wildlife

6 Reasons to Visit the Museo Dolores Olmedo

The legacy of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo remains alive in this hacienda that’s as pretty as a peacock — which, incidentally, is overrun by them.

The Museo Dolores Olmedo hacienda is as pretty as the peacocks that roam its grounds

The Museo Dolores Olmedo hacienda is as pretty as the peacocks that roam its grounds

I had read that Mexico City is sprawling, but you don’t truly begin to understand this until you’re actually there. And although Uber is a cheap mode of transportation, our advice for exploring CDMX and its many sights is to plan your days according to mayoralities, or municipalities. Since Xochimilco was the farthest destination on our itinerary, we put a day aside to experience the canals and visit the Museo Dolores Olmedo located nearby.

Peacocks strut about the lawn, perch on branches and sit in rows like sentinels on the hacienda’s rooftop.

We were fortunate enough to see a few of the males fan their shimmering iridescent plumage in the hopes of getting lucky.
The original structure dates back to the 1500s

The original structure dates back to the 1500s

Often overlooked by tourists, the estate was once owned by philanthropist and self-made businesswoman Dolores Olmedo Patiño. Known as Lola to her friends, Olmedo purchased the 16th century colonial hacienda in 1962 and resided there until her death in 2002. It’s worth noting that the five-building complex contains the largest private collection of works by Diego Rivera.

A statue of Doña Lola, patroness of the arts, with one of her beloved Xolo dogs

A statue of Doña Lola, patroness of the arts, with one of her beloved Xolo dogs

Olmedo met Rivera when she was 17 and he was in his 40s, when she accompanied her mother, a school teacher, to the Ministry of Education, where Rivera was working on murals in the building. Rivera asked Olmedo’s mother to be allowed to make some drawings of Dolores.

Olmedo amassed the largest private collection of Rivera’s works

Olmedo amassed the largest private collection of Rivera’s works

“My mother gave her permission without knowing I would pose nude. I never told her about it. It was like magic watching how such beautiful shapes came forth from his tiny hands and how, without lifting the pencil from the paper, he could draw such long, smooth lines. The time went by without my noticing it while I posed.” –Dolores Olmedo

That was how the unique lifelong friendship was born. Under the guidance of Rivera, Olmedo amassed a vast collection, which she donated to the people of Mexico.

Here are six reasons to add the Museo Dolores Olmedo to your Mexico City itinerary:

Don’t miss the Frida gallery at the museum — we walked past it at first and had to convince a guard to reluctantly allow us to backtrack

Don’t miss the Frida gallery at the museum — we walked past it at first and had to convince a guard to reluctantly allow us to backtrack

The Colonial kitchen is covered with hand-painted Talavera tile from Puebla, with a swallow bird motif, and was preserved from the 16th century hacienda

The Colonial kitchen is covered with hand-painted Talavera tile from Puebla, with a swallow bird motif, and was preserved from the 16th century hacienda

1. The setting itself is worth the entrance fee.

Formerly known as Hacienda La Noria, which translates to the Water Wheel Estate, the grounds are as impressive as the villa. There’s a variety of fowl, including ducks, geese and peacocks. Lots of peacocks. Peacocks strutting about the lawn. Peacocks perched on the branches of trees — who knew they could fly? Even peacocks sitting in rows like sentinels from the hacienda’s rooftop. We were fortunate enough to see a few of the males fan their shimmering iridescent plumage in the hopes of getting lucky.

The estate is surrounded by spacious gardens with a variety of native plants and flowers: dahlias, bougainvillea and colossal blue agaves. Fun fact: The potent liquor can only be categorized as tequila if it has been produced from the piña, the heart of this varietal.

Giant blue agaves

Giant blue agaves

This is where tequila comes from!

This is where tequila comes from!

2. There are some strange-looking dogs known as Xolos or Mexican hairless.

Close to the hacienda is a spacious pen, home to several bald, wrinkled, dark-skinned canines. Commonly known as the Mexican hairless, the Xoloitzcuintli, or Xolo, are descendants of a pre-Columbian breed of hairless dogs. Their name comes from Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs and is a combination of two words: “Xolotl,” the name of the Aztec god of lightning and death, and “itzcuintli,” meaning dog. According to Aztec belief, the breed was created by Xolotl to protect the living and guide the souls of the deceased through the dangers of Mictlán, the underworld of Aztec mythology.

Doña Lola was fond of Xolo, or Mexican hairless dogs. Dante, the pup from  Coco , is one of this breed

Doña Lola was fond of Xolo, or Mexican hairless dogs. Dante, the pup from Coco, is one of this breed

Looks like someone gave this dog a bone (IYKWIM)

Looks like someone gave this dog a bone (IYKWIM)

Dogs carved from volcanic rock adorn the house

Dogs carved from volcanic rock adorn the house

Believe it or not, the so-ugly-they’re-cute canines were a delicacy enjoyed by the Spanish conquistadors, who ate them to the brink of extinction.

Although the breed is revered for its loyalty and intelligence, we don’t recommend dangling your toddler over their pen, as we witnessed a family do while we were there.

Wally sitting on a bench in the style of Frida Kahlo’s painting  The Bus , her recollection of the moment before her tragic accident (that’s Frida to the far right)

Wally sitting on a bench in the style of Frida Kahlo’s painting The Bus, her recollection of the moment before her tragic accident (that’s Frida to the far right)

3. You can check out some of Frida’s artwork.

Part of the allure of the museum was to see the surrealist works of Frida Kahlo. In a separate room, located off the interior arcade of the hacienda, were several small-format works by the prominently browed artist. In life, Doña Lola had little regard for Kahlo as an artist, but purchased 25 of Kahlo’s paintings shortly after her death at Rivera’s insistence to ensure his wife’s work remained in Mexico under one roof.

One of Frida’s native Tehuana dresses looms large from a glass case in the corner.

It should be noted that Frida’s works are frequently traveling. Two of Frida’s most famous works, La Columna Rota and Self Portrait With Monkey, were absent on our visit.

The postcard-sized works we saw are suffused with symbolism. She frequently depicted suffering and loss, using her broken body in her art, having suffered from childhood polio at the age of 6, which left her a semi-invalid, exacerbated by an accident when she was 18, when a trolley car collided with the bus she was on.

Keep an eye out for peacocks in the trees!

Keep an eye out for peacocks in the trees!

A large bust of Diego sits in the gardens

A large bust of Diego sits in the gardens

4. The museum houses the largest collection of Diego Rivera’s art in the world.

Displayed within the cavernous rooms of the main house is a gallery displaying pieces from different periods of Rivera’s work. Arranged in chronological order, the collection starts with early works, including post-Impressionist and Cubist style paintings.

Not to be mean, but we can understand why Rivera called himself Rana-Sapo, or Frog-Toad

Not to be mean, but we can understand why Rivera called himself Rana-Sapo, or Frog-Toad

Cover the kiddies’ eyes! This is a portrait of the dancer Maudelle Bass Weston

Cover the kiddies’ eyes! This is a portrait of the dancer Maudelle Bass Weston


Diego’s  Portrait of Dolores Olmedo (La Tehuana),  1955

Diego’s Portrait of Dolores Olmedo (La Tehuana), 1955

El Picador , a painting of a seated Spanish bullfighter, shows the influence of Diego’s time in Spain under the tutelage of one of Madrid’s leading portrait painters, Eduardo Chicharro

El Picador, a painting of a seated Spanish bullfighter, shows the influence of Diego’s time in Spain under the tutelage of one of Madrid’s leading portrait painters, Eduardo Chicharro

A guard told us we weren’t able to take photos here — until she spotted the sticker that signified we had paid extra for this privilege. We’re not sure if the same rule would have applied with the Frida collection.

If you pay a little extra, you can take pics of the artwork

If you pay a little extra, you can take pics of the artwork

Portrait of Pita Amor , 1957, the year Rivera died

Portrait of Pita Amor, 1957, the year Rivera died

In the Outskirts of Toledo (The Old Men)  reflects the influence of El Greco, whose work Rivera studied while living in Spain

In the Outskirts of Toledo (The Old Men) reflects the influence of El Greco, whose work Rivera studied while living in Spain

Prized pieces from Olmedo’s pre-Columbian collection are distributed among the museum’s rooms — a result of her relationship with Rivera, whose passion for these artifacts is as legendary as the man himself. An entire wall holds effigies known as Colima dogs, depictions of Xolos in terracotta, an essential accessory found buried in ancient tombs throughout Northwestern Mexico. As mentioned, these totems were used to protect and guide the deceased’s spirit through the dangers of Mictlán, the Realm of the Fleshless, or to continue to serve their owners in the afterlife.

Olmedo’s collection of pre-Columbian Colima dogs, which were buried with the dead to guide them on their journey in the afterlife

Olmedo’s collection of pre-Columbian Colima dogs, which were buried with the dead to guide them on their journey in the afterlife

In a room that was once the hacienda’s chapel are preliminary concept sketches for murals that illustrate the extensive planning required for these large-scale works. A mobile fresco, Frozen Assets, which Rivera did for MoMA, the New York Museum of Modern Art, in 1931, which was his commentary on capitalism and its inequality. The skyline is composed of NYC skyscrapers, the Daily News Building, Bank of Manhattan Building, Rockefeller Building and Chrysler Building among them. A steel and glass structure filled with scores of sleeping men, or possible corpses, (the “assets”) are watched by a guard. Beneath it all is a bank vault with a man seated on a bench, waiting to examine his earnings.

Rivera was a fervent collector of ancient Mexican artifacts

Rivera was a fervent collector of ancient Mexican artifacts

Frozen Assets  by Rivera, 1931

Frozen Assets by Rivera, 1931

The final gallery contains a series of sunsets painted from the balcony of Olmedo’s house in Acapulco, which reminded us of Claude Monet’s Impressionist study of haystacks.

Adam and Eve are depicted on this massive Tree of Life, a common theme reflected in traditional Mexican folk art

Adam and Eve are depicted on this massive Tree of Life, a common theme reflected in traditional Mexican folk art

5. You can take a tour of Mexico at the Museo de Arte Popular, or Folk Art Museum.

The gallery that houses this collection is named for the curator Fernando Gamboa. Filled with artifacts acquired by Olmedo from Mexico’s diverse regions, the folk art collection is touted as one of the most important in the world. In the 1920s, when Mexico’s roots were mostly rural, the popular arts and crafts movement became widespread, and was part of the new definition of national identity. On view are masterworks in glass, ceramic, papier-mâché, wood and tin, folk techniques passed down through generations by village craftspeople.

An ofrenda to Rivera concludes  The World of the Dead  exhibit

An ofrenda to Rivera concludes The World of the Dead exhibit

6. End your visit with whimsical ofrendas from various historical epochs.

The Day of the Dead is a popular festival for families to remember and celebrate departed ancestors, and Doña Lola was known for her elaborate ofrendas, “offerings” dedicated to the deceased. Olmedo explored new ways to incorporate the traditional with the world of contemporary art. The theme at this portion of the museum, near the entrance and gift shop, varies from year to year, and on our visit was El Mundo de Los Muertos, The World of the Dead. The exhibit takes you on a journey through the funerary legacy of civilizations throughout history: Babylonian, Egyptian, Chinese, Nordic and Mayan, complete with a priest performing a human sacrifice atop a temple.

We found ourselves comfortably spending about two and a half hours at the Museo Dolores Olmedo, delighted by the peacocks, the grounds, folk art and, of course, the works of Mexico’s most famous artist couple.

Duke enjoying the gorgeous setting of the Olmedo estate

Duke enjoying the gorgeous setting of the Olmedo estate

Cost for admission is about $5, with a small additional fee for photography. The museum is free on Tuesdays, though it’s certainly worth 5 bucks not to deal with the extra crowds. –Duke

Stop by the Museo Dolores Olmedo after a morning along the Xochimilco canals

Stop by the Museo Dolores Olmedo after a morning along the Xochimilco canals

Museo Dolores Olmedo
Avenida México 5843
La Noria
16030 Ciudad de México
CDMX
Mexico


The Dangers of the Ubud Monkey Forest

The Monkey Forest is worth wandering, but perhaps not with children. It’s fitting that the Great Temple of Death lies within this sanctuary, where people get bitten by monkeys every day.

Gorgeous stonework and mischievous macaques abound in the Monkey Forest

Gorgeous stonework and mischievous macaques abound in the Monkey Forest

Things might have been much worse if we hadn’t had a somewhat scary encounter the night before we planned to visit the Monkey Sanctuary in Ubud, Bali, Indonesia.

We were wandering down Monkey Forest Road, right at the turn, near one of the entrances to the forest. A large macaque monkey scampered down a power line and stopped a few feet in front of Duke.

He was looking up at another monkey on the roof of a shop and I snapped a photo. And then, in a flash, the monkey jumped onto Duke, grabbed his water bottle, hopped off of him and scurried down the road a bit. It all happened so quickly, Duke didn’t even have time to react.

The monkey opened its mouth and sank its teeth into the girl’s shoulder, before darting away.

The girl screamed and screamed, yet her banshee-like wails failed to draw the attention of any staffers.
The moment right before the monkey jumped onto Duke and stole his water bottle

The moment right before the monkey jumped onto Duke and stole his water bottle

We watched in astonishment as the monkey unscrewed the lid, poured some water out onto the street and scooped it up with its palms to drink.

As cool as it might be to get a selfie with a monkey, we can’t advise it

As cool as it might be to get a selfie with a monkey, we can’t advise it

The last time I visited Bali, 17 years ago, I let a monkey crawl onto my back, and that picture became a now-legendary Christmas card. I might have done so again — but this incident was enough to put the fear of God — or perhaps the fear of Hanuman, the Hindu monkey god —  into me.

The statue by the Monkey Forest entrance hints at what could happen to unsuspecting tourists!

The statue by the Monkey Forest entrance hints at what could happen to unsuspecting tourists!

Entering the Monkey Forest: It All Starts Innocently Enough…

So it was with a newfound sense of caution (and, let’s face it, downright fear of these creatures) that Duke and I wandered into the Monkey Sanctuary. The setting is epic: a glen of primordial trees, bridges that criss-cross a ravine with a river below and not one, but two pura dalems, or temples of death.

The setting, with banyan roots, bizarre statues, lush foliage and wild monkeys, is quite epic

The setting, with banyan roots, bizarre statues, lush foliage and wild monkeys, is quite epic

We headed to the right, down a path that leads to one of the bridges that span the chasm below. There are a few landings here, with metal railings where monkeys like to hang out. This is a good spot for photos. The monkeys here seemed to know they’re models, and you can snap some shots at a safe distance.

Down the path to the right is a landing where monkeys strike a pose

Down the path to the right is a landing where monkeys strike a pose

Hindus, like those on Bali, revere monkeys, in part because one of their main gods, Hanuman, is simian

Hindus, like those on Bali, revere monkeys, in part because one of their main gods, Hanuman, is simian

According to the park, there are about 600 monkeys in the area!

According to the park, there are about 600 monkeys in the area!

A path winds along the rock face at the edge of the river. It’s narrow and crowded and ends abruptly without a payoff. You might as well skip it.

Banyan roots have taken over parts of the sanctuary

Banyan roots have taken over parts of the sanctuary

Wally, who was scared the entire time he was in the forest, thought these were real lizards at first

Wally, who was scared the entire time he was in the forest, thought these were real lizards at first

Following the main path takes you over another bridge and walkway above the ravine before leading you to a temple. Duke and I were delighted to notice the strange, monstrous statues out front. We had arrived at Pura Dalem Agung Pandangtegal, or the Padangtegal Great Temple of Death. Demonic sculptures, including those of the witch Rangda, adorn pura dalems.

The main temple of death in the forest is dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva

The main temple of death in the forest is dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva

Rangda personifies evil — and loves to eat babies

Rangda personifies evil — and loves to eat babies

What are these naughty babies doing?!

What are these naughty babies doing?!

Statues of demons surround the temple of death

Statues of demons surround the temple of death

A young macaque with a mohawk posed on a ledge near the temple’s entrance, nibbling on what appeared to be a yam. While we were taking some pictures, a big lug came up beside us and smiled. “Cute,” he said, before telling us that he had just been bitten on the arm by one of these critters. He was just standing there, and a young monkey jumped onto his shoulder, supposedly unbidden. Before he knew it, she had sunk her teeth into his arm.

This little macaque was hanging out on the temple entrance

This little macaque was hanging out on the temple entrance

I could tell by his accent that he was French, but I still spoke English to him. “You need to go to the doctor!” I told him. He just laughed, and I said, “I’m serious! You could get rabies! You could die!” But he just kept chuckling like I was telling him the funniest bit of nonsense he’s ever heard, before wandering away.

There supposedly haven’t been any cases of rabies from monkeys in the sanctuary, but I don’t think it’s worth the risk — especially since my doctor told me that rabies is 100% fatal. If you get bitten at the forest, don’t take any chances and get rabies shots at the Toya Medika Clinic down the street.

They might look innocent — but they’re not

They might look innocent — but they’re not

Reality Bites: It’s All Fun and Games Until Someone Gets Bit

Not long after the French guy told us about how he been bitten, we saw a family allow a small monkey to crawl onto their young daughter for a photo op. It was like a train wreck — we couldn’t look away. When the girl wanted the monkey to get off of her, she tried to shake it off. Sure enough, the monkey opened its mouth and sank its teeth into the girl’s shoulder, before darting away.

The girl screamed and screamed, yet her banshee-like wails failed to draw the attention of any staffers.

We also saw a monkey grab a stack of cards from a woman’s open bag. The man with her literally pounced at the monkey and tried to retrieve the cards from it. We shook our heads in disbelief. It seemed wiser to let the monkey grow bored with its prize and drop it, once it realized it wasn’t edible.

Statues in the Monkey Forest tend to be grotesque — which Duke and Wally love

Statues in the Monkey Forest tend to be grotesque — which Duke and Wally love

It’s no exaggeration when I say that I was in a mild state of terror the entire time I was at the sanctuary. Any time we passed by a monkey, I’d freeze up and scooch past it as quickly as possible, my heart pounding through my chest.

Down from the temple is a bathing pool, and it was fun to watch the monkeys swing into the water and splash about — from a safe distance, of course.

Delightfully horrific statues pair nicely with the monkeys

Delightfully horrific statues pair nicely with the monkeys

Beyond this is a ring trail that’s more sparse. The trees aren’t as tall and I felt more exposed. We hurried along the path, horrified, when, at one point, we saw a monkey that had stolen a bottle of sunblock from some tourists. It unscrewed the top and was trying to drink the thick white liquid. The couple watching this were laughing, but we didn’t find it amusing.

At the end of the ring path, we saw a small building with a group of the sanctuary’s staff just hanging out smoking. We couldn’t help but think they should be in the more populated areas, stopping people from doing stupid things and attending to the kids who have been bitten.

You can skirt around the exterior of the pura dalem and admire the bas reliefs

You can skirt around the exterior of the pura dalem and admire the bas reliefs

Frieze frame

Frieze frame

We circled back to the Great Temple of Death, bummed that tourists aren’t allowed to enter the temple grounds. We skirted around the exterior, though, peeking over the wall to see the courtyard within.

The Great Temple of Death inside the Monkey Forest isn’t open to tourists

The Great Temple of Death inside the Monkey Forest isn’t open to tourists

Another trail leads away from the temple, and we followed this down to another area of the nature preserve.

En route, we passed a woman squatting down to allow a monkey to climb onto her lap. When it started tugging at her braid, we had to go. We weren’t in the mood to see yet another person get bitten.

When you’re ready for the monkey to get off you, it might not be — and if you force it to move, you’ll probably end up getting bitten

When you’re ready for the monkey to get off you, it might not be — and if you force it to move, you’ll probably end up getting bitten

We ended up walking through a creepy tunnel lit by an eerie purple and green light. I kept praying we wouldn’t encounter any primates in that dark expanse, and thankfully, we did not.

The entrances to the tunnel by the parking lot sport giant faces

The entrances to the tunnel by the parking lot sport giant faces

The tunnel led to a parking lot, so we had to double back and head through it again. We followed a sign that pointed to a cremation temple and found ourselves at another end of the sanctuary, wary of a pack of monkeys nearby but eager to explore the small pura dalem. We couldn’t enter this temple of death, either, but admired the demonic statuary, while keeping an eye out for roving macaques.

The cemetery near the smaller temple of death is where bodies remain before a mass cremation, which takes place every five years

The cemetery near the smaller temple of death is where bodies remain before a mass cremation, which takes place every five years

At this point, we figured we had seen everything we could and decided to leave the Monkey Forest the same way we had come. We were on the home stretch, the exit about 100 yards away, when a particularly brazen monkey made a jump for Duke’s tote bag. He turned away, clutching it tightly to his body. The monkey made some rude noises and gestures to show its displeasure. But we were safe at last, having emerged from this ordeal with a healthy fear of monkeys. –Wally

Monkey see, monkey do

Monkey see, monkey do

Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary
Jalan Monkey Forest
Ubud, Kabupaten
Gianyar
Bali 80571, Indonesia

I was in a mild state of terror the entire time I was at the sanctuary.

Elephant Nature Park: A Day You’ll Never Forget

Feed and bathe the residents of this elephant sanctuary outside of Chiang Mai.

Water buffalo coexist with the elephants at the park, one of the highest-rated sanctuaries in Northern Thailand

Water buffalo coexist with the elephants at the park, one of the highest-rated sanctuaries in Northern Thailand

Before we did a bit of research, we didn’t know any better. We thought the idea of riding an elephant would be fun. But the more we read in preparation for our trip to Chiang Mai, the more we realized we didn’t want to be a part of perpetuating the ill treatment of elephants and that we wanted instead to visit a sanctuary, a place where elephants were rescued and not exploited.

It’s heartbreaking to think how much these elephants suffered before their idyllic life in the sanctuary

It’s heartbreaking to think how much these elephants suffered before their idyllic life in the sanctuary

The Elephant Nature Park outside of Chiang Mai had great reviews, so we booked a half-day visit with them. A van came to pick us up at our hotel, stopping in town to gather other travelers. The ride takes over an hour, and be warned: You’ll have to sit through a horrific video detailing the barbaric practices of “training” elephants.



The sad fact is that en route to the park, while you’re learning about the cruel practices trainers use to break one of these creatures, you’ll pass tourist operations where people are riding elephants. Which means they’re guilty of the atrocities you’re watching on the small screen at the front of the van.

Spend a day at the Elephant Nature Park to feed, bathe and get to know rescued elephants

Spend a day at the Elephant Nature Park to feed, bathe and get to know rescued elephants

The Elephant Nature Park’s mission is to rescue elephants who have been retired from the logging trade, have been abused by the tourism circuit or have suffered in some other way.
Elephants live about as long as humans do

Elephants live about as long as humans do

The Elephant Nature Park was founded by Lek Chailert. Her mission is to rescue elephants who have been retired from the logging trade, have been abused by the tourism circuit (trekking, street begging, circuses) or have suffered in some other way.

Little Yindee is one of seven baby elephants to have been born in the park

Little Yindee is one of seven baby elephants to have been born in the park

The park purchases elephants for about 2 to 3 million baht and offers them a 500-acre sanctuary to roam freely. There are currently over 30. A lot of them have medical problems from their ill treatment in the past, and here they receive excellent medical care and the proper diet.

Elephants at the park get fed corn, rice, watermelon and squash — but they seem to prefer bananas

Elephants at the park get fed corn, rice, watermelon and squash — but they seem to prefer bananas

Insider Tip: You’ll do a lot of walking, so we don’t recommend wearing flip-flops as a lot of the other guests did. But you also don’t want to wear shoes you can’t get wet — at the end of the tour, you have the chance to go into the river to bathe an elephant, and we had to go barefoot. The best footwear would be walking sandals that can go in the water.

Wally and Duke had a fun day at the Elephant Nature Park while visiting Chiang Mai

Wally and Duke had a fun day at the Elephant Nature Park while visiting Chiang Mai

Please Do Feed the Animals

At the Elephant Nature Park, you get divided into smaller groups of 12 or so, and you make the rounds seeing the elephants as they go about their day. Our first stop was to feed Kham Moon. She’s 55 years old (elephants have the same life expectancy as humans!). She was involved in logging until she broke her leg and was deemed useless for those purposes. Now she’s a sweet, if spoiled, resident of the park.

There are baskets of food you’re allowed to feed the elephants. We fed her pumpkins at first, but after a while she spotted the bananas and only had eyes for them. These big beasts sure love to eat — they consume at least 10 percent of their body weight every day! Our guide, Nieo, told us that elephants eat for 20 hours a day and sleep only three to four.

Many of the elephants at the park show signs of their previously abusive lives

Many of the elephants at the park show signs of their previously abusive lives

An elephant's trunk is its most versatile tool. It’s used for breathing, smelling, trumpeting, touching, grasping for leaves, sucking up and sometimes spraying out water. This useful bit of equipment has 40,000 muscles (compared to the human body which has just 639 muscles), Nieo explained.

You don’t really realize how wise and sweet these animals are until you get up close and personal with them

You don’t really realize how wise and sweet these animals are until you get up close and personal with them

It’s really quite freaky but amazing watching elephants eat. The end of their snouts are able to grab food, moving like fingers. I’d hold out a banana, then quickly move my hand away as the snout pulsated, squealing like a little girl.

An elephant’s trunk is an amazingly useful appendage

An elephant’s trunk is an amazingly useful appendage

When near an elephant, always stand where it can see you — they don’t have peripheral vision. You also shouldn’t stand directly in front or behind an elephant, Nieo told us.

It’s true that elephants are scared of mice, our guide added. “They don’t like small things — including children. They move too fast.” Keep that in mind if you’re bringing little ones along.

Our next stop was feeding Sook Jai, an 82-year-old elephant. She’s blind and has no teeth, so we had to peel bananas before giving them to her.

Another elephant fun fact: They’re natural born farmers. They only digest 40 percent of their food, so whatever they eat grows out of their poop.

The elephants cool off in the water and use their trunks to spray themselves

The elephants cool off in the water and use their trunks to spray themselves

Bath Time

Our group moved through the hot sun over to the watering hole, watching the elephants cool off, spewing the brown water onto their backs. We learned that one of the elephants in the group had been rescued after stepping on a landmine.

A baby elephant named Yindee splashed in the water with her cohorts. She’s one of seven elephants to have been born in the park.

Duke thinks this elephant could use some good moisturizer

Duke thinks this elephant could use some good moisturizer

Wally makes a new friend

Wally makes a new friend

Some of the mahouts splashed one of the elephants who has bad legs and can’t lie down in the water. While we watched these giant creatures cool off, the operation across the river had people riding elephants right by guys recklessly driving off-road ATVs. Our group all disparaged them, and I suggested throwing elephant dung at them.

Our guide was informative and had a great sense of humor

Our guide was informative and had a great sense of humor

By the river, we fed an elephant named Jandee. That means “Kind Heart,” Nieo told us. It’s ironic, though because this 66-year-old is a bit feisty and would fight if she was near other elephants.

She doesn’t have any teeth, either, so we fed her rice balls.

I pretended like I was going to throw one. “Snowball fight!” I joked, giving Jandee her treat.

She swung her trunk around with the rice ball before eating it. “She likes to play with her food,” I pointed out.

Jandee is the second largest elephant at the camp. She’s from a photo studio on the island of Ko Tao, where people could take wedding photos with her. But the operator didn’t have license, and she was purchased and brought to the Elephant Nature Park.

You’ll also see a lot of elephants using their trunks to toss mud and dirt onto their backs. It acts as a natural sunscreen to protect their skin and keep them cool.

The park is also a rescue center for cats (as well as dogs)

The park is also a rescue center for cats (as well as dogs)

Midway through the morning, we break for lunch so we could actually feed ourselves and not just the elephants. We had heard that the buffet was delicious, and the online reviews didn’t lie. There are numerous local dishes to choose from, and many of them are vegetarian.

After we were done eating, Duke and I wandered behind the kitchen to the Cat Kingdom. In addition to rescuing elephants, the park also saves water buffalo, dogs (avoid the ones with red bandanas around their necks, as they’re not good around people) and cats. The feline contingency has its own domain, which we explored.

When you join the elephants in the river, be advised that the muddy water can stain your clothes

When you join the elephants in the river, be advised that the muddy water can stain your clothes

The final stop of the day is watering elephants. In addition to not recommending you go barefoot (one of the girls with us stepped on something and cut her foot pretty badly), you also shouldn’t wear anything you won’t mind getting stained. The water is brown, and I got drenched when a young woman on the opposite side of the elephant overshot, and the bucketful of water landed right on me. The mud in the water must have some intense pigmentation because my shorts and shirt never got fully clean afterward.

The Elephant Nature Park has a noble goal, and it’s great to see these intelligent creatures up close and personal. If you’re spending five or so days in Chiang Mai, this is a day trip you should definitely put on your list (along with ziplining at Flight of the Gibbon and the colorful tour of temples in Chiang Rai, starting with the White Temple).

There were some Brits in our group who decided to skip the after-lunch activities and just sat in the pavilion getting wasted. We had to listen to them drunkenly shout and whine that they needed the loo the entire ride home.

That aside, a day at the Elephant Nature Park will make you better understand (and even fall in love with) elephants. They never forget, and neither will you. –Wally

We’re putting our foot down — go to an elephant sanctuary and don’t perpetuate the abuse of these amazing creatures

We’re putting our foot down — go to an elephant sanctuary and don’t perpetuate the abuse of these amazing creatures

Elephant Nature Park
209/2 Sridom Chai Road
Tambon Kuet Chang
Amphoe Mae Taen
Chang Wat
Chiang Mai 50100, Thailand

Floating Village Siem Reap Scam

Avoid Chong Kneas on Tonlé Sap — it’s not a floating village. All you’ll see are crocodiles, monkeys, snakes and bats being treated cruelly, and you’ll overpay for your ticket and for rice to supposedly feed the local children.

All of the animals at Chong Kneas are treated cruelly, including this monkey on a chain

All of the animals at Chong Kneas are treated cruelly, including this monkey on a chain

One of the best parts of living in Asia is that so many great locations are a relatively short flight away (not literally halfway around the world, as the U.S. is). Our friend Brian and his husband, Jeff, recently moved to Suzhou, China and decided to take a trip to Cambodia. They flew into Bangkok, Thailand and took the bus to Siem Reap. Once there, they explored the Angkor Wat temple complex — as well as getting lured into a “floating village” scam.

Here Brian writes about their cautionary tale:

Children are brought in to help scam tourists

Children are brought in to help scam tourists

Chong Kneas “Floating Village” Rip-Off

There are ads all around for visits to floating villages. The one we went to we were directed to by our tuk-tuk driver, who was our first driver from the airport when we arrived, and we made arrangements for two more days after. Up until that point, he had been a good driver and had shown up when he said he would.

When I took a picture of the snake, a guy rushed over trying to get us to hold it.

When we said no, the guy taped the snake’s mouth shut with electrical tape.

We drove for about a half-hour outside Siem Reap and enjoyed the drive, seeing a different part of Cambodia. When we got to the little building near the canal, we were ushered to a ticket counter. The price for the tour was quite expensive at $30 each, but it looked kind of official and we thought that the money would go toward the local community. Plus, we were already there and kind of in the middle of nowhere.

Our tour guide was quite friendly and spoke English pretty well. He claimed to have only learned English from tourists and in the last two years. He also claimed to have grown up in the fishing village.

There’s no floating village — just a row of houseboats in the distance

There’s no floating village — just a row of houseboats in the distance

We traveled along a canal and did not get very close to any of the houseboats that were scattered along the way. Our guide told us about a floating school full of orphans from a big storm that killed about 100 local fishermen. He mentioned a tsunami also. It was kind of confusing. He showed us a video on his phone of children eating rice crowded on a boat.

Our first stop was in the middle of the lake — not really near anything, with not much to look at. Even with the zoom lens on my Nikon, I couldn’t find a decent picture to take. He said we were going to stop for 10 minutes so the boat driver could eat lunch.

The crocodile farm is one of the main attractions at Chong Kneas

The crocodile farm is one of the main attractions at Chong Kneas

Next we went to a little floating shop that also had the crocodile farm (which was just depressing), bats, a monkey and snakes. He tried to get us to buy some dried crocodile that looked like a rawhide dog chew toy for $10. To give a sense of pricing, I had a skirt steak the previous night for $9, and beef here is considered a luxury. We declined. It’s interesting because it’s only $10 and then you can say tried it, so you’re tempted to do it even though you know you’re being ripped off.

Snakes in cages and other atrocities are all you’ll see at Chong Kneas

Snakes in cages and other atrocities are all you’ll see at Chong Kneas

When I took a picture of the snake, a guy rushed over trying to get us to hold it. But Jeff was like, no way, so the guy started taping the snake’s mouth shut with electrical tape, which just seemed cruel, so we walked away.

A girl bobbing along in a plastic wash basin with a snake around her neck, begging for money for having her photo taken

A girl bobbing along in a plastic wash basin with a snake around her neck, begging for money for having her photo taken

As soon as we had arrived, a girl less than 10 years old had started rowing toward us in what looked like a plastic wash basin from a nearby houseboat. I thought it looked cute, so I took a picture. I then realized she also had a 3-foot python around her neck. As soon as I took the picture, she began asking for a dollar. I figured she’d earned it, so I pulled out my wallet — but our guide rushed over and said it wasn’t good to give money to her and that her parents make her do it and if we wanted to give money it should be to the school. All of which made the girl whine quite loudly until we left.

Bats in cages round out this scam, which costs $30 per ticket

Bats in cages round out this scam, which costs $30 per ticket

So then we were brought to another little store, and a guy spoke to Jeff as though from a script about the nutritional value of rice and that a 50-kilo bag for $50 will feed the school for a day. We declined and felt bad in the moment. Our guide, who had been so friendly was standoffish after that for the rest of the boat trip back. Except to ask for a tip and a tip for the driver as we docked.

The entire time, we never got close to anything resembling a village. There were a number of houseboats along the canal, but we didn’t get near them.

We looked them up after the fact and, according to reviews on TripAdvisor, it could have been worse. But thanks to my husband’s experience and intuition, we made it out better than many. As we went past the school, there were maybe 15 kids on it. They were just running around playing. Most likely it was no more than daycare for local kids.

Afterwards, we were meant to go to the national museum, but the events of the boat ride left a bad taste in our mouth, so we had our driver take us back to our hotel. He didn’t try to arrange another day of driving. He must have known we had a bad experience. –Brian


You don’t want to miss the true floating village: Read about Kompong Kleang and see the amazing photos here.

The 5 Best Things to Do in Costa Rica

This ecotourism hotspot features amazing destinations, including Monteverde, Manuel Antonio National Park, Dominical and the Arenal Volcano. Here are the best and worst parts about visiting Costa Rica.

Allison and Zach in Manuel Antonio National Park, one of their favorite spots in Costa Rica

Allison and Zach in Manuel Antonio National Park, one of their favorite spots in Costa Rica

I defy you to find a cuter couple than Allison and Zach. They met while we all worked together, fell in love and recently tied the knot. Duke and I have a magical connection with them — we run into them in the oddest of places often enough that we feel our fates must be linked. I always think of them as a shining example of a karass, from the fake religion Bokononism in Kurt Vonnegut’s masterpiece Cat’s Cradle.

Zach’s dad moved to Costa Rica, so they’ve visited numerous times and were awesome enough to share some insider secrets about the country that has put ecotourism on the map. –Wally
 

The secluded Playa Manuel Antonio is the single most beautiful spot in Costa Rica to me. When people think of Costa Rica, I believe this is the image they have in their head.

What are your favorite places in Costa Rica and what do you like about them?

The Sky Walk in the Monteverde cloud forest looks like it’s only for the brave

The Sky Walk in the Monteverde cloud forest looks like it’s only for the brave

1. Monteverde

Costa Rica’s cloud forest is near a town that’s mostly locals and not as touristy as some other places. There’s a very laidback mountain town feel about it, and it’s generally much cooler than any other part of Costa Rica since it’s almost 5,000 feet above sea level.

There are some amazing ziplining and four wheeling in the area, as well as a beautiful butterfly sanctuary and some of the best coffee in the country. If you get hungry, check out the great wood-fire pizza place in downtown Santa Elena, the largest town in Monteverde.

Playa Manuel Antonio is only accessible via the national park but is worth the $3 or $4 entry fee

Playa Manuel Antonio is only accessible via the national park but is worth the $3 or $4 entry fee

2. Manuel Antonio

This is home to some of the best beaches in Costa Rica as well as the Manuel Antonio National Park (where monkeys will literally steal the food out of your hands, the jerks). While it is tourist-heavy, Manuel Antonio gives you that real “paradise in a bottle” type of feeling — it’s very self-contained, with great restaurants, five-star hotels and late-night bonfire parties on the beach. You could spend an entire week in Manuel Antonio and not go anywhere else in Costa Rica and still have an amazing vacation.

Allison getting breakfast at  Cafe Milagro  — probably the best café and bakery in Manuel Antonio, with great patio seating and some amazing coffee and pastries. They also do lunch, with a variety of sandwiches. You can buy some great varieties of Costa Rican coffee beans here

Allison getting breakfast at Cafe Milagro — probably the best café and bakery in Manuel Antonio, with great patio seating and some amazing coffee and pastries. They also do lunch, with a variety of sandwiches. You can buy some great varieties of Costa Rican coffee beans here

3. Dominical

This is just 30 minutes south of Manuel Antonio and off the beaten path (it was a dirt road up until 2012), with only a couple of bars and rarely that many tourists. There are one or two small “hotels,” but most people come to Dominical for the waves. An estuary runs into the ocean, where you’ll find some of the best (and intense) breaks in this part of Costa Rica.

Dominical Beach is one of Costa Rica’s best-kept secrets and a surfer’s paradise

Dominical Beach is one of Costa Rica’s best-kept secrets and a surfer’s paradise

The estuary itself is worth exploring, as you can walk most of it until it turns into a larger river.

Dominical is peaceful, laidback, local, and an all-around great place to unwind for a day or even two or three.
 

4. Drake Bay/Oso Peninsula

While Dominical might seem off the beaten path, the Oso Peninsula and Drake Bay is wayyy off the beaten path. To get to Drake Bay from Manuel Antonio, you embark on several long dirt roads (drive time is about three hours) that eventually lead to a river port filled with old wooden riverboats. From there you will need to take one or two different boats through the river and into the bay (with a choppy and somewhat harrowing ocean crossing) to Drake Bay. There used to be no roads that led to Drake Bay and it was only accessible by riverboat, but I believe that has changed recently.

The boat will literally just drop you off on a remote beach and you walk to your hotel, which is more of a locally owned bed and breakfast.

There is amazing snorkeling and scuba diving in the area, and locals will take you to a few islands off the coast, where you can hike, snorkel or just lay on the beach.

Arenal Volcano to the right and Laguna de Arenal to the left. The Arenal cloud forest and town of Fortuna are a great destination for one or two days. The Tabacon hot springs are a must, and you can hike to the base of the volcano

Arenal Volcano to the right and Laguna de Arenal to the left. The Arenal cloud forest and town of Fortuna are a great destination for one or two days. The Tabacon hot springs are a must, and you can hike to the base of the volcano

A Costa Rican red-eyed tree frog. There are thousands of types of frogs in Costa Rica, many that exist only there. Allison took this picture near Arenal Volcano

A Costa Rican red-eyed tree frog. There are thousands of types of frogs in Costa Rica, many that exist only there. Allison took this picture near Arenal Volcano

5. Arenal Volcano/Fortuna

To start, you can hike to the base of an active volcano, which is absolutely stunning. The trail and hike aren’t too bad, either — about an hour to the base of the volcano through a lush jungle filled with monkeys.

But the town of Fortuna is equally great. The Tabacon Resort is by far the most unique Costa Rican experience I’ve ever had and has some of the most amazing hot springs we’ve ever been to. Hundreds of natural pools flow into each other, and you can walk around the jungle-like grounds, going from one pool to the next. It is an absolute must when visiting Costa Rica.

The sunsets in Costa Rica are some of the most amazing you’ll ever experience. Here’s Allison on the beach at Tamarindo during one of those breathtaking Costa Rican sunsets

The sunsets in Costa Rica are some of the most amazing you’ll ever experience. Here’s Allison on the beach at Tamarindo during one of those breathtaking Costa Rican sunsets

What’s the most beautiful spot in Costa Rica?
That is a hard question — there are so many! While Manuel Antonio is one of the more popular destinations, the secluded Playa Manuel Antonio on the eastern side of the national park is the single most beautiful spot in Costa Rica to me. The water is almost turquoise, a much different color than the waters anywhere else in Manuel Antonio, and while there might be tourists, it is an absolutely picture-perfect spot. When people think of Costa Rica, I believe this is the image they have in their head.

What type of outdoor activities do you like to do when you visit?
First and foremost: surfing!  Amazing surfing can be found in Costa Rica, and you don’t have to be a professional to do it. A town called Tamarindo on the northern Nicoya Peninsula is in my opinion the best place for wannabe surfers to get their bearings. The water is shallow, neck high at most, and the waves are small and consistent.

Tamarindo Beach, where anyone looking to surf for their first time should head to — it has the most consistent, entry-level waves you can find. This photo is also very typical looking for most beaches in Costa Rica

Tamarindo Beach, where anyone looking to surf for their first time should head to — it has the most consistent, entry-level waves you can find. This photo is also very typical looking for most beaches in Costa Rica

Once in Costa Rica, the best way to get around is by  Sansa Airlines , which is owned and operated out of San Jose, Costa Rica. This will save hours on driving and is rather affordable. For example, you can fly direct from San Jose to Manuel Antonio for $70, and it’s a 20-minute flight, as opposed to making the three-hour drive

Once in Costa Rica, the best way to get around is by Sansa Airlines, which is owned and operated out of San Jose, Costa Rica. This will save hours on driving and is rather affordable. For example, you can fly direct from San Jose to Manuel Antonio for $70, and it’s a 20-minute flight, as opposed to making the three-hour drive

Other than surfing, the list goes on: snorkeling, scuba diving, ziplining, four wheeling, hiking, moonlit nature walks…it’s endless!

What’s the food like?

Very good! Local staples include gallo pinto and arroz con pollo. Gallo pinto is a traditional dish made of rice and black beans, usually with cilantro as well. Gallo pinto topped with a fried egg is a go-to for me.

A typical Costa Rican breakfast: gallo pinto with scrambled eggs, fresh tortillas and a couple slices of queso turrialba, a local cheese made in Monteverde that’s rindless, unaged and has a high water content. The potatoes are not typical but were included because they were at a hotel

A typical Costa Rican breakfast: gallo pinto with scrambled eggs, fresh tortillas and a couple slices of queso turrialba, a local cheese made in Monteverde that’s rindless, unaged and has a high water content. The potatoes are not typical but were included because they were at a hotel

Arroz con pollo, exactly how it is served in all Costa Rican restaurants, with french fries and a side salad

Arroz con pollo, exactly how it is served in all Costa Rican restaurants, with french fries and a side salad

Arroz con pollo (simply rice with chicken) is probably the most famous of Costa Rican dishes. It’s fried rice with veggies — almost always red pepper, onions and tomatoes — and cilantro, mixed with shredded chicken.

Lizano, however, is what makes any dish truly “Costa Rican.” It’s essentially the Costa Rican version of ketchup and is used on everything from fries to rice to steak. It’s hard to describe but it’s almost a sweet, black peppery cumin BBQ sauce. It’s a Costa Rican staple (created and started in Costa Rica in 1920, though the Lizano Company was recently acquired by Unilever) and pairs well with tamales and arroz con pollo.

Any interesting customs you’ve noticed?
Kindness. In any of the smaller, non-touristy towns, the people are wildly nice and caring. I’ve been invited to people’s houses for dinner only minutes after meeting them.

My father has this story from when he travelled to Costa Rica in 1996 for work and his car broke down on a deserted road. Eventually another car came by, and the family invited him to their home, where he stayed for two days while they fixed his car. They treated him like family, feeding him and giving him a bed. He says that was why he eventually decided to move to Costa Rica: the people.

There are usually a few restaurants or bars on every beach. This is a typical layout of such a place, where the chairs and tables are literally right on the sand

There are usually a few restaurants or bars on every beach. This is a typical layout of such a place, where the chairs and tables are literally right on the sand

Costa Ricans have an earnest desire to share what they have and enjoy the company of others, which unfortunately is not the go-to mindset here in the States.

There is also an amazing Christmas tradition where families cook hundreds of Christmas tamales. Tamales are a Christmas staple in Costa Rica, and the best part is that each family makes so many of them that you can eat them for weeks if not months afterwards.

What’s something you’re not the biggest fan of there?

The Costa Rican capuchin monkey is ubiquitous and can be quite menacing at times, hissing, throwing things at you and trying to steal any food you might have

The Costa Rican capuchin monkey is ubiquitous and can be quite menacing at times, hissing, throwing things at you and trying to steal any food you might have

The monkeys that steal your food on the beaches of Manuel Antonio. For real — they are intense!

Aside from that, due to the rising influx of tourists, there are a lot of shady guys out there trying to make a buck and rip off tourists. You have to be careful of whom you go to for things. The shady guys basically look like surfer bros and smoke a lot of weed, so if you don’t do business with the late teen/early 20s guys who whistle at girls when they pass, you should be okay.

Anything else you’d like to mention about Costa Rica?

Costa Rica is a great place and has come to define the term “ecotourism.”

It’s a place that I hold dear to my heart, and I once worked for Habitat for Humanity there for six months building houses for single mothers. When there, I stayed with a local family in their guest bedroom, and from day one was treated as if I had been a part of their family for years. It really is the people that make a country great, and Costa Rica is a shining example of that.

Why Elephant Trekking and Elephant Rides Are Evil

Before you participate in elephant tourism, learn about the barbaric abuse called phajaan, or “the crush.” Choose an elephant sanctuary instead.

As fun as elephant treks sound, they perpetuate a brutal practice of animal abuse

As fun as elephant treks sound, they perpetuate a brutal practice of animal abuse

At first it seemed harmless, even charming. Big, lumbering elephants doing astounding tricks. I understand how tempting it is to want to ride an elephant or see an elephant show when you’re in a part of the world that offers such experiences, like Thailand and other countries in Asia.

But there’s good reason circuses in the United States have stopped having elephant acts. The process to get elephants to obey orders involves “breaking” them — and once you learn about this barbaric, heartbreaking practice, you’ll never want to be a part of elephant tourism again.

Baby elephants are taken from their mothers and kept in small pens, where they’re beaten and starved for several weeks.

Of the 45,000 or so Asian elephants left in the world, up to 4,000 are held captive in Thailand, according to PETA Asia.

Before you book a trip to an elephant park when you’re in Chiang Mai or a similar region, do some research. Find a spot like the Elephant Nature Park that rescues abused elephants instead of inflicting intense pain upon these noble creatures.

“Behind the exotic façade of elephant tourism is a world of merciless beatings, broken spirits, and lifelong deprivation,” attests PETA Asia. “Once revered, elephants in Thailand today are treated like slaves.”

This poor baby elephant is undergoing the torture known as “the crush,” or phajaan

This poor baby elephant is undergoing the torture known as “the crush,” or phajaan

To train an elephant, it must undergo a horrific process called “the crush,” or phajaan.

Baby elephants — some still nursing — are taken from their mothers and kept in small pens or have all four legs tied up, and are beaten and starved for several weeks. The level of suffering elephants undergo is “severe,” according to World Animal Protection, which released a report about elephant tourism in 2017.

Bullhooks, long metal poles with a hook at the tip, are used to stab the elephant’s head, slash its skin and pull its ears. At an elephant show, you might notice torn ears or scarred foreheads caused during the crush.

 

The crush is a hill tribe ritual.

The practice began in the hill tribes of India and Southeast Asia, according to Thailand Elephants. During the phajaan “ritual,” the tribe’s shaman tries to separate the spirit of an elephant from its body.

“In reality, however, the phajaan has nothing to do with the separation of spirit and everything to do with torturing an elephant until it is so fearful of its human captors that it will do anything to avoid being hurt again,” the site writes.

As we learned on the ride to the Elephant Nature Park, during the crush, elephants have to be monitored around the clock because they’ll try to kill themselves by stepping on their trunk. If that doesn’t break your heart, I’d check your chest cavity — it’s probably empty.

 

The living conditions are brutal.

Elephants by nature are intelligent animals who have complex social groups. But in captivity, more than three-quarters of elephants are chained when not used for entertainment purposes, according to the World Animal Protection report. They have very little interaction with other elephants, are fed poor diets, have no access to proper veterinary care and are often exposed to loud music and throngs of tourists — stressful situations that go against their nature.

Elephant painting also involves abuse 

Elephant painting also involves abuse 

Even elephant painting involves abuse.

I always thought this was cute — and what was the harm? They just give an elephant a brush and it creates a work of art.

Turns out to get the elephants to paint, the handlers, known as mahouts, hold the elephant's ear, hiding the fact that they’re stabbing a nail or sharpened fingernail into its skin.

 

The cruel treatment of elephants has tragic repercussions.

Elephants used for entertainment live shorter lives, have behavioral problems (for which they’re surely abused even more), are more likely to come down with chronic diseases and are less likely to reproduce, The Guardian reports.

 

Elephant tourism got started because of the decline of logging.

For centuries, elephants were used to haul teak logs, but realizing how depleted the forests were becoming, the Thai government completely banned commercial logging in 1989. Those in the logging industry were desperate to find a use for their elephants — and tourism became a lucrative alternative, according to EARS Asia.

Instead of patronizing an operation that offers elephant rides or tricks, go to a sanctuary like the Elephant Nature Park outside of Chiang Mai, Thailand, which rescues abused elephants

Instead of patronizing an operation that offers elephant rides or tricks, go to a sanctuary like the Elephant Nature Park outside of Chiang Mai, Thailand, which rescues abused elephants

Elephant tourism, sadly, is growing.

There’s a huge demand for elephant tourism — a 30% increase in recent years — but you really should resist. Give your money to a place that rescues elephants; don’t be a part of the problem.

Elephant tourism remains popular because it’s “a hidden form of cruelty,” Chiara Vitali, a wildlife expert at World Animal Protection, told The Guardian. The crush “will happen before any tourist sees an elephant, so they might see an animal that’s quite chilled out — but it had that beaten into it when it was an infant,” she explained.

“Venues that offer tourists a chance to watch elephants in genuine sanctuaries are beacons of hope that can encourage the urgently needed shift in the captive elephant tourism industry,” said Jan Schmidt-Burbach, global wildlife and veterinary advisor at World Animal Protection.

Now that you’ve learned about the horrors of training elephants, we hope you’ll never forget. –Wally

During the crush, elephants have to be monitored because they’ll try to kill themselves by stepping on their trunk. If that doesn’t break your heart, I’d check your chest cavity — it’s probably empty.

Flight of the Gibbon: A Zipline Chiang Mai Adventure

6 reasons why you should make ziplining through the rainforest part of your Northern Thailand vacation.

Duke and Wally on one of the two double ziplines at Flight of the Gibbon

Duke and Wally on one of the two double ziplines at Flight of the Gibbon

Diesel, Wally, Mr. O and Duke still feeling the rush from their ziplining excursion

Diesel, Wally, Mr. O and Duke still feeling the rush from their ziplining excursion

When we got back from our trip to Chiang Mai, Thailand, one of the first things people asked was, “What was your favorite part?”

There are so many to choose from — my monkey mind buzzes through dazzling, bejewelled Buddhist temples to getting up close and personal with rescued elephants. But one adventure  races to the top, so to speak: ziplining through the jungle at Flight of the Gibbon.

Yes, it’s as intense as it sounds. The ride was so long I had time to panic…and then calm down.

Making it all the more memorable is the fact that the morning we were there happened to be my birthday.

Here are six reasons why you should choose Flight of the Gibbon as a part of your Chiang Mai itinerary.

 

Flight of the Gibbons will pick you up and transport you to the jungle

Flight of the Gibbons will pick you up and transport you to the jungle

1. A driver picks you up right at your hotel.

They recommended the early morning time slot, as the rainforest tends to be cooler and the gibbons more active.

The downside is that it was too early for breakfast at our hotel. When you’re used to a hearty meal to start your day, as we had become accustomed, it’s jarring to skip any sort of sustenance — not to mention our caffeine fix!

We recommend making sure you’ve got something in your belly before your pickup.

Duke pointed out a pair of engraved buffalo horns in front of our seats in the van with rather angry-looking rats carved onto them. “They just look that way because they haven’t had a cup of coffee,” I grumbled.

The ride takes about an hour and half to the village of Mae Kampong.

Duke and Wally are all geared up and ready to hit the jungle course! (The harnesses are a bit snug in the crotch region, FYI.)

Duke and Wally are all geared up and ready to hit the jungle course! (The harnesses are a bit snug in the crotch region, FYI.)

They’ll hook you up with harnesses and helmets

They’ll hook you up with harnesses and helmets

2. Safety is their number-one priority.

We’ve done ziplines and treetop obstacle courses where you’re responsible for hooking yourself in. There’s a fail-safe where the device locks to assure at least one clamp is connected to the wire.

What’s so great about Flight of the Gibbon is that you don’t have to worry about any of that. At every station, there’s an attendant (they call them sky rangers) at either end. One sets you up, straps you in and gives you a push, and the other reminds you to put your feet up and helps catch you, stopping your momentum, at the end of the zipline.

“We want our customers to have fun and be safe, but safety is our first priority,” said Diesel, one of the staff.

 

3. The sky rangers are hilarious.

As an added bonus, the guys who work there are so goofy, they really set the tone for an enjoyable excursion, allaying any initial fears you may have.

I get vertigo, though there’s something about being strapped into a harness and wire that allows me to actually stand on narrow wooden platforms high above the ground. Maybe it's just that I love the thrill of ziplining so much I don’t allow myself to succumb to vertigo.

At one of the first stations, though, the platform jiggled and I started to panic a bit. But then Diesel came zooming across, doing stunts, his legs on the wire above him.

“I think he’s part gibbon,” I told Duke.

I quickly let go of any fear and gave into the pleasure.

And it wasn’t just Diesel who could have a second career moonlighting as a comedian. At a resting spot, a few groups converged, and we heard another ranger repeatedly calling a British guy Harry Potter. (At one point he even said the levitation spell: Wingardium leviosa!) And when a bright metallic blue beetle buzzed by, he broke into a refrain of the Beatles’ “Let It Be.”

A family of gibbons, including this mother and child, swing in the branches high above you

A family of gibbons, including this mother and child, swing in the branches high above you

4. You’ll meet a family of gibbons.

Duke has a thing for primates, and after watching a National Geographic special on Thailand called The Living Edens, he became obsessed with gibbons.

At one point, you do a little hiking. And just when we were getting a bit tired, Diesel called out, “You’re going too fast for me! Let’s take a five-minute rest.”

A roly-poly rolls up into a ball — and became ammunition for a prank amongst the sky rangers 

A roly-poly rolls up into a ball — and became ammunition for a prank amongst the sky rangers 

He took the opportunity to teach us a bit about the flora and fauna of the rainforest. He spotted a roly-poly bug, and when he picked it up, it curled into a tight armored ball. Diesel palmed it and kept trying to get other sky rangers to shake his hand and get a surprise bug as part of the deal. Like I said, a real kidder.

Up a hill, you head off to see a group of trees where a family of gibbons resides. There’s one female, with light fur, and three dark-furred males.

Diesel explained the difference between a gibbon and a monkey: Gibbons don’t have tails. Their long limbs are what allow them to swing from treetop to treetop.

Duke is also fond of their distinctive “whoop whoop” call, which we heard in full force later in the morning.

5. One of the ziplines is half a mile long!

At 800 meters, it’s the longest and fastest of the bunch. And, yes, it’s as intense as it sounds. The ride was so long I had time to panic…and then calm down.

See that glow on our faces? That’s the post-ziplining bliss

See that glow on our faces? That’s the post-ziplining bliss

Wally is giddy — ziplining through the jungle was a fab way to spend his birthday!

Wally is giddy — ziplining through the jungle was a fab way to spend his birthday!

6. It’s the thrill of a lifetime.

There are 30 stations, the majority of which are ziplines — with the highest one almost 100 feet up! 

A map of the 30 stations you’ll work your way through at Flight of the Gibbon

A map of the 30 stations you’ll work your way through at Flight of the Gibbon

Whee! Duke rappels at one of the stations

Whee! Duke rappels at one of the stations

If you’ve never been ziplining, it's high time you tried. If you have, then you probably understand the rush of adrenaline that comes when you soar through the treetops. It’s the closest to flying I’ll ever get. –Wally

The Most Incredible 360 Panorama Virtual Reality Pics Ever

AirPano’s aerial photography and VR videos of the world’s most famous landmarks reveal sights you'd never see otherwise.


Courtesy of www.AirPano.com

Iguazu Falls, on the border of Argentina and Brazil, are the largest waterfalls in the world. The AirPano photographers said that filming them has been one of the highlights of the project.

The photos are immersive. They engulf you. You almost feel as if you’re there. You can swoop around a famous site you’ve always wanted to see — only now it’s as if you’ve developed the ability to fly as well as teleport.

These 360-degree aerial panoramas are thanks to AirPano, a Russian not-for-profit that features 3,000 of these impressive images.

Two of AirPano’s photographers, Sergey Semenov and Sergey Rumyantsev, answered some questions about this ambitious, one-of-a-kind project. –Wally


How did the AirPano project get started?

In 2006, we learned how to take spherical panorama shots on land. In those years, this was not an easy task: It required a special panoramic tripod head, a sufficiently deep knowledge of shooting panoramas, and it demanded a lot of manual work.

At that time, we also had a lot of experience in photography from helicopters and airplanes, and suddenly Oleg Gaponyuk, the founder of the AirPano project, got an idea: Why not break all of the existing laws of taking panorama shots on land, and try to do it in the air?

We figured out how to take a spherical shot in the sky, where it is impossible to use a high-precision panorama head, because the helicopter can shift by many meters while shooting, due to the blowing of the wind.

After several unsuccessful attempts, we finally figured it out, and the result exceeded all of our expectations. The effect was stunning, and the viewer felt like they were sitting in the helicopter and seeing the surrounding landscape with their own eyes.

The AirPano team


What's AirPano’s mission?

When we realized what a stunning impression aerial panoramas produce, we decided to do a project called “100 Places on the Planet Which You Should See From a Bird’s-Eye View.”

We wanted to share with the audience fantastic, awesome, incredible impressions, inaccessible to most people.

After shooting the first 100 places, we didn’t stop there, and now on our website you can find panoramas of more than 300 places of our planet — from the North Pole to Antarctica.
 

Why is this project so passionate for you?

Few people have the opportunity to see the most interesting places on our planet from a bird’s-eye view.

First of all, it would require a significant amount of time spent traveling. Secondly, the best spots are far from civilization, in places with no airplanes or helicopters nearby. Thirdly, the most popular places have restrictions on flying, and lastly, it’s too expensive. Our project gives this opportunity to everyone, regardless of their location or wealth.

As photographers, we have visited over 100 countries around the world, and we have seen unbelievable scenery with our very own eyes. When it became clear that everything can be shown to people in a new way, we decided that we should do it. But back in 2006, Andrei Zubetz and Gaponyuk, the founders of AirPano, had no idea that the project would be so successful.

 

How has the project grown?

In the beginning we had a goal to capture the most 100 beautiful places of the world from above. We have captured all of them and we couldn’t stop. So our current goal is to keep shooting.

Technology evolves, so we come back to places where we’ve already been, but capture them in new format with high resolution. For example, we have now created 360-degree videos of some of our favorite waterfalls.

Victoria Falls, on the border of Zambia and Zimbabwe


How do you get those amazing panoramic photos and videos?

We shoot our air panoramas in a variety of ways: large helicopters and a radio-controlled “flying” camera. We use a typical SLR camera with a wide-angle lens. The process is not very long and it takes 30 seconds to shoot a single sphere.


Courtesy of www.AirPano.com

Antarctica


What’s the most interesting thing that has happened on your travels?

We’ve been in 300 places around the world, so it’s difficult to choose the most interesting thing in all these journeys. We’ve been on the Drake Passage on the way to Antarctica, on South and North Pole. We’ve seen a volcano eruption. And we’ve also created aerial panoramas from the stratosphere.


Were you ever in any danger?

Yes. We’ve walked by lava pipes. We’ve captured footage of wild animals on the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia and in Africa. We’ve met angry elephant in the savanna, who were following our car. When we were capturing rafting on the Zambezi River, one of our operators fell from the boat.


Courtesy of www.AirPano.com

The Raja Ampat archipelago in Indonesia



We’ve embedded footage of your favorite spots. What did you like best about them?

We are landscape photographers; we love beautiful views. There are the most spectacular views from above and from the ground of these places. There is a powerful energy and untouched nature.


Where would you love to go that you haven't yet?

The main places where we’d like to go are the United Kingdom and Japan. We have tried a lot to get there, but we have problems with getting permissions for aerial shooting. Also we love volcanoes, waterfalls and tropical beaches, so all these directions interest us.



Safari Advice

What can you expect on an African safari? What are “the Big Five” animals to see? And is it dangerous?

Giraffes at Kruger National Park in South Africa

Giraffes at Kruger National Park in South Africa

Wanderlust runs in the family. My cousin Kelly has taken two trips to Africa lately, including a safari at Kruger National Park in South Africa.

Here’s what her safari was like — and what you can expect if planning an excursion of your own. –Wally

The main rule in Kruger is that you don’t get out of your car.

What was the biggest surprise on your safari?

The biggest surprise was how many types of animals we saw. I expected to see elephants, zebras, giraffes, hippos, hyenas, etc. But I was so excited to see things like wild dogs, white rhinos, warthogs, kudus and even some cheetahs!

And, we saw so many babies — almost every type of animal had their babies with them. You see a lot of newborn animals in the summer (October through March). We were there in January. 

If you want to see babies, try going on a safari from October through March

If you want to see babies, try going on a safari from October through March

 

What was your favorite part?

Seeing the animals. Some people feel they had a successful trip to the park if they see “the Big Five,” which includes elephant, leopard, lion, rhino and buffalo. I did see the Big Five! That’s what you go to Kruger for, and there isn't much else to do there.

 

What’s a typical day like on safari?

We would be on safari early in the morning and late in the afternoon. Then, once we were back in camp by 6:30 p.m., we would cook dinner and talk about what we saw that day.

It’s typical to go to bed early so that you can be out by 5 a.m. to start your safari.

 

What were the people like?

They were great. Of course you’re surrounded by tourists, but a lot of South Africans go to Kruger, too. It’s a special part of their heritage.

The park rangers are very knowledgeable and interesting to talk to about the animals.

 

Did you ever feel like you were in danger?

No. The main rule in Kruger is that you don’t get out of your car.

There could be a lion 5 feet away, lying in the grass. We even went on night drives with a ranger, and I never felt like we were in danger.

On our last day in the park, we saw two lions lying in the middle of the road. We got pretty close to them to take pictures and I finally decided I should roll up my window — got a little nervous there.

 

What was the most interesting thing you ate?

Our friends cooked boerewors [a South African sausage, apparently] on the grill, which was so good.

And malva pudding [which contains apricot jam and is topped with cream sauce] for dessert is delicious.

 

Learn any fun expressions?

Some of the slang phrases we picked up from our friends were:

just now, which really means “in an unknown amount of time.” For example, "We’ll be eating dinner just now" (don’t get too excited, as that could mean two hours from now).

shame is typically used as a response to something negative, but some people use it all the time: "I am feeling so sick right now." "Shame." "I missed seeing the leopard in the tree." "Shame." Or "Our plane doesn't leave until 8 p.m." "Shame."

torch is a flashlight.

biltong is dried meat, or jerky.

 

Any final advice for those who want to go on a safari?

Here’s a special tip: Don’t forget to take malaria medicine!