For the past several days we’ve been heading further north. In Chiang Rai, we settled at a guest house in a quiet part of town. After a long bus ride from Chiang Mai, the children were eager for some physical activity. Soon, they had rigged a makeshift net with our laundry line and recruited a new Thai friend, who works at the guest house, to play a little Kartor. By the time they challenged Steve and I to a game, they had improved significantly. They scored a decisive victory over the parents in the first game but sufficiently warmed up, the parents came back to squeak by the kids in a second game, thanks to a string of 6 points delivered by server Picado! (This was particularly impressive because otherwise my serve was completely unpredictable!)
That night, we stayed up until the wee hours as I finished the most recent Harry Potter tale. Just a few hours later in the early hours of morning, we were awakened to a ferocious monsoon. Thunder cracked with a vengeance and the heavens parted. I wondered if we would awake to widespread flooding but by morning, the weather had cleared and only large puddles remained of the evening’s torrent. We were clear to head to
September 26, 2005
September 26, 2005
I finally found a market that I really enjoyed. Chichi in
September 25, 2005 We have spent the last couple of days exploring Chiang Mai. Yesterday, Paul planned an excursion for us. We caught a tuk-tuk to a silk and cotton dying center on the outskirts of the city. We were shown the process of creating natural and chemical dyes and dying the fabric and saw some beautiful weaving from local hill tribes. When he realized how remote the center was, our tuk-tuk driver stayed with us and took us to two wats on Paul's tour. At Wat Jed Yod, an Indian temple, Paul got his opportunity to chat with a monk. Paul led the discussion as he asked his burning questions about the life of a monk and the Buddhist religion. We spent more than a half hour talking and by the end of the session they were recruiting Paul. Apparently, boys as young as seven years of age can begin study as a monk. Paul very wisely said he would need to learn more about the religion before he considered that commitment, and I added that he still needed to be with his mother! At Wat Suan Dok, stately white cheddis hailed the back-to-back giant standing and sitting Buddhas. Today, Pongtep picked us up and took us to three more temples. Just when we thought we were templed-out, I was dazzled once again. This time by Wat Phra Singh (c. 1345), whose walls were lined with a mural depicting the life of the Lanna hill tribe people and whose altar, pillars and ceiling were painted in a deep red and gold, and Wat Chiang Man, the oldest temple in Chiang Mai, that houses a crystal and marble statue of Buddha nearly 2,000 years old (The crystal Buddha is believed to have the power to bring seasonal rains, not something that this town needs at the moment as it has experienced the worst flooding in 40 years this season!). My favorite temple of the day, though was Wat Cheddi Luang (meaning giant cheddi). This huge cheddi collapsed during an earthquake in 1545. This temple reminded me of the Mayan pyramids of Central America as steep stairs lead to shrines high in the sky. On each of the four sides of the square temple was a gold Buddha, sitting in front of an ornate gold-leafed tree. At each main entrance was a pair of dragons and at regular intervals were elephant torsos, standing at sentry around the temple, many of which were being replaced with new stone carvings. Just outside this temple, we experienced our first attempt at Thai volleyball, played with a light wicker ball that is kicked or headed over the net. Like volleyball, each team has three attempts to get the ball over. During one very comical play, Peter and I nearly knocked each other out when we both nearly collided with each other in an attempt to head the ball. We only became aware that we were both going for the ball when we caught a glimpse of the whites of each other's eyes! We were both so shocked and amused it took some time to recover composure and recommence play! We actually sustained a volley for about 6 rounds, our record for the first time out! However, we plan to carry this little ball around and improve our game as we continue our travels. Pongtep took us to lunch at one of the oldest and best restaurants in town. Aah, the vegetables were so exceptionally fresh I savored every bite! September 23, 2005 Ton's uncle arranged for us to be picked up from Lampang by a van and a tour guide. Our first stop was a Thai Elephant Conservation Center just outside of Lampang. At present, the only elephants left in the wild in Thailand are in Khao Yai national park in central Thailand, but thanks to the many elephant conservation centers across the country, the Asian elephant in Thailand is well-protected. As elephants are a sacred, royal animal, this initiative is supported by the royal family and the queen takes an active role in many of the operations of the centers. At the centers, the elephants are trained in the traditional logging practices of one of the hill tribes of the area and are used to log trees on the forest plantations located in the conservation sites. These classical, non-industrial practices are demonstrated by the elephants and their trainers in a show at the facility. Guided by the cues of their trainers, the elephants work individually and together to carry, pile, and transport logs. The elephants are part of every aspect of life at the conservation center and also learn to socialize by playing traditional Thai instruments, such as the Ungkalung, a marimba-like instrument, and painting, also a traditional art form of the hill tribe people of the area. The conservation center also serves as a research facility for the Asian elephant and we learned many interesting facts about the species:
I just have to share with you the name of the first king of Thailand because Pat took the time to write his name and like many Thai names, it’s a long one: King Pharkhunsriintratit. Try saying that 3 times fast!
For dessert, they served us an ice cream produced in a local dairy cooperative, called Umm! Milk. We were all very impressed with this ice cream and Peter now has another international ice cream to market in the U.S., along with his favorite in Central America, Dos Pinos from Costa Rica! Noy and Heng took us to see the dairy farm and Peter and Paul had another pint. Noy also purchased more on dry ice for them! They were in hog heaven! Since the last tour of the farm was over, we drove to the nearby national park, Khao Yai. We saw a couple of monkeys crossing the road and stopped to greet them. They looked up at us in the van curiously. Though we saw elephant dung everywhere, we didn't spot a wild elephant. At the ranger station, we saw a couple of large deer and took a short hike to a nearby waterfall. As we were getting back into the van, Steve extracted the first leech of our trip from his calve. (I was to discover only when I took a shower that night that I had also acquired one of these critters on my leg! Thankfully he had shaken himself from my body by the time I became aware of it!) Our excursion through Khao Yai was too short and we will try to return on our way back south next month. After a Texas-size meal at the dairy restaurant, Ton's parents dropped us off at the very lovely hotel they had arranged for us to stay at and we retired for the evening, aglow with the warmth of our new friends! September 18, 2005 Before leaving Bangkok and heading north, we got in touch with Faang, the girlfriend of our Thai exchange student, Ton. She agreed to meet us for lunch, and we met at the most conspicuous landmark we could remember, the Burger King at Khao San Road. Rest assured, we had no intention of eating there; we have noticed that all the American eateries or entrees are 3-times the price of local Thai restaurants/entrees, plus who would want fast food when you can get very flavorful, fresh Thai food at every corner???! Since Faang was not too familiar with the Khao San Road area, we took her to our favorite restaurant for lunch, and then we followed her to the famous Jatujak Market, a weekend only market that encompasses several city blocks. Ton had told us that this was his favorite market in Bangkok and that Faang was an expert about this market. It turned out we really needed a personal guide. The place was crawling with humanity and literally thousands of booths with thousands of products. As we tried to navigate the very narrow passageways, those of us with packs often found ourselves wedged tightly between the traffic moving in both directions. I had to squeeze my way through several times to loosen myself from the jam! The whole atmosphere reminded us of Chichicastenango in the Guatemala highlands, and I felt as overwhelmed here in Thailand as I did in Chichi! It seems that every continent sports one of these all-in-one marketplaces and that most of the population of that continent visits it!!! At one point, I stopped to look at something and though I alerted the group ahead, my message was lost in din and we were separated. When I merged into the slow-moving lane of people, I couldn't find them. Thankfully, before long, Faang had used her considerable market guiding skills to reunite us and I received a harsh scolding from my kids about not wandering off and being sure that the party ahead got the message to stop and wait! Miraculously, we meandered into a shop with traditional Thai dyed clothing, what I was looking for, and I found some very lightweight clothes to supplement my very meager wardrobe, a one-size-fits-all pair of pants and dress. As we were leaving the market, we thought we had survived without another incident but as Steve and I emerged from the maze into a major avenue, we suddently couldn't find Faang, Peter, Paul and Mom. Steve was sure they had merged into the large avenue so when we couldn't sight them, we decided to stay put. Sure enough, before long, again Faang and the rest of the group emerged from the labyrinth, not the main avenue (Steve's eyes were playing tricks on him, I fear!), and once again, we were reunited! We stayed close until the crowds finally thinned as we made our way to the sky train terminal. Faang accompanied us to the station and got us on the right train to our next destination, Ari Station, near where my Kwaj friend, Bill Savage, lives. I had not seen Bill in 28 years since I was a sophomore in high school and it was very fun to see him again. He has lived in Bangkok for 17 years now and is a consultant for international NGOs and travels all over the world on a regular basis. In fact, as he hosted us that evening, his bags were packed as he headed to Nairobi that night to facilitate a UN conference on the conditions of children in developing countries. We enjoyed catching up in our short interval together. Bill had pulled out an old Kwaj Ekatak that had a photo of the two of us standing next to each other for the National Junior Honor Society club photo; I looked particulary nerdy and my children got a big kick out of it. We met Hang and Mac, Bill's dogs and Singh, the young Thai man who lives with Bill while studying at a Bangkok university. Singh led us in a Buddhist prayer ceremony at the spirit house near Bill's front gate for blessings on Bill and us as we travel. Bill took us out to dinner at a restaurant in his neighborhood and ordered several traditional Thai dishes for us to try, everything from not spicy to very spicy. We were full and content with the food and the company by the time we bid Bill farewell until mid October when we will reconnect and visit his farm in southern Thailand together and caught a taxi and headed back to our guest house. September 17, 2005 Throughout Central America, we avoided big cities, but we have spent five days exploring Bangkok and have loved it! With its bustling, colorful market places, exotic temples at every corner, pulsating tempo, and cosmopolitan, yet friendly, character, you find yourself captivated by the Bangkok spell.
Just about any intersection in Bangkok is an adventure in and of itself. Dozens of motorcycles line-up with three-wheeled tuk-tuks in the thick of it as well and when the light turns green, it’s like one big drag race! It’s no wonder that there aren’t more accidents!After our first very wet day, the monsoons held off until early evening, allowing us to explore the city unencumbered by inclement weather. One day we negotiated the municipal bus to Siam Square and caught the BTS sky train to the Indian Embassy to apply for our Visas to India. Familiar with this route, we caught the sky train back to Siam Square for lunch and then shopping as recommended by Ton, our Thai exchange student who lived with us last spring term. We found our way to the MBK mall, a multi-level shopping extravaganza that left my head spinning, but I found a bathing suit in a Thai department store, an important purchase given the amount of beach time Steve has scheduled into the itinerary! The rest of our days were spent visiting one enchanting Buddhist temple after another. We saw Buddhas of all sizes and varieties--sitting Buddha, standing Buddha, reclining Buddha, guardian Buddhas, and life-size to gigantic Buddhas. What I found most impressive was the spirituality of the Thai people. No matter where we went whether a small temple on a busy city street in the middle of the financial district or in a reclusive monastery, we constantly saw people reclining in prayer and earnestly seeking a highter state of consciousness, blessedness and peace. When we arrived at the Grand Palace clad in t-shirts and shorts, we were immediately ushered to a changing room to get appropriate clothing to enter the palace grounds. As you walk through the main gates, you enter an enchanting world of golden spires, ornate temples decorated in colored glass, incense and leis of aromatic flowers, and people bowed in worship or enamored by this exotic world. My favorite structure was a cheddi supported by sculptures of dancing men adorned in Siamese regalia. Paul was impressed by the giant Emerald Buddha which is actually made of jade. We all filed in to remove our shoes and enter the shrine. When you sit, you tuck the bottoms of your feet away from Buddha. I found that when I sat in this position in the quiet of the temple that I was overcome with a deep feeling of peace. As we visited many more temples in the days to come, I sought these soulful reprieves whenever I had the opportunity. We traveled across the ferry to Wat Arun (temple of dawn) one early evening early in our visit to Bangkok. When we boarded the ferry, the only seats available where in the rear of the boat next to two monks. I hadn't yet read our cultural literature and committed two common sins of the foreigner in Thailand--I promptly snuggled right next to a monk and sat in the rear of the boat. The older monk quickly tried to remedy the breach and waved to Peter to sit in between me and the monk! After that fauxpax, I did thorough research on monk etiquette and am very careful to avoid any of these social taboos. Any small segment of Wat Arun is riveting as it is covered in mosaics of porcelain tiles and we left Mom and Peter to begin a sketch as we Steve, Paul and I explored the white-washed cheddis glistening in the falling light. We came back another day to visit Wat Pho (which I kept calling Wat Pro and Paul patiently kept correcting me) because that Friday was reserved for Thai people only, and I'm glad we did. The tremendous reclining Buddha encompasses the entire large temple structure; one foot alone is 3 by 5 meters and the bottoms of both feet display 108 different characteristics of Buddha! I didn't have any idea the scale so when I walked into the temple, I didn't realize what I was looking at until Peter pointed out, there he was, and I finally realized we were looking at his forearm!!! Tremendous! The gigantic figure is modelled out of plaster and finished in gold leaf, and the eyes are made of mother of pearl.
September 15, 2005 A relatively short 5 hours later, we arrived in Bangkok and were making our way to downtown Bangkok. We stayed at a Marriot Hotel on points my mother-in-law had accrued on her extended stays as an interim executive director for Girl Scouts and lived high-on-the-hog for less than 24 hours! We took full advantage of the luxurious accommodations and did several loads of laundry and prepared breakfast and lunch in our fully equipped unit. We also discovered that the pool was located at the top of the hotel and was absolutely spectacular with its open air design high among the skyscrapers of Bangkok and took an evening dip under twinkling lights and a morning dip as well. We also worked out in the exercise room adjacent to the pool that had floor to ceiling windows and another grand view of the city! Alas, our stay came to an end all too quickly and we were venturing out into the city in the middle of a monsoon in search of a guest house in the much more economical Banglamphu district. Our taxi driver managed to find one of the guest houses we were looking for and reluctantly dropped us off at a nearby suitcase warehouse that offered us some protection from the rain while I set off to inquire about availability. Meanwhile, our taxi driver, a customer and the staff at the warehouse took us under their wing, offering suggestions for possible nearby hotels and calling the guest houses listed in Lonely Planet for this area to inquire about availability for us. Before we knew it, our welfare became a community affair; the driver would not leave and the kind couple who were simply exchanging a suitcase they had purchased also felt responsible for our safe-keeping and wouldn’t leave until they were assured we were going to find our way. The Villa guest house was set way off the road down a long sidewalk and I was doused with water from the rooftops as well as the persistent deluge. However, though I assertively rang the old-fashioned bell, no one answered the door. When I returned with the report that no one had answered, I was sent with our taxi driver to try again. We repeated the gonging of the bell to no avail and once again returned to the worried masses, who huddled again and brainstormed solutions to our plight. We reassured them that we had several other options in the vicinity and were sure we’d find a place but still our new found friends fretted over us. The well-dressed woman who was exchanging a purchase at the warehouse got her husband, who was sitting in their car conducting business over his cell phone, involved, calling hotels he knew about in the vincinity and negotiating a reduced price for us. Soon Steve and I were sent off with the taxi driver, who still hadn’t left, to check out the hotel they had recommended. It turned out to be too expensive and we wanted to head back by foot so we could check out other possibilities along the way. We had this comical exchange with the taxi driver who simply did not want to leave us. We kept bowing and urging him to head on his way. He thought we were concerned about the money and kept motioning for us to follow him and not to worry, no money, no money. We kept saying Kup kun ka, thank you very much, we knew the way, and really wanted to walk. We finally managed to shake him and returned to find our friends still keeping mom, Peter and Paul company. Again we had to reassure this couple not to worry, that we would find a place to stay. After many bows and thank yous, they supplied us with an umbrella and gave us a gift bag of baked goods they happened to have in their back seat as a “welcome gift to Thailand” and finally left us to explore the several guest houses in the area. At one guest house, I took a nasty fall on the wet tiles but bounced up unscathed (though I found the dramatic scramble of limbs so comical I had a hard time regaining my composure as I laughed at myself uncontrollably!). Several visits later and we decided on a guest house owned by a retired teacher and just several doors down from the warehouse where mom, Peter and Paul were waiting for us. Though we and our belongings were quite soggy by the time we settled into our abode for the next few days, we were grateful to find relatively comfortable, safe and DRY quarters with Mrs. Saiyoot who had taught English when she was a teacher and had a few very clear words in English and a very kindly, motherly manner.