11 Reasons to NOT Ride Elephants & Some Great Alternatives

If you’re planning a trip to Southeast Asia, chances are, you’ve come across the idea of riding elephants on a jungle trek.  Everyone loves elephants so this activity has become extremely popular. I wanted to take a minute and explain why you should NOT ride elephants on your vacation, especially if you love these animals.  Sitting atop these gentle giants may sound like an amazing, magical, once-in-a-lifetime experience, but here are 11 reasons, and some elephant-friendly alternatives, that will hopefully dissuade you.

 

1.  Elephants are very intelligent and social creatures.  They know and understand the stress that they are experiencing. They are very social and rely on their herd or family members. Often the elephants in the tourism industry are alone and have no contact with other elephants, which can lead to stress related disorders such as post traumatic-stress disorder and depression…. and yes, elephants can suffer from these kinds of disorders.  You can often see these elephants swaying back and forth.  The owners will usually say something like “oh, she’s dancing” or “oh, that means they are happy”.  No.  It’s a sign of these extreme stress related disorders.

 

2.  Elephants in the riding industry have NO freedom.  I know you want to think that this is just Dumbo’s 9-5 job.  At the end of the day they punch out, and go frolic in a field somewhere.  Sorry to burst your bubble… but most owners chain them to a pole or keep them in an area with no room to move.  They do this to break the elephants spirits so they feel trapped and helpless; making them less likely to fight back.

 

chained ele feet

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Elephants can spend hours or days chained or trapped in small areas like this.

 

3.  They are tortured to trained to be ridden.  This is probably the most important reason to not ride an elephant.  Wild elephants would never allow someone to crawl on their back and ride around.  The way they train them is to break their spirit.  It is a horrible, grueling process called ‘elephant crushing’.  They are whipped and poked with bull hooks repeatedly, deprived of sleep, food, and water, and chained into small areas.  They do this from the time the elephant is very young.  Here, you can see very disturbing videos of this process, known in Thailand as ‘kraal’ or ‘the crush’ and ‘phajaan’ or ‘the mental break’.

 

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Brutal training, known as ‘the crush’ is how an elephant becomes domesticated to be ridden.

 

4.  The elephants in the tourism industry have often been stolen, not bought, from their natural environment.  They, usually, have not been paid for, so while they bring in money for the family, there is not really any incentive to maintain the animal’s health.  If the animal dies, they can find another one in the jungle.  On the other hand, if they had paid money for the animal (such is the case with ox or horses), they would be wasting a lot of their own money if they let the animal get sick or die.

 

5.  The elephant’s owners often don’t provide sufficient food, water, or medical care.  One adult elephant needs about 300 lbs of food every day.  The average income of someone in the elephant riding industry does not allow them to give the animal proper nutrition.  Besides that point, this is part of the “crush” process.  If they are constantly hungry or thirsty, the animal will be less likely to fight back.  They are forced to carry weight all day, in the scorching heat, without water. Experts agree that elephants can, at a MAXIMUM carry about 150 kgs for about 4 hours a day, with access to water.  Elephants in this industry often carry 2-3 people plus the metal seat, for 8+ hours a day, with little to no water. Without proper medical care, this lack of nutrition and care can lead to serious problems for the elephants.  I won’t post the photos here because they are disturbing… but there is the story of Sambo the elephant who passed out and died from lack of water and heat exhaustion while carrying tourists in Cambodia.   There are also photos of the diseases and deformities that can result from elephants carrying too much weight.

 

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The deformities and injuries that can occur as a result of prolonged exposure to carrying excessive weight or a direct result of the torture used to domesticate these creatures.

 

6.   Asian elephants are endangered!  Going along the last few points, the sustainability of the species is not exactly the first thing on the owners’ minds.  Most of them don’t care about the animal itself, they just care about the profit that it will make for them.  Many of these poor animals die every year from exhaustion, lack of nutrition, diseases gotten as a result of riding, or torture. This just makes the Asian elephants even more endangered than they already are.  In Thailand there is said to be only about 5,000 elephants left…. and 4,000 of them are in captivity.

 

7.  Walking around so much, especially on pavement, deforms the elephant’s legs and feet.  Here are some pictures of what can happen to the legs and soles of the elephants’ feet because of carrying excessive weight and walking without breaks.

 

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Diseases and injuries that can occur from walking around on scorching pavement or from carrying excessive weight.

 

8.  An elephant’s spine is not built to carry weight from above.  They are made to support their own weight from below.  Horses and oxen’s spines can withstand weight from above… an elephant’s cannot.  They seem like they can carry an endless amount of weight because of their massive size, but their structure is simply meant to carry their own mass.  Constantly carrying weight, like riders, can seriously deform their spines.  You can hear many stories of retired, tourist-carrying elephants with deformed legs, backs, and necks or arthritis.

 

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An elephant’s skeletal structure.

 

9.  Giving money to this industry will only encourage this kind of behavior.  Trip Advisor and over 160 other companies have stopped selling tickets to participate in this activity.  This shows that society is becoming increasingly aware that this is a large problem.  In Southeast Asia, many people don’t care about animal rights or environmental protection… not because they don’t care about it or it doesn’t matter… but because they must be concerned with their own needs first.  Most of these places are not wealthy.  The governments don’t necessarily help the poor as much as they should, so they must help themselves if they want any money for food, housing, or water for their families.  Unfortunately, that means they must think about their own individual needs before they can even begin to work on animal rights or environmental protection.  Basically the universal language of these places is money and how to provide for their families.  If you stop giving money to the elephant riding industry, it means the owners must change tactics and move into another industry… hopefully one that is a little more animal friendly.

 

10.  It’s more fun to just interact with them, than to ride them!  Many years ago I rode an elephant in India. This was before I knew the truth behind this industry and before I had done any research for myself.  However, I am a huge elephant lover, which is why I (and most people) want to get close to them and ride them.  So, I started looking into alternative ways to see and interact with these animals.  Recently, my son and I went to an elephant sanctuary where you are allowed to walk with, feed, and sometimes even bathe in the river with the elephants, but NOT ride them.  I must say, that just interacting with them was a much better experience than riding the elephant was!  The elephants are so much more playful when they are not scared of being whipped or hit.  You can see their true personalities.  Often when you are riding (at least with my experience), the owner will whip the elephant or tug their ears with a bull-hook when they try to stop to eat some leaves.  I didn’t like that and felt bad for the elephant.  Also, I don’t know about you guys, but I always get super self-conscious of my weight when I’m riding an animal too, making me feel even worse for the poor ele.  That’s all taken away when you’re just watching them, getting a “trunk hug” after feeding them a banana, or splashing mud or water on them during their bath.  No concrete room.  No chains.  Just elephants walking around being elephants; playful, curious, and just amazing.

 

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My son was beyond thrilled with meeting the elephants, if you can’t tell by that giant smile on his face!

 

11.  There are elephant friendly alternatives to riding!  As these countries develop, so does their awareness for animal rights.  Today, there are more elephant sanctuaries than ever before. Here’s a list of elephant friendly parks and sanctuaries where you can hang out with them, but not ride them or watch tricks/performances.

 

  • Phnom Tamao Wildlife Sanctuary (near Phnom Penh, Cambodia) They rescue elephants who used to be in bad situations.  Here, you can walk with them, feed them, and even watch an injured elephant get his prosthetic foot changed.  Its amazing to see these animals getting a second chance at a real ‘elephant life’. This is halfway between a zoo and a safari but the enclosures are huge and the elephants roam around free when their are no visitors.  Part of the tour in the morning is trying to go find the elephants.  There are also tigers, bears and tons of monkeys.
  • Elephant Valley Project (Mondulkiri, Cambodia) Here you can see rescued elephants and can follow them around, feed them, and bathe them.  It is a little out of the way but I have heard nothing but amazing things about this place and it is considered the best sanctuary in Cambodia.
  • Elephant Nature Park (Chiang Mai, Thailand) Probably the most famous sanctuary in Asia. They have been in operation for nearly 30 years saving and rehabilitating elephants and have won countless awards for their efforts. You may walk with them, feed them, and bathe them here.
  • Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary (Sukhothai, Thailand)  Run by one woman who was inspired by an elephant, named Boon Lott, to provide a sanctuary for abused or retired elephants. She has won an award for this sanctuary from the International Fund for Animal Welfare. Guests can interact with the elephants, walk with them, feed them, and also volunteer their time harvesting elephant food from the jungle and walking them to their grazing areas.
  • Yala National Park (near Hambantota, Sri Lanka)  This is the 2nd largest national park in Sri Lanka and is the only place you can go to see wild elephants.  It is always hard to determine which elephant sanctuaries are really just profit machines and which actually care about the elephants… so obviously the best option is to just see them in their natural habitat.  In Yala National Park you can go on safaris and see about 300 elephants roaming the grounds as well as many other species, including about 25 leapords! No cages, no chains, they are free to roam the grounds as they please.  This also means no feeding or touching as they are considered wild, not domesticated!
  • Bannerghatta Biological Park (Bangalore, India)  This is a very new elephant sanctuary and is also the only chain-free establishment in India currently.  It is a large attraction housing a zoo, an elephant sanctuary, a butterfly park, and a safari.  There are elephants in the zoo, but most of them are in the chain-free sanctuary where they roam free in a fenced in 122-acre area.
  • MandaLao Tours (Luang Prabang, Laos)  There are several elephant sanctuaries in Laos, especially near Luang Prabang, but nearly all of them I found had riding programs.  This is the only one I could find that strictly says NO RIDING. All of the tours are at the lead of the elephants; following them around and feeding them their breakfast or lunch.  If you know of any other places in Laos, please let me know in the comments!
  • Vietnam– Sorry, but there are currently NO elephant sanctuaries in Vietnam that do not offer rides.  The only sanctuaries are located near Yok Don and Lak Lake where the elephants no longer work the fields, but give rides instead.  I have heard that they do treat the elephants quite well, considering they are still ridden; but please, if you know anywhere in Vietnam to ethically see elephants, let me know.

Please, do not support this industry.  As I said before, it is more fun for both you and the elephant to just interact with them.  There are many alternative ways and places to enjoy these amazing animals.  If you have had a wonderful elephant experience somewhere, PLEASE, let me know in the comments.  I would love to check out more awesome ele-friendly places!

Thanks for reading!

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11 Ways to Get Around In a Country If You Don’t Know the Language 

        A lot of people get scared or nervous to go overseas because of the language barrier. What if I get lost and can’t find my way back? What if the taxi driver brings me to the wrong place? Well, fear no more. These 10 tips will allow you to get around with ease, no matter where you are!

1. If you have a smartphone or tablet, download a translation or dictionary app in the language of the country that you will be in. Google Translate has been updated to work offline now, is available in over 60 languages on Android and iPhone, and best of all it’s FREE! 


2. If you aren’t up to speed with technology, bring a good old-fashioned phrasebook! I personally enjoy these more because they are more comprehensive and, usually, the translation is a bit more accurate. Most guidebooks like Lonely Planet or Rough Guides have phrasebooks in the back, near the index. These will give you all of the most important phrases that you should know. You can simply point to the phrase that you want to communicate.  



3. Screenshot or print out the address of where you want to go… before you get there! Make sure to have your hotel’s information, including phone number saved (in the local language) before you arrive at the airport. You can grab your bags, hop in a taxi, show them the information and they’ll… a) know exactly where it is, or b) be able to call the hotel and figure it out. 



4. Save pictures of places where you want to go. Some places, like ancient monuments, might not have a specific address you can show a cab driver. For example, Machu Picchu is not 52 Machu Picchu Drive but if you show a driver a picture of it, they will know where to take you. If you show them some saved Google pictures of the building or area they will probably know where to go.


5. Grab a business card from your hotel. This one is important to consistently get to and from your hotel easily! The hotel’s card will have their address and phone number in the local language, and more often than not, it will also have a map showing their location. Just show it to your driver or someone on the street and they’ll be able to point you in the right direction.


6. Pick up or download a city map. If your hotel staff speaks a little English, have them show you where they are on the map, so you have some reference.  


7. Learn some basic phrases in the local language. Even if you absolutely butcher the pronunciation, the effort will be much appreciated. Some great phrases to learn are; ‘hello’, ‘goodbye’, ‘please’, ‘thank you’, ‘this one/that one’, the numbers from 1-10, and especially ‘how much?’. People are less likely to give you the ‘tourist price’ if you ask how much it is in the local language. 


8. Translate vital information and carry it with you everywhere. If you have something serious you need to constantly communicate, such as a life threatening peanut allergy, have someone who knows the language write it on an index card and bring it with you everywhere so you can show it to restaurants, etc. You could even use Google Translate and before you go, print out the translation to carry with you. If you go to http://www.allergytranslation.com you can customize allergy cards with your specific allergens and severity. You can then translate it into the language you will need and print out as many as you need right away. The cards are $8.00, but definitely worth it if your allergy is very severe. Another great site is http://www.selectwisely.com because they have allergy cards, gluten-free cards, medical emergency cards, and drug allergy cards. For example, if you are a diabetic and feeling a low sugar reaction coming on, you can pull out this card telling someone what is happening and you require sugar quickly. You can order these in about 30 different languages and they are about $14.99 per card. Expensive, but definitely worth it for the peace of mind. Brokerfish.com is another site that has FREE cards but they only cover 8 allergens and 6 languages. If your allergies and language are common then this site would be good for you. 



9. Can’t beat a good game of charades! When all else fails, pointing, miming, and acting will help get your point across. If anything it’s more fun!  


10. Don’t be scared to start randomly asking people if they speak English! You will be surprised at the kindness of people. English is the most common second language in the world. No matter where you are SOMEONE is bound to speak a little English. Look for younger people as they are more likely to have learned English in school. If you’re in a bus station just getting really frustrated because the desk staff doesn’t understand what you want, you can ask the people in line behind you if anyone speaks English. If you’re lost on the street, start asking people walking by you if anyone can help you. The generosity of people never ceases to amaze me. 


11. Lastly, be friendly!!! In many countries, extreme emotions like anger and frustration will make you lose face and respect. If you smile and go with the flow, you will attract a lot more people’s help and generosity. What’s that saying? You catch more flies with honey than vinegar? Well, its true… especially with traveling overseas!


       I hope these have been helpful to you and given you more confidence to travel overseas without fear! Always remember, a smile is the same in every language. Don’t be scared of not knowing how to communicate. Get out there and experience this beautiful world and all it’s different cultures/languages! Let me know in the comments if you have another way you like to get around in foreign places! Happy traveling!

21 Tips to Travel Anywhere On A Budget!

Today, with the economy the way it is, more and more people must be increasingly conscious of their spending habits.  Of course, one of the first things that gets pushed out of someone’s budget is traveling.   This is so unfortunate because (1) we were not made to work, pay bills, and die, and (2) you can still travel cheaply as long as you are willing to make some sacrifices. Here I have created 21 tips for you to still be able to travel the world AND stay within a budget!

 

 

  1. Be flexible! This is probably the most important one.  Don’t search for flights or hotels on specific dates.  The price for a flight on a Saturday could be hundreds of dollars different than the same flight on a Tuesday. Use sites like Kayak that have a “flexible date” or “search the whole month” option to see when the cheapest day is to fly.  You can also be flexible with your destination! Skyscanner is a really cool website because you can enter the dates you wish to travel and instead of inserting a destination, you type “Anywhere” and it will give you the cheapest destinations around the world on those dates.  On the flip side of that you can also enter a destination and type “Anytime” and it will tell you the cheapest days of the year to fly there. Pretty amazing and also highly addictive!
  2. Forget the luxury! You don’t have to live like sewer rats, but if you want to save money, be prepared to stay in places that are not 5 star resorts.  Try some hostels or AirBnb. I know they can sound frightening sometimes, especially for people with kids, but you can find some amazing ones that are really no different from a hotel.  If you are still wary of hostels, just remember you don’t have to get a 10-person dorm room! You can get private rooms that are STILL cheaper than a hotel.  AirBnb’s are great because you (usually) get access to a kitchen and multiple bedrooms depending on how many people you have. You also  get access to the “landlord” who is most likely a local.  They are usually very helpful and can give you great (FREE) tips about what to do in the area, how to get places on the public transportation, and sometimes even show you around. AirBnb and Hostel World are great sites to get started for your search!
  3. Use the public transportation systems! Buses, metros, and your good ‘ole feet are A LOT cheaper than taxis or hired cars! You can see more of the local environment this way too. Wherever you stay… hostels, AirBnb, hotels… the staff will be able to help you figure out how to get where you want to go using public transports. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, even from a stranger on the street.  
  4. Don’t eat out all the time! Go to a grocery store and buy food for your stay. Get some muffins for breakfast, some peanut butter and bread for lunch, and stuff to make salads for dinner. If you have access to a kitchen then make good use of it! You will save, literally, hundreds of dollars if you stick to making your own food for a week or two.
  5. Stop buying bottled water everyday! Bring a reusable water bottle with you and drink from the tap. If you are in a location where the tap is not suitable to drink, then get a large gallon of water to refill your bottle. Two dollars a pop for 12 oz bottles of water adds up! Especially if you are drinking more than one everyday, which you probably are!
  6. If you are planning on staying in the area for a month or so you could consider working in exchange for room/board. There are many sites that connect you to people looking for laborers.  WWOOF, Help Exchange, and Dave’s ESL Cafe are some great examples. There are also places that offer free accommodation to you in exchange for a gift, some light housework, your company, or a promise of accommodation to them in the future. Hospitality Exchange and Couchsurfing are great examples of this.
  7. Pack lightly!  This makes it easier to carry and you can avoid those hefty “overweight” fees at the airports. Beyond that, if you can get away with all of your belongings in a carry-on, you can fly on most budget airlines without having to pay their checked luggage fees. Most budget airlines charge for checked baggage by the kilogram, so it can get quite expensive and defeat the purpose of using a “budget” airline. If you can do it then budget airlines can be your best friend. One of the really good sites is Which Budget.
  8. This seems obvious but try to avoid buying a bunch of souvenirs.  I know it’s hard, believe me! Try to think about if you really need or it or if you would actually use it.
  9. Travel in the off seasons! This can actually be a better experience than peak seasons! The sights will be less crowded and everything will be cheaper! Just make sure you’re being safe about your off-season travels. Don’t go somewhere in the middle of typhoon season.
  10. Go to as many free activities and sights as possible.  If you have kids, don’t go to that fancy children’s play center. Find a playground or park they can enjoy instead.
  11. Many large cities also have free walking tours.  Ask your hostel, hotel, or AirBnb if there are any available in your area… or simply Google it.  Great way to see the sites, get some exercise and save some money!
  12. Invest in savings cards, especially if you are going to be somewhere longer than a few days. Rail passes, metro passes, and bus passes are all so useful and pay for themselves after just a few uses. City passes offer you free or discounted admission to almost any sight or museum in the city.  They typically also give you discounts at various activities and restaurants.
  13. Research your destination! Bring a guidebook, join an online community or group, or download some E-readers.  Ask people who live there what is good to see in the area and when/how you should go there. You can avoid unnecessary expenses by avoiding places you would not find interesting or by learning how the locals would go to that place. Girls Love Travel is a great community on Facebook with nearly 275,000 members. People are always asking for opinions from locals.  If you want to go somewhere, chances are, there are locals in that group willing to give advice.
  14. Don’t bother buying SIM cards or calling cards. It is so much easier (and cheaper!) nowadays to just download WhatsApp, Skype, WeChat, or any other communications app.  Use wifi to go online and stay in touch with people.
  15. Overnight buses or trains! If you have to go a long distance from one city to another you can skip paying an extra night at a hotel and just sleep on the bus or train!  These are SO much cheaper than a hotel.  You can still get fairly comfortable if they have the flat bed-style seating, which most overnight ones do.
  16. Use all the discounts that apply to you!  Anywhere you go, ask if they have student, senior, military, AAA, or family discounts! Every penny counts, right?
  17. Haggle like a mad woman (or man)! If you are in flea markets in Europe, you should definitely be doing this.  In most of Asia it is expected and a way of life, so don’t be shy! Just remember to be reasonable and not insulting with your price offers.
  18. Don’t tip unless you know you’re supposed to.  If it’s included on your bill, then you probably don’t need to. When in doubt, ask your server!  In some Asian countries tipping can actually be considered rude. They think of it as if you see the waiter as a poor beggar who needs your extra change to survive, therefore it’s not considered a ‘nice’ thing to do, since they are not actually destitute.
  19. If you can, use miles to pay for your flight! You can use rewards cards or airline credit cards to rack up miles.  You can also buy merchandise from the online Skymall of any airline.  You can get electronics, pens, alcohol, makeup, perfumes, etc. Just for buying it on their website, the airlines will give you miles for every dollar you spend.
  20. Set aside a certain amount of money for each day and only bring that amount out with you! Leave the rest in the hotel safe. This way, there is no temptation to go over budget. If you have kids, do the same thing.  Give them their daily allowance for food, drinks, souvenirs. In my experience, kids tend to be more frugal when they can physically see their own money dwindling.
  21. Pack your own snacks for the flights, trains, or bus/car rides.  Snacks can be so expensive so it’s better to bring some with you from the grocery store.

 

 

Let me know in the comments below, what tricks do you use to save money when traveling?

 

I hope you enjoyed this list! Travel can be one of the most rewarding experiences of your life.  I wouldn’t want anyone to look back on their life and say “well, I wanted to travel but… it was too expensive.”   It doesn’t matter if you spontaneously go trekking through Patagonia for months or you save up for 2 years for a week-long trip to Miami. The point of travel is not how many stamps are in your passport. It’s about the number of amazing experiences you have along the way. Hopefully these tips can help you to plan a frugal and fun vacation for yourself or your family! Happy travels!

 

 

 

 

How to See the Best of Phnom Penh WITH KIDS in Just 4 Days!

My son and I recently returned from a trip to Cambodia.  I thought I would share what we did during our time “tuk tuk-ing” around the country.  In this post, I’ll talk about our first stop on the trip, Phnom Penh, and how you can see all of the best parts of the city in just 4 days, even with your little ones in tow!

Cambodia is a fairly new, but very popular, tourist destination.  After years of turbulence and strife from the Khmer Rouge genocide and civil war, Cambodia is still in the process of putting itself back together.  The tourism industry is a major part of the country’s current economy. Many people earn their living connected in some way to travelers; tuk tuk drivers, guides, performers, not to mention the ever-growing list of hotels, guesthouses, hostels, and bars catered specifically to foreigners.  So if you start having doubts about if you should go or not, just tell yourself you’ll be helping the local economy and get over there!

We flew into Phnom Penh fairly late and shared a taxi with another lone traveler to our hotels. Shared taxis are your cheapest option if you don’t want to take a motorcycle or tuk tuk with all of your luggage. Although, to be honest, tuk tuks are less expensive and can usually fit quite a few bags in them. Most of the major attractions in Phnom Penh are pretty centralized.  It is pretty feasible to walk from Wat Ounalom, to the National Museum, to the Royal Palace, to the Friendship Monument, to Wat Botum, all the way down to the Independence Monument.  I like to call this area the Cambodian Mall (just a little play on words from the National Mall in Washington D.C.), because most of the attractions are there.

The first day we spent at Wat Ounalom, which is the home of Cambodian Buddhism.  My son had a great time exploring the dozens of buildings and seeing all the different stupas.  We then walked along the Mekong River, which is lined with flags from all over the world. Its a great place to sit and relax for a few minutes.  I would recommend staying at Wat Ounalom until lunchtime and then having a bite and relaxing along the riverfront until the Royal Palace opens up for the afternoon.  The Palace closes everyday during midday.  There is a fantastic western style cafe in this area called Connecting Hands Training Cafe.  All of the women working there have been rescued from slavery or sex trafficking.  They are there to learn working skills so they can re-enter society.  The cafe also rescues children and uses the profits from the cafe to send them back to school.  They also sell bags, wallets, bracelets, etc that have all been handmade by these amazing women.  The food is a delicious little slice of home; salads, sandwiches, fries, french toast! Definitely go for the Oreo milkshake… it was ah-mazing. A good cause and good food! Um, yes please!

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In the afternoon, we headed for the Royal Palace. Its entry is a beautiful grassy area completely covered with pigeons and people peddling bird seed and corn kernels. Ashton’s day was made in that instant.  The ticket booth and visitor entrance is a little down the street from the grand entryway.  Again, I would recommend going as soon as they open in the afternoon/morning because it’s not as busy.  Be sure you bring something to cover your upper arms. It is impolite to show above the knee or above the elbow.  They do have coverings you can buy but its a lot easier/cheaper to just bring a scarf/shawl in your bag.  Once inside it’s a breathtaking view of ornate buildings on all sides.  The throne/coronation room is right in front of you as you walk in. You can’t enter any of the buildings on the right, but to the left you can enter the Silver Pagoda complex.  The Silver Pagoda is a beautiful building with a floor completely tiled in silver pieces. No photos allowed and you must take your shoes off.  Inside is a giant gold statue of Buddha, people paying their respects, as well as many other Cambodian relics.

Once you’re finished exploring the other areas of the Silver Pagoda complex (be sure to check out the murals along the perimeters) head on down to the Vietnam-Cambodia Friendship Monument. It’s just a few minutes walk down the street from the Royal Palace, inside Wat Botum park. This park is also a great place for your kids to let loose after a few hours of “good behavior” at the Palace.  There are many great playgrounds along the sides of the park.  There are always lots of Cambodian and foreign kids playing on the slides and climbing the jungle gyms.  Wat Botum is on the street directly parallel to the park and is a smaller but just as impressive Buddhist center comparable to Wat Ounalom. If you’re all wat-ed out, I would say skip this one and spend more time at Wat Ounalom.

When you’re finished prying your kids away from the playground, walk all the way down the park and take a right.  You will see the Independence Monument and Norodom Sihanouk Statue. Both are quite impressive pieces of Cambodian architecture commemorating Cambodian freedom.  We then went back to our hotel for dinner and a swim. I would recommend getting hotels with pools since they’re so common and no more expensive than hotels without them.  It’s a great way to cool off after a hot day of walking around the city.

The next day we went to Wat Phnom which is north of the “Cambodian Mall” we explored the day before.  It’s a gorgeous example of Cambodian stupa architecture set atop a hill and dominates the skyline of northern Phnom Penh. It can get pretty crazy here during the day so try and go in the morning.  Inside is an impressive statue of Buddha with modern Cambodians praying for luck and/or money.  From here, head on down to the French Embassy for a minute.  While not that impressive of a building it has a lot of significance.  If you’re a history nerd, like I am, you will recognize this as the place where the locals tried to seek refugee but were ultimately forced to leave the gates to be killed by the Khmer Rouge. After, you can try to let go of some of that malaise by heading down to the National Museum. It’s not very big but definitely worth the visit.  I loved the statues and my son loved the canons and swords. There is something for everyone.

After lunch, head on over to the bustling Russian Market.  There is something here for everyone! Clothes, bedding, wall hangings, toys, trinkets, buddha statues, wood carvings, paintings, paper cut-outs, pretty much anything you can possibly think of.  If you’re a photographer, head on over to the spices and food section of the market. The colors and textures are incredible. While here, make sure you haggle. It’s the way of life and expected pretty much everywhere in southeast Asia. At night, head back to the National Museum.  They have an amazing dance show put on by the Cambodian Living Arts. I wasn’t sure if my toddler would sit through the whole thing but figured we’d give it a try.  He sat through the entire hour and barely blinked. Everytime a dance was finished he would clap his little hands and say “wow, cool!”  All of the dances are really energetic and visually stunning.  Perfect for kids.  I strongly suggest people of any age to check it out on one of the nights you’re in Phnom Penh.

The next day we took a little excursion outside of the city. We booked a VIP tour with the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Sanctuary, about an hour outside Phnom Penh. This was a bit of an expensive tour but this is probably the thing I would recommend the most out of all the things we did in the city. They come to the city and pick up you and the others in your small group and drive out to the sanctuary.  You get to spend the whole day with elephants, bears, tigers, monkeys, and other creatures native to Cambodia.  The thing that makes this place so special is that all of the animals here have been rescued from the fur trade, cruel owners,  the ivory trade, etc. You can feed the elephants their breakfast and take a walk with them, but NOT ride them. You can watch as they change the prosthetic leg of a elephant who had gotten caught in a hunter’s trap (talk about heartwarming, to watch this elephant get the chance to walk again!). If you love elephants and really want to see/interact with them on your trip to southeast Asia, please, please, please do not ride them. The elephant riding industry is so cruel and they are often, in a word, tortured in order to be trained to be ridden. In Cambodia you can go to places like Phnom Tamao Wildlife Sanctuary or the Elephant Valley Project in Mondulkiri where they rescue the elephants from awful situations.

I was worried my son would be a little scared of the large elephants. Nope. He ran right up to one.  I had to hold him back. He kept cutting in front of people to feed the elephants again.  He would pick up leaves on the ground and call out “Luck-yyyy!” Sure enough, Lucky would come over and eat his one little leaf.  One of the female elephants ate a banana out of his pocket. They were so sweet and gentle with him.  He was smiling from ear to ear all day. The monkeys are another big highlight of the tour. Near the end of the day you enter the baby monkey cage and feed them. They jump all around and on you, eating out of your hands. It’s an amazing memory to have. Ashton still likes to look at the pictures of the monkeys and elephants. And you can get really close to the tigers… so close that we got sprayed on (don’t worry, not within claw’s reach). The sanctuary also provides a wonderful Cambodian style lunch and hammocks to relax in for an hour or so in the middle of the day. Again, it was a little expensive but I would recommend this more than anything else we did. Ashton and I were both completely enthralled with all the animals.

Once we got back it was time for dinner. Since we had been outside all day we wanted to pamper ourselves a little. So we headed down to Aeon Mall, a modern shopping center where all of the cool, hip, young Cambodians go. On one of the top floors is a bowling alley. My son is pretty obsessed with bowling and we don’t have bowling alleys where we live so we went to let loose for a bit and get some dinner.  There are so many great restaurants on the same floor with all kinds of cuisine.

The next day we organized a tuk tuk driver to take us on the “Genocide Tour” of the Killing Fields and Prison S-21.  I was a little skeptical to bring my son on this tour, but decided to anyways, because selfishly, I really wanted to see it.  Prison S-21 is actually a high school that was converted into a prison/genocide camp for anyone against the Khmer Rouge.  The Killing Fields is a large open field where hundreds of thousands of people were killed and buried in large pits.  Some have been unearthed and some pits remain untouched. It was completely profound and I would tell everyone going to Phnom Penh that they should see it….. as long as you don’t have toddlers with you. Not that they aren’t capable to see it or it’s too long of a day, but because of respect.  As much as I learned there and as intense of an experience as it was, I felt terrible trying to control my toddler making fart noises in the middle of the Killing Fields. Again, I don’t recommend this to people with small children but older kids, I think, would learn a lot from this experience.

In the afternoon, I felt that Ashton needed to go crazy and get rid of a lot of excess energy since I had been “shushing” him all morning.  So, if you find yourself in the same situation, head on over to Kid’s City.  There is literally something here for any age.  There are go-karts, rope climbing, a large toddler play center, and an older kid’s play center, among other things.  Let the kids go nuts and relax for a little bit.  In the evening, check out the Night Market, which is mostly clothing and jewelry and food stands, but has some toys and paintings as well.  This ended our time in Phnom Penh, as we set out for Siem Reap the next morning.

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No tuk tuk today! 🙂

Almost everyone we met here spoke very good English or Chinese, so we had absolutely no language barrier while we were out and about during the day.  The few people we met who didn’t speak English or Chinese were very friendly and had no problem deciphering our miming. You have to have a good sense of humor about yourself if you’re traveling in places where you don’t understand the local language!  We found that as long as you are friendly, Cambodian people will bend over backward to help you or make you as comfortable as possible.  We truly loved our time in Phnom Penh and hope to make it back there one day.  Next post I’ll talk about the best things to see and do in Siem Reap. Stay tuned and thanks for reading!

Why I Travel With My Little One

Well, I’m doing it.  I’ve taken the plunge into the world of travel blogging.  I have very recently decided that I will start sharing my traveling experiences while my son and I were in Cambodia.  We often get a lot of questions when we meet people on our excursions, especially because it is often just the 2 of us.  “Why do you do it?”, “don’t you get tired?”, “how can you afford it?”, “don’t you work?”, and of course “how do you do it?”.  I figured for my first blog post I would answer the most loaded question which is why I chose to travel the world with my son.

I have been traveling long before I had a “mini me” sidekick.  I first started traveling while I was in college, thanks to a Global Studies/Social Science program that allowed me to travel and study at the same time, using grants and scholarships. Pretty much the best degree program ever, right?  While I was in college I was able to go abroad for nearly every school break; Russia, Italy, Greece, India, New Zealand, and so many more… During these trips I had the time of my life, but I also learned more about these cultures, people, religions, languages, and customs than I ever would have been able to in a classroom.  I will forever be grateful for the opportunities I had while I was in college.  After I graduated I had a dead-end job and was stuck in a rut.  So, naturally, I decided to move to China.  I mean, most people find a new job, buy a motorcycle, volunteer, etc… but I’ve never been one for normalcy.

I had traveled there before and absolutely loved it.  So, off I went, by myself, for what was to be a year, to a part of China where I didn’t know anyone.  I got a job teaching English and fell in love with the country all over again.  I couldn’t get enough of it; the haggling, the karaoke bars, the landscapes, the students, the hospitality, everything.  While I was there I met my husband-to-be and of course ended up staying a lot longer than a year.  FYI, I’m still here 8 years later.  So we got married, and a few years later we had a son named Ashton.  He is my everything, the light of my life, my little snickerdoodle.  I had never pictured myself as a mother.  I had always assumed that life as you had known it would never be the same, and I was terrified of losing my current life.  I found out that it was true.  Life is not the same… it’s so much better.   Corny, I know, but it’s true.  So many people had told me that it’s too hard to travel with kids or you won’t be able to travel around the world once the baby is born.  Well to them I say, “pshhhhhhh.”

Sure, lugging around pull-ups, sippy cups, various forms of entertainment, and constant supplies of snacks and juice is not easy. It’s not easier by any means, but it’s worth it.  If anything having a child brings a whole deeper meaning to traveling.  The twinkle in their eyes when they see the ocean.  The big grin on their face when they’re exploring ancient ruins.  It’s just priceless.  Not to mention, as he gets older he can begin to understand so much more about history, language, world religions, and culture than he ever could in a school.  But it’s also more than that.  The big answer to why I travel with my little one is simple.  I want to give him an entire lifetime of wonderful, educational memories.  The same kinds of memories that started my love affair with travel.  I was able to learn so much about so many people and places, and I want to give him that.

I want him to learn the grand, the good, the bad, and the ugly about this world.  I want to open his eyes to the wonders and the struggles that humanity faces on a daily basis.  I want him to learn from an early age that people need to help other people.  You need to be the change that you want to see in this world. I want him to learn that it does not matter where you are from or what you look like; everyone is equal.  I think the best way for him to learn this is if he sees people that are different from him, in character, in appearance, in beliefs, in lifestyle.  I want him to see people around the world. I want him to see the similarities that makes us all human and I want him to celebrate our differences of culture. And that, my friends, is why I travel with Ashton. I want to give him the gift of tolerance, generosity, kindness, and humanity.

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