Friday, June 15, 2012

Last Indulgences in Bangkok

Spirit House at the Villas
Exotic private villas, spirit houses, nightly foot massages, iced lemon-grass tea every time you walk through the main gate, putting 108 coins in 108 brass pots (you can hear them drop) for good luck, evening boat ride and snail-like taxi rides - these made up my last day in Bangkok, the last day of this extensive adventure into the Asian spirit. I bow my head with hands clasped in prayer position in front of my face (a “wai”) in all humility to all those who contributed to my stay.  (The higher the hands are held, the more respect offered.)
Another Spirit House
Spirit House with ribbons
Close up of ceramic figures
First I want to praise the enchanting villas. Stay away from those oversized hotels where too many employees trip over you with a false smile. Stay at the small villas where your quarters are comfortable and plush, where service is so personal you feel like home, and where the environment is as filled with orchids, lotus blossoms, frangipani flowers, sculptures, giant palm fans, banana leaves and ways to get in and out of the scorching heat of the day. In Chiang Mai, Rangsit Villa was a hideaway in a jungle of flowers, streams and fantastic food. Only two master suites and three bedrooms so it has a home-like appeal and more attention than you can imagine. They arrange everything you want to do and then things not on the tourist calendar. My favorite, as this is my second visit, is Chakrabongse Villas, managed by a charming young lady named Atom, there are three doubles and a family villa for three. It is right on the active river and you can watch the boats pass up and down as you eat a breakfast of every kind of exotic fruit or a night dinner the chef prepares just to your liking. Every time I moved, there was a glass of cold lemon grass tea filled with crushed ice. The days were hot and sweat became invisible after awhile, but that iced tea revised me in a minute.
Glass Spirit House
Chakrabongse is within a block not only of great Thai street markets, but also my favorite place to visit  - the Wat Po, which houses Thailand’s largest reclining buddha, dramatic, guilded, and awesome. If you’ve never stood before big, this Buddha is BIG. It’s length is about 100 feet long. It’s feet are flat and about ten feet long. On the bottom of the feet is a mother-of-pearl detail of the 108 auspicious signs of a genuine Buddha. This Wat is also special, the oldest one built in the 16th century, because it is home of the Thai massage school where the rage began. Here I dropped the 108 coins in the 108 pots for good measure and a safe trip home. 
Spirit House at Assisted Conception
Erawan Shrine
Chao Mae Tupin Shrine
Scheduled for my last day was a tour of spirit houses. Photographer Jock Montgomery hired a green and yellow cab to lead the scavenger hunt. Spirit houses are peculiar to Thailand. In auspicious locations on most properties, the occupiers erect spirit houses that look like temples, old teak houses, and one creative one was an architectural artwork made of glass. When you want to place one, a Brahma priest must come to your site on an auspicious calendar day to tell you where to place it.  (Sort of a Fung Shui). Most sacred are those placed next to the Bodi or Banyan tree (a ficus). These houses are filled with ceramic figures (Nats) of Thai dancers, of horses, of elephants, of children and usually an old man and an old women. Before the structures are plates of sweets, cigars, beetle nuts, fruits sliced artistically, glasses of water, marigold chains, jasmine leis, some more elegant than others. Even the poorest person will have a spirit house. They are a must because these offerings keep the spirits - evil and good - entertained so they won’t get into the house proper and cause disturbances or damage. Spirits are mischievous like elves and fairies. Great idea. I wondered if I could do a church spirit house in front of my house but realized it and anything I put around it would be stolen in an hour. But the burden is every single day you must lay out food, flowers, and whatever it takes to keep the spirit house thriving. Fear not, the loss of your offerings. The Thai people respect the religiosity of the tradition. You don’t mess with spirit house stuff. 
Poor neighborhood S.H.
As we photographed these houses, we also stopped at some rather weird shrines. One in particular Chao Mae Tuptin, built by Nai Lert to honor a spirit in the large ficus tree in its midst. It became a location for those short on fertility. And now, not only are wedding dresses hanging from trees, but the place is filled with phallic forms - not subtle things, but exactly what I said. Don’t bring the kiddies here. There are red, gold, brown, bronze, pink, whatever ones of wood and metal. They are pressed into two Boda tree trunks and are just everywhere. Seriously. 
Another shrine which is so filled with petitioners, marigold and jasmine stringers, lottery ticket buying, Thai girls dancing, incense burning, and activity (it’s the only thing I saw that resembled the bustle of Buddhist temples and monasteries in Tibet) was Erawan Shrine to the Hindu god Brahma and his elephant Erawan. Here miracles happen to those who are having severe problems. Make an offering of three incense sticks, a candle, a jasmine/marigold garland and a piece of gold leaf to all four faces of Brahma. Then if good things happen, problems are solved, you must come back with another offering of thanksgiving or else bad things happen.
Reclining Buddha
Trimurti Shrine
The Trimurti Shrine is at one end of the world’s largest department store, called Centralworld. I dare not go inside but outside it is, like so many things in Thailand, out of proportion giant. Got to be there on a Thursday at 9:30 a.m. when young people come in droves to resolve romance and/or marriage problems. If you need a boyfriend, this is the place to start. Apparently it is said that Lord Trimurti descends from the heavens to answer the needs of your heart. To help it along, offer 9 red incense sticks, red candles, red roses, and fruit. I wonder why the gods were surrounded with statues of bulls, zebras and elephants. Lots of them. And, although I was there on Wednesday, there were plenty of young people in prayer and offering mode.
108 coins in 108 pots

One other particularly curious place was a Spirit House outside the Institute of Assisted Conception. There must have been 100 zebra figures inundating this house. Don’t know the significance. Don’t know if the women descending the stairs had been able to conceive. However next door was a huge MacDonalds, a red and yellow and white Ronald MacDonald (statue) was sitting on a red bench. There was no spirit house or shrine. Just an odor of cooking meat. #end

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Wheeeee - a spree of good things Bangkok

River view from my villa

crazy fruits
Bangkok is alive. 
From the passion pink to Hulk green taxi cabs to the local markets that string like jumbled thread along the sides of most streets to the festoon of shops in the Siam - Paragon centers and the Oldenberg-style urban art decorating the streets, every human sense is stimulated. You can shop cheap or shop Prada-top-of-the-line.
jasmine to be strung
fried everything
On the streets you can eat tiny crisp pancakes filled with marshmallow that give you a burnt sugar taste or you can try any variety of Thai food from savory soups to green curries. Markets are packed with women threading marigolds into strands or sweet jasmine blossoms into special wreaths for good luck.  Most flowers are used for decorations of spirit houses, temple offerings, weddings, or for special occasions when friends honor friends or family. There is so much activity - plus more traffic than the Los Angeles Freeway at wreck time - that your feet cannot keep up with your dance. And if it is Monday, you better wear yellow in honor of the King of Thailand. (His birthday was on a Monday.) 
bean sweets

beetle nut and sour lemon
waiting for lotus
crispy pancakes 
Early my first morning after watching the giant barges splash down the wide river in front of the Villas where I stay, we walked the morning markets. So much going on. Fresh fruits - many exotic ones with mangos of every size and shape - and vegies and huge vats of stews, curries made with green eggplants the size of large peas, and noodle dishes, green mango or pomelo salads, plates filled with fried fish, chicken and other unmentionables; beetle nuts (which old people chew on traditionally to keep alert), thin rolled cigars, (yes, “No Smoking” doesn’t exist here), green tipped mussels, and, Lord help us, sweets - some crunchy gelatin things shaped in hearts or roses,  others made with egg yellows and sugar (heart-attack stimulants), others coconut custard in triangular bags made from banana leaf; (chocolate is rare), and something called belly buddie ice cream. My camera was going lickety split as I tried to take it all in. I didn’t even know how long I been walking and looking. My hair was wringing wet as was my light cotton shirt. I didn’t even notice until we walked into an air conditioned indoor market and I began to dry up. Toward the end of this adventure, we found a booth that served the iced coconut milk soup with green tapioca noodles, leeches, water chestnuts, beans, and other colorful unknowns. I had to have another. It’s amazing how full access to real coconut (not grated in a sack or rolled in icing to make a cake look snazzy) can change your opinion about it. So much of what Thais eat is coconut milk, water or juice based. Here comes the potassium. Good news.
Chess at Paragon
iced coconut milk soup
In the afternoon we took the long thin river boat from the Villas to the train station. The train (like those at American airports) can take you across town in no time whereas a taxi would take an hour. Traffic is unbearable and you cannot be in a hurry. So we road to the end of the line and watched school kids in white and navy uniforms get on and off at their exits. We went to the end (The Stadium exit) and walked to Jim Thompson’s silk enclave. That company is considered the best in many parts for its woven silk clothes and household goods. And we stopped for a fresh fruit drink - I had kiwi-ginger. Then walked a few blocks until we reached the busiest intersection in town - where Discovery Siam and Paragon are located. It’s amazing to see the size and quality of these “malls” (each four stories high). We stopped by Thailand’s most popular shop - RaTaDe where girls like to shop. And then an upscale toy store which makes Toys R Us look like a corner drug store. Huge, and huger are the by-words for the shopping choices for people here. In Paragon every name-drop brand name you ever heard of is presented. Go to the fourth floor and there are all sorts of native/tribal  clothing and home decorating.
Street art plus two taxis

 Today Jim had to be the Yak, the carry all person. And it was certainly a wise move to rely on the train and boat system than on the street system. When shopping was done, and I was still on my feet and moving, we took the train back and caught the boat taxi - where everyone - including students - pile on in numbers fighting for the seats - and hoping to make it to the back of the boat in time to get off at the correct stop. Bags in tow, we were able to break a seam in the crowd and unloaded well. Then about a kilometer to walk back to the Villa. A young Thai girl who specializes in foot massages waited and I was so very grateful. The previous night I had a foot massage so soothing it put me to sleep when I was at the Oriental Spa. That was way on the other side of the river. So the Villa had arranged for someone to come to my room. Sigh. 

Dinner was an extraordinary adventure into Thai cooking. If someone would cook these things for me daily, I’d be a convert. Soon it’s back home and my own lazy stops at Whole Foods and Fresh Market for take-home ideas.  Oh well. Memories are made of this. #end

Monday, June 11, 2012

Tigers in my Arms

Thai Buddhist Temple 
BBQ-ed coconut
After washing, changing and returning to my own clothes, we left the elephant camp with gleeful thanks to all. On route we stopped for a cold coconut water drink straight from the coconut. It was one of the most delicious drinks I’ve ever had, especially when hot, sweaty and tired. I was told not to stop after the coconut water but crack open the coconut (the lady had a cleaver) and eat the coconut inside. The real gem was a taste of coconut that had been “barbecued”, as they called it. Smoked is the reality. Wow.
We made a brief stop at a Thai Buddhist temple - very very ornate Khermar style with pointy roofs on the outside, lots of dragons and gold and green, and noticing how there was no one there - just Buddha statues and a jade Buddha in front of a golden one - no energy or worship, no monks in orange pursuing koras or lighting butter lamps. There were lots of these ornate temples but no people.
Even Petrol stations have Spirit Houses
Beauty is a Beast
Then we went to my most anticipated experience of all:  Tiger Camp. I had no idea what to suspect. Again, tons of tourist vehicles. You could sign up to have photos taken or just  a love experience with four types of tigers: smallest, smaller, medium and big. (?). Of course we chose the works. We were let pass the tall walls and gates. In a rather limited areas, were huge areas fenced off with black chain fences at least 12 foot high. Inside, in divisions, gorgeous tigers played rigorously in and out of pools and jumping over giant logs and wrestling with each other. (We had been told to go in the late afternoon when the tigers played in the cooling air.) 
Dare ya!
Getting Crowded Here
The older tigers were separated into groups of four and by age. The babies were in a special area which we were allowed into after reading rules - like don’t touch the tiger on the head or front, always approach from behind then they know you aren’t there to play. Of course no loud noise and a bunch of other rules. I was game. So we slipped off our shoes and were let in an area where the smallest were playing and a photographer (who wore a mouth mask) snapped away asking me to do all sort of stupid kind of poses with the babies. Like growl like a tiger. No, thanks. These are REAL Tigers, man. Don’t you understand?
a small guy ?
Did you hear the one......
Then we left that area and moved to another and so forth going through the same poses with the next age level.  In the medium tiger area the beasts were most vigorous and leaping in and out of a pool playing attack or Rambo or something. I sat on the edge of the pool and a pair of them tumbled into the water at the same time and I was showered again in water. Wet again. After awhile, what you look like matters not at all.
The most awesome was moving into the giant tigers’ area. A huge male was sleeping on a slab of concrete. I was told to approach from him from behind and sit on the edge of the table. OMG! this extraordinary orange and black creature looked up a minute from his snooze, and I rubbed his tummy and back and laid on him and 
iced coconut milk soup
The best of the best
held his heavy rope of a tail and wondered why life wasn’t like this all the time. One huge cat more majestic than all the human versions of kings. I breathed along with him a while - might have fallen asleep with the peace I felt - and then it was back to reality. 
Jaed at her Market stall
As we headed back to our Villas, we stopped at a small street market where Jaeb, the cooking teacher, had her stand in order to pick up our masterpieces from the day before. What a treat.! At a neighboring booth was a vendor of the cold coconut milk/noodle/melon/bean/ exotic things soup. Well, it’s not soup. It’s liquid. I purchased a cup. Crushed ice is added to make it really cold. And - well, what else could one ask in paradise? 

Elephant Heaven

Now what?

 Have you ever been hugged by an elephant? or how about being splashed by giant tigers as I sat on the edge of their pool as they scampered in a sort of water tag with each other.
O Lord, How can I count thy blessings? What a day You offered me.
I spent the morning surrounded by Indian elephants and the afternoon Bengal Tigers from Northern Thailand’s jungles.  It was another example of being in a kind of Eden of acacias, palm trees, ferns, frangipanni, strelitzia, water lilies and lotus. 
When we arrived at Maepan Elephant Park mid-morning, it looked like a tourist trap. Tons of vans and mini-buses spit out people, many Muslim women, many Asians, and they were herded to the elephant show. In a open-aired barn, big mama elephants were chained at the foot, as usual,  throwing around corn stalks while their babies played freely. We were blessed  at once to be able to sign up for the mahoot training experience to learn how to communicate with, ride and play with elephants one on one.

curiosity with a trunk
The Artist
First was the elephant skills show where about a dozen elephants of all ages and sizes showed their stuff. They were ridden by their personal mahoot, the boy who takes care of and lives with the elephant. The precious beasts bowed, curtsied, squealed, danced, kicked soccer balls into big nets, and even dunked a basketball, put hats on their mahoots’ heads and even painted. Elephant art - and they really do draw in handmade paper - goes for about a 100 dollars. There was even a musical combo as two of them played harmonicas and another played gongs. Then the elephants came to the grandstand area and stuck their trunks through the railing hoping to get tips, bananas, sugar cane and some praise from the enthused audience. The younger ones were bursting with personality and you wish you could take them home. But, as one of the main workers said sadly, “we used to train the elephant to work in the forest, but the government suspended all that. So now we train them to entertain the public. “
My Babe
The reason crowds come here is to ride elephants - in a metal seat strapped to the poor elephants stomach. After a short turn, then they change to a ride in a cart drawn by water buffalo or take a bamboo raft down a raging river. The water buffalo were really white humped Brahma bulls. But our focus was on elephants. I wanted to ride mahoot style as I had done in Chitwan in Nepal, not in a metal seat.
Hat on ya!
We were told we had to put on mahoot kind of uniform - dark blue with Chinese monkey knots for closure - because we would end the course in the river bathing our elephants. Ok. I was game. It turned out I was sopping wet most of the day because there was constant rain as well and I gave up on umbrellas and plastic rain ponchos. Then we met our elephants - one a baby of five and the other a female 40 years old, with their real mahoots from the Keran tribe. And took a walk up to an area where the elephants and mahoot live. It was pouring rain, hot as the tropics are, and mud pie in the roads and pathways. But hey, I’m with elephants, who cares.
Awwwwww - Hugs 
My Kind of Bath
First I was told I’d ride the younger elephant named Maetang who kept poking his trunk at me and I think that was a way of making friends.  He had tiny tusks growing. As usual, I was sloppy getting my leg over his neck, as he bowed down low. I had to push back to sit on his bony back because of his age. But I had something to hold on to, a rope, and felt comfortable with his playfulness We walked around a bit. And I learned to say “Bai” for go, “Hoa” for stop and “ma-long” for get down on knees.  Then I was to ride the big female. This had a different mounting. She too got low to the ground and offered me her bent leg to step up on but she had an even more enormous neck. The teacher had already gotten on her nervous that I would fall, when I knew I wouldn’t. This was more my liking because I was on the neck and my legs behind her ears. I had nothing to hold on to, however, and was told to just press my hands on her head. The chief mahoot was behind me holding my waist for whatever fears he had. Ok. Did that. I felt in heaven as she took her large swaying steps slowly so I could move with her.
 I asked if they did this every day and the mahoot said yes these two elephants were the mahoot training class victims. Meanwhile, the rains poured. I gave up on the Vietnamese-like hat. What’s wrong with a wet me? We were invited to lunch at a bench overlooking the river in front of one of the mahoots’ houses. Then it was time to get back to work. But first a couple of tricks: The baby gave me a hug with his trunk - (trunk around my neck, pearls and all), he gave me a trunk kiss, and he also picked up a hat and put it on my head. I walked with the baby elephant back to the camp passing the giant elephants carrying the latest lot of tourists  while Jim rode the big female on a longer route to see what it was like. He reported, very rough riding. 
Then it was time for the river. I changed into my sandals and survived the steep incline into the rather brown raging river. This is the favorite activity of all elephants and they lay down and roll over and enjoy the attention as we scrubbed them. The baby’s eyes looked at me and she continued to play with me with her trunk, loving the cool water. Then when it was time to finish, she showered us with sprays of water from her trunk. 
I think I had grown attached to this little one. I wonder if elephants never forget.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Hallalujah - Chiang Mai is Eden

It took awhile to get here. After the effects of cremation, a full day of air travel until 10 p.m. (a couple of time zones helped) I reached Eden.

My villa - coral.
Smack dab in the jungle in the mountains of Northern Thailand is a pueblo outside Chiang Mai called Mae Rim. There if you make enough turns under the palms, banana plants, tropical trees and shrubs lies Rangsit Villas. It's owned by a French lady named Pippa. There are two villas - one has only two suits (one called Coral the other Turquoise) and the other villa has three bedrooms. That's it. That's all need be. I was welcomed in my groggy coughing state with a lei of fresh jasmine flowers and a bowl of tropical fruit including rose apples which fall off a huge tree in the compound. There are small waterfalls, winding ponds with orange Koi fish, a lovely hammock guarded by an old German Shepherd, and, well, the food is a Thai gourmet's delight.

Breakfast view.
I could take a deep breath. My body says, yea, I know this heat and humidity. One sweats and doesn't know the difference when its drizzling rain. The shower is opened to the jungle and there are huge vats of rain water you can pour over your tired body for a resuscitation. It's basically a constant "wet", but this is the beginning of the monsoon which is alive and well in China, just across the border, so who cares?

Lotus in my room.
All meals are outside with breathtaking views through artistic touches. A huge plate of tropical fruit (papayas and mangos as they should taste, rose apples, leeches, bananas so fresh, looks like a quilt. Tea is a constant. And when he come back from an excursion there is iced lemon grass and lime tea. Sigh. A can't forget desert was cold coconut milk filled with green noodles and triangles of melon that look liked candy corn as the melon was green and orange. Why can't I make something like this?

Largest orchid.
We set out with a driver to Suanbua Maesa Orchid Farm. We were blessed because almost everything was in bloom, every kind of orchid, Cattelyas, Vandas, Palaenopsis, Mokara, Ascocedas, Thai orchids that look like wisteria called Rhyn gigantea, and including the largest orchid in the world, a tiger looking orchid that was just beginning to bloom. Most fascinating was the cultivator, who has won every kind of price and recognition from Thai Queen Sirikit, who cheerfully showed me how he breeds orchids in old whiskey bottles. Once he gets a tiny plant going, he seals them in a whiskey flask, for instance, and when it grows to the top fourth of the bottle, he must break the bottle and remove it to be planted in a pot. What creativity.

Cultivator and his bottles.
Next was a drive toQueen Sirikit Botanic Garden. I've visited many Botanic gardens in my garden club days, but this was a prize. The Queen is dedicated to biodiversity conservation and has put her full support behind this project that was begun in 1992. Of her investment in the 1000 plus hectares, she has said: " As the king is the Water, I shall be the Forest. The Forest devotes its loyalty to the Water." Most amazing was the extensive collection of water plants, including the many Lotus blossoms, the real thing - such as the Sacred Lotus which Buddha often has been depicted as sitting on top of in the many temples and monasteries I had visited in Tibet. But those versions had been of metal, wood or plastic. These are a horticulturist's dream. Even in my villa there are a species of the fragrant Lotus.

At botanic garden.
Sacred Lotus.
The "tropical rainforest" house filled with such enormous ferns and palms and trees, I flashed back to my childhood remembering my favorite adventure stories of Mary Jane and Sniffles. Mary Jane would be reduced to a tiny mouse size so she could play with Sniffles. So everything in the garden was super-huge to their size. I felt that small in all this glorious giantitude. The elements of God's creation when it comes to plants is just unbelievable. Thank you God.

In the rain forest.
The main focus for the afternoon was an unique experience. There are lots of Thai cooking schools. But I asked if there was someone who could teach me how to make the incredible sweets that one purchases in the markets. In the morning, Pippa had presented a plate of different sweets made by a lady Jeab. I about rolled off the chair with delight. Yes. And so after a real Thai lunch outside at the villa cooked especially for us, we were driven a ways to Jeab's house, which is snuggled back off the streets and the kitchen is completely open with a roof over it. Giant metal bowls of all sorts and a necessary large metal steamer took up most space. Cartons of huge duck eggs were under large tables.

Tray of Thai sweets.
Jeab is a smiling lady with salt and pepper short hair who daily creates ten sweets to sell at the market. She welcomed us with the custom of hands in prayer position and a bow. I bowed back. A young girl named Po, who works at the Ritz Carlton here and is studying to be a lawyer, was there to be translator for her friend. And in the laughter and joy of two hours learning about coconut water, milk and a whole range of tricks, I learned (I hope) to make Coconut milk jelly; white jelly; pumpkin-duck egg sweet; and the star of the afternoon, a layered pudding like thing which took most of the time to make because it is steamed and every five or so minutes, a tin layer or batter is poured on top of the more solid one. This amazing sweet is colored by the Thai flower, a deep purple flower that looks like a partially opened Iris. But put in water and boiled in water, it emits a strong purple color which is used for one half of the batter. So we layered white or blue batter until we have probably 20 or more layers that can be peeled back when eating. What a trip!!! Everything takes time to set so we will get the results of our labors this afternoon. Let me tell you, there is nothing as delicious as Thai sweets.
Jaeb draining milk.

Layering batter.

Barbeque on a stick.

Motorcycles, etc.
Blind boys sing.
If that wasn't sufficient activity - now this is my kind of trip - we took off in the late afternoon as the rain opened soft fire on us below - to visit the Saturday night market in Chiang Mai. It's popular and always packed. I was amazed at how many American young folk and Europeans seem to appear. There were a million motorcycles and strange mini-bus and rickshaw taxis on the street. As the rain stopped just in time we began to stroll the long street of venders. Crafts, clothing, Angry Bird light up balls, gypsy style skirts, and entertainers - a line of blind boys one sitting behind the other, singing beautiful songs that one could listen to, a man playing crystal glasses, another old man on some strange guitar-like creation singing typical Chinese disharmony. Most popular is always the food venders with every kind of Thai favorite. I tried a fried banana on a stick but there were Chiang Mai sausages (don't know what that meant), hot spicy Thai food, palm puff balls (sweets), just everything imaginable and not at all western in form. But the prize of this long day for me was finding the huge sushi displays and of all things, in all places, I ate Angry Bird sushi!!! See Photo.
Sushi spread.
Man playing glasses.
Angry Bird sushi