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imageWhen I booked my trip and started reading up on Thailand and all the places I wanted to go, Pai was a name that came up again and again. I remember saying to friends after just reading up that Pai was somewhere that sounded like heaven to me – high up in the mountains, surrounded by hot springs and waterfalls, full of hippies and great places to eat. Perfect. This was part of the reason I decided to leave it until the end of my time in Thailand – as a treat because I was so certain I would be leaving on a high. It was a good decision, and just as I expected, I ended up staying longer than planned. A week in fact, instead of the four days I had booked. I could have easily stayed longer, but I knew if I did that I would still be there two years later. It was such an easy way of life to slip into, I was so happy there and met such amazing, interesting people. You simply cannot compare any other part of Thailand to Pai, anyone who doesn’t make a stop there is seriously missing out on a completely different experience to the rest. Trust me.imageI booked in for a few days at Pai Circus School, which instead of sitting down in the town, sits high up on the mountainside overlooking Pai. For those who don’t know, Pai sits high in northern Thailand and in the centre of a stunning mountain valley. Surrounded by towering mountains, the valley is sheltered from the storms, but high up on the hill you are completely exposed. We watched some beauties – the first real weather I had seen in months – rolling in over the mountains during the afternoons and at night. Spectacular to say the least! Circus School is run by an English company who expands to Thailand and now welcome backpackers – mostly English – to their stunning grounds for a break, a chance to release their inner hippy and learn some badass circus skills. I won’t llie, the facilities are basic, I booked a bungalow at 300 baht a night while dorm beds were 200 – at this point I couldn’t bear sleeping in another dorm for a while, needing a good night’s kip. I had my own double bed, fan and mosquito net, plus shared bathrooms and toilets at the bottom of the hill – it might have been basic but I loved it and had everything I needed. There was also a pool and a chance to learn circus skills, trampoline or play games. It was such a social place and many of those staying in town came to hang out in the day.imageI would really recommend booking in before you arrive to be on the safe side, although I know plenty who didn’t, just so you don’t miss out when it does get busy. I would also recommend that everyone stays there for at least a couple of nights – even if you then move down to the town after. Staying there is such an experience, you meet so many people and I can guarantee some serious fun! Plus you get to hang out by the pool all day! I loved it there and would definitely go back. I would also recommend going to the canyon while you are in Pai – sunset is the best time and it is really beautiful to walk around. The landscape in this part of Thailand is remarkable. I wanted to go to the hot springs but never got round to it – they are awesome by all accounts just make sure you don’t pay 300 but as there is a cheaper 80 bht one across the road that is just as good apparently! If you are staying at circus school – take advantage of learning circus skills – it’s so much fun! I was trying my hand at Poi (fire dancing), slackline and hula hooping. It was so much fun and although I didn’t have enough time to progress much, others did really well! You can also pay a small sum to have private tuition from the experts there who will coach you through it. imagePai was lovely because it was the first place in a while that was completely undemanding on my time. As you can gather from my blog, I’ve been a busy girl up to this point and haven’t missed any opportunities to get involved and go full throttle, so it was nice to relax and indulge a bit for a few days. Sometimes you just need a break from travelling! I spent the week hanging out with two fabulous girls I met in Chiang Mai (and who I ended up travelling the whole of Laos with) plus some others we met at circus school, it was so much fun. We spent our days chilling by the pool, practicing our mad circus skills and eating some of the many delicious foods on offer in the town. It was a really beautiful place to just relax and spend time with people. Our gang had plenty of time to swim, chat, laugh and even hold our own art classes for fun, we played cards at sunset, went for street food and cocktails, shopped and then held hut parties with cheap booze, drinking games and silliness. If was the best and well deserved after a week of volunteering and a hill tribe trekking tour! imageOne of the biggest attractions to Pai was the food – which came at the perfect time. I had spent pretty much the whole three months in Thailand eating Thai food for breakfast, lunch and dinner so I was getting sick of it by then. I had some mad cravings for salad, pasta, smoked salmon, pitta, hummus, and various other delicious foods – western foods. Pai didn’t disappoint – it actually had the best selection of food choices I have seen in any part of Thailand so far. My favourite restaurants were Ohm Garden – holy cow it was amazing and used all the best, freshest ingredients for salads, shakes, vegetarian food and sensational breakfasts. To put it in context – this restaurant was the furthest away from circus school, and meant walking down then up the mountain to get back in blistering heat – but we made that trip pretty much every single day because it was so worth it! Witching Well was also amazing and even served apple pie with cream for dessert, plus there was a great Thai place further along the street. I also ate a delicious Greek dish at another restaurant – you would be hard pushed to find bad food here! imageDefinitely make sure you eat at the night market a few times as the food is freshly prepared and delicious there also, then head to some of the bars. Yellow Bar was usually busy earlier and fun, then head to Why Not? and Don’t Cry for a bit of dancing, music and more booze. Everyone ends up at these bars and they are a lot of fun! There’s plenty of others which are quirky and offer live music including jazz – I went to two but don’t know what their names were – both were great with a fun atmosphere and lush music. Spirit Bar was fabulous, such a cool hidden bar but sadly it never really got that busy with the right crowd and the live music was pretty naff. For something a bit wonkier, head to Sunset Bar which has a lovely atmosphere, friendly people and is really comfy for hanging out – it is a bit of a trek so get a scooter there then walk back. Bamboo Bar is one they try to drag you to for a rave but the party never happens, although I did find the cutest dog in the world to play wth there! Whatever you do in Pai – be safe, have fun and enjoy! It’s one of my favourite places in Thailand as many travellers say – take care of it and don’t let it get ruined.

Have you been to Pai? What did you think? Did you stay at circus school? 

Ab Lucy sign off

imageBefore discovering my love of journalism and writing could actually lead to a career, I had planned to become a teacher. An English teacher to be precise. When I went to university to study English literature with language and communication, that is what I wanted to do when I finished. I loved the idea of becoming that teacher who really inspires you, I was lucky enough to have a few like this who really spurred me on and inspired my love of learning from the very beginning to my last days in education. With two parents who both ended up working as lecturers in healthcare at a university and college near where I live, it seemed inevitable that I would inherit some of their teacher ways.

But I have to be honest, there was one thing in the back of my mind that put me off the idea of teaching, something that became a pet peeve of mine throughout later education – it was the attitude of students in the UK. Now don’t get me wrong, I know there are many wonderful students out there who are eager to learn and develop. I also know there are many incredible teachers out there, some of them are friends of mine who stuck it out and are now working in schools across the country. But there are two factors in the UK that seem to be putting an extortionate amount of pressure on both sides, preventing them from being the best they can be and in some cases, stopping them from loving their job or learning.imageMy concern lies with the government who are putting such ridiculous pressure and demands on teachers that they barely have time to notice when there are concerns over wellbeing of their students. The sheer amount of paperwork and time spent on fulfilling guidelines means often, as I have heard from some teachers firsthand, they don’t feel they are doing their jobs properly and are sometimes expected to lie in order to fulfil certain criteria. It is ridiculous and I can’t imagine I would cope well with such pressure, I have huge admiration for those who do on a daily basis.

The other big issue lies with the sense of entitlement in the UK – it really hit me when I came away and met so many people from various countries. I realised how much more dedicated they seem as students – how the majority of people I have met speak three or more languages fluently while most English people I meet seem to have only mastered English in their 18 years of education. How some people have gone to such lengths to achieve an education – like the Vietnamese woman who searched at length to find a scholarship programme so she could study in America for her PHD, studying in a different language, culture and on a new continent to become a doctor. It’s inspiring to meet such people out here, but I can’t help but feel a bit embarrassed when you think of the naughty students at home who used to disrupt the classroom and refuse to learn, who don’t see the value in learning languages or maths and don’t think past finishing school.imageWhile staying at Elephant Nature Park, we were asked to take part in an education programme run by the sanctuary by giving a morning up to go to the local school and teach English. The Park is very involved in the local villages as many of the men and women work at the Park and staff there make sure their children are sent to school, it’s not just about the elephants – it’s about ensuring a better way of life and a future for all involved. I jumped at the opportunity – teaching English abroad is something I’ve wanted to do for a while after knowing so many who have raved about the experience and how amazing it was. I chose a day in the middle of the week and was really looking forward to it. On the day, four of us volunteers headed out on a minibus to the village school where we were welcomed by the headteacher who was warm and friendly.

The school was a bit of a building site with construction ongoing in the middle, but the classrooms were laid out around a giant courtyard, they were bright and colourful. A quick decision was made, we would be spread across three classrooms and I was thrilled to have a class all to myself – I would be teaching students ranging from five to 18-years-old with the help of a local teacher who spoke minimal English. I love being thrown in at the deep end so this suited me perfectly, after checking out their workbooks for a clue of where they were up to in their studies, and after meeting the adorable, giggling students, I was ready to start. We ran through simple concepts they already knew slightly such as colours, foods, verbs, basic phrases and conversation, and had a good sing-song ones like head, shoulder, knees and toes, twinkle twinkle little star, the alphabet song and a few others. I was really impressed with what they already knew, it suggested their ability was much higher than I had anticipated which was great. The older and more fluent speakers were helping the younger ones to understand which meant we worked well together as a group and gave me the chance to try some trickier stuff with them later on.imageI had the most amazing time with the children that morning and felt like we were making so much progress that I couldn’t resist staying for the afternoon when the other volunteers went back to the Park. After a lunchtime spent meeting the other children at the school, joining in a jam session with them, playing ping pong and chatting to the young girls, we were ready for round two. The classrooms were a lot stuffier in the heat of the day and you could tell the children were getting tired, but that didn’t stop them for a second in their determination to learn and impress me. It was lovely to see how dedicated they were when I know full well that children in the UK would have been far more disruptive in the heat.

That afternoon we covered past, present and future tenses, complex phrases, adverbs and more conversation. We also worked on longer passages, firstly for pronunciation and then for meaning of longer and more unusual words. We translated a piece about a science experiment using rockets and worked on the hardest piece of the day – discussing a passage about April Fool’s Day. Trust me, that is a hard enough concept to explain in English and it was nearly impossible to non-native speakers! But we got there in the end and I was so proud to see how well the children did – they picked up so much and helped each other to understand which was amazing. It actually mad me think that teaching English abroad might be something I would like to  try for a while in the future.imageIf you get an opportunity to go into a school while travelling and teach – whether English, music, maths or something else, snatch it with both hands. Even if you don’t think you have the knowledge to do it, they can learn so much from you and it is such a rewarding experience. Often you don’t need to have done a TEFL course and village schools will just have signs up asking for volunteers to come in, ask at your hostel and read notices. A friend of mine spotted a notice asking for those who can play musical instruments to come into a music course and help teach, he could play the guitar and jumped at the chance. Afterwards he said it was one of the best afternoons he has had travelling, that it was so much fun and they were wonderful students. It’s a great way to give something back and if you choose to do the TEFL course, it’s a great way to earn money while travelling.

Have you taught English while travelling? Tell me about your experiences and whether you would recommend doing it to others.

Ab Lucy sign off

imageI’m so happy to hear how much you guys have been enjoying my elephant-themed posts this week – it’s been such a highlight of my trip to become a part of the work at Elephant Nature Park and I’m glad to know reading the posts have been a highlight for you. I really hope that by reading my posts on the background of elephants in the tourism trade has helped to teach you something, and that you enjoyed the interview with founder Lek Chailert. This post is something that has been requested over and over again by friends, readers and travellers met have met along the way – this one will focus on my time spent as a volunteer at the sanctuary. I spent a week volunteering at the centre in Chiang Mai back IIn the middle of March and to say it was life-changing would be an understatement. I know so many people who would love to have the same experience but worry it is not worth the money you have to pay to get there. Well I’m here to put any questions and worries to rest, to assure you that including a volunteering placement in your travels is one of the best decisions you could possible make.imageAlong with around 70 other weekly volunteers, I was picked up from my hostel in the city and taken straight to the charity’s office where we paid the balance of the placement, picked up our t-shirts and water bottles, and met some of the other volunteers. Once loaded on to the buses, we were shown a brief video giving us some background on the Park and the work that goes on there, along with a quick chat from the guide. When we arrived at the Elephant Nature Park, we were taken straight out on a tour of the property, given a talk on what work goes on there, the history and the plans for the future. We were given a talk on safety and good practice around the elephants, plus an outline of our jobs over the next few days. After a delicious and huge vegetarian buffet lunch, we were moved into our dorm rooms which held three people each and were right next to the elephant shelters where the creatures would sleep at night. To say we were all excited was an understatement. Later that afternoon we got to watch the elephants being bathed and fed, and spent some time unloading huge trucks full of melons – one of the funniest jobs as we ended up making up songs and turning it into a game/competition. That first night we were invited to a special welcome ceremony in which we were blessed by the local village elders and a priest who gave us blessing bracelets for good luck and safety. After a delicious dinner, we all headed to bed so we would be ready for our 7am start.imageimageThe early start didn’t agree with most but I actually had the best night’s sleep I’d had in ages and woke up feeling refreshed and excited for what lay ahead. Surprising considering we had all been woken up at 5am by the elephants in the shelter behind our dorm when one had a bad dream and started trumpeting, but the others soon calmed her down. It was amazing to be sleeping so close to these stunning creatures, and even more amazing to have them walking around just metres from where we ate all of our meals. I’ve heard some volunteers complain about the lack of time spent with the elephants but I have no idea where they could have got that from, we’re with them constantly from the time we wake up to the time we go to sleep. After breakfast, Team C were taken off to the fields a bit further away from the sanctuary where we would spend the first morning on the hardest job of them all – corn cutting!  We were given machetes and were told to cut down the corn, arrange it in piles and once it had been bundled, to carry it to the truck. It wasn’t an easy job, but it wasn’t as bad as we expected. Our group was amazing and we really worked together and put all of our energy into it, we had the job done quicker than any other group and celebrated with a picnic and a ride back on top of the corn before getting to spend an afternoon tubing on the river that ran alongside the Park. We also took the opportunity to help bathe the elephants in the river afterwards which was just lovely to be so close to them and to play in the water with them.imageIt was a pretty awesome first day and we were all riding high until we headed to the communal areas that evening to watch a film put on by the staff. It was one of the most devastating and shocking things I have ever watched and within minutes most of the room had tears running down their faces. I’m not normally a very emotional person, but I was a wreck watching that video. It was all about the elephants that are kept at the park, the situations they have come from and various other horrifying stories that Lek herself has caught on film of witnessed. It was one of those things you have to watch, you learn so much from it, but it absolutely breaks your heart. Dinner afterwards was a sober and quiet affair as everyone mulled over what we had seen, it definitely brought the group closer together and unified us in our anger and pain over what we had seen. It was a wonderful experience to be surrounded by individuals as passionate about this cause as myself. I couldn’t sleep that night, I think after the video I just had too much on my mind but soon enough the sun hit the window and it was time to start all over again. For that second day of work I was helping to clean up the park by clearing the leftover food from the fields – this was one of my favourite jobs because it gave you the chance to watch the elephants in the park just acting naturally, unbothered by us they played and ate as they would in the wild. Some of the babies were a little boisterous and decided they wanted to climb into our van which gave the girls a bit of a shock as the whole thing started to rock with just a coup,e of them left inside. Again, our job was completed quickly and we had plefty of free time to help out with dog walking, to write in our travel journals and to watch the elephants around the park.imageAfter lunch, we headed out on an elephant walk in which our team leader took us out around the elephant sanctuary to meet the elephants and to hear their stories firsthand. I mentioned a few in the earlier posts that were particularly devastating but there were loads who had back legs, bad backs and were blind from bad treatment, one elephant had a severely broken hip she had learnt to deal with over time, it had been caused by a horny bull in a forced breeding programme and now, years later she still cannot walk properly. We had the chance to see the baby elephants in action, and playful they are! With a very protective family including an adopted nanny, you have to be careful not to spook the animals because despite us being far across the field from them, she became anxious and charged at us. It was pretty crazy, we had to sprint across the field out of the oath of this stampeding elephant, half of us lost our flip flops and another girl ended up falling face first in the mud, a pretty dramatic day in all! We rounded off the afternoon by playing with the lonely dogs in the dog shelter at the park, where they have over 400 dogs needing homes. Then that night, we had a Thai culture lesson which was brilliant, our guides taught us about the history and customs of Thailand, about the language and the Chang Chang Chang elephant song! imageMy next job was elephant food – unloading trucks of melons and pumpkins then washing and helping prepare the food for the elephants, particularly for those with special dietary requirements. This was hard work because these elephants go through so many melons it’s unreal – trucks carrying four tonnes of melons roll in daily and need to be prepared. But once again, team C smashed it, made it fun and were done in no time thanks to a cracking playlist provided by our team leader who seemed to have a fondness for Avril Lavigne. In the afternoon, we spent our time helping to wash down shelters and having water fights as we prepared the elephant’s bedrooms for the evening. After dinner, we finally got to meet the woman behind it all, Lek gave a special talk and presentation with another horrifying film for us to watch. This one was even more harrowing than the last and I’m not ashamed to say I was a blubbering mess. Everyone in the room was left shell shocked but insanely inspired after hearing first hand from this tiny woman all that she had achieved and overcome to reach this point and how she had never let herself become disheartened by the terrible things she witnessed but used her anger to fuel her work. Meeting someone so inspiring was one of the best moments of my trip and I left on a high despite the sad things we saw that night.imageThe next day passed in a blur of preparing elephant food, watching the elephants be fed and joining in, bathing them and generally loving life. It would be so easy to have stayed and to live that life every single day. So simple, but so rewarding, I woke up every morning raring to go and finished each day with a heart full of happiness at what we were doing there. That final night at the Park, they organised a special Northern Thai meal with special foods and fabulous entertainment from the local schoolchildren I had been teaching just days before – they all danced for us in traditional costume which was wonderful. It was so sweet, they all recognised me from the school, and came over to say hello – more on my teaching experience in my next post. We had a brilliant last night together and prepared for some really sad goodbyes the next day – in such a short space of time we had become a little family. The next morning, we took to our final jobs of clearing elephant poo – which was definitely not as bad or as smelly as it sounds. Then we headed back to Chiang Mai where I spent the night at a hostel with some girls from the Park and a larger group of us met up to shop, eat and drink cocktails at the local market. It was a perfect end to one of the best weeks of my life.

If you are thinking about volunteering at Elephant Nature Park but aren’t quite sure, or are worried the money of it will cut into your backpacking budget. Don’t worry for a second longer. I can honestly say that it was one of the most amazing and rewarding experiences of my life and that it will stay firmly in my heart forever. Both the people I met and the things that I ddid and saw have changed my life and it has inspired me to do more to help by writing and sharing my experiences with others I meet along the way. Why go elephant trekking or riding when you can experience these creatures in a natural state – unharmed and unafraid – see how they behave when they are happy and safe. Spend money and know that it is going back in to helping to save other elephants from the tourism trade, from abuse and cruelty rather than the back pockets of cruel people who harm elephants. Spend your money wisely and it could be the best experience you have travelling like it has been for me so far.

Ab Lucy sign off

imageSince volunteering at the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand, it has become a regular topic of conversation with friends, family, fellow travellers and complete strangers. Everyone seems to have elephants on the brain and its little wonder why, these majestic, intelligent and simply beautiful creatures seem to capture the hearts of most. Why? For me, it’s always been something in their eyes. Elephants seem to have eyes that tell a story, much like humans, you can tell there is more going on in their heads. That they think and feel in similar ways to us – whether you agree of. It is another matter, but I’ve always felt that elephants have a lot in common with humans which is why it has always broken my heart to hear about cases of poaching and animal cruelty. The more I read about it all, the more it tore me apart to know that such amazing creatures could be so brutally targeted by my own species. Sad how you can feel so ashamed of your own kind at times, but I guess some brains are just wired differently.

Something that has come up again and again in conversations are the same questions about how to know if elephants are being treated cruelly, what is cruel treatment, whether elephant riding is okay and so on… Of course I answered all of these as best I could after learning so much firsthand at the sanctuary, but the journalist in me couldn’t resist talking to the expert about it all. Lek Chailert is the founder of Elephant Nature Park, and during my week long volunteering at the centre I was lucky enough to meet her and to sit in on a talk she gave about her experiences, her work, Elephant Nature Park, elephant cruelty and tourism, and the future. It was simultaneously fascinating and devastating – within seconds she had the whole room captivated, and in less than five minutes she had the whole room in tears. I have never met anyone so passionate and true to her cause, and I have never felt so inspired by a single person. Lek has achieved so much in the face of great cruelty and adversity, she has never given up on her mission and remains stronger than ever and full of determination to make her dream of freedom for elephants a reality.

A week of volunteering left me desperate to do more and help in any way I can, and my best way of doing this is to write, to photograph, to interview and to share all of this with all of you. I know I have many friends and followers who are big supporters of the volunteering programme, who love elephants and are strongly against animal cruelty, so I thought it would be great to share my interview with Lek on here so that you can all hear firsthand from her of the reasons behind her work. By hearing exactly what is involved in domesticating elephants, you can make a decision for yourself about whether you really want to ride an elephant or participate in elephant tourism. As Lek says herself in the interview, the most important thing is educating people on why it is wrong. I hope very much that you are finding my elephant-themed week on the blog informative and interesting, I hope that you too will feel inspired to help by sharing this post with your friends, family and social media followers – you could be helping to save an elephant out there from being subjected to cruel treatment.

Check out the video below for my full interview with Lek Chailert. 

If you have any questions about Elephant Nature Park or the topics covered in this video, please do leave them below and I’ll do my best to answer. I have a final post in keeping with the elephant theme coming up this Friday – focusing on my time as a volunteer and what I thought of the experience.

Ab Lucy sign off

imageMy travels have been made up of several incredible, life changing experiences so far, but there is one that has stood out more than any other. The very second I booked my week volunteering at the Elephant Nature Park, almost a year before I went travelling, I knew it would be one of my highlights. Now, after I’ve completed the week, I look back and wonder how any other travelling experience could top it. In just seven days I learnt, saw, experienced so much, it changed my view of the world, gave me a new passion and inspired me to write and share it with you guys. I can’t thank the team at the Park enough for letting me be a small part of their mission, and I can’t thank all the other wonderful volunteers enough for sharing the experience with me and making it the best it could possibly be. After meeting other travellers along the way and talking to them about elephants used in tourism for riding, shows etc, after hearing about the misinformation they have been fed and believed, it shows that it is more important than ever to educate travellers, holiday makers, tourists, backpackers and everyone else on what is really going on beneath the surface of a booming industry in Thailand and across Asia.Before travelling to Asia, I had read and researched a lot about elephant treatment which influenced my decision to volunteer at ENP instead of any other centre.imageDuring my week there, I learnt far more than I ever did reading, I saw firsthand video footage of mistreatment and torture captured by the founder, Lek, and met elephants that had been rescued from such horrors and heard their stories, saw their wounds. Some had been rescued from logging and had terrible injuries including broken hips from forced breeding, others from tourist camps where they were forced to give rides until their backs broke or were seriously damaged, many were blind from where trainers had stabbed them in the eyes for not complying with orders, others suffered mental illnesses from the extreme torture they had been put through. One story that broke my heart was that of an elephant who was constantly trying to care for and take the baby of another, she was traumatised because her own baby had died. She was forced into logging on steep mountainsides, carrying huge trees and enormous weights every day while pregnant. One day, she went into labour up a hill and when her baby was born it fell down the hill, it died in the amniotic sac and she couldn’t save it. They say an elephant never forgets, well her heart won’t forget the child that was taken from her through this disgusting treatment and despite it happening years ago, she clearly still lives with that pain everyday.imageThe centre was founded by Lek, who has led a life fuelled by her passion and love for these amazing animals and has dedicated years to campaigning, researching and more. Finally it looks like some governments are starting to listen and take note, but it has been a long hard road for her and her team. The centre started over 20 years ago with just one elephant, Hope, who still lives there today and is the big man of the park, but now they have 44 elephants to take care of. These range from elephants aged one to 80 and all of them have special needs thanks to their injuries, all of them have specific diets and personalities which must be catered for. It is a hard and demanding job, but one of the most rewarding I have come across. One baby elephant at the park is a shining beacon of light for the others and those who work there, Navann is the only elephant at the park who has not gone through the traumatic and horrifying Phajann Ceremony to make them usable for tourism and trade. This means he is a lot more boisterous and cheeky than the rest, but it is lovely to see the freedom and happiness of an elephant who doesn’t hold this innate fear thanks to the ceremony.imageThis is something that needs to be clarified for all those who I have spoken to who try to justify elephant riding and tourism, the ones who say the elephants look well treated at that time. Every single elephant used in tourism, for trade or logging has been through a horrific process that can last a week, a month or even longer. The baby elephant is ripped from its mother when it is still immensely vulnerable and needs her care, it is taken away to the jungle where it will go through a process to break the animal’s spirit. It is tied up, beaten and terrified, then it is forced into a crush which does exactly what it says on the tin. It is barely big enough for the baby, crushes its body and removes any power and strength it had to move and free itself. It takes away all independence and scares the poor creature beyond anything you could imagine. For days, weeks or even months in some cases – as long as it takes – the creature is shouted at, stabbed with hooks, has pins and nails driven into its flesh, burnt on its head and legs. The elephants is deprived of food, drink and sleep until it conforms to certain behaviours, loses all fight through fear and will eventually perform tricks you seen in shows like elephant painting, climbing through hoops, dancing, elephant riding, the list goes on. Whether they look like they have no obvious injuries at the time doesn’t matter, by riding or partaking in these experiences you are funding and supporting years of mistreatment and an industry that still works on the basis of mistreatment.imageI’m not saying that those who have done this are awful people, I too have sat on an elephant, it is just a lack of education that makes us do this. People get caught up in the whole thing and forget to look past the initial excitement. When it comes down to it, most people I asked – just like me – found the elephant riding experience underwhelming and would prefer to have walked beside the beast to appreciate its full beauty. When you know what the ride is doing to the animal – because yes the weight is uncomfortable and can cause injuries for an elephant, especially when you consider that many of them already have bad backs from previous mistreatment and logging. And many of them are being hit by the mahouts, or have slingshots used on them while you are sat atop them, just because you don’t see it doesn’t mean then aren’t doing it. The mahouts know we tourists don’t like to see this treatment so they keep it out of sight, and out of our minds. But the problem is that we need to put it in people’s minds, at the forefront of their minds when they go travelling, on holiday or visit these exotic countries. Our responsibility to these animals doesn’t stop because we are on holiday and on a break from normal life. They are more important than ever.What can we do to help aid the work of Lek and the Elephant Nature Park? Share this post with your friends and family, make them understand what is behind the industry and educate them so they don’t support it. So many don’t know a lot of this information or have been fed misinformation, help me correct that and make a change.

How do you feel about elephant treatment in Thailand? Is it something you were aware of before reading this post? 

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imageAn extra post for you guys today because we’re celebrating! Huge news for those who haven’t seen on Facebook, Twitter or heard me shouting with excitement from the rooftops in Vietnam. On Friday night, AbsolutelyLucy.com won the highly commended award in the travel blogging section. My blog was shortlisted among ten or so, chosen out of around 30,000 thanks to your votes and support, and now has been named one of the best out of this incredible collection of  writers. To say I’m bowled over is an understatement. I’m completely overwhelmed by it because it had never actually entered my head for a second that I stood a chance against these other amazing blogs. I love my blog, you guys love it, but I didn’t realise that was enough to make these highly experienced judges feel the same way. It has been such a boost to know that you guys are enjoying my posts and pictures, that you love reading about my experiences as much as I love writing about them, so to know that industry professionals have enjoyed them also is amazing. I’m so proud to say that less than six months after I started travel blogging my blog is considered a success and worthy of note.

It is only a year and a half since I started out on this little venture,  as a lifestyle blogger, which at the time was more of a hobby than anything else. Now it has become a huge part of my life and I love it, every second of it. From capturing every moment – the food I eat, the things I see and do, the people I meet – I love thinking about how you will experience the world through my senses. To writing, expressing how I felt about a place and what I loved and my new passions that have formed along the way. And more than any of it, I love the interaction, when you guys say a post has touched you or meant something to you, when others say they are living vicariously through me and when I then inspire others to travel solo or to explore the places I have been. It is amazing, all of it, and I’m so grateful to those who inspired me to start blogging and to those who have encouraged me along the way. I’ve come a long way since I was Friday’s Girl, writing a weekly column in the local newspaper about my time at university – drunken nights out and all – but I hope you are enjoying my work more than ever before!

Sadly I didn’t get to celebrate last night as I spent 17 hours on a sleeper bus eating mountains of fruit with my friend Paul, but I’m sure we’ll make up for it with a few beers at our next destination! If you’re cracking open a bottle of wine tonight, have a glass for me!

As usual, if there is ever anything you would like me to write about, any requests, anything you would like my opinion on, or you would like advice on travelling Asia or travelling solo – I’m always at the end of an email. You can contact me through the contact panel to the right of this post or through my Facebook and Twitter pages.

imageA final part of my journey as booked by the Thai Tourism Agency was a hill tribe trekking experience in Chiang Mai – something I was looking forward to after a few weeks of cycling and walking, it felt good to do some exercise again and I was looking forward to a challenge of hiking through mountainous jungle. Because of this trip, I didn’t actually end up spending much time or doing much sightseeing in central Chiang Mai, so I won’t write a post on what I haven’t experienced when I can tell you all about this instead. When I arrived in the city, I went straight to BMP Backpacker which is a cool little backpacker hangout, a places with private rooms at low to mid prices depending on what you want and the use of a lovely swimming pool in the grounds. It is near one of the Chiang Mai gates and very close to a fabulous food market that opens at night with all kinds of delicious snacks and meals for sale. After a meeting with my hill tribe trekking group about the itinerary for the next day and dinner with some travelling friends at the market, I headed to bed ready for what the next day would bring.imageI had a brilliant group made up of a mixture of German, Australian, Irish, French and Maltese travellers – it was great to have such a diverse group of different ages and travelling experiences and it definitely set us up for a lot of fun. We were put in a van and set out on our journey to the national park near Chiang Mai, with some of the boys feeling a little worse for wear after a big night out it was pretty funny to guess which of them would throw up first. If you’ve been following my travels on Facebook and Twitter (which you should for all the very latest updates) you’ll already know what happened next. As we turned a sharp corner, another van drove straight into ours hitting it head on. None of us had any warning as we couldn’t see through the partition between the back and front and luckily there was so many of us lacked in there we couldn’t really move from the impact so no one was seriously injured. The other driver’s fault, the accident had happened because he drove out at a junction when he wasn’t supposed to, despite having seen us driving towards him at high speed, but it was too late, our van was a mess while the other was barely dented. Thanks to the quick work of our tour guide, we climbed into a new van, covered in bruises, just 15-20 minutes later and were on our way. Ironically the whole thing had happened on Friday 13th.imageOnce we reached the national park, we had a quick lunch and set out on our first trek of the three days, through the dried out jungle towards the hills and the village where we would spend our first night. The trekking was pretty easy to be honest, after the 16km hikes I was doing in Khao Sok this was nothing and was nowhere near as interesting because it was firmly the dry season at this point and everything around us was dead and desperately in need of rain. But it was fun with our group and within a few hours we arrived after a pretty steep last climb through smoky hillside where they were burning the jungle for farmland. We could feel the intense heat from the fires in that last section and hoped they had them under control when we saw the wooden huts just a bit higher up the hill.

The village was made up of a collection of huts overlooking the jungle with dried banana leaves forming their roofs and pigs, goats and dogs running around all over the place. It was great, totally remote and just what we were all after. After a sit down and a beer, we went off to explore the higher part of the village and found a local woman weaving, while others farmed. Later, we watched on as the tour guide and villagers prepared our healthy, delicious dinner over a roaring fire inside a wooden hut – gotta love Thai health and safety! The food was fabulous and after we spent a night round the campfire drinking beers to celebrate being alive, our Irish friend’s birthday and learning Thai songs like Chang Chang Chang. We spent the night sleeping in a huge communal hut on what was pretty much a wooden floor with a few blankets, rustic and pretty uncomfortable but we woke up ready to start the next adventure.imageThe next day was spent trekking to the next hill tribe, which was actually the home of our very own tour guide, so that we could have lunch before beginning the next part of our journey. We hiked an easy route – except for the slippery, steep ascent at the end – and arrived at a beautiful wooden hut overlooking the fields and rice paddies, with smoke-encircled mountains I. The distance. Stopping for some noodles, we enjoyed a rest and the amazing panoramic view from the platform before continuing down the hill, into the village and onwards towards the jungle and our stop for the night. That night we spent eating more amazing food at the base of a stunning waterfall. We had low expectations considering the dry season, but this one was in full flow and a welcome treat after a sweaty last section of the hike.

Several beers and a campfire later, someone decided a midnight skinny dip was in order and we all headed bravely, or stupidly, into the water which was bloody freezing! After warming up by the fire we headed to bed where I slept in a bamboo hut by myself for the night – at least until I woke up with three cats spooning me, no idea where they came from as the door was firmly shut the whole night. Our final day was spent rafting around the river, which although low had enough water for us to enjoy, have water fights with locals and to race each other. This was followed by elephant riding, which I refused to do (see my later elephant posts) and actually after explaining why to my fellow trekkers there were only three people who bothered to do it out of over ten of us. It just shows that education can make a change. We spent time feeding the elephants instead.imageHeading back to civilisation, some were heading off straight away on the next leg of their journey, while I had the evening to relax before heading off to the Elephant Nature Park the next morning. We all had a fantastic time on the trip, and although it was a little disappointing because it didn’t really feel like the jungle with it being the dry season, it was a fun experience and worth doing. We had an amazing group who still keep in touch and although I’m not sure of the exact cost as it was booked in a larger package for me, it can’t have been a very expensive trip – well worth it for the experience, just don’t expect any difficult hiking.

Have you been hill tribe trekking – what did you think? Where else in the world would you recommend for trekking? 

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imageAfter spending a few days exploring Ayutthaya, I was ready to move on and see how Sukhothai compared in grandeur. I wasn’t disappointed, it had its own beauty that separated sightseers from the main roads and invited then into a beautiful natural park with temples set around a lake. Being much smaller than Ayutthaya, it didn’t take long to get my bearings and after my first night relaxing in the guest house, I headed into the park to grab my bike and a map ready for a day of exploring history. Thanks to the smart woman at the Thai Tourism Agency, who organised this section of my trip, I was staying at a guest house right opposite the entrance to the park which was really helpful as I know that many of them are further away in the newer town. It was really helpful being so close, and I just felt you had a different experience when you slept with that much history on your doorstep.imageI stayed at Vitoon Guest House which has two halves, it has a slightly newer section that offers air conditioned rooms and slightly better facilities or the cheaper rooms I stayed in which to be quite honest were more than adequate for me. I had my own double bed, a fan and ensuite, which although wasn’t luxury served a purpose and was pretty nice for a backpacker who is used to hostels. Those on holiday or travelling as a couple may have been less than impressed, but would also have more to spend on fancy accommodation even if you spend no time in the room. The family who ran it were friendly and helpful, there were a row of restaurants right next door and the guest house rented out better quality bikes than I had used in Aytthyaya. What more could a girl need?imageBy this point I was getting pretty used to cycling everywhere and was loving it, I loved how free you felt cycling around the park by yourself and it was definitely one of those times where I was grateful to be travelling solo just to have some well-deserved time to myself. It was so peaceful exploring the park and I made the smart decision to get up super early and have breakfast as the sun came up so I could be in the park before the crowds arrived. There are about four or five sections to the park and the first one you come to is the middle section, this gets really busy late morning when the buses of tourists pull up and they end up pretty crowded. I hate crowded temples, this is why I like sightseeing by myself, I love to walk around in quiet places and really get a feel for a place – it’s impossible to do this with hundreds of tourists jostling for the best photo opportunity and failing to appreciate the beauty of what they are seeing firsthand.imageIf you’re the same as me, I would recommend heading into the park by 9am at the latest so you have time to enjoy the centre, this way you can move further into the park and explore the other sections around midday and into the afternoon. Make sure you take snacks as out in these sections there is nowhere to buy food or water, I always took peanuts and water which I found were good for an energy boost. It is also worth taking a guide book as well as your map – I had the Lonely Planet Thailand book which gave some really good background on the temples I was visiting and recommended the most spectacular ones. I actually found that the route I had chosen to take around the temples was one that a group from my bus were paying for as a cycling tour so I saved myself a few quid there. They were also pretty impressed I seemed to know more about the temples than they were learning as well – definitely worth a quick trip to the museum before visiting the temples, although you can also find a lot of information online as well – it really helps to contextualise what you are seeing.imageIt depends on what you go there for, but I definitely preferred having three days of exploring completely new sections of the kingdom like I had in Ayutthaya. I still had an amazing time and I can’t recommend visiting enough – I would say that if you have two or three days you should definitely go for Ayutthaya, but if you have just the one day it is better spent at Sukhothai. If you have enough time, please do go to both like I did – trust me, you gain a completely different experience from each. My favourite moment while I was there, had to be when I cycled back into the park at sunset to watch the last rays of the day cast over the still waters of the lakefront Wat Maha That as the sun dipped behind another temple across the lake. I had the whole place to myself but I couldn’t understand why – it was one of the most beautiful sunsets I have seen while travelling. Don’t miss out.image

 

Have you been to Sukhothai – what did you think? What was your highlight of the visit? How did it compare to Ayutthaya? 

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imageThis post will take a little break from sightseeing for something a bit more spiritual I found along my travels. Ahead of Friday’s post on my time in Sukhothai, this one will focus on one very small part of my days spent visiting temples and cycling around the beautiful Thai countryside. The evening I arrived, after a well-deserved rest following the horrible, sweaty journey there, I headed out to explore, find food and to check out the closes temple to my guest house. Not planning to enter Sukhothai Historical Park until the next morning, I decided to visit a temple that stood just outside the gates, in the centre of a picturesque lake, at sunset. It was pretty beautiful and the perfect time to visit as the place was deserted, but it was not the view that captured my imagination, but the decorations hanging in the tree surrounding the island. Each had been adorned with wise words of Buddha and offered advice, motivation or kind assurance that the reader was firmly on track. It was such a lovely idea that I couldn’t keep it to myself. I know that we all have bad days sometimes and words like these can really help to put things in perspective or give you the boost you need to make a change in your life.imageimageimageWhether you’re religious, spiritual or don’t give any of it the time of day, I think everyone can relate to the values, the idea that you should seize control of your life and make it the very best it can be. It’s something we all need to be reminded of at times, I know of so many people who are working in jobs they hate or feel like they are stuck in a rut, and yet they are too afraid to seize the day and make a change. I love the above phrase “Do not be too timid and squeamish about your actions, all life is an experiment.” After chatting to a friend I met the other day about my experiences of travelling alone, I was reminded again of how much of a leap I took when I came out here three months ago. As I said to him, it really doesn’t feel like a big deal that I came travelling alone but at the time it was the scariest and biggest decision I have ever made – and yet it has had the biggest payoff and effect on my life of any choice I have made so far. It just shows you that to yield big rewards you have to make the biggest jumps. It doesn’t just apply to travelling, I have met so many people while travelling who have been on the cusp of making big choices about university, careers, taking over a family business, making a big move across the country or the world, or even their relationships. All are unsure about making a it decision, but travelling is inspiring them to take that leap.imageimageimage

 

Hope everyone is having a good week – if you have any inspiring stories to share, why not leave a comment?

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image Growing up, I loved the Indiana Jones movies and the Jurassic Park trilogy – I can’t imagine there are many people my age who didn’t do exactly the same. So I feel really lucky to have been able to explore incredible places on my travels in Thailand that have instantly transported me to those childhood favourites. You might remember my posts on Khao Sok and the stunning landscape that looked exactly like a scene out of Jurassic Park? At any moment I half expected a dinosaur to loom out of the bushes while canoeing and trekking through the lush green rainforest. I loved that being in this place as an adult could still capture the imagination as it did when I was a child. So you can imagine how excited I was to arrive in Ayutthaya – one of the old Kingdoms of Thailand as Bangkok is now. All my reading up on this amazing piece of Thai history revealed incredible pictures of crumbling ruins and huge temples that could have come straight out of The Temple of Doom! I couldn’t wait to arrive, get myself a bike and get out exploring.imageimageI arrived at the train station after an hour on the train and was taken straight to my guest house by a pre-arranged tuk tuk driver. After checking in, and finding my room was huge, cosy and with its own bathroom, I headed to Tesco Lotus for water and phone top-up – and this was one of the best moves I made while in Ayutthaya. It was there that I met a wonderful Thai woman who quickly adopted me and became a good friend in just three short days. Filo, who moved to Ayutthaya after her home in Bangkok burned down, has two daughters around my age and is just a little bit older than my mum. She spoke great English, and with a teeny bit of Thai I had learnt and good old Google Translate, we managed to tell each other quite a lot about our lives. After spending some time at her home with her and her sister, plus their collection of seriously cute dogs, she decided to take me out on a little scooter ride around all of the best temples in the historical park. She took me to Wat Phra Mahathat which is where a sandstone Buddha head lies entangled in a tree’s roots, then on to Wat Phra Si Sanphet which was pretty damn spectacular, Wat Phanan Choeng, Wat Chai Wattanaram and several others including one with a huge reclining Buddha. All were beautiful and so grand, it was pretty amazing to think how long they had been stood there.imageimageAfter a lovely afternoon of sightseeing, chatting to Filo’s friends and eating fried chicken with sticky rice, we parted ways as Filo had to travel to Bangkok to visit one of her daughters, but we made a plan to meet two days later for more sight seeing. I headed out that night to dinner at a fabulous little restaurant called Sai Thong which was just one street from where I was staying – it promised choice from over 180 dishes plus live music, and all with a river view and cheap prices. Perfect – it was a lovely evening and I tried some delicious dishes including one with wild boar and another with river fish. It was so refreshing to have an evening alone to eat, read and relax after a busy few weeks. I planned my activities for the next day and had an early night. The next morning I hired a cute little bike that I can only describe as seriously vintage – as in no gears, 100 years old and heavy. I actually have an admission that I hadn’t been on a bike for about 10 years at this point so was rather dreading falling off an embarrassing myself, but I did pretty damn well! It really is like riding a bike!imageimageThat day I spent cycling around the rest of the temples and sights, they will give you a map in your guest house and it is easily signposted to find all of them. Cycling is by far the best way to get around as tuk tuks are expensive and a scooter is just a bit too fast to take it all in. The temples are all stunning and all worth a look, a two full days should be about enough to fit everything in, but make early starts to avoid the serious heat of the day and to beat any crowds. Avoid the elephant kraal if, like me, you are a bit sensitive to the mistreatment of animals as these poor elephants are chained and forced to dance for audiences of tourists – the sight made me feel sick to my stomach and I will be posting on this again later on. I would really recommend getting to as many of the temples as possible and hiring a scooter to get to the floating market, which Filo and I did the following day. It is also definitely worth going to the museum and tourism centre – both offer useful insight into the history behind these amazing landmarks are will really help to contextualise everything without needing an audio guide. I skipped the audio guide and preferred to cycle round and explore by myself so the museums were great for learning more. If you have the time, I would definitely say two full days and three nights is a perfect amount of time to explore at a leisurely pace as things are a little spread out here and you may want to indulge in a few extra cycle rides like I did.image

 

Have you been to Ayutthaya? Which was your favourite temple and how did you enjoy exploring? Would you stop off here on your way to the north? 

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imageMillions and millions of backpackers move through Thailand each year, probably more, all looking for golden sands, cultural experiences, outdoor activities and more. Thailand is a huge centre for us all to forge connections, friendships and to chase that elusive backpacker dream of being the first to discover something amazing all the while treading a path that has Ben walked by billions before us. Yes I have been reading Alex Garland’s The Beach, and yes it is amazingly accurate to several tourists I have met along the way, although it’s definitely not the incredible utopian thriller I hoped for. Anyway, I digress, it’s no surprise that along the way much of Thailand has filled up with tourism agencies, guides and basically all kinds of Thai people who are offering to plan your trip for you and make it all easier… For a cost. Many of the tourism agencies try to outbid each other and in certain areas off the same trip for various prices leaving you to find the best one. In other areas, they all work together to keep the price the same, but still at the added cost for the traveller.

It’s difficult to know whether you are ever really getting a good deal and that’s why so many choose to just organise the whole thing themselves, but others, out of laziness or just misinformation choose to book all the trips on offer, often seriously affecting their budget and limiting their experience of Thailand. I was most definitely one of these people who likes to organise everything myself from the beginning, I hate brag ripped off and would rather shop around or barter for a good deal, but I know there are others who feel less comfortable doing this. So I wanted to share something with you guys, in case you haven’t already discovered it, that might help save you a bit of money and organising. I had never heard of this until I was halfway through my time in Thailand, but it was sheer luck that I found it when I did. And it really helped shape the rest of my trip.

While staying in Bangkok, I walked out of my hostel one morning and not paying attention fell straight over a woman in the street. Of course, in the British way, I was busy apologising profusely while she was far more interested in having a chat with me. She spoke great English so I explained where I was from and what I was planning to do that day, she was really excited about our plans for food and to go visit some of the smaller and lesser known temples. She was really interested in the rest of my trip as I told her my friend was due to fly home in days and I would once again be travelling solo but up to the north this time. I was touched by her interest do siding I had nearly floored her out of nowhere, in my experience Thai people are very friendly, warm and welcoming, but this woman was something else altogether. She was so kind, helpful and clearly wanted us to have the best day in her country, and for me to have an amazing rest of my trip.imageWithin minutes she had found a government tuk tuk, which is slightly different to all those that drive around manically on the street and overcharge you – but are very hard to spot. They have a licence in the front window that you have to look for, and they charge a hell of a lot less than the rest. She told the lovely tuk tuk driver where to take us – to an amazing little temple with a huge standing Buddha in the centre – with an adorable food market and fair happening outside. After waiting for us to eat and check out the temple, he took us to the Red Mount where he left us to explore but we only paid 30bht! We were so astonished he didn’t ask for any more money for a trip that could normally have cost five times the price, but it was purely because he was working in a government run tuk tuk. I never knew these existed before but it was a revelation and definitely helped our purses over the next few days of exploring.

Inbetween the temples, the tuk tuk driver also stopped off somewhere else at the orders of this amazing Thai woman after she heard about my plans to travel north. The Thai Tourism Agency is a government-run office in Bangkok, just a short walk from Khao San Road, and it is perfect for anyone who doesn’t know where to start when planning their trip, or who is worried about being ripped off. I was greeted straight away by a lovely half Indian and half Thai woman who was eager to help me plan my trip, she straight away booked us on the Floating Market trip for way cheaper than I had seen it elsewhere, we would go the next morning. Then she planned for me a full two weeks of travel from Bangkok to Chiang Mai for just £250. Doesn’t sound much? Well I’ve been budgeting about £250 a week and this was for twice as long and that price included travel, accommodation, some food, and a three day hill tribe trekking trip. It also meant I would be stopping off in some really amazing places including Sukhothai and Ayutthaya – the old kingdoms – along the way to Chiang Mai. It was incredible that she managed to get it down to such a good price and was promising me air conditioned buses, my own room and bathroom in each place and time to explore with flexibility to move travelling dates at a day’s notice.

Put simply, I was really bloody impressed by the whole thing and when it came to the travelling and accommodation, it really was pretty good. Everything ran smoothly and I met some lovely people along the way who were on the same trip. The hill tribe trekking was so much fun, and I will write another post on it for you. This post was just to say a huge thank you for organising this section of my trip, something I had very little motivation to do myself after two of my friends flew home. It was also to try and help wise travellers up to this huge money saver that is right under their noses. It’s suitable for those backpacking for months or a year like me, it’s suitable for retired couples, for young couples, for friends – for anyone. You can only use this service in Bangkok, but you can organise trips for all over Thailand for a couple in weeks of your whole trip – why not go see them and see how they can save you money?

Have you booked travel with the government-run Thai Tourism Agency? How did your journey go? Have you got any other Thai travel cost cheats to share with my readers? 

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