Thailand: Part 5 Goodbye Bangkok and hello to Chiang Mai

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Ken told us to have our bags outside the hotel room door at 6:30 and he would take care of the rest. By the time we finished our breakfast, he had them loaded on the cart, and we were off to the airport by 7:00 AM.

Last look at Bangkok from our hotel balcony. We could have easily spent the entire vacation in this great city.

Soaking up the last bits of wifi before hitting the road.


We have been traveling by private transport, and all of the minivans have been roomy, air conditioned and comfortable. The one we were in this morning was even more “bling bling” than usual. It had bright lights, wine bottles and glasses, curtains, a fold-down big screen TV, and pillows. I'm certain at night this baby has another life taking the party set around town. We weren't in the mood for bright lights or red wine (even I have my limits, and I usually don't start before noon.)

Ken pointed out a few sights on the way to the airport. Traffic was very heavy. The city has seven million cars and ten million scooters, and it looked like every single one of them was out in force this morning. I am not exaggerating to say that their traffic makes Houston look like a drive in the countryside. Our drivers have all been amazing. I would certainly have wet my pants if I had to drive. The lane lines seem to be mere suggestions, and the scooters dart in and out of spaces with clearances that measure in single digit centimeters. At one point, Ken joked that one of the drivers had 10 eyes that he used for his job.

We arrived at the airport with plenty of time to spare, and Ken escorted us all the way through checkin and to the security area. We gave him our spare water bottle, a parting tip, and our sincere thanks for a job well done. He was gracious, professional and accomodating in every way. He told us only a little about his family life. We know that he has a 14 year old son and that his days start early and sometimes end late. To get to us each morning, he wakes up at 5:30 and catches a minibus into town to beat the traffic. We would often run into him while going to breakfast, well before our appointed meeting time. His job involves a lot of waiting: waiting for the day to start, waiting while we have lunch, waiting while we go on bike rides, waiting….

A word about language: the Thai alphabet has 44 letters. The language sounds are tonal and may be rising, falling, mid tone, low tone, high tone, short, long. For instance, an “ah” sound isn't just an “ah” sound. It may rise at the end, fall at the end, remain constant, or God knows what else. The differences are too subtle for my ear. Ken told us about a word that sounds like the sheep sound: baa. (I have no idea how it is really spelled.) He told me that the word has seven different sounds and something like 14 different meanings. He went through the litany of them, and he sounded like a little lamb to me. Each one sounded exactly the same to me, but he claimed they were clearly different words. I have learned to say hello and thank you, and that's my repertoire. The bike guide said my accent was pretty good. I think the key is to almost sing it more than say it. The language has a very sing-song quality about it. I can't describe it any more than that. English seems to be spoken pretty universally in Bangkok, and many signs have English translations. We had no trouble getting around on the streets or the airport. I would not have wanted to drive though. The street signs were often incomprehensible.

Anyway, back to the airport. Don't you love priority seating?

Our flight left on time. The flight to Chiang Mai was only about an hour long, but in that time, they managed to serve us a little lunch, water orange juice and a moist towelette. Bangkok Airways is a big step ahead of Southwest, where you are lucky to get a bag of peanuts tossed at you on a short flight.

Vicky (or was it Nicky; we were never sure) met us at the airport, and our tour started immediately. She told us that the people of the north were La Na people, not really Thai. The La Na kingdom dates back from the 13th century, so the history and traditions are ancient. She said in Chiang Mai the locals would not understand English. She said the north is sometimes called the land of the smiles, but she says they are smiling because they don't know any English so the smile is all they've got. I guess I can smile right back at them.

Our first stop was Wat Prathat Doi Suthep, a temple located at the top of Mount Doi Suthep, which is 5,500 feet tall. She gave us a choice of taking the 300 steps flanked by nagas (a kind of serpent) or riding the cable car. We chose the exercise and hoofed it to the top. Midway up, a Thai (or was he La Na?) man was singing with his guitar. He was giving us a little John Denver “Country Roads.” I helped him out with “West Virginia, mountain momma, take me home.”

The wind made the bells tinkle, and it is a very soothing sound.
Will the real Emerald Budddha please stand up?
This fellow was hanging out on the side of the building. I think I saw his brother on a food cart in Bangkok.
There is a Buddha for every day of the week. Genene was born on Sunday, as was Greg, so their Buddha stands in pensive thought, his right hand over his left. I was born on Tuesday, so my Buddha is the reclining Buddha. That's fitting for me. I like to lay around a lot and read.
Genene scoops the oil from the trough below and pours it into the candle to keep her Sunday Buddha lit.
The views on a clear day from Mount Doi Suthep must be breathtaking. We had clouds and rain, so our view of Chiang Mai was more obscured.
Here's an image of Mother Earth, getting ready to squeeze out her hair and wash those demons away.
Ganesha is a Hindu Buddhist deity. One version of the story says he got his elephant head after his father did not recognize him and killed him by beheading in battle. Shiva put the elephant head on him and breathed new life into him. He is considered a remover of obstacles. Vicky/Nicky called him the Buddha of success. Actresses and performers who want to become famous pay respect to Ganesha.
Can you see the names on each of the roof tiles? Temple donors.
We finished at the mountaintop and continued on to Chiang Mai and Wat U Mong, a forest monastery. It was very quiet and serene here.
The small passageways put me in the mind of the catacombs in Paris or Rome, only without the bodies. Buddhist people are cremated after death. If the family has wealth, the ashes may be stored at a temple. If there is no money for donation to the temple, the ashes may be poured in the river.
Nicky (or was it Vicky?) explained that all of the objects in the garden have been brought by people who want to rid themselves of bad luck. If a relic such as a Buddha image or a spirit house is broken, it is bad luck to simply throw it away. It must be brought to the temple. Also, if a Thai person buys something for their home and then has bad luck, they may come to believe that the object has a bad spirit and brought the bad luck to them. To remove the bad luck, the object must be brought and left at the temple. Bad luck is thus left at the temple.
Greg called it the “island of misfit toys,” hearkening back to our Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer days.
I love the way the afternoon light kissed the Buddha's head.
Even the bathrooms are segregated.
Toilet and manual flusher.
There were chickens and roosters everywhere. VIcky/Nicky explained that people make offerings of live chickens to the monks and at the temple. The monks do not kill them and must feed and care for them. We saw eggs laying on the ground. I wonder if the monks eat omelettes?
We finished our tour and Vicky/Nicky showed us to our hotel at about 3:30, with the rest of the afternoon and evening free to explore the city on our own.
It is a simply spectacular hotel, and our suite is to die for. This is the living room.
This is our balcony, which covers the entire second floor in this building.
There are two bedrooms and two baths, one with a sunken tub. No more waiting in line for the toilet today!
We had a very late lunch. Crispy fried pork was the bomb.
It is considerably cooler here in Chiang Mai, and thus I felt emboldened to have two glasses of red wine with lunch. It's the first thing other than beer that I have had. It was probably a mistake because it made me lethargic. I haven't been getting much sleep. I often wake up in the middle of the night and work on my blogs. Today, it caught up with me. I took a hot bath and fell asleep in the tub. I tried to blog in our suite. I nodded off. I went out on the balcony. I nodded off. I went back inside, climbed into bed and took a nap that lasted until 8:00 PM. Greg was also tired and content to nap and read. Genene watched videos and read her book. Our grand plans to explore Chiang Mai turned into a rest and recharge afternoon and evening, and it was wonderful. When we all came to the surface at about 8:30 PM, we ordered room service and stayed in our robes. We will be back in Chiang Mai after our elephant camp experience, so perhaps we will get to explore a bit more then. I will probably feel a little embarrassed when the tour guides ask us what we did on our own and we say, “Eat, sleep, repeat.”
I feel recharged. It's 6:00 AM on Thursday morning, and I've been up for about an hour catching up the last blog. The sun is coming up, and I can hear the birds singing. We will have breakfast and then move out of our fancy suite and into the elephant camp. We will have three days and two nights there, and each of us will get our own ellie to care for and feed. There will be no air conditioning, no wifi. I will be off the grid for a few days. We are looking forward to meeting our elephants.


Thailand: Part 4 Bicycling in Bangkok and Foodie Tour of Chinatown

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Our day started early at 8:00 AM. Ken and driver met us at the hotel and transferred us to a bicycle shop so we could have a different sort of adventure. Yesterday, we saw opulent temples, but today, our guides promised to show us the other side of Bangkok, the way that “real” people live in the city. The ride to the bike shop took about 45 minutes.

Genene can sleep anywhere and is practicing her father’s fly-catching technique.

We arrived at a small bike shop on a residential street and met our guide Amm, a tall, young slender Thai man without one ounce of fat on his body. He looked hip in the way that all people who make their living on bikes look. He picked bikes for all of us, gave us the basic safety instructions, and we were off. We cycled on the Bangkok streets for about five minutes at the start, and it was hair-raising. There are many scooters and bikes on the road, so the local people in cars are accustomed to sharing the lanes. It was very scary to me though. We rode single file and followed Amm’s directions. I was very glad when we left the road.
We cycled through alleyways and into what Amm described as the poor area. People live extremely close together in shacks. Amm noted that some people get good materials to build their homes, while others use a little rotten wood and tin.
Two dwellings side by side.
This cat peered out at us. We saw and heard lots of cats.


We stopped to visit a private elementary school. The bike shop provides some financial support to the school in exchange for the chance to bring tourists in for a quick look. We found clean happy kids. We arrived at the same time as three monks, who were getting food from the children and the locals. Monks only eat two meals a day, and their second meal is at 1:00 PM. They must eat only what is given to them. People feed the monks in the hope of having good fortune.

A monk accepts a child’s food offering.

Lining up for morning instruction.

The children listen attentively as the monks chant.
The kids all wanted to give us high-fives.
There are no desks or chairs. Classroom instruction is done on the floor.
We got underway again.


We passed through a Chinatown area known as the 200 rooms area, so called because the Chinese own it and have 200 rooms for their workers. The workers are sometimes Thai people but now may also be immigrants: Burmese, Cambodian, Laotian. They work very long hours, stopping only to eat and sleep. They send money back home to their families. Amm described the area as a “seawing center”. It took me a moment to translate: sewing center! The workers get paid per each t-shirt sewn together. The shirts are then shipped to another destination for finishing.

Amm said, “The man reading the paper is the boss.”

She will not make many baht today.
The stack of t-shirts waiting to be sewn.
The machine.
The man.
The next time I read a shirt label that says “Made in Thailand”, I will think of this place and the people who work so hard here.
Many of the passageways were quite narrow.

We rode to a pier on the river, stopped and drank an ice-cold Coke. I can’t remember a Coke ever being more refreshing.

We crossed the river on another longtail boat, this one much smaller and more rickety than the one we rode two days ago. There were no life preservers on board, and the boat sat low in the water. We whizzed by the big freighters.


One of the better looking dogs we saw.
A lock.
Our launch point as seen from the river.
The neighborhood.
Docking on the other side.

We headed into the old plantation area of Bangkok. It was hard to believe that we were still in the city. It looked more like a jungle. We rode on narrow elevated sidewalks. In many places there were no rails. To ride off would mean getting wet, muddy, and possibly injured, depending on the height from which you fell.

It was challenging, and there were a lot of hard right angle turns. It’s been a long time since I rode single-track, but I remembered the rules: keep pedaling and keep your eyes on where you want your wheels to go.

We arrived in a local park. The government bought an old plantation and converted it into a green space for the people. It was virtually empty today, but Amm said it would be packed on the weekend. We fed the fish, and they were waiting for us. As soon as we stood at the water’s edge, they rose to the surface. When the food hit the water, the frenzy was on.

A local temple.
The mausoleum.
Family photo: I wish I had sucked in my gut!
Spirit houses.

We stopped for a delicious, spicy lunch at a restaurant that had no western name.

Greg and I had basil fried rice while Genene had pad thai noodles.


We stopped inside an old temple. It had been struck by lightning twice and caught fire once. With that kind of bad luck track record, the decision was made to build a new one next to the old one.

The king’s symbol atop the temple.

The murals on the walls were falling into disrepair but were still beautiful.

The next mural is a depiction of hell. Amm explained that the Buddhist hell is not too scary. If the soul has not attained nirvana, it just gets a “clean-up’ and is sent back down for another try. I love this mural because it is so accessible and easy to understand.

This one is a depiction of the Battle of the Elephants in the Burmese/Siamese war. Can you see the evil white people? They are Portuguese.
Now this one is worth a hard look because some odd things are going on. Amm said it was a depiction of a funeral, but I’ve never seen a funeral where people were getting it on during the ceremony.

Amm told us the story of Lord Buddha talking to the demon Mara who was tempting him as he meditated. Buddha called upon mother earth to help him. She rose from the ground, squeezed out her wet hair and caused flooding which washed the demon and his armies away. The story put me in the mind of Jesus and His struggles with Satan.

The wood carvings over the door were considerably less ornate than the Grand Palace, but they held a certain charm.

We climbed back aboard our bikes and headed back to the river.
You can see a lot of floating trash on the water.
Our chariot arrives.
Greg is always happy on the water.
We stopped at a Thai boxing training center. The ring looked very small, and I would hate to be trapped in it with someone who was trying to elbow me until the blood ran.
We saw no fighting today. The men were watching soap operas.
We saw a cock-fight operation. Amm said that they do not fight to the death but only until one gives up. It is legal to cockfight but not to gamble on it. The gambling rule is often broken.


We finished our ride in the middle of the afternoon and were hot, sweaty and tired. If you would like to see video of the ride, I think this link will work:

We took baths, packed up our bags (we leave tomorrow), took a nap and suited up for our evening foodie tour. It was about a 45 minute car ride to Chinatown, where we met our guide, Ploy, a beautiful young lady. We would be having a progressive seven course dinner, walking from restaurant to restaurant between courses.

Like birds in the nest, happily waiting for the first course to arrive:

We began with a pink noodle soup with fish ball and a sweet fried banana cake. Both were divine.
We walked past the Chinatown gate, stood under the middle of the arch, and made wishes.
This lantern is in the local hospital.
Another view of the hospital.
Our second course was dim sum, which included deep fried dumpling, minced pork inside a steamed noodle, green noodle wrapped around meat, and sweet cake. It was outstanding. We all agreed later that the minced pork was a favorite.
A view of Chinatown.
Texas Street! Ya-hoo!
Our next course was a bitter tea from a shopmaker whose family has brewed the recipe for over 100 years. The tea is not supposed to be delicious and it was not. It is drunk to “restore balance” and health to a person. If it tastes bitter to you, it is doing its job. It definitely did its job on me. In fact, I thought it was going to cause me to toss my cookies. I could only drink a few sips. Greg’s reaction was not as violent, but he did not care for it either. Ploy took pity on Genene and got her a glass of chrysanthemum tea instead.
Our next course was river prawn in lemongrass, Chinese morning glory, and crab dry curry. Greg finally achieved spice heaven (or maybe that’s nirvana) at this stop. The prawn brought sweat to the brow and made our noses run. It was wonderful!
The rainy season has officially begun and it began to pour. We were getting wet between courses. Ploy told us that Ken had been calling her to check on us. He didn’t want us getting wet and sick since we have a lot more vacation. She got us some ponchos from the 7-11. (7-11s are everywhere here.) The rain made it a little more difficult, because we had to walk fast between courses. There’s nothing like getting a full stomach of spices and weird tea and then running in the hot rain. I hope it is restoring “balance” to my universe. At the very least, I hope I don’t gain weight from all the misbehavior.
The last course before dessert was a soup with crispy pork. Ploy told us we could add organ meat if we wanted. Greg asked them to add liver, but I stayed with the crispy pork. It was delicious but by this time, I was on the high side of full and could not do it justice.
We had our choice of ice cream for dessert, and then Ploy tested us by giving a second dessert and asking us to identify the ingredients: it was sesame in hot ginger tea. We could correctly identify ginger, but the sesame tasted like peanut butter to me. We ate the last bite as Ken and the driver pulled up to get us out of the pouring rain. We headed back to our hotel in Bangkok for the last evening. Our bellies were full. Today was an awesome day of adventures that went beyond the things that tourists normally see. We got to eat what real Thai people eat and see how real Thai people live.
It is Wednesday night, and I haven’t written Wednesday’s blog yet so I am already behind. We are heading to an elephant camp tomorrow. Accommodations will be “basic.” Wifi will be non-existent. The blog will be down for a few days. I’ll see you on the other side.


Thailand: Part 3 Bangkok Grand Palace and Temples

Monday, July 27, 2015

We had breakfast at the hotel, and Ken showed up right on time at 8:30 to begin our day’s activities. Our first stop was the Grand Palace. Thailand is a constitutional monarch, a bit like the British setup. However, the king in Thailand is venerated. He is also called Rama, the earthly manifestation of the Hindu god Vishnu. The vast majority of Thai people are Buddhist, but they pay respect to and incorporate the Hindu gods into their theology. The current king is Rama IX. Most western people are familiar with Rama IV, but we know him as Yul Brenner (“The King and I”). That movie is still banned in Thailand because it is considered disrespectful to the king.

The Grand Palace is heavily guarded by the Thai military, even though the king and queen are no longer in residence. They are in their 80’s now and live in a nearby hospital. Thai military service is compulsory for men. If a man does not volunteer, he must attend one conscription lottery by the age of 21. If he draws the black card, he is exempt from service. If he draws the red card, he must serve up to two years.

Lottery winners:

Our first glimpse of the Grand Palace:
There are temples all over the city and countryside. If a temple is affiliated with the king, it will carry a particular crest showing the incarnation of Vishnu, who rides on a serpent by sea and a garuda by land. Here he is atop his garuda:
The statues and decorations are breathtakingly ornate. An incredible amount of artistry has gone into each architectural detail.
A mural with 178 panels tells the complicated epic story of Thailand. Ken’s Cliff notes version was this: men battled against the demons for a beautiful lady. There was a good monkey (a general) , demons, and an angel. The good guys won. Here we are standing in front of one of the panels:
The mosaics on the buildings are stunning. Broken pottery was salvaged from a shipwreck and used to spectacular effect.
I will let the pictures do the talking about how opulent the Grand Palace is.
Ken pointed this lion out as an example of Chinese architecture, which has been incorporated into the palace.
A view of the murals, which stretch down hallways and wrap around buildings. It put me in the mind of the Bayeux Tapestry, only on a much larger scale. The murals must be constantly restored.
The first scene:
The happy ending:
Bees were swarming this blossom, and I thought it made a nice shot.

Inside the royal chapel of Wat (wat means temple) Phra Kaeo is the most sacred Buddha image in all of southeast Asia, the Emerald Buddha. He’s actually made of jade. Legend says that it was discovered in the 1400’s in a monestery in the Chiang Lai provence and was initially covered in plaster. Some of the plaster cracked off his nose, revealing the green interior, and so his worth was known. From there, he moved around a lot. Countries have warred over this Buddha and he has resided in Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar. Rama I brought him back to Thailand, where he has remained since 1784. He is only about 26 inches tall, and he sits atop a high throne surrounded by gold. Pictures inside the wat were strictly forbidden, but a door is left open so that the enterprising photographer can get a shot, if she has a steady hand and a large enough zoom lens. I think I did pretty good.

Upon entering the wat, you must remove your shoes and hat to show respect. It is disrespectful to put a foot toward the Buddha, so if you choose to sit, your feet must be folded behind you. The Emerald Buddha gets three costume changes a year that coincide with the seasons: rainy, dry and winter. We missed his costume change by one day, as the rainy season starts tomorrow. There was a large milling throng in the room, and the scene reminded me of the Sistine Chapel, only there were not as many people trying to sneak an illegal photo. A millitary guard stood at the front of the room, commanding respect of people. If you approached the front of the room closest to the Buddha, he would gesture for you to get down. I left the front of the room for the true believers and stayed back a few rows so I could stay on my feet. If I bend my knees the way they do, I am not certain I would be able to rise again.
We returned to the courtyard into the blinding sun.

The Thai have borrowed several ideas from the British, including driving on the left side of the road and using a royal guard. Men like this one are positioned at various important spots around the palace, and they must stand at attention for two hours, as people walk up beside them for photos. Genene did not want to get close to him. She said he was doing his job and shouldn’t be disturbed.
The heat is stifling, but I could not see a drop of sweat on him.
Ken never seems to sweat either. I think that must be a Thai adaptation. Greg, Genene and I are wringing wet within 10 minutes of leaving the hotel each time, and Ken looks as fresh as a daisy.
The architecture of the palace borrows from many cultures, including Chinese and European. Can you see the European influence in the building below? Take away its Thai top and it could be in Paris.
Family photo:
During important ceremonies, the king may ride an elephant. Now that the king is in his 80s, his elephant riding days are over.
More Chinese influence:
The details of the mosaics are stunning.

It took us about two hours to take the lightning fast tour of the palace, and we were hot and starved. Our itinerary called for us to go straight to another temple, but Ken could see we were ready for some chow so we deviated from the plan and went directly to lunch at Sala Rattanakosin. We had a fixed course meal of spring rolls, duck salad, tom kah gai soup, green curry with chicken, stir fried beef, and sticky rice with mango. The duck was a particular favorite, as it was well spiced. Again, the restaurant could not be convinced to serve us the meal spicy. Though the duck showed early promise, the curry was pretty mild. All of the dishes were delicious though, and each was delicately seasoned. We told Ken we really do like more spice, and so he told us that we would need push harder and tell our waiters to serve it “like a local, not like foreigner.” The lunch was leisurely and took about two hours. The beer was ice cold, and we were restored and ready for more adventure.

The view of the river and Wat Arun from the restaurant window was stunning:

The restaurant was situated in an interesting area. On the way in and out, Ken walked us through a grocery distribution area, where we could see boxes being loaded on delivery trucks. People were bustling around, and no tourists were in sight except us. It was a little slice of how things work behind the scenes.

We boarded a ferry to cross the river to go to Wat Arun.
I got this shot of a longtail boat motor. I’ll bet the boat drivers are deaf because when they open that engine up, it is LOUD.
The boat spirit will be pleased:

We rode a ferry across the river to Wat Arun, the Temple of Dawn. This temple must be spectacular when it is not undergoing renovations. Most of it was in scaffolding, so we could not climb the stairs to the upper levels of the tower. Our walk around the grounds and base was short.

People go to the temple to receive advice and blessings from the monks. In this photo, the monk is shaking a bundle of sticks with holy water onto the faithful.
The cannonball fruit is not edible.
The restoration of Wat Arun proceeds in earnest.


We crossed back over the river to finish our day’s itinerary at Wat Po, one of Bangkok’s oldest and largest temples. It is the site of the first public education center in Thailand and is the birthplace of traditional Thai massage. It also houses the gigantic, gold plated reclining Buddha. The image is so large that it is difficult to capture in its entirety.

First peek:

I put Genene in the next shot to give you some persective on this 48 meter long, 15.8 meter high colossus:
We stood in line a good 15 minutes to get this shot.
A favorite activity in this temple is a ritual done for good fortune. There are 108 metal pots along the wall. For 20 baht (less than $1), you get a small cup of coins, and you must drop one into each pot along the way. Here’s a shot of her in action:
This temple gave us a bag to carry our shoes in while we were inside. Much like the Catholic churches in Rome, the guardians of the temples command our respect. Ken warned us that shoulders must be covered, and pants should come to the ankles. We complied but saw plenty of half naked people who did not. The guards had a solution to that. Those not suitably dressed were given a long robe to wear. I am happy to say that we did not have to don the stinky robe. Ken warned us that gangs of pickpockets work the room with the reclining Buddha, but we didn’t see any mischief today.
While in the temple, the summer rains finally came. There was a torrential downpour that lasted about 30 minutes. We all stayed under cover and waited for it to subside. After the showers broke, Ken asked us if we wanted to see more of the temple complex. We all said in unison, “We have seen enough.” We were “templed out.” Ken called for our driver, and we got back to the hotel at 3:30 or so.
We have been curious about the street food. Our friend Wendy told us of the existence of a confection known as a Thai ice cream sandwich, and we asked Ken about it. He didn’t say much, so we figured he wasn’t familiar with it. We shouldn’t have doubted him. After the drop off, he called the room phone about 5 minutes later and told Genene that he had something for her. The “sandwich” starts with a sweet, sticky bun that looks like a hot dog bun. The bun is split open and the bottom lined with sweet candied fruit and sticky rice. The next layer is coconut ice cream, and the sandwich is topped with peanuts. Genene was in heaven. She sat out on our balcony and stuffed the entire thing down, sharing only one bite each with her mom and dad.
We were hot and tired so we showered and took a nap. At sunset, we headed out for dinner. We went to a small nearby shop where we had traditional Thai dishes. We told them we wanted spicy, and they tried to oblige but it was still on the mild side. The chef who runs Thai Gourmet in Houston is Thai, and if you tell him to make a dish hot, your mouth will burn and your forehead will sweat. Greg is known as asbestos mouth in the Gordon family and loves spice. (This is probably why he had a bleeding ulcer last year in Peru.) I know these Thai folks could light him up, if only they would. We have one more day in Bangkok to dare them to give it to us “like a local.”

After dinner, we went for something called a fish spa. Genene had seen other people getting them on the streets and wanted to try. What is a fish spa, you ask? You stick your feet into an aquarium of sorts, and a school of small fish nibble the dead skin off your feet and legs.

At first, it was very hard to be still, as the nibbling fish tickled our feet. The proprietor told us to relax. If you move your feet, the fish will swim away.

It tickles!
They loved my horrible, calloused feet.
After the 15 minute fish spa, we all treated ourselves to a 30 minute foot massage, which was very therapeutic. We reclined in hammock-like chairs, and the ladies rubbed the aromatic oils all over our feet. The foot massage was really a whole-leg massage, and it felt good, in a painful sort of way. My lady really got into the muscles, and she even turned my legs and worked the hip joints. I felt rejuvenated after the long day on my feet.
We walked to end of street to get fresh fruit smoothies. Thai people love fresh fruits, and we have seen some fruits here that are new to us. We stuck with old favorites for the smoothies: I had mango, Greg had watermelon, and Genene had strawberry banana. They were cool and refreshing. During our stroll, we heard three different local bands singing “Sweet Home Alabama.” It must be a crowd pleaser. There’s something very funny about hearing the lyrics “singing songs about the southland’ done in a heavy Thai accent.
We saw street vendors selling all varieties of food, and I mean everything. We saw two different carts selling fried tarantulas, big bugs, grubs, crickets, and scorpions. They wanted 10 baht just to take a photo so I skipped it. I can be cheap about some things. I think photos should be free!
Lanterns for sale:
We turned back toward our hotel, happy and exhausted after a long day of sightseeing.

Good night!


Thailand: Part 2 First Day in Bangkok; longtail boat ride and floating market

Sunday, July 26, 2015

We were simultaneously excited and exhausted last night when we arrived. We had seen a lively cafe outside the doors of our hotel room, and for a moment, the devil on our left shoulder whispered about going over for just one beer. Luckily the angel on the other shoulder was talking louder, and she had common sense and exhaustion on her side. We stayed in the room, popped open a beer from the minibar and watched the scenery from the balcony for a few minutes. Greg and I split a sleeping pill. Genene needed no help and went right to bed. She slept more on the plane than either of us, so she popped up at 5:00 AM ready to rumble. I convinced her to lay back down until a more civilized hour and we all started stirring at 7:30 or so.

We had a delicious continental breakfast at the hotel. We tried our first dragonfruit. It has a red rind, and the inside is white with small, fine seeds. The flavor was akin to a kiwi but not as sweet. We had a Chinese steamed cream bun, which was some kind of confection with a custard filling. They were delicate, sweet and delicious.

After breakfast, we took a stroll around our neighborhood. We walked down the main street for a while, and the tuk-tuk drivers hustled us mercilessly. We just wanted to walk, but every few feet they would pull up or walk up or call out to us from the road. One of them hounded us at least three different times. He kept saying, “Just 20 baht to see all the Buddhas.” Greg said to me, “I’ll pay him 20 baht to go away and leave us alone.” The exchange rate is 35 baht to 1 US dollar, so the ride would have been cheap, if he had really taken us anywhere we wanted to go. Our guide gave us the same warning as Bill Abel: you must be careful about the tuk-tuk drivers. They like to take you to their “friends” from whom they get a kickback. We politely but firmly told each one who approached that we were not interested today. I do want to ride in one, but this morning, we just wanted to stroll and get the lay of the land.

Coconuts by the truckload.

Tuk-tuk and rider.
I practiced my panning shots. I want to get one of a tuk-tuk whizzing by before we leave, but today I caught the scooterman.
For my water district friends, check out this fire hydrant.
I was thrown off my game for a while this morning because I lost a valuable bottle of anti-malarial medicine. We always dutifully go to the travel doctor before our trips, and the cost of the visits and prescriptions is astronomical. I put one of the three bottles in my purse for “safekeeping on the plane,” and when I unloaded the purse this morning, it was gone. I’m sure the bottle is rolling around somewhere on the floor of one of the Korean Air planes. Luckily Genene, Greg and I are all on the same dosage, so we have the other two bottles and are not in immediate danger. In fact, we lacked just two pills having enough to tide us over until we get back to the states, where we could then get the replacement bottle stateside for the week’s dosage that we take after we return. I was fretting about having to deal with a chore just as soon as we return. I should not have worried. During our morning walk, I popped my head into a pharmacy and asked the pharmacist if she had any malaria medications. She went right to the back, pulled out a sleeve of exactly the medicine we were taking and offered to sell them to me at $30 less than I paid in the US. No need for those pesky prescriptions. Problem solved!
We stopped for an early lunch. Greg had a fried rice with bacon. I had fried rice with salmon. Genene had a salmon sandwich. It was all good.
Ken arrived promptly at noon. We stepped around to the back of the hotel, where the river lapped at our feet. Our private longtail boat was waiting. We sailed up the river and into the canal system. The motor is very loud, and you can see all the moving parts and belts. I’m sure some of the pilots have lost fingers in the whirring machinery.
This lady is selling souvenirs on the water.
The lady Buddha is known as the Buddha of mercy.
Our first stop along the canal was to feed the catfish. Ken told us that around the temples, it is forbidden to kill anything. If the catfish stray out of the area around the temple, they are fair game. It is good luck to feed them. He bought a loaf of bread from a lady on the shore and we threw big chunks into the water. It didn’t take long for the surface of the water to start roiling. Ken explained that these catfish are too big for eating. They would be too oily.
The boat pilots hang flowers and decorations on the prow of the boat as an offering to the boat spirits.
Our next stop was the floating market, a place filled with delights.
This lady was selling live eels and turtles. Ken explained that some people buy them and turn them loose for good luck. We also saw another lady selling lottery tickets. I guess you can buy the eel, turn him loose and then go get your winning ticket.
This lady is making papaya salad on her boat.
This lady is making a sticky sweet noodle confection. Ken bought us a bag to munch on, and it was delicious.
Our favorite purchases were a coconut fried pancake and a mangosteen fruit.
Durian. This fruit has a very stinky smell but supposedly tastes good. We did not try any today. Ken told us that some apartments prohibit their tenants from having them because of their obnoxious smell.
Thai baby eggplant. This vegetable is found in green curries. In the US, many chefs substitute with green peas.
Ken bought us a burned coconut. The lady used the blunt end of a butcher knife to whack the top off.
Voila, a delicious drink.
This man was making a dish similar to pad thai in a crepe.
Would you like some meat on a stick?
How about catfish on a stick?
Fanning the coals over the prawns.
Colorful souvenirs.
We got back on the water. I enjoy looking at infrastructure. A fresh water line ran parallel to the river bank. Every few hundred feet, it was elevated to allow boats to pass under.
Laundry day.
Greg is happy anytime he is on water.
Woman’s work.
A Thai family would not dream of building a home for themselves without first building a home for the land spirits. Offerings are made to show respect to the spirits. Here is one such home.
Our next stop was the artists’ house, a place where people come to train in the old ways of Thailand: painting, drawing, puppetry, etc. Ken lamented that the young people are not interested in such things and instead prefer pop music. The Thai people must work hard to keep the culture alive. We took off our shoes before entering. Ken warned us not step on the threshold. The guardian spirit lives there and protects the home from evil spirits. This belief also has a very practical utility: it helps children learn to step up and over the threshold to avoid tripping and falling into the river.
It was at this stop that we encountered our first “not modern” toilet. We had read about them but until now had been enjoying our western style luxury hotel pot. This was different. It was porcelain, all right, but there was no seat. You had to hover over it in a half squat and do your business. It reminded me of going to the drive-in theater when I was a kid and Mom wouldn’t let me sit on the seat because she was afraid I would get some dreaded unmentionable disease. It also reminded me of our old office on 1100 Louisiana. We shared the floor with another tenant, and I called one of the ladies in their office “the dribbler.” You can guess why. Anyway, back to the Thai toilet. It didn’t flush. There was a large pail of clean water beside it with a scoop inside. You simply scoop up some water and wash away your waste. We Americans are so spoiled that we actually do our business in potable water. It is eye-opening to see how the rest of the world lives. Well, enough bathroom talk.
We came to the artists’ house see a puppet show, but alas, the artists got a better paying gig somewhere else and so were not in residence. It’s a shame we did not see these magnificent puppets in action.
The view from the upstairs windows was nice.
A beautiful piece of artwork.
We sat down to have a Thai tea and an appetizer called miang kham. You put the sauce on top, fold the leave up and pop the entire bite into your mouth. They were delicious!
We pulled away fat and happy.
Thai cowboy. Yee haw!
We traveled through these lock gates.
As you can see, I took many photos, but there were also images that I did not capture: an old toothless man waving enthusiastically at us from the shore; a very old barely conscious woman laying flat on the ground just inside a doorway, with her daughter (I assume) fanning her; a man getting a very peculiar massage with the glass bottle cupping, something I haven’t seen since “The Fearless Vampire Killers.” Some of the scenes passed too fast for me to get my camera up to my face. In other cases, I did not feel right taking the shot because it looked too much like misery, and I did not want to exploit that. Life in all its brutal glory gets carried out on these streets.
Ken told us that neighbors used to know each other. Thailand is hot, and everyone had open windows and open doors. Everyone knew each other’s business. You could find any person in a village if you knew his parents’ name. You had simply to walk up, say the name, say the parent’s names, and the way would be shown. Now more and more Thai people have air conditioning. They close their doors and windows and homes. Neighbors live side by side but do not know each other. Is it so different in the US? I can’t name half the people on my block.
We headed back into the main channel of the river. Boats were everywhere: longtails, cruise boats, ferries. They were speeding along, churning up the water and traveling at every wacky angle. I wonder how many collisions they have. I was surprised we didn’t see one. The river had waves like the ocean from all the boat wakes.
A fairly quiet moment on the river. (During the boat melee, I had to keep my camera down to keep it from getting splashed.)
The Grand Palace as seen from the water. We will go there tomorrow for a tour.
We got out of the longtail, tipped our pilot and took a brief walk around our neighborhood with Ken.
A banyan tree with offerings.
We stopped at a temple where we made an offering. Ken explained that we are not required to be Buddhist to do so. He made a small donation for us for the upkeep of the temple, for which we got a flower, and candle, and three sticks of incense.
Genene lighting the incense.
The interior of the temple.
Ken left us in mid afternoon and we went back to our hotel for a shower and a siesta. We were thrilled to get both. It is hot, muggy and sticky here, and our clothes were stuck to our backs.
We went back out for dinner after the sun had set.
We ordered spring rolls, curries, and chicken wings. It was all delicious, but we thought the curries were very mild. I think they gave us the gringo treatment. It’s probably just as well, since my belly has been a little uneasy today. We have been on a carb-free diet for a couple of weeks so we could lose a little weight. I am reintroducing those carbs in full force today, and my belly is shifting back into gear. I’m planning to pack all the weight back on again during this trip. Yoyo!
We want to get massages, but we were all tired tonight and I wanted to get close to my big, fancy, modern toilet so we walked straight back to the hotel. Greg and Genene have already passed out, and I am going to be right behind them. Ken comes to get us at 8:30. He warned us to wear pants to the ankle (to be respectful in the temples) and comfortable shoes. We have a lot of ground to travel. Good night!

Thailand and Cambodia 2015: Part 1, the journey begins

Friday, July 24, 2015

I finished my last board meeting at the office last night and got home tired and hungry. I knew the week would be a long one, so most of my packing was done the previous weekend. Oddly enough, I haven’t been too nervous about this trip. Thailand and Cambodia will be much less gear intensive than the ill-fated Peruvian adventure last year. For that trip, we were packing camping gear and items we thought we would need for a 4-day Inca Trail hike. That kept me in a constant state of panic (Do I need one hiking stick or two? Is my camera gear going to be too heavy? Did I pack enough warm clothing? and so on and so on). Even the Galapagos trip required us to get new snorkeling gear. For this trip, I just needed clothes, and I got all those bought over the past two weekends. I have joked that I have more linen and khaki than Meryl Streep when she packed up to go film “Out of Africa.” Greg had dutifully packed all the clothes I set aside. He is a ninja packer. When I pack a suitcase, it looks like my office: crap spread everywhere willy-nilly. When Greg, the clothes and the suitcase meet, the results are a thing of beauty: everything is rolled up neatly, and each thing has a special place. The point of all this? My gear was packed, and we had nothing to do last night but hang out and put aside the last minute items. We began to get excited. Those familiar butterflies in my stomach finally started flying. I sometimes ask myself why I travel. It makes me nervous. The flights are a pain. Doing a month’s worth of work in two weeks so I can leave for the trip is always hectic, and finding the 1,000 emails when I get back is a gut-punch. Why do it? It’s the adventure! In spite of the difficulties, I love it! It recharges my soul.

Anyway, off we go!

Our day started early today when the alarm clock blared at 5:30 AM. Our Action Limo driver was right on time at 7:00 AM, and we were at the airport before 8:00. As usual, we were the Prontosaurus family, and we had our tickets and were at the gate before 8:30. Our flight wasn’t scheduled for takeoff until 10:30 so we went to Ruby’s and had a thoroughly nasty, big American breakfast. When we returned to the gate, a large group of Korean veterans were there. Some were on canes, others had walkers. They were headed to Seoul. It’s a trip they make periodically at the invitation of a Korean church. One of the old gentlemen told Greg that they were all treated reverentially by the Korean people. It was great to see all the old guys having an adventure together. My father is a Korean war vet, though he never went to Korea. He tells the story like this: when his training was finished, his group was mustered and asked if any of them had served in a post office. Violating the age-old rule that you don’t volunteer, Dad raised his hand. His brother had been the postmaster back in Arkansas. Dad spent the rest of his Korean War effort in a post office in Germany. He thinks he made a good call when he raised his hand that day. I agree.

Our flight boarded efficiently and left on time. The flight attendants on Korean Air are beautiful and statuesque. Their hair is pulled back into perfectly lacquered buns. The service, even back in lowly coach where we are, was top-notch. They had Genene’s heart the moment they handed out slippers. She tossed her shoes into the corner and began to indulge. Their first meal was the highlight for me. They served bibimbap, the traditional Korean rice bowl dish.


None of us had eaten it before, and they brought us a card that described the exact steps for mixing it up.

It was delicious. The lovely ladies came around with snacks quite often and refilled the water glasses regularly. It’s a far cry from United. We flew United to Quito back in March, and every one of their flight attendants disappeared after takeoff and only reappeared at landing. Anyway, back to Korean Air. Their second meal was much less impressive. I think they elected to wow us right out of the box with the bibimbap, but the next meal was the same old rubber chicken that you get on every airplane and at every AWBD conference luncheon. Their movie selection was not the best. I watched the Ben Stiller movie “While We’re Young.” I thought it was a bit of a mess. It could have been so much better. The flight duration was 14+ hours, so we had a lot of time to read, play our iPads, nap, and just hang out. I injured my back a few months ago, and I was afraid the prolonged sitting might be a problem but I made it fine. Toward the end, I was feeling pretty restless, but “no pain, no gain.”

Saturday, July 25, 2015

We arrived in Seoul at 3:00 PM on Saturday, having spent most of our Saturday in transit. We crossed the dateline somewhere over the Pacific. The Seoul airport was very easy to navigate, although we were annoyed at having to go through screening and bag x-rays again, and they made us toss our valuable water supply. We were at the gate for Bangkok with 90 minutes to spare. We were starved and Greg found some little French-style hot sandwiches that hit the spot. We bought more water bottles and got to be annoyed a second time when the Korean Air personnel made us toss them before boarding the Bangkok flight. There was no reason for that, other than the fact that they didn’t want the trash in the airplane. The flight from Seoul to Bangkok was about six hours, and we were all just thrashed. I fell asleep sitting straight up. Genene looked like a zombie. Greg did his usual handsome man trick of sleeping with his mouth open. I call it “catching flies.”

Our little world traveler can pass out anywhere. She used to take up a lot less room on the airplane when she slept. Now, as she gets comfortable, grown-up sized flailing legs come across the armrests.

We touched down in Bangkok at around 10:00 PM. Immigration was easy. The man in the booth didn’t ask any of us a single question and he never even seemed to look up. By the time we got through, our bags were riding around the carousel waiting for us to retrieve them. We wrestled them onto the ground, and we were off! When I get my bags, I always feel like Secretariat at the start of a race when the gate comes up and the bell rings. It always feels so good to be free of the confining space of the aircraft, and it’s a relief to know that all our bags made it. I started hauling butt across the airport with my head on a swivel, looking for the man who would be holding up a placard with our names on it. The receiving area was long and narrow, and we had to run the usual gamut of cab drivers and hawkers looking for fresh meat. I spotted our man, Ken (not his Thai name), and we were relieved to follow him dutifully to the parking garage and into our private transport vehicle.

Although we were exhausted, we were still excited to have finally arrived in Bangkok. Continent No. Five is knocked off the bucket list for Genene and me, while Greg has completed all seven! Not everyone gets the elusive Antarctica, but Greg served on an icebreaker during his years in the Coast Guard and got to romp around with emperor penguins on the ice. Genene and I are a little envious that he has got that one on us because we are unlikely to put that notch in our belts for a while. We may try to knock off Australia next year so we will only be one behind, but I’m ahead of myself.

The drive to our hotel took about 45 minutes and looked like any drive through city traffic, with the exception of the Thai signage. Ken taught us how to say hello. We already knew that one, having learned it many years ago from the kind owner of Lemongrass restaurant in Houston. For Ken’s sake, we acted as if he was giving us a good lesson and dutifully repeated our sawadee kha (what we women say) and sawadee krap (what Greg says).

We drove through the heart of the vibrant city at night. We passed the statue of the four faced white elephant, and Ken explained that white elephants really existed. He explained that they had very pink skin and light eyes, so I think he is talking about an albino. He told us that they were considered sacred and must be presented to the king and queen. It is considered good luck for the king and queen to have one and bad luck for any villager to keep one. They are quite costly to maintain. Thus we have the background for the expression “white elephant gift.”

We got to our hotel on the banks of the Chao Phraya River at about 11 PM on Saturday night. A mere 28 hours had elapsed between when we left our home in Bellaire and our arrival at the hotel. We were bushed. Ken will meet us tomorrow afternoon, so we can sleep in and try to get on Thai time.

For now, I will leave you with the view from our balcony.


I can’t wait to have my first Thai curry in Thailand. Genene is ready for pad Thai noodles. Greg is happy any time he can find a cold beer. Tomorrow, we will ride the longtail boats and get a feel for the city. Until then….

New and “improved” going live!

July 18, 2015

Our Thailand/Cambodia adventure is a few days away, and I realized that my free WordPress blog is at over 80% capacity. (I take a lot of photos.) I am biting the bullet and “upgrading” my blog, which means only two things: now I have to pay money for more memory, and the URL address of the blog changed. My site is now known as….drumroll, please….

Now let me cross my fingers and see if this thing uploads. For those of you who get an email alert when I post a blog, I apologize for the intrusion. This is just a test!