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Kalaw and the Green Hill Valley Elephant Care Centre

On arrival in Kalaw we headed straight to the Shwe Oo Min Paya caves which has around 9,000 Buddha images in there from a number of different patrons all hidden in every nook and cranny of the caves. It was like we’d kind of come across an unknown shrine with the amount of them in there it was frankly most bizarre!! We only made it into the main cave & didn’t head up to the upper cave which apparently has a blank space for even more Buddhas to be put in the fullness of time. Outside of the caves were a number of bright golden pagodas and more Buddha icons in niches across a man made wall. There was the usual bell to announce of your three good deeds which, of course, I got a Kodak moment of! I do find some of the Buddha images to be somewhat kitch (I think that would be the best word to use) with flashing neon lights surrounding several of the images and gaudy looking cloths that had been draped over some of them as well. I am sure that this is because I don’t quite get the reasoning behind (for the lights mainly) the cloths I can see, are all from anyone and everyone and so could be all that the locals could afford at the time? The Buddha images were again in a number of their different traditional poses which gives more meaning to each of them and the majority of them were seated with only a couple were standing or in a lying down position.

If you have one experience in Myanmar – please, please let it be this – Green Hill Valley Elephant Care Centre. I went ‘off piste’ from the group having Googled prior to my adventure when back in the UK, then reviewing where it was again when I was staying on Inle Lake, I suddenly realised it was actually not far from where we were in Kalaw. Kalaw was where we had half a day of trekking planned and not many sites or pagodas to see and so I investigated and also asked our guide to help me book a trip out to visit the elephants. Frankly the remote idea of walking, let alone trekking, in what was 36-38 degree heat when already sweating like a beast really didn’t appeal – been there and done that in China thank you and yes, thinking about it I suppose I have actually got the t-shirt too! I was as high as an absolute kite the night before once it was all booked and I realised that dream was going to turn into reality. (With a somewhat dodgy tummy though so was hitting the Imodium like they were mint sweets) I was so excited I could hardly sleep. Only time I ever remember being anywhere near as excited was in the count down to picking up Honey to take her home (for the record I was EVEN MORE excited then).

I was collected from the hotel we were in (Dream Villa) and there were two other couples already in the mini bus but neither spoke to me when I got in – bode well (thankfully they turned out to be lovely couples – clearly not morning people though!)! The Green Hill Valley Elephant Care Park was a good 45 min drive into the mountains down some hellish roads for Dad and Caroline. Hair pins, chicanes narrow, sheer drops & steep! Apparently Top Gear have done a special in Myanmar and it really wouldn’t surprise me if this was the road that they did it on!! There was lots of work being completed on the road which was actually built initially years ago apparently but they are widening it at present. The drivers are fairly patient in general, letting each other past and so on, but you couldn’t really go that fast on here owing to the numerous blind corners & bends and I hate to think what it would be like driving it at night with no road markings or indeed any lighting. Several trucks were stopped at the side of the road along the route being sprayed with water which I can only assume was to cool the engines and breaks which would be having heavy usage on this road! The views were stunning though but I was very thankful I no longer suffer from travel sickness like I did as a youngster.

On arrival at the park we were greeted by the friendly staff with a damp cloth and a very refreshing lime juice, shown where the mozzie spray was and put into groups – there were others that had arrived at the same time but my group was the five of us from the bus in. Managed to leave my Chilly’s water bottle on the bus which was most infuriating but we were given one each in the introduction, helping to reduce non-essential plastic and in line with their ethos and mission of giving back to the country. We were given an introduction to the park and a run down of the day ahead and left our stuff in the lockers at the main reception. I had made a good decision in relying on my iPhone only for photos I think.

The park was set up in 2011 by a family of three, the father being the vet and the other two to help run the business. They had 2 elephants and 6 staff and both numbers have grown in size and they now employ 48 staff and have 6 elephants. All of them are disabled or orphaned mainly left over from the working in the teak industry where they would more often than not be carrying the timber around in their trunks which can weigh anything up to one and a half tonnes. Some have been purchased from private owners when they have no further requirement for them and they offer to buy them instead of the owners killing them for the black market in medicine (apparently there’s some cure for a particular type of cancer in the elephant but I can’t remember which part but of course it is not proven), for their skin or the meat on their trunks. One is an orphan which they acquired at the age of 3 after his mother was killed by poachers and he was unable to survive in the wild on his own as they rely on the milk from their mothers until they are 3 or 4. The population of Asian elephants in the world is around 35,000 and, owing to poaching, one a week is lost to poachers in Myanmar alone, as a result, they are now classed as an endangered species. Not all Asian elephants have tusks though, it’s typically only the males and they can have short or long tusks and sometimes even only one, it entirely depends on their DNA, like we humans can have different coloured eyes for example.

Our specific guide for the day was called Keong Keong and he was to be my camera man for the day creating videos and capturing the special moments (so a HUGE thanks to him for his sterling work). We walked down from the main reception to the area where the elephants are fed and there were 4 of the magnificent beasts. Two were TOTALLY ready for food, putting their feet up on a ledge and moving around a lot in anticipation and excitement of food! They can eat anything up to 160kg of food a day and ready chopped were palm cane, pumpkin and wheat balls ready for us to feed them with. They can eat a whole host of fruit and vegetables, this was just what happened to be in the menu on that day. We were shown exactly how to feed them either by putting the food on their trunk which they would clasp and then bring up to their mouths but if you hold the food above your head they would raise their trunks high and you can put it straight into their mouths. A daunting thought at first but, I grabbed the bull by the horns and did both straight away with a selection of pumpkin. I got braver as the day went on and on a number of occasions inadvertently managed to get most of my hand sucked into the elephants mouths. They have MASSIVE strong, thick tongues which don’t really come right out as such and their teeth are, as you would imagine, humongous too. They have rows of teeth set in ridges as they don’t chew their food more grind it to then be able to swallow it. I enjoyed immensely the close contact with the animals. I loved talking to them and in a small way bonding with them. I adored the ones with more character the most I think as I kind of wound them up a little and talked back to their cheekiness and as a result had one that pushes me away to go and get more food. (Video somewhere later in the post of this) Wow, just WOW – unless I visit a similar park then I will never experience something like this again. I had SUCH a big grin on my face all day. I adored every second of my day. I wasn’t the only one though, some of the others could be seen as well just taking a step back to take a moment every so often to just take in what we were doing and the beautiful surroundings.

The characteristics of each of the different elephants was interesting to see, one would throw to one side the palm cane when you took that to her telling you that she’s far prefer the pumpkin thanks! She, we discovered, had a gunshot wound that was constantly weeping and clearly must have done some damage to the bone on her left shoulder. The one that we ended up in washing was stood next to this one. A female that had a hernia that was very clear to see on her tummie on her left hand side. We were told that it had been operated on but evidently was still causing her some grief. She couldn’t be walked out into the forest later in the day for exercise for fear of aggravating it and so for exercise she was just walked around the camp.

The Medical record of the elephant we washed

Info on the history of her hernia

We met the vet for the centre and heard all sorts of fascinating facts. Most of the medicines were for cattle mainly, not prescribed for elephants (understandable really!!). It took a while to tune into his accent to understand a few of the things that he was saying. It was fascinating to see things like the nail file and clippers that they use on the elephants. The size of the needles – made my stomach totally turn knowing my dread of the hideous things. It was here that we were shown the medical record for each of the elephants that they have to keep an ongoing record of their health and well being. Now I’ve always referred to large pills that I have ever needed to swallow over the years as horse pills. This I need to change to elephant pills! I put my little finger on them to try and give you an idea of the actual size of them!! HUGE!!

Each of the elephants had a mahout that cares for them all day every day and they lived on site with their family in housing provided by the business with lighting and electricity which they would not have been able to afford if they were still living in the village that they came from. Each of them clearly have an amazingly special bond with their elephant who, despite poor eyesight as a species, would recognise them more for their sound and smell. A primary school has since been set up and run in the grounds of the centre for all of the workers children and there are currently 48 children enrolled. They are properly looking after the community and bringing employment and now education to many from the local area. It was lovely to be able to give back to this as the centre has absolutely no funding from any wildlife organisations, conservation programmes or indeed the local government. They rely solely on the donations of the visitors who come and visit the centre. Responsible tourism, knowing that every penny is being put back in to running the centre with the elephants being the priority.

When it came to our time to wash the elephant, none of us could really contain ourselves. We were given THE most unflattering trouser/short things which you sort of had to tie after tucking them each side and then fold the top over. I was wearing my tankini already under my clothes & was sweating like a beaut. From here we walked down to the river where we could already see the elephant walking down with her mahout. I want to make some suggestions for their website as to what to expect when you get there and clarification over the sort of things to wear so that those tourists interested have a clearer idea of what to wear etc.

Walking down to wash –

Washing the elephants –

Once we were down there the elephant was already in the water kind of kneeling down so that we would be able to reach the top of her head and onto her back without needing to climb on her ourselves. We were given some sort of bark/twigs type things which was to act as a loofah to try and get the dirt off her – we all joked that after a while it really looked like a handful of pulled pork! The elephant did a massive poo just as we were stating to wash her and in my very mature fashion I shouted ‘floater’!!

It was amazing and simply surreal to be in such close proximity to and be so up close and personal with the animal. We were told to clean behind her ears and I know in one of the videos I’m still talking to her like Honey – ‘itchies’ as I could tell that she was loving having them cleaned! You scrub the skin and then douse it in water – I was even brave enough to do her face and around her eyes, being extra cautious and gentle, all the while chatting away to her. At one point her trunk (where they feel most of their senses through) cake up right by me clearly checking out this babbling Brit giving her a scrub & I kind of held it for a little while. I guess we must have been in there (all of the group with the same elephant) about 20-30 mins giving her a good scrub. She only had to readjust her position once – elephant equivalent of a numb bum I guess! WHAT an experience. WHAT a memory.

We headed over to see one of the elephants after some more feeding (grab every opportunity when offered!) so that we could see how the vet gets to check the elephants feet and the mahout got the elephant to turn around and put his back foot up on one of the frames so that we could touch it’s nail and feel just how thick and big the bottom of their foot is. They used to have a cage made out of bamboo to check things like this out but understandably this severely distressed many of the elephants and so that is no longer used. Walking away from here we saw the clear bond between mahout and elephant as the mahout said something and the next thing you see the elephants trunk going to the mahout’s hand so it looked like they were walking hand in hand. It was divine.

Lunch was included so we headed back up to the main reception area where the dining area was passing the conservation/ nursery area where, in the right season, visitors are encouraged to plant a tree in the park as well to help with the conservation. I was quite gutted that this was not something that we were able to do owing to being out of season.

After lunch we went over to the area where they use some of the elephant poo to make paper. Passing through an area where they were planting young coffee plants which were also being fertilised by the elephant dung. The process for making the paper was similar to how we had seen on landing in He Ho but there was an extra process of needing to boil down the poo with water first so as to kill any bacteria or any other living things within the poo which would also help to take the initial poo smell away. You are left with a very fibrous sort of paste out of which the paper is then made. Here we also saw the skeleton of an old elephant that they had lost a while ago, interestingly Asian elephants have nothing similar to a collar bone in them?! There was also the skeleton of a young elephant that was found dead by its mother which the park have also for research purposes it would have been about three months old when it died.

We visited the small little shop where I purchased one of the wooden bells like the elephants wear around their necks, I asked which one was similar to the elephant that we washed as it looked like they had their names on inn Burmese & is noticed that they were all slightly different in shape. After seeing this sign outside the little hut, I’d made us all want to ensure that we got something & amusingly we all ended up going home with the totally unflattering shorts things that we wore to wash the elephants in!!

I came away from the whole experience brimming with information and very aware that I’d actually remember very little the moment I got home! I wanted so much to think of ways to try and help support them. I have mentioned that I want to help with the copy on their current website and give them suggestions of other ideas to look into – such as taking donations via PayPal, perhaps giving people the option to sponsor the elephants, increase the amount of images on their Instagram page and so on, all things that I will liaise with them about upon my return. I’m keen to help and support now that I have such wonderful memories engrained in my mind for many years to come from my superb day here.

Restaurants we ate at in Kalaw: Red brick Restaurant, Nepali – Everest, 7 Sisters

Hanoi – Part 1

A route via a stop in Kuala Lumper in Malaysia was how I finally made my way to my latest overseas adventure. Identified one of the group in the seat behind me on the second leg and we were met at the airport having made our way through both immigration and collected our luggage successfully without too much hassle. I’m sure when I checked I needed to get a visa to enter Vietnam & so had the extra sheet of paper which clearly wasn’t at all necessary after all but had sent my new travel buddy into a small panic as he had no paperwork re a visa. Ah well, better to be safe than sorry I say!

Arrived at the Anise Hotel about 2.30pm desperate to sleep but also, not wanting to knowing how badly I’d then sleep in the evening. I showered & managed about a 20 min power nap before venturing out to try familiarising myself with the locality of the hotel & what amenities we had close by. Having failed to have changed any money into dollars prior to my trip I was on the hunt for an ATM. I found two and was rather panicked that neither would accept my card. I was moneyless in a foreign country & felt very very vulnerable. I realised that despite all my prior research to the trip we in the guide book we were actually MUCH closer than I had initially anticipated to the Old Quarter. I was grateful to Mike (off of the Cambodia trip last year) for the introduction of which I recommend strongly as you can drop pins on where you are at a particular point in time and name them what you want etc. (helpful hint – download the map that you need on wifi and then you can use it off line as it works on GPS.)

Our initial meeting of the tour to tell us a little about Vietnam & to meet the others that would become companions for the rest of the trip, was held on the top floor of the hotel where the restaurant was – the 11th floor and only one away from my room. I’d say the views out were stunning but, as it was dark I’d have to wait until morning to find out. Already one of the ladies was clearly sticking out as one that would irritate not only me but the majority of the group in the fullness of time. Not listening to what our guide (Hung) was saying EVER & then asking him to repeat it as she didn’t hear. The temptation to point out to her & her friend the obvious was clearly going to come out of my mouth at some point this holiday without my being able to do ANYTHING about it.

Supper was a set menu in a delicious restaurant very close to the hotel called 5 Spice. Negotiating the puddles, pedestrians & potholes in themselves was quite some feat but add in the scooters factor and oh dear god – NIGHTMARE! I was catered for so that despite the set menu I was able to eat as the meals were tweaked accordingly, I was very impressed, and there was beer. Much needed beer.

Our first walking tour was in the Old Quarter of Hanoi, which was good as it was nailing it down with rain as we first walked out. Negotiating the traffic for every direction and of every form is something of an art form. In the UK we have pedestrian crossings painted on the ground and only on a few occasions do cars ignore them. Here THAT is the norm but it’s scooters, 15 years ago it would have been bicycles and it wouldn’t surprise me to see more cars on the roads here in 20 or so years. Hung told us that the average car price for nothing fancy was $25,000. In my book that’s A LOT when the average wage is around $150-200 a month. But there would be no room for them all anyway were they to start becoming more affordable. With the rain beating down they were all wearing ponchos that have a see through rectangle at the front that covers the handlebars and lights and so on. Clever. Here was one lady using the same that I spotted on a bicycle.

The historic Old Quarter was a maze of packed streets that were an explosion on the senses with the noise of the scooters to the smog from their engines. The sidewalks are crammed with parked scooters and the small shops were stuffed full of a plethora of goods which often spilled out and onto the side walk, then you have the shopkeepers making their simple meals on the pavements too – some selling food and some just creating for themselves. You have the street sellers passing with fruits freshly picked and presented in bamboo baskets and sellers on scooters with a record player shouting out what they were selling as they slowly made their ways down the streets. Food hygiene leaves A LOT to be desired and although Hung kept telling us the food would be ok but the issue with the hygiene would be more to do with how they washed the plates and so on rather than perhaps the food itself. We had heard their staple breakfast was a duck embryo boiled and still in the shell of the egg. None of us were keen to try, a step to far in my book. None the less Hung got one for himself and we all stood round in the rain as he showed us how it was prepared and how it was eaten from a street seller. My stomach churned and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one!

We continued through the streets taking in the sights and sounds, dodging the scooters from all angles. We passed what is believed to be the oldest Buddhist temple in the city originally dating from the 11th century but the current building dates from the 18th century. Bach Ma was originally built by Emperor Ly Thai To honour a white horse that led him to this very site where he chose to construct his city walls that now has evolved into this fascinating city.

Despite there, of course, being a number of other areas to the city I enjoyed spending the short amount of time that we had in this city just familiarising myself with the organised chaos of the Old Quarter. It felt all a bit too much on first view but once you got used to the different pace & way of life, I really rather liked it.

North Face jackets were on every street corner, blatant knock offs – some looked good & some looked & felt frankly shocking. None the less I wasn’t about to buy one for the sake of it. I don’t need one back at home & I had a perfectly decent pac-a-mac with me (nothing remotely like Mr Flatman’s almost famous black bin bag coat I hasten to add).

Popping out of the Old Quarter by the Hoan Kiem Lake we met our bus which would be swooping us up and ferrying us away from the hustle and bustle of the street and the peace of a bus – all kitted our with WiFi – too as we headed off through the busy traffic to the complex where we would see the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and other sites on the complex. It was all rather surreal as you were literally allowed nothing as you walked around – everything had to be handed in and you were walked like working ants from the ticket office to the Mausoleum itself and encouraged just to keep walking around the frail body of Uncle Ho. I’m JUST not sure if it was/is him lying there or not?! He’s of course been embalmed (in Russia apparently where he returns for a month every year for ‘maintenance’) and lies in a sarcophagus surrounded by guards who are members of the National Army who were all wearing the ceremonial dress of white (this included white wellie boots which made me think of fish mongers or butchers) and we all thought that honestly they looked a little ridiculous – not that I was about to tell them that! It looked like they were cheap as sh*te sets from a fancy dress store rather than OFFICIAL uniform. I was pulled along at one point – still not quite sure why. A member of the group was asked to take her glasses off – they were those dark ones that turn into dark glasses and they had ‘gone dark’ and another was pointed at as we shuffled past as he had his hands in his pockets. The whole area was an open expanse and traffic free and you could tell that there has been a soviet influence in the design as there is plenty of opportunity for parades in front of the Mausoleum. What makes me so angry about it all with the pomp & ceremony is that it’s clearly been stated on a number of occasions that actually Uncle Ho was not in favour at all – his dying wish was that his ashes be scattered in a number of locations the length of the country. We also saw the stilt house where he actually lived in the gardens, he chose this over the Presidential Palace whenever he was in the city. It’s been preserved just as he left it and sits on a pond FULL of koi carp. The actual Presidential Palace is still used today and so visitors are unable to go inside of it but it’s a bright sort of orangey yellow colour and immediately reminded me of the building up on the hill as you drive out of the centre of Bristol on the M32. Apparently all of the presidential palaces are this colour throughout the country.

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