Saigon Zoo, Go Ahead and Skip It!

If you’ve read more than about three entries on this blog, you are well aware that much of my travel revolves around the ability to go see (and more importantly, touch) *all* the animals. Being based in Southeast Asia has given me some fantastic animal-touching opportunities: snuggling a koala, being a mahout for a day, illicitly touching a panda bear, etc. (Click the links for a quick jump to each of those animal-rific tales. They will open in a new window, so no need to worry about losing this one.) If the chance is there, I’m going to take it! With that in mind and with three weeks of being a solo-traveler in Ho Chi Minh City, one of the first things I did was take the chance to go visit the city zoo.

Now, zoos are not my favorite way to see animals, as I much prefer to get even closer and more personal with the critters, but I’ve been to some fantastic animal reserves/parks, which are just fancier names for zoos, but also usually with a bit more forward-thinking take on keeping wild animals. The animal-area in HCMC is called a “zoo,” but that didn’t put me off in the least. San Diego calls their animal park a zoo and it is amazingly well done, creature-centric and education focused.

So, one day last week, I skittered out of work as soon as I could, made the quick dash to my temporary apartment (a mere one block from the consulate- what a commute!) and changed into a sundress and headed out the door, all in the span of about ten minutes. My  CLO-provided map (thanks , HCMC CLO office!) said that the zoo was a convenient fifteen minute walk, so after a brief consultation with the front desk to make sure I was headed in the right direction (Vietnamese street names all still look the same to me- I have not gotten to a higher level of language understanding yet!) and a book and a bottle of water in my bag, out I went.

The map did not lie about the distance, but I may have slightly overestimated the convenience factor, mainly because I had to cross several large streets and at this early point in my HCMC tenure I had not yet grasped the finer points of local traffic patterns. (A week and a half in, I can report that I’ve gotten pretty good at playing Vietnamese “Frogger” and can weave my way across six lanes of traffic without missing a step.) Arriving in one piece at the front gate, I was a bit taken aback by the general appearance of the entrance to the zoo; rundown is a sliggt understatement. Rather than reading “zoo,” the welcome had more of a “so-creepy-you-might-die-inside-park” vibes. But whatever. I braved the traffic to get there, I was going to see what it had to offer, so I quickly offered up my two dollar entry fee and headed on in.

Saigon Zoo (the official name) is comprised of two main parts: the animals and the botanical gardens. One of these was well-worth my $2 and the other was not.

I’ve seen a zoo or two in my time, but this one ranks as one of the worst. There was a strange array of animals, everything from reptiles galore to sadly swaying elephants. The most abundant caged animal was deer- there was a huge dirt area dedicated to a herd of probably fifty critters. (The “caged” designation is key, as other than the deer, the second most ubiquitous animal at the zoo was rats. I saw enough free-range rats to last me for the next few weeks. ) The best exhibit was the sea otters, mostly because they were actually active and seemed halfway happy. They had just been fed a bucket of fish heads (where were the bodies?) and were skittering around from pond to pond eating their seafood-inspired lunches.

But, putting aside the deplorable menagerie and wandering  a few meters away , I found a decent  botanical garden. It was really more of a nice park that a botanical garden (no labels on flora, nothing seemingly in any order), but I’ll stick with their nomenclature on this one. Toss the poor city parks group a proverbial bone! The park was nice. It was filled with benches, a fountain and several smaller parks-within-a-park. It will come as no surprise that my favorite part of the botanical park was the two huge cranes who wandered by the bench where I had settled in with the book I brought along, in hopes of a peaceful evening. (HCMC is *loud,* so any bit of quiet is a nice reprieve from the bus horns, scooter squeals and general ruckus of a quickly expanding Asian city.) But back to the cranes. These two long-legged, long-necked, long-beaked buddies just walked by as if they had not a care in the world and I was just another inanimate object- a piece of the bench. (Did they make their great escape from the zoo side? If so, props to you giant cranes! Run while you can.)

My afternoon at the zoo was definitely not what I had envisioned when I logged off my State Department systems and headed out the door for the day, but it ended up being an interesting and entertaining evening, regardless. Would I recommend the Saigon Zoo to folks headed through town? Nope. But, if I lived here long –term (rather than my current three-week TDY) I think I’d be a frequent visitor, as the breath of fresh air a bit of calm among the chaos of the city would make for a welcome reprieve. Just ignore the swaying elephants, hungry-looking snakes and slightly mangy deer.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Guest Blog: In Pursuit of Pengins

This is the second guest entry by South American cruiser, Joyce McDaniel.

**************************

As we boarded the cruise ship bound for the tip of South America and Patagonia, I am sure I heard the chant of “penguins, penguins, penguins!” coming from the ship’s guests, mostly retired folks like me. For who does not envision visiting a giant colony of penguins as well as a variety of other wild life when thinking of a trip to Patagonia?

Globe Trekker and other travel shows on PBS had really pumped me up for the Patagonian experience and filled my head with visions of waddling, black and white tuxedoed penguins jabbering in Penguinese for as far as the eye can see.

Reading the excursion literature we discovered that there were 3 different kinds of penguins living in the Patagonian area: the Magellanic, Gentoo and King. I had plans to visit all 3 kinds so we signed up for 3 different excursions.

Disappointment upon disappointment filled me as first one excursion to see an island reserve of penguins was cancelled due to rough and unnavigable seas, and then a second excursion to Falkland Islands and a visit to King and Gentoo penguins rookeries was cancelled as the cruise ship was unable to park due to rough seas and high winds! Bummed was too weak of a word to describe my disappointment!

I had to settle for the too-cute and delightful towel animals that filled my stateroom. Our steward Jamie made one every day of the voyage; I really enjoyed these little animals, but they were not penguins!

I even bought 8 stuffed penguins (for the grandchildren of course!) at one stop, hoping that they would not be the only ones I saw.

On Day 8 of the cruise we were able to take a catamaran tour that visited some small rocky islands that were filled with blue-eyed cormorants -that were black and white and kind of looked like penguins   They were awesome, but not penguins. Some other small rocky outcrops were filled with lazy noisy sea lions, also pretty cool, but again, not penguins.

I wanted penguins and pouted mightily!

Finally on Day 12, we moored in Puerto Madryn, Argentina. The day dawned calm and sunny and we were headed to a Penguin Reserve two hours away. Trying not to get my hopes up too high, I boarded the bus to the Peninsula Valdes Wildlife Sanctuary with promises from our guide of not only penguins, but many many other wildlife endemic to the Patagonian region.

And I was not disappointed that day! We saw Lesser Reas, an emu like creature and it was never explained why they were “lesser” rather than “greater” as they were huge. Guanaco herds covered the dry sandy landscape blending into their surroundings. They are the wild cousins to our llamas. We saw this giant rodent called a Mara which looks rather like a cross between a rabbit and a dog. It is actually a Patagonian hare. We were able to walk to within a few hundred feet of a huge colony of sea lions, mostly black shiny pups and their moms, enjoying beach time.

But still no penguins! The guide said “don’t worry, you will have your fill of penguins; I promise!”

As we traveled to see the penguins, the guide related some history of the early explorers visiting this area and encountering penguins. She shared that the early explorers wanted all animals they discovered to be useful to humans and since penguins were not edible due to their oiliness nor were they useful for clothing making or any other purpose, early explorers decided to take a burning log and light them on fire. They found a use for them- as a torch! I was and still am horrified. Fortunately that practice did not catch on and the poor penguins are no longer used as a torch.

Our mini-bus then veered off the main dusty dirt road to a small rutted dusty dirt road heading to our final destination: The Peninsula Valdes Private Penguin Reserve. As we entered the Reserve, penguins sightings began to pop up and everyone began to shout out when they saw a penguin. As far as the eye could see, penguins dotted the shrubbery covered landscape. It was a penguin watchers paradise! We quickly hopped off the bus and began our walk around the Penguin rookery and down to the ocean. Here a penguin, there a penguin, everywhere a penguin! It was wonderful. Words cannot describe the sight that beheld my eyes so be sure to check out the pictures I posted as they will give you a small glimpse of the world of penguins we entered. There were thousands!  We were able to walk right up to many of these cute creatures and some walked right in front of us; for the most part they just ignored us but we delighted in them.   What a sight to behold- they were cooing and chirping and waddling and just being cute.

I found my penguins! And I was happy! And I have pictures to revisit that delightful experience. I could leave my cruise having pursued and found penguins.

 

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

Mahout for a Day

Picture this: Me, in over-sized, heavy cotton pajamas (jean blue), hair in two braids, sunglasses perched on the top of my head, barefoot and dirtier than I’ve been since I was probably eight years old. My face is caked in dried mud; my shirt has streaks of dirt running from collar to hem and my pants look like I’ve spent the afternoon riding a large mud-covered animal. But wait. One more detail. Beneath that dried on muck covering my face is a smile that goes from muddy ear to muddy ear. Why so happy about looking like Peanuts’ Pig-Pen? Because I just spent the entire day riding and tending to TJ, a lovely 35-year old elephant who became my pal for the day.

My day started with a 6:30AM alarm, which is normally much too early on a vacation, but it was no problem, as I’d been up for an hour already, lying in bed quietly, trying not to squirm too much as I looked forward to my day as a mahout. As soon as it was not ridiculous to be up and dressed, I hopped down to the restaurant of our adorable boutique hotel, settled nicely within the old city walls, and had some cornflakes, partially because I can’t start my day without breakfast and partially because I needed something to do until our 8AM excursion pickup arrived.

Thai Elephant Home, our destination for the day, is about an hour outside of Chiang Mai. The trip out was fascinating. I always love just driving through new places and I had to giggle to myself as I watched people bundled up in winter coats, beanies and scarves to brave the early morning 55 degree weather that cools the city in January and February. (We loved the weather! It was a perfect break from the constant heat and humidity of Kuala Lumpur.) Upon reaching TEH, we were handled bundles of clothes to change into, knapsacks to take along on the trip and bottles of water to keep us hydrated as we headed into the mountains.

Elephant assignments followed. Thad was given one of the largest, which frankly I was glad went to him. Even my “average” sized critter was enormous once I was mounted. The world looks different from atop an elephant head! I was assigned TJ, who brought up the rear of the line (we were a group of five, so awesomely small!) , which meant she wore a bell that tinkled all the way up the mountain and back down the other side, reminding me a bit of a horse-trek we took in Songpan, China, where the horse bell about drove us all nuts! Luckily, TJ’s bell was quieter and more soothing, plus I liked that it meant someone always knew where we were at!

With TEH, guests don’t ride elephants in baskets or with a trainer. Each visitor gets their own elephant for the day- solo. Of course, there are trainers who go along for safety (we learned command words, but TJ did whatever the heck she wanted and who was I to tell the elephant which way to go?! She knew the route better than I did!) TJ obediently bent down, allowing me to step on her front leg, at which point she stood, shooting me onto her back, and off we went. There was a rope behind me that I could hold onto going down hills, but otherwise, it was bareback all the way.

I have to say, there is no sensation in the world like having your bare feet pushed up against the skin of an elephant. To sit up there and just imagine how much muscle and power is beneath you, knowing that in the end, you have no control, is a few parts terrifying and a few parts exhilarating.

At the top of the mountain, we dismounted and had some lunch (banana leaf for the humans, grass/trees for the elephants) and then it was time to hit the spa. In the US, you’d excpect to pay $100 for a mud-mask and massage day at the spa, but we enjoyed it right out of the mountain with our elephants. TJ loved her mud-bath, getting coated from trunk to tail in a gooey mess, which made remounting her a bit petrifying. I was getting well-versed in her boosting me onto her back, but with both of us packed in slippery slime, I hit her back and kept going! Thank goodness for that one rope, which I clung to with all my might!

At the bottom of the mountain we forded a stream, dropping all sunglasses, cameras and phones on the far bank, and then headed back into the middle of the idle flow for bath time, much needed my animals and humans alike! Rolling off TJ into the river, I had my work cut out for me, trying to clean mud off an elephant! Luckily, she helped by provided extra rinse water from her trunk! It felt like something out of a cartoon, where the elephant serves as a shower.

As we headed back to camp, it had been a long day, which I loved, but I was honestly ready to be off TJ’s back. Horse saddle—soreness is one thing, but imagine that times about three, to factor in the width of an elephant. I was sore- everywhere! We did swing by an elephant drive-thru on the way back to buy sugar cane as a treat for the last kilometer of the journey. I held the bundles on my lap and TJ would lift her trunk up to get one each time she ran out. I only wish I had had more! An elephant can go through a bundle of sugar cane like a fat kid with a bag of Cheetos.

Animal-travel. Fauna-frolicking. Creature-trips.

I don’t know what the best clever name for my favorite kind of travel is, but whenever we are looking at new places to visit, one of the first things I do is figure out what animals are native to there and how I might possibly hold, cuddle, ride or basically fondle (in a good way!) whatever adorableness the country has to offer. Thailand, and specifically Chiang Mai, has a corner on the elephant business, so while we did visit our share of beautiful, gold-leafed temples and wandered night markets until we could no longer see straight, the highlight of my latest trip to Thailand was Thai Elephant Home, the small elephant camp (the camp is small, not the elephants) that allows visitors to be a mahout for a day- riding and tending to their own creature from sun-up until saddle-soreness makes one ready to call it a day.

“The very things that held you down are gonna carry you up and up and up.”
― Timothy Mouse, Dumbo

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

 

The “Bear” Necessities

Everybody’s got their travel “thing.” Some people hop on planes in search of culinary delights (or disasters, whichever the case may be), while others want whatever death-defying experience there is to be had (skydiving and bungee jumping and ridiculously terrifying roller coasters come to mind). Some folks want to scale peaks or reach unknown depths of the ocean.

Me? It’s all about the critters! When I travel, my main goal is to hold/touch or at least visit the native fuzz balls.

I couldn’t spend four years in China and not touch a panda (click here for that story) or move to Malaysia and not go hang out with the elephants. Christmas in Thailand saw me snuggling with a monkey named Jackie (click here for that story) and I didn’t leave New Zealand without hunting out a kiwi named Kevin.

Of course, no trip to Australia would be complete without cuddling a koala. This was not as easy of a task as one might think! In many places Down Under, restrictions have been placed on koala-holding, meaning you can easily get your photo posed *next* to a koala, but it’s hands-off. But, there is no way I was finally going to make it to the land of shrimp on the barbie and not make physical contact with what must be the world’s cutest marsupial. A little research online lead me to the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary outside of Brisbane, which meant our trip planning immediately took a turn to the north. No longer was Sydney going to be the home base of our southern hemisphere adventures, as there were koalas calling my name in Queensland.

Vacations may be for sleeping in and taking it easy, but when koala-holding day arrives, there is no need for an alarm. I was up with the first rays of the sun, dressed and ready to head out to the sanctuary before the crowds arrived. I wanted a non-molested marsupial!

Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary is on the edge of Brisbane, in what appears to be a residential neighborhood. (I would buy a house there in a heartbeat and then be the crazy lady who comes to the sanctuary several times a week, soon starting to pick up the crazy laugh of the kookaburras that live there!) We got there just after opening, traded in the tickets I had pre-purchased online (no waiting means getting to the koalas sooner!) and quickly scoured the map for the location of the koala cuddle station. Our beeline to the station meant bypassing the cobbled-together critter that is a platypus and the gum-tree dwelling kookaburra, as well as the giant field of free-roaming kangaroos and emus. While those were all on the must-see/do list for the day, they fell below the main attraction and life-long dream of holding a koala.

With just a few folks in line in front of us (how that is possible, I have no idea!), I purchased my picture packet, which was weirdly reminiscent of picking the photo packets for school pictures. Which combination do you want? How many wallets will you need to pass out to your friends? I definitely needed postcards to send home to family and friends and for just $2, a calendar for my desk at work was a yes as well. Simply put, I got all the things! If it was an option, I chose it.

Before long, it was time!

I quickly hopped into the picture area where I was promptly handed Minty, a dark gray koala bear with pink ears and a rubbery black nose. I was prepared for the adorable fuzziness and even the cuddliness, but I was not ready for the weight. Koalas are dense animals! You’d think that little guy would be mostly fur, but really their hair is quite short and the majority of their mass is body. Their heavy, eucalyptus-fed bodies.  My few minutes with Minty were up much sooner than I would have liked, but it was awesome to get the chance to hang out with him.

I may not be a sky or SCUBA diver (although the latter is set to change this weekend) and I don’t need to search out roller coasters or challenge my stomach with foods from afar, but if there is a furry animal to be held and I can get there by plane, train or automobile, it will happen.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.