Thursday, September 4, 2014

Tusk love: Patara Elephant Farm lets tourists be caretakers for a day

Text and photos by: Albert Rodriguez

Elephant retreats in Thailand, and other parts of Southeast Asia, have been getting a bad rap in recent years.  And they deserve to.  On the verge of extinction in Africa, these beautiful creatures are forced into ridiculous exercises - painting canvasses, pulling logs, rolling on the ground, parading in a circle - for the sole enjoyment of pleasing tourists, who see them as nothing more than entertainment.

What most travelers don't know, and probably wouldn't care even if they did, is that these animals are often treated poorly, sometimes abused, and suffer more greatly in the hands of humans than in the wild.

But there is a glimmer of hope.  A community of ordinary people is doing the most extraordinary thing for these enormous, fascinating beasts.  Patara Elephant Farm, located in the lush green hills surrounding Chiangmai, is a retreat focusing on fostering elephants, instead of profiting from them.  Its "Trainer for a Day" excursion allows tourists to become caretakers, assisting staff with feeding, bathing, walking, and inspecting the elephants for good health.  

I visited Patara Elephant Farm in late July, allowed to observe and photograph a group of international
tourists partaking of this unique, hands-on experience.  Even as a spectator, it was fulfilling to witness this wonderful exchange between animals and humans, especially the children who learned a valuable lesson in caring, loving, and respecting their fellow living beings.  

For more information on this experience, or to make reservations, go to  Here are more details about the "Trainer in a Day" program from my observation.


The day begins at 7:30am, when guests are picked up at their respective hotels and brought to the mountainous region overlooking Chiangmai.  It's a 45-minute drive from central Chiangmai to Patara Elephant Farm with beautiful scenery to inhale along the way.  After registration and changing into training outfits (Thai style shirt-vest), your small group will begin the training session with an orientation, where owner Theerapat (Pat) Trungprakan explains specifically what you will doing and gives instructions on how to approach, communicate and become acquainted with the elephants.

These tours appear to be in English only - and perhaps, Thai - so it's important for foreigners to have a basic English skill set to understand the instructions and details given by staff, or be accompanied by someone (parent, relative, friend) who can translate.  Once visitors are individually assigned to an elephant, however, the instructions can be learned visually, as staff will show guests how to gather food for them, or how to feed them, etc.  Aside from being assigned to one particular elephant for the day, one staff member is also assigned to each guest, so they will assist you with the training tasks. 


All of the animals at Patara Elephant Farm are rescues and many of them were in potential danger when brought to the facility.  In its 24-year history, no elephants have died in Patara's care and 3 females are currently pregnant; 7 have been released back into the wild.

The elephants range in size, age and gender.  Entire elephant families live together as well, such as a mother and young female who were reunited after being rescued separately.  Currently, there are 55 elephants at Patara Elephant Farm, who are cared for and protected 24 hours a day.

I found the elephants to be quite tame and interactive with visitors, but it's important to approach them - as instructed by staff - slowly and gently, and showing them genuine affection. 


Guests will assist with daily food gathering and feeding of the elephants, consisting mainly of bamboo plants and fruits (bananas, melons, etc.).  It's a simple task, but there's a proper way for it to be done.  One of the essential duties a trainer must carry out is a health inspection that involves holding, smelling and squeezing actual elephant waste.  It may sound gross, but when people realize it's vital to keeping these massive mammals in good health, they literally dig in with both hands.  Because elephants are vegetarians, their poop (if in good health) tends to be odorless and clean, at least by animal standards.  And FYI, elephant waste is now being used in Asia to produce paper materials.


A highlight of the day is escorting the elephants to a nearby lagoon for a bath.  I wasn't able to witness the riding portion of the experience first-hand, although my promotional kit states that guests practice riding the elephants around the farm before embarking on an uphill trek in the afternoon.  Having ridden an elephant on a previous trip to Thailand in 2011, I'll say that given the privilege to do it, and in a non-harmful environment to the elephant, you'll definitely want to try it out.  It's a bit wobbly, though really fun.

At the bathing area, visitors are asked to get into the shallow water basin and scrub the elephants clean.  Be sure to bring swimming attire and towel, or a change of clothes, because you will get wet.   


My travel group didn't stay for lunch, but it's described as a picnic lunch and the setting is...well, let's face it...naturally stunning.  Aside from the midday meal, bottled water is provided during the day, plus keepsake photos and video.  The program concludes at 5pm, which means you'll be back at your hotel between 6pm and 6:30pm depending on traffic.

The total cost for the "Trainer for a Day" excursion is 5800 Baht per person, roughly $180 USD.  When you consider the cost of live concert tickets or admission to pro sporting events these days, and what you're actually getting instead, it truly is a great deal, especially the added bonus of being shuttled to and from your Chiangmai hotel.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Seattle excursion: Daytrip or overnight to Victoria BC and San Juan Islands on the Victoria Clipper

Text and photos by: Albert Rodriguez

You're in Seattle and looking for a quick, convenient day or overnight excursion?  Simple.  Take the Victoria Clipper to Victoria, British Columbia or San Juan Islands.

The "Clipper Ferry" runs year-round between Seattle and Victoria with two trips daily, morning and late afternoon, giving visitors the option to spend just the day or stay the night.  The ferry to San Juan Islands, docking at the beautiful port town of Friday Harbor, is seasonal between May and late September.  It's also used for the Clipper Whale & Sealife Searches.

Both excursions are 3 hours long from departure to arrival, and you won't need a car in Victoria or Friday Harbor because the ferry docks at each city/town are centrally located; if you want to explore outside of the central areas, there are bike and car rental services available.  You can also catch ferries to other islands from Friday Harbor.  Complete schedules and fares can be found at

I recently traveled to San Juan Islands, a Northwest archipelago that lies between Washington State and the West Coast of Canada.  Here's more details on what to expect when you board the "Victoria Clipper III" (vessel name) to Friday Harbor.  The "Victoria Clipper" and "Victoria Clipper IV" vessels are currently used between Seattle and Victoria BC.


The Victoria Clipper terminal is located on Pier 69, at the Northern end of the Seattle Waterfront.  It's a 15 to 20-minute walk from most downtown hotels, therefore I suggest taking Metro - from 3rd & Union, take buses 24 or 99, and from 3rd & Pike, take buses 2, 3 or 13 (get off at 1st & Broad Street).  If taking a taxi, let the cab driver know you're traveling on "Victoria Clipper" because the cruise ship terminal is also located on the waterfront, but a few minutes away.

Caffe Vita, a local coffee chain, has a shop inside the terminal for passengers wanting immediate coffee and food, or desiring items to go (sandwiches, bagels, pastries, etc), but you can't access it once you've gone through the gated boarding area, so purchase your items before checking in.  There is also food for purchase on-board (see below).

During the summer, the Victoria and San Juan Islands ferries have similar morning departure times and this results in two lines that lead to two sets of check-in counters inside the terminal.  There is visible signage telling you which line to stand in and Clipper staff is on-hand to assist as well. 

Check-in is fairly quick and easy.  There are no assigned seats and passengers can check bags until about a 1/2 hour before departure.  Victoria-bound travelers likely have to go through Customs & Immigration, although those of us headed to Friday Harbor simply had to show our boarding passes before stepping onto the ferry. 


It's first come-first serve for seating, spread out on three levels.  The second level is the most popular because it offers an elevated view of the journey and is fully enclosed, while the top level is an open-air observation deck that can become windy or chilly depending on the day's weather.  The main level, the bottom of the three, is where the bulk of passengers sit and where you'll find an on-board cafe with complimentary Caffe Vita coffee and a limited selection of snacks, soft drinks, alcoholic beverages and combo meals (i.e. muffin, yogurt, orange juice).

Throughout the trip, a crew member doubling as a tour guide will point out landmarks along the way and give informational facts about the region.  If there's something to point out, such as wildlife (eagles, sea lions, etc.), the captain will slow down the vessel for everyone to see.  The tour guide leaves books at the front of the main level cabin for passengers to look at or read at their convenience.  There is no WiFi on-board the Victoria Clipper III, but there is a limited number of power outlets to recharge your electronic devices.


Outbound, the Victoria Clipper III departs Seattle and travels passed Edmonds, Mukilteo, Whidbey Island and Camano Island.  Then, it continues up through Skagit Bay around Fidalgo Island and goes underneath the Deception Pass bridge, which is the highlight of the trip - if it's sunny and warm, do make your way to the top deck for great photo ops.  The trek is completed by zipping through Rosario Strait and around Blakely Island, Decatur Island and Shaw Island, and finally docking at Friday Harbor.

On the return, the Victoria Clipper III travels through the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Admiralty Inlet, passed Kingston and Bainbridge Island before stopping in Seattle.  Meanwhile, the Victoria Clipper and Victoria Clipper IV appear to take this exact route to and from Seattle.

The Victoria Clipper III is a high-speed ferry, so I found it to be really smooth.  The only time we encountered choppy water was when two enormous cruise ships passed us.  Otherwise, it was like being on a bus.  We departed and arrived on time for both of my recent journeys, and that included stopping twice on the return to look at a pack of sea lions congregating on a large rock. 

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Let's Get Spiritual: Overnight Stay at Buddhist Temple is a Heavenly Experience

Text and photos by: Albert Rodriguez

It was both a privilege and challenge to stay overnight at a Buddhist temple last year in South Korea.  Offered in several Asian countries, these accommodations are recommended for travelers desiring a cultural experience and not for those used to modern lodging with the expected amenities. 

"Templestays", as they're called, provide basic sleeping areas and impose strict rules (curfews, set meal times, etc.) that could prove difficult for some.  But for those willing to be taken out of their comfort zone, the experience is rewarding.

I stayed at Woljeongsa Temple, nestled within the lush forest of Odaesan Mountain about an hour from Pyeongchang.  My travel companions and I made the 2.5 hour journey from Seoul, stopping twice - to grab a roadside lunch and also to buy wash towels, which are not provided by the temple (tip: grab a towel from your hotel, if you can remember).

Here's how the experience unfolded, once we arrived at Woljeongsa Temple.


The young woman who assisted us at the reception office was friendly and spoke reasonably good English.  After assigning us rooms and giving us printed itineraries, we had about an hour to change into temple clothes (mandatory) and settle in before orientation.

Our group - three of us total - was assigned individual rooms, right next to each other, in a detached co-ed section of the temple that held about 10 rooms total.  We were booked for the "Relaxation-Based" experience, suitable for overnight guests and those wanting more free time vs. obligatory temple activities.

Shoes were not allowed inside the sleeping area, so we left them by the main sliding door.  Each room was divided by a second set of sliding doors, and inside was a thin mattress, cover and pillow stacked neatly on the slippery wooden floor.  Our temple attire, pants and robes, were hanging on a coat rack.  Although I'm not opposed to sharing a lavatory, I was grateful for a private restroom that was stocked with bath tissue, bar soap and toothpaste. 

There was a closet to put our belongings, as well as power outlets to charge our electronics and self-adjustable heating systems.  I can't say that I slept comfortably, however, my cubicle-sized room was really warm at night and it was extremely peaceful.


Guests were required to attend a 10-minute "Learning Temple Etiquette" session, where we watched an animated video outlining the dos and don'ts of our stay, plus learning how to properly bow to fellow templestay guests and grounds staff.  Then, the same young woman who received us at the office during the check-in process helped us make prayer beads that were ours to take home. 


Evening and morning meals were included with our stay and were served promptly in a lower level cafeteria-style facility.  We were guided into the dining area in single file and allowed to have our shoes on.  Guests and staff members ate their meals at the same time, so we were able to meet fellow templestay guests, although they were all Asian tourists who spoke little English.

These meals were strictly vegetarian and mostly at room temperature, though a few dishes were warm.  Rice, steamed vegetables, cooked potatoes, tofu and a broth-like soup were some of the items available for dinner, while leftovers from the night before, porridge, sliced bananas and a new assortment of vegetables were prepared for breakfast.  Fortunately, a nearby bakery donated a boxful of wrapped danishes in the morning that I made a beeline for.

Meals are self-serve and laid out on a counter in bowls, rice cookers, baskets, or big plates.  You're asked only to take what you think you can eat because the temple wants nothing being thrown away.  Much of the food was unseasoned (garlic is a no-no), so it wasn't very enjoyable to me, but in respecting the diet and discipline that the Buddhist community lives by I consumed what I could.  Outside food isn't permitted.

Plates and metal chopsticks were provided, but Western utensils (forks, knives, spoons) were nowhere to be found.  Guests are asked to wash their own dishes following each meal service and to place them back near the counter.  Also, there is no coffee, which proved more difficult for me than I'd initially thought.  Our stay actually included a third meal, lunch, but we had to depart early the next day because we had flights to catch in Seoul.  


Templestay guests are privileged to watch and participate in the "Sounding of the Dharma Instruments", a ritual consisting of striking a giant ancient bell.  First, you watch it being done and then you're invited to go up into a small tower and strike it yourself with assistance from one of the monks.  I'm not sure about the history or symbolism behind this ritual, but I really loved hearing this huge bell being struck in the middle of a forest in pure darkness.  The Sounding of the Dharma Instruments takes place around the time the temple closes to the public, so only those staying the night can witness this event.


The highlight of this entire experience is attending actual services with real Buddhist monks; the Evening Service begins at 6:30pm and the Morning Service at 4:20am.  For each service, we were led into the temple and asked to quietly situate ourselves on mats neatly sprawled out inside the Buddhist Hall; the monks were already there and silently kneeling on mats of their own.  Guests are not permitted to photograph or videotape any portion of the service, lasting roughly a half hour.  There is a lot of standing, kneeling and standing again - seriously, it was a workout - and there's a lot of chanting, which is mindblowing to hear inside this immaculate hall.  We were supplied with English-translated programs, so that we could chant alongside the monks - male and female, young and old - although, I mostly closed my eyes and listened to the sounds of everyone else chanting.  When the service was over, the monks left the temple silently and quickly, and then templestay guests were allowed to leave and return to their rooms.


Guests are required to be in bed at 9pm with lights out.  There was no WiFi and limited roaming access, and we were also asked to limit our visitation with fellow guests, so there wasn't much else to do except sleep.   We were also required to be awake at 4am to wash up for Morning Service, which made for an extremely long day because I caught my return flight to Seattle from Seoul later that afternoon (tip: you may want to spend one night back in Seoul before your return flight home).


Part of the experience of visiting the temple was to absorb its immediate scenery - fir trees, creeks, hiking trails - and I chose to do this with one of my travel companions, which was great because otherwise I'd had gotten lost.  These leisurely strolls are also meant to free the mind and provide a daily (minimal, but regular) exercise routine.  

Each guest must tidy up his/her room before departing - folding your mattress, hanging your robes and pants, cleaning the restroom - and after doing this, the only thing left is to check out and write a review of your experience.  We each received a small gift, a pair of handmade wooden chopsticks and spoon, as we bid farewell to our host and thanked her for a magnificent stay.


For general information on templestays in Korea, go to

For information specific to Woljeongsa Temple, including address and phone number, go to

You can visit Woljeongsa Temple from Seoul without renting a car.  Take an intercity bus (Line 2) from Dong Seoul Bus Terminal to Jinbu Intercity Bus Terminal, then transfer to the Woljeongsa local bus line.  You'll have to inquire about bus fare and schedule once you're in Seoul.

If traveling by car, please note that once you leave Seoul there are limited places to refuel and eat.  Look for the rest areas, which are actually mini shopping malls with food courts, retail stores, souvenir stalls and public restrooms.  We encountered traffic congestion in Seoul that delayed us an hour, so give yourself extra time to get to Pyeongchang County and arrive promptly at the temple (if you arrive late, they may not receive you).


Saturday, June 28, 2014

There's a “Cupcake ATM” in Las Vegas....seriously!

Text and photos by: Albert Rodriguez

In some places, you’re lucky to find a bank on a public street, let alone an ATM machine.  But in Las Vegas, where sky is the limit, you can purchase a popular snack item at the press of a button, literally.

Beverly Hills-based Sprinkles Cupcakes recently opened a shop in the newly developed dining/entertainment center on the Las Vegas Strip called "The Linq", nestled between The Quad and Flamingo hotels.  If you spot the "High Roller", a 550-foot observation wheel that's also brand new to the city's main tourist district, it's just footsteps away.

Around the corner from Sprinkles' front entrance is where you'll find the "Cupcake ATM" window, which dispenses the decorated frosted desserts like cash.  You make your selection, based on the available varieties that day - Red Velvet is always offered (so long as it's not currently sold out) - and then you confirm your selection and pay by credit/debit card (only); these are cashless machines.  

Through modern technology and the window screen, you're able to see the process of a robotic arm grabbing your boxed treat and sliding it into the rotating door, where you retrieve your sugary selection. 

Sprinkles Cupcakes are made fresh daily and hand-frosted, and when in Vegas (and, a few other locations I presume), you now have the convenience of buying them with your finger.   

Monday, May 5, 2014

Sub Pop is Seattle airport's newest arrival

Text and photos by: Albert Rodriguez

It might smell like teen spirit the next time you're at Sea-Tac Airport, thanks to Sub Pop Records.  The iconic Seattle-based record label that launched the careers of Nirvana, Fleet Foxes and The Shins, to name a few, opened a physical store location inside the main terminal of the airport on May 1.

Vinyl albums, tee-shirts, mugs, posters, books, trucker caps, flasks, shot glasses, neck pillows and even a special blend of roasted coffee are among the items for sale at the store, scheduled to be open 365 days a year from 6am to 10pm.  Prices are very reasonable, for example $15 for tote bags, $10 for coffee mugs and $3 for stick pins, making Sub Pop merchandise an affordable, local souvenir that can be conveniently packed into your carry-on bags.

As a Seattle native, I love that my hometown airport has hometown flavor.  Not only are there familiar eateries to choose from - Ivar's, Anthony's, Diva Espresso, Dilettante Chocolate, Starbucks (well, it is headquartered here) - but now we have retail stores that really highlight the Emerald City, instead of your run-of-the-mill overpriced, generic gift shops. 

Obviously, Sub Pop gear and goodies appeal more to music fans - especially those who understand its connection to Seattle - but the store is definitely worth checking out, located North of the central terminal's food court, across from Anthony's Restaurant.

In recent years, the Port of Seattle has worked in alliance with the Office of Film + Music, Seattle Music Commission and PlayNetwork to create the "Experience the City of Music Program", offering live entertainment to passengers on select days, as well as a hand-picked selection of tunes played on its speaker system throughout the airport.  Also, several Emerald City musicians voluntarily recorded announcements that occasionally play overhead, including Macklemore, Quincy Jones, Ben Gibbard (of Death Cab for Cutie), Brandi Carlile, Ann Wilson (of Heart) and Jerry Cantrell (of Alice in Chains).

Monday, March 31, 2014

Heeeerrrre's...the Timblerline Lodge!

Text and photos by: Albert Rodriguez
Hotel spotlight: Timberline Lodge (

When Jack Nicholson terrorizes Shelley Duvall in the 1980 horror film The Shining, she nearly escapes out the window of the snowed-in Overlook Hotel, which bares a striking resemblance to Timberline Lodge. 

Well, if you didn't know by now, the Oregon ski resort was used for exterior shots in the Stanley Kubrick classic.  But not much else.  There was never any filming done on the premises of Timberline Lodge, and neither did it inspire the setting of the movie; author Stephen King was inspired to write the story after his stay at The Stanley Hotel in Colorado. 

The 70-room Timberline Lodge rests beautifuly at 6,000 feet above sea level and is positioned at the perfect spot for guests to inhale views of Mt. Hood and foothills below.  A domed walkway allows visitors to enter the lodge's lower level, where they're immediately greeted by a cozy fireplace, which stretches 98 feet tall, and an intimate area to sit by a toasty fire.  US Forest rangers are often around to give guided tours of the property, but in the event they aren't present the hotel has a chronilogical timeline with photos to puruse, aside from a model unit featuring an armchair made for FDR when he dedicated the lodge on September 28, 1937.  You'll also find the reception desk on this floor and the first batch of guest rooms, including affordable bunk bed-style "chalets" - great for families or groups - with access to shared restrooms. 

Visitors can purchase ski passes and chair lift tickets from a day lodge steps away from the hotel, in addition
to renting gear and equipment, or grabbing a bite to eat at a few eateries tucked into the building. 

The highlight of Timberline Lodge is its main lobby, up a floor from the lower level.  The hexagonal-shaped space is like a big, warm living room with sofas, armchairs and antique bookcases all surrounding the fireplace and chimney in the center.  Off to one side is the Cascade Dining Room, known for its lunchtime buffet with a terrific spread that includes house-made pastas, salads and soups, roasted meats, fresh fruit, make-your-own-waffles and an assortment of yummy desserts.  And just above the main lobby, on the top floor, is the Ram's Head Bar with tables and chairs spread around that provide the most impeccable views of Mt. Hood.

Outdoors, guests can absorb the sites in a beautiful heated pool with a 10-foot deep end.  Back inside, near the pool, is a small workout facility.  But the real amenity, of course, is where you happen to be, right smack in the middle of nature - trees, mountains, sky, birds, peace and quiet. 

With rooms to fit every budget, Timberline Lodge is a terrific weekend escape in the Great Northwest.  The resort is about 90 minutes away from downtown Portland. 

And although Jack Nicholson never stayed here, over the years celebrities from Olivia Newton-John to Avril Lavigne to Reese Witherspoon have all enjoyed the comforts of Timberline Lodge.  Witherspoon was the most recent A-lister seen here, filming the adventure movie Wild on location a few months ago. 

Monday, February 24, 2014

Getting high in Seattle: Sky View Observatory offers spectacular city lookouts

When in Seattle, everyone rushes to the Space Needle.  Not that I'd want to discourage anybody from visiting this national landmark built for the 1962 World's Fair, but there is a less expensive alternative that you might want to consider, as well, or instead.

The Sky View Observatory ( opened almost a year ago inside Columbia Tower, the tallest building in Seattle at 932 feet, which also makes it the second tallest structure on the entire West Coast.  While the views from the 73rd floor observatory aren't exactly panoramic, like the Space Needle, it does provide better close-ups of Mt. Rainier, CenturyLink and Safeco fields, Lake Washington, ferry terminal, local neighborhoods and nearby suburbs.

Here's more information about this new Seattle attraction.


The Columbia Tower is located at 701 5th Avenue and takes up a whole block, allowing its tenants - the majority of them law firms - to enter the building at 5th and 4th avenues.  If entering on 5th, the main elevators are directly ahead of you, but if entering on 4th, you'll need to ascend three escalators to the 5th avenue level (the elevators are to the right of the information desk).  Two separate elevators are required to reach the 73rd floor - take the first elevator to the 40th, where there's a Starbucks (of course!) and the second elevator (just behind the first one) gets you to the 73rd floor.  The Columbia Tower actually extends to 76 floors high, with an exclusive restaurant and bar at the top, but the general public only has access up to the 73rd.  The Sky View Observatory is open daily from 10am to 8pm. 


Adult tickets are $12.50, while seniors, kids 6 through 12, students and military (with valid ID) pay just $9.00.  Children 5 and younger are admitted free of charge.  Tickets can be purchased in advance at, or at the front desk, where you can purchase binoculars, souvenirs and a few other items.  Visit the website for group ticket information and further details.


The Sky View Observatory wraps almost completely around the 73rd floor in a fully enclosed space.  Windows on the South side face out to Mt. Rainier, CenturyLink Field (home of the Seahawks and FC Sounders), Safeco Field (home of the Mariners), Smith Tower, West Seattle Bridge and the redeveloped industrial SoDo District.  The East-end viewing area provides lookouts to Lake Washington, I-90 Bridge, Harborview Medical Center, Interstate-5 and Beacon Hill, Leschi, Madrona and Seward Park districts, along with the Eastside suburbs of Bellevue, Mercer Island and Medina, where Bill Gates resides.  There's lots of window space looking out to the West with stunning glimpses of downtown office towers, Elliott Bay, waterfront with the Seattle Great Wheel, Bainbridge Island and ferries departing or arriving at Pier 52.  Finally, to the North you'll see more downtown buildings and hotels, Space Needle and Seattle Center, Lake Union, University of Washington, Gas Works Park, 520 Floating Bridge and Capitol Hill, First Hill, Queen Anne, Eastlake and Westlake neighborhoods.


Guests are welcome to stay as long as they'd like, during normal business hours.  There's plenty of room to take photos, even to set up tripods, and if you'd prefer to relax your legs or not stand so close to the windows, the observatory does have seats and benches to sit down and rest, write, update your social media status, or enjoy a refreshment.  Coffee, juices and a small assortment of snacks are available for purchase at a counter on the observatory's North side.