Friday, December 30, 2011

Patara Elephant Farm - Chiang Mai

Yesterday I went to a doctor's appointment.  The doc was your typical 60+ year old Jewish doctor, with many fascinating stories and much knowledge to share.  In the middle of him examining my gait, we started talking about traveling.  It turns out doc, much like me, is an avid traveler.  He started telling me a few of the stories from the multiple trips he's taken to various parts of the world.  "But, this" he said as he made his way toward his little working space and pulled out a picture of him and his wife on an elephant "was the most amazing experience I've ever had".  I looked at the frame housing the picture, and it said "Chiang Mai, Thailand."  I excitedly pulled out my iPad and showed him a few pics of my own from my experiences riding elephants in Chiang Mai.  I have to agree with him, it truly was an unforgettable experience.
Chiang Mai is Thailand’s “Rose of the North” and is a cultural and natural wonderland.  Before traveling there, we had read that Chiang Mai is definitely THE PLACE to have an "elephant experience".  I started researching the various places where we could ride some elephants, and wound up finding the Patara Elephant Farm ( (it is among the highest ranked on Trip Advisor).  The experience sounded unbelievable, "be an elephant owner for a day".  What that entailed: 1) feeding the elephant (checking out their feces to make sure they were healthy) (not as horrific as I thought it would be)); 2) bathing the elephant; 3) riding the elephant through the jungles of Thailand; and 4) swimming with your elephant. 

Patara Elephant Farm

It was by far the most expensive of any of the places I had found (approx. $250 per person), particularly for Thailand standards, but then I read a little more about the place.  They rescue elephants from unsuitable living conditions, such as circuses, and they provide the most space (square footage) than any other farm of this kind, for the elephants they rescue.  Above all, they have a greater elephant population than visitors in a day, meaning, they literally assign one elephant per person - or should I say, the elephant selects the person to be his owner for the day.

When we arrived, they made us put on some clothes (over our own) that look like ethnic scrubs. This outfit, while entirely unflattering, served to protect us from the elephants' thick hair poking through our clothes. Additionally, the scent of the cloth is one recognizable to the elephants, and so they immediately feel acquainted with you. We each got a bucket of food, and were taken to be selected by our elephants. At Patara we learned that elephants feel the personality of a person, and they essentially choose you, based on your personality, to ride them. I was called up first to feed "Nui". She was a young elephant rescued from a circus.  At first I was so scared to get near her. I held out a bunch of bananas and she chomped down on them. When I saw her huge mouth clasping down toward my hand, I pulled back in fear, and almost screamed. After a few more tries I was a bit more comfortable, but by the end of the day, she was using her trunk to suck food out of my hand, and I was totally comfortable putting my hand in her mouth.

Nui and me

"Ethnic scrubs" and food to go

After we bathed our respective elephant in the river, we were taken to mount our new friends.  There are 3 ways to mount an elephant.  For my first try, I opted for the beginner mount.  The most advanced way to get on is to step on the trunk.  They lift you with ease, and you walk across it to get to the head.  By the end of the day, I was a pro, getting on advanced-style.  I felt like I was in the movie Avatar...we were told that if you are barefoot, your skin touching theirs' creates a connection between you and the elephant.  Elephants really are amazing creatures!
Beginner's mount

I'm sure you've heard of swimming with the sharks...what about swimming with the elephants?
There are many of these places throughout Southeast Asia that are cruel and use unsafe practices with the elephants / tourist attraction.  We were told that many of these places will make the elephants stand on 2 feet, play soccer, and do other tricks that, while entertaining for tourists, are unnatural for the elephant's body structure, and so these tricks actually injure the elephants.  If in Chiang Mai, avoid that type of place and head to Patara instead.  It will honestly be the best adventure of your life...

The elephants having fun spraying our group with water

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Ice in the Green Park

In continuing with our Local Tourist Challenge, Shane and I decided to go ice skating in Discovery Green (  I first saw the rink last year, and really wanted to go, but of course, never got around to making it.

So, this year, I was determined to ice skate on the tiny rink where the model boat basin on Kinder Lake ususally lies.  The fact that the City of Houston has managed to put ice, and keep it frozen, in the middle of Discovery Green throughout our unusually hot holiday season is astounding.  That being said, the ice does melt quickly, and so be prepared for small puddles of water on the rink. 

From the website, here are a few quick facts about the rink:

At 7,200 square feet and ice at a frosty 22 degrees, with over 17-miles of cooling pipe under the ice!

Recycled water from Kinder Lake is used to help chill the ice.

Power used for the rink, including freezing of the surface, is 100% renewable energy.

The Ice at Discovery Green is dedicated to Houstonians Jack Bennett and Evelyn Hoop Bennett. Jack and Evelyn met in 1936 on the ice at Houston’s old Polar Wave Ice Palace, just blocks away from Discovery Green. The couple fell in love on the ice, married, and continued to skate their entire life, well into their 80s. Until recently, the distinguished Mr. and Mrs. Bennett glided around the ice hand-in-hand, Jack in his coat and tie, and Evelyn always graceful in a stylish dress and pom-pom-topped skates. A true love story on the ice. A truly inspiring couple for skaters of all ages.

The rink is open most nights until 11 PM.  We went in the evening, and, in my opinion, it really is the best time to go.  The colors, the lights, the artwork, everything looks so beautiful, not to mention romantic.

Discovery Green at night
 The process of buying the tickets ($10.00pp) and getting the skates was rather painless on a Thursday evening. It probably is a lot more hectic on a weekend.  I was surprised to find a little food stand (the Snack-N-Skate Shop) with popcorn that looked scrumptuous and instant hot chocolate, among other goodies. 

If you have $1.00 in quarters, and are lucky, then you can store your shoes in a tiny locker (I mention luck because on a full day, the 30 or so lockers are probably completely full), otherwise you are stuck having to hide your stuff under the benches around the rink. 

We were definitely the only adults without children, and after almost tripping over a few 6 year olds, we decided to call it quits rather quickly.  The rink is too small and wet to truly enjoy the skating part of it.  I felt like I just traveled a few feet before I had to start maneuvering my turns (and, much like Zoolander...I'm left-turn challenged).  However, the experience is definitely one worth having.  It is the closest you can get in Houston, to skating at the Rockeffeller Center in New York City.

I definitely want to return to the Ice Rink for the Silver Screen at Discovery Green, and other of the scheduled events.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Freaky FrenetiCore

The FrenetiCore theater (, is located in the Second Ward, and is "a non-profit organization that offers creative community experiences to the public through the presentation and promotion of original theater, dance, film, and providing an accessible, affordable venue for the exhibition of performing and visual arts; offers adult and children’s outreach programs; and produces a yearly Fringe festival to promote cutting-edge theater, dance, film, music, and visual arts."

The concept behind this theater is great.  It gives creative people a venue in which to share their artistic endeavors.  And, not only does it provide a venue, it also handles the promotion of the event. 

The space is fantastic, and I could definitely see why it would have a serious fan following.  There is a large bar code painted on the entry door, which so happens to be found in a dark, narrowish, street off Navigation, which makes discovering the theater seem like finding some really cool underground speakeasy.  They sell beer and wine, and a few overpriced snacks. 

The theater space is really intimate.  There are probably around 50 seats, each with its own foldable mini-desk, from pre-laptop college days.  

For our first show at the FrenetiCore, we saw Tenderina, which is the surreal story of a stripper nicknamed the Girl Matador, who has a change of heart, presented through magical realism / poetry???!!!  It is a combination of film, dance and play.  I think that the review in the Houston Press really sums it up(, and I'm glad I wasn't the only one that felt confused about what we saw.

Tenderina, the "Girl Matador"

Regardless of my feelings about Tenderina, the entire experience was fantastic and memorable, from finding the place to seeing the performance in your face in the awesome space that is the FrenetiCore Theater. 

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Orange Show

Our first choice to kickoff our Local Tourist Challenge was a visit to the Orange Show ( located on 2402 Munger Street. 

According to the staff, Jeff McKissack (1902-1980) interviewed with Thomas Edison in the late 1920's.  While Edison recognized Jeff's brilliance, he did not hire Jeff because he believed that he would never amount to anything.  As a way to "stick it to Edison" Jeff wanted to create a brilliant idea.

Jeff wanted to build a place that  90% of the population of the US would want to visit. 

He had big dreams for such an unassuming space.  The Orange Show is made almost entirely out of found objects that Jeff collected his entire life, and its main purpose is "to encourage people to eat oranges, drink oranges and be highly amused".

The place is tucked away in the middle of a residential neighborhood just off of the Gulf Freeway, near Telephone Road.  As you are driving up this road, you see the bright colors and shapes peering up, screaming to be seen.  And, see it you should if you want to check out one of Houston's weirder sites.

Notwithstanding the (before his time) health message, to me, the Orange Show looks like a colorful, abandoned playground from the 80's.

There are profound sayings from some of history's greatest luminaries sprinkled throughout the space.  It feels as though those sayings are intended to give this whimsical location a bit of maturity.

In all truthfulness I don't know what this guy was thinking when he envisioned that 90% of the population would want to visit this location.  However, I must say that there were a few people touring the area while we were there, so maybe Jeff was on to something?

The place has managed to stay afloat because it caught the attention and the pocket books of local art enthusiast / celebrities, including the likes of ZZ Top, who formed a non-profit foundation to preserve the Orange Show.  In 1984, the Foundation commissioned the "Fruitmobile" recognizing that the art car, "a medium for self-expression, is a mobile visionary art site."  This led to the first annual Art Car Parade.  Since then, the Art Car Parade has grown exponentially, now attracting participants from around the world.  Maybe Jeff's dreams did become a reality...

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Houston Local Tourists Challenge

While we would love nothing more than to spend our lives traveling the world and writing about it here, the unfortunate reality is that we live in Houston, Texas.  However, we decided to not let that fact keep us from being tourists less ordinary.  So, we decided that between trips to new and far away places, we would challenge ourselves to tour our city as we would any other city that we were visiting for the first time.

The challenge started because we were thinking about how much Houston has to offer, but we simply don't do anything because we get stuck in our own routine, and there is no time to truly explore and enjoy the city.  I don't know how many times I've heard people say that when living in a place, you put off doing the "touristy" things, and as a result, as a citizen of the city, never really get to enjoy the city's allure to real tourists.  I've been guilty of that myself in the various cities I've lived in throughout my life.

Weather and time permitting, our Local Tourist Challenge involves picking one new thing to do, see or visit in Houston, Texas, one time per week.  I will be writing about our adventures exploring stay tuned :)

If any of you have suggestions, please do let me know.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Moscow's Red Square

Our first day in Moscow, still half jetlagged, we decided to go to the Red Square.  Before traveling to Russia, we had read several guidebooks about the country, and they all mentioned that the Russian police are incredibly corrupt and that they look a tourists as a source of side-revenue.  According to the guidebooks, if you were approached by a police officer seeking a bribe, all you had to do was say "take me to my embassy" and they would back off.

I thought after reading that, I was thoroughly prepared for such a confrontation, however, when it happened to us, I was mortified. 

We walked a few steps into the Red Square, holding hands and smiling in awe of the enormous beauty of Red Square, and the pinnacle of its beauty, St. Basil's Cathedral, a Russian Orthodox Church built between 1555-61, on the order of Ivan the Terrible to commemorate the capture of Kazan and Astrakhan.  The Cathedral marks the geometric center of the city and the butt of its growth since the 14th century.  It was the tallest building in Moscow until the completion of the Ivan the Great Bell Tower in 1600.   

A view of the Red Square from Will's apartment

As soon as we walked in, we decided to step into a pharmacy totally oblivious to the people around us.  The moment we set foot outside the pharmacy, 3 tall, burly men wearing long, dark trench coats and police hats approached us.  "Passports" one of them said, in a very thick Russian accent.  I pulled out our passports from my purse and with my hands already shaking, I gave them to the man.  He looked at them, and flipped through the pages to find our visa for Russia.  "Problem" he said.  In Russia, if you are to stay in a city for more than 3 days, you are supposed to register with the local police office, and let them know of your intent.  It was our first day in Moscow, so we had not yet done that, and to be honest, we had no intention of wasting a day standing in line to register.  So, when he said "Problem", I knew he was right, we hadn't registered.

My heart dropped to my stomach.  It had happened to us! They wanted money, we knew it, but how much?  How do you communicate with someone trying to get a bribe if you don't speak the language?  What if we gave them too little and they didn't let us go?  I had a million thoughts running through my mind at that moment.  I pictured my life in a Russian jail, and started shaking frantically. 

"Take us to our Embassy" I said, my voice quivering.  "Wait, wait" said the man.  The line hadn't worked, I was so nervous.  I had totally forgotten about Timor, until Shane reminded me.  "Let's take them to talk to Timor", said Shane.  Timor was our driver / ex-military who worked for our host in Moscow, a Texan, like us, named Will.  Will had instructed Timor to drive us around Moscow and take us to the main sites. 

We signaled to the men to follow us, they held on to our passports, and begrudgingly walked behind us.  When we walked up to the car, Timor was asleep in the driver's seat.  We knocked on the window and he stepped out of the car.  I've never been happier to see anyone in my life! Timor was a very large man, he made the officers look tiny next to him.  He started asking the policemen what they wanted.  We couldn't understand what he was saying, but we could tell that he was speaking to them  in a very dismissive tone.  He waved them off, and told us in broken English, "I follow you so no more trouble".  Timor followed us the rest of the day, as we took in the sites of the Red Square and the Kremlin.

Shane, Timor and me in front of St. Basil's Cathedral

Throughout the day, I noticed the officers that had given us trouble.  I saw how they huddled in an area, and chose which unwitting tourists to harass.  It made me so angry...

Later that night, we picked up our travel guide again, and read that, in Russia, overt signs of happiness (smiling, laughing, etc) are considered symptoms of idiocy and to be avoided. We had an "aha" moment, and realized that was our give-away to the policemen.  We were certainly the smiling idiots in the Red Square.  From that day forward, we stopped smiling in public, and were not harassed again.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Siem Reap Cambodia: The Green Gecko Project

So, I know that since Angelina Jolie adopted Maddox, Cambodia has been at the center of many celebrities' attentions using a cause to raise their profile.  However, after traveling there, it is really apparent that they need all the help they can get.  There were only few places that we went to where we didn't see barefoot, dirty children (as young as 5) begging for money, notwithstanding that the government started cracking down on begging in 2006. 

Many of these children are the sole breadwinners for their families.  The money they collect often goes to support the drug habits of their parents. It's so painful to think that these are the same children that get sold at a young age into prostitution, most often by their own parents.  Our heart strings were definitely pulled, and we wanted to do something while we were there, however minor it may have been.  We learned about the Green Gecko Project ( through a random encounter with some Americans living in Singapore, while riding elephants in the jungles of Thailand, and decided to to a little research on the organization.

The Green Gecko Project was started by an Australian woman that wanted to make a difference. "Responding to an article she read in a Virgin in-flight magazine, Australian-born Tania Palmer walked off the plane and straight into a travel agency to book a flight. The article was about an orphanage in need. The destination was Siem Reap, Cambodia. The date was August 2004.  A month later, Tania found herself in stifling tropical heat and humidity with eyes, arms and heart wide open to the plight of the Cambodian children. Soon after, she was back home, in body but not in spirit.  By February 2005, Tania had packed up her life, home and office desk to return to Cambodia, with no plan, no goal and no idea of what the future would bring. The strength of her “calling” came from somewhere way beyond any reason or logic."

The concept of the Green Gecko Project is a little different.  It's not just an orphanage. Most of the children have families, but their home situation is so unbearable, that they prefer to live away from home. The organization pays for the children to go to private school (in Cambodia school is free only until about 5th grade, but don't quote me on that), and conducts educational seminars for parents to get them off drugs, gives them funding to start a micro-business (and business support) and just generally improves their situation.

After we read the Project's wishlist, we went to the local market and tried to haggle with some of the merchants to give us a good price. After much haggling, and playing the disinterested game, we still ended up paying falang (foreigner) prices, but, after getting over the feeling that we'd been ripped off, we were happy to spend the money for a worthy cause.
Looking for goodies at the local market

Looking for a tuk tuk with our wishlist items

 We paid our tuk tuk driver $10, to drive us to the Project, which was far out of the city, and to wait for us while we toured the property.  Doug, an Australian, gave us a tour of the property.  He was so impassioned with the Project, that he retired from his job, moved to Cambodia and started a restaurant, where his Cambodian wife was the chef.  100% of the profits of the restaurant were donated to the Project.  The lengths that people will go to when passionate about what they are doing never ceases to amaze me, and the people working working for the Green Gecko Project were a perfect example.

The orphanage was a beautiful sanctuary for the children where they learned art, dance, gymnastics, reading in English, among other great classes that they would otherwise never have the opportunity to experience.  Doug said that Cambodians themselves discriminated against these children (before Tania that is) because they were "stinky kids".  Schools didn't want them in their classes because they were so dirty.  So, in its inception phase, Tania set out to start a school made up strictly of "stinky kids", and from there the Green Gecko Project was born. 

Green Gecko Sleeping Quarters
Per Doug, as at the time we visited, 100% of the children living at Green Gecko over the age of 9 had been victims of sexual abuse or molestation.  This was by far the most heart-wrenching thing I've ever heard, and, after reading Somaly Mam's book, The Road to Lost Innocence, I gained a whole new perspective of what these poor children have actually suffered through.