Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel
Share on FacebookShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterPin on PinterestShare on StumbleUponShare on LinkedIn

On the day I departed from The Sanctuary Resort on Koh Pha Ngan, the seas were again too heavy for the Koh Samui ferry to pick guests up from the beach, so we climbed into an inflatable rubber boat for the short ride to the larger boat, waiting out in the bay. As if serving up a crowning indignity on a visit that had been disappointing at best, the boat timed the swell poorly and dove through a wave, drenching passengers and luggage. Exasperation turned to laughter all around and soon I was comparing notes with Patricia and Martin Bourbonnais, who had spent the previous week at the resort.

They had chosen the Sanctuary for its famous detox and fasting program and were now bound for Koh Samui for a few days of relaxation at Zazen Boutique Resort & Spa. I  had wavered between spending time on Koh Pha Ngan or Koh Samui but eventually settled on the former because it was reputed to have lovely beaches and its remote location meant it would be less touristy and crowded. But the extra effort required to reach Koh Pha Ngan, which is accessible only by boat, hadn’t deterred visitors, who arrived in droves to party hearty at the famous full moon parties held every Friday. I admitted that even the beaches had fallen short of my expectations; the soft, powdery sand that I prefer was non-existent on Haad Tien Bay.

Aerial view of Zazen Resort and Spa

Aerial view of Zazen Resort and Spa

Pool and restaurant at Zazen Resort

Pool and restaurant at Zazen Resort

Deluxe Garden Bungalow at Zazen Resort and Spa, Koh Samui, Thailand

Deluxe Garden Bungalow at Zazen Resort and Spa, Koh Samui, Thailand

Perhaps sensing my disappointment, when they learned my plane didn’t leave until later that evening, Martin and Patricia suggested I join them for lunch at Zazen and relax on the beach rather than spending hours waiting around an airport. I gratefully accepted, delighted to have an opportunity to check out what Koh Samui had to offer. Despite my disheveled and still soggy appearance, the Resident Manager of Zazen, Diego Pignatelli, graciously welcomed me and provided a changing room where I could shower and store my luggage for the day. Refreshed, I joined my friends and dug into a mouth watering vegetarian coconut curry over rice at the resort’s open-air Zazen Restaurant while drinking in the view – a perfectly manicured beach and shimmering seafoam green ocean that stretched to the horizon. After lunch my friends headed out to do some shopping while Diego stepped in and showed me around. Read More

Share on FacebookShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterPin on PinterestShare on StumbleUponShare on LinkedIn

For my very first trip to Thailand in 2002 I chose a week-long Yoga retreat on Koh Phra Thong, a little-known island in the Andaman Sea off the west coast of the country, and Yoga has been part of every subsequent trip. So as I made plans to return to Thailand for the first time in four years I researched destinations that would offer Yoga and beautiful beaches on the islands in the Gulf of Thailand, an area that I had never visited. Over and over, one name kept cropping up: The Sanctuary Resort at Koh Pha Ngan.

Beach at The Sanctuary, Haad Tien Bay, Koh Pha Ngan, Thailand

Beach at The Sanctuary, Haad Tien Bay, Koh Pha Ngan, Thailand

Although best known for its no-holds-barred full moon parties, the island of Koh Pha Ngan also has a tradition of secluded resorts that offer yoga, meditation, and fasting programs, and The Sanctuary was said to be the best of the bunch. I contacted the managers to explain I wanted to review the resort on my blog and inquired whether they offered a media rate; they offered me a discount and asked that I contact them a few days before my arrival to make final arrangements. However, when I did so they had no cabins available and suggested I try again in a few days. The following week, although they still had no cabins available, the resort manager offered to reserve a space for me in their dorm and, knowing the dorm rooms are usually booked on a first-come, first-serve basis, I eagerly accepted.

Following the instructions on their website, I flew to Koh Samui from Bangkok and took the Thong Nai Pan ferry boat from Mae Nam pier, which delivers passengers directly to The Sanctuary on Haad Tien Bay. Unfortunately, on the day I arrived the seas were too rough to land at Haad Tien Bay and the boat had to put me off at Haad Rin Town, but I had been forewarned about this possibility by the resort’s website, which stated: “To get here by boat from Haad Rin Town, locate the taxi boat drivers at the port. They can bring you to The Sanctuary, which is a short 15 min journey.” I began asking about onward transport to the resort but was told that the once-per-day jeep taxi that braves the horrendous dirt track masquerading as a road had already come and gone. The long tail boat operators wanted 2000 Baht to take a single passenger (about $67 US), which was astoundingly expensive, even in a country where things are getting pricier by the day. They insisted that my only other option was to hike up and over two steep hills with all my luggage on my back. Hot, sweaty, and by now frustrated, I decided to phone the resort for assistance. Stepping into an Internet cafe, I presented the number shown on the resort’s website and in their emails, but the phone was out of service.

Restaurant at The Sanctuary

Restaurant at The Sanctuary

Fortunately, the woman in the Internet cafe pulled out a map and explained what I needed to do. My ferry boat had dropped me at the Haad Rin West pier, which is located on one side of a very narrow isthmus. Long tails departing from the west side have to make a long journey around the isthmus to the east side, where The Sanctuary is located, thus the high fare. Smelling a sucker, the boat owners didn’t tell me that I simply had to walk five minutes to the other side of the isthmus.

Fifteen minutes and 200 Baht (~$7) later, I jumped into thigh-high water and hefted my backpack across sloping sand and up a stairway to the resort’s front desk, where I introduced myself to the reception manager, Lenka. Unsmiling and brusque, she ran me through the drill. I was given a number that was to be used for all purchases during my stay and instructed to check my bill each day to make sure it was correct. This same number was written on a dry-erase board hanging at the end of the reception desk, in full view of every guest. When I expressed concern that anyone could use my number, she reiterated that it was my responsibility to check my charges each day and insisted I would not be charged for disputed amounts. Their emails had promised: “Last but not least for all you internet geeks we now have WiFi all over the Sanctuary in every nook and cranny and the houses also,” but Lenka informed me that the wifi didn’t work well because the resort was surrounded by rock. However, since my iPhone picked up the connection with no problem, she offered to sell me a 1000-minute package for 2000 Baht ($67!). Irritated, I pointed out that nowhere on their website or in emails had it disclosed that the wifi was fee based. Her dismissive reply was, “It is what it is.

Disgusted but too exhausted to argue, I hefted my pack and carefully negotiated the rickety stairs leading to the dormitory, built directly over the restaurant and bar. The keyless door opened into a large room that seemed more like an enclosed deck. Not only did it vibrate each time someone came up the stairs, it faced directly onto the beach where full moon debauchery went on all Read More

Share on FacebookShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterPin on PinterestShare on StumbleUponShare on LinkedIn

My friend Todd Wassel, who writes the great travel blog Todd’s Wanderings, was on the ground in Japan during the earthquakes and subsequent tsunami, visiting his wife’s family. Although his family was all safe and sound, they watched the news reports in horror as the tragedy unfolded. Todd also happens to be a conflict resolution specialist for the United Nations; as such he works with Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO’s) the world over, and has even set his fair share of NGO’s, so he knows how to assess such organizations to make sure they are legitimate and doing the work that’s most needed. And he’s been doing just that in the case of Japan, identifying the organizations that are doing the best work but that may not have access to tremendous fund raising abilities. He wrote the following article on his blog, suggesting which organizations are the best possible choices for support, and asked his fellow bloggers to reproduce the article, which I have done below:

This page is dedicated to helping the survivors of the Friday 11 March 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan by channeling international donations to local efforts.

The earthquake and tsunami have caused extensive and severe damage in Northeastern Japan, over 9,500 people have been confirmed dead and another 16,000 are missing, and millions more affected by lack of electricity, water and transportation.

The images of the destruction and suffering have shocked the world. However, with the World Bank reporting over 300 billion USD in damages and families torn apart there is a need for everyone to help both financially and emotionally.

A few weeks ago I posted about my Experience During the Japan Earthquake and made a plea to my readers to spread the word about helping Japan recover. My wife is from Tokyo and we are both professional aid and recovery workers with the United Nations. We have seen the recovery phase of the 2004 Tsunami up close and we know there is a tremendous need to not only raise donations but to make sure those funds are used responsibly and are in the hands of organizations with not only technical expertise but also local knowledge.

How You Can Help

A lot of people around the world want to help and have been donating to various international organizations (mainly the American Red Cross). I think this is great and with the money being transferred to the Japanese Red Cross this money will be used well. However, we also believe there is a need to donate funds directly to local Japanese organizations and NGOs that don’t have access to this type of fund raising. There are also many scams out there trying to benefit from this horrible disaster. We know that language barriers and lack of knowledge can also prevent people from donating to the right place. As such we have put together a list of Japanese Organizations that we know, trust and recommend to channel your donations to.

If you are unable to donate we ask that you Share this Page with your friends, family and coworkers through e-mail, facebook, twitter or any other outlet you can think of. The more people who see this page the greater the donations will be.

If you are blogger, or have your own website. Please see the Blog4Japan page to learn how you can utilize this appeal on your own site and help us reach even more people.

Japanese Organizations We Trust

Please consider donating to one or more of these organizations. All are local Japanese organizations and we have found the English Pages for you. Even a small amount like $10 is useful, but we hope you donate more! Read More

Share on FacebookShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterPin on PinterestShare on StumbleUponShare on LinkedIn

I first saw the acrobats on the beach at The Sanctuary Resort on Koh Pha Ngan, Thailand. One of the men was lying on his back on the sand, balancing a diminutive Chinese girl seated on his feet. Using only his feet, he turned the girl around so that she was facing away. She gracefully bent backward and hung upside down, allowing her head to hang suspended just above his abdomen.  When he reached up and gently stretched her neck I thought, oh, my god, that’s what I need.

Richard Baimbridge "flying" me in "Front Bird" pose. Photo courtesy of Susan Huang.

Richard Baimbridge “flying” me in “Front Bird” pose. Photo courtesy of Susan Huang.

The position seemed ideal for relieving my chronic neck pain. But I quickly dismissed the idea. I could do all the poses they were demonstrating on my Yoga mat, but up in the air? No way. He probably couldn’t even support someone of my size.

As luck would have it, the following afternoon the same acrobats sat down next to me in a restaurant on Haad Tien Bay and I couldn’t resist asking about their unique practice.

“It’s called AcroYoga,” explained Richard Baimbridge, describing it as a playful and healing combination of partner Yoga, Thai massage, and acrobatics. “But informally, it’s known as flying.”

Baimbridge, who originally hails from Texas, teaches both AcroYoga and Vinyasa Yoga in Shanghai China. While at The Sanctuary Resort training for his Anusara Yoga certification he  met Surya Dancing Buddha, another AcroYogi staying at Haad Tien Bay. The two hooked up to compare notes on this still emerging form of Yoga and the impromptu beach demonstration was born.

I admitted my fascination but expressed doubt that he could support someone of my size. “I’ve flown people lots bigger than you,” Baimbridge insisted, adding that he’d once flown a Japanese sumo wrestler. Before I knew it, he’d spread a wicker mat on the restaurant’s wooden deck and waved me over. It was put up or shut up time. I stood in front of his upraised legs as he coached, “Just lean over my feet and grab my hands.” As I bent forward he planted his feet on either side of my pelvis. “Now arch your back and take your arms out to the side.” Tapping into core strength built up through years of Yoga practice, I let go and moved into Front Bird pose.
 

Can’t view the YouTube video of AcroYoga on Koh Pha Ngan, Thailand? Click here.

Excited to know more, we gathered again later that same afternoon in one of the Yoga shalas at The Sanctuary, where Baimbridge and his girlfriend, Susan Huang, demonstrated two types of AcroYoga: the more gentle massaging/stretching routines and the more complex acrobatic maneuvers. Afterward he grinned and beckoned me over once again, this time instructing me to bend backward over his feet. He supported my Read More

Share on FacebookShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterPin on PinterestShare on StumbleUponShare on LinkedIn

Sometimes, I think Chicken Little was right. When I think about the number of disasters, both natural and man-made, that have occurred over the past ten years, it’s easy to believe sky is falling. As a travel writer, I’m especially sensitive to the effects of natural disasters on tourism. Travelers who were planning to visit such a destination usually cancel their reservations and choose an alternative, depriving the country of their valuable revenue during a time when it is most needed. This is happening right now in New Zealand.

Street sculpture in Christchurch, New Zealand

Street sculpture in Christchurch, New Zealand

Though Christchurch (which happens to be one of my favorite places in New Zealand) suffered two recent earthquakes, the country of New Zealand is sending a message that it is open for business. In support, travel bloggers are banding together for three days to promote the country by writing about their experiences in New Zealand, an effort that has been branded “Blog4NZ.” I had the good fortune to visit in 2007 and discovered that not only does New Zealand have some of the most exquisite scenery on earth, it has some of the friendliest people I have ever met. Since a picture is worth a thousand words, I decided to put together a video slide show of my best photography from that visit.
 

Can’t view the above YouTube video showcasing New Zealand? Click here.

Christchurch may not be in a condition to accept visitors yet, but the rest of the country is waiting with open arms. If you had plans to visit New Zealand, please know that the sky is not falling. And if you’re wondering where to take your next vacation, you can’t make a better choice than New Zealand.

Share on FacebookShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterPin on PinterestShare on StumbleUponShare on LinkedIn

As our tour bus drew nearer the Tiger Temple, our guide briefed us on the do’s and dont’s of interacting with the big cats.

“Any necklaces must be removed. Red clothing aggravates the tigers so it is not allowed, and because you are visiting a Buddhist monastery, out of respect for the monks who operate the sanctuary, your clothing must cover your upper arms and knees. And absolutely no sunglasses are allowed!”

“What about regular glasses?”I asked, since I don’t see well without mine.

He assured me that regular glasses were OK, explaining that the tigers see themselves reflected in the mirrored surface of sunglasses and, thinking it is another cat, they attack or swipe playfully. Despite his assurances, I walked the searing, rock-strewn path to the abandoned quarry with trepidation but I had come to Kanchanaburi province in Thailand to pet tigers and nothing was going to stop me.

In 1999, residents of the province just west of Bangkok found an abandoned tiger cub. Speculating that poachers had killed the mother, they brought the baby to the monks at Wat Pha Luang Ta Bua Buddhist temple that had been opened five years earlier as a forest temple and sanctuary for wild animals. That first cub died, but two more quickly followed, along with a bear, deer, camel, and water buffalo, among a variety of other animals. Gradually the menagerie grew and by the time I visited in March 2011, the temple was caring for 49 tigers.

Guide squirts water into the mouth of a thirsty tiger

Guide squirts water into the mouth of a thirsty tiger

Each day a number of the resident tigers are led to an on-site quarry, where they lie in the shade as tourists are led around the enclosure and allowed to pet them. I stood in line, listening to the cautions of the volunteers and staff who work at the Tiger Temple. We could not take any cameras or bags into the quarry. Jackets must be removed. And we must completely obey the guides who would lead us around by the hand and instruct us where to kneel and what to do with each tiger. As they ticked through their list, I counted a dozen tigers scattered around the compound. Each lay beneath a beach umbrella for shade in the mid-afternoon heat, secured by a single length of chain attached to neck collars. Some dozed while others rolled playfully on their backs, sending billows of ochre dust into the air. Every so often one of the tigers would raise its head and open its mouth, a sign for a volunteer to squirt a stream water from a squeeze bottle into its mouth.
 

Can’t view the above YouTube video of the Tiger Temple in Kanchanaburi, Thailand? Click here.

Before long it was my turn. One guide commandeered my camera while the other slowly led me by the hand past the first tiger, motioned for me to kneel behind it, and demonstrated where I should pet it. Tentatively, I reached out and stroked the haunches of the magnificent feline. Acutely aware that it could take me out with one swipe of a deadly paw, I flinched when the tiger twitched and quickly drew my hand away, but the allure of actually petting a wild tiger was too powerful and I reached back to stroke the soft, sleek fur. Around the old quarry I circuited, sometimes kneeling, sometimes squatting next to cats, at one point even reclining between two cats perched on boulders, entranced but never letting down my guard for an instant. Read More