Saturday, September 26, 2009

reacquainted, but not on repeat.

Hey everyone,

It's been a week since I've been home from my trip. Firstly, thank you for being my moral support through this crazy adventure (both before, during, and after my leave). I appreciate each of you for your interest, and will look forward to seeing you at some point in time if I haven't already!

The remainder of my trip was relaxing but still packed. We took a day to snorkel just South of Railey Beach, at Phi Phi Island. This was a unique experience because we could see the remains of many coral reefs destroyed by the tsunami that hit SE Asia in 2004. Broken skeletons of this marine ecosystem littered the sea floor. However, amidst the remains, much color abound: anemones, sea snakes, and fish of all colors swam about, and I had the opportunity to swim with schools of fish all afternoon.

Our last two nights in Thailand were devoted to Bangkok. During the day, we went on a temple tour, visiting the "must-see's" like the Emerald Buddha and the Reclining Buddha... basically, lots of various Buddhas. :) The architecture is so colorful, meticulous and ornate, it takes my breath away. Our evenings were full of city life, taking to the streets and seeing what Bangkok is really like. And when we saw enough of that ;), we took a trip down Khao Son Road, the hot spot for travelers in Bangkok. Tons of vendors, bars, and restaurants... and tons of tourists! All in all, Bangkok was a fun and exciting way to wrap up our tour; although it was hard to say goodbye to my new friends, and even harder to say goodbye to this beautiful land I now have a home with.

The return home and adjustment to Western culture has been surreal. It sounds cliche', but we are so fortunate in the United States: flush toilets, drinkable water, the quality of our education and the presence of our sanitation and recycling systems. But the Thai culture has so much to offer that we as Westerners often miss out on: the sense of community, strong work ethic, self-sufficiency and responsibility for one's self (even at a young age). We as a Westernized culture have the capacity for all of these attributes, but the systems we've created to make our lives easier need to be maintained by the very people they serve. We spend so much time worrying about the small stuff, when in fact it's the small stuff we should be enjoying. Life is too short and the world is too big to be full of anxiety about something that doesn't really make an impact. What I've learned to be concerned with is what kind of a local, national, and global impact I am making (because, like it or not, we all do make one), and find ways to ensure I'm being a positive influence on other people and systems. It's not something that comes naturally to our 'get-ahead' culture, but I think it's an important lesson to learn.

That's a wrap for this adventure. I will be keeping this blog for other trips, so look forward to hearing from me in the future, and I will look forward to hearing from you! If you have any questions about my excursion, or if you are going on a trip of any kind and want my listening ear or my prayers, feel free to email me at and we'll be in touch. :)

You can also see the rest of my public pictures by following this link to my online album:

Love to you, from a soul with one foot in Thailand, and another forever at home.

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Monday, September 14, 2009

Sun, sand...where's my coconut?

Hello to you from Railey Beach!

Over the last several days, our ISV tour has been quite exciting... and finally sunny. :)

After our canyoning adventure, I was sore and tired for rock climbing. However, with the excitement of cave exploration, repelling into crevasses and looking for stalactites, I perked up enough to power through. The most rewarding part, for me, was climbing my first natural rockface; I found this to be, so far, the most mentally challenging part of the trip. Getting to the top, I snapped some photos, let out a victory shout, and took in a deep breath of Thailand air. So rewarding... so tiring!

The next couple of days, our group stayed right outside Khao Sok National Park (where some of the few remaining wild Asian Elephants and tigers live!), down in Southern Thailand, Surathani. It was a beautiful, if not damp and wild, experience. During the day, we took an adventure tour inside the park itself, one of the largest preseres in Southeast Asia, and the oldest! Khao Sok is over 160 million years old, made from limestone formations. Aside from enjoying a longtail boat ride, I was able to swim in a freshwater lake in the middle of this oasis, and enjoy the first little bit of sun we've had for days. Back at the lodge, the animals attacked our bungalows at night. Mice, frogs, lizards, bats, and the threat of monkeys kept us from a full night's sleep... but I don't know what else we could possibly expect, sleeping in the middle of the jungle!

The last two days have been the most exciting part of the adventure tour: sea kayaking! Our group took to the water, from Phuket to Phang Nga Bay, where we traveled around islands, saw makaks (Thai monkeys) and mangrove forests up close, and took a ride through some amazing sea caves. It was difficult to suppress my desire to hum 'Pirates of the Caribbean' songs... so sometimes I didn't. :) Out on the water, the sun came out, which made the trip even more wonderful. I'm definitely going to be making time for kayaking and rock climbing when I return to the states.

I wish I had more time, but the beach calls. Tomorrow we will be snorkeling at PP Island, south of Railey Beach (NE of Phuket) and only have a few more days after that! I'll be thinking of you all from the beach, Bangkok, and on the plane ride home. Look forward to seeing you all!

With love and happiness,
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Wednesday, September 9, 2009

waterfalls, monsoons, and elephants, oh my!

Hello from Southeast Asia!

So much has happened in the last several days, but I will try to pick out the most interesting parts.

Firstly, the elephant park. The Elephant Nature Park (ENP) is a lovingly established facility, dedicated to the safety and rights of the Asian Elephant, an endangered species in Thailand, where it is supposed to be held as a sacred animal. After riding elephants on my first day in Thailand, I would not be honest if I were to say that I do not have regret in my heart for doing so. What I learned at the ENP is truly horrific, that elephants here have the same rights as livestock (that is, no rights at all), and the domestication process is incredibly brutal, oftentimes fatal.

Historically, the Asian Elephant was used for logging work, but since the extreme destruction of forests, logging is banned in Thailand, and these "unemployed" animals, ironically, would not survive without working for tourists, typically for the revenue of the very-impoverished Hill tribe villages. As previously mentioned, Hill Tribes have virtually no protection from the government here, as many are refugees/immigrants from Burma(Myanmar). Using elephants for tourist attractions is imperative for these people, and the domestication process they use, although incredibly inhumane by US standards, is all they have ever used or known. However, this all is beginning to change with the coming about of the Elephant Nature Park.

Lec, the daughter of a Hill Tribe shaman, is the founder of ENP. She uses positive reinforcement to train her rescued elephants in the most basic of ways. They will not be juggling anymore, but thanks to the love and dedication Lec has put into ENP, they will not be begging on the city streets for tourism either. This new method to elephant training is the least intrusive to their natural instincts; hopefully some day, there will be enough forest regrown in Thailand to integrate these creatures back into the wild. For now, that is just a hope on the horizon.

This was a huge lesson for me concerning my role as a responsible tourist. I went into this trip with some (albeit limited) knowledge of domesticated elephant rights and treatment. When our group visited the camp to ride elephants, I thought not much of it, because the elephants had no outward sign of abuse; they were happy and healthy, as far as I was concerned. Our group also saw these specific elephants on a daily basis, taking personal time across the river from our project. Not to mention, many elephant camps, like the one we went to, supported a local Hill Tribe. At the time, I felt like I was doing the right thing. The reality is this: any domesticated animal which should be in the wild, has had their spirit broken at a young age and suffered through a tradition that about 40% do not survive. Even if the elephant camp was a decently-run facility, by supporting this endeavor, I consented that this type of abuse is okay. After extensive research and the experiences I've had, I will never be patron to anything like this again. However, the ENP is an amazing alternative for tourism, with positive outcomes for all.

Our group spent the day at ENP meeting each elephant (there are currently over 30 residing!), participating in feeding times, and bathing the elephants in the nearby river. On a beautifully sunny day, the mucky waters of Thailand did not even phase me as I splashed bucket after bucket onto our grey, wrinkly friends. This is an experience like no other, and one that, like the large animals we worked with, I will never forget. It's not every day you bathe with an elephant.

Moving from the ENP, we spent the night with the Lisu Hill Tribe at a beautiful lodge, and awoke the next morning to begin our 2-day trek through the jungles of mountainous Thailand. The day was hot as we arrived at the trail head, reaching upwards of 98 degrees, but the sweat we were all drenched in was soon replaced with rain. And more rain. And suddenly we were in a monsoon.

That is not a typo. We had out jungle trek through the middle of a monsoon.

I was giddy to put on my poncho as the sky poured buckets, but became soberly aware of our situation when we crossed waterfall after overflowing damn after waterfall of gushing water. This was the most crazy storm I have ever been in, feeling blessed to witness such amazing weather, literally hiking up through the clouds. Lightning, mist, and the sweet smell of the jungle... we arrived, accomplished and soaked to the bone, just before dark.

The next morning, we awoke to see the sunrise from the top of our Hill Tribe outpost, and began our trek back down. Fortunately, there was no rain for the downhill version of this hike, but the monsoon made our planned route unsafe to travel on, so we took to a dirt road instead. Typically, once finished with our trek, ISV would have sent our group on a white water rafting ride, but due to the wild rapids and high waters, we had to cancel this particular excursion. I was a little bummed about this, until we were informed that we could choose a replacement activity... so today, I went canyoning on the tallest mountain in Thailand.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with canyoning, allow me to catch you up to speed: canyoning is a ropes course which uses the natural environment to create an adventure experience. You begin at the top of a canyon, and work your way down using rocksliding, repelling, and swimming techniques. A typical canyoner will wear a helmet, knee pads, life jacket, wet suit top, gloves, and, my personal favorite: butt flaps, for sliding. :) For our group's adventure, we started small, with a practice repel, worked our way through the freezing (yet refreshing) rivers near the Mae Ping, and finished up our day with a 100-meter repel down the side of a waterfall. Due to the monsoon just 2 days prior, the waters were still pretty crazy, so we really had to pull our own weight as we crossed currents and slid down small rapids. I sit here in an Internet cafe feeling extremely accomplished and rejuvenated, albeit incredibly tired.

We still have a lot left to do on our tour, but tomorrow is our last day in Chiang Mai. After a full day of rock climbing and cave exploring, we will make our way to the southern regions of Thailand and partake in a sea kayaking adventure. After 3 weeks in the hills, I really can't wait for the beach. :)

Thinking about each one of you! Sending love to you from across the globe.
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Saturday, September 5, 2009

on an adventure: part ii of the travels.

My time online is limited, but here's a quick update for you all:

Our group finished our work with Mae Kok on Friday. Thursday night was a goodbye celebration, which turned out to be easily one of my most favorite parts of this trip so far. Aside from a cultural exchange, the Mae Kok children and staff all sang to us, and we exchanged many presents, hugs, and tears as we said our "see you later's". It is difficult leaving these kids and the family they have created, knowing how readily accepted we all were into their daily routine; the prospect of becoming a tourist at this point is still a bit unappealing with the knowledge that there are so many other ways I could be experiencing Thai culture. However, I am looking forward to testing my own personal limits and strengths with the second half of our tour, and can't wait to see what opportunities will arise (not to mention pictures!).

This morning begins our first full day in Chaing Mai, which is quite a difference from rural Chiang Rai (though only a 3 hour drive apart). There are many temples and restaurants here, and many more English-speaking people. This is both giving me a sense of relief and disappointment because I already miss the genuine feel of Thailand, as opposed to the 'luxury' feel we are given at the hotels and restaurants. All the same, I'm still enjoying myself. Thai massage this morning... such a wonderful way to work out all the kinks and strain from volunteering.

We're going to be in the Chiang Mai area for the next several days, stopping at an elephant park and trekking though the jungle to spend a night with local Hill Tribe villages. perhaps I will feel at home again. :) Our tour leaders are really energetic and knowedgable, so I'm looking forward to an eventful next couple weeks!

That's all for now! Hope you are all well!
Love, Laura
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Tuesday, September 1, 2009

thoughts from an internet cafe.

Our group is having a blast on holiday. I write this to you from a cute internet cafe amidst the markets bordering Myanmar (formerly known as Burma), with a thai iced tea (or here, a milk tea) at my side. Here's what I've been up to lately:

Friday night, all the kids and staff at Mae Kok had a cultural exchange in honor of the Japanese students who came to visit. There was much celebration, music, dancing, and clapping. All of the children at MKF are a part of one Hill Tribe or another (most are from the Akha tribe), and thus performed traditional dances. I feel so blessed to have seen these dances up close in such an open setting. Sadly, many Hill Tribes sell their culture to tourists, charging admission fees to enter their villages. This cultural exchange was completely for the sake of teaching and learning, which felt so much more genuine. The girls from Mae Kok, who are normally quite shy, really seemed to shine in the traditional outfits they wore. The Akha tribe in particular has some amazing headdresses, strung with colored beads and metal bangles. For a young girl, I'm sure they are quite a headache, but watching them dance in this attire was a great opportunity to see a whole different side of them. Our ISV group participated in the cultural exchange as well, learning a summer camp dance from one of our UK group members. This, of course, brought me back to my days as a member of my high school dance team, and I found myself counting off the moves during our informal practices (much to the dismay of some group members). ;) With my unique talent of doing 'the worm', I was even given a short solo to show off for the kids. This is all to say that our dance was nothing in comparison to the beauty and integrity of the Hill Tribe dances, and made me wish that I had stronger ties to the roots from which I am created. Perhaps my next international trip will include stops to Italy or Poland... or any of the other dozen European countries my ancestors come from. After the performances, everyone from Mae Kok went outside with rice paper lanterns, lit them at the bottom, and watched with childlike wonder as hot air filled them and they ascended into the night sky. In the pure dark of rural Thailand, the lanterns floated gracefully to the stars, and I found myself wondering why my own US culture does not find more joy in these simple things.

The next day, we worked all day painting the boys' dormitory. Today was the day we were assigned to paint a mural on one of the walls, and due to my huge enthusiasm for drawing, coupled with my teammates' lack of desire to draw, I got to head up this project. :) We spent hours creating a scene with boys playing football (our Westernized soccer) with an elephant. I loved the joy each child got from seeing us put color on the walls. I had to work my way around the kids as I put my pencil to the building... they were so excited to see what we would do for them! Our work on the building will be complete tomorrow, when we put the finishing touches on the dorm. How great to leave my mark in Thailand, and to such a great cause, for such wonderfully resilient children. In the midst of danger and poverty, these kids still thrive.

That evening, we went to visit the night bazaar, and on our way back, we came in contact with such danger. A police officer stopped our van in the middle of a dark empty road, spoke to the driver and our group leader in Thai, and let us continue on our way. When we asked what happened, our leader, Claire, told us the officer was looking for drugs and human trafficking. Apparently, he had 4 men behind him with machine guns, and this is not an uncommon occurence. Reality struck me as we sped home, and once again validated my reasoning and passion behind my personal purpose for this trip. Behind the safe gates of MKF, it is hard to see the dangers amid the rest of Chiang Rai. However, trafficking is so incredibly common, and hidden so well, an average visitor may never know. It makes me sick to drive through the hills and see an orphanage or shelter next to a resort, but it exists much more than you would think. The world needs to be made aware.

Our holiday is great as well. So far, we have visited the White Temple (the product of a famous Thai artist) and the Black House (his house, with over 48 huts set in a Zen-like yard... with the nicest bathroom I will likely ever use in this country), a Thai tea farm (and had an official tea tasting!), the Golden Triangle (where a large amount of opium is transported between China, Thailand, Myanmar, and Laos), taken a longtail boatride to Laos, and seen market after market after market. There is so much more to say, but little time and words. I will post pictures at the end of my trip; it is so beautiful here.

In terms of culture, I've also recently discovered that Thai people love Jason Mraz. So we have more in common than I thought. :)

Thinking about each of you as I continue my trip. My adventure tour begins on Friday, and I'm not sure how much internet I will have from there on out. I'll write as time and zest allows.

Much love from Southeast Asia,
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