When I arrived in BKK two days ahead of schedule, I wasn't sure what to do. Should I try to add more nights to my hostel reservation? I doubted they'd have availability last-minute during high season. Should I ask for a flight to Chiang Mai and squeeze in a quick visit? Should I hop on a shuttle bus to Hua Hin (a popular weekend beach for locals)? I couldn't connect for my 20 minutes of free wifi in the airport, so I couldn't investigate options online. I asked at the official tourism department's hotel reservations desk, but prices seemed high.
What to do? What to do?
I headed for the Novotel desk. Novotel is part of the Accor Hotel chain. Because I have traditionally been a hostel-type rather than a hotel-type, brand names and loyalty programs never mattered. However, in recent years, I have always booked myself into the same hotel when I visit Porto Alegre--the Mercure on Rua Jardim Cristófel--which is how I got into the Accor Hotel loyalty program. Now, when I must stay in a hotel, I try to at least make it an Accor brand so that I collect points for the money spent. This makes the higher accommodation cost easier to swallow. Since I seem to be in transitional years, more frequently opting to stay in hotels guesthouses than hostels, those points might lead to some rewards.
I rambled around through BKK, trying to find the Novotel desk. I had been there during my layover stay at the Novotel airport location one week prior, but it took me a while to find it again! I asked if they had a free shuttle to their city center locations: I fugured I could get a free ride into the city, ask about reservation prices, and if they were too high, go elsewhere. Alas, no shuttle.
I could hardly get in a taxi without a destination.
On the lower floor of the airport, while scanning the recesses of my brain for clever options, I see a massage hut. "Free wifi," the sign says. I wander over. A gentleman shows me a menu of services. One-hour neck, shoulders, and back massage: 400 Baht (about US$12).
It was a nice treat, although the old woman was a bit of a honey badger. She really dug in and I'd be feeling tender days. Mission accomplished, though. In spite of her forceful kneading, I managed to book two nights at the Novotel Siam Square for a reasonable rate through the Accor site. I had another three nights reserved at the Lub d Silom hostel. Shortly after checking in, I realized that I wouldn't want to downgrade to a dorm bunk after two nights in the hotel, no matter how nice Lub d appeared. The Novotel was pricier for the sunsequent evenings. Instead, I booked three nights at another Accor brand, the Mercure Bangkok Siam, just 3 malls up the road, and canceled the hostel.
Sometimes you rough it, and sometimes you don't. The key is in knowing how to choose.
I was really impressed by the Novotel. It is a 4-star, so not the Four Seasons or Sofitel, but not remotely shabby. Still, for the price I paid, I figured that rating might be sorta "on its best day." The lobby was grand, with lots of lounge space and a nice bar. There is a café/bakery on the ground floor, a few fine dining options on the second floor, a nightclub on the lower level, and a pool (with a bar) on a 4th floor rooftop section. My room was on the seventh floor. It was nice. Spacious, bright, comfortable. A nice view of the Siam Paragon if you looked to the right. I wished I could stay all five nights.
Something strange happened those first hours in Bangkok: I was so overwhelmed by the stimulation of Siam Square (flashing lights, video, audio... colors, sound, people, activity), that I couldn't move. The place was so unlike anything I've seen that I didn't know where to look. I didn't know what I wanted to see, to do, to eat. I was even feeling intimidated about navigating the Sky Train--conquering public transit isn't something I've struggled with in a strange city before.
"I'll go to the pool," I thought. I can handle the pool.
What do you know? It was "Sunset Hour!" From 4-6pm daily they have 2-for-1 Absolute cocktails (250 Baht, or US$8). I'll have a Naughty Lychee and a Coconut Sunrise, please.
After two fruity drinks and a little sun, I felt I should get my act togeother and go do something. I ventured across the street, to Siam Paragon.
You should know, if you don't already, that I am not a mall person. I don't like to shop. I don't concern myself with fashion, designers, or the like. It is sometimes interesting, though, to browse a mall while traveling to see what it's like, and the Siam Paragon is not your average mall.
Siam Paragon is a very large, high-end mall: Cartier, Prada, Chanel. There are luxury car dealerships in the corridors.
There is an aquarium in the basement.
But what thrilled me was the Ground Floor (one below the Main Floor). Every type of cuisine and price point imaginable: from fast food (KFC, McDonald's, Cinnabon, Au Bon Pain, even Chicago's own Garrett's Popcorn!), to dine-in (steak houses, Thai, Italian, Japanese, etc). There are cafeteria style options, and numerous "take away" vendors (cupcakes, baguettes and pastries, sandwiches, pre-made meals). And then there's the giant "Gourmet Market." It's like Treasure Island, Whole Foods, Mariano's and all of the import goods stores in your state combined. They have everything. It boggles the mind.
As I worked my way through the aisles, slowly, and in the same stupor that all the bright lights initiated earlier, I ended up in the supermarket's "fine dining OR take away" section (not to be confused with the fine dining restaurants or take away counters outside the market!). It's like Eataly on steroids. They have everything. Pick a steak, some duck perhaps, a lobster, oysters or a nice salmon, maybe some linguini or a mushroom bisque--whatever your little heart desires. Have a seat and we'll prepare that for you. Or not. (It's sushi. Or it's tartar.) Or you'd like to prepare it yourself.
There were just so many options. Everything looked so tasty, so nice. I couldn't decide.
So I bought two little "bread things" -- one naan-type thing with chicken and one spinach and cheese roll, a couple beers, a little chocolate and went to back to the hotel.
I really would've liked to have tried something there.... but which?! How could I possibly choose? What, look at a menu?! Are you mad?
I couldn't handle Bangkok any more. I needed to sleep.
Sunday, January 4, 2015
by Jenjinha at 11:11
Saturday, January 3, 2015
Sitting in RGN this morning, I was concerned that 5 days in Bangkok might be too much. I am not the least bit worried about that now. I can't wait to explore!
by Jenjinha at 16:15
Friday, January 2, 2015
On New Year's Eve, TunTun (who runs Nature Land with his wife GooGoo--these are the dumbed-down version of their names), drove me to Heho airport, about 45 minutes from Kalaw. We had a nice chat along the way about his family, his business and the huge/fast transformation in Myanmar with regard to technology. Anecdotally, he said that back in the 90s, he told his family about the new technology he heard about where you order stuff through your TV. His uncle mocked him. TunTun hadn't known the appropriate term for it--he was referring to online shopping. One day a couple years ago, TunTun's uncle wanted to buy him a present. TunTun asked for a coat from Thailand. They bought it together online but the uncle was still skeptical, until the coat arrived in the mail from Thailand a few weeks later. TunTun felt redeemed.
...even remotely modern. But overall things went more smoothly than I had expected. The check-in counter was a podium of sorts, with a few young men behind it. While one of them wrote a checkmark on his paper printout next to my name, another wrote the flight number and date-stamped a boarding pass. The third tagged my luggage and handed to the runners who would carry the bags through the small terminal building by hand, putting them on a baggage cart out by the tarmac. The first guy handed me an Air KBZ sticker to wear on my shirt so that I could be quickly identified in the waiting area when they were rounding up passengers for boarding.
Security equipment was rather dated, but I didn't feel like it had to be more elaborate--at least, not yet.
Then I started walking down the road. A few blocks away I entered a roadside eatery, the Black Rose. After a few minutes, a blonde English girl several tables away beckoned: "Hey! It's New Year's Eve! Do you want to come eat with us?!"
One I don't remember the name of...
All of these were built between the 11th and 13th centuries. Some by nobility, some by wealthy people, some by widows. There are approximately 2,000 temples remaining though there were, at one time, many many more.
Htilominlo (my favorite)
It is also impressive to consider, while admiring these pagodas, that there has been at least one significant earthquake that I know of, and likely others.
Ananda (least favorite--but it's kind of a "must")
Lunch with Ko Htay. All good until I ate a mystery veg (size and firmness of a radish but purple in color. I dipped it in a homemade hot sauce as instructed and bit into it. As I withdrew it from my mouth to inspect the interior--looking for clues for identification--I saw the worms squirming inside. I spit out the bits in my mouth, gasping and trying to scrub my tongue with a napkin. I felt terrible for possibly offending Ko Htay but the reaction was completely out of my control. I freaked. Ick. Still bothers me.
I rested for an hour back at the hotel and then we drove to Thatbyinnyu, the tallest. Many tourists go to Thatbyinnyu for the sunset because of its height, but Ko Htay took me to another temple just up the road (I don't know the name) because it also has great views of the sunset and none of the crowd. Indeed there were only about 20 of us chatting and admiring the view together.
When I returned to the hotel around 6:30, I couldn't imagine finding the energy to walk up the road for dinner "out." I dined at the hotel, which was adequate, then retired to my room to catch up on sleep.
In the morning I would fly (#2) to Yangon (aka Rangoon). This time, the owner of Kaday Aung would drive me to the hotel. Unaware of this, I was glad that I replied "it's great!" when he asked me what I'd thought of "that hotel." Upon hearing my review, he confessed his affiliation. We had a nice chat on the 20 minute ride to the airport. His son lives in Los Angeles so we had much to discuss.
When we arrived at our destination, he handed Passenger Prize #2! Another calendar! This one seems quite appropriate, though, because I had rung in the new year at Kaday Aung, after all.
Nyaung-U's terminal building is slightly nicer than Heho, which is somehow reassuring. This time, though, the flight would be a little over an hour behind schedule and a frightening older version of the same airplane. I was a little tense.
Obviously I lived.
Lived... just to risk death crossing the street in Yangon...
by Jenjinha at 13:11
Wednesday, December 31, 2014
I work alongside a truly sophisticated and admirable leader, in an incredibly stimulating environment.
I went to Portugal and am infatuated with Lisboa.
I earned my Masters this year--upon completing my final project in Brazil.
I visited my brother's new digs in Utah.
I visited great friends in Austin.
As this posts, I am counting blessings and contemplating next steps in mystical Bagan.
My friend Rick once commented on how impressed he had been by the quality of the people I brought 'round. It's true. I am blessed with a really dynamic, comedic, and dedicated circle of friends. All over the world, but tight and enduring.
by Jenjinha at 23:11
Yesterday was perfect! I ate a delicious breakfast (an omelette, toast, bananas, coffee and avocado juice) in a garden hut at the Nature Land Hotel. I freaking love this place.
At 9:00, a driver picks me up for a journey of a million switchbacks through the verdant Shan hillsides. It is such a windy road that the 18 mile trip provides an hour of scenic entertainment.
Arriving at the Green Hill Valley Elephant Camp, I was handed a hot towel and a fresh-squeezed lime soda. Four more people arrived within moments, and completed my group. I met Maw (who I have corresponded with many times this year) and our guide, Puri. Matt and Melissa live in Vail (though he hails from Hinsdale, Illinois--small world indeed), and Robin and Claire live in central London. Both couples were married this year, and this was a sort of unofficial honeymoon for them. They were a really nice bunch to spend the day with.
Puri stayed with the five of us most of the day, providing lots of information about the elephants, the mahouts, the camp, the community, and the business. After a short introduction in the main building, we walked about five minutes down a dirt road toward the mahout village (more on that further down), where the seven elephants (2 rescue, 5 retired logging industry laborers) had just been brought down from the forest.
These elephants spend 70% of the day wandering freely in the forest. There are no fences. Of this "free" time, they spend roughly 3 hours sleeping and the rest eating and practicing tae kwon do and knitting. At 5:30 each morning, the mahouts leave the village and wander into the forest--individually--tracking their elephant.
Yes, their elephant. Being a mahout is typically something a man is born into, following generations before him. When he has an elephant (whether it's in a labor setting, or an entertainment enterprise, or in a camp such as this), he stays with that elephant--often for life.
When an elephant moves, a mahout (and the mahout's family) moves. For example, when these five timber-work elephants were retired and came to Green Hill Valley, the mahouts and families came too. Homes are built. Other family may be employed in other areas of the camp. GHV even built a school in the small community adjacent to the camp to educate the mahout and other local children. There are currently 65 students. So you see this is a community operation, indeed.
Back to the mahouts grounds and our first glimpse of the elephants. There are 2 large concrete discs--bases for the thatch roof structures that provide shade to the elephants during the time when they "meet the tourists." Each elephant has a small rope loosely around on ankle. This seemed more for the tourist's reassurance: if the elephants wanted to, they could easily break free. Heck they could take down the entire structure if they wanted. They don't. We saw them lift their foot for the mahout to put the rope on. They seem to really enjoy this time: they get fed a bunch of good squash by small groups of adoring fans, who then tenderly wash them in the stream. As I said, I was in a group of 5 people and we spent a few hours in the elephant's company. Other groups walked by, greeting the elephants briefly, but went on to trek the hills (a very common tourist activity in these parts). GHV keeps a tight restriction on number of tourists that visit and how much time is spent with the elephants: they don't want to stress the elephants or strain the environment.
So we learn about the differentiations between these Asian elephants and their African counterparts--that are not as close as one would assume. Some differences (if I remember them correctly) are:
Asian elephants have one "finger" at the end of their trunk, a larger head and smaller ears, a convex spine, a bump (for lack of a more accurate term) on their foreheads, 4 toenails on the front feet and 3 on the back.
African elephants have 2 fingers at the end of their trunks, a smaller head and larger ears, a concave spine, no forehead bump, 5 toenails on front, 3 on back.
Asian elephants are also shorter: the average 6- to 8-feet tall as opposed to 9- to 11-foot African elephants.
Tusks are more complicated. I remember that Asian elephants may have long tusks, short tusks, only 1 tusk, or no tusks. It has nothing to do with gender.
Of these seven, the baby (3 years old, orphaned) is male, and the largest of the group with the 2 long tusks is male. The other five are female. One female was blind in the right eye: when she was working, she was poked in the eye by bamboo. To feed her, we had to approach on her left side so she could see us. Another had bad scarring all over from being beaten--particularly on her trunk, so she doesn't like to be touched there. Rather, she likes to be fed directly into he mouth. Another one, slightly more petite, was greedy and rambunctious. At one point when I was standing at her side she swatted me with her tail. I moved to her front and she made a little movement as if she was going to shove me with her head. I'm not sure if she was being playful or was annoyed - but I went to play with the others instead!
But my favorite, by far, was this beauty. (Pic to follow, of course.) Let's call her Betty White. She's in her 50's if I recall correctly--at least. Betty is very gentle, and she has taken on a surrogate mother role for the baby boy. She is whip smart with a great sense of humor. Before I explain that, let me talk about the affection and bond between the elephants and their mahouts. You can see it, as you watch these elephants and mahouts interact--they are super-connected. They frolic together. Puri told us that when one mahout tries to command another mahout's elephant, often the elephant won't listen, as if to say "you're not the boss of me!" Back to my clever old gal, Betty...
When the mahouts go into the hillsides in the morning, they track their elephants by the distinct sound of the bamboo bell collar they wear. Sometimes, when Betty is feeling playful, or just wants more time with her thoughts in the forest, she stuffs mud or leaves inside her bell collar so that it takes the mahout much longer to find her (usually via tracks). See? Looks and wit: she's the full package.
The elephants eat about 150 kilograms of food per day (or maybe just in camp, not including what they eat when they are wandering--I can't remember). Squash, leaves, a whole lot of molasses and wheat powder mixture, and whatever they find foraging. They have roughly the same lifespan as humans: they can live to 80, 90, even 100 years old, or they can live just to 50 or 60 when they have had a hard life of work, stress and/or injury.
In the morning, it can take the mahouts a few hours to find their elephant. But more often than not, Puri says, the elephants tend to wander in the direction of camp in the morning because they know they've got a good thing there. Effortless lovin'. If they find one another quickly, the mahout and elephant may hang out in the forest a while. The mahouts bring them to camp around 10:30am.
Our group spent about an hour feeding squash to the elephants. Then we changed into mahout pants and walked the elephants up the river. We bathed them and splashed them (they like to splash back), and then walked them back for more squash!
Around 1:00 we hiked up a hill to plant a teak tree. All of the primary forest in this region was destroyed about 50-60 years ago by the timber industry and trees were not replanted as they were harvested. It was only within the last couple decades that efforts have been made to restore the forest. Sure it looks lush now, but the trees are still far from mature. So visitors can plant a tree if they wish--every person leaving their mark on the restoration process.
We headed back to the main building for lunch. Great backdrop, nice meal, lovely presentation, fun conversation with like-minded travelers.
After lunch we could do as we pleased: walk around and/or go back and feed the elephants. This was a no-brainer.
Shortly after 3pm, the mahouts took the elephants back to the forest--each one heading off in a different direction to reduce damage that a "herd of elephants" can cause.
Walking back to the main building with Puri, I learned that he lives in Kalaw with his wife and children. His English is very good because he is curious and motivated, attributes which have led him to work in tourism in Malaysia and Thailand. He was childhood friends with the fellow who opened GHV in 2011, and so his friend offered him a career change, the chance to come give visitors this experience.
GHV is truly impressive, especially considering its short existence. They have built gorgeous grounds, including a village for the mahouts' families. They engage with the community, educating children and adults alike. They keep a very close watch on the health and care of the elephants and mahouts, and keep their visitor numbers to a minimum. It is a balance, because they are a privately owned business and do not receive support from the government or an NGO. They rely on the visitors to earn the funds to keep this operation afloat, but clearly they make the funds go a long way. It's a family-run enterprise. Maw runs the guest relations side. Her father worked in the timber industry, and her uncle is an elephant veterinarian--both now running pieces of GHV.
I cannot say enough good things about this place, the experience, and the great work these people are doing. I strongly encourage all to come for a visit! Reservations are required: remember they keep their visitor numbers very small.
I don't see an option for donations on their page, yet, but where there's a will there's a way, right?
by Jenjinha at 11:11