Welcome to Thailand, Travr style

South East Asia is a playground for every kind of tourist. I met Cambodian and Thai backpackers in Laos, and Thailand attracts everything from 18 year old Australians with tiny wallets to Russian mafia with extravagant budgets. I came to Thailand first in 2008 as a broke, newly graduated punk from college, traveling with my Canadian best friend and staying in $1/night bungalows on beaches only accessible by boat. This time around, I had slightly upgraded myself; I was traveling Travr style, with 12 Americans staying in 4 and 5 star hotels and traveling by AC ferries, taxis and domestic flights.

The Temple of Dawn in Bangkok

We started in Bangkok at the Grand Swiss Hotel, meeting at the Sky Lounge for introductions. I’d be rooming with Cookie, a nickname that couldn´t have suited her better. We had a welcome dinner at nearby Oskar restaurant, and ended the night at Sky Bar, the 68th floor rooftop bar made infamous by Hollywood’s Hangover 2.

our Travr family

We visited Bangkok, including the Sunrise temple and Kings Palace, cruising on the Bangkok river and eating our tummies full of pad thai at more delicious restaurants. We enjoyed the mandatory night out at Khao San Road, and most everyone squeezed in a Thai massage or some kind of spa time – I finally got a manicure and pedicure.

life in extra large

The highlight of our first few days was definitely Elephants World. It’s an Elephant sanctuary, where no one rides or beats them but keeps them free roaming and tame to one or two caretakers. We came to spend a day in the life of a caretaker, feeding the toothless old Elephant with some hand mashed bananas and vitamins and the toothless baby elephant hand-peeled bananas. We fed the other elephants hand-picked grass, which was transported by truck it was so tall and plentiful. And then, they put us in a muddy pool and told us to give the elephants a mud bath – we had become the spa! We picked up slimy handfuls of mud, mixed with lots of poopy fiber floating around, and rubbed the parts of the elephant we could reach. Once in a while the elephant would take a trunk full of muddy water and spray it over his back, and all of us, so we all ended up looking like muddy elephants.

mud bathing with elephants

We then moved over to the cleaner, flowing river, where we were given buckets and brooms to clean the elephant, and ourselves, swimming around these peaceful giants when it got too deep, and lying on their backs when we got too tired. I’ll never forget the feeling of watching that elephants face watching us – his eyes were really smiling, just as much as we were.

watch out for crossing trains

On the way back, we stopped at the Bridge on the River Kwai, which the British & Americans destroyed at the end of WWII . We were nearly pushed off the edge when a train came thru, slowing down but not stopping, assuming the dozens of tourists wouldn’t mind moving over to the tiny spaces we had to avoid getting run over. Looking down was also tricky since the spaces between planks was probably large enough to slip a foot thru, but I was mostly worried if that rickety wooden bridge could really support the whole weight of the train for so long, but then got distracted by all the smiling faces hanging out the open windows and waving at us as they passed.

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Welcome to Botswana

One the drive back to Kasane from Zimbabwe, I saw even more wildlife from the road: a herd of giraffe, impala and lots more elephants. It quickly started becoming apparent to me why sub-Saharan Africa has so much safari-tourism and nature-based travel appeal. The diversity of landscapes and vegetation and abundance of birds and animals far exceeds other parts of Africa, and there’s something very special about wildlife areas not completely overrun by people or development. Unless you are traveling to a big city in South Africa, a lot of Southern Africa is full of wildlife, both in and outside National Parks/Conservation areas, and because it’s much more sparsely populated than the rest of Africa, the infrastructure for travel (ie. Roads, Public transportation) and other forms of tourism is limited. Overland jeeps, big bus safari’s and self-drive 4×4’s are probably the most popular ways of seeing Botswana, and the most common accommodation type are these multi-functional ‘rest camps’ that are actually a tenting area, RV park, hostel beds and hotel rooms all in one.

The first night in Botswana we stayed at Water Lily Lodge in Kasane, a slight upgrade from these camps since it only offered (twelve) hotel-type rooms for accommodation options. It was designed to look like a traditional round hut with a thatched roof, and was beautifully located on the bank of the Chobe River. I found out later Steve made it to Botswana by flying through Windhoek, but since that flight was delayed, got stuck in Maun overnight. The next morning he somehow convinced a charter flight company (well, an office of very nice Motswana ladies) to sell him a pilot-staff priced ticket for a private, 2 hr, stop-and-go plane ride over the Okavango Delta into Kasane – way more impressive than my free car ride to Vic Falls.

We were meeting up with Chris and Clare, both Berkeley Phd’s in the same department I studied at, and, coincidentally, Steve’s best friends, and Clare was our gracious host and official tour guide since she has spent 4 years in and out of Botswana doing research. She had all the local knowledge we would need, spoke Setswana, and had a reliable 4×4 for all our transportation needs which Chris affectionately named ‘Kubublanco,’ a.k.a. white hippo (a little bit of Spanish in the mix).

a breeding herd of elephant drinking

a breeding herd of elephant drinking

Our first touristy matter of business was a sunset cruise on the Chobe river, sighting all sorts of wildlife on the banks of Chobe National Park. Most memorable where the huge kudu males with spiraly horns, a flock of brightly coloured bee-eater birds, cruising right past an underwater herd of big scary hippos and not so scary tiny baby hippos, seeing an entire elephant herd come to drink at the same time, and crocodiles sunbathing with their mouths rested open, jagged teeth shining threateningly. We also saw impala, big lizard things called water-monitors, beached hippos, and one lone male elephant chomping on a tree, literally.

a bunch of hippos hiding underwater

a bunch of hippos hiding underwater

The sunset was spectacular over the river, but brought on the inevitable buzz of potential Malaria carrying mosquitoes. Having to take malarone daily is always annoying, since I almost always forget it at least one or two times (which may or may not render the entire dose ineffective) and it gives me these psychedelic dreams about crazy things like riding horses backwards over the moon. This specific prescription of malarone was also quite expensive, but my moms only words of advice for traveling in Africa was to be careful with malaria, and Clare, who’s had a bout with Malaria, convinced me quite easily that its safer to air on the side of caution.