Discovering the world with relentless curiosity

Category: Adventure

Trans-Mongolian Rail Adventure: Beijing To Ulaanbaatar

After spending a week in Beijing, we were ready to escape the city’s hubbub for some countryside tranquility. Train tickets in hand, luggage in tow and the toddler in the…

After spending a week in Beijing, we were ready to escape the city’s hubbub for some countryside tranquility. Train tickets in hand, luggage in tow and the toddler in the sack, we headed to the train station. It was chaotic – mad crowds at every turn, trolley bags knocking on my ankles, people elbowing at my side in a hurried puff, the air was still and incredibly humid. We had to find the station’s entrance, but all signs were in Chinese. Then we spotted a queue with some Western travelers in the line. We promptly asked if they were heading to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia capital and they said, “Yes”.

The line steadily snaked in going through security and then into a large waiting hall. It dawned on me that this is IT! We are really getting on a train starting our Trans-Mongolian railroad adventure! One sure sign was seeing other western travelers with their huge backpacks and hiking boots on – the look of rugged travelers ready to embark on a great adventure.

TransMongolian7The gates opened and there before us, the familiar green train with the famous red star on its side. I’ve seen this train in pictures after many months of researching prior to the trip. We were on the right track. I looked around and saw people taking selfies. There was a tangible mutual excitement that lingered in the air – an anticipation that was almost forceful enough to push the train along with a chugga-chugga.

TransMongolian8Our train attendant was a stalky, middle-aged friendly chap. He checked our tickets and waved us in. This was the first overnight train of many to come as we were headed west straight to Moscow in the next few weeks. New to the whole train scene, we got into our cabin of four, with two bunk beds on each side, a small table next to the window and enough for two adults to stand side by side.

TransMongolian9We stored our luggages under the bottom bunk bed and stowed away our small backpack. Surprisingly, although the cabin may seem small at first sight, after keeping our bags, there was enough room to sit comfortably, even with legs outstretched. Every space and fixture in the cabin has been thoughtfully positioned – we had hooks for small towels, hangers for clothes, a little rack for phones or small items and in each carriage had two power sockets and a samovar for hot water anytime of the day. It’s especially convenient for making instant noodles and coffee.

TransMongolian10TransMongolian11TransMongolian3Since we bought second-class tickets, our carriage did not have air-conditioning. And the worst part was that the windows in our cabin was faulty so it couldn’t be opened. The small fan helped with circulation, but since it was summer – it got a bit hot and stuffy in the afternoon. We would escape to the first-class carriages (two beds per cabin with a cushy seating space) to enjoy some cool air. But as soon as we received stern stares from the train attendant, we exited promptly. We did this several times until the afternoon heat simmered down.

One of the best things of train travel is meeting new friends. Stuck in a small space, we’re forced to forge new friendships. We shared our cabin with Samantha, a young British girl who was also headed for Mongolia and she was going to spend a month in the country before moving onto South Korea. We exchanged travel stories and shared umpteen snacks.

TransMongolian5Not long after we departed, our train attendant (each carriage has one attendant) knocked on our doors and gave us clean bed sheets and duvet covers. Then he gave us two red and green tickets for lunch and dinner – we couldn’t contain our excitement! No where in the ticket did it say lunch and dinner was provided. We did not catch this information on any of the guides we have read – so it was a pleasant surprise.

What we found out after the whole TransSiberian experience was that Chinese trains offered the best food. Who can fault a Chinese cook with a belly sticking out and a towel around his neck? There was a fully equipped kitchen in the dining carriage and the wok was fired up at full steam. We had rice and celery chicken for lunch and rice and meatballs for dinner. Sadly we were too enthused with the food to take any pictures. It didn’t stay long on our plates.

TransMongolian12Eight hours down, 20 hours to go! We’ve explored different carriages, visited the loo several times, read a few stories to Seth, finished a few chapters in our books and popped way too many raisins and nuts. Surprisingly, we were not bored (yet). The novelty of sitting on the train still gripped us. I kept taking out my phone to capture the ever-changing scenery. The train meandered past valleys with towering mountains on both sides, farmers were seen herding cattle and sheep in wide open plains, we saw modest Chinese homes with unmistakable a-framed tiled roofs clustered in small communities and we tunnelled through mountains – and each time we did, the cabin was pitch black. Seth’s favourite was going through tunnels. He would exclaim, “Mommy, where are you?” with hands outstretched, “Daddy, are you there?” groping in the dark. He would snicker as soon as we exited the tunnel.

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Changing Bogies At The Chinese-Mongolian Border

Whether you’re a regular train passenger or not, one of the more unusual experiences happens at the Chinese-Mongolian border – Erlian. Here, the train’s bogies (wheels) have to be changed due to the different track gauges used by Mongolia and China railway networks.

We arrived at 940pm at Erlian, immigration officers entered our carriage to carry out customs and immigration checks. They take our passports and ask us to verbally state our names while looking at us with a steady glare. We were given a choice to remain on the train or alight at the station. Once you get off the train, chances are you will not return until after the bogies have been changed – the whole process took about two hours. Terence went down to get some snacks and ended up waiting. At the station there are proper toilets, an ATM machine and some shops for drinks and snacks. Most people alighted, but I stayed since Seth was fast asleep and I had secretly wanted to see how the bogies were changed.

Our train wheeled into a shaded platform where each carriage was raised, one at a time during the bogie change. Toilets on the carriage were locked and electricity was shut down. The bogies are then removed and new ones are replaced. Every time an existing bogie was removed from a carriage the entire train would shake violently. There was a lot of banging and knocking involved too! At some point I thought Seth would wake up crying because of the loud clanking but he slept through, even snoring at some point.

After an hour and more of ground shaking activity, the carriages are lowered back onto the track and we headed back to the station to pick up the other passengers. It was another 30 minutes wait before we got our passports back and then we finally bid goodbye to China.

An hour into the ride and just as we were about to settle in for some slumber, we arrived at Zamyn Uud the Mongolian border. Our jarring cabin lights flicked on, a smart looking lady officer with strong perfume and brightly coloured nails motioned for our passports. We handed it over and she stamped our customs declaration forms. The wait continued – another two hours on a stationary train waiting for our passports to be cleared. Alas at 315am, about six hours since Erlian’s border crossing, the officers returned to the train and handed back our passports. Our train chugged away into no man’s land and we sank straight into bed.

Good Morning Mongolia!

The air was cool and arid, our cabin door was still shut but outside I could hear children from the other cabin exchanging notes on Mongolia, “Dad, can we ride a horse? Do they have camels too?” “What do people in Mongolia eat?” “They look like Chinese, but they are not.” I chuckled under my sheets and thought, what an amazing country Mongolia is – even children are genuinely curious about her.

TransMongolian14The scenery had changed dramatically. I saw horses galloping afar, random gers dotted in the field, and we even passed some grazing camels. The morning has broken and the skies were the brightest blue with stark white clouds and the occasional majestic eagle circling the sky.

TransMongolian6TransMongolian2We made our way to the dining carriage to grab some breakfast and I was completely spell bound when I opened the carriage door. The dining carriage must have been changed at one of the border crossings and I was now staring at a Mongolian-furnished dining hall. Wooden furnishings of Mongolian instruments, bow and arrow and other hunting paraphernalia. Faces of ancient gods were part of the fixtures too. I could tell that every person who walked in for the first time was equally surprised. They had that “Wow” look on their faces, almost gawking in disbelief. We had some hot goulash and buns for breakfast and immediately missed the great Chinese food the day before.

TransMongolian1328 hours after we first boarded the train, we arrived in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar. The day was incredibly hot, but a new country awaited us. We alighted with our bags and toddler in the sack and was greeted by a cheerful welcome from our hostel host. I love this country already!

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If You’re Gonna Travel To See A Wall – Make it This One!

As a Chinese, I’ve grown up with stories of the Great Wall. Although from a Chinese descent, China has always seemed like a foreign land to me. As a young…

As a Chinese, I’ve grown up with stories of the Great Wall. Although from a Chinese descent, China has always seemed like a foreign land to me. As a young girl, the little I knew about her was that my grandfather came from China many moons ago, that the Great Wall is one magnificent wonder I should not miss and that panda’s are still around, albeit close to extinction.

My grandmother used to tell me stories of her trip to ‘the’ magnificent wall. Over the years, I’ve laid eyes on many postcard-worthy photos and even watched documentaries with detailed facts from history. Instinctively, as I grew more passionate about seeing the world, the Great Wall was way on top of my bucket list.

THIS IS WHAT I CAME TO CHINA FOR!

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This timeless ruin completed in the Ming Dynasty to protect the Chinese empire from invasion against the Mongols is today one of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites. Both a historical treasure and a man-made wonder, it is no surprise that thousands of tourists visit this site in busloads loads every day – yes, even in the thick of winter. One of the ways to beat the crowd is to get here early and to find sections of the wall that are least likely a choice mass tourists. The Badaling section is the most visited one out of the nine sections opened to tourists. We decided on Mutianyu to avoid the masses.

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Located 70 kilometres northeast of Beijing in Huairou County, the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall is thought to be one of the best-preserved and longest sections of the wall. Since it is farther from the city, the crowds are less – but still we got there early, at 8am before the tour buses arrived at 10am.

The Great Wall at Mutianyu is 22 kilometres long and has 22 watchtowers – the highest of which reaches an altitude of 540 meters above sea level. Before we set foot on the wall, we had a choice to take the chairlift or walk the dauntingly steep stairs to get to the wall. We chose the latter without knowing that it would be that steep and got our morning workout sorted.

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The first sight of the wall was unforgettable – the famous grey stoned-washed walls with unmistakable parapets stood before us bearing proof that this was once a defence fortress, hence the challenge of getting up there. The wall’s pathways are wide in some areas and narrow and uneven at other parts. Tall narrow stone steps led to watchtowers and eventually to Tower 1, the highest of the 22 towers.

transsiberian_180transsiberian_191When we finally got to Tower 1, the crowd was more evident. Casting our eyes along the wall, we saw pockets of people mostly posing for a picture, taking jump shots, waving selfie sticks in the air and making slow ascend to different watch towers. A tangible sense of awe is in the air – it’s hard not to appreciate a man-made structure like this.

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According to history, during the initial stages of the wall built during the Qin Dynasty (way before the Ming Dynasty), bricklayers used glutinous rice flour as binding material for the wall. A more gruesome truth however, is that the Great Wall is synonymous to the ‘longest cemetery on Earth’. Human remains have been found buried under the wall according to leading archeologists. Many talk about the grand magnificence of the wall, but if the wall could speak, I am dead sure that it would tell of the millions of lives lost in the construction of it. Bitter cold winters, hazardous terrain and arduous labour contributed to tragedy. And today, many tourists – me included, stand in wonder of this piece of living history.

I echo the words of my two-year-old, Seth, “The Great Wall – very impressive!”.

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transsiberian_183IMG_0736I gazed out the window at Tower 1 and took in all that this place had to offer. There in my moment of silence, a strange calm came over. If only I could overnight here, I would – I’m sure my imagination and stories of the past would make great company.

Getting to Mutianyu

There are many sites that tell you how to get to Mutianyu Great Wall, but I found this one on China Highlights very practical and easy to follow. And if you can’t get enough of the wall or want to be the first early bird up on the wall, then staying at Mutianyu is the perfect option. The village at the foot of the Great Wall is an interesting one with many eateries, local guesthouses and tiny sundry shops. We stayed at the Brickyard Retreat and enjoyed unobstructed views of the Wall with complete privacy in our personal outdoor lounge.

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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.

Irrawaddy dolphins 1_Ardent Traveler

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.

Irrawaddy dolphins_Ardent Traveler

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.

Koh Trong Island1

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