Archives for March 2013

The Day My Dreams Came True

baan chang elephant park chiang mai

I apologize in advance for the ridiculous amount of pictures in this post from Baan Chang Elephant Park. But who doesn’t love adorable little elephants?

When planning our trip to Thailand, there was one thing that was consistently on the top of my list of activities I wanted to do. See elephants. How could we resist when we were in one of the few countries in the world that they are native to? It wasn’t so much a question as to if we would do it, but where we would do it. There are elephant camps and parks in every brochure stand around Thailand, especially in Chiang Mai. I had researched several and admit that I was more than a little picky about where we went. I know everyone has different personal opinions but for me personally, I just couldn’t bear the thought of going and seeing elephants in ‘shows’, seeing them paint, watching them play soccer or riding them with large harnesses on their backs. I wanted to experience them more naturally and give my money to a place that cared for the elephants and helped rescue them from harsh environments.

baby elephant at baan chang elephant park chiang mai
The one baby on the property loved to give kisses.

After much research and a high recommendation from friends, we chose to sign up with Baan Chang Elephant Park, translated as Elephant Home. They are an organization that rescues elephants from abusive industries such as elephant begging and the logging industry (the logging industry is prevalent in the northern part of Thailand and abuses the fact that elephants only need about four hours of sleep a night. They will make them work hard labor for the other 20 hours of the day). Their goal is to teach others about the importance of elephant conservation through proper eating, sleeping, bathing and exercising methods and also to preserve a natural habitat for these rescued and abused animals.

up close and personal with elephants at baan chang elephant park in chiang mai
baan chang elephant park chiang mai

We arrived to Baan Chang Elephant Park at an excruciatingly early hour of 6am. We were told that with most animal visits, to go early in the morning when they were first waking up and had not been around people all day yet. After driving for about an hour through the country side, we rounded the corner into the property and were immediately greeted with the site of about a dozen elephants.

feeding elephants at baan chang elephant park in chiang mai

Our first order of business was feeding the elephants. We were provided a large bucket filled to the brim with bananas and large sticks of sugar cane. We walked through the clusters of elephants with their trunks grabbing at us along the way, eager to get their treats.

You may be wondering about the chain around their feet; that was my first thought too. Every elephant sanctuary has to chain up their elephants for people’s protection and their own. This particular company takes in any abused elephant that they find. Meaning, some are very aggressive from being abused and living in extreme conditions. They need time to become docile once again, and for the company to work with them in hopes of a full recovery before people can be near them. This is also to protect the elephants. If they go unchained, they can leave the sanctuary which raises the risk of someone taking them back into harsh conditions or worse, the elephants can plumage local gardens and farms. If this happens, the farmers will often shoot the elephants.

baan chang elephant park chiang mai
After the feeding was finished and all the buckets lay bare, it was time to train. Since there were no harnesses on their backs, we would ride them through the jungle bareback. We were taught in Thai, how to tell the elephants, to go, stop, turn and lay down in order for us to mount their backs.
Turn: kuay
Stop: how
Go: non long
Lay down: pai
riding elephants at baan chang elephant park chiang mai
riding elephants at baan chang elephant park chiang mai
rescue elephants at baan chang elephant park chiang mai
baan chang elephant park chiang mai
Feeding him some sugar cane
After we felt confident of the commands, we set off for an hour trek through the jungle. Not only is this for our benefit but also the elephants. The mahout (an elephant trainer that lives with the elephants. Each one has only one elephant to care and look after) determines how much exercise their elephant needs and will continue to take them on this route until the elephant is satisfied and well exercised. Therefore, all the elephants are used in cycles and some more than others depending on their individual needs.
We were paired up with an older elephant by the name of Don Coon. You could tell he knew the trail well since his mahout wasn’t even guiding him. But instead of sticking strictly to the trail, he would slowly veer off every once in awhile in search of a snack. Who could blame him?
trail at baan chang elephant park chiang mai
baan chang elephant park chiang mai
The back is not as comfortable as it looks! I was sore for days after this!
The last part of the day was probably my favorite. After the hike, we led our elephants to a large pool of water and were given a scrub brush and bucket. We proceeded to wash all of our elephants while they relaxed and played in the water.
washing elephants at baan chang elephant park chiang mai

baan chang elephant park chiang mai
If you’re ever in Thailand, I would highly recommend spending a day with the elephants at one of the many Elephant Sanctuaries.
Some other great places to spend time are Patara Elephant Farm and the Elephant Nature Park. When we go back to Thailand (because let’s face it, we will go back) we want to check out the Elephant Nature Park which is more intensive on their care and conservation of the animals.

New Norm Part II

Sometimes living in a different country you forget that some of the very odd and different things around you are in fact…odd and different. So since the first installment was such a hit, I decided to collect some more things from around Korea that I first thought were odd and different but now just blend into the background. 
New names

I swear to you, I did not marry a man named Jesemy Djamond. 

Toilet étiquette 

Being directed not to flush tissue down the toilet.

Confusion in the grocery store

The Korean writing everywhere even seems normal now. When we visited back home it was weird not to see it.

A declined English vocabulary 

When your job is to simplify the English language as much as possible it only makes sense that your extensive English vocabulary tends to go out the window. For instance, it once took me and some friends a good ten minutes to come up with the word ‘insult’.

Konglish
(Korean+English). Oh the Konglish. I’m pretty sure they meant ‘That’s the bomb
 
Age difference

Many times when I first arrived and people asked my age I would freeze. Do they want to know my Korean or Western age? Let me explain. When a child is born in Korea, they are already considered one year old. Then everyone turns a year older at the same time in the new year.  Why? No idea. So essentially, if a child was born at the end of December, they would be two years old in Korea before they’re a month old in America. See why I was so confused?

Seating arrangements

 

This is probably one of the things that no matter how long I live here, it will always get under my skin. It is very common to see children in cars that are not buckled up and not in a carseat. I can’t tell you how many time I have seen kids riding on the drivers lap, hanging out of the window or even strapped in baby carries on the drivers chest. I think this is the one exception to this post because I will never think this is normal.

A Place to Rest Your Head

Our new humble abode. This is what most of the new apartment buildings look like where we live.

I’m very happy to announce that we are unpacked, uncluttered and completely settled into our new place. While it was a long day last Saturday as we spent the good part of 13 hours packing up, making trips back and forth and unpacking everything, we now feel right at home in our new place.

Packing: our worst nightmare but our cats dream come true

While with our last place, we drove around solo and found new buildings, it wasn’t possible to do that with our new location. We moved out of a relatively new, spread out area where buildings are being completed monthly and into an older town nearby which is densely populated with people and apartment buildings. We needed serious help navigating this maze of buildings.

We recruited a great Korean friend of ours to help us out. Little did we know that it would once again, take a lot of foot work to find the perfect place for us. See, in Korea, you can’t just go to one realtor to show you all of the available apartments like you can in the States. Each realtor is responsible for a certain area and can only show you a few apartments each. We must have gone to 6 different realtors to see more apartments that I care to remember. We saw brand new 350 square foot apartments (that we tried our best to be optimistic about and try to plan where our furniture stacked boxes would go) to 800 square foot apartments that we had to navigate through the smoke clouds and piles of trash to see the place. Let’s just say, we were a little more than discouraged.

Then we found the place. You know, the one the realtor shows you, knowing perfectly well that it is just out of your price range. The one that you compare all other places to after that. Yea, we saw, and fell in love with, that one. The thing is though, it wasn’t entirely out of our price range. The key money (remember, it’s like a really big deposit) was really low so we offered them more key money in exchange for lower rent. No go. We were disheartened but continued on our way to look at more apartments. Later that week we got an unexpected phone call from a previous realtor saying that she got the owner of the place we loved to come down in rent. Perfect! We went down to the office to sign papers only to find out the place was already taken. But! But, wait for it, the one across the hall that was bigger and more expensive was still available. If we couldn’t even afford the smaller one, there was no way we could afford the larger one. We were about to give up hope and hit the pavement again when they told us that the landlord was willing to give us the larger place for the price of the smaller one. The shock didn’t wear off for days after that. We feel so blessed to have been able to get the apartment we did, and we have no doubt that God has His hand in all of this (and probably to teach me a little lesson about patience!). 

This is the one room hubs is disappointed about. No room for a shower curtain in this one!

So, might I add, that Koreans have a pretty awesome habit that many foreigners who are provided unfurnished apartments take full advantage of. In each apartment complex, there are ‘furniture drop off’ areas. Aka, gold mines. Our second year we moved into an unfurnished apartment. The landlord graciously provided the bed, fridge, tv and washer but that was it. So for a good month we went scavenging for furniture. Sure, we could go buy it. But when we aren’t staying forever and we have found perfectly good furniture in these areas, what’s the point? I am proud to say that we found every piece of furniture in our apartment minus the bed and TV stand which were provided. Couch, chair, bookshelves, vacuum, microwave, table, the list goes on. Through this process, Korea has taught us to be extremely thrifty. And we’ll probably be the couple back in the states that’s looking through the dumpsters for a new chair. I’m ok with it.

Apartment Living Korean Style

Well we did it! We found a new apartment closer to work and surprisingly it’s not the size of a shoebox!  Through finding a new apartment, I realized that I had never shown any pictures of our old place on this little blog of mine. Finding an apartment as a foreigner can be a little tricky. Most of the time, apartments are provided by the school for the foreign teacher. But since we knew we wanted to stay in Korea for a few more years and weren’t sure if we would be staying with the same school, we wanted to find a place of our own so if we did by chance change workplaces, we wouldn’t have to change apartments.

To find the place that we are currently in, we narrowed down the area that we wanted to be in and drove around for days, looking for new buildings or buildings that would be soon be done. We then gave the telephone number of that apartment to a rockstar Korean friend of ours who would then call the building and get all of the details for us. Not too difficult, just time consuming. We felt extremely blessed with the building that we found. It was a great location for us at the time, the landlady was beyond nice and went out of her way to work with us and make us feel at home, and it was the perfect size for the both of us. Which surprises me since back in the states we felt cramped in a 700 square foot apartment and our old place was roughly 600 square foot apartment (or about 18 pyeong-the Korean measurement) and felt spacious.

Paying rent in Korea is a little different also. You have rent but then you also have what is called ‘key money’. Think of it as a really big deposit before you move in. Most apartments start with key money of $5,000-$10,000. But here’s the cool part. Say you found an apartment for $600 and they required $5,000 key money. Well say that you had more money saved up (lucky you) and wanted to put it towards the apartment. Well, typically for every $10,000 extra that you are willing to put down, the rent will go down by $100 a month (this is not a rule but what we have found to be true). Every apartment has a limit of how much key money they will accept and how low they will let the apartment rent go down to. But it’s such a great way for those savers out there to save some money on rent. You may be asking ‘do you get that money back?’ And the answer is, yup. Every penny of the key money that you put down, you get back the day that you move out of the apartment. Win win.

Without further ado, our humble Korean abode.

Most of the apartments in Korea don’t have key holes. Instead they have keypads where you type in the code and it opens the door. Great for people like me who are prone to lock my keys inside. 

Before and after of our bathroom. Traditional Korean bathrooms have no separation of the shower from the rest of the bathroom which leaves the whole place soaked whenever you shower. To prevent this, hubs took a ridge of plastic and used caulk to secure it on the floor, stopping any water from flowing out of the shower area and also added a shower curtain.

There is no central heat and air in Korea. This is both our air con and our heating along with having floor heat.

The view from our back window.
Wood cabinets are extremely expensive and therefore extremely rare in Korea. Majority of places have plastic cabinets and prefabricated kitchen units. 

How to Survive an Overnight Train

I’m not sure why but I’ve always wanted to ride on an overnight train. Something about it seems so nostalgic, so classy, so old school. Nope, not at all. But it was an experience, that’s for sure.
There are three options to get from one end of Thailand to the other. Bus, plane or train. Not being in any sort of time crunch but wanting something more comfortable than a bus, we opted for the overnight train that would take us from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. Boarding at 6:10 pm and arriving at 8:30 am we were in for a long night. But the experience of an overnight train and the price tag of around $30 each trumped any discomfort in our mind. But being on a train for that long can be…well, long. Here are some things that kept me from losing my mind.

overnight train thailand
overnight train thailand
inside overnight train in thailand

As always with traveling, have a sense of humor.
Sure, it’s not fun to try and get dressed on a moving train inside of a claustrophobic bathroom with a pee stained floor. Or to sleep on the top bunk where the only thing keeping you from falling onto the floor is two vertically strapped seat belts. But these just add to your stories to tell when you arrive back home. Or it adds to your reasons for never doing it again. Up to you.

toilet in overnight train, thailand
The bathroom. Aka changing area. Notice the hole goes straight to the tracks.

Get to know your neighbors.
This is by far one of my favorite parts about traveling. You are constantly surrounded by people from all over the world. On this trip alone we met people from Germany, China, and England to name a few. (one guy even offered us his apartment if we’re ever in Germany, hopefully the offer still stands when we make it over to that part of the world!) Start a conversation, get to know those traveling around you. It not only makes the time go by faster but you also get to know so much more about so many different cultures.
Also, on a safety note, getting to know who’s around you can help you judge how safe your belongings are if you decide to leave them in order to walk around. Of course, use your best judgment and precautions but this worked for us.
TIP: if you’re traveling alone, these are great for protecting your bag while you’re sleeping or away from your pack.

3. Dress in layers. We paid a few extra dollars for the air conditioned cabin and I can tell you with certainty that they used those dollars well. When we got on, we were scrambling to put on all the layers we could find. But as soon as the beds were set up and the curtain was closed, we were roasting.

beds in overnight train in thailand
The seats rearranged to make top and bottom bunks. Please notice the seat belts that acted as guard rails. I feel safe…

Bring snacks
There is a food car on the train but as you can imagine, it’s way overpriced for what you get. We ended up getting snacks before we boarded then split one meal from the dining car which ended up being the perfect amount.

overnight train thailand

Bring ear plugs and an eye mask
Trains are noisy. Duh. And when you don’t have a cabin to yourself, you fall victim to hearing everyone’s conversations around you in addition to all the expected noise and clatter of the train itself. Also, the main lights of the train stay on all night. And while there are curtains blocking off your bed, the top bunk still gets a steady stream of light in, making it look like daytime.

sleeping in overnight train thailand
Our bottom bunk where hubs slept

All in all, the trip seemed to go by faster than we anticipated (thank God) and we were kept occupied by card games and books when we weren’t sleeping. After trying it once, I would definitely do it again (first class private cabin please! and at still under $50 a person, I say it would be well worth it) as it’s a cheap, safe and comfortable way to see the county.