Photo by Joanna Wojcicka / Unsplash

A traveler returns to familiar places and explores new ones. Here are some of the treasures and travails

Dear Reader: I write about travel but not the way most folks do. Rather than post lookitme shots for likes, I’m usually taking pot shots at myself for what I learned the hard way while also having huge fun at my expense. That’s what being a “boundary-pusher” and “Horizon Huntress” means in my profile. Those aren’t hubris. I do my best to take what I observe and push myself towards what makes me deeply uncomfortable. It’s usually pretty messy. But therein lies the comedy, and the best lessons.

We had multiple rain showers as my driver took me for my fifth and final visit to Tiger Kingdom. I ended up with some extra time in Phuket when plans to stay beachside north of here collapsed. I figured I might as well go back to see the cheetahs again, who tend to  be more playful in the early morning.

There's playful and there's a swat. The boy I was working on, purring happily, suddenly took a whack at the side of my face. Big cats don't like being tickled, and apparently the tip of my long braid did the insult. Happily, he was simply correcting me or  I would no longer have a face. An improvement, surely, but problematic for passport identification.

Yeah, the back of my right ear is a bit messy too Julia Hubbel

There was of course blood everywhere. I didn't flinch, scream or leap up. You don't do that around huge animals or risk far more serious injury by scaring the cat. We got towels, I stemmed the bleeding and kept right on petting them. I bled, he purred, and both of us were quite fine. You don't blame the animal for being the animal. That was my error.

Lesson learned, one of many. I've reviewed this place elsewhere and another article is forthcoming. However you feel about such places you will learn far more here than some moron TV program like Tiger King. But I digress.

Let's start with the elephants. So many folks wanna come play with the elephants, especially those cute, roly-poly babies. I researched six so-called "sanctuaries." In doing so I learned a great deal. Lesson one: Most elephant facilities aren't anything even remotely resembling a retirement home or sanctuary, it's just new work to make money for very poor people whose government hasn't given them much choice.

Chances are very good that under Covid, those ellies went right back to work in the logging work from which they were "saved." Only one outfit really fit the bill, and two others did a better job than most. All are reviewed elsewhere on this site for the sake of brevity.

Two things to keep in mind about the babies: keepers have NO business removing a very young elephant from its mother as it's incredibly stressful for both. Number one. Number two: if a baby elephant absorbs enough of something like SPF off your skin with its trunk, the resulting diarrhea can kill potentially it within 24 hours.

So before you march off determined to get bombed by a baby ellie, kindly let's do our research and behave like responsible, informed tourists.

Green Elephant, in Phuket, gets a hearty big YES from me. These guys are the ones who helped me understand the real dangers to the babies, and why it's so important to sanitize ourselves before interacting with all these animals.

The good people in these business will admit that they would vastly prefer that there was no need for such places. However, domesticated ellies, tigers, all of them cannot live on their own, and there isn't enough wild for them anymore. So here we are.

This brings me to lesson two, which addresses the terms that the Thai use to describe things for tourists. Such as "resort." "Sanctuary." I could go on. Back when I came here the first time, like most newbies I took such terms for face value. The Thai people use words that sell, that the tourist wants to believe. That, sadly, is true everywhere (Ask me, I grew up in the heart of Florida's growing tourist industry).

We really have to mind our expectations. In developing countries, most governments have no safety nets for their people and nobody got stimulus checks. Assume people are scrambling after two very bleak years and will do anything to be able to feed their kids. You would, too.

This time I also headed to Chiang Rai, the rural step sister. Chiang Rai, as it turns out, is where I'd have been wise to stay longer. Not just that, after leaving Chiang Rai I found myself in a string of places I just didn't want to stay in for a variety of reasons. This brings me to my third lesson. Don't go cheap if it means you can't cancel without penalty.

This prevents the kinds of irritations and unnecessary upsets I ran into way too many times. I was vividly reminded that my style of travel has changed significantly in twelve years. I planned this trip like a first timer with so much of my time tightly controlled. Simply not who I am any more, and I chafed hard at the prison I'd put myself in.

By not trusting that I know how to pivot, I broke my break in multiple places. Funny how Covid cost so many of us in ways we didn't realize until we went back to doing what we "normally" do. That is why there is no going back; more on that in a sec.

Fourth, and this was new to me, was a translation app on my phone. Laugh at this, fine. The first time I came I spoke enough Thai to get by as long as I wasn't trying to do advanced calculus.

Okay, I lied. But I did speak basic, passable Thai. It's all gone, and the translation app saved me a great deal of time.  

It does not, however, help you with ordering food, especially via Grab. No matter what I said or did, no matter how many times I said it:


means NO CHILIES. Nada. NONE.

Telling that to people who put chilis in their baby formula  (ok I made that up) doesn't compute. I can't even handle vinegar.

It. Doesn't. Compute.

The Thai appear to like chilis in just about everything.

Speaking of being in everything, a reminder for people not familiar with the tropics: ants. I mean come on. Fifth lesson: Ants get into everything. Your food, your dentures, into your laptop, onto your face at night. If there is something they like, they will find it.

I read a review from Traveler Who Doesn't Get Out Much about how offended she was to find tiny ants in her kitchen in Kamala Beach.

Get outta here. This is the tropics. First time I was in Fiji years ago I watched people eat white bread with honey, crawling with ants. After that I didn't blink. People live with roaches, rats, mice, spiders, fleas, ticks, you name it and they can't handle ants in the tropics?

I've got a tiny spider playing hopscotch on my pillow right now. Probably hunting ants. Leave it alone.

We don't live in a hermetically-sealed world, it is full of insects. And nowhere enough anymore either. No insects, no birds, and many many many other creatures, a problem that is already widespread and getting far worse, but I digress. However, since I like to educate, if folks are so damned uncomfortable with small things that crawl, I strongly advise Dear Reader to read Ed Yong's magnificent I Contain Multitudes.  I'll stop there.

I had (still have) two medical issues. Both minor but both problematic because I leave for the airport tonight at nine, so time is of the essence. Sixth lesson: you can likely find an English-speaking provider, but just try calling in to explain your problem. Better yet, just start hitting yourself on the forehead with a Stillson wrench right now and save yourself the trouble. Front desk staff often cannot speak passable English and can often only do as trained.

You might, if you really are persistent (I am) find services (I did) but you cannot give up.  There are staff out there who can speak English and they most certainly care, but it's up to us to track them down.

Photo by Peijia Li / Unsplash

Lucky number seven: You can't go back. We say this over and over like a mantra, but when confronted with incontrovertible evidence we are still heartbroken. I visited a few places where my memories were deep. While I understood the chance I was taking, a part of me wished the wiser part of me had prevailed, and I had left those memories as they lay: precious, unfiltered, unsullied by any comparison.

Number eight: Travel like this is one fine way to determine whether or not certain countries will work for you as an ex-pat. I am in that search right now. Thailand is full-bore into attracting ex-pat dollars and the signs are all over the place. You can get a feel for the culture, the heat or lack thereof and how frustrated you can get when you can't find someone who speaks your language. The harder it is to learn, the more irritated you may well become over time, unless you can afford a full-time translator. Just wait until you need medical or legal help and all you can do is order Pad Thai.

Tim Leffel, my trusted ex-pat expert in this area, recently told me to rent for a full  year before committing to anything serious. That's solid advice. If you're looking into becoming an ex-pat sign up for his stuff. I did and I have his books. Recommended.

Pack the truly important backups, number nine. But only for stuff that really matters. Here's what I mean. I brought extra socks and extra shorts, never wore either. I did wear much the same thing every single day for a month with rare exception. I know how to wash and dry like a pro. If there's moving air, your stuff will dry. I use the air conditioner, the a/c vents, fans, anything. Hell I tried sticking a wet sock on the end of a hair dryer one time. Guess you know how that went. I wore the hell out of a few pieces of clothing like Jack Reacher and those pieces are trashed for rags.


That meant less room for real backups. My lower denture failed, in that implant-supported dentures have a very small "bumper" which keeps the denture tight against the implant. They wear out. This is routine at home. Over here it's -forgive me-pulling teeth. I have backups. I shoulda had those along. If I want to eat solid food I either have to mash it into submission and gum it, or better, wear my pink lower night guard.

Because of all the lost luggage horror stories, I'd decided not to take check in bags. I cut WAY down and still managed to bring perhaps two or three pounds of stuff I never used. Ask self: Self, which part of your life would be up the proverbial creek if something failed?

Non-working dentures qualify.

And finally number ten,  the big and final one. I noticed that I got irritated and frustrated frequently, much more than I recall the first times I was here. I also noticed a pattern. The biggest irritations happened on long, hot, transfer days, usually involving multiple forms of transportation. That's instructive.

So I dove into why, while at the same time burying myself in David Robson's wonderful The Expectation Effect.

I got the answer from both sides. When I was in transit, I felt out of control. These past two years have been all about just that: from Covid, to losing my business, multiple surgeries and as a result losing some fitness. A whole truckload of things I used to think I could count on (nope). All right, I can still count on the fitness. However. Then I over-controlled this trip. When I was in transit, the reality that I was utterly at the mercy of anything and anyone, especially the brutal heat, caused me to feel unglued. It wasn't pretty.

So one answer from that is to do it a great deal more. The only way I know how to work with something that gives me the willies is to, well, work with it.  If I can sit and quietly bleed right after a cheetah whacked me up the side of the head I can bloody well do this.

calm kitty WATCH THAT DAMNED BRAID Julia Hubbel

I won't control my circumstances but I most assuredly will learn how to better manage my reactions to them. That is part of what I lost under Covid. What a gift to see that.

But that's not the best part.

The frustration, says Robson, is the proof that we are, indeed learning. That was a revelatory statement. It nearly took my head off with its truth.

When I wrote earlier this past week about how this book proved me spectacularly wrong about some things, and it was good news, this was pretty much right at the top of the list.

In other words when I feel like my hair is on fire, that is the Universe telling me that I am learning. I can hear a few of my beloved Goddess friends laughing out loud at this one. My social media guru is going to celebrate when he sees this, given my short temper with tech.

Doesn't matter that perhaps this should have been obvious. Lately it hasn't been. We can lose our sharpness when we stop doing hard things, and start seeking more comfort. I will take a wakeup call any time, any day, any way it needs to happen.

Those are the Big Ten. Fun, funny, and some terribly important, at least to me.

And with that, with one of my two medical issues fixed (thank GOD for a chiropractor kind to come in on his day off) and a fine supply of dental adhesive- the other Plan B- I return to an America on fire, who is far more frustrated than I could ever be, who is learning, and Not. Liking. It. One. Bit.

I can relate.

Photo by jae bano on Unsplash

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