This is a blog featuring my personal stories of food, gardening, yachting, photography, travel and life. I love it all!

Friday, February 17, 2012

Thailand Adventure--Day 5

Here at the River Kwai resort for the next couple of days. After the incident between my big toe and the long tail boat yesterday in which I came up on the losing end of things AND after yesterday's blistering heat, I was very ready for a break.

Leslie fretted over whether she, too, would stay behind but in the end I think her curiosity and frugality won out and she headed off after breakfast to join the small group going on the outing to the Hellfire Pass, the railway ride and 4 km hike along the trail used by the prisoners

who built the railway between Thailand and Burma.

I choose to stay in the lodge and write, catching up on the journal that will become the basis of my blog entries about this trip when we get home.

With ceiling fans gently twirling above and really bad piano environmental (I call it space music) music playing through the speakers, it was a calm, much cooler, stress free day in a perfect setting.

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An aside. Please indulge me or skim ahead if you really don't want to hear this. But I really must. As I sat enjoying the relative peace and quiet in the open air lodge, my bliss was interrupted only by the few people who insisted on sitting around talking too loudly and using language that should be reserved for only in time of war or in the privacy of their own home. Certainly not in public and especially with enough volume that the entire dining room could hear it. What seems lost on far too many people nowadays is the idea of boundaries, of self-awareness, of realizing you are not the only person in the room, of being aware of what is going on in a room when you enter it and modeling your behavior on that of others around you. I used to think that label could only be applied to the so called Ugly American, who travels abroad with the idea that they own the place and everyone needs to get used to it. And I would have ashamedly had to agree with any foreigner, forward enough to share that observation with me, of many Americans at one time.

Having experienced traveling all over the world now for the past 40 years of my life, I must say that just isn't the case anymore. Yes, some few Americans can still be a pain in the tukkus. But either because Americans have generally become more savvy travelers or because more people from countries that weren't able to travel are now, I am seeing far more examples of poor behavior coming from travelers from other countries. Asians, whom I once thought of as the quintessential polite travelers are more often acting more outrageously, especially the younger generation. Russians, whom I never crossed paths with before can be very loud and rude, especially when they've had too much to drink. I don't mean to focus specifically on those two groups as if they are a special problem. The people who triggered this little tirade were sitting here in the lodge and happened to be American young ladies. The examples I am using are just examples of those whose behavior I have most recently experienced.

The bottom line is, Americans still have a lot of work to do in this area. Our reputation is sullied enough by the decisions our government has made in the past few years. We must, as travelers in the world, be better ambassadors, reflecting a more understanding, more open, accepting attitude towards other ways of thinking. We need to educate ourselves before we travel so we can represent a country of open minded citizens rather than that of a closed minded conservative, with an unbending view of the world. So walk softly out there. Listen more, talk less. Ponder. Observe. Open yourself up.

Okay, I feel better now. Thanks.

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The rest of my day was spent quietly relaxing while Leslie was off adventuring. Quiet that is until Leslie returned to the room late in the afternoon. When she tossed open the door she stood in the entry looking like she had been hit by a truck.

It turns out she had gone into a cave and in the darkness and accidentally fell into a hole up to her chest. She was pretty beat up with lots of scrapes, cuts and bruises. We got her cleaned up, doctored up and bandaged up. She was pretty shaken up but I slowly got her calmed and she began to feel a bit better. The resulting injuries, however, continued to give her trouble and we would have o deal with them even after we returned home.

We were finally able to take a short nap before dinner and then after dinner went off to the room intending to head for bed early. Leslie, trooper that she is and despite her earlier brush with death, choose to go to the Mon dancing performance for a while. The Mon are a tribe from Burma. She didn't stay long and was soon back in the room and ready for bed.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Thailand Adventure--Day 4

We spent today traveling across country to the mountains above Kanchanaburi and the Kwai River not far from the border with Burma or the country presently called Myanmar. It was a long tedious day on the bus but broken up by amazing, unforgettable, once in a lifetime experiences.

The scenery slowly changed from the urban landscape of Bangkok and its suburbs to one of a more rural and agrarian environment.

Our first stop was along the road side where we walked out across a field to get a close up look at workers harvesting salt. The workers, many of whom work in bare feet, raked salt crystals into piles after ponds of salt water had evaporated. We tasted the little crystalline salt bits handed to us by a worker. Yep, that's salt! Bags of salt were sold at roadside stands along the way.

We stopped in Maeklong, a small city whose main attraction was a Train Market. I wasn't aware that this was the actual place we were headed until we got there and I suddenly realized I've seen this place on TV. The Discovery channel or some travel or food channel, I don't know which. We walked into one end of the market led by our courier. The narrow gauge train tracks, were our path. The trains here operate on a narrow gauge system so the tracks are

much closer together than in our U.S. train system.

As we walked down the tracks, locals sold vegetables of every imaginable type, and some you certainly couldn't

dream up. Also, seafood, dried and fresh were sold along with lots of housewares. Suddenly, in the distance, we heard a train horn. Suddenly, the activity among the vendors and the buyers became a bit frenzied. Everywhere you looked the awnings and colorful umbrellas that shaded buyers and sellers alike, began to be folded up against the adjacent b
uildings away from the tracks. The items for sale a minute ago now disappeared out of harm's way. Everyone ducked into narrow walkways here and there except for a few of us tourists who remained, despite the exhortations of the in-the-know to get out of the way. We stood in the center of the tracks taking pictures of the whole event. Only at the last minute as the train slowly approached, did I duck into one of the passages. I felt safe standing in the way of the train until it had approached within 50 yards or so. Then as the train rolled by very slowly and disappeared into the distance I realized the unstoppable power that mammoth beast had if anything was too close to it as it passed.

As the train disappeared into the distance, the vendors began opening their umbrellas and pulled out their wares in a method reminiscent of The Wave at a football game or a Busby Berkley dance routine. Within seconds, life at the market was back to normal as if nothing had happened at all. Money traded hands, the shouts and arguments between buyer and seller went on as it had only moments before.

This accommodation between the train and the market vendors apparently works for everyone involved due to the Thai philosophy pronounced My Pen Rye. That isn't the proper spelling. This philosophy pervades the culture accounting for the reasoning behind the way so many things are done here. It can't be helped--whatever it is. To loose one's temper in Thailand is to lose face. It will also get you nowhere with a Thai because their natural politeness will only get you a sort of passive aggressive reaction.

My pen rye or, basically, live and let live or Que Sera Sera. It seems to fit the Buddhist style of life here. Life and death are just a part of life and neither event can really be helped. Besides, in your next life you'll reincarnate a little higher on the food chain if you have enough merit marks. Loosing your temper, honking your horn in traffic, etc, etc. won't get you merit marks. So, why worry?

We finished our walk through the market and came out the other end at the very train station the train had been stopped at before coming through the market. A right turn and we wandered down main street stopping to buy this or that, mostly intrigued by the curiosities for sale--how about a decorative coffins or platters of deep fried bugs.

Back on the road we stopped along the way at a national chain restaurant called Cabbages and Condoms. Yes, I spelled that right. Thai food served with a decor of condoms. There are framed condoms, dresses on display made entirely of condoms and magazines here and there with parenting themes. This chain was created with the idea in mind of spreading the news of planned parenthood throughout Thailand. Interesting concept. The food was okay. Nothing special. We are finding so far that the food here in Thailand has not been any better than that found in our favorite Thai places in Bellingham--Busara and On Rice. That isn't a bad thing. It's really good to know that what we have so enjoyed over the years is actually so close to what you can enjoy in the country itself. Of course we are far from the end of this trip so the jury is still out.


Back on the bus, we next headed for the Floating Market in Damnoen Saduak, another place I realized I had seen on some TV show but never imagined I would ever see. We stopped at a wide spot in the road where the long-tail boats were parked waiting for the next bunch of tourists to arrive. These curious boats are long, narrow, colorfully painted water taxis which have had installed on their stern, an engine which looks like it was yanked out of a 1960's car (huge engines) and had a shaft attached to the transmission end with a prop attached. The shaft and prop can be dipped or removed from the water quickly in order to accommodate the changing depths of the water and flotsam that threat

ens to foul the prop. When dipped below the water level and accelerated, these boats can really get moving.

We all crawled into one of two long tails that would navigate us to the floating market. This market is one of the few of these left in the world. Primarily a tourist attraction now, it does still offer some food prepared right on small boats that park next to the shore where large souvenir stores are open to accommodate the tourist trade. I spent most of the time after we got off our boat, wandering along the water taking photos of the colorful action. We bought a few bananas and some saffron as well. What a wonderful place it is and a real shame that this type of place is a dying scene as people's lives become more hectic and more homes purchase refrigerators that eliminate the need to shop everyday.

Our next stop was Kanchanaburi and outside the city along the

Kwai River we stopped to see the bridge on the River Kwai, made famous by Hollywood's portrayal of this tragic story. Hundreds of thousands of Allied prisoners of war who were forced to build this railroad bridge over the Kwai River. Parts of what remains is the original bridge, the rounded supports we're not bombed when the center part of the bridge was blown up by the Allies taking it out of commission. Hundreds of thousands of these slave laborers died of over work, starvation, torture and disease at the hands of the Japanese Imperial Army.

We also paid our respects at one of the Allied cemeteries and stopped at the museum along the river. The cemetery was beautifully maintained and it's rows of gravestones were polished and kept neatly trimmed.

The museum was another story. It was built in the style of the squalid barracks the prisoners lived in when they were even allowed to live under a roof. Mostly they were forced to live outdoors where they worked, along the railroad bed they carved out of the mountain sides and nearer where the bridge was being built. The constant exposure to the elements, mistreatment, lack of medical care killed them by the thousands. It was only one of many tragedies during the war by an army that paid no attention whatever to the rules of war set down in the Geneva Conventions.

We were miserably hot by this time in the day, ready for the cooling breezes that awaited us next. Our bus began to climb into the mountains that surround this area. I could feel the temperature dropping just by feeling the bus window.

Our bus slowed and made a turn down a narrow poorly paved road that headed back into the jungle. We also began to descend, often steeply, toward the river. At the end of the road were parked a half dozen busses the size of ours and a small dock with a few long tail boats waiting.

We disgorged from the bus, glad to finally be out of it for the last time for the day. We loaded into the long tails and the drivers headed up river. After about 10-15 minutes of turns and bends in the river, another dock came into view on the opposite side from our embarkation point. At the dock we were all helped out of the boats. On my way out, I didn't quite get my entire foot out of the way and I cracked my big toe hard against the side of the boat splitting the nail. My toe went numb thankfully. I hobbled up the hill toward the lodge, not really able to enjoy the beautiful setting due to that throbbing toe.

We checked into room 605 at the River Kwai Resotel which was a

perfect little cabin made of teak and with a thatched roof. It was like something out of a movie or a travelogue. Not something I would ever experience. And yet, here we were. Air conditioned and quiet, it was just paradise. I was in for the night, fair

done in by the heat and the activities of the day. What a day it had been. Amazing sites, sounds, smells, tastes. Everywhere we go, the people are wonderful, friendly, helpful, respectful and so accommodating.

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If you'd like to see the entire collection of our photos from the Thailand Adventure or any of our adventures, click on the photo slideshow on the right margin of this blog. Many photos have captions that will help give them more context.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Thailand Adventure-Day 3

Before I begin our new day in Bangkok, I have to go back a few hours to yesterday afternoon. After our tour of Wot Po, the Golden Buddha and temple area there, we went back to our hotel. The extreme heat had really taken it out of us so we cleaned up and took a quick nap. At about 4:30, refreshed and ready to go again we got an expected phone call that my friend and long-time colleague, Lisa Monson, who now teaches in an international school in Bangkok, was waiting for us in the lobby.

We had arranged to go out for dinner with her. She took us on our first ride on the Sky Train and on a wild Tuk Tuk ride. These little three-wheeled motorcycles have a seat behind the driver that accommodates three passengers under a canopy with open sides. It gets its name from the sound the engine makes. It's a high-speed, hair-raising ride through the streets. Fun!
Lisa took us to a lovely Thai restaurant where we got caught up on each other's lives. She popped us into a taxi at about 10 and grabbed one herself that whisked us all back to our places. It was nice to spend so
me time with her.

The next day we had an excursion to The Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew or Temple of the Emerald Buddha and they were just that, Grand. Spired towers laminated with gold leaf and colorful ceramic tiles fashioned into flowers and geometric patterns dotted the hundred acre site.

The Emerald Buddha was the only disappointment for me due to its diminutive size. It was, however, sitting on an elevated platform 30 feet high and covered in gold leaf. The Emerald Buddha is, also, not emerald. It is jade. It's size and elevated location make it nearly

unidentifiable and with no photos allowed, I couldn't use my zoom to get a good look at it. Oh weel,everything else was fabulous.

I will admit that I am and will most likely return to topic of the weather throughout this narrative.

But it is damned hot here. No other way to describe it. If you don't love heat and humidity I can't imagine a time of year when it would be good to visit Bangkok. It just wears you down being in it all day.

So, anyway, enough of that. We finished the tour of this site with a walk past the Grand

Palace and visited the reception room where a stunning boat-shaped, gold-leafed throne looked out over the crowd.
Used only twice in the sovereign's life, once when crowned prince and again when made king, the room itself is famed as the place where King Rama IV received Anna of the King and I story.

By the time we returned to the bus, our driver and his assistant had a bottle of ice-cold water and a wet wipe for us, something they do quite frequently. It is always so welcome and appreciated. Our modern, clean bus is also air conditioned which helps give us a break from the extreme heat.

We were driven back across town in the bumper to bumper traffic. It's bad! Finally, only the divided four lane was between us and Soi 18, the street our hotel was on. Our courier, Anil, offered to have us get out and use the pedestrian walkway over the road and eliminate another 15 minutes on the bus. We were ready to scream after so much time stuck in that insane traffic and readily agreed. Our hotel is a lovely place. Very classy, but comfortable. The room was well appointed and decorated. A great buffet breakfast was included every morning with great coffee and a diverse menu of options for both eastern and western tastes.

In the evening a car was sent for by the ISB, the International school where Leslie had taught the day before. Anthony Giles who is the choir director there had taught in the Seattle area where Leslie had gotten to know him originally. He sent the car to pick us


up and whisk us out to the school where we met his lovely wife, Jackie and family and then went to dinner at the most romantic and delicious spot you can imagine. It was at the River Tree House Restaurant along the Chao Phraya River. We ordered Papaya Salad, Pomelo Salad and a Curry. Fabulous and the setting was so amazing.

The driver returned our hosts to their home and then drove us back across Bangkok, yes, through that crazy traffic, and back to our hotel where we crawled happily into bed. What a day!

Monday, February 13, 2012

Thailand Adventure--Day 2

sa watdee, hello from Thailand

Leslie needed to be up at 6:00 to get ready for her day with the choir at the International School she had been invited to work with. I know she was exhausted but she is a trooper and she was looking forward to it. So after a good breakfast, she was whisked off by a driver who had been sent to pick her up at 7.

I decided to get up, have breakfast with her and see her off. I am sitting here at breakfast now waiting for the 10:00 orientation meeting and then I will step outside into the street for the first time here in Bangkok. This afternoon we visit Wot Po, site of a temple and the Golden and Reclining Buddhas.

I went to the eighth floor of the hotel where I found a beautiful swimming pool, gym, spa and bar with techno-music thudding loudly out of the speakers. I wonder which demographic they are aiming for? It is all outdoors with towering skyscrapers looking down from all around. Definitely a destination later in the day.

The sky is cloudy, not with clouds but with smog. It is warm already at 9:30 in the morning and a bit muggy. Aside from the smoggy smell that stings your nose, there is also a distinctively tropical smell in the air. Sort of a cross between sandalwood and jasmine flower?

Leslie returned from her time working with Anthony Giles's choir at the ISB, a very ritzy, top-drawer international school here in Bangkok. Just in time to get on the bus for our afternoon tour of Wot Po.

The drive across town was tedious due to the near constant bumper to bumper traffic in Bangkok. It is maddeningly slow and yet, according to our courier, Anil,pronounced Ah-nil, no one seems to have a solution for it.

Wot Po is amazing! Stunning, breath-taking, a masterpiece. Spires tower over this World Heritage site that are covered with colorful ceramics or gold leaf. In one of the buildings a giant reclining
Buddha lying on his side fills the entire room. Taking a photograph that gave you any sense of the size was impossible. I tried. The Buddha was some 75-100 feet in length and 30 feet high, nearly completely covered in gold leaf.

In another building sat the Golden Buddha. This Buddha sat in the more familiar cross-legged style.

His beatific smile beamed down at theconstantly moving crowds that circulated through the room. The statue is a good 30 feet tall and weighs some 5 tons including a great deal of gold.

Some people sat on the floor before the Buddha and meditated a while before moving on. The removal of shoes is a must in these shrines and racks are provided so that the faithful and the curious can adhere to this rule.

Next door, an open-air school was filled with saffron-robed Buddhist monks who concentrated on their studies despite the near constant snapping of camera shutters. We continued on our way through the Wat Po complex of temples and shrines. Wat Po is also a well-known training center for Thai message.

The long bus ride back to the hotel was frustrating but can't be helped. So it became an opportunity to take a lot of photos through the windshield of the bus. They aren't great photos but do gather a lot of the day to day of busy Bangkok.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Thailand Adventure--Day 1

Yin dee dton rap or welcome to our Thailand Adventure

We slept very well last night. After showers we headed over to the breakfast room. Our chain of preference is Choice Hotels and they, like a lot of places these days, offer a free breakfast. It's nothing fancy, but it's free so one can't complain much.

We stopped at the office on our way back to the room and got put on the 10:00 shuttle back to the airport. Back in the room we finished packing and after one last long look around, headed out the door. The shuttle got us back to the international terminal at LAX in about 15 minutes. As we walked through the doors into the cavernous ticket counter area, I realized we were in the same room we walked into in 1976 when Leslie and I went to Europe for the first time together with our college choir at California State College, Stanislaus. Was that really over 35 years ago?

We waited another 15 minutes for the check-in windows to open, got our boarding passes and made our way through security. As usual, with all the check in and security taken care of we had way more than enough time to sit and wait. Leslie used the time to walk around, get our air miles into the system and, hunter gatherer that she is, found us food and water.

She had discovered a Pink's hot dog stand in the food court. Kate and I made a pilgrimage to this LA hot dog hot spot years ago. Great hot dogs. This

wasn't the same quality as the real joint but it was pretty good just the same. We split a dog smothered in kraut, pastrami and cheese. Our last taste of American food for a couple of weeks.

The call came and we boarded a China Airlines 747 at about 1:45 pm. I am thinking our seats may not be anything special except that they would recline a little more than your average domestic flight's seat. With a 14 hour flight I didn't think that would be too much to ask. Boy, was I wrong. Luckily we had asked for and got seats in an emergency row, three seats across with no one in the third seat. Unfortunately, the seats were the narrowest things I have ever sat in with the exception of a Wujan Airlines short hop we once took between cities in China. I literally sat on the arms of the chair when I sat down. I had to force myself into the seat.

The seats also didn't recline even as much as seats on a domestic American flight.

On a positive note, the TV monitors in front of us displayed the entire taxi and take off of the flight which I thought was pretty cool. At least it took my mind off my poor bruised and aching hips for a while.

The staff aboard couldn't be more polite or accommodating. Of course, that accommodation didn't extend to moving us to more spacious quarters. Oh, we'll.

14 hours later, having crossed the International Date Line, we finally arrived in Taipei, Taiwan. A new country? Technically we don't count it being in another country or state unless we have at least had a meal there or stayed the night. So I guess we shouldn't actually count Taiwan, but we agreed between us that we would since the likelihood that we would ever go there is pretty slim and, let's face it, we're not getting any younger.

The airport was just a transfer to another China Airlines flight in a terminal all the way across the airport. A modern, clean train shuttled us quickly to Terminal 1 and spit us out along with a couple hundred others. We made our way to the gate where we had only a 20 minute wait. Another 747 awaited us.

This time we had 3-across seating though it was the same type aircraft. I fit into this seat just fine. Hmmm! At the last minute a foreign exchange student from The Netherlands was seated next to us making it more crowded. We noticed that there were plenty of vacant seats toward the back and the flight attendants allowed us to move when all the passengers were aboard. We quickly moved to a bulkhead 4-across row and spread ourselves out. Much better.

This leg of our journey was only 3 hours and much more comfortable. The flight seemed to go much more quickly. They fed us dinner though I must say it was THEE worst airline meal I have ever had. I can and will eat just about anything and I tried to eat this, but the pork over the rice looked like it had been boiled. Turns out it was. It was rubbery and the flavor was just horrid. So was everything else on the tray and so for one of the few times in my life I just set the entire meal aside and went to sleep. We both managed to get some sleep awakening only when the pilot announced we were descending into Bangkok.

Bangkok airport is super modern and clean. Both Taipei and Bangkok airports made LAX look like a dump. America, get with it! We made our way through immigration and to the luggage carousel without a hitch. The immigration lines were lengthy but not horribly so considering it was 1:00 in the morning. Folks that we had met along our journey so far greeted each other again in the line and others approached us taking a chance and asking if we were with the Gate 1 tour. They weren't taking much of a chance really. We were one of only a few Caucasian folks in the line, we spoke English and probably looked as lost as they felt.

By the time we had gathered our luggage we were a little gaggle of Gate 1 Tour groupies who had found each other and gathered for the walk to the exit where a Gate 1 courier was supposed to be waiting for us. Sure enough, a lady was holding up a sign indicating her employer and with what must have been a rather relieved look on our faces, we approached her. She wasn't unfriendly but she did lack that Thai smile we had read so much about. No, "hello". No greeting. She just checked our papers against her list and then led us out the front door and across the parking lot to a waiting van.

The drive to our hotel took about 30 minutes over a toll road as modern as any American freeway which was deceivingly deserted at this early morning hour. It wasn't until we turned off onto Sukhumvit Street, near where our hotel was located, that we got our first taste of Thailand.

Almost 3:00 in the morning and the streets were packed with crowds of folks shopping, eating at one of numerous street food vendors, wandering a night market. Traffic seemed to make no sense with cars, trucks, motor scooters and the famous three-wheeled tuk-tuks going in all directions including straight at us. Our driver was unperturbed by it all and we all chattered away about

the colors, sounds, smells and general craziness of it all. It was just like we'd seen in so many movies and travelogues. It was perfect! Warm, muggy, but perfect!

Or hotel room at the Park Plaza was a welcome sight, beautiful and the bed

was so comfortable. Nothing like I had expected from my experiences in China ten years ago where the beds were all like sleeping on a board. We sank right into bed and went off to sleep dreaming of our first real encounter with Thailand.