Elephant mahout training, Luang Prabang

The career change has finally happened!  After many years of teaching we decided that a change of jobs was long overdue.  Yesterday we both became qualified elephant mahouts!

After shopping around town for the best elephant offerings, we decided to choose Jewel Travel, at 02/29 Sisavangvong Rd.

 

The elephant camp is in beautiful surroundings about 40 minutes out of town.  You go to an isolated local village of around 200 people and then cross a river by small boat.  The English speaking guide is generous with his time and very informative about elephants and Laos life in general.  There were also 3 mahouts on hand to assist with the elephants.

 

They have two beautiful female elephants that you work with, one aged in its 20′s, the other in its 30′s.  We had the option of taking an elephant each but for a lot of the day we were happy to share one elephant.  This was a wise choice because riding on the elephant’s neck is pretty intense and demanding on the thigh muscles.  While one of us rode, the other could relax on the seat behind.

They ease you into it and you are accompanied by a local mahout at all times.  First we both sat in the seat while the mahout followed a narrow path through the jungle.  It was an hot day but the shade of the jungle offered some relief.  The elephant stopped often to feed on the foliage.  Apparently they consume around 250 kg in a day.

After learning the various commands, prods and prompts, it was our turn to take the lead.  Perched on the elephant’s neck, you tuck your knees in behind its ears.  ‘Steering’ with the knees or sometimes the ears, is highly effective.

We took more and more control as the day wore on.  The local mahout simply wandered along nearby to keep an eye on things, or in case the elephant became particularly stubborn.

In the  final stretch back to camp, there was a particularly steep section where the elephant stayed still, feeding, for quite a while.  I had to tense my thigh muscles for ages to avoid toppling over its head, before she agreed to move on.  Showing who was boss I suspect.  When I dismounted back at camp, my legs were like jelly.

Then came the fun part, which would have to be right up there with anything we have ever experienced.  We got to bathe the elephants and swim with them in the water.  They love the water and were particularly playful.

After a good dunking came the highlight.  We rode the elephants like bucking broncos!  Perched on its neck and holding on by the ears, the elephant would rock violently from side to side in an effort to throw us off.  They were always successful.  Its an eerie feeling when you are thrown off into the water and two and a half tonnes of elephant rolls over in your direction!  Being blasted by a trunk-full of water can also be distracting.

 

 

 

At one stage I had held on for a long time so the elephant tried a new tactic.  It crouched down in the water and totally submerged me.  When I ran out of breath, I had to concede defeat.

It was such an exhilirating experience.  You must do it.

 

And of course, if you need a mahout for your next trip or function, get in touch with us and we will see what we can do.

 

Of course once we are back in Australia we will be registering at the Unemployment Office, as mahouts!

 

Alms for the monks, Luang Prabang

One morning we rose early, as in really early, to offer alms, as in food, to the monks.

 

 

 

At around 5:30 am the monks file past along the footpath in the main street of Luang Prabang.  They each carry a silver bowl with a lid. They raise the lid as they walk past and you place food directly into their bowls.

A couple of local ladies approached us when we arrived and sold us some food.  Others prefer to buy theirs at the local market.

When the monks walked past we quickly placed dollops of sticky rice, biscuits and bananas into their bowls.  Apparently they are neither happy when they receive food nor disappointed if they don’t.  The food they receive sustains them until the following day’s procession.

It was quite a sight to see such a large procession of monks, clad in their robes of orange.  Our Canadian friend Linda counted over 200 file past.

 

 

It was all over in about 15 minutes.  Because we were up we went for a walk around town in the relative cool of the morning.  We wandered past all the guest houses, businesses and homes and checked out a couple of the temples.

 

 

It is clearly the best part of the day and we saw the city waking up: preparations for work, school and breakfast.  There were a lot of people sweeping up in front of their homes and businesses.  They certainly take pride in their town.

 

Friendly smiles and greetings were offered all over town.  Then we went back to bed until breakfast.

 

Tubing, Vang Vieng, Laos – VIDEO

We had heard all the horror stories.  Drunk, drugged, hedonistic revellers.  Featured on 60 Minutes and numerous other media reports, with at least 27 deaths in the past year!  Having to explode rocks to get out the bodies.  But we tried it.  We survived. We loved it  and we would highly recommend it to others.

The day before our tubing experience we caught a long-tailed boat from Vang Vieng about 5 kms upstream to the start of the tubing and the site of many of the bars.  This is a relaxing way to ease into it if you have any doubts.  You can see all the sites from the comfort of a dry boat and get lots of great photos without worrying about drowning your camera.  You also get a feel for the tubing course, check out the currents and exposed rocks and see what you’ll be heading into.

Of course conditions will vary considerably depending on water levels.  At this time of year, coming into the wet season, the river was low and slow, but with more exposed rocks.  A quick tuk-tuk ride, included with your tube hire of about $8, takes you to the start of the course.  It takes about 3 hours to do the full 5 kms, of course less in faster water.  The late afternoon is probably best because you have great shade in many sections from the surrounding mountains.  The scenery is stunning!

Of course the highlight for many is the bars along the river-banks.  Starting right at the start of the course, they thin out as you venture downstream.  There is loud music and typically free wrist bands and free shots on arrival.  Many feature diving platforms and towers, slides, trapeze or flying foxes as added attractions.

Staff are on hand to pull you into shore with ropes.  They also supervise safe practices, play the incredibly loud music, serve drinks and organise drinking games.  They have a mix of local and western staff and the atmosphere is great.  Many Gap Year students and young backpackers are part of the crowd.  Drink prices are extremely friendly with a Beerlao around $2 and a bucket of Lao Lao based cocktail around $4.

Above all, everyone was just having a good time.  Nobody was aggressive, abusive or threatening.  A few macho guys did somersaults off the deck into the river and one guy hit his back against the deck trying to hang upside down from a trapeze, but the locals try to keep an eye on safety.  It would be fair to say that most injuries or deaths would probably be self-inflicted.

Vientiane, Laos

Having just devoured the best spicy seafood soup of my entire life, I feel sufficiently fired up to reflect on our first laid back days in Vientiane.

 

Vientiane has a different feel to it than the rest of Asia.  It is still largely unaffected by tourism, unlike its neighbours.  You don’t get touts all over you.  You don’t have beggars hassling you.  We have walked up to souvenir stalls and not even been spoken to.  People smile and say “Hello” but don’t try and hit on you to take your money.  But the most striking feature after crossing from Cambodia, is how nice and clean it looks!  It lacks the vibrancy and party life of most Asian cities, but it is loved and cared for.  Lots of nice buildings and temples and a strong French influence.

There is a reassuring sign as you enter the Vientiane Airport, saying ‘No tipping allowed.’  Unlike Cambodia and Thailand, you do not have to make any bonus payments to secure the necessary entry documents.  When you arrive at the taxi desk you can hire a fixed price car or van to take you to your hotel.  This is a refreshing change from being inundated by touts, all trying to ‘take you for  a ride’, or being ripped off by outrageous prices at the travel desk inside the terminal.

We shared a taxi ($2 each) with two German backpackers to our hotel.  We had chosen the La Ong Dao Hotel… 4 star, brand new, air-conditioned, ensuite, cable TV, including AFL footy, (enjoyed the St Kilda v Hawthorn match last night), free Internet and buffet breakfast for $19 a double.  This was too expensive for our cab-mates however, who went to search elsewhere.

Highlights of Vientiane:

 

 

Xieng Khouan Buddha Park.. 24km out of town but well worth a visit.

The Mekong River front……  water levels are very low at the moment but Wet Season will fix that!

 

 

Patuxay Victory Gate … very similar to the Arc de Triomphe, and great views from up the top

 

That Luang.. the Great Sacred Stupa… the most cherished religious monument in Laos

 

The National Museum… still developing but contains some interesting photographs and relics……  many signs that the imperialist Americans – and their ‘puppets’ were not very welcome around these parts in the 1970′s!

 

The Friendship Bridge… built with a lot of Australian money, linking Laos with Thailand.  Sometimes referred to as ‘the AIDS bridge.’

 

But back to that soup….. HUGE, delicious, packed full of spices, bay leaves, bamboo, chiles and seafood, including maybe 8 plump, juicy prawns.  Superb, especially in a land-locked country.

Three Islands Trip off Sihanoukville

We signed up for another adventure on Saturday.  An all-day trip to three islands, breakfast, snorkelling, BBQ barracuda lunch, fruit, drinks and 2 boat operators for $15.  If you bargain hard and choose a dodgier boat you can travel even more cheaply!

The weather was a little doubtful but we assessed the risks.  With life jackets, warm waters and never likely to be more than 2 kilometres from land, we had few concerns.  There were some solid waves, never more than about a metre high, so it was quite an exciting ride on the open seas.  In amongst the islands it was a lot calmer and miraculously we managed to avoid the rain.

We snorkelled off Koh Preus.  There were quite a few species of fish and the water was wonderfully warm as always.  Next stop was Bamboo Island, or Koh Russei, for lunch.  Our hosts did a great job BBQing the barracuda which was accompanied by baguettes, salad, fruit and the ubiquitous Coca Cola from the traditional Marilyn Monroe shaped bottles!  Went down a treat.

We had about an hour and a half to explore the island.  First we wandered along the beach.  As our boat had been the first to arrive, it was deserted.  Then Jenny and I did a walk across the island, through the jungle, which was great.  The jungle was thick and shady and the only noises were the birds and animals.  I felt like Gilligan!  On the other side of the island was another great beach and a cluster of thatched huts where you can stay.

After our walk, we had a couple more swims and took advantage of the hammocks and deck chairs until it was time to head off again.  Island three, on the way back, was Koh Kteah.  There we did some more snorkelling.  Again, plenty of fish, quite a few species and some interesting coral formations.  It was good to see the coral reef area roped off so the boats couldn’t enter.  Then it was back to the port!

That night I Googled ‘boat accidents Sihanoukville’ and there was a very funny series of reports about a boat accident almost exactly a year ago.  It seems the JJ Party Boat capsized with 92 people on board!  The police blamed the tourists for being too drunk and dancing too much.  The boat apparently was a single deck licensed for 45 but the owners had added another layer, which probably made it top heavy.  No lives were lost so I guess we can laugh now.  Apparently JJ has not been seen in these parts since!

Sihanoukville, Cambodia

This place is amazing!  Perhaps we have just captured the essence of what our ‘Teach or Beach’ journey is all about!  As school kids and teachers go back to school in our home town of Adelaide, South Australia, here we are parked on a stunning beach on the coast of Cambodia.

 

Now your average traveller would never discover this place.  If you did travel to Cambodia, as currently approximately 3 million tourists do in a year, it would generally be part of a South East Asian package.  You would probably visit Thailand or Vietnam, plus Cambodia.  Which would mean that you had time to visit Siem Reap, to see the splendour of Angkor Wat, and possibly Phnom Penh to experience the capital and the horror and sadness of the killing fields.  And then you would need to be heading back to work!

 

 

After all the culture and history of Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, we were looking for a beach, some warm water, white sand and clear blue sky, sadly a little rare in many parts of Asia.  Well we have certainly found it. An $8 bus trip from the capital, it is a backpackers paradise!  We booked into a great hotel, Beach Road Hotel, complete with ensuite, airconditioning, Wifi, cable TV and pool only a short stroll from the beach.  ($23.)

There are lots of islands within a short boat ride of Sihanoukville.  For $15 or less, including breakfast, lunch, water, fruit and coffee, you can tour past three islands, snorkel and visit one.  You also have the option of staying as long as you like on one of the islands, with a pick-up any day of your choosing!  And there are many tropical islands to choose from, all within 2 or 3 hours of the coast.  Koh means island.  Many stay on Koh Rung, the same size as Hong Kong.  Others choose Koh Rung Samloen, Koh Kaong Kang or Koh Russei (Bamboo Island.)  You are spoilt for choice.  French Survivor was apparently filmed on/near Lazy Beach on Koh Rung Samloen.

Meanwhile, back at the beach, the nightlife is incredible!  Every night there is a huge row of restaurants offering a seafood feast for a fairly standard $3.  You are literally right on the beach having a candle-lit dinner in beautiful comfortable chairs.  The meal typically includes fresh barracouda, squid and prawns, all caught from the ocean that day.  Throw in salad, fries or steamed rice and it’s a wonderful meal.  And you can wash it down with 50 cent pints of Angkor draught beer or $1.50 cocktails.

 

 

While you are eating, great music plays on the sound systems up and down the beach.  It seems the next generation is discovering our music all over again.  The air is dry and warm every night with a gentle sea breeze and you are entertained by a fire-twirler and fire-twirlers.  The water temperature is a consistent 27 – 31 degrees!  One minor drawback is a steady parade of salespeople selling fireworks, bracelets, sunglasses, massages, pedicures and hair removal.  But a polite ‘no’ usually moves them on.  There is also a range of beggars: the legless, the armless or the poor.

If you want to escape any of the contents of the previous paragraph, you can of course stay on any of the islands, or take a short tuk tuk ride to one of the nearby beachesVictory Beach and Otres Beach come highly recommended.

We took a day trip to Ostres Beach earlier today and we are booking into a place right on the beach next week.  Fantastic little bungalows, only $25 per night, reduced to $20 a night if you book for a week!

Life’s a beach!

What is the minimum wage in Cambodia?

….and how does it compare to the rest of Asia and the world?

The other day a few hundred Cambodian garment workers collapsed at the Nike factory.  It was reported in the press but didn’t raise too much of a fuss.  The Nike executives (obviously very concerned!) flew in to see things right.  They of course played things down, as did, surprisingly, the spokesperson for Better Factories Cambodia.  (Perhaps maybe not surprisingly, when garment workers create 80% of Cambodia’s exports, so they think they need the jobs!?)  So I started checking it out.  Here are some interesting points:

 

*  With 6000 workers at the Nike factory, 100 fainted on Wednesday 11/4, then 300 fainted on Friday 13/4

*  Apparently the suggested cause was not heat, exhaustion, overwork, malnutrition, but……..‘mass psychogenic illness.’

*  The salary for these garment workers is $66 per month, including a $5 health allowance.

NIKE sweat shop - Cambodia

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

No wonder they are fainting.  These workers are slaving away in a hot factory all day while trying to support themselves (and probably others!) on a measly $2-$3 a day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I googled the minimum wage in Cambodia, versus the rest of the world!  The figures are very revealing and help explain why you can live so cheaply in Cambodia and similar countries.

 

List of Asian Minimum Wages (per year!)

(from lowest to highest)

Burma (Myanmar)   $401

Cambodia  $792

Vietnam  $1002

Indonesia  $1027

Laos  $1057

Nepal  $1889

Phillipines  $2053

Thailand  $2293

Malaysia  $4735

South Korea  $9988

Japan  $11 254

(China and India do not provide figures but based on our experiences living in China for 6 months, and travelling through India, there are many, many Chinese and Indians working for very low salaries, even no salaries.)

Staggering, isn’t it!?  This helps to explain why you see a lot of expensive cars in these Asian countries!  The rich get rich by making slaves of the poor!  The number of Lexus vehicles in Cambodia alone is staggering!  There is also the aid money, but that’s another story!

 

So how do these numbers compare with the western countries?

What are the top 10 minimum wages in the world?

Australia, with its small population and rich mineral wealth, is now at the top of the tree!  The USA and Switzerland surprisingly do not quite make the list!

 

 

Top 10 Minimum Wages in the World

Australia  $30 643

Denmark  $23 573

Netherlands  $19 335

Ireland  $18 965

United Kingdom  $18 830

Belgium  $18 813

France  $17 701

New Zealand  $17 701

Canada  $16 710

San Marino  $15 707

(A few countries, eg Germany and Singapore, do not have legislated minimum salaries.)

So, based on the Australia v Cambodia numbers…..

*  $17: Air-conditioned coach from Phnom Penh, Cambodia, to Ho Chi Min City, Vietnam, return (20 hour trip?)  An hour’s work for an Aussie, a whole week’s work for a Cambodian garment worker.

*  $2 tuk-tuk ride across town: 8 minutes work for an Aussie, a day’s work for a Cambodian garment worker.

*  $8 one hour oil massage:  half an hour’s work for an Aussie, 2 and a half days work for a Cambodian garment worker.

And finally………

* $200 pair of Nike shoes:  2 days work for an Aussie (outrageous!!) or 3 months work for a Cambodian garment worker who probably churns out hundreds of them!!!

So………….

1.  Don’t ever complain about your salary again!

2. Spare a thought for people who get paid less than you!  (often happy, caring, unselfish people)

3. Don’t buy Nike!?

The Killing Fields of Cambodia

It’s something every visitor to Cambodia must do.  It isn’t easy and you come away from it feeling numbed, shocked and shaking your head in disbelief.  You wonder how any group of people could cause the death of approximately two million of their own people!  Pol Pot and his murderous Khmer Rouge regime controlled all of Cambodia from 1975 to 1979.

The population of Cambodia, then known as Kampuchea, was only 8 million at that time, meaning the Khmer Rouge wiped out up to a quarter of their population.  That’s like killing 5 million Australians.  Unbelievable! The deaths were caused by murder, disease, malnutrition, neglect and mistreatment.

A visit to the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, the best known of the many killing fields in Cambodia, is highly recommended.  They have set up a brilliant audio tour for visitors.  You are lent an audio player with a set of ear-phones.  As you stroll around the grounds, you are given a great insight into what happened.  All of the important aspects are explained by a survivor from the time.  You simply press the corresponding number on your player as you walk around and there are lots of benches and shaded areas where you can sit and contemplate.

Among the most moving commentaries are several personal accounts from survivors: a woman who lost an infant, a witness to a killing, a rape victim, and an inspiring account from one guy who was determined to survive .  The final stop in the tour takes you to the memorial ‘stupor’ where hundreds of skulls and other bones are on display.  Gruesome stuff.

It’s a harrowing tour and one that brought tears to my eyes.  To be in a place where so many were killed reminded me a lot of my visit to Hitler’s extermination centre at Dachau many years ago.  How any human could possibly take the life of another has always escaped me.  And what are the ongoing effects on Cambodia?  Anyone over the age of 31 must be permanently effected.  As well as the dead there are the maimed and those harmed psychologically.  Every Cambodian family bears the scars of this period.

Another stark reminder are the two beggars, both missing one leg, standing outside the entrance with caps held out.  Both are victims of Cambodia’s land-mines, many of which still remain.

If you would like to see/read more about this horrible part of Cambodia’s history, visit their website at the following link:

http://www.cekillingfield.com/

 

Top 10 Things to do in Thailand

Planning a trip to Thailand?

Not sure what to do?

Based on our experiences at the start of 2012, here are our Top 10……

Top 10 Things to do in Thailand (no particular order)                    

1.   Overnight sleeper train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai

 

2.   Trekking with the hill-tribe people from Chiang Mai

 

3.   Tigers at Tiger Temple (3 hours out of Bangkok) or Tiger Kingdom (Chiang Mai)

 

 

 

4.   Elephant rides                                                                           

5.   Islands and beaches

6.   Long neck tribe

7.   Bridge on the River Kwai

8.   Khao San Road area, Bangkok, for trips, souvenirs, atmosphere

9.   The river ferries of Bangkok

10.  Floating markets

 

 

 

Have we missed something?

 

 

What would you have on your list?  Pai?  Full Moon Party?  Half Moon Party?  Border crossings?

 

 

Want to read more?  Click on the following link to read the article!

Top 10 Things to do in Thailand

 

Floating Village Siem Reap, Cambodia – VIDEO

Wow, what an amazing experience!

There were various package deals going out to the Chong Khneas floating village near Siem Reap but we decided to do it alone.  We booked a tuk tuk for the return journey for $8.  It’s about 15kms out to the village along a quaint road with lots of sights along the way: lotus crops, huts, stores and people going about their daily activities.  Our private boat was another $15 each for about 2 hours.  We would have happily shared our boat and private guide (Shopal) with others because it had enough seats for about 16!  With water levels low, (less than 2 metres when it can be over 10 metres) our first sight of the rather dirty canal was somewhat disappointing.  But it got better!

At the end of the canal, when we hit the Tonle Sap Lake, the water quality improved, as did the views.  There were many hand-built floating homes and other buildings.  Shopal explained that most people would rather live on the land, but living in a floating home is free.  He had grown up in one of the villages and while it’s great when it’s calm, he said that at times it was quite scary when storms and torrential rain hit.  Shopal had lost an uncle and two cousins in a boating accident.  Many lives are lost over time.

There was a Vitnamese section and a Cambodian section.  Also in the mix was a store with lots of supplies, a school/orphanage, a floating basketball court, a mosque and a Catholic church.  Some of the homes were quite flash while others were dangerously flimsy.  The ones with kids all seemed to have protective wire mesh surrounding them to prevent them (hopefully!) from falling into the water, but the villagers seemed more than happy to let extremely young kids out on the water in boats.  We saw kids as young as four paddling boats with their two year-old siblings on board!!

We stopped off three times on our tour: at two stores and at the school/orphanage.  When we arrived at the first store we were met by a flotilla of small boats, many carrying small kids with gigantic snakes wrapped around their necks!  They were seeking, and often getting, $1 for photo opportunities.  The whingy “one dollar, one dollar” cry grated after a while, but we donated.  At the store, as well as  the usual basic supplies and souvenirs for the tourists, there were two enclosures.  One was teaming with catfish and the other was packed with crocodiles, which became a bit willing when the fish were thrown in.  One Japanese lady freaked out at the crocodile enclosure when one of the snake-wielding children crept up behind her!

At the second store you had the option of buying food supplies to donate to the school/orphanage. The store was staffed by one of the teachers, even though it was school holidays.  We donated a carton of noodles from the store and a bag of pens we had bought back in Siem Reap.  The school visit was great.  The building was partially enclosed to avoid losing kids in the water.  However, they had to jump half a metre from one boat to another and many hung over the edge playing in the water.   Of the 316 kids, over 50 are orphans.  They were all pleased to see us!  In spite of all the visitors and donors the school seemed genuinely in need of more support.

We returned along the canal to our tuk tuk.  The kids washing, people fishing or shrimp-harvesting, seemed unfazed by the water quality.

We saw some awe-inspiring sights.  Highly recommended.

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