A Travelogue

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Water Fountain and Dustbin

We came across this unusual water fountain in the Rose Garden,
a memorial garden to the Princess Mother.

A dustbin


The snake is a powerful good luck symbol in Thailand and frequently decorates stairs in temples. It's found everywhere, but this was the oddest one we saw:

No Durian

Big sign at the front door of our hotel showing the photo of a durian fruit surrounded by the universal red circle with an X through it. Apparently, this tasty fruit is okay when you open it and for about 1 hour afterwards. Then the smell becomes putrid. You might think that by eating it all right away you could avoid the odour, but you'd be wrong. The durian gives you gas and evidently, the gas you emit will also be putrid. It's a popular Thai substitute for the North American headache, "Not tonight dear, I have a headache," which will send the husband scurrying far away.

Simon's Cabaret

I'm plagiarizing most of this because it's better than what I wrote. But for more pictures, go to:

Photo of enhanced ladyboys.

Let me take you by the hand to Amazing Thailand! This is the blast-off tune at Simon's Cabaret Chiangmai and, before touchdown 90 minutes later; you will have been thrilled and enraptured by the spectacular journey of Simon's Dream.

Upon entering the theatre, I was surprised by the size. It is huge (seating for 800 patrons) and gives the feeling of being inside a mysterious grotto or jungle clearing. Palms, ferns and greenery surround the amphitheater, mist drifts and water cascades from a rocky mountaintop. A moat fronts the wide, triple-stage performance area and seating is comfortably cushioned terrace style with plenty of legroom.

Show time the lights dim and the audience is launched into Simon's Dream and a performance of illusion. You might think you are at the Follies Bergere, Les Girls or a Las Vegas show but this is Chiangmai's own. The ladyboys look more feminine than the real thing.

The costumes are exotic, colorful and lavish, as are the settings on the wide, triple-stage. State-of-the-art sound and lighting systems plus other special effects intensify this magical world of illusion. The Finale brought all the performers on stage in a brilliant and bewildering rainbow of glitter and glamour and it was all too obvious that the audience didn't want to waken from Simon's Dream. But the illusion was over; or was it? As patrons left the theatre, several of the not-so-boy-boys were waiting to bid a farewell. Greetings and laughter were exchanged, and photographs taken as departing guests puzzled over what was illusion and what was not.

The mysterious, wonderful world of Simon's Dream is a must to see. It is a stylish cabaret show which all the family will enjoy (even your Maiden Aunt) in a multimillion baht extravaganza of fun, excitement and entertainment.

Summing Up

My fantasy of Thailand was that I would step off the plane and into the pages of the Arabian Nights.

I grew up on stories about Siam. My Mom told me of dancers there who could arc their hands backwards in graceful curves enhanced by impossibly long golden fingernails. The stories were wonderously strange and beautiful but as unreal to me as a magic carpet. Just the word Siam evoked pictures of colourful dancers, palms turned up and fingers curving down. I couldn't wait to see it.

I'm so lucky to have seen my childhood fantasies made real. Along the way I also saw other strange and wonderful things:

  • a floating market where locals sell their handicrafts and foods from boats
    Incredible teak carvings. Some take up to a year to complete and are carved only on commission. I can't imagine what they cost, since you're paying for a year of the craftsman's time. It takes a teak tree up to 150 years to mature for harvest


    vast salt flats, where lagoons of sea water are evaporated to harvest the salt. It was cheap too, but too heavy to bring back in my suitcase

  • a huge water lizard, flicking its lavender tongue at us as we passed in our James Bond boat

  • impossibly steep hillside terraces where they grow Oolong tea.

  • prawn lagoons where they raise prawns to satisfy the burgeoning overseas markets

Enormous temple cheddis covered in kilos and kilos of gold leaf. One ounce of gold covers about 10 square metres.

  • Spirit houses. Many homes have 2 shrines outside which look like fancy temples with upswept roofs. The taller is for the god, to invite his spirit to reside there and protect the family. The shorter is for the ancestors, giving their spirits a home close to the family. Or for a spouse, keeping him close by until you too pass on. Of course, if you didn't like your spouse, then you would only have the taller spirit house.

  • the fabulous bustling night markets which we've seen before but of which I never grow tired.

  • black teeth. The Yao hill tribe chew betel nuts which turn their teeth and gums black. This is considered to be very attractive and highly desirable. This tribe is also polygamous and the man may have up to 5 wives. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Betel_nut

  • honeymoon house. An innovation by the Yao polygamous tribe where the husband and his new wife, #2 or higher, climb a ladder to a house on stilts and the ladder is then removed for one week by the new wife's parents. This is to prevent the previous wife or wives from venting their jealousy on the new wife.

We loved Thailand. Can't wait to go back.

Expensive Wine

"Tastes like a $60 bottle of wine," I said, sipping the glass of Hardy's Riesling-Gewurtztraminer blend that we buy locally for under $10. But here in the restaurant, it cost $60.

We ended our fabulous Thai trip on a high note. Sami and Bob, a Rotarian from the Bangkok area, suggested dinner at the Riverside Terrace located in the Marriott Hotel. From our seat on the terrace we coud see, between the 10' tall torches, the twinkling lights of river boats as they plied the waters. The huge torches surrounded a stage on 3 sides making a dramatic visual backdrop to the show. A variety of exquisitely costumed dances were performed before our eyes, including the lovely fingernail dance.

Dinner was the most sumptuous and elegant buffet we've every seen. At one section the chef was grilling lobster tails, huge prawns and bacon wrapped aspargus as well as any other cut of meat you desired. Elsewhere was a Mongolian Grill section. A Japanese tempura area. A pasta bar - you choose your pasta and they cook it. An entire vegetarian section. Oysters and shrimp on ice. Just an amazing array of food, as well as Thai, Chinese and other ethnic foods. And of course our $60 bottle of wine.

It was a magical evening not only for the food and entertainment, but also the company. We exchanged Rotary ideas and promised to keep in touch. Bob and Sami will visit us this summer as part of their trip to the RI Convention in Utah, and we have an invitation to return to Thailand and visit them next year at this time on our way to the Philippines. We're both looking forward to renewing our acquaintance.


On our way to the airport to return to Bangkok from Chiangmai, Tina took us to an orphanage. She volunteers her spare time teaching the older chidren basic English, and classical Thai dance to the girls.

It was nap time so the toddlers were all asleep on their mats but we were allowed to peek through the windows. They looked so sweet. Most are tusnami orphans and they appear to be well looked after. In Thailand, wealthy Thais are generous with their donations. This orphanage is in a very large private house donated by the owners, and is kept very clean by the staff. It operates strictly on donations. $100 US will support one child for one year. Some orphans are adopted overseas but the Thais don't actively solicit adoptions from out of country residents. They really prefer to look after their own and if this orphanage is typical, they're doing a very good job of it.

Monk Offering

It was another beautiful day bursting with sunshine. The wake up call came at 5:30, but we were already up and getting ready to participate in the morning ritual of making an offering of food to the monks.

Tina and her driver picked us up in a local taxi. This vehicle is like a pickup truck with a bench on both sides, a roof and open air windows. You climb in at the tailgate, taking care to remain ducked until you sit and sort of duck walk until you can sit. Not all of us remembered to duck.

We were 13 with Tina and as the 6 Americans and 6 Canadians filed in, it was quickly apparent that only 10 of us would fit. Jacques, our largest member, went to the front next to the driver. The rest of us pushed and squeezed, to Tina's giggly amusement, until all 12 were inside. "These taxis are made to hold 14," she laughed. Yes, well.

The taxi delivered us to one of several monk sites where they gather every morning between 6:00 and 7:00 a.m. to receive their daily offerings of food. They used to walk with their bowls in the vicinity of their respective temples but nowadays, there's so much traffic that the people who make offerings cannot safely stop their vehicles. So taxi drivers like the one who took us volunteer their time and gas to pick up the monks from distant temples, bring them to an offering site, then drive them back.

It also used to be that families would cook an extra portion of food early in the morning for the monks, and a family member, sometimes a child, would deliver it. Tina did this when she was a little girl. This still happens, but more often now vendors cook food and prepare a tray containing rice, a beverage (usually water) a piece of fruit, a sweet, a hot dish, and maybe something dried which can keep. A tray like this costs 20 baht (about 70 cents) and we each bought one.

The area is so busy that the trays of food are set up away from the vendor, who is kept busy preparing more trays. You simply take a tray and leave your 20 baht on the table, returning the tray afterwards. Buddhists are completely honest and trustworthy. No one would dream of taking a tray without paying, nor would anyone steal the money which is just left lying on the table until the vendor can come for it and pick up the empty trays. And if someone did such a dishonest deed, the Buddhists simply Forgive and Forget. They live this rule each day.

We watched Tina as she approached a monk with her tray, placing each item carefully into his stainless steel bowl. When she was done she knelt with hands clasped prayer fashion and the monk covered the bowl with a lid, chanting a thank you prayer which also asks that there be enough food this day for everyone in the world. We all followed suit, though we were not required to kneel unless we chose to do so.

There is room in the bowl for more than one tray of food, and when the bowl is full, the monk either walks, barefoot, back to his monastery or gets a ride in one of the taxis if he came from far away. At the monastery the food is shared with older monks and any excess that can be saved, like the dried food, is put aside. This is used to feed the poor who know they can go to any temple if they're hungry. If there's food available, it's given.

This ritual is repeated every day. Monks are only permitted to eat twice per day, both times before noon. After noon they can drink, but cannot eat as this time is used for study and meditation. If they are full of food, they fall asleep.

It was a moving experience, sharing in a Buddhist ritual that remains essentially unchanged for the past 2550 years.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Thai Cooking

"Don't put all our eggs in one basket," we cried in unison as our teacher put all the eggs into Hans' basket.

So started our cooking course. We walked to the market, each swinging a little basket, and were given a lesson in the different vegetables we were going to use in today's menu:

(At right, our teacher, showing us how to shop and identifying the many weird vegetables we were going to use. He has galanga in his hand.)

  • chicken cashew

  • coconut milk soup with chicken

  • spicy noodle salad

  • red curry paste (that was a job and a half! we had to chop hot red chilies into paste and until no seeds were visible. When done, our little mounds looked like hot red ketchup)

  • fish cakes

  • red chicken curry

"Use more chilies in the soup," our teacher said, "the coconut milk will cut the heat."

So I used 4 chilies, having used 2 in my spicy noodle salad and found it to be just the right spiciness.

"More coconut milk!" I cried as I tasted my soup. It was hot. Luckily I was also full after eating the cashew dish and spicy noodle, so I left my soup. My stomach roiled at the thought of 3 more dishes to eat in the afternoon, and a farewell dinner that night. I decided to participate and cook, but other than tasting I left the food for the cooking assistants and other staff.

After the chicken cashew, the spicy noodle salad and 2 spoons of soup, I had to leave the rest to make room for our evening dinner.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Gentle Giants

Hans' sandal dangled about 10' off the ground before he deftly flicked it back onto his foot. We were atop a huge elephant lumbering through the jungle.

We learned many cool facts about elehpants, including how intelligent they are. For example, after they finish their work at the elephant camp, they are given free time to roam in the jungle. In order for the mahoud to find his elephant, each one is equipped with a different bell and when he wants his elephant back, he can easily find it by following the sound. I guess they don't wander too far off.

However, sometimes the elephants want a little more free time. Not only do they realize the significance of the bell and that it enables them to be found, they have also discovered that by stuffing river mud into the bell housing it can't ring. Ergo, they can't be found. More free time to frolic and play!

The elephant camp is a way for the elephants to support themselves. You pay for the rides, there's an elephant show, and you can tip the elephant. Hans did this, reaching a 20baht bill towards its trunk. It deftly plucked the bill from his hand and then pulled him closer with his trunk, curling it around his hips as his brother elephant did the same from the other side. Hans was curled in an elephant hug. Too cute.

Later one of the other men tipped the elephant and this one plucked his cap off his head, then replaced it and patted him on the head.

Part of the show demonstrated the elephants as artists. They teach the young elephants in "grade school" how to paint. As they get older, they graduate to "high school" and are left to paint by themselves, carrying their box of paints into the clearing before an easel set up by their mahouds. The first elephant did an exquisite painting of a single red flower with black stem and green leaves. We bought it.

Most of the other elephants also painted flowers, some in bouquets. One elephant liked to paint with one foot in the air. then he would step back, look at his work, move forward and pick up another brush to continue, again with foot in the air. Amazing. One elephant did a profile of an elephant's head in black.

At right, you see the elephants having a bath and loving it!

Hot Air Balloon

To celebrate the lunar new year, our group launched a hot air balloon.

They are made from a large rice paper bag the size of a dry cleaner's plastic bag, fastened to a ring of bamboo about 2 feet in diameter. You slice your full toilet paper roll into about 4 or 5 slices and then attach one slice soaked in wax to a cross wire at the bottom of ring, light it and the hot air provides the lift. It probably rose to 1500 feet and lasted for more than 15 minutes before it was fully extinguished. Very cool.

Patio Lanterns

Paper patio lanterns down by the river and away from our tables drew the bugs at last night's dinner. We only had to contend with the low, deep ribbiting of a choir of frogs that sang in counterpoint to our conversation. Food was great and included fried fish for Jacques, who has a limited palate. They brought out 3 platters for him while the rest of us feasted on cashew chicken with morning glory salad, spicy beef curry, steamed snow peas and mystery greens. Our meal ended with homemade coconut ice cream.

You'll witness our food indulgence for yourself when you see us being craned off the plane next week.

Dragons and Drums

We were entertained at lunch yesterday in an outdoor cafe as a small parade of 5 dragons slithered past us accompanied to the sound of beating drums. We are smack in the middle of the Chinese New Year. Lots of firecrackers and small random groups of chinese dressed in colourful silks, singing and joyfully greeting their new year, the year of the Pig.

Monkey Mind

We had a wonderful morning with a Buddhist monk in a session called Monk Chat. Among many intersting things he told us, which I may blog about later - after we're back in Canada - he noted how we pay attention to our bodies but not our minds. As we cleanse our bodies, so should we cleanse our minds and the way to do that is through meditation.

Many of us suffer from Monkey Mind. This is exactly what you might think. Your mind jumps all over the place. this is especially true if you try to empty your mind and meditate and aren't used to it. As you sit quietly trying to empty your head of all thoughts, you find your mind flitting from topic to topic and into obscure thoughts that you haven't had in years. You are experiencing Monkey Mind.

The way the monks teach young children to meditate - which involves focusing your mind on one thing - is through walking meditation. They are given a full glass of water. They have to walk around and around a circuit and not spill a drop. You can be sure that the child's mind is focused totally on the glass of water. Not a bad exercise to sharpen your focus, is it?

Cat Milk

So the mystery of the cat milk is solved. We really did have Cat Milk in our coffee in Chiang Rai. It's the brand name for soya milk.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

The hills are alive

These aren't your typical Hill People.

Several of the hill tribes are polygamous, with up to 5 wives. Obviously, that means many children are running around. Education is lacking in these remote areas so our guide Tina, who volunteers her time with several groups, was part of team sent into the hills to discuss family planning and to demonstrate the use of condoms.

Three years later they returned to the same area and found that the birth rate hadn't decreased at all.

"Are you not using the condoms when you have sex with your wives?" she asked

"Yes!" nodded all the men. "Every time. We put them on our thumbs just like you showed us."

Toe Floss and Watches

Hans and I had side-by-side foot massages last night. This one was a bit different in that she used a small stick on our toes, rubbing up and down the sides of each toe and in between. Just like flossing. So we had toe floss.

The massages here are marvellous. Worth the cost of the air ticket alone. In fact, Sally and Keith from our group have each had a 2 hour massage daily! She's the one who always has a smile on her face. And at 400 baht for 2 hours ($12) it's certainly a bargain. We're going to look for a massage tonight too, but only after I have exhausted my feet at the Night Market.
Already we have 4 watches. You can see there was an ample selection.

Crown Princess

The Crown Princess was in Chiangmai one of the days we were there and was in fact scheduled to have dinner at our hotel, which caused a lot of excitement in our group. The Princess is well loved by the people, just as her father is. She was in the city to attend graduation ceremonies at the university and apparently they got her to eat there, so we didn't get a chance to see her. However, as we left the city on one of our tours, we saw her cortege on the opposite side led by 6 police cars front and back, with her white vehicle and other dignitaries' vehicles in the middle. The vanguard also included an ambulance. Armed police also flanked the road every hundred yards. Don't know why, since they all like her.

Her brother the Crown Prince will become the next king, probably. She is Crown Princess in case her brother cannot perform certain official duties, and then she fills in. Thailand has never had a queen and it's a male succession, though he is not well liked. He is, however, the only son but should anything happen to him, his line is assured since he has a son.


We had lunch on a river cruise one day. One side of the river was lined with houses on stilts. Their watery yards are defined by bamboo poles stuck in the water with plastic bottles floating between the poles.

In the city of Bangkok, housimg is more expensive the closer you are to the city, around $100,000. In the outskirts if you buy a house far away from the main road, you can pick one up for $20,000 to $30,000.

Cream in my coffee

Tina tells us that the cream they serve at breakfast for our coffee comes from cats. She's kidding, isn't she?

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Thai Fruits

I mentioned the exotic fruits and yes, we've had some.

  • Mangosteen: it's purplish outisde and you can open it with your fingers. Inside it has white cloves that look like garlic, but there the resemblance ends. These cloves are sweet and delicious and deserve the name Queen of Fruits, as it is known here. It apparently also has great medicinal qualities and mangosteen juice is now an export product.
  • Pomello: it's like a giant grapefruit only much sweeter
  • small pineapples: they are the size of a large apple but look just like their bigger cousins. They peel and cut them in a spiral shape, leaving a bit of the top on so you can eat it like pineapple on a stick. Very sweet and juicy.
  • jujube: looks like a small green apple, the size of a plum, and it's crispy like an apple but less sweet. We tasted wine made from jujube and it tastes a bit like sherry.
  • dragon fruit: it comes with a pink or yellow rind, though I only had the pink kind. The flesh is white with black speckles, like it's been dusted with poppy seeds. We were supposed to taste wine made from dragon fruit also but it's very popular and they were sold out. The dragonfruit tree looks like a twistd version of an aloe vera plant perched on top of a 3 foot palm tre trunk.
  • rose apple. Looks like a shorter, narrower version of red delicious apple and not quite as red and also much less sweet.
  • finger banana. Truly, the size of your index finger. No longer and no thicker. They too taste just like their big brothers. Evidently they have 60 species of banana inThailand.

The mandarins are in season now and we have been getting a small fruit basket daily in our hotel in Chiangrai. The mandarins are so sweet and juicy we decided to go out to the road and pick up a few from a vendor selling from the bed of his pickup. He spoke zero English, but found a piece of paper on which he wrote 20. We took that to mean 20 baht per piece, about 70 cents. A little pricey. We wanted to buy 10 pieces and we said we'd pay 10 baht per piece, or 100 total and flashed him our money. He was very animated and as we put 5 pieces into one bag, he started filling more bags. We kept taking out the extra, wanting only 5 piece in each of two bags. Clearly we were miscommunicating. Eventually, he took my bag of 5 mandarins and put it on a scale which we hadn't noticed until now. It was 1 kilo, and that cost 20 baht.


I have a nice story about our Rotary meeting in Bangkok.

Khanitha, out ITHF contact here, met us in the lobby of our hotel about an hour before the Rotary meeting began and since it was just 1 km down the road, we had time for a drink and a visit. She was wearing some beautiful jewellery in Swarovski crystal which, it turns out, she makes herself. She has a small crystal business which she started after she retired from Thai Airlines. One of the pieces she wore was a beautiful red crystal dragonfly pendant. As we talked about her jewellery and the things I've learend about Thailand, such as that my birthday colour is red, she said she would make me a gift of the dragonfly. She named the dragonfly Pamela, and this is her story.

You can't see it well here, but Khanitha in blue to the left of me, is wearing the dragonfly.

Pamela was a flight attendant for many years at Thai Airlines, a woman as beautiful inside as out. In between flights she volunteered her time generously with a service organization which endeared her all the more to her colleagues. Unfortunately, Pamela became seriously ill. She returned to her home in Taiwan for treatment, but after 3 months of treatment it became apparent she wouldn't recover and she succumbed.

Khanitha didn't know Pamela personally but at Pamela's memorial service, her mother gave dragonflies to her many friends as a memento of her daughter and her love of flying. Khanitha decided to replicate this memorial in crystal and has sold many of them to Pamela's friends and colleagues on Thai Airlines. She donates10% of the sales to the service organization to which Pamela belonged, in Pamela's name. In this way, Pamela will not be forgotten and her symbol, the dragonfly, continues to fly around the world in her spirit.

This is Pamela


Traffic is thick and heavy everywhere. If there is a stop sign, your average driver doesn't stop. To stop would be suicidal. So there is an entire stop/ start/ slide/ almost crash/ swerve ballet that goes on all the time.

Good Daughter, Bad Daughter

In Thai culture, the youngest child looks after the parents. In Tina's case (Tina's our guide) she is the youngest of 8 children, and also the only one who has a university education. It's up to her to look after her mother but, mother and her 7 siblings are considered equal and so, whatever she gives to her mother she must also give to each of her siblings. "If I have 1000 baht, I cannot give 500 to my mother. If I do, I am a bad daughter. I must give an equal amount to each brother and sister. I also cannot keep it all for myself. I cannot let my mother go alone to the market. If I do, all my friends will call me and tell me I am a bad daughter."

In Buddhism, which is not a religioon but a philosophy of life, you must respect your parents above all else. In addition, they believe strongly in the adage to forgive and forget. This they practice daily, beginning each day anew. The hurts of yesterday are forgiven and forgotten and each day is fresh and new.

"It's better to swallow angry words than to eat them."


We took a boat tour on the Mekong River today and visited Laos, where we got our passports stamped.

The water in all the rivers here is a muddy brown and you can see nothing in it. I noticed the lifejackets stuffed into the rafters of the roof on the boat and asked our guide, "Shouldn't we be wearing them?"

"No," she replied. "There are cobras in the water." At left you can see an unlucky cobra that ended up in a jar of whiskey.

Mekong means catfish in Thai. The largest catfish ever caught here was 600 pounds. A group of American servicemen caught the fish and there are photos of the 20 of them lined up, each holding a section of the fish which stretched across the length of all 20 men. However, the fish brought them bad luck. One after the other, they all died.

Happy Birthday

Buddhists believe in freeing animals into the wold, or returned to nature. So there's a whole industry where entrepreneurs capture birds, eels, etc. and you buy them only to release them again. This gives you good Karma and permits you to petition Buddha for a favour. On birthdays, it's not uncommon for the birthday person to visit a slaughterhouse and buy a cow, which he/she will release to a farmer to work in his fields.

You put de lime in de coconut

You put de lime in de coconut and not into the urinals.

However, this was the urinal at the River Kwai restaurant. Someone suggsested the lime slices in the urinal were targets. The men's area was separated from the hallway but a beaded curtain which isn't exactly opaque, so you could see the backs of all the men lined up, presumably aiming for the lime slices. Hans told me he was facing only a half wall behind which was a waterfall, which no doubt helped to set the right mood.

The toilets have mostly been interesting experiences. In one place, we were asked to take our shoes off first and handed plastic bags. I watched one man put the bags over his socks and proceeded to do the same. "No no" directed the custodian, and instead put my sandals into the bag which I was directed to carry down the stairs towards the toilet. The stairs were very clean, and at the bottom they had a selection of rubber sandals for us to wear inside the actual toilet.

Most toilets are stand-up. They don't flush, but there's usually a trough of water along one wall with a scoop, which you use to pour water into the enamel hole until your deposit disappears. Paper goes into a wastebasket.

"And did you wash your hands?" I asked one of the men as he returned. "No. But I licked them."

Akha Opium Legend

As we are currently in the Golden Triangle, which used to be an area heavily associated with the production and exporting of opium, we tourned an opium museum. There's an old legend that within the Akha tribe, a beautiful young girl (which would be every girl since they are all incredibly beautiful here) was sought after by many suitors. One particular day, seven young men asked for her hand. Not wanting to disappoint any of them, she decided she wouldn't choose one to marry but instead would make love with all of them. She did, knowing that this would probably kill her. When she could endure it no longer, she asked to be killed and wished to be reincarnated as a beautiful flower. She directed her relatives to carefully tend her grave, saying that this flower would grow from her heart. Whoever tasted of the sap from this beautiful flower would experience amazing pleasure, but also great suffering.

And, I smoked pot through a bamboo water pipe! Only one puff though. I have pictures.

Below, Grandma showing me how:

It's not illegal to grow marijuana in the hills and the hill tribes plant it for their own use. At the Akha hill tribe we were taken to an old grandmother's house. She squatted on a bamboo stool about 3" from the ground and had a huge bamboo pole in front of her with a little protruding out part into which she stuck a cigarette which she lit with a Bic lighter. That looked odd. then Tina, our guide, told us they mix the pot with regular tobacco to smoke. the grandmother demonstrated. Then they asked for volunteers. No one stepped forward so finally, I bravely stepped into the breach.

When I put my mouth into the bamboo and inhaled (Yes Mr. Clinton, I inhaled) I evidently didn't do it vigorously enought because you're supposed to hear the water. I tried a couple more times and finally put my hands around the top to create a seal. Then I heard the water gurgle and got a lungful of smoke. There, I did it. It just tasted like smoke.

Long Neck Hill Tribe

We were driven deep into the hills above Chiangrai right by the Burmese border (now Myanmar) where the Long Neck Karens live. They are a small group of only about 35, and the women wear golden rings around their necks which are applied at the age of 5 with an additional ring added each year until they marry. This gives them the appearance of having very long necks but in truth, it lowers their shoulders and compresses their ribcages. This would be because the rings an adult woman wears weighs a stunning 5 kilos, or 11 pounds.

We weer invited to hold one set and they are shockingly heavy. But the young girls and women look stunning with their neck ornaments.

Traditionally, only girls born on Wednesday under the full moon were given the neck rings. Originally they were made of gold but as it became costly, that was changed to brass. Don't know if that added to or took away from the weight they carry. Once the rings are applied, they have to wear them for life.

One of the reasons the rings were originally used is that several women were attacked by tigers and bitten on the neck. This became a form of protection.

They were also the only hill tribe that didn't accost us to buy their products. Instead, the woman remained very quiet and dignified by their booths. They support their families back in Burma with what they earn, so we were happy to buy from them instead of in other markets.

Cabbages and Condoms

"Sorry, we don't have mints." But we do have condoms.
That's the sign above the basket your waitress brings you at the end of your meal, and you're invited to help yourself to a condom.

The restaurant was started by a doctor to promote HIV awareness and pregnancy prevention and they've sprung up in several cities. There is one on Bangkok and Chiangrai, where we ate. Posters on the walls show funny cartoons with pictures of different condoms, and there's one of a blushing female elephant applying one to the trunk of her male friends. Very cute. And the food was pretty good too.
I'm holding a bouquet of condoms, available in their gift shop.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Summer Palace

Wow. Our days are full of strange sights and long hours. In the bus every morning at 7:00, and never home before 5:00.

The summer palace was built by Rama V to commemorate the village where he met his wife. How romantic is that!

Lo hiding between the antlers

The gardens are gorgeous, with topiary herds of elephants, deer and rabbits. Sounds of peacocks echo through the gardens but they remained frustratingly elusive. Their cries were augmented by the screech of other unseen birds in faraway branches. But we did see an amazing variety of bougainvillea in all colours.

Hans standing by the elephant's trunk.

From the walls in the Reception Hall, yellowing faded faces of Ramas I to IX gazed out from acestral photos. Each Rama is believed to be an incarnation of Vishnu. Other rooms held lacquered furniture inlaid with mother-of-pearl and stunning teak carvings. As with all Buddhist buildings, we have to remove our shoes and in some cases, we were asked the night before to dress respectfully, e.g. long pants, nothing sleeveless. They offer you shawls to borrow if you forgot, and they even had long cotton trousers for men.

It hurts so good

Sally and Keith, a couple in our group, found a Thai massage parlor in the mall which is conveniently attached to our hotel. A 2 hour massage costs... 400 baht. Oh my. That's $12.

I was given a 2 piece cotton pajama to wear during my Thai massage. She started on my legs spending 30 minutes on each one, digging her steely thumbs into my calf muscle. I will surely have a ladder of bruises running up my legs by tomorrow. Hans was in the booth next to me and as he was getting the same treatment, he said he felt like the dental patiet in A Little Shop of Horros. "It hurts so good," and he was right.

The name's Bond. Jane Bond

"The name's Bond. Jane Bond."

Took the very high speed, skinny boat like James Bond used in one of his movie chase scenes. Our hats would have flown off in the wind if the driver hadn't warned us. I even took my glasses off, afraid to turn my head and have them fly off.

Ahead of us, the famous bridge spans the River Kwai and we see many tourists and locals walking across the trestles. Later when we board the train, these same tourists squeeze into little laybys and suck in their stomachs as the train rolls past. We move quite slowly, giving us lots of time for photos.

The train is the regular local milk run connecting small communities and it takes an hour to get to our lunch spot, a lovely open air restaurant with thatched roof and lazy ceiling fans. The train has large open windows and we can hang out, watching the last cars as the train curves. The seats are hard and made of wood but oddly comfortable. As least for an hour.

Not far away is a large cave housing a golden Buddha far at the back. Guano and smooth deep holes in the ceiling are the only evidence that he once shared this cave with bats.
This isn't the same Buddha, but our camera is back at the hotel so I substituted.

On the way home in the bus, our guide got off at his office and shortly after that our driver got caught by a red light and went through it. Unfortunately, he did this in front of a motorcycle cop. They spoke outside where he produced his papers and when he got back in we asked if he got a ticket. "Yes", he replied. "How much?" "Lots" was all he said. Finally he admitted it was 100 baht, which we knew from our guide is about an average person's daily wage. We were 5 couples on the bus and each chipped in 20 baht to cover his ticket. 100 baht is CAD $3.00.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Jewellery store, Bangkok, Wednesday

Talk about high pressure sales. We were dropped off at a jewellery store where each couple in our tour (we're 12 people) had our own individual and unwanted sales person. This person followed us and insisted on explaining the process of creating the jewellery and showing us the finished pieces. There was no escaping him. they had nice stuff but I was afraid to ask any questions because the sales pitch was unrelenting and any indication of interest would just fuel his fervor.

Grand Palace and Emerald Buddha

The King, Rama IX, is much loved and respected in Thailand. To show their support of the king, local people wear bright yellow, the king's colour, and we saw it on people everywhere. They believe their kings are reincarnations of Vishnu, and Rama IX is his 9th reincarnation. Rama IV, by the way, was the king from Anna and the King of Siam fame and the great grandfather of the present king.

Royal Avenue, which leads to the Grand Palace, has huge ornate gold leaf frames on either side of the street with photos of the king and queen. One shows him greeting King Hussein of Jordan. Others show the king and queen dressed in royal costume and presiding over kingly functions.

The Grand Palace no longer serves as the residence for the king and queen, who live in a "new" palace built 200 years ago with their white elephant, now 55. Yes, the white elephant lives in the palace. Well, I hope he's in a stable. He's a descendent from the famous while elephant used by early kings for ceremonial purposes and this is also the current elephant's function. He lives a life of ease.

Within the compound of the grand palace, which covers an sizeable 218,000 sq. metres, lies the Royal Monastery of the Emerald Buddha, one of the most venerated sites in Thailand. It's available to all Thais to convene and pay respect to the Lord Buddha and his teachings.
The Emerald Buddha sits on a golden throne made of gilded carved wood about 25' high. The Buddha himself is carved from a single piece of deep green jade and was discovered in 1434 in Chiangrai, covered in plaster. When some of the plaster chipped off revealing the green stone, the abbot who discovered it thought the stone was emerald, and thus the legend.
Speaking of monks, many young Thai men at the age of 20 are ordained into the monkhood by serving for a minimum of 2 weeks or up to 3 months as a monk. During this time they rise at 4:00 a.m., wrap themselves in one single piece of cloth - no underwear - (2 square metres in the case of our guide Poon) and walk the streets. If they are lucky, and they usually are, someone will give them food. They may eat until 12:00 and then no food is allowed to be consumed again until the next morning. They can have beverages, but the afternoon is is the time they devote to study.

Bangkok has 12 million people, and not a few of them eke out a living in shanty towns which spring up wherever there's enough space for them to prop up a shelter. There's huge poverty and unemployment. The streets and canals in these area also serve as refuse piles and there's a lot garbage strewn around. It's sad to see. I saw no people there - they must be out doing what they can to earn a living.

Bangkok: Wednesday, February 7

Our huge bed!

Arrived at the hotel at 2:00 a.m., weary, eyes red and crusty and I didn't have enough deodorant on to maintain my ladylike demeanor on the drive from the airport to the hotel.

We dropped into an exhausted sleep which didn't last nearly long enough.

The dining room has a curved glass wall hugging us and overlooking the pool. Soft music was playing interspersed with snippets of Thai conversation. They were probably just discussing the food, but it all sounded urgent and exotic. And oddly loud. I watched the other diners' faces to see who was speaking and it was a man at the far end, 4 tables away. The curved glass was capturing his voice and delivered it right to our table.

We ate Thai food. Western food was also available but who would choose cornflakes over yummy local veggies and noodles. Not what we're used to in Canada but it was great!

Miscellaneous observations:

  • It's 33 degrees and humid. The good news is that the humidity frees your clothes from wrinkles
  • the elevator is padded with panels of rich, claret silk
  • there are Buddhist shrines everywhere, gaily festooned with fresh and plastic flower garlands left as offerings from hopeful supplicants

94% of the country is Buddhist.

  • People greet you with hands meeting prayer fashion, slightly bowing their head.

  • The statue of Ronald MacDonald stands with head bowed and hands clasped in prayer.

  • They have scooter taxis. Drivers wear orange vests and deliver their fares around town for coins

  • A small 500 ml bottle of water costs 7 baht. 30 baht = $1. You do the math.

  • The air by the swimming pools smells spicy, like sandalwood.

Nothing says "Welcome to Asia" more than sewer gas. I'd forgotten this common trait that assaults your nose at all open sidewalk grates in Korea and China, and now also Bangkok.

Seattle: Monday, February 5

From driving through low clouds hugging the Coquihalla to zipping along I-5 in Seattle, the view wa the same. White. Monday morning dawned warm at 8 C, though the actual dwn took place high above the fog which hovered over Seattle.

Our new Rotary friends, DGE Don Gregory (District 5030) and Sharon welcome us with coffee, hugs and lively stories from the Rotary experiences. Don showed us the new Governors' jacket, a deep forest green not unlike the Masters jacket. Evidently this similarly was noted by many of the incoming governors, so could Wilf Wilkinson be a golfer?

The plane had 7 movies which run all the time. You pick the movie. Then you pick the next movie, and so on. It was perfect even though the screen is quite tiny, about 5" x 6" on the back of the seat in front of you. Saw the Queen, a Good Year and Man of the Year before giving my ears a rest.

We were prepared to endure a 12 hour flight but Japan isn't as far as Korea, so we were excited to hear the captain joyfully announce this was only a 9 1/4 hour flight. Our 2 1/2 hours in Tokyo turned into 4 when the incoming plane was delayed, and then an extra half hour got tacked on to get the plane cleaned. It was already a long day and made longer by 6 3/4 hour flight to Bangkok. Ouch.