Discovering the world with relentless curiosity

Category: Adventure

Guilin To Beijing On The High Speed Train

Arriving in Guilin by air, we spent a few days exploring Guilin city and headed to the sleepy town of Yangshuo to have a better view of the beautiful karst…

Arriving in Guilin by air, we spent a few days exploring Guilin city and headed to the sleepy town of Yangshuo to have a better view of the beautiful karst mountains. Then took the high-speed train to Beijing with an estimated time of 10 hours and 30 minutes but eventually stretched to 12 hours due to some technical issues. We bought second class seats (RMB806 / $130 per person) which meant that our train seats can only be reclined a little and there were no pre-booked meals. The seats were more spacious than airline economic seats and the wide windows offered panoramic views of the changing landscape.

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Getting on the train was a feat in itself. We had to take a taxi from our Air BnB apartment and it was raining heavily. A very kind taxi lady stopped for us in the middle of the road and even came down and helped us with our bags. With our very broken and limited Mandarin, we managed to tell her where we wanted to go. At the train station, everything was in Mandarin. We had our tickets at hand and the only thing we could understand were the numbers on the ticket. “1035 (departure time), G422 (train number), 10 (Guessing it’s the carriage number) and 9 (Guessing it’s my seat number). There was a large crowd already at the waiting hall. Minutes later we heard an announcement on the PA system and everyone barged to the entrance. We followed suit, albeit with less haste and no pushing!

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We walked to the platform and saw number markings on the floor and made another guess that the markings meant the carriage number. We got into the train without a glitch and settled down into our designated seats.

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The doors closed and we were on our way. About ten seats in front of us, a ‘private party’ was going on. Chinese men were clanging beer bottles, laughing, chatting and eating pork and noodles with chopsticks over folded tissue paper. I looked around and people were already getting cosy in their seats, curled up with a pillow, others were snacking on cookies and many others were tuned-out and tuned-in to their electronic devices. I even spotted someone doing some yoga stretches.

yogaIMG_0609Throughout the journey, we made 18 stops alighting passengers and picking up new ones. The landscape was predominantly farming land with rolling hills as a backdrop. Block houses dotted in the fields and farmers with hats were bent over busy in the field. The sky was downcast and the clouds were low. A constant drizzle followed us through. Nearing Beijing, we stopped at ‘ghost towns’ with tall building blocks that seemed vacant. It was interesting to people watch when the train stopped, although there wasn’t enough time to leave the train.

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We had lunch and dinner on the train. For RMB40 ($6.50), we had pre-packed trays of rice meals – rice, beef, chicken, potatoes, veggies and Chinese condiments. It wasn’t horrible but it was definitely overpriced. We were so glad we had our own snacks to munch on.

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We filled the hours with reading, reading stories to Seth, walking to and fro different carriages, playing games and eating. We were constantly snacking! Peanuts, dried fruit, biscuits, preserved plums… you name it!

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Overall it was a great experience. We survived 12 hours, travelled 2,135 kilometers on a train with a toddler. A good sign and precursor for the many more train rides to come…!

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Flying High In Queenstown

New Zealand’s landscapes are nothing less than dramatic, from towering mountains to dense lush forests to majestic seas with abundant sea life. Imagine flying over these landscapes and appreciating the…

New Zealand’s landscapes are nothing less than dramatic, from towering mountains to dense lush forests to majestic seas with abundant sea life. Imagine flying over these landscapes and appreciating the beauty from a  bird’s eye view. It is a bit of a splurge but the experience in itself is a lifetime memory. Here’s are some shots that captivated my soul and fueled my grand appreciation of the Creator.

We started our journey from Queenstown flying over the vast Lake Wakatipu with mountains rising from its surface and over secluded alpine lakes bypassing rugged peaks.queenstown helicopter line  7lake wakitipu helicopter Queenstown helicopter ride deborah chan

At some point our entire view were just spikes and jagged peaks as we passed through waves of barren mountains. We saw the grand Bowen Waterfall cascading from a crack on a mountain peak, flew past fluffy (almost edible) clouds and landed in Milford Sound. The entire journey from Queenstown to Milford sound took about 30 minutes, but it felt like eternity (the awesome kind of eternity!)

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We landed in Milford Sound for a meander around. Known as Piopiotahi in Māori, Milford Sound is a fjord in the south west of New Zealand’s South Island, within Fiordland National Park and the Te Wahipounamu World Heritage site. Its spectacular sheer cliffs, mountains and thundering waterfalls left us in awe – but we didn’t do the cruise this time, as we have visited Milford Sound a few years back.

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After a short walk, it was time to go. We put on our mufflers and headed back into helicopter. The blades spinned as the engine cranked up and we were soon flying again.

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We spotted some white patches on rock mountain surfaces, we flew over some snow capped mountains and then we flew face on with a glacier patch that our pilot named “Puddle”. The closer we got to the “Puddle” the larger it got and soon without a flaw, our helicopter made a gentle landing on the glacier. The doors swung open and a gush of chilly wind blew in. It was hard to believe that we were stepping on glistening snow.

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We watched as other helicopters made their landing, just a gracefully as ours did. The dramatic view was breathtaking to say the least. It was very humbling to be surrounded by mountains and to realize how (really, really) small we are.

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Our little son slept through most of the 90 minutes experience. I reckon the sound of the helicopters engines lulled him into deep slumber.

Want more? Watch this video and catch a glimpse of our unforgettable experience in the air. Helicopter Line fly from Queenstown, Milford Sound, Mount Cook, Franz Josef Glacier and Fox Glacier.

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Photo Journal: Gunung Mulu National Park

Gunung Mulu National Park is remote, and is typically accessed by only one commercial flight, MAS Wings on a small twin otter airplane. The flight is quite frightful and rather…

Gunung Mulu National Park is remote, and is typically accessed by only one commercial flight, MAS Wings on a small twin otter airplane. The flight is quite frightful and rather different for those of us who are used to flying Boeing airplanes. This nature hideout holds much to discover and I’m glad it’s not flocked by mass tourists.

Located in east Malaysia’s Sarawak state, Gunung Mulu National Park, a World Heritage Site holds the world’s largest natural cave chamber, the Sarawak Chamber. Sprawling an enormous 700 meters in length, it is massive enough to fit an airplane. Another highlight of the park is the Pinnacles, a series of razor-sharp limestone peaks rising from the earth, a view unlike any other. Unfortunately when I visited Mulu a couple of years back, I wasn’t able to do any of the overnight hikes since I was in my first trimester.

Even then, I was able to glimpse at the wonderous beauty that Mulu has to offer in her rich biodiversity tucked in primary rainforest and nearby caves. My photo journal will tell a better story in the images captured this pristine natural wonderland.

Arriving at Mulu in a twin otter airplane. So glad the journey wasn’t long as I was getting antsy!
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Savouring wild bananas and was surprised to find crusty black seeds in them! The park was teeming with all sorts of native plants and some were devoured by insects leaving them hole ridden.

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Traveling upstream to the indigenous Penan community. Here they sold handmade handicraft and told stories of long gone.
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Trekking to Deer Cave and Lang Cave was a lovely stroll, walking on well-maintained boardwalks under a dense canopy of rainforest trees. The trek to these caves would not be complete without bat sightings that take place every evening. Thousands of tiny Wrinkled-Lipped Bats rush out of the cave’s chambers in search for their night-time meals. The sight is nothing short of spectacular as they circle and form snaky-lines in the sky before dispersing into the forest.

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Night hikes are not to be missed! Upon nightfall, creepy critters come out to hunt for food. Within a 100 meter radius of the campsite, a variety of insects can be found. A word of caution, it’s not for the faint-hearted. If you’re afraid of insects and reptiles (like I am), stay in the middle of the group and carry a torchlight to light your path.

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A Closer Look: Yea Or Nay To Elephant Rides

It was a thrilling experience as I sat bumping along from side-to-side on a tailor made basket fitted on the arch of the elephants back. The gentle giant paced along…

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It was a thrilling experience as I sat bumping along from side-to-side on a tailor made basket fitted on the arch of the elephants back. The gentle giant paced along sure footed as ever over the wide open plateau, passing through endless forest covered hills and down incredibly steep slopes. The hilly landscape of Mondulkiri, Cambodia’s eastern province is beautiful yet unforgiving.

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I dodged the occasional menacing branch that came head on as the elephant continued along the path where sounds of the rushing river roared. It was about 45 minutes into the ride and my bottom was starting to get sore from the bumpy ride. My knuckles were a certain white from the mighty grip I kept along the exhilarating journey. The adventure was just beginning, for the elephant, that is. Poun, my elephant was taken into the rushing river for a bath. It looked fun as he splashed around and enjoyed the free scrub by his mahout. All of this sounded rather picture perfect for a wildlife experience. But as curiosity warrants, I gathered some answers to some probing questions that make the Case of The Elephant Ride.

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You see having been involved in the business of sustainability, I have been trained to ask questions. Questions that most tourists would not ask. These questions helped me make informed decisions on whether tourism has leave a positive or negative impact for communities and the environment.

The Elephant and His People

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Poun belongs to Mr. Hong, a native Bunong (Pnong) man. The Bunong tribe are the indigenous peoples of Mondulkiri. They are animistic in their beliefs and therefore have incredible respect for animals, trees and all living creation. Mr. Hong bought Poun from a shaman when the elephant was 10 years old. There was no money exchanged, instead it was a barter trade – 30 bulls for 1 male elephant. Mr. Hong had to bring together livestock from a few families to ‘purchase’ Poun.

Mr Hong tells me that the shaman is the only person capable of luring the elephant from the deep forest. Poun was a baby elephant when he was taken out. He was intentionally separated from his mother and left to wonder. The shaman conducted some spiritual rituals and was successful in leading the baby elephant out of the forest into the village. Poun then spent many years with the shaman where more spiritual rituals were conducted and the elephant was finally tame enough for a human master. It was then that Mr. Hong ‘bought’ Poun.

Elephants are a big part of the Bunong culture and lifestyle. Mr. Hong considers him more than just an animal, in many ways, Poun is part of the village community.

The Elephant and His Work

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Since the age of 10, Poun has been used as a ‘transporter’ for Mr. Hong and his family. Poun would take them on his back into the deep jungles to forage for food, cross rivers and carry bamboo and logs. Poun did a marvellous job, according to Mr. Hong. The elephant brought them to places where otherwise would take days to get to. Undoubtedly, it was also hard work for the elephant – steep terrains and heavy loads.

Today, Poun is used as a ‘transporter’ for tourists. He works up to 3-4 hours a day with meal breaks in between. The labour is probably not as intense as before but he still gets growled at by the mahout. During my elephant ride, I was quite disturbed at how the elephant was coerced to walk and move. My mahout, a young lad held a hard whip made of bamboo with a hard rubber ball hanging at the end. He was constantly threatening to whip the elephant if the animal did not respond immediately to his loud grunts and growls. There were moments where I thought it absolutely unnecessary for the mahout to be as demanding as he was. I watched carefully to see if the whip did end up on the elephant. Thankfully, I witnessed no whipping, but the rude commands were unsettling. I am no veterinarian to comment on the state of the elephant, but I personally did not see any wounds or bruises.

Poun’s working environment has been such for the last 20 odd years. He is 33 years old now.

The Elephant, Money and Well-being

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Poun helps provide for the family. With every tourist that come and participate in an elephant ride, the family gets about $25. There are now 4 elephants shared among a few families and the money is divided amongst them. Mr. Hong said, “Since I started this ecotourism activity, my children can now go to school and I have motorbike to go around Mondulkiri and we can now buy more meat from the market instead of eating vegetables and rice only.”

It seems like a win-win situation for all. The elephant works and is allowed a fair amount of free time to wander, his master gets fed, his master’s family is happy and tourists are happy. But as I pondered on the situation, I can’t help but realize that all of this is misfitting for the magnificent mammal.

Elephants are made for the wild with the freedom to road, chew on any bamboo branch until his heart’s content. Elephants that are taken from the wild have little chance of reproducing, stunting the elephant population. Elephants are great not just for its size and mighty ears, but its tusks. Tamed elephants have their tusks broken or sawed off to avoid fatal accidents.

In this case, it’s a win-lose situation and the loser is quite apparent.


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After the rugged trip into the jungle sitting on the mighty beast, I have come to an unresolved conclusion. A definite yes or no is unfair and difficult as there are so many factors to consider. It is easy for me as an ‘outsider’ to judge, critique and assess the way Mr. Hong lives and how the mahouts treat the elephants, yet it is more complex to fully understand the heritage, tradition and culture of the Bunong people (or any tribe for that matter). In this case, the elephant is an important part of their livelihood and who are we to criticise when in other cultures horses are trained to show jump, bulls are put to fight and dolphins are trained to jump through hoops.

I was not completely comfortable with the grunts and growls offered by my mahout to Poun, but I also witnessed how these mahouts genuinely cared for the elephants. I cannot fault that the elephants are really part of the village community and I choose to respect the Bunong people’s culture and acknowledge that this (in fact) their way of earning moolah. Would I ride on the elephant again? Perhaps not. But I did enjoy the experience and chance to be so close to such a magnificent mammal.

** Whether you are planning to ride on an elephant in Thailand, Cambodia or India, I would strongly advise tourists to look up the tour operator or organization you are engaging with and read up before making an informed decision to ride or not.  Each elephant case is specific, individual and closely linked to a certain destination and its community.

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Journey to Kratie Where Dolphins Play

Traveling in Cambodia is not as simple as hiring a car and heading out. Roads are often ridden with potholes. Cows, chickens and dogs dodge on roads without notice. Children…

Traveling in Cambodia is not as simple as hiring a car and heading out. Roads are often ridden with potholes. Cows, chickens and dogs dodge on roads without notice. Children cycle and play on roadsides making it a gruelling experience to even drive more than 80km/hr. Tractors and crazy busses whizz by without a wink. Despite living in this country for more than three months, I would not take the risk of driving on my own.

I was extremely relieved to learn that my driver and guide, Ra is an experienced and careful driver. It was going to be a long day on the road, 7 hours to be precise. We left Cambodia’s popular Siem Reap province down south pass Kampong Thom and busy Kampong Cham and onward to Kratie, the sleepy waterfront province.

Most of the journey’s landscape were of resplendent paddy fields and stilt houses. Most of Cambodia is flat and its fields as far as the eye can see. We stopped at Kampong Thom for a stretch at a beautiful restaurant facing the lake covered with lotus pods. Little huts erected along the banks with swinging hammocks inviting the lazy traveller for a snooze.

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We travelled on to Kampong Cham and soon the landscape dramatically changed. We caught a glimpse of the Mekong River, its tea-colored waters distinctive. There on, the road heading to Kratie was quite unpleasant. Dotted with hundreds of potholes, the road was anything but smooth. The view however was a good change from paddy fields. Large rivers were peppered with floating huts set on large rafts said to be the houses of Vietnamese villagers. In place of paddy fields, dense shrub and bush followed the roads. Finally, passing the first of five one-way bridges, we arrived at Kratie.

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The sleepy town made popular by the endangered freshwater Irrawaddy dolphins, Kratie has become a popular stopover for wildlife lovers and independent backpackers. The town is fairly small and a nice size to explore. There is a large market right in the center and most guesthouses face the waterfront.

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You can rent a bike under $1 and cycle the whole town. If you are ambitious, you can also cycle 15km north of Kratie to Kampi where the dolphins can be seen. At Kampi, we rented a fishing boat to take us out to the deep pools where the dolphins hang out.

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After about 30 minutes on the boat, our boatman turned off the engines and paddled around. In the deep pools, the waters were still, unlike the rough waters on the way there. Tall trees submerged in water with only its tops swaying on the surface of the water create a good spotting mark to help with keep our orientation. We waited for a mere five minutes and then we heard our boatman say, “There!” About 60meters away, we saw silky bodies gliding above the water. And then another, and another! Their stature much smaller than bottlenose dolphins and a lot shier too. The big bulging head of the Irrawaddy dolphins are unmistakable.

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We spotted at least 4 dolphins, always in pairs. Ra, our guide told us that there are less than 100 dolphins left in the massive Mekong river, spanning over 4000kilometres and bridging 6 countries. The numbers intensely dwindled both from hunting and pollution as a result of over development. It is said that during the Pol Pot regime, these dolphins were even seen in the Tonle Sap River but were tragically wiped out because people hunted them for oil and meat.

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With energy to spare, we rented a bicycle on the mainland of Kratie for $1 and boarded a large fishing boat over to the small remote island of Koh Trong, a quaint island village. This is a must for those who want to immerge in the real Cambodian lifestyle. Koh Trong has only one paved road going around the island. There is no tuk-tuk on the island, only bicycles and motorbikes. Renting a bicycle on the mainland ensured that we had speedy transport the minute we arrived on the island.

Koh Trong Island

People on the island were extremely friendly exchanging hellos and even giving us free pomelos! There are several mid-range lodges on the island and a few community-based homestays. There is no constant electricity on the island and villagers charge their car batteries at a small makeshift generator station. Private lodges have their own generators but electricity only comes on after sun down. As I explored the island, the more it grew on me. The laidback lifestyle, the friendly people and the numerous farm animals; chickens, horses, cows and dogs – a slice of real local Cambodian community.

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Let’s Chat With: Robin Boustead, The Great Himalaya Trail Pioneer

My love for trails and mountains led me to a casual interview with Robin Boustead, a trek developer, mountain climber and pioneer. I met Robin in October 2013 at a…

My love for trails and mountains led me to a casual interview with Robin Boustead, a trek developer, mountain climber and pioneer. I met Robin in October 2013 at a travel trade show in Singapore was immediately inclined to dig deeper into his travel journey when he mentioned the Himalayas! Trekking to the base camp of Mount Everest has always been my dream and I was eager to learn more.

Robin has been trekking Nepal since 1993 and he fell head over heels in love with the Himalayas, the great mountain range that stretches across six countries including Bhutan, India, China, Nepal, Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Himalayas is also home to Mount Everest, the world’s highest peak.

After innumerable trekking trips, Robin and his friends decided to take on the challenging feat of completing the Great Himalaya Trail (GHT), one of the longest and highest alpine trails in the planet. His intention was to make the trail more accessible for avid trekkers and climbers. Since 1980, less than a dozen people have ever completed the trail. The handfuls of people were hard core explorers and scientists – none were novices.

Robin put himself to the task and in 2008; he set off on that epic journey that took him a total of 6 months. Throughout his journey, he meticulously recorded the route using GPS and detailed specifics including elevation, distances, rest stops, water sources, villages and camp sites which can be found in the Great Himalaya Trail Book. He returned a new man and a much lighter one too… Robin lost 20% of his body weight after the trip!

Robin Boustead

Here’s my chat with the great pioneer and some insider tips for those attempting the GHT:

Ardent Traveler (AT): In 3 words, describe yourself (for those who don’t know you).
Robin Boustead (RB): Passionate, Himalayaphile & Determined

AT: What’s your single most memorable travel experience?
RB: Trekking across Nepal and Bhutan… two wonderful trips that changed my life.

AT: Over the last two decades, you have successfully mapped out the Great Himalaya Trail (GHT). What are your three most significant lessons from this endeavour?
RB: Patience in all things, Take a sense of humour everywhere you go & Share your passion

AT: You’ve been doing this (mountaineering) for many years. What drives you to reach mountain peaks?
RB: The view from the other side! – I’m serious! For too many years I got bored going up and down the same route, but the GHT is about crossing the mountains, passing through different communities and immersing yourself in diversity.

AT: What advice would you give to first timers attempting the GHT?
RB: Don’t try to do too much, take your time and focus on a quality experience for everyone involved – not quantity (how high, how far, how long)

AT: Tell me a little about the communities inhabiting the awesome route along the GHT.
RB: There are 16 different ethnic groups along the Nepal GHT alone – the diversity is incredible! Although poor and sometimes barely subsistence, they are always willing to share what little they have and you must make sure you find some way to repay their generosity. Be creative and don’t rely on giving things away, or simply pulling out a bundle of rupees.

AT: Any plans on pioneering other trails around the world? What’s next on the agenda?
RB: More GHT! I still haven’t had enough and there is so much joy returning to places.

AT: Finally, if there is just ONE thing that readers should know about the GHT, what is it?
RB: It’s a journey, one that will improve the lives of all involved.

AT: Thanks Robin! 

The GHT is now accessible to all and there are two routes to choose from, the low route also known as the cultural route passing through remote villages and a chance to interact with local communities and high route, a scenic and high altitude alpine route with unbeatable mountain views. There’s more to read here. 

Let’s Chat With is a new series of light hearted, down-to-earth, personal interviews with people I’ve met or connected with along my journey as a traveler. These are people who have piqued my interest and have an amazing tale to tell. I hope that my conversations with them will inspire you, challenge your perspective on life and feed that wanderlust within you.
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Wildlife Spotting At Yala National Park

After reading an article in Action Asia and missing the sight of a leopard during our South African safari, Yala National Park was a must as encounters with the agile…

After reading an article in Action Asia and missing the sight of a leopard during our South African safari, Yala National Park was a must as encounters with the agile spotted cat is almost guarantee (as safari guide claims). Descending from chilly Nuwara Eliya snaking down mountain slopes and onto wide open roads, the trip to Tissamaharama, a small town 24kms from Yala, was smooth one. The weather gradually changed from cold and dry to hot, arid and humid. Yala reflected the weather in the deserts of Dubai leaving a knot of dryness in our throats and trickles of sweat on our skin.

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At Tissamaharama, we checked into our hotel, treated ourselves to a serve of rice and curry and curd for dessert. We retired early that night to reserve energy for a pre-dawn start to our safari experience. Yala National Park covers a vast area of 97,878 hectares mostly covered with dry vegetation of short thorny shrubs with patches of secondary forest interspersed between. The park is well known for it’s wildlife. Dubbed by Action Asia magazine as the “asian safari” spot, this national park is home to Asian Elephants, sambar deer, mongoose, water buffalos, sloth bear, crocodiles, pangolins and over 120 species of birds. The park’s coastline is a beautiful sight with historical significance and blocks of half torn buildings standing as a solemn memory of the 2004 tsunami.

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We hired a safari guide who brought us into the park in his jeep at about 530am to beat the growing queue of jeeps rushing to go in. The atmosphere was tense, guides waited to purchase permits to enter while guests wait patiently in respective jeeps. This was incredibly different from the South African safari experience we had in Kruger National Park. As soon as we got the permit, our guide rushed into the driver seat and drove rapidly pass the park gates.

“What was the rush?”, I thought. Eventually I found out that every visitor who enters the park has an unspoken expectation to see the elusive leopard. Guides who manage to ‘show’ their guests the leopard will be paid a higher tip. Our guide’s handphone rang, he picks up with a few words exchanged, we were sped off to an apparent sight where a leopard has been spotted. About 5-6 jeeps parked bumper-to-bumper and intrusive camera’s snapped away. To add to my annoyance, the engines of the jeeps were still puffing away while we ‘enjoyed nature’!

Disappointed at the lack of responsibility and respect these guides had for nature, I silently wished the leopard episode will soon come to a halt. As if the leopard heard my cry, she stood up and trotted away leaving the invasive crowd of human paparazzi.

Thank goodness the rest of the safari was conducted in a more respectable way. We cruised along quiet plains, stopped at water banks and simply observed nature – as is. We managed to catch a glimpse of a family of spotted deer lapping water in a bed of crocodile infested pond.

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We watched the solo elephant gallantly stroll pass swinging his clumsy trunk right and left. And we caught a peacock parading his fan in the bushes as we munched on our roti for breakfast. Yala is a pretty sight and the local guides need to learn how to respect it for what it has to offer, less nature and wildlife take a back seat.

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