Adventures in Sigiriya

We traveled to Sigiriya from Kandy via bus which was one of the better bus journeys we’ve experienced in Asia, and we always enjoy seeing a new country’s landscape despite what the bus may be like! After several hours of travelling we were wondering when and how we were going to get off the bus as there seemed to be no sign of Sigiriya or slowing down by the driver. Suddenly the bus stopped on the highway in what seemed like the middle of nowhere leaving us standing at the side of the road with all our belongings and no sense of direction. It was only when we looked up that we saw the incredible golden temple overshadowing us.

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We always had the intention of returning to Dambulla once settled in our accommodation in Sigiriya but this surprise stop had saved us that extra journey. The temple itself was like much of Sri Lanka; magnificent. The giant buddha on top is as big as it sounds and there are surprisingly few tourists around giving you the time you need to explore and capture this wonderful temple. Perhaps as we wasn’t expecting to be exploring this temple there and then we were all the more excited, and it was by far our favourite temple of Sri Lanka.

Where to stay

We stayed in Sigiri Rock Side Homestay after reading several of its five star reviews on TripAdvisor. The place lived up to its reviews with the couple management team doing their utmost to making us feel welcome and comfortable.

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The best place about Sigiri Rock Side Homestay was the fantastic hospitality you receive. As well as an enormous breakfast you have the offer of dinner for $5 and it is our duty to tell you that it was incredible but be warned, make sure you leave lots of room as it’s literally an endless stream of food! We would definitely recommend eating their rather than eating out if you do stay as most of the options close by offer food no better than average, and we loved sampling the many traditional Sri Lankan home cooked dishes. The rooms were really cute and cosy, with chairs outside to relax in the evenings whilst you’re surrounded by wildlife and even are visited by plenty of monkeys!

What to do

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Lion Rock is voted one of the best places to visit in the whole of Sri Lanka and we were not disappointed. At $30 a ticket it’s not cheap but like with the rest of Sri Lanka; you get what you pay for. This was a heritage site that was well maintained, well guided and simply awe-provoking. The climb itself wasn’t easy but it wasn’t too difficult so you should be fine with a bottle of water and some cool clothing. We saw a number of people stop at the halfway stage but we would say that once you’re there the hard part is over so make sure you continue your ascent when you’re ready to reach the summit. Once at the top you explore the grounds of this once great fortress and are taken aback by the views of this beautiful part of planet earth! The whole experience is a once in a lifetime moment that we will never forget, we could have stayed up there for days, it was stunning.

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Unfortunately we spotted no lions during our time at Lion Rock (just kiddin’ we know there aren’t any, but we enjoyed letting our minds wonder!) so next up was time for some wildlife spotting! We had intended on visiting Wilpattu National Park but time was running out for us so we did some research and found you could do a wildlife safari right here in Sigiriya at Minneriya National Park! We only found this out after speaking to the kind people at our homestay who set up our safari in the morning and by the afternoon we were standing tall on a safari jeep wading through the jungle at less that $100 dollars for the pair of us.

We were worried that our last minute change of plan was going to result in a half hearted safari but this just wasn’t the case. Climbing Lion Rock and embarking on a safari made for one of the most memorable days of our lives! An absolutely incredible experience as we came across peacocks, pelicans, eagles, giant lizards, hundreds of elephants and so much more!

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We saw a few complaints on Trip Advisor saying the plains were dominated by elephants but this was perfect for us as we both love these gentle giants from our experience at Elephant Nature Park.

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We watched from the roof of our private jeep as the elephants roamed free in a natural environment where they could be themselves, naturally and safely. The baby elephants rolled in the mud, the teenagers tussled and played while the elder statesmen ate their own body weight in food! An absolutely magnificent day with nothing but fond memories and awesome photos for us to look back on with.

In case you haven’t got the drift by now we absolutely loved Sigiriya as we seemed to be falling in love with all of Sri Lanka. Next on our trip was Trinco and surely it couldn’t get any better, could it?

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We’ve got 99 problems but travelling isn’t one!

Delhi Belly

2Following on from one of the most incredible experiences in Agra, Delhi was next on the list. We decided buses were no longer an option with K’s mum, once was enough! We hired a car from our hostel in Agra to Delhi where we had booked to stay at Smyle Inn, right in the centre of New Delhi and bang in the middle of Main Bazaar road. The car dropped us at the end of a tiny little alleyway and we made our way through with all of our luggage, passing outside urinals, sleeping dogs, spitting men, whilst attempting to not get run over by motorbikes. When we reached Smyle Inn it was a pleasant surprise and in fact we visited Delhi three times and opted to stay here each time. A very warm welcome, clean rooms equipped with everything you need; wifi, free breakfast, a great location (despite the alley) and most importantly, cheap! This place was perfect for us.

Delhi 3First up was a visit to the Gurudwara Bangla Sahib, more for K’s mum being a traditional Sikh, but it turned out we all really enjoyed it. Upon entering we passed an elderly man with a kind face and he was completely amazed when H greeted him with “Sat sri akaal mamaji” one of those moments that will always stick out! The temple was peaceful and we were able to completely relax, dipping our feet in the holy water and people watching the locals doing the same. A delicious meal was served of dahl, chapatti and kheer to finish. We had an unexpectedly good time here, in fact, better than when we visited the Golden Temple, but we’ve not got to that yet.

Delhi 2Something on H’s bucket list was to see a Bollywood show in India, and that we did. We booked tickets to see Zangoora, the BIGGEST Bollywood stage show ever and we were not disappointed! We took the metro and surprisingly it was a good idea. Definitely worth a try and much quicker than tuk tuks if you are travelling longer distances, however we must emphasise one thing; DO NOT travel during rush hour. Imagine being on the central line in London and multiply the people by a hundred! It was unbearable. The show was located in its own little magical world at the Kingdom of Dreams, it’s what you imagine India to be like. Filled with colour, food, bhangra and more, minus all of the bad bits! We loved walking round and exploring this unexpected place. Zangoora was in Hindi but luckily K’s mum was on hand to translate when needed. It was a fabulous show that we all immensely enjoyed. We couldn’t help but be immersed into Indian culture with the music and dancing and we jumped to our feet at the end when the finale was to Jai Ho. The show finished late so we decided to get a tuctuc back to main bazaar and eat local… which was a mistake. Nothing was open and we were content to just go to bed, but K’s mum was insistent that we ate and found a back street veggie place. Now don’t get us wrong, the food was good but little did we know we were all about to encounter the dreaded Delhi Belly!

H woke up after a few hours spewing her guts up and K and his mum came down with it a few days later. Trust us when we say it was beyond awful, we ended up having to go the hospital as K just couldn’t shift it! But anyway, what’s the point in going to Delhi if you’re not going to experience chronic food poising?! All part of the experience!

K and his mum had a day out visiting Qutb Minar and the Lotus Temple which was a strangely relaxing experience (something you don’t often get in India) whilst H was unwell in bed. The striking flower shaped building which is deceptively large is a place of worship which is open to any religion. It is simply a place for prayer which holds no judgements, a rarity when it comes to religion.

1The following day we went to The India Gate war memorial, it is very similar to the Gateway to India in Mumbai but not on the edge of the sea, and as well as being a good Instagram opportunity there is a lot of history behind the famous arch.

Other places we visited whilst in Delhi were Connaught Place, great for little eateries and shopping and we also found a Nandos! Saket Mall had a fantastic Hard Rock Cafe which we couldn’t get enough of, we really lived it up in Delhi trying all of the cultural food. The Jama Masjid temple (yes another temple) was a less peaceful experience than what greeted us at the Lotus Temple. We had a bit of a bad experience here with H, being completely covered up and respectable but still treated unfairly, told to pay a fee no one else was and asked not to take photos whilst everyone was taking photos of her! Unfortunately, this ruined what was meant to be one of Delhi’s top sights, but you just learn to move on from these experiences whilst travelling, it’s all part of it. One place we didn’t get a chance to visit was Rashtrapati Bhavan the presidential residence. We’ve heard how beautiful it was and just simply didn’t get time.

DelhiAfter one long visit to Delhi, and two shorter stop overs we became really fond of it, even the little alley leading to our hotel from main bazaar road started to feel like home. We learnt where to hold our nose and close our eyes and all was fine. Main Bazaar was also great for a bargain, with lots of traditional Indian gifts, cool clothes and very cheap silver, we did lots of shopping here for family gifts as India was our last stop before returning home.

As mentioned before the main cities in India get a lot of stick, and we can understand why, Delhi is absolutely crazy. You have to completely immerse yourself otherwise you will get lost along the way. It’s absolutely filthy, poor, filled with street kids begging in the middle of traffic and people who want to rip you off. However, if you are able to let go and take things with a pinch of salt, it is incredible. We guarantee you will enjoy it and learn so much about the culture and yourself. There is nowhere else in the world that is such an assault to the senses as Delhi, and that’s what makes it so special. We felt something that is pulling us back, drawing us in, and we can’t wait to dive in head first again!

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A tale of two Taj’s

So after exploring the less obvious areas of India, we finally got round to doing the mainstream routes starting with Mumbai and Agra.

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mumbaArriving in Mumbai we were back in another bustling city full of extreme heat, overcrowding and pollution and you know what? We absolutely loved it!

However, things did not get off to the best start as accommodation was hard to come by, especially for a backpacker! Paying almost up to £13 a bed in a hostel and £20 for a private room, Mumbai was one of India’s most expensive regions for accommodation but you did not exactly get what you paid for.

FullSizeRenderOn our first night after another long and uncomfortable journey, we were excited for a shower and a comfortable bed. The shower was decent enough (standard dripping taps and stained towels) we rolled into bed and drifted off. Before long we were tossing and turning and itching bites all over our body, we have had more than our fair share of mosquito bites in our time and were almost immune to them by now but these were different. After waking up in the middle of the night to check for gnats we turned the light on and found tens of lumps all over our bodies from bed bugs!

With no one at reception we laid the stained towels down and tried to sleep through the bites and come the morning K had a lump in his eye the size of a golf ball. We reported the issue to reception who were very apologetic and allowed us to change rooms. This was thankfully our first and last case of bed bugs from our travels and it was not an experience we wished to suffer through again!

IMG_3755Mumbai itself was a beautiful city, full of British architecture and incredible buildings, we walked from Central Station, past the Asiatic Society Library and military base and visited the ‘Prince of Wales Museum’, or to the locals Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalay (definitely worth a visit to see the stunning grounds), before eventually reaching the Gateway of India. A major tourist attraction, the gateway was crammed with people and security but it was still a fantastic place to be. The usual fluttering of senses tingled you to your core as you immersed yourself into India’s culture. You look from the street stalls, families living on the streets and animals roaming the roads and then lift your head to the great Gateway of India. Extraordinary.

A stone’s throw away is The Taj Hotel, a lavish and grand hotel which epitomises exactly what India does so right. In spite of the extreme poverty, dangers and various flaws, India enables itself to offer the very highest of standards to those willing to pay for it. K’s mother came to visit us in India and met us in Mumbai in an emotional and long awaited re-acquaintance between mother and son. We decided to go for Tea at the Taj and were not disappointed.

IMG_3758As soon as the air con hits you and the doors close, you are in an entirely different place. A world of designer brands, gold and silver service greets you in such a way that even the most luxurious of Western brands would struggle to match. The walls are lined with marble and gold as you pass through the corridors before finding the grand staircase leading to the restaurant. The Taj Hotel really is all it’s made up to be and if you ever wish to try the finer things India has to offer then this is the place to be.

Mumbai is the perfect example of the wealth contrast and how extreme the casting is from rich to poor in India, going from the Taj Hotel, to the slums of the city…

IMG_3757Normally when you see a film set in another country you’re often told they are not an accurate representation or things are exaggerated. We took a slums tour in Mumbai with the fantastic “Mystical Mumbai Tours” (A great trustworthy tour operator… hard to find in India!) and actually visited the exact locations of Slumdog Millionaire where it looked like the movie was filmed yesterday. The word slum is thrown around a lot these days but this area in Mumbai was on another level. There were mountains of rubbish, children roaming riot, unbathed and underfed, animals around every corner and yet everything seemed to work. The alleys were so small, if you took a wrong turn you’d had no choice but to continue walking as there was simply not enough room to turn around. If you’re claustrophobic, then this place definitely isn’t for you!

slumsDespite the millions of people living in severe poverty the whole place just seemed to click. Everybody knew everyone and each had a role to play in this community. It’s not until you climb onto the roof of one of the seemingly collapsing buildings that you realise just how big the slums are. They go on for as far as the eye can see with each person trying to break through financial barriers in the home of Bollywood.

The main cities of India seem to get a lot of stick from tourists, but we threw ourselves right in and fell in love with Mumbai. Yes, it was sweaty, dirty and busy, but there was another side that we adored. The buildings, the people, the buzz, the food, and learning all about the culture.

Agra

JaipurTravelling with K’s mum we decided to show her a bit of the backpacker lifestyle we had now been living for so long and took her on a rickety old bus journey through the night to get to Agra. Flying round the bends at over 100mph, we must admit she handled it very well!

We spent a few nights in Gujurat, Rajasthan and Jaipur and we would love to tell you every detail but if we did that this would be more of a book and less of a blog. Watch out for the hardback version of KHTravels coming soon!

Agra is famous for one thing and one thing only. We had been looking forward to seeing this monument ever since we stepped onto that first plane when leaving Heathrow and now we were almost there. Stories have been told and a million and one pictures have been taken but until you’re there, until you see the sun rise over it and until you feel the marble beneath your feet you never really understand just how incredible it is. The Taj Mahal.

Hannah and Kieran TajArriving early for sunrise, our hostel was a short walk away from one of the new seven wonders of the world. The number of self-proclaimed tour guides almost outnumber the tourists but this is one of those places where you do your research beforehand and you just come to absorb the beauty. The whole place is huge, as you walk through gates and first set eyes on the marble marvel you gain a sense of accomplishment, like you’ve really done something and you’ve now seen something you’ll remember forever. In reality you’ve done nothing but open your eyes but this magnificent structure has stood strong for almost four centuries and still looks as awe provoking as ever.

The Indian sun is one of the most beautiful sights in the world, it sounds strange to hear that because the sun is the same anywhere in the world, but it really is different here. Rising over the dusty plains and shining through the pollution, it symbolises hope. That another day is here and anything is possible. Combine that with the wonders of the Taj Mahal and you create something that lasts a lifetime and goes beyond words.

 

Luxury, defecation & animal abuse.

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India is a country that grows on you. That can be a positive and a negative but for us, it meant both. As we left Chennai, we felt safe in the knowledge that we knew India now, we’d been there a week so we were total experts and knew exactly what to expect. WRONG.

As we moved towards the southernmost tip of India we stopped off in Madurai for a few days of luxury and normality. We knew the service in India could be excellent once you put your money where your mouth is but we were still awestruck with the exceptional customer service laid on at our disposal.

We stayed at the JC Residency in Madurai, a four star rated hotel with prices ranging from £30-£70 per night which is quite a lot for India and for a backpacker but it was definitely worth it! After a 17 hour night train from Chennai, with half the night sleeping with one eye open and the other clinging to your bed for dear life as the train stormed through the countryside, we finally reached our destination in the early hours of the morning. We managed to get to the hotel unscathed and unharassed but still five hours too early for check-in. Nevertheless, the welcoming staff carried our backpacks through the marble corridors and guided us to our room.

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Air conditioning was the first magical feeling that lifted us off our feet then we slumped into the abyss of a huge super king sized smothering you in glorious silk. After an eternal sleep we awoke to take a look round our new surroundings; oak furniture, flat screen tv, dressing gowns and slipped as well as the almighty air conditioning that we craved so much during our travels. We spent the day relaxing by the pool and soaking up the sun, taking a break from the trials of travelling. It was a real haven yet just outside the large iron gates was the same dusty floor and rubbish littered streets that have become India’s trademark.

In surroundings of such elegance, beauty and sophistication, the rest of the country was still steeped in a hazy dream of what could have been and what it could become. This was true of many parts of India, even the much coveted Taj Hotel in Mumbai which we will talk about at a later date. Still this is why we loved India, we didn’t come for the luxury, we came for the experience, and soon ventured out to see what Madurai was all about.

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We walked a few hundred yards to a local restaurant and were warmly welcomed by a group of Indian women who had clearly never seen tourists before from outside their own nation. After a few smiles we ordered some biryani which came out on a giant banana leaf smothered in dahl. No fancy china, no silver service and not even any cutlery, but we loved it! We chomped our way through the delicious rice dish and gained a few pitiful smiles as the staff watched us struggling to eat the last grains of rice with our fingertips.

Walking through the streets in this small but captivating town, we started to enjoy India again. We decided to visit the Sri Meenakshi temple and were blown away by the incredible colours spread throughout this huge complex. We actually arrived on a Hindu holiday to the temple which meant it was crowded with people but we still had a fantastic time. India is overcrowded in the majority of places you visit so you will soon become used to thinking you live on the Central Line with no personal space and extreme levels of sweat.

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We had a great day exploring the temple, however, the whole experience was violated as we were leaving this wonderful arena of serenity. Right by the front entrance, was a huge elephant that was chained by the ankles and being beaten with a man and a stick to collect money from visitors with it’s trunk. We were shocked. Of course the many Indian tourists, blinded by their faith in religion were helplessly throwing themselves at the animal in a bid to be the next person to have their money snatched from there palms. As each person wielded away in delight, they openly chose to ignore the fact that the money was being pocketed by the evil man behind the elephant with the stick.

As we approached closer, we noticed the elephant was rocking back and forth and clearly agitated and depressed. This was a living creature, clearly torn from its home and family and forced into working for a man in a confined space for such a large and magnificent animal. Kieran is fluent in Punjabi and can converse in Hindi so he confronted the man and questioned him on how putting this poor animal through extreme suffering is of any use to anyone. When told that these animals were near extinction because of treacherous acts such as these, the man merely shrugged and continued to count his money.

We understand religion can bring people hope, peace and sometimes happiness, but it can also bring insanity, depression and oppression. After working in Thailand to help protect elephants, we were devastated to see that in the 21st century people could still not look beyond their phone screens and use their eyes to see that this was an animal that was severely mistreated for their pleasure.

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Moving on from the wondrous JC Residency, we headed further south to Kanyakumari, probably one of the worst destinations of our travels and one place that we will certainly never be heading back to.

Arriving in the town, we had high hopes of a reasonably developed area on the seaside with various restaurants and sights to see including the Thiruvalluvar Statue, a 40m sculpture of a famous Tamil poet. With many shops and a wide range of hotels, we reclined back into our rhythm of budgeting and picked out a reasonably priced hotel which was relatively close to the sea front.

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After checking into to our room, our trip to India took a downward spiral that seemed to have no end in sight. The hotel was filthy, covered in dead flies and the staff were about as useful as sunglasses at night. We decided to explore our surroundings by taking a walk to the ‘beach’ to brighten our spirits but stepping outside the hotel did nothing to quell our worries. The ‘beach’ was gross and full of people washing, urinating and even to our horror, defecating. It was an incredibly poor area and many people had clearly never seen a Caucasian person before. Being a mixed raced couple travelling, we’ve had a lot of stares, but the people of Kanyakumari were something else!

People would openly stare and point at us as we walked through the streets with numerous others expressing their disapproval with unkind words in an unfamiliar language. The whole place was filthy and covered in litter, something of a theme in India but this place was next level. Walking through the town you almost felt like you was inhaling diseases.

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Despite all this, we didn’t let these uneducated and ill-mannered people stop us from exploring the town. There are some wonderfully built churches in the region, while the statue and Vivekananda Rock are, being brutally honest, in our opinion are nothing more than okay and we would not recommend any western traveller to visit this region.

India is a beautiful country, with incredible sights and wonderful people, however, Kanyakumari, just seemed like one of those places you find in most countries every once in a while that you just felt like you should have avoided. If this blog has dampened your spirits a bit, we don’t apologise as we believe in giving you an honest opinion, and honestly, we loved India, stick around to see Part 3 of our Asian adventure to find out why.

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Elephant Nature Park

There are many opportunities to visit elephant sanctuaries whilst backpacking throughout Thailand and Asia, but we must start with a very serious matter. Do not just go to the cheapest one with the best salesman, please do your research and select an organisation that really does support the endangered Asian Elephant. So many places describe a safe haven for elephants but they are chained, beaten and abused into submission. If you are offered an elephant ride or see an elephant in chains please avoid it at all costs as this is a clear indication of an illegitimate sanctuary.  If all you’re after from an experience with elephants is a new profile picture and you don’t care how you get it then you are not welcome here!

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Elephant Nature Park is an elephant rescue and rehabilitation centre in Northern Thailand and our time there was one of the most memorable days from our travelling adventure (we know we say that a lot!) We started the day with some background information about the organisation and were told story after story of how many of the elephants were now blind, severely injured or bearing scars from previous owners. Elephants are giants of the mammal kingdom but are such gentle and playful creatures. The stories brought a tear to your eyes, half in sadness but half in joy that these elephants finally got to live their lives in a world without chains and abuse.

Being as big as they are, there was only ever going to be one thing to start with; feeding! Standing on a platform nearly three metres high, we were surround by tens of elephants! Their muscular trunks reached up through the barrier to grab everything from melons to bananas. The first time you come into contact with these magnificent creatures, you realise something. They are alive! This may sound silly but they really are alive and it’s magical, you sense their emotions, their moods and best of all … they sense you.

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Moving on we explored the enormous grounds of the sanctuary and we were delighted to see that each and every elephant was free to roam as it pleased. No forced feeding sessions, no blockades, just freedom. We came across a pair of elephants in their 80s first, a real pair of golden oldies. They were just being themselves, no showing off with tricks and definitely no riding, just a bit of back scratching on the nearest tree trunk.

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Now, we have all seen the video of the two baby elephants playing in the pool, however, we had no idea just how much fun these gorgeous animals had in the water. With the larger elephants soaking up the midday sun in the river, large lumps starting appearing in the water … There were five adorable, younger elephants splashing and rolling around! It was an incredible sight and watching these elephants grow safely and happily is truly something special.

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There was a show of real collectiveness too as a few dogs turned up and decided that they wanted to join in on the fun. The dogs were eyeing up one of the younger elephants and the baby started yelping for help. The ground started trembling and another slightly larger baby elephant stomped over out of nowhere, blowing its trunk and the dogs soon scarpered.  It was so funny and cute to watch and after the drama, the elephants returned to their day of eating, back scratching and relaxing.

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The best part of the day came towards the end. With the sun setting, some of the larger elephants moved into the shallower river and continued to eat their array of fresh fruit. We stripped down into our swimwear and joined the elephants in the river and bathed them in the dimming Thai sunlight.

Whether you’re an animal person or not, we implore you to see reason and open your eyes when travelling abroad. If something is too good to be true, it invariably is. You get what you pay for in life and if you spend a little more, you can get the experience of a lifetime without adding to the misery of  these incredible, endangered animals which are subject to the horrifying tourist trade and temple rituals.

An elephant never forgets … 

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