elephant obsession. If not that, then I’m keeping my fingers crossed for a future life. A mahout is a caretaker and a friend. Each elephant is given a mahout and each mahout an elephant. They spend all day, everyday together and form a very special bond. At ENP, even the mahouts do not ride the elephants.
What followed next was a feeding frenzy. Ok not really. The elephants were actually very polite. In all honesty they did better than I do when faced with a table full of fresh fruit. The adult elephants stood behind a wooden rail as we hand fed them. Both parties were a little nervous at first. After all a leathery trunk wrapping around your hand is a strange sensation. However it is not quite as strange as what happened when the elephants got more comfortable. If you move in a little closer you can drop the fruit directly into the elephants mouth. What you come away with is a fist full of drool.
A Stroll Through The Forest With An Elephant or 5
Once the picnic tables had been cleared it was time for the elephants to continue their walk. The mahouts “led” their pachyderm pals into the jungle as our group followed along. I use the word “led” lightly because the mahouts were definitely NOT the ones in charge. The elephants wandered through the jungle stopping to eat any tasty greenery, or scratch at any particularly appealing tree. The elephant calf was especially distracted and would turn around right in the middle of the path when something caught her eye.
It was a leisurely stroll indeed but one where you had to watch your toes or risk getting stepped on by one of the largest animals in world. An hour wander and it was time for the humans to eat lunch. One of the local ENP employees used to be a chef and he made an incredible meal of traditional Thai food. The green papaya salad had an incredibly spicy yet tangy sauce and the fresh egg rolls were to die for. Even the elephants agreed!
They had been waiting nearby for us to finish eating (very impatiently I’m sure) and when we had almost finished they found their way back over to finish off the left overs. Just like humans they have their own sense of taste. This particular elephant LOVED the egg rolls but did not like tomatoes. With bellies full and enough photos of our elephant picnic to fill an album we walked another 30 minutes back to the original jungle hut.
An Afternoon Dunk
In my research of elephant rescue facilities most offered a jungle trek and feeding time. One thing that made ENP stand out was the river bathing experience. In some of their packages it is possible to bathe with an elephant in a river. How is this not the coolest thing ever? Whatever you are picturing in your mind, it is going to be better than that and here is why. Elephants LOVE the water! This is where you really get to see their goofy personalities shine. If you are lucky you will have a calf on your trip because that girl was a hot mess. Rolling in mud, splashing everyone around her, and just having a grand ‘ole time, she had been waiting all day for this.
In fact each one of the elephants laid down completely in the river to fully soak in the mud and water. If you think they’re big standing up, they REALLY seem big lying down at your feet. Keep an eye out and try not to get crushed. The cool river water feels fantastic after the hot and humid jungle walk. That sticky layer of sweat, sunscreen and bug spray washes right off.
* As of April 2018 bathing with the elephants is no longer allowed but they have built a viewing platform where you can watch the elephants enjoying themselves in the water.
The Elephant Nature Park Facility
A quick change into some dry clothes and you will be on your way to see the full ENP facility that spreads over 25 acres. The number of animals fluctuates regularly but we saw around 25 elephants as well as a huge pack of rescue dogs. There are several things lying around for the elephants to do but their favorite activity seemed to be picking at the palm frond umbrellas that were providing shade in the heat of the day. That seems like a terrible idea.
There were tires and ropes for them to play with and wherever there was an elephant you did not have to look far to see a mahout hanging around. To pass the time the mahouts carve beautifully realistic elephant statues out of wood. These are for sale later in the gift shop.
Whatever You Do, Don’t Get Separated From The Big Elephants!
Standing in an open field the ground beneath us began to shake. We turned to look as several large elephants from a pack began to run in different directions. Our tour guide motioned for us to stay still and be quiet. My heart was beating out of my chest. So this is it huh? Trampled by a pack of elephants in Thailand? Honestly that’s not so bad, it would at least make for a good story. Tell Pogo I love him.
The noise that had been shaking the ground was now deafening in my ears. It was like nothing I had ever heard or felt and I had no idea what the hell was happening. I turned my head slowly, ever so slowly, towards the elephants. Hey if I’m going to get trampled I at least want to watch it happen ok?
One of the elephant calves has wandered off and gotten too far from the pack. They had lost sight of her and freaked out! The loud trumpeting and vibration was a warning sign from the pack and a way for the calf to find it’s way back. The calf immediately turned on its heels and made a beeline back trumpeting as loud as it could. I imagine it was saying, “Here I am!! I’m sorry, I’m sorry!!!!” As soon as the pack made eye contact they began running towards the calf at full speed. The ground continued to shake now as several elephants sprinted towards their baby.
Elephant 101: How To Protect An Elephant Calf
As soon as they met in the middle the calf was surrounded by big ‘ole elephant butts. The elephants created a circle, butts in, trunks out to protect the little one. They rumbled and hit the ground with their trunks to show they were ready to fight to protect their baby. It worked I was frozen in place, super intimidated.
If there is one thing I regret not getting a video of it is this experience. My husband is a nature documentary aficionado and I’m not sure if I have just never seen that documented or if it just can’t be done justice on the TV screen.
When my heart rate decreased and my legs would let me walk again we finished our tour. That’s one hell of a way to end the day!
Chiang Mai Is Adorable
The first thing we noticed when we arrived in Chiang Mai was a sharp increase in temperature and humidity. We set out exploring the town and were amazed by the sheer number of temples everywhere. You can barely walk half a block without running into at least one temple. Once you get a closer look and notice the detail in each one, they become even more impressive.
We ate lunch at a local restaurant near our hotel where we tried the Koi Sap, which is a specialty of Northern Thailand. The restaurant was owned and operated by a Thai lady-boy making the experience even more legit for sure. We spent the evening just wandering and exploring before taking it down for the night. We knew we had to be up super early the next morning.
It was a late morning in Chiang Mai, Thailand. They day before had been so exciting so we opted to sleep in. It was supposed to be the big day for the lantern festivals but it was proving difficult to find any specific information about the events. There are 2 festivals that coincide and often get mixed up: the Yi Peng lantern festival and the Loi Krathong festival. Loi Krathong is celebrated by sending floating lanterns down the rivers and waterways. Yi Peng is celebrated with the paper lanterns that have fire in the center that are let off into the sky to float away.
Hot Air Balloon Competition
The large tourist Yi Peng ceremony had been canceled this year but that’s all the information we had. The hotel had given us a vague pamphlet about events listing a hot air balloon competition so we decided to check it out. The competition was pretty cool because different teams had made these “hot air balloons” which they filled with air from a fan. They then connected fireworks to the bottom and let them go into the sky. At some point the fireworks would go off and go shooting around the balloon!
We didn’t stay long because there were a ton of people and it was very hot. Instead, we wandered the streets stumbling upon many hidden gems. We found several markets and some tasty snacks before heading back to the hotel for a nap. It was likely going to be a late night and I was determined to find more info regarding the evening events that I knew were happening.
Water Lantern Release
Once it started to get dark we caught a tuk-tuk to a temple on the northeast part of Chiang Mai. My research determined that this is where a lot of activity was supposed to be happening. There were hundreds of people there when we arrived sending their floating lanterns down the river so we did that. Our hotel had given us a floating lantern with our room! We hung around and watched others for a while but we were definitely on the hunt for the sky lanterns.
Searching For Sky Lanterns
Just a short walk down the street was a talent/beauty contest for young girls called the Ms. Yi Peng Competition. The girls were singing and dancing and were dressed in stunning outfits! There was street food everywhere so even though we didn’t have an exact plan we were happy! We happened upon a bridge as it started to get even darker and noticed someone releasing a sky lantern! We walked over and as soon as we got there the police came and made them put out the fire and confiscated the lantern. A local person nearby told us that the cop had said no sky lanterns were to be released until 9:00pm.
On the hunt for food again but on our way we found another bridge. This time there were TONS of sky lanterns being released and it appeared as if the cops had mostly given up. We got very excited and tried to find where to buy the paper sky lanterns! They had been sold on the streets all around but now that we wanted one they were nowhere to be found! It turns out the cops had decided to stop people from selling the lanterns by writing tickets and confiscating them. We were determined to not let that stop us!
SKY LANTERN RELEASE
After much searching and sneaky talking we got our hands on 2 paper lanterns FINALLY! There were so many lanterns covering the sky it just seemed to go on forever. It was such an amazing thing to be a part of and the energy was electric, definitely an unforgettable experience. We stood on the bridge for a long time watching people light their lanterns and then float into the darkness. It was absolutely everything it was cracked up to be.
Will The Lantern Festivals Occur Next Year?
I don’t know all the details on why selling the lanterns was illegal. I do know there are rumors about Chiang Mai trying to stop the festival because it has simply gotten out of hand. After attending I can see why. There were people shooting fireworks off the bridge at the other people below, a firework definitely came whizzing past my head at one point. There were also lanterns getting stuck in trees, power lines, stop lights, buildings and anything else you can think of. In the morning there were partially burned paper lanterns EVERYWHERE.
I can understand the headache that the whole thing would cause and the massive tourism of the events has only exacerbated the situation I am sure. But the bridge was also filled with locals who seemed to also be enjoying the festivities so I hope that rampant tourism doesn’t ruin it for everyone. It would be such a shame to have that lovely event disappear because it was nothing short of magical.
The last 2 days in Chiang Mai were completely planned on the spot. On day 1 we chose to go white water rafting. The following day, we opted for a trip to a tribal village to see the long neck Karen tribe and to visit Doi Sutheop.
White Water Rafting in Chiang Mai
AJ got to pick the activity for the day and he decided on white water rafting which our hotel concierge set up for us. The tour company picked us up from our hotel and and drove us back up to near Elephant Nature Park (read more about that here). We actually rafted in the same river that we had bathed elephants in 2 days prior. A young couple from England and a guide shared our raft for the day. The river really wasn’t every rough. There were a few parts that got really rocky but nothing too intense. It was slightly disappointing as we were hoping for some more intense rapids. I guess that’s what happens when your only other experience rafting is in Colorado.
We did enjoy talking to the other couple and we also spotted a wild elephant drinking from the river near us! The scenery was beautiful and there was an older woman in one of the other rafts that would fall out every time we hit even mildly rough waters. She was an excellent source of entertainment. It was no ones fault that we were a little bored with the whole thing. We had just finished having 2 of the best vacation days of our lives (Elephants and the lantern festival) so we had high expectations.
Our last day of vacation had arrived. Our flight was late in the evening so we still had time during the day to fill. We decided to go to a tribal village about 45 minutes outside of town. This “village” is definitely set up for tourists and has members of several local tribes selling handmade crafts, wearing traditional clothes and jewelry and living in traditional houses. This was not an actual village of any one tribe.
I definitely went back and forth on this one and if it was something I wanted to support. “Responsible tourism” is something that I try to be very aware of which is why I would never ride an elephant and meticulously researched elephant rescues before landing on ENP. I also don’t give money to begging children as you can usually see their parent standing nearby taking the money from them and I do not want to support the children working instead of being in school. I generally try really hard to do my research and not fall into tourist traps.
Is The Tribal Village the “Right” Choice
AlthoughI would have much preferred to drive further away to go to a legitimate village, we siply did not have the time. The reason why I felt this village was ok is because the tribal people really have almost no way of making money themselves. Most are illiterate or do not speak Thai. Depending on the tribe, they are actually living in Thailand somewhat illegally or undocumented and are therefore unable to work legally. I figured at least this village gave them an opportunity to make money for themselves. I am still not sure if I made the right choice on this one but I tried my best and that’s all I can do.
Tribal Village and the Long Neck Karen Tribe
The village was really cool and we got to see so many interesting things. The craziest thing was the women from the long neck Karen tribe who wear the rings around their necks to make them appear longer. The rings actually push the shoulders and rib cage down making the neck look longer. I felt like I was in a National Geographic magazine because that is never something I thought I would be lucky enough to see in real life. The women are absolutely stunning but you can also tell that they have had a very hard life. Some of the handicrafts they had for sale were incredible and we bought a lot of stuff, both because it was beautiful and because we really wanted to support them.
The Tourist Trap of Doi Sutheop
For our last vacation activity we chose to go to a temple about 15 minutes from the town center called Doi Sutheop. This is one of the most famous temples in Chiang Mai because it is very large and at the very top of a mountain providing sweeping views of the city. Talk about a major tourist trap and disappointment. There were so many people at this temple that you could barely see a thing without people or a tourist group running in to you. The views of the city were great but the temple itself did not seem like anything special. In my opinion, some of the temples in town were much more interesting and well preserved.
Overall, it was pretty lame and an unfortunate way to end the trip. Not that we can really complain since we did so many amazing things! I think a lot of people probably would have liked it but we generally try to stay off the beaten path a bit more.
THAILAND IS AMAZING!!
It is pretty safe to say that Thailand was absolutely amazing and we would come back in a heartbeat! GO TO THAILAND if you ever get the chance….or perhaps make the chance 😉