Escape of the Week: Udawalawae National Park, Sri Lanka

The sunrise in Sri Lanka casts a pink and orange glow across the peach dirt, warming me despite the slight chill in the air. In front of the guest house we’ve stayed at, there are two larger-than-life Jeeps, with their sides and roof ripped off and rows of plastic benches replacing the normal seats.

We’re off on a safari to see some elephants where they belong — in the wild.

“It’s nothing like what you’ve seen before,” my friend tells me before I climb into our SUV. “Seeing these animals in the wild … it is just amazing. It gives you an entirely different appreciation for them.”

Pee-ow. Pee-ow.

That’s the first thing I hear as we pull onto the very dry dirt road at the entrance to Udawalawae National Park.

What on earth? 

“Peacocks,” our guide explains. For the past two days, every time I hear that call, I have thought it was cats. But, nope. Peacocks.

Udawalawae National Park, Sri Lanka

He points to one in the distance, perched on a tree. Shutters snap as our group lay claim to the memory of our first peacock at the park.

But, the peacocks aren’t what we’re after. So, as the sun rises higher into the Sri Lankan sky, we set off on our journey through the vast park.

The third most visited park in the country, Udawalawae is home to various species of birds, lizards, cows, buffalo, and, of course, elephants. Spanning around 119 square miles, the 30-plus-year-old sanctuary is quiet at this time of morning. Even though we’re told it is the perfect time of day to spot wild elephants, it seems at 6:30 a.m., most of the world has yet to wake up to join us on our journey.

And I’m totally OK with sharing Udawalawae with only my team and the animals.

As the pee-ow continues to be the soundtrack, we venture into the park, bumping and thumping along dirt roads in our yellow SUV. Every now and then, our guide clinks a rupee against the metal shell of the vehicle, alerting our driver to stop. He will point out an animal, our cameras will all go off simultaneously, and then we will continue on.

It isn’t far into our journey when we spot our first elephants.

Udawalawae elephants

Bathed in thick brown mud, Mom and Baby meander together through a thicket of tall grass, casually whacking the blades against their legs to soften them and then depositing the vegetation into their big mouths and chewing it.

Udawalawae elephant

A wild elephant. In front of me.

Udawalawae National Park

Two wild elephants. In front of me.

I blink, gently dig my thumb into my palm to remind myself this is real. I am in Sri Lanka on a safari and witnessing these animals before they have been abused in the name of tourism, before they have been made to give rides. They are happy. They are free.

For a moment, I can feel the tears well up in my eyes. Then, we continue on, getting a better angle from the safe confines of our vehicle.

“Shall we go?” One of the members of our group asks once the photos have slowed down.

We continue on, stopping every few minutes to spot different elephants.

A male elephant at Udawalawae

A solitary male, or “tusker” as the guide refers to him.

Family of elephants at Udawalawae

A family group.

Elephant at Udawalawae

And more. And more. And more.

With each stop, my heart warms even more at the experience.

Until we encounter one single female elephant. 

We pull up beside her as she snacks. Two jeeps, parked at odd angles in the late morning. She watches us watching her, casting as curious of glance as an elephant can give. Then, she slowly meanders up to the jeep I’m in. Our guide reaches out his hand to touch her. She leans her head into his hand.

Udawalawae National Park

“Hello, girl,” he says, his eyes twinkling as she leans more and more into his hand. Suddenly, his hand is no longer against her head. Instead, her head is against the metal of our SUV. And, we’re being pushed.

Oh my god. I’ve seen this on You Tube videos. Stupid tourists get too close to wild animals and pay the price.

“Woah, woah,” he says. Then, she backs off our ride and slowly returns to her grazing.

“Again! Again!” My boss says, delighted at our mini assault from the girl.

I laugh, a nervous laugh. A laugh that says, “that was great … but never again.”

The day continues, weaving through gorgeous landscapes of dried lake beds against far-off mountains and grasslands.

Udawalawae landscape

After nearly 10 hours of being on a safari, we call it a day. After all, we’ve got another safari tomorrow to tend to.

Getting there: I recommend being a part of a tour. Head there in the morning and stick around for lunch. The elephants are most visible in the early morning hours. The park is located near the Ratnapura-Hambantota turn-off, about 35 miles from Embilipitiya. The closest major city is Colombo. Cost for entrance is $12.

PLEASE NOTE: There are many places to enjoy safaris in Sri Lanka, but not many which do it right. Places like Chitwan National Park, which pile people onto elephants and offer elephant rides into a safari, are not animal-friendly or examples of responsible tourism. These places encourage the capture of elephants from the wild, their spirit to be broken through abuse, and the ultimate demise of the animal from the very place you want to see it live. It is not only safer, but the responsible way to experience wildlife in this beautiful country.

 

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When leeches attack

I remember the scene from “Stand By Me” so vividly. My childhood crush, Wil Wheaton, is stomach-deep in water and emerges with big, fat, juicy, blood-filled leeches on his skinny frame. Frantic, he and his cohorts rush to pull the vampire insects from their bodies. Then, the worst possible thing happens: there is a leech. In that private spot no one EVER wants to have violated by said grossness. Cue faint.

Yeah, that is the only memory I have from the movie.

I think it is pretty easy to say the leeches made quite the impression on my young, easily-influenced brain.

So, when we go to Sri Lanka for a little elephant/human conflict exploration and monks whisk us from Colombo to land owned by one of the largest temples in the country, I am delighted. We pile into 4x4s with them so they can guide us on a tour of the mountainous region, namely the highest peak in the area. We hit switck-back after switch-back, wind whipping in our faces as we go (a little bit too fast) around the sharp curves.

Then, it happens.

Photo courtesy Flickr Creative Commons: Daecon

We get stuck going up a mud road en route to the peak. For about 10 minutes, we reverse, shift into drive, reverse, shift into drive, simply spraying a layer of thick brown dirt onto the truck, and sometimes coming dangerously close to ending up off of the mud road and into the thicket of jungle.

When we are directed to exit the vehicle, I don’t think twice about stepping out of the safe confines of our ride and out onto the floor of the jungle.

That is … until my boss spins me into a panic.

“Oh, Diana. Leeches. Leeches.”

Hello, “Stand By Me.”

I immediately drop my gaze to the ground. No puddles. Just dirt and fallen leaves.

“Where? Where?” I ask, frantic. I see nothing.

“On you! On your legs!”

My world nearly goes black as I think back to poor Wil Wheaton and his unfortunately placed invader.

“Oh my god! Get! It! Off!” I scream.

My boss laughs at my Western Freak Out and without hesitation plucks the tiniest brown worm from my black pant leg.

“I thought they only live in water,” I explain, trying to calm myself down … to convince myself perhaps she is wrong, and these aren’t leeches, but adorable little brown worms who simply want to hang out on my leg.

“Noooo, Diana. Leeches.”

“But … why …” I stammer, my brain working overtime to come to terms with the difference between Sri Lankan leeches and the leeches in Hollywood.

And, that is when things go to insect hell.

Suddenly, everyone is squealing and jumping. Leeches are everywhere.

I don’t want to move. I don’t want to do anything but get back into the safe, leech-free confines of our truck. But, that isn’t happening. Instead, our group of 10, including two monks, has to hike it back down the mountain.

Through the land of these grotesque things.

“I don’t understand,” I keep saying, kind of like the way a cat purrs to calm itself down. “I don’t even see them.”

“They are everywhere!” My boss says as we begin to wind our way down, down, down the mountain.

Every few feet, I spy the jerks climbing up my legs. Then, I feel it. A tiny, sting-like thing piercing the top of my ankle.

Oh my god. I’ve been leeched.

I stop on the path — in the heart of leech territory — and pull up my pant leg. There the little asshole is. Ugly brown against my white sock. My fingers fly to my ankle and pluck it off, instantly causing crimson blood to seep through the fabric.

“I’ve been bitten!” I laugh-scream.

I mean … really? Me and leeches? In Sri Lanka? Come on.

Then, I start to notice leeches all over me. Crawling under my socks. Crawling up my legs. Crawling into the lacings of my hiking shoes.

Then, the laugh turns into sheer terror.

“They’re everywhere!”

My boss laughs again at my panic, which immediately reminds me of the ridiculousness my Drama Queen antics.

“Be careful … Diana … they like to crawl into your belly button.”

Oh, for fucks sake.

I hate belly buttons. Despise them. They freak the crap out of me like no other. About 10 years ago, a popular jeans company did a commercial with belly buttons singing “I’m Coming Out.” I could barely watch a snippet of it without being sickened. And now? Leeches setting up shop in my belly button?

I will either puke or faint. Or possibly both.

I’m pretty sure my face goes nearly ghost white.

“They’re everywhere,” I repeat, coming to terms with the fact.

This time, one of the monk stops and comes to my aid. In his bright orange robe, he bends down and begins removing them from my shoes as I tear them off of my skin.

“Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!” I repeat, knowing damn well he shouldn’t even be touching me, let alone grabbing them off of my feet.

“Do it like this,” my boss says, beginning to march down the dirt path. Knee-to-chest, knee-to-chest. “They won’t get you like this.”

So, I begin to do the same. Then, I begin to actually see them on the path. It’s as if they can sense my footsteps. Like little mini “Tremor” worms. They stick straight up in the air, then jump. Yes, jump, onto the body.

We continue down the path and every few minutes someone else shrieks at discovering a leech on their body. Finally, we make it to stone steps, and about 30 minutes later, we make it down to our meeting point where we are once again loaded into trucks and brought back down the mountain.

I emerge from the truck blessedly leech-free. And ready to get on with the Sri Lankan adventure … so long as there will be no more leech encounters.

 

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Giving thanks

Maryland

I’m sitting in the kitchen of the house where I grew up. Around me, I can hear the happy chatter of my mom, dad and brother. I hear the jingle of metal from the tag on Barkley, our old and gorgeous springer spaniel’s collar. I look outside at the naked trees against the bright blue sky.

I’m home. And so grateful to be here, in this beautiful moment.

Only, this isn’t my home anymore. In fact, my home is thousands and thousands of miles away. On the other side of the world, actually.

This Thanksgiving is the last one at my childhood home. It is the last Thanksgiving in Maryland. Next year, my house will be in Delaware. In rooms with no history. No ghosts of my former self to wrap their arms around my memories. This Thanksgiving is also the last with Barkley. He’s been around since 1998. Truthfully, I never expected him to last this long. He’s a good boy, and I know his next life will be even more awesome than this one.

It’s all so hard to comprehend. At times it feels as if the life I have in Chiang Mai is this sweet, sweet dream and any moment I will be awakened and back in America, going through the mundane motions of my previous life. I have two very different realities — my American and my Thai — and sometimes they are hard to separate.

I miss my family when I’m not around them. But, I don’t miss my old life. At all.

My life has changed so much in the past year. From working as the director of communications for a Las Vegas restaurant group to coping with major depression to quitting said job, to uprooting my life and heading to the jungle in Thailand to be an expat. It’s been a wild ride and I am so thankful for every single moment.

Chiang Mai apartment

Not every moment has been easy. There were times when I doubted myself. Times when I missed home and realized that being an expat wasn’t what I thought it would be. But, for the most part, life has been a dream.

So, this Thanksgiving, I want to give thanks to the people in my life. The readers of d travels ’round. You’ve been on quite the journey with me this past year. And, I want to give thanks to the people who have supported me: my family, my friends, the amazing Lek Chailert and the entire staff at Save Elephant Foundation.

I want to give thanks to that damn rooster that caws every morning just before sunrise. And to the tuk tuks that putter down the street in the middle of the night and tell me my baht isn’t enough for the quick ride to my apartment. And to my amazing friends in Chiang Mai who keep me company on those humid nights at old wooden picnic tables and make me laugh. I want to give thanks to the animals — especially Mr. Lucky and my favorite elephants, Medo and Navann. Life is even more fulfilling when there are animals to love, who love you back (even if Mr. Lucky likes to clench my nose between his sharp little teeth).

Finally, I’d like to give thanks to my parents. I know my decision to live abroad isn’t easy. And, Thailand is not close. But, they have always loved me and supported me and encouraged me to follow my dreams.

At the end of the day, I know this one truth above all else: I am incredibly lucky. And, I wake up every morning and go to sleep every night knowing this truth.

So. Thankful.

Asia Blog Expat Life Thailand

Devdan: a glimpse of Indonesian culture in Bali

The lights dim and then burn the eyes, a man and woman appear on opposite ends of the stage. Staring longingly at each other. What transpires next is a mix of sensuality, passion and dancing that leaves the audience entranced.

Devdan

Photo courtesy of Devdan

The couple merges together, holding onto thick ribbons hung from the top of the stage. They intertwine, hold, lift into the air together, part and reunite, telling a story of forbidden love. The background: Borneo. But, on a stage far away … in Nusa Dua on the island of Bali.

After the dance, the lights dim once again. This time, a group of female dancers splash in the man-made river at the lip of the stage. There’s fire. There’s rain. It’s an all-out production and visually stunning.

Devdan

Photo courtesy of Devdan

Tonight, we’ve taken a break from the all-inlcusive paradise at Bali’s Grand Mirage and headed into the tourist enclave on the island to see “Devdan — the treasure of the Archipelago.”

It’s a far cry from all-you-can-eat-and-drink. In this moment, we’re soaking in the culture of Indonesia. And it is beautiful.

Devdan

Photo courtesy Devdan

This stage performance, which has only been around for a little more than a year, is one way to learn more about the rich cultures that make up Indonesia. Part-Cirque and all dance, the 90-minute show takes audience members through traditional dances and more of Bali, Sumatra, Java, Borneo and Papua.

The show begins when two children separate themselves from a tour group and find a treasure chest which transports them to different cultures of Indonesia. With exotic costumes, traditional dances, whimsical performances that include rain, fire and even a boat ride, the children’s eyes are opened to more than they ever expected.

“Devdan” exposes audience members to quite the spectacle, merging history, love and contemporary themes into an entertaining show.

The bottom line: I really enjoyed this performance. Each cultural performance spans about 20 minutes or so. My favorite was Borneo, which plays out a gorgeous love story that is sexy and took me back to Cirque and Las Vegas. The dancers are ridiculously talented and the production value — other than the tracked dialogue of the children — is high quality, complete with breathtaking special effects. However, the one part that left me scratching my head was the hip hop dance that was awkwardly stuck into the show. Yes, the dancing was great, but it just didn’t seem to fit the rest of the show, which is designed to highlight some of the many cultures of Indonesia. 

Editor’s Note: I was a guest of Devdan, however all opinions are my own. If you have questions regarding this, please read my disclosure policy

 

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Old and Lonely: an expat tale of (not) dating in Thailand

It’s one of those thick and gorgeous nights in Bali, when the air gently whispers in your ear, the ink black water of the Indian Ocean licks the soft butter-colored sand, and you can just barely make out puffy clouds lingering in the night sky.

Grand Mirage Resort Bali

Sitting outside at the Jukung Grill at Grand Mirage Resort, Daniel and I are enjoying overly-full stomachs, thanks to a decadent dinner, and more rose wine than we should. Late into our evening, an older couple sits across from us and we all begin chatting.

From the Isle of Mann, the two are on a 12-day holiday and this is their last night in paradise. Eventually, Daniel converses with the husband and I chat away with the wife.

She tells me of her battle with cancer (she’s been in remission for five years) and her need to just get out there and live. I tell her about my travels, my life today.

And, that’s when she says this:

“Please, dear. Do me this one favor.”

I raise my eyebrows, awaiting her response. Her face immediately turns from bright and sunny to a look of remorse.

“Please, with your life right now and traveling and everything, please do not turn Old and Lonely.”

Old. And Lonely.

Within a second, my airy October evening goes from light and happy to serious.

Old. And Lonely.

“Oh,” I say quickly, waving my hand, “I won’t.”

I try to say it with confidence, but there is none in my voice … or in my heart.

The truth is, being Old and Lonely is one of my greatest fears. I’m the single girl. I’m the girl that always gets asked by the perpetually-in-a-relationship girl “why on earth are you still single?”

As if it is a curse.

It’s not that I haven’t been in relationships — I have. Although most of them were horribly self-destructive. And, it’s not like I haven’t dated — I have. Although, most of the guys I have dated were total assholes. (Yeah, my taste in men has — up until very recently — sucked).

For many years, I stopped caring if I had a significant other. I mean, when I quit my job at 30 to go and travel, I was so thankful I wasn’t leaving the Love of My Life in Atlanta. Then, when I went backpacking, I was so thankful I wasn’t in a relationship with the person on the train next to me. But then, I was 31. And decided to move to Las Vegas. Which is like a cesspool of sleaze as far as dating goes. Ask any of my single (and amazing) girlfriends there. Finding a decent guy is next to impossible.

When I told my parents I was moving back there, I also told them I realized this decision would likely impact one of the things I wanted most in my life — to have children. Because, let’s face it, I wasn’t going to meet the man of my dreams living in Nevada.

It wasn’t until recently, I felt this sudden sense of urgency. This feeling of holy-shit-I’m-still-single-and-there-aren’t-even-any-potential-people-in-my-life moments. I mean, suddenly, I am 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, (gasp) 33 and I have … no one.

Old. And Lonely.

Arriving to Thailand, I hoped things would be different than Las Vegas.

Guess what?

They’re not.

In fact, it is worse here.

A few weeks ago, I was walking with an American (guy) friend and we were talking about dating.

“Shit, D,” he says to me as we walk down the street talking about him meeting Thai girls, “it must be just awful for you here in terms of dating.”

Thanks, buddy.

“Yeah,” I sigh, trying not to let the sting of his words penetrate my skin. “It pretty much sucks. The western guys want to date Thai girls … and the Thai guys …” I trail off.

So, on the gorgeous Bali evening when the woman tells me not to be Old and Lonely, it hits home. Hard.

As soon as I return from Bali, I make a promise to myself to go out more. To meet more people. To engage. To try and date in Thailand.

I’m in no rush to meet someone. I’ve waited 33 years for Mr. Right to walk down the tarmac. I don’t doubt it will happen at some point. And I can promise this: I will not be Old and Lonely. Just Old.

Asia Blog Expat Life Indonesia Thailand

Blissing out at Bali’s Grand Mirage Resort

It’s cool in the lounge where Daniel (my friend who has flown to Bali to meet me for the weekend) and I sit, awaiting our keys to our suite at the Grand Mirage Resort.

“Would you like a drink?” Asks one of the hotel’s staff, clad in a skirt, button-up shirt and heels. “We have wine,” she says, following up.

I take one look at the sweeping view of the Indian Ocean outside of the windows to the lounge and smile to Daniel.

Yes, wine, please.

We take the glasses filled with light pink liquid and raise them towards each other.

“To Bali,” we say, smiling.

Lobby of Grand Mirage Resort

Photo courtesy Grand Mirage Resort

The ocean view suite

Daniel and I haven’t stepped beyond the immaculately clean lobby when reception informs us our weekend is going to be beyond amazing.

“We’ve upgraded you from an oceanview room to an oceanview suite.”

“Did you hear that?” He asks me as we walk away from the desk. “They’ve upgraded us.”

“We’ll see,” I say, trying not to get my hopes up. I don’t get upgrades. I get rooms with spiders and showers that don’t work.

But, as per usual, my Austrian friend is right. We’ve got a suite.

The two of us take the elevator to the fourth floor and exit, walking down a long and airy hall to the end of the corridor where a statue awaits us at our door. We slide the key in …

Holy wow.

“It’s kind of like we’re in a museum,” I whisper as we take in the entry way, lined with statues and backlit.

Suite at Grand Mirage Resort

Then, we move towards the main part of the room. To one side are floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the Grand Mirage’s well-manicured grounds. There’s a moveable flat screen television, a little minibar (with complimentary refills daily, thanks to our reservation being all-inclusive), a couch, table and a chair.

To the other side is the master bedroom, a gorgeous, dark-floored masterpiece with a poster bed swathed with shimmery see-through green fabric, a wrap-around balcony and a bathroom complete with bath tub (delicious) and shower.

He and I exchange delighted looks.

“I almost want to jump on the bed,” I tell him, trying to contain my delight at our luck with the suite.

“Yeah, this isn’t bad at all,” he says, whipping out his phone and making a quick video. “I can’t wait to post this on Facebook and let everyone see my home for the weekend.”

And, what a home it was.

The great outdoors

Because we are gifted with the all-inclusive designation, we have access to all non-motorized sports at Grand Mirage Resort. That means we get to hop on a catamaran or try our luck wind-surfing. I skip the windsurfing, but Daniel gives it a go.

We do take up the catamaran. While it is scenic ride off-shore, I’m disappointed that it is a quick 15-minutes. I barely find a comfortable position on the vinyl before we are turning around at the reef and heading back to shore. But, it is a nice break from sunning and swimming to hop on a floatation device and take in the resort and the water from a different perspective.

Grand Mirage Resort beach

Then, there’s the beach. While Daniel and I are here, the beach isn’t ridiculously crowded. Sure, a family ends up camping right next to me on the second day and chatting loudly as I try to fall asleep. But, I can only imagine the resort during high-season. We manage to find seats each day, although sometimes people leave their towels after they’ve departed the beach.

Grand Mirage Resort

As far as the beach goes, it is clean. And beautiful. There are gorgeous day beds to purchase for $15 a day. And, then there’s the sea. It’s super warm. And, the seaweed likes to get entangled in my toes. After a quick swim, I opt for the pool instead.

The pool at Grand Mirage Resort

Photo courtesy of Grand Mirage Resort

The pool at Grand Mirage is huge. There’s a waterfall, a volleyball area and more. While parts of it are overrun with kids (hey, this is a family resort for the most part), I am able to find a spot where I only have to dodge jumping kids a few times.

The dining

Our first meal at Grand Mirage is the Grand Cafe buffet. It’s decent — but I’m a vegetarian and there are only a handful of choices, so for the remainder of the trip, Daniel and I opt for a menu instead.

Dining at Grand Mirage Resort

Photo courtesy Grand Mirage Resort

Our first night, we head to the Jukung Grill, a gorgeous open-air restaurant nearly on the shore of the  Indian Ocean. Over more rosé, I dine on the grilled fish and listen to the soft lap of water hitting the sand and a group of traveling musicians serenade the guests.

Dinner our last two nights is spent at the resort’s Italian spot, La Cascasta. Daniel can’t get enough of the dishes — particularly the lamb. I love the fresh bread and olive oil.

After three months in Thailand, fresh olive oil is pure heaven.

Breakfast every day is a gorgeous buffet — again without too many vegetarian options — but with an omelette station that makes some of the best omelettes I’ve had in SE Asia.

Lunch varies between Jukung and Grand Cafe. I can barely stomach the coconut I order as a drink — its hot and doesn’t have the same flavor I’ve grown accustomed to in Thailand; and the veggie burger I order seems more like a big dollop of mashed potatoes with veggies mixed in. But, it’s not bad. And, with a view of the tropics, I can’t really argue. Whatever is lacking in taste is made up for in sheer beauty of the surroundings.

The drinks

One of the best parts of being all-inclusive is the free booze. There, I said it. It’s a vacation and booze is definitely a part of anything that is categorized as a vacation in my book. The first night, we fill up on rosé wine. The rest of the weekend, we’re a bit more conservative.

I don’t want to be hungover in paradise.

I do love the swim-up pool bar. And, the mojitos they put out have just enough liquor to give me a buzz after the second.

But, after that, we’re pretty responsible.

Thalasso Bali Spa

I’ve been to plenty of spas in my day, thanks to living in Las Vegas. When we walk through the sand and sea shells of the cream-colored spa, my heart flutters.

This. This oozes relaxation.

Grand Mirage Resort

Photo courtesy Grand Mirage Resort

I indulge in a 55-minute aroma therapy massage and it feels like heaven. Serious heaven. Set inside a deep blue room with little lights inset in the ceiling, reminiscent of twinkling stars, I instantly feel my body unwind (although it wasn’t too tight to being with, thanks to living in Thailand and the bounty of inexpensive massages I treat myself to on a weekly basis).

“You ok?” My masseuse asks as she gently glides her hands over my back, slick with oil designed to ease muscle aches (you know, from that overnight in Bangkok since Air Asia doesn’t offer any non-stops from Chiang Mai to Denspar).

When the massage is done, I feel light as a feather and slip back into my bathing suit to sidle up to the pool-side bar.

The customer service

Daniel and I are lounging on our cushion-y chairs, soaking up the sounds of the Indian Ocean our first evening when a staff member comes up to us.

“We are going to play football, you want to come?” He asks us.

I feel like I am on a cruise. Although, I’ve never been on a cruise this is how I imagine staff to be. Go, go, get involved.

“Sure, I can do sports,” Daniel says, pulling himself up from the chair and disappearing off to go and kick a ball around with others.

Throughout the weekend, the interest in our time at the resort is apparent.

“Everything OK Miss?”

“Would you like to …”

“How was your meal?”

“We’ve arranged your transportation …”

It’s like I walked into a bubble of care where the customer is actually important. It’s a nice change from meals where plates are put down without regard to the company at the table.

The bottom line:

This resort caters more towards families and couples, and at times the kids and couples making out in the pool can be a bit much. But, the resort can’t control that. I love the attention to detail — the floor mats in elevators remind guests what day it is, because, you know, it’s easy to forget when you’re in paradise. Customer service is above average. Rooms are clean, beautiful and well-maintained. With the all-inclusive, the mini-bar is re-stocked daily. For free. Amenities are wonderful, minus the lack of veggie options in the restaurants. Having the award-winning spa on property is fantastic, plus there are options to have an outdoor massage on a whim. Would I go back? You bet.

Editor’s Note: My time in Bali was courtesy of Grand Mirage Resort, however all opinions are my own. If you have questions regarding this, please read my disclosure policy

 

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Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai: the day trip

The early morning rays of the sun are barely creeping through my apartment window when my alarm buzzes.

Time to get up.

It’s a Saturday, and I am awake at 6 a.m. for a good reason: I am going on my first journey outside of Chiang Mai. Today, I’m hopping into a Top North minivan along with two friends, and heading out for a 13-hour tour of the Chiang Rai/Golden Triangle (Myanmar and Laos) area.

We hop into our van, which is filled with other travelers, and begin our journey.

The first stop, around 8 a.m., is a hot spring about 45 minutes outside of town. In my mind, I envision a bubbling, sulfur brook surrounded by lush jungle vegetation.

It is nothing like that. Not even remotely.

Chiang Rai hot springs

 

Instead, there are two little areas with water, both not natural-looking at all. Essentially, a large tourist area has been created around these two warm waters, which are now manicured and contained in stone casings. Around the hot springs are little huts hawking everything from food and coffee to T-shirts, bags, and other random souvenirs. It’s a well-done tourist trap with some water features. That’s it.

Chiang Rai hot springs

Fortunately, the hot springs aren’t really on my radar in terms of things I want to see. What I care about is the next stop: the White Temple, or Wat Ron Khung.

Chiang Rai White Temple

The intricate temple began construction in 1997 and is still a work-in-progress today. Created by artist Chalermchai Kositpipat, the temple is designed to be open to all and to symbolize the passage into heaven, including passing through hell. The details here are breathtaking — from the twirls of smoke on the “no smoking” signs to the hands reaching up from the pits of hell as visitors walk across a white bridge towards the temple.

White Temple Chiang Rai

White Temple Chiang Rai

Even inside the temple, which was under construction when I visited, details abound. The murals, which have sparked some debate, further show heaven and hell, tying the concept to today and news of the world. Painted on the walls is the tragic 9/11, Superman and more.

We stand, silent, taking in these images for a moment before we notice a wax monk sitting at the head of the room.

Odd.

But, it seems to fit with everything else.

The next stop for us is the Karen hill tribe village.

After what seems like forever in the van, we head off the main road and down a windy path to a village with one dirt road. Only, it isn’t really a village at all. It’s more like some huts with villagers selling their goods, encouraging us to buy, buy, buy.

I don’t even take my camera out when we visit the long neck tribe. It just feels like we are exploiting them as they sit there, brass encircling their necks, arms, knees, and smiling for photos. Our guide even pulls out a picture showing us what they look like when they sleep.

I’m not impressed.

In fact, if there was one aspect of the trip I would skip, it would be this. I know there are other ways to support hill tribes and simply heading to a remote spot where they set up shop and are on display for tourists isn’t my idea of how it should be done.

“I hate this,” I whisper to my friend as some of our tour group stops to take photos with the token twins in the tribe. “It just doesn’t feel right.”

My friend nods her head, rolls her eyes and together, we walk back across the rickety bamboo bridge to where a litter of puppies are curled up.

Yeah, we’d rather play with puppies than “ooh” and “ahh” at hill tribe people who essentially are a tourist attraction.

After we don’t buy anything at the “village,” we journey onward to the Golden Triangle. What used to be vast opium fields, today the area is simply where three countries — Thailand, Myanmar and Laos — converge.

Golden Triangle boat ride

Golden Buddha

Its got casinos, huge golden buddhas and a quick boat tour that has  a stop on an island in Laos where people can drink Laos beer, try the whisky with dead animals in it, or shop for “genuine fakes.”

The stop in Laos

We hand over our boat ticket and when we get back on the boat, the ticket is returned with a Laos stamp on it.

Again, not impressed. But, the boat ride is nice and I love the idea of straddling three different countries at once.

Finally, we head to Mesai on the border of Myanmar. Typically, this is where people who need to do border runs head to get their stamp in and out. We are given one whole hour (compared to the 30 minutes we normally have at each spot) to shop (of course). But, its sweltering hot and the shops are all offering the same goods for the same prices.

It’s nearly 4:30 p.m. when we finally head back towards Chiang Mai from the Chiang Rai region. We’ve got a four-plus hour drive back to the city and the rain clouds are hovering. Eventually, they give way to thunderstorms, which at least lull me to sleep for a quick bit.

By the time we get back to Chiang Mai, I’m well-rested (hey, there were ample opportunities to nap in the van during the 14-hour day) and a bit disappointed in the experience.

The bottom line: I would not do the tour again. While the tour guide is great, the tour itself if lacking. It seems there are plenty of tour operators all offering the same itinerary. But, not enough time is given at the various places to explore. And, most of the time is spent on the bus. I’d prefer to head simply to Chiang Rai for two days and explore the area that way, instead of being ushered around with time limits and extensive periods sitting on a bus.

 

Asia Blog Reviews Thailand Tours