Conservation

Boundaries – What the Animals Teach

My New Essay in The Hopper Magazine

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This was the title of an article I was writing the morning I was bit by one of the wolf sanctuary’s rescues, just weeks before our two years of working with captive-bred wild canines would come to a close. And while the incident was both entirely out of the ordinary and also my fault, it was nonetheless emblematic of some of the loudest lessons learned during my time there.

Working with wolves taught me the importance of conscious attention, respect for boundaries, and to reject complacency in my inner and outer world.

My essay “Jaw Pressure” published in Issue IV of The Hopper (in print!) describes what can happen when humanity violates nature’s boundaries and underestimates its wildness.

We are living in an age where the rampant disrespect of human and wild life is being challenged on a global scale. Human rights, animal rights, and environmental justice are some of the most important issues of our times. With that in mind, “Jaw Pressure” also explores the link between violated boundaries and domestication, whether self-inflicted or imposed, and how we might overcome these trappings by reconnecting with wilderness, and in so doing, our true selves.

You can get ahold of my essay and the other great stories, art and poems in The Hopper here.

Comment by July 15th to Keep Wolves Protected Under the Endangered Species Act

Maki, a rescued wolf-dog at Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary, 2015. Photo Credit: Nikki Kolb

Maki, a rescued wolf-dog at Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary, 2015. Photo Credit: Nikki Kolb

Wolves create biodiversity. Contrary to the myths that have demonized them for centuries, wolves are essential to the lifecycle of their ecosystems. As a keystone species, they keep all aspects, from trees, to rivers, insects, mammals and birds in balance. Without them, things fall apart.

Evidence of the need for wolves in North American ecosystems has been well documented, and most famously in Yellowstone National Park where the species was once eradicated. In the absence of wolves, their prey – elk and deer – were free to overpopulate and overgraze, stunting new growth in the forest that led to riverbank erosion, species loss, and an overall ripple effect that degraded the local environment. But when reintroduced, the park was restored.

Knowing that wolves are crucial to the health of their ecosystems, ensuring their protection after centuries of slaughter is critical, especially now, as the federal government considers prematurely removing protection for gray wolves under the Endangered Species Act in the lower 48 states. The move would turn wolf management over to the states, likely subjecting wolves to hunting and trapping, which has already been demonstrated in states like Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho, where wolves have been delisted.

“These states are not managing their wolves like other wildlife,” the Wolf Conservation Center explains. “Instead, their goal is to aggressively drive wolf population numbers down to the bare minimum required by law.” From 2011 – 2013 when wolf management was turned over to 6 states, nearly two thousand wolves were killed. Thousands more have perished since in these states and others where protections were temporarily or permanently lifted.

Once roaming the U.S. in the millions, about 6,000 gray wolves remain in the wild in the contiguous United States today. While wolves have rebounded in some parts of the country due to ESA protections, they have only recovered a fraction of their former range, raising red flags for scientists and wildlife advocates who warn that removal from the ESA would have dire consequences for their long-term survival. If delisted, it is likely the gray wolf will never achieve a viable population in places like the Northeast and southern Rockies where there is suitable habitat for their return.

The Fish and Wildlife Service’s open comment period on the proposal to remove wolves from the Endangered Species Act ends on July 15th.  If you care about wolves, this is the moment to make your voice heard, ensuring that we, and future generations, can continue to admire this species as a national treasure, along with the benefits they bring to our planet’s ecology.

To comment on the proposal directly visit this link, or comment via the Wolf Conservation Center here. We invite you to use language from this article to make your case for protecting wolves, or to use the Wolf Conservation Center’s ‘ESA Talking Points to Guide Your Words.’ You can further the fight for wolves by sharing this article and spreading the word.

To learn more about the human-wolf conflict, check out Outside Magazine’s ‘Wolves and the Endangered Species Act, an Explainer.’

Wildlife Tourism Exposed: Nat Geo Uncovers the Truth About This Shadowy Industry

A tourist riding an elephant in Phuket, Thailand. Though elephants are considered domestic animals in the country, they must endure a brutal crushing of the spirit in order to serve man.

Wildlife tourism is a booming international business born out of the human desire to engage with exotic animals. Inextricably linked with the illegal wildlife trade – a black market with an annual estimated worth of $7 – $23 billion that puts 7,000 species at risk – the tourism industry has a dark side that has long been hidden from the public.

During our travels in South East Asia we had a number of unforgettable experiences with wildlife, as well as the chance to observe good and bad practices across the region. National Geographic’s recent exposé on the topic is a deep dive into this shadowy industry, and is essential reading for anyone passionate about travel, animal rights, and conservation. Below is an account of some of our experiences with wildlife tourism, our recommendations on where to go and what to avoid.

Interacting with captive elephants is very easy in South East Asia where thousands work in tourism, and where opportunities to ride elephants are widely available. We took the above photo while hiking to Big Buddha Phuket on a very hot day in Thailand. The hike took us through a jungle path along a cliff overlooking the Andaman Sea and past an elephant trekking camp on a busy road. The photo pretty much captures how elephant tourism works.

It’s easy to see that the tourist on the elephant appears overjoyed. Riding an elephant is probably a life long dream of hers because she likely has no idea of the cruel breaking of the spirit, known as phajaan, or the crush, that all elephants must endure in order to be obedient enough to give rides and perform tricks. Phajaan is a torturous event over days or weeks that usually occurs when an elephant is a baby or juvenile. The babes are separated from their mothers and beaten until they have lost the will to resist the elephant trainer, called the mahout.

The mahout sitting on the elephant’s neck in the photo uses his feet to guide the elephant by tapping her forehead with his right heel and steering her movements with his left foot on her ear. The bull hook in his hand, the tool most commonly used to control and discipline elephants, looms ominously above her head. A pink scar rings her back left ankle, likely the result of prolonged restraint. These are the things we can see.

What’s not visible in the photo are the concrete slabs connected to thick chains that line the edge of the cliff where we assumed the elephants rest at night, or the shacks in the jungle where it’s likely the mahouts and their families live. Beyond the animal cruelty that often goes unseen in this business is the human suffering of the animal caretakers who rely on the industry for their livelihoods. In Thailand, elephants are legally classified as domestic animals like horses or cows, and elephant training, like farming or ranching, is often a family tradition. In the case of elephant ownership, a lack of upward mobility often keeps families stuck in the cycle. The mahout is not the owner of the elephant camp.

We watched the above elephant in a caravan of several pass us, including one who walked with all four legs shackled together. When we reached the main road and entrance to the camp we discovered a baby elephant pacing in a small pen and a young male attached to a chain constantly pulling on his short tether. A family with a young child paid to feed him. We were asked if we wanted to feed the baby elephant, but declined, and continued on our hike unsettled by what we had seen.

Elephants carry tourists in high heat at Angkor Wat’s Bayon Temple in Cambodia. An elephant that died of heatstroke under these conditions in 2016 sparked an international outcry, including a petition to ban elephant riding in Cambodia that was signed by tens of thousands. This photo was taken in 2017.

National Geographic’s recent article covers a wide range of animals involved in wildlife tourism, from bears to wolves, sloths, elephants, tigers and marine animals spanning countries and continents. The main take away, though, is not just an understanding of the misery often involved in wildlife tourism, but the way tourists are duped. When writing about elephant camps in Thailand the article’s authors described two camps: one that offers elephant rides, and another that calls itself a sanctuary. At the “sanctuary” the animals seem free from servitude. But it turns out both camps are owned by the same company, and those elephants at the “sanctuary” also give rides.

This story hit close to home for us. One of our favorite experiences during our time in Asia was a day of snorkeling in Thailand, which we booked on a whim through our hotel. It was only later that we discovered the same company also offered elephant rides. Had we known at the time, we would have taken our business elsewhere.

We had a similar experience in Borneo when we visited two wildlife centers operated by the Malaysian government: Semenggoh Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre, which appears to be doing great work returning orangutans to the jungle permanently, and their counterpart, Matang Wildlife Centre, which houses a menagerie of endangered and exotic animals that have been injured, orphaned, or rescued from the exotic pet trade. At Matang, most of the animals were living in cramped, small and sparse enclosures unlike their freely roaming cousins in Semenggoh.

Though Matang is not a zoo or sanctuary, not all the animals living there are releasable, causing visitors to wonder why the permanent residents are not living in better conditions. With no rangers available to answer questions, we left with the impression that Matang is under staffed, under funded, and poorly maintained, housing depressed and distressed wild animals. What we saw – pacing sun bears, an orangutan staring at the wall, rhinoceros hornbills in small confines, and a gibbon that threw poop at us – did not give us a good feeling, and it turns out other visitors shared our concerns. A slew of negative reviews on TripAdvisor have since reached the government, though it remains to be seen if any action will be taken to improve the conditions at Matang.

Orangutans at Matang Wildlife Centre in 2017.

Though not all experiences with wildlife tourism involve cages, chains, and trainers, when booking a tour out in nature you can still encounter some less than stellar guides and operators.

In Indonesia, we booked two tours around Komodo National Park that involved snorkeling with manta rays. It was surprisingly difficult to find information on most tour companies ahead of time, with many travel bloggers advising visitors to book in person. We scheduled one tour in advance with a sustainably minded company and the second on arrival, resulting in two very different snorkeling experiences.

The guides from the tour booked in person urged our group to jump into the ocean practically on top of the manta rays into a dark, swift current without any explanation of what to expect, while guides from the tour booked in advance encouraged us to calmly and gently enter the water at a distance so as not to disturb these gentle giants. Though no one was hurt with the first tour group, we felt that the experience could have been dangerous for us and the mantas.

So how can you avoid supporting unsavory organizations when seeing wildlife?

Research is your best bet. Visit the company websites and look at reviews on sites like TripAdvisor before booking. Reading blogs about others’ experiences can also be helpful. Though this will usually do the trick, it’s not always possible to know what a wildlife center, park or tour will be like until you get there. If something seems amiss, ask employees, and share your experience with others. Generally speaking, if an animal is performing i.e. being made to pose for photos, be constantly handled, do tricks, or give rides, it’s probably not a good situation. If you are able to interact with wildlife, it’s important that any contact is on the animal’s terms.

Arctic wolf, Sugar, relaxing at Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary in New Mexico.

Thankfully, there are plenty of sanctuaries, national parks, and reserves that offer opportunities to engage with wild animals ethically. Here are our recommendations on where to visit based on our experiences:

  • Elephant Nature Park, Chiang Mai, Thailand – This sanctuary for elephants rescued from logging and tourism is truly fantastic. They have several projects around Thailand and neighboring countries allowing tourists to interact with retired elephants humanely. A number of tours and volunteer opportunities are offered. We volunteered on site for a week.

  • Semenggoh Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre, Kuching, Borneo – The orangutans at Semenggoh have been rehabilitated and released back into the wild after being injured, orphaned, or rescued from lives as pets. The center is open twice a day for visitors to observe orangutans during feeding times, though seeing them is not guaranteed. Visitors have no contact with the orangutans.

  • Komodo National Park with Flores XP Adventure, Indonesia – Flores XP Adventure is an eco tourism company offering tours around Komodo National Park. On our single day tour, we saw komodo dragons, dolphins, tropical fish, manta rays, reef sharks, and flying foxes in the wild. Tourists have no contact with the animals.

  • Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary, Ramah, New Mexico – WSWS rescues wolves and other wild canines from the exotic pet trade, providing lifetime sanctuary. Like ENP, visitors can choose from a number of tours and volunteer opportunities. We worked at WSWS for two years and definitely recommend a visit.

  • Wolf Haven International, Tenino, Washington – Wolf Haven also rescues and provides lifetime sanctuary for displaced wolves and wolf-dogs. They are accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries and the American Sanctuary Association. Guided tours with no animal contact are available by appointment.

  • Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary, Ubud, Bali – The Monkey Forest Sanctuary is home to over 600 long-tailed macaques on 30 acres of protected jungle within the city of Ubud. The monkeys are wild, but not shy. Although it is possible to touch them, it’s not recommended.

  • Bako National Park, Borneo, Malaysia – During our visit to this protected peninsula, we saw bearded boars, proboscis monkeys, macaques, a pit viper, and many other animals along the trails and beach. There is no interaction with the wild animals at Bako.

Ultimately, wildlife tourism exists because people love animals, but if we remain shielded from the reality of the industry, elephant riding, tiger cuddles, exotic animal performance, and ownership will continue. As awareness of the unethical practices involved in most animal attractions spreads, the industry will have to change, benefitting humans, animals and ecosystems alike.

*Interested in more ways to help? Thailand is planning to allow Asian elephants, an endangered species, to be exported from the country beginning June 23, 2019 for the purposes of research, study, good relations, and parts or products for academic research or as antiques/art objects. Asian elephants are a keystone species making them critical to their ecosystems, and with only about 1,000 left in the wild in Thailand, this new law, which would lift a ban on elephant exportation that has been in place for the last decade, is likely to compromise the Asian elephant’s future in Thailand and beyond. You can help by signing and sharing this petition to stop Thailand from exporting elephants.

A happy herd at Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Orangutan Sanctuary: Visiting Semenggoh Wildlife Centre, Borneo

The allure of seeing orangutans in their natural habitat draws visitors from all over the world to Semenggoh Wildlife Centre, a nature reserve just 20 kilometers south of Kuching City in Sarawak, Borneo. Open all year round, the Centre is home to a colony of semi-wild orangutans and is the ideal place to spot this incredibly rare, shy and endangered species in the jungle. Started in 1975 as a sanctuary for orangutans that were injured, orphaned, or illegally kept as pets, today Semenggoh is the largest orangutan rehabilitation center in Sarawak. The Centre offers visiting hours twice a day during which guests can watch the orangutans descend from the treetops to feed. 

A BRIEF HISTORY

With their name meaning ‘people of the forest,’ orangutans only exist in two places in the world: the lush jungles of Borneo and Sumatra. Tragically, deforestation, human encroachment and habitat loss continue to threaten these amazing creatures with extinction. Semenggoh Wildlife Centre exists to conserve these animals and their habitat, while educating the public about the orangutan and their need for protection. 

Run by Sarawak Forestry, Semenggoh boasts a rehabilitation program that has been so successful there are now three generations of orangutans living in the reserve. Beginning with just 11 animals in the 1970s, each rescued between the ages of 1 and 5, the sanctuary now has nearly 30 healthy adolescent and young-adult orangutans living in a population that is so strong the park cannot introduce any more outsiders. The rehabilitation program has since moved to Matang Wildlife Centre in nearby Kubah National Park.

During their rehabilitation, the orangutans undergo training to allow for their eventual release and subsequent independence in the wild. Though they spend most of their time in the jungle, they are also trained to return to the Centre during feeding times when they can receive a free meal, as needed. Since the reserve cannot supply enough wild food for all its inhabitants, the Centre offers feedings to supplement the orangutans diet. While orangutans primarily eat fruit, they also forage for bark, honey, insects, young shoots, and occasionally bird eggs and small vertebrae. During feedings, the Centre offers bananas, sweet potatoes, coconut, papayas, pineapples, sugar cane and hard-boiled eggs.

VISITING

The best time to view the orangutans is outside of the fruiting season, which lasts from November to March, when the animals may not venture back to the Centre to feed. We visited in May, which turned out to be perfect.

The Centre is open twice a day: from 8 – 10 AM and 2 – 4 PM. This is to limit potential contact between humans and orangutans. Feedings occur from 9 – 10 AM and 3 – 4 PM. The entrance fee is about $2.50/person for foreign adults. Pro Tip: Your ticket can be used for the entire day, making it ideal to visit in the morning so that if the orangutans don’t show up for breakfast, you can come back in the afternoon for a second try.

Semenggoh is a 30 – 40 minute drive from Kuching City and is accessible by public transit. We began our morning early, but not early enough to make the 7:15 AM bus, and instead opted for an Uber ($5) which got us to the Centre 20 minutes before feeding time. On the way back, we took the bus.

Upon arrival we purchased our tickets at the main gate and walked down the long road to a small gift shop and information center housing photos and bios of each of the orangutans living in the reserve. After a quick look around, we wandered on toward the viewing platform and found a roped off path leading to the feeding area where we waited in front of a sign reading ‘Sarawak Forestry.’ Shortly after, our guide for the morning, Dominic, appeared and addressed our large crowd of about 40 people.

Dominic advised the group about safety – no eating or drinking, no flash photography, and to stay 20 feet from the orangutans at all times, and of course, to remain quiet. After the introduction we ventured down a short trail to the feeding area and secured ourselves a spot directly in front of the feeding platform surrounded by dense jungle. A staff member tossed bananas onto the platform before calling to the orangutans in a melodic tone that sounded like “aaaoooo!” several times. 

Then the mesmerizing happened: the trees began moving in the distance, limbs shook and swayed until we caught a glimpse of some large orange bodies shifting through the canopy. Two sisters born in the park, each with their baby, descended long ropes to the platform to gather bananas. The ropes allow the orangutans to swiftly and easily access the feeding platform and return to the trees to eat, rather than having to move from tree to tree to get there and back. This also provides visitors with great viewing and photo opportunities. We saw Analisa, the first orangutan to be born in the park, and her young baby, and Saddamiah with her 3 year old, Ruby.

The orangutans moved deftly and quickly through the trees, at once strong, fluid and incredibly acrobatic. It was an immense joy to see them traveling through the jungle, so close to us, yet at a safe distance. Once happily fed, the orangutans departed, disappearing back into the thick forest. In all, we saw them for about 30 – 40 minutes.

By the end of the hour, only a dozen or so spectators remained. At that point, our guide, Dominic, shared with us which orangutans we had seen along with their ages, all information we wouldn’t have known had we left early.

While park staff is eager to usher everyone out after feeding, the reserve is also home to a botanical garden, a crocodile habitat, and other rare animals including the giant squirrel, pigmy squirrel, gibbons and a variety of birds. Those who arrive early may have a chance to spot some of the other flora and fauna the sanctuary has to offer.

ENJOY YOUR VISIT!

Having a chance to view orangutans in the wild was an incredible experience, and one we will never forget. Their grace and majesty is truly awesome to behold. We highly recommend a visit to Semenggoh Wildlife Centre where each ticket sold helps support orangutan conservation.

Feeding 70 Wolves on Christmas

Two Nikki’s: Nikki getting ready to feed high-content wolf-dogs, Nikki and Maki.

After giving and receiving gifts, nothing says “Christmas” quite like sitting down to a delicious feast with those you love. What will you be cooking up this holiday? At Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary, a refuge for wild canines rescued from the exotic pet trade, employees get into the spirit by serving up hundreds of pounds of raw meat to animals in need.

Nikki hand feeding Arctic wolf siblings Thunder and Alice.

As staff members at WSWS, we woke up early on a white Christmas in 2016 to feed 70 wolves, wolf-dogs, and other wild canines. The morning was bright and beautiful, with deep snow, happy wolves, and an ATV filled with over 200 pounds of meat. Accompanied by two of the sanctuary’s volunteers, we delivered meals to each of the sanctuary’s residents.

WSWS’s rescues typically receive 3-5 pounds of food per feeding five days a week to replicate a natural diet (wolves in the wild can only eat when they catch food, making periods of fasting perfectly normal for them). While most rescues eat frozen meat loaves, some have special diets and feeding arrangements depending on their nutritional and behavioral needs.

Nikki separating high-content wolf-dog, Forest, from Thunder and Alice for safe feeding.

Feeding and fasting days at the sanctuary are the same every week, providing the rescues with a sense of routine. And with the holiday falling on a feeding day, we were happy to help spread some Christmas cheer! Feeding all 70 rescues was a large task for just four people, but the serenity of the snow covered sanctuary on Christmas morning filled us with merriment and joy.

Forest eating while Thunder and Alice eagerly await their breakfast.

Living With Wolves: The Joy of Giving

Lucian, a wolf-dog at Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary diving into his holiday present.

“The more we are concerned about the happiness of others, the more we are building our own happiness at the same time.” – The Dalai Lama, Daily Advice from the Heart

Enriching wild animals in captivity is vital to their mental and physical well being. Enrichments promote joy, stimulate the senses and give captive animals something to do outside the norm. Like humans, wolves are family oriented, social animals that love play. At Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary, a refuge for captive-bred wolves, wolf-dogs and other wild canines rescued from the exotic pet trade, enrichment is central to animal care and is provided in various forms tailored to each rescue’s desires and personality, including various treats, meaty bones, interesting scents, human contact, walks, toys, splash tubs and more.

Wolf-dog, Nimoy, showing off his present.

While the above are delivered daily, special sanctuary wide enrichments occur four times a year, when each rescue receives a seasonally inspired surprise. Boxes wrapped with colorful paper, smeared with interesting scents and filled with treats are doled out in winter. Easter baskets fitted with frozen rabbit shaped meat loaves and other goodies are delivered in the spring. Chilled watermelon meat treats are passed out in the summer, and pumpkins filled with meat are presented near Halloween.

Rain, one of the sanctuary’s shyer wolf-dogs tentatively inspecting her gift.

Many of WSWS’s long-time residents are used to receiving special treats and know just what to do, open them, grab the goodies, destroy the packaging, and pee on it for good measure. Others who are new to the pack may be apprehensive about the foreign object at first, not sure what to make of it or how to access the treats inside, and might even need a little help from a human friend to open it.

Lucian marking his territory once through “opening'“ his gift.

“Present Toss” as the winter seasonal enrichment is known, is a thrill for both the residents’ caretakers who make and deliver the gifts, and the rescues who devour them.

Caring for the sanctuary’s seventy rescues is an enormous labor of love that is often selfless. The daily work can be difficult, and anything but glamorous at times (picking up poop, mending fences, filling in holes, and sorting through 40 gallon barrels of raw meat are everyday chores).

Nimoy eagerly snatching his present.

And while many rescues were raised with some form of human contact and do enjoy being pet, going for walks, and interacting with their caretakers, an equal number shy away from any form of human interaction making them entirely hands off.

Thus, the joy in the job is quite simply the act of giving the rescues the best care possible, and being entirely present with each animal so as to be receptive to their individual needs, even if they never seem to say ‘thank you.’ This is the essence of giving, and the giving season that is upon us: to give without expecting anything in return, but to find our own enrichment and joy in the simple act of preparing and presenting the gift of our time, attention and love.

Romeo, a rescued red fox, enjoying one of his holiday gifts.

GUIDE to Visiting Angkor Wat Archeological Park, Cambodia

Siem Reap

On the outskirts of Siem Reap, Cambodia, lies Angkor Archeological Park, home to the relics of the Khmer Empire’s once thriving ancient city consisting of hundreds of temples spread across 154 square miles of jungle and farmland.

Angkor was the capital of the Khmer Empire, which thrived from the 9th to 15th centuries, and may have supported over 1 million people. UNESCO declared the archeological park a World Heritage site in 1992, and considers the remnants of this once great civilization to be one of the most important archeological sites in Southeast Asia.

For many Cambodians and Buddhists, the temples remain sacred places of worship, but no matter your faith, these relics will move you with their undeniable soul.

Here’s what it’s like to visit. (Click on the headers below for a detailed review of each temple.)

RECAP: GETTING THERE, RULES & REGULATIONS, WHAT TO BRING

  • Visa On Arrival – Many foreign travelers will need to obtain a Visa On Arrival when traveling to Cambodia. No prep work or applications needed. Simply fill out the appropriate form at your port of arrival, wait in line, have your passport stamped by an immigrations agent, and carry on your way.

  • USD is the Official Tourist Currency – USD is the expected cash currency at all sites, restaurants, hotels, etc. Only fresh, unmarked and recently issued bills are accepted.

  • Dress Code – The temples are active places of worship, requiring respectful and appropriate garb. Women and men are expected to cover their shoulders, and legs should be concealed past the knee.

  • Get Your Pass – Passes can be obtained at the main archeological museum for 1, 3, and 7 days. Pass purchases are cash only with fresh US notes. Proper attire is required. The pass is a photo ID that you will have to present at each temple entry point, and it will be stamped each day it’s used.

  • Tuk Tuk’s – Hiring a tuk tuk driver to take you to the sites near Siem Reap costs about $20/day. With this fee you are hiring a private driver to wait for you at each site and take you to your next destination. Tuk Tuk’s to further destinations, like Banteay Srei and Kbal Spean, will cost about $40/day. Check with your driver in advance.

  • Biking – You can bike to Angkor Wat from Siem Reap and the surrounding area, but keep in mind the possibility for extreme heat, and that you’ll be required to bike through downtown Siem Reap to get there.

  • What to Bring - Sunscreen, your pass, water, camera, snacks, handkerchief, hat or parasol, US cash (small bills a plus).

  • Tour Guides – Tour guides can be very helpful if you’d like to dive into the history at each site. If you only have the cash to spring for a guide once, we recommend doing so at Angkor Wat or Angkor Thom to get the most bang for your buck. Look for guides from the tourism department. They’ll be in uniform with official tourism patches and badges. A two-hour tour at Angkor Wat costs about  $15, plus tip. 

We purchased a 3-day pass, which was good for 10 days, allowing us to spread our tour over a week, giving us plenty of time to rest up in between our temple days. If you have the time to spare, we recommend this approach. Visiting the sites is incredible, and exhausting. Make sure to hydrate and relax in between! 

DAY 1: ANGKOR WAT AND TA PROHM

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat, meaning ‘temple city’ is the main attraction at Angkor Archeological Park. Built in the 12th century by Suryavarman II as the king’s state temple and capital city, Angkor Wat, which was originally dedicated to the Hindu god, Vishnu, was transformed into a Buddhist temple in the 14th century, and remains an internationally relevant Buddhist site today. When the Khmer Empire left Angkor in the 15th century to build a new capital, Angkor Wat remained one of the only temples that was never fully abandoned. Historians believe this is the reason it has remained so intact. Its large moat added further protection by prohibiting the jungle from reclaiming it. French explorer Henri Mouhot introduced the site to westerners in the mid-1800s.

Ta Prohm

Ta Prohm has been left much in the condition in which it was found by westerners in the 1800s, and is one of Angkor’s most famous jungle temples. Overgrown with enormous trees, the temple has largely merged with nature making it a mystical sight to behold. Built in the late 12th and early 13th centuries under King Jayavarman VII as a Buddhist monastery and university, the temple was famously brought back into the spotlight by the 2001 film Tomb Raider.

DAY 2: ANGKOR THOM AND PREAH KHAN

Angkor Thom

After Suryavarman II’s death and the ransacking of Angkor Wat by Khmer enemies, King Jayavarman VII moved the capital to Angkor Thom in the 12th century where under his reign the present day ruins were built on the same site as a former Khmer capital. Angkor Thom houses the famous and widely recognizable Bayon temple, or temple of 1,000 faces, featuring over 200 gigantic blissful faces topping 37 towers. The old city is also home to the royal palace, the temples Baphuon and Phimeanakas, the Elephant Terrace, and the Terrace of the Leper King. This walled city is believed to have supported 80,000 – 150,000 people at its height. 

Preah Khan

Like Ta Prohm, the jungle is steadily re-claiming Preah Khan, and features incredible feats of crumbling temples supporting the growth of enormous trees with roots that have become part of their foundations. Built in the 12th century under King Jayavarman VII to honor his father, the site was a combination of city, temple and Buddhist university serving as a hub for nearly 100,000 officials and servants, including 1,000 teachers and another 1,000 dancers. The temple is built on the site of Jayavarman’s victory against the invading Chams in 1191. It’s modern name, adapted from the original, means ‘holy sword.’

Surrounded by a moat, the temple is built in a flat style with successive rectangular galleries gathering around a central Buddhist sanctuary. Like it’s neighbor, Ta Prohm, it has been largely unrestored, allowing the jungle to slowly overtake it.

DAY 3: BANTEAY SREI, KBAL SPEAN, AND PRE RUP 

Banteay Srei

Built from striking red sandstone and lined with well-preserved intricate and elaborate carvings, Banteay Srei is unlike any other temple in Angkor Wat Archeological Park. Located 16 miles northeast of the main Park, visiting Banteay Srei and its surrounding sites is a worthy commitment.

Known colloquially as The Pink Lady Temple and The Lady Temple, Bateay Srei is a 10th century temple dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva and is the only major Angkorian temple that was not built by a monarch. It is most famous for its color, its small size, and equally miniature yet mightily impressive artwork. 

Kbal Spean

A jungle trek into the Kulen Hills will lead you to Kbal Spean: an archeological site of river carvings leading to a sacred waterfall. The site’s famous reliefs were carved by hermits into the naturally formed sandstone of the riverbed and its banks between the 11th and 12th centuries under the reign of King Suryavarman I, and King Udayadityavarman II. The site is also known as the ‘valley of 1000 lingas,’ and the ‘river of a thousand lingas,’ for the many lingas carved there (lingas are the phallic symbol representing the Hindu god Shiva). The Siem Reap River, which flows over the sacred lingas into Angkor, was believed to bless the city. Many other Hindu gods are also featured in the carvings. When the water table is low, the carvings are visible in a 150-meter section of the river in the middle of which is a naturally formed sandstone bridge. They stretch to a waterfall where visitors can bathe and be blessed beneath its spring.

Pre Rup

Overlooking the countryside and surrounding jungle, Pre Rup glows with a lovely reddish hue in the hours near sunrise and sunset due to its brick, laterite and sandstone construction. Aligned with a north south axis, this temple is dedicated to the Hindu god, Shiva. Locally believed to have been a mortuary, Pre Rup was built as a state temple under King Rajendravarman in the 10th century in the temple mountain style that is characteristic of many of the Angkorian sites.

GOOD TO KNOW

  • Handling Solicitation – The moment your tuk tuk arrives at any location expect to be approached by men, women and children looking to sell you anything from pants to guide books, postcards and trinkets before your driver can even park. When inside the sites, you may meet locals asking for donations, and encounter park staff or even police officers that will offer to take your photo in exchange for a ‘tip.’ The best way to handle these situations is a simple, brisk and sometimes repeated no thank you.

  • Temple Fatigue is Real – There is so much to see at Angkor Wat that it could easily take a month to dive into all the details of each of these ruins. Don’t try to do it all. Rest when you need to and call it a day when you’re ready. Though many people begin their tour at Angkor Wat as early as sunrise and trudge through the rest of the day in the heat, we opted to start between 8 and 9AM and wrap up by closing, which was perfect for us. The amount to see can be over-stimulating. We recommend taking time to just sit and be in those spaces, really commune with it. You may see a little less, but you’ll likely feel more. Pro Tip: We visited in March, one of the hottest times of the year, and noticed that the heat of the afternoon drove away much of the masses allowing us to enjoy several temples with very few other visitors. A real treat!

ENJOY YOUR VISIT!

These are the kinds of places that stir the heart and the imagination, that strike us not only with their awesome beauty and gateway to spirituality, but with their undeniable humanity that gives us pause by daring us to look at ourselves, where we’ve come from, where we are, and where we are headed as a global people.

Visiting: Pre Rup, Cambodia

Siem Reap

Pre Rup was the last temple we visited on our epic three-day tour of Angkor Wat Archeological Park. We arrived near sunset after spending the majority of the day in the Kulen Hills touring Banteay Srei and Kbal Spean. The brick, laterite and sandstone construction made this temple glow with a lovely reddish hue as the day neared its end, and we enjoyed the beginnings of a sunset from the top of the temple, overlooking the countryside and surrounding jungle. 

A BRIEF HISTORY OF PRE RUP

Aligned with a north south axis, this temple is dedicated to the Hindu god, Shiva. It was built as a state temple under King Rajendravarman in the 10th century – as early as 961 or 962 AD. Pre Rup’s construction is in the temple mountain style that is characteristic of many of the Angkorian sites, consisting of several outer walls leading to towering temples at its core. It was the second temple to be built in Angkor after the Khmer capital was returned to Koh Ker.

The temple’s name is relatively modern and translates to mean, “turn the body.” This is in reference to the common Cambodian belief that the temple was a hosting site for funerals, during which the body’s ashes were ritually turned in several directions throughout the services. 

ENJOY YOUR VISIT!

After a long day of temple touring, visiting Pre Rup was markedly relaxing. There were very few tourists when compared with the other sites we visited, allowing time for us to sit still and be. If you’re looking to capture this temple’s rosy pigment, keep in mind that Pre Rup shines its brightest in the hours near sunrise and sunset, making this site a perfect beginning or ending to your day or tour.

 

SNAPSHOTS

Visiting: Kbal Spean, Cambodia

Siem Reap

About 16 miles northeast of the main Angkorian ruins is Kbal Spean, a jungle trek into the Kulen Hills to an archeological site of river carvings leading to a sacred waterfall. We visited after touring Banteay Srei in the same area, also known as the Pink Lady Temple. Being a bit farther out of town, and costing more to get there, Banteay Srei and Kbal Spean are often paired together as a day trip. Visitors can also take a tour at the Angkor Centre for Conservation of Biodiversity, which lies at the foot of the trail to Kbal Spean.

A BRIEF HISTORY

Tucked into the jungle, Kbal Spean is famous for its relief carvings made into the naturally formed sandstone of the riverbed and its banks. Carved into the rock by hermits between the 11th and 12th centuries under the reign of King Suryavarman I, and King Udayadityavarman II, this site is also known as the ‘valley of 1000 lingas,’ and the ‘river of a thousand lingas,’ for the many lingas carved there. Lingas are the phallic symbol representing the Hindu god Shiva. The Siem Reap River, which flows over the sacred lingas and into Angkor, was believed to bless the city. 

Yonis representing the Hindu goddess Shakti in the feminine symbol of fertility and genitalia are also represented. Many other Hindu gods are also featured in the carvings, such as Vishnu, Brahma, Lakshmi, Rama and Hanuman.

After the monsoon season when the water level begins to drop, the carvings are visible in a 150-meter section of the river in the middle of which is a naturally formed sandstone bridge. They stretch to a waterfall where visitors can bathe and be blessed. The site was ‘discovered’ by westerners in 1969, but exploration was halted by the Cambodian civil war. The site reopened for safe visits beginning in 1989.

WHAT IT’S LIKE TO VISIT

We found ourselves at the trailhead to Kbal Spean after a 20-minute tuk tuk ride from Banteay Srei and eagerly headed in. We walked leisurely through the jungle, taking about an hour to reach the falls, stopping now and again to watch a troops of ants, and linger in a grove of tall trees where monkeys shrouded by leaf cover high above ate fruit and spit pits down to the ground. We trekked barefoot on the soft red earth over roots and rocks, a path tread for centuries, watching a rainbow of butterflies float by in singles and pairs while listening to monkeys hoot and tropical birds call until we reached the lingas at the rock bridge. Two dogs – a three-legged puppy and its mother – greeted us.

We were lucky that it had rained heavily the night before, uncommon for March leading up to the rainy season, making the falls full and cleansing, and carrying the rush through the forest. Hot and sticky from a jungle hike in jeans, it was both exhilarating and joyous to cleanse beneath the clean and powerful falls that had been blessed by the age-old lingas. Vines draped over the falls trickling droplets of water. It truly felt like a hidden oasis.

Good to Know: Throughout our time at Angkor Wat we quickly discovered that pretty much anyone who offers to take your photo for you expects to be paid in return. At Kbal Spean, a park staff member accompanied by a young boy followed us the whole way from the lingas to the waterfall continually offering to take our picture, and encouraging us to take off our clothes and get into the waterfall. Though we repeatedly declined, the ranger hung around for quite a while. It was a bit uncomfortable to feel like we were being watched, but he eventually left allowing us some peaceful moments alone at the falls. 

ENJOY YOUR VISIT!

Kbal Spean is a unique site at Angkor Wat Archeological Park taking visitors out of the city to enjoy the Cambodian countryside and its abundant nature. After several stiflingly hot days of touring the park’s busy temples, it was wonderful to get away from the crowds and play in the falls!

 

SNAPSHOTS

Visiting: Banteay Srei, Cambodia

Siem Reap

Built from striking red sandstone and lined with intricate and elaborate carvings, Banteay Srei is unlike any other temple in Angkor Wat Archeological Park. Located 16 miles northeast of the main park, visiting Banteay Srei and its surrounding sites is a worthwhile commitment. Beginning at 8AM, the hour long drive on the back of a tuk tuk through the Cambodian countryside was both beautiful and eye opening, revealing at once the country’s picturesque pastoral landscape, and its poverty.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF BANTEAY SREI

Banteay Srei, known colloquially as The Pink Lady Temple, and more simply, The Lady Temple, is a 10th century temple dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva. It is the only major Angkorian temple that was not built by a monarch. The site was ‘rediscovered’ in 1914, and first restored in the 1930’s.

When compared with the rest of the Angkorian sites, which are very large in scale, Banteay Srei’s construction seems miniature; making for a relatively quick visit.

Though widely known as ‘The Lady Temple’, and fabled to have been built by women, the translation of Banteay Srei means ‘citadel of the women’ or ‘citadel of beauty’ likely referring to the delightfully complex carvings and devatas, or female deities, they portray.

Sadly, the temple has suffered a great amount of theft and vandalism since the early 1900s targeted mostly at its statues, causing the Cambodian government to remove some of the statues and replace them with concrete replicas.

BEYOND THE TEMPLE

Being a smaller complex than the other major temples we visited, Banteay Srei felt the most crowded. It’s good to know that tour groups quite literally arrive by the busload at all of the historical sites. Having patience with the crowds is critical, and is how we got many of these shots!

We enjoyed perusing the pink temple and marveling at the incredibly detailed and very well preserved works of art that still line its walls today.

After our tour, we sat down to listen to The Landmine Victims Band (a common sight in tourist sections of Siem Reap), which played traditional tunes. One man even used a leaf as a kazoo!

We then strolled the grounds surrounding the temple, which led to a broad and secluded open field. On our way back, we encountered two young girls attempting to sell us various items. When we politely refused, one tried to snatch something out of Chadley’s pocket. Though this was the first and only time we faced potential theft along our travels, it is a cautionary tale. As a general rule, visitors are discouraged from buying wares from children, as this practice perpetuates systemic poverty.

Good to Know: While renting a tuk tuk and driver to motor us around the main Archeological Park was only $20 a day, trekking out to Banteay Srei and the surrounding area cost double. Though $40 for such a day trip is pretty standard (you can always try to negotiate for a lesser rate), we did not have the foresight to discuss the day’s cost with our driver in advance. Nor did our driver reveal the steep price hike until the morning of, when he approached us with a few other drivers to inform us of the price increase. Blindsided, we reluctantly agreed, which put a damper on the morning and our relationship with the driver, to say the least. Though we felt initially swindled, our research later revealed that this wasn't such a bad deal. Regardless, we highly recommend negotiating such things in advance to avoid any confusion.

ENJOY YOUR VISIT!

Banteay Srei’s rosy relics offer something different from the rest of Angkor Wat, revealing a side of Khmer art and culture that cannot be seen anywhere else.

 

SNAPSHOTS

Visiting: Preah Khan, Cambodia

Siem Reap

When exploring Preah Khan you are immediately struck by the majesty of trees, for they are just as impressive and monolithic as the structures that root them, creating a mystical atmosphere that is this temple’s very own.

Like the Angkorian temple Ta Prohm, the jungle has steadily re-claimed Preah Khan. Yet there appears to be a symbiotic relationship in how the trees embrace the ruins, their roots growing around columns that would otherwise be crushed by their mammoth weight, and instead of crashing through the roofs they stretch around corridors, becoming an integral part of these incredible relics.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF PREAH KHAN

Preah Khan was built in the 12th century under King Jayavarman VII’s rule to honor his father. Once a hub of nearly 100,000 officials and servants, the temple is built on the site of Jayavarman’s victory against the invading Chams in 1191. It’s modern name, adapted from the original, means ‘holy sword.’

At its height, the site was a combination of city, temple and Buddhist university housing 1,000 teachers and another 1,000 dancers.

Surrounded by a moat, the temple is built in a flat style with successive rectangular galleries gathered around a central Buddhist sanctuary. The temple has been largely unrestored, allowing the jungle to slowly overtake it. Clearing of brush and other vegetation was undertaken from 1927 – 1932, and The World Monuments Fund has maintained the site since 1991.

The largest of all the trees rooted amongst the temples are of the spung variety, with roots resembling elephant trunks. They’re even hollow! Their appearance throughout the ruins is quite magical.

We visited Preah Khan in the late afternoon in March, which proved to be a quiet time with very few crowds.

ENJOY YOUR VISIT!

At Preah Khan, visitors get the sense the jungle is not simply engulfing, but honoring this treasured temple. It is a place where ancient history lives both in defiance and harmony with the nature.

 

SNAPSHOTS

Visiting: Angkor Thom, Cambodia

Bayon Angkor Thom

Siem Reap

Angkor Thom is the largest and one of the most historically important sites to visit at Angkor Wat Archeological Park. With its name translating to “Great City,” it’s easy to see why. Established in the 12th century as the capital of King Jayavarman VII’s Khmer Empire, this 9 square KM relic is believed to have supported a population of 80,000 – 150,000 people at its height! It’s home to the former king’s royal palace, the famous state temple, Bayon, also known as the Temple of a Thousand Faces, and many other important Khmer monuments from King Jayavarman VII’s reign, his successors, and predecessors.

It’s easy to get lost, literally and figuratively, in the majesty of these ruins as you walk the path of the many before you who lived, worked, played and prayed behind the walls of this once great empire. 

Bayon Faces

A BRIEF HISTORY OF ANGKOR THOM

Though originating in its present form in the 12th century under King Jayavarman VII, the city dates back three centuries earlier when another Khmer capital stood there. A few temples remain from that time, including Baphuon and Phimeanakas, which was later included in the royal palace site.

In order to enter Angkor Thom, visitors must pass beneath its impressive gates adorned with the famously serene Bayon-style heads, which face each of the cardinal directions.

One of the city gates to enter Angkor Thom.

One of the city gates to enter Angkor Thom.

The city is surrounded by a moat and 8 meter high wall, with many roads entering and exiting crossing over bridges decorated with balustrades depicting larger than life human figures carrying the body of the Naga, a seven-headed snake guardian.

Angkor Thom also features a multitude of pristinely intact limestone bas reliefs. These incredible works of art line the walls at Bayon, the Elephant Terrace, and the Terrace of the Leper King, depicting stories and poems of ancient Hinduism, as mixed over the centuries with Buddhism, historical events, day-to-day scenes, and the region’s local flora and fauna.

Bayon

BAYON

The most famous and widely recognized temple at Angkor Thom is Bayon. Here, visitors walk amongst and beneath towers topped with more than 200 gigantic blissful faces, argued to have been designed either to resemble King Jayavarman VII himself, or the bodhisattva of compassion, Avalokitesvara. Where there were once 49 towers, today, 37 remain.

Angkor Thom’s main gates at each of the cardinal points all lead to Bayon at the center of the city. Like Angkor Wat, Bayon is built to resemble Mount Meru, with the city’s walls and moat interpreted to represent the outer lying mountains and ocean. The temple is primarily maintained by the conservation organization JSA (Japanese Government Team Safeguarding of Angkor).

Bayon

Bayon is one of Angkor Wat’s most visited temples, and the number of people at this site can be overwhelming. Featuring out-of-this-world photo opportunities, we felt at times that it was difficult to linger and simply marvel at the temple’s beauty without sensing that someone else was waiting for us to hurry up and move out of their shot. This feeling was strongest on the upper level where visitors can come eye to eye with Bayon’s majestic faces. Eventually, we found a quiet place above the crowd where we weren’t in anyone’s way and could truly enjoy the serenity the space has to offer.

The Royal Palace

The Royal Palace

THE ROYAL PALACE

After our visit to Bayon, we headed to the Royal Palace, and from there intended to go to the Terraces. We trekked up and down the incredibly steep and narrow steps spanning four levels of the Royal Palace, at the top of which we enjoyed some truly fabulous views. At the back of the palace a reclining Buddha has been reconstructed from stones.

Somehow after this, we got lost, and ended up taking a detour down an unmarked path through the jungle that we thought was a short cut…It ended up at a field of cows. Oops!

“Hidden” bas reliefs at the Terrace of the Leper King

“Hidden” bas reliefs at the Terrace of the Leper King

TERRACE OF THE LEPER KING

Eventually we found our way back to the Terraces and first visited the Terrace of the Leper King, or Leper King Terrace. The site is named after a statue found there in the 15th century depicting Yama, the Hindu god of death. The statue was later dubbed the Leper King because of its discoloration, and it’s growing of moss, resembling someone with leprosy. This new name also fit with a Cambodian legend about a king with leprosy. Hence, the Terrace of the Leper King.

While it might seem like the statue is the main attraction here, we discovered a small labyrinth of incredible bas reliefs on either side of the stairs leading to the terrace’s platform. Don’t miss the hidden walls! This was one of the coolest parts of this terrace, featuring gorgeous and well-preserved artwork. It was also quite literally the coolest part: you can hide away from the sun and heat behind the walls!

The Elephant Terrace

The Elephant Terrace

ELEPHANT TERRACE

Onward, we continued to the Elephant Terrace, which as aptly named, features several walls held up by carvings of elephants. Though these carvings are well worn today, they still resemble pachyderms. 

This terrace is a platform from which King Jayavarman VII would view his victorious army returning home. It was also used during public ceremonies, and as the king’s grand audience hall.

The top of the Royal Palace

The top of the Royal Palace

ENJOY YOUR VISIT!

There is plenty more to see at Angkor Thom than the four sites we explored, which took us nearly an entire day beginning at 9 AM! So plan for your visit to be lengthy, and savor every moment in this surreal and historical space!

 

SNAPSHOTS

Visiting: Ta Prohm, Cambodia

Siem Reap

Roaming the temple complex of Ta Prohm makes you feel like an old world explorer whose come upon this ancient site while trekking through the jungle. Around every corner, through every doorway and down every hall you find the duality of growth and decay. Enormous silk cotton ceiba trees emerge from the walls and roofs of temples, wrapping their roots around something that once was. Piles of rubble decorated with intricate carvings lay beside edifices both destroyed and reconstructed, withstanding the test of time.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF TA PROHM

On the outskirts of modern day Siem Reap, Ta Prohm was built in the late 12th and early 13th centuries under King Jayavarman VII as a Buddhist monastery and university dedicated to his mother. Though many of the temples of Angkor were built in the ‘temple pyramid’ or ‘temple mountain’ style, such as Angkor Wat, Bayon, and Pre Rup, Ta Prohm was built in a flat style: a series of five rectangular nesting walls enclose a central inner sanctuary.

Also unlike most of the temples of Angkor, Ta Prohm has been left much in the condition in which it was found by westerners in the 1800s due to the magic of how it has merged with the jungle over time. The site has been conserved and restored by both the Ecole Francaise d’Extreme-Orient, and the Archaeological Survey of India. The temple was famously used in the film Tomb Raider in 2001, returning it to the international spotlight and cultivating mass appeal.

Consequently, it is one of the most visited temples of Angkor due to its awe-inspiring setting. Surrounded by jungle, the crumbling temples have literally grown trees, giving visitors the feeling they are discovering a hidden treasure.

Like all of the popular Angkorian archeological sites, expect to see many other tourists, but know there are also plenty of opportunities to find yourself alone as you wander these magnificent ruins.

ENJOY YOUR VISIT!

Ta Prohm evoked something deep in our core. It reminded us of the simultaneous transience and timelessness of life, to enjoy what we have, to be present and grateful for the ability to travel across the world and stand in the heart of such a potent site, a place that one day, like all things, will return to its source.

 

SNAPSHOTS

Visiting: Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Siem Reap 

One of the great things about travel is getting outside yourself and everything you know by becoming immersed in all things foreign – language, culture, food, landscape, people, religion, and so on. It’s about becoming comfortable with the uncomfortable, shaking up our routines and throwing ourselves into the unfamiliar. And what better way to do that, to reconnect with our deepest selves, our history, and humanity than by visiting some of the most impressive ruins this world has to offer: Angkor Wat?

On the outskirts of what is now known as Siem Reap in Cambodia, the relics of the Khmer Empire’s once thriving ancient city and temple complex attract thousands of visitors daily, making it Cambodia’s top tourist attraction.

For many Cambodians and traveling Buddhists, the temples remain sacred places of worship, but no matter your religion, Angkor Wat and its accompanying archeological sites will move you with their incredible history, artistry, presence and soul. To stand in Angkor Wat you are at once humbled by thoughtful, living architecture surviving the Khmer Empire, and elate with wonder like a fascinated child yearning to learn more. 

GETTING THERE

  • USD is the Official Tourist Currency – Having some US cash on arrival is a plus, but if you don’t, there are plenty of ATMs and banks where USD can be easily obtained. It’s important to note that only fresh bills are accepted (they must be unmarked and recently issued). So save those crumpled and ripped dollars in your wallet for another destination.

  • Dress Code – The temples remain places of worship for many, and you can be denied entry for wearing inappropriate garb. Women and men are expected to cover their shoulders and their legs past the knee.

  • Get Your Pass – Passes can be obtained at the main archeological museum for 1, 3, and 7 days. Pass purchases are cash only with fresh US notes. Proper attire is required, and visitors can be turned away for improper dress. The pass is a photo ID that you will have to present at each temple entry point. It will be stamped each day it’s used.

  • Tuk Tuk’s – Hiring a tuk tuk driver to take you to the sites within the main archeological park (ie - near Siem Reap) costs about $20/day. With this fee you are hiring a private driver (picture a motorbike pulling a cart) who will wait for you at each site and take you to your next destination. Alternatively, you can bike to Angkor Wat and the surrounding area, but do keep in mind the possibility for extreme heat.

  • What to Bring - Sunscreen, your pass, water, camera, snacks, handkerchief, hat or parasol, USD (small bills a plus).

TOUR GUIDES

As soon as you arrive, you are likely to be greeted by would-be tour guides. If you’re interested in hiring a guide for any of your temple visits, Angkor Wat should be first on the list, as it is considered the most important temple complex of the ancient empire, and therefore will set the stage for most of what you’ll see afterward, providing some context. Our guide, Thomason, was from the tourism department. Look for the guides in uniform with official tourism patches and badges. A two-hour tour with lots of precious photos taken by our guide was only $15 plus a well-deserved tip. In our opinion, it was more than worth it.

We were in awe to sit on the steps of the King’s Library

A BRIEF HISTORY OF ANGKOR WAT

Angkor Wat, meaning ‘temple city’ is the main attraction at Angkor Archeological Park, consisting of hundreds of temples spread over 154 square miles of jungle and farmland. Angkor was the capital of the Khmer Empire, which thrived from the 9th to 15th centuries, and may have supported over 1 million people!

The entirety of Angkor was a hydraulic city with a complex water management system used not only for irrigation, but also to stabilize its architectural foundations by preventing groundwater from getting too high or low. UNESCO declared the archeological park a World Heritage site in 1992, and considers the remnants of this once great civilization to be one of the most important archeological sites in Southeast Asia. Angkor Wat is such an important symbol to Cambodians it even appears on the national flag.

Built in the 12th century by Suryavarman II as the king’s state temple and capital city, Angkor Wat, which was originally dedicated to the Hindu god, Vishnu, was transformed into a Buddhist temple in the 14th century, and remains an internationally relevant Buddhist site today. The complex is unlike most other Khmer temples in that it is oriented west instead of east, likely in reverence to Vishnu, who is associated with the west. The temple features five towers in the image of Mount Meru, the legendary home of the Hindu gods, along with a series of enclosing walls and moats representing mountain chains and the ocean. The temple is aligned with the spring equinox, during which the sun rises directly over the central tower. Throughout the rest of the year the sun travels up and down the western entrance gate. The temple incorporates many other examples of advanced mathematics, astrology, astronomy, and numerology – all evidence of the Khmer Empire’s expansive knowledge.

After Suryavarman II’s death and the ransacking of the area by the Khmer’s enemies, King Jayavarman VII, moved the capital to Angkor Thom and restored Angkor Wat. When the Khmer Empire left Angkor in the 15th century to build a new capital, Phnom Penh, near the coast, Angkor Wat remained one of the only temples that, while neglected, was never fully abandoned. Historians believe it has remained much intact for this reason, and because of its large moat, which stopped the jungle from reclaiming it.

In the mid-1800s French explorer Henri Mouhot successfully exposed Angkor to westerners, drawing comparisons to the pyramids of Egypt, thereby popularizing the now internationally treasured archeological site. 

ENJOY YOUR VISIT!

We humans are explorers at heart. Visiting Angkor Wat and the surrounding archeological sites awakens this part in us, stirring a place in the soul that craves exploration and a deeper connection to the earth and our ancestry. It is a reminder that our world, our existence, and our history are at once mysterious and mystical, opening our eyes, as travel often does, to new ways of seeing.

 

SNAPSHOTS

Howl-O-Ween at Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary

9 year old wolf-dog, Argo, snacking on his pumpkin treat at Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary.

Candy Kitchen, New Mexico

Halloween is a special holiday for many. For some, it’s even the most loved of the year! At Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary, a wildlife sanctuary in rural New Mexico, an annual Howl-O-Ween party marks this spooky October date. What better way to spend a Saturday around Halloween than with wolves in the crisp autumn high desert sunshine? Added bonus: each ticket directly supports the wolves and Wild Spirit’s mission of rescue, sanctuary and education.

We had a blast working this family friendly festival during our two years at Wild Spirit. Here’s what this fun day is all about!

The event typically begins with a “pumpkin toss” enrichment tour, during which Wild Spirit’s wolves and wolf-dogs receive pumpkins filled with meat, and sprayed with smelly scents to both enjoy and destroy. This is a great photo opportunity for guests and is generally restricted to a small tour that must be booked in advance, making it extra intimate. The rest of the day usually features standard tours of the sanctuary, food, music, games, costumes, roaming ambassador wolves (with their expert handlers) and a spooky night tour.

Each Howl-O-Ween is capped with an annual fire ceremony after dark in celebration of the lives of those rescues lost during the preceding year. Rescues’ ashes are offered to a sacred fire while Wild Spirit’s staff, volunteers and friends share memories of the sanctuary’s beloved canines that have passed over. It’s a special ceremony that all Howl-O-Ween guests are welcome to attend. 

Happy and safe Halloween to all!

PS - If you’re in the area or planning a trip, visit Wild Spirit’s website to learn more about this event, sanctuary tours, and lodging. This year’s festival is Saturday, October 20th.

 

SNAPSHOTS

From Top Left to Right: Wolf-dog Nikki, Romeo the red fox, Nikki and Chadley, Executive Director Leyton Cougar with a guest, two photos of wolf-dog Skye, our friend Christine and her niece had their faces painted, volunteers preparing enrichment pumpkins, wold-dog Dakota, arctic wolf Powder, Chadley and Maddy delivering pumpkins to New Guinea Singing Dogs Reba, Bono and Princess, Yuni coyote, Dakota, Assistant Director Crystal and Ambassador Wolf Flurry greeting guests, Chadley playing music for guests, wolf-dog pup Quinn, Chadley giving wolf-dog Lucian his pumpkin, wolf-dog Kabbalah, Yuni, wolf-dog Maki, Maki scent rolling on her pumpkin, wolf-dog Cheyenne, Chadley dressed up, wolf-dog Contessa saying ‘hi’ to Wild Spirit photographer Steve, Contessa eating, wolf-dog Oni, and wolf-dog Zeus.

Ubud, Bali – Where to Eat, Play & Stay

Indonesia

Ubud is a bustling city in the heart of Bali, abuzz with merchants and markets, temples, spas, yoga studios and retreats, co-working spaces, health food, arts, culture and innovation, all surrounded by some of Bali’s greatest natural attractions. The city has become a haven for travelers, especially yogis and digital nomads, and is really a must visit when in Bali. Below are some of our favorite places in and around Ubud, with our travel tips learned along the way.

 

Getting There

Ubud is inland and situated in the southeastern part of the island, only an hour from the major airport in Denpasar, and the same distance from Canggu by car (where we stayed prior to our visit). Though the drive can be upwards of an hour and a half during rush hour. Growing up driving in New York and Boston, we have to say that traffic in Bali is unlike anything we’ve ever experienced. Narrow and winding streets not built for the volume of traffic they currently support, many without traffic signals, flood with motorbikes and cars during the heaviest commuter times. The jostling stop and go of such a drive can be nauseating. Best to pack some anti-nausea precautions. We were always stocked on Fisherman’s Friend mints, which did the trick 95% of the time (and they’re pharmaceutical free, yay!). Nausea aside, we enjoyed the scenic ride through villages and forests on the way to the city once leaving the populated seacoast.

 

Where We Stayed

Chadley singing songs on the balcony at Bisma Jaya.

There are hundreds of hotels, bungalows, hostels, AirBNB’s and guesthouses to choose from in Ubud, which can be a bit overwhelming. We pored over accommodations until we discovered Bisma Jaya on AirBNB, a relatively new guesthouse that was almost too-good-to-be-true affordable, with a pool, free breakfast, a secluded, jungle feeling yet within walking distance to all the city has to offer. Most notably, it’s just a 10-minute walk to Ubud’s Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary, one of our main draws to the city.

We stayed at Bisma Jaya for about a week and loved it. We were lucky to have the guesthouse almost entirely to ourselves and enjoyed spending hours every day writing and playing music on our balcony overlooking the lush gardens backed into thick jungle. The location was even better than expected, truly tucked away from the hustle and bustle, yet right in the center of it.

Good to Know: After booking our stay we received a message from the owner through AirBNB saying she couldn’t accept payments through the site, and asked us to cancel our reservation. Through a series of messages our stay was guaranteed and we arranged to pay in cash on arrival. We were a bit nervous about the potential for misunderstanding, but our fears quickly dissipated when we met the friendly guesthouse manager, Made. However, to avoid this confusion, we recommend sending the guesthouse a direct message through Facebook to book a room.

 

Ubud’s Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary

The Monkey Sanctuary is home to 600 feisty Balinese monkeys, also known as long-tailed macaques. This sacred swath of forest is protected by a local village, features several ancient and active temples, and fantastical sculptures. It was so much fun to coexist with the monkeys for a few hours in their surreal surroundings. Read more about our visit to the Monkey Sanctuary here.

Tegallalang Rice Terraces

A 25-minute drive outside the city lies a Unesco World Heritage site: the lush and storied rice terraces of Tegallalang. Like the Sacred Monkey Forest, this is a busy tourist attraction, but large enough to find solitude. We felt transported to another place and time as we strolled through an intersecting maze of picturesque and tranquil rice paddies where a traditional form of agriculture has remained intact for over 1,000 years. After wandering up and down this vibrant valley we made our way to one of the many restaurants overlooking the terraces to sip on fresh lime infused coconuts before catching a cab back to our hotel. We enjoyed a pleasant ride through the rural outskirts of the city passing farms, temples and villages. Take a look at our article on what it’s like to visit Tegallalang.

  

See a Kecak Fire Dance

The modern Kecak Fire Dance has evolved from traditional trance rituals that feature an acapella male chorus. The dance was adapted in the 1930s by German artist Walter Spies, who was living in Bali at the time. Spies tailored the Kecak Dance to Ramayana, a Hindu epic poem that depicts the struggle of a divine prince rescuing his wife from a demon king. Kecak itself has been historically performed by groups of 150 or more men wearing traditional checkered Balinese sarongs repeatedly chanting ‘cak’ while carrying out a synchronized dance. It has roots in an exorcism trance-inducing dance called sanghyang. The first women’s kecak group began in 2006.

The dance is performed at temples throughout the city every week. You can even see it at the old palace downtown. We caught one at a nearby temple and were blown away by the hypnotic acapella paired with the fluidly orchestrated dance. The costumes were also original, depicting larger than life characters like a white monkey king. And of course, the finale in which one of the dancer’s kicks flaming coconut shells toward the audience was a thrill all its own. We highly recommend checking out this one-of-a-kind, affordable cultural experience.

  

More Local Jams

Below are a few extra tips to guide you through this electrifying city.

  • Yoga, Yoga, Yoga – Ubud is a yogi haven with an abundance of styles, studios and retreats to choose from. Way too many to count, with more are cropping up all the time. For a recent review of the city’s myriad of yoga studios check out this list by the Never Ending Voyage.

  • Green School Bali – Ubud’s Green School is a non-profit, K-12 private and international school focused on sustainability from its curriculum to the physical space. Travelers can make an appointment to tour the school and even apply to volunteer.

  • Hubud – There’s a ton of innovation happening in Ubud, which draws digital nomads from all over the world. Across the street from the Monkey Sanctuary, Hubud is a busy co-working space that’s open 24-hours and fully equipped for getting work done, including access to printers, meeting space, private rooms, a small kitchen, café, and a lovely green patio. Take a peak at their promo video for a look inside.

  • Kopernik – We sat down with Kopernik’s Chief Strategy Officer to learn about what this non-profit is doing to improve the lives of people in poverty. With products ranging from solar lights, to eco-friendly stoves, and water purification systems, Kopernik is helping people in the most remote regions of the planet through technologies that focus on energy, water, sanitation, agriculture, fisheries, health, education and women’s economic empowerment. Check out their work to learn about all the people they’ve reached. If you’re looking for even more inspiration, this video is for you.

  • Atman Kafé – Absolutely, one of our favorite restaurants in Bali! With careful attention to clean, healthy, delicious food, Atman Kafe's enormous menu is filled with organic, vegetarian, vegan, and gluten free goodies (they have meat, too). In Hindu philosophy, Atman means inner self or soul, and is defined as the spiritual life principle of the universe. True to it’s name, Atman Kafé definitely felt like it was on another level of awareness. We adored the watermelon salad, falafel beet balls, decadent smoothies and butter coffee.

  • Hike Mt. Batur – Mount Batur is an active volcano an hour and twenty minutes north of Ubud that’s famed for sunrise hikes.

 

Reality Check: Avoiding ‘Bali Belly’

What sounds kind of cute is actually an unpleasant right of passage many travelers endure in foreign lands, the dreaded stomach bug. A simple rule: don’t eat raw fruit or veggies washed in unfiltered water. We made a point of eating at health centric restaurants that boasted washing their salad greens in purified water, but the slightest slip up can really cost you! Takesumi activated bamboo charcoal and clay tablets work wonders for both avoiding and treating the symptoms. We cannot recommend these natural remedies enough. They were so effective we never had to use the heavy pills we brought along “just in case.”

  

Enjoy Your Visit!

It seems there’s something for everyone in Ubud, from the gorgeous rice terraces of Tegallalang, to taking in a fire dance, walking with primates in the Sacred Monkey Forest, or discovering the plethora of shops, restaurants, yoga studios and co-working spaces that make this city so exciting to explore.

Living With Wolves: A Day in the Life at Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary

Shaggy Pack of the greater "Westeros Pack" at Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary.

From Left: Shaggydog, Jon Snow, Shae and Summer. 

We spent two beautiful years living and working at Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary (WSWS), a wildlife sanctuary in rural New Mexico that rescues wolves, wolf-dogs, coyotes, Australian Dingoes, New Guinea Singing Dogs and foxes from the exotic pet trade. With a mission of rescue, lifetime sanctuary, and education, WSWS is open to the public, accepts short and long-term volunteers, and is run by a small group of dedicated staff and volunteers mostly living on site and off-grid in the high desert mountains at 7,500 feet above sea level. The sanctuary is open to visitors all year round and sees thousands of international guests annually.

This post describes a day in the life at Wild Spirit for a staff member (though most of the activities are done by long-term volunteers as well).

 

Dawn

Dawn from our cabin.

  • Waking to the howls of the wolf pack and wild coyotes singing to the sunrise is a refreshing way to begin each day.

 

Morning Rounds (Part I)

Chadley making "med-balls" as part of Morning Rounds.

  • Each day, a different staff member or volunteer is assigned to Morning Rounds and Guard Duty, tasks that open and close the sanctuary for the day, while ensuring the safety and well-being of each rescue. The assigned person heads to Wolf Kitchen an hour before the work day begins to make supplement and medication meatballs, check on the rescues, and distribute meds as needed.

 

Animal Care

Above: Program Director Nikki with Lucian. Below (L to R): Our friend Silvana, visiting from LA, filling up Dakota's water bucket. Chadley taking care of Nakota and Silva.

  • Almost everyone starts their day at the sanctuary performing "Animal Care" (which is arguably the best part of the day). Each morning, staff and volunteers care for the animals in their assigned habitats, which are chosen based on each personnel's level of experience, their personality, and the personality of each rescue. Depending on the number of staff and volunteers, this can be 2 – 8 habitats per person. Animal Care consists of socializing with animals, cleaning water buckets, filling waters, and clearing habitats of waste and debris. It is important to note that only some of the rescues enjoy human interaction, and certainly not all. Socialization is never forced on any rescue, and is dictated by each rescue with each caretaker. Some animals are off-limits to the touch out of safety measures and respect for the given rescue.

 

Clockwise from Top Left: Nikki with Contessa, Chadley with Romeo, Chadley walking Lucian (on Lucian's birthday), Nikki with Riot & Cinder.

 

Enrichment

Above: Nimoy with his "present toss." Below (L to R): Contessa out on a walk visiting her friends Rae, Nikki, Stefanie, Kailyn and Matt. Riot and Cinder scent rolling on bug spray.

  • For some animals, social time with humans can be enrichment enough, but other special enrichments to keep rescues fit and stimulated include treats, meaty bones, going for walks, interesting scents to smell and roll in, and toys like boomer balls or even stuffed animals (only approved for some).

 

Feeding

Above: Forest Pack and Powder Pack sharing elk. Below (L to R): Nikki feeding Maki. Feeding Tour guests with Teton & Shasta.

  • To replicate a natural diet, Wild Spirit’s rescues eat 5 days a week, fasting on Mondays and Thursdays. This is because wild canines do not eat every day in the wild, but only when they catch food. On feeding days, most rescues receive frozen food such us meat loaf bricks of 2 - 5 lbs each, frozen chicken (pieces or whole) and other delicacies like elk heads and organs. Sometimes entire carcasses are given to larger packs. Those with very special diets receive an individually prepared meal just for them (typically limited to the very elderly and/or rescues with serious health conditions). The Sanctuary's smaller canine rescues; like foxes, Singing Dogs, Coyotes and Dingoes each have specific diets tailored to their particular nutritional needs.

 

Clean Up

Our cousin Eric, visiting from NJ, washing food buckets after a Feeding Tour. Thanks, Eric!

  • After "Animal Care" time, each person cleans the kitchenware and buckets he or she used for food and waste throughout the morning.

 

Morning Rounds (Part 2)

Wild Spirit's courtyard, where guests gather before a tour.

  • The person who did the first part of Morning Rounds checks the sanctuary after feeding, makes sure all rescues are alive and well, have plenty of water, that habitats are locked and secured, and the tour path is presentable for guests.

 

  • After animal care, the rest of the day is filled with various projects done individually or in teams. With a small group of staff and volunteers, most have a hand in almost every aspect of sanctuary operations.

L to R: Tina and Courtney walking Australian Dingoes Glacier and Kooyong.

 

Head to the Office

Event Coordinator Chadley swamped with phone calls in the office.

  • For the office contingent, there’s always plenty to do. Answering inquiries, fundraising, scheduling animal rescues, guest activities and overnight stays, vet visits, outreach events and tours, project planning, volunteer management, and more.

 

Log Animal Observations

Assistant Director Crystal Castellanos taking care of Shaggydog in the Animal Care Office after one of his back legs was amputated.

  • Staff and volunteers are vigilant about reporting animal observations such as strange behaviors, sudden changes in mood or disposition and eating and digestive habits, pack dynamics, injuries, and anything else out of the ordinary. After animal care, observations are documented in a detailed log.

 

Go to the Vet or an Outreach Event

Above: Nimoy waiting to be seen at the eye doctor. Below (Clockwise from top Left): Flurry ready for his eye surgery.Thunder trying to escape his vet appointment. Board Member Jan with Storm at the New Mexico State Fair. Executive Director Leyton Cougar delivering a presentation with Flurry at the Jean Cocteau Theatre in Santa Fe.

  • While these activities don’t happen everyday, staff and volunteers do take rescues off property from time to time. Rescues go to the veterinarian for anything from routine check ups to treating illnesses and sudden emergencies. Going to the vet can happen anytime, but most visits are pre-scheduled. With about 70 rescues, WSWS averages $10,000 a year in vet bills, and sometimes more.

 

  • Wild Spirit takes it’s "Ambassador Wolves" on a few outreach events per year to share the sanctuary’s mission, teach people that wolves are not pets, but also not the big bad wolf we hear about in Little Red Riding Hood, and to explain the wolf’s role in nature, and why it is critical they remain protected. Venues include libraries, theatres, schools and wildlife centers.

 

Rescue an Animal

Above: Rescued wolf-dog pup Quinn relaxing. Below (L to R): Rescued wolf-dog pups Leia & Quinn playing. A coyote pup being transported to another sanctuary by Executive Director Leyton Cougar.

  • Wild Spirit’s Director, Leyton Cougar, has traveled all over the U.S. to rescue wolves, wolf-dogs, and other wild canines in need. The sanctuary is near capacity most of the time, but openings occur, enabling the sanctuary to save a life. Even when Wild Spirit doesn’t have space, staff will do what they can to find placement for an animal, and occasionally even provide transport.

 

Meat Separation

L to R: Robert, Megan, Mike and Paul unloading wolf food after a"meat run." Clarissa working on meat separation.

  • Wolves are carnivores and need a steady diet of meat to stay healthy. WSWS has several community partners who donate meat to the sanctuary such as butchers, community pantries, and individuals. Staff and volunteers separate good meat from bad and prepare food for each animal several times a week.

 

Give a Tour

Romeo visiting the crowd during Courtney's tour.

  • The sanctuary offers several guided tours per day to the public. Staff and volunteers escort groups as small as 1 person to classes of 50 school children through the tour path describing the sanctuary’s mission, relaying each rescue’s individual story, and providing facts about wolves and other wild canines. Careful attention is given to describe the differences between wolves, wolf-dogs, and dogs, and why wolves and wolf-dogs are not pets.

 

Work in the Gift Shop

L to R: Kendra, Patricia, Jenna, Megan and Meg modeling new Wild Spirit sweatshirts outside of the gift shop. 

  • The Gift Shop Gals greet guests, answer phones, stoke the fire, tidy up, and sell wolf merch.

 

Do Some Maintenance

Above: Casey teaching Courtney how to use the trencher. Below (L to R): Girl Scout volunteers clearing brush. Nikki on the John Deere.

  • The sanctuary is growing all the time, which keeps everyone quite busy. Maintenance projects can be anything from building a new habitat to weeding, updating volunteer housing, working on the rental cabins, and other habitat improvements.

 

Be Thankful

Above: Chadley, Eric, Sumitra, Amy, Eva, Paul and Mo happily pose to thank a donor for her generous gift of a shiny new Wolf Kitchen refrigerator. Below (L to R): Jaeger resting on Nikki's shoulder after scent-rolling on her head. Chadley and Contessa saying a happy hello.

  • Sanctuary life can be hectic with a never-ending workload and new challenges arising all the time. Taking time for gratitude is essential. Whether that’s a quiet moment to walk the tour path, visit a friend (human or animal), have a hug, tell someone you love them, thank a donor or a guest, or just enjoy the fresh mountain air and the sounds of raw beautiful nature, those small moments of giving thanks for the opportunity to support the wolves helps staff and volunteers recharge.

 

Private Tours

Above: Friend of the sanctuary, Shirl, with Storm. Below (L to R): Guests from South Africa with Dakota. A guest with Nimoy.

  • The sanctuary provides some Private Tours that enable guests to visit specific habitats with staff members for fantastic photo opportunities, and simply the chance to be in the powerful presence of a wolf.

 

Attend the Daily Animal Care Meeting

The Animal Care chore board is set with the week's tasks.

  • When the day is through, animal care staff and volunteers gather back in Wolf Kitchen to discuss any concerns that arose during the day, and to review the following day’s schedule.

 

Guard Duty

Clarissa distributing "med-balls."

  • An hour before sunset, the person who did Morning Rounds returns to Wolf Kitchen to make the evening’s “med-balls,” distribute medications and supplements as needed, check on all residents before nightfall, and ensure all gates are locked and secured.

 

Dusk

An evening hike in the neighborhood with our dog Ziggy.

  • It's easy to enjoy the magical New Mexican sunsets, ravens flying to their roosts, and the sounds of wolves and coyotes singing the closing of another day as you eat a nutritious meal, connect with friends, and head to bed early to wake up refreshed and ready for another day with wolves!

 

Arctic Wolf, Powder, on the prowl.

  • Learn more about Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary, visiting, and volunteering here.

 

SNAPSHOTS

Clockwise from top left: Chadley with Quinn, Nikki with Cheyenne, Nikki with Sugar howling, Chadley with Jaeger, Chadley walking Lucian, Nikki with Nimoy, Nikki walking Dakota (photo by Paul Koch), Chadley photographing Jaeger, Clarissa and Courtney making med-balls, Mo doing at "ATV feed," Crystal and Forest greeting a student group tour, Eva feeding Brutus, Raven in flight, and Chadley with a baby lamb.

What’s In the Water?

Our Global Waste Problem

& What We Can Do About It

A trash pile on the shore of Balangan Beach in Bali, Indonesia. Heaps like this are burned routinely as one of the most common forms of waste management on the island.

A trash pile on the shore of Balangan Beach in Bali, Indonesia. Heaps like this are burned routinely as one of the most common forms of waste management on the island.

It’s awesome to see that this year’s Earth Day was all about plastic pollution awareness, microplastics, ocean degradation and waste management issues. We encountered this problem daily while traveling through Southeast Asia in 2017, and it was eye opening. What struck us most – outside of the kind people we met, the gorgeous scenery, warm cultures and inspiring relics we had the fortune to explore – was litter, practically everywhere, and namely: plastic.

We first encountered the monster in Bali. It was my birthday. We had just landed 24 hours prior after flying across the world from Boston to Denpasar, surviving a harrowing lightning storm and the joys of three consecutive flights. We rested up and set off to spend our first day exploring the Island of the Gods. Months earlier, I had declared to my husband that all I wanted to do on my birthday was swim in the Indian Ocean, and I had been imagining the moment ever since. So, we set out to make that happen.

Denpasar is the main international airport in Bali, and a stone’s throw from the famed surf haven, Kuta Beach. We left our hotel and strolled through the busy downtown, past store after store brimming with cheap boardwalk style souvenirs. We’d read ahead of time that Kuta is known as a westernized party town, but also learning that it’s a surfer’s paradise, we planned to spend a few days there before heading off to quiet Canggu. We’d also read that travelers to Kuta have a reputation for being a bit “trashy,” but what was really trashed, it turned out, was the beach!

We got to Bali during rainy season (we arrived in January – the wet season is October - April), which partially accounts for the exorbitant amount of waste we discovered scattered across the beach as far as you could see. The sand was littered top to bottom with all manner of garbage: straws, plastic bags, flip flops, food wrappers, bottles, cups, broken glass, beer bottles, and plenty of other unidentifiable debris. We were more than a little grossed out, but still determined to take a dip in the ocean. It turned out that meant swimming through a sea of garbage. All the same types of waste found on the beach, and more, floated by, swirled around, and flowed in and out on every wave making it actually impossible to be in the water without having trash touching some part of our bodies.

Beach goers wade past mounds of trash after a beach clean up in Kuta, Bali, to enjoy some of the island's best surf. During the rainy season, garbage washes ashore in Bali after it's swept in from other nearby islands. Beach litter is further compounded by the island's waste problem, in which garbage is frequently left on roadsides near waterways, eventually seeping into rivers and streams that lead to the sea.

Beach goers wade past mounds of trash after a beach clean up in Kuta, Bali, to enjoy some of the island's best surf. During the rainy season, garbage washes ashore in Bali after it's swept in from other nearby islands. Beach litter is further compounded by the island's waste problem, in which garbage is frequently left on roadsides near waterways, eventually seeping into rivers and streams that lead to the sea.

We didn’t last very long, and struggled with seeing other beach goers playing Frisbee, swimming and surfing as if nothing was wrong.

How could we let this become the new normal?

We all knew that trash on the beach wasn't dumped there by some malicious company, or left behind by any one person or elusive malcontent. It couldn't possibly. So, that meant it wasn’t really anyone’s trash, but it was everyone’s. Ultimately, we couldn't pretend we weren’t swimming through the contents of a trash bag, and exited the ocean dejected, near tears.

We walked a little further down the beach, but just seeing more of the same, headed back to our hotel disgusted, disturbed and heartbroken by what we'd seen washing in and out of shore.

That night and the months that followed we poured over stats on ocean pollution, litter, and waste management programs in Southeast Asia. What we discovered both through our experience and research was that organized waste management and recycling programs were sorely lacking in the region. Not coincidentally, a 2015 report from the Ocean Conservancy found that China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand are the five countries responsible for half of all plastic leaked into the ocean globally.

An insightful mural at Old Man's in Canggu, Bali.

An insightful mural at Old Man's in Canggu, Bali.

Our research also confirmed resoundingly that throwaway plastics are a serious problem. The type of trash we saw most often from the beaches of Bali, Indonesia, and Borneo, Malaysia, to the streets of Siem Reap, Cambodia, and Phuket, Thailand, was food packaging waste: candy wrappers, straws, chip bags, bottles, drink pouches, and so on. They were everywhere.

These flimsy pieces of plastic aluminum composites are some of the most difficult to recycle because there is little market for their reuse. There are innovative companies out there like Terracycle who collect these items and turn them into new products, but these types of solutions are not yet the norm, and in some cases it can still cost the consumer to recycle, making these services inaccessible to those with lower incomes.

Hard to recycle plastics aside, we learned that recycling programs in high volume, tourist heavy regions of Southeast Asia are few and far between. Further research revealed that developing countries often lack the resources and infrastructure to provide widespread waste disposal services in general, which has in turn led to a lack of local knowledge on how to recycle properly.

As a result, in many parts of the developing world trash is either left on the side of the road in open basins or in plastic bags that are shredded by dogs, cats, monitor lizards and other hungry critters prior to collection, dropped into waterways, brought to illegal dumps, littered, or burned. Burning garbage as a way to eliminate it was the most frequent disposal method we saw. Families, farmers, and business owners alike all practiced it. The smell of burning plastic was a constant and familiar scent throughout our travels across the region. That smell hurts on so many levels and definitely isn’t good for you.

Trash awaiting collection on the side of the road in Bali is perched precariously beside a water run off that leads directly to the Indian Ocean.

Trash awaiting collection on the side of the road in Bali is perched precariously beside a water run off that leads directly to the Indian Ocean.

While these disposal methods would still pose environmental problems even if most of our waste were biodegradable, the majority of trash is inorganic. Plastic can take 400 years to decompose, and burning plastic mixed with household trash releases harmful gases such as dioxin and furan that are highly toxic to humans.

All this said, we see a clear and positive shift in recent times where more people the world over  are tackling this harrowing issue; from articles in the mainstream media to viral videos revealing the plastic epidemic and it’s toll on our oceans. In 2018, we know that ocean pollution is the result of our global failure to effectively dispose of waste, and with that realization we also have the opportunity to make lasting and powerful changes. 

Of course, in the areas most affected, people have been combatting pollution for years. Today, it seems these issues and the organizations fighting to alleviate them are finally getting the attention they deserve.

It turned out the trash heap we discovered in Kuta isn’t necessarily the norm year round, but is commonly found during the rainy season when waste left on roadsides is swept into rivers that flow out to sea where it mingles with garbage that washes up from nearby countries and islands. In response to these widespread issues, many organizations are dedicated to reclaiming Bali’s beaches, improving waste disposal services, and educating locals on how they can help. The country has even introduced a plastic bag ban beginning this year.

When we returned to Kuta three weeks later, we headed back to the beach with the intention of documenting what we saw there in January. To our great surprise, there had been a massive beach cleanup. Instead of trash littered across the sand and waves, we saw huge piles of neatly collected garbage lined up and down the beach, awaiting disposal.

It was an incredible feeling to know that all that garbage was once floating freely in the Indian Ocean, and heartening to realize that with awareness and passion, a positive impact can be made.

We feel that if we are to improve the situation, it’s important to know the facts so that we can take responsibility for our actions. In the spirit of Know Stone Unturned, the remainder of this article explores some of the data we collected through our research on this topic, and offers a list of 10 easy ways you can combat plastic pollution with every day choices.

Care for a swim? One rubbish pile among dozens lining Kuta Beach after a massive clean up in February 2017.

Care for a swim? One rubbish pile among dozens lining Kuta Beach after a massive clean up in February 2017.

THE STATS: THE PROBLEM WITH PLASTIC

  • The adult human body is composed of 60% water. Without it, the average person will die in just 3-4 days. Yet, 1 in 9 people around the world lack access to safe drinking water, while 1.8 billion people drink water contaminated with feces.
  • The World Health Organization estimates that half of the world’s population will be living in water stressed areas by 2025.
  • For millions of people around the world, the solution to unsafe drinking water is the plastic bottle. Even in regions with access to potable tap water, consuming bottled beverages, usually out of convenience, has become the norm. But our global addiction to ready-made and ‘disposable’ goods is only serving to further foul our waterways.
  • Ironically, producing a bottle of water takes about 6 times the amount of water contained by the end product.
  • In the U.S. alone, the production of water bottles uses 17 million barrels of oil every year. Billions of those bottles then go un-recycled. In fact, 20 billion plastic water bottles wind up in landfills or are incinerated annually.
  • While much of the global waste problem lies in the lack of waste and recycling services in developing countries, developed nations like the United States have just as poor a recycling record. It’s no secret that the U.S. is the biggest producer of waste worldwide. Americans generate nearly 625,000 tons of waste per day, yet our recycling rate is only 35%
  • Even more critical than the lack of services and the dominance of throwaway culture, is our broad disconnection from water consumption and waste production. Water coming out of the tap feels infinite, while trash picked up curbside seems like it’s got a place to go that we never need to think about. Of course, that’s just not true. For all the water on earth, 97% is contained in our oceans, leaving only 3% to fresh water sources (much of which remains in the polar ice caps). And while the oceans absorb about 40% of CO2 emissions, marine plants produce 70% of our oxygen.
  • Life on earth is in many ways sustained by the ocean. We now have eight million tons of plastic finding its way there annually, and that number is increasing.
  • It’s estimated that by 2025 the ocean may contain 1 ton of plastic for every 3 tons of fish, and that by 2050 we can expect more plastic than fish swimming in the ocean. That’s thanks to the nearly 300 million tons of plastic produced each year, 50% of which is produced for single use.
  • Ready for this: more plastic was produced in the last decade than over the course of the last century.
  • Once out at sea, plastic pollution causes serious harm to marine life and birds that either get caught in webs of trash or ingest plastic thinking its food.
  • While it takes hundreds of years to decompose in water, releasing toxic chemicals in the process, plastic breaks down into small pieces called microplastics that are commonly ingested and absorbed by fish, whales, birds, mussels, sea turtles, and many other walks of marine life. Although some species of fish can expel microplastics, most marine animals cannot. For them, ingesting plastics causes a false feeling of being full, which is often fatal.
  • Like eating seafood? You might want to know that every year fish in the North Pacific Ocean ingest 12,000 – 24,000 tons of plastic.
  • As the chemicals found in plastics and metals move up the food chain, they eventually surface in the grocery store, at restaurants, and ultimately on our plates.
  • At this point, the long-standing effects of ingesting microplastics and the chemicals they release are unknown. What we do know is that what affects one area of the food chain affects the entire food chain, and humans are at the top.
 

MAKING A DIFFERENCE: WHAT WE CAN DO TO REDUCE PLASTIC POLLUTION

Water, like air, is constantly cycling. It doesn’t belong to any one person, company, country or town, but to us all. In the same way that water belongs to all of us, so does water pollution. Luckily, everyone can reduce his or her plastic consumption by consciously using less plastic. It’s that simple!

Below are 10 tips on making the switch.

Disclosure: Some of the links below are affiliate links, meaning we may earn a small commission if you make a purchase from this website, helping to support our work at no additional cost to you. We only link to products that we believe in, and truthfully review all products we’ve used.

Klean Kanteen Bottles

1. Say No to Plastic Bottles

The average American uses 173 plastic water bottles each year, but you can avoid this with a reusable canteen. Insulated bottles like Klean Kanteens keep drinks icy cold or toasty warm for hours. The stainless steel interior is easy to clean, too, so you can use it for a variety of beverages. We've had ours for several years, and you can see that they have held up and are well loved.

Photo by PhotoDreamWorldArt

2. Bye, Bye Plastic Bags

Did you know that 100 million plastic bags are used every minute, but usually for only 15 minutes before they’re tossed? There are so many reusable bags out there to help curb the waste. We love those that fit easily in your purse, backpack, or pocket, like Baggu. Their design minimizes fabric waste, and can be shipped back to the company for recycling at the end of their lives.

Home Made Produce and Bulk Food Bags

3. Ditch Plastic Produce Bags

Go the extra mile by foregoing plastic produce bags found at most grocery stores. Check out Life Without Plastic’s food bags for bread, produce, rice, etc. They even have one for your sandwich! I started making my own produce bags out of excess fabric, old shirts, etc. You don’t need a sewing machine for this fun project and they’re a great gift to give, too!

Plastic Drinking Straws and Cups

4. Avoid Plastic Drinking Straws

500 million one-time use plastic straws are thrown away every day in the U.S. You can combat this by choosing a re-useable option when you need one, and letting restaurant staff know you don’t require a straw with your drink. Durable metal straws are a great fit for individuals and restaurants.

Reusable Mugs

5. Opt for a Reusable Mug

Bring a reusable mug to your favorite coffee shop. Often times, brewers give discounts for bringing your own cup! It's easy to find reusable coffee mugs these days, which is great. Klean Kanteen has a good option here as well, including a coffee style lid. If you’re not in the market for another canteen, a re-usable mason jar lid works, too.

 

Abeego Plastic Free Food Wrapper

6. Switch to Plastic-Free Food Storage

Plastic food containers are unhealthy for the environment and humans, too. Research continues to show that chemicals in plastic food containers can leach into food, especially when heated, and have been linked to hormone disorders, diseases and even cancer. Life Without Plastic’s online store is a great resource for food storage containers. We’re obsessed with their plastic free food wraps: pliable, compostable, beeswax wrappers that replace wasteful plastic wrap.

Microbeads Flushed Down the Drain

7. Cut Out Microbeads

Microbeads are non-biodegradable microplastics found frequently in personal care products ranging from toothpaste to face cleansers. Sewage systems are unable to filter them, which means they ultimately wash into our oceans where they become unrecoverable and are often absorbed by marine life. Beat The Microbead lists the products that do and don’t contain them.

Plastic Food Packaging

8. Avoid Packaged Foods

When you need a snack on the go, opt for munchies that aren't pre-wrapped in plastic. (A challenge, we know!) Generally speaking, non-packaged foods are healthier for you, anyway. So this is ultimately a win-win.

I'm A Trash Hero

9. Talk About It

Talking about these issues and sharing the facts is critical to making change. Make a post on social media, tell your loved ones why you recycle, show off your reusable bags at the grocery store. All these things get people thinking, and when it comes to sustainability, awareness is key. Spread the love through the word.

Reduce Reuse Recycle

10. Last But Not Least...

 

 

REDUCE, REUSE, RECYCLE...with Reduce being the key word! Encourage others to do the same, from friends and family, to your workplace, apartment complex, town, and local school system.

CONCLUSIONS

Eckhart Tolle, author of The Power of Now and A New Earth said it best when he explained,

“The pollution of the planet is only an outward reflection of an inner psychic pollution:

millions of unconscious individuals not taking responsibility for their inner space.”

These words truly speak to the essence of global pollution. If we want to remain a healthy species, care for our world, and offer future generations the beautiful earth we enjoy today, we must become conscious consumers. If shortsightedness is the greatest challenge of our times, then we need to start playing the long game. Change will not arrive by someone else’s doing, but from our own.

The tail of a humpback whale and accompanying spray off of Boston Harbor in New England.

The tail of a humpback whale and accompanying spray off of Boston Harbor in New England.

Visiting: The Tegalalang Rice Terrace in Ubud, Bali

Indonesia

Tegalalang is a dreamy delight. Just 25 minutes outside of busy Ubud, emerald rice fields cascade from parallel slopes into a lush, rich valley, transporting visitors back in time. The pace of life slows down here once you dip off the main road that overlooks the terraces, which comes well stocked with taxis, tour buses, restaurants and shops.

With your back to the modern age, the countryside feels vibrant and alive in a place where man’s relationship with the land is the same today as it was over 1,000 years ago. The gentle flow of the subak, a traditional Balinese irrigation system, provides a soothing backdrop of trickling and bubbling that blends into the ethereal and picturesque landscape, providing a serene experience to its visitors.

 

The Subak System

Subak Tegallang Rice Terrace Ubud Bali

Tegalalang relies on subak, an irrigation system built on Tri Hita Karana, a Hindu philosophy focusing on how humans can maintain a harmonious relationship between themselves and fellow man, their environment, and spirituality in daily life.

The subak system of cooperative water management obtained through the use of canals, tunnels and weirs is a cultural landscape consisting of five rice terraces and their associated water temples spread across 49,000 acres. The system, which comprises egalitarian and democratic farming practices, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that dates back to the 9th century. Not only does it support a dense population, subak is so effective that it makes the Balinese the most successful rice growers in Indonesia.

 

Getting There

Tegallalang Rice Terrace Ubud Bali

From the center of Ubud, traveling to Tegalalang should take 20-30 minutes, depending on traffic. If your driver knows the scenic route through the farm country it will mean a shorter and much for pleasant ride for you.

Uber is available in Bali for a much cheaper rate than the typical taxi fare, but like anywhere where Uber is transforming the marketplace, taxi drivers abhor it. If you choose this option, note that your driver will want you to be as discreet as possible so as not to draw the cabbies’ ire. We booked our driver from a restaurant and waited inside until he was about to arrive. With Uber, we paid about $3 to get to Tegalalang, and double that on the way back to our hotel by taxi.

 

Entrance Fees

Bamboo Bridge Tegallang Rice Terrace Ubud Bali

There’s no entrance fee to Tegalalang, but you will be expected to pay a donation of a few thousand Indonesian Rupiah at various check points manned by local farmers across the terraces in order to continue on your journey. This is to help support the system, upkeep bridges, and so forth. We saw a few travelers putting up a fight about the small fees, but to put it in perspective, 10,000 Rupiah is less than one U.S. dollar. Considering the amazing work being done and how much foot traffic Tegalalang absorbs per day, this is a small price to pay. (Note that you’ll only be asked to pay on your way up and across the terraces, not on your way down.) We spent several hours exploring Tegalalang and only paid twice.

 

Fees for Photos

Love Bali Sign Tegallalang Rice Terrace Ubud Bali

You may encounter farmers offering to pose with you while balancing their rice basket on your back, or to take your photo at the ‘I Love Bali’ sign in exchange for a tip. In general, we’ve found that any local who offers to take your photo at a tourist attraction – even if they're a police officer or a park ranger – will expect money in return. Remember that you are visiting a developing country in which many locals are struggling financially, and especially those in rural areas. If you can shell out an extra dollar in exchange for that special photo, don’t feel bashful about it. Go ahead! At the same time, if that’s not in your budget, it’s lousy to feel like you’ve been duped by what seemed like someone’s kind gesture. Having this in the back of your mind can help you make a fast decision in those moments when you may feel pressured by locals and uncertain of what to do. Simply put, if you don’t want to pay, kindly decline the offer.

 

Exploring & Capturing This Inspiring Landscape

Balance Tegallalang Rice Terrace Ubud Bali

Expect to see hundreds of fellow tourists during your visit, potentially even arriving by the busload. But don’t fret! Patience pays whether you simply want to enjoy this magnificent and historical treasure on your own, or if you’re in search of that perfect photo without another soul in your shot. The further you explore into the paddies, the fewer tourists you’ll encounter and the more intimate an experience you’ll have the privilege to take home with you.

 

Dining

Farmer With Rice Basket Tegallang Rice Terrace Ubud Bali

After trekking up and down the terraces you’ll likely have worked up an appetite. Luckily, there are plenty of restaurants lining the hilltop above the rice fields where you can enjoy a bite or a drink with a gorgeous view. Finding the restaurants closest to the tour path to be the most crowded and expensive, we chose to wander further down the main road, and settled on the last restaurant in the row where we enjoyed good prices, free WiFi, and a relaxed environment with a splendid overlook. We highly recommend the coconuts, which come filled with ice and slices of lime. A Tegalalang specialty. Yum!

 

Making A Difference

Go Up Tegallalang Rice Terrace Ubud Bali

Your visit to Tegalalang supports hard working farmers and an ancient water management system that takes conservation seriously. You’ll leave with a new appreciation of where rice comes from, the labor that goes into growing it along with the extraordinary thought put into the subak system, and a sense of inner peace from simply being in this calming environment.

 

SNAPSHOTS