From safaris to cruises, guided tours to food tours, we review the best tours and excursions around the globe.

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A Day At The Elephant Jungle Sanctuary in Thailand

With bunches of bananas in hand, we walked slowly up the hill through the trees and into a clearing. It was there I encountered my first elephant, up close and personal. There were three of them actually, happily chomping away at the sugar cane that littered the ground around them. The group we came with jumped in without hesitation joining in with the mahouts to feed the three large creatures now turning their attention to the bananas offered. I stopped at the edge of the clearing and watched for a moment. I wanted to take it all in, this incredibly odd and surreal experience. It was somehow nothing like I’d expected and at the same time, more. Perhaps I expected a larger than life, life-altering experience when what I actually got was a calm and peaceful sense of being, in that moment, complete. I had finally found my elephants.

The Elephant Jungle Sanctuary

elephant jungle sanctuary chiang mai

We spent the night before our trip to the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary at Baan Kuhn hostel, also run by Mamma Noi and where we had to go to purchase tickets to the sanctuary. As we had mentioned in our last post on The Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, it was through the efforts of Mamma Noi and the Karen Hill Tribe, with whom she is working, that the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary was established and we thought it fitting that we stay, at least the one night, at the hostel.

The group of us heading to the elephant sanctuary were all guests of the hostel which meant we left straight from the accommodation with no detours to pick anyone up. With a final goodbye, and a bottle of water for each of us from Mama Noi, we set off in the “minibus”. If you’ve ever ridden in a minibus in Thailand you’ll know that it is really more of a pickup with a few seats in the cab and a covered trailer lined with rows of benches on either side. It can make for a bumpy ride if you are going over unpaved roads…and we were definitely were! Fortunately for us, we somehow got put into the cab and had a little less of a rocky ride – less being the operative word.

The ride was not bad until we hit the mountains. It was here that the road turned to a narrow, rut-covered, dirt road – it would be futile to pave the road, our driver told us, as the monsoon season brings large rains that flood and cause landslides that wash out the roads each year. Lucky for us, the road was dry and our driver was experienced. We made our way to the hill tribe village and were greeted by several people, including Robert, one of the instrumental people in organizing and creating this sanctuary.



Hopping out of the truck, we all grabbed our backpacks as the bunches of bananas and cases of water were distributed among us to carry. The excitement was building. We could feel it vibrating, see it clearly on each others’ faces as we started out, on foot, through the rice fields and forest.

Meeting With Elephants of Thailand

visiting the elephant jungle sanctuary

We chose The Elephant Jungle Sanctuary because we had wanted to visit elephants in a more natural setting, knowing they were not being abused, forced to take riders, chained, or mistreated. We wanted to see the elephants roaming free. And roaming free these elephants certainly were!

After a hike through rice paddy fields and some hilly paths, we found our way to a clearing where we were able to put down our bags and take a moment to don the traditionally mahout garb before heading to find the elephants. That was the beauty of the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary. The elephants weren’t just brought to you… you had to go find them, in the forest, where they roamed with the mahouts (their keepers) in as natural a setting as was manageable.

We took the bunches of bananas and were led up a hill to a forested area where we were told we would most likely find the elephants. After a short climb up a gentle hill, the trees gave way to a small clearing. It was here that we had our first glimpse of them. Three elephants stood chewing happily on sugarcane under the shade of the tall trees. A bursting energy seemed to erupt from the entire group – a silent excitement that bubbled up in uncontrollable smiles and quickened steps. THIS was why we wanted to visit Thailand. This experience of coming face to face with a creature so magnificent and incredible, of looking into its intelligent eyes with depths we’ll never fully understand, and for one moment sharing a connection.

visiting elephants at the elephant jungle sanctuary

Taking turns, we handed bananas over to the two adult females and one baby elephant, taking time to stroke their trunks and sides. The baby was incredibly playful. Head butting the mahouts and some of the group, reaching its trunk around bodies and attempting to sneak in some extra bananas. He was cheeky and he was happy. Having been born and raised in a sanctuary, he was unaware of any other way of life. Unfortunately, for the two older females, life had been harder for them until they were taken in by the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary.

mahout at elephant jungle sanctuary

One of the men of the village explained to us the circumstances in which the older two were found. He went through the techniques used to break them, to train them and to keep them in line. It was devastating but also heartwarming to know that they would no longer be subjected to this treatment again, especially as the younger of the two females was pregnant.

It didn’t take long for the elephants to demolish the banana offering we brought and decide that it was time to leave. Since this was about them, no effort was made to stop them. Instead, they were followed by the mahouts and we made our way back down to where we had left our bags to enjoy some lunch.

lunch at the elephant jungle sanctuary

Food in Thailand is amazing and is one of our favourite cuisines. The food that they cooked and served for lunch could compete for one of the best meals we’ve had while in Thailand, and even abroad. Freshly prepared chicken, veggies and noodle dishes, rice and fresh fruits were laid out for the entire group to enjoy. It was a wonderful time to reflect on our first meeting with the elephants as well and to get to know the rest of the group.

After lunch we were told we could change into clothes we didn’t mind getting dirty or wet. For the majority of us, that meant bathing suits. This time, the elephants were led to us for what appeared to be one of their favourite activities of the day – a mud bath.

With everyone joining in, we helped the elephants play in the mud. And when we say play, we mean play. They rolled around, they threw it on their backs, they threw it at each other… and they threw it at us! If it wasn’t enjoyment, we don’t know what it was!

elephant mud bath at elephant jungle sanctuary

Following the incredibly fun (and messy) mud spa, we headed to the nearby stream to meet back up with the elephants and help them bathe. This was another incredible up-close experience. Standing close to them and cleaning off the mud, we had yet another chance to really appreciate these animals. Large and powerful, yet gentle and timid. We knew a lot of their calm had to do with their upbringing and treatment, but seeing the playfulness of the baby and looking into all their eyes again, we could tell it’s also a part of their basic nature.

After the elephants were finished bathing and we’d all had a swim of our own in the stream, we headed back to dry off. The rest of the group would be returning to the hostel, while we had booked an overnight stay with the hill tribe. Knowing we’d be seeing the elephants again, we happily went on our way to learn more about the people who opened their lands to us and the elephants.

A Night With The Karen Hill Tribe

As we had mentioned in our last post, it is through the help and efforts of the Karen Hill Tribe Village and Mamma Noi that the sanctuary was created. Bringing in tourists to visit the elephants for the day became only one part of the experience. Staying within the village for a night, or two, was another part and we decided to stay a night to better understand the program and the people of the village.

staying at the elephant jungle sanctuary with the karen hill tribe

After the rest of the group left, we were brought back to the main part of the village by Robert who, as mentioned, was one of the integral members of the sanctuary’s creation and a cornerstone of the program itself. We sat for a while, chatting with him about the village and its history, the sanctuary and its origins and the hopes his people have for the future.

We learned of the struggles to keep the land. The struggles to acclimate to a changing cultural landscape where development and advancement occurs around them and without them. The government, he said, provided them with a handful of solar power panels… years ago. Most of them are now no longer working so they are stuck with even more limited power options and little by way of means to improve their way of life.

It’s become a controversial topic. We discussed it and he acknowledged it. Greater society would prefer to keep these more isolated and primitive cultures untouched, “untainted” by the hands of tourism and technology. But Robert told us, that’s not what he and his family want. The people of his village believe they deserve a chance to advance as well. Why shouldn’t they be able to better themselves and their situation, he asked us. We couldn’t argue his point.

With this in mind, and the connection to Mamma Noi with her desire to help elephants, the sanctuary and the stay in his village was born. Hoping to provide more for the village and the elephants of the country, it was established and open up to tourists. Hopefully, we were told, the worries of poor rice harvests and the necessity to partake in backbreaking work simply to produce and collect food, would lessen.
Elephant Jungle Sanctuary CHiang Mai Hill Tribe Village

We spent the rest of the afternoon and evening with Robert and members of his family. We took a tour of the area, helped feed the livestock, prepared a meal on an open fire and made our way to our room in one of Robert’s siblings’ houses who was visiting in-laws in a another village. We spent the day and evening without electricity, cut off from the world and, in the process, deepened our understanding of a culture struggling to retain their identity while at the same time, attempting to advance and integrate with the rest of society.

baby elephant at the elephant jungle sanctuary chiang mai

The next day brought a new group of visitors to the sanctuary and we were able to participate as we had the day before. We woke up for breakfast with Robert and headed to meet the new arrivals. Walking behind them, we watched their faces as they approached the elephants for the first time and saw the same awe-filled expressions we knew were wore the previous day. To our surprise, the awe of seeing the elephants up close was still as strong for us.

This time though, we got to take in the experience with an eye to all that they were looking to achieve at the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary and this time, when we looked into the eyes of the elephants, we also saw a glimmer of recognition.

An Unforgettable Experience At The Elephant Jungle Sanctuary

If you are looking to visit the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, tickets for 1-, 2- and 3-day visits can be purchased at Baan Kuhn Hostel in Chiang Mai – 119/10 Thapae Rd, Chang Klan, Chiang Mai, 50100 tel: 053-273415. More information for visits or volunteering can be found on their site at www.elephantjunglesanctuary.com.

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elephant jungle sanctuary pin

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Tour of Seoul: This is KOREA!

The piece of tentacle I had placed in my mouth squirmed a bit as I furiously chewed, hoping to still the movement and get this painful episode over with as quickly as possible. Sitting at a makeshift table at one of the many sannjaki vendors in Korea’s Gangjang market, I realized that despite the fact that all eyes were on me, chuckling at the absurd faces I was making and how I was flailing my arms in an attempt to do I don’t know what to ease the process, I had found myself at the end of what was one of the best days I had experienced in the entire three months of our time in Korea. Yes, I thought, as the name of the tour company popped into my head, this IS Korea!

one modern couple in seoul

 

During the past year, we’ve not really gone for tours. We’ve had a boat ride down the River in Chiang Mai, an excursion to the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary with an overnight stay at the Karen hill tribe that runs it, and an amazing day of snorkeling with a picnic through Island Gem Picnic in Koh Samui. But we hadn’t done the full out, day tour complete with guided stops at various ‘hot spots’ across the city.

Not that we think there’s anything wrong with them. Each person’s method of travel and exploration differs from the next, and we believe you should do you, whatever that may be, but we’ve kind of worked out our style of travel. For one, we take a lot of photos and videos, because well, it’s what we do for One Modern Couple, and so it can be excruciating for anyone travelling with us.

The other reason is that neither of us are very good at taking orders and following direction when it comes to timelines and strict orders on where and when we need to be at various places. But when we came across This Is KOREA! and discovered their unique approach to providing private tours in Seoul (they provide tours all over South Korea as well), we knew it was something we had to do and that it would provide an opportunity to experience the Seoul we knew we had yet to see!

A Freestyle Tour Experience

this is korea tour of seoul with gene

This is KOREA! has tour guides that are knowledgeable locals providing a freestyle tour experience. By freestyle we mean we were able to choose what we wanted to do, spend as much or as little time at each place, alter the plan as we went and keep our cameras snapping and rolling to our hearts content.

We were picked up by our tour specialist Gene who quickly began to feel like a new friend showing us around town, rather than a guide. By the end of the day we had hit up some major highlights on our tour of Seoul, learned a ton of information about the city, the country and the culture, and had one of the best days during our time in Korea.

The Palace and The Blue House

 

Our first stop on our tour of Seoul was Gyeongbokgung Palace to watch the changing of the guards ceremony. This is the main palace and though it was initially built in 1395 it was destroyed by Imperial Japan and has since been rebuilt albeit, Gene tells us, to only 10% of its original size! Since it is such a massive property to begin with, it was a surprising fact for us!

We probably wouldn’t have made sure we attended the 10 am changing of the guards ceremony. Chances are we’d stroll in for one of the other guard changes that are apparently shorter and less impressive and not get the full effect of this incredible procession so it’s a good thing we had Gene to tell us that we absolutely had to make it on time for the first change of the morning!

seoul korea changing of the guards

 

seoul palace changing of the guards

Gyeongbokgung Palace guards in seoul

changing of the guards seoul Gyeongbokgung Palace

 

We got a detailed tour around the grounds to see the main gates and the various buildings of the property like the building used for banquets and celebrations and the King’s secluded gazebo on the water where he romanced his queen, er, queens!

seoul palace

Gyeongbokgung Palace seoul korea

Gyeongbokgung Palace banquet hall

We then headed to a view of the Blue House (think White House but blue) which is the presidential home and heavily guarded not just by security, but also mountains. We were able to take some shots of it from a lookout point but we’re fairly certain that’s the closest anyone is able to get!

Blue HOuse Seoul Korea

Did You Know?

Though you can take all the photos you want of the Blue House, video is not permitted! Not too sure why but Gene was told that we had to stop filming, perhaps it was the rising tensions between the north and south during that time.

The Hanok Village

traditional hanok village seoul

After the palace, we headed to a traditional Hanok village, something we were both hoping to get a chance to see. Bukcheong Village is all hills and stone walls with traditional style houses and quaint shops. We loved walking through and seeing the old architecture, strolling past souvenir and jewellery stores, cafes and even a puppet shop! It’s definitely a worthwhile place to explore and if you get a chance, trying on a hanbok (traditional dress) and walking through the streets is a common and popular tourist attraction!

Bukcheong Village Seoul puppet shop

Bukcheong Village Seoul

Bukcheong Village Seoul

 

Did You Know?

Not only are Hanok homes traditional on the outside, they usually retain their traditional layout as well and much like centuries ago when Bukcheong was home to high status members of society, it is still home to the wealthy as prices for these properties are not cheap!

Insadong Shopping District

Insadong shopping seoul south korea

Not too far away, we stopped at Insadong, the biggest traditional shopping area. With a bustling main strip of stores and narrow, winding side streets filled with more shops and pedestrians, Insadong is a vibrant and popular destination for tourists and locals alike.

We had heard about this place over and over again by many people during our time in Korea but hadn’t managed to get to visit until our tour with This is KOREA!

We especially enjoyed visiting ssamzigil, a complex we definitely would have just passed by if we were on our own. This multi-storied centre is the main shopping building in Insadong with a spiraling path up each of the floors rather than stairs and a variety of shops along the way.

Did You Know?

Insadong used to be two towns – ‘In’ and ‘Sa’ – divided by a stream and home to government officials.

Traditional Korean Lunch

seoul ssambap wellbeing restaaurant

 

One of our favourite things about being guided around a city is the chance to try new restaurants and food that we normally wouldn’t know to look for and to learn more about the food culture of an area. Gene took us to Wellbeing Restaurant for ssambap, which is a style of Korean food where rice, meat and other ingredients are wrapped in green leafy vegetables. As usual, a variety of sides come with your order and with Gene’s guidance we got beef bulgogi and spicy pork. It was absolutely delicious and we loved the glazed mini-potatoes that accompanied the meal, something we had not had the chance to try while in Korea.

Wellbeing Restaurant is a place we wish we had found sooner as it had delicious food and was really reasonably priced.

Did You Know?

Ssambap literally translates to “wrapped rice” as Ssam means ‘wrapped’ and bap is ‘rice’.

‘N’ Tower, With A View


seoul n tower bottom view

From the first day we arrived in Seoul we could see the N Tower, or Seoul Tower, and we kept talking about going to actually see it up close. We got our chance with This is Korea! and had the added benefit of being driven almost all the way to the base – something that is only possible when you are with a tour! With Gene we were able to skip the cable car, or the lengthy uphill walk!

love locks seoul n tower

The area around the N Tower is actually quite scenic with incredible views over the city from the base of the tower. We opted not to go to the top as we were told we’d get a similar view, only higher, and explored more of the area around it. There were many restaurants, albeit expensive, but also a love lock wall and various other areas that would be absolutely perfect for a picnic!

While this was our very first love lock location, we didn’t leave a lock…perhaps at the next one!

n tower view in seoul

Did You Know?

The ‘N’ in N Tower is often thought to stand for North, however it actually stands for Namsan after the mountain on which it stands.

Cheonggyecheon Stream

seoul cheonggyecheon

The day was almost done, but Gene still had a few more stops for us before we’d be heading home so we made our way to a popular spot for locals to relax – Cheonggyecheon stream.  This stream is almost 6 km (or almost 4 miles) long and was only finally restored a mere decade ago. It is now an incredibly frequented spot where students go to study, families go to enjoy the day and couples go to spend time together. We had already stopped by here once before but wanted to see it again since we were already so close and had the added benefit of a guide who could tell us more about the area and the restoration project.

seoul korea cheonggyecheon stream

Did You Know?

The stream used to be used for laundry and had many shanty houses lining it’s waters after the war. While restoration initially began in the 50’s it wasn’t completed until 2005.

Gwangjang Market

seoul gwangjang market

After a quick detour for some coffee, upon our request, we made our final stop of the day. the traditional Gwangjang market. Over the previous few months we had ventured to several markets but had yet to explore this popular one that we kept hearing about. The narrow aisles were lined with food stalls, small shops of souvenirs, fabric, clothing and a variety of other traditional products.

gwangjang market food seoul

Gene told us it was famous for three different foods: mandoo (or dim sum), mung bean pancake and live octopus. When we entered we were fairly certain we’d be grabbing some of the first two, but were dead set against trying the last. Live octopus was just not on our list of things we wanted to try and hadn’t been since we landed in the country.

live octopus korea

Unfortunately, we could not have predicted a kind offer we had no clue how to politely refuse….and ended up with a mouthful of squirming octopus tentacle…

If you’d like to spend some time exploring the city with us and watch how the offer of live octopus turned out, take a look at our video of our tour of Seoul with This is KOREA!

Did You know?

Gwangjang market is one of Seoul’s oldest and largest markets and was started over 100 years ago.

A Day To Remember in Seoul

this is korea seoul

The entire day was filled with history, tradition, culture and fun and by the end of it we were left feeling like we hadn’t truly experience Seoul until that day. The tour of Seoul with This is KOREA! was an amazing way to learn about the city and get a chance to have a guided exploration of areas we really wanted to see.

The entire process, from first contact to arrange a tour to the moment we were dropped off by Gene at our accommodation was smooth, efficient and professional. We could not have asked for a better tour guide, a better schedule or a better day!

You Can Do It Too

If you’d like to plan a tour in Seoul, or elsewhere in Korea, contact This Is KOREA! and let them work with you to customize a schedule that works best for you! And if you happen to get Gene as your tour specialist, tell him we say hello!

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Why You should Choose The Elephant Jungle Sanctuary

 

Stroking her trunk and attempting to speak soothing words, I stared at the beautiful creature, mother to the younger of the three elephants who was now playing in the water and rolling around in obvious pleasure. Standing barefoot on the large rock on the edge of the stream, I braced myself, my legs shoulder length apart. My fear of slipping abandoned me quickly as I stood, eye to eye, with this giant, gentle beast. Her head turned slightly and I felt the inquisitive gaze of her one eye roam over me as I continued to speak praises of how beautiful she was, how in awe I was of her. Slowly and with obvious intelligence, she turned her head so the gaze of her other eye now met my own. In that moment when our eyes locked, I felt the connection and a soul deep understanding of just how majestic these creatures are; I knew that this was a moment of significance in my life and one I wouldn’t soon forget.

CHiang Mai Elephant Jungle Sanctuary experience

Hunting for The Right Elephant Sanctuary

Elephant Jungle Sanctuary Chiang Mai Elephant




Elephants. They were the reason we decided to go to Thailand. Sure, we would have ended up there eventually while travelling Southeast Asia, but as Macrae had been to Thailand two years ago, we had thought we would explore different countries first.

It’s true Thailand is cheaper than many other countries and allowed us a prolonged, 2 month visa but while both of those were contributing factors, the main reason we went was to see elephants. Being the first, and pretty much only item, on Carolann’s “bucket list” so far, we decided to make sure it was crossed off. And so, after our week in Beijing we headed to Northern Thailand. It took us almost a month to find an elephant sanctuary to visit. We were determined to find one that treated the elephants humanely and that we felt comfortable supporting.

Carolann had bookmarked an elephant sanctuary several years ago (she’s been dreaming of interacting with elephants for as long as she can remember) called Boon Lotts Elephant Sanctuary (BLES). Unfortunately, being a well-known sanctuary for rescued and retired elephants, BLES books up fast and did not have any openings until May 2015. So with that unfortunate turn of events, our hunt began. (note: BLES is now booked up for all of 2015)

We heard of the Elephant Nature Park (ENP). Another fairly well-known sanctuary, well-visited by tourists, Elephant Nature Park also takes in rescued and retired elephants. We heard only positive things about the park but something told us to keep looking. ENP is well advertised and fairly popular and we thought we may be able to spread the support to lesser known sanctuaries, if they existed.  And so, our search continued.

 

The Elephant Jungle Sanctuary

Disclaimer: We visited the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary in its infancy in 2014. Since then, the sanctuary has undergone an expansion and many changes. Please continue to read for our experience, what we looked for when choosing an elephant sanctuary and be sure to do your own research and due diligence in selecting where to go.

Through research and word of mouth we heard of elephant “sanctuaries” and parks but quickly discarded each one as potential places to visit. We either read a review mentioning the poor treatment of the animals or saw that riding the elephants would be part of the program. It wasn’t until the week we had planned to leave for Bangkok that a local known as Uncle in Hang Dong (South of Chiang Mai) handed us some pamphlets that we found what we were looking for.

Dangers of Elephant Riding

Still in its infancy, Elephant Jungle Sanctuary opened in the middle of 2014 and currently has four elephants (although there were only 3 when we visited). Browsing the website and their Facebook page, we read information and reviews and decided we would take a chance as it seemed to fit the requirements we had:

  1. There is no riding of the elephants – despite their large and strong build, elephants do not have the spines to support a rider. Long days of being ridden, either bareback or with a saddle, can cause painful damage to their spines not to mention the additional pain caused by the saddle itself and the wear on their feet from walking all day with improperly supported weight.
  2. Chains, bull hooks and the like are not used to subdue, coerce or manage the elephants – In Thailand, there is a long-standing tradition of training elephants for the tourism industry. The training method, called the Phajaan or crush, is exactly as it’s English translation would suggest – a method to crush the spirit of the animal. Bullhooks and chains are part of this method and are usually continued to be used while tourists are enjoying their ride through the jungle.

We ended up learning that there was so much more to this sanctuary than we originally believed and were so thankful we happened across it.

Mamma Noi: Elephant Rescuer, Hostel Owner and Mother To All

 

chiang mai elephant jungle sanctuary elephant interaction

Upon researching, we learned that the elephant sanctuary is affiliated with a hostel in the heart of Chiang Mai – Baan Khun Hostel. Owned and operated by a small in stature, but big in heart, woman affectionately called Mamma Noi, this hostel is also fairly new and highly rated. We decided that we would stay the night before we went to see the elephants at Baan Khun Hostel and make it easy to hop on the truck for the ride to the sanctuary the following morning. Baan Khun Hostel Was our first experience with hostels in Thailand and this one seemed to be loved by everyone in residence. Free tea and coffee, cookies and bananas, Mamma Noi made sure everyone was happy and was a warm and friendly host. We sat down with her for a while to ask her questions about the elephant sanctuary and her involvement in it.We discovered that the sanctuary was, in part, borne out of Mamma Noi’s lifelong love of elephants.

Elephants have a complicated and often contradictory existence in Thailand. On the one hand they are revered, considered holy creatures that have helped build the country and it’s temples. They are also still used for labour – poked, prodded and broken to the will of their owners at a young age – they are used to transport heavy logs with their trunks and chained in order to control them. For many people we spoke to in Thailand it is considered a trade-off: the elephants are fed and are kept secure where they cannot cause harm to villages or cities and in return, they work. Others feel they are capable of finding food on their own and that it is not the fault of the elephants that their habitat was taken over by humans and that they may cause damage should they wander through.

Chiang Mai Elephant Jungle Sanctuary review

More recently, the tourist industry has proved to be an additional revenue stream for those who own elephants. Riding an elephant is now “the thing” to do when in Thailand. The excitement and thrill of travelling on such an incredible and large creature seems to mask the obvious signs of maltreatment. It’s much more fun to focus on being atop an elephant, staring at the jungle around you then to take a look at the saddened eyes, the ears full of holes from the spikes of the bullhooks used to break them and later, steer them, or the obvious strain carrying a heavy basket full of people all day causes. It’s also an issue that is only more recently being brought to light and to the attention of travellers.

Through her ownership of the hostel, Mamma Noi heard many horror stories from her guests about the treatment of elephants on various jungle treks and elephant parks around Chiang Mai and she wanted to help create a place where elephants would be treated well and could exist freely, peacefully and happily.

With Help From the Karen Hill Tribe

 

Karen Hill Tribe Village near Chiang Mai

The sanctuary is located within a Karen Hill Tribe Village north of Chiang Mai. During our visit, we were able to spend a great deal of time with one of the residents of the village, Robert. All smiles and soft-spoken words, Robert is one of the cornerstones of the sanctuary and he, along with his family and the rest of the village, played an essential role in the formation of the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary. Not only was part of the family’s land donated for the elephants to roam, but the people of the village worked together to develop and sustain the sanctuary as it is –   they bring people to the sanctuary, guide them through the day, prepare lunch, make handicrafts to sell and of course care, daily, for the elephants.

Through collaboration between Mamma Noi, Baan Khun Hostel and the hill tribe, Elephant Jungle Sanctuary became a reality and although, at the time, they were only able to afford the three rescued elephants (with one baby on the way), they all told us that they hoped to be able to increase their funds in order to take on more elephants in need.

Elephant Jungle Sanctuary CHiang Mai Hill Tribe Village

We also learned that in addition to the one day visit with the elephants, overnight stays in the hill tribe were also available and we decided that it would be important to stay, at least one night, in order to get a full picture of what Mamma Noi, Robert and the people of the hill tribe offered and were trying to accomplish.

 

Stay tuned for more about our amazing two days with the elephants and the people of the Karen hill tribe we were fortunate to be able to stay with.

 

You Can Do It Too

Places that will allow you to interact up close and personal with animals offer amazing experiences. It can be difficult sometimes to parse out those that contribute to increasing awareness for animal welfare and responsible tourism, and those that are more concerned with the benefits of the tourism industry. We’d like to think that this post and our future posts regarding the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary will help tourists make an informed decision about where they choose to visit with elephants and what type of interaction they choose to participate in.

If you are looking to visit the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, tickets for 1-, 2- and 3-day visits can be purchased at Baan Kuhn Hostel in Chiang Mai – 119/10 Thapae Rd, Chang Klan, Chiang Mai, 50100 tel: 053-273415. More information for visits or volunteering can be found on their site at www.elephantjunglesanctuary.com.

 

Do you know of another elephant sanctuary (or other animal sanctuary) not mentioned that treats their animals humanely, either in Thailand or elsewhere? Comment below – we’d love to spread the word!

 

 

 

 

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Leaving Us Wanting More – Scuba Diving in Koh Tao

Our First Scuba Experience with 8 Tips We Gathered For Beginners

Banner Fish Koh Tao

18m deep. Colder than the rest. The only sounds are your steady breath in and out through the regulator and a tapping sound from a nearby fish pecking at coral. Visibility is much less now but you can still see large schools of fish circling above and many others swimming calmly around you. The anemones, coral, and Christmas tree worms present a beautiful, waving display on the ocean floor below even though some of the colour is lost at this depth. Finding a clearing of sand, you finally stop and kneel at the bottom of the ocean.

You look down at your depth gauge and then up towards the surface and realize just how deep you are; the surface seemingly further in reality than any number on a gauge could ever suggest. At that moment it’s as if your mind has decided to depart from your body and head up to the surface, but you swiftly catch it and bring it back. 

Moving through the water now, concentrating on your breathing and the amazing marine life around you, you start worrying that your air pressure is lowering and you’ll have to end your dive and surface soon. You don’t want to. You never knew how awe-inspiring it was, never knew what was truly under the sea. But now you do. Now you see. Now you want more.

Scuba Diving in Koh Tao Wasn’t Part of Our Itinerary

learning to scuba dive

While scuba diving isn’t for everyone, we found it to be an absolutely incredible experience. It was a chance to explore a world unseen by most and we relished having that opportunity.  Until we made our first dive, we had no idea what we were missing.  Of course we had heard what people would say about scuba diving: “It’s amazing!” “ You have to try it!” “It’s so addictive!”. We heard what they were saying, but we never believed the hype. Now we realize that these people, crazy about scuba diving, were right. We’ve become one of those people.

Believe us when we say it is an unforgettable and truly amazing experience and one we hadn’t planned. While visiting Koh Tao, a small island in the Gulf of Thailand, we ended up walking past Scuba Shack and a sign advertising their options for scuba diving and certification. We hadn’t given it much thought and weren’t sure if we wanted to dive, but we opted to get some information anyways. After all, we were told that Koh Tao is the place for diving and diving certification and since our anniversary was coming up we thought it may be a great way to celebrate even though the voters had not chosen Koh Tao as our anniversary island in our poll. So changing our plans a little, we decided on Koh Tao and diving for our second anniversary celebration

Finding The Right Dive Shop For The Job

scuba-shack-logo

Walking up to the large, wrap-around patio of the small dive shop just metres from the beach, we noticed people were milling about, sitting and chatting, most with smiles on their faces. We found the people at Scuba Shack to be very informative and helpful and discovered that a portion of those on the porch were students who were invited to stay and drink water, or tea and relax after their dives.

scuba diving equipment check

After a thorough rundown of their dive packages and courses, followed by a couple of hours to explore our options and soak it all in, we decided to take the open water diving certification course and since we felt most at ease with Scuba Shack, we headed back to book our course. We felt this was a great option to take should we want to go diving in the future as the certification would allow us to go on our own and dive as deep as 18 meters.

While this is the first and most basic course available, there are many others that we can upgrade to in the future, like wreck diving, night diving, navigation and deep dives of 30m.

Scuba Diving: An Experience Like No Other

scuba diving gear

We were incredibly lucky. Not only were we impressed with Scuba Shack itself but our instructor, James, was awesome. Friendly, funny, professional and incredibly knowledgeable, he eased any qualms we had and was just generally a great guy to be learning from and leading our team.

Our ‘in-class’ training was conducted with another soon-to-be diver from Holland and covered everything from safety to equipment to techniques while under the water. Once that was completed we moved to a contained dive where we practiced the essentials of diving but in shallow water.

learning to scuba dive koh tao

Learning to empty our goggles of water once we were submerged was probably the most difficult. It’s a weird feeling once you start breathing with a regulator underwater to then remove your mask. It’s like your mind says “since your breathing you might as well do it with your nose!” Meanwhile your instincts are screaming for you to hold your breath and your brain is reminding you that the worst thing you can do is stop breathing through that regulator.

scuba dive team

The contained dive was where we built a bit of confidence and worked on our skills in preparation for the real dives the following day  It was during the dives that we were especially thankful for James’ experience, knowledge and even humour as all of us were a little bit nervous, and a little bit unsure, of what to expect and how we would react.

Taking That First Dive

learning how to scuba dive

Our dive team was joined by an American who had completed the written portion back home and was looking to finish his certification. With two pairs of dive buddies and James leading the way, our first descent was filled with anxiety (at least for some of us) and anticipation.

scuba diving team

There really is no way to describe those first few metres. we descended that first time with the assistance of a rope. The frayed, moss-encrusted hovering piece of entwined rope strands were the only visible thing, besides our fellow divers, as we slowly dropped down through the water. During this portion of the descent was where we discovered a slight disorientation may occur.  With no visibility to what’s below, it becomes an eerie float downward, several moments of uncertainty and relative internal disquiet.

scuba diving certification

On that first dive, when James told us to let go of the rope and follow him, we’re pretty sure we all hesitated but once we gave ourselves over to the moment and the water around us, we instantly fell into a trance, a kind of meditation. The constant worry about breathing washed away, our sense of sight overwhelmed the rest, and the ocean had us so relaxed the only thing we could do was enjoy what it had to offer.

scuba diving in koh tao thailand

That first dive was without any tests or practice of techniques and allowed us to get comfortable with swimming at such depths, maneuvering among the coral, fish and other underwater creatures (such as the nudibranch) and working with our buddies. In the end, that first dive also allowed us to fall in love with scuba diving itself.

We were fortunate to have someone from Fat Fish Movies (hey Charlie!) videotape one of our dives! Watch ours below:

 

We’ve put together a photo tour of our second dive with Charlie from Fat Fish Movies who documented it all in photos this time!! You can also check out some more amazing videos from Charlie and the team at Fat Fish Movies’ YouTube page. The box jelly fish one is particularly interesting to us since we were on the dive in which that was shot!! Yup, we swam with some box jelly fish unbeknownst to us the possible danger and the fact that we were swimming with one of the world’s deadliest creatures!

Now that we’re certified we are constantly keeping our eyes and ears open for great diving spots. We’ve already made a trip to Key West, but we hope to go back and add one more – scuba diving at the reef! With so many places to visit, we’re excited to be able to expand our adventures to the incredible unseen world underwater.

8 Tips For Those Considering Scuba Diving For The First Time

Learning to scuba dive in koh tao certification

We’ve put together a list of 8 tips for those who are considering scuba diving for the first time. If you’re looking for a spot like Scuba Shack to learn to dive, or if you haven’t gone diving for a while, we think these tips will help put your mind at ease and help you get the most out of your diving experience:

 scuba shack koh tao thailand

1. Do research to choose a good diving school. Make sure the group is small and that they are PADI or SIS certified. Even though they were the first dive shop we talked to, we were so comfortable and at ease with Scuba Shack that, although we looked around and did our research, there was really no better option for us. They were professional, had good quality equipment, knowledgeable instructors who were actually pretty fun to spend time with and came with a recommendation. Ask around and do your research.

2. Do not dive past your certification. It’s dangerous to dive without the right training, so if you want to dive in that cave or through a ship wreck to try and find some treasure, get certified first. Along with this, do not dive without certification or without going through a well-researched (see tip #1) dive shop for a fun dive (A dive with an introduction to the equipment, techniques and safety but with no certification)

scuba diving buddy teams

3. Value the Buddy System. We are fortunate in that we were able to learn together and thus develop our “buddy skills” together. It became another type of partnership as the responsibility for your partner and their safety is ever-present 18 meters below the surface. Always dive with a buddy, make sure they are doing okay throughout the dive and remember to ask where their air supply is at, once every 5-10 minutes. (Carolann obsessively asked Macrae this question about 30 times in a 45 min dive). With deeper dives and as air gets lower, ask them a little more often.

4. It’s normal to feel nervous before your first dive. In fact, several of us on the boat  were nervous for all of our open water certification dives. It can be helpful to know you are not alone in those worries and fortunately with an instructor like James, our minds were put at ease fairly easily.

learning to scuba dive

5. Some things don’t come naturally or easily. Clearing your goggles of water when submerged or equalizing your ear pressure is not always easy but that’s why there are contained dives to practice and drills throughout the regular dives. It may feel repetitious but it definitely helps in making them feel more natural. It’s a good idea to practice or brush-up on things like clearing your goggles and switching from regulator to snorkel to breath at the surface if you’ve been away from diving for some time.

6. It’s okay to take your time, to equalize, calm down.  Your instructor will wait, no one will mind, and in fact chances are someone else is thankful for a bit of a break. Don’t feel compelled to keep up as you have a buddy to stick with you and an instructor who should be patient. The pace is so much slower then you would think so taking your time is generally not an issue.

Scuba shack boat

7. Hiring a photographer/videographer is worth it! If you don’t mind the extra cost, and are able, hiring someone to take video footage and photos with you on your dive leaves you with an incredible documentation of your time under the water. We were fortunate to have someone from Fat Fish Movies dive with us and take some incredible photos of one of our dives. The video found earlier in this post was also taken by them on the previous dive.

8. Remember to have fun!! This is perhaps the most important point but one that is hard not to do once you are amidst the aquatic life below. The time goes by faster than you expect so enjoy!!

Comment below and let us know what locations are your favourite for scuba diving. Or, if you’ve never been, where would you want to start?

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From Toast to Thai Food: Our Anniversary Do-Over

 A Hidden Gem in Koh Samui’s Backyard

Koh Madsum Beach

For our anniversary on Koh Tao, we chose to celebrate in two ways. The first, was to get our scuba certification and the second was to have a nice romantic dinner. Unfortunately, the first got in the way of the second in the form of a killer migraine. Carolann was struck by a severe migraine shortly after our first two dives and our romantic dinner turned into a very quick meal where all she could stomach was toast. It wasn’t until we got to Koh Samui that we had the opportunity to make up for it and have a romantic outing together.

Our romantic outing came by way of Island Gem Picnic Tours and a day excursion snorkeling followed by a picnic lunch on a secluded area of a small gorgeous island nearby. As soon as the booking was finalized we were rife with anticipation for the tour and for finally having a romantic day together.

A romantic day on our own piece of paradise

Island Gem Picnic OneModernCouple

We weren’t too sure what to expect. We knew that we would be picked up by Gavin, the owner and operator of the tour, at 10am and that we would be going snorkeling followed by a picnic. Gavin was early and so we had time to sit with him, have a coffee and chat. It had been a while since we had an opportunity to really relax and since we weren’t being rushed for the day’s activities we were both able to start doing so.

ISland Gem Picnic Koh Samui Driver

We were driven to the other side of the island to where a long tail boat was waiting for us. Although Island Gem Picnic has the option of either a long tail boat or a speed boat, we definitely wanted to ride in the more traditional means of transportation. Long tail boats, as we’ve brought up before, are popular wooden boats in Southern Thailand powered by automobile engines attached to a long drive shaft with a propeller at the end. Our tour boat was called the Island Hopper and had an Isuzu engine and a captain named Chud. Friendly and efficient, Chud helped Gavin load the picnic baskets quickly before we all hopped on board and set off.

One of the best spots for snorkeling in Thailand

Island Gem Picnic Snorkeling

Although it was a slightly overcast morning (Chud assured us it wasn’t going to rain) the water was calm and we were at our snorkeling location off the small island of Koh Tan in about 10 minutes. Although there was another boat nearby, we anchored far enough away so as not to be interrupted by their relatively large group.

While talking to Gavin on the boat ride we found out that he was a certified diving instructor so we asked him to join in on the snorkeling and the three of us jumped in the warm, calm water. Having Gavin with us was great as he found and pointed out creatures we would have missed had we been on our own. He found two blue-spotted stingrays, one of our favourites to see, a black and white nudibranch and he was able to name the other fish we saw for us. The water is very shallow so at many points you are incredibly close to the coral and able to see so much up close and in the full colour, that would not typically be seen in deeper waters. The area is pretty large and very much alive with fish and sea creatures and is now one of our favourite places to snorkel. If you aren’t able, or don’t want to, scuba dive in Thailand, this spot will allow you to see a vast array of underwater life.

Island Gem Picnic Gavin

After about an hour of snorkeling we headed back to the boat. We had noticed that another tour group had anchored after we had gotten in the water and had already left before we climbed aboard and asked Gavin how long the snorkeling usually lasts on his tours. We found out that he completely tailors his tour so that the guests basically decide the ratio of time split between the snorkeling and the picnic. If you only want to spend a half hour snorkeling, you can do so and spend the rest at the picnic. There is no rush and no pressure and we were extremely grateful for that.

Once aboard, the anchor was lifted and we were on our way to the small island of Madsum for our picnic.

A secluded picnic under a banyan tree

Long Tail Boat THailand

Another couple minutes boat ride and we were anchoring again – this time on the shores of a small, secluded beach on Koh Madsum. While we could see several boats and sunbathers in the distance, anchored at another beach on the island, our area was left empty and unspoiled. The clouds were gone by this point and the sun had come out so we were left with a beautiful view on a private beach on a gorgeous day.

Koh Madsum Thailand

Gavin and Chud set up a wonderfully laid picnic under a large banyan tree complete with a mat, triangular pillows to lean and rest against, and two place settings for us. Offering us beer and wine, Gavin left us to relax comfortably and enjoy our drinks while he heated up the food (he had brought a table, an element and several cooking instruments in order to serve the food hot). The spot was perfect and the banyan tree provided shade and a little added privacy.

Koh Madsum Picnic

We were served Thai fare (although there were other options to choose from) and there was quite the spread. We were served papaya salad and a lettuce salad, fried chicken, pork skewers, rice with chicken and squid, and larb gai. The food was delicious and plentiful. After taking our time on the main course, Gavin then served us dessert – Watermelon, kiwi and pear slices and some coconut jellies and a dessert of sticky rice and taro. We learned that there was such a thing as yellow watermelon which tastes pretty much like the red kind. From start to finish, the entire meal was so filling and tasty and we took our time enjoying the food, the wine and the beer.

Koh Samui Picnic

Koh Madsum Picnic

Romantic Things to do in Thailand

While the dishes were being put away, we went for a quick swim in the water and a stroll along the beach before returning and getting in the boat. When Gavin dropped us back off at our hotel, we noticed that it was not too late in the afternoon which allowed us the rest of our evening to ourselves. It turned out to be a one-of-a-kind day and we were finally able to spend some relaxing, romantic time together.

If you’re in Koh Samui, don’t forget to check out Island Gem Picnic for groups, couples, families, wedding parties and even individuals looking to meet new people!

Have you ever been snorkeling? If so, comment below and let us know where your favourite place to snorkel is! If not, where would you want to start?

 

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Scorpion Tailed River Cruise With New Friends

Scorpion Tailed Boat Ride, Chiang Mai Scorpion Tailed boat, Chiang Mai Attractions

Sailing down the Ping River with WagonersAbroad!

We woke up to the sound of our alarm at 9:30am and were about to hit the snooze button, again, for probably the tenth time when we realized what we were doing and set off into a panic. We had made arrangements to meet with a family of travel bloggers, the Wagoners of WagonersAbroad.com, and take the Scorpion-Tailed River Cruise along the Ping River at 11am. We still had to dress, eat breakfast and try and find the place with only a drawn map from the website and a Google map of a nearby landmark, a condominium.

We were excited to meet the Wagoners after following their site for a few months and some recent correspondence. We had only met one blogger (Emily), and we really wanted to connect more with our new community. Plus, this family just seemed pretty awesome in general. So while we were hesitant to shell out the 500baht (18.50 CDN) per person, as that was the majority of our budget for the day and we had read a few TripAdvisor reviews (although there were many good reviews) that had us worried, we knew the ride would be a neat outing and we could potentially make some new friends. Plus, the ride included a complimentary dessert, so how could we resist?

Scorpion Tailed Boat Ride, Chiang Mai Scorpion Boat, Ping River BOat ride

Surprisingly, we arrived early and bought our tickets and since we had skipped breakfast, we decided to use the fifteen minutes we had to find something to eat.  After grabbing some pastries and coffee from a nearby café, we returned to find the Wagoners there. It’s a strange thing this blogging world. You end up knowing a whole lot about other people you’ve never actually met. So there we were introducing ourselves and shaking hands with people with whom we were already familiar.

We learned quickly that they were not only awesome people on their blog but they were truly great people in real life. Genuine, kind, funny and fun, this family is exactly what they portray themselves to be online.So when the tour was about to start and we saw that it was only our two groups boarding the boat, we were pleasantly surprised.  Our tour guide, complete with a headset microphone and a speaker secured to his waistband, lead us onto the boat with a giant smile and we set off.

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Starting along the river our guide held up cards with photos to show what the different buildings along the route used to look like and explained their significance. He went through some history about the river, bridges that were built over it, buildings of importance and the design and construction of scorpion tailed boats throughout history. Even though we couldn’t always fully understand him with his strong Chiang Mai accent, we got most of what he had said and laughed quite often at the many jokes he told. We particularly liked his one joke, after discussing the importance of elephants in Chiang Mai culture. He said that there is a saying in Chiang Mai, “Never stand below an elephant”, they eat so much food in one day, he said, so if you stand below, you better watch out…poo-poo. A neat aspect of the boat was that it was propelled essentially by a rudder attached to the engine of a Toyota Mercury, with a key ignition starter. it seemed odd when he told us but worked very well.

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In between explanations we got a chance to talk to our new friends about their experiences. They had recently lived in Spain for almost two years before leaving, touring around Europe a little and then heading to Thailand. You could tell they all found great enjoyment in travelling and we enjoyed talking with them all about their life in Spain and their success in relocating and developing their blog. The parents, Heidi and Alan, were kind of like us, but with kids. They seemed to love life and adventure and find enjoyment every chance they could. The kids were bright, engaging, fun to talk to and lucky for being able to learn so much through their travels. Honestly, we were a little in awe of this family and all that they had seen and accomplished. So with a great guide and conversation flowing when possible, we rode the boat at a leisurely pace first one way and then back down the other before stopping for our promised dessert.

Sticky rice and mangoes and a lesson in Chiang Mai gardening

Disembarking, we were lead through a garden of Thai plants, flowers, herbs, and fruit where we were given an explanation about each of the plants growing. We were shown dragon fruit and bananas, given parts of citronella and anice leaves to smell, and shown the different crops of jasmine and sticky rice. The garden was beautiful and interesting and our guide explained each one with great patience for all of our questions. It was an amazing learning experience that we were not expecting. While examining the different bugs we also found throughout the garden, we were shown a hammock made of just one piece of bamboo. Carolann decided to take a quick break before we were given our dessert!

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Guided to our seats for dessert, we were brought out some mango slices with sticky rice and a delicious lychee drink. We had seen a few street vendors in Pai selling mango and sticky rice and were interested in trying it out. The mango was flavourful and the sticky rice had a bit of condensed milk on it adding a sweet taste to match the fruit. While we were eating, our guide showed us snake and eel catching traps and explained how they work. He also showed us some cobra/scorpion whiskey discussing the supposed importance of combining both creatures to balance out the toxins. It was great entertainment while eating and he again told jokes and had us all laughing. After dessert, we headed back on the boat to return to the dock, the entire trip taking just over an hour and a half.

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Scorpion Tail River Cruise – The Best Ping River Boat Ride

The previously mentioned poor reviews that we read discussed the fact that the water was dirty, the guide held up cards to describe different parts of history and that he was hard to understand. What we decided about these reviews was that all of the comments were missing one crucial point, we are in Thailand to experience a culture different than ours and learn more about the places we visit so no, the Ping River during high season when the rains wash soil and sand into the water is not going to be pristine and clear as it is during low season or off the coast of some gorgeous island, the cue cards aid in explaining what we are seeing along the bank and the historical significance, and as far as accented English? We are getting a tour with a Chiang Mai local who is incredibly warm and welcoming and likes to tell jokes and explain his homeland, accent and all.scorpion tail river cruise, chiang mai river cruise, ping river cruise, wagoners abroad, wagonersabroad.com  scorpion tail river cruise, one modern couple, mango and sticky rice, palm hat

 

There were four things we noticed that set this riverboat cruise apart from the others we saw:

1. They don’t take commission. Many of the river boat cruises pay a commission to Tuk Tuk and taxi drivers for dropping tourists off. If you are an unsuspecting tourist looking for the Scorpion Tail River Cruise, even if you point it out on a map, they will take you to one of the others stating it is better and that the other one is no good. They then get paid a commission for doing so. The one we went to had a strict “No Commission” policy which we agree with and would recommend that if you are looking to take this river cruise, be prepared to tell the driver that you do not want to go to any of the others. Apparently the Wagoners experienced this trying to get there that day and told them explicitly where on the map they wanted to go.

2. It is all included. Unlike many of the other boat cruises you take, they don’t push you into buying other products or trick you into paying more for something you didn’t expect. We were told we’d get the dessert for free and we did. We actually received more from the cruise than we expected, like the walk along the gardens and explanations of all the plants. We even found out that where he had taken us for dessert and the garden walk was his own home.

3. They use LPG rather than the diesel fueled engines of the other boats which is better for the river and the environment and something we really appreciate

4. They had a funny and informative guide. We noticed that some of the other rides we passed had a driver but no guide to comment on what they were driving past or seeing. We enjoyed the information we were given, the tour along the garden and the entertainment during dessert. After the river cruise, we got to spend a little more time with the Wagoners, walking along the streets and markets and chatting along the way. We had a great day, both on the cruise learning about the Ping River, Chiang Mai and the local culture as well as meeting some great new friends.

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