Khao Sok, Thailand

There are many places in Thailand that bring visitors in, and most of them have guarantee a wonderful, and relaxing time. But they do tend to blend into each other especially if you drive up and down the coast. It is one beach resort after another competing for your money, and they will pull out all the stops with great restaurants, fun night time atmosphere, exotic beaches, and a sprinkle of culture so you can feel like you gained something by traveling half way across the world and visiting this place. It works well for those who might be here for a couple of weeks, but when you cannot leave Thailand, you start to look for something a little different. I would even say that after a couple of weeks, you would probably want the same thing. This is where Khao Sok comes into play.

Khao Sok is a national park located in the southern part of Thailand, right above the island of Phuket. It is a big reservoir that they made sure to limit the amount of impact that humans could have on it. There are a few resorts floating on the lake that was created, but they are far enough away from each other that it feels like the group of people that you came in with are the only ones on this big, huge nature reserve. 

And nature is allowed to thrive in this location. I personally did not see a wide range of animals, probably because they kept themselves hidden in the deep foliage that can be found on all of the mountains, but I was lucky enough to see a couple of hornbill birds fly in front of our resort, and one morning I got to experience a family of elephants foraging for their breakfast before taking a morning dip in the cool water. Despite this, Khao Sok is home to a variety of other animals including water buffalo, bears, panthers, and deer. They are not always witnessed because they like to hide in the forests that cling to the mountains, but it is always a good idea to keep a watchful eye out because you never know what you are going to see.

There are many places to say in this National Park, and they vary in luxury and the programs that they offer for people who stay there. We decided to stay at the Panvaree Resort even though this is a destination that more Thais go to rather than foreigners. In fact, we were the only English speaking people at this resort, and if it wasn’t for a couple of Japanese ladies, we would have been the only foreigners. It did not matter much because the staff there was still incredibly friendly with a couple of them speaking English fluently. And when things got tight, I still know enough Thai to get by.

The main reason that we picked this resort over the other was because it offer a two day, two night package where most of the other place get you in and out within one day. This allowed us enough time to go and see what it was we wanted to see while still having a little downtime so we did not feel exhausted.

The food that they served was all traditional Thai food, and it came out in huge portions with the option for being able to get a refill at any time that we wanted. It was authentic home made Thai food as well. With us being farangs (foreigners), they believed that we could not handle the spice that they gave to all over the other people staying there, and though I would tend to agree that I cannot handle the spice that many Thai people can, being raised on Mexican food, I can hold my own when it comes to spice. I kind of wished they added a little bit more of a kick to our food, but that did not detract from the overall pleasure of the meals.

They also created our itinerary for us, and made sure that we had plenty of activities. There were a couple of boats rides to take us to the various sites in the park, and give us the perfect picture opportunities. We got caught in a rain storm in one of them, and they had to bring us back early, but they made sure to reschedule it for the morning so we could make sure we could take in all of the beauty of the park. The sunrise probably made for a better picture opportunity rather than the sunset, so I am glad that it worked out this way, and all I had to do was endure a little bit of rain in the process.

There was also a little hike through the forest. Many times this would be the place where you would see the wildlife, but we were not that lucky this time around. It wasn’t too strenuous either. Most of the time when I go hiking out in Thailand, I come back a sweaty mess, but that was not the case with this hike. There was a little uphill and a little downhill, but it led us to a little alcove and a couple of boats that would take us to our next destination.

The boat could have been one of the most interesting things I witnessed on this trip. Most of the time when I hear the term boat, I think that they have at least a couple of sides to them to help them keep them afloat, but this boat was nothing more that a few bamboo logs lashed together with a walkway on them and a motor to take people to their destination. It did not look like the safest thing in the world, but we were not going far, and everybody seemed okay with it, so I went along for the ride.

It was worth the trip too because it took us to another of the natural wonders in this national park, a cave that can only be reached from crossing this small inlet. It was not the most amazing cave I have ever seen, but the people in the park have a healthy respect for nature and made sure that nobody disturbed anything in the cave in order maintain all of the natural features that can be found in it, and there are quite a few.

Khao Sok has easily become one of my favorite spots in Thailand, and it is must see for anybody coming out here. I know that it does not have the name recognition as some of the island resorts or bigger cities, but it is that hidden gem that is really worth finding. It only takes a couple of days to truly enjoy the experience and everything will be taken care of if you find the right place, so please make sure you try to pencil it in.

Otherwise, thanks for reading and I hope that you can get back out there soon to see what the world has to offer.

Elephants in the Morning Mist – Khao Sok, Thailand

I am not usually the type of person that likes to get up early in the morning while I am on vacation, but I was not really given a choice today. The plan was to get up early to travel to one of the more iconic spots on this vast lake, and it was worth the annoying ring of my alarm. Khao Sok looks completely different in the morning. The clouds hang low over the hills creating a misty atmosphere that I originally thought could only be seen in a Hollywood movie about this part of the world. I wondered what it would have looked like during the rainy season, or if the clouds would have dipped down even further, making it impossible to see anything at all.

Being on a boat in Khao Sok National Park is also an amazing experience whether it is in the heat of the afternoon, or early in the morning. The water instantly cools you off, and there are so many nooks and crannies to explore in the mountains. It is fun to find the explore the dramatic landscape and find the place for the perfect picture. Of course, the guides know these spots already and will take you there, and most of the time they know how to rotate boats in and out so it appears that you are the only person on the lake, but there are a couple of places where the boats get a little packed in, but with patience you can still find that perfect shot.

The place we stayed in also had kayaks that we could take out on to the lake anytime that we wanted to which gave us a little more freedom to explore, though they told us not to wander too far away from the place. One of the things about Khao Sok and the surrounding area is that a storm could roll in at any time and catch you unaware. While we were there, we got to witness two of these storms. One of them came rolling in while we were lounging around the dock, swimming and kayaking. We were close enough to find shelter quickly. But the other one caught us while we were on the bigger boat looking for the perfect evening shots. There was not much we could do but rush back to our resort while holding the life jackets over our heads to try to stay as dry as possible.

Needless to say, it did not work very well.

It just meant that we got to spend more time on the boat in the morning. And we were lucky that we did because as we started to make our way back to our resort after enjoying the sunrise, someone with an eagle eye caught a glimpse of an elephant on the distant shore. Breakfast was going to be delayed for a little bit because we had to go check out these rare sights to the park.

Khao Sok does have a multitude of animals that run around through its forests, but most of them remain hidden, and it is only once in awhile where they venture out to the places where humans can witness them. If you are around during one of those rare instances, you go out and enjoy it.

What looked like one elephant far away turned into a family of elephants enjoying their morning breakfast. We sat there and watch for awhile as they munched on leaves and tore down trees, but after a bit, we decided to get some breakfast of our own and give them some privacy.

After our breakfast, we could still see them as they got in the water a moved a little further down the coast to get closer to us. This is where the kayaks came in beautifully. We hopped on one, paddled out to where they were and enjoyed their presence for a little bit longer before they wandered back into the trees.

These kinds of experiences have been what has made this place such a wonderful one to visit. I know we have been pretty lucky so far with the experience, but I am sure that whoever comes out here will get to collect their own stories to tell. It is why that it is regular destination for many Thai people, and a must add to an itinerary for people thinking about making their way out to Thailand.

The Big Mountain – Khao Yai National Park, Thailand

A swing at the gate to Khao Yai National Park

One of the bigger draws of Thailand lies outside of its bigger cities, and long white beaches. There is a whole ecological playground out there for people to enjoy, and the most popular spot is only a two to three hour drive away from Bangkok, and is the oldest National Park in the country, Khao Yai. The name basically translates to big mountain, and though it spreads itself over a very hilly terrain, it is more of a tropical forest out in the middle of the farmlands. It is a beautiful place with many varieties of animals all over the place, and you never know what you will find with every corner you take.

The view of the landscape, and as close as I got to the horn-billed birds

The most famous of the animals that live in the wild in this place are the elephants and the horn-billed birds. The elephants are in the wild and allowed to roam freely among the 300 square miles of the park, and during the dry season they are often seen taking mud baths, and heading to the many waterholes to get a drink of water. Unfortunately, I did not come across any of them during my time there, but they are doing well especially after the devastating news about them the previous year. There was an accident involving a baby elephant, and its parents as they went over a waterfall in the park, but measures have been taken to try to prevent this from happening again.

A stuffed horn-billed bird at the visitor’s center

I did get to witness the majesty of the horn-billed birds. There was a flock of them flying off towards the distance from the road we were on. They are huge birds whose wings span out to almost 180 centimeters, and their bright colors bounce off of the green landscape of the trees that populate the park.

People waiting to get their picture of the horn-billed family during their meal time

I was lucky enough to witness them from the road, but there is one spot where many photographers go to try to snap a shot of these birds. There is a nest in a hole in tree where one of the female birds was raising a couple younger birds until they were ready to fly out on their own. Basically the female bird will tear out her wing feathers to keep her young warm and feed. They eventually grow back, but during the time she has to wait until they return, she is completely reliant on the male horn-billed bird. The male goes out for food and returns to the nest to feed the young ones and the female bird. If anything happened to the male bird, it would be the end for the whole family as the female and the young ones cannot leave the nest to fend for themselves.

This is one of the problems that come with the park. Many people come and visit the park, and are looking for that perfect picture to bring back with them. Some of the more ambitious visitors will set up camp with their cameras waiting for the perfect time to get that picture. Sometimes they get a little too close to the nest which scares away the male horn-billed bird. Rangers visit this spot constantly to ensure the survival of these birds, and make sure the place remain amazing for other visitors who come back generations later.

Haew Suwat Waterfall, the one used in The Beach

Another popular spot in the park is the waterfall where they filmed the Leonardo DiCaprio movie based on Alex Garland book, The Beach. Even if the movie had not immortalized this location, it would still be the perfect place to hike down to. It is only a hundred meter down some strange stone steps, but there are many places to nestle among the stones down there to enjoy an afternoon next to the cool water.

The park is a must see for anybody coming out to Thailand. It really demonstrates how diverse this country actually is, but I would highly recommend hiring a tour guide to take you around. There are only a couple of roads through the park, and if you do not know what you are looking for, you will miss a lot of what this park has to offer.

Of course, you will still be able to see the occasional deer, and spot the elephants at some of the hotter spots. There is also many monkeys that come out of the forest looking for a free handout or something shiny to steal from unsuspecting travelers.

But our guide was able to show us the more hidden treasures like the vipers hanging from trees that we would have only found by accident.

And I don’t think I would have enjoyed the surprise we would have had when we came across one of these dangerous snakes.

She was also able to look into some of the pools in the river to show us the animals that lives under the rocks there.

And the craziest one that I would never have found in a million years. There is a spider on this tree that blends in perfectly because of its camouflage. If she was not there to point it out, I would have never seen it. I’m looking at the picture right now, and know where it is, and I still have a hard time seeing it.

The viewpoint half way up the mountain

It was a nice way to get out of the smog and heat of Bangkok for a couple of days. The clean air, the cool nights, the amazing views, and the fun of seeing all of the wildlife in the preserved spot in Thailand worth the trip.

I still wish I could have seen the elephants though.

The Activist

My silky hair needs expensive shampoo
With fine ingredients such as palm oil.
I also need to fix things with strong glue
‘Cause it easier than having me toil.
I can get all my cheap electronics
From a local sweat shop deep in China;
I don’t think ’bout the darker specifics
If the workers have a ma or a pa.
But be sure not to hurt the elephants
Who get killed for their healing ivory.
Those creeps are nothing more than sycophants
Who don’t care ’bout this endangered species.
I will never be a contributor
‘Cause I live the life of a consumer.

Luang Prabang, Laos – Day 5

I only had one day left with the elephants before I headed back to the comforts that Luang Prabang had to offer, but this was the day that I actually got to contribute to the care of the elephants. After spending a couple of days at the Elephant Conversation Center, I wished that we had planned things a little differently and would have gotten the one week experience at the site rather than the three day stay. If we had opted for that option, we would have helped out a lot more because it involved doing volunteer work at the camp after the three days were over. The only problem would have been that I would have wanted to stay there if we had gone for the longer option, so it was probably for the best that we were there for only two nights.

On my last day there, I got to work in the enrichment area. The idea of this part of the camp is to train the elephants to what it means to look for food in the wild. I know this may surprise many people to think that elephants need to be trained how to forage for food in the forest. Shouldn’t there instincts kick in allowing them to find food for themselves? Well, it is not that easy.

These elephants were trained since the age of three to either work in the logging industry, or perform at the tourist camps. They never had to search for food because it was always given to them by the mahouts. They never learned how to be elephants. I was told that the first time a new elephant was left alone in the enrichment area, they would stand there not knowing what to do because they had never been left alone in their live. And even though the goal of the Elephant Conservation Center is to get elephants ready to love out in the wild again they need to work their way up to that point.

Think of it this way. If somebody came to your house, grabbed you, traveled all the way around the way around the world and dropped you off into the forest so you could return back to your natural habitat, how well would you do out there by yourself? It is the same thing for these elephants. They need the time to learn how to survive on their own.

The two elephants that I got to watch in the environment took a little while to get going. They were able to find the food that was closer to the ground rather quickly, but they had a tendency to ignore the food that was hidden in the higher spot. I watched them walk right under some of the more obvious spots wondering why they couldn’t find the food hidden in these spots. I even asked the owner of the place if they has a weak sense of smell because of this phenomenon, and I was told that elephants have an extraordinary sense of smell which is what I thought in the first place. He told me that they just didn’t think of looking up high and this was the whole reason that they went through the process of training them.

He also told me that the elephants at first would start by struggling the various puzzles that were created for them, but after they figure them out, then the became way too easy for them. It required the center to come up with new and exciting ways to challenge the elephants that also simulated what it would be like for them to find food on their own. The elephants we were watching we just starting to figure out the easier puzzles and they still needed to work on finding and solving the more difficult ones.

Even though it was fun to watch the elephants in action, we had a boat we needed to catch to head back to our last full night in the more comfortable parts of Laos. We headed back to Luang Prabang and got a room closer to the center of town. It made for a very nice evening of enjoying drinks by the Mekong river and enjoying an amazing dinner.

It also meant it was the last chance I would get to travel across that wooden bridge that they build every year during the dry season. The bridge did not look as threatening at night, but as soon as we stepped on it and made our way across it, we could really feel how rickety it actually was. There were a couple of holes along the way that came from the continuous use over the last couple of months, but I also knew that the people of Luang Prabang would not fix these holes due to the fact that the wet season was starting soon and the bridge would have to come down anyway.

It was worth it making it across though because there was a wonderful restaurant on the other side that featured the Laos version fondue. It had many of the same features of Swiss fondue such as a nice broth to cook various kinds of food in over an open flame. But the difference came with the vegetables they used adding such things as cabbage, and scallions, and the addition of noodles. The meat was also cooked on a grill rather than being heated up in the broth. Add some of the spicy peppers to the broth and it made for one of the best meals I had while I was out there.

The trip had come full circle, but I felt like a completely different person because of it. A lot of the thanks for this has to be delivered to the Elephant Conversation Camp. I almost felt bad for going back to this life of luxury, but I now could use the new knowledge I gained from the journey to use in my life as I moved forward.

If you would like more information about the Elephant Conservation Center please check out the website at http://www.elephantconservationcenter.com

Sayaboury, Laos – Day 4

I woke up early on my fourth day in Laos, and enjoyed a little peace and quiet while reading a book on the patio of my bungalow. Little did I know that one of my past mistakes would come to haunt me on this day.

This is not the only trip that I have been on where I roughed it with the elephants hanging out nearby. About eight years ago I was lucky enough to be able to travel to Tanzania where I was able to experience these majestic animals out on safari.

Of course, there are some differences between African elephants and Asian elephants. First of all, African elephants are a lot bigger, and they have ears that look like the continent of Africa. They also haven’t been domesticated in the same way that the Asian elephants have, so there might have been a time when they resembled each other more, but this is not the case any more. Despite these differences, there are many factors that make them similar.

One of these similarities is threads of hair that can be found on their tails. It is not like the hair that can be found anywhere else on their body because it is a lot coarser. It feels a lot like wire if you ever get the opportunity to ever rub it between your fingers. Elephants use it to clean their genitalia, especially with female elephants, by swatting it with the coarse hair. The thing is that many people think that because it is hair, it will grow back quickly which is not the case. But because of this belief, many of the owners of the elephants will clip off the hair, braid it together, and sell it as a bracelet or a ring. Many people end up buying them as mementos and it encourages the selling of more of these bracelets. Elephants lose the hair that they need in order to keep themselves clean which can eventually lead to painful diseases and in some cases cause elephants to have problems with giving birth. So something that appears innocent at many of these tourists camps where this practice goes on, actually contributes to the depletion of the species.

This is where my past came back to haunt me. When I was out in Tanzania while we were traveling between national parks, we stopped at a gift shop on the side of the road to pick up mementos of our trip out there. One of the things I always look for on my trips is something I can hang on my Christmas tree that helps to remind me of all the places in the world I have been at. This particular time I had found a nice wooden carving of a giraffe’s face, but when I went to check out the man who was selling me the item hounded me about buying one of these elephant hair bracelets. At the time I thought it was just wire because that is what elephant hair looks like. The man claimed that if I wore it, it would make me strong. I still wasn’t interested in it, but he continued to pester me about it, and I considered it an act of charity to buy one off of him even if it was a sham.

My wife and her family has continuously made fun of me for making this purchase. They tell me that I need to be strong and learn how to say no from time to time. It wasn’t until this trip that I learned the truth about my purchase which made me feel even more miserable. If I had known what I was buying was genuinely an elephant hair bracelet and what damage I was doing, I would not have done it, but I had never been educated about it. It takes trips like this to help me learn about these small things in the world. And hopefully by telling the world about my mistake, it will prevent somebody from making the same one in their lifetime.

It is another reason that I really loved the time I got to spend at the Elephant Conservation Center. It wasn’t just about hanging out with the elephants and watching the staff help them become more self-sufficient. It wasn’t knowing that the elephants were well taken care and examined by a veterinarian in large stalls at regular intervals. It wasn’t knowing that this organization was helping to create a forest where man has come in and depleted it without really thinking about the larger consequences of what that could mean about future generations. It was the fact that this place took the time to educate the people who stayed here about what they could do to make sure they weren’t contributing to the problem by the decisions they made half a world away.

This is why travel is so important. If we never go out and take the risk to see what the rest of the world is like, we get set in the mind frame of the place we come from. We don’t see the larger picture. We don’t understand how the buying of palm oil helps to contribute to the depletion of the forest. We don’t understand how the buying of certain products gives money to the people who would continue to abuse animals for their own superstitions or their own wallets. We need to be aware that we live in a global society and each decision we make affects the lives of so many others.

So as the sun started to set on my second day at the Elephant Conservation Center, I was able to reflect on my life and my contribution to the problems of the world. I was able to see that I needed to be more conscious of my decisions as I continued down this road of life and make sure that I make the right ones.

If you would like to find out more information or contribute to the work happening at the Elephant Conservation Center, check out their website at http://www.elephantconservationcenter.com.

Sayaboury, Laos – Day 3

My third day out in Laos was the one I was the most excited about. It was the day where I was going to leave Luang Prabang behind and take a two hour trip to the less populated part of the country in the provenance of Soyaboury.

The lifestyle in this part of the country was a little more simple. It wasn’t so much about tourist and café streets where I could sip a drink and watch the crowds mingle in a facsimile of a small town in France. Instead, the people found a way to live off of the land. Mainly this was done through fishing on the lake we ended up on, but there were also plantations around here and small towns to supply the people of this area what they needed to survive comfortably.

The houses weren’t as fancy either. I stayed in a cabin in the middle of the forest on the edge of the lake. There was some electricity to the place but that created only at night and with the use of a generator. And I was forced to get off the grid because there was no internet service or wifi available anywhere. It was great because I was able to return to the simplicity of the wilderness that I had not been able to experience for a long time, and I was reveling in the experience.

But all of these things were not the real reason that I went out to this remote place. It was to visit the Elephant Conservation Center and witness all of the amazing work they are doing with these elephants in this region of the world.

The name Laos use to translate into the land of a million elephants. Now, I am pretty sure that the population of these beasts was never that large in this area of the world, but the idea that elephants were all over the place probably was. These gentle beasts had been domesticated by the people of Laos over a thousand years ago and they were used to help with gathering the wood that people needed in order to build houses, and support themselves. For many centuries this structure maintained a strong economic structure allowing the country to continue peacefully in a symbiotic balance.

But then the logging industry came in and the tree population started to decline and more elephants were needed to help deplete the forest. The people who were trained to handle these creatures could not train enough people to train the animals in the proper way, and soon the animals were abused. Because of this many things happened. The forest grew small and wasn’t able to support the wild population of the elephants. The animals were forced to find food at people’s farms and were executed because of this. Many of the elephants were also sold for great profit to Chinese wealthy individuals who used many parts of the animals for old remedies that they believed still worked. The population of the animals fell in both the wild and domesticated populations leaving the country with an estimated 800 animals that are left today.

This is when the Laos government stepped in. They were trying to save what was left of the forest and what was left of the elephants. They banned the logging industry and the animals who were beasts of burden were forced to move to tourist supported camps. The abuse there got even worse. The mahouts, the trainers of elephants, would train them by using a large hook and tapping the animals in certain places to get them to do what they wanted them to do. Because of the untrained mahouts that were working these tourist camps, they did not know how to use their tools correctly, and would hit the animals way too hard. It would leave areas of scars on the animals similar to what can be seen on the head of the female elephant pictured above. Some of these abuses eventually led to death.

This is where the Elephant Conservation Center came into play. The people that run this center were not looking to use elephants for commercial reasons. They, instead, were trying to save elephants, and then train them to eventually return to the wild. They have also been working on a breeding program to help bring the population back up to where it once used to be. They have hired skilled mahouts to help in this process, and what started off with only three elephants seven years ago has grown into a population of thirty. They have saved a few elephants from the terrible fate of having to work the tourist camps that don’t treat the elephants kindly, and they have even recently been donated 13 elephants that were scheduled to move to a zoo in Dubai.

Their efforts are some truly amazing things to see, and I was glad to have been able to spend two days and three night learning about all of the great things that they were doing at this place. I will tell you more about what they have done in my next couple of posts, but in the meantime, if you would like to find out more or would like to help by contributing to this great organization, you can contact them at http://www.elephantconservationcenter.com.