Travelogs & Reflections > Therese's Travelog > Southeast Asia

Thailand I

September 28, 2005

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!)


We visited Myanmar (formerly Burma) for a day. Though we added another country to our passport, the experience was marginal as we really only had time to see the border-town. However, from a temple high on a hill, we were able to catch a glimpse of the stunning Myanmar countryside. Across this tree-studded panorama, neat, golden temples peered from the peaks of many of the hilltops, and the lush forest undulated deep into the heart of the country, beckoning travelers to set-off on the red clay roads winding through those verdant forests. Alas, we only had a one-day visa, and we were only to capture these fleeting impressions.


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 Laos. On the way to the border, we met another family on a one-year, round-the-world trip, a mother and her two children, 10 and 12, from England. We talked travel, itinerary, and schooling, comparing notes. We parted at Chiang Khong as they were planning on fishing the Mekong River and we were planning to cross it enroute to Laos. A short ferry ride later and we had entered Laos.


September 26, 2005 

I finally found a market that I really enjoyed. Chichi in Guatemala and Jatujak in Bangkok were just too crowded and overwhelming. I was beginning to think I was market-challenged until I was introduced to the Sunday night bazaar in Chiang Mai by our friends, Pongtep, and his wife, Kanda. It was a bit like the market at the Eugene Celebration—the streets were blocked off to traffic and you could actually move from booth to booth without feeling compressed by the sea of humanity. Throughout the market blocks, there were food vendors selling authentic local Thai food (a plate of pad thai noodles for $0.50) and music at various stages along the multi-block production, as well as diverse sidewalk entertainment acts. And, there were many different kinds of handiwork for sale, the price was right and you weren’t pressured or badgered relentlessly. I was very content to amble along the streets on that balmy Chiang Mai evening, taking in the sights and sounds of this weekend extravaganza.


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:

  • The average adult elephant eats between 150 and 200 kg/day and drinks 100 liters/day. Well, it takes at least that to sustain these mammoth beasts that weigh between 3 and 5,000 kgs!
  • Only males have tusks.
  • The average gestation period for an elephant is 24 months! As a result, a female elephant usually has no more than 5 offspring in her lifetime, and cannot become pregnant until 15 years of age. Once again, the female species is nothing short of heroic; I mean, think about it: a 24-month gestation period??!!! Wow!
  • Elephants live for about 100 years.
  • And, get this: they only sleep from about midnight to 3 a.m. in the morning, though they must take cat naps during the day, don't you think?? They also yawn and snore like humans; with only 3 hours of sleep per day, I don't blame them, yawn and snore away, my friends!
We were lured into taking an elephant ride as it looked like too much fun. Peter, Paul and Grandma Carrol lumbered away as Steve and I boarded our elephant. We started out down a fairly well delineated path but soon were off-trail, wading through a pond and venturing into the jungle. In the jungle, the elephants hooked up with a hiking trail and began following this narrow trail in single file with remarkable grace, considering their girdth! We were behind Peter, Paul and Mom but all of a sudden and much to our surprise, our elephant started climbing up the side of the steep hill! I wasn't sure what was happening but became a little concerned when our trainer suddenly became very alert and began urgently talking to and prodding our elephant to turn back onto the trail. Just a few bumpy strides up the mountain and we saw what had seduced our elephant--a particularly succulent-looking bamboo tree, which he uprooted and promptly and satisfyingly began munching. In good time, he eventually got back on the path and we continued up the hill on the trail and finally caught up with Peter, Paul and Mom again. However, it wasn't long before his stomach was grumbling again and we were once again steering off the path and foraging for another snack, this time down the steep hill! Once again, our trainer, who was ordinarily quite relaxed on his perch bare-back on the elephant's neck, sat up straight and began pulling his ears, prodding him with his feet and otherwise talking to him in very stern and urgent tones to get the heck back on the trail or something like that in Thai! This time the apple of his eye was some vine-like vegetation and I wondered if elephants like ivy or blackberries because we could use them in our invasive species removal efforts in our natural areas in Eugene!!! Back on the path behind Peter, Paul and Mom's elephant and this time their elephant decides to misbehave and of course our elephant thinks, well, geez, what the heck, if he's gonna do it, why can't I? So, in collusion, they begin venturing out and enjoying a little picnic in the jungle together! Peter, Paul and Mom's elephant, however, got a little greedy and literally uprooted more than he could eat in one gulp and reluctantly set off with an entire bamboo tree in her mouth! It was pretty funny watching her trying to digest that little snack. But, by the time we made it back to the pond, they were ready for some more frolic with their human passengers and began splashing each other and us with that very muddy water! Well, it was pretty hot and I suppose they did deserve the refreshment after hauling us around in the blistering tropical heat, and, with all their detours, our 1/2-hour tour turned into an hour adventure! Of course, we were all high after our elephant trek and might just consider elephants as one of our favorite modes of transportation! 

We visited the baby elephants and their mothers. I was quite surprised to discover that these "babies" were already 1 1/2 years old and still nursing. Once again, my hat's off to these female elephants! I was of course quite enamored with the baby elephants and began tenderly caressing one of the baby elephants on her trunk. However, when she started curling her trunk around my arm, the workers in the vicinity suddenly started yelling at me in Thai and our guide quickly translated, Watch out! I quickly extricated my arm but have since had visions of it being crushed by that 1 1/2 year old baby!

As you can imagine, these mammoth vegetarians can produce a terrific quantity of feces but in typical Thai fashion, no worry, they make paper from the elephant dung! We got to see how this process is done and see the beautifully textured paper that it produces. Paul has proof; he purchased a key chain made out of this elephant dung paper. In the middle of watching the dung being boiled in big vats, I thought it odd timing but Peter informed me that he was, despite the setting, very hungry! With visions of dung soup far behind us, we were soon eating typical Northern Thai food just out of Chiang Mai.

We visited several handicraft centers, featuring the traditional artistry of many of the hill tribes of the region, including the making and painting of paper umbrellas, silk and cotton weaving, pottery, and wood products, to name only a few. Though impressed, we hope to visit a hill tribe in their mountain village and will reserve our purchases for our live encounter with the people and their trades.

Our last stop was a temple on a mountain top on the outskirts of the city. It is called Doi Suthep, or Mountain Heaven, as it is set at the top of a staircase, 306 steps tall. You are greeted by a dragon's head on either side of the stairway to heaven and its beautifully tiled tail sweeps all the way up the stairs to the entrance of the temple. According to legend, the King of Thailand in the 1300s commissioned the very holy white elephant to find an appropriate site for the remains of Lord Buddha in Thailand. The elephant determinedly ventured to this location and promptly died. The king had a glorious temple built and the relics of Lord Buddha remain in a spectacular cheddi covered in gold leaf. We joined the others walking around the cheddi until our guide flagged us down and turned us around so that we were walking clockwise. It turns out that this is a special form of meditation in which you walk around the cheddi clockwise three times. Peter decided to do three rounds around the cheddi just as two monks started their procession and I warned him, no passing monks!!!  Ominious clouds brought his meditation to a premature halt and we hurried down the hill and back to the van. The heavens tore asunder and suddenly it was raining with ferocity. We wondered if yet another monsoon had hit Chiang Mai but by the time we were settled for dinner at our hotel with Ton's father's brother, Pongtep, the rain had subsided. Pongtep, like the rest of his family, very generously and patiently hosted us that first evening in Chiang Mai and answered all our eager questions about the culture and sights of this northern region and much to the children's delight, followed all this adult talk up with ice creams from the local 7-11!

September 22, 2005

Since Chiang Mai is currently under water from tropical storm Vicente that hit the region just a few days ago, we're taking a few days reprieve in Lampang, just south of Chiang Mai, to wait for the waters to subside and re-commence our travels north. These occasional reprieves from the hectic travel pace are critical to get caught up emotionally and physically from the rigors and impact of travel. There is so much we're absorbing on a day to day basis. We need time for reflection and physical recuperation, not to mention laundry, sleep, e-mail and school work!

One afternoon as I was walking back from the nearby Internet cafe, I was approached by four girls on motorcycles who asked me if I would be willing to be interviewed. We talked for close to a half hour and I realized that English was as difficult for their tongue as Thai was for mine. The languages are physically articulated differently; the English language comes from the back of the throat whereas the Thai language is pronounced gently on the lips. However, we prevailed in our communication and they gave me a lift on the motorcycle back to my hotel. I knew Peter wouldn't have forgiven me if I hadn't asked if they would be willing to give him a ride as he has already decided on the model of motorcycle he'd like, the Honda Wave, in fact the type of motorcycle, my new friend, Tic and her sisters, Nan, Om, and Bo were riding. They gladly agreed to take Peter, Paul and me to see the town market and a Burmese temple. Paul was a little apprehensive but I sandwiched him between Tic and me and after this experience, he's thinking that the tuk-tuks are tame in comparison! Tic and her sisters showed us all kinds of exotic Thai foods at the market. I just inhaled all the sights and smells of this marvelous convergence of culture. This little excursion helped orient us to the city, and the next day we were much more comfortable finding our way around town. That afternoon we had lunch at a restaurant along the river. I was to discover that the path along the river however was not a bike path as in Eugene; as couples cuddled on park benches overlooking the river, motorized vehicles occasionally whirred along the waterway path behind them. 

September 21, 2005

We have spent the last couple of days in Ton's family's abundant hospitality. We visited the grade and vocational schools Ton's mother runs and Ton's father's dairy farms and educational camp. They also set us up in the family van with a driver and a translator, Joy, a young Philipino women who teaches ESL at the elementary school and sent us off to explore the historical cities of Lopburi, Ayutthaya and Sukhothai. During the Ayutthaya period (1400-1800s), one of the 33 kings of the period built a palace in Lopburi but liked it so much and spent so much time in the restive, country setting, it was known as the second capitol of the period. Peter and Paul played frisbee among these regal ruins that surround a still active royal country palace. The town is also considered a very holy place because monkeys, a very sacred animal, lived and thrived in the area. As the town grew, the monkeys didn't leave and you can see them crawling along the rooftops, buildings, temples and ruins in the center of town. We visited one of these temple ruins that is overrun with monkeys. A local boy who was very familiar with the monkeys pointed out the king of the clan, a monkey with a terribly cancerous growth on his hand, and a monkey that had just been born. He also showed Peter, Paul and me how to let a monkey climb onto our shoulders. However these modern day monkeys seem to have lost their spiritual essence as they're quite ornery to say the least, and we were told to be careful of backpacks, glasses and cameras as they're adroit pickpocketers. As Peter was bending down to take a picture of a baby and its mother, one monkey tried to piggy back on to him. When Peter jumped up in surprise, he bit him in the rear-end! We were much more wary from then on out and when a fight broke out between two domineering males, Faang hurriedly shooed us out of the fenced in grounds to the safety of our van. No one wanted to tangle with the monkeys at the other ruin site and we got on the road to Ayutthaya.

We arrived at the impressive ruins of Ayutthaya; a forest of towering red-brick cheddis, shrines and temples cover a large area. Many of the cheddis are leaning at precarious angles and most of the Buddhas throughout the site have been decapitated. During this period, Thailand fought with Laos, Burma, Malaysia, and Cambodia and was occupied by Burma for a 15-year period. The area is also rich in prehistoric artifacts, and our next stop was a world heritage site, Wat Phra Si Sanphet, which has three bell-shaped cheddis and shrines throughout the outlying grounds. We left as they were closing and as we were walking to the van, they turned on the lights. What a magical sight to see the cheddis illuminated! Peter scaled the wall of the complex and tried to capture the effect on film but it is emblazoned in our minds as a truly ethereal image!

We stayed at a beautiful hotel along the river compliments of Ton's uncle, Pongsak, and lounged comfortably that evening in our luxurious accommodations.

The next morning we set off early but by early afternoon as we arrived at Sukhothai, it had begun to rain. We explored Sukhothai historical park in the rain, wading among the ruins of the original capital of the first Thai kingdom. During the Sukhothai period, the third king established an important aspect of Thai identity, the Thai alphabet, and devoted land and water to the development of agriculture in the country. To this day, Thailand is an extremely self-sufficient country, producing all of its food with enough to sustain a very healthy export commerce and importing very few other products from other countries. The grounds in the historical park are surrounded by three concentric ramparts and two moats bridged by four gateways, and I was determined to experience at least a fraction of its grandeur. This was the first temple grounds where we saw large animals bordering the sacred shrines. At first I thought these animals were jaguars but later discovered that they were elephants, their ears and trunks eroded away.

September 19, 2005

Faang had made arrangements for us to meet Ton's family, who live in the Lopburi province in central Thailand, enroute to our next destination in northern Thailand and Laos. As we entered Ton's hometown, we saw a life-size banner in a store window and Faang told us that the gentleman pictured was Ton's grandfather, a very respected member of the community who had served in parliament for now close to 25 years. The van driver obviously knew the family too because we were dropped off directly in front of Ton's family's home and were greeted by an impressive welcoming committee, consisting of Ton's parents, Noy and Heng Manupipatpong, several of Ton's mother's brothers and their families, including Prasert and Noi Vorapanya and their three children, Pat, 14 years, Pa, 12 years, and Wong, 10 years (we met Pat and Pa briefly when they were visiting Ton in Eugene last spring), Pongsak Vorapanya and his wife and 2 little girls, one of Ton's grandmothers and grandfathers (not sure which), and assorted other of the six-plus families that live at the very large family homestead. Despite our pathetic Thai, there was no awkwardness as we were ushered warmly into their home and those that spoke English came to our aid in the flood of translation that followed! They had prepared a wonderful lunch of Thai soup, rice, Thai sausage, and eggs, and we spread out over several tables to enjoy lunch with the family. Heng, Ton's father, was overcome with longing for his son and called Ton to tell him we had arrived and were in their company. Ton was very pleased to hear that we had made it to his home, and we expressed how happy we were to meet his family and how grateful we were for the gracious hospitality and kindness his family was extending to us. During lunch, Pat briefed us on the last 800 years of Thai history, namely the Sukhothai (1200-1400s) and Ayutthaya (1400-1600s) periods, as Ton's family had outlined a schedule for us over the course of the next couple of days to visit sites from these periods and she was preparing for a final exam on this subject and needed to recite the key dates and events anyway. It was clear that Pat and Thai people in general are very proud of the fact that Thailand is the only country in southeast Asia that has not been occupied--and influenced--by a Western power. The name of Thailand, which means “Land of the Free,” was formally adopted in 1939 to recognize this. Other sources of national pride are Thailand's self-sufficiency. They do not need to import many goods, producing all their rice and food. Thailand is the world’s #1 rice exporter and rubber producer and one of world’s largest producers of tin (also export: textiles, fish products, tapioca and jewelry). Thailand also has one of the highest literacy rates in Southeast Asia (95.5%).

She also expressed what is echoed by most Thai people--a reverence for the royal family. This last royal family, the Rama lineage, has ruled since the 1800s. The current king, King Rama IX, is the longest reigning king of Thailand, and Pat told us with pride that the king, who has 3 daughters and 1 son, had recently broken with tradition and decreed that a woman could rule the kingdom. As she retold Thai history, she was quick to point out the weak kings that allowed the country to succomb to Burma and other neighboring occupiers over the centuries. In fact, it is believed that the gold that was used to build the grand temple in Yangoon, Burma, was stolen from Thailand (a 16-meter high standing Buddha covered with 205kg of gold was melted down in Ayutthaya by the Burmese conquerors); however, since it doesn't say "Made in Thailand," there is no way to confirm this suspicion, she quipped!

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.