Author Archives: Robbie

A Year To Remember

31st December 2015

Some years come and go, without too much out of the ordinary.  The Earth has revolved around the Sun for the four and half billionth(ish) time, and it’s now 2016.  Society tells us it’s time to reflect on the prior year, set goals for the next (which are almost always unattainable), and spend the night drinking champagne with friends, and watching Ryan Seacrest pandering to a million lunatics in Time Square.  Even those of us who aren’t nostalgic have a difficult time NOT thinking about what happened in 2015 or hoping for the best in 2016.

2015 was my year, I want 2016 to be your year.  Here’s what I learned in 2015: If you don’t gather the courage to chase your dreams, jump off of a cliff into the unknown, and take a chance that isn’t 100% certain of succeeding, your 2016 will be a lot like 2015, 2014, or any other arbitrary revolution of Earth around the Sun.

I’m not suggesting to do something crazy, I just want to let you know that if I didn’t walk away from a promising job, leaving my friends, family, things, and my four-legged best friend for 6 months in 2015, I wouldn’t have been blessed with the experiences and people that made 2015 a year that changed the trajectory of my life.

Yes, 2015 was a lonely and sad year for my 401(k), but hopefully, in the long run, the business I started with my new found courage will more than make up for the difference.  I learned how to really save money and make it stretch, all without skimping on the true experience.  I also learned that spending time with those you love is worth more than I ever realized, and I’m glad this understanding came before I left too many years in the rear view mirror.

So, raise your champagne glass to 2016, my hope is that we all spend more time and energy on the things that really matter, each other.  I encourage you to dig deep in 2016 and do the thing you’ve always wanted to do, but came up with enough excuses to avoid.  Here’s to 2016, the year that will change your life.

Here are a few highlights of my life changing 2015:

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— Robbie

Go Weird or Go Home

12th October 2015

People who say, “keep Austin weird” haven’t been to Idaho (and don’t get me started on Nevada). I didn’t start this US road trip thinking “yes! I finally get to go to Idaho!”, but what I really wanted was to be surprised and learn more about my own country. That’s the case with Idaho.

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Pickle’s in Arco, just outside of the nuclear testing laboratory is home to the…. Atomic Burger.

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First off, yes there are lots of potatoes. I happened to travel through Idaho during potato harvest season, so there was no doubt about the potatoes. In fact, the trucks hauling them from the fields were so full of potatoes, I could probably fill my entire house, or at least my first apartment with one truck of spuds. Beyond the endless trucks of tubers, Idaho has something else to offer, dramatic contrasting landscapes.

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For example, Victor, Idaho is just a short drive over a mountain pass from Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and offers stunning views of the Teton Mountains (but without the price tag). Head west and the mountains yield to vast agricultural communities full of you ‘betcha, potato farmers. Eventually, the earth’s soil becomes too volcanic to farm, and the “warning, do not enter or you will be shot” signs start lining up along the highway.

Idaho actually leads the nation in industrial research, keenly nuclear research. Our route towards central Idaho lead right through the Idaho National Laboratory, a National Security site sitting on a massive chunk of desolate volcanic soil that rivals Area 51 on the creep factor. Looking beyond the almost alien rock outcroppings, you will spot sporadic installations cooking up who knows what in those laboratories. This testing ground really helps keep Idaho on the cutting edge of technology, in fact, nearby Arco was the first city in the world to be lit by electricity generated from nuclear power.

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Idaho also hosts a relatively unknown, yet aptly named National Park, the Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve. I’m not sure why the conspiracy theorists believe the moon landing was filmed in Hollywood, it could’ve been shot in central Idaho! Hiking around the craters and lava flows formed from two ancient volcanoes really gives you the feeling you’re on another planet (or moon).

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The lunar landscape isn’t the only surprise Idaho threw at me. The majority of Idaho seems to consist of rugged, wild national forest and wilderness areas, consolidated in the central and panhandle portions of the state. Driving north from Craters of the Moon along the Salmon river through the Salmon mountain range I started to realize that Idaho has just about everything to offer, including pristine wilderness. The next time I’m fighting for a fishing spot on a river in Colorado, I’ll remember the hundreds of miles of pristine river with only a handful of anglers.

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I like Idaho because it’s different, and a little weird, and that’s cool. It’s wild, diverse landscapes constantly surprised me, and they even made me feel like I was on the moon.  So, keep Idaho weird.

— Robbie

Cambodian Cuisine

10th August 2015

If you’re looking to adventure beyond your typical family dinner (no matter where you’re from) try your hand at Cambodian cuisine.  First step, ingredients.  Head to the local grocery store and pick up some crickets, tree ants, tarantulas, frogs, and…yes, rats.

If you’re still with me, you have an adventurous spirit.  In all honesty, I have no idea how to dish up Cambodian specialties like tree ant beef stir fry.  However, I tried as many of these dishes as I could, and I’d like to share those experiences.

Aubrey and I visited the well known Romdeng Restaurant in Phnom Penh for our first authentic meal.  We had a beef stir fry, smothered in a nice sauce full of tree ants.  It was the first time I’ve (intentionally) consumed ants, and to my surprise, they added a nice crunch and spice to the dish.

My second dish (which Aubrey decided not to partake in) was grilled rat from a roadside stand outside of Battambang.  Our tuk-tuk driver stopped to grab one for himself, and asked if I wanted to try grilled rat.  I was intrigued, but not immediately sold on the idea.  However, after learning that the stand’s proprietor kills them daily in the rice fields with bamboo dart guns, I knew I better not offend her, and decided to go for it.  For your information, it looks like chicken meat, but tastes like pork.

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Mr. Chan Jacky, our tuk-tuk driver and guide into the unknown world of Cambodian street food.

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Like choosing a good watermelon, there’s also a method for choosing a good grilled rat.

Crickets were next on my list.  They’re the potato chips of Cambodia, you can’t just have one.  Honestly, I think they taste like seaweed, and I just don’t happen to be a fan of seaweed.  We were just outside of a cave in Battambang, waiting for five million bats to make the daily spectacle of exiting the cave.  The bats weren’t running on time, so we waited with a group of locals who housed an entire colony of fried crickets while waiting for the bats.

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Just needs a little salt.

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The young man in the Batman shirt outside of the Bat Cave, serving up free crickets to queasy travelers.

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Just a few of the millions of bats flowing out of the cave.

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A few cows grazing in a field outside of the cave at sunset. Look closely and you’ll notice a ribbon of bats as they flutter through the sky.

The uniqueness of Cambodian food goes well beyond street food.  We treated ourselves to a couple of equally unique dinners at fancy restaurants in Siem Reap prior to leaving Cambodia.  I believe one of my favorite meals was an entree of chili crusted frog legs.  Delicious!

Although it might’ve been tough to allow myself to try some of the unique foods of Cambodia, I’m glad I did, and I believe those experiences have opened my tastebuds to new and delicious possibilities.  What’s the most interesting food you’ve had?

— Robbie

The Experience of Angkor Wat

8th August 2015

Cambodia was our last stop in Southeast Asia, so after visiting temple after temple throughout the region over the prior two months, I was expecting more of the same.  I was wrong.  The massive and ancient Angkor UNESCO World Heritage Center in Cambodia is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.

At almost 400 square kilometers, Angkor is one of the largest operating archeological sites in the world.  It took us about three days to see a small fraction of Angkor, but in my opinion, it was some of the best spent time in Southeast Asia.

Angkor is located in Cambodia’s northern province of Siem Reap, and was essentially, the center of the Khmer Kingdom from the 9th to 15th centuries.  It’s a daunting maze of temples, paths, hydraulic structures, and monuments, best navigated by an experienced tuk-tuk driver!

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One of the entrance gates to Angkor Thom.

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Water Buffalo grazing the moat outside of Angkor Thom.

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View from the top of Pre Rup.

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I found the elaborate carvings to be especially interesting and very well preserved, especially for being hundreds of years old.  Carvings cover almost every square inch of Angkor: bridges, doors, walls, handrails, you name it.  There is a particular temple, where it’s believed that women built and carved the entire temple.  The main theory of the feminine touch is that a man’s hands just simply can’t produce such intricate and detailed work. (This might’ve been Aubrey’s favorite temple).

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Carvings from Banteay Srey, said to be from the hands of women.

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This is an actual door at Banteay Srey, I couldn’t resist.

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Borderline inappropriate, but it’s art.

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The structural integrity of several temples has been under attack for centuries by trees that climb and spiral around the ancient stones.  Although it’s a significant threat to the temples, you can’t help but feel like Indiana Jones, exploring a wild and unknown ancient world.

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Entry gate at Ta Som. Are you having “Temple of Doom” flashbacks?

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Angkor is also a fully functioning community, with farms, schools and residences spread throughout.  My experiences with the locals weren’t unlike the encounters I’ve had with other Khmer people.  They were all friendly, welcoming, and genuinely happy to meet you during your visit to Cambodia.

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These guys were drafting off our tuk-tuk between temple visits.

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These monks were actually having a professional photo shoot, but were kind enough to let me take a few pictures and chat for a while outside of Baphuon temple.

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Our time at Angkor was one of the highlights of not only our visit to Cambodia, but Southeast Asia.  The history, nature, and especially the people of Angkor and Cambodia will have a lasting impact on me in the future.

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Proof that not even a monkey can chug an (almost full) coca-cola and not burp.

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— Robbie

Hoi An

25th July 2015

For me, Hoi An was a highlight of our visit to Vietnam.  A mix of modern Vietnam in a well preserved coastal colonial city.  Our experience started off well, with a visit to Mr. Sons, a roadside food stall with excellent seafood.  Our other dining experiences in Hoi An served up similarly tasty dishes, but none were quite so friendly as our experience with Mr. Son and his wife.  They made us feel welcome in their city as soon as we arrived.

The city is preserved as a UNESCO world heritage site, and the buildings are all strikingly similar to the way they looked hundreds of years ago.  The unique mixture of ancient Chinese and Japanese architecture mixed with colonial charm is unlike anything I’ve ever seen.

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The places of interest within the city mostly include ancient houses, immaculate temples, gourmet dining establishments, and an array of high end shops.  Aubrey and I spent an afternoon amazed at the detail of Chinese built temples and community centers.  We were taught by an elder how to ring the gongs and drums, and we even tailed a tour group for a while to get a little additional information on the meaning behind the grand decor.

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One afternoon after fully exerting ourselves exploring the city’s streets and alleys, we stopped into the Reaching Out Teahouse to relax and escape from the rain.  It’s a “quiet” tea house, fully staffed by hearing and speech impaired employees.  We utilized sign language and hand written notes to communicate with our hosts.  It was a truly unique and relaxing experience.  Plus the tea was very tasty.

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IMG_6966 During our visit to the teahouse, we learned that there is an associated shop down the street that sells goods handmade by physically and mentally disabled members of the community.  We had a chance to visit the workshop, meet some of the employees, and purchase high quality fair trade gifts.  Visit Reaching Out Arts and Crafts to learn more.

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— Robbie

Hue, The Imperial City

22nd July 2015

I was corrected about ten times before I figured out it’s pronounced “way” and not “hewy”.  Some of these corrections were made by other patrons of the mini-bus into Hue from Dong Hoi.  Yes, we promised ourselves we would never ride in another mini-bus, but we didn’t have too much of a choice on this one.  If you’re wondering, the experience was mostly similar to other mini-bus encounters, except our mini-bus had a “boss” who would hang out of the vehicle and solicit additional passengers.  I’ll just say the mini-bus was well over capacity, but at least no one was sitting in my lap.

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The highlight of our brief stay in Hue was enjoying authentic Vietnamese food at several great spots, and also visiting the Citadel, Vietnam’s Ancient Imperial City.  The Citadel is a fortified city, surrounded by a moat, and utilized by the Royalty who ruled Central Vietnam, mostly in the 19th century.  The Citadel has been extensively rebuilt and restored in some areas, as it was mostly destroyed during the French and American conflicts.

To me, the most impressive aspects of the Citadel are the immaculate gates.  Countless oversized and impressively decorated gates showcase the statement royalty intended to make to outsiders.  The pictures say it all.

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Stairway to Heaven

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Gates, Gates, and more Gates

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And, Another Gate…

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And, Another Gate

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And, Another Gate…

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And, Another Gate…

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Half of A Gate…

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A person finally using a Gate…

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Ok, last Gate.

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Even though our stay in Hue was brief, it was yet another opportunity to experience the impact of the the French and American wars on the local people and heritage sites.  We’re fortunate that portions of the Citadel have been beautifully restored, and we were able to pay it a visit.

— Robbie

Fun at Phong Nha

18th July 2015

I tried to talk Aubrey into buying a motorcycle in Hanoi and riding it down to Saigon, exploring the country on two wheels.  I was unsuccessful.  However, we utilized about every other mode of transportation on the way to Saigon.  The first was a night train from Hanoi to Dong Hoi, in the North-Central region of Vietnam. We ended up sharing a cabin with an older Vietnamese couple who were traveling with their grandkids, that’s another story, but at least no one snored during the night.

The purpose of taking the train to Dong Hoi was to visit the remarkable Phong Nha National Park.  Another UNESCO World Heritage Listed site.  The region contains one of the most intricate cave systems in the world, including the world’s largest cave.

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Our first stop in the National Park was to visit Paradise Cave which was only recently discovered and opened to the public.  Somewhat unprepared, we hiked up about 45 minutes worth of stairs to get to the mouth of the cave, and then descended back into the depths of Paradise Cave.  Although exhausting, it was well worth the effort.  The subterranean beauty can’t be captured through pictures, it’s a must see if you visit Vietnam.

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After reversing course and heading out of the cave and back down the mountain, we set off for Phong Nha cave, a famous cave with a 14 kilometer long underground river.  The Phong Nha cave was also one of Ho Chi Minh’s hideout’s during the American/Vietnam war.  His army used the cave as a bomb shelter and command post for part of his campaign to reunite North and South Vietnam.

IMG_6585 IMG_6575 IMG_6546We cruised into Phong Nha cave in a long boat, making sure that our heads didn’t scrape on the roof of the cave.  Our captain shut off the engine and navigated our boat 1.5 kilometers into the cave and back out.  We saw everything from bats, glow worms, and world famous stalactites.  It was a new experience seeing such an impressive cave from the inside of a boat, and realizing its importance in Vietnam’s history.

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We enjoyed seeing the caves of Phong Nha, but the trip to Dong Hoi wouldn’t have been so pleasant without spending some time with our new friends at the Tree Hugger Cafe.  If you’re ever in Dong Hoi, stop in and have a coffee and a piece of the daily cake, you won’t regret it!

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— Robbie

Getting into Vietnam

11th July 2015

If you’re planning on visiting The Socialist Republic of Vietnam, and you’re required to obtain a visa, a few pieces of information will help ensure you arrive in Vietnam with the least amount of hassle.  From experience, Vietnam requires visitors to jump through more hoops than any other country I’ve visited in Southeast Asia.

Vietnam requires visitors to either obtain a visa prior to arriving, or acquire a “letter of approval” for the visitor to apply for a visa upon arrival.  There are three options that will get you one or the other:

The first option requires mailing your passport to the Vietnamese Embassy in your country well ahead of your visit. The second option is to visit a Vietnamese Embassy and apply for the visa in person.  The third option involves hiring a Vietnamese travel agency as a middleman to submit the relevant paperwork and forward the government’s letter of approval back to you.

I prefer to keep my passport in my possession leading up to travel, so I excluded option one.  One downside to traveling without an itinerary, and a relative lack of wifi, is realizing you’ve waited too long before applying for the letter of approval, which takes at least three business days to process.  Aubrey and I were slowly moving through Laos when we decided we wanted to travel to Vietnam, but we didn’t feel that we had enough time to seek option three, the letter of approval.  So, we went for option two and planned on visiting the Vietnamese Embassy in Vientiane, Laos to apply for a visa in person.  Unfortunately, my mistake was believing the consulate could rush the process and issue a visa application in one day.

Upon arriving at the consulate, I was told it would take at least two business days, most likely three days.  That didn’t work, since we had a flight later that day… whoopsie.  The advice of the consulate was, believe it or not, contact a travel agent, there’s nothing the consulate could do within one business day.

Determined to get to Vietnam despite our drastic procrastination, we retreated to a coffee shop, soaked up some caffeine and wifi, and started contacting travel agents requesting a letter of approval in order to enter the country.  Luckily, we were able to find an agency online that would be able to process our information and provide us with a letter of approval within hours.  Time is money, but we didn’t want to delay our plans or our flights, so we paid an exorbitant rush fee.  My advice would be to skip options one and two and just go for the letter of approval, but well in advance.

The remaining requirements for the visa upon arrival are $45 USD (in addition to the fee for the letter of approval) and one passport size photo.  As for the $45 “stamping fee,” Hanoi’s airport does not have an ATM or currency exchange, so bring dollars, Vietnamese currency is not accepted. I know, convenient right?

As for the photo, Vietnamese customs will take your picture for a fee at the Hanoi airport, but we had already packed a few extras for this situation.  Earlier in the day, after finally getting our letter of approval, we walked around Vientiane looking for a place to procure passport photos.  After searching in the 108 degree heat for way too long, (where’s a photo booth when you need one) we essentially gave up and decided to see some sights in Vientiane.  We stumbled upon the Patuxai gate, which is ironically Laos’ version of the Arc de Triomphe, erected to celebrate its independence from France.  I noticed several local photographers lounging around Patuxai offering to take pictures of tourists in front of the monument, and sell printed copies out of the back of a van.  Almost like at a theme park, but way creepier since the back of a van is involved.IMG_5885 IMG_5884

I saw this as an opportunity.  With some pantomiming skills, I was able to convince one of the photographers to take our pictures and cut them to size for use as passport photos.  Before we knew it, we were posing in the back of a guy’s van, with a blue sarong as a backdrop.  He printed and chopped the photos in a matter of minutes.  I think I might have given him a new business idea.

Although it was an experience to remember, if you’re heading to Vietnam, avoid the consulate and the back of some guy’s van.  Get the letter of approval in advance, and bring US dollars and a few extra passport photos.

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— Robbie

Comparing the Chiangs

1st July 2015

I became familiar with three “Chiangs” in Northern Thailand.  The cities of Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, and Chang Beer.  I’ll focus more on the first two Chiangs, although I felt Chang beer had too much of a Champagne feel for my taste.

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An artisan in Chiang Mai.

As mentioned in “The Will to Survive”, the Chiang Mai area is home to a fantastic Elephant Sanctuary.  However, it’s also packed with history and architecture of ancient feuding kingdoms, bustling night markets, international cuisine, language schools, and excellent barber shops.  Further north is Chiang Rai, a smaller city closer to the Golden Triangle, the notorious region where Myanmar, Laos, and Thailand’s borders meet, and until somewhat recently, supplied the vast majority of the world’s opium.

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Chiang Mai’s Saturday night street market.

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A delivery of flowers in Chiang Mai.

My new Thai barber.  Aubrey played with an electric flyswatter for an hour while I got my haircut.

My new Thai barber. Aubrey played with an electric flyswatter for an hour while I got my haircut.

I’ve always preferred the slightly less frequented, less known destinations.  In this case, that’s Chiang Rai.  Not only because it isn’t cramped with tourists (like myself… I know) but because the people, food and culture are all just as vibrant without quite as many negatives.

Compared to Chiang Mai, which intrigues travelers by its ancient city and moat, built to keep the Burmese invaders out, Chiang Rai is home to a modern twist on ancient art and history.  Chiang Rai is home to the White Temple, a buddhist temple that lives up to its name on the outside, but every inch on the inside is covered with murals of modernity.  The murals tell one story, but incorporate characters, among many others, from The Matrix, TMNT, Star Wars, Despicable Me, Batman, and Superman.  Unfortunately, photography is prohibited within the temple, so you’ll have to believe me.

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Another ancient temple in Chiang Mai.

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A roof of dried leaves in Chiang Mai.

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Chiang Rai’s White Temple.

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Chiang Rai's White Temple had a creepy underworld theme.

Chiang Rai’s White Temple had a creepy underworld theme.

We also took a nice long ride on the motorbike to a local waterfall in Chiang Rai and really got the feel for the local hiking scene… Jungle hiking is not easy, and this 7 kilometer hike almost killed me, but the waterfall was a nice destination on a hot and humid day.

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It’s as legit as it looks… and yes, that’s a bamboo hiking stick.

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Chiang Rai’s waterfall. Nope, didn’t swim in that water.

The food options in Chiang Mai are much more diverse due to it’s larger population, a laser focus on food stalls, and a more consistent demand from tourists.  However, the food in Chiang Rai is more traditional northern cuisine, which tends to be a little spicier, and includes more sausage and noodles.  I loved it all, that’s probably why I gained a pound or two on this leg through Thailand.

Cost.  That’s an important factor if you’re on an extended journey.  Chiang Rai is noticeable cheaper and consistently meets and often beats the quality of accommodation, food, and attractions in Chiang Mai.  The most noticeable and largest factor for me was the accommodation.  When I left and paid my bill, I felt like I should’ve paid more, and that says something.

It took visiting both to get a feel for the diversity that has existed in this region over thousands of years…  If I were to go back, I would just spend a few more days in Chiang Rai.

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What about engagement photos?

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“In” as in fashionable, or currently in-stock?

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Sorry, Aubrey.

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— Robbie

The Will to Survive

22nd June 2015

The days leading up to our visit of Elephant Nature Park (ENP), Thailand’s only true elephant sanctuary, were full of excitement.  I was overwhelmed by local advertisements for elephant camps which only exploit these amazing animals for the benefit of tourists, and I was ready to see and help “happy elephants”.  It’s ok if you haven’t thought about this it until now, I was completely ignorant to the ongoing abuse of elephants until I watched HBO’s documentary, An Apology to Elephants last year.

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Five adult females and two young elephants form a family. The young elephants loved to play with each other, mowing over anything or anyone in their path.

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One of the older elephants; the oldest being 74 years old.

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Tail wagging in concert.

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After the two hour drive to ENP from Chiang Mai, we arrived just in time to see a family of elephants get lunch.  What an amazing introduction to the Asian Elephant.  After quickly being warned that they might confuse your camera for food, we were helping them eat whole watermelons and squash.  As quickly as I could grab the fruit or vegetable, the trunk of a hungry elephant would grab it from my hand.  That personal contact, something that I’ve never experienced before, really started the ENP experience off on a great note.  I enjoyed it while I could, because it didn’t last long… these elephants can put down some grub in a hurry!  I also realized that our dog Lucy isn’t the only animal with a mental alarm clock when it’s dinner time.  Most of the elephants at ENP have free roam over the entire park (about 350 hectares) but show up at the right time and place, exactly when the food shows up.IMG_4242

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For reference, I’m 6′ 0″.

IMG_4286After eating a little ourselves, we were offered an opportunity to bathe the elephants.  Healthy elephants bathe everyday and quickly reapply the cool dirt and mud from the river, a natural sunscreen on their exposed skin.  This was even more fun than feeding them, it was challenging, and a little exhausting trying to splash every inch of an elephant!

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One of many, many buckets of water.

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Just prior to a full roll into the water. This elephant preferred self-bathing.

Just prior to a full roll into the water. This elephant preferred self-bathing.

IMG_4513That evening, we had a chance to check into our bungalow right next to an elephant shelter, where a couple families lay down their trunks for a good night sleep.  It was really almost unworldly hearing the sporadic trumpet calls throughout the night and into the morning.IMG_4871

This younger elephant (10 years) scooped up her food and headed to the picnic area. She prefers to eat in the shade.

This younger elephant (10 years) scooped up her food and headed to the picnic area. She prefers to eat in the shade.

Another young elephant (around 2 years old) trying to climb up a hill to greet us and see if we have any food for him.

Another young elephant (around 2 years old) trying to climb up a hill to greet us and see if we have any food for him.

The following day, we were absorbed by more feeding and bathing of elephants, but also included trekking into the jungle in an attempt to meet all of the 44 elephant residents at ENP.  Some of the elephants are relatively new at ENP, or suffer from disabilities that are best treated away from the general population.  The elephants in these families were especially resilient to their previous lives outside of ENP.  They include blind elephants (manually blinded or from overexposure to “circus” lights), land mine survivors, and elephants with broken legs and hips as a result of forced breeding.  Seeing the disabled elephants was especially hard, knowing that elephants have extraordinary life long memory and are very emotional animals.

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Liberally applying sunscreen.

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This young male’s foot is bandaged, as he’s currently recovering from having his foot caught in a poacher’s trap.

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This female’s hip was broken after being squeezed into a small space and crushed by a male elephant during forced breeding. Fortunately, she has a family at ENP that cares for her every day.

Aubrey and I both agree that visiting ENP was a life changing event, and I recommend it to anyone who has an opportunity to visit Northern Thailand.  The proceeds from eco-tourism and world wide donations are what keep ENP afloat and able to accept additional rescued elephants.  To learn how you can help ENP, visit their website.

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— Robbie