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Thailand

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ZipKick Bloggers:  Heidi Wagoner of Wagoners Abroad

Where was the first place that you traveled that made you think WOW—travel is amazing (think history book come to life or …..)

I knew I was hooked on travel, just after graduating from University.  I was selected a a National Traveling Consultant for my sorority and spent a full year traveling the USA and providing mentorship and coaching to many sororities around the nation.

After that I had the desire to explore internationally and did.  I spent 6 months in Mexico and Central America. Visiting many Aztec and Mayan ruins had me hooked for a lifetime. Oh that feeling of walking through a jungle, to find an entire ancient city in front of you, built to perfection.  How could they have done this so long ago?

But what cemented the travel addiction even further, were the people I met along the way.  Once you begin to open your mind to the world and explore, you realize we are all just people.  Prejudices, stereotypes, and they hype just melts away.  Six years later my husband and I lived in London for 3 years and we traveled in Europe as often as possible.  That was over 25 years ago and I am still traveling!  For the past 3 years we have been traveling the world full-time!  Yes, my husband and two kids as well.  Now we all embrace the world and its people, currently based in Spain.

Wagoners Abroad at Mar Menor Spain - Lo Pagan Mud BathIf you had unlimited resources, where would you go and what would you do?

With unlimited resources, I would do exactly what we are doing now, but with perhaps a little nicer accommodations.  We have so many places on our bucket list and we are going to get to them one by one.

What were you afraid to do and how did you find the courage to overcome it?

The first time I left my home country to backpack and explore, I was afraid of losing touch with family and friends.  This was back in the early 1990’s, so the internet wasn’t part of the journey.  It was old fashioned expensive phone calls as well as post cards and letters.  I just kept in touch with everyone via snail mail and it worked just fine.  A few years later, when I lived in London, I started a website (travel blog).  This was 1997 by the way!  That is how I learned to share my experiences with others and keep in touch.  Of course now we have Wagoners Abroad and it is all about keeping our connections with people.

What apps do you use regularly that make your life easier?

I couldn’t live without google maps and we use booking.com often.  I also use skyscanner or google flights alerts to get the best deals and help us decide where we are going to go. Of course we can’t forget all of the social media apps, which are part of my everyday life.

What place do you wish more people have seen?

That is a difficult question, as my true wish is that people will just try to explore out of their existing comfort zone.  My true love has always been Mexico, and experiencing swimming in a Cenote.  We have been to over 50 countries, each with their own charm and different flavor of love.

Wagoners Abroad Grand Canyon May 2015 (4)Best advice you have been given and by whom?

Get Lost!  That is the best advice I have ever received and I live by it everywhere we go.  When I was in my 20’s I lived in Tijuana Mexico and commuted across the border into the USA every day for work. A local in my neighborhood, told me to just explore the area and go ahead and get lost.

Not to worry about where I was going, but just enjoy the journey I was on.  When the time was right, I could then find my way to a familiar place or back home.  That advice right they, leads me down small side roads, little back alleys and even happened upon a small village, on the day of their “running of the bulls” in Spain.  You don’t know what gifts will be presented to you.

When were you surprised by the kindness of strangers on a trip?

Most recently, we were visiting the Roman Ruins in Merida Spain.  They closed for siesta at 2pm and we arrived at 1:45pm.  We didn’t have any cash on us and we found out they didn’t accept credit cards.  There wasn’t enough time to find an ATM and we were five hours away from our home.

We were just about to walk away, when a local man from Madrid stopped us, he said he wanted to purchase our tickets for us and he didn’t want us to pay him back.  We just couldn’t accept his generosity, as it was over 20 Euros.  He insisted, as he felt this was a site we should see.   We finally accepted, with the caveat we would pay him back.  He was right, it was amazing!  We mailed him the money and thanked him for his kindness.

Wagoners Abroad Huay Kaew Waterfalls Chiang Mai ThailandWhat inspired you to travel for extended periods of time or live in a new country?

I have left my home country 3 times for long-term travel.  I did this once in my twenties, again in my thirties and now for the past 3 years full-time, in my 40’s.  Each time the desire has been the same.  I crave change and new experiences.  I desire to meet new people and understand local customs.  There is no better way to fulfill these cravings than to travel.  This time, it is open ended and we are a family of 4.  There is nothing that will stop us from figuring out how to live our dreams!

I am a zipkick blogger because…

I believe in travel and my fellow travelers.  I think it is addicting and the world is a better place when people have open minds and are willing to accept others who may be different.  I support the travel tools which make it easier on others to travel.

 

Thank you Heidi Wagoner for being part of our ZipKick Blogger interview series!

Connect with Heidi Wagoner

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It started in China, at the age of 16. It was my first time to travel abroad, and to travel without my family and only a few friends. I was there for a six-week study program, and I learned that I grew up with possibly a different way of doing things, and some people, friend or not, are not always okay with that. Moreover, I learned that I can meet more people and make more friends by stepping outside of my comfort zone.

 Then, I was 21-turning-22, supposed to graduate from college that very year, but decided to take a chance on a year-long student exchange program to Japan. It was my first time to truly travel alone—at least until I got there and my natural sociability came out, whence I learned that I may be able to see people day-in and day-out, but traveling with them is a different matter altogether.

 In between then and now, I took another trip—my first backpacking adventure around mainland Southeast Asia, with one friend, both of us twenty-four. What I learned from that was to make myself heard if I wanted something. There’s no room for compromise when only one option is given, after all.

 Then, this year alone, I’ve taken several short trips around my own beautiful Philippines—more than I have in any year that I’ve been living here—and I’ve learned that there’s a lot to see if I make the effort to look.

 Until now, I’ve been to many places, and there’s no doubt that I’ve learned a lot. And, in each place that I stepped foot, I’ve since realised that I left a part of myself behind. A bad habit, perhaps; a misconception; a lesson I once learned, only to realise it’s one better undone. But, for every part of myself I found to lose, I gained much more than I thought I’d find. Each place, each lesson I’d learned—or unlearned, as the case may be—helped to chip away the old clay of my being, freeing the deeper, better me to form the person I am meant to be.

 After all that, it would be easy to credit all that I learned to myself alone. However, I can’t, in good conscience, say so. You see, the irony of learning independence is that one cannot learn it on his/her own. Each lesson I’d learned on my various travels was one I could have only learned by interacting with someone else. That is to say, while I may have reached a certain resolution through my own reflections, such reflections were the result of experience with a good or bad example.

 After getting sick—both physiologically and homesick—within the first week of my being in China, I found that I couldn’t stand not taking a shower, as was the suggestion of my roommates-cum-friends. A bit of what I thought to have been harmless teasing that they were “bullying” me with their own methods of dealing with sickness and I found myself estranged from those I came to China knowing—but it led me to leave China knowing so many others.

 In my first few months in Japan, I spent practically every waking moment with this one friend—we were dorm mates, classmates, kitchen-mates, and hung out in the same group of friends. As summer break came up and we’d decided to take a four-day trip together, it didn’t even occur to me that we could have any problems between us. I quickly learned I was wrong. We found that we could rub each other the wrong way, and apparently, those few hours spent alone in our own dorm rooms had helped us “recharge” to face each other again the next day. Without that slight barrier, we very nearly destroyed what took us four months to build.

 While my friend and I were in Thailand, the first stop of our backpacking trip, we agreed to go check out the Full Moon Party of Koh Phangan. We barely stayed an hour or two before my friend decided it wasn’t our scene—and for the sake of amiability, I gave in. Ironically, my regret afterwards was what almost ruined the good atmosphere.

 That was certainly not all. But, from all this, I can say that I’ve learned more about myself, as well as more about others. In the end though, the greatest thing I learned was what I’d been saying earlier: that all these experiences, all these lessons, belong not only to me, but to everyone who had been with me on the road. For as independent as you may like to think you are, no one is ever truly alone.

 About the Author

Dominique Samantha has two nicknames: Dom and Sam, both of which can be used for either sex. This is indicative of how she views other people as well, as she is a firm believer in equality and anti-discrimination. She enjoys travel as a way to broaden her horizons and learn more about the different cultures, beliefs and perspectives to which each of these people belong.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence Travel Writing competition and tell your story.

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It turns out that kayaking for 12 dollars included a few other things in Vang Vieng. We started by going through a cave. Not just your ordinary cave, it’s kind of hard to explain. We got in mini tubes and entered the cave floating on water. We pulled ourselves through the cave using rope that is tied to the wall. The gap from the water to the roof of the cave is on average 4-7 feet so it was super claustrophobic. Really cool experience though, felt like I was some kind of cave explorer guy or something. Our group was a bunch of extremely European French guys wearing speedos and they reminded me of our group of friends, they even had a guy called Omár that they all made fun of like Danny. After that we trekked to the Elephant cave and ate lunch which consisted of kebabs and rice. Then we got into kayaks and went down the river, stopped at a few outdoor bars and played volleyball. We went back to Vang Vieng and went for dinner. Later that night we went to our usual spot, Gary’s Irish pub and met two nice Dutch girls from Holland, named Unicorn and Anook. I’m still not sure if that was their real names. We finally made it back to our hotel around 2:00 a.m. We planned to go tubing with the girls at 11:30 but we slept in. We spent the day mostly watching “How I Met Your Mother” in the Central Backpackers lobby for hours, eating, playing ping pong, Alex breaking the table, and more eating.

 

While in Laos I ate sticky rice with every meal, sometimes every day. It is incredibly good and I’m going to sorely miss it. The other thing incredibly good here are the street vendor pancakes with Nutella and banana! We’ve been eating a lot of those as well as stir fried chicken with cashew and vegetables a lot. My stomachs been okay until yesterday. Also the actual physical travelling ended up being very expensive and we had to buy 110+ dollar plane tickets to Phuket because it was just as much money to take two buses and a boat to get there, and took an hour instead of 2 days. Unfortunately at this point I need you guys to somehow figure out how to cash my cheque that dad hopefully picked up at the beginning of the month because I am not going to have enough money. Thailand has been much more expensive than Laos, especially for hotels, it’s difficult to even find 20 bed fan dorm rooms for less than 10 dollars a night. Thailand is also much more busy and overwhelming than Laos, no matter where you are, and the only laws that exist are drug laws and theft. Here you often see up to 4 people on a single motorbike, babies or adults or kids, no helmets and doing 110 km’s on the highway. The most surprising thing to me is that there are almost no accidents and I’ve only seen 4 ambulances in total since being here. I almost wish I lived here, it makes home seem like a pathetic joke with a bunch of stupid laws and everyone worrying too much about everything and spending ridiculous amounts of money on things that cost 10 cents to make in sweatshops.

 

However to end this email on a positive note, it is nothing like anyone made it out to be here. I have not once felt like I was in any kind of danger, (except for one cab driver who broke 200 km/hr on the highway and was swerving between cars). But other than that the only overwhelming thing is that EVERYONE and ANYONE wants to sell you something. Yesterday at a street vendor they were selling 6 inch knives, brass spiked knuckles, and legitimate ninja shurikens. It’s incredible to me how different the culture is, how they realize that violence isn’t necessary, respect exists here instead of just admiring all the rich old white guys at home living on the ridge in Edgemont. Even simple things like not breaking arcade machines, or trying to seem tough by wearing your hat sideways staring everyone down because you think you are a badass, and getting tribal tattoos.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Gratitude Travel Writing competition and tell your story.

 

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I gulped. I shook my head no. I refused to be reasonable. There was no way I was going back. I couldn’t breathe! I could die. I mean, that totally happens, right? And even if it doesn’t happen very often – well, who says it couldn’t happen to me? Nope. Not going back under the water.

Then I looked at my husband – his eyes had so much compassion and genuine concern. Sure, he also really wanted to dive deep down, to explore and discover creatures of the sea. I knew that. But that wasn’t what I saw – what I saw was someone who cared about me, who was concerned about my panic, and who was rooting for me. I just held on to his vest and stared at him for a bit. I don’t remember what he said. After a minute or two of just bobbing in the water I finally turned to our open water scuba diving instructor and nodded my head: yes. I will do it.

The moment I got back under water I was absolutely certain that I couldn’t breathe through my mouthpiece. Panic rose. Water entered my mouth. I wobbled and grasped at our instructor. But then I remembered to be brave. Don’t panic, I told myself. And, remember all the skills that you mastered perfectly well in the shallow swimming pool. I pressed the button and cleared my mouthpiece. I breathed. I pinched my nose and equalized my ears. I began to descend, down in the open sea with no bottom in sight.

Finally I let go. I conquered my fear, if only for those few initial moments.

And then I saw it. It was so beautiful – the water was perfect turquoise, the sun was filtering through in spots, and so many beautiful creatures were swimming all around. Brilliant colors – yellow, coral, periwinkle – amazing patterns, fantastical shapes. This world was so completely wondrous.

We swam on to find an underground cave. For a moment I thought – no way. But then my husband flashed the ‘ok’ sign in question, and signaled forward. So there I was, just gliding gently careful not to disrupt the fragile habitat of underground corals. Hands on my chest, gently moving my feet to propel myself forward. Breathing! I had to remind myself to trust and to be brave – but I did it, I didn’t panic.

Thai Islands in the Andaman Sea are known to inspire a lot of positive emotions, but bravery doesn’t really come to mind as a top contender. But for me, my first association with Koh Lanta is bravery. I learned that day – gulping for air and bobbing up and down in the vast and mighty open sea – that I can conquer my fear, that I can let go, and trust myself not to panic. I am brave!

 

But really, it’s more than just Koh Lanta, or the Andaman Sea. It’s my husband. You know that song by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes – I am home wherever I am with you? It’s like that but I am brave, wherever I am with him. Koh Lanta is just the first place that comes to mind.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Gratitude Travel Writing competition and tell your story.

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Sydney wasn’t at the top of my most desired places to go on my trip around the world. Africa was first, since that was the reason why I had planned the trip in the first place, but I definitely thought I would love Thailand more than Sydney.

When I arrived in Sydney, it was freezing cold, and raining – not the typical warm, sunny weather that everyone boasts about. However I wasn’t the least bit concerned about the weather. I was just happy to have made it there on Malaysia Airlines and with absolutely no money at all.

My debit card and credit card had gotten stolen in Thailand, and I had used my last bit of cash for the cab to the airport. Luckily, I had gotten a hold of my mother who was able to wire my money to me when I landed in Sydney. I was grateful to have cash, but it still made me worry, especially since I was traveling completely solo…for the first time.

At first I thought it was going to be a complete bust. I thought I’d end up sitting by myself at a café with nothing to do, and no one to talk to. But boy, was I wrong! I stayed in Bondi Beach, a local area, and immediately fell in love. The shop, café, and restaurant-lined street made me feel like I was meant to be there, and I even texted my mom to tell her I wanted to move.

Since I was solo, I was really able to take in my surroundings, and discover how it feels to live in this other world. I figured out how to budget my money, and although I ate pizza for every meal, I felt so proud and excited to be figuring out how to be completely on my own. It wasn’t long before I felt comfortable walking from place to place in Sydney, and taking the City Sightseeing tour bus – which doubled as transportation – to and from my “apartment” in Bondi.

I became so confident with myself that other tourists would stop me to ask if I knew how to get to certain streets! It also made me not only comfortable, but also eager to meet people.

Just by smiling, saying hello, or even taking a photo for someone led to a new friendship, which six months later, still exists. These new friends made me love Sydney and Bondi even more than I already did.

I told my new friends about my volunteer trip in South Africa, my misfortune in Thailand, and how I had be winging it with my limited amount of cash in Sydney, and their responses were the greatest compliment I’ve ever received.

They told me I inspired them. They said they were so inspired that I had made it around the world despite many hurdles, and was still so confident and happy, that it made them want to travel more and help others.

Suddenly, I had found my purpose in traveling. I travel to inspire others.

As luck would have it, my new friends took me in, and took me around Sydney and Bondi as if I had lived there forever. I knew I couldn’t afford to eat at the places they would take me, but when they noticed I was only ordering one house wine and a glass of water, they insisted on treating me so I could really experience local life.

These strangers who I had only just met helped me so much, and it made me realize something. If you’re kind, grateful, genuine, and confident, your energy will be noticed and appreciated by other people. I realized that I really was all of those things, and even more importantly, I was happy.

 

I thought I was so lost when I first got to Sydney, both literally and figuratively. But by the end of my journey…I realized I had found myself.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Gratitude Travel Writing competition and tell your story.

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It has been two weeks since I came back home.

I was nineteen when I decided to leave for Shanghai to pursue my undergraduate education. I was ecstatic of the idea of being alone in a foreign country, or rather, to be able to leave the grey monochrome metropolis I was supposed to regard as home.

Streets of Shanghai were ghostly during the frozen months and thick crowd filled them even till the late of summer nights; I was infatuated with this novelty. So hopelessly spellbound with the city’s dynamism that I approach every ways and means to avoid returning home before the allotted time of my graduation. Lost in the endless of schemes, I opted the one deemed most possible: travel. I packed not only the necessities into my brand-new backpack, but also the vain hopes and wild plans of a young soul, and flew off to my first destination – Cambodia.

The fervent desire for an adventure was burning. I put it out by climbing the historical ruins in Siem Reap, and had the fortune of catching a heart-stopping sunrise. The rest of my humanly adrenaline rush was mostly cured through a skydiving experience in Thailand. But nonetheless the need to take a breather arose. As soon as I can, I packed my belongings, ready for a flight to New Delhi.

I paced myself to the flow of the placid waters of Ganges River and the still air around it. At that moment, I was more than just escaping; I was traveling. Older by a few weeks of contemplation, I then set foot on the Nepali land that homes Mount Everest. A lust for a new place was looming within, albeit the wonders of Nepal. Nearly two weeks of brisk weather incite the urge to swim in the sea under the sun. And soon enough, I picked up the frayed straps of the backpack, hauled it onto my back and hit the road to Taiwan.

What I received was warmer than the great golden orb hanging relentlessly above the skies of Taiwan; the people’s genuine hospitality. I was starting to truly enjoy traveling. But even so, it was but an evasion from settling. I bid my goodbyes in silence as I stood astounded before HongKong’s skyline. I told myself that it was my last stop before returning to Shanghai.

I sat looking out the window of the plane when bits and pieces of the trip were painted on the amorphous clouds. I bought a ticket to Shanghai and reckoned to stay put. Almost a month passed and something unexplained robbed me of my senses. I took the liberty in spite of myself and came back home. 

I have no regrets making this decision. Months of unplanned travels and it is home that bestowed me the courage to embark on every new journey; it is this home that would be waiting for me wherever I will be. As my mother said “Even the most adventurous person needs a place to call it their own.” However a platitude, it represents the truth. 

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Gratitude Travel Writing competition and tell your story.

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Imposing cliffs stand like faithful sentinels all around us, their far-reaching shadows a testament to the many lifetimes they have watched these waters before our arrival today. Turquoise water spreads around our boat, waves stretching for kilometres before ever meeting shore. The sun hangs high above us, its rays drying the sea water on our captain’s browned shoulders, leaving faint traces of salt in its stead. Dressed in nothing but a faded singlet and well-worn denim shorts, I watch as he moves sure-footedly around the boat, anchoring us to the sea floor before announcing that this is where we’ll first disembark.

I peer over the edge of the boat. Only a foot of air separates me from the waves, and whatever lies below. Fear and paranoia quietly occupy my mind. The hair on my arms stand on end, imagining what the many moving shapes under the surface may be; my heart beat quickens in the knowledge that were I to sink, there would be kilometres of ocean between me and life-sustaining oxygen. Still, I am not so distracted by my fear that I can’t appreciate the way the water glitters in the light. 

I turn to face the boat’s occupants, and already our American counterparts have pulled on their wetsuits. Toned and tanned from many adventures into the blue, only the creases bordering their eyes and mouth reveal the couple are in fact, my age twice over. Confidently, they jump as if to greet the waves; the woman alone turns to call to me.

‘Coming, Australia?’

I nod nervously in reply, watching them disappear below the surface, their snorkels now the only indication of their whereabouts. They expertly breaststroke away from the boat, darting every which way the captivating fish below them lead, until they are barely visible from where I stand. Then there is only Eddy and I, the captain having closed his eyes once we’d been anchored, his bare feet crossed on the dashboard, hands behind tilted head.

‘I want to wear a life jacket’, I admit to my husband. He promptly sources one from under his seat, and gently but firmly fastens it over my six-month old pregnancy bump. Eddy steps towards the edge of the boat, holding his hand out so that he may help me ease into the water. I shake my head, and urge him forward. I can do this by myself.

I needn’t have worried. Enamoured with the way schools of exotic fish change direction all at once, I would follow them far from the boat, forgetting I ever feared the open sea. I would find the water cool and comforting, a relief from the heat in which the boat baked. As the sun dipped below the Phi Phi horizon, the scent of coconuts staining our fingers, I would know I’d treasure forever after, the day my baby and I conquered the ocean.

None of that could happen however, if I didn’t get off the boat.

I still my breath and slip into the water.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Gratitude Travel Writing competition and tell your story.

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Finding my ‘Om’ in Thailand

Leaving my comfortable, secure job in Seattle to travel for a year was SCARY, to say the least. I would be roaming SE Asia with my boyfriend of nearly six years though, so that made me (and my parents) feel better about this unorthodox life decision. We would start in Thailand and make our way through 9 countries in 9 months. It would be wonderful, fulfilling, adventurous, and we’d return home ready to take that next step in our relationship.

Fast forward three months and two countries later, I’m now one of those “solo female travelers” that people like to call brave… or crazy. Setting off on my own path was the toughest thing I’ve ever done, but also the most empowering. I’m certain I wouldn’t have been able to hear that little voice inside my head telling me to move on, if it weren’t for a meditation retreat I attended about a month after leaving home.

Located in Surat Thani, Southern Thailand, Wat Suan Mokkh offers a 10-day silent meditation retreat for anyone who is interested in learning more about Buddhism and is willing to “live like a monk”. Participants hand over a required donation of 2,000 Baht (around $65) along with our phones, cameras, books, journals, and even watches. There would be no reading, writing, dancing, playing, talking, eating after noon or before dawn, and no lying down anywhere besides your room.

Now if being stripped from a voice, personal electronics, and even our journal wasn’t harsh enough, our cement slab they called a bed and wooden pillow really emphasized the theme of the retreat: SUFFERING. The discomfort will help us with discipline and determination through meditation and breathing techniques.

It would be an understatement to say that I was a bit apprehensive about committing to 10 full days of meditation. Like most people seeking solitude and enlightenment, I’ve dabbled in different meditation techniques, but am easily discouraged after restlessness and boredom set in. Also, pledging to remain silent in the middle of the jungle where we were warned of spiders, snakes, scorpions and other creepy crawlies, was not the trip-of-a-lifetime I had imagined.

Pushing through my nervousness, I found myself sitting in the sand on top of a mat and pillow with 133 other men and women, ready and eager to find that inner peace that comes along with meditation. The first few days were TOUGH. My joints ached from sitting cross-legged and I was tired of seeing jungle spiders the size of small housecats. I gave myself permission to leave, but by Day 6 something had shifted. I was feeling extremely grateful for the opportunity to have this time for myself and was feeling more and more “present” each passing day.

Before long it was Day 10 and I had made it through the entire retreat! I felt refreshed and inspired and ready to take my newly found mindfulness with me on the rest of my travels. While on the bus leaving my new friends at Wat Suan Mokkh, I promised myself that I would find time for solitude and reflection every day. I’ve learned that I’m the best friend, daughter, sister, and lover that I can be when I’m taking care of me first.

Thailand will always be the place that inspired me to be brave, but wherever there is a mat, hammock, sunrise, beach, pillow, or even a plain ol’ wooden chair, is where I can be fearless each and every day.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Gratitude Travel Writing competition and tell your story.

When I found out that it was possible (albeit near-impossibility at that time) to visit this sacred temple on a day trip from Siem Reap in 2012, I immediately grabbed the opportunity to see it while it was then — once again — enjoying a short “time of peace”. For a very long time in the past, as a disputed territory, the promontory of the Temple of Preah Vihear and its environs have had some serious history of crossfires between the Cambodian and Thai military forces. In fact, a few months prior to my visit, several soldiers from both camps were killed in an unexpected clash.

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The iconic first gopura, which contains some of the most impressive carvings in the temple complex.

Three years after that brave trip, as I look back, it is still perhaps the single most unique experience I have had in visiting a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Back then, it took me nearly four hours on a private vehicle to reach the temple from Siem Reap. Given the road constructions recently, the travel time is now reduced to nearly half of what it took when I went there.

The Temple of Preah Vihear never failed my towering expectations, to say the least. After all, it was confidently inscribed on only one criterium: “(i) as a masterpiece of human creative genius”. So far, only this temple, the Taj Mahal, and the Sydney Opera House are inscribed solely on this basis.

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The second gopura: the carving style of the pediment is different from the first one.

In my opinion, the temple rightly deserves to be on the same ranks as Angkor Wat and Bayon, if not even better. The incomparable beauty of this site stems from the following:

1. its history – older than those in Angkor, dedicated to Shiva and, according to some sources, is also one of a few that has a history of critical lingam worshiping;

2. its architecture – the extensive 800m-long layout of the temple is unique, the galleries surrounding the central sanctuary served as inspiration for the arrangement of Angkor Wat 300 years later, and the carvings offer a different style from those in Angkor (notice the style of its nagas, and the impressive quality of its carvings can only be compared to those of the much younger Banteay Srei) .

The third gopura as seen from the elevated fourth gopura that encases the main sanctuary of the Preah Vihear Temple.
The third gopura: the walkway leading to the fourth gopura prior to the main central sanctuary is dotted with lingams. One lingam near the portal can be seen in this photo.

3. its relevance – a major pilgrimage site for Khmer kings, as well as a rare key temple off-route the Angkorian Royal Road;

4. its location – situated right beside a cliff, on top of the Dangrek Mountains to a height of nearly 600 metres. From the temple, one can already gaze at the Golden Triangle, an area shared by Cambodia, Thailand, and Laos; and, lastly,

The Infamous Golden Triangle: transnational boundaries of Cambodia, Thailand, and Laos.
The Golden Triangle

5. the geopolitical struggles and controversies associated with its WHS-inscription in 2008, and the earlier landmark International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruling in 1962. More recently, in 2013, another ICJ ruling finally awarded the contested peripheral forest zone of the temple to Cambodia, putting an end to the long-standing dispute between the two Southeast Asian kingdoms.

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As a military zone, several soldiers are stationed in and around the temple complex. A political statement such as that in the photo clearly asserts Cambodian ownership over the promontory and its immediate vicinity.

As the Temple of Preah Vihear lies in an active military zone, it comes, then, as no surprise that not many travelers take the effort in seeing this site when I made my visit. In the five pleasurable hours that I spent there, I only managed to see about three other civilians — who might just be even locals — in the temple complex.

Aside from the breathtaking view from the top, I truly enjoyed receiving blessings by chanting monks guarding the central sanctuary; as well as exploring the interior of the largely ignored vegetated Tower of the Long-haired Lady that is reminiscent of Ta Prohm in Angkor.

The central sanctuary guarded by a military personnel
The central sanctuary that is guarded by chanting monks. Outside, a soldier is also on guard.

 

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The tower of the long-haired lady, an isolated structure that has been overgrown by plants and a tree.

Clearly, I got the strong impression that the Khmer people are indeed proud of the Temple of Preah Vihear as suggested by the displaying of the flags of UNESCO, Cambodia, and the World Heritage Committee not far from the first gopura. Such subtle declarations never fail to get noticed.

The temple of Preah Vihear together with its brother temple atop Phnom Chisor in the province of Takeo, which I also got the chance of visiting back in 2010, will always have special places in my heart for the wonderful experiences they have left me. In sum, the Temple of Preah Vihear clearly and easily justified itself as being one of the best single sites I have seen so far.

Just behind the temple: one simple mistake and I am history. The cliff drops to a height of 600 metres.
A view of the plains of the Preah Vihear province. This was taken at the edge of the Dangrek Mountain cliff.

There is no entrance fee to the temple. But, at the base camp, visitors have to pay for the motorbike that will transport them to the top for a fairly reasonable price. On this trip, I also went to the nearby town of Anlong Veng, visiting some ‘Khmer Rouge’ related sites such as the house of Ta Mok and the final resting place of Pol Pot.

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              One of the reasons for selecting Thailand as a vacation destination was my desire to interact with elephants. I was told that Thailand was the place to experience them, and I even joked that I was looking forward to spending time with an animal I wasn’t too fat to ride. But when an opportunity presented itself for me and my wife to visit an elephant sanctuary, I didn’t know if I was brave enough to see elephants crippled and abused by members of my own species.

              I finally jettisoned my hesitation and we made the visit. At an elephant nature park 60 km north of Chiang Mai, I saw my first Thai elephant, and began my fascinating yet painful education of these magnificent creatures. At the dawn of the twentieth century there were approximately 100,000 elephants in Thailand. There are now fewer than five thousand. Elephants were used to supply the world’s unquenchable desire for teak. Then in the 1980s the timber industry was outlawed in Thailand to preserve remaining forests. Elephants no longer had jobs and most were sold to vendors for the tourist industry. These elephants were expensive to maintain and not always treated well.

              In the 1990s, an elephant nature park was created as a sanctuary for rescued elephants. Here, the animals were allowed to live much as they would in the wild. Sticks were no longer used to punish elephants that didn’t obey human commands. Instead of corporal punishment, only positive reinforcements in the form of  food treats were used. For an abused elephant, this must have seemed like heaven.

              Before coming to the park, one of the elephants had been sold to someone who beat her terribly. When she became pregnant and gave birth, her owner wouldn’t let her tend to her baby and it died. Depressed, she refused to follow commands. The frustrated owner took a sharp stick and blinded her. The nature park came to the rescue, purchasing her for three thousand dollars and bringing her to the sanctuary. Another female elephant, a longtime park resident, stepped away from the herd to greet the new arrival. Exploring the stranger with her trunk, she soon discovered the damaged eyes, bellowed, and entwined her trunk around the blind elephant as if to say, “I’ll be your eyes.” The two have been inseparable for ten years.

              We were afforded an opportunity to watch several elephants being treated for injuries, as well as experiencing them doing what they enjoy most, bathing in the river. Buckets were passed out allowing us to toss water at them, but elephants are bigger than I’d imagined and throwing a bucket of water high enough to reach their backs was challenging. My wife must have had trouble distinguishing me from an elephant because she doused me with more than one bucket of water. Experiencing these gentle giants playing in the water like children was exhilarating.

              There were approximately thirty-five elephants at this park, mostly female. It didn’t seem like that many elephants until we started feeding them—those guys could pack it away. The boys like to fight with the females—and often lose. They’re kept separate, but not always. Babies are born at the park. At the conclusion of our stay we traveled to a section of river where two females guarded the park’s newest resident, only three months old. One of the adults was injured in Myanmar when a buried land mine blew off her rear foot. In spite of her ability to hobble about, she wasn’t doing well. Then the other elephant gave birth and recruited the crippled elephant as a nanny. Now the injured elephant has a job and the two adults are happily raising the baby together.

              Visiting an elephant sanctuary was thrilling yet humbling; I couldn’t help feeling guilty for the abuse heaped on these magnificent creatures. I never got my elephant ride, but I did receive strength to step outside travel brochures, to avoid cliché photo opportunities and discover a more honest reality. This experience made me feel as brave as a superhero, ready to spread the word that we all need to be better caretakers of our planet and all its inhabitants, even if it means denying chubby tourists like me from getting that ride. 

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