Where are there less tourists?

I’m participating in a lot of online social media groups about traveling through southeast Asia and the thing I’ve found most interesting is how many people post that they are looking for somewhere with no / fewer tourists.  I find it funny because we are tourists – and we’re chatting in groups explicitly designed for touring / traveling.

That question though – ‘where can I go where there are less tourists?’ – got me thinking.  What’s the real question they are asking here?  Does it mean they are looking to live more like the locals, or for cities that aren’t busy, or to have room to breathe, or just to ensure that they aren’t the target of tourist scams – of which there are MANY any where that tourists tend to congregate!

The people in these groups are lucky – we have the freedom, resources and sense of adventure to pick up and leave our homes for a period of time to see another part of the world.  But we’re all different, even in this group.

As I thought about this question, this popped into my head.

Image result for the bell curveThe bell curve is the typical representation of a distribution of perspectives.  Some people want to be the first to try something, to see things that others haven’t.  Some people don’t care if they ever see it.  And most people fall somewhere in the middle.

I’m in Thailand right now and it’s why Phuket is super busy while Chiang Rai is less so.

When I visited Peru a few years ago, we were following what the locals called the ‘Gringo trail‘ – the journey that most tourists make through the mountains of Peru.  I’m glad I followed it too – it was beautiful and we met some lovely people.  It made sense for us because we had a short period of time and a few major things that we wanted to see.

I’m not sure exactly sure where I fall on this bell curve – I’m certainly not on the far right, though I’m also not on the very far left either.  I picked up and headed out for a while but also have my life to come back to in a couple of months.  I’ve stayed in cities and done the tourist things like seeing the Royal Palace in Bangkok, though we’ve also rented scooters and planned our own itineraries.  I like this mix.

On this journey, I’ve met lots of different people, all looking for very different things.  Everyone I’ve spoken to has had a very different story – unique to them, and what they’ve shared with me was only the tip of their iceberg.  I’ve met the people looking to share experiences with other tourists, to take tours, to see the beaten path – and I’ve met people who are looking for the exact opposite.  I’ve liked them all for different reasons.

It’s an interesting question to ask in many areas of our lives – are you looking for the places where the tourists are already congregating, or to build your own path?

Winning the lottery

Travel is a reminder of how lucky I am to have been born somewhere where I learned to speak English. I know that English is commonly used in business and tourism throughout the world, though it’s still always a bit of a surprise to arrive somewhere so far from home and find it so readily.

I certainly don’t think the language is superior to any others. It’s more like firsthand experiencing the history of the British Empire.

That bloody legacy means speaking English today is kind of like winning the lottery – a chance of fate that can change your fortunes.

The Elephant Nature Park program I participated in was run in English – the other people alongside me were from Argentina, Spain, Germany and the United States. Our common language was English. The Argentinian and I spoke French together. The Spanish and Argentinian spoke Spanish, and the tour guide and the mahouts spoke in Thai despite it being both of their second languages – the guide was from a hill tribe in Thailand, and the mahouts were from Myanmar.

Sharing of many languages is such a rich experience.

The guide told me a bit of his story – not in a consistent narrative, though this is what I managed to put together from the tidbits. He grew up in a tribe in the jungle and his parents decided to split up. He didn’t tell me why, though indicated that it significantly affected his life. As the eldest, he took his siblings to the city (Chiang Mai) so that he could learn English and earn money to send his sister to school. He had studied as Buddhist monk to learn English, Muay Thai boxed competitively, worked as a trekking guide, and had found his way to the Elephant Nature Park 3 months ago to work there as a guide. He said that his grandfather had used elephants in teak logging and he thought that the practice was cruel – he wanted to make amends for the history of his family.

This very young man (23) had found every way to learn English so that he could take care of his family. He had no access to resources, didn’t own a phone, and had no formal education, though had many life skills – and most importantly, resilience and the belief that he could figure it out. I really admired this young man’s tenacity. It just goes to show what you can accomplish when you set your mind to it. His goal was send his sister to school, study English overseas for a year and then head back to his tribe, where he said ‘you don’t need money to survive’.

Yes, just skills. Many skills.

This experience reminded me of two things:

1. Everything is figureoutable.

2. Diversity and language are so important. I hope my home province of New Brunswick becomes ever more accepting of French as our official second language. It’s a beautiful thing to travel the world and communicate in more than 1 language, and I’m able to do that based on where I was born and the decisions my parents made.

While I may never win an actual lottery (mostly because I never buy tickets), it’s been a great reminder not to waste the lottery I already won.

A little dash of magic

Elephant Nature Park is the most recommended of the elephant sanctuaries in Northern Thailand and I can see why.

Yesterday, I had the chance to hang out with 3 elephants that the park purchased from various trades – teak logging, being ridden by tourists, forced breeding and performing in circuses or night markets. The program I participated in was designed to help recently arrived elephants acclimate and learn to trust that humans didn’t have to be the source of pain and suffering. The 3 we hung out with were all around 40 and had been purchased for around 1 million THB (around $40,000 CAD) by the park in 2014 to lead a gentler life.

These 3 beauties – 2 females and a male – all had physical scars. In asking our guide how the park could tell what type of activities the elephants had been involved in, he pointed out some signs. They all had scars on their legs from teak logging, one had scars on her head made by hooks from being ridden, and two of the ones we saw later while walking through the park were blinds from the lights of performing for many years in night markets and shows. The male elephant had his tusks almost completely broken from teak logging. (I made a vow to myself that I will never buy anything teak)

I heard a lot of people say things about elephant sanctuaries before I went like “oh well, they’re just branding it as a sanctuary so that tourists go”, or “is it really any better”?

Intention matters a lot in these questions. It’s easy to be cynical – to assume that no one could possibly have good intentions or that there’s no point in pushing for better because bad will always be there. For me, that’s kind of like saying there’s no need to shower because at some point I’m going to get dirty again. It’s not going to get you any where except somewhere you probably don’t want to go.

The majority of the elephants in the park (around 70) were stolen as babies, tied in the forest and tortured until their ‘spirits were broken’ – until they learned to obey a human master. I don’t know about you but even thinking about this for me is such a difficult thought. (Google this for yourself, though be aware that it’s difficult to watch)

The elephants had mahouts – one man per elephant or per group of elephants in some cases. I wanted that to not be necessary, though I understand that these animals had spent most of their life in such an arrangement and were learning how to transition to another way of life. The mahouts were mostly gentle, though firm in their tone and ensured that we moved out of the way if one of the elephants were moving quickly (they could definitely easily run us over without even necessarily seeing us – definitely had to pay attention!). The mahouts for the two females hung back and relaxed, and the one for the male was a bit more involved and they asked us not touch him.

The founder of the park, Lek Chailert (bio from their site here), wanted to make change. Making change is hard and it’s never perfect. The park has to buy these elephants and help them transition to a different life. To do that, they invite tourists in to volunteer with them. I’m okay with paying for this experience because my money will go towards their facilities, food for the elephants, hiring guides and mahouts. I’m okay with paying a small amount to give these beautiful animals a different life.

The park is an example of what can happen when one person says, okay, I’ll take the risk – I’ll take the risk to start this and hope that others will want to help. And it’s working – we saw 2 baby elephants whose ‘spirits had not been broken’ – who were loved and cared for by a group of older female elephants purchased by the park.

The one you see to the left was partially blind and kept her trunk out regularly making sure the baby was close by. And that baby looked like he was having quite a lot of fun.

This is one of 2 males that were in an enclosure we couldn’t enter. They also never had their spirits broken, so the goal is to help them learn how to survive before they are released into the wild.

I’m hoping for a time when places like this are no longer needed. But for today, they are needed and I’m truly grateful to have spent a day here. I‘m hoping that we continue to move toward a time when markets are more ethical, when we truly take into consideration the full cost of what we are consuming. As one of my favourites would say, ‘the struggle to create experiences that are worth paying for, that’s just the beginning’.

Elephant Nature Park was sprinkled with a little bit of magic. If you ever have a chance, GO.

On the left is a blind female elephant, I think somewhere in her 30s (we’re around the same age) who had been blinded by performing at night markets, and her friend to the right who had her leg severely broken during teak logging and was quite ill (in her 50s). They got to hang out together every day and the elephant on the right helped the blind one in finding her way around. The man in the middle was the mahout who worked with them.

And if you’re looking for a dog, they have over 400 looking for a forever home.

‘Weinstein, yeah, he’s probably a nice guy’

As heard by a man in his sixties on a patio at a hostel in Northern Thailand – an American who retired there, I discovered, after briefly chatting with him the night before.

As I overheard his commentary on Harvey Weinstein, I was working on something at a table nearby and despite my gigantic urge to weigh in, I chose not to – I figured where exactly would it get me? I’ve tried having these types of conversations before – with men who think that women should just calm down and basically ignore all of the double standards, power plays, indignities, assaults. Just quiet down because…. because of art, status quo, and well, it usually goes back to – ‘what about the men?’

Perhaps this guy identified in some way with Mr. Weinstein because his next subject of conversation was about a 25-year old Thai woman who was ‘playing shy’ after they had gone out the night before.

I don’t know too many (read: ANY) women who would make a statement about Weinstein probably being a nice guy. Most of us have experienced some version of the guy and his behaviour – sexism, misogyny, assault or normalization of women as second-class citizens – that we simply believe. I know I’ve been waiting for the day when the conversations would change – one of the items on my bucket list is to see women and men have equity in all spheres of life. Ellen Page said it well in her recent Facebook post: ‘this is a long-awaited reckoning’.

I believe the stories about Weinstein because as Maya Angelou (that sage of all sages!) wrote, ‘at the end of the day, people won’t remember what you said or did, people will remember how you made them feel’.

I know loads of men that I would put in the category of ‘nice guys’. Despite never meeting him, Harvey Weinstein wouldn’t be one of them. What a trail of disgrace and bad behaviour he left behind – and how many voices have we not yet heard about this one man? What about the many, many others?

Harvey Weinstein is just one of many power-hungry men who was able to act the way he did because of power dynamics – because people accepted the status quo, because they felt like they had no other choice. Thankfully power dynamics are finally shifting. My hope is that this reckoning leads to the amplification of the voices that we haven’t heard.

And to the man on the patio in Northern Thailand, I hope someone shows you ‘The Rock Test’.

Stay noisy, my friends.

Sharing food

Eating together is the most human way I can think of to make new friends. Cooking together may be even more fun than just eating together.

A few nights ago I did a cooking class at the Asia Scenic Cooking School in Chiang Mai. We learned how to cook a few delicious Thai dishes and got to share many laughs in the process.

My favourite part of the whole evening was learning that the business was wholly owned by Thai women.

We started off getting a tour of their organic garden in the middle of the city where they grew everything from basil to bananas to keffir limes.

Our host for the evening then showed us the local market and the type of things the locals buy and how they discern quality.

The first thing we got to make was miang kham – betel leaves filled with delicious goodies like shallots, limes and an amazing syrup.  So fresh.

Next up: pad thai, of course.  With emotion.

Followed by making our own curry pastes!

With a brief interlude for spring rolls before diving full into the curry preparation.

And to cap it off – mango sticky rice for dessert.  What more could one want?  Half of that rice is dyed blue with a naturally occurring dye.

We truly feasted like royalty.  I had such a fun 4 hours – laughing over food prep, coughing at spicy food and sharing stories from our travels. A great reminder to cook more with friends when I get home.  I’m truly so thankful for this experience.

Lush

Being away from home helps you recognize just how lucky you are.

I’m so lucky to live in beautiful little Fredericton, NB – perhaps one of the cleanest cities around. It’s lush in the summer, on a river with fantastic tributaries and overall, a safe, friendly community.

Us Frederictonians like to complain about certain things like the lack of a great public transit system or the traffic on the bridge in the morning, but the truth is that we’re so lucky. We can certainly do better in some ways, which is important – it’s motivating to always be striving for improvement.

I’ve spent the last 2 days scootering around the mountains in northern Thailand. The countryside is so lush compared to the cities of blistering heat. And it smells so much better. If I was to spend a lot of time here, I’d want to be in the countryside – though most Thai leave the country for the bustle of the cities. I understand that desire – the lure of opportunity, and I have to say – almost everyone here seems to be an entrepreneur of some sort.

The truth is that I’ve far more enjoyed my time in Thailand away from the cities, which are so hot and hectic, cobbled together and a little on the smelly side. It’s so lush and beautiful away from the bustle, which somehow makes me appreciate the lushness of my own home just a little bit more.

The life-changing magic of tidying up

Marie Kondo got it right. Tidying up is life changing – it helps focus both thoughts and actions. I ‘konmari’d in February after reading her book by that title. My thoughts felt clearer after my home had only the things that sparked joy – I began working more intently on my goals.

I took the philosophy into packing for my multi-month adventure. This fantastic 28-L pack is my home for the next few months – everything in it is organized by stuff sacks and while I tried to bring only the bare minimum, I think still brought a few too many things (konmari is still a work in progress for me).

I knew I wanted to build the practice of writing every day and my partner found this great portable Zagg keyboard on Kijiji for $15. It’s the ultimate in compact computing – just enough.

Just enough is liberating.