Case Tomczyk Photography

Turtle Turtle Turtle...

San Diego is one of my favorite places. It's become my second home since moving out west. The culture is awesome, really laid back and casual, with lots of positive energy and new things to discover. 

My most recent adventure in the city is a spot called The Living Coast Discovery Center.  It's a non-profit facility that inspires care and exploration of the living Earth by connecting people with coastal animals, plants and habitats. My husband and I are both really passionate about animal protection and ocean conservation, so it seemed like a really great way to spend a Friday afternoon!  

It's really easy to get to, located in the southern part of SD, in Chula Vista. Parking is free, and admission is under $20.00. (Discounts available for military, first responders, students, etc.)

When you arrive, you're greeted by two giant sea turtles. They're pretty adorable, and I could have just watched them the whole visit. They're really fascinating creatures. And if you've seen finding Nemo, they got the sea turtle spot on with Crush's character! We learned a lot about their status (they're endangered) and ways to protect them and help their family grow. 

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Next, we got to spend some time in the shark and stingray experience. There are four different local shark species in the exhibit with multiple underwater viewing areas, and lots of friendly stingrays. Another turtle also lives in this exhibit. Her name is Sapphire. She was discovered in a canal in Islamorada in the Florida Keys. She sustained an injury when she was younger, which made her a target for dangerous boat propellers. She was rescued and brought to The Turtle Hospital (Hidden Harbor Marine Environmental Project, Inc.) and released into the wild after rehabilitation. Unfortunately, three years later, Sapphire was re-admitted when she was discovered again with boat related injuries.  Sapphire could not be released into the wild again, so she made her way to San Diego on a flight from a generous donation on behalf of FedEx. The animals in this exhibit are healing from attacks or accidents in the ocean. They get to live out their lives here without worrying about predators. 

Another exhibit I really enjoyed was Eagle Mesa. We got to meet Franklin, the bald eagle. He's at the Living Coast because he suffered an extensive injury to his wing, and can not fly or hunt. He's a pretty quick runner though! Dorado is a golden eagle. He, like Franklin, can not fly because he was hit by a car, damaging his wing. I can't imagine what it would be like to be a bird that can't fly, but I'm glad there are places like this to care for these beautiful birds. (We weren't able to get any good photos of the eagles though. Boo!)

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I also learned that seahorses really like to cuddle and there are many Nemo and Dorys, and they're always friends!

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The Living Coast also invites local schools in for educational field trips, hosts ocean clean ups twice a month, and offers a hands on program for people interested in working with animals. Since it is a non-profit, they rely on visitors and donations to continue to maintain the life and health of San Diego Bay’s native animals. If you're interested in donating, please click here! 

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Who throws a pineapple?

We spent our last week in Thailand on the beaches of Krabi. Leaving Sukhothai was a bittersweet experience, because as much as I wanted to experience a new part of this beautiful country, it meant I had to leave BLES. I made sure to book our departing flight early, because if it wasn’t, I knew I wouldn’t leave.

The first day at our villa in Krabi was an adjustment. After spending the past week with no AC, no wifi, and showering with a hose, we had grown to love that life. It’s interesting how little you actually need to experience genuine happiness.

The outdoor rainfall shower won us over quick enough, and we began the next part of our journey. Our home for the week was at the Tubkaak Boutique Resort. This place was stunning. The staff here go out of their way to make sure you’re completely happy, and it felt like it was our private residence for the week. I’m not sure how it’s still basically “undiscovered”, but I am more than happy to share the info on this gem. The best part about this place is that there’s private beach access for guests, as many of the resorts in Krabi required a short walk to a public beach.

We spent two days just relaxing, reading in hammocks by the beach, watching the locals fish in the early hours, and taking advantage of the Thai spa on property. I had a 4 hour massage, and I still can’t decide if that was the best or worst decision I made there…SO.SORE. But afterwards, the best I’ve felt in years!

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In addition to visiting BLES, one of the main reasons we wanted to spend so much time in Thailand was the optimal scuba diving conditions! Thailand is known for crystal clear waters, perfect water temps, and thriving sea life. We were able to set up a dive trip through our hotel, with a great company called Kon-Tiki Krabi. Adam even got to celebrate his 100th dive in Koh Phi Phi! You can check out some of that dive here!

We also went to the nearby city, Ao Nang. to wander. They offer boat taxis over to Railay Beach. Railay Beach (West) is known as one of the best beaches in Thailand,  so we decided to spend the day exploring . Railay Beach is one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve seen, with massive limestone cliffs and really sparkly turquoise water. There are no roads, no cars, and it’s only accessible by boat. There are a few resorts on the island, as well as restaurants and local shops. Railay is also known for rock climbing, and the locals offer lessons to beginners and more experienced climbers.  

The boat taxis drop you off in waist deep water in and you have to walk the rest of the way to the beach, so if you’re planning to check out Railay, bring an adventurous spirit. Don’t wear anything you don’t mind getting wet, and pack any electronics in a dry bag or be sure you’re strong enough to carry it over head for about 10 minutes.

There were several hiking trails on the island, so we ended up checking out one that led to an incredible view of both Railay East/West. Packing tennis shoes would be a great idea, because this was a difficult trail that included ropes and ladders up a steep incline. 

I was on the lookout for monkeys because we saw several signs advising us not to feed them. I never saw any on the hike…(bummer!) but as we were walking back to the beach, Adam (my husband) got hit with a pineapple. No one else was around to have thrown it, so we stopped for a minute, a little confused.

Then we saw them! A huge family of dusky leaf monkeys were playing tag in some nearby trees. I could have watched them all day! They were SO adorable and playful! We watched, captivated by their game for about 30 minutes. They were kind enough to let me take their photos without throwing any more pineapples our way.

If I could have figured out a way to get one of these little guys home, I would have done it. Instead, I settled for a few tie-dye dresses and a dream catcher necklace from one of the shops.

We grabbed some lunch, soaked up some sun on the beach for the rest of the day, and then headed back to the mainland.

Thailand is known as the “Land of Smiles”, and it gave us a lifetime of them. There are so many magical moments we had there that pop into my head and remind me why I choose to travel. Each place we explored and each person we met there left a permanent imprint on our hearts. I learned so much about the Thai culture, and even more about myself during this experience. I hope that these love letters to this special place did it justice.

Until we can return, kob koon Ka, ขอบคุณสำหรับความทรงจำ!

Surreal moments

When we first arrived in Thailand, we spent a few days in Bangkok. We stayed in the heart of the city, at the Intercontinental Bangkok. I can't say enough good things about that hotel. The service level we experienced there easily put it close to the top of my favorite hotels list! If you're heading to Bangkok, stay there! We had several things on the list of “must see” places. After spending the first day adjusting to the 15 hour time difference with a few naps and a visit to the spa, we woke up well rested, ready to check out a few of the Buddhist temples!

The temples we wanted to visit were about 30 minutes outside of the city, and they were easily accessible via a short trip on the railway and a ferry boat. It’s also really inexpensive to visit these temples, costing less than $3. 

Our first stop was Wat Arun, or the “Temple of Dawn”. Wat Arun is situated right along the river bank, and it was beautiful! We experienced a lot of surreal moments in Thailand, and our first occurred at Wat Arun. It had started to rain when we arrived at the temple, and most of the guests were departing. We walked in to the ordination hall to get out of the rain for a minute, and saw one of the Monks that lived there. He signaled us to sit in front of him, inviting us to a traditional Thai blessing ceremony. He then placed a white string called “sai sin” on our wrists. The sai sin is thought to provide protection and good health to the person wearing it. Then he sprinkled holy water on both of us, reciting a Buddhist prayer, and wished us good luck and fortune. It was a really special moment for us, and since we’ve been home, the bracelets are a continued reminder of that.

After walking through the rest of Wat Arun, we made our way across the river to Wat Pho. Wat Pho, or the “Temple of the Reclining Buddha”, is the oldest and largest temple in Bangkok. It also houses the largest Buddha statue in Thailand. Reclining Buddha is about 150 feet long and and 50 feet high. 

The detail in these temples was incredible, and I couldn't get over how much time and patience it took to build these sacred spaces. In addition to being such a beautiful and spiritual place, Wat Pho is also the birthplace of the traditional “Thai” massage. The site is the center of education for Thai medicine. There are two major sections of Wat Pho. The first is the massage school, and the second is a Buddhist monastery, with monks in residence and in school. We got invited to sit with the monks while they chanted their evening prayers. This was another one of those surreal moments. It was such a special, memorable experience to be a part of. More good luck was wished upon us, and we left the temple feeling very blessed.

We took a tuk-tuk (bicycle taxi) to the flower market before heading back to the city. The market has all kinds of popular flowers, including roses, forget me nots, orchids...and it's open 24 hours. The flower market is a great way to witness the inspiring work ethic of Thai culture. They're up at all hours of the night, selling their goods to support their families.  

The next morning, we headed to Ayutthaya. Ayutthaya is a historic city, about an hour away from Bangkok, founded in 1350. It’s now full of ruins and is a protected UNESCO world heritage site. The capital city was attacked by the Burmese army in the late 1700’s. They set fire to each temple and burned the city to the ground. They also cut all the heads off of the statues to show their disrespect to the Siam empire. Some statue heads have since been replaced, to show that no attack can defeat the spirit of this city! It's one of the largest cities in Thailand, but all that remains today are reliquary towers and Buddhist monasteries of monumental proportions. We explored 3 ancient ruin sites: Wat Chaiwattanarm, Wat Yai Chai Mang Khon, and Wat Phra Si Sanphet. To see how incredible these ruins are, check out the galleries below! 

Each historic site was like exploring another planet and time traveling to another era, all at the same time. If you find yourself in Bangkok, a trip to this old city is something you absolutely should have on your list. We booked it pretty last minute with TakeMeTours, which is like uber with a tour guide, and they were awesome! You get a local who knows the area to show you around on your own schedule, specific to the locations you want to see. Our tour guide was so knowledgable about all the areas we wanted to see! 

We made a quick stop at the floating market for lunch (also a must-see!) and the Summer Palace, a compound formerly housing Thai kings and other royals. The dress code at some of these places is enforced, and modest, so double check the rules before heading out for the day. 

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I love visiting places like this. You can feel the energy of those that inhabited the city all those years ago, and you know you’re experiencing something magical. At each temple, there's special altars that you can leave offerings in exchange for good fortune for loved ones and yourself. We got to experience Kau Cim, a "fortune telling" practice where you kneel at the altar, and shake a cylinder filled with bamboo sticks until one falls out. They're all numbered, and you match your number with the prayers or predictions hanging near the altar. If your prediction is good, you're advised to take it to bring the luck with you. If it's not, you leave it behind. It was another one of those "surreal" moments I mentioned earlier, because my prediction was something that I'd really love to keep! This country left such an imprint on our hearts. These moments, along with the people we encountered, are why! 

Births and Boon Lott

I just recently turned 32, so it seemed fitting that my birthday celebration gets to be the “birth” of my blog! My husband and I just spent about 3 weeks in Thailand, and it was life-changing. 

The main reason I wanted to go to Thailand: Elephants! I’ve loved elephants for as long as I can remember. I knew I wanted to interact with them, but I also knew I wanted to do it responsibly. There’s been a lot of information released recently that showcases the harsh reality of the elephant tourism industry, and I wanted no part in adding to the suffering of such a beautiful creature.

A lot of research on ethical elephant interaction and several e-mails later, I had secured my spot at Boon Lotts Elephant Sanctuary. “BLES” is located in the small village of Baan Tuek in northern Thailand, about an hour away from the Sukhothai airport. Flights leave from Bangkok 3 times a day, and it’s only about an hour flight. It's in a remote area which isn't easily accessible, but well worth the journey. BLES has over 600 hundred acres of forested land that encourages the elephants to interact in a natural environment. There is no riding, bathing, or painting...they’re just elephants who have finally been allowed to live as they always should have.

Upon arriving and meeting Katherine, the founder of the sanctuary, I knew the week would inspire a new purpose into my life. Hearing her story and learning about how each of the 14 elephants ended up at Boon Lott’s was heart-breaking. However, watching them here, in their safe space, restored your faith in miracles. She has worked tirelessly for 10 years to raise funds to rescue elephants, acquire more land, and keep BLES running. If that wasn’t enough, she has also taken in about 2 dozen dogs and over 40 cats and helped establish the first vet clinic in the village. She’s truly an incredible human and has changed the course of history for elephants and animals in this village.

The elephants and dogs joined us for most meals, and no meal will ever be as great as dining with elephants! We also got to sit in on some of the medical treatments for the elephants. Wassana requires daily treatments, because prior to her arrival at BLES, she was forced to work in a field with landmines. She stepped on one and her foot was beyond repair. Katherine worked with a team in Australia to develop the first "elephant boot", which allows Wassana to walk with minimal pain. 

Each day, we’d go on our elephant walks, and they lasted between 4-5 hours, depending on where we went in the forest. The BLES dogs were our guides, and WiFi, Ruby, Pancake, Shakira, Pizza, and Bowie showed us the best resting spots and mud puddles to cool off in. I didn't think this place could get any better. 

But then...Katherine took us to the treehouse. I tried to capture the magic of this special spot, but no pictures can do this place justice. This was the spot that made my world stop. 

The treehouse allowed us time to just be present, and it's also where we went a little deeper into how each animal ended up at BLES. It took me over a week to be able to look at the photos I took without crying. I became really attached to these amazing creatures, and a few dogs in particular are the reason why I left my heart in Thailand. WiFi immediately became my adventure partner, and I learned he arrived at BLES with a calcium deficiency. His owner surrendered him because he thought he'd never walk again...but check out WiFi...he's the one coming down the steps of the treehouse in that last photo. He's a walking, running, climbing miracle! Then I met Luna. Luna was hit by a car, and was also unable to walk upon her arrival at BLES, but now she runs and plays and is the first face you see upon arrival at the sanctuary. Jack's story was the hardest to process though. Jack is a little lab pup, who showed up at BLES after her owner tried to cut one of her legs off with a machete. The leg couldn't be saved, but this dog didn't seem to notice or care, because she went everywhere we did and the smile never left her face. Each dog at BLES had a similar story, but just like the elephants, they have found love, happiness, and their forever home. 

Other adventures led us to a forest of banana trees or cornfields, which we had to cut down and take back to the sanctuary to provide extra nourishment to the elephants. We made a daily stop at the village store for snacks, and walked to the river. We got to watch the elephants splash around, roll in the mud, and just hang out. Running through corn fields with the dogs, napping by the riverbank...it served as a much needed escape from the real world. 

In addition to all this already perfect visit, Katherine threw me a surprise birthday party! It was a night I’ll remember forever. We got to spend the night hanging out with her, the mahouts (elephant caretakers), and her incredible children. The mahouts taught us Thai phrases, and we shared stories, a lot of laughs, and a few tears. I felt more at home in this moment than I have in the city I’ve called home for almost a decade. It really rings true that it's not the location you are in, but the people you surround yourself with that can make you feel at home. Thank you, Katherine. Experiencing BLES was something I’ll never forget. You and your vision keep inspiring me to do more and to be more impactful every day. I already can't wait to go back to this place!