The comings and goings of the Minsky's in Thailand.
Sunday, January 04, 2009
We had our apartment up and running within two days--the only thing we waited for was our super fast internet connection to be installed. We loved meeting up with our old friends, most of whom were still here. We were greeted at the apartment building with open arms--everyone was so happy to see us again, especially Sarinya, the owner of the restaurant on the first floor of our building--she cooks for me and knows every one of my food allergies. We enjoyed the holiday concerts and luncheons. On Christmas Day we treated ourselves to a luxurious afternoon at the spa--complete with foot bathing in water and flower petals, hot towel, facial, massage, and post-massage pampering.
Our friends, Karen and Tim Vernon, left their home in Reno to come here the weekend after Christmas. We met them in Bangkok and spent an incredible couple of days taking them to the sights, visiting the markets, shopping, and eating in great restaurants. We flew back to Chiang Mai on New Year's Eve day, arriving back at our apartment about 10:30PM. We hadn't even taken our luggage upstairs when we were hailed by Sarinya and her husband, Sak. This year in Thailand, everyone has a 5 day New Year break--it is traditional for everyone to return to their family home, wherever that is, for the holiday. Sarinya and Sak planned a trip back home for Friday and Saturday. The amazing thing is that they invited Jules and me to come along with them! They come from areas in the mountains about an hour and a half north of Chiang Mai. Sak said they would pick us up in their car on Friday afternoon about 4PM. Since it was Wednesday, we thought, "OK, we have a day to recover from our Bangkok trip--how can we turn down an opportunity to see how Thai people really live and spend their time--also, it was an honor to be asked." It was New Year's Eve so we stayed up late to see from our roof garden the, at least, 10 sets of fireworks lighting up the sky all around the city. About quarter of 11 the next morning there was a knock on the door--plans had changed, could we be ready to leave in about an hour!? Wow, I packed that bag in record time for the overnight trip.
Our first stop was a pizza place just outside the city, where Sak picked up a large "Hawaiian" pizza, with pineapple chunks, ham and bacon. Some condiments also came with the pizza: a small container of cheese whiz, packets of oregano, hot pepper flakes, and--the biggest surprise--a half dozen ketchup packets! This was a special major treat for the family to enjoy. Of course, the trunk was chock full of all kinds of Thai food and stuff for their two year old baby, Prittee. Prittee is your typical firecracker of a two year old--a great kid who speaks Thai a mile a minute. And off we went.
We traveled on roads with lots of curves and went over some hilly tourain. We arrived at Sak's parents' home about an hour and a half later. They live in a lovely small teak home with a bubbling brook in the back. Cisterns of water were all around the house. One cistern was special--about 10 large frogs were kept there--we never did find out why. Have I mentioned that no one spoke more than a few words of English? So communication by words was basically non-existent--but hand gestures and a few Thai words from us and English words from them go an amazing long way toward understanding one another. Sak's father is retired and makes baskets from bamboo strips. Other people in the area surrounding their home are also in the basket making business. In every yard you can see the baskets in various stages of completion. Sak's sister, her husband and nine year old son also arrived from Chiang Mai. She told me that her son spoke English, but we could not coax a word out of him. Sarinya made lunch--she made me my special pad Thai and they all nibbled on the pizza. Thai people snack all the time--I don't think there was an hour when we weren't eating something. Bananas and pineapple came right off the tree and boiled peanuts came out of their garden. In the afternoon we drove up to the town's Wat and talked to the monk there who spoke very good English. When we returned the family began grilling the main course--meat and lots of it--beef ribs and what looked like filet mignon. On the second grill was long pieces of bamboo stuffed with rice--khao lum. These were grilled and tended to by Sak's father for about 4 hours. When done, the bamboo is stripped away and you have a delicious roll of rice (which I can eat.) Thais also love to drink scotch--100 Pipers or Johnnie Walker. So as the evening wore on, everyone's English got better and better and the laughter and jokes kept coming. Sak's sister brought out the family albums and we saw pictures of them visiting various places in Thailand. The whole ambiance was very similar to a family gathering anywhere except no one watched football games.
Jules and I were given Sak's old room and Sak, Sarinya and the baby slept on the floor on mats in the living room. I never could figure out where the rest of the folks slept. Thai houses have very little furniture. Basically, everyone lives outside. They definitely cook outside, usually in a separate little house behind the main house.
The next day, I expected that we would all go to the big Wat outside of town. The signs kept pointing to both the Wat and the Chiang Dao caves. To my surprise, we parked in the cave parking lot. Mom, dad, sister, husband, son, and Pritti, the baby, amused themselves somehow, waiting around for an hour while Sarinya and Sak took us into the cave. And what a cave it was! As an attorney, I was fascinated by the liability issues--there were few hand rails; there was no walkway or man made flooring, only uneven slippery earth. Florescent lighting went up to the main Buddha but most people got a lantern and a guide and disappeared into the blackness of the cave beyond. The cave was amazing and huge. We walked and walked viewing large formations of all shapes. We walked up to the main Buddha. Sarinya loved to climb the slippery sides up to the limestone formations. Jules decided to follow and boom! he was down. All that happened (thank goodness) was his one pair of pants were a mess of hard packed wet earth on the sides and back. Once out, we went to the inevitable market surrounding the cave and bought him a large scarf which Sarinya wrapped around his middle like a sarong. No one gave him a second glance. We went back into town to one of the local typical Thai restaurants for lunch--there were ten of us. Sarinya had packed me a special lunch which was delicious. The other nine ate several main dishes plus bowls of rice and drinks. The bill was 530 baht (about $18). We then traveled to a beautiful demonstration flower garden sponsored by the Royal Family. Rows and rows of different kind of flowers pleased the eye as far as you could see. After this, we said our goodbyes and headed off to Sarinya's home town of Phrao on the other side of the mountains. Recall that the plan was for us to spend one night away from Chiang Mai and we had packed accordingly. Obviously, if we were heading to Sarinya's home town, we were going to be gone another night. Oh well, mai pen rai, we're retired and our time is our own.
Sarinya's home town was very different from Chiang Dao, a fairly large town. Sarinya's town was more like a small village surrounded by a huge farmland. Most of the people living there are farmers. Sarinya said that she has six sisters. It is complicated but we eventually figured out that Sarinya has very close friends who are sisters to her. We met four of them with their families and ate everywhere. One set of folks were gathered around a huge hot pot cooking some kind of meat. Jules spent a half hour there and they ate constantly for that entire time and were still going strong when he left. Where do they put it? Most Thais are very tiny. It is a mystery to me. One of Sarinya's sisters grilled me a huge fish. It was very tasty-arroi mak mak. People were coming and going. We were going and coming. We stopped to visit Sarinya's mother and stepfather. She proudly showed me her six diplomas from massage schools and proceeded to massage Jules's legs. Of course, we were all sitting on the floor at the time. We finally ended up at the home of one of Sarinya's many relatives. We sat outside while they grilled the bamboo filled with rice. The night was lovely and cool. We were very peaceful.
On Saturday, Jules and I went for a walk around the village out to the major field area, surrounded by beautiful mountains. Mid-morning we were told that we were going to the market to buy salad. We took a detour. Sarinya and one of her sisters took us to Wat Sunpong--a fascinating Indian/Thai Wat complete with a large statute of Ganesh and many Indian style buildings. The pictures accompanying this narrative are worth hundreds of descriptive words. By this time, Jules and I were pinching ourselves--we were having the time of our lives. We drove to the salad market, a bright clean store filled with bowls of various cooked and raw vegetables. Sarinya discovered then that I could eat pumpkin and sweet potato. My list of food allergies in Thai language does not include all the foods I can eat, only those that I can't eat. She was very excited to find out about these new ingredients and I can only hope that my diet will be widened considerably by this discovery. We filled bags and bags of an assortment of veggies and headed back. After lunch and Pritti's nap, we headed out of town. We met up with the owner of the largest Thai house in the area set in the middle of the farmland which, we were told, his family owned. He graciously invited the foreigners up to see his home--wow! Again I hope the pictures do this place justice. We walked up the stairs to the main part of the house and it was completely empty--it was like a huge ballroom with one beautiful crystal chandelier in the middle of the room. There were several bedrooms and a completely bare kitchen area. When we headed downstairs under the house, it was obvious where everyone hung out. Mrs. owner and her son were on large tables receiving massages. Food, cooking utensils, and grills were everywhere. Jules was invited to partake of something cooking in a large pot--he said it was delicious. Mr. and Mrs owner live in Bangkok and visit the Thai house once a year at New Year's. The rest of the time it stands empty. A caretaker watches everything including two huge buffalo grazing in the field.
Once again we were on the road. It was approaching late afternoon by this time but we stopped one more time at Buatong Waterfall. This waterfall has seven levels. We managed to walk down to the first level and enjoyed the beautiful view. Prittee could not contain herself; clothes went flying and she was in the water in no time. Jules also was enticed to wade around and announced that the water was fairly warm. The waterfall is in a national park; people were camping out in tents and small cabins. Finally, we headed back to Chiang Mai. By this time it was dark. A wonderful time was had by all--especially by the two gringos who were lucky enough to be invited on this adventure.
Many of you have thought that my diet of rice, vegetables, chicken, fish and fruit was very restrictive. Below I have listed just a small portion of the kind of rice dishes found in Southeast Asia. I ate all of these in the past week
Rice bun with black bean and sweetened pumpkin filling--the best dessert ever
Rice flatbread-crispy, grilled and paper thin
Rice in bamboo-- kaw lum
Sticky rice in black sesame--tasted like chocolate when I closed my eyes
Sweet rice cracker folded and filled with egg white and sugar syrup mixture--melted in your mouth
Mochi rice in red bean sauce--Japanese New Year's treat
Rice porridge-filled with chicken and vegetables
Tuesday, April 03, 2007
Playing host to our best friends was a job that we really relished. Franzman & I have done so many things together, had so many adventures, that we had to make sure this trip would be worthy of that history. I am happy to say that I think we succeeded. We did a great variety of beautiful & exciting things; elephants, tigers, monkeys, bats, orchids, The Grand Palace, waterfalls, beaches, islands & ... The cherry on top was provided by having the Goldmans and Urana join us for the last few days.
I encourage everyone to seek out some good friends and plan a little "outside the box" adventure together.
With this as a backdrop, we can't wait to see what the future has in store.
Eleanor's comments: We had waited and waited--the day was finally here--our dear friends, Steve and Diane, came to visit for three weeks and we were to be their guides to see Thailand, north and south. For us, it was a darn good excuse to see all of the sights again and to lay on the beach for ten days--what could be bad? During the final weekend of their trip, Dickie and Susan Goldman from Woodstock, and Urana coming in from Bangkok, would join us in Chiang Mai.
Seeing everybody brought home how much we missed our dear friends and family. Seven months is a long time to be on the road. We have enjoyed it thoroughly and have had a great time. We have discovered that this life-style can be repeated anywhere in the world so our horizons have been expanded considerably. We learned that Jules misses his teaching a lot--it is part of who he is--and he wishes to continue to teach. We learned that I can find a million and one things to keep me busy and happy, as long as the list doesn't include the practice of law. But that doesn't mean that I won't enjoy doing something legally-related to help the elderly or disadvantaged.
We have learned that life is unpredictable. So we are truly going with the flow. Surprised to hear that from me? Well, I guess I've mellowed with age. But, we know our air ticket gets us home on May 1--we will be in Saugerties house-sitting for six weeks--and we have air tickets to visit our West Coast friends and family from July 17 to Sept 5. The rest is unknown--the right path for us will reveal itself in due time.
But back to the fun time that was had by all. Tigers and monkeys, oh my. Stephen especially enjoyed the sign at Erawan Falls, which said: "Beware: A monkey steal your belonging." A metaphor for life, perhaps?
Diane and I stayed out of Tiger Canyon, located outside of Kanchanaburi, but the guys made the trip down. Diane and I had valid excuses, but, to tell you the truth, I was not enthused about being in the presence of unchained wild animals--think Siegfried and Roy. The guys loved every minute of it and have the pictures to prove it.
Phang-Nha lived up to its reputation. We took an all day boat trip there from Phuket. It was billed as a "canoe trip". Its real name should have been: "trip where young thai men paddled the inflatable canoes"-- the Minskys and Franzmans laid back and enjoyed the ride. It was really something--one of the highlights of the trip.
But the beach towns of Phuket left something to be desired. I thought of the old saying: Be careful you don't kill the goose that laid the golden egg. That is exactly what has happened. Thai people serve the tourists but, other than that, there is no evidence of Thais--the beach towns are devoid of the rich cultural texture of Thai life--it's just not there and the beach towns are charmless to me. However, that doesn't mean we didn't enjoy reading on the beach and swimming in the warm water--just the right temperature.
The current smoke in the atmosphere of Chiang Mai presented a real problem to us. Should we go there or change our plans? Those darn "slash and burn" farmers. For centuries they have burned their fields every March. I wonder if it is the same every year--complaints until the first rains wash away the particles from the air--then everyone forgets the problem until next year. Well, everyone says that this year it is especially bad. We saw the pictures on TV and started the canceling process. We thought we would go to Hua Hin instead. But we called our friends in Chiang Mai one more time and were assured that the situation, while not perfect, had improved enough to warrant coming there. So we reinstated our flights and came home to Chiang Mai. We were glad we did. We had a great time as shown by the pictures at Mae Sa Elephant Camp. We took a tour up the Ping River, saw a lot of Thai dancing and shopped til we dropped. We had some great meals, one of which at the "Bake and Bite" prompted Dickie to say: "this is the best roast vegetable sandwich I've ever eaten"--this is very high praise! I was busy eating the "hash browns" which tasted like the best potato pancakes I'd ever had.
We said our goodbyes--we were happy that we would see everyone again soon--Urana at Songkran, the traditional Thai New Year, from April 13 to April 17, and the Franzmans and Goldmans on May 1. This is the official end of our blog. Any comments are appreciated. We hope you've come along on our travels by way of this blog and have enjoyed it as much as we have enjoyed writing it.
|The Best of Friends|
Monday, April 02, 2007
Vietnam is prosperous, healthy & growing. Cambodia is hanging on by the skin of its teeth. Why are these 2 countries, right next to each other, so completely different. Here are some obvious answers: Cambodia was bombed by the US during the war as part of the expansion even though it was not really involved. It was devastated and then as a result of the horrible conditions created by the bombing it allowed a world class homicidal maniac like Pol Pot, which is not a real name but stands for political potential, to come to power and kill several million fellow Cambodians. To this day I do not think that the Cambodians themselves really know why Pol Pot was able to convince so many Cambodians to kill their fellow countrymen. The Pol Pot regime was ended, not by the UN or the US but by Vietnam. So Vietnam, having resisted the colonial aspirations of China, France & the USA, was able to see that what was going on in Cambodia was a threat to its own security and was able to put a stop to Pol Pot and the Cambodian genocide. The Vietnamese people know they are winners, they were able to resist and throw out 3 major world powers.
Cambodia is a small country that has 2 major assets, Angkor Wat in a town called Siem Reap and Lake Tonle Sap which is a very large lake full of fish. Ankgor Wat is an amazing collection of beautiful temples, built about a thousand years ago, originally Hindu but converted to Buddhism by King Jayavarmann VII (the big J), the first Buddhist King of Cambodia. Whereas the temples in Thailand are covered with colored pottery, glass & stones, Angkor Wat is covered in carvings and bas relief figures & designs with very little color.
I do not know if these 2 assets are enough to support the country. The major problem faced by Cambodia is corruption, at every level of society.
Another asset that Cambodia has is Dr. Beat Richner, who has built 2 world class children's hospitals in Cambodia. He is also a cellist who gives free concerts to raise donations to support these hospitals, which treat all children for free. If ever there was a guy who deserves a Nobel Prize in Medicine, Dr. Richner is it.
Cambodia was very difficult for me. I have never experienced such utter poverty and despair. On the one hand, there are the exquisite temples of Angkor Wat, and the five star hotels nearby; on the other hand there are people who try every day to cope with rampant corruption at every level of their society (Even the teachers are on the take). No one is paid a living wage, so everyone rips off everyone else to eke out a living. Seeing tiny children under 5 years old working on the streets selling postcards for one American dollar is very hard to take. We went to Dr. Richner's cello concert and learned that 75% of the children tested positive for pediatric tuberculosis. Dr. Richner runs the only hospitals for children in Cambodia. They are supported by donations. The big funders do not want to provide him with funding because the care in his hospital is above the standard of living of the population. He translates this as the powers that be want him to provide substandard care to the children and he will not do it. His personnel are forbidden to take bribes and are dismissed if they do. Dr. Richner is one of the unsung heroes.
At the memorial, skulls from the killing fields are on display, as are the names of some of the victims. But the more telling thing is the lack of understanding displayed by our guide and anyone around the site. It happened--either they know and aren't saying or they don't have a clue about what really happened. We see the result but not what led up to it--we are supposed to accept that it occurred without further explanation.
Juxtapose this information against the luxury found in the five star hotels. Tourists from all over the world come to Cambodia to view its treasures, which, in all candor, should not be missed--the temples are glorious. They stay in their hotels and probably never see the poverty right outside the door.
Our pictures reflect this dichotomy. The beautiful temples and the sad poverty. Remnants of a glorious past and the uncertain future. Should it keep you from going to Cambodia? I say "no." Angkor Wat should not be missed--it is truly a wonder of the world. The Cambodian people have little else. Their economy depends on tourism. Enjoy our pictures of the beautiful temples but they are tinged with sadness.
|Good Luck, Cambodia|
Saturday, February 24, 2007
Good Morning, Vietnam is the title of this blog because that is what we found, a country being reborn & revitalized after the insanity of the war and what happened in its aftermath. The policies put in place in Vietnam after the end of the war combined with a drought and the war to get rid of the genocide of Pol Pot in Cambodia all combined to hamper the rebuilding of the country. Now all of that is history, just like the war, and Vietnam is on the move with the same resolve they used to get out from under occupation by the French, then the US. You come to realize that they have been fighting for their independence for hundreds of years, from China, from France & finally from the US. You see a beautiful country with moderate weather, beautiful beaches, mountains, a plentiful ocean full of fish and rice growing everywhere. Finally the people, half of whom were born after the war, who seem to have no time for grudges or animosity. The children with smiling faces jump at the opportunity to practice their English with you and shake hands.
Like most developing countries, some parts develop faster than others. The big battle in Vietnam & especially Cambodia is corruption and control by the government. Next is infrastructure, like places to park other than the sidewalk, traffic laws & controls, garbage cans for refuse collection, environmental awareness, adequate schooling for all students and on and on. A later blog will describe life in Cambodia.
Eleanor's input: We recently returned from Vietnam and Cambodia. Before I tell you about our photos, I think it's time for a status report. We left the states seven months ago. At that time when friends asked various questions about our future we said that we felt we were beginning a process--we would go to Thailand and depending on what we found, we would decide what we would do in the future. Little did we know that we would also be finding out a heck of a lot about ourselves during this process. For me, I found out that I love retirement--time to read books--time to visit with new-found friends for a two hour lunch without looking at the clock--time to travel--just plain time to do what I want, when I want to do it. Jules, on the other hand, found out that he misses teaching and doing something productive. This is not a static thing--perhaps I'll feel differently in a year; perhaps he will change also. As for the place, surprisingly enough, we found out the most about Thailand when we left it to go to Vietnam and Cambodia four weeks ago. Vietnam, and especially Cambodia, provided us with a great deal of perspective. It may come as a surprise, but not all Southeastern Asian countries are alike. In fact, there are very great differences between them. These differences are across the board: infrastructure--level of corruption--health facilities--educational opportunities--people's attitudes, etc. Travel in Vietnam and Cambodia made us appreciate Thailand so very much more. From the simple joys of life like being able to cross the street without getting run over by a motorbike (no joke: you take your life in your hands every time you cross the street in Vietnam) to more complex needs like having government garbage collection remove bags of household waste from the sidewalks and gutters. We love living in Thailand and we especially love living in Chiang Mai. It is so easy to live here! It's not perfect--no place is but it's pretty darn wonderful. But-- there's always a "but"--we miss our family and friends an awful lot and Jules misses teaching. That is where we are and if life and its vagaries allow us to continue to follow our dreams, that is what we will be doing for the foreseeable future.
My one word to describe the vacation in Vietnam is "surreal." Yes, it was beautiful; the people, especially the youngsters, were friendly; the traffic was crazy; the sights and entertainment were great but being in places like Hanoi, the Hanoi Hilton, Danang, China Beach, Saigon--places I heard about every day for years--places associated with terrible things happening--was difficult. Fortunately, no one I loved was killed in Vietnam. But just like visiting the Vietnam Memorial is an emotional experience, so too is visiting Vietnam. And all the beautiful palm trees and oceanfront did not wipe away the past associations I had made in my mind. The undercurrent was there--I could not divorce the past from the present--it was something I had to deal with on a very personal level. It all happened a lot of years ago but when you are there, the memories flood back.
As you can see from our pictures, the present is a wholly different matter. We saw almost no evidence of the war outside of the war museums. Vietnam is still an emerging country--most of the economy is based on agriculture and fishing. We saw so many farming and fishing villages that they all run together in my mind. Our pictures show the sights of Hanoi, Halong Bay, Hue, Hoi An, Dalat, and Saigon (Ho Chi Mihn City--HCMC)--ancient ruins, beautiful bays and beaches, street life, village life, life on the water, museums, temples, orphanages and schools, and the present celebration of Tet, the lunar New Year, in Saigon.
I strongly recommend that you go to Vietnam sooner rather than later because change is in the air--pretty soon the tourists will transform it and progress will wipe away the vestiges of the old Vietnam--see it now.
|Good Morning, Vietnam|
Saturday, January 20, 2007
We were on our way to a garden party hosted by Count Gerald van der Straten Ponthoz (Count Gerry) in order to launch the book he authored. The book retraces the work and achievement of Count Gerry’s relative, Gustave Rolin-Jaequemyns, a Belgian politician, who was the General Advisor of King Chulalongkorn in the late 1890’s. He was instrumental in negotiations with European powers to keep Siam independent and free from colonization. (Thailand, unlike its neighboring countries, has never been a colony of a foreign power.) Count Gerry was a featured speaker at one of the Ex-Pat Club meetings. He told us that, while the book commemorates the achievements of his relative, the meaning of the book is “to bring the past back to help the future.” Instead of purchasing the book, it can only be acquired by making a donation of 3000 baht to provide a scholarship to help the education of the hill tribes children attending Suksa Song Kroh Maechan. The Maechan Hill Tribes School is a government boarding school caring for 950 children, most of whom are from a dozen different hill tribes. These children are from very poor families. 3000 baht is enough to send one child to school for one year.
The party was fabulous. The pictures below were all taken on the grounds at Count Gerry’s beautiful teak house during the party, which lasted for several hours. The school band played. The children donned their beautiful native dress and performed traditional dances. There was lots of food, wine, Thai desserts, and fruit. After dark, we were treated to a violin concert and the evening ended with a huge display of fireworks.
The next morning, Jules set off early to tour the school (the last five pictures are pictures of the school and its grounds), meet the teachers, and actually teach a math class using colorful manipulatives, which he made. The rest of us traveled to the Golden Triangle on the Mekong River, about a half hour north of Chiang Rai. We visited the Opium Museum, a world class museum built under the auspices of the Queen Mother. I learned everything I could ever want to know about the history of opium in the Far East. Did you know that you can flunk a drug test if you consume a poppy seed bagel prior to the test? Did you know that Flander’s Field poppies and California poppies do not produce opium? It took us two and a half hours to tour the museum.
After lunch, we headed back to Chiang Mai. Jules loved his time at the school. Could there be a stint in Chiang Rai in our future? Only time will tell.
The next day we went to the number one, “can’t miss” site in Chiang Mai—Doi Suthep Temple. This is the same temple that you will recall seeing in our first set of Chiang Mai pictures—we can see it from our balcony, way off in the distance, on top of the mountain. Now we were winding up the mountain road with hundreds of other pilgrims in every mode of transportation imaginable—motorbikes, cars, SUVs, vans, buses, and songtaews. What a crowd! Doi Suthep was especially crowded on this day because it was New Year’s weekend when Buddhists traditionally visit the temples and walk three times around the chedi (the golden tower). There are two ways to get up to the Temple, by walking up hundreds of stairs on the Naga Staircase (Claire and Jon walked down this staircase after our visit) or by waiting for one of the elevated cars to take you up. We opted to wait for the car. We amused ourselves by playing peek-a-boo with the babies waiting in line with their parents. Finally, we made it up to the top and were greeted by traditional music played by students. We toured the grounds of the Temple. Since it is located on top of the mountain, on clear days you can see the entire valley. In the temple complex, there are many murals, statutes, a big Buddha, and monks who give New Year’s blessings. Our van then wound down the mountain in a slow crawl. After lunch, we visited Bo Sang, famous for its colorful, hand-made umbrellas, and then we went to see the silk and jewelry factories.
We spent New Year’s Eve that evening at the Galare Market across the street from the famous Chiang Mai night market. The Galare Market has many food booths, an outdoor stage, and several beautiful Thai dancers performing traditional dances. We then went down to the Ping River to see the launch of the paper lanterns—five foot high hot air balloons. Hundreds of them floating in the air are quite a sight! Claire and Jon launched one of their own. By midnight, Jules and I were back home and watched several fireworks displays from our balcony—one of which was launched from the parking lot two streets away from our building. We had a front row seat.
The next day Jules, Claire and Jon took an all day, hands-on cooking class to learn how to make Thai curries and popular Thai dishes like panaeng curry with pork. They were able to eat their creations. An all day excursion to the Royal Flower Show the following day capped the Chiang Mai portion of their trip. This show began a few months ago and will end on January 31. It is a special event in commemoration of the King’s 60th year anniversary of his ascension to the throne. People from all over Thailand have crowded into Chiang Mai for this event, filling up every available hotel room. Many countries had pavilions at the flower show but the US was not one of them. In the evening we had dinner with Peggy Lombardo and her friend, who were passing through Thailand on their way to Myanmar (Burma). It is great to have visitors who bring a little bit of home with them.
Jules had planned all along to accompany Claire and Jon the next day to Bangkok to get them acclimated to the very big city. We were especially glad that he was with them in light of the New Year’s Eve bombings in Bangkok. There are two theories floating around. One is that it was done by Thaksin’s people (he was overthrown in the popular coup several months ago); another theory is that the southern Muslim insurgents, who have been fighting in the very far south, had expanded their fight to the capitol city. Rumors abound. The only good thing to say is that the bombs were confined to New Year’s Eve and security has been tight since then.
The deluxe Minsky tour of Chiang Mai has been beta-tested and is online ready to go. Will there be a trip to Chiang Mai in your future? Why not? Check out EVA air, the national airline of Taiwan, for cheap fares. Claire and Jon took China Air and were satisfied with its service. Yeh, it’s 17-22 hours away and that’s a lot of flying at one time; but it’s worth it! Once you get here, you can eat a good meal at a restaurant in Chiang Mai for 60 to 100 baht ($1.66 to $2.78) and stay at a very nice motel, including breakfast for 1150 to 1500 baht ($32 to $42), a night. You’re a little late for the best weather in Thailand—November to mid-February—but there’s always next year.
Monday, October 30, 2006
The pictures accompanying this blog entry were taken on several occasions while we hosted sightseeing tours with various folks. Everyone wants to visit the ultimate Bangkok site: the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew (the Temple of the Emerald Buddha) so we went there several times. I never tire of seeing their exquisite beauty. I remember the hesitancy I felt the first time we returned to it. After traveling to Thailand three years ago, we visited Japan and China in subsequent years—would I now find that the Grand Palace and the Emerald Buddha were a beautiful memory muted by the other gorgeous sites we had more recently seen in Japan and China? I needn’t have feared. The sites were even more beautiful than I recalled. The Grand Palace site is actually a series of many wats including the most famous one, Wat Phra Kaew. The Grand Palace itself is no longer the residence of the King and you can only view it from the outside. You can’t possibly take in all the many buildings the first time you come here. It takes several visits to begin to absorb it all. Also, it is fiercely hot and humid. Usually, you can take refuge in some air-conditioned spot close by. But this site is huge, and requires a lot of walking. On average, you can expect to last a maximum of an hour to an hour and a half before you totally wilt. The first 29 pictures were taken at the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew. Note the artist/restorer working on the murals. Many restorers are always renovating the murals and parts of the buildings. The last few of the 29 are views of the outside of the Grand Palace. Here’s a hint to those of you thinking of visiting Bangkok. Each time we have been to this site, taxi drivers, tuk-tuk drivers, friendly people, and people in official looking uniforms have tried to dissuade us from entering. They tell various stories: this is the wrong entrance, the real entrance is around the corner; the site is closed until the afternoon; foreigners are not allowed into the site since there is a ceremony taking place there, etc. We can’t figure out what’s going on—we just ignore these people, proceed to the main entrance and buy our admission ticket. You can tell it is the main entrance by looking for the Haagen Dasz store sign across the street.
When you finish viewing the site, you are directed to leave by way of an exit next to the Grand Palace. At this exit, grab a cab and direct the driver around the corner to Wat Pho, the site of the giant reclining Buddha. It is about 3 minutes away, but I defy you to walk it after you have spent over an hour in the tropical sun. The next 9 photos were taken at Wat Pho. One picture shows a line of people next to round bowls. For 20 baht (50 cents donation) you can obtain 120 one baht pieces to toss into each bowl. After completing this task, you can make a wish. Also note the beautiful pictures showing some inlaid mother of pearl. You’ve probably guessed that this inlaid mother of pearl is on the soles of the Buddha’s feet. Wat Pho also houses a very famous Thai massage school on its grounds. After so much sightseeing, you may be ready to indulge in a massage. Tourists pay about 360 baht (about $9) for a 40 minute massage by a student. Pricey by Kho San Road standards where many tourists get a massage (250 baht--$6.50--for an hour).
The final shots are those taken at Wat Benchamabophit, made of white carrara marble. The story is that King Chulalongkorn, the King who is credited with steering the country into the modern age and preserving Thailand’s independence from colonialism, visited Europe and decided to build a Wat with a European look to it. The result is this beautiful marble Wat which also houses over 50 Buddha statutes on its grounds, two of which are rare masterpieces. The Wat is located adjacent to the grounds of the Chitralada Palace, which is the residence of the King when he is in Bangkok. The day that we visited here, all traffic was stopped to wait until a motorcade went by from the palace. We hoped we would get a glimpse of the King but we only saw some generals in Mercedes Benz which quickly sped by.
These are the final pictures until we relocate to Chiang Mai. This trip is currently scheduled for November 21 barring any other unforeseen circumstances, if you catch my drift. Eleanor
Thursday, October 26, 2006
Monday, October 09, 2006
Technically speaking the City Pillar site and the Golden Mount are not Wats like the third site Wat Suthat. They do not have a cadre of monks that live there nor a large central temple. However there are many Buddha statues and the Thai people worship at these sites also. What they do share in common with regular Wats are their beauty and serenity. JAM
Jules and I have already seen some of the major attractions in Bangkok so we decided to take a look at some of the other ones described in the guidebooks. The first is the Bangkok City Pillar Shrine. It is directly across the road from the most spectacular sight in Bangkok, the Royal Palace and Shrine of the Emerald Buddha. Consequently, it tends to be ignored. But it is very revered by Thai people. Its scale is manageable unlike its huge neighbor across the road. It is quite beautiful as the first three pictures show. It is carefully maintained by artisans, as are most of the other sites we visited. The next picture shows Thai people wrapping cloths around a small chedi--we have seen this done at other places--our friends who are Buddhist will need to explain its significance to us. Further down the path there was a stage where dancers performed. These were the youngest and oldest dancers that we have seen and I imagine that this is where the 60 year old dancers wind down their careers. The City Pillars contain the City's horoscope. King Rama IV tied the city horoscope to his birth horoscope so that the country and people would be under royal protection. The interior walls are painted on. It seems amazing but I checked it--it is not wallpaper--how did they manage to make it so perfect and symmetric? The five statutes are the guardian spirits protecting the city and the country. One for peace, one for happiness and prosperity, two who are attendants of the God of the dead, and finally, a guardian spirit responsible for all incidents on earth. This Shrine is very peaceful and lovely. Many Thai people were there paying their respects.
The next place we visited was the Golden Mount which sits on top of a winding stone staircase. At the foot of the Mount a young woman offered caged sparrows to be set free at the top of the Mount. I dutifully carried the cage to the top and set them free along with all my worries. The picture also shows wild orchids plants growing on a host tree. At the top of the Mount the view was fabulous. On the roof we could walk around the giant chedi and view Bangkok from all sides. Near the entrance of the Mount there is a small community called Ban Baat. The crafts people here make traditional bowls for monks. The tradition is for monks to go out early in the morning everyday with their bowls and the local people fill them with food which is what they eat for the day. We have seen this ourselves. Very often more food is donated than the bowl can hold so some extra bowls are carried by other people who work at the temple. They are made of 8 pieces of iron which are joined using a kind of solder and heated in a wood fire. They beat the iron bowels after firing in order to make them smooth--it takes 2 days to make a bowl. They have a lovely ring when struck. We saw several people involved in various parts of the process. We bought a small one.
Our guide book mentioned a famous vegan restaurant not far away so we decided to eat lunch there. It turned out to be a small hole in the wall restaurant--aren't they usually the best? This one was wonderful and it even offered something that I could eat.
Our final destination was Wat Suthat. Thailand's largest and earliest cast bronze Buddha image is inside this Wat. It is huge. All of these Wats-big and small-have one thing in common. There is a sense of peace inside. You leave the traffic and congestion and enter a place of calm and quiet. It was a lovely way to spend a day.
Sunday, October 08, 2006
We had enough and went down to the skyway which takes you to the other huge shopping complex--Siam Center and Siam Paragon. We looked down and saw a Wat (Buddhist temple) in the middle between these gargantuan shopping centers. Evidently they built around the Wat. We left the skyway and walked to the Wat. There were very young teenage monks there preparing for a festival. They were draping huge orange and white cloths around the Wat. The adult monks were in the Wat chanting. It was such a contrast between the ancient, unchanging, calm Buddhist way of life and the frantic, hedonistic, trendy, in the minute, accelerated "modern" way of life. It epitomized the contrast between old and new Bangkok.
We then made our way out of the Wat compound to the street in order to walk over to Siam Paragon. On the way, there were food vendors everywhere--of course--Bangkok feeds its 10 million people by having food vendors everywhere--I am not exaggerating--I mean every inch of empty space on the sidewalk is covered with food carts and stalls of every kind imagineable and some unimagineable. Jules stopped and got what he described as a super cup of Thai iced coffee--in a plastic bag with a straw, of course.
Then we proceeded to Siam Paragon. Siam Paragon is the biggest shopping center in the world for Rodeo Drive type stores. Name every hightone designer and jewelry store you can think of and they are all there: Escada, Dolce & Gabbana, Gucci, Salvatore Ferragamo, Armani, Cartier, Bulgari, Mikimoto, on and on and on. It also contains an IMAX theater, a whole bunch of regular movie theaters and an aquarium. We had gone to Siam Paragon before but hadn't got past the first floor food world which has about 100 stalls and restaurants of every kind of food you can think of--mostly Thai, Japanese, and Chinese, but also American and Italian. Every department store in Bangkok, no matter how small, has a food court. Even our modest Pata department store, right across Pinklao Road from our condo, has a food court. At each food court there are at least 75% of the vendors serving a full plate of plain steamed rice for 10 baht (about 25 cents), so I can always eat something. The Siam Paragon food court is beyond "choices"--try "overwhelming display." Did I mention that it seems no one in Bangkok cooks--literally, no one has a kitchen stove--maybe a rice cooker and an electric wok, or other electric appliance. Why cook, when the world is doing it for you, outside your door, everywhere. Squeamish about eating on the street--no problem, go into any store and go to their food court or many restaurants of all sizes. Or visit their supermarket--sitting next to every food court is a super market. Siam Paragon's is a super deluxe gourmet super market. We stopped there to buy Dr. Bragg's unfermented soy sauce. We were also looking for some good oatmeal--my allergy diet is a challenge, as always. Just like Costco, samples are everywhere. All the fancy stores mentioned were on the mezzanine, we have yet to go into the main part of the mall.
The central paradox is that it looks like people in Bangkok don't cook much because many of the kitchens like ours and others in the building and in many peoples homes are minimal and there all these restaurants and food vendors, so why are people shopping in the supermarkets that are attached to every serious 'department' store and mall.
This whole sojourn took about two and a half hours and we had run out of steam. So we headed upstairs and took the bus home. Another Bangkok adventure. Jules has already emailed the pictures that go with this entry.
Saturday, September 23, 2006
We saw "World Trade Center" yesterday and do recommend it. On the same day we read that the American casualties in Afghanistan & Iraq reached the level of 9/11. It's sad because it doesn't seem like we have accomplished much in these 2 countries and most reports I see have things getting worse instead of better, so the loss of life, American and local is all the more tragic.
The only problem I am having is being able to include pictures here, I think I've tried all the things suggested in the help screens.
Last year, I attended Rosh Hashana services at the Chabad synagogue in San Diego. Claire, my oldest granddaughter, came with me. The rabbi, his family and people attending the services were very friendly and welcoming. It was an orthodox service--men on one side--women on the other and two hours of Hebrew prayers read from the prayer book. Claire enjoyed it since a book, offering detailed commentary in English, accompanied the prayers . The rabbi also gave a wonderful sermon. This was my context when we approached the Chabad House in Thailand on Friday evening.
I had emailed the Thailand office and the rabbi called to invite us to the service. He said that we had two choices--we could attend services at Khao San Road with "a thousand backpackers" or at the downtown Sukumvit location where it would be less crowded. Jules got the impression that the service would be more sedate there. We decided to go for the 1000 backpacker location. The location was familiar to us since we had eaten at the Chabad House restaurant a couple of times. We had checked out upstairs when we were there and had noted an internet cafe, a few small offices, a general waiting area, and a medium sized room which looked like the place where services were conducted. Upon arrival at the restaurant (closed for the evening), we were directed upstairs to the office where we purchased tickets for the evening meal (200 baht each--$5.00). I thought: okay--how nice that, after the regular two hour service, we would break bread together. We were early and we sat in the waiting area with about a dozen young people all speaking Hebrew. After a while, we were ushered into a very large dining area. I thought: even better, the meal will be before the service so we won't be hungry. We were seated long enough to make friends with a couple from Bathsheba in the Negev desert who were on their honeymoon. Then we were told that we needed to move to the bigger dining room upstairs. We got up and moved to an area with about a hundred long tables. Plates of honey were on the tables and each place setting contained a card in Hebrew and a dish containing a quarter of a pomergranite, some beets, a small squash square, several kidney beans, a slice of apple, and a slice of challah. Several bottles of water, coca cola, and sprite were also on the table. People kept streaming in--they were mostly in their twenties--I commented to Jules that they looked like their counterparts anywhere in the world--all dressed fashionably and talking animatedly. Not anyone's vision of backpackers! The rabbi and his family arrived and he invited anyone who wanted to light a candle to go downstairs and do so. There would also be a hand washing ceremony there. After a short time, during which more and more people arrived, the meal began with the traditional blessings. By now the hall was jammed. We were told that the smaller hall downstairs had been opened to accomodate the overflow. It began to dawn on me that there was no place large enough to seat all these people for a traditional service. Okay--we'll probably have the service right here, I thought. Fortunately, our honeymoon couple served as our intermittent interpreters since no English, only Hebrew, was spoken for the rest of the evening. We were instructed to dip our apple slice in the honey. Joyous singing and clapping accompanied the eating of each ingredient on our plate. I especially liked the eating of the kidney beans--everyone was instructed to raise their forks --a thousand kidney beans were elevated--more singing--we were told that eating the bean signified "chasing our enemies away". After we consumed each ingredient on the plate, bowls of food were put on the table--corn, baba ganoush, a tomato sauce dish, shredded carrots with fresh pineapple, rice with cashews and raisins, mashed potatoes, and meatballs in tomato sauce. Dessert was a bowl of vanilla ice cream (non-dairy we presumed--Jules said it was very good). Where were these hundreds of bowls of food prepared?? In the kitchen which prepared the meals for the restaurant consisting of about ten tables?? The rest of the evening passed quickly in a blur of singing and hand clapping--at one point, the rabbi stood on a chair and invited everyone to climb on their chairs to sing and clap some more. He addressed the crowd in Hebrew, giving a short sermon--then there was more singing--everyone knew these songs--everyone except us (we recognized two) and it was over. We looked at each other--wow!--this was our kind of religious service--a joyous feast with a thousand fellow travelers. Another amazing adventure.
Thursday, September 21, 2006
Democracy in Thailand is only about 70 years old. We take it for granted but it took us a long time to get it working and it ain't perfect yet, think about slavery & women's suffrage and then think about the 2000 election. Everyone we spoke to doesn't believe that the military people really want to run the country. They are generally respected because they tend to be educated. They are going to try to come up with a better constitution which can prevent someone like Taksin from becoming a dictator. Think of all the pseudo-democracies where the president eventually changes the constitution so he/she can remain in power longer than what was originally laid out in the constitution. Taksin is a Berlusconi kind of a guy, filthy rich, controlling his communications empire and able to buy votes by giving handouts to poor villagers and allegedly able to rig the voting process. He was planning on putting his cronies in the key military positions, it has been in the local paper for weeks, and his last election was nullified because of hanky-panky. Enough politics.
All is calm here--yesterday, it was business as usual. We woke up Wednesday morning and learned about the coup. Those of you who live in the snow belt will recognize the feeling that I thought I would never again experience--I called our Thai school (where we have been going for three hours a day, five days a week) and I was told: "No school today." Yeh!!! Hooray!!!, no school. Yes, the schools, banks and government offices were closed for the day. We persuaded Urana not to go downtown to see the tanks--citing Kent State and what could happen to innocent bystanders in volatile situations where people hold guns. We basically stayed home until the evening, and then went to Khoa San Rd, a major tourist area. The crowds were light but everything was normal. We saw a truckload of soldiers guarding the big monument but no sense of menace. Yesterday everything was open and we traveled back downtown to school. A few armed soldiers were posted under every overpass--just sitting around. Downtown, they were posing for pictures with the tourists. Of course, Jules took a few pictures (see photos). There were yellow ribbons tied around every weapon. This means that they are troops loyal to the King who came out with a statement that he supports the coup. (This is unusual--in 1992, the date of the last coup, he remained neutral) The people's attitude is: if the King supports it, so do we and we all know, Thaksin had to go. Right now, it is a wait and see. On the surface the crisis has passed (no demonstrations, communication restored) but only time will tell. We have talked to a lot of people and everyone so far is relieved that Thaksin has been removed. The icing on the cake was the following: he sold his billion dollar communications business and paid not one red cent in taxes.
So do not be afraid to come to Thailand--stay tuned for future events. Personally, I am cautiously optimistic. Eleanor
Wednesday, September 06, 2006
Everything is crowded, the busses, ferries, trains, malls and most of all the streets.
The malls are amazing, Nordstrom/Bloomingdale quality with amazing food courts that serve every kind of food imaginable. There are also great supermarkets in the malls, one place has a giant coffe roasting machine so you pick your beans and they roast it for you on the spot right in front of your eyes.
They also have movie theaters but show very mediocre stuff like 'Snakes on a Plane".
There are food vendors everywhere, selling stuff dirt cheap. Half a delicious pineapple is 25 cents, a plate full of food like you get in a Thai or Chinese restauarnt with rice is about a buck.
Thai people are really nice and helpful and patient.
Thailand is about 95 % Buddhist and most of the temples are gorgeous and they are all over the place.
Bangkok is a huge sprawling city and it takes almost an hour to get anywhere downtown where all the hotels and malls are.