Thursday, August 17, 2017

Elephants in the Wild

Greetings from a small mountain village in Thailand!  I've been in the country about 4 days now and have already had a lifetime full of experiences.  While I started in Bangkok, I was only there for one night and didn't get to see much.  My real experiences began once I arrived in Chiang Mai, which is in northern Thailand.  This small city had a really interesting history as they were once under Burmese control, but fought to secede and eventually joined Siam(Thailand).  The city itself was quite lovely.  There was a nice night market just a block from my hotel.  In the night market I was able to find some great items to add to a new project for my classroom: an international prize box.  I figured rather than filling my prize box with junk that gets lost or thrown away, I'll get little things from my travels that the kids can choose from instead.  Something meaningful that they can hold on to.  The items in the markets in Asia are so cheap, so I've found some great items.  I got these elephant keychains from the market near my hotel.

Speaking of elephants, they are the reason most people visit Chiang Mai.  This region is known for the elephant sanctuaries that are peppered throughout the province.  I was fortunate enough to find an amazing sanctuary and get a reservation with them - something that can be quite difficult depending on the time of year.  The Elephant Nature Park is a renowned preserve in Thailand.  The creator of the park was even named Time Magazine's Asian person of the year for his work with the elephants.  I learned a lot about elephants during my excursion and why not all elephant parks are created equal. There is a long tradition in Thailand of using elephants for labor and entertainment.  We have all seen videos of elephants performing tricks or painting, but there is a lot of unnatural work that must be taught to the elephants, usually through inhumane methods.  The elephants also have a history working in the logging industry.  Their powerful bodies made them a good option for hauling logs around.  This of course is not what elephants were meant to do and forced them to stay in unsatisfactory, undernourished conditions, which often times led to the death of the elephants.  These were the types of elephants I had the privilege of meeting.  Elephant Nature Park went into a small mountain village to educate the people about elephants and their needs.  In exchange for agreement to stop mistreating the elephants, the nature park offered all food and medical services needed to keep the elephants healthy.  Being a great deal, the people agreed.  

This elephant experience was incredible.  After a long 40 minute ride along a mud “road” in the back of a pickup truck up a mountain and into a jungle, we finally approached the small village. There was absolutely nothing around except a few small huts built from bamboo overlooking the hillside.  

In the distance were four elephants.  A small family.  Mom and three kids.  Dad was not present because the male leaves once the kids are born.  We changed into traditional clothing and our experience began!  The elephants have complete free range in the jungle.  There was a person, called  a mahout, assigned to each one to follow her wherever she went to be sure she was safe.  The people with them were able to guide the elephants in certain directions through verbal commands.  What was really wonderful was that the elephants were in charge.  That became quite clear as we began our journey.  After a short lecture on the dangers of the jungle (staying with the group, looking out for tigers) we followed the elephants into the forest.  We let the elephants take the lead.  We followed them where they went.  Each of us was given a bag of food containing bananas and corn to give them as we walked.  Their personalities really came out once they saw the food!  They were just like a dog trying to grab a treat from you.

I was amazed at how docile and friendly they were.  They allowed us to come up and pet and touch with no reaction at all.  It was quite surreal walking with an unrestrained animal that contained so much power.  Once we ran out of food on our walk, they began going rogue.  Trees started toppling over as the elephants bent them to eat the leaves at the top.  Even roots were pulled from the ground using their powerful trunks.  It was hilarious and amazing at the same time.

After a delicious lunch, during which one person in our group found a wild TARANTULA crawling on his shirt, we got ready for a mud bath.  The elephants like to stay cool in the afternoons, so their mahouts led them to the mud pit where we had the chance to get in the pit and help the elephants spread mud all over their bodies.  It was so messy and there were snakes in the water, but it was one of the greatest experiences of my trip so far!

After the mud bath it was time for a real bath!!  We followed the elephants as they made their way to a nearby river on their own.  They had so much fun rolling around in the water as we splashed them to help get the mud off every inch of their wrinkly skin.  There were even a few times where they sprayed water from their trunks! Of course this turned into a big water fight between me, the other visitors, and the mahouts.  

The experience of seeing these beautiful creatures interact with nature around them, as they are intended to, was the experience of a lifetime.  To add even more to the experience, the people who lived in the village were Karen immigrants from Burma!  Karen people are, of course, near and dear to my heart since that is the ethic group Sunday comes from.  I  was able to show off some of the Karen phrases Sunday has taught me over the years.  The villagers were amazed that I knew phrases from their language.  One woman literally did a double take when I said thank you in her language.  They even taught me a new word, which sounds like ‘go cha’.  It, of course, means elephant.

Thailand has been a truly magical place so far.  I love it here.  Tomorrow I head to what is known as the Golden Triangle - a point where Thailand, Laos, and Burma meet.  It will be the closest I get to Burma until next summer when I visit, hopefully :)

Saturday, August 12, 2017

New experiences in Cambodia

My past few days in Cambodia have been a whirlwind of culture, history, food, and experiences. This country has quickly risen toward the top of my favorites list. It’s by no means a modern country and far from rich, but the people and the culture are just insatiable.

I spent the past three days based out of the small city of Siem Reap. The hub of tourism for Cambodia. While the city itsself is pretty typical, what lies just outside the city limits is what brings the crowds. 

The famed Angkor Wat temples, along with several other temple complexes are the must see attraction of Cambodia. These temples have both Buddhist and Hindu roots and are over a thousand years old. In fact, they were lost piles of rubble for many years until restoration funds were provided by the French beginning in 1912. There is still much restoration to be completed, however I really enjoyed seeing them in their current state. It was easy to imagine the history the temples have survived because you could still see the wear and tear on the temples.  There were even still bullets in some places from the Khmer Rouge. 

Below are some photos from the different temples we visited. 

More evidence of the Khmer Rouge. During their reign religion was forbidden and the heads of statues were cut off. 

Sunrise at Angkor Wat 

Loved how the jungle was taking back this temple

Like I said, though, my favorite part of Cambodia is the people and the culture. After temple hopping for two days we made our way out to a floating village. The village doesn’t actually float, but everything is built on stilts because the area floods during the rainy season. In fact, even the road to get to the town floods, meaning we had to take a boat just to get there. The small remote village was a wonderful glance into everyday Cambodian rural life. The town itself has only had power for two years. These people know how to live off the land. 

There was a small section of the town that was not flooded where we had the opportunity to get out and walk around. 

Primary school on stilts!

At one point I spotted a makeshift English school full of kids. Of course I worked my way in to chat with some of them. Their English was great. Of course their personalities immediatly showed and it was clear that kids are kids wherever you are. I shared with them some photos of where I come from and of course had to show them Woofgang. It was truly a hilight of the trip for me. 

We are now headed to our final city in Cambodia: Battambang. Tomorrow we head to Thailand. While I’m extremely excited to finally visit Thailand, I have to say it’s kind of sad to say goodbye to Cambodia. I can not recommend this country enough for touring if you are looking for a place of foreign culture where you can connect with amazing people. Western amenities are extremely limited, but isn’t that how it should be when you fly to the other side of the world?

Next time you hear from me I will be in Thailand 🇹🇭 😁

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

The Dark History of Cambodia

Parents, this post is in no way appropriate for young kids. It may even be too graphic for weak stomached adults. Please be advised.

In the West, when we think of genocide, we tend to think of the holocaust, for good reason, but in the east there was, in my opinion, an even more horrific attempt at genocide in the late 70s. For those who don’t know the history of Cambodia, which I didn’t before I decided to come here, in 1976, the Khmer Rouge communist regime took power in the country and started Cambodia down a long road of pain, suffering, and death. The Khmer Rouge were led by a man named Pol Pot, who used his education and speaking skills to appeal to the uneducated masses in rural Cambodia. With the promise of equality for all, why would poor rural farmers not want to support the Khmer Rouge. That equality came at a terrifying cost, though. Three million to be exact. The Khmer Rouge began their hostil takeover of the country by forcing every citizen out to the rice fields. Everyone had to prove their worth to the country’s by their physical labor abilities. Education was the enemy. In fact, the educated were the taget of the regime. Teachers, doctors, businessmen, and more were immediate targets in the killings. These people were smart enough to question the regime and form protests. In the eyes of the Khmer Rouge they needed to be eliminated. And they did just that. Once in the forced labor camps, the often young, teenage soldiers, tried to weed out who was educated and who was not. Life was meaningless to the cruel soldiers. Once an enemy was found they were sent to a torture prison for interrogation and eventually killed. The tortur, in my opinion, makes this event worse than the Nazi holocaust. The stories are disgusting, horrifying, and unlike any other torture I have knowledge of. The regime was poor, and therefore the soldiers used whatever instruments they had at their disposal to beat, mange, and torture their prisoners. First hand accounts of survivors are beyond belief. Stories of fetuses cut from their mothers and hung from the ceiling of the prison were among the tragedies being committed. 

I did months of research on this part of Cambodian history before leaving the states. I was fascinated by the unimaginably inhumane treatment of Cambodians - and even more fascinated that I had no knowledge of the events. The Khmer Rouge killed nearly a quarter of the population over just a few years. 

Yesterday we had the opportunity to visit the location of much of this killing. Our first stop was one of many so called killing fields. A location of torture and death. There were several pits which were mass graves of over 20,000 mostly unknown people. This experience was hard. Having read several biographies of people who were in this filed, I could imagine exactly what happened and how it happened. It was almost too much to bear, but I wanted to see it and learn from it all. The pictures below show why it was so hard. 

Inside of the memorial in the photo above. When the government opened the mass graves, the bones were collected and placed in this stupa out of respect for the victims. The sheer number of bones was absolutely overwhelming. 

Everywhere you see a dip was a mass grave

After rainstorms, bones frequently are drawn up to the surface. There were random human bones littered all over the field.

Teeth are also frequently uncovered by rainstorms. This is a collection plate of teeth people have found during their walk through the field

Absolutely horrific site. As the sign states this was a killing tree where children’s heads were smashed until they died. Their lifeless bodies were then thrown in a mass grave directly next to the tree. The bracelets you see were placed there by tourists as prayers for the afterlife and hopes for reincarnation of the kids to a better life. 

We also had the opportunity to visit Tuel Sleng (s21) prison. The sheer existence of the prison was hard to comprehend. Before the Khmer Rouge took over, s21 was a public high school. A place of learning and exploring. The army claimed the school in their name at the start of the war, though, and transformed it into a place of torture and death. It was, in itself, a metaphore for what the Khmer Rouge was doing to Cambodia. 

The classrooms from the old school were modified with new walls to create cells for the prisoners

Cells on the upper floors were wooden to reduce the weight being put on the bottom floor

The cells had no doors, but the prisoners were shackled to the floor. The box in the upper left corner is what they were given as a toilet

These markings showed the low level of intelligence of the soldiers. They did not know how to write numbers. 

A high school turned to a prison...

Some of the tools used for torturing prisoners

The young people in these photos were Khmer Rouge soldiers who performed the torture. So young. Most were under 18

Please keep in mind the only crime most of the prisoners here committed was being educated. 

If you made it this far into the post I commend you. These events are horrific and must never occur again. 

If you are curious of learning more about this horrific regime, there are many books written on the topic and a movie actually will be released on Netflix September 15 about the experience of one Khmer girl during the takeover. Its based on a biography and titled First They Came For My Father. I urge you to inform yourself about this war. The Cambodians urge you as well. Their history must be understood to prevent it from ever happening again. 

Cambodian Impressions

Let me preface this post by saying this is completely kid friendly. I will be posting a subsequent blog that contains some of the more horrible historical events that will not be kid friendly. 

I’ve been in Cambodia for a few days now.  I can’t even begin to express how much I love it here. Compared to Vietnam, Cambodia is real Southeast Asia. While I loved Vietnam, I was shocked at the number of tourists. I really felt at times like I was surrounded by more tourists than locals. Cambodia is quite different. Tourist numbers are a fraction of what they were in Vietnam, even at tourist spots. Cambodia is also just generally what I Imagined SE Asia would be. 75% of the people here are farmers living off the land, which is absolutely beautiful. They are beautiful people with simple lives that make them happy. 

The country is by no means wealthy, although I have seen plenty of Porsches and Land Rovers in Phnom Penh, the location of the country’s elite. Most people here would not qualify as elite, though. In fact the level of poverty is quite striking. Yesterday at lunch, I was unable to finish a baguette that I had purchased. An older woman spotted it on my pile of dishes plates from the street. She walked into the restaurant and asked me for the bread. At first I thought she was seeking money, but when she pointed to the baguette I was almost in shock. Food is by no means expensive in this country, and yet she was still forced to beg for food scraps. It was quite eye opening. 

Another eye opening experience was seeing the street kids trying to make money. Twenty percent of kids aged 5-9 in the country are forced into work to supplement their family’s income. That number jumps to about 50% at the age of 10. As Americans we are so used to compulsorily education as a right. In Cambodia, families need to pay over $100USD a year per kid for school attendance. For a culture that tends to have big families, that can be out of reach. In comes child labor, an unsuccessful solution. Only 45% of kids in the work force actually attend school. Money can be a powerful thing and once profits are made, school can lose its luster.  I met one kid who was selling bracelets on the street. He was a bright kid. Eight years old, spoke English very well, and was absolutely adorable. He claimed to attend school, which I can only hope is true.  Based on his English skills, I do believe him.  August is a summer break for students in Cambodia, so perhaps it is merely a summer job for young Andy. 

This beautiful country is teaching me a lot about the world and the privileges we have in the US. I’ve only been here 3 days and Cambodia has already stolen a piece of my heart. Next stop on the tour: Siem Reap, home to the famed Ankor Wat. I’m ready for another once in a lifetime experience 😁

Ps:  this just happened. 

Yeah, that’s me eating a deep fried tarantula. It was salty and hairy....