Thailand – Same same, but different.

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Thailand was never on my travel to do list. I guess I watched too many TV shows of nights in Bangkok and concluded that the country was boozy, trashy and not the kind of place I wanted to see. It was a good friend of mine that urged me to go, ‘There is a beautiful side to Thailand,’ she promised me. So I decided to add the destination to my trip and go and see for myself what Thailand had to offer, rather than judging it on the basis of trashy TV shows. I arrived in Bangkok in the middle of rush hour after spending the past twenty hours travelling, the longest and cheapest way around, from Nepal. I was exhausted so I jumped into a taxi, for the sake of a couple of extra baht the journey seemed worth it. I soon realised I had made a very bad decision. I was quickly swallowed into the traffic of Bangkok, the worse traffic I have ever seen, far worse than the streets of central London. Despite this, however, my first impressions of Bangkok were good. I walked down the street, with a backpack on my front and back keeping me balanced, and no one batted an eye lid. Here I was anonymous, just another backpacker in the capital of backpacker world. It was a refreshing experience. I even ventured to the dreaded Khao San Road, just to experience it for myself and see exactly how much I despised it. To my surprise it wasn’t as bad as I had imagined, I had seen far worse on the streets of my hometown in the early hours of the weekend mornings. Still, it was far too noisy and crowded for me, putting my feet up with a good book and a cup of tea is my preferred activity in an evening. From the busy, humid streets of Bangkok I headed north to Chiang Mai. Smaller than Bangkok, but still a busy city, Chiang Mai has a much more laidback vibe to it. I spent my time there learning to cook traditional Thai dishes from my new Thai auntie Wanie and swinging through the jungle on a zip line pretending to be Tarzan. It was soon time for me to leave city life, however, and head to the south and experience the beautiful side of the country my friend had promised me existed. On arrival at Phuket airport I was filled with relief when I saw that the sky had stayed blue, combining with the turquoise of the Andaman Sea. So far on my journey every time I had stepped foot near the sea a torrential downpour had occurred. It appeared I was cursed with bringing the English weather with me, however at last the curse had been lifted. I walked out of the airport excited to explore. Thailand did appear beautiful after all. However, my excitement was soon replaced with dread as I approached the streets of Patong in the minivan I was sharing with fellow passengers fresh off the runway. Dear God, I prayed, please do not let the area I am staying in be anything like this. Patong, in the daylight, was all the parts of Thailand I did not want to see, tacky, sleazy and what seemed like a million tourists walking the streets. If I had arrived in the darkness I probably would have gone straight back to the airport and headed to the next country on my list earlier than planned. Thankfully the hostel I had reserved a bed at was in a much quieter area than party palace Patong. I settled into my new island life straight away. The following morning I hopped on a speedboat and headed to the Phi Phi Islands. As the boat bounced up in the air every time it made contact with water I was sprayed with salt water, stupidly I had sat at the back, the wettest part of the boat. I scanned around looking for passengers that were dry. I found them smirking, pleased with their smart move and made a mental note of their position. We approached Maya Bay on Koh Phi Phi Leh and Miss Susan, our guide, who had warned us earlier that if we called him Mr he would absolutely push us overboard, announced that we would have thirty minutes to look around the area. Maya Bay is where the handsome Leonardo DiCaprio frolicked around getting high and paranoid on the film, The Beach. I have seen the film and the beach on the film was not the beach that I was standing on. Covering every inch of white sand were people in their bright swimwear and their selfie sticks. The invasion of tourists had stripped the beauty of this natural area away, leaving it unrecognisable. Disappointed I hopped back onto Miss Susan’s boat and headed to the bigger island, Koh Phi Phi Don. It was the same as every beach I had seen so far, filled with long tail boats and people. I returned to Phuket and then headed to Krabi, still in search of my paradise island experience.

You know you have arrived in Krabi when the craggy karst mountains start appearing on the horizon. Being surrounded by mountains always makes me feel at home so I took an instant liking to the area. I was staying in Ao Nang, the tourist centre of the area, however my time in Krabi coincided with New Year’s Eve and that’s the one night of the year that I put down the tea and go out into the moonlit streets, so I wanted to be somewhere there was life. From Ao Nang I was able to get a long tail boat over to Railay beach, a place famous for its rock climbing. Now I am the ‘when in Rome…’ kind of girl so if people go to Railay to rock climb then in Railay that is what I shall do. I managed to pull myself up the cliff face of the smaller rocks, in awe at the people that appeared like very tiny mountain goats clinging, somehow, to the flat rock surface high above me. Ok, so I am never going to be a rock climber, but I had fun trying, it was a great adventure to finish off a fantastic year and the instructor looked like the Thai version of Jon Snow so the view wasn’t too bad, either. Railay has a great vibe. You can walk from one beach to the other in a matter of minutes, there are no cars in the area, but plenty of reggae bars. It was busy with tourists however it was definitely more the Thailand I had imagined so I promised myself that on my next visit to the country I will sleep on the beach and stay longer than one day. I ended the last day of 2015 relaxing on the beach with a fresh coconut, listening to the legend that is Mr Marley, singing to myself, whilst watching people cool off in the sea. It was a pure, blissful afternoon of living in the present, something I was learning to do very well throughout my travels. Being present and soaking up every last drop of every moment. After an evening of fireworks, and promises for the year ahead made with new friends, I spent the first day of this year doing what I was pretty much doing every day in the south, island hopping. We sailed from beautiful island to beautiful island, through the different shades of blue and as I stood in the crystal clear sea around the tiny island named Tup, I scanned the view around me and felt overwhelmed with joy that I was starting my year in such an incredible natural landscape, minus the tourists of course.

It was soon time for me to leave Krabi and her islands and head further south, to Koh Lanta. I had read that the island of Lanta was quieter and I was looking forward to actually doing some relaxing, so far I had only managed to lay on a beach for approximately thirty minutes. On Lanta I was determined to be still for a while. Saladan, the pier town on Koh Lanta, is a quirky little area and even here, in the main town on the island, the difference was immediately apparent. The crowds were no more, travellers were scattered in a way that meant they didn’t take over the landscape. Driving through the island to the beach area I was staying in I looked around and knew that I had chosen the right island to come and stay a while and learn to dive. The only car on the road was the one I was travelling in and when I went to check out the beach my vision was of an endless expanse of sand with very few people lying on it. It was perfect. I don’t know what possessed me to think that learning to dive would be relaxing, it wasn’t. It was an intense four days of study and nerves, details can be found on my previous post, but let’s just say that I was exhausted every late afternoon and skipped the beach in favour of a bed and air conditioning. On my last day on the island I visited the local animal shelter to volunteer as a dog walker. Damm, a floppy eared, gentle, black beauty, and I were enjoying a nice leisurely stroll down to the river when something struck at us from the bush and then slithered away, back into its hiding place. Damm was not injured, luckily, but I knew then who the snake skin in the middle of the road that we had passed earlier on had belonged to. I said goodbye to the animals of Lanta and set off on the journey to my final island, Koh Lipe. Ten hours and four boats later I stepped foot on the whitest sand I had seen in Thailand thus far, just as the sky was turning blood red orange. As I floated in the clearest water I had ever seen, anywhere, I looked up at the sky and, infused with gratitude, thought to myself, if this was to all end tomorrow, and I had to return to England, homeless, penniless and jobless, then it was all worth it, all the years of saving money and missing out on spending time with friends and family. It was all worth it, just for the past three months, just for this moment.

And Koh Lipe wasn’t about to let me leave Thailand without giving me one more magical experience. As I walked down the beach in the evening with the stars shining down over me the stars of the ocean burned electric blue underneath me. Tiny sparks of bio luminescent plankton surrounded me as it was washed ashore. Most of the islands in Thailand might be same same, but Koh Lipe is definitely different.

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Under the sea, life is much better down where its wetter…

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I put my head under the water, slowly, nervously. I took a deep breath in and then out came the bubbles floating to the surface. In front of me a pair of eyes was looking deep into my own, searching for answers. Is she ok? Is she panicking? My head broke the surface and out came my regulator. ‘How was it?’ ‘Strange, very strange!’

Ever since snorkelling in the Red Sea I had wanted to start exploring the underwater world. I wanted to relive my days as a mermaid, with little Nemo’s waving hello to me with their fins, giant parrot fish gliding past me and shoals of squid guiding my way. Scuba diving seemed the best way to be able to go on this journey. I have watched many documentaries about people diving and they appear so elegant underwater, like ballerinas, their fins gracefully pushing them through the endless expanse of blue. My reality was very different from the performances I had seen on TV. My first time diving in the sea I was more like an underwater clown than a graceful water ballerina. I jumped up and down and spun around, clumsily failing to keep my buoyancy controlled. The fish seemed more like a hazard than new friends, in the way of this out of control want-to-be mermaid. However, after a few deep breaths to calm the nerves, and some hand signals from my instructor, I managed to gain some composure and was finally able to propel myself through the water like the professionals. Well, I like to think I looked like a professional, the reality of that is probably very different. Everything was going swimmingly (no pun intended) and I said hello with a little nod of my head to the sea cucumbers, seahorses and to the lion fish, who I thankfully managed to keep my distance from. Time seems to pass very quickly under water and before I had a chance to start feeling relaxed and enjoying being in the new world I had jumped into it was time to resurface to the world from which I had escaped. On the surface I went back to being like a child immersed in water who doesn’t know how to swim. Trying to simulate emergency situations, blowing up a BCD manually with waves crashing over my head and weights pulling me down to the sea floor, is not easy. Somehow I managed to keep myself alive however death by drowning did start to feel very real at one point. But, like learning any new skill, all it takes is practice. So I powered through the course, nervously I admit, until on my fourth dive I had mastered all the actions I needed to perform in order to gain my certificate and I spent the last dive floating in the underwater world with my new marine friends. Sitting on the speedboat on the way back to land, the sun drying my skin, I felt a huge sense of relief that it was over, that I had managed to make it through the past four days without drowning and that I didn’t quit, even when I felt, quite literally, out of my depth. ‘We have a new PADI member everyone,’ shouted the dive master to my fellow scuba divers, ‘well done Mikaela, she’s a good fighter.’

‘Yes,’ I thought ‘I sure am.’

The truth is in the eyes. My time at the Elephant Nature Park and the reality of elephant tourism.

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A few years ago, on my first trip to India, on the very first day, I was strolling along the street when an elephant came walking towards me, accompanied by a man adorned with an orange robe and a long, grey beard. The man was a Sadhu, a holy man. I was overwhelmed with happiness, I adore all animals but there is something truly special about elephants. I had my picture taken with this beautiful creature, gave the Sadhu money and walked away, ecstatic. It never occurred to me that this elephant would have been mistreated in anyway, in my ignorance I didn’t question how an elephant could be walking down a street with a man so calmly, as if it was natural.

A few days later I came across a lake where an elephant was bathing, again this elephant had a human companion. The man told me that for a small fee I could have a wash off the elephant, I just had to sit on her back and she would spray water on me with her trunk. Once again I was delighted at my chance to interact with these majestic animals. However, when I looked into her eyes I was greeted by sadness, she was exhausted. The eyes are said to be the windows to the soul and I could see that this elephant’s soul had been destroyed. I turned around at the sound of chatter, during my brief time with this broken elephant a line of tourists had formed, ready for their turn to sit on this poor animals back. It was then that I stopped to think about what was happening. I knew that this was not right; my feeling of delight had quickly been replaced by shame and guilt. I didn’t realise it at the time, like most people back then I was ignorant to how elephants are treated in order to tame them for the tourist industry, but I had been a part of this shameful treatment. Through participating in this activity I had been a part of the demand, and as long as there is a demand there will be a supply.

When I returned to the UK I started to do my research. I was horrified. I discovered that elephants are taken from the wild and beaten in the most horrific ways, with weapons made from a piece of wood with a hook on the end they are repeatedly stabbed, until the point they are broken and obey the demands of their human torturers in fear of further cruel treatment. I had caused this, as long as people like me travel to these countries where people will do whatever it takes to earn a bit of money, this treatment will continue to happen. My guilt and shame reached a whole new level. The more I researched the more I realised that I had been causing animals, such as elephants, to be taken from their natural environment in order to entertain humans. Of course I am not solely responsible, but I accept full responsibility in the part that I have played and I will live with the guilt of that, every day. As a child the only place I ever wanted to visit was the zoo, because at the zoo lived all my favourite animals, at the zoo I could watch the orang-utans, with their big round stomachs and saggy cheeks swinging from rope-to-rope. At the zoo I could watch the chimpanzees chasing each other and listen to their noisy chatter, at the zoo I could watch the elephants doing what they do best, eating. I never stopped to think about how these animals came to be in the zoo, and as I child I suppose I can be forgiven for not questioning this; however as an adult there is no excuse.

I tell this story so that you, the reader, know that I am guilty of this, too. This post is not about judging people for their actions, if you have had a ride on the back of an elephant or if you have swam with dolphins I am not criticising you, my intention is to educate people, like I have been educated, in the hope that one day we can put an end to using animals for our entertainment and they can all live their lives in their natural habitat.

Earlier this year, on a grey and cold March evening, whilst scrolling through social media, I stumbled across a photo detailing information about a place called The Elephant Nature Park, in Thailand. A country I was set to visit as part of my round the world trip. The post stated that the elephants there are rescued from the tourist industry and brought to the park so they can live out the rest of their days free from abuse, free from pain. I started to do my research, in order to make sure that it was genuine, that it was ethical and it was what it described on its website. Once I was reassured I immediately signed up to be a volunteer. And it was here that my real education in how elephants are treated truly began. After I, and over forty other volunteers, had spent the week picking up elephant poo, chopping grass and collecting hay from the surrounding farms and land, and preparing food for the animals, Lek, the founder of the park, gathered us all together in the conference room to watch a presentation she had put together. This beautiful, brave, strong woman had travelled throughout Asia to gather evidence on elephant abuse in order to fight their corner and show us, and the world, what really happens to these creatures, exactly how they are transported from their natural environment, in the wild, to wandering down the streets of Thailand begging and carrying tourists on their backs in the jungle. The tears flowed until I had nothing left inside as I watched the images on screen of injuries the elephants, like those I had spent the week with, had received at the hands of humans. As I watched the videos of baby elephants tied up in a small cage where they are unable to move and are repeatedly stabbed, over and over again until their spirit is broken, a process known as pajaan. And it’s not just the touristy industry, the next time you buy that beautiful wooden table from a furniture store just stop to think about how that wood was collected. In countries such as Myanmar elephants are used during illegal logging to horde the chopped down trees through the jungle, they are worked till they collapse from exhaustion, ropes burning into their skin. One resident at the park is a beautiful elephant named Jokia, she is completely blind. She was stabbed in both eyes when she refused to work at one of these illegal logging sites after she gave birth trying to pull trees up a hill and her baby, whilst still in its sack, rolled down the hill and died. Like humans, elephants grieve, they have been known to return to the exact spot where one of their family members has died, staying there for a few days to mourn. Imagine the heartache of losing your baby, and then imagine the pain you would feel if someone shot and blinded you in both eyes, simply because you were grieving. Humans are allowed to grieve; we are expected to grieve when we lose someone we love. If we are allowed to mourn someone we love in peace, why can’t elephants?

This is just one heart breaking story of just one elephant, there are many more. Travelling through Thailand I came across many elephant camps, some have a new selling tactic; they do not offer elephant riding. However, they offer elephant bathing, and if a female adult elephant is lying down in a river on her side for a long period of time whilst tourists throw water on her, then that elephant has been through the pajaan process, too. An elephant will bathe in the river when it wants to, it will stand in the water and spray itself from its trunk and when it has had enough it will move on. This is its natural behaviour. Therefore when you travel to countries like Thailand and you visit one of these places claiming to be a sanctuary please be careful, they are mindful that less people are wanting to ride elephants because they have been made aware of how unethical it is, but elephant bathing is still the same thing dressed up in a different way. The elephants have still been tortured and abused and they are still forced to do something they do not want to do to provide entertainment to tourists and to earn money for their captors. I have spoken to many people throughout my time here in Thailand discussing this topic. One young man told me how he visited one of these camps, one that did not offer riding. He thought he was visiting a genuine place where he could see these beautiful animals he was so fond of, instead he found that the mahouts were pushing the elephants down into the water and forcing them to stay there so tourists could wash them, he realised that this was not right, it was not ethical and not what he wanted to be a part of. If you are in Thailand and you want to see elephants then please do your research and find a place where the elephants are treated correctly, not where you bathe them or watch them perform tricks or sit on their backs. Day visits to the Elephant Nature Park are possible; you can spend the day watching the elephants as they roam, you can even feed them, believe me this experience is magical enough. Feeling the strength of their powerful trunk as they curl it around the bananas you give to them and watching them place the fruit straight into their mouths is a far happier and more rewarding moment between human and elephant than sitting on their backs walking through the jungle. This is not interacting with an elephant, this is humans dominating them, this is humans being the superior species that we think we are, when really we have to question, how superior are we? Humans torture innocent animals to show their strength and power and yet these tortured animals, even after the treatment they have received from our species, will still gently take food from your hand when they could crush every single bone, quite easily, if they wanted to. Who’s the superior one now? The forgiveness, compassion and love these animals have is awe inspiring. All it takes is to be compassionate and loving towards them and they will return these feelings back to you, tenfold.

At the park the majority of the elephants are not from the same herd, they have been rescued from different countries in South East Asia and brought together through circumstance and yet they have created a family. One day as I was looking out at the landscape, watching the water buffalo grazing, and the dogs lying in the shade escaping the midday heat, a baby elephant came walking from the river accompanied by two adult females. A small truck carrying hay slowly started to drive in the same direction, the baby didn’t like the noise of the truck and started to become slightly agitated, the two females ran to protect her, trumpeting loudly to the truck to back off, out of nowhere another female elephant came running around the corner and joined the other protectors. They covered her from all sides until she wasn’t visible, the truck wasn’t visible by then either, aware of the fears of the baby it had slowly headed in the opposite direction. This is how elephants are, they are so maternal, so loving, none of these adults are related to this baby, none of them are related to each other. But they love and they protect. I watched in wonder, in that moment I was overwhelmed with admiration for these creatures, if only more humans had the same loving spirit. I am aware that there have been instances when elephants have killed or injured humans; however these elephants have been treated in the most inhumane ways that really I am surprised that there are not more instances of elephant retaliation.

If, after this lengthy post, I still have your attention then thank you for reading. But more importantly I would now like to ask you for your help. The only way we can stop this happening to elephants, and to other animals around the world, is to stop the demands from tourists. The only way we can stop the demand is by educating people on the reality of what is happening to these poor creatures. You may be sat there thinking that you are just one person, a powerless person who individually can’t put a stop to animal cruelty. But I am here to tell you that you are powerful, you can share this post on your social media, you can educate your friends and family, show them the video below, spread the message. Then we will grow from individuals to a collection of people and that collection of people is strong enough to make changes.

Please click on the link below to watch a short video which documents how elephants are treated in order to suit the purposes of man.

https://www.dropbox.com/s/dkc9x599pfsfsqn/elephants%20on%20the%20edge%204%3A3.mp4?dl=0