The “Get F*cked Up Lifestyle” of a traveler: more harm than good?

I’m no angel. Hell, I don’t even come close. I’ve done my fair share of partying all over the world. But, today I saw the new Matador book that was released “101 Places to Get F*cked Up Before You Die” and it made me think about the stereotypes of backpackers and travelers.

I’ve written for Matador. I have friends who have been editors there. I love the site and most of the articles, but the idea behind this book struck a chord with me.

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“101 Places to Get F*cked Up Before You Die is the only travel guide that could possibly help adventure seekers and world-trekking party-goers take their experience to a whole new high (or low). So, raise a glass, hop a flight, and join 101 Places’ professional party-crashers as they breach security, ride ill-recommended ferries, and hike miles into the wilderness all in search of the best parties in the world.”

Encouraging breaching security? Putting lives in jeopardy? Hiking into the wilderness to a party (which makes me think of all of the environmental damage something like that does)?

What kind of message is being sent to travelers? What kind of message is being sent to locals who often welcome visitors with open arms?

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#sunset over Koh Samui.

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As I have grown and traveled, I have seen a lot of things. Beautiful things. Gorgeous places. And then, there is the dirty, sleazy side of travel.

Drunken fights. Sloppy hookups. Pissed pants. Vomit-covered shirts. ODs. Obnoxious, arrogant behavior that is disrespectful to the places being visited.

Living in Chiang Mai, I am witness to grotesque displays of partying. Partying that would humiliate the people guilty … if they could remember it. I’ve seen bottle breaks, abuse, falling-over-drunk people who think nothing of it. Let me say this: it gives the entire lot of backpackers a horrific stereotype. It furthers the idea that we are only interested in getting wasted. That we all are irresponsible. And, that really bothers me.

During my long-term travels, I cannot count how many times I was ashamed to be associated with other people who had no idea what was considerate, no idea what was appropriate. People who were all-out dicks.

I have not read the book, so I cannot comment on its innards, and I am sure the writing is spectacular, but the title alone suggests to me that the sole idea of traveling to far off places isn’t to see but to be so drunk, so drugged, that the days are spent laying in bed with an all-mighty hangover.

Like I stated, I’m no angel. I’ve done St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland. I’ve explored the nightlife in Budapest. I’ve hung in the coffee shops in Amsterdam. But, my goal in visiting these places wasn’t to get crunked, it was because I wanted to experience the cities. Sure, some of that comes with a party … but not all of it. I don’t encourage people to go and explore the world with the goal of partying their asses off.

Yes, I encourage living. Yes, I encourage experiencing. But, I don’t cheer people on to drop that tab of acid at a Full Moon Party or drink the “exotic” cocktails on Koh Phi Phi (where, coincidentally, two girls were getting f*cked up and later died because of it). I don’t condone being so intoxicated you wake up on a street somewhere, stripped of your belongings, because, hey, if you are that hammered, there is always a chance of that.

Don’t get me wrong — I am not slamming Matador — but it makes me wonder: does a book like this perpetuate the idea that backpackers are irresponsible travelers? Partiers who take in a city based on shots and nightlife instead of visiting a place for all of the other things it has to offer? Does it do more harm than good to suggest that the way to see a place is through beer goggles?

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Please, weigh in below.

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My To Do list

What’s in a bucket list? Or, on a bucket list?

I mean … I’ve never really had a bucket list. I’ve tried to have one, but the amount of experiences in this world I would love to have cannot be contained on one clear, succinct little list.

Instead, they flutter about the crevices of my mind, occasionally popping into my consciousness when an event, a person, a word, sparks them. For instance, I see someone’s post on Facebook about what they have just done, and BAM, I remember that is on my list.

I also don’t really have a list because right now, I don’t travel too much. I focus on my work with Lek and the elephants, so there is little time for me to daydream about skinny dipping in the Maldives or camping in the middle of no where and looking up at the Milkyway in front of a fire on a crisp fall night in the desert.

Sure, I say things in passing, mostly to the extent of “Oh, man. That [fill in the blank] would be SO cool to do. I need to remember that.” Then, I promptly forget what that activity is.

So, when push comes to shove, no. I don’t really have a bucket list in the sense of something I am ticking off per great adventure. But, I do have things in my life I would love to experience.

What are they?

The Northern Lights

Northern Lights in Sweden

Photo via Flickr Creative Commons: Image Editor.

I think this one time, I might have actually seen the infamous wonder, but it was on an airplane coming home from Alaska. My eyes could have been playing tricks on me, but I swear, for a minute there, I thought I saw some dancing green and blue from out my little window.

Since, clearly, that was not enough to satiate my desire, I want to go back to Sweden and see the magical lights way up north. In doing some research, I think the best place to go would be Abisko National Park.


Because, why not? I’ve seen the pictures. I’ve seethed with polite jealousy at others’ trips down there, and the penguin and ice cap and serene, empty beauty. I. Want. It.

Mongol Rally

Oh, Mongol Rally. This little experience has tempted me for years. A car. A few people. And a trip from Europe to Mongolia to raise money for a charity. I mean, I can’t change a tire, but I know people who can. And, seeing all of that immense beauty of the world and culture? Come on. I have to do this. One day.


Photo via Flickr Creative Commons: Jodastephen

Photo via Flickr Creative Commons: Jodastephen

Forget that Beyonce and her ostrich-elephant-python-every-other-endangered-animals-grossness-sneakers and Jay-Z just were there. There is something so incredibly romantic about the little country south of Florida. And, I want to experience it for myself. Before Americans are technically allowed in and, in my opinion, it loses its exotic luster.

Varnasi, India


Photo via Flickr Creative Commons: nicocrisafulli

Two of my good friends, Mindful Wanderlust’s Cody and Giselle, went here on their recent travels before coming to Elephant Nature Park. India was never really on my list as one of the places that captivated me. I always thought of it as super crowded (and we all know I freak in crowds) and a country where the runs are about as normal as breathing.

Then, I learned about Varnasi and my entire opinion changed. I’d go to India just to visit here. Of course, once I arrived, I’d probably take a month or so and gallivant around the rest of the country (which everyone I know loves … so thinking I will end up loving it, too).

Why Varnasi?

To take from Wikipedia, this statement alone fascinates me:

“The city has been a cultural center of North India for several thousand years, and has a history that is older than most of the major world religions.”

The spiritual center of India sounds like a place I need to experience.

Camino de Santiago

I don’t really like climbing hills or anything, but the pilgrimage in Spain — the Camino de Santiago — isn’t only a challenge but an incredible way to see the more untouched beauty the country has to offer.

I have a few friends who have done it, namely Daniel from Canvas of Light, and his stories alone about the hiking, the camraderie, are enough to get me to push myself to do the month-or-so long trek.

Camp outside of Area 51

Living in Las Vegas as long as I did, I never made it near Area 51. And, I would have really liked to do so. Sure, there were loose plans discussed, but nothing ever came of any of it.

I love the desert, I love camping and being able to combine the two in a moderately eerie spot … yeah, perfect. Oh, and it has to be a crystal clear night so I can see all those beautiful stars.

Give Paris another chance


Photo via Flickr Creative Commons: agaw.dilim

I went to Paris in 2002 and was underwhelmed, to say the least. I was 22, missing my boyfriend, at the end of my trip, and just wanted to go home. Instead of embracing Paris, I simply went through the motions. I rushed through school groups at the Louvre to see Mona Lisa. I took the metro to Moulin Rouge and took a photo outside. I didn’t even drink good wine or eat cheese because I think back then I was a) unappreciative of wine, and b) not a cheese snob — I hated cheese except on pizza. So, returning to Paris at 33 (or older) seems like something I need to do. I’d also like to explore the entire country since I didn’t get to do so on my last big visit to Europe.

Meditation Retreat at Doi Suthep

My friend, Lindsay, did a 10-day version of this recently and fell in love with it. I have this huge problem where I cannot get my mind to shut up, even when I really want it to. She learned how to meditate and got more connected to herself. And, I’d like to do the same. Ten days with no internet, only eating from 6 a.m. to noon, learning more about Buddhism and speaking with monks sounds like something that could really benefit me. 

Have meaningful experiences

So, this isn’t really a “place” or anything, but it is truly what I want from every moment of my life: meaningful experiences. Connections. And, mindful. When I first came to Thailand, I wanted to ride an elephant. Of course, I quickly learned how horrible that is for them, and instead now work to educate others on what they go through in the name of tourism. But, I also learned how my tiny little decisions can cause a ripple in the world. I want to do things in my life that are responsible, meaningful, and above all, kind.

My top 10 bucket list post is a part of Save Elephant Foundation’s blog carnival to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of Elephant Nature Park. Elephant Nature Park is celebrating 10 years of success protecting the Asian elephant, educating tourists and tour operators alike that there is another way for us to interact with these wonderful animals. Please take a moment to visit their website, visit their Facebook, and connect with them on Twitter.


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The truth about child labor in Cambodia

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post from travel writer Kristin Addis. 

The piping hot day in Siem Reap, Cambodia, becomes ever more noticeable as the wind stops grazing the skin and the tuk-tuk comes to a halt outside of the gates of the extraordinary ruins of Angkor Wat.  Perhaps you’ve waited your whole life to see these ruins – – I know I certainly had.

Monkeys run across the path in front of the tourists on foot.  A captive elephant carries passengers upon his back through the forests surrounding the temple.  Hoards of tourists flash their cameras at centuries-old rocks.  It is exactly how you had imagined it would be.

That is, until entering the grounds, when a tiny, bronzed hand tugs at yours.

“Miss!” the young girl chides in near-perfect English, “Beautiful post-cards! One dollah, one dollah!”

Another child, this time a boy who appears to be no older than six-years-old, runs up and asks which country you’re from, because he’s collecting coins, and, gee, he would really like to have one from each country.  Could you spare some money, perhaps?

Photo courtesy Sailing “Footprints: Real to Reel” (Ronn ashore) via Flickr Creative Commons

I encountered this scene often as I traveled throughout Cambodia.

On the beaches of the south, children had memorized popular American songs as a way to get our attention and start a dialogue with the aim of selling bracelets.  In the capitol city of Phnom Penh, children hawked everything from guidebooks to drugs.

These images were heartbreaking every time.  As a tourist who can afford to spare a dollar or two, it seems heartless to deny a child this small gift.  So, many tourists buy from them, if only to support them slightly, and to feel a bit less guilty.

Some tourists resist at first, or ask questions to justify the donation.  These children easily produce a laundry list of reasons why they are selling goods and/or begging:

I have to work to help my family, my parents have no jobs.

I am working so that I can pay for school!

Look at your hairy legs! Like a monkey! I’ll thread them for you! Here, I’ll show you, let me try.

Please help me. You have money, you can help me!

Photo courtesy of sebr via Flickr Creative Commons License

The reality is, these children are not going to school.  Their parents may be sitting only a few meters away, ushering their children forward because tourists find it harder to say “no” to children vs. adults.  The children know that if they mess with you, joke with you, and warm up to you, they may just make a sale.

Of course you have a dollar to spare, and you may feel better momentarily for what appears to be the alleviation of poverty.

Regardless, the bottom line is, giving to young workers and beggars directly supports, perpetuates, and encourages child labor.

Even worse, these children are often pawns of larger organizations that traffic children, expose them to drugs, impose exceedingly long hours, and take the majority of the earnings.

As tough and hopeless as the situation may appear, the hope for a brighter future lies in schooling.  Giving to child workers only supports the easy way out – sending children to work so that they can earn now, rather than giving them the opportunity to learn now and earn more in the future.

This shouldn’t prevent us from giving altogether, however.  There are ways to make sure that your money and good intentions go into the right hands.

How you can help put an end to child labor in Cambodia

–       Donate time or money to local organizations that support child education and the betterment of local lives

–       Buy from street vendors who are of age, and tip where it makes sense to – this supports work from those of a proper age and puts money directly into the local economy

–       Check before you donate.  Websites like Concert Cambodia help to keep local organizations accountable

*Cover photo courtesy of Sailing “Footprints: Real to Reel” (Ronn ashore) via Flickr Creative Commons

Guest Posts Responsible Tourism

Fact vs. Fiction: the Thailand Sex Industry


Editor’s Note: After my post What not to do in Chiang Mai drew some comments from my readers regarding my stance on sex tourism in the region (or lack thereof), I decided I wanted someone who knows more about the subject to weigh in on the topic. As someone who is heavily involved in responsible tourism, it is incredibly important for me that my readers are educated and then allowed to make their own decisions in regards to what they choose to support or skip while traveling. While I do not condone the Thailand sex industry, I do want my readers to know what really happens in this area in regards to working girls. Human trafficking, child slavery, drug addictions all do exist in the world of sex in parts of SE Asia, particularly those whose people live in extreme poverty. BUT, according to in-depth research, these problems are not occurring in Chiang Mai. This post is written by Alex Martin, someone who has spent a lot of time investigating the Thailand sex industry and sex tourism. 

What’s the deal with Thailand’s sex industry?

Thailand sex industry

Photo courtesy scatterwadatai via Flickr Creative Commons

The sex industry in Thailand is a vast and complex organism — something that cannot be defined in concrete terms. Also, the concept of ‘pay-to-play’ relations in regards to morality is subjective to the individual and their social and cultural background. For the purpose of this — a post examining the ins and outs of the sex industry (and a topic that is nearly impossible to fit into one concise piece) it is more prudent and beneficial to give a holistic description of Thailand’s industry so people can make their own decision.

I will keep my opinion until the end and ask you to set aside any pre-conceived notions of what you think sex should be about.

I sometimes work as a guide and translator for an educational tour company and almost always get at least one student who is studying women’s rights in Asia. It’s been my assignment on more than one occasion to bring a student to different venues and interview women working there. Most of the information I am using for this article comes directly from interviews I have conducted on these trips.

We all know that prostitution is an ancient profession, but that doesn’t make it anachronistic in the least. In Thailand, it’s a huge industry with many faces. It has ‘lady bars’, special massage parlors, brothels, go-go bars, and many other venues that travelers and locals frequent. There are even whole streets dedicated to different forms of ‘pay for sex’ places. Since this article is for tourists, I’ll keep the information narrowed down to places they usually frequent.

But first, ping pong shows

The most famous form of prostitution in Thailand is the ping pong show, which is exactly what it sounds like. Interestingly enough, when I’ve been asked to bring a person there, nine out of 10 times it has been by a woman, while the men in the group are very uncomfortable. I personally refuse to even talk about where it is possible to see one of these shows.

Ping pong shows are notorious for getting women addicted to ya ba, which is a methamphetamine that directly translates into “crazy drug,” as a way to keep them working. For many people, this show has become a popular tourist attraction that many people say is one of those things they just have to see once. The thing is, with millions of tourists coming to Thailand ‘just once’ every year, it keeps the demand up and the horrid-ness and exploitation continues.

There is no choice for women who work these shows and men (and women) aren’t going there for any sort of connection. Most people look at it and go for a joke or shock value, making it some sort of sick luxury. Many people don’t understand the implications of what they contribute to. This is not a ‘must see’ attraction in Thailand.

Sex and the women behind it

Thailand sex industry

Photo courtesy of Jessica Rabbit via Flickr Creative Commons.

Now that ping pong shows are out of the way, let’s look at the women who work at the other venues (bars, massage parlors, etc.). The places I was able to conduct interviews at were go-go bars and ‘lady bars’. The first thing I gathered from speaking with many of them is that they are women first and sex workers second. Upon meeting them, most of them wanted to talk about their family, hobbies, and other normal conversation that you would have with any person you met for the first time. These interactions happened in Chiang Mai and most of the girls working were from other provinces. They had come to Chiang Mai of their own volition, usually telling their family they had found a job that wasn’t what they were actually doing, to be able to make money to send back to them. Many times, women said that they had a child whose father wasn’t supporting in any way. In Thailand, child support is almost non-existent and there are not many ways to legally get a father to financially contribute to the life of his child.

Financially, working in the sex industry is almost logical to a person who is desperate to support their family. There aren’t many government aid programs for people with money problems and a person who works as a farmer or in a factory can make as little as 300 baht a day (the minimum wage was just raised). The working conditions aren’t comfortable. There is no nine to five or overtime. In the sex industry, women can make more money without even sleeping with men.

The concept of pay-to-play

At lady and go go bars, women aren’t forced to sleep with men. It is their job to entertain them while they are drinking and get them to buy them drinks, which cost significantly more than a regular cocktail or beer. For each drink a man buys them, the woman makes a commission. If a man likes the woman (and the woman likes the man), he can pay a bar fine to let her leave work early. This does not promise sex. If a woman chooses to sleep with a man, it’s her decision if she wants to charge him and how much. Many women choose to give men their phone numbers and meet after work so they don’t have to pay the bar fine. The reason? These women are looking for more than cash for having sex one time. They are looking for somebody to take care of them as they have learned that society won’t. Obviously, there are people who are just looking to make as much money as they can by sleeping with men.

Regardless, they have the choice to do it.

The men who pay

Many people look at the men who frequent these types of places and label them as ‘old creepy perverts’ or sexpats. Upon asking different women their opinions of the men who frequented lady bars, they usually said the men were often polite and gentle. Interestingly enough, they said the younger men were often more problematic as they wanted to pay for women just so they “could do things that their girlfriends wouldn’t let them do.”

Upon talking to men who spend time at lady bars, I’ve noticed that many of them are widows or divorced. For how much they talk about it, one can only guess that they are still hurting. Losing a loved one is difficult and sometimes leaves a person feeling like they can’t ever love again. Many men who go to these places are looking for some sort of connection that isn’t as intense so they can’t get hurt again. Many marry girls from these bars because they want companionship that feels simpler than what they previously went through romantically. At the end of the day, as unorthodox as it is to many western standards, the relationship between men and bar girls is consensual and mutually beneficial.

To sex or not to sex?

Sex tourism Thailand

Photo courtesy Nicolai Bangsgaard via Flickr Creative Commons

I urge people to empathize —  instead of judge —  both the men and women who are working or patrons of these types of venues. There are things I can confidently say a person should not take part in while traveling to Thailand like the Tiger Temple, Full Moon Party, or almost any elephant camp that isn’t Elephant Nature Park.

My personal opinion is this: in regards to lady bars I can only say it isn’t something I’m interested in doing. I think the real problem isn’t this form of sex-as-profit, but a society that makes it almost necessary for the industry to exist as a whole.  For me, I find it more disturbing that there aren’t any government programs to help single mothers who have to pay for their children’s food, clothing, and education as only the worst schools in Thailand are free. Students are expected to buy their own books, uniforms, and lunches regardless.  Outside of Bangkok, there is nearly no government funding to public schools.

I also urge every person who travels to Thailand to have a look around in one of these bars. Talk to the women and buy them a drink. Learn about their lives and tell their story. Don’t treat them like they are anything less than a person who is trying to make a living and take care of themselves and their families.


Guest Posts Responsible Tourism

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.


Asia Blog Destinations Responsible Tourism Sri Lanka

Join the #ethicaltravel chat April 6

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Would you still go through with an item on your bucket list if it hurt someone or something?

Do you think about your impact as a tourist before you make your plans?

This Friday at 10 a.m. Eastern Time, join me and Pamela MacNaughtan as we host a special Twitter chat on ethical travel with Travel + Escape.

Pamela’s live tweeting from Elephant Nature Park. I’m live tweeting from Las Vegas. Join us to share your experiences, thoughts and to learn about ethical travel, particularly as it relates to elephants and tourism in Thailand (including some special guests!).

Follow along the conversation:





Responsible Tourism

Volunteer with rescued cheetahs at Namibia’s Cheetah Conservation Fund

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Natasha Zapata and a part of the Travel Bloggers Giveback series. To learn more about TBGB, please visit its Facebook page. If there is an organization you would like to promote with a guest post, please contact me.

“The fastest animal on Earth is running out of time” reads the brochure from the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF). But, according to zoologist Dr. Laurie Marker, we can all help change that.

Dr. Marker founded Namibia’s CCF as a result of her travels earlier in her life. In 1977, she traveled to Namibia to conduct research on the re-introduction of captive cheetahs into the wild. It was then she learned of the conflict between livestock farmers and cheetahs. Hundreds were being killed annually. In 1990, she returned and founded CCF to work towards their survival in the wild.

Today, CCF is an internationally recognized research and education center that has become a model for predator conservation worldwide.

Volunteering at CCF

Two years ago, I was privileged to visit the CCF to see firsthand the incredible work Dr. Marker, staff and volunteers perform. There’s is a holistic approach to keeping the wild cheetah from extinction. They teach farmers ways to prevent predation of livestock, educate people about the importance of predators in a functioning ecosystem and are restoring and opening up habitat for cheetah and their prey.

My visit to CCF was exciting and educational. I helped feed the resident cheetahs and was “introduced” to three orphaned up and coming “Ambassador” cheetah cubs. I toured the hospital, research lab, classrooms and education center. I remain a loyal supporter.

The reality for wild cheetahs

Estimates for cheetah remaining in the wild are about 10,000 – a decrease of approximately 90 percent in 100 years. Wild cheetahs have already become extinct in 16 countries where they once roamed. In 20 years, wild cheetahs could become extinct.

It’s no wonder Dr. Marker and CCF are working so hard.

To give cheetahs a fighting chance, the organization operates the Livestock Guarding Dog program which enlists special breeds of dogs to protect livestock and keep cheetahs from attacking. It also manufactures BushBlok® , a clean-burning wood fuel briquette made from acacia bush which is overtaking the cheetah’s habitat. At the same time, CCF has also created a genetics lab, conduct census’ to maintain accurate numbers, and care for more than 50 orphaned and injured cheetahs.

Dr. Marker has received numerous awards and honors, the latest being the 2010 Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement, and after spending time as a volunteer at CCF, it is easy to see why. This remarkable woman has dedicated her life to not letting these “spots” disappear in the wild.

You can help

Aside from donations and a wish list of items needed, there are other ways to help cheetahs with CCF. The organization offers two and four week volunteer stints. For more information, please visit their Web site to learn more.

About the Author: Natasha Zapata is an animal-lover who is a docent at the Staten Island Zoo.

Guest Posts Responsible Tourism

Save the reefs: A volunteer opportunity in Koh Tao, Thailand

Coral reefs around the world are the most beautiful eco-systems that you can imagine. From the obvious Great Barrier Reef, Australia to the little known Abul Thama, Bahrain, the colours and wildlife can captivate the first time diver. But it is important to understand the impact tourism has on these delicate areas. And, the role visitors can play in helping to save them.

Take for example the local Marine Conservation Project on the island of Koh Tao, Thailand. The small dive school and project – run by a British diver – aims to develop the understanding of responsible tourism in Thailand. By making tourists and the locals aware of the impact to the natural environment, they work to preserve the reef for future generations of responsible travellers. The welcoming team regularly dive down to the coral to check on the coral nursery (bio-rock) which is essential to ensuring the continued survival of the reef.

Checking the health of coral reefs off of Koh Tao, Thailand.

Coral reefs cover only 2 percent of the world’s sea beds, but support an astonishing 25 percent of the oceanic wildlife. They are also the most threatened eco-systems in the world. With the decline in coral reefs, nearly 2 million species are at risk, not to mention the millions of people that are supported by them.

As Koh Tao has become more popular, the coral reef has come under increasing pressure, and it is vital that its protection is continued.

A volunteer inspects plant life.

Koh Tao itself is a stunning diving paradise, with sites within 40 minutes by boat. The sites range from a few metres below sea level to 40 metres down, where divers can witness the local wildlife, and a mixture of hard and soft corals. Alongside this is the vibrant mix of dense jungle terrain and granite outcrops, providing a beautiful surrounding for the duration of a stay.

As Koh Tao is a multi-cultural island, visitors will undoubtedly meet new and interesting individuals from a range of backgrounds and cultures. Normally teams are numbered between one to six volunteers, but even in small groups, divers work alongside a permanent team of helpful and friendly, like-minded individuals. With the continued daily support from Dev and Chad, the leaders of the team, the conservation work is scheduled once everyone is settled in properly.

Volunteers and staff pose for a photo.

Volunteering includes taking part in:

  • Reef surveys (Ecological Monitoring Program)
  • Biorock Coral Rehabilitation and Nursery
  • Artificial Reef Construction and Maintenance
  • Mid-water coral nurseries
  • Giant Clam Nursery
  • Sea Turtle Sanctuary and Releases
  • Land and Underwater Clean-ups

Interested in volunteering?

Prices start from $924USD (£585) excluding flights, but include PADI dive training courses, with fully qualified instructors and full equipment. Approximately 70 percent of the fee goes to the conservation project, which provides employment for the Thai locals.

Volunteering abroad is rewarding and fulfilling, but it is important volunteers are fit and healthy enough to keep up with the physicality of the work, not to mention being able to cope with the high temperatures and the humidity. Taking this into consideration, the Marine Conservation Project in Koh Tao will be the most memorable experience of your life.

About the Author:  Robert Hewitt is a freelance journalist and founder of Fly Far and Fast, a travel website bringing the world closer to you. Robert has written for several travel websites and online magazines, and is a proud member of Travel Bloggers Give Back. He is passionate about travel, writing and coffee. Available for freelance assignments on request.  Follow him on Twitter and  Facebook.



Guest Posts Responsible Tourism

Photo Essay: Life at Elephant Nature Park

For about one week, I was a volunteer at Elephant Nature Park. During that time, I did everything from shoveling poo to being blessed by a shaman to becoming part of the heard and spending time with elephants up-close, to singing “Que Sera, Sera” as they fell asleep. There were tears of joy and tears of heartbreak.

And lots of photos.


The Park

Situated on 30 acres about an hour north of Chiang Mai, Thailand, Elephant Nature Park is a gorgeous enclave where elephants rescued from the tourism industry and illegal logging industries and more, are able to live their remaining lives in peace and free from abuse.

The lodging is not glamorous, but I loved my room in the primitive Palace structure.

Particularly the views that include elephants in the background …

And even those that don’t.

Beyond the lodging, the other areas where volunteers spend time are vibrant, rustic and beautiful, too.

There is also the stunning tropical land inhabited by the elephants to gaze at all day long.


The Elephant Kitchen

The elephant kitchen at the park is a huge structure, packed with shelves stocked with fruits that need constant rotation. Elephants can eat upwards of 700 pounds of vegetation each day. With more than 30 elephants in the park, that’s 21,000 pounds of food being moved from the kitchen and other areas to the searching trunks each day!

There kitchen includes bunches and bunches and bunches of bananas …

Melons …

… Sugarcane and more. Volunteers fill buckets for each elephant and then help deliver them to the feeding platforms and nearby shelters for mealtimes.

 For the elephants who can’t chew the fruit, volunteers roll banana balls.

Life at the Park

Chores, like shoveling, are daily tasks at Elephant Nature Park. Volunteers shovel into a trailer and then a staff member removes the waste.

But, there are also other aspects of the park that should be mentioned, like the boards which honor the mahouts.

The mahouts and others at the park also lend their talents to the gift shop, where hand-carved renditions of the park’s elephants are prominently displayed.

Aside from the elephants at the park, water buffalo, cats, dogs and more call this place “home.”

It’s also home to larger than life insects!

Want to see elephants? Stay tuned!

Asia Blog Responsible Tourism Thailand

Heartbreak and healing at Elephant Nature Park

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Mae Sai Roong lays on the ground. She looks so little compared to the throngs of people around here — the Elephant Nature Park volunteers, the vets, the mahouts, Lek — all scrambling to make sure she doesn’t give up on life just yet.

Every now and then, the old girl swings her heavy head up from the mound of dirt she’s resting it on. Swings her trunk to power her torso up, off the ground. Somehow, she manages to find the strength to do it. She looks around at all of us for a moment. Sits. Blinks.

We stand, frozen. Our hearts race. We pray she can stand. Fists clench. Hopes high.

Then, she gives up. Laying back down into the dirt.

The sigh from the entire group is audible. It echoes in the piles of dirt around us.

More scrambling ensues as people try to adjust the sand bags, the tires, the dirt, to contour to her body so she is comfortable, so her legs don’t lose circulation. So she doesn’t die in front of us.

Volunteers rush to move dirt to keep the elephant comfortable.

Me? I can barely watch this scene.

I had heard there was a sick elephant. But, I never imagined … this. This beautiful girl, her six tons so tiny on the ground. Her body nearly lifeless except for a few short whisps of air going through her trunk when she breathes deep.

After a lifetime of being in the logging and elephant trekking (giving rides to people like us) industries, they have taken their toll on this beautiful animal.

My last full day at the park isn’t supposed to be like this. It isn’t supposed to be sad. It isn’t supposed to be a reminder of the repercussions of what happens to these elephants who spend their lives delighting tourists who don’t know any better.

And yet, it is.

My day started out so promising. So happy.

Still glowing from the afternoon before and my time with Lek’s soft singing of “Que Sera Sera” to one of the park’s baby elephants, the sun finally came out Saturday morning, casting the entire park in that warm golden hue that sends little sparks of happy to the soul.

The sunny view over breakfast.

Over a breakfast of pancakes, Lucy, Katy, Adele, Marie and I sit, looking out at the park and the elephants making their way out on the grounds.

We all say the same thing. “They’re so beautiful.” “This week has been so amazing.” “I am so glad we learned about these elephants.” “I can’t wait to start spreading the word about why people shouldn’t ride them.”

We are all so happy.

Even after a morning of scooping, a few of us gather on the ledge of the medical shelter, simply taking pleasure in watching as the elephants stroll along with their mahouts nearby. As the water buffalo graze. As the visitors to the park explore the grounds for the first time with pure delight at what they were seeing.

I had my plan for the morning: to grab my camera, a soda, and go to the feeding platform and watch the elephants eat their buckets of fruit.

It sounded like the perfect way to spend two hours before lunch.

It never happened.

Instead, just as I am about to sit down to watch the blind elephant, Jokia, open her mouth in anticipation of food, Jack finds me.

“We need your help. There’s a sick elephant and we need to go fill sand bags. Can you come?”

Of course, I oblige.

Of all of the days for the sun to be out and strong, today is the worst for it.

Under the scorching sun and humid air, a group of 10 of us shovel dirt from the same mound that the elephants had rolled in two days prior when I had toured the park and gotten to be up-close with elephants.

Dripping sweat, we are quickly covered in a coating of flour from the bags, along with a layer of red dirt.

When the truck fills, some volunteers get in to go and take the bags to where the sick elephant is.

I opt to stay.

Then, after a few minutes cooling off under a tree, taking a breather from the summer sun, we’re back out, filling bags again. Only, when the truck fills up this time, we are all instructed to climb in and head to the elephant’s location.

I already know I don’t want to see it.

When we arrive, my heart breaks.

Jumping down from the back of the truck and seeing what was in front of me is something I will remember for the rest of my life. My own, personal reminder of why I will never ride an elephant or go to a circus or buy an elephant painting.

The image is burned into my brain.

So, this is what a dying elephant looks like.

Mae Sai Roong doesn’t move much. She lays silently, half watching as we form an assembly line and pass out sand bags, stacking them around her legs, trying to get her to re-position herself so she doesn’t cut off circulation in her back leg she is laying on.

Someone wraps a thick woven band under her belly.They are going to try to pull her up to a standing position with a crane.

Lek counts off, and the truck powers on, the crane begins to lift. Slowly, the Asian elephant’s body begins to elevate, but she fights it. She begins to fall sideways, looking horribly distressed as her eyes snap wide open.

“Stop! Stop!” People scream.

She is slowly lowered back down.

They wait a few minutes, and then, repeat the process. She again fights it. Her front legs coming out in front of her.

I choke on a sob and pull the neck of my dirtied T-shirt over half of my face so no one can see it is now covered with streaks of tears.

This time, when they begin to lower her back down, I turn around. I can’t watch this.

For a moment, she looks as if she might stand on her own.

As staff continue to work on the elephant and readjust dirt, tires and sand bags, Lek tells us to head back to the main building to get lunch, and then return with all of the volunteers when we are done.

The few of us still there race back to the group, find everyone else, and tell them what has happened.

I eat lunch quickly, filled with dread at having to return to Mae Sai Roong. I want to help. I just don’t want to see her suffering like this.

We head back after lunch and are immediately put to work digging. We need to move dirt from one spot to another and form it around her  body.

Mae Sai Roong hasn’t changed much. She still lays there, only the efforts to get her to adjust her weight have ceased.

Bananas go uneaten in the elephant’s mouth.

People try in vain to get her to eat. She doesn’t. Instead, she takes the cluster of bananas wrapped in a coil of her trunk and just leaves them hanging in her mouth.

A vet hooks her up to an IV. Someone else takes a mister and hovers over her body, letting the light wash of water cool her hot skin down.

Then, I hear singing.

“Que sera, sera …”

I spin around from where I am standing behind the elephant and see Lucy, Katy, Pam, Evelyn, Sarah, Marie and Adele, all splayed out on the mound of dirt behind Mae Sai Roong. They lay there, scooping up handfuls of earth and rubbing it on her back. All the while, they sing to her softly.

“Whatever will be, will be …”

I crawl up on the mound with them and take my hand in the dirt, rubbing it into her tough skin, scratching. I try to join in, but I’m overcome with sadness and instead of singing, sob.

Singing to comfort Mae Sai Roong.

“We all need somebody to lean on … lean on me …”

Singing more songs to her …

Each song takes on meaning as we lay there, not caring about being filthy, not caring about being eaten by ants. All we care about in that moment is comforting a creature in her last moments. In letting her know she is not alone.

We spend nearly the entire afternoon with Mae Sai Roong, and then head to another shelter to make a bed of dirt for another elephant who needs a little help getting up from sleeping.

The next day, the outline is evident from the elephant who used the dirt as a bed.

Even though our last night is special, and the park creates a feast of Northern Thai food for us, the mood is somber. Our group of girls go from happy to sad, smiles to tears, quickly.

After dinner, Lucy, Adele, Marie and I decide we want to return to Mae Sai Roong to see her. To likely say goodbye.

I know I can’t do it alone. It’s too sad. Too heart-breaking. Especially after the week I have had, the things I have learned about the plight of the Asian elephants.

As we walk down the dark path towards the sick elephant, we all grab each other’s hands for comfort, and united, walk up to her.

Now, a fire burns and only a few park staff are there. They will sleep with her, making sure she is comfortable the entire evening.

When we get there, she looks even smaller than she did earlier. Her mahout has moved the bags of sand, helped her re-adjust.

Around her, in the dark, I can hear elephants in a nearby shelter moving about.

“Do they know she’s sick?” I ask one of the staff members.

“They don’t care,” she says. “She doesn’t have any friends.”

Except for humans.

The four of us sit together on the gravel, silently. I let myself cry. Not just for Mae Sai Roong, but for all of the elephants whose fate is the same as hers. For all of the elephants who went through the Phajaan. The abuse. The treks.

We get up after a few minutes and whisper our goodbyes to the sweet girl, and then head to the river.

It’s Saturday night, and loud Thai music from another camp wafts down to us. We sit in darkness, watching the strobe-light fireflies blink past us. We cry.

The girls decide to return to Mae Sai Roong in the morning before breakfast, but I pass.

The memory I have of her is enough for me.

I fall asleep that night listening to the music. Thinking about Mae Sai Roong.

In the morning, the girls visit her.

A volunteer comforts Mae Sai Roong in the morning.

“She doesn’t look good,” Lucy reports as soon as I find her at breakfast. “I don’t think she will make it.”

I’m glad I didn’t go.

We all sit together at breakfast, quiet.

This is our experience. Together. And, as sad as it is, I cannot be more thankful I am experiencing it. I feel like this was meant to happen so I can truly understand what happens to these elephants and then come home and tell everyone.

We split off into groups on our last morning with an air of sadness lingering. We’ve all been through this tragic experience together and no one wants to talk about it.

Until …

“Do you see over there?” Jack asks, pointing his finger towards a blue tarp in the distance.

“What?” We ask.

“Mae Sai Roong,” he says. “She’s standing.”

Suddenly, the sadness is replaced with elation. She’s alive. She’s standing.

We all smile, grateful to have gone through hell in order to be a part of this momentary bliss.

And, deep down, I’m warmed thinking our love and support had something to do with the elephant’s little victory for the day.

[Editor’s Note: Mae Sai Roong passed away a few weeks later. To read about her life, her death and more about how you can ensure other elephants don’t face the same fate, please  read “Speaking for the elephants.” And, check out “A Brief Education: The dark side of the elephant tourism industry.” For even more information and reasons why you should never ride an elephant, read “Why elephant riding should be removed from your bucket list.” It is up to each of us to help spread the word about the plight of the Asian elephants and how we can make an impact and send a message to not only the tourism industry, but to other travelers who want to spend time with these magnificent creatures. And, special thanks to Gabrielle Esi Aw, Julie-Anne O’Neill, Lucy Tallis and Pam Brace for photos.]

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