Travel

Over and Through the Mountains

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I thought of this trip in three stages - the cultural triangle of the north, the Hill County in the southcentral region and finally the south and east coasts. The Hill Country is many things – green, mountainous, bisected by waterfalls and rivers, cool climate, lush farms, tea plantations and by all accounts one of the best train journeys in the world. 

Tea Plantation Worker

I boarded the train from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya, one of the highest points in the country. The town, known as Little England, with Victoria Park at its center, is surrounded by acres and acres of tea plantations. Tea growing, harvesting and processing is done almost exclusively by hand and is back breaking work. Pickers climb the steep hillsides picking the tender leaves and buds. The baskets they carry are strapped to their heads and they are paid per kilo of leaves collected. The bags of leaves are picked up from the fields and brought to the factory, During the initial drying or withering, leaves in the giant troughs are turned by hand, then fed manually to the rolling machines. Once rolled the leaves are sorted, fermented and dried again. Each step the tea leaves are handled by people. The process is old and so are the machines. Most wood-fired drying machines came from England or Ireland in the late 1800s and are still in operation today. The tea estates bag the leaves and sell the tea at the auction houses in Colombo to buyers like Lipton, who blend the leaves from many estates. Some tea factories retain a portion and sell estate grown teas under their own label…a little like winemakers and grape growers. 

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But it’s not just tea, the area is perfect for growing all kinds of vegetables – especially as my tuktuk driver said, “English vegetables” - carrots, peas, cabbage and leeks. The narrow mountain roads are lined with vegetable stands, precariously perched between the cliff and roadway.

From Nuwara Eliya I hoped the train again to Ella. The trip through the mountains was even more spectacular than I could have imagined. Everywhere you looked there was green, and the people, especially women in vibrant saris, lined the tracks at each station or walked along behind the train. It was almost sensory and color overload.

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Ella is the heart of the Hill Country. Over the last few years it has gained a reputation as a backpacker destination - surrounded by the mountains, more tea plantations, and a small downtown, filled with cheap eats and Western style cafes. It is a hiker’s paradise – start walking in any direction and the views are amazing. I walked nearly 20 miles in two days - climbing Little Adam’s Peak, walking along the railroad tracks to Nine Arch bridge, hiking to waterfalls, and cave temples. It is also was one of the few places in Sri Lanka to take a cooking class – which was my reward after a day of many, many, many steps up the mountains.

I’m not sure that there was an “aha” moment, or lesson learned by traveling to the Hill Country, but I know I will never forget the sights, the colors and sense of being in a place that practically begged to be seen and explored, and then enjoyed with a cup of tea or (or a beer).

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Bigger and Better?

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Living in a small town, I know (almost) everyone and they know me. I know how to get what I need, or who to call to find it, or fix it. I wouldn’t change this for anything, but after a period of time, something pulls at me - to get outside that comfort zone, and open myself up to the unfamiliar. I need to make my world bigger, if just to see to see my home with new eyes.

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So once again, I have set out to see what I can see. After 36 hours on the road, in the air and on the road again, I arrived in Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka. It’s booming – cranes everywhere in the skyline, and advertising for development opportunities, financing, and technology abound. I think at first, I was put off by the lack apparent “differentness,” There even is a Minististy of Megapolis and Western Development,. (I can’t help but ask, is this really something to aspire toI?!) It’s not fair for a place not to grow or evolve. I certainly don’t want someone else’s world to be smaller so mine can feel bigger. The fact is our world is already getting smaller. (While I’m writing this, at a little curry restaurant, a guy is getting off a motorcycle with an UberEATS backpack to pick up an order).

So rather than asking a place to make my world bigger, whatever that means, I’m going to say “show me what you got,” because I want to see what makes a place or people special, to learn from the experience - to see what’s here, instead of what’s not.

In this case, I saw some beautiful restored colonial architecture in the Old Dutch Hospital, wide open green spaces in the midst of the city (picture a Sri Lankan central park), Islamic, Buddhist, Hindu and Christian religious sites (sometimes all on the same block), 30,000-years of Sri Lankan history at the National Museum, and lots of juxtapositions of religion and history across a city that took a day or two to open itself up to me…or maybe it was the other way around.

The Right of Rituals

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I moved north from Vientiane to beautiful Luang Prabang. In recent years, the city has become known as the gateway to the eco-tourism explosion in northern Laos….trekking, biking, kayaking, etc. It is at the intersection of the Namtha and Mekong rivers and for centuries was the seat of the monarchy - before the rise of communism, and the religious capital of Laos.

Despite, their adoption of a communist government in 1975, Buddhism is an integral part of their society. This small town has no less than 15 temples and monasteries, is home to the famous Luang Prabang golden Buddha, and hundreds of monks young and old. Many Laotians still send their sons to a monastery for few few years to be educated.

Each morning the drums sound from the temples, and the barefoot monks, clad in bright orange robes, leave their homes to walk single file through the streets to receive alms of rice from the locals. Men and women kneel or sit on low stools on the edge of the road with large steaming baskets of sticky rice, placing a small handful in each monks basket as he passes by. There are no words exchanged, in fact, there is no eye contact. In this simple act of daily charity, there is unspoken respect for the life they have chosen and of course, tradition. The procession lasts for about 20 minutes on each street, and then people get back to their day, but this happens every day, every year and has for centuries. 

I’m not sure why I find this comforting. Personally I’m not interested in organized religion, but in a world where religion so often comes in the form of extremism, evangelism, and unfortunately hate, it was reassuring to see this rite of daily compassion.

I spent the rest of the day wandering the streets and temples. I walked along the Mekong River, visited the national palace, and climbed a mountain (really a big hill, but that’s what they call it) to view a golden stupa and get some amazing views of the city. As I came home from dinner, I passed a monastery, just finishing their evening payers, lit up, covered in pink bougainvillea, and the orange robed monks closing the doors for the night. I have to say I did feel some of the peace they are always talking about and quietly thanked them for caring for this special place, and the work they do.

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The Sound of Silence

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When you’re traveling alone, you don’t have the voice of a friend to come between you and the unfamiliar. So those first days on the road, on the other side of the world, can seem almost overwhelming - an assault on the senses - unknown noises, smells and sounds.

As I woke (all too early…jet lag) in Vientiane, I noticed the distinct lack of honking that is so pervasive in other southeast Asian capitals. In fact, all I heard was what sounded like an army of angry squirrels, but turned out to be some sort of small, very noisy bird. As the sun rose over the Mekong River, roosters started crowing…another unfamiliar urban sound and the revving of motorbike engines.

Vientiane is small by comparison to places like Bangkok and Hanoi. It feels sleepier, more like a big small town. This location on the Mekong has been the seat of kingdoms, but it has also been destroyed, over and over and over again, by the Siamese, Chinese, French, and Americans. The city is not old, but throughout there are remanants of its past…a stupa from the Khmer period (once covered in gold, but looted at some point), disintegrating French colonial architecture, Soviet style concrete block buildings, and a few standing temples (wats).

After a short walk through morning traffic (still no honking) I passed through the gates of a small temple complex. As soon as I entered, the street noise faded and the only people I saw were a few young monks in training, studying at a plastic table behind the main hall. Coming from a country where we no longer enter public buildings with out searches, scans and guards, I’m always amazed that these places are so open…that there exists a trust that we will treat these spaces as we should.

After a few more temple visits, I made my way to the central downtown, passing through the “backpacker” district, read cheap guest houses, man buns, batik pants and mostly European languages. I stopped for an iced coffee at what could have passed for a French cafe, eavesdropping and trying to remember my high school French.

I made my way to Vientiane’s oldest religious site, Wat Si Saket, the temple of 2000 Buddhas. Once again I was struck by how quiet it was inside…a couple dressed in traditional Laotian wedding garb for a photo shoot and few older travelers to break the silence. The exterior buildings were filled with bronze, wood, and concrete Buddhas, some damaged, but most staring implacably at the intruder.

I was beginning to wonder just where the noise and commotion of a city of 250,000 was happening, until I got to the market area. The scene was orchestrated chaos - wooden carts, motorcycles, foot traffic, and cars parked on the sidewalk. But unlike other cities, I was never harassed with the infamous “buy something Madam” instead I wandered the stalls, watched an old woman serve lunch from a shopping cart to the vendors and as I left, a few unenthusiastic tuk tuk drivers asked me if a I wanted a ride. They seemed relieved when I said no.

During the hottest part of the day, I wandered the National Museum, in a crumbling French colonial building. It was clear that in a country that has suffered many losses and struggles with wide spread poverty, preserving the national heritage was not high on the priority list (or maybe too much has been lost). Myself and four other visitors wandered room after room of faded photographs and antique weapons laying in the open and held down with wire.

At night, the street vendors came out, Laotian families sat at plastic tables, eating and drinking. The sounds of frying food and beers being opened filled the narrow streets. As I lay in my bed, I finally heard my first car horn. While traveling is so often about seeing things, the sounds we hear or don’t hear often tell us as much about the place we are in.

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A Web of Water

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“Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.”
― Gustave Flaubert

From An Bihn Island I moved even farther south to the largest city in the Mekong, Can Tho. Can Tho is not a beautiful city (read lots of concrete block buildings) there are few sites to see, but it is a growing city, home to the largest university south of Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), and a redeveloped riverfront. It is a stopping point between HCMC and the unreachable areas of the delta. I came here to get a glimpse at those unreachable place.

While we use cars, trucks and highways to move goods, in the Mekong, everything moves by water - from logs, to food and even household goods. The major rivers are navigable, but the small channels are accessible only by canoe-like boats called Xuong. Without roads, this is the only means of transportation in and out. Even the ever-present motorbike isn’t feasible.

Today I hired a Xuong (almost always driven by women) and an English speaking guide to visit several floating markets - the center for trade on the delta - and to go deeper into the delta’s channels. My guide was amazing. Her English was mostly self taught, but she was curious about the US and about improving her English. She was also very generous in sharing information about her life, her family and living on the river. She had spent her early childhood on a boat, although her family were now farmers.

Most of the floating markets set up before sunrise and trade is over by 10am, so we had to be on the river by 5:30am to reach the first market. Some markets are wholesale markets, like Cai Rang, where larger boats bring produce from many farmers and sell to individuals who then take these goods to the markets on land. Each area of the market is devoted to a single product…yams, pineapples, watermelon and each boat is identified with a large pole on the bow indicating the items they have for sale. The small boats weave in and out of the larger boats, bargaining, trading, and stocking up. There is a small grocery store boat, a boat selling coffee and even a boat selling noodle soup to the wholesalers. The larger boats, and the boats’ owners, remain on the river for several days until the goods are sold.

After Cai Rang, we visited a smaller market for farmers selling directly to other farmers…trading papaya for ginger, or purchasing sweet potatoes. Then set off down a narrow channel into the delta. It became clear that many of these people never travel from home. They are fully self-sustaining. The river and the land provide everything, from peppercorns, and herbs, to rice, fish and vegetables. What was more amazing, as my guide and I spoke, she could look at a plant and tell me what they used it for. There was almost nothing that couldn’t be eaten, used medicinally, or didn’t bear some sort of fruit (over 100 varieties of bananas). All of this knowledge handed from one family member to the next.

As we motored back to Can Tho around noon, I though about trying to fight a war in this place, about how unprepared and unknowing we must have been. It has taken generations to know what they they know. I also felt humbled. There is whole way of life - a hard life - that exists completely and utterly different than my own. Hundreds of thousands of people, working, trading, living, getting married, feeding their families all on this network of waterways.

Delta Time

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I left Hoi An and traveled south through Saigon to the Mekong Delta. (plane, taxi, bus, a smaller bus, ferry and motorbike was all it took). I arrived on An Bihn island, a short ride away from the town of Vinh Long, a small provincial capital. I had booked two nights at a home stay with a Vietnamese family. Mr. Phu’s home stay is a little larger than some. You do not share the family home, but stay next to the home, in a thatched building with several rooms and shared baths.

To say it was culture shock, would probably be an understatement. Compared to the international, tourist-friendly town of Hoi An, An Bihn is nothing but jungle, slow moving canals of water, stilt houses, no signs in English or French and the heat is stifling, a rare breeze moving the jungle around me. Since I arrived late in the day, I opted to spend the evening with a book and dinner made by Mr. Phu’s wife.

In the morning, I borrowed a bike and set out to explore the island. The roads are mostly dirt trails, cement paths wide enough for a bike or motor bike, maybe two if you’re a good driver, and one single lane asphalt road. There was no available map, so Mr. Phu drew a circular route for me that was to take about two and half hours. At his suggestion, I started out early to be done before the heat of the day.

During my ride, I did not see one other tourist. Occasionally a Vietnamese kid would yell hello, but as I stopped at a roadside stand to buy a bottle of water, I felt a little like a curiosity. I’m not sure they see many Americans on a bike riding around the island. Because of the heat, nothing seems to move very fast and work seems to happen early in the day and late afternoon. As a I neared my home stay, I saw lots of people laying in hammocks (a really good idea at this point), or asleep on their motorcycles in the shade. I did round a corner on the cement path and see a lean two with a pool table and several guys shooting pool. I had to wonder how they even got the pool table there…boat, motorbike?

I got back to Mr. Phu’s grabbed my book and headed for a hammock. I think this is the first time on this trip that I have not been doing something in the middle of day. I wasn’t quite sure I could really relax, except that moving induced sweating, so staying still seemed like the best option. I laid about for few hours, Mr. Phu and his wife even joined me by laying in the hammocks in front of the house for a while. I finally decided I could move again, and with another map from Mr. Phu I headed across a bridge to the adjacent island and then took my bike by ferry to the market on the mainland, another short ride and a ferry back to An Binh.

Life seems to move differently here, and while it is not necessarily beautiful (maybe interesting and different), there is a beauty in the rhythm of the place.

Water and a Way of Life

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“They spoke less and less between them until at last they were silent altogether as is often the way with travelers approaching the end of a journey.” - Cormac McCarthy

I left Hanoi on Thursday, and one taxi, three buses and a boat later, I arrived on Cat Ba Island in northeastern Vietnam. Cat Ba sits on the edge of Halong Bay - a UNESCO World Heritage site, significant for its beauty and culture.

Halong Bay and neighboring Lan Ha were one of those bucket list places for me. The rocks and karst formations rising out of the sea are the stuff of National Geographic photos. Also as a solo traveler, it was time for some sort of group trip…didn’t want to start talking to myself. So I signed on for a day long boat cruise/kayak/beach trip around the bays. A perfect antidote to recovering from the frenzy of Hanoi (and I am on vacation). The small group was made up of mostly Europeans, and a Russian.

We headed to the dock and boarded a wooden junk boat. As we pulled out of the harbor, we traveled past a floating village of fish farms. These fish farmers spend their entire life on the water…floating houses, dogs and kids running between the fish fish containment areas, generators, and even a floating grocery store. Water taxis ferry children to the island for school and goods back to the fishermen.

We moved past the fish farms into open waters, we cruised around Halong Bay past amazing rock formations…the remnants, according to legend, of a dragon that hit the water. I sat on a chair on the deck and reminded myself how lucky I am to be able to see this…most people will never see this in person. Also, the group of people I was with were smart, funny travelers, who had great stories to tell from places they had been around the world. They were not the backpacker set, but mostly working people like me who had taken a few weeks to escape the real world.

We anchored and kayaked through caves and lagoons, ate a seafood lunch, prepared by the guys on the boat, swam, drank a beer…I could have gotten used to this life. As we were heading back at sunset, our guide, a 10th generation Cat Ba Island native, began to talk to a few of us about the state of the bay.

We motored past oyster farms and more fish farms, he pointed out boats specially designed to catch small fish to feed to the larger farmed fish. There are no regulations to control the over fishing of these small fish and the larger native fish are become scarcer and scarcer. Once, the people of the island would trade produce to the fisherman for these native fish, but the cost has skyrocketed and they can’t afford to eat the fish from the bay any longer. The majority of this fish is consumed by wealthy Vietnamese tourists in the summer months. China controls the South China Sea and Halong Bay is the bread basket of seafood for Vietnam, if this ecosystem is destroyed, so will go the culture and economy of the region. You could hear in his voice the concern and sadness for the future of this place.

We quietly rode in the harbor in the pink light of sunset, grateful for an opportunity to see this beautiful place…for as long as it exists.

To Tour or Not to Tour

I was looking back at my first post from this trip and had asked myself the question “Would I like traveling alone?” First, I think I would rephrase the question to “Do I like traveling solo?” I have learned that solo does not mean alone, and the answer is “mostly yes.”

I think when you are traveling solo, there are lots of obvious perks, like getting to do what you want, when you want; seeking solitude when you want it, but also, it’s relatively easy to make connections with people when you want.

When you are traveling solo, especially as a solo female traveler, you are approachable to other like-minded travelers and locals. Local people want to know your story and are willing to share theirs. Other travelers tend to gravitate to people doing the same things. You also are forced to ask directions (a lot) which naturally starts a conversation.

Northern Thailand was definitely a place for travelers - not necessarily a tourist destination. There were many more like-minded travelers and we were easy to spot. As I have spent the last couple of days in Koh Samui - which is beautiful, I have learned it is definitely more a tourist destination. People (mostly Europeans) come in groups (friends, couples, families) and the solo traveler is more of anomaly.

I realized I would have to work harder if I wanted to meet people (and not start talking to myself). I signed up for boat tour today to Angthrong National Marine Park. As I’ve said before, I’m usually not much for organized tours, but it was the best decision I could have made, not only was it an amazing experience, but I met some great people.

We left the main dock on the island at 8am, and headed 1.5 hours out into the gulf of Thailand, until we reached the park - an archipelago of 40+ small islands. I had my first sea kayaking experience and it was ton of fun seeing the island and caves from the water - despite having to stand in line for a kayak and say twice, “yes, single.” I should also note, it appeared much easier when there were two people paddling the kayak.

We paddled to a small beach, and then hiked up to a beautiful salt water lagoon. We paddled back to the boat and had lunch, while we cruised to another island. We took a long boat ashore, and I opted to make the hike to 500m peak, up a steep and rocky trail for what they promised was a view of the entire chain of islands. Steep and rocky does not begin to describe this climb in the middle of a 100+ degree day - mountain goats would have been challenged. I hung onto a rope and at some points literally pulled myself from rock to rock. But as promised, the view was inspiring - the climb down, not so much.

On the way back, some of my fellow climbers and I rode on the top sun deck and watched the sun begin to set over the islands as we headed back home.

So while I tend to shy away from an organized tour, it was definitely what I needed today.

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Changing Gears

I left Chiang Dao yesterday around noon after a last hike along a mountain side trail, then began the long trip south. First a pickup truck/taxi, then a bus, then a tuktuk from the bus station to the airport, then a plane to Bangkok, another plane to the island of Koh Samui and then finally a minivan to my hotel. It only took 10.5 hours, but my backpack and I finally made it.

I woke up this morning, stood out on my balcony and looked out over the Gulf of Thailand. I wasn’t in Kansas anymore or northern Thailand for that matter. I walked out on to the main street in Bo Phut - my first look in the daylight. Cafes and restaurants lined the streets - no shouting in Thai, but lots of French and German. I felt a little culture shock if that is possible.

I wandered in search of coffee. There are few if any street vendors, sandwich boards in front of restaurants had menus in English, French and some Thai. I found my coffee, settled in and watched the town come to life.

I knew I wanted to end this trip with some time at the beach, but in a strange way, I was already missing the challenge of the previous days. I wasn’t quite sure what to do with myself, no list of sights to see, no travel plans to figure out - just drink my coffee and go to the beach. It was harder than I thought to change gears.

Eventually, I packed a bag and headed towards Mae Nam on the north end of the island. I had heard it was quiet and more remote than the eastern side of the island. It was. I rented a chair on the beach, and tried to sit still. I got up, walked the beach, came back, read my guidebook (there must be something I should be doing), but slowly I started to relax. I went for swim, read and ate pineapple from a beach vendor. By 3pm, I thought, “I could get used to this.”

But in reality, my time in Thailand is running out, so tomorrow I will go in search of waterfalls on the interior of the island and have booked a sea kayaking/snorkeling trip. I’ll still fit in some beach time though.

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Chiang Dao From Top to Bottom

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The traveler sees what he sees. The tourist sees what he has come to see. ― G.K. Chesterton

Each day I have woken up planning, thinking, and scheduling my time to get done the things I want to do, or least get to the places I want to get to. More often than not, it has required some serious map reading (sometimes more successfully than others) and depending on other people or modes of transportation to get me from here to there. Not today. Today was just a photocopy of a hand-drawn map of the area, given to me by the woman who owns the place I’m staying (a few marked roads and sights), and a bike.

I got on the bike and headed uphill to a small temple perched on the side of the mountain. Once at the entrance, it was “only” 510 steps to the top. At places like this there are often signs, both in English and Thai with Buddhist sayings. Now it may sound new agey or even kitschy, but after 400 steps, they have worn you down and you start to really take these things more seriously. At about step number 412 (to be exact) there was a sign that said, “Do not grumble, just persevere.” Ok, point taken.

I persevered and made it to the top. On my ascent, I saw only two other people, besides the resident monks. The temple was quiet and cool. The view from the chedi on the mountain was one of “those moments.” I felt small as looked out across the valley, a bit alone - not in a bad way; and fortunate - I realize not many people get to do what I am doing. I was not thinking about the climb down and what was next, I was here.

I biked down the mountain a ways, turned down a dirt road and headed past a monastery. There was nothing special about this place from the outside, no well-known statues of the Buddha or other landmarks, just small huts along the mountain side for the monks and the monk’s laundry - the orange robes they wear - strung between the buildings, but it was beautiful - the view and the absolute stillness of the place.

Finally Myrtle (at this point I had named my bike - she was a bit old and decrepit) and I made it down to the Chiang Dao cave, where Buddhist hermits once lived. There is a temple complex at the entrance, along with sellers of medicinal herbs, and few food stalls. Everywhere I looked there were monks, coming and going, and few tourists. Ignoring my own claustrophobia - and the bats, I climbed down into the cave. There are several miles of tunnels created by the water flowing under the mountain. With the help of a local guide, you can see a small portion. While, I appreciate the solitude that living in a cave underground may provide, I think I will choose the hut with a view.

Myrtle and I eventually biked back up the mountain road to my own bamboo hut and sat on the porch, listening to the birds sing, watching the sun set behind the mountain and trying hard not to think about what’s next.

First There Was Plan A...

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Today was my last day in Chiang Mai. I spent the morning at the oldest market in town, the Warrot market, getting lost and wandering the stalls. I took a break in the shade - it was over 100 degrees in town - at a beautiful old temple and then it was time to head out of the city to the town of Chiang Dao near the largest mountain in Thailand, appropriately named, Chiang Dao Mountain.

I consulted my guidebook and decided a bus would get me where I was going. The guidebook also said, the “town” wasn’t much more than an intersection of two roads, with dusty buildings on either side, but I could get a ride/taxi from the bus stop to where I was staying, 9-10 miles up to the base of the mountain. So there was Plan A.

I took a took a tuktuk (three-wheeled moped taxi) to the bus station outside the north city gate and boarded the bus, which given the fact that I was the only non-Thai, seems to be a rarity for foreigners. I had about 6 inches on the edge of a bench seat with two other people, my backpack between my legs as we drove - in a very hot bus - the hour and half up the winding roads to Chiang Dao. I got out at my stop and the guidebook was correct, not much there. Also not there, any type of taxi or other vehicle for hire. So much for Plan A.

I looked around and saw across the street a (relatively) busy open air restaurant that advertised coffee. Hoping someone would speak English, I took a chance and went inside. No English speakers. I tried to sign that I was looking for a ride, but no luck. As long as I was there, I ordered an iced coffee, and tried to figure out Plan B.

I was looking around to see if I could see a pay phone and maybe call the place I was staying, when a Thai woman came in with a backpack. She smiled and I immediately asked, “English?” She responded “a little.” A little was all I needed. I explained I wanted a ride up the mountain, but didn’t have a phone to call anyone. She stood up, picked up my backpack and said, “ok, for motorbike.” I wasn’t sure what this meant, but she got on her phone, dialed a magic number, and turned and said, “motor bike here in 10 minutes, 60 bhat ($2)”. We waited together, drinking coffee. She had been in the area for one week and was heading back to Bangkok on a bus. When the motorbike hadn’t arrived, she called again and I think, told them in no uncertain terms I was still waiting for a ride. Eventually, the motorbike arrived.

I put on my backpack, the driver took my smaller bag in his lap and I climbed on the back. The next thing I knew we were on our way up the mountain. Every once in while he would point at something he thought I should see as we wove our way up the narrow road. I have to say Plan B was a lot more interesting than Plan A.

We arrived at my hotel - that may not be the right word for the series of bamboo huts that face the mountain - but so far it was definitely worth the ride.

The Dark Side of Tourism

Today I took a bus with about 12 other people to visit the Elephant Nature Preserve about an hour and a half outside of Chiang Mai. I’m not usually much of a “tour” person, but this is the only way to visit this special place.

When I first began planning my trip, I thought about going to one of the many tourist elephant camps advertised, but the more I read and the more I learned, the more I realized that these places, in general are not about the animals, but about the tourists. The Elephant Nature Preserve is different.

In Thailand, there are two kinds of elephants, wild elephants and domestic (not domesticated). The domestic elephants have been broken to work for people. Until the late 1980’s they were used in the logging industry, but when logging was banned these elephants were either abandoned, because the owners couldn’t afford to feed them, or put to work in the tourist industry (rides, circuses, etc) or even used to panhandle in the streets of Bangkok.

The elephants at the Elephant Nature Preserve have been rescued from many horrific situations, many were abused, hit by cars in Bankkok, some stepped on land mines on the Thai border with Myanmar, and other stories too sad to tell. At the preserve, they are rehabilitated, paired with a Mahout (handler) who is with them all day, every day. They are incredibly docile, smart and sweet creatures.

At the preserve, I was able to feed, walk with them, bath them and be with them in the closest many of them will ever know to a natural environment.

The money used from visitors like me is used to provide food, shelter and medical care. In 1900 there were 100,000 elephants in Thailand, today there are fewer than 3,000. It was a sobering, gratifying and amazing day.

More information at savetheelephants.org.

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The Art of Conversation

To awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the pleasantest sensations in the world. – Freya Stark

Last night I left Bangkok on an overnight train to Chiang Mai. Honestly, I was looking forward to leaving the insanity of Bangkok behind - the traffic, smog, street vendors, the noise…it was a lot for my jet lagged brain to absorb, not to mention my small town sensibilities.

The central train station in Bangkok is a rather dismal place - overrun with feral cats, stray dogs, some unpleasant bathrooms and the requisite homeless outside. Needless to say, I wasn’t holding out much hope for the actual train.

I was booked in second class cabin with four sleeping berths. Somewhat to my surprise, it was clean, the porter was making up the beds and there were no animals in sight. I looked around and realized that trains seem to be the preferred mode of transportation for the 20-something backpacker set and native Thai. My cabin mates were no different, a french couple, barely 20, on a three month trip through Southeast Asia and Australia.

As they climbed into their upper bunks, talking together, it made me think about how different it is to travel alone. When you travel with someone or a group, the experience binds you together, but when you travel alone, it is a little like “when a tree falls in the woods…” You are the keeper of that experience and the only person it can or might change is you.

By nature, I’m a talker and tend to process what is happening by talking about it (and sometimes to) the people I am with. I think that is why I started writing - to have some place to put my thoughts, even when I didn’t have someone to say them out loud to.

When I woke up on the train and pulled back the curtain in my bunk, the landscape had completely changed. I was in rural Thailand - cows, rice fields, dirt roads, mountains…I looked across from me and somewhere in the middle of the night, a middle aged Thai woman had gotten on board and was now in the bunk across from me. She gave me a huge smile. She looked out the window with the same awe on her face I’m sure I had on mine. When our breakfast arrived, she cleared the small table and pointed at me to put my plate on the table with hers. We sat across from each other, alternating nodding at one another and staring out the window. A while later we arrived in Chiang Mai, as she left the cabin, she turned, put her hands together and bowed. I did the same.

I know we never said a word, but I think it was one of the nicest breakfast conversations I have ever had.