A Travellerspoint blog

Thailand 20 Years On: A Country in Mourning

Bangkok to Chiang Rai, Thailand: WEEKS 14 - 17 December/ January, hot in the shade around 35 degrees

sunny 35 °C
View Thomas's Great Adventure on edandsuet's travel map.

Upon arriving in Thailand, it is a country in deep mourning. Bangkok is awash with black, streets decorated in white and black fabric, huge portrait photos of the King at every major junction, in every bank, shopping centre and public building. It is teeming with well groomed mourners in modest black dresses, beautifully coiffed chignoned hair and starched black shirts for the men. The pavements are choked with a tidal wave of grief, there are volunteers handing out free water and food to the thousands that descend on the Grand Palace every day to pay their respects in the sweltering heat, queuing for 12 hours at a time.

A Country in Mourning, Bangkok

A Country in Mourning, Bangkok

King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who died on Thursday 13th October at the age of 88, was the world's longest-reigning monarch, following 70 years on the throne. The country then entered a year of mourning. For most Thais, they’ve never known another king and it is the same as a personal loss, think of the reverence you would show if you went to somebody’s home who was mourning the loss of a family member.

A few of the Thais we spoke to would be overcome with emotion, the tears welling in their eyes. For them, the King was selfless and tireless, a fantastic advocate for Thailand and wanting to make every single person's life better. He spoke of moderation, of Thailand becoming self sufficient for food rather than relying on any imports, he championed Thai people from every walk of the life and he was frugal in the way he lived.

Portrait of the belated King

Portrait of the belated King

I have visited Bangkok three times over the last 22 years and it has undergone a great change. The only things that seem the same are the No 15 and 45 local buses, which still have the same features but are 20 years older (rather like myself): rickety, wooden floored, noisy and stick your head out of the window for DIY air-con and the Khao San Road backpacker enclave. It's still loud, brash, seedy, everything available for the right price, Chang beer on tap, and filled with savvy backpackers but they are all glued to smart phones and buy expensive all in one tickets to the beach destinations or Chiang Mai/Pai from the travel agencies or take the hellish VIP buses overland to Vietnam or Cambodia (there isn't really anything VIP about the experience).

There is certainly a middle class in Thailand now - the roads are filled with gleaming SUVs and shiny flat bed trucks, the MBK Center is no longer the haphazard, brash, crowded bazaar but a bright shopping mall with multi screen cinema and the Siam Paragon centre is the "place to be seen", whether sipping an expensive latte, popping into Prada or Hermes or indulging in an ice-cream sundae that costs more a night's accommodation. The Thais are upwardly mobile but they are still smiling, still welcoming and know that tourism is their number 1 industry.

So we are going to buck the trend and do the travelling for ourselves - our next adventure is Ayutthaya via the third class train.

Posted by edandsuet 23:43 Archived in Thailand Tagged the bangkok king for mourning Comments (0)

12 Taiwan Facts and Observations You Never Knew (1 Good)

TAIPEI TO KAOHSIUNG, TAIWAN: WEEKS 11 - 13 DECEMBER, OVERCAST IN THE NORTH AND SUNNY IN THE SOUTH, 14 - 26 DEGREES

sunny 26 °C
View Thomas's Great Adventure on edandsuet's travel map.

1. Winter in Taiwan
At first glance, if you didn't know the temperature, you would be forgiven for thinking that Taiwan is in the depths of of an Arctic winter. Even though the daytime temperature ranges from 19 - 26 degrees depending on whether you are in the north or south of the country, everyone is bundled up in a multitude of layers from puffer jackets, thick padded hoodies, scarves, woolly jumpers, ankle and knee high leather boots. Meanwhile we are stripping off layers to wander around in T-shirts. I tried to find out why. Wasn't every one experiencing hot flushes and dying to take off their clothes? No, I was told that everyone finds it cold in the winter - not sure what they would make of winter back home!

2. Mask Wearing
No, not balaclavas or halloween masks but surgical masks. Firstly I thought this was due to traffic pollution when the locals were whizzing around on scooters or strolling down the street, but then I started wondering why people were wearing them on the metro, in shops, hotels and restaurants. Was this paranoia about germs and contagions? Unsure, but coughing or sneezing without one seems to be frowned upon.

3. 7-Eleven Stores
This shop chain is the birth child of the Taiwanese and no country has more stores per person than Taiwan. There are over 5000 in total and probably one store every 500 metres in cities.

4. Mandarin or Taiwanese?
The official language is Mandarin but Tawainese is spoken particularly in the south of the country. Japanese is still spoken by older people as Taiwan was under Japanese rule between 1895 and 1945.

5. Fourth Floor Mystery
Even Scooby Doo would have been flummoxed if he decided to search for the mysterious fourth floor in business or hotel buildings in Taiwan. In fact, in some hotels you would be hard pressed to find a room containing the number 'four' in its room number, let alone the fourth floor. The Chinese word for four (si), if said in the wrong tone, means 'to die' so it would be unlucky to have any rooms or floors using the number four.

6. Clocks as Gifts - Unthinkable
Presenting a clock as a gift is unthinkable as the Mandarin phrase 'to give a clock' sounds the same as 'to attend a funeral'.

7. Referring to the Unreferrable
It's important never to comment or make jokes that imply death or disaster as there is a widespread belief in bad omens, and the lengths to which many Taiwanese will go to avoid them. For example, a seemingly innocuous statement such as “she’s going to get herself killed walking in front of all that traffic,” can imply in the minds of many Taiwanese that this will actually happen. Actions that imply the notion that something untoward could happen are also widely avoided in Taiwan, which helps to explain why so many Taiwanese refuse to write last wills out of fear that such action could precipitate their own demise.

8. Throwing Blocks (Moon Blocks)
In a couple of temples, we were lucky enough to witness the use of throwing blacks which are shaped like moon crescents that are used for fortune telling. A worshipper uses them to ascertain the god's answer to a specific question. If one block lands flat side up and the other opposite, then this is positive, but must happen three times in a row for the believer to be certain that the deity is in agreement.
Throwing Blocks (Moon Blocks), Tainan

Throwing Blocks (Moon Blocks), Tainan

9. Bring out the Braziers
It's mid-afternoon in the second largest city in Taiwan and you're walking down the pavement when you have to swerve to avoid a small metal brazier (rather like a cauldron) that is burning hot. Ash flutters upwards into the air from burning what appears to be paper. A few steps further, there is another brazier and then another. Burning ghost money so that it transitions to their ancestors is another way of honouring the deceased family and this is done every day outside businesses, restaurants, hotels and shops. For a country so advanced in the technology sector, these beliefs are in stark contrast to logic and modern day living.

10. Semi Conductors
Taiwan is the world leader in semi conductor manufacturing - most digital consumer products in the world such as air conditioners, smart phones, cookers, washing machines, cameras, televisions and fridges use semi conductors.

11. 921 Earthquake Museum
We visited this poignant and informative memorial to the devastating 1999 quake which is built around the ruins of the Guangfu Junior High School. The Chelungpu fault line left a clearly visible ridge that cuts across the running track. The earthquake hit with a 7.3 magnitude on the Richter scale with diastrous aftershocks registering 6.7.
We experienced the quake ourselves in a class room simulation room and the museum has hands on science experiments to explain what building structures can withstand earthquakes and what can be done to limit the devastation.
921 Earthquake Museum, Taichung

921 Earthquake Museum, Taichung

Running track showing visible ridge caused by devastating 1999 earthquake, 921 Earthquake Museum

Running track showing visible ridge caused by devastating 1999 earthquake, 921 Earthquake Museum

Experiment on building structures during earthquakes, 921 Earthquake Museum

Experiment on building structures during earthquakes, 921 Earthquake Museum

Ruins of Guangfu Junior High School, 921 Earthquake Museum

Ruins of Guangfu Junior High School, 921 Earthquake Museum

12. Religion
Taiwan has 3 major religions and we visited temples for all three: Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism and in some ways is a mixture of all three with folk religion thrown in for good measure. The Japanese occupation saw widespread persecution of Taoism (as it was seen as the embodiment of Chinese culture), which meant that Taoists had to secretly worship in Buddhist temples, leading to the creation of Taiwan's uniquely united yet divergent faith.
Lanterns hanging from temple ceiling, Lugang

Lanterns hanging from temple ceiling, Lugang

]
Buddhism is one of the world's oldest religions where the central belief of Buddhist teachings is the overcoming of human desire, the chief cause of the universal suffering that dominates all of life. By following a "path" of belief and principles, a Buddhist can aim to achieve a higher plane of existence known as Nirvana. Chinese Buddhism varies considerably from the pure Indian version with a number of Chinese sects combining both Buddhist and Taoist beliefs.
Great Buddha Statue, Changhua (largest Buddha statue in Taiwan)

Great Buddha Statue, Changhua (largest Buddha statue in Taiwan)


Have your name assigned to a glowing miniature Buddha

Have your name assigned to a glowing miniature Buddha


The Taiwanese worship a mixture of Taoist and Buddhist deities including Mazu (Queen of Heaven), Guanyin (Goddess of Mercy), Wang Ye (Pestilence Gods) and Guan Di (God of War).
Official Good of War Temple, Tainan

Official Good of War Temple, Tainan


Supreme Emperor of the Dark Heaven Statue, Lotus Lake

Supreme Emperor of the Dark Heaven Statue, Lotus Lake


Confucianism is not strictly a religion, the teachings of the great Chinese Philosopher Confucius (551-479 BC) have become an important part of faith and personal beliefs throughout Asia. Confucius taught the worship of ancestors and the respect of elders and nobility, but he also believed strongly in a society based on merit and skills rather than privilege and inherited titles. If people behave according to a strict code of moral and social values then society will be transformed and happiness achieved.
We've observed local people visiting various temples, make a series of bows before the image of their chosen deity, their hands together before their chest normally holding incense sticks. The sticks are then placed in a large censer facing the main hall of the temple. Tables in front of the altars are usually covered in offerings such as fruit, incense and joss money (gold paper) intended to convey the sincerity and loyalty of the worshipper. The money, however, must be burnt in order for it to pass into the spiritual realm; there was always a queue of worshippers waiting to throw towering piles of money in chimney like furnaces which stand in the temple courtyard.
Furnace outside a temple for burning joss money (gold paper), Changhua

Furnace outside a temple for burning joss money (gold paper), Changhua

Posted by edandsuet 16:00 Archived in Taiwan Tagged taiwan Comments (0)

The Taiwanese Eating Machine (1 Good)

Taipei to Kaohsiung, Taiwan: Weeks 11 - 13 December, overcast in the north and sunny in the south, 14 - 26 degrees

sunny 25 °C
View Thomas's Great Adventure on edandsuet's travel map.

For Thomas, the success of a country, rests in its culinary offerings and Taiwan is no exception to this rule as it has given him ample new dishes to try (not all of them palatable).

So far he has munched his way through many dishes including some Taiwanese specialities, some of which are local to particular cities or towns only:

- Japanese style hot pot with noodles and fish (each table have their own gas rings and the bowl is presented to you with the raw ingredients including frozen fish, you cook your pot over the gas ring and add various fish as you go)
Japanese style hot pot with noodles, Kaohsiung

Japanese style hot pot with noodles, Kaohsiung

- fish broth
- fish wonton soup and noodles
Fish Wonton soup and noodles, Taipei

Fish Wonton soup and noodles, Taipei

- spicy pot stickers and shrimp rolls
Thomas orders a variety of pot stickers including spicy Korean and garden vegetable

Thomas orders a variety of pot stickers including spicy Korean and garden vegetable

- Chinese style breakfast normally served stone cold consisting of congee (vile watery rice that tastes like wallpaper paste) and pickled vegetables
- clams and mussels
- pork floss (nasty stuff that the locals sprinkle over many dishes, especially at breakfast), unfortunately it was never candy floss
Pork Floss and Fish Floss (any kind of floss...)

Pork Floss and Fish Floss (any kind of floss...)

- whole baby calamari
- battered small crabs
- squid lips (these are sublime and I'm not being sarcastic)
Taiwanese equivalent of 'fish and chips', Lugang

Taiwanese equivalent of 'fish and chips', Lugang

- spring onion pancake
- steamed buns filled with taro or pork
Steamed Bun Stall, Lugang

Steamed Bun Stall, Lugang

- red bean ice cream (not pleasant)
- pineapple cake
- custard tarts
- mango milk nougat
- monkey shrimps (mud shrimps)
- vegetable and pork wontons
Thomas eating wontons

Thomas eating wontons

- Taiwanese milk fish
Taiwanese milk fish and shrimp rolls (Taiwan speciality dish)

Taiwanese milk fish and shrimp rolls (Taiwan speciality dish)

- shaved ice (Thomas's favourite, a Taiwanese speciality dessert covered in different combinations of your choice including fruit, condensed milk, tapioca beans, honey or sweet taro) - we were lucky enought to eat our shaved ice at the oldest establishment in Taiwan
Shaved Ice with condensed milk and fruit (Taiwan speciality dessert dish)

Shaved Ice with condensed milk and fruit (Taiwan speciality dessert dish)

What we weren't brave enough to try:
- sticky salty pudding (one look was enough to make your stomach turn when you saw the gooey mess in a bowl)
- duck's blood curd
- chicken feet
- smoked duck head and neck
Smoked duck head and neck, Night market

Smoked duck head and neck, Night market

- smoked pig ears
- hard boiled eggs left to soak in black tea
Hard Boiled Eggs soaked in black tea in 7-Eleven, Taipei

Hard Boiled Eggs soaked in black tea in 7-Eleven, Taipei

- stinky tofu (fermented tofu cubes deep fried in pig fat) - this has to be one of the worst smells ever, it is guaranteed to make you heave without even seeing the dish or getting within a hundred yards of the establishment serving it - I've been told that it is delicious)
- glutinous pork meatballs in some sloppy, gloopy sauce that resembles something that would have been used on Tiswas (again showing my age) or Noel's House Party by Mr Blobby
- vegetarian tree hedgehog silk (answers on a postcard please if anyone can actually identify what this is as I can't quite believe it is made from hedeghogs)
Vegetarian Tree Hedgehog Silk, one of the many snacks you can find in a 7-Eleven, Tainan

Vegetarian Tree Hedgehog Silk, one of the many snacks you can find in a 7-Eleven, Tainan


Drinks wise, the national drink is tea but not tea as we know it! While I longed for a nice cup of earl grey or a hot cup of Tetley or Yorkshire Tea with a nice splash of cow's milk, there wasn't much chance of finding it here. The Taiwanese are absolutely obsessed by tea and there are aisles of the stuff in plastic bottles in the chiller cabinet (mostly soya bean milk varieties or without milk) sold cold, or cruise down the soft drinks aisles to discover another world of tea, again sold in plastic bottles but a variety of black or green intended to be served cold. In fact, at first glance it appears difficult to hunt down a drink that isn't tea. From one perspective, it's healthy as there are hardly any fizzy drinks and fruit juices are very expensive. But what if you don't like tea?

We sampled various iced teas including black wintermelon tea (bearable but only just), iced lemongrass tea (not sure), iced green tea with passionfruit (gorgeous), turquoise tea with mango with varying degrees of success.

Iced Green Tea with Passionfruit, Kaohsiung

Iced Green Tea with Passionfruit, Kaohsiung

As we pottered down the streets, tea shops or stalls are as numerous as 7-Elevens serving 101 different varieties, many of them strange looking concoctions dispatched in sealed plastic cups to be drunk through straws. Some of the most popular are pearl milk tea, bubble tea and teas with tapioca beans floating in them.

If you want a hot cup of tea, Taiwan produces some of the finest tea in the world (just don't expect milk or sugar in it) including oolong (semi-fermented). The Oriental Beauty strain derives its flavour from young leaves that have been bitten by tiny insects. There's also green tea which is used to flavour every conceivable food stuff including ice cream.

We visited Maokong, one of Taiwan's oldest tea growing areas in south Taipei. The Taipei Tea Promotion Centre was a chance to meet a local tea farmer and taste all the different strains of oolong. Thomas got into the spirit of tea tasting, by trying every single tea that was poured out in front of him but he hasn't been converted to tea drinking just yet.

Posted by edandsuet 16:00 Archived in Taiwan Tagged food taiwan Comments (1)

Taiwan: Adjustment Issues and Return of the Beasties (1 Bad)

Taipei, Taiwan: WEEK 11 December, overcast 14 - 21 degrees

overcast 18 °C
View Thomas's Great Adventure on edandsuet's travel map.

Taiwan is a country in limbo yet it is first world, has a growing economy, a technologically savvy young workforce and is so terribly polite that public notices remind the populace to show decorum at all times even on the metro. While the burning issue on the national news is independence, the only other headlines are the road accidents involving trucks. buses and scooters, making this one of the safest countries I have ever visited. You can wander down side streets at night and there is relatively little theft and no scams.

Geographically, the island of Taiwan lies some 110 miles off the southeastern coast of mainland China. It is smaller than Switzerland and larger than Belgium, but the island lies in a complex tectonic area and major seismic faults have produced massive earthquakes throughout Taiwan's history. The seismic hazard map for Taiwan by the USGS shows 9/10 of the island as the highest rating (most hazardous). If this wasn't dangerous enough, the island is also prone to summer typhoons that cause flooding and high winds.

Ruins of Guangfu Junior High School, 921 Earthquake Museum

Ruins of Guangfu Junior High School, 921 Earthquake Museum

One of the contentious issues which was has been highlighted during our time here by President Elect Donald Trump, is whether Taiwan should be recognized as an independent country. Suffice to say that the Taiwanese media weren't impressed by Trump using Taiwan as a 'bargaining chip' to negotiate a better trade deal with China and a peaceful demonstration was in full flow in Taichung, a few days before we left, advocating an independent Taiwan.

Peaceful Protest

Peaceful Protest

One Chinese state newspaper stated that China was ready to invade Taiwan if Trump decided to view Taiwan as an independent country and not follow the 'One China' policy. The press in Taiwan regularly feature Trump on their front pages (normally pointing in an angry stance) and he always makes the news on TV here. Taiwan is officially the Republic of China (ROC) and is the most populous state that is not a member of the United Nations, also having the largest economy.

The People's Republic of China (PRC) has consistently claimed sovereignty over Taiwan, and refused diplomatic relations with any country that recognizes the ROC. Although Taiwan is fully self-governing, most international organizations either refuse it membership or allow it to participate only as a non-state actor. Internally, the major division in politics is between the aspirations of eventual Chinese unification or Taiwanese independence, though both sides have moderated their positions to broaden their appeal.

It has been a difficult transition to leave sunny, happy go lucky, taco loving, mariarchi singing Mexico and touch down in Taiwan, the antithesis of Central America. Not only did we lose ten hours from the two flights via Los Angeles, we also crossed the International Dateline, gaining a day, so our body clocks barely knew whether they were coming or going after the second leg of our flight lasting 15 hours. We all seemed to contract various illnesses from the flights which meant none of us were 100% ready to navigate Taiwan.

Even though I hadn't realised it while in Mexico, my mind had become acutely attuned to Spanish intonation, picking out odd words and phrases, then trying to formulate the next question or statement in basic Spanish. I'd even watched 'Jurassic World' dubbed into Spanish on the bus journey to Guadalajara, so Mandarin and Taiwanese barely registered in my confused brain. Even Thomas was suffering from post Spanish language withdrawal, repeating key phrases to air stewards in Spanish and when saying thank you at Taipei airport.

It is winter in Taiwan and the summer rains are long gone, replaced by dry days. Daytime temperature in the north can get up to 21 degrees but as we moved further south, it reached a pleasant sunny 26 degrees in some places.

First impressions is that there is a uniformity to Taiwanese society, everyone conducts themselves in an orderly fashion, queuing in perfectly formed lines for buses and the MRT (underground metro) - there is never any danger of anyone not minding the gap or breaking the rules of not eating or drinking. The transport systems are modern and always run to time. Buses between cities are incredibly comfortable with only three reclining seats across.

Long Distance Buses (U-Bus), comfortable travelling in Taiwan

Long Distance Buses (U-Bus), comfortable travelling in Taiwan

Working out how to use MRT Token Machines, Taipei Main Station

Working out how to use MRT Token Machines, Taipei Main Station

Taipei Bus Station, Taipei

Taipei Bus Station, Taipei

Taichung Railway Message Board, which platform is it for Changhua?

Taichung Railway Message Board, which platform is it for Changhua?

Everyone is incredibly helpful, whether it is finding an exit from the metro, finding the right street or cycle route, knowing when you have reached a destination on the bus or buying metro tickets. At Taipei Main Station, which is huge and houses the High Speed Rail (HSR) link, local trains and the MRT, a Taiwanese lady assisted us when we tried to find exit (Y13) with our backpacks on, walking with us for over 10 minutes in the wrong direction to where she was heading. There are over 100 named exits from the station and it becomes a vast subterranean shopping mall beneath the station - the Taiwanese love basement levels.

All the streets and signs are in Mandarin and we rely on any English translations we can find, whether on maps or on the bus/train ticker tape signs. Ordering food either consists of pointing to an actual dish that you see someone else have, pointing to a photo or asking if there is an English menu or translation. Sometimes you just take a punt and hope for the best.

Order Form for restaurant serving pot stickers and soup, takes a while to decipher

Order Form for restaurant serving pot stickers and soup, takes a while to decipher

There are normally tourist information centres at most major train stations, so we have often gone in to get an English map, ask for a destination to be written down in Mandarin and what the pronunciation is, or ask for a timetable to be translated into English.

Taichung City

Taichung City

Apart from the numerous Chinese tour groups, who faithfully follow their guide en mass as he shouts out orders and waves a small flag or umbrella above his head, there are very few Western travellers here. Not sure whether this is the language barrier, the cost of accommodation or 'no go with the flow'. We discovered that it was impossible to backpack round the country without booking hotels in advance, especially on Friday/Saturday nights when the room prices double. This goes against our backpacking ethos of turning up somewhere, seeing how it pans out and deciding whether to stay or go. If we walked in and asked for a room, hotels charged the rack rate even though it could be 50% cheaper online and it was low season when discounts should be given, or the hotels were full with Taiwan tourists or Chinese tour groups or so grim we cannot stay there. This is probably compounded by us needing a triple room which in Taiwan is normally twice as expensive as a double. It detracts from drifting from place to place and we've noticed that it is a foreign way of travelling for the Taiwanese - they seem surprised we don't have a tour guide or are using public transport to get everywhere. We illustrated to Thomas what a room would be like in a hotel that charges fifty percent less than the places we were staying in and he was horrified - the rooms we've seen reminded me of some dives Edward and I have slept in in Hong Kong.

This has also meant meticulously planning our days, destinations, hotels and transport in Taiwan which we never expected to do and sacrificing quite a few places we had intended to try, for example the Sun Moon Lake was fully booked when we wanted to go - we just couldn't find any accommodation online for a triple. Another oddity about hotel rooms, that Thomas loves, is that they all have door bells which range from chirping birds to the more familiar 'ding dong' and a light switching on above your room.

I was horrified that we have come across the dreaded bed bugs in Taiwan (a first world country) of all places. We paid 42 pounds a night in Tainin for a very mediocre hotel. It was clean and there was no evidence on the walls that anyone had squashed bugs filled with blood. Poor Thomas ended up covered in small bites all over his body which I recognised straight away as bed bugs and he had to part with his teddy bear, as we suspected it might now be infested.

Edward and I dodged the bed bugs, but the hotel was also swarming with mosquitos and they really are large and ferocious in Taiwan. I haven't been bitten on my face for over twenty years, not since I bush camped in the outback in Australia. Even though I almost bathed myself in repellent, my face was peppered with at least six bites which I had a bad reaction to, and then I'd been bitten on my neck and shoulders. Such is life though and thankfully we were only booked in there for two nights - at least our next destination Kaohsiung was warm, sunny and not a breeding ground for mosquitos.

Posted by edandsuet 16:00 Archived in Taiwan Tagged taipei tainin Comments (0)

Magical Monarch Butterfly Migration (1 Good)

El Rosario near Zitacuaro, MEXICO: WEEK 10 NOVEMBER, SUNNY, 12 - 21 DEGREES

sunny 20 °C
View Thomas's Great Adventure on edandsuet's travel map.

Monarch Butterflies drying out their wings

Monarch Butterflies drying out their wings

One of the reasons we came to Mexico was to have the once in a lifetime experience of witnessing the Monarch Butterfly migration that commences in mid November until March. Every winter, 150 million butterflies migrate from the Great Lakes in the US and Canada to the pine forests of Michoacan, the region to the west of Mexico City. It is astonishing to believe that the butterflies cover 4500km in four to five weeks to reach a unique micro climate in the pine forests, ready for winter.

The cool temperatures at 3000m help to conserve energy, the trees provide shelter and the fog laden air prevents the butterflies from drying out. The butterflies would normally die after 8 weeks, but to migrate and breed, they enter a phase which allows them to live for 6 months. They breed in the spring where their caterpillars feed on milkweed, before they die and their off spring return to the US. Nature is always a source of constant amazement - to think that their off spring must have the migration map genetically imprinted as how can they know where to fly back to?

With our limited Spanish, we needed to find out how to get to the 'Santuario de la Mariposa Monarca'. We based ourselves in Zitacuaro, a small town scattered over low hills at 1900m. From speaking to the hotel owners, who were incredibly friendly and helpful, we pieced together the information as we wouldn't have a map, which always seems simple at the time but in practice becomes another adventure into the unknown. The hotel owners even phoned their friend, who is a guide at the butterfly sanctuary, to find out what the best time was during the day to see the butterflies take flight.

We set off early to find a taxi collectivo to the village of Ocampo, which was meant to stop roughly two blocks away by a building with a sign for "Hielo Nacional", but was actually a parking lot with a bench. We were expecting a minibus collectivo, but it was a taxi. What should have been a 25 min journey turned into 45 min one due to numerous unexpected stops. Our taxi driver decided to order tacos for breakfast and eat them while driving, the cheese dripping down all over his top, stopped for petrol and then allowed another passenger to fill up a large gas canister which he promptly popped into the boot.

We arrived in Ocampo to find the main plaza had been cordoned off by police and we were meant to be dropped off at the Ocampo mercado which the taxi couldn't drive up to. Sensing an opportunity, our taxi driver tried to tell us in Spanish that the only way to get to El Rosario would be in his taxi (of course) at the exorbitant price of 250 pesos, as there would be no collectivos running from Ocampo. Edward was having none of it, so we walked to the main plaza to discover that there was a cheerleading/dance competition in full flow and most of the villagers were having a fiesta, which was why the road was closed and all the girls we encountered were wearing flashy leotards.

At this point, we had a tremendous stroke of luck. A collectivo (battered minibus) happened to be passing and we asked the driver if he was heading to El Rosario and he was! This part of the journey should have taken 40 min up a winding single track road, but again we were thwarted halfway by a procession of children in school uniform. This celebration blocked the main road, but our collectivo driver was a determined man and he took advice from the other passengers and turned onto a dirt track.

School Children Procession on the way to El Rosario from Ocampo

School Children Procession on the way to El Rosario from Ocampo

The older guy next to me crossed himself, which was when I noticed a sharp, mud and grass incline up ahead. "Only landrovers can make it up that hill," exclaimed Thomas and I admit even I've watched enough episodes of Top Gear to be in agreement. I wasn't entirely sure how a minibus without four wheel drive was going to make it up there and whether the minibus would end up stuck or overturn. The older guy crossed himself again, which didn't exactly inspire confidence.

Somehow, the minibus bumped and swayed from side to side to make it up the track, continued to lurch over the mud through small holdings, passing turkeys, chickens and a collection of sheep on the way. We ended up by a field of corn and ploughed back through local's back yards to find the road again.

Slight off road diversion taken by collectivo driver, Ocampo to El Rosario

Slight off road diversion taken by collectivo driver, Ocampo to El Rosario

Slowly, but surely we wound up through the pine forest, climbing ever higher until we reached El Rosario. The sanctuary have guides to accompany you to ensure that the butterflies and their environment are not harmed by tourists. Surrounded by Mexican families, young and old, we hiked ever upwards through the forest to a height of 3000m. Finally, we were among the butterflies, thousands and thousands of them; the branches of the trees turning reddish brown from all of the butterflies resting, drying their wings.

Monarch Butterflies weighing down the pine tree branches

Monarch Butterflies weighing down the pine tree branches

Monarch Butterflies weighing down the pine tree branches, drying out their wings

Monarch Butterflies weighing down the pine tree branches, drying out their wings

When the sun appears through the clouds, the butterflies take flight, a magical display of fluttering wings against the bright blue sky.

Monarch Butterflies take flight

Monarch Butterflies take flight


Monarch Butterflies taking flight during sunny spells

Monarch Butterflies taking flight during sunny spells

I could have stayed amidst the butterflies in the forest for hours - there was an overwhelming sense of calmness here and it was so beautiful, it made my heart sing. Maybe in another life I had lived in a little cabin in the pine forest, with just the elements and nature to battle (maybe young whippersnapper Meg, the backpacker from San Christobel, and her crystals were rubbing off on me). I was extremely privileged to be able witness such a glorious sight, but my heart became heavy with sadness too. Loss of pine forest habitat effects their numbers and as always it is humans who are the main threat. However, the web is filled with blogs from people who are planting milkweed to encourage the butterfly breeding so there is always hope. Everyone needs a little magic in their lives.

Thomas made it his mission to save as many Monarch butterflies as possible if they were stranded on the path. You are not allowed to touch them, but our guide showed him how to lift them up with twigs and carry them back to safety. "If I only manage to save one butterfly, it will make a difference", observed Thomas. It always makes a difference, it doesn't matter how small.

Thomas takes a stranded butterfly back to the forest

Thomas takes a stranded butterfly back to the forest

Posted by edandsuet 17:42 Archived in Mexico Tagged butterfly monarch migration Comments (0)

(Entries 11 - 15 of 33) « Page 1 2 [3] 4 5 6 7 »