Friday, May 10, 2013

Opium and Elephants

babes in bird bath

If I could choose two highlights of this five week exploration of Southeast Asia, it would be 1) elephant riding 4 times and 2) the Opium Museum, a project of the Royal Family of Thailand, put together by the King’s Mother prior to her death, set not in a city center but far away in the north near the Golden Triangle (Thailand, Laos, Myanmar come together at the merging of two huge rivers). This lavish garden estate of land and the reasonably contemporary  museum housed there are worth the trip. Photography is not allowed and so far there are no catalogues in English, sadly. It is an emotional experience and at the end, visitors are employed to seek solutions to drug addiction all over the world.  The King’s mother’s inheritance for her nation was the Doi Tung Development Project to help curb and end the opium trade and give farmers a substitute crop to produce, such as tea, rubber, rice, coffee and peaches, now produced beautifully by the Hill tribes in Northern Thailand, where the opium trade was severe for decades and is still smuggled in from neighboring countries. There are road checks often.

Opium poppies were the controversial crop exploited by the British in the 1800s so they could buy tea and silk from Siam and Burma and China and bolster their vital trade. Trade was the backbone of their colonialism which no one has been able to repeat since. The effects on people and countries were not concerns of those who set up such illicit trades. Just keeping the coffers filled with the pleasures and needs of the trader. Once the trade falters, many people suffer, left with addictions and poverty. 

Serious Business
In China as early as the 8th century opium was brought onto the scene by Muslim traders to satisfy medicinal needs. In the 16th century, both in China and Europe (the Dutch and Portuguese sailors), opium sap was boiled and sold as healing drugs. With the introduction of tobacco from the New World, (and also missionaries and empire builders and pirates who thrived in this trade) a more potent way of ingesting opium was introduced (i.e. smoking not as cigarettes but a ball of the paste put on a pin, heated over a lamp, and inhaled through a pipe) and enter the recreational part. There is a whole ambiance in opium dens which includes artifacts of use, such as lamps, pipes, bowls, weights, and other paraphernalia. Opium smoking was the Hermes/Cartier of the day - a sign of wealth and high social stature. The dens we have been exposed to appeared dingy and depressing and full of unwilling addicts, and there was plenty of that, but there rose another environmental level with elegance and excess for the rich and educated. Even opium smoking dress was ornate and Manchurian emperors indulged.

Buddha floats
In the 1800s the British (who still use paper poppies in honoring their fallen soldiers on Memorial Day in November) commercialized opium, licensing opium farms, giving seeds to farmers, and even built speedy clipper ships to get the product to home ports. The British East India Company refused to be paid in gold and silver for their trading but wanted opium. The Chinese tired of paying in products (silk and tea = the British have to have their tea) and not wanting to empty their coffers of gold and silver, desired to  be paid in gold and silver or put an end to the opium trade and to limit production of opium to medicinal. But, smuggling grew because it was so profitable. Emperor after emperor took up the cause to eliminate unchecked opium trade. So did the British want free trade with no taxes or inspections. Finally the British moved their opium fields to India where today it is grown legally (for medicinal use), as it is in Egypt, Australia,Tasmania and Turkey. The Opium Wars and became just a skirmish for the great British empire, but humiliated China in its defeat. This part of the history is artistically displayed in dioramas and videos.  Even Mao Tse Tung attempted to eliminate all poppy fields from his country and today, if a person is caught with one single Papaver somniferum in their possession in Thailand, they go to prison for a while. This is one reason there was no poppy “farm” for me to visit, although it had been written in the schedule as a “do.” 

Lao Hill Tribe Grandmother
Slugs and bugs not drugs
The museum was just incredible. Everything you want to know - or didn’t want to kno - about the history of the opium trade and addiction. Entrance is a long long walk through a tunnel with walls in bar-relief of the agonies of addition, very abstractly done. Then there is a film about the history and trade before walking through dioramas and displays of the finest sort. It takes a long time because here you really do stop and watch the videos and learn truths you may not want to know - such as how Americans funded the cover war in Laos (outside of Vietnam) because they needed funds for the war, so supported the opium trade. As I have always believed, this was the point when our GIs became addicted to the whole drug world - not just opium by-products but as well the now drug encroaching in too many lives in Southeast Asia - methamphetamine. It is a horrific problem among youth. Statistics say American opium addicts in 1931 were about 120-140,000 then it fell to less than .2 percent by 1938.  American and Egyptian heroin addicts at this time were less than five per cent of the Chinese ones. That was then. China accounted for 90 per cent of the opium addicts.  Today, the use of opium products has soared. And most of it comes from Afghanistan, where a huge percentage of that population lives in addiction. Films and documentation support the truth.

On the road again
Snack attack
Hard to realize is that during the Vietnam war, our military aircraft flew guns to the rebels in return for opium as payment for weapons, a CIA operative. And these very planes also transported opium without inspection to our nation. As I look at the young kids who come through Foster Care today - though decades later - I am disgusted that those years and those drugs and the illegal trade of them have destroyed generations of our youth to come. Heroin, I have been told, is making a comeback in the States.

For the good news, there is peace and sway in elephant riding. My teenage (15 years old) elephant was named Pet and she was one hungry critter. She was pacing while chained waiting for a rider, and by golly, once I got on and we got on the trail, I saw why. As you know elephants must eat 24-7 and the ones in this elephant camp are healthy looking. They have been rescued from the logging industry and roaming the streets. The fields and roadsides are green with tall grasses of the sweetest sort and Pet probably ate half of them in the hour trip. She’d stop, grab and grab and grab a whole bouquet of grasses or reach up for her favorite leaves on a tree and somehow seemed to smile. It was fascinating to see the trees she by-passed - they had sort of shiny leaves like a rubber tree nor did she like bamboo. 

Ode to elephant
When the mahout allowed me to crawl down on her neck (I usually stay barefooted when I am privileged to ride because it is a holy thing for me) into his place and he took over mine in the uncomfortable box on top, I was in tears of joy. Staying balanced was important (it’s a long way to the ground) and bending the knees upward like a jockey so my feet rest in the crux of the back of her ears. Immediately Pet lifted her trunk up to touch me, wondering who the heck this was, and seemed to not be disturbed as she returned to grabbing food along the row. The sun was terribly hot - like 100 degrees mid-day. I felt my jeans were on fire. A local cowboy hat did shield my face from the rays and made me think of days of yore on horseback in the west. At the end, after a quick dip in the river, and Pet showed her ability to spray water, she was rewarded with a big bunch of bananas. I loved this elephant because she always seemed to be smiling. I certainly was, too. 

This five week adventure is coming to an end. I’m back in Bangkok to wrap up a few things and dine tonight (Friday) at a popular restaurant called Condoms and Cabbage, started by a man who was trying to get birth control going among the sex traders and prostitutes of this town. Apparently he has baskets of condoms at the door. There you go Novella. A creative approach to a tough issue.

Tomorrow begins 22 hours in the air until I should be safe in Memphis, praying all the way for another Grizzlies victory. There won’t be any physical temples at which to leave offerings but there is more important the heavenly temple of our blessed Lord. That’s all I need. Thanks be to God.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Worship Can be Fun

Chicken Spirit House
Religion can be fun, it appears, when Buddha followers get funky. 

Making an offer
Chiang Rai, Thailand, is a fantasy trip of extremes and expenditures. Everyday folk who happen upon good fortune turn their faith into exotic and humorous displays of gratitude, not only to the four Buddhas (depending on which path is followed), but also to the Royal Family who generously runs this country.  I’ve already told you about the Black House buy a national Thai artist putting a new bent on spirituality. But also in Chiang Rai are two more “temples” that blew my mind.  The simpler of the two is the chicken spirit house (remember Thailand is a web of spirit houses ranging from doll house size to complete complexes in order to appease the bad spirits and keep them out of the house.) by someone who seems to reverence roosters. It certainly made me laugh - and I hope my deceased father and brother are also laughing - because my family had been in the chicken business for many years. 
Clucking in numbers

Shop for Offerings
Along the roads of Thailand are various “shops” where a believer (or non-believer) can purchase empty spirit houses and giant animals - be it elephant, zebra, donkey, tortoise, or preening roosters taller than me. There are all sizes of these beast from tiny statues to huge ones, and they are identical images - a tiny chicken statue is the same image of the giant ones but maybe colored differently.

 Well, when we arrived at the Chicken Spirit House, I was awed by the amount of these animal statues (not just roosters but elephants, and all sorts) - I estimate at least 500 - grouped in patches on the lawn, at the entrance, up the stairs, and a few in the temple itself. I had to get on this bandwagon, with my family chicken experience - I won’t even eat the bird anymore. In front of such a display is someone with a table and a couple of shelves (outside under a tent) overloaded with possible purchases. These red, black, green and gold roosters on a base, actually had petitions written in Thai on that base - like happiness, successful business, gain lots of money, and other such rather greedy petitions.

I purchased a $5 rooster about a foot tall with whatever the Thai word is for Have a Good Time on its base.  I figured this was appropriate in the name of my father and brother who have already passed into the heavens. One lights 3 strands of incense, and 3 candles (Love the trinity) and takes the statuette up the stairs crowded with these animals  to the altar - or you could put it among the herds grouped on the grass. At the altar is a statue of the guy who had this fetish (sitting in the yoga pose)  and someone had put a pair of glasses on him. Strange things can be seen in these spirit houses. Many of the Hill tribes believe in animism and shamans. But it’s hard to discern for what they are praying. I know roosters are early rises and regular - I hear them every morn.
Flash Park

Under the Tummy
Another stop was a little road-side entertainment at the point of the Golden Triangle further north. I mentioned this area once home of the opium trade yesterday and will again. But sort of squeezed in between road and river is another enormous altar to a shiny golden sitting Buddha high above reason and accompanied by a pair of enormous plaster elephants for which children can climb up a few steps to enter into a royal saddle box for a photo shoot of “being on an elephant.”  Another pair of giant gray elephants at the entrance one walks under the belly for good luck. There is also a giant Alice in Wonderland style tea pot - symbol of the restoration project to divert farmers from opium fields to tea fields. All this crammed on a slim sliver of a park between road and river has the ambiance of being on a giant long boat made mosaic-style of stained glass. The whole shebang is a tribute to the Royal Family, and especially the King’s mother.

However, the creme de resistance is a overwhelming project called the White Temple or Wat Rong Khan in Chiang Rai. This is a true WOW! It’s inconceivable that a respected national artist decided 16 years ago to begin a project that would take 90 years to complete, knowing he’d miss out on the celebration, (he is about 63 now). This is kitsch at its most glamorous. Artist Chalermchai Kositpipat has built exotic white temples trimmed in glass and ornament like I’ve never seen, and it goes on and on and on. Everything has a reason. 

White Temple
This spiritual journey of the artist doesn’t give answers but poses questions. There is one way to enter and it’s one way - like the road to heaven should be. The visitor walks through “waters of hell” where pools of white hands (500) are reaching for a last breath (one has a single painted red nail on the middle finger that’s the universal sign) called Beauty of Anguish. Freaky white skulls, monster heads, nightmare faces hang from frangipani trees and even the Virgin Mary, Spiderman and George H Bush riding a missal are included somewhere in this massive spirit house. Silver and glass mosaic trim glitter in the sunlight. You walk the walk looking at all the curlique details and the enormous amount of work which is really done by a team of students who are making the needs of the artist as he slowly works on this project. The workshop is open for a behind the scenes look at the intense repetitive labor.  So much is not finished. There are new buildings and a monastery still in the concrete stages and a massive field to eventually be a parking lot (maybe the size of St. Peter’s Square) and room for more temples to honor God. 

Hanging Tree
Artist Studio
There is a gold building where the bathrooms are located (?). Apparently gold is good but the toilet style is still hole in the ground. And the major temple is filled with the artist’s murals of monsters and paradise which have heavenly intent, sort of like the Sistine Chapel but in gold and pastels. He seems to want us to know it’s a rocky road to avoid the temptations of the devil, hell is always a torturous choice, but there is a kingdom of glory beyond the imagination, although Mr.  Kositpipat is trying to give you an idea. 

What catches your attention, if all this imagining doesn’t, is that the artist is creating this as his life project with his own money. He doesn’t accept large donations but you can buy books of his very spiritual Buddhist-style paintings modernized. He has a large art gallery on the property which also houses a collection of Ninja type knives he has made (as did the Black House artist) and other objects. Apparently he continues to paint (has had to reduce his personal output from 300 works a year to about 6) and when he does, his palate and easel await in one of the buildings in progress.
Go Grizz
Write a wish - Go Grizz

The best participation one can do is buy one of the metal “prayer” forms from the umbrella tree. It’s awesome. There is a table with sharpies and you can write your prayer and hang the ornaments (like something you’d put on your Christmas tree) on the prayer tree. At the very moment (unknowingly) the Grizzlies were fighting for victory over the Thunder, I hung one of these with “Go Grizz” on the tree. And they won! Wow.
students at work
My hats are off to this man for this vision and his spirit. It’s something once seen, the brain doesn’t toss away. Here you don’t have to leave an offering. It’s all his creation.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Thai Tea and Art

Chinese Church - Ark ready
Orphanage Visitors
Morning wakeups in rural towns on this huge Southeast Asian peninsula stirs the simplicity in my soul- the roosters start their crow about 5 a.m. A bird who says “For Real” is rapping his call; other birds twirddle non-stop; frogs and cicadas are adding base and percussion, and here in Chiang Mai there is an oversized lizard that crawls under the roof and makes a sound - Tock Tock Tock. He’s a tukai. If he “tocks” 13 times, that’s good luck. So far I’ve only heard 6.

Pig Pride at Orphanage
Chiang Rai is sort of the teenage brother, tourist wise, to Chiang Mai. But to me it has a fascination because nearby is the Golden Triangle, a watery place where Laos, Myanmar (Burma) and Thailand come together, the Mekong (from Tibet), Mae Kok (starts in Burma) and the Ruak Rivers merge at the “Sop Ruak”, which is the real name, but American soldiers called it the Golden Triangle. China is a few more miles back up the Mekong river. Yes, the triangle is the notorious area where the opium trade thrived for so many years, a commercial trade which the British started in the 18th century in exchange for tea and silk.  But with the intense dedication and labor of the popular King Bhumibol Adulyadej and his late mother, Mae Fah Luang, through her surviving program Doi Tung Development Project, the problems of illicit drug production and drug addiction are being attacked. It is illegal to have one Papaver somniferum stalk in your possession in this country. I’ll talk about that later.
Would you sit here?

Arty Architecture
On arrival, we were met by a world-class trekker, bicyclist, and friend of Jims, Ann  and a driver Germ who is from a Hill tribe.  Akkha, Lisu, Hmong,  Kariang, (ring or long-necked women), Lahu, and the hard working Yao are the major tribes in Northern Thailand. And we were off to visit an orphanage for children of Hill tribe families, founded by an humble Thai Christian priest, called Kids Garden of Eden. It is also the heart and soul of the widow of Mike Wilson, who takes care of its needs and arrived during our visit. There are about 30 children normally, but on a holiday, only 9 kids were present. Others go off to visit relatives. We were given a short tour of the grounds and the pastor’s house where the girls live temporarily as a dormitory is being built for them - nothing fancy. Concrete blocks. One room for facilities. One large room for beds. The budget is extremely low, the prayer high. They have pigs, chickens, a field to grow rice and another for vegetables. And we met the “mothers” who laughed and smiled as they went about their work cooking lunch for all of us. What a lunch.  Salads, curries, fruits. We had stopped on the roadside and purchased barbecued chicken for the children. The tiniest child of all, aged 4, who was born in prison, and now his mother works at the orphanages, said a rousing grace that got us all into the right mind-set. 

Crocodile Rules
A Resting Place
From here we journeyed to the “art installation” of Thailand’s top artist, Thawn Duchanee, called The Black House (Baan Dam). To stroll through the extraordinary “reinventions” of aspects of Buddhist architecture of teak wood pillars, huge timber doors, glass walls, concrete holy stupas, bricks, and terra cotta is an environmental experience. Nothing is conventional. All is very macho in object and construction with savage red black and gold paintings of his version of, it seemed to me, monster gods; animal bones and huge horns made into high back throne-like chairs, chandeliers, tables out of long trees (like slicing a trunk length wise), alligator and every sort of animal skin spread out on tables and floors, gold and silver items, even Buddhas, white toilets, and outside arrangements of large boulders, one avenue being a labyrinth. Usually this artist, 73, a large man with decisive long white beard, will wander the grounds, but I was told he doesn’t like “foreigners” and his a “character” so we didn’t get to meet with him. It is a tourist stop as well. He is wild and creative, and open-air workshops abound where bamboo baskets and horns and wooden creations abound. There must be about 2 dozen structures - even three white stupa-like hemispheres in different shapes, with  18 foot tall black doors, which only a strong man using both hands can open, and nothing inside but his horn chairs, as if awaiting a meeting of spirits, lined around the circular space. In another are wooden statues of well endowed males and one in which a visitor may not enter as a member of the Royal family meditates in that white space. Off the trails is a structure like a large black whale, off limits to tourist as so much was, because it is where the artist’s bedroom is located.
A weird environmental art experience but invigorating. Not a place of worship, I’m told. 

Thai Green Tea Grown here
The Artist's Respite
After visiting a tea plantation, with its precise rows of short shrubs of tea, women in conical hats bent over and picking the fresh leaves that grow on top, and of course a sampling of the Oolong and Green teas produced there, we wound our way around sharp curves and up to about 3000 feet above sea level - in the mountains - to the night’s respite, Phu Chi Sai Resport and Spa in the land of the Hill tribes. Hello jungle! Hello winding stairs, little lodges built into the side of the mountain with incredible views, Hello a feeling of tropics with the array of flowers, the funny clay statues of fat monks holding their begging bowls to greet us. Up a few steps and there is another patio of plants and views. Rooms were right out of a elephant hunter’s camp. Wi fi was at a premium. No TV. The owner greeted us and then when we were settled, she went to the dining area (all open, mind you) where she taught piano to four young girls. This is not your normal rest house but a situation for solitude and thought.

view from Phu Chi Sai room
Welcoming monks
All seemed at peace. A great get away. As we were ordering a limited dinner, (this is the low season so most of the items we wanted they didn’t have), the winds stirred up. It was quite a cacophony of bashing wet leaves, and the rain came in torrents (roofs are bamboo, leaves, sticks, some tin) and lightening danced with its thunder. Boom. all lights went out. Let me tell you, this was true darkness. Not a light anywhere, not stars, obviously, not flashlights, not candlelight, nothing. It was a whole village thing. We sat there as the wind blew wetness on us through the bamboo shades. That wasn’t a problem. But when we had to go to our respective rooms, we had to tackle a network of outside stairs up and down the mountain we didn’t know, and no light but the little zap the lightening allowed. They did give us an umbrella. Lot of good that did. Then in my room, I was having laptop (Mac Air) problems because there was no room for more photos. I couldn’t do anything else in the night, so I sat up til 1:30 a.m. trying to eliminate duplicates and blurry ones, hoping to reduce the over-load. Didn’t work. Finally gave up. Electricity came back on. 

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Thai Storms, Pos and Markets

Peaceful Villas

The rains have rained with fireworks and thunder and it seems to follow my adventures.

After and early morning rise, the Villas motor boat, mind you, (it has only a slight canopy to shield the 5 or 6  passengers from the sun) was to take us on a three hours journey to another city known for ancient temples, just for a few hours.

Clouds Appearing
As we started off, all was well. Morning traffic of empty barges, river taxis and even cleaning sweepers kept things busy. In the distance there was some grayish clouds. No one worried. Sun was shining. I was laid back on the cushioned seat doing my needlepoint bear, my guide Jim was in the open seat next to the driver. The motor groaned as it hit the ever present hyacinth roots making tiny islands of floating masses.  The water begin to get exceedingly rough. We ignored it. Then as fast as one could drink a glass of lemon grass tea (that’s pretty fast when served with crushed ice) the wind got impertinent and the clouds dark as licorice and I suggested maybe we need to turn around. 
Our wet refuge - a temple

Then rain started. There was no protection. I was wearing all white. What a poor choice. But it was to combat the hot sun. The driver slowed down - both men were on their cell phones getting instructions - and I said again, Think we need to turn around. Suddenly a temple appeared,a rather unattended, disordered one under repair, and there was a healthy looking dock. We disembarked and ran up a few stairs to a sheltered area, we thought, to sit it out. (We never got close to the temple itself.) Then lightening and thunder and torrents of rain joined us and the rain reached in and surrounded us with its wetness. No hiding from it. The boat driver brought up two bright green umbrellas for us to use as a shield from the strong wet winds. And I stood there, soaking, for a whole hour wishing it would stop. The air got much cooler. Jim and the driver were on their cells to arrange a rescue.

Putting gold on a Buddha
 The car driver who was to pick us up in the other city - he was already there waiting - was coming back for us. The rain was so intense that the roads were flooding, nothing was draining, morning traffic was stuck. And we waited and I twirled the umbrella, it on my back and my back to the wind - as if that helped. Finally after about an hour and a half the driver arrived. We waded through standing water and got in - glad that was over. We canceled the day’s excursion and returned to the Villas. This storm was so violent it was written up in the daily newspaper the next day.
Dropping 108 coins
OK. Now what? Well Jim and I decided - when the sun came out about noon - to make our annual visit to Wat Po. This is the very ornate temple complex about two blocks from the Villas where Thai massage started. More importantly, here lies the largest (the truth) reclining Buddha in the world. I don’t know why I’m drawn to this version of the Buddha. I’ve been told this Buddha is a Tuesday child (like me) and that the reclining pose with the elbow bent and the arm holding up the head is representative of a dying Buddha. Hmm. But it is awe-inspiring because of its size, the entire body, head, feet, hair enriched in gold (no painted white skin or red lips as in Burma), and the complicated messages on the soles of the two feet. Also, you can purchase 108 coins because on the back side along the wall of the temple where the figure resides, there are 108 metal bowls - sort of large versions of what the monks used to collect food - and the idea is to drop one coin in each bowl as you pray. Well, I was short-coined the first time or because there were so many Japanese tourist that day, I was watching them and lost count. So I bought another little metal bowl of coins (this one was twice as heavy) and did it again. Back to my shoes. Back to the Villas.
Thai Boxing Souvenirs

Feisty meat lady at market
In the heat of the afternoon, and it was Sunday, after much insistence by our friend Atom who runs the Villas, we went across town to the “Weekend Market.” I’ve never seen anything like it or so big. Everything from Thai Boxing shorts in gaudy colors, to tie-dyed wardrobes, to Hill tribe wear, to antiques, to old, used books, to more t-shirts than one could imagine, and layers and layers of fabrics, of placemats, masses of shoes, really everything anyone would ever need - and with a flair. Booth after Booth. On the street side there were piles of amethyst, lapis lazuli, brown crystals, pale green rocks, blocks of turquoise, which you could get for so much a half kilo. You walk and walk up and down aisles and roads, it goes for miles. And a starting or stopping point is the Weekend market in a well lit, white tiled warehouse, clean and shiny, displaying the most beautifully presented vegetables, fruits, meats, sweets, drinks like iced cold guava juice or lemon grass iced tea, or fresh squeezed orange juice - all of which you down in a second thirsty from the heat. But after all the “fun” and feet worn out, we got back into the car waiting for us - and it took literally 1 hour 15 minutes to get out of the parking lot. You have to pay to get out. And there are thousands shopping at this market every weekend. 

Chinatown Dinner
As if I hadn’t marketed out already, Atom wanted to take us to China Town to eat in one of the street size cafes. I didn’t know what this meant. I was anxious to stop in  one of the “souvenir” shops completely decorated in Chinese red and gold with all sorts of funky items and red lanterns. Well, they had closed down. Instead the streets were stuffed with every kind of person anxious to sit at the metal tables on a small plastic red stool. The waiters were all young folk in the same colored T-shirt - red shirts on one corner, green shirts on another. Atom liked Green shirts. So you get a number and wait. And wait. When you finally get your table, a large menu with pictures guides you to the goodies. Meanwhile giant tour buses, every colored taxi cab (that can refuse to take you if they don’t like your destination - what a pain) and trucks and police cars and whatever else can jam a street. People just wind end and out. It was way too much congestion for me. But I sat and watched. The food was mostly fish and veggies (watch out for the tiny green peppers or the curved like a finger nail red ones.) Service was fast. Prawns that haven’t been defrocked. Fried whole fish looking you in the eye. But the shocker was that  people eat Sharks Fin. Not only do they eat this rare delicacy because it does good to one’s innards and mind, but a piece about the size of a round stake costs $350. That’s how rare it is. I declined.  There was something unnerving about shark fin as soup or fried. We took a shocking pink taxi back to the Villas. A 7 a.m. flight to Chiang Rai had to be caught the next morning.
Fried Shark Skin at a price

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Bangkok Rocks and Rolls

night river action

First off, Grizzlies, I love you! You are the best champions of all! Thanks to all who keep me posted each game. I’m praying on this end whatever time of day it is.

A shady spot at the Villa
I sit on the teak deck of my villa -  not for long, its 90 at 7 in the morning - overlooking the Chaophraya River, watching and smiling at the great traffic of fascinating boats and barges, lit up like Disney World at night - each packed tourist launch, barge, long-tail, bus, ferry, river taxi - flickering with lights and having some sort of loud motor or live entertainment - ballad singer, rock and roll singer, Adele, Beonce interpretations and those I-don-t-understand-the-dissonant-tone Asian singers - and I dream that one day our Mississippi River could be as full of life and activity as this. After about 10 at night until 7 in the morning it is quiet enough to hear the roll of the tiny waves beating up against the wooden/concrete shorelines of the river. But daytime, it comes a live like the lotus blossom. 

train decor
arriving at the tram dock
Bangkok is probably my favorite big city. I mean BIG. It’s hard to get around in because traffic - mostly shocking pink, lemon yellow, emerald green “soi” , always decorated with talismans, and motorcycle tuk-tuk taxis are in the billions. Nothing rushes. Best way to get across town to the shoppers dream place, Siam and Paragon mall area is take a water taxi to a landing where one can catch the colorful tram that is a subway above ground and, thank you Jesus, is air-conditioned. 

crispy mini pancakes
Hello Panda 
But what I like best are the markets, food, flowers, cheap clothing (I bough a 5 dollar pair of white pants I’ve worn almost every day of the trip with 2 dollar shirts), shoes thrown out in a heap, pocketbooks, health mediums with traditional Asian remedies, Thai massage equipment, waving gold cats, and, my favorite, the sweets. Fascinating that nothing includes chocolate. Sweets are mostly made with agar-agar, coconut, egg yellows, noodles, sticky rice, palm sugar, green pandana leaf, and they are the best in the world, even though street food.  My die-for drink-meal is “lod chong Singapore” which is a coconut milk and green jelly noodles served with crushed ice. You drink it through a fat straw. But disappointingly, it’s hard to get a recipe so one can duplicate the goodies at home. If you have the recipe, getting the ingredients, making the special rice noodles, the crunchy little pancakes filled with whipped marshmallow, the bean paste to be covered in colored jell then shaped to form fruits and vegetables, it is impossible to find a chef willing to teach. Cooking schools abound but mostly the more doable Thai spicy foods. We are looking though. As I look back on this trip, regional sweets, dessert have been almost limited to rice cakes and fresh fruit. Tourist menus favor cheese cake (where do they get cream cheese??) and tiramisu and fried banana with syrup.  Not a big thing in Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Myanmar, here, sweets are part of the daily ritual of nourishment. Love it. And it shows.
the smelly fruit (I liked)

Bangkok, with its gardens of exotic plants and flowers (tree flowers, orchids, lotus blossoms), its teak homes and modern skyscrapers,  is big time business, high end (both fashion and decoration) malls that carry all the ‘in” brands and designers , whose wares are copied and sold on the streets, if you dare. Jewelry - diamond, jade, Burmese ruby, whatever - is not only over the top in prices but also in design. There also exists the usual problems associated with big city issues: drugs, sex trade, crime. There is, however, maximum respect for the elderly Queen and King, both of whom are featured in giant building size photographs (official portraits) in gilded monuments throughout the city. Actually it’s been years since someone offered to carry my suitcase downstairs from the airplane arrival area to the bus, or even gotten up to offer me his seat on the tram. In Bangkok, it happened. Couture gentleman. A dying breed.

Only Western tourist look sloppy, dressed in spaghetti straps, too short shorts, or hippy attire, and showing too much skin. It’s embarrassing to see. They don’t realize covering your skin keeps you cooler in this fire-like heat. Bangkok youth are beautiful, high fashion, electronically hip (always on the cell phone here too) and educated. They can put together a style or look that is unique. And there is tradition, like mothers and daughters still go to the market or shopping together, hand in hand. Display of affection should be limited between boy and girl, I’ve read, but boys can hold hands and girls can hold hands as signs of friendship, same in many countries of Africa.

Entrance to Paragon
some sweets
Religion and respect are all around as the various Wats (temples) and royal palaces are the most elaborate and interesting anywhere. Monks in yellow and orange heavy robes are revered as are nuns in all white or gray. The holy set also ride motorcycles and carry tote bags and talk on cell phones and work Ipads, after their morning walk with their begging pots when people feed them.  Monks also get favored seating on airplanes. That’s good. They don’t have to pay. 

Another favorite, spirit houses, appear in almost every front yard, business or home, usually piled high with daily offerings from jasmine leis, to intricately designed palm leaf cones, figurines, marigolds, rice and sweets and all the treasures of this city, which also have to be replenished each day, due to the heat. This is to ward off evil by entertaining the bad spirits outside, i.e. keep them busy so they won’t mess with the people and pleasure inside. I love that idea. Also houses have “thresholds” over which one has to step indoors room to room. This also diverts the spirits from acting up in your house.
Mall restaurant
Namaste, Mac

In Bangkok, foreigners are called Farang; Japanese of which there are many tourist,  are  gaijin; redheads are angnor. It is the city which in 1782 was bestowed the longest name in the world: bear with me:
Krungthepmaarakhou Amonrattanorkosin Mahintharaphop Noppharet Amonphmana watansathit Sakkathattiya Witsamukamprasit - that’s 169 letters of Sanskrit and they mean, bear with me again: the great city of gods, the supreme unconquerable land of the great immortal divinity (Incha), the royal capital of nine noble gems, the pleasant city, with plenty of grand royal palaces and divine paradises for the reincarnated diety (Vishnu) given by Indra and created by the god of crafting Vishukarma. Got it? My spell-checker just died. (just in case you are curious, New Zealand and Wales have the second and third longest names.) About the time the King of Franks  built the Holy Roman Empire and Charlemagne was Crusading Bangkok was beginning. The Chakri Dynasty has been in charge since 1782. Current King is Bhumibol Adulyade the Great. 
Long life Bangkok!