September 27, 2013

Being Part of the Problem: Tiger Tourism

On our very last day of the trip our guide leaned back over the seat and asked me for the second time if I wanted to make a stop at Tiger Kingdom. I looked through the floorboard and off into space wrestling with this question one more time. Coming to Thailand I made it clear to my husband I didn't want to support any of the tiger "attractions" while we were there. So he had not put any of the numerous day trips to tiger kingdoms or tiger temples on our schedule.

I knew in my heart going to Tiger Kingdom was wrong. I had spent two weeks asking guides and locals about the conditions and their opinions of tiger tourism spots in Thailand. The three days we were in Chang Mai I had asked our guide several times about the tigers at the Tiger Kingdom, which he assured me was meant for conservation. I also asked him about Thailand's remaining wild tigers, as well as delicately asked about the Thai tiger farms I had herd whispers of and gauged peoples' thoughts on tiger farms in China.

Through these discussions I let myself believe in the peoples' sincerity that they loved the tiger, and wanted to help converse the last remaining wild tigers in Thailand. Looking up from the floorboard I sheepishly said, “Ok, let’s go.” In my ignorance I chose to dismiss what I knew in my soul was wrong.

As I walked into the enclosure with a handful of 4 month old tigers the tears started to fall. I couldn't get myself together enough to even sit down and take the photos until my time had officially run out; the trainers let me stay after other tourists had gone for the pictures I had paid for. One of the “trainers” asked me what was wrong, and all I could get out was “I love them” but what I wanted to say was...
“my heart is breaking for these tigers being exploited… by me.

I asked over and over "where do the tigers go once they're two and can't be with tourists?" No one would tell me; the tears continued to fall. Finally, a "trainer" budged and said they go to a reserve. Of course I knew that was a lie. 

Just about a month ago I was finally able to find a news report on what happens to the tigers once their purpose has been served (a lifespan of no more than 2-3 years).

"When a tiger gets to around 2 to 3 years old they are taken and put in a 
separate cage, because they can’t be around other tigers. 
They would start fighting and want to protect their area," explains Pim.

When a tiger matures in the Tiger Kingdom therefore, 
his or her life is either resigned to being part of a 
breeding program or kept in complete isolation 
in a cage for 24 hours a day for the rest of their life.

"What else can we do though?" asks Pim, "We can’t release them into the wild. The truth is there is no income and no provisions 
to take care of them otherwise, so we need to do this.""

Don't Pay to Play! 

So the exact same thing is happening in Thailand as in the United States with the “mall tiger tourism” where people can hold and take photos with baby tigers (in the US only 8-12 week old tigers can be in contact with the public – a very short window – so a constant stream of baby tigers is needed to fill the demand)

It breaks down to the fact that 
1. people pay to take photos with baby tigers
2. after 12 weeks they cannot generate money for their owners 
3. so they are sold or become breading machines to supply the need for more baby tigers 

Either way, the majority spend the rest of their lives in deplorable conditions. In the United States they call this horrific cycle the “Pay to Play” scheme that continues to fuel the US’s problem with backyard tigers living in small and cruel environments. The same thing is clearing happening in Thailand, but at a much smaller scale than in the United States where more than 20,000 big cats are registered (imagine how many are not on the books). 

This experience showed me how easy it is to get pulled into something you know deep down is wrong. I have to deal with the sorrow in my heart and regret on a continual basis for being part of a system that so clearly exploits tigers and ends with beautiful animals created to roam 100s of square miles, to instead spend their days in concrete boxes barely big enough to turn around in. 

We need to listen to our hearts. When you know deep down something is wrong, listen. Walk away. Don’t be part of the problem because it's easy to look past the truth. Every action has an opposite and equal reaction; your five minutes with a baby tiger means 20 years in prison for that animal. 

Amazing Video that will give you a full perspective 

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May 22, 2013

Scuba Diving: Phi Phi Island

We stayed at Phi Phi Village for five days and it was not nearly enough time! Everything from the room, pool, beach and secret restaurants was incredible.  As I mentioned, we were there during the rainy season. Somehow, we beat the rain at its own game by scheduling around it.  We had a beautiful day the first morning and so we decided to stay local and take in the beach and pool while sipping pina coladas out of coconuts all day. Since we didn't have any activities that day we had plenty of energy to make it up to the mountain top for dinner and finish the night off with a walk out onto the wet sand as the tide receded several hundred yards out to sea.

Our most intuitive planning happened when we realized the day was going to be over cast and raining two days after we arrived.  How to avoid that while on an island? Go under the waves – ie dive! Not only did this work out perfectly because it didn't matter if it was rainy when we were under the ocean (it can dilute visibility, but we didn't have that effect here), but there was another unexpected benefit... 

We were alone. All alone. Just us, the boat captain and guide.

I have been out on dozens of these tour boats all over the Caribbean and Mediterranean. It’s typical to see a double-decker boat pull up and every seat be filled with a tourist and a huge beach bad.  Well, the boat was the same, a double-decker was there to pick us up that morning but we were the only ones to board. So we ended up diving one of the most incredible soft coral reefs in the world with our own personal guide and no one else to worry about.

So while we did not get to explore the islands to their full extent due to rain and season we had the most incredible dives of our lives.  Essentially, anything you have seen on dives in the Caribbean imagine it 15 times bigger.  I was swimming past sea fans the size of tractor tires and over tube corals as tall as me.  I was so overwhelmed with the size of different coral that I had seen for years and years, but sadly, at less than half the size I saw them here.  The health of the coral reefs here are far from perfect, but when compared to those in the Caribbean they seem to be from another planet.  

Unlike the typical Caribbean experience, here you dive along side 
walls of coral that seem to go on for ever. One of our dive locations was exactly like this. 

Beyond size, the most spectacular part of the coral landscapes was the soft coral. The highlighter green and purple corals popping out of every crevice and flourishing to huge sizes, like the hard corals, was like seeing God’s watercolor masterpiece.  Often I had hovered over small outstretched arms of soft coral moving with the currents around Aruba, Granada,  and the Turks and Caicos to name a few of my favorites, but here they were hovering over and next to me. Bright yellows, oranges and colors you see nowhere else in the natural world where covering every inch of stone wall and rock. Diving here was truly the most spectacular natural scene I have ever witnessed.  

Unfortunately, no under-water camera at the time but here are a 
few that looked like what we saw! 
Saw lots of these guys! But no whale sharks unfortunately. 

That morning I struggled out of bed after a wake-up call, and pulled George along with me. We put on our swim suits and staged out of our hut and down to the beach where breakfast was served.  We were confused by the wait staff still working on place settings and the sun still not being up. We quickly realized we had taken the wake-up call’s accuracy too lightly and had actually gotten down to breakfast at six am, instead of seven am. It was worth it for the sunrise, but it goes without saying after a full day of diving we retreated into our little hut and didn't come out until the next morning. 


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Phi Phi Island Village - Bad Weather ~ Spa Day

Three nights in Bangkok feels like a week of travel anywhere else. The constant sounds of buzzing cars and rickshaws against the overload of smells coming from every inch of street, wide enough for both vehicles and makeshift food courts, is enough to send your senses into a comma. After three days of non-stop temple tours and long winding walks through allies packed with people and unidentified dried meat, the beach was seductively calling our names.  
 When promoting my “top honeymoon destinations” to George, the Phi Phi Islands were clearly given bonus points to boost Thailand’s score.  Pictures and postcards of long boats pulled up onto deserted white beaches lined by turquoise bays and engulfed by limestone cliffs portray the ideal honeymoon destination – I thought, and clearly George agreed (he got to make the final choice).

After landing in Phuket we were brought aboard a very nice, large speed boat.  The sky was somewhat dark and cloudy, with patches of sun highlighting the true, electric blue color of the water as we made our way to Phi Phi Island Village. It was Friday, May 25th and depending on what resource you refer to, the beginning of Thailand’s primary monsoon season had started and was well under way. Now, you might be thinking “how could they plan a trip to the world’s most beautiful beaches during the rainy season?” But, it could not have been better! Our island experience was certainly dominated by the weather – for better and for worse – but mostly for better (much more to come on this).

 As soon as we stepped off the boat and onto Phi Phi Village, we (me dragging George along) made a bee line to the spa. I am not much of a souvenir person, or shopper for that matter, but I had made it clear I intended to get a Thai massage, and I wasted no time.  We didn’t even change or go to our rooms, with the cloud cover, the beach was out, and a massage sounded like the perfect way to pass the rest of the day. Walking up the mountain path and into the spa lounge, the sweet lady ended up convincing George to do a couples massage (he had never had one before this trip). We headed up to our little jungle bungalow and found a man and woman waiting on us when we open the door.  I am immediately thinking, “oh my gosh, George is going to freak out having a male masseuse!” I instantly turned away, in fear of being completely awkward when George looks to me for help, and simply out of my mind trying not to laugh.  

Here in the U.S. you are usually asked to lie down and then put the towel over you when you are done and the masseuse will come back into the room, not here! Let’s just say, there was a cultural difference in “personal space” and “privacy.” It ended up being an amazing experience, but I still can’t contain my laughter when George talks about looking over at me for “a que of what to do,” and me being shamelessly already on the table looking way.  There were several times I couldn't relax because I was trying so hard not to laugh at what must be running through George’s mind! I won’t go into detail, but there were numerous unexpected moments that required the mentality we committed to at the beginning of the trip, “say yes to things you would normally say no to.”  Without question, you must indulge in a Thai message, when in Thailand, but be prepared for your expectations to be mottled by the shock of cultural divergence.  

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January 2, 2013

Tallest Pagoda in Thailand & Thai Village Culture Show

After our morning of negotiating at the floating markets we headed to one of Thailand’s main royal temples, Ratchaworaviharn, which includes the Wat Phra Pathom Chedi. Both titles, “tallest pagoda in the world,” and “tallest pagoda in Thailand,” are used to describe it and we herd both in Thailand. I’m not positive if it’s the largest in the world, but it is surely in the top tier and quite a site to see! Even more fascinating is its history which reaches back more than 2000 years. India’s Emperor, during the 3rd Century, send out missionaries to spread Buddhism to the east. The Chedi you see today, is built over ancient relics, including carved altars and stone wheels of law, that all predate 143 B.C. Scaling upwards, at 417 feet, it will be one of the most impressive stupas you will see, on any of your travels.


The day was starting to ware on us and at the perfect time we reached the Rose Gardens in Nakhon Pathom. As usual, lunch was served via buffet… oh the horror. “By the time we get to the beach I am not going to fit into my swim suit” I frequently shouted. Literally, it seemed like every meal was served buffet style or our order consisted of four overflowing dishes. The food is so incredible, however, there is no room for argument, you just have to circum and let your belt out. Comprised of curries, salads, and fish this spread was no different and I ended up eating enough for two people. The view of the small lake and surrounding garden was the perfect place to pause after a rushed and busy morning. After a quick walk around the orchid gardens, overflowing with incredible colors and combinations, we made our way down to the elephant show.

Glad I picked up this book before the trip!

Now, I had been very weary of this trip and all the possible animal situations we would see that would compromise my position on animal rights. However, I did intend to gain knowledge about popular places in hopes to bring attention to any abuse I saw including restaurants and entertainment shows. This was the first place where my radar started to go off. Thankfully, it appeared to be a false alarm. The elephants are paraded around and demonstrate how they are used in logging throughout South East Asia. Side note, logging elephants eliminate the need for forest clearing required for heavy machinery and trucks to access the logs that are typically needed in dense jungle. Yet, because elephants are able to maneuver through the forest and deliver logs to transportation without roads forest damage is minimal. I have seen documentaries showcasing operations that treat the animals well and in the end save thousands of acres of forest. Of course that is an ideal situation and likely not the usual one.

The show is slow-passed and by no means do the elephants look like it’s difficult for them to lift and push around these logs. From what we saw, during the hours we were there, the elephants are happy and not being abused. The Thai Village Cultural Show that follows is much more than we expected and really fun! Especially the end when you see their version of jumping ropes… with bamboo. This show is an impressive composition of well preformed snapshots of the Thai history and the many unique cultural practices that make Thailand so mysterious. Even the imitation Muay Thai boxing spectacle is entertaining and gives a good idea of a real match if you are not able to make it to an authentic one. 

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December 10, 2012

Damnoen Saduak Floating Market: Thailand

Our first day outside of Bangkok was welcomed, as we were both anxious to see the countryside. Getting just beyond the sprawling sky scrapers, you quickly feel like you are seeing the real side of rural Thailand. Our first destination was the floating market to be followed by an afternoon at the Rose Gardens.

Barely outside the traffic jams of Bangkok, it becomes apparent the majority of Thai people are subsistence farmers, and even more so, it’s a small plot system. Even though Thailand is accredited for their enormous progress and development, the vast majority of its people are rural and the country is still characterized as an agricultural society.

One of the better examples we saw of this type of livelihood was along the polluted waterways, we maneuvered through, to reach the floating markets. Scattered along the banks, between decaying dwellings, were small plot coconut farmers working beside ten foot tall mounds of hollowed out coconut husks.

The water would be repulsive to most westerners, as would the living conditions along these remote canals. I am thankful this is not my first or last experience with undeveloped living conditions. Through travel my parents gave me a world perspective that most are not familiar with. As a professor I became even more aware of my students’ lack of understanding of the everyday struggles of the vast majority of people on earth. That might have something to do with my personal ambition to bring real world examples of every topic I discuss into the classroom and have a face for my students to associate with every devastation, situation, or livelihood I present.

To say the least, the ride is enlightening to the life of these small plot farmers and provides a glimpse at the living conditions of millions of people living along the waterways of South East Asian. As we snaked past mildewed huts on our way to the floating markets, our guide started to tell us the story of the original Bangkok, or “Venice of the East.”

Bangkok’s history is deeply connected to the Chao Phraya River and the canals that connect to it and bring life to all corners of the city. Even today, the canals and rivers are very important; I saw all types of people, from monks to tourists and business men, riding on the water taxis to travel all over the city. As I think about what the landscape would have looked like before the towers sprawled out, I can vividly understand why early visitors to Bangkok described it as the “Venice of the East.” The floating markets we explored are reminiscent of the way people bought and sold goods and food in Bangkok.

The Damnoen Saduak Floating Market we visited is a very popular tourist destination and on first appearance would probably be written down in my book as “tourist trap.” However, once we stepped down into another small flat boat for a about two dollars we had a better understanding of how these markets would have looked and operated before we, the tourist, invaded them. We had fun looking at the boats full of fruits and women making food and drinks right in thier laps on these small little boats. If you look past the multitude of replicated souvenirs and focus on the people you will not be disappointed.

 It’s a place full of complete chaos as the women will hook your boat and pull you up to theirs to get a better look at what they are selling. As your boat and all the others continue to slide past and over each the atmosphere never settles but continues to be full of surprises. So even though it's touristy, if you have a little imagination you will find the value in seeing a piece of history under the noise and color of a tourist trap.

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October 16, 2012

Bangkok: Golden & Reclining Buddha

Waking up in Bangkok an our second day in Thailand, I was full of anxiety to get out and walk! There's nothing I love more than walking and exploring a city on my own pace, with no one to follow, and no rules to uphold. Unlike the day before, our schedules had a little more leeway, starting with a morning free to do whatever we pleased.

We had noticed on our drive up to the hotel the day before, the urban clutter behind the hotel was full of commotion. This is where the day would start! And where the first words of advice came into play; our taxi driver from the airport to the hotel wasted not time, to warn us, “don’t eat food from street! Our bellies different than your bellies!” Furthermore, as I asked about the famous street food and vendors, as characteristic to Thailand as elephants, a jewel of insight came forth, “everyone works in Thailand, there is no help from the government, everyone has to work.” There are no food licenses to obtain to be a street vendor in Thailand  and this lends to the ever presence of food around every corner, from the mountains to the beaches. 

We had a great time exploring and hiding our shocked faces after seeing full pigs’ heads, chickens, and fish being cooked and served up inches from the traffic and winding motorcycles.  If there is open real-estate on any Thai street, you can rest assured, soon a small mobile cart will be there soon. Quickly, unidentified contents will be frying then served up on rice to people crammed up under the newly erected open air restaurant with seats crammed in. Walking through the alleys and smelling all the food (and seeing it) is so foreign; seeing people interact with each other and eat on the go and in these small makeshift restaurants was just as culturally enlightening as visiting the temples.

Spirit Houses are another interesting part of the cultural landscape in Thailand - these small shrines are everywhere from parking lot of most businesses and in the front yards of most homes. This is another form of religious syncratism that plays on both Buddhist and Hindu beliefs.

When one o’clock hit we were off on our tour to see more of this mega city and its golden temples. By the end of a two week trip to Thailand the Buddha’s start to merge together, but one statue that is worth visiting, and will certainly be one you remember, is the Reclining Buddha at Wat Po, the largest temple in Bangkok. Stretching 46 meters and covered in gold leaf the Reclining Buddha is tied as the most impressive statue I saw on our Thai travels. My favorite part? The feet are decorated with mother of pear to resemble toe prints (like finger prints).

The other Buddha statue tied for first, place in my book, is the famous Golden Buddha at Wat Traimit, renowned as the largest solid gold statue in the world. Its past is one history and mystery buffs will love alike. To protect it from being stolen by the Burmese invaders in 1767, monks covered it in plaster and painted it.  The Burmese destroyed the city of Ayutthaya and left the unimpressive stucco Buddha there in the mist of the ruble. For almost two hundred years its true identity was masked as it was moved from city to city and temple to temple. Eventually in 1954 it was being moved, from its un-glorious position outside, when ropes broke and a glittering gold shine could be seen under the cracks in the plaster. The gold is estimated to be worth around $250 million dollars, just in case you were wondering.

File:Wat Trimitr.jpg

Once our tour was over we were dropped off in China Town, where the streets seem to be even busier that the rest of Bangkok! We were instantly drawn to the windows, all full of intriguing things to eat! Walking through China Town was one of my favorite parts of experiencing Bangkok. 

It is a unique part of the city with its own flavor. Our stomachs started to rumble and tempt us into eating the tempting street food, but thankfully, it wasn't long until we reached a store front crammed with crabs, fish, and less recognizable things on ice that looked like "the real deal." The meal was perfect, the Chinese food was by far the best I have ever had, however the pressing marketing for shark fin soup make the food dull in my mouth. 

the restaurant we ate at, recommended by the 
Princes for their noodles 

Visiting Thailand I had been preparing myself to see animals being mistreated (tigers and elephants primarily – I will talk about this extensively later) and menu items that would cause outrage at home. This was the second day of the trip and here it was. The flashes of sharks being brought up on boats, stripped of their fins and then throw back into the ocean to drown was swimming in front of my eyes. This is the reality of traveling and seeing things you are uncomfortable with; it is our responsibility to be educated on what “experiencing the local culture” is and what constitutes participating in the destruction of ecosystems and species. Its crucial to be an educated traveler and know where to draw the line.  We should have chosen a different restaurant when I spotted the shark fin soup, and I will always regret the decision to stay. I have learned from this experience and the guilt I feel over it; never again will I stay at a restaurant where the menu contains such cruelty

a picture as we drove by a restaurant in China Town with
shark fins proudly hung in the window 

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