A Vegan’s Perspective of Elephant Nature Park

Molly and Dan with Medo.

Molly and Dan with Medo.

Elephant riding, tours, training, and feeding are big business in Chiang Mai, Thailand. If you are ever in Chiang Mai and consider “doing something with elephants”, please only consider Elephant Nature Park and do your research.

Elephant Nature Park is a sanctuary for retired and rescued preforming and working elephants. I learned a lot in my time there and thought I would share it with you guys so when you are in Chiang Mai you can make an educated decision on spending time with elephants in Thailand.

Elephant Nature Park doesn’t just care for their 36 elephants, they also have over 130 dogs that they care for that live on the santuary’s land.

This well-behaved guy really just wanted some people food! He is sitting on a stool!

This well-behaved guy really just wanted some people food! He is sitting on a stool!

There is also a herd of water buffalo that heard how nice it is there and took up residence.

The giant herd of water buffalo that live at Elephant Nature Park

The giant herd of water buffalo that live at Elephant Nature Park

Dan and I originally tried to volunteer for a week at the park but they were all booked up through mid-December. If you can, I highly recommend volunteering for an extended period of time. We were just day helpers and I personally felt that we were mostly visitors (and in the way of the people actually helping) and not so much helpers.

Dan cleaning Medo in the river.

Dan cleaning Medo in the river.

But to get to the important information: Asian elephants are smaller and tamer than their African cousins. In fact, if “broken”, Asian elephants can be trained to do all sorts of things for human entertainment. There are 3,000-4,000 “working” elephants in Thailand. What happens to those elephants when they can no longer work or carry tourists or paint pictures with their trunks?

That’s where Elephant Nature Park comes in. They provide a home, family, and food for “retired” elephants for the rest of their natural lives. There is no other elephant sanctuary in Thailand and there are an awful lot of working elephants. For the elephants at Elephant Nature Park, being rescued by Lek (the founder of the sanctuary) is the best possible thing that could ever happen to them. It should be noted that an elephant is worth a lot in Thailand. Obviously, elephants that cannot work are worth less, but this isn’t like a chicken that fell of the transport truck in the USA (worth nothing to the “farmer”). These horrible people who abuse the elephants still want compensation; and Lek does often pay for the elephants she rescues.

Lek and her children. The love there is palpable.

Lek and her children. The love there is palpable.

One of the things I did not know before spending time at Elephant Nature Park is that Asian elephants, after being trained, become like domestic animals. They cannot be sent back in to the wild as they no longer know how to care for themselves. This is really why Elephant Nature Park is so important! There is no where else for these beautiful creatures to go after they are no longer “useful”.

And since they are domesticated, but still huge (unlike your dog, for example) getting them to do the things you want involves bribery. Instead of punishing the elephants with bullhooks to get them to do what they want, Lek’s trainers uses bribes of the food variety. Each elephant has a trainer (mahout in Hindi) with him or her all day, and if an elephant needs to go from one end of the park to the other, for example, the mahout first tries voice commands and then if that doesn’t work: fruit.

Hungry elephants waiting for their morning fruit. Impatiently...

Hungry elephants waiting for their morning fruit. Impatiently…

Ultimately, the work that Elephant Nature Park does is vitally important as there is no where else for these elephants to go where they will be safe from harm and cared for for the rest of their 70-80 year lives.

Baby trying to steal fruit out of mom's mouth. Silly baby, you don't even have teeth yet!

Baby trying to steal fruit out of mom’s mouth. Silly baby, you don’t even have teeth yet!

My biggest problem with the sanctuary, as an ethical vegan, was that the elephants were “putting on a show” for us visitors. We fed the elephants fruits and veggies twice while we were there (in the wild their natural diet would generally consist of grasses and leaves) and got to crowed around them and take pictures with them at another point. They weren’t just left alone to be elephants. In some small way they are still working for their dinner. But things like riding the elephants is strictly forbidden at Elephant Nature Park.

And I obviously have a problem with paying for the elephants as well, as it encourages the people who use these elephants to continue, knowing that they get a reward even after their elephant can no longer work. But I don’t know how else Lek would be able to convince the “owners” to give up their old, blind, injured elephants.

A majestic elephant at Elephant Nature Park

A majestic elephant at Elephant Nature Park

Of course, it is obvious why they allow the volunteers to interact with the elephants at Elephant Nature Park. The tourists want to spend time with the elephants, not just watch them from afar, and it costs Lek $250,000 a year to run Elephant Nature Park. The money from visitors is desperately needed. So I was a bit conflicted. I know these elephants are used to spending time with humans, and they certainly were not showing any physical signs of stress, but it still felt off to me as an animal activist.

Panorama of Elephant Nature Park

Panorama of Elephant Nature Park

All of the behaviors I saw from the elephants, and their interactions with their trainers and visitors indicated to me that they are happy and well cared for. So, I am certainly not saying “don’t visit Elephant Nature Park”, I am just trying to examine all of the sides of the issue. In case you can’t tell from the pictures, we had a fantastic time with the elephants despite some hesitation. You should come to your own conclusions, but Elephant Nature Park is certainly the best option for these domesticated elephants that I know of.

Ultimately, I agree with this sign that I saw at Elephant Nature Park:

Amen.

Amen.

Naples, Italy: A vegan pizza extravaganza!

Naples, Italy is famous for one thing: Pizza. The story goes that pizza, in it’s current form, was invented in Naples and that there are only two kinds of traditional Neapolitan pizzas: Marinara and Margherita. Lucky for us vegans a true marinara pizza is just pizza dough, tomato, oregano, garlic and extra virgin olive oil. Vegan and delicious.

Our first pizza in Naples from L' Antica Pizzeria da Michele, around the corner from where we were staying!

Our first pizza in Naples from L’ Antica Pizzeria da Michele, around the corner from where we were staying!

While in Naples, Dan and I decided the only respectable thing for us to do would be to taste test as many marinara pizzas as our budget (and bellies) would allow. We were staying in the historical center of Naples and there were a bunch of “Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana” (“True Neapolitan Pizza Association”) pizzerias right near us. We made it to all three places. We even picked a favorite and headed back there for our last pizza in Naples.

First things first: There are no losers here. The worst pizza we had in Naples was pretty much the best pizza we have ever had. But everyone picks favorites, even us. And there was only one pizzeria we went back to during our 4 days in Naples. Lucky for us it was more or less around the corner from where we were staying.

L’ Antica Pizzeria da Michele is one of the oldest pizzerias in Naples. The crust is thin, but chewy with awesomely developed gluten (I feel so smart saying that!). It’s the kind of crust I always wish I was capable of making! The sauce was delicious, the garlic bits were delicious, the olive oil was delicious. In other words, so freaking good!

L' Antica Pizzeria da Michele pizza number 2! So good, we had it twice!

L’ Antica Pizzeria da Michele pizza number 2! So good, we had it twice!

The magic happening at L' Antica Pizzeria da Michele

The magic happening at L’ Antica Pizzeria da Michele

If this picture above looks vaguely familiar, it is because you have seen the movie Eat, Pray, Love. This is where Julia Roberts had her Naples pizza in the movie. There is (obviously) a picture of her with the pizzeria staff up on the wall.

 

L' Antica Pizzeria da Michele

L’ Antica Pizzeria da Michele

It should be noted that there is a huge line at this place most of the time! But no worries, the pizzas only take 3 minutes to cook in that kickass wood-burning pizza oven, so your pizza will be ready lickity split. Just be sure to say “marinara” to them very clearly! I’m going to guess most of their orders are for margherita pizzas. Oh yeah! There are only two options here, margherita or marinara. And the “maxi” size is only 5 euros! We shared a maxi marinara the two times we got pizza from here, but I have no doubt I could have eaten one all by myself!

Molly with pizza outside of La Pizzeria di Matteo

Molly with pizza outside of La Pizzeria di Matteo

Pizzeria number two of the three places we visited was La Pizzeria di Matteo. They open at 9AM so we had this pizza for breakfast. Also, di Matteo had the cheapest marinara that we tried. The pizza below was 2.50 Euros. Isn’t Italy wonderful?!

La Pizzeria di Matteo's margharita pizza

La Pizzeria di Matteo’s margharita pizza

I think I liked this sauce the best. It was the sweetest. It tasted like it had been cooked the longest, so the tomatoes sweetened the most. The crust was our least favorite, but like I said, still better than pretty much every pizza in America! Also, apparently Bill Clinton visited in 1994, and was a big fan. They have his picture on the wall. (I’m sensing a theme here…)

Pizzaria Sorbillo

Pizzaria Sorbillo

Finally, we went to Sorbillo’s for lunch one day. This place had the most American crust of the pizzas we tried. A bit fluffier than the others, so if you enjoy some extra crust this might be the place for you.

Inside the oven at Pizzaria Sorbillo. Our pizza is in there!

Inside the oven at Pizzaria Sorbillo. Our pizza is in there!

Pizzaria Sorbillo's margharita pizza in all its doughy glory

Pizzaria Sorbillo’s margharita pizza in all its doughy glory

This seemed the least traditional to me, so perhaps that’s why it wasn’t my favorite. Or maybe I just like more sauce than crust. Either way this beauty cost a mere 3 Euros.

There may be things to see and do in Naples (we even managed to see and do some things ourselves!), but with pizza this good, who cares? I recommend that everyone make a pizza pilgrimage to Naples at least once in his or her life. It is simply too tasty to miss out on. If you are ever headed to Italy via Rome, Naples is a short train ride south. You won’t be disappointed (by the pizza), I promise! Just be careful of the crazy car traffic. It’s madness down in southern Italy!

Also, be sure to check out the new page we added to the website: Molly’s Long-Term Travel Tips. This page will be updated as we travel to new destinations and learn new tricks!

The Roman Forum and the Colosseum: A Visitor’s Guide

You may have heard: Rome is filled with old things.

Pretty much every street has at least one old thing on it, and it can be hard to appreciate the old things after a while since they are everywhere! But Rome’s golden age really shines at the Roman Forum and the Colosseum. If you want to understand what Rome used to be like, those are the two places to go. And clearly I’m not the only one who thinks so. A ticket to one of these sights includes the other (12 Euro combined ticket as of November 2013). They are linked. But I’m here to tell you how to spend the least amount of money and time and get the most out of your experience. This is going to be a fun game of “learn from Molly and Dan’s mistakes!” in the order that they happened.

Things you should do:

Go to the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill (they are one big excavation site, usually just called the Roman Forum) first. Once you have your ticket you can use it later that day or even the next day for the Colosseum and skip the line there. The line to get into the Colosseum is always long, so that is a big win.

Also, take the metro line B to the Circo Massimo stop, not Colosseo, then walk up Via di San Gregorio (past the Circus Maximus, which will be on your left) and enter the Roman Forum at the entrance on your left which will likely have no line. Most people enter near the Colosseum, so going this way will save you valuable time.

Things you should NOT do:

Get the audio guide at the Roman Forum. I repeat: DO NOT get the audio guide at the Roman Forum. What a waste of 5.00 Euros that was. And I hate waste. It was so bad and made me so angry that I actually filed an official complaint (and asked for my money back, which they obviously do not do).

This dramatic picture captures our dramatic morning in the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill.

This dramatic picture captures our dramatic morning in the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill.

You are supposed to follow the little numbers they give you on the paper map to different locations, and then punch in the number into the audio guide which then tells you to look right and left, but gives you no frame of reference! I spent the entire time, when I should have been listening to what the audio was saying, trying to figure out if I was looking at the right ruined thing! What a waste. Dan and I returned it after struggling with it for almost 3 hours and then walked around and just read the posted signs and looked at our surroundings and we felt that we got a heck of a lot more out of that.

Molly with audio guide in the Roman Forum. Look how happy I am!

Molly with audio guide in the Roman Forum. Look how happy I am!

Things you should do:

Bring a set of headphones if you are there with someone. Though the audio guide royally stunk, we did manage to share (and thus only pay for) one. The audio guide has a headphone jack. Dan smartly brought his headphones. Now you don’t both have to huddle close to the audio guide and try to hear over that tour group walking by!

Read the posted signs at the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill! They are included in your ticket price and more informative than the audio guide (can you tell I didn’t like it??).

Sans-audio guide, in the Roman Forum overlooking the Colosseum.

Sans-audio guide, in the Roman Forum overlooking the Colosseum.

After you are done with the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill (or the next day), head over to the Colosseum. Now I’m going to really shock you. Go get an audio guide! The audio guide at the Colosseum is 5.50 Euros, but this time it doesn’t suck! They have posted audio guide numbers within the Colosseum and a clear route for you to take. The guide is informative without being excessive. You can feel like you got everything out of the Colosseum and audio guide and be in and out of there in an hour or so. (An hour and a half if you are there with someone like Dan, who takes a million pictures!)

Much happier Molly with the Colosseum audio guide. Learn from our mistakes!

Much happier Molly with the Colosseum audio guide. Learn from our mistakes!

So there you have it. My insider’s guide to the Roman Forum and Colosseum! Here is the abridged version: Enter at the southern-most entrance to the Palatine Hill, near the Circo Massimo metro stop. DO NOT get the audio guide at the Roman Forum, but DO get it at the Colosseum. Wander the Roman Forum first, so you can use your ticket to skip the line at the Colosseum later or the next day. Have fun!

Venice from a Vegan’s Perspective

Venice panorama taken from the back balcony of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection

Venice panorama taken from the back balcony of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection

I had been looking forward to getting Venice. The canals, the islands, the art. I’d heard so many wonderful things about it, how could I not look forward to going there?

The Grand Canal at a quiet moment

The Grand Canal at a quiet moment

Then, a day before we were to arrive in Venice I looked it up on Happy Cow (as I do for all places we are headed for. You need to know where your best options for food are located!). One vegetarian restaurant? That’s it? And it isn’t even a vegetarian restaurant, it is a health food store kind of place. (And Dan and I even stopped in there. It really isn’t particularly vegan-friendly. No vegan cheese to buy. But they did have wheat meat.)

Needless to say, my “love affair” with Venice ended before it had even started. Here are my biggest gripes with Venice:

Something is amiss here...

Something is amiss here…

#1: It is full of tourists, not Venetians. The smart Italians left Venice when the water started to rise. Due to this fact, the islands of Venice have more tourists on them than locals. And every local who does still live there is involved in the tourist industry, which leads me to…

#2: Everyone is trying to sell you something. From stupid 1 euro pig shaped sticky balls that vendors keep splatting on a piece of cardboard on the ground to stores selling the gazillion dollar brand name purses, everyone on the islands is employed to shill. As budget travelers who have no money or room for that crap, we were not amused.

#3: The water “buses” take foooooooooorrrrrrrrreeeeeeevvvvvvveeeerrrrrrrrrrr. And they are packed to the gills! All the time! Even in October. Dan and I kept remarking on how insane it must be on the boats in Venice in the summer during high tourist time if it is this crazy in October.

#4: It smells bad. Who thinks Venice is romantic? It smells like garbage! Even in October! Again, I can’t imagine how much worse it is in the summer. Those canals… They stink!

#5: Lastly, there isn’t really any vegan food. Yes, you can easily get a vegetarian pizza “senza formaggio”, but as it is Venice it will cost you twice as much as it would anywhere else in Italy.

Seeing as how I am unlikely to talk anyone out of going to Venice (since it is Venice, after all…), I will now try to be constructive and make your stay as pleasant as possible. Here are my tips to achieve that:

#1: Stay on the islands of Venice, not Venice Mestre (mainland, or “terra firma” as Dan likes to say). Yes, it will be ridiculously expensive, but it will save you a 15 minute bus ride before getting on those god-forsaken boats every day. Plus, when the Italian transit workers strike, you won’t have to worry about being able to get home at the end of the day. You’ll just walk. You would get to avoid being crushed by an oncoming mass of people all trying to stuff themselves onto the only bus for perhaps ever, due to the strike, as some people I know had to do. (Who could I be speaking of?)

#2: See the art. My absolute favorite parts of Venice were the Peggy Guggenheim Collection and the Venice Biennale. Amazing, amazing art is located on those islands. Go search it out. The art really saved our time in Venice for me.

Peggy Guggenheim Collection

Peggy Guggenheim Collection

#3: See the neighboring islands. If you are going to sit on a bus on the water forever, shouldn’t it at least be taking you somewhere awesome? Murano and Burano are the places to go. Still full of tourists, but unique and interesting in their own ways. Murano is famous for glass making. My advice before you go is to google the real Murano glass artists and visit their shops. Just to look, since everything costs more than my weekly budget, but that is where the art is. Everywhere else on the island is just peddling tchotchke, probably made in China. Also, the free glass blowing demos are actually really cool. Go to one or two. Then just wander the island and you may see some guys making glass in a workshop with their doors open because it gets hot in there. Watch that for a longer while since they are making the real thing. Not just for show. Burano is totally different with even fewer tourists. Burano is famous for lace. I am not a lace person or anything, but the craft-woman-ship is amazing. And Burano is also famous for its painted houses. Just walk around the small island marveling at the houses. And people actually live here! We saw some locals. It felt more like a real place than Venice did.

#4: Food-wise, we mostly bought veggie focaccia from the grocery store and ate that a lunch time while we were in Venice. It saved us a bundle and tasted good. But our one food recommendation while you are in Venice is Fritto & Frutta. They don’t use eggs in their batter that’s on the veggies, and they know what vegano is. Just ask for all the veggie options and you will be all set. And wash it down with a fruit smoothie. It will make the deep fried deliciousness, and the difficulties of Venice, go down much smoother.

Berlin’s Awesome Vegan Food Options

As we have mentioned before, Dan and I have mostly been using AirBnB during our European travels to find places to stay. This means that for the price of two hostel beds (usually) we can stay together in someone’s second bedroom and have access to a kitchen. This is a very good perk for budget travelers. So, following in our European footsteps we used AirBnB for our place in Berlin as well. We stayed in a great apartment with a small but adequate kitchen.

We were in Berlin for one week. We use the kitchen only once. What can I say? Berlin has too many vegan options and is just too darn affordable for these New York City vegans. In fact, we ate so much food in Berlin, I’m just going to share the highlights. (But I will not be covering the delicious Mio Matto or Voner, as Dan did such an excellent job of that the other day)

Kopps:

Kopps Vegan Restaurant

Kopps Vegan Restaurant

This is a very elegant vegan place. We had a few dishes that were good but not fantastic, but this Lentil Burger was too good to not mention.

Lentil Burger with amazing fries

Lentil Burger with amazing fries

And the fries! I have never in my life had fries that good. No idea what they do to them, but yum. Plus having fries at a vegan place is the best because they give you vegan mayo to dip them into, which is a very European (and tasty) thing to do.

Chay Viet:

They may not actually have their own website, but damn do they make amazing vegetarian Vietnamese food. We actually went back to Chay Viet later in our stay because it was so good the first time! Due to the lack of website, and thus menu, you will have to deal with vague food descriptions. Sorry! But trust that everything shown below was delicious, and they have menus in English so no need to worry about the language barrier.

Tofu and banana (?) skewers with peanut sauce

Tofu and banana (?) skewers with peanut sauce

A delicious pancake appetizer

A delicious pancake appetizer

A super tasty basil leaf appetizer

A super tasty basil leaf appetizer

Dan's rice noodle and veggies dish

Dan’s rice noodle and veggies dish

Dan's soup with fried wontons

Dan’s soup with fried wontons

My coconut curry with veggies over rice noodles

My coconut curry with veggies over rice noodles

Not pictured above (because the picture came out blurry) is the super tasty fried banana dessert over coconut sauce I shared with a lovely Berliner friend. Also not pictured (because we forgot to take one), the fantastic iced lime, soda water, and cane juice drink I got both times we went to Viet Chay!

Cookies Cream:

Hidden entrance to Cookies Cream

Hidden entrance to Cookies Cream

Yes, this place is hidden in an alley behind a hotel and impossible to find if you don’t read the fine print on your reservation. It is rare to find a vegetarian restaurant on the cutting edge, but that is what Cookies Cream is. Innovative food in a swanky atmosphere. The prices match though, so keep that in mind. Also, I wish they had more vegan options, so we could have tried more things. Something to work on, Cookies Cream. Also, these are not actual menu descriptions because to see their menu online you have to sign up for their mailing list. No thank you…

Salad with cabbage, mandarin orange slices, and chocolate shavings

Salad with cabbage, mandarin orange slices, and chocolate shavings

Amazing eggplant dish with corn sauce and green beans

Amazing eggplant dish with corn sauce and green beans

Mushroom dish, with mushroom foam, squash sauce, and some balled veggies

Mushroom dish, with mushroom foam, squash sauce, and some balled veggies

Sweet and sour cherries dessert. Amazing.

Sweet and sour cherries dessert. Amazing.

Sun Day Burgers:

Sun Day Vegan at the Mauer Park Flea Market

Sun Day Burgers at the Mauer Park Flea Market

They only sell one entree out of their little truck at the Mauer Park Flea Market (an amazing thing to visit in Berlin itself), but it is a good one: A burger which consists of a whole wheat bun, tofu steak marinated in soy sauce & ginger, lettuce, tomato, beet root, cucumber, caramelized onions, fresh coriander, sprouts and topped with a smoked chipotle chilli, mango chutney, or Thai peanut sauce. All for 4 Euro.

Dan's Sun Day Burger with peanut sauce and a healthy bite taken out of it (by Dan, of course)

Dan’s Sun Day Burger with peanut sauce and a healthy bite taken out of it (by Dan, of course)

Dan got the peanut sauce and I got the mango chutney and we both recommend what we got. The burgers weren’t really burgers, but they were epically delicious.

And, perhaps the best for last:

Sfizy Veg:

Sfizy Veg

Sfizy Veg

What is there bad to say about this place? Maybe it is inconveniently located to most everything in Berlin, but I don’t care. Get your butt over there because the food is outta this world good. No, they don’t have an English menu. Yes, the menu has about 200 items on it (really). No, you will not be able to choose and will just end up pointing at something. But don’t worry. It will be fantastic!

Giant German menu

Giant German menu

Dan's organic beer is simply called Beir. My blood orange drink.

Dan’s organic beer is simply called Bier. My blood orange drink.

Traditional bruschetta and a mushroom variety

Traditional bruschetta and a mushroom variety

My pizza with artichoke hearts, olives, and four (4!) kinds of vegan cheese

My pizza with artichoke hearts, olives, and four (4!) kinds of vegan cheese

Our awesome Berlin guide's pizza with veggie ham and four (4!) kinds of vegan cheese

Our awesome Berlin guide’s pizza with veggie ham and four (4!) kinds of vegan cheese

Dan's pizza was a green pizza: pesto, cheese, olives, tomatoes, arugula, and grated vegan parm

Dan’s pizza was a green pizza: pesto, cheese, olives, tomatoes, arugula, and grated vegan parm

Half-eaten vegan tiramisu. Too tasty to remember to take a picture of until it was half eaten.

Half-eaten vegan tiramisu. Too tasty to remember to take a picture of until it was half eaten.

In case you can’t tell, Berlin is a vegan haven where most people would least expect it: Germany. But don’t let the Germans’ love of all things wurst (braut and curry come to mind) discourage you. Germany is filled with vegans and vegetarians and Berlin is definitely a hub for amazing vegan food. So go forth and enjoy. We certainly did!