A Day with the Elephants

This was one of my favorite Thailand experiences.

I loved our visit to the Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand (WFFT) and spending the day with these gentle giants.  There are many elephant sanctuaries in Thailand that rescue elephants from captivity and care for them during the remainder of their lifetime. I picked this place because it was the closest to Bangkok – 2.5 hour drive, has a very good reputation for humane treatment of animals as well as good reviews, which I echo.

We signed up for a full day elephant experience (https://www.wfft.org/full-day-experience/) and had a private car pick us up at the hotel.

We were divided into two groups initially of about 12 each. Each group was supposed to tend to one elephant.  Gigi, our guide, a Belgian who spoke fluent English, was amazing.

 I got to walk and feed the elephant Wassana. She’s nice and easy going – leading a happy senior life here at 45, after decades of hard labor and ill- treatment by humans. But you can’t tell that from her serene attitude. She likes humans and has made formed strong bonds of friendship with other elephants at the WFFT. She snacked up THREE buckets of cut fruits as she took her afternoon walk with us. I had to jog to keep up with her walk. I, then, bathed Wasana. It took 3 of us to bathe her as she (again) snacked on more fruits. I sprayed water and the other 2 scraped the mud off her back.

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The green bucket is full of cut fruits that Wassana snacked on as she walked with us. Here you see me in front of her after I am done feeding her. I had to jog to keep up with her brisk paced walk! Those not feeding the elephant should always walk in front of her, so her peripheral vision doesn’t pick up humans which can stress her out. That is why here you see us in front of Wassana.
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I am giving Wassana her shower. The girl behind me is holding the long brush she’s about to use to scrape the mud off Wassana’s back. The blue tub in front of Wassana is full of cut watermelon and pineapples.

We fed another elephant – blanking on her name. There was also a 2.5 year old baby elephant, Pin, who was rescued along with her mom. She is very cheeky. She kept grabbing food out of her mom and “aunt’s” (other unrelated female who also cares for her) mouths!! And they affectionately put up with her. Before we interacted with the elephants, we were taught some basics of elephant body language so we are able to read if there any signs of stress.

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The cheeky two and half year old Pin, with mommy. Their snacks were wrapped in banana leaves (as shown here), so the elephants didn’t forget maneuvering with their trunks to retrieve the food, like they do in the wild.
“How do you like my nose ring?? I made it  during my bath… “
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Our wonderful host and guide, Gigi. She loved each and every animal in there so much, and they knew her too!
Saying our Goodbyes
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We waited here as the group gathered. Later, this is where we had  a traditional simple Thai lunch.
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This  lady was working her trunk by cracking open banana trunks. That’s apparently exercise for them.

We visited all 4 elephant reserves/enclosures that the WFFT has, with a total of ~20 elephants…Some of us in the back of pick ups, others in 4-wheel drives. It was all done carefully and systematically.

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Traveling from enclosure to enclosure to meet them all! In one of those  trips we had the  sanctuary “pet” – a lab mix ?) accompany us! The elephants seemed to know him as  he enthusiastically jumped off  the back of the truck.
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We visited four elephant enclosures, housing about twenty elephants in total. Only one was male.

We also saw the one male elephant as he “dived” into his pond to cool off from the afternoon heat, as well as 3 other ladies who were hanging out in another pond. When one of them emerged out of the water, she had a tiara of water lily leaves on her head – it was hilarious. The whole episode reminded me of Disney’s Jungle Book.

Visited the vet and animal preserve to see a variety of other rescue animals, including a VERY vocal chimpanzee, some wild boar cubs, and several mischievous monkeys throwing fruits at us.

The WFFT  provided us with a simple but delicious Thai dinner.  

Overall, we really enjoyed this visit and would highly recommend it!


Two Days in Munich

…does not do it justice! We embarked on our trip through Central-East Europe in October 2016 with a short stay in Munich. Arriving just a few days after Oktoberfest, the weather had already turned chilly and cloudy. Notwithstanding, with Munich’s streets teeming with people, its many beer halls full of loud laughter and music, and an easygoing vibe that effortlessly connected centuries of Bavarian history with the 21st century, we loved it all!

…does not do it justice! We embarked on our trip through Central-East Europe in October 2016 with a short stay in Munich, our port of arrival. We arrived just a few days after Oktoberfest and the weather had already turned chilly and cloudy. Notwithstanding, with Munich’s streets teeming with people, its many beer halls full of loud laughter and music, and an easygoing vibe that effortlessly connected centuries of Bavarian history with the 21st century, we loved it all!

Day 1

We kicked off Munich with a Sandeman’s New Munich Tours free walking tour of the Alstadt (Old Town). A city walking tour is one of the best ways to acquaint oneself to the details of the main historical/touristy area I have learned, and often the free tours, very common across Europe, are the best!

Starting off from Mary’s Column at Marienplatz, our three hour walking tour, with a 20′ break in the middle, covered all the high points of Old Town including St. Peter’s church, the New Town Hall (Neues Rathaus), Old Town Hall, the Munich Residence, the National Theater and Opera House on Theatinerkirche adjoining the Residence, the Hofbrauhaus, and ended near the English Gardens.

Marienplatz, the center of Munich’s Alstadt, facing the New Town Hall and Mary’s Column, bustled with tourists and locals at all hours
The Glockenspiel at Marienplatz does a re-enactment of Bavarian history at 11 AM and noon daily
Mary’s Column – the starting point of many city walking tours
Spires of the Old Town Hall
The Golden Line on Viscardegasse – this small alley was used by silent protesters to avoid having to give a Nazi salute, commemorated by the golden cobblestones

We learned about the Wittelsbach dynasty and its emergence from Duke of Bavaria, to Elector to King under the Holy Roman Emperor and tales of many kings/dukes – majority involving beer and beer-brewing! We also covered a few highlights of early activities of the Nazi party centered around Munich, which is where it started, such as the Golden Lane. Much of the city including the Royal Residence was destroyed during WWII and was rebuilt/restored to its original form in the last fifty years. Parts of this work are still ongoing.

Kaunfingerstrasse in Alstadt – a picturesque promenade lined with upscale world famous brands such as Rolex as well as everyday brands like H&M



We strolled inside the Franken cathedral where a church service was ongoing with melodious hymns. I had read that you could go up to the cathedral tower for magnificent city views, but at the time we visited there was no option to go up, as there was ongoing restoration work near the towers.

Franken Cathedral (left) and Glockenspiel of the New Town Hall (right) mark the skyline of Munich. Franken Cathedral with its green onion domes is Munich’s most famous landmark

Day 2

We began with watching the re-enactment of Bavarian history at the Glockenspiel clock tower, which happens daily at 11 AM and noon. As perhaps the most famous Glockenspiel in Europe, this is certainly a must see for tourists. However, as I had read elsewhere and were told by locals, this performance was somewhat underwhelming. Besides, contrary to all things German, the clock’s performance started a few mins late!!

Today we spent several hours at the Munich Residence, which served as the seat of government and the imperial residence of Bavarian rulers from the 16th to 20th centuries. If you have the time to – more on this in another blog. 

Once out of the Residenz we headed in the direction to St. Peter’s Church. 3€ and several painful flights of stairs later we were at the top of the tower, taking in breathtaking panorama of Munich and the distant countryside. In good weather, we were told, you could see as far out as the lakes and Alps. However, on this cloudy chilly day, we did get lovely views of the lights coming on throughout the city at sundown!

We then hurried on for a quick tour of the old farmers market – Viktualienmarkt. This was wrapping up at this time but there were shops selling all kinds of fresh produce, pasta and dairy, as well as the ubiquitous Bavarian pretzel. I bought some fragrant muscat grapes.

By this time we were more than ready for a hearty dinner. And this was going to be at the Hofbrauhaus, at least that was my plan. The Hofbrauhaus, founded in 1589 by the Duke of Bavaria, is one of Munich’s oldest beer halls, and by far, its most famous. It has seating on three expansive floors and was teeming with people. We soon discovered that all but the lowest level was completely booked for the evening and reservations had been made well in advance. So, we ventured downstairs and discovered the European style of restaurant dining without reservations. You share a dinner table with  complete strangers – and often strike up easy camaraderie with people! (Also be ready to hijack a table once you spot folks getting ready to leave, as the waiters don’t find one for you). On this occasion our co-diners were two elderly Bavarian couples. They gave us some good travel tips for the rest of our trip. I had the best pumpkin soup ever here, with pumpkin seeds and drizzled with pumpkin oil, pork belly and knoedle (German bread dumpling)!

Musicians merry making at the Hofbrauhaus!
Third level of Hofbrauhaus, teeming with people. Performers are at the podium at the other end
Ready to devour a very delicious pork belly and knoedl
Improptu strolling into a church where a Saturday night open-to-all service was just starting – the light and music create a surreal effect

Our plan was to take the train to Salzburg the next morning with a planned stop at Castle Herrenchiemsee on Lake Chiemsee.

Train ride from Munich to Salzburg took us through scenic Bavarian countryside passing lakes and mountains
Vistas of Bavarian countryside on our way to Salzburg

Day Trip to Herrenchiemsee New Castle on Lake Chiemsee

The castle of Herrenchiemsee is situated on the island of Herreninsel on Bavaria’s largest lake, Chiemsee.  It is the third of King Ludwig II castles and by far the most expensive. The other two are Neuschwanstein and Linderhof. Obsessed with the French monarch King Louis XIV, his goal was to make Herrenchiemsee the Versailles North of the Alps. Modeled, therefore, on the Palace of Versailles in France, it is a close replica with a few customizations made by King Ludwig II himself. Later in this article I describe why we picked this over the King’s other castles.

As it is in the middle of a lake, getting there is a hop, skip and jump (maybe a splash too)! We first took the Meridien train from Munich to Prien am Chiemsee station (which is on the way to Salzburg), then traveled on an adorable and antiquated green steam train to the Prien/Stock ferry dock. Here we boarded the Chiemsee boat, which took us to island of Herreninsel. Of course, if you were driving, you could get straight to the Prien/Stock docks to catch the ferry.

Our ferry pulling up at Herreninsel island pier, where people are lined up to board it on its way back to Prien
Herrenchiemsee on a beautiful day


Herrenchiemsee castle facade

“Over the top” is the best way to describe the castle interiors, which are a display of extreme opulence and peculiarities of the king. You are not allowed to take photographs inside the building, but here are some highlights of the interiors that struct me.

The very first stop of the tour is by the grand staircase made of marble and scagliola (imitation stucco marble inlay) with Roman mythological statues was impressive and imposing.

A highlight of the tour is the gigantic porcelain chandelier in the dining room. Chandelier and porcelian, you ask? YES! This is specific to Herrenchiemsee and not in Versailles. Made of Meissen porcelain, the king had all molds destroyed so no copies could be made.

The dining table itself can be lowered to the kitchen directly below, where it was expected to be set and hoisted back up so the king could eat without servants around – the King loved his privacy.

The king’s “bathtub” is the size of a swimming pool holding 1600 liters of water that took 8 hours to fill and heat back in the day!

The Hall of Mirrors was underwhelming – even though tourists are allowed to enter it, most of it is blocked off from tourists. So it was impossible to get the effect of being in a room full of mirrors – it looked like any other grand ball room.

Perhaps the most interesting piece outside of the castle proper is the Ludwig II Museum. Situated next to where the guided tours start, it’s exhibits of the King’s portraits, personal items and memorabilia tell the interesting and peculiar story of the King’s life and death, and is certainly worth a visit. Below is a desk belonging to King Ludwig II – gilt on wood with swans for the base, this is  representative of the opulent style of the kings belongings.

Gilded desk of King Ludwig II. It stands on a base of swans, emblem of the Wittelsbachs

From the docks to the palace is about a twenty minute walk through woods overlooking green pastures. The grounds leading up to the castle are gorgeous, extensive and immaculately maintained with beautiful views looking onto Lake Chiemsee. The fountains are massive, though not all were being operated as this was not peak tourist season.

Castle gardens were so extensive that I could not capture the entire garden in one frame. Shown here are the gardens to the left of center
Two massive fountain systems flanked the castle on either side  depicting mythological figures 

There is a monastery on the island closer to the ferry dock. It could have been interesting, but as all information detailing the displays is in German I unfortunately could not gather much. If you are pressed for time skip the monastery and spend time on the island itself.

This day was special – it was one of only two days during our trip when we had absolutely gorgeous weather! Besides the castle and the monastery, on a beautiful day like this, exploring the island with its wooded walks, overlooking the serene lake and the distant mountains would make for a great picnic day.

View from the castle entrance of the central fountain, castle grounds overlooking Lake Chiemsee
Beautifully manicured lawns leading to the lake from the castle steps

Picking  a King Ludwig II castle – why Herrenchiemsee and not Neuschwanstein? After much thought and research, here is why we ultimately chose Herrenchiemsee over Neuschwanstein for the: Herrenchiemsee was on our way to Salzburg from Munich, so we could spend more time being there than getting there. Whilst Neuschwanstein is the most famous, Herrenchiemsee was the most expensive commission of King Ludwig II – the king ran out of funds within eight years of starting work on Herrenchiemsee by which time he had already spent more on it than Neuschwanstein and Lindhorf combined! We also wanted to avoid the crazy tourist crowds of Neuschwanstein. Besides, not having been to Versailles, it would give me a sneak peek of that palace too! Some things to keep in mind for BOTH castles: Visitors are allowed only 30’ inside the castle in a guided tour. Neither castles are complete  You are not allowed to take photographs inside the building, which is a pity. This is why the photos here are of the castle grounds.

Lake Chiemsee with mountains in the distance

The Munich Residence

On our full day in Munich, we spent several hours at the Munich Residence, aka The Residenz, or The Residenz Muenchen.


Tourist entrance to The Residenz

The Munich Residence served as the seat of government and the imperial residence of Bavarian rulers from the 16th to 20th centuries, but was established as early as the 14th century. This place is not to be missed, even if you have visited other castles in Europe. We liked The Residenz more than the Schoenbrunn or Hofburg palaces because of its greater accessibility. More rooms were open, less of the individual rooms were cordoned off, so you could actually get closed to the furnishings and various artifacts.

We explored the evolving tastes of generations of Wittelsbach rulers across eight centuries. As each ruler came to power they added sections to the palace to customize it and often outdo ones predecessors. The style changed from Renaissance, to Baroque to Rococo to Neoclassical. We saw numerous rooms such as the one below, with gilded stucco work on the walls and ceiling.

This room was different from most others because the paintings focused on life and daily activities of commoners rather than on the royalty, the ceiling is rather plain compared to most other rooms that had massive ceiling frescoes.

As much of Munich, much of the Residenz was destroyed by Allied Forces in WWII and rebuilt to resemble its original look. Most of the furnishings and artwork had been previously removed.

The Court Church of All Saints (below) is the palace chapel commissioned by King Ludwig I after he was inspired by the 12th century Norman-Byzantine Palatine chapel during a visit to Palermo and desired a similar chapel in his residence.  The chapel was completely demolished during the war. It is has been restored and opened to the public in 2003. Today it functions as a concert hall.

Restored after massive damage during WWII, the Court Church of All Saints today serves as a venue for concert and other events. 

The interiors were reinstated with a simple, modern decor. However, in places, glimpses of the original walls, adorned with colorful frescoes and stucco marble work, are still visible.

The chapel interiors were reinstated with a modern exposed brick decor. However, remnants of the original colorful frescoes are still visible in places.



Remnants of painting of Madonna with Child.

The Antiquarium was magnificent.  The oldest room in the Residence, the 66m long hallway is, according to the official Munich Residence website, is the largest and most lavishly adorned Renaissance hall north of the Alps. Built in the mid-16th century by Duke Albrecht V, to house antique sculptures, the use of the Antiquarium was expanded to host festivities and banquets by his successors.

The long hallway of the Antiquarium is adorned with ancestral and mythological busts, the vaulted ceiling flaunts frescoes of fame and virtue

The Rich Chapel (Reiche Kapelle), consecrated in 1607, was the private place of worship for Duke Maximilian I. The chapel interior is richly adorned with exquisitely detailed gilded stucco work. In particular, the scagliola work with stucco-marble (imitation marble) displayed on the walls is breathtaking.

The chapel housed the Duke’s collection of sacred relics (bodily remains of saints), and therefore, was the spiritual center of his residence. Relics, considered even more valuable than gold or precious stones, were extremely sacred and considered among the most valuable of a ruler’s possessions.

Vaulted ceiling of the Rich Chapel adorned with stucco and gilt relief
Rich Chapel – The shrine, with intricate engravings, held precious relics; scagliola inlay work on the floor
Exquisitely detailed scagliola stucco marble panels on the walls of the Rich Chapel
Details of one stucco marble scagliola panel

The Treasury (Schatzkammer) within the Residenz is a must visit. What I found particularly fascinating is a statuette of St. George – presiding saint of the house of Wittelsbach – slaying a dragon. Inlaid with precious gems, and detailed filigree, this was a fascinating piece. At this point, the battery of my phone ran out. So, I have no personal photos of the Treasury to share. However, you can see some of the precious art work housed in the Treasury at the official website here.

Outside The Residence are statues of four bronze lions. The lion is an ubiquitous motif across Bavaria and Munich,and was used in the Wittelsbach flag in the 12-13th century. rulers. The statues, nearly 400 years old, are almost entirely covered in patina (bronze tarnish), except the muzzle at the base of the shield, which is still shiny.  That’s because tourists and locals rub it when they pass for luck!

Having visited several magnificent royal residences in our trip through Central-East Europe, including Herrenchiemsee, the Habsburg residences in Vienna and the Prague Castle, I can now say that the Munich Residence was, by far, the best.

Here is why: it was the largest collection of royal lifestyle all under one complex; spanning several generations and hence, multiple Renaissance architectural styles. You could track how tastes and lifestyle changed over time as the Bavarian rulers went from Duke, to Elector to King. The Munich Residence was more tourist-friendly. Compared to the Viennese royal complexes, where fewer rooms were open to tourists, and, when open, were heavily cordoned with the exhibits placed so far away that you had to squint, and you got nearly swept off every couple of minutes by the deluge of a guided-tour group cramming into the limited available space; in Munich, it was not only possible to access more rooms but also to get close to the exhibits. There were fewer guided-tour groups because their self guided audio tour was excellent and there was simply more area to spread out. Photography was allowed without the use of flash. As a tourist on a tight timeline, I am glad I did not skimp on this one!

One of the four original bronze lions outside  the Residence. While the statue is almost entirely covered in patina (bronze tarnish),  notice that the muzzle at the base of the shield is still shiny. That’s because tourists and locals rub it when they pass for luck, keeping it shiny and tarnish free!