Animal Cruelty, Authentic Culture & Raw Travel


After posting on Instagram a photo of an elephant to promote our Laos episode, someone posted a sarcastic comment about the elephant enjoying “the rope around its neck and the chair on its back”.

What I did not post and I suppose should have, was an explanation that we discuss the treatment of elephants in Laos and other parts of Southeast Asia in the episode. We talk about ways travelers can make a difference in their sometimes cruel treatment. In fact, that is the entire reason these particular elephants were included in the episode.  They provided an “organic” entree to make the point that elephants in Southeast Asia, especially in Thailand, are sometimes drugged, beaten, etc. into submission unbeknownst to “tourists”

We had tried desperately to demonstrate this point another way by visiting elephant conservation centers in both Laos and Thailand but either our timing was off, the sanctuaries were too strapped for resources to accommodate us or they just didn’t bother to reply to our inquiries.

After an exchange back and forth on instagram, the commentator followed up that she was a fan of Raw Travel but was “against animal cruelty”.  That’s a pretty popular stance. I bet if you ask 10 people, 9.8 out of 10, myself included, will say they too are against animal cruelty. Even people cruel to animals would most likely never admit that they are “for it”.

But this exchange did get me to thinking. Why are we so quick in the West to jump to conclusions and lecture each other and the developing world on how they should be living? Consider many of these countries are 50-100 years or so behind the U.S. Consider where the U.S. was 100 years ago in terms of animal cruelty or race relations or gender equality, or almost anything we wag our fingers to others about, etc.

Why should people in the wealthiest economy in the world be able to tell people in one of the poorest what they should and should not be doing? Is it right to do so? I honestly don’t know, but a hunch tells me no.

Duck Blood Soup

I know from personal experience, that choices are very different when you have enough money verses when you don’t. To pretend otherwise is to be naive. Priorities range from scraping by to feed your family to being able to afford the latest tech gadget, shoes, car, etc. or other material “necessity”. These are two very different and opposite ends of the spectrum and depending where you are on that spectrum will largely determine the decisions you make.

In Southeast Asia elephants and water buffaloes were and are in many cases, still a farmer’s beast of burden. In the U.S. we have tractors and have had them en masse since post WW II, but back in the day, say 80 years ago, it was a mule, oxen or horse. Yet today, do we in the U.S. outlaw horseback riding? Is not that also cruel to animals?  Ever seen a horse broken? Who rides a horse to round up cattle anymore? But others can’t ride elephants or water buffaloes to get work done or rice planted in Laos or Vietnam?


And it seems we want the whole world to eat what we eat. With our factory farmed slaughterhouses for chickens, beef and all manner of meat processing, we are now going to criticize people in Southeast Asia who have been eating fogs, fish, snakes, cat or dog for centuries and decades? What gives us that right to dictate their diet?


I don’t want to eat dog or cat, it’s just not in my upbringing. I have had many beloved cats and dogs as pets so I revere them. Besides, they are cute.

I also did not care to eat snake or other “exotic” animals, but I’m sorry, I just don’t have the same qualms about eating something that is not obviously a pet (a cobra) in my culture at least. Now if you have a pet cobra, then yes, you may not wish to  eat one. As I said in the Vietnam episode and I have said before, given the choice, I probably would not eat cobra again. In fact, I know I would not (due to the rat explosion, which hurts rice production) and I encourage others not to either.

But eating cobra is not against local laws and in fact is within their custom and thus it is YOUR moral choice. Yet some British guy living in Vietnam goes ballistic on our twitter page for even mentioning “Snake Village” in Hanoi. He didn’t see the show and when I tried to explain to him the context he was tweeting so relentlessly we had to block him. Of course  a high minded, know-it-all, annoying ex pat hiding behind a key board in another country is nothing new.  Funny, no Vietnamese saw any need to complain.

We weren’t sure whether to mention we’d seen dog meat for sale in the Hanoi food market. But I couldn’t “un-see” it and pretend that didn’t exist. Our guide gave a great explanation so queasy, pampered and idealistic Westerners like myself could better releate. “After WW II 2 Million Vietnamese starved…”, so they tried anything including dog. It’s not common in Vietnam but it’s not uncommon either. It is what it is. Don’t kill the messenger and since I’ve never thankfully witnessed mass starvation, I’m going to give them a break. Who am I to tell them what to eat?


I grew up on a cattle farm and even as kids we knew that cute little calves were going to grow up to be eaten someday. Did it make me feel funny about it? Sometimes, yes. Had I seen it killed, I would have definitely thought twice.

Which is why we show the duck being “murdered” in the duck blood soup segment in our Laos episode. I realize we may attract the wrath of extreme animal lovers who will accuse us of engaging in animal cruelty, but some (not all mind you) of those same folks will go out and eat meat in the U.S. which has been treated many, many times worse than a duck who lived most of it’s life in blissful pursuit of bugs and crickets to eat. Or if they don’t eat meat perhaps they wear leather shoes?

The family in this remote Laos village wanted to fix this meal, we did not request it. I am NOT going to tell them not to fix duck blood soup because I am not a vegan and I live by MY morals and ethics, they live by theirs and I believe that you should live by yours. It’s part of what authentic culture is about, live and let live, observe and participate to see another way of living. Now if that culture involves harming someone or holding one down or is directly counter to my own moral code, (i.e. not allowing females to get an education) I will not participate and then perhaps criticize.

But before I do, I try to realize, that because I am from the U.S., where though we make up less than 5% of the world’s population but consume almost 25% of its resources, they may think that I need to get my own house in order before I can credibly begin criticizing theirs, especially when it comes to feeding their families.

Tad Sae Waterfalls in Laos

Are we going to send money to support every poor family’s vegan diet in Laos? Even then I doubt they’d turn vegan. They’d probably buy a new farm machinery or fix the hole in their thatched roof house. Unless we buy every elephant owner a tractor or provide them an immediate alternative means of income to feed their family, it’s all naive, happy talk or in the case of most commentators on the internet, angry & self-rightous key strokes that accomplish little to nothing.


In Laos, our guide Alex of White Elephant Adventures was forthcoming about why his company does not make ANY money whatsoever off elephants. He took us to see the spectacular Tad Sae waterfalls and forewarned us that the elephants would be there. He wanted no part of exploiting them nor did we. But we both wanted to tell the elephants’ stories and showcase what happens at Tad Sae compared to other parts of Southeast Asia.

As Alex explains in the international cut of the episode (which unfortunately due to time constraints gets cut in the U.S. but hopefully will air eventually), personnel from the Elephant Conservation Centre (ECC) in another part of Laos regularly visit Tad Sae to insure the elephants are treated properly.

Now “treated properly” is relative I realize. I must admit that yes, these elephants would probably have preferred to be running around free in the jungles of Laos, but that is not possible now.  At least they are alive and not getting poached. They are also not getting shocked and abused to do tricks in a circus sideshow.

They are fed a LOT of food and they earn income for their owners who are very poor and have families to feed in addition to the responsibility of taking care of the elephants. I’m not justifying their treatment of elephants but simply stating facts as I saw them, on the ground in Laos, in a very, very quick visit.


I personally felt an emotional connection to the elephants. This was the first time I’d been so close to these magnificent creatures and now I better understand why people get worked up about them. They are intelligent and I believe wise and I think we need to save them from both abuse and extinction. This was a great side effect of getting to see these guys up close and personal.

But I don’t think the default mode of our dialogue when it comes to the discussion of animals or anything for that matter should immediately be negative, snarky and judgmental. I have the highest respect for animal lovers and know more than a few who consistently make their views known without a hint of imposing it on others. THEIR influence has had a powerful effect on me.

To those who follow the opposite approach, I have to wonder about their true convictions. If they really wished to be effective they’d stop virtually shouting to try to get others to bend to their will. That approach doesn’t work for me and it certainly won’t work in Laos, where respect is an intricate part of the culture (and something sorely lacking in the West).

The world is not a black and white place and it’s only looking backwards that we are often able to put on our 20/20 glasses and see past atrocities for what they are (i.e.slavery, war, discrimination, etc.) and even then things were not as simple as often explained in our revisionist and politically correct history.

I believe that many who attempt to SHOUT other’s down probably don’t have the courage of their OWN convictions. They express their anger and self-righteousness, hit a few key strokes on a keypad to feel “good” about themselves.




I’m not social media expert, heck I’m not even a travel expert (I’m a travel enthusiast). And yes, Raw Travel is socially aware but not socially perfect. We are going to keep it raw and real. If a culture is mistreating elephants, we’ll show it. If a culture is eating bizarre stuff that we find unusual perhaps even sickening, we’ll still show it. If a destination’s leaders are corrupt we’ll show it. It’s real and raw and real is not pretty sometimes, in fact, oftentimes it isn’t.

It’s impossible to please everyone so I don’t try to please anyone but myself. My own ethics and morals are all I can worry about not because that is all that matters but because that is all I can control and feed off of and still be true to myself. And please understand these morals and ethics are still evolving. I’m a different person now than I was 20 years ago, not because it’s fashionable to think another way but because of the experiences I have had and the information I have absorbed and because the world has shifted as well.

Travel has made me a better but not a perfect person and I never will be. I’m still a work in progress, as I bet and hope you are.

I will continue to blunder along in this life until I die, traveling and evolving making many more mistakes along the way. That’s the beauty of travel and the art of living. I encourage you to do the same.

Your RESPECTFUL comments and dialogue are always appreciated, whether you agree with me or not. If we can have a respectful dialogue, then something can get accomplished. Otherwise, I’m afraid, we’re just shouting in the wind.



Try Lovely Laos For Heartwarming Adventure

What I knew about Laos before arriving by plane from Thailand, could fill a sticky note, the little ones. And that info had largely been acquired vicariously through the travel of a friend who had visited the year before and on the plane ride over.

I’ve said it before research to Southeast Asia was hampered prior to my visit by personal, familial and work issues and commitments. I simply had no time to research.


Luckily, my cracker jack production crew did. Erica, our producer on this trip, tried as best she could but Laos is a bit off the grid when it comes to the web. It’s simply not as advanced as it’s neighbors Vietnam & Thailand in terms of tourism infrastructure. Therein, of course, lies it’s charm.

From the capital city of Vientiane to the more touristic and temple laden Luang Prabang and everywhere in between, I simply fell in love with largely rural, laid back Laos. Traffic was light but even in the towns and cities where it could be jammed, horn blowing was unheard of. It’s simply uncool to lose your cool in Laos. I needed this place and the memories fuel me daily in a polar opposite spot like New York City.

The roads were difficult to traverse and windy and full of pot holes, making for some nauseating multi-hour trips in packed vans. It built character.


Just when we arrived to Vang Vieng, Mother Nature decided to mess with us by raining for almost the entire time we were there, which I was told was unheard of during the dry season and  specifically why we’d waited until January to film in Southeast Asia.

We’re used to dealing with the unpredictability of the weather but in Vang Vieng, it’s pretty much outdoor adventure sports capital of Laos and the main reason to go, thus all our planned activities revolved around being outside.  I don’t like being wet but I get even more annoyed at rain when worrying about expensive electronic equipment that was needed for the remainder of the trip. Our pals Vong from VLT Natural Tours and his British ex pat buddy, Brian helped us immensely and I’d like to shout them out.

Plastic rain ponchos were re-purposed as camera covers and we carried on thanks to the help of incredibly helpful locals and ex pats. But it wasn’t just wet, it was chilly… and muddy. A couple of days filming in those conditions and you feel you’ll never be dry again, but alas the sun came out, as it always does and life carried on.


The Ho Chi Minh Trail runs through Laos and as a result it was the most bombed country in the history of warfare during the U.S. led Vietnam War and what was then termed the Secret War. The result today are tens of thousands of UXO (Unexploded Ordinances) that are spread over parts of Laos that create a very dangerous condition for Laos children.  Many have lost lives and limbs and are still doing so, thanks to this brutal lethal legacy.

We visited the highly regarded and informational Cope Center in Vientiane to learn more and it was life altering. I love my country (the U.S.) and recognize things are very, very complicated and not as black and white as many will have us believe, but this visit to the Cope Center opened my eyes to the horrors and long lasting effects of war, especially on the innocent. It’s a travesty of our very existence as humans.


But most of our trip was simply heart warming adventure. Luang Prabang was one of those spots that is magical and was made more so because of our pal Alex at White Elephant Adventures (no elephant tours with these guys though we did meet some on our journey). Alex spent 2 days with us in and around Luang Prabang and took us to one of the schools they had helped build for a rural village just outside of town. WEA had recently constructed a dorm for the school meaning that the students didn’t have to sleep on the ground in huts that leaked rain and had scorpions, bugs, etc.

Meeting the students and seeing what real tangible good can be done in a place like Laos was truly gratifying.


Alex, the owner of WEA, is another big-hearted British Ex Pat who was beyond generous with his time and went out of his way to show us (as he does other travelers) an authentic side of Laos that takes into account the livelihood and culture of the locals. WEA is a great example of how important it is to include locals directly in the economic rewards of travel and tourism.

Alex spirited us off to a friend of his in a nearby village to enjoy some freshly prepared Duck Blood Soup and to witness how a typical Laos family lives.

Some may get upset with me when with the killing and preparation of a cute duck to make duck blood soup. But the reality is that this is how people live and to pretend otherwise is not only disingenuous but in my opinion silly. There are no factory farms in Laos and our good duck friend had a relatively nice life running around the village foraging for food before meeting his fate. Not everyone can afford to be so picky about their dietary choices, not yet.


Still, I don’t like killing or harming animals and in general, I’ve again considered cutting meat out of my diet altogether, in part from these experiences I’ve had in Southeast Asia where almost anything that moves is fair game (but nothing goes to waste).

It’s just not my place to judge people who don’t have even close to the availability of food we have in the west.  Which may explain why I didn’t see an obese Laos person while there.

But they did seem happy, laid back and genuinely sensible in their approach towards visitors. Not overly ambitious to separate us from our money, but not ignoring us either, it was a perfect, almost zen like balance.

If you are in Southeast Asia, you simply must give Laos a go.





Manny Lost The Fight.. But Manila Wins My Heart

Slider_214_1The fight of the century featuring Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather was a disappointment to most. No surprise there. Anything that hyped, with that much money at stake is bound to be a let down.

Which is why I love to travel to under hyped destinations, even places that people would never think to visit. Manila, Philippines is one of those cities and if you go in with low expectations (as we did) you are bound to be rewarded with an unexpected experience that could have you raving about the place when the trip is over.

The Philippines are a group of over 7,100 islands with some of the most stunning landscapes and beaches in the world and this is why most people visit.

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My Side Job.. Driving a Jeepney


Manila is simply a landing point, a place to catch a flight, renew your visa perhaps or take care of business, but it’s definitely not on many traveler’s trail.

We were tight on time and we had a choice. Get to know Manila, a city with very little appeal, at least according to most online reviews, or a more typical tropical, beach vacation.

I grew up on a farm, but live in Manhattan and I’m kind of a city boy at heart so we chose the less traveled route of spending our precious time in the Philippines with a stay in Manila.

At first I regretted it. The traffic was overwhelming. The grittiness of the city and getting around and the hot, hot sun reflecting off concrete & steel combined with the normal sights and sounds of an overloaded capital city was intense. Manila, like many urban areas in developing nations, are falsely seen as a beacon of hope to impoverished citizens who moved in to try to work their way into a more comfortable existence.

But then, about day 2 or 3, as we toured sites like Intramuros, Makati, Chinatown and outlying areas, I began to fall in love with Manila and more importantly the good-natured and fantastically friendly Filipino people.

Halo Halo
Trying Halu Halo in Intramuros

It happened so slowly at first that I didn’t really notice, but Manila grew on me to the point that by the end, I didn’t want to leave. And this was, mind you, after 26 or so straight, grueling days of traveling and shooting (Manila was our last stop on our 4 country Southeast Asia tour).

We weren’t staying in luxurious accommodations.  We were in fact living as many regular Filipinos lived but with, of course, the knowledge that we’d be leaving soon. We had a choice to be there, many do not.

Like those in Tondo.  Tondo is a community of garbage pickers that essentially live in a garbage dump, doing what they can to get by and feed their families by sifting through garbage looking for food and salvageable items to sell or use. We visited with the Project Pearls organization and the entire crew agreed it was the highlight of our trip.

Project Pearls in Tondo

You won’t see Tondo in many travel brochures and on most if any other travel shows most likely. It may or may not cost us the chance at sponsorship or support from tourism industry types but that’s a small price to pay for telling the truth and gaining a new perspective on the world and in one’s life.

Tondo and other places like it (there are other similar communities in Manila such as Smokey Mountain), need not be the thing that governments and tourism bureaus try to hide. Indeed with more travelers than ever choosing voluntourism and giving back over the banality and sterility of a resort or all inclusive destination, these areas can be a draw to a whole new category of travelers.

Helping Out in Tondo
Helping Out in Tondo

I know there are some folks (someone’s always unhappy) who may say we are exploiting the living conditions of these folks for our own benefit and maybe that’s partly true. But if this exploitation leads to helping them then I’m all for it. The people of Tondo need it and organizations like Project Pearls and volunteer travelers are stepping in where the government is either unable or unwilling to.

Nothing new under the sun there. Governments will always be poor substitutes for neighbor helping neighbor. Even if that neighbor happens to be 8,000 miles away.




Raw Travel Southeast Asia Episodes – Coming May 2015


This past January we traveled to Southeast Asia for the very first time for what can only be described as a mind blowing, life changing adventure.

As we made our way from Thailand, through Laos, to Vietnam and then onward to Manila, Philippines I was in awe of Eastern culture and the zen like and restrained, respectful way in which people carried themselves and treated others.


The extraordinarily beautiful Buddhist temples full of chanting monks at sunset…the incredible, exotic and yes sometimes shocking food.. the traditional and (you know me) non traditional music.. the colors and of course, the people were this traveler’s mecca.

It was at times overwhelming but always fascinating and entertaining. Southeast Asia is affordable, safe and a raw traveler’s dream come true.



One month is not enough to see even one of the countries we visited much less four and much less all that Southeast Asia has to offer.

But it did whet my appetite for more, more, more. If I can brave the 24 hour flight and the ensuing crushing jetlag, you’ll see it on my face when you watch the shows, again then I will. You can bet that I’ll be back and this time making my way through Indonesia, Cambodia, Myanmar and more.


In the meantime, enjoy many more photos from our travels at our FLIKR page HERE. 


and check out the new video teaser trailer, hot off the press. Be looking for full episodes beginning in early May and carrying throughout the summer into the fall of next season.

Hope you enjoy watching them as much as we enjoyed shooting them!

Asia Press

Raw Travel Vietnam Featured on “Right This Minute” TV

The syndicated TV show, “Right This Minute” caught up with us while in Vietnam to see how the trip was going. Here is the video. Enjoy!