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Southeast Asia Part 1: Northern Thailand

Southeast Asia
Part One: Northern Thailand

February 7, 2012
Dateline: Atlanta, GA
Latitude at Atlanta: 33.75 degrees North, Longitude 84.39 degrees West

We drove to the Comfort Suites on Virginia Avenue near the airport to spend the night since our connecting flight to Bangkok via Dallas left at 6:00 a.m. It was a good deal on the room, but the great deal was that it included parking for 30 days at the hotel. In the La Fiesta Restaurant attached to the hotel we had excellent margaritas and Mexican food. We suspected this would be our last chance at it for the next month or so –and the excellent part – well that would indeed prove to be true, and we should have known since we do have some faux Mexican experience in foreign countries. Rule of Thumb: One should not order Mexican food in Bangkok – more on that later.

February 8, 2012
Dateline: International Dateline

The Route to Bangkok

The Route to Bangkok

We had to get up at 3:00 a.m. to catch the airport shuttle and we departed from Atlanta on American Airlines on February 8, but crossed the international dateline (Longitude 180 degrees and the dividing line between East and West) and so during the night and we lost at day. We would get a day back on our return trip to the US. The flight from Atlanta to Dallas was a little over 2 hours and then we had a 2 hour layover. The flight from Dallas to Tokyo was 13 hours and 30 minutes and we were thankful to be in Business Class. The flight was made a little better with 3 movies and some light sleeping, but it was long no matter what we were doing. Upon arriving in Bangkok, we would be about 10,000 miles from home with a 14 hour time difference. We would have another layover of 4 hours in Tokyo and then a relatively short hop to Bangkok – just over 7 hours on JAL.

February 9, 2012
Dateline: Bangkok, Thailand
Latitude at Bangkok 13.75 degrees North, Longitude 100.46 degrees East

We arrived in Tokyo’s Narita Airport seriously bleary eyed and stumbled to the Admiral’s Club where we were able to ascertain what time it was (12 hours ahead of Atlanta), when our next flight was leaving and from which gate. This would be our second time in Tokyo, but both timeswe were just passing through so we can’t really cross that off our “Been There Done That List”.

Orchids Everywhere you Turn

Orchids Everywhere you Turn

We arrived in Bangkok at 11:00 p.m., which was not in time to catch a flight to Chiang Mai, and thus our plan was to spend the night in Bangkok. While it was on our itinerary to tour Bangkok, it was to be at the end of our trip. This visit was just for transit purposes. We got our bags and found the shuttle to our hotel, the Novotel Suvarnabhumi at the airport. Suvarnabhumi is also the name of the airport and its pronunciation sounds something like “Soo-Var-Nah-Boo-ME” . The hotel lobby was a grand affair with orchids and ficus trees, market umbrellas and soaring ceilings and marble everywhere. A quick tooth brushing revived us and we enjoyed a great meal of pad Thai, (one of many to come) in the hotel restaurant for around 1400 baht ($46.00). The exchange rate is roughly 30 baht to the dollar. The baht is divisible into 100 satang. Bills come in denominations of 1000, 500, 100, 50, 20 and 10.

The Suvarnabumhay

The Novotel Suvarnabhumi

Our room was enormous and had the interesting feature of not only a glass enclosed shower, but also a glass enclosed toilet. We decided this was so you can make sure your spouse/traveling companion has not fallen asleep on the toilet, nor is reading War and Peace waiting for Nature to call. We then collapsed into bed at 1:00 a.m. with a dose of Ambien to deal with the jet lag.

The area that is the Kingdom of Thailand was formerly called Siam (as portrayed to some extent – in the old 1956 movie The King and I). Thailand today is a constitutional monarchy. The king was in his 80’s when we were there, but the frequently seen pictures of him around the country are of him in his much younger days – kind of like those you see sometimes in obituary pictures in the U.S. They do have elections here but with you have to try not to titter when they have trouble with “l”s and “r”s and call them erections.

February 10, 2012
Dateline: Chiang Mai, Thailand
Latitude at Chiang Mai 18.79 degrees North, Longitude 98.99 East
We awoke around 8:00 a.m. and adjusted our watches to 12 hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time, and so from a time zone perspective, we found we were half way around the world. We had a quick buffet breakfast and took the shuttle to the airport to fly on Thai Airlines to Chiang Mai. (pronounced “ching-my”). It is the second largest city in Thailand after Bangkok. There we met our delightful guide, Nikki, who greeted us with jasmine leis, and our driver Lak (pronounced “lake”). Later we would be joined by our friends Stu and Sharon who had a direct flight to Chiang Mai and would be arriving in the wee hours.

 

The Bodhi Serene Chiang Mai

The Bodhi Serene Chiang Mai

We checked into the Bodhi Serene Hotel in the heart of Chiang Mai, where we could step outside and become totally immersed in a different culture from our own. Chiang Mai is an ancient city built in1296. The name means New City and it was the capitol of the kingdom of Lanna. (whose name means 1,000 rice fields. The city was once walled and surrounded by a moat. There is little left of either. Most of the remaining walls are in the corners and there are 5 surviving gates. The city was built on the Ping River which is a tributary of the Mekong.
There are 44 temples within the 4 square kilometers of the city and it is not unusual to see the orange robed monks everywhere. Sometimes the setting is a little incongruous, like our sighting of a dozen of them riding in the back of a battered pick-up truck, but it keeps touring interesting.

Open Air market Chiang Mai

Open Air market Chiang Mai

Nikki, like many of the locals, carries a parasol to keep the sun off her face. Tourists on the other hand wear hats and sunscreen – and of course with Western tourists, the dead giveaway is we are the big people looming over the crowd by about a foot taller and several inches wider. Nikki told us that darker skin is more prevalent in the south of Thailand (Indian influence) and lighter skin in the north (Chinese influence). The lighter skin is considered more desirable.
We had a short nap and then walked down the street with Nikki for a massage at a local place called Lilli’s for the modest price of $12.00 for a two hour massage, plus a tip of $1.30.
Nikki told us that Lilli hires ex-cons to train and work as masseuses, but that we should not be alarmed. These are drug offenders trying to go straight. Apparently Myanmar (a.k.a. Burma) is their Mexico with regard to illegal drugs and Thailand has very strict laws regarding drug use. Lilli’s salon is part of a parole program to provide jobs for parolees.

There was no massage table – the patrons are expected to stretch out on mats on the floor with a teeny pillow for the head. Patrons first don some pajama like garments, sort of resembling medical scrubs. The bottoms which have a drawstring they call fisherman’s pants. The top is a button-up loose fitting shirt, orange for me and blue for Gary. Once we were attired, the masseuses more or less climbed aboard our bodies and went to work. The masseuses were tiny women, as agile as gymnasts who sort of climbed over our prone bodies using their knees and elbows to work out the kinks. I could not stop thinking about Gulliver and the Lilliputians in Gulliver’s Travels. It sounds painful, but it was really very relaxing – you can get a lot of knots and kinks in your muscles from that marathon plane ride to get here. Amid the thumping and kneading of my muscles by these very strong women, I figured they would have been very tough in a prison fight.

Gary, Nikki and a Tuk-Tuk

Gary, Nikki and a Tuk-Tuk

There is an abundance of what they call tuk-tuks here. They are called that because that is the noise it makes at it putts down the streets. It is essentially at a three wheeled vehicle – sort of like a motor scooter with a backseat cab with a bench – like a motor scooter attached to a horse buggy. There are also a lot of pedicabs – where a person on a bicycle replaces the motor scooter, but we chose to walk, so as to better to take in the sights, of which there were many. We stopped en route for some refreshments and Gary pronounced the local beer, Chiang, to be good. We also made a stop at an ATM to refresh our supply of baht.

 

Open Air market Chiang Mai

Open Air market Chiang Mai

We seemed to experience an exotic sensory overload as we walked. Orchids abound everywhere on the streets. The colors seemed brighter, the scents were stronger and even the frogs are louder that we are accustomed to. Nikki explained some local customs to us such as: The head is considered a sacred part of the body – you should not touch anyone on their head, even small children. Feet are the dirtiest part of the body. You should not touch or point at anything with them, although since few of us are nimble enough to point with our feet we were safe on this point of etiquette. You should remove your shoes before entering a temple. You should never raise your voice, even in a disagreement. You should always dress conservatively – especially in temples. You should never pass in front of someone kneeling in a temple – in other words, don’t walk between them and the Buddha.

 

Nikki also showed us the “Wai”, that is the gesture of bowing slightly with your hands together – a sign of thanks and politeness. The older or more important the person you are greeting, the higher your hands should be. Hello is “sawatdee” and you add “ca” or cha” depending on whether you are addressing a man or a woman. It also means goodbye – kind of like their version of aloha.

 

Fish Therapy

Fish Therapy

We took a tuk-tuk to the night market of Chiang Mai, which proved to be an absolute assault on the senses – people, merchandise, food, crafts, brilliant colors. We took the plunge and sampled a few exotic food items. We tasted dried bamboo worms which we found tasteless, but silk worms were slightly salty and looked like noodles. Feeling really adventurous now, we decided to try the much touted fish pedicure and chose an establishment called Garra Fish Therapy. The process is this: You have your feet thoroughly washed and scrubbed and then you sit on a bench to immerse them into an aquarium with a few dozen goldfish, which nibble away at the dead skin on your feet. This replaces (or so they say) the need to use a loofah or pumice stone to soften your feet. You can dangle your feet for about $3.00 for half an hour. The sensation is sort of a tickle – you can’t feel a “bite” at all.

 

After the fish spa, Nikki took us to a local noodle shop, where we were the only non-locals there. We were looking for authentic and found it. I had pad thai and Gary and Nikki had a noodle dish. The name of the place was written only in the Thai alphabet (very different from ours) so I didn’t get a record of the name, but Nikki told me is translates something like “Rich Fat Lady” which is also the Thai name for water chestnuts. We shared an icy sort of dessert topped with lotus, condensed milk, coconut and lychees. I won’t say I didn’t like it, but suffice it to say I didn’t ask for the recipe.

 

The Rolling Bar at the Night Market

The Rolling Bar at the Night Market

We went back to the night market (a.k.a. night bazaar, but it could just as easily be called the night “bizarre”) for one more pass before going to the hotel and the scene had changed a bit from PG 13 to R. There were a number of transvestites dressed like Vegas showgirls working for tips from tourists. We suspected they might be trying to get enough money for some implants since their cleavage was practically non-existent. We even saw a cocktail truck – sort of like a food truck in the U.S., but here the truck pulls up, the bar folds out and patrons climb on stools to be served a beverage. We would later see a variation on this – a mobile cocktail truck where the bar stools are equipped with bicycle pedals. Assuming the patrons can peddle in unison, the whole thing can be propelled down the street. The method of actually steering it was unclear to us. It was clear, however, that this is a novelty for tourists – no locals were seen taking part.

 

Shopping at the NIght Market

Shopping at the NIght Market

We bought a teak carving of a Buddha face for our library – one of many purchases to come. We have found the craftsmanship of the artisans here to be extraordinary and the prices are well below reasonable. We then walked back to the hotel avoiding puddles from a rain shower and a flock of hookers – young attractive girls propositioning older Caucasian guys. My husband Gary fit the profile so Nikki and I sandwiched him between us as we walked to indicate he was already taken.
February 11, 2012

 

The National Museum

The National Museum

We met our friends, Stu and Sharon, for breakfast and began our first full day of touring. Our first stop was an old colonial building that housed the Chiang Mai National Museum. The city of Chiang Mai was founded by King Manga Rei in the 12th Century here in what was believed to be an auspicious place, with the mountains to the west and the river to the east ( in accordance with feng shui principles). In this case the river is the Ping River. There are a lot of myths and stories around the city’s founding which I largely missed the gist of. There was something about an albino deer and fawn spotted here and then something about rats the size of cart axles and their offspring. I much preferred the deer story to the rat story since we were spending several days here.

 

Wat Chedi Luang

Wat Chedi Luang

Chiang Mai was the capital of what is termed the Lanna Kingdom from the 12th to the 18th Century which at that point covered parts of what is today Burma (or Myanmar) and Northern Thailand. The architecture and culture of Burma and Northern Thailand today are much more similar than that of Northern and Southern Thailand. Today it is the capital of one of Thailand’s 77 provinces and home to the largest number of expatriates in the country. Chiang Mai is a walled city which boasts a number of wats (or temple complexes). Wats typically have a stupa which is a type of pagoda built like a step pyramid. The stupa is also sometimes referred to as a chedi. Its purpose was to house religious relics (such as the ashes of the Buddha or royal families), a temple with sometimes multiple Buddha statues, cloisters where the monks live and meeting rooms.

 

Wat Phra Sing

Wat Phra Sing

We visited a temple called Wat Phra Sing the largest in Chiang Mai which was begun in 1345, whose highlight was the revered Phra Buddha Sing. We were instructed to take off our shoes, but we could take all the photos we wanted. Surrounding the Buddha was incense and flowers, gold leaf and dragons, elephants and bells and all manner of decoration. We walked to another temple called the Chedi Luang, where within the temple compound, there is a monument to a king who was struck by lightning while riding his elephant to the market. The king died – no word on the elephant. The most notable sight here is a replica of the

Buddha in Wat Phra Sing

Buddha in Wat Phra Sing

priceless Emerald Buddha, which we would see later in Bangkok. We walked by several lesser temples which included one which boasted the oldest stupa in Chiang Mai. Thailand is 90 per cent Buddhist, 4% Muslim, 1% Christian. The other 5% are listed as “none” and” other”.
The local university has a program called “Monk Chat,” where they encourage English speaking tourists to spend some time chatting with a local monk enrolled in the school. The idea is that they can give us information about his life, religion, country and so forth and we can give them practice with English and make them more fluent. They are all self-taught and are actually easier to understand than many who have taken English lessons, attributable, they say, to the daily practice with native speakers such as ourselves.

 

Monk Chat with Supot

Monk Chat with Supot

The monks take turns (or shifts) sitting at an outdoor table and the tourists come up and plop down for a chat. We met the very delightful Supot Hongsa, a young man of 20, who told us that many young boys become monks in order to get an education. They can choose to stay a monk or go into private life, to work, marry and have a family. He said there is a 50% dropout rate of boys who enter monk training.

 

 

Monks leaving the Seminary

Monks leaving the Seminary

We learned several things from Supot, including that the goal of Buddhism is happiness. They are tolerant of all religions and do not proselytize. They wear no jewelry or watches. We asked how they get to class on time and Supot reached into his robe and produced a cell phone. We had a little chuckle with him over that and asked where he keeps it. He showed us a plain white tee shirt under his orange robe with a chest pocket . I guess it’s a good thing that when the rules were made up for monks, there were no cell phones or they would likely be banned as well. The whole idea behind the ban on watches was to keep them focused on spiritual matters, but then they can always Google religious topics. For his other necessities, such as books, he carries a simple cloth bag.The primary courses of study at the University are sociology, philosophy and religion, but there are courses that prepare them for medicine and engineering in colleges elsewhere.

 

A Young Monk with his Homework

A Young Monk with his Homework

They have very strict rules regarding contact with women – there is to be none, including family members. He told us that when he visits his mother and sisters, he cannot touch them which we must have gawked at because he sort of shrugged and explained that zero contact is easier to manage than making rules for family and non family. When we sat down, Nikki had told us where to sit so that the two men in our group sat on either side of him instead of one of the women. He said he is on Facebook and offered to give his email address to Gary to “Friend” him. I was the one with the pen and paper, but I could not hand it directly to him. Stu took it from me and handed it to him. Odd we thought, but we always like to discover the odd things, the exotic things. I couldn’t resist asking what they do on a crowded bus when we see people wedged in like sardines. Supot said this is a minor offense and is no big deal.

 

Abundance at the Local Markets

Abundance at the Local Markets

We ate a lunch of local food at a local place. It was sticky rice (we love it) and noodles and chicken soup– family style. Nikki shared some local points of dining etiquette with us such as:
If you are dining in a private home, you should wait for the host to invite you to eat before starting. Eat all on your plate so the host is not insulted. When at a restaurant, the person perceived to be the wealthiest is presented with the bill. If someone else is paying, one should not offer to help, or the person paying will lose “face”. If there are elderly women in the group, you let them order food for group (a tradition). Serve yourself from dishes on the table. Do not pass them and take only as much as you can eat in 2 or 3 mouthfuls. Use a fork only to push food onto your spoon. Never put the fork directly in your mouth. Eat slowly. We noticed restaurants bring food when it is ready and you are expected to eat it while it is hot. No need to wait for others to get their orders. And finally, do not leave chopsticks in your bowl – it is considered bad luck since it symbolizes death. Having told us that, she told us to do whatever we like – Thais are very indulgent of foreigners with a special soft spot for Americans.

 

We are surrounded by the exotic and are just soaking it in. We loved the incongruity of it all – it delights, amuses and amazes. Here are just a few examples:

 

A Spirit House

A Spirit House

Small Spirit Houses – people keep these in their homes and their places of business with the same detailed features as the larger ones seen in temple complexes. They are used as a shrine to ancestors and people will leave small offerings such as flowers and seeds and in one place I saw cupcakes. Nikki told us that it is not unusual for people to leave favorite foods of their deceased relatives at the spirit house shrines and temples.
Transportation here is always interesting. In addition to the tuk-tuks and pedicabs, there are thousands of bicycles, motor scooters and few motorcycles, but always small – no full dress Harleys here. We saw a German Shepherd sized dog riding in front of a gentleman on a mo-ped. We saw a pickup truck bed full of monks. We saw a motorcycle with a side car loaded with eggs, we saw a broom seller on a bicycle. People here drive on the left – a holdover from British occupation.
Electrical wiring here is quite a nightmare. There doesn’t seem to be any conduit and very few electrical poles here and there. The wires mostly just hang from the eaves in snarled clumps. There is a lot of visual pollution which can be charming at times, unsightly at times, but always interesting.
We saw massages being performed out in the streets, particularly at the night markets, where patrons recline on lawn chairs. This is a $4 per hour service or you can splurge on the mats on the ground for $6. There were eating enterprises everywhere, some commonplace such as sticky rice and some exotic such as quail eggs cooked to order in little fry pans with a side of little crunchy worms.
Toilets are referred to as the Happy Room. We were glad that our guide knew the kind that made us happy, i.e. those with a toilet seat, toilet paper, sinks, soap and towels, because the locals are not so picky.

 

The Virtual Dressing Room at the Waworot Market

The Virtual Dressing Room at the Waworot Market

We visited the Warorot Day market which is the grocery store for locals since they do not have supermarkets, but it also sells crafts and clothing. Gary decided he could use another pair of shorts and found a pair he thought would work (which was no small feat given the diminutive stature of Thai men) and he proceeded to search for a dressing room to try them on. Apparently they only have dressing rooms on demand here at the Warorot, since two Thai men whipped out a large sheet and held it up for him to hide behind to try on the shorts. He ended up not purchasing them since he discovered that XL in Thailand is not what it is in the USA. Crafts sold here include wood carving, lacquer work, weaving, textiles, antiques and jewelry. We went back to the night market so Stu and Sharon could enjoy the Fish Therapy and then to a local restaurant. Gary ordered a whole fish and I stuck with the dependably good – no surprises Pad Thai.

 

A Naga Guarding a Temple

A Naga Guarding a Temple

Today we had learned about “nagas” which are mythical protective serpents – looking sort of like a snake crossed with a dragon. They adorn many of the temples and palaces throughout Southeast Asia and are believed to protect against bad spirits, and they are significant in both the Buddhist and Hindu religions. The way the story goes is that a “garuda” (a mythical bird) attacks and subdues a naga that is trying to harm the Buddha. After this attack the naga goes over to the other side and becomes protective of Buddha and the king of the nagas, the improbably named Mucilinda, grows several heads in order to shelter the Buddha from a thunderstorm. Nagas are also believed to control rainfall and provide water for crops when appropriately worshiped.
February 12, 2012

 

 

Shopping for the Monks

Shopping for the Monks

Today we arose and left the hotel before sunrise in order to “make merit” with the monks from the Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep Monastery as they began their walk on the streets of Chiang Mai. To do this we had to stop by the local market and buy fresh produce. Part of their daily duties is to go forth among the people every morning seeking offerings of food. The do not grow food or buy food – they only eat what is provided in their bowls, in a Trick or Treat sort of fashion although they do pool their gatherings, plus the senior monks who do not go out share in the food as well.

Making Merit

Making Merit

The ritual is this: we would kneel on a blanket and ask them for permission to give them food. They graciously accept our offer and offer us a blessing to us in return. In this manner we “make merit”, i.e. receive blessings. The blessing is chanted and asking that we have Long Life, Happiness and Energy. The monks are all male – ranging in age from 6 to their early 20’s. They always look down and there is to be no talking. They all wear orange robes and have shaved heads. They walk barefoot so to be aware of where they are placing their feet in order to avoid injuring any living thing such as even the tiniest insect (of which there are multitudes) The female counterpart of the monks are the nuns who wear white. Novices don’t get to talk until they turn 20 – prior to that they are to listen and learn. Children in Thailand only complete school through Grade 9. If anyone wants any education past that, boys can become monks, girls can leave the country. It is not uncommon for monks to leave the monastery if they decide it is not for them.

 

Trekkers in the Jungle

Trekkers in the Jungle

We had a short drive out in the country for a scenic hike in the Doi Suthep Doi Pui National Park. The hike was only 3 kilometers (just short of 2 miles), but it was all uphill and it took us 4 hours to reach the summit. We had a park guide who cut bamboo walking sticks for us to use en route.
We saw several waterfalls and so many tropical plants only seen in nurseries at home growing and going wild. There were also figs and bananas growing wild and a fruit we had never seen before called jackfruit which tastes sort of like a lemon flavored pear. There was a lodge at the top where we had a picnic lunch with some of the ubiquitous, but always delicious sticky rice, along with chicken, delicious mangoes and a rice caramel dessert.

 

The Stupa at Doi al Suthep

The Chedi at Wat Doi Suthep

There is a temple founded in the 14th Century at the very top of a the highest peak (5,250 feet) called Wat Doi Suthep, where the monks we made merit with yesterday live. We took the funicular up and walked back down via the elaborate Naga Staircase of 304 steps. While we were there, a few of the monks were touching up the paint job on the nagas on either side of the entrance. The wat’s central chedi is a multi-tiered dome-like structure, embellished with filigree and gold leaf, which is lovingly applied by pilgrims who come here to worship. It is said to enshrine sacred relics, in this case some of what are believed to be some of the ashes of Buddha, which  appear to be very widely spread given the number of temples that claim them. A chedi somewhat resembles the US capitol dome without

Bells of Wat Doi suthep

Bells of Wat Doi suthep

the rounded edges and without the building underneath it. There is a bell tower called at ho rakang used to toll the hour and with a row of small bell used to call the monks and people to worship, which today visitors ring for good luck. There is also a wihan, or assembly hall where there are multiple Buddhas.
Among the numerous Buddhas, we found our personal Buddhas, based on the day of the week we were born. Gary’s was the Monday Buddha who is standing with one hand raised. Mine was the Thursday Buddha who sits and meditates.There are other assembly halls reserved for monks called bots ,which are demarcated by bai semas (sacred stones) used to identify consecrated ground. There are also

Young Dancers at the Temple

Young Dancers at the Temple

the cloisters which are the monks living quarters and various “salas” for pilgrims to gather and religious lectures to be held. We also saw the White Elephant Monument at the temple which was comprised of a life-size elephant who was said to be the personal transportation of King Ku Na. The elephant so the story goes, in 1390 charged up the hill and selected this site as the appropriate place to build a temple. In some versions of the story, Buddha was aboard the elephant at the time. He reportedly trumpeted loudly on his arrival at the summit and turned 3 times – so there was their sign to build right there.

 

Shoes of the worshipers

Shoes of the worshipers

The temple was bustling with activity in some apparent celebration with dancers and acrobats performing in the courtyard. There were also plenty of worshipers as evidenced by the mounds of shoes around the door since shoes are always taken off before entering a temple or shrine, as well as the mounds of offerings at the various shrines.

 

 

Massage Outfits

Massage Outfits

We enjoyed our massage yesterday so much, the 4 of us , plus our guide Nikki, decided to go back for a group massage in the afternoon for a price roughly equal to $6.00 for two hours. We were given those same pajama like outfits to wear for the massage and laid on the cushioned mats on the floor – all 5 of us in a row. The masseuses would kneel either next to us either on on or astride our backs, but they were so tiny, we hardly felt that there were there. I must confess I did peek at the others stretched out beside me with their tiny jockey-masseuses and I had to choke back a snort of laughter when I conjured up images of Seabiscuit in the big race.

 

The Night Market on Walking Street

The Night Market on Walking Street

Since today was Sunday, we were treated to a special Sunday Market lasting from 4 p.m. to midnight. There were hundreds of stalls with hand made goods and food, drink and entertainment. Chiang Mai seems to be a continuous stream of markets – e.g. Night Market, Day Market, Sunday Market . The latter was to be found along Walking Street, where we strolled and marveled. There were a number of blind musicians who were very young men, but who had worked as welders without the benefit of eye protection and consequently became blind at a young age – just a widely accepted occupational hazard here so Nikki told us. We had earlier noticed a business called Pooh Trek – which recycled dung into paper and it also doubled as a massage shop called Pooh Massage Therapy. They advertised that their massage therapists are blind (former welders no doubt). We would hope they don’t get their therapeutic mud mixed up with any elephant or other animal by-products since it is all under one roof.

 

Night Market Massages

Night Market Massages

We also saw row after row of outdoor massage chairs – not what you see in the US where seated massages are offered, at airports for example. These could double as lawn chairs with cushions and there were rows of them, filled with customers. The going rate here was only a dollar or two depending on the service desired. We also saw people selling eels and birds, which Nikki told us are sold to provide as offerings to Buddha, but rather than being prepared to be eaten, they are turned loose.
We had dinner at the Tamarind Village Restaurant where almost everyone enjoyed a local exotic dish – so exotic in fact a few meals got mixed up and no one knew the difference. I was the one exception and ordered a ham and cheese sandwich with French Fries since my palate needed to give the Thai food a rest. Tomorrow I would be prepared to attack it anew.
February 13, 2012

 

 

A Mahout with the Moms and Babies

A Mahout with the Moms and Babies

Today I proclaimed to be one of the best days of my life – and I certainly have been blessed enough to have some good ones. This proclamation was issued while perched on the back of my own elephant for the day, a hulking guy named Bun Pak, as part of what is known locally as the Mahout for a Day program. A mahout is essentially an elephant trainer and caretaker. Usually they are assigned to an elephant at a very young age and remain with him throughout his working life. Elephants in Asia, as opposed to Africa, have been used for work in logging, hauling and transportation for centuries and are quite docile by comparison to their African counterparts. Elephants were used in hunting in previous centuries since they can run at about 12 miles and hour. Elephants also figure largely in the Buddhist and Hindu religions and white elephants are held in particular regard and were considered sacred

Ganesh

Ganesh

and only the king could own them. There is also a god in the Hindu religion called Ganesh, who is the Hindu God of knowledge, as well as the creator and remover of obstacles in life. He has the body of a boy and the head of an elephant which can certainly make you do a double take while touring a temple. An elephant did not have to be solid white, but certain parts had to be close to white to qualify as a white elephant. The origins of labeling something a white elephant come from this tradition. Since only kings could own elephants, they were of no use to anyone else – thus the label “white elephant” is applied to things perceived to be large and useless.

The 9 Month Old

The 9 Month Old

The experience of this day was one of the best ever – there simply aren’t enough superlatives to describe it. As a mahout for the day, our task was to do all the things for our assigned elephant that their mahout would do which included, feeding, bathing, exercising, checking their health which involved looking at their dung for signs of illness. It sounds worse than it was. Interesting enough elephant dung smells like fresh hay. They told us that you can tell the age of an elephant by examining its dung, but we didn’t delve too much into that research.

 

Happy Mahouts for the Day

Happy Mahouts for the Day

Our day started by driving about an hour out of Chiang Mai into the countryside to a place called Patara (pronounced Pah Ta Rah with the accent on “Pah”) Elephant Camp. Their goal is to preserve elephants in Thailand by having tourists come to experience them and spread the word while spreading the dollars. They are not trained to do tricks, but are trained to accept humans. They have been protected by law since 1921, but with continuing deforestation, their numbers have been reduced to just a few thousand. We started our elephant experience by having the opportunity to play with baby elephants. There were 5 there with their mothers. It was a very wise move on the camp manager’s part because we needed to get our ” elephant awe” under control so we could perhaps pay attention to our guides and listen and learn.

Elephant Wrestling

Elephant Wrestling

Surprisingly the elephant moms were not the least concerned about us swarming around their babies – well swarming is probably hyperbole – there were only 6 of us “mahout wannabes” that day. One baby in particular that they told us was 9 months old was the youngest and the most playful. His favorite play seemed to be wrestling. He would use his trunk and one leg to try to take down any challenger. Gary fared the best since he was more in this little guy’s weight class. The rest of us had to be rescued by the handlers to keep from getting pinned. All of the elephants seemed so affectionate – leaning against us, stretching out their trunks for a greeting, calmly looking at us with those big liquid eyes, seeming to invite us to come closer (and of course if you had a treat like a banana, they were extra friendly). We didn’t see any of the protectiveness that makes animal mothers in the wild so dangerous (e.g. a bear with a cub). It seems the elephants were watchful, but trusting with the confidence that they can easily address any threat we puny humans might present. Elephants have a two year gestation period so even that process is laid back.

 

Feeding and Bonding

Open Wide!

After baby elephant recess, we proceeded to the serious business of mahout training. We were given special clothes to wear, and as we would learn later, they were not just for ornamentation. The shirts were pullover colorful hill tribe weaves made by the Karen Tribe. The pants were heavy canvas “fisherman’s pants” – very loose fitting, and very unflattering.
Our first step was to bond with our assigned elephant. We did the bonding by feeding our charge a bushel basket full of bananas by hand. We didn’t hand them to them to take with their trunks, but rather we stood beside them, with a cluster of 6 or so unpeeled bananas in hand and gave the command, “bon”, which means something roughly equivalent to “open wide”. The elephant would then obey the command and we were to place the bananas in its mouth, which is quite large, wet and squishy. The real mahout would watch to see if the elephant bonded with us. That is, would the elephant, obey commands from us. As

Bonding with Bun Pak over Bananans

Bonding with Bun Pak over Bananans

a test we were to address the elephant by name to see how the elephant responded. A good response would be acknowledgement with the elephant making a small trumpeting sound and/or gently flapping of its ears and swinging its of tail. Or it might make a gentle rumbling sound, roughly equivalent to a cat purring, although sounding more like a dog growling. Our instructor told us that sometimes elephants don’t like people and won’t even take bananas from them. A big time elephant rejection of a potential mahout for the day is marked by rapid flapping of ears and loud trumpeting, in which time a full retreat is in order by the would-be mahout. Fortunately for us, all elephants liked all potential mahouts and we could proceed.

 

Bun Pak the Elephant

Bun Pak the Elephant

I was assigned to a male elephant named Bun Pak which means handsome man and Gary was assigned a female elephant named Maha Pak which means beautiful flower. With Asian elephants, only the males have tusks and Bun Pak had quite an impressive set of them. Both elephants were young by elephant standards, and among the largest in the herd. Bun Pak was 16 and Maha Pak was 32. Elephants have longevity comparable to those of humans with an average life span of 85 years. Bun Pak and Maha Pak both wolfed down an entire basket of bananas apiece and then frisked our pockets and private places for more that might be hidden. Once the mahouts indicated we were compatible, we were ready for our next step – the health check.

 

Pooh Check

Pooh Check

Elephant health issues mostly center around their feet, which are prone to infection if injured and digestive issues if they have over-eaten or eaten something not good for them. The feet are visually inspected and the poop is as well, where you are looking for firmness and straw content. Elephants can also suffer from loneliness and depression and so there is constant attention paid to the elephants’ mental well being. We also learned that elephants sweat only around their toenails so that is something to be watched to make sure they are not getting over-heated. We also learned to check for sleep patterns – healthy elephants lie down alternating sides about every 30 minutes and will have dirt evenly distributed on both sides. A sick elephant will sleep standing up, as will elephants desiring only a quick nap.

 

Dusting off Maha Pak

Dusting off Maha Pak

We were told we need to bathe our elephants in a four-step process. The first step was to dust them off. Elephants throw dust on their back to act as a natural sunscreen and so we were given “dusters” made from thin tree branches with leaves still attached and we set to work. We all had to have some remedial work here. We started out like we were dusting Waterford Crystal, but the mahouts showed us we need to used the dusters more like flyswatters and really slap them against their hides, sort of like you would beat a contrary mule. They assured us that unlike horses, they would not bolt and trample us into the dirt in the process. With their thick hides, they don’t even notice and in fact, they kneeled on the ground so we could reach their backs more easily.

 

Hosing Down Bun Pak

Hosing Down Bun Pak

Step Two involved rinsing them off with a garden hose and they really had fun with that. Bun Pak insisted on drinking his rinsing water directly from the hose, but after a few dozen gallons, he let me have it back to spray on him.
Step Three was perhaps the most amazing thing of this amazing day. These elephants are entirely unrestrained – no chains, no hooks, no hobbles. They operate strictly on verbal commands. Our job was to walk our elephants down to the river ( a distance of maybe 500 yards) and go into the water with them and give them a good scrub. Walkng

Wlaking Bun Pak

Wlaking Bun Pak

them to the river involved grabbing the elephant by the ear and issuing the command “Mah” which means “ come” or in dog language “heel”. When you consider the size of the elephant – 21 feet long, 10 feet tall and 11,000 pounds, it totally blew me away that this creature would allow me to hold onto his ear and amble down a path with me like an extremely well trained dog, simply because I told him “mah”. But “mah” he did, and we proceeded down the trail.

 

A Good Rinse Cycle

A Good Rinse Cycle

Arriving at the river, we began Step 4. There was a waist deep pool below a waterfall and all the elephants knew the drill and they plunged right in and squatted down in the water so we would have full access to them. We were given a bucket with a scrub brush and got to work with a one way brushing motion which the elephants liked best. To the elephants this seemed to be the equivalent of a dog having his ears scratched. I was a little concerned that in that dark water, one of these creatures would step on my foot and crush it to mush, but they were amazingly careful with their feet. The mahouts told us they have very sensitive feet and when they step where they can’t see, they feel around to make sure of their footing. They walk on rocky areas to wear their toenails down to keep them short.

 

 Mahouts for the Day Get a Shower

Mahouts for the Day Get a Shower

Since I had the only male elephant in the group, he required some special tusk cleaning, and so Gary helped me gather sand from the river bottom to polish them up. The mahouts had some fun with all of us, posing us by the waterfall for picture taking and then having one of the more playful elephants named Lucky to give us a good surprise shower from her trunk. We had the opportunity for a little rinse off in the upper pool (above the elephant’s bathtub) before our lunch break.

 

 

 

Lunch on Banana Leaves

Lunch on Banana Leaves

The mahouts took the elephants away to dry and have their lunch and we sat down to ours – no chairs, we sat on the floor of the porch of a hut. Our table cloth was a series of banana leaves with a veritable feast of fresh fruit, sticky rice and fried chicken laid out before us. After we ate, we were offered special hill tribe coffee which was brewed in a section of bamboo (which we learned has individual chambers) over a camp fire. The coffee mugs were also made from a single section of bamboo. We were responsible for cleaning up after lunch which involved discarding chicken bones and rolling up everything else into the bamboo leaves to feed to our elephants.

 

Ready to Ride

Ready to Ride

After lunch we were reunited with our elephants, so we gave them their snack and it was time to go for a ride. When most tourists go for an elephant ride in Asia, they generally ride in a “howdah”. This is a contrivance with a seat and raised sides, which is strapped on the elephant’s back like a saddle , only it is a saddle that will hold two people seated on a bench. In olden times, the howdah’s size and decoration would reflect the status of the riders, with the king having the most elaborate of all howdahs with a roof or at the very least a parasol. Our ride was to be sitting directly on the elephant, right where his neck joined his shoulders, just like in the circus. The first task was to get on board. They told us there are

Climbing Aboard Maha Pak

Climbing Aboard Maha Pak

three ways to do this. The elephant can lower its trunk and sort of flip you up there (not recommended for males due to tusk interference), the elephant can be commanded to go belly down on the ground and you can climb up or the elephant can be commanded to raise one leg any you can step on the bent leg, grab an ear and haul yourself up. We both chose option 3, but I have to admit I did have to have some serious boosting assistance from the mahouts, who I am sure were having a good chuckle.

 

On the Trail

On the Trail

Once we were on board, it became apparent why we needed the canvas pants. Elephants have sparse hair on their bodies, that feels like little toothpicks poking into your skin when you apply pressure to them. The canvas pants assure a more comfortable ride, comfort being relative since the elephant’s back is so broad that even the tallest of riders cannot avoid having his or her knees stick out at right angles, which does get tiring after a while.
Before we set off, we had to learn the basic commands to use on our ride. The mahouts very ingeniously wrote them out on our forearms with magic marker to ensure we could access them easily to remain in control. The commands are not in Thai, but in Hindi, one of the languages of India. The reasoning is that they don’t want the elephant to hear a couple of locals talking and think they are talking to him, and thus perhaps pay no attention to his mahout or rider.

 

The Command Cheat Sheet

The Command Cheat Sheet

The commands were:
Pai (pronounced Pie) which means go (or in cowboy parlance “giddyup”. You could give a few “pai’s” strung together to offer more encouragement)
How which is pronounced just like it sounds and means stop
Non Long – which means down and is key for a non-disastrous dismount
Look – which means is up – the command opposite “non long”
Toy – which is the command to back up
Yana – which means no, in case you have occasion to scold a naughty elephant – maybe one who wants to graze instead of giddyup.
Didi – which means “good elephant” , always useful praise for good behavior
We took a ride into the jungle, with our real mahouts trailing not too far away in case any of our elephants decided to go rogue and run off with us. We were told the best way to ride is sitting on the neck with our legs drawn up so our feet are just behind the ears. Easy for them to say since the tallest of them is probably 5 foot nothing. We taller people found it more comfortable to have our legs dangle and the elephants didn’t seem to mind.

 

Pai Pai

Pai Pai

To start moving, we were to simply tap on the elephant’s ears and utter “pai-pai” and off we went. I did have to give Bun Pak a few “Yanas” since he was tempted to graze, but we moved pretty well. My mahout caught up with us and gave me some treats he had picked to give to Bun Pak, who somehow knew I had them since he kept lifting his trunk up to get some. He also knew when they were gone and went back to the occasional foray into the bush. We rode for around two hours which was both wonderful and tiring, very hard on the thighs and knees at that 90 degree angle. We had nothing to hold on to but the ears and a rope behind us encircling the elephants girth, but the elephant’s back was so broad, and he moved so slowly, you’re really have to work at it to fall off, no matter how steep the trail got.

 

Farewell to our Elephants and their real Mahouts

Farewell to our Elephants and their real Mahouts

We had a short rest and the elephants were given an afternoon snack of bamboo and then we had a second ride. This time I told Bun Pak he needed to “non long” (come down) so I could get on. For this ride, the mahouts suggested we sit on the elephant’s head for a different experience. This was a much narrower and more precipitous perch, especially when Bun Pak wanted to detour for a snack. Fortunately we were on a flat trail along a lake so it wasn’t as conducive to a spill as the steeper trek earlier in the day. We had to take care to have our legs positioned to hang between their eyes so as not to obstruct their vision. With great sadness, we said goodbye to our elephants and their real mahouts and rode back to Chiang Mai.

 

A Dancer at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel

A Dancer at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel

Local wisdom says mankind would do well to be more like elephants in the way we proceed forward and eat. That is, take each step carefully, and only eat vegetables. We promptly ignored this and went to the Mandarin Oriental Hotel to pamper ourselves with a luxurious carnivorous evening after an exhausting exhilarating day of “mahouting”. It was a beautiful hotel, but we much preferred staying in town at the Bodhi Serene with real life right outside your door. At the Mandarin Oriental, real Thai life was kept at bay with a high fence, luxurious gardens and guards at the entrance.
February 14, 2012
Dateline: Chiang Rai, Thailand
Latitude at Chiang Rai 19.90 degrees North, 99.82 degrees East

 

Countryside of Northern Thailand

Countryside of Northern Thailand

Today we started our anti-Malaria medications since we would be going to the lowland areas of Southeast Asia in a few days time. We left Chiang Mai early to drive to Chiang Rai via the scenic route in the northernmost provinces of Thailand and an area called The Golden Triangle. This area borders Burma and Laos and the point where the Mekong River flows out of China to Thailand’s borders. The first Thai settlements were also here. The ride afforded us some really exotic scenes – mountains, rice paddies, jungle – as we shared the road with what the locals jokingly refer to as Japanese Water Buffalo – that is, Yamaha and Honda motorbikes. Nikki explained to us that the local people here train monkeys to

In the Golden Triangle

In the Golden Triangle

harvest their coconuts and we told her we would like to see that , to which she gave here standard response of “that is possible” no matter what we asked to see or do.
We took route 107 north paralleling the border with Myanmar (a.k.a. Burma). Our route would take us through the villages of Mae Rim, Mai Taeng, Chiang Dao, Fang, Mai Ai and Mai Chan before stopping for the night in Chiag Rai. All of them sounded ultra exotic, but I was particularly interested in seeing what Fang looked like. It turned out to be a tiny market town, with no hint of violence one would associate with “fang”.

 

The Orchid Farm

The Orchid Farm

We stopped at an Orchid Farm just outside of Chiang Mai where we saw the most beautiful collection I have ever seen of truly wonderful specimens. The orchids are grown from tiny seeds and are put into a growing medium such as agar in a bottle to germinate. Their roots thrive in air and require little or no soil. There were acres and acres of them in every size, shape and color and it was quite lovely to see. Orchids grow wild in many parts of Thailand, but are also largely cultivated and orchid poaching is not uncommon since some of the varieties are extremely valuable and the local people are extremely poor. We had a snack on the grounds in very serene garden setting. Our snacking would continue throughout the drive to Chiang Rai.

 

Pooh Recycling

Pooh Recycling

Our next stop was not so lovely, but really interesting and not on our itinerary, but Nikki made it possible. We had been told that Thai people waste nothing including elephant poop and we made this stop to see just what was being done with it. We met an older gentleman who was in charge (at least he looked older) and he showed us aground with great pride. We noticed he had on a tee shirt proclaiming the superiority of the Purdue Boilermakers. He had no idea what either one was since he got the shirt at a flea market, so we proceeded to try to explain through Nikki as our translator. He got the University part, but we weren’t sure Nikki was able to adequately explain what a “boiler maker” was.
So here is the scoop on the poop, elephant poop that is. At this facility, it is recycled into paper in a multi-step process that goes something like this: It is bleached, boiled and cooked down to a thick gravy-like substance that is spread on a screen to dry out in the yard. Once dry it is dyed and cut and fabricated into boxes, paper, albums and so forth. They do make stationery, but it makes for pretty lumpy writing.

Sticky Rice cooking over an Open Fire

Sticky Rice cooking over an Open Fire

We also made a sticky rice stop at a roadside place near the village of Chiang Dao that Nikki told us makes the very best in the country. The place is nothing fancy and it is strictly stand and eat or take it out. The workers either squat or seat themselves on low plastic chairs – very low like they came from a kindergarten class room. To make the sticky rice they add the desired ingredients to the rice to make it sweet, spicy or whatever . The ones we had were sweet. They place the rice mixture in bamboo stalks and soak it overnight. They then cut it into sections and make a stopper out of coconut fibers and cook it over an open fire. The tough outer part of the bamboo is then cut away, leaving only a thin membrane-like lining that can be peeled like a banana when you are ready to eat it. It was as advertised – delicious and the price was a mere 30 baht which was less than a dollar. Nikki says we would make good Thais since we always enjoy eating. Nikki did tell us that the new generations of Thai people are growing bigger as they have more access to protein and calcium supplied by Western food. She said pretty soon no one in Thailand will fit on an elephant any more.

 

Trees in Flower near Chiang Rai

Trees in Flower near Chiang Rai

The countryside became more scenic and more mountainous as we progressed toward Chiang Rai. We passed teak wood groves, prosperous-looking farms, and verdant fields of lychee, garlic and lavender. There was also a profusion of wild blooming trees and shrubs such as jacaranda (lavender color), golden shower (yellow gold),  and bauhinia (purple). The mountains are largely limestone karsts that formed interesting silhouettes on either side of the road.
Nikki told us about the opium trade that once flourished here and how the government is implementing programs to try to stamp out addiction and production. Programs include farm assistance in getting alternative crops established. The king’s mother travels here frequently by helicopter since redirecting the efforts of the former opium farmers is one of her pet projects. We were told that the locals call her “Mother From the Sky”. Nikki has a really delightful expression in English to describe any number of rule breakers and that is that they are “naughty”. Naughty can apply to drug smugglers, orchid poachers, corrupt government officials, pedophiles, pickpockets, monks texting during prayers and illegal aliens. We found it really charming that Nikki hasn’t lapsed into English slang and expletives to describe wrong-doers. There is something so kind and gentle about the word “naughty”.

A Hmong Market

A Hmong Market

Smog is a problem in the area, but it is not from automobiles, but rather from farmers burning the fields to get rid of stubble from crops already harvested. Most of the native people in this area are Hmong (prononouced “mong”), who are believed to have migrated from China. Another prominent hill tribe is the Karen people who are noted for their custom of using brass bands ( as much as 16 pounds of them) to elongate the necks of their young women, from Age 5 through 25. It was considered a sign of wealth to have the women in your family stretch their necks in this manner. A long swan-like neck was also considered beautiful back in the day, but the health problems associated with this practice (atrophy of neck muscles and strain on shoulder muscles) and influence from the outside world have made it far less popular today and women typically only do it to make money from tourists for photo opportunities.

Game Cocks at the Market

Game Cocks at the Market

There is a third tribe quite populous here called the Akha who hold holistic beliefs about their relationship with the natural world. Collectively, the hill tribes do not have a religion as the Western world knows it, but many have been converted to Christianity. We stopped at a couple of Hmong roadside markets to sample some of the local products including other types of sticky rice, jackfruit, custard, dragon fruit, tapioca, peaches and mango. They are also noted for raising fighting cocks, of which we saw a plentiful supply in cages at the market place. They are very resourceful here. We saw a strange contraption that looked sort of like a Smart Car pickup that had a tiny truck bed, a seat atop motorcycle engine, and some handlebars, all sort of haphazardly welded together with a family of 4 driving off with the day’s shopping done at the market. This was just a few yards from a farmer turning into the market on his mo-ped dressed in baggy pants and shirt, flip flops and a straw hat with a hoe over his shoulder. We stopped at a noodle shop for lunch and our tab came to a whopping $9.00 for 6 people.

 

The Tea Plantation

The Doi Maesalong Nok Tea Plantation

Just before Chiang Rai we stopped at the Doi Maesalong Nok tea plantation for a tea tasting, very similar to a wine tasting in a tasting room set upon a mountain top overlooking the vast acreage of cultivated fields. The land was immaculately groomed and terraced and we saw temples on just about every hill top. Nikki told us that tea grows well in this climate, but there is a constant battle with naughty caterpillars. Each plant is hand trimmed and harvested and different flowers and spices are combined with the tea leaves to create special blends. This was such a tasteful, serene, and tranquil retreat, but we have learned to expect contrast here and were not disappointed. Upon leaving the tasteful serenity of the tea

Enjoying the Tea Tasting

Enjoying the Tea Tasting

room, we saw a koi pond which we also thought to be tranquil, serene, until we noticed that the fountain supplying water to the pond was coming from a tea-pot which had two bare boobs on the side with water coming from the nipples and splashing into the pond. So much for tasteful I guess.
We stopped at a market that Nikki said was run by Chinese from Yunnan province and immediately became aware of the difference in sales styles between the Hmong and the Chinese – on the one hand a shy smile and a nod (Thai) and on the other hand an all out hawking and stalking (Chinese). We did buy some roasted peanuts at this market to keep our feeding frenzy going, but we then beat a hasty retreat to the safety of our van. Nikki says 10% of the population in this area is Chinese and many are naughty illegal immigrants.

 

Tiny Sweet Pineapples at a Roadside Market

Tiny Sweet Pineapples at a Roadside Market

And speaking of naughty – we had to go through a road block where Thai drug enforcement was stopping cars looking for drugs being smuggled in from Burma. They just took one peek at our Caucasian faces and waved us through. Apparently we did not fit the profile, but there were plenty of pat-downs being conducted on locals and those who could pass for local.
We had one more stop before Chiang Rai for another, you guessed it, snack. This time it was tiny pineapples at a roadside stand that were so sweet, you would swear they had sugar sprinkled on them. They were also selling tiny little sweet bananas which we sampled too. We asked Nikki if there was anything not grown here and she said they had to import cotton – it’s not dry enough here and also crops that like cold weather such as apples and pears don’t do well here. There used to be acres and acres of rubber plantations and few do still exist, but they have been largely replaced by petroleum products. Nikki says the biggest problem the farmers face in this region are naughty rats who eat their crops.

 

Gardens Near Chiang Rai

Gardens Near Chiang Rai

We drove into Chiang Rai at almost dusk and were struck by the number of 7-11 stores – just one more incongruity in a day that continued to be filled with them. There were cars driving around with Las Vegas Style Lights – enough to make you want to put your sunglasses on.. Then there was a billboard in English encouraging people to log onto www.DEArewards.com to snitch on opium growers we presume. It sounds like the DEA needs to get some of those naughty rats to start eating opium poppies. Then we saw a billboard advertising a doctor who would perform sex change operations at a very reasonable price, complete with before and after pictures. Nicky told us that this is really a big business here, along with plastic surgery for breast and other implants and almost all of the customers are foreigners. We speculated on how that would work with the visa and passport system. If you come in with your gender designated “F” and you leave as a man, do you have to change it? There were rows and rows of roadside business selling rattan products. Nikki told us these merchants are mostly parolees who learned this trade while in prison for drug trafficking and now have a new line of work.

 

Dinner at the Night Market

Dinner at the Night Market

We checked into our hotel, the Legend Chiang Rai Resort situated on the picturesque Kok River. We just dropped off our suitcases and rejoined Nikki to visit Chiang Rai’s Night Market. There were dozens of food stalls – sort of a Thai Food Court and we each picked our own food – shrimp for me and a whole fish for Gary, along with mounds of French fries (which is what they call them here too).

 

Looking around at the tables we commented on the large number of Caucasians, but on second glance we saw a marked absence of Caucasian women, and for that matter, young Caucasian males. All the Caucasians seemed to be portly balding men over 55. Their companions were local young women in their twenties and thirties. Nikki told us it is very common here for foreign men to move here and take a much younger wife or mistress. They can live like kings on $12,000 per year. Quite often the woman in question is a single mother. Apparently there is no such thing as child support in Thailand and the woman is totally responsible for any children she may bear and a child’s father can just walk away, which they apparently do in droves. While our Western sensibilities were telling us this was wrong in so many ways, we had to adjust our thinking. Nikki explained to us that while we might feel the men are taking advantage of the young girls, that it is actually an arrangement to benefit both. There is no public school for girls in Thailand for the most part. With no education and no skills, they can choose protection (male expat) or prostitution. Thus the man gets a trophy wife he could never afford back home, and the woman gets a life-style far beyond her wildest dreams and her children have more opportunity than they would otherwise. When seen from that perspective– it forces you to step back and be a little less judgmental, which is never a bad thing.

February 15, 2012

 

We used Chiang Rai as our base to explore the Golden Triangle where the countries of Laos, Burma and Thailand meet. The town was founded in 1262 by King Mengrai who made it the capital of his Lanna Kingdom, but the capital was moved to Chiang Mai after only 34 years. We found it interesting that Thailand was never colonized, not even by the British. Instead a series of kings ruled kingdoms of varying names and territory for many centuries until democratic elections were held in 1988. Monarchy in Thailand continues, it just doesn’t rule. There were at least 5 tourist-worthy wats (temples) in Chiang Rai, but we were close to suffering from “temple overload” and so we set off exploring the countryside instead of these particular temples.

 

Shawan Duchanee Gallery

Thawan Duchanee Gallery

Our first stop was the home (and now museum) of Thailand’s most famous artist, Thawan Duchanee. His art was known for his use of things from the natural world – shells, animal bones, skins, and horns and the extensive use of teakwood. There was a gallery of his paintings where the colors he used were almost exclusively red, black and white. The grounds of his house were filled with gardens, temples and various buildings that house his collections and his work which included painting, sculpture and applied art such as drums and baskets.

 

Old Buddha at Wat Jeedhalong

Old Buddha at Wat Jeedhelhoung

We did make one temple exception due to its historic significance in the complex called Wat Jedeelhoung, which was largely in ruins, understandably so since it dates back to the 13th Century . The complex is set among centuries old teak and banyan trees. At one time it was a walled city on the Mekong River with Laos on the other side, but the river has since changed course. We found ourselves some sticky rice vendors on the grounds (sesame sticky rice this time) and some salted pineapple which was unexpectedly tasty. We also bought a small spirit house here to take home – about the size of a birdhouse, but very elaborately detailed like a miniature pagoda. They are used in Thai homes as a shrine to the protective spirit of a place.

 

The Mekong at the Golden Triangle

The Mekong at the Golden Triangle

The Mekong River originates in Tibet, flows though China and then to Southeast Asia, creating the border between Thailand and Laos before continuing south through Cambodia and Vietnam. There is an ongoing battle with the Chinese, who have been building dams on it and causing low water levels to the other countries. We stopped at the point where the 3 countries meet (Thailand, Myanmar or Burma and Laos) to take in the view and then we continued to a spot on the riverbank to see the largest Buddha in Thailand, built to honor the Queen of Thailand. We have seen a number of statuary images of Buddha in many different poses. Today we learned that each pose has its own significance. There are four basic postures: standing, sitting, walking and reclining. The first 3 are associated with Buddha’s life on earth and the 4th, the reclining position represents his final moments on earth when he has achieved nirvana (ultimate wisdom). The four postures are combined with hand and feet positions to create a variety of “mudras” or attitudes. One king had written up a manual of sorts identifying 40 of these, but most sculptors employed only a dozen or so.

 

Seated Buddha

Seated Buddha Touching the Earth

The seated image referred to as “touching the earth” is the most common one. In it Buddha sits under a tree with his legs cross in the lotus position, his left hand on his lap and his right resting on his leg pointing downward toward the earth. However if he is seated with legs in the lotus position with both hands palms up, the right over the left, this symbolizes meditation. Another fairly common one is Buddha standing, touching a thumb and forefinger to make a circle which is said to represent the: turning of the wheel of law” . Buddhists believe is perpetual reincarnation, where each life is influenced by the actions and deeds of the previous one. This cause and effect philosophy is called karma and is symbolized by the wheel of law depicted in the flag of Buddhism. When Buddha has one hand extended palm facing you (like The Supremes performing “Stop in the Name of Love” it is intended to convey reassurance. However if both palms are extended forward, it refers to Buddha restraining the flood waters.

 

Face of Buddha by the Mekong

Face of Buddha by the Mekong

Enlightenment (nirvana) is the final state of evolving when the pinnacle is reached and the cycle of rebirth is ended. The goal of Buddhists is to develop the 3 pillars of their belief: morality, meditation and wisdom. They do this by following a code of behavior in each of their reincarnated lives, utilizing the virtues of tolerance and non-violence. Thai people practice Theravada Buddhism, which originated in India and incorporates many beliefs of other religions. As for Buddha’s time on Earth, he was born a prince in India in the 6th Century BC. He gave up his riches to seek Enlightenment, and after 10 lives, he achieved Nirvana. His teachings from those lives are followed by Buddhists today.

 

Gates Leading to the Giant Buddha on the Mekong

Gates Leading to the Giant Buddha on the Mekong

From there we went to the House of Opium, a $10 million dollar museum built by donations from the Japanese and is dedicated to telling the story of opium and how it has crippled generations and almost destroyed the country. There are hundreds of artifacts, photographs and articles telling the stories. Opium was first grown in the highlands of Thailand in the late 19th century by the hill tribes and became a major cash crop. It was outlawed in 1959, but continued to flourish well into the 20th Century in the Golden Triangle. There were many bloody power struggles for control of the poppy fields in the century prior to its being outlawed, including the Opium Wars with the British for control of the drug trade in the mid-19th Century. The British won giving them control of trade in China. Opium was legalized in China and opium dens sprouted up across Southeast Asia and addiction ran rampant. It seems the Chinese partook of the drug and British didn’t and thus the Brits achieved domination of China while the Chinese they were fighting mostly got too stoned to either care or notice.
More recently the Kuomintang Army from China fought a local drug lord in 1967, giving the Golden Triangle further notoriety. The drug lord retreated to Burma and the victory here eventually allowed the government to gain the upper hand and begin the long process of eradication of both growing and using. Since the 1980’s the hill tribes have been incented by the government under the rule of King Bhumibol to grow other crops, but the area remains active in the trading, if not the growing, of opium.

 

Thailand-Myanmar Border

Thailand-Myanmar Border

After lunch Nikki gave us the option of crossing a short bridge and briefly visiting Myanmar which we thought was just the thing to do. To get to Myanmar, we drove to the Thai border town of Mae Sai, separated from Burma by the Sai River. The town was bustling with trade, the main street lined with food vendors and all manner of goods for locals and for tourists, with most of the merchandise coming from across the river in Myanmar. We stopped at Thai immigration and got the necessary paperwork done to walk across the bridge. Then we stopped at Myanmar immigration on the other side of the bridge to do the same. However we had to leave our passports with them which caused a little frisson of alarm, but Nikki assured us all would be well.

A Young Burmese Boy

A Young Burmese Boy

Myanmar is actually the old name for the country, which means strong health and happiness. The name Burma came about, as so often happened when the British came to colonize. In 1989 it was changed back officially to Myanmar, which is much closer to the historical name in the local language The capital city was originally Yangon, which the British changed to Rangoon for whatever reason. Now it is back to Yangon.

 

 

Streets of Tachilek

Streets of Tachilek

The town on the Myanmar side is Tachilek and like its Thai counterpart on the other side of the bridge, it too is bustling with trade. A major difference is that in Tachilek there is a thriving black market for pirated goods and knock-offs which Nikki advised us will be promptly seized when a person re-enters Thailand, a nation which has partnered with the West to try to protect patents, copyrights and trademarks. There are no such niceties observed in Myanmar where it is open season on Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Gucci, Oakley, Viagra, Marlboros and a host of other name brands. whose pirated or knock-off products can be purchased for pennies on the dollar.

 

The Little Tuk-tuk that Could Not

The Little Tuk-tuk that Could Not

The main attraction in Tachilek is a massive temple called the Tachilek Shwedagon Pagoda, sitting upon a hill overlooking the town. We hired two tuk-tuks (small vehicles that are like a powered rickshaw – a motor scooter in the front attached to a small truck bed with a seat) to take us up to the temple. They don’t haul much of a payload since at one point we had to get out and push to get up a hill. It seems these tuk-tuks don’t have much horsepower, but then again, we Americans present quite a payload for hauling. We decided it would be a good idea to pick the skinniest of the skinny drivers and maybe put one passesnger per tuk-tuk to avoid having to push. We could easily have been in the music video for Salt-N-Pepa’s song, “Push It Real Good”. We definitely had to push it real good going up that hill.

 

The Stupa at the Tachilek Swegdon Pagoda

The Stupa at the Tachilek Swegdon Pagoda

The temple and its setting were beautiful , so we left our shoes at the entrance and enjoyed a walk around the grounds. We bought incense and flowers from local sellers to pay our respects at the temple, whose stupa (chedi) was a replica of one in Yangon. Here we had the opportunity to locate the statue of our personal Buddha, based on the day of the week we were born. Each of the 7 sites has a large statue of Buddha, with flower vases and incense burners on either side. In front of that there is a basin full of water with a small standing Buddha statue in the center of it. Below that is another basin with an animal, a different one representing each day of the week. We each sought out our birthday Buddha, and Nikki showed us the appropriate process for paying our respects.

Paying Respects to the Thursday Buddha

Paying Respects to the Thursday Buddha

Here were the instructions:
1) Stand before the Buddha and bow 3 times with hands together in a Wai position
2) Put incense in the jar and flowers in a pot provided
3) Dip out 3 cups of water and pour on the little Buddha
4) Dip out 2 cups of water to put on the hands of the Big Buddha who is holding a shell
5) Dip out one cup of water and pour on your Burmese Zodiac animal – in my case it was the rat, and Gary’s was a tiger.

 

Jolly Monks

Jolly Monks

We also had out picture taken with what is sometimes called the Double Buddha, but it is actually larger than life sculptures of two jolly and seemingly frolicking monks. This is said to bring good luck and if that wouldn’t do it, we also rang the large gong to bring even more. You can’t have too much good luck.
We were besieged by postcard sellers who insisted we must buy their product so we gave them a dollar or two just to go away, but this only produced more post card sellers who not only wanted to sell postcards, but they also said were also hungry to boot. Gary offered to buy them something to eat, but they declined that offer and went back to hawking postcards. We beat a hasty retreat to our tuk-tuk for the trip back to town with no pushing since it was all down-hill.

 

Tacilek's Thriving Markets - Black and Otherwise

Tachilek’s Thriving Markets – Black and Otherwise

We retraced our steps and retrieved our passports at the Myanmar Immigration office. They passed each passport out individually, carefully studying the face of the claimant to make sure some Burmese peasant was not trying to pull a fast one. It was quite interesting since most of us strive to not look like our passport pictures since they are usually so unflattering. We also had an interesting time at Thai customs where they looked through all our possessions to make sure we were not bringing back any contraband cigarettes, designer bags or erectile dysfunction meds. I am glad to say we were declared innocent on all counts and allowed back into Thailand.

 

Relaxing by the Kok River

Relaxing by the Kok River

We had a little free time before dinner so we enjoyed some relaxation at our hotel where they had set up lounge chairs along the River Kwok to enjoy the peace and tranquility of the evening. After dealing with the tuk-tuk pushing, the respect paying and the hungry post card sellers, it was nice to relax. We noticed that everyone here is busy – no loitering, no lollygagging. Aside from taking time for a massage or meditation, hardly any locals sit still for any length of time. Everyone appears to be industrious and creative, which may be a reaction to the bad old days when everyone was almost comatose on opium. There is a genuine warmth and graciousness of the Thai people that we have come to admire during our stay here and we had time as we lollygagged by the river to reflect on it. Tomorrow we will bid farewell to Thailand and cross the Mekong River to begin our tour of Laos.




Southeast Asia Part 2: Laos

Southeast Asia

Part Two: Laos

February 16, 2012

Dateline:  Pakbeng, Laos

Latitude at Pakbeng 14.85 Degrees North, Longitude 101.55 Degrees East

The Ferry Across the Mekong

The Ferry Across the Mekong

Today we explored by road some beautiful country of the upper Mekong  in Northernmost Thailand as we made our way to the river, where we would leave Nikki behind and cross into Laos. We went from Chiang Khong, Thailand to Houei Say, Laos, which was originally a French fortress built on the river in 1939.  We officially entered Laos where the Pak Tha River empties into the Mekong.   At Houei Say the river drops 8 meters in the “dry” season of  April and May and this is  when they catch gigantic  catfish called “plabuk” (which I may or may not have spelled correctly) It is supposedly the  largest freshwater fish in the world at  9 feet long and around 660 pounds. They live in deep holes and can be netted (with a very sturdy net of course) in shallow water season. The fish sells for around $5.00 per pound (US) so this is a major payday for the locals. There is a big competition between Chiang Khong  and Houei Say which is sort of an Asian Fish Rodeo.

Longboats Ready for the Voyage Downriver

Longboats Ready for the Voyage Downriver

We had quite a kerfuffle at Laos customs with Stu’s passport stamp, (we had to present passport photos and $35.00 in cash) due to an erroneous date stamped on it on the Thailand side of the Mekong. We were first told he had to go back across the river to get it straightened out, but eventually higher management at Immigration ruled he could proceed. We considered getting some local money,   but we were told that US dollars and Thai baht are widely accepted here. Their currency is the Kip which was trading at about 8,000 to the dollar so we decided to keep it simple and use dollars. We took some local transportation (tuk-tuks) with our bags to the local docks where we were to board our vessel,  a 38 passenger long boat,  and motor downriver to Pak Beng where we would spend the night.  Our trip would take 2 days and this first leg would cover 140 km in 7 hours on the river.

In a Hmong Village

In a Hmong Village

We had a very tranquil cruise down the Mekong’s mist shrouded hills, enjoying a very peaceful and relaxing ride on the river, whose water was olive green flecked with gold.  There were actually people panning for gold, although undoubtedly all we saw that “glittered was not gold”, but actually pyrite or fool’s gold. We stopped at a Hmong (pronounced Ha-mong with the accent on “mong”) village perched up high on a sand dune. The moment we disembarked, we were swarmed by small children selling hand made goods (woven bracelets and bags, and cross stitched tribal designs. There was lush foliage despite the dry

Along the Mekong

Along the Mekong

season and the shade looked inviting, but with the humidity, there was very little respite from the heat there. The river is approximately 300 yards wide here. Most villages along the river have no roads and they depend on the river for transportation. The boats were an odd assortment, many of which had seats that had once been in cars or at a kitchen table. There seemed to be no two alike which made for a very interesting ride. Our Laotian guide, using our Thai guide, Nikki’s, phrasing, said that sometimes the Chinese are “naughty” and dam up the river and won’t let enough water flow downstream, which causes problems, significantly impeding  transportation and commerce.

Docking at the Sand Dunes Along the Mekong

Docking at the Sand Dunes on the Mekong

We found an interesting phenomenon in the village – there are wooden huts with no windows and dirt floors, but each has electricity running to it on a single wire. They have one outlet per house and in that outlet is plugged a cell phone charger and we marveled at this. The houses had the campfire inside.They say the smoke keeps the insects out and I could feel the insects’ aversion – it certainly kept me out. The Hmong elect a chief who is sometimes a woman.  and they also have a village shaman who offers herbal remedies.

 

A Hmong Grandma and Grandson

A Hmong Grandma and Grandson

Here women build the houses and men work in the fields. The soil varies from sand dunes to hard packed clay, presenting a real challenge in the rainy season.  There was an abundance of pigs, chickens and dogs and we understood that all could be on the menu on any given day. The older people in the village wore traditional clothes, but the young ones wore western clothes – but quite rag tag Western clothes. Kee, our guide said we should not give gifts, candy or money, or any other handouts to the children, since  the local people do not want to raise a generation of beggars.  We could buy anything they have to sell but we should pay the exact price and no more. And we should not pay to take photos. Kee says they do not want to set expectations for children that they can ever get something for nothing since everyone is striving to teach them good work ethics.

Motoring Down the Mekong

Motoring Down the Mekong

From the village we had 3 more hours of cruising to reach the Luang Say lodge near the village of Pak Beng. En route we were served a hot lunch of beef, rice and eggplant which way too spicy for me (although Gary pronounced it tasty) and so I had to hit my stash of cheese and crackers.  Kee told us that  local people grow teak as an investment for their kids. We saw no males between the ages of 15 and 40, neither in the villages nor on the river and were told most leave the village to earn money, leaving older workers, women and children here. There were many babies and toddlers in the village, so we knew the younger men had to visit here from time to time.  We were told that people here are not sure of their ages and that birthdays are not considered important.

Hmong Fishing Boats on the Mekong

Hmong Fishing Boats on the Mekong

The terrain grew mountainous as we made our way east and the river had a few rapids, but nothing too challenging. The most precipitous was a vertical drop of 1,000 feet over 350 meters at one point with several sets of rapids. We were told the lodge we were going to would be rustic and we were hoping that would not mean no indoor toilets. You could get some serious insect bites here in some undignified locations if you had to go outside.  We noticed quite a few water buffalo and were told that in addition to using them in farming, the locals here eat water buffalo. They are “free range” and often they have to do a roundup including across the river into Thailand.

There were a number of bamboo houses on the beach, but we were told they will wash away with the rainy season. They are only intended to be temporary and will have to be rebuilt after the floods of the rainy season.

The View from the Luang Say Lodge

The View from the Luang Say Lodge

We arrived at our overnight stop a few hours before sunset and found we had quite a trek to make up the hill to the Luang Say Lodge high above the river. We were supposed to pack a light bag and leave our larger one behind, but some tourists apparently didn’t get the memo and the hotel porters struggled up the hill with suitcases weighing at least half a much as they did. The most amazing thing was they always had a smile too.  They also held up poles to form a safety rail for the tourists since there were no permanent structures and if you tripped you would wind up in the river. OSHA would find this lodge quite naughty in the safety department.  We found it to be beautiful with great views up and down the river, surrounded by mountains. The lodge was built out of teak and oozed charm and authenticity (as authentic as you can get and still satisfy Western tourists that is). The rooms were not air conditioned, but the evening cooled off rapidly and we were very comfortable with just a fan.

Maintenance Person at the Luang Say Lodge

Maintenance Person at the Luang Say Lodge

Our rooms were quite nice with en suite bathrooms and mosquito canopy netting tied over the bed like something out of a Bogart movie. In our room Gary pulled on the chain of the release cord a little too vigorously and broke it. We had wanted to get it in place over the bed before the dusk mosquito onslaught began and so we called the front desk for help.  We expected a guy with a ladder. What we got were two house girls about 70 pounds each, about 4’6” and no ladder. They just shinnied up the posts and scampered across the rafters to take it down, fix it and put it back up.

 

Evening on the Mekong from the Luang Say Lodge

Evening on the Mekong from the Luang Say Lodge

There was a dinner show with dancers from Pak Beng – both tiny and charming but a little of the music goes a long way – sort of like a violin lesson gone bad – real bad. We had good French wine and a good dinner. We were told the Thais tried to conquer Laos at one time, but the French ran them off and apparently left an appreciation for their wines behind as their legacy. I enjoyed the food, but desserts here almost always involve rice and rarely involve chocolate, which makes them easy for me to resist.  The sleeping in the cool mountain air was really a treat.

 

 

February 17, 2012

Dateline: Luang Prabang, Laos

Latitude at Luang Prabang 19.88 Degrees North, Longitude 102.13 Degrees East

Morning Mist on the Mekong

Morning Mist on the Mekong

Today we awoke at the Luang Say Lodge to continue our trip down the Mekong to the port of Luang Prabang, a distance of 160 kilometers, which would take us 7 hours. We had fabulous produce for our breakfast – mangos, pineapple, papaya, watermelon, all eaten at an open air terrace at the lodge overlooking the river. The weather was very cool with a heavy mist on the hills above the river, and the boat crew provided capes for us (sort of serape like things) so we all suited up and found that they warmed us perfectly, along with the hot tea served to us. At this point the river is pristine with steep

 

Capes to Keep the Chill Off

Capes to Keep the Chill Off

mountains and heavy vegetation coming right down to the river amid jagged rocks and sandy beaches. There were countless small waterfalls and rivulets feeding the river from hidden springs. We did see the occasional pig or two on the beach which was a little jarring – we weren’t sure Shangri-La was supposed to have pigs in the picture. Our pace was slow and languid except when we went through rapids where we needed speed to maintain steering. The boat we were on was 34 meters long and was essentially a river barge, built of teak with a hardened steel hull.

 

A Longboat on the Mekong

A Longboat on the Mekong

We learned that name Laos come from the phrase “Lane Xiang” which means a million elephants, which may or may not be historically accurate. Laos had a lot of elephants back in the day, but whether it was a million is debatable.  Laos, unlike Thailand, was conquered quite a bit, in more recent times by the French, whose colonizing stopped at the Mekong border with Thailand. The French declared Laos a protectorate in 1893 and kept the Thais from taking it back during colonial times. The Mekong River was the west boundary of the French empire and the Thai Border was the east Boundary of the British colony of Burma. The Japanese briefly occupied Laos late in WWII, but found themselves needing all their resources to fight off the Allies in the Pacific and withdrew. At the end of WWII the French resumed their protectorate until 1954 when they granted Laos independence under a constitutional monarchy.  This led to a civil war between Royalists and Communists (the Pathet Lao) which continued for a number of years including during the Vietnam War when the U.S. dropped more bombs on Laos than they had during the entirety of WWII in a effort to destroy the supply line know as the Ho Chi Minh Trail. During the Vietnam War, the Viet Cong often scurried across into Laos after a raid in Vietnam. Laos became a refuge for Anti-Communists escaping Vietnam, until it fell to the Communists as well.

After the fall of Saigon in 1975, Laos became a communist nation, but it has evolved over the years to be sort of “Communist Lite”. The ruling party is communist, mostly in name. They have elections here, but there is only one party, so it’s not so democratic that anyone would notice.  Their economy is built on capitalism and the US lifted a 20 year trade embargo in 1995, which helped greatly in the cause of capitalism, including tourism. They have really seen tourism skyrocket up from 300 tourists in 1990 to hundreds of thousands today. Schools in Laos are paid for by the Vietnamese government. No one seemed quite  sure as to what the quid pro quo is on that – most likely the Vietnamese  are seeking markets  among the 8 million people who live in Laos for their burgeoning economy.

Making our Way West on the Melong

Making our Way West on the Melong

The Mekong is 4, 180 kilometers long, the 10th longest river in the world, and there are very few bridges across it. It is called both the Artery of Life and the Mother of Waters. Rice whiskey is distilled along the banks in scattered villages and teak logging is still a major source of income. The Mekong starts in Tibet and runs through Yunnan Province in China, then Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam where it empties into the South China Sea.   There are 3 seasons here. December-January are  the Cold Season (a relative term) and February – April are the  Dry Season  (also a relative term). May-September are the Rainy Season by anyone’s standards.

The Hmong tribes are traditionally mountain farmers who grow rice in the wet season and corn and other hardy crops in the dry season. They are semi-nomadic and clear the land of old crops by burning. They plant crops and stay a few years until the soil is depleted and then move on. When the river is down they plant peanuts in the sand banks.

Laos is very culturally diverse with 130 different ethnic groups in 4 major categories which the Laotian government is now trying to unite. They are:

Lowland Thai – the most powerful and influential group with ethnic roots in Thailand and the Shan people of Burma.

Highland Khmer – Australian- Asiatic influence by way of India and Indonesia. They are the group who built Angor Wat. They were powerful at one time, but now are the poorest group in Laos.

Mountain People – the Sino-Tibetan people of Chinese descent from tribes from Tibet and the Himalayas. These people are now traders and refugees.

Typical Hmong Home

Typical Hmong Home

Hmong – the Hill tribes which are dominant in Northern Laos.  They have written the “Bible” of Animism, their religion, which is believed to be the oldest religion in the world. Animists believe in sentient (feeling) spirit in all things in the world. They have a priest/shaman to communicate with the spirit world and with the spirits of ancestors. Their goal is harmonious existence through sacrifices and prayers. Hmong Animists typically have a shrine in each home of wood and paper decorated with the feathers of a sacrificed rooster (cockerel). Actual animals in the wild are scarce. Birds, squirrels, monkeys, wild boar, and deer have been hunted to the point of vanishing from the countryside. Hmong houses are made of wood or bamboo planks, with steep thatched roofs that extend nearly to the ground.

As we made our way east down the Mekong, we saw Hmong villagers panning for gold and we passed the village of Houri Sangaeh which is gold panning center of sorts. Our guide, Kee, told us that the streams feeding the Mekong can provide gold worth $100 US per month to a family, which goes a long way here.  The French built a gold mine, but it didn’t product enough gold for it to be worth it. The best time for panning is January through May when the river is at its lowest. The locals look for characteristics in the mud that signify “pay dirt”.

A Weaver Selling her Crafts

A Weaver Selling her Crafts

We stopped at a weaving village of 200 people of the Yao tribe whose real name has permanently escaped me, but is sounded something like “Gon D-turn”. We actually visited a “suburb” of this village, which was set up to sell goods to tourists arriving by river. An interesting side note – they offer jet boat rentals as a tourist attraction and  what a contrast that provided. We much preferred the weaving by hand and passed on the jet boat experience.

 

 

 

Sampling the Local Whiskey

Sampling the Local Whiskey

We visited another weaving village called Ban Baw ( pronounced  more like “beau”) where we bought scarves an had the opportunity to sample some Laotian moonshine – clear rice whiskey – aged 3 to 5 minutes. They also make a  home brew beer. Both  were pretty awful. The whiskey is called Lao Khao. It is strong stuff, but not exactly smooth – Jack Daniels has nothing to worry about here. Here is the process:

A large oil drum is filled with small cake of ground rice. Water is added and the natural yeast in the rice cakes creates fermentation. After 1 to 2 weeks the cream colored  liquid is collected to make rice wine called Sara. It tastes a little like fizzy lemonade. To make the whiskey, the container is heated on a wood or charcoal fire and covered with a metal lid. Cool water flows over the lid and the alcohol condenses on the bottom of the lid. From there it flows through a small pipe to a bottle ( although ours had a rope and bowl.)

The Caves of Pak Ou

The Caves of Pak Ou

We stopped at Pak Ou,  where there are two caves in a rock wall containing literally thousands of Buddha statues and images. (Estimated at 4,000.) The lower cave is called Tham Ting and the upper is called Tham Theung.  Anyone can come and bring a Buddha statue and leave it, and apparently thousands have.  The caves were originally used by Animists to worship Phi, the God of Nature and the Mekong River Spirit, which they believe was housed here.  The statues are made from all sorts of materials including concrete, bronze and wood although due to termites, the latter has not fared so well. Inside the caves there are Buddhas on every available surface, some 1 to 2 meters high, some in gold leaf, some just painted and flaking. There is a washing ceremony where the Buddhas are washed in a long

The Buddhas of Pak Ou

The Buddhas of Pak Ou

wooden vessel in the shape of a naga (snake dragon) The King and Queen used to come and wash the Buddhas back in the day on the Laotian New Year, but in those times, they were far fewer in number. The last king was deposed in 1975 and the washing isn’t really manageable any more. Today only Buddhists and Animists live in this area.  The Catholic Church in Luang Prabang which was built by the French  is now a police station.  The only Christians in Laos today are in the capital, Ventiane, in the southern part of Laos,.

Crime is practically non-existent here (practically because there is some). The two main offenses involve taking and selling drugs and speaking out against the deceased king or the current government.  The Laotians say they have Freedom of Speech as long as you don’t say the wrong thing.

We continued downriver to Luang Prabang, situated between the Mekong River and the Nam Khan River, and we met our two hosts, Ek and Paan. where we learned more Laotian history on our way to check into the Kiridara Hotel.

Luang Prabang Mass Transit

Luang Prabang Mass Transit

In the mid 13th Century a number of small states in Northern Laos united to form the Kingdom of Lang Chang which evolved into the name Luang Prabang. The founder was a Thai chief who married a Khmer princess. Two hundred years later they waged war against the Lanna Kingdom in what is today northern Thailand and lost and so those two kingdoms more or less merged (or reunited as the Thais saw it). In 1707 there was a war of succession that split the kingdom into two parts – Ventiane in the south and Luang Prabang in the north.  Luang Prabang fell to the Burmese, and were ruled by them in the 1700’s, but finally got rid of them and became a dependency of Siam (Thailand). But this only occurred after a large massacre.  Luang Prabang was declared a World Heritage Site in 1995.

We had some relaxation time by the pool which was really welcome after our hectic touring and then shortly after 4:00 p.m. we met with Paan who would guide us the next few days since Ek was developing a cold. She took us to a market to get a new suitcase since Sharon’s had a blowout and she also ordered a custom made skirt out of Laotian silk.

Parasols on Sale in the Night Market in Luang Prabang

Parasols on Sale in the Night Market in Luang Prabang

That evening we went to the night market in old town Luang Prabang where there were a lot of crafts, specifically weaving and carving. We bought an elephant head (a small one) for our library at home carved in teak wood. We enjoyed sightseeing (not eating) some of the local delicacies such as Frog snout (we dubbed it the Kermit Special), but they did have some tasty looking things like donuts, fried chicken and grilled fish.) There was something labeled “Half-Brain Stew”  that we saw, (well truthfully we averted our eyes) and passed on the offer of a free sample. It sort of makes you wonder what they put in their donuts too – that frogs and brains business just casts suspicion on everything  and we figured the donuts would not be  your typical Krispy Kreme.

We had dinner at a restaurant called the Three Nagas and were served Laotian fare, which seemed very much identical to Thai food. By this point we were all getting pretty desperate for some Western food, except for Gary, who could eat Asian food at every meal. In fact, our Thai guide Nikki commented that Gary must have some Thai ancestors, because he has the typical ravenous Thai appetite, but apparently he did not get the Thai metabolism or physique with that inheritance

 

February 18, 2012

We skipped making merit this morning and “slept in”, and yet we were still ready at 7:30 for breakfast. Our guide, Ek, met us  to  explore Luang Prabang, whose name means “Capital of Holy Buddhas”. We also took a pass on seeing local singers and dancers perform. At the risk of being narrow-minded and culturally shallow, I have to say that to these Western ears a little of this goes a long, long way. There are some huge gaps in some basic musical concepts between what Western cultures appreciate and what Asians appreciate in terms of melody, pitch and tone.  There are hundreds of wonderful things about Asia, but music is not one of them.

Vat Visounnarath Temple

Vat Visounnarath Temple

Today we would visit several temples, though not all since that would mean 33 temples and this is overload in anybody’s book. There were once 66 temples in the olden days, but 33 more are now in ruins or replaced by other structures. We were picked up by Ek and our driver Olay. We had to chuckle upon seeing (not making this up) a plastic Buddha on the dashboard of our tour vehicle.  He was a very nice man, if a little unskilled with the clutch from time to time, injecting a little lurching movement in our ride at random intervals.

Before we started our touring, we took advantage of a local laundry (being advised to avoid the pricy hotel laundry service).  They do it here for $2.50 per kilo, which is roughly 2.2 pounds.  The bad news is, your clothes might shrink a bit, but hey the price is right and clothing is so cheap here, you can buy more.

We had learned a little local etiquette which included much of what was true in Thailand, such as the prohibition of touching another person on the head.  Also conservative dress is observed here, particularly in temples and includes, for both sexes, covering knees and shoulders. We read that public displays of affection are taboo as is littering, so no kissing or squeezing allowed. Also we were cautioned to be aware of eye contact which is a Western, not an Eastern value. Lao people believe that staring affects a person’s soul (khwan).  And we should ask permission before photographing anyone since  there is a lot of both shyness and superstition among local people.

Buddha in the Temple

Buddha at Vat Visounnarath

Once in the temples there should be no touching of Buddha statues and in some temples even posing with them is considered disrespectful. One rule that we found a challenge was to keep our heads lower than Buddhas and monks when speaking with them. The Buddhas were almost always elevated, so this was not a problem, but those monks were really, really short. We concluded that they give  most Western tourists a pass on this one.  They are strict that women may not touch a monk. If a woman wants to give something to a monk, she hands it to a man who hands it to him.

En route to the temples, Ek gave us some more background on the Buddhist religion

Everyone Loves an Ipad

Everyone Loves an Ipad

We learned that there are 10 basic Rules for Novice monks (starter monks) to  keep it really simple, and they may spend 5 to 6 years at that level.  If a man enters the monkhood as an older man, he may be called Father Novice. A man can actually drop out and rejoin multiple times. Once monks are ordained, they have to observe 328 rules which include no jumping, no jewelry, no driving. They take a test – sort of like Monk boards.  We wondered if that is going to be expanded to include “no cell phones, no IPAD, no Fitbit, etc. to accommodate advances in technology. Here monks typically shave their heads at every full moon, although this practice varies with different Buddhist sects.   This is a tradition which is said to symbolize a renunciation of earthly desires,   Also it creates uniformity in the monkhood and eliminates distractions to their focus on their religious duties.  No primping in the mirror here, and in fact even looking at yourself in a mirror is not permitted. Monks often play the role of marriage counselor and spiritual adviser to lay people.

The Watermelon Stupa

The Watermelon Stupa

Our first stop was at the oldest temple in Luang Prabang called Vat Visounnarath  built in 1512-15 by the King at the time.  The banyan trees in the courtyard were said to be 2,000 years old and so they predate the temple.  On the grounds of the temple compound is the equally ancient (1503) That Makmo  (a.k.a. the “Watermelon Stupa,”  so named because of the big round shape.  A stupa  was a religious monument that served as a tomb for important kings and royalty and are often on the grounds of the temples.  The That Makmo dome  was designed to look like a lotus blossom – that was the intent anyway, but  it looks more like an artichoke to me.  It may have been more lotus-like before the pillaging in 1887 by a Chinese militia and the coating of grey concrete applied in 1932 to keep it from crumbling.

Laundry Day at the Monks' Quarters

Laundry Day at the Monks’ Quarters

There are also a number of cabin- like buildings housing the temple’s monks, complete with laundry (orange robes mostly) flapping in the breeze on the porches. Signs with Buddhist teachings (obviously hand painted) are scattered throughout the grounds. There are quite a few similarities to Christian teachings. The signs provide kind of a thought for the day sort of thing including the 7 rules for Talking.  For example, one sign indicated your should “Speak Truth, not Untruth” and another noted you should “Speak pleasant words, not unpleasant ones” – both excellent ideas.  Key parts of their teaching involve listening more than speaking, that the self is not as important as others, and that you should always seek enlightenment,, and you can’t learn while you are talking. Also a big one is that giving is better than receiving, which should sound quite familiar to Christians.  A ceremonial drum is sounded at 4:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. to mark prayer time.

A Spirt House at Vat

A Spirit House at Vat Visounnarath

Inside the temple there were murals, reminiscent of Dante’s Inferno depicting different “hells” and  punishments for various offenses.  For example one particularly graphic depiction illustrated the punishment for an adulterer which showed a very unhappy fellow being pierced by stakes, impaled on thorns and bitten by dogs. There were other hells for more minor offenses such as  illicit eating (monks have to fast after noon) or lying or hunting (they don’t believe in killing things).  We were told that illicit eating is the number one cause of monk-school washout among young boys and young men.

As we continued our sightseeing in the historic area, it immediately became apparent why Luang Prabang is a World Heritage Site.  There seemed to be ancient monasteries and temples on every block. Our next stop was the temple of Vat Xieng Tong. The translation of the name is the Monastery of the Golden City, and it is the most historically significant temple in the city.  They practice Theravada  (pronounced Ter rah vah dah with the accent on “ter” and “vah”) Buddhism here, as they do in Thailand which is based on the Tipitaka, which is the earliest teachings of Buddha. “Vat” means temple here, whereas in Thailand and Cambodia, it

The Temple at Vat Xieng Thong

The Temple at Vat Xieng Tong

is “wat”. The temple (called the sim) is actually just one part of the complex that is Vat Xieng Tong. There are also monks’ quarters (called kuti), pavilions, gardens and shrines. It was built in 1560 and was embellished over the years. It is considered to be the religious emblem of Laos.  The temple complex served as the entrance to the city – the first stop when crossing either the Mekong or the Nam Khan to get to Luang Prabang. The temple itself has a striking 3 tiered roof which almost reaches the ground on each side.  There was some extensive restoration complete with scaffolding going on while we were there, but we could still see the beauty of it and could imagine it as the site of coronations of Laotian kings and religious festivals. Temple styles here originated from India, but in Laos they evolved to be higher and more pointed rooflines with finials.

Open Air Markets Surrounding a Temple

Open Air Markets Surrounding a Temple

As we walked about we learned a few more monk rules such as no novice can sit in a position higher than a monk,  no one can point the soles of their feet toward Buddha and you should never point with a single finger (a scolding position) as this is considered rude, but rather use your whole hand. Also you should not step on the raised door frame of a temple. This is where the spirit of the naga dwells and so you should step over it.  Gary kept forgetting about doing the pointing thing – naughty tourist.

We also learned that monks only have to go barefoot when collecting alms. Otherwise they wear flip-flops.  While they cannot drive even a motorbike – you often see them on the back of one with someone else driving. They are allowed a few vices such as smoking and getting tattoos. All Laotians (not just monks) do not touch another without permission.   The biggest taboos seem to be sex, lying, stealing, killing, and eating during fast.  We were told that monks have to taste at least one bite of whatever they are given to eat. If not they will go blind (we didn’t think it seemly to share that in our country common folklore tells us that something else causes that.)

Meditating Buddha

Meditating Buddha

Buddha statues may have different poses called asanas. We learned about the different hand positions seen in statues of Buddha that are called “mudras”. Buddha always has the same serene expression, but his body and hands convey a message. For example if his hands at his side with all fingers down he is calling for rain.

Also each day of the week has a different Buddha asana or mudra  and there are many for individual messages  Here are a few examples:

Monday is Peace Buddha – Buddha is standing with one hand extended like Diana Ross admonishing you to  “STOP” in the name of love.

Tuesday Buddha is reclining – Buddha is lying on his side, body perfectly straight with his head resting on one hand propped up on an elbow.

Wednesday Buddha has a bowl and is asking for Alms. This is only the Wednesday morning Buddha, the afternoon Buddha is doing something else.

Thursday Buddha is meditating / thumbs touch with fingers slightly overlapping

Friday Buddha is thinking deeply with this palms crossed over his chest

There is a mudra to expel negativity that looks a little like the NC State Wolfpack sign with the thumb and middle finger together.  A mudra called Namaskar is with the hands together as if praying. It is a welcoming greeting and is the same gesture made from one person to another, which the Thais call the “wai”, and  Laotians call it the “nop”.

Drying Rice Cakes on Foreigner Street

Drying Rice Cakes on Foreigner Street

From the temples we walked to Foreigner Street, so called because this is the area where Caucasians used to live.  Today the street   is lined with various forms of low-tech food production. We saw racks of sticky rice cakes drying in the sun made by the monks that are intended for the poor.  They rehydrate them and heat  them. Also people bring other food throughout the day for both the monks and the poor since giving to others is a key part of their religion.  We also saw women and children making papadam (originally from India) which is a tortilla like food item made from tapioca root instead of corn or wheat. It was also being dried on racks outside on the street.  We were told it will last for years, but no word on how tasty it would be by then.  Also on drying racks we saw jerky, algae (which they grind up and use as a seasoning) and there was the odd batch of laundry thrown in.  We commented that it would seem birds, dogs and cats would steal a snack.  Apparently this country is so honest that not even the animals steal – except the occasional “naughty” bird, and even then they don’t take much.

For building materials in the old days before cement, (which Ek called “semen”, which gave us pause until we figured it out), they used bamboo and water buffalo poop for a binder.  It must have been a very happy event when they were introduced to plaster and cement.

The Naga Staircase of Mount Phousy

The Naga Staircase of Mount Phousy

We walked (or climbed is more apt description since there were an estimated 400  steps) at dusk up to Mount Phousy, a hill in the center of town where the Vat Tham Mothayaram Temple offers an excellent view of the area. It is sort of a ritual to go up there for the sunset, which seems to sink into the hills above the Mekong . We explored the mountain top with its countless Buddhas, set in serene grottos and niches, with floral offerings of orange and yellow flowers (marigolds are big here) as the sound of the chanting of the monks in the temples below drifted up to create a really spiritual moment.

 

Just a Guy Not Buddha

Just a Guy Not Buddha

A word on Buddha likenesses. There is an abundance of statuary of a jolly pudgy guy grinning ear to ear which is often mistaken for Buddha. This is not the case.  He was a person who at one point in his life was wealthy, thin and handsome and always in trouble with the ladies. He knew there was no way he was going to become “Enlightened” (the ultimate goal of  the faithful) with those attributes so he asked Buddha to make him broke, fat and ugly to allow him to escape from temptations like chasing wealth and women. He was granted his wish and became fat, broke, and ugly, but also happy as depicted in the numerous images of him.

The View from Mount Phousy

The View from Mount Phousy

On our way down we did peek into one of the temples where the Buddhist were at prayer.  With the dusk upon us and the almost celestial chanting, it was easy to be drawn into a sense of spirituality. Until that is,  we noticed with some amusement that a young monk on the back row seemed to have concealed a cell phone inside his prayer book and was texting away.  He looked back and saw us looking at him and slammed his book shut looking contrite.  We didn’t tell on him, so his secret is safe with us, but we did think that he may be a monkhood washout in the coming years.

 

Monks at the Festival

Monks at the Festival

Our guide attempted to educate us about temple and festival  lore – but it was somewhat hard to follow. It seemed at times to be a sequence of non-sequiturs and strange illogical plot development – sort of like a child relating a story (or making one up from whole cloth).  Such was the case for the festival in progress that is held once a year to celebrate the last day of the last life of Buddha. It was very carnival like although there was no midway. It was a chance for the monks to let their hair down – that is if they actually had any hair. We understood  that Buddha’s last hurrah as a mortal  his imminent immortality to be

Monks Letting Their Hair Down (so to speak)

Monks Letting Their Hair Down (so to speak)

the cause of the celebration.  There were a lot of games of chance, which we were surprised at (no jumping, but it’s okay to throw a ball  or a dart. Most of the people playing were young boys and old tourists and the proceeds would go to the monasteries.  Not too different, we thought, from the Catholic bingo nights.  They had balloons to burst with a dart, dart roulette where you pick three numbers and spin a wheel. If your dart lands on one of your numbers you win.  There was also a dice game where you would roll to match 3 dice. We concluded it must not be considered as sinful here as it is in the Christian world to be shooting dice.

We finished off our evening with dinner at the hotel by the pool and called it a day – a very long temple-filled day at that.

February 19, 2012

The Pool at the Kiridari

The Pool at the Kiridari

We had a very lovely poolside breakfast at the hotel with the distinctive smell of charcoal in the air and so we knew there were mighty preparations underway to get the day’s supply of sticky rice ready. The mist was just rising off the river when we heard the sound of a gong in the distance, and we imagined the monks making their way among the people wishing to “make merit” by offering them food.

We were picked up at the hotel in order to have an elephant experience at the Xieng Lom Elephant Camp which is 17 kilometers up the Nam Khan River from Luang Prabang, mostly on a dirt road. Unlike our adventure in Thailand, this proved to be pretty tame because we sat in the box called a “howdah”” on the elephant’s back, but it was fun anyway, and certainly much more comfortable than sitting “spread eagle” on the elephant’s very broad back.

En route we learned more about a monk’s life. He is allowed to hold and play with children (such as nieces and nephews) of both sexes until the children are four years old. After that, they can touch the nephews only.  The belief is that they shave not only their heads but also their eyebrows in order  to keep desire away, which is one of those logic-defying things that we keep struggling with. But it’s interesting – always interesting, as was a local crematorium that our guide pointed out– an open air affair built like a gazebo – teakwood painted white, but the top was blackened from all the smoke

Elephants of Xieng Lom

Elephants of Xieng Lom

When we arrived, we saw the elephants placidly munching on bamboo and banana palm leaves. All of the elephants they use here are older females which are much more docile and easy to work with than their feisty male counterparts. Our assigned elephant was Cam Dee – a 44 year old matronly type. Our mahout was Jai who was 24,  and who looked to be about 10. He told us he was working on his English.  From what we understood our elephant’s name meant Good Gold, although with his English and our grasp of the Lao language, it could have been Raging Maniac. We climbed up a set a stairs to a tower

Riding in the Howdahs

Riding in the Howdahs

that would permit us easy entry into the howdah. After riding bareback in Thailand, this seemed liked a limousine. We learned that Sang Dee is how you say “Good Elephant” and we lavished this praise on Cam Dee at every opportunity, lest she decide to go rogue – but that was thankfully not the case.  “Pai Pai”,  as it does in Thailand, means “giddy-up”.  Elephants here, as in Thailand, are trained in a foreign language, in this case Hindi. The benefit of that is that no one will give a command by accident that might confuse the elephant or otherwise cause a problem.

 

Jai, Cam Dee's Mahout

Jai, Cam Dee’s Mahout

Many of the elephants here have been rescued as orphans or from abusive environments.  Jai pointed out an unfortunate elephant whose tail had been chopped off. He said local people make jewelry out of elephant hair, and think nothing of chopping off the tail for easier access,  but at least they don’t kill them  which is little consolation to us animal lovers, which brings me to the topic of ivory. The elephants here are Asian elephants which are smaller than their African counterparts, and unlike the African Elephant, only the male Asian elephants have tusks.  So the female elephants are at least safe in that regard.

A Laotian Laundromat

A Laotian Laundromat

We set off down a trail to the river and saw local women washing their clothes. We didn’t know we were being stealthy until one of the women shrieked in surprise as Cam Dee blew hot bamboo breath on her. We noticed that this Laotian “ Laundromat” is down-river from the elephant crossing,  which we perceived to be poor planning on their part.

The camp manager told us in his briefing that the elephants seem to favor tourists over local people. Tourists as he described as tall and wide (and compared to them we all certainly are – even the shortest and the skinniest among us). We speculated that the Laotians are so small and nimble they can climb all over the elephant and no doubt irritate her to no end.  We tourists are quite placid by comparison, as well as being respectful and quite in awe of them.

Silkworms Working Away

Silkworms Working Away

After our elephant ride, we visited a weaving village called Xangkhong, accessible across a bamboo bridge. We were told that the weavers relocated here during the Vietnam War when their villages in Northern Laos were bombed. Here they raise their own silkworms, dye and weave the silk. They also make their own dyes using such products as indigo and other natural substances.  Some of the designs are so intricate, they take months to complete. They had a showroom and workshop and very reasonable prices – $16 for a hand woven silk scarf.

We returned to Luang Prabang for lunch and sat on a balcony overlooking the street at a restaurant called The View Pavilion.  It was near the temple of Vat Sop Sickharam, so our view included watching the monks coming and going.

Near theRoyal Palace

Near the Royal Palace

After lunch we went to the National Museum in the palace of a former King, but the palace was built by the French in 1904. Apparently they found the king was living in a bamboo hut and thought he needed better lodging. It was very plain on the outside, but quite nice on the inside – perhaps not sumptuous but definitely an upgrade for bamboo. The throne room is simple colonial in style, with lavishly portrayed scenes in mosaic from Laotian life using mirrors and bright colors.

The king died in 1975 and the monks set up an elaborate coronation ceremony for the son, but he was never crowned.  The Communists abolished the monarchy and sent the would be king to a “Re-education Camp” to get him indoctrinated into the joys of Communism.

The highest ranking monk always did the Coronation of the king. Interesting note:  since women are present at the coronation, the monk uses what is termed a “mask” but actually looks like one of those funeral home fans (the kind made out of paper and glued to a  stick) so he could avoid eye contact with the women. Monks also preside at ordinations but there are no women there, so there was no need  to hide from them.

Since Communism has waned, the Japanese have provided a lot of development money that Laos cannot possibly repay, but we were told the Japanese don’t care, they just don’t want to be held accountable for all those invasion related atrocities perpetrated on the people here during World War II.

Paan, our other guide,  told us that her grandfather once  owned a farm in Northern Laos on the border with Vietnam. He told her of almost a year of daily carpet bombing by Americans during the Vietnam War, attacking Viet Cong trying to slip over the border. He said the family and workers would run and hide in caves when they heard the bombers coming and that every structure on their farm was bombed and burned.  Interestingly enough, she says her grandfather and family bear no ill will toward the US for that.  He said something to the effect that Laos has seen all manner of invasions and so much devastation, but at least the Americans were trying to do something good (as opposed to other invaders who came to plunder and conquer). She cited an example of when the Japanese invaded and confiscated every piece of metal to make it into swords and machetes. Apparently it was very brutal.

The CIA was very active in Laos during the Vietnam War and the US was backed by the Royal Army of Laos to fight against Communism. When Saigon fell,  Laos actually was a quasi-Democracy in that they practiced capitalism and could own property and businesses, but they were closed to the outside world until 1999. The US gave 2 Lincolns and an Edsel to the King of Laos during the 1960’s but no one seems to know what happened to them.

At the Royal Palace, we were told another mangled and strange Naga Saga. This particularly long story involved a transvestite man and a captured and caged cat and that somehow this brought rain.  One the rain came, the cat was turned loose and the man went back to his own clothes. We wondered if we were missing something.

One thing we did resonate with is the various simple Buddhist Teachings we have heard. Two of my favorites  heard hear in Luang Prabang are:

“ Anger is a hot coal you hold in your hand. You intend to throw it at others, but it burns you the most.”

“If  you cannot find anything you like, then you need to like what you have” ( a variation on the Stephen Stills song “ Love the One You’re With”.

We called it a day fairly early and prepared for our departure tomorrow afternoon for Vietnam.

 

February 20, 2012

The Children of Ban

The Children of Ban Naoun

We had a new driver today whose name is so complicated, our guide suggested we call him Mr. Driver. We would fly to Hanoi later today, but this morning’s plan called for a visit with children at a school in the Laotian countryside at a Hmong village called Ban Naoun (pronounced “bohn ooh en” with the accent on “ooh”). The Hmong migrated here from Mongolia and several of the children have the lighter hair and eyes apparently passed down from their Mongol ancestors. Today the more wealthy Laotians are the ones who left during the communist era (on the CIA payroll so they say) from 1975 to 1985 and then came back to live in luxury. You can still see the old Communist “Hammer and Sickle” flying around town, but their heart just isn’t in it any more. It’s more symbolic  and romanticized now – perhaps like the Confederate Flag – a symbol of a bygone era.

Village Boys Admiring their Selfie

Village Boys Admiring their Selfie

Armed with candy for the kids, we set out for the village. Unfortunately, the school was closed for a holiday, but still hordes of children, seeing our van, streamed down the hillsides toward the school to greet us. Even young boys playing a game of soccer (Paan pronounced it “Shocker”, but we are sure they get as many chuckles from our pronunciation of their language as we do theirs). There were also many boys armed with slingshots who helped spread the word of tourists bearing candy arriving at the schoolhouse. Soon we were surrounded by very orderly and well mannered children.

We learned that there are only two grades taught here and unfortunately that is all the education parents can afford. Although the schools are public, they are not free. The children were both dirty and adorable. They were fascinated by us and we were fascinated right back.

Just a Boy and his Pet

Just a Boy and his Pet

We saw men smoking tobacco with a water pipe (they say it’s better for your lungs) and were trailed through the village by a young boy with a pet rooster tucked under his arm like a puppy. The kids sang The Chicken Song for us in their language (which was a little hard to get the gist of until they added the sound effects and dance moves) and Happy Birthday which was the only song they knew in English – performed just for us.  The kids had some very basic toys – like sticks, and a defunct bicycle tire. Young girls sold woven bracelets and wood carvers were selling their crafts as well. They typically sell them wholesale to merchants in Luang Prabang, but we bought a carved Naga (sort of a snake lizard, dragon combo –a long body like a snake, but with lizard like feet and  the head of a fire-breathing dragon) directly from the man who carved it.

A Village Woodcarver

A Village Woodcarver

We were told the village shaman often uses the heads of animals on a stick to keep away evil spirits – including pigs, chickens and dogs – we were okay with this until we heard the dog part. Some cultural divides are just too wide to be bridged. We were thankful the shaman wasn’t dealing with evil spirits while we were there.

 

 

 

In the Village of Ban Naoun

In the Village of Ban Naoun

We learned that 90% of business in Laos is tourism related and we were glad to see that UNESCO seems to be at work everywhere to preserve it.  Since the country was Communist for so long, we expected to see the same drab structures we have seen in China, but this was not the case – the village was both quaint and charming, with only a slight vestige of technology placed there in 2011 in the form of electricity to each home provided by an extension cord which provided a plug, which provided electricity to a cell phone charger.  The electricity is only on a few hours a day, so battery management is important – not that there is much of a cell signal in these parts.

Kouang Si Waterfalls

Kouang Si Waterfalls

From the village we took a short hike to a beautiful waterfall and series of pools deep in the jungle at a park called Kouang Si (pronounced Kwang See.  The name has something to do with a legend involving deer drilling the earth with their hooves and creating the waterfalls, which were absolutely beautiful. (we nicknamed it Shangri-Laos).  There were pools at 5 different levels, an otherworldly celadon green, cascading from one level to the next over limestone with hundreds of tiny waterfalls stretching for 80 meters. The top pool was clear, the rest shaded green from the limestone. Along the paths growing wild were

River Cascades at Kouang Si

River Cascades at Kouang Si

every tropical flower and plant normally seen in nurseries and greenhouses here in the US – hibiscus, periwinkle, lantana, poinsettias just to name a few. There were a few brave souls swimming, but the water was ice cold and most just looked on. We did see (in captivity) a local bear, which is almost extinct now, but they are trying to bring them back

We saw a motorbike pulling a bicycle up the hill with two people holding hands serving as the connection between the two. The motorbike had saddlebags the size of small refrigerators and we speculated what they might be for, but the possibilities were endless.  Everything is open air here – cooking, manufacturing,  and services such as haircuts. Transportation locally ranges from the open bed of a pickup truck (no F 150’s here – we are talking tiny Toyotas),  to tuktuks, jitneys, bicycles, motorbikes and cars.  One of the most bizarre sights was 5 guys on one motor bike, each with a container of soup with plastic over it –we assumed destined for a picnic at the park.  Then there was a motorbike with a side car which was a modified  shopping cart, and another  with a sidecar made of a buggy seat with wheels.

A Rice Paddy Near Luang Prabang

A Rice Paddy Near Luang Prabang

We had lunch at a local noodle shop which was quite good – the best in town so we were told. We had a choice of noodles  –  skinny  (like spaghetti) or wide (like lasagna) served with tomatoes, pork broth, scallions, garlic, bean sprouts and spices – all really fresh.   There were small dishes of cilantro, watercress, green beans, and butter lettuce for us to add what we wanted to our noodle dish. While we ate, we learned some Lao etiquette such as for locals, there are no rules on time and tardiness or showing up unannounced. When our guide set a time he/ she would specify Western which mean the exact time. Unlike in China, chopsticks are used for noodles only. It is fingers, spoon or fork for the other items in your noodles.  Locals also avoid using their left hand when eating since that is reserved for less sanitary business. If you are in a Lao home and offered a drink, it is considered rude not to take it and at least sip it. If you invite Lao people to join you for dinner – you pay.  If they invite you, then they will pay. They apparently make exceptions for tourists since we always split the check.

We had time for a shower and change, thanks to our late check out and caught a 4:50 p.m. flight to Hanoi .

 

 

 

 

 




Southeast Asia Part 3: North Vietnam and Hue

Southeast Asia

Part Three:  North Vietnam to Hue

February 20, 2012

Dateline: Hanoi, Vietnam

Latitude at Hanoi 21.02 Degrees North, Longitude 105.85 Degrees East

On the Streets in Old Town Hanoi

On the Streets in Old Town Hanoi

Today we flew to Hanoi on Vietnam Airlines on a late afternoon flight, having gotten our visas ahead of time. We assumed that this would mean a swift and efficient pass through Immigration, but this was not the case. Our entrance into Laos (rhymes with and synonymous with chaos) was as smooth as a NASA launch compared to what awaited us in Hanoi. Our journey through Immigration involved surrendering our passports at one window, which we found to be quite alarming) and then joining a throng of people to await our name to be called, which involved a total mangling of the names at another window. This was followed by an attempt to  match a passport picture and a face – dicey at best since to Asians, all Caucasians look alike.  In any event we eventually were reunited with both our passports and our bags, and we met our North Vietnamese guide, Lily, who greeted us with xin chao (pronounced “sin chow”) , the Vietnamese word for hello.

Hanoi Traffic Free-for-All

Hanoi Traffic Free-for-All

It was foggy and cool for our one hour drive into the city, where we found Vietnamese Immigration to be a model of organization compared to the traffic encountered, not just on the roads but on paths and sidewalks as well, which seemed to be used indiscriminately by pedestrians, animals, animals pulling wheeled contraptions, bicycles and bicycles pulling wheeled contraptions, motorbikes carrying   people and pulling wheeled contraptions, livestock and cargo and  assorted vehicles, which might be hauling anything imaginable.

We got some local money (called the dong which gave us a chuckle) and learned that there are 20,800 dong to the dollar and it comes in denomination of up to 5,000) and has both bills and coins. Vietnamese currency is actually printed in Australia to avoid having government employees conspire to print off a few extra thousand dong and pocket it. It takes a lot of dong to buy anything, but US dollars are accepted in cities so that makes it easier to buy things. Vietnam has compulsory education through Grade 12 and has a 93% literacy rate, which has contributed greatly to their emerging economy.

Young Vietnamese Children

Young Vietnamese Children

We learned that Hanoi has around 7 million people of the 39 million who live in Vietnam.  Fifty-five percent of those 39 million are under the age of 35. But the statistic that really shocked us was that there are an estimated 28 million motorbikes, which are at the heart of the craziness here. There seem to be few rules of the road,  and headlights and taillights are optional. Horns can be substituted for turn signals, brakes and headlights. It is comparable to a New York City sidewalk at rush hour, but there are motorbikes instead of pedestrians. There are a host of traffic rules, but they are largely disregarded.

One unwritten rule that is observed by pedestrians is that you should not stop or change directions once you start to cross a street. The motorists are judging your speed and distance and can only successfully avoid you if you maintain speed and distance. I learned this lesson the hard way when I was rear ended by a bicycle when I paused to avoid being run over (or I thought so anyway) by a taxi.

No Hugging, but Fist Bumps are Okay

No Hugging, but Fist Bumps are Okay

There are no public displays of affection here (PDA) such as handholding or kissing, no matter how innocently. Except for babies and toddlers, the locals pretty much don’t touch each other, so when we tourists come to town with our touchy-feely ways, it has to be a culture shock for them.

The economy here is sort of Communist Light – that is they talk like Communists, but they conduct business like capitalists. They did a major overhaul of their way of life in 1986 with economic reforms called the “doi moi” in which they allowed free market enterprise, abolished collective farming and set about to

 

 

 Capitalism works for Feather Duster Sellers Too

Capitalism works for Feather Duster Sellers Too

liberalize politics in general . Today US companies are the largest investors in the country.  Since President Clinton lifted the trade embargo against Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam in 1996, they have really blossomed. Ironically the world is doing more to defeat Communism with trade than we could have ever hoped for with war. There is a 200% tax on buying vehicles, unless you buy one from China, which will generally self-destruct in three years, thus keeping the demand strong.

We were given information on local customs that we reviewed on the way and found many are the same as in Thailand and Laos. For example you should not touch the head of another person and you should remove your shoes at temples and private homes. If there is a family altar in a private home, do not sit with your feet pointing toward it. You should take a small gift to someone’s home if invited, but do not bring handkerchiefs, yellow flowers,  chrysanthemums or anything black since those have bad luck or religious meanings attached.  You should wait until you are instructed where to sit and the oldest person is seated first. Do not drink before everyone has a beverage and “clink” glasses in a toast.

Combination Sidewalk Fruit Stand and Barber Shop

Combination Sidewalk Fruit Stand and Barber Shop

When eating, these things should be observed (although they make exceptions for Westerners. You should pass dishes using both hands, place chopsticks on the table between bites and when finished place them on your bowl.  In Vietnam you hold your spoon in your left hand to eat soup, whereas in Laos you don’t use your left hand at all.

We were cautioned to ask permission to take photos of individuals, which is a good practice anywhere, and to not photography military personnel.  We are also told we should avoid any discussion of the Vietnam War ( which they call it the American War) with locals. From their perspective it is over and done with and there don’t seem to be any hard feelings.

The Opera House in the French Quarter

The Opera House in the French Quarter

Vietnam is long and narrow with two thousand miles of coastline and a width of only 31 miles at its narrowest point.  There are 59 provinces called “tinhs” and 5 municipalities called “thu do”.  The biggest holiday in Vietnam is “Tet”, or the Lunar New Year. It is a day of thanksgiving and a time to pay homage to ancestors.  The Vietnamese also believe that on this day, the deceased may visit the living. Hanoi is the oldest city in Southeast Asia, recently celebrating in 2010 its 1,000 years of existence. It was built on the Red River in the center of a long gone citadel.  The North and South split in Vietnam came into being in 1954 when the 4 great world powers at the time (the victors of WWII – The US, Great Britain, France and Russia) decided to partition the country at the 17th Parallel prior to having general elections.  The elections never took place and the division remained permanent with two separate warring leaders emerging – HO Chi Minh in the North and Ngo Dinh Diem in the South.  This set the stage for the 15 year war that the Americans call the Vietnam War and the Vietnamese call the American War.  The country was not reunited until 1975 with the fall of Saigon.

Mobile Flower Market - Peddler Pedaling Petals

Mobile Flower Market – Peddler Pedaling Petals

Lilly gave us some practical advice while in Hanoi.  That is when paying cash, we should pay for something with the correct change or it is likely you will get counterfeit bills in return. Also we should avoid eating street vendor food due to some serious hygiene issues and be on guard for modern day “cutpurses” (sounds like in Victorian times) whereby thieves will slash the strap to a purse or back pack and make off with it and its contents. When buying beer we should not buy draft, since the bartender will substitute their own home brew for a name brand and if buying liquor, you may ask for Jack Daniels, and it may even be in a Jack Daniels bottle, but you will be getting Vietnamese moonshine.

We checked into the Silk Path Hotel, which we found had very little charm – just a business hotel in a big city – but it was very centrally located in the Old Quarter. We set out on foot to find a nearby restaurant that Lily recommend and discovered that, as in the rest of the city traffic is absolutely crazy. It is a life-threatening experience to cross a street. We did have a nice meal and then darted in and out of traffic to get back to the safety of the hotel.

February 21, 2012

Street Scene in Hanoi

Street Scene in Hanoi

Today we explored Hanoi and left our hotel on a cool and cloudy, still foggy morning. One of the first things we saw was a Vietnamese peasant right out of Central Casting. She had on the black pajama like outfit with a pole over her shoulders with a basket hanging from each end full of produce.  There were motorbikes whizzing around her in all directions, but she kept her course and pace steady and thus avoided disaster. Another incongruous sight we beheld just down the street in a park was a bride posing in her elaborate white wedding gown. Lily told us that Vietnamese are quite taken with American-style weddings and they usually have as big a blowout as can be afforded by whoever foots the bill.

Ba Dinh Square

Ba Dinh Square

Our first stop was Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum (who is their George Washington of sorts in that he is considered the Father of the Country, but with very different thoughts on personal freedom and he was not at all bothered by the idea of himself as a dictator for life).  Also he is referred to as Uncle Ho, rather than father. He is accorded quite heroic stature here, but much of it seems overdone and contrived puffery. The local people don’t quite seem to observe the required deference.  The mausoleum is made from marble from the Marble Mountains near Danang and as the guidebook tactfully puts it – it stands out as “an exception to the graceful architectural environment of Hanoi” – translation: this is one ugly building. The local lady in line ahead of us recognized my Hmong scarf and smiled and nodded enthusiastically at my patronage of local crafts, and we made extremely limited small talk with many smiles and gestures. Her small grandson peeked shyly at Gary from his hoodie, in awe of his relative size, but by the time we advance to the entrance they were exchanging high fives.  The Mausoleum is surrounded by a very plain, depressing, and even foreboding looking square called Ba Dinh. While it was a dreary day, I am not sure sunshine would improve things much. Rules were posted in several languages and our favorite was the one that forbade “frolicking” – What? No frolicking at Mao’s tomb? What a buzz killer this place was.

Tomb of ho Chi Minh

Tomb of ho Chi Minh

Despite Ho Chi Minh’s request in writing to be cremated, and that no money be spent on any monuments – his requests were thoroughly ignored. Instead they followed the trend in Communist countries where the bodies of the leaders are preserved and there is a daily viewing so the people can see the physical remains of their esteemed leader. (Lenin in Moscow, Chairman Mao in Beijing, and Ho Chi Minh in Hanoi) Unfortunately, Ho died and something went awry with the preservation process. We were told that this is the commonly known story – although the official story is that body you see is really him. If that is the case, it is truly stunning that he died at 79, yet his rosy cheeks and stern face had nary a wrinkle. We think maybe Madame Tussaud’s had staged an intervention and substituted a wax figure for the real thing.  We also learned (again this might just be vile gossip) that Ho’s real body was shipped off to Russia several times for some remedial work, but with no success. He died in 1969 during what they call the American War, so he might not have been stored properly to facilitate successful preservation and this climate had to have taken its toll.

The Lake at Mao's Stilt House

The Lake at Mao’s Stilt House

In any event, we didn’t have long to personally observe his features. Guards dressed in white were spaced every few feet. The line moved smartly along and we were instructed to walk 2 by 2 (just like Noah’s ark),  keep our eyes straight ahead, to not cross our arms or put our hands in our pockets – not sure whether this was for security purposes or a show of respect.  I did think they could have used some of the guards posted every few yards to work on traffic detail – maybe save some lives or something amid the bedlam, but I kept that suggestion to myself.  But sure enough, they raised Ho (or the surrogate Ho) up out of the basement freezer and into a darkened room with all the lights trained on him for all to see.  He was quite short and small, and he looked harmlessly cherubic for a man with such a fierce reputation in the Western World

Ho Chi Minh means “Bringer of Light” but this is not the name he was born with, Nguyen Sinh Cung – but it just doesn’t have the same ring to it. Ho was a world traveler in his younger days and even lived in Brooklyn for a while. He never married and lived a very simple life, preferring his humble cottage to the palace left by the French.

The French Built Presidential Palace

The French Built Presidential Palace

We walked by the French built Presidential Palace, a mustard yellow building with dark green trim and shutters. We also saw two other beautiful French colonial buildings, the Opera House and the State Guest house which was once the residence of the French governor. It is now used for state receptions and special events. The French structures are really a contrast to the grim graceless tomb. Many have been converted into museums.

 

 

The Stilt House

The Stilt House

We did take the short walk to Ho’s Cottage, also called the Stilt House, on a nearby lake, passing a number of Jumbotron sort of signs that touted the virtues of Communism and the greatness of their leaders, past and present. Ho Chi Minh lived in this cottage from 1958 until his death in 1969, preferring the simple life to the nearby palaces left by the French.  The guides told us that no changes have been made since he died. It is a very simple structure on stilts, as the name suggests, with small rooms and minimal furnishings. Ho used two simple rooms, a study and a bedroom, both spartanly furnished. His bedroom contained a narrow bed, a clock, a telephone and a radio.  His study had a desk, a typewriter and a bookcase full of books in the several languages in which he was fluent.  They said Ho liked to fish in the lake when he needed to chill out. The house is surrounded by informal gardens with weeping willows, mango and frangipani trees.  A hospital was built on the grounds in his later years when he was very ill. We also saw his automobiles, two Russian behemoths that look like they came out of the 1940’s and French Peugeot. Ho is remembered as a gentle and modest man dedicated to the nation, although he was reputedly quite a womanizer.

We passed on seeing the Ho Chi Minh Museum which was supposed to be shaped like a lotus blossom, but it looked pretty grim and graceless too.  We also passed on the History and Army Museum which the same tactful guidebook described as “a bit stiff on the social rhetoric – translation: you will be awash in propaganda”.

Main Gate to the "Hanoi HiIton" (Hoa Lo Prison -

Main Gate to the “Hanoi HiIton” (Hoa Lo Prison –

Our next stop was the so called “Hanoi Hilton”, also known as the Hoa Lo Prison, which was only a few blocks from our hotel in the Old Quarter. We were surprised in that we expected it to be in some remote jungle. It was originally a French prison built in 1896 and used in colonial times when it was called Maison Centrale (central house in French), as indicated by the original sign that hangs over the entrance.  It was designed to hold 450 prisoners, but there have been as many as 2,000 in the ensuing years. This is the infamous prison where John McCain and a number of other American pilots were held for years, in McCain’s case from 1967 to 1973. The Northern Vietnamese learned that he was the son of an American Admiral and tried to use him as a bargaining chip, but his father refused to consider it.  When McCain’s plane went down, he was injured and crashed into West Lake which borders the city. A local fisherman saved him from drowning, but did turn him over to the authorities. His flight suit from that time is one of the museum’s exhibits, amid shackles and whips and more grisly torture devices as well as a still working guillotine. The slant on the torture implements is that the French used them on the Vietnamese. – no mention of any use on Americans.  Senator McCain visited Hanoi in the 1990’s and returned to the prison to see it. He also had the opportunity to thank the man who saved his life. Both the Admiral and Senator were stand-up guys back then. Most of the prison was demolished in 1997, but a portion was saved for the Hoa Lo Prison Museum.

An Exhibit Showing Prisoner Quarters

An Exhibit Showing Prisoner Quarters

Other Americans have had a very different experience from Senator McCain’s, most notably, President George W. Bush visited Hanoi and brought with him around one thousand security people as well as his own cars, food and helicopter. The entourage rented the entire Sheraton Hotel for the visit.

The museum is pretty heavily laden with propaganda such as photos of Americans playing ping pong and getting letters from home and it portrays only the most humane treatment.  While the North Vietnamese can claim victory in what they call the American War, with the final US withdrawal in 1975, it was a bitter victory.  The country lost an estimated 3 to 6 million people, plus 3 generations were plagued with disease and birth defects caused by Agent Orange.

the House of Ceremonies

the House of Ceremonies at the Confucian Temp[le

 

There are four religions here: Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism and Christianity. Our next stop was at the Confucian Temple in Hanoi’s Old Quarter. It is also called the Temple of Literature or the Van Mieu. It was established in 1070 and founded in honor of the Chinese philosopher, Confucius and it served as a center for higher learning for centuries. We entered through the historic Van Mieu  Gate to find a series of 5 courtyards..  Khue Van Cac (an ornate gate built in 1805) opens onto the courtyard of the Well of Heavenly Clarity which occupies the third of five courtyards.  The well is actually a rectangular pond with  82 surviving stele (short little tombstone like things) out of an original 112 lining the garden walks around the pond, with the names  and brief histories of those who passed the rigorous exams and achieved scholastic greatness. The most interesting was called the Tortoise stele because it is mounted on a pedestal shaped like a tortoise. Among the other highlights were the Human Chess board where people dress as chess pieces and move according to directions given by players.

The Altar inside the House of Ceremonies

The Altar inside the House of Ceremonies

We also saw the Bai Dong (the House of Ceremonies) which has an altar with huge cranes (birds, not mechanical) standing on top of tortoises.  We learned that in Chinese mythology there was a dragon King with 9 sons, one of them named Bixi who took  the form of a tortoise. I believe our guide said that cranes were auspicious creatures bringing good fortune, but I could be making this part up. Behind the Bai Dong was the Temple of Confucius with statuary of him and four of his disciples, dressed in elaborate robes, wrought in elaborate gilt and red paint.  We were at the temple at the same time as a gazillion school kids which undermined the tranquility of the place, quite a bit, so we had to imagine that the Temple of Literature as the tranquil place it was intended to be.

The Chua Mot Cot Pagoda

The Chua Mot Cot Pagoda

We also saw the Chua Mot Cot Pagoda, built on a single pillar, by the Emperor in 1049. It is built of wood, but the pillar supporting it is stone and is sitting on a lotus pond. It was built because the king, who had no heir at the time, was visited by the Goddess of Mercy sitting on t lotus flower and she presented him with a baby boy. Shortly after the dream, he married a young queen who gave birth to a boy, so this pagoda was built in her honor.  It has suffered a lot of destruction and much reconstruction over the centuries, including being burned by the French in 1954, which seemed to be mostly an act of spite.

 

Shoe Street in the Old Quarter

Shoe Street in the Old Quarter

In the Old Quarter there are 36 Streets that are named after the merchandise the shops feature. This tradition dates back to the 13th Century when shops were built to cater to the palaces of the royalty and nobility. For example Hang Gai Street (literal translation is the Street of Hemp – rope, not marijuana) sold rope. Today stores are filled with silk embroidery and silver as well as bootleg CD’s and DVD’s  that sold for about $2 US (no guarantees on quality). Another street is Hang Quat (the Street of Fans) which today offers not only fans but religious items and funeral and festival flags. Hang Buom Street which back in the day was “Sailmaker’s Street, but today, all along the street there are shops selling candy, coffee and tobacco products.   There are also streets in the old quarter named after trades or crafts including Leather, Silk, Paper Products, Hardware, and Shoes. One of our favorites was called Hang Mam (hang being the word for street, mam being the word for pickled fish – and thus it was called Pickled Fish Street, but with the shrinking demand for pickled fish, today the stores are selling headstones carved with likenesses of the deceased

We had lunch at the Pho 24 Noodle Shop (a chain owned by a Vietnamese who left and came back). Most of the wealthy and merchant class are returned ex-pats.  The locals who stayed and tried to make communism work are typically the laborers.  One area where Communism is trying to keep Capitalism at Bay is in land ownership.  You cannot own land, but the government will lease it to you for 50 years.  By modifying the Communist rules, the country is able to prosper. We had cam pho, which is rice and noodles in a tasty broth.

A the Lacquer Workship

A the Lacquer Workship

After lunch we visited a lacquer workshop and gallery called Minh Thu, selling lacquer artwork, silk and pearls. The lacquer artwork is made with an 18 step process starting with a teak board on which the design is drawn. Then various materials are glued on such as crushed eggshell, mother or pearl and gold inlays which are hand cut in very delicate shapes to form the materials for the mosaic. Then there is a process of lacquering and sanding and lacquering that is repeated to achieve a high gloss. We bought one for our home from a tiny sales girl who looked to be about 14, but who told us she was 24. It was shipped to us and arrived in about 4 months as promised.

Start of the Trishaw Adventure

Start of the Trishaw Adventure

Our next adventure was a cyclo (trishaw) ride where were pedaled by a man sitting behind us down wide avenues in the French Quarter where we were surprised to find  high-end designer  luxury stores.  We didn’t think Prada and Gucci were part of Ho’s plan. We asked Lily who buys from these shops and she said it the Vietnamese who left in 70’s and came back with money. They were actually welcomed back after some time had gone by. Other patrons are tourists from other countries.  Once we left the French Quarter and entered the old Quarter, there was an increasing cacophony of sounds, sights, and smells.

 

Sidewalk "Cafes" in Old Town Hanoi

Sidewalk “Cafes” in Old Town Hanoi

Sidewalks are the responsibility of the stores they border and many are loaded up with locals doing their cooking and running their various service businesses such as hair cutting, sewing alterations and shoe shining. These enterprises are fronted with rows of parked motorbikes and lounging people, who are sitting on plastic” kiddie chairs” having a beer. We weren’t sure why they have such small chairs, but perhaps they are a better fit given their small stature. The shop with the most intriguing  name (in English anyway) was the Half Man Half Noodle. We had no time to explore and so it will have to remain a mystery.

 

The Water Puppets in Actin

The Water Puppets in Action

Our last stop for today was at the Water Puppet Theater called the Thang Long (translation “Soaring Dragon ) Theater presenting the art of water puppetry called “roi nuoc”.  The performance is a highly ritualized folk play based on beliefs and legends, with a mix of buffoonery and morality, accompanied by melodramatic music featuring a 4 stringed instrument called the “ty ba”. There were also special effects including smoke, firecrackers and a water-spewing dragon. The puppets were operated on the surface of a pond,which served as the stage.  The puppets were manipulated by puppeteers with sticks on the sidelines behind a curtain. We had a program in sort of fractured English to guide us through the plot (such as it was).  The play opened with the “Drumming”, followed by the “Dragon Dance” and the “Buffoon Tea”.  The next segment was called “Buffalo Fighting” which was not really fighting, but more a show of strength in sort of a frolicking scenario performed by assorted water buffalos to underscore the slogan, “the peasant’s wealth starts with a buffalo”. Then we had a segment glorifying farm work and a segment called the Village Guardian.  Worship of the Village Guardian god has to be done just right or he will get angry and cause all manner of grief. The next exciting segment was called Van Singing which included songs in praise of the deities including one they call the Holy Mother, but this is not the Holy Mother in the Catholic sense.  This was followed by a horse race, more singing called Quan Ho singing which is intended as sort of a romantic musical exchange between a man and a woman, followed by “Coconut Picking”.

The Puppeteers Take a Bow

The Puppeteers Take a Bow

The grand finale was the changing of a carp into a dragon, which was the basis for the legend of the first emperor of the country they called Thang Long at the time.  At the end of the performance, a curtain was raised to reveal the puppeteers, in waist deep water.  It was a very odd performance, odd plot, with live and really irritating music, but actually entertaining as it was such a unique experience – we can check that one off.

In the course of our afternoon, we learned a lot more about modern day Vietnam.  Regarding government and laws, we learned that they have elections (which many mispronounce in English as “erections” which makes us titter), but there is only one candidate, selected by the Communist Party.  As for traffic laws, speeders are fined, when they get caught, but that seems to be the only moving traffic violation that raises an eyebrow.  Their most drastic punishment is death and that is reserved for drug dealers, and in fact that is about the only crime in the country of any consequence (aside from speaking out against the Communist Party). At one time it was estimated that 45% of the Hmong Tribesmen were opium addicts and so they are really trying to reverse that with really draconian measures.

Incense Burning at the Temple

Incense Burning at the Temple

We also learned more about social customs. They have funerals where they cremate mostly now, but for burials – they bury the body for 10 years, then dig it up, clean the bones and take them up into the hills. The Wedding Season is March to November when the weather is the best (that is not as wet and not as hot), but they do have them in other seasons in case of an emergency, such as a pregnant bride. Another emergency would be a sick relative.  Local tradition says that you should not marry within 3 years of the death of a family member. So if grandma starts to feel a little poorly, an engaged couple may decide to move up the wedding day so they don’t have to wait so long. English is mandatory in schools – it is the language of commerce and anyone who wants to be successful in Vietnam needs to be fluent. There are 6 tones in the Vietnamese language, but not nearly as many words as in English. One word (e.g. “ma”) can have 6 different meanings and thus it is easy to get into trouble here trying to speak the local language

Dental clinics are big here – overuse of antibiotics and drugs has made many people’s teeth soft and dark so cosmetic dentistry is big business. Also plastic surgery and weight loss surgery are big, the latter mostly for foreigners.  Locals typically want western looking eyes and a bridged nose. As a rule, Vietnamese are very appearance and weight conscious. They think an over-weight person is one heavier than 50 kilograms which is about 110 pounds, so they must really think we foreigners are grossly obese. We were told that since the trade embargo was lifted in 1995, Vietnamese women spend 50% of their income on clothes. Shopping was doubtlessly pretty limited in the old days prior to that with drab colors with a baggy fit, so it is understandably if they went a little crazy when they got merchandise from the outside world.

A Street in Old town Hanoi

A Street in Old town Hanoi

As for public utilities, they have the most bizarre rat’s nest of electrical wiring hanging on the outside of the buildings. When they have a problem, they don’t trouble shoot, they just run more wire.  The City of Hanoi was built on the Red River and a dam was built, but not operational. They are forced to buy power from China.

In addition to all the motorbikes, cars, cyclos and buses, trains run the 1800 kilometers between Hanoi and the Port of Haiphong to Ho Chi Minh City – once known as Saigon. The Chinese ruled here for over 1,000 years with brief interruptions for the French Colonial Period of about 150 years and the Japanese invasion for 2 years during World War II. The Vietnamese are still experimenting with this independence business.

Mobile Broom Store

Mobile Broom Store Old Town Hanoi

Their houses throughout the city are tall and narrow, with multiple generations per dwelling. Typically the elders live on the first floor, their adult children on the second floor, and the grandchildren on the third floor with any great grandchildren.  Vietnamese women marry and go to live with the husband’s family, often in a very crowded household.  This has given rise to the so called “love hotels” which rent by the hour by couples who desire some privacy. They have snake wine here which is essential truly awful tasking wine with a snake inside the bottle, sort of like the worm in a bottle of mescal. They call it the Vietnamese Viagra and is very popular with those seeking out an assignation in one of the Love Hotels.

Lilly told us a story from her family in which a new bride and groom were in their honeymoon bed eating candy that was given to them at the wedding. However the mother-in –law was sleeping on a cot in the same room, separated by only a curtain and stuck her hand through a part in the curtains to demand that they share with her.  There are only 2 nursing homes in all of Hanoi since families are expected to care for their aged until they die.  Those nursing homes are only for those with no family.

We had dinner at a local restaurant specializing in French Vietnamese cuisine called Indochine (a.k.a. Dong Duong), which was a short walk from the hotel with the added advantage of having a crosswalk to get to it – and  a lot of good that did – but the food was great and we returned to our hotel unscathed by the evening.

February 22, 2012

Dateline: Halong Bay, Vietnam

Latitude at Halong Bay 20.84 Degrees North, Longitude 107.21 Degrees East

A Sampan in Halong Bay

A Sampan in Halong Bay

Today we drove the 3 hour trip (170 km) by car to Halong Bay to board the Bhaya, our sampan-type vessel for exploring the scenic bay and our overnight accommodation.  Halong Bay is just off the Gulf of Tonkin, which is part of the larger South China Sea.  The Gulf of Tonkin is the place where in 1964 two American destroyers reported being fired on by North Vietnamese vessels, resulting in the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in Congress which gave then President Lyndon Johnson the power to increase US military forces in Southeast Asia, which we all know didn’t end well.  But the very peaceful Halong Bay has been designated at UNESCO World Heritage site and remains tranquil. It stretches for 580 square miles, with more than 2,000 limestone and dolomite pinnacles rising up out of the sea. These pinnacles (called karst) are made of sediment that settled on the sea floor in prehistoric times, but it subsequently rose to the surface through geographic upheaval and formed into spectacular shapes due to erosion by warm slightly acidic rain over the millennia.

These Little Piggies Going to Market

These Little Piggies Going to Market

En route along the highway, we noticed many people carrying baguettes in a plastic bag – apparently a hold-over from French Colonial times, although the Vietnamese add a twist of their own – they like to hollow them out and fill them with ice cream.  The drive was also extremely entertaining in the wide variety of cargo spotted on motorbikes and in small cars. We saw chickens coops stacked on the back of a moped, a live pig (hog-tied if you’ll pardon the pun, on the back of a motorcycle, as well as a piggy we saw on his way to market in a small trailer towed by a motor cycle.  Our favorite, a water buffalo stuffed into the backseat of a tiny sedan – his head sticking our one window, his rump out the other.  We also marveled at a live goose trussed and hanging by his feet from the handlebars of a motor-bike – talk about vertigo!

Exotic Birds with Exotic Transportation

Exotic Birds with Exotic Transportation

There were a large number of see-through buildings that had been intended as factories and apartment homes for factory workers built by foreign investors who worked on the premise that if you build it, they will come.  However, they did not come and there are blocks of empty structures in mile after mile of abandoned projects. The primary investors were the Japanese and there is an abandoned high speed rail project and many “bridges to nowhere” that they funded.  In the old days of Communism, they called Cuba Little Brother, Russia was Big Brother and East Germany was just Brother. Japan didn’t really come into the picture until the economic reforms of 1986.

Rice Paddies of North Vietnam

Rice Paddies of North Vietnam

All guides in Vietnam are young and fluent in English – non- English speakers are all older and rapidly dying off.   There were a number of rice paddies scattered in among the abandoned projects and occasionally we would see the hammer and sickle flag, although the national flag is red with a yellow star. We were amazed to see that they really do wear the conical straw hats to work in, and when  seen with a water buffalo in a rice paddy, it requires a photo op stop. Instead of scarecrows, they use flags in the fields to scare off birds from the rice seedlings.  Homes in Hanoi tended to be shotgun style, built behind a shop in the same narrow style. They are accessed by a narrow path or sidewalk, just wide enough for a bicycle and everyone takes their bicycles inside at night since they are extremely valuable in this country and tend to disappear if left unattended.

A Floating Village in Halong Bay

A Floating Village in Halong Bay

Monks in this part of Vietnam live in temple complexes and do not go out seeking food donations, as we saw in Thailand and Laos.  Instead food is brought to them. Here they practice Mahayana Buddhism, not the Theravada of Thailand and Laos. Monks are not very much in evidence here either – in fact we didn’t see any out and about.  There are two other main sects of Buddhism, Vajrayana and the more familiarly known, Zen, which is a derivative of Mahayana and which focuses on meditation as way to attain Enlightenment.  The Mahayana sect focuses on compassion, with their central devotional being the bodhisattvas, spiritual beings who work to free other beings from their suffering.  The image of a  bodhisattva  is often portrayed with multiple eyes and arms, ( 1,000 eyes and arms according to their beliefs) which makes for interesting sight-seeing.

Limestone Formations of Halong Bay

Limestone Formations of Halong Bay

We stopped at a village called Hai Dong about half way to Halong Bay to visit a government sponsored ceramics factory.  This area is known for its white clay, which is in much demand for ceramic production. At this facility, the government is training the disabled to take away skills that they can teach in remote villages. The place was called Chan Thien My – but is sounded strangely like “ca-ching” when it is pronounced.  We passed a village called Duc Phuc, and had to suppress an immature snicker.  We didn’t ask Lily about it – some things just get lost in translation (as well they should).

 

Fish Traps at Halong Bay

Fish Traps at Halong Bay

En route Lily told us about some of the wedding customs in Vietnam. The bride and groom are required to keep lists of who gave them what, and they are required to give a gift of equal value to weddings in the gifting family or else risk “losing face”.  We also saw the “market train” (not the high speed version that  the Japanese envisioned). This train is strictly local and carries animals and produce, as well as passengers.

 

 

Oyster Farms in Halong Bay

Oyster Farms in Halong Bay

Once we reached the coast we saw oyster farms, which were essentially shacks build on poles. These are intended to be pearl farms, but the oysters themselves are edible as well.  The beaches here were both muddy and rocky and we were told the much more scenic beaches were to the south.   Lily also pointed out the summer residence of Ho Chi Minh, which has been turned into an international resort for tourists. We were thinking that Uncle Ho would have been horrified at the commercialism of it all. Interestingly enough, we found they don’t much like the Chinese here or the Russians. They say that hey ship shoddy merchandise and do poor work. The port of Haiphong, a common bombing target during the Vietnam War, has since silted up and is no longer much used. They have built a new deepwater port to replace it.

The Bhaya

The Bhaya

At last we arrived at Halong Bay and boarded our sampan, the Bhaya, in a cold wet fog. We could tell right away we would not be seeing the turquoise waters and emerald islands as advertised in the guide books.  We saw the limestone karsts that rise up out of the bay, stunning on a sunny day, but still beautiful as ghostly shapes rising up out of the mist in mirror calm water. Along with the sampans gliding along, there were also traditional sailing junks with rough cotton hand-made sails shaped like fans. They are dipped in vegetable dye to protect them from the elements, giving them a yellowish ochre tone.

Humps of the Dragon at Halong Bay

Humps of the Dragon at Halong Bay

The name Ha Long means descending dragon. Halong Bay according to legend is where a dragon descended into the sea and left stone ramparts that are the dramatic limestone pinnacles visible today.   We fancied that someone once thought all these rounded formations rising out of the mist might just be the humps of a dragon.

 

 

 

At the Village of Vong Vien

At the Village of Vong Vieng

We visited a floating fishing village called Vong Vieng, transported there by a woman who rowed to our vessel to pick us up and then took us to the village where all the houses, the one room school house and a sort of community house are located, all built on poles over the water.  They also had a structure called the “Babysitting House” which was their version of day care. We were alarmed to see that toddlers and older small children play by the water with no railings and no life jackets, and we could only hope that adult supervision was immediately at hand. There are also floating fuel stations, herb gardens, kennels and pig pens. The main industry here is pearl farming and they do laundry for the commercial boats as a sideline, and of course they bring the tourists to see the village. The pearl farms are roped off in squares and rows of oysters that have had a grain of sand introduced between their shells.  They will each form a pearl and dangle from ropes until they are harvested.

Cooking Class on the Bhaya

Cooking Class on the Bhaya

Back on board we had cocktails at the Bhaya’s bar and again had to learn we need to keep it simple when ordering cocktails.  A martini is not known to them and while they will make an effort, it is not usually drinkable.  To entertain us as evening approached they held a cooking class to learn to make egg rolls. We did roll a few and ate a few that were quite tasty.  They also showed us how to make flowers from vegetables and the prize for that went to an Italian surgeon, who created a masterpiece with carrots and a tomato, but we figured he had an unfair advantage since he knew a few things about knives and scalpels.

 

A local Junk with Laundry Flying

A local Junk with Laundry Flying

We had a good dinner of fresh fish which was toned down considerably in the spice department for our Western palates.  The locals tend to like it hot – real hot.  The guests were a mix of Australians, British, Canadian, and American, with a few Germans, Italians and Japanese thrown in, but all tours and demonstrations were in English. For those non English speakers, there was typically a guide who did speak English so all information was conveyed by a Vietnamese speaking English to a German (for example) who then translated that into German.  There is no telling how this turned out. We did notice the non-native English speakers walking around looking a little dazed, and we ourselves were often at a loss to understand what we were being told– and this was with only one step – Vietnamese to English.

The Way Halong Bay Should Look on a Sunny Day

The Way Halong Bay Should Look on a Sunny Day

The ships that take tourists around Halong Bay are of varying sizes.  Ours was in the medium range with 16 guest cabins. It was advertised as a luxury vessel, but it was fairly rustic by our standards. There were no chandeliers, but we did get rose petals sprinkled on us when we arrived and they did use silverware and cloth napkins.

 

 

 

 

February 23, 2012

Dateline: Hue, Vietnam

Latitude at Hue 16.46 Degrees North, 107.58 Degrees East

The View from Surprise Cave

The View from Surprise Cave

Awakening on board the Bhaya on Halong Bay, we learned there was a sunrise Tai Chi lesson on deck (we only watched) at 6:30 a.m. although there was so much fog and clouds that the sunrise was totally obscured. Then we departed in smaller boats to explore more of Halong Bay, including Surprise Cave Hang Sung Sot (also known as Cave of Awe).  We noticed a number of rules posted in English, including one that advised that we should not throw dust or engage in other non-hygienic behavior. The cave was sort of a smallish version or Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico, and like those American explorers, the Vietnamese tended to see a lot of images in the stalactites and stalagmites including, a chicken and Buddha, and most notably, in this cave a Giant Phallus believed to be a fertility symbol. .  They do have an appreciation for a good sized belly on men here – it is viewed a status symbol (actually better than a Rolex since there are so many watch  knockoffs here) and sign of good luck and they think nothing of giving it a rub, even if you are a perfect stranger. Our cruise director, Ronald felt that he had a Buddha belly, but it was quite paltry compared to the Western men’s profiles.

Water Buffalo on the Buddy Seat

Water Buffalo on the Buddy Seat

We came back to a hearty breakfast (the better to build your status symbol belly) and motored back to port, arriving at 10:30. We met Lily and Mr. Driver and drove back to the Hanoi Airport to catch our flight to Hue.  Our drive back to Hanoi was every bit as entertaining as the trip out in terms of strange sightings and information about the customs culture of Vietnam. On the trip out, we saw a water buffalo in the backseat of a car, on our return we saw a slightly smaller version strapped to the buddy seat of a motor bike. We saw a motorbike hauling 6 people – dad driving with one child in front, 3 children in the middle and mom hanging by a fingernail on the last 2 inches of the seat. We found it interesting that only the dad wore a helmet.

A Field of Lettuce near Halong Bay

A Field of Butter Lettuce near Halong Bay

En route we learned more about weddings. As a dowry, the groom’s family used to give the bride’s family gifts. Now everyone just gives money since it is more practical. Also people often live together before marriage and select their own spouses – unheard of in the old days. We actually saw a wedding in progress right off the highway.  They had erected a tent in front of a row of houses and businesses, which served as the wedding pavilion and party room. Lily explained that this is a modest income wedding.  The wealthier rent hotel ballrooms or use their own homes.  The parents of the bride and groom conduct the marriage ceremony after having gone to the town hall to get the license. Wedding guests put stickers on the car windows to bring “double happiness”.  Among the Hmong people, a man can have 3 wives, but we were told nowadays, most men forego the extra spouses and just have a mistress or two that they take to their local “love hotel”. Having a mistress is actually illegal here, but like helmets and traffic lights, it is a law largely ignored. We were also told that the man having the illicit affair often buys tiger balm (a blend of camphor and menthol used topically as a pain reliever) to mask the smell of perfume after a romantic interlude.

A Floating Grocery Store

A Floating Grocery Store

We had heard many rumors about Vietnamese dining on Fido and Kitty – Lily told us that yes, the local people sometimes eat dog meat called cho) and cat meat (meo) but not regularly. It is more of a specialty item on a menu for good luck at certain times of the year. The word for meat is “thit”. Once Lily told us this, we began seeing it advertised quite a bit along our route and no longer assumed it involved cursing with a lisp.  Many of their rituals are attuned to the calendar, in particular the new moon and full moon and they always look for auspicious dates, and numbers.  Lily told us of a Vietnamese saying which may sound like good advice, but may not suit all palates :  Eat everything with 4 legs but the table. Eat everything with wings but an airplane”. Going through the towns is endlessly entertaining, and occasionally disturbing to our Western sensibilities.

 

Farm Worker Having Lunch Along the Highway to Hanoi

Farm Worker Having Lunch Along the Highway to Hanoi

The highway we are traveling on is two-lane with a passing lane of sorts. It is not really a separate lane, but is sort of squeezed out of the middle and it is not infrequent to see cars traveling 3 abreast. The trick is to make sure you are not passing when someone coming the other way is passing.  There is not much in the way of highway stripes here so it is pretty much a free-for-all.  We also noticed that motorbikes have little or no status on the highways. They are expected to yield to cars and trucks. We noticed that no orange cones are used here.  For a truck breakdown, the locals will place a large tree branch or even a stump in the road.

We stopped for a pineapple tasting at a road side stand. It was delicious, as were the tiny “two-bite” bananas they call “lady fingers”.  We also stopped at a farmers’ market and saw many familiar types of produce including fennel, dill, basil , butter lettuce and onions.

Ovens for Firing Ceramic Pottery

Ovens for Firing Ceramic Pottery

We skipped the optional butcher shop tour, not sure of what offensive sights we might see, but we did see the Snake Village Restaurant where you can order live cobra. The blood is mixed in with your wine and the meat is chopped up and cooked. This is one of those things we decide we could skip without irreparably damaging our Vietnamese experience. We made a stop at a much more mundane ceramic pottery center, which was pretty dull after the Snake Village. Mr. Driver kept up a steady stream of chatter either to Lily or to himself (we weren’t sure which or perhaps it was both) when she was not talking to us, but since it was in Vietnamese, we had no idea what was on his mind. We suspected he could have been laughing at how we turned green at the Snake Village when we saw the menu. We were also told that many of the locals fish with electricity – again not legal, but not enforced. The catch is not used commercially, but for personal consumption.  There are not many environmentalists in these parts.

Laundry Day for Lingerie and Teddy Bears

Laundry Day for Lingerie and Teddy Bears

Lily told us that abortion is legal here.  By law they are only supposed to have two children or risk fines, and due to traditions, families prefer boys. It is not uncommon for when an ultrasound indicates a girl, an abortion ensues. Because girls are frequently aborted, consequently there is today a shortage of wives for all those boys. All along our route there were children smiling and waving, and as soon as we stopped anywhere, they would rush over to practice their English on us.

 

 

Nguyen Temple

Nguyen Temple

Our last stop before the airport was a temple and a pagoda dedicated to a national hero Nguyen   who died in the 14th Century. Many symbols were incorporated into the structure, such as the phoenix for peace, the turtle for long life, the unicorn for kindness and wisdom and the dragon for power and intelligence.  The phoenix is the queen’s symbol and the dragon is the king’s. There was sort of a carnival atmosphere here – in stark contrast to Ho’s tomb. There was much frolicking going on  including water pistol fights.  Inside the pagoda you could leave your shoes on. People burned paper moons and left offerings

Temple Offerings

Temple Offerings

and they also made wishes in a wishing well.  One of the most interesting offerings was a can of Coke. We wondered  why would a guy who had been dead for centuries think a Coke would be just the thing?  We supposed it to be easier to get a can of Coke, than a cup of mead or whatever they drank back in Nguyen’s day. Gary and Stu were offered a ride on a motorbike for $1.00 so they took a spin around the complex. The drivers asked if they spoke American or English so they said both.

 

Grounds of the Nguyen Temple

Grounds of the Nguyen Temple

The Vietnamese are a very superstitious people. Lily says most do not believe, but they hedge their bets with observing old customs just in case.  Fortunes are told here as revealed in the face and hand.  Fortune tellers are often consulted with pregnancies to answer questions such as will it be a boy or girl? With questions on whether a couple should marry give their astrological signs. Some couples will have a second wedding to make sure they have an auspicious date.  Bodies are buried in the fetal position so that reincarnation is easier (i.e. it can simulate birth).

 

Plowing in the Rice Paddies

Plowing in the Rice Paddies

They go through all sorts of contortions and expense to offset bad luck with good.  For example, Lily’s mother- in – law died in the year month and hour of the tiger which is very bad ju-ju.  So the family spent over 5 thousand dollars to pay monks and soothsayers to undo this bad luck. The fortuneteller told them that they must pray for one and one half days non-stop to reverse this. They had no sleep and very short breaks to eat quickly and go to the bathroom, praying the whole time. A dark freckle or mole is commonly removed because it is bad luck.  A light colored one is okay.

 

Farm Worker's Lunch Break

Farm Worker’s Lunch Break

We did see quite a bit of the traditional clothing   worn by women- a cheongsam which is a sleek tightly fitting dress or an aio dai, which is a long tunic with side slits worn over pants, also a very sleek look.  These are so iconic to Southeast Asia, we were always glad to see them – much more so than the Viet Cong Pajamas or even more ho-hum, jeans and T-shirts.

We had a fairly long wait at the Hanoi Airport since our flight was not until 8:00 p.m., so we had dinner there.  Despite its cavernous ceilings and vast spaces, we remarked on how quiet it was.  Vietnamese people rarely raise their voices, something we also noticed in Laos and Thailand.  We felt it makes for a much more relaxing environment. When they travel to the West, the cacophony of our airports must be overwhelming.

Downtown Hue

Downtown Hue

The airport at Hue is called Phu Bai Airport, and was the former US military base at Danang. We met our guide for Central Vietnam whose name was Ngoc (pronounced “knock”) and our driver Thinh (pronounced “tin”).   Hue gives the appearance sleepy provincial town, although a million people live there. We noticed that people were not spilling out into the streets as they were in Hanoi., and thus giving the appearance of a small city.

Hue was once the religious, economic and cultural center of Vietnam and the Imperial headquarters and political capital until 1945. It was largely reduced to rubble in the course of the Vietnam War. Aside from loss of life there was an immense loss of architectural treasure. Thirteen Nguyen Dynasty Emperors ruled from here in a fortress built around the ancient city. The citadel was modeled on Beijing’s Forbidden City with walls 30 feet thick, which proved quite useless in Tet Offensive in 1968.

Inside the Citadel at Hue

Inside the Citadel at Hue

During the “Tet” Offensive, the North Vietnamese launched attacks on over 100 targets, taking the US and the south Vietnamese by surprise. Both Hue and the US Army base Khe Sahn, fell during that offensive. It took a month to re-take Hue (while reducing it to rubble) and two months to re-take Khe Sahn.  It was a huge wake-up call for Americans, who had been led to believe the North Vietnamese were incapable of such attacks.  The destruction of Hue had started over the centuries due to floods and monsoons due to typhoons, but the Viet Cong holed up there during the fighting and the bombing by Americans was the final blow.  Today most of the Citadel walls stand, and there are still a few remaining French colonial houses and outlying tombs and pagodas, but much of the art and architecture have been lost.

La Residence Hotel - Hue

La Residence Hotel – Hue

Ngoc and our driver took us to a beautiful Hotel called La Residence Hotel and Spa overlooking the ancient Citadel and the Perfume River. It was the former residence of the French Governor and thus the beauty and grace of the architecture.  The lobby and hallways were filled with fresh flowers and oil paintings and décor was quite elegant, and tastefully so.  We sank gratefully into our cushy four poster bed and slept soundly in the blissful cool quiet.

 

 

February 24, 2012

The Perfume River at Hue

The Perfume River at Hue

Hue is situated on the narrow strip of land between mountains and coastline that comprises Central Vietnam. The northernmost point of this area was the site of the Demilitarized Zone during the Vietnam War, which separated North from South Vietnam.  Today we would tour Hue, including the huge citadel and royal tombs.  Hue is situated on the so called Perfume River. It got its name from the frangipani trees that once lined its banks.  They are still growing at tombs and temples along the river but there was far too much boat traffic to smell any perfume that nature might offer.

Hue is just south of the former De-Militarized Zone (DMZ). Hue is pronounced “way”, as in way too hot here. Even in the early morning hours, it was steamy hot – a major change from Hanoi.  Actually the temperature was moderate at 88 degrees, but the humidity was in the 95% range.

Offerings at the Thien Mu Pagoda Altar

Offerings at the Thien Mu Pagoda Altar

Hue was the capital of the emperors of the Nguyen dynasty from 1802 to 1945, when the last Nguyen emperor,   Bao Dai who had no children, surrendered the throne  and moved to France and the power vacuum created by that became the source of much contention, setting the seeds for partitioning and the Vietnam War.  The first Nguyen emperor had one wife and 500 concubines so he was quite a busy man. The king was served by eunuchs who volunteered for service (and surgery) at the age of 17. They did all the matchmaking for the king – e.g. finding concubine candidates.  The Mandarins (coming originally from China) were the nobility and thus the leaders in both the military and civilian life. The mandarins wore an interesting headpiece with prominent ear flaps that did not flap, but rather stuck out from the head at 90 degree angles, sort of giving the appearance of literally a “propeller head”.

Dragon Boat on the Perfume River at Hue

Dragon Boat on the Perfume River at Hue

The city of Hue is 90% Buddhist, 5 % Catholic and 5% Tao, Confucian  or other religions. Buddhist Monks here do not enter and leave the monkhood, as they are free to do in Thailand. Here monkhood is a commitment for life, (but perhaps, not as great a commitment as that of the palace eunuchs of the olden days). The monks wear 3 different colors of robes to signify their status. Brown is for novice monks and they also have their heads shaven except for one long hank of hair (sort of like a very long Mohawk haircut). The intermediate monks wear gray and the highest level wear yellow. Ho Chi Minh went to high school here which was taught in French at the time. We learned a new term – “Bamboo Dragon”, which indicates one who curries favor with whoever appears to be strongest on any given day. Of course, given his power, Uncle Ho had a host of Bamboo Dragons around him, who, while still paying Communism lip service, have since evolved to the more pragmatic approach of capitalism.

A River Boat Cradle

A River Boat Cradle

We took a cruise on the Perfume River in a dragon boat, which afforded us a slight breeze while underway, and we also had the opportunity to do some shopping since there were dragon boat vendors assaulting our tourist dragon boat from all sides, plus our dragon boat crew had dry goods of their own.  Our hosts had their very cute baby in a hammock  swing of sorts accompanying Mom and Dad to work.  We were again saw the conical hats worn by working people in the fields, planting rice by hand all along the river banks. The countryside was luxuriant with foliage and vegetation, but a haze of humidity, coupled with the blazing sun, seemed to cast a yellowish tint to the scenery.

Thien Mu Pagoda

Thien Mu Pagoda

We disembarked our dragon boat to pay a visit to the Thien Mu Pagoda, built on a bluff above the river, and the oldest of over 300 pagodas in the city. The name Thien Mu translates as “beautiful lady”.  The pagoda was built in 1601 by Nguyen Hoang.  It has a 7 story tower whose name means the “source of happiness” and a pavilion with a bronze bell, which can reportedly be heard 6 miles away.  Inside the main shrine is a statue of a Laughing Buddha in bronze , along with those of other kings and disciples. This site is a working monastery as well and the lodgings and gardens for the monks are on the property. A monk from this order named Thich Quang Duc, made history in June of 1963 when he drove a blue Austin Healey to Saigon to protest against the Diem regime. He carried out his protest by sitting down in a city square and setting himself on fire. The images of this were publicized world-wide, but  his message was widely ignored.  The car he drove is on display in a garage here at the monastery as sort of an historical footnote.

The Ngo Mon Gate to Citadel at Hue

The Ngo Mon Gate to Citadel at Hue

After our boat ride we visited the old Imperial City (also called Da Noi, or the Great Enclosure) within the walls of the Citadel, built by Emperor Gia Long in 1805. We entered through the elaborate Ngo Mon Gate, with its ornate watchtower where the emperor often sat on state occasions. From there we went across a bridge to the Thai Hoa Palace, which was the grand throne palace of the emperors, awash in red lacquer and dragons, the symbol of the Nguyen dynasty.  An open courtyard overlooks what was once the Forbidden City, now essentially a vacant lot.

 

The Mieu and the Empty Field that was Once theForbidden Purple City

The Mieu and the Empty Field that was Once the Forbidden Purple City

There were originally 3 concentric enclosures here- the Civic, the Imperial and at the heart of the complex, the Forbidden Purple City. The Forbidden Purple City housed the Emperor’s personal quarters, comprised of courtyards and approximately 60 buildings, but there is little that survived the 1968 Tet Offensive bombings. Today there is not much left to see – more of where things used to be, although the Royal Theater and Royal Library are still there. The Forbidden Palace was forbidden to all men except the emperor, the queen and 9 separate ranks of concubines and female servants and eunuchs. Entry to this area was only allowed to those who had a pass with the king’s stamp, and, the penalty for unlawful entry was taken seriously and generally resulted  in a beheading.

Ngoc at One of the Nine Dynastic Urns

Ngoc at One of the Nine Dynastic Urns

On the other side of the open area where the Forbidden Purple City used to be, we found the Hien Lam pavilion, built by another Nguyen Emperor in 1824 to honor those who built the Nguyen dynasty and provided its power. Nearby was the Mieu, (the Temple of Generations,) an elaborately decorated temple honoring the Nguyen dynasty, again in gilt and red lacquer.  We were told that the altars were once stacked with gold ingots which, have understandably, have long since disappeared. Between the Mieu and the Hien Lam Pavilion, we saw the Cuu Dinh, the famous nine  dynastic  urns, each of which commemorates a particular Nguyen emperor and weighs around 2 ¾ tons. They are decorated with symbols in bas-relief and are filled to the brim with water to provide striking reflections. They are called funerary urns, but do not contain ashes. Instead they are meant to stand as symbols of the power of the emperors they represent.

Decorative Roof Line Restored at the Citadel.

Decorative Roof Line Restored at the Citadel.

The highest point of the citadel is the Cot Co (Flag Tower) which at 120 feet dominates the skyline of the Citadel and the city itself. Its claim to fame in recent times is that on January 31, 1968, during the Tet Offensive, the Viet Cong overran Hue and erected their flag. It took a great deal of bloody fighting for the US and allies to recapture the city to take it down.

 

 

 

 

The Dong Ba Market

The Dong Ba Market

Upon leaving the Citadel, we visited the Dong Ba Market, just outside the Imperial City where I bought a hand held fan to fend off a heat stroke. We noticed an abundance of face masks in the city- the little white disposable ones that some have termed the “ear brassiere”.  And then there were some who had bandanas worn “bandito” style, looking like they were ready to ambush the stagecoach. Ngoc told us they are primarily worn for protection against air pollution from the exhaust of the zillion motor bikes darting around the city. Since we had an air conditioned van, we didn’t have to don masks, but we did dab on some eucalyptus oil to be applied topically to fend off mosquitoes.

At The Royal Tombs

At The Royal Tombs

We had the option to do a bike tour of the Royal Tombs of the Nguyen Emperors, but it was way too hot for that.  Instead we opted for a driving tour with brief stops. The tombs are scattered across a wide area just to the south of Hue. While 13 emperors ruled on the imperial throne from 1802 t0 1945, only 7 were given their own lang (mausoleum)   We stopped at the Tomb Khai Dinh, one of the 7 tombs for a little exploration, including one for a emperor named Duc Duc (loved the name), one of the more modest tombs. Khai Dinh was the last emperor to be entombed in his own mausoleum  in 1925 and it is the grandest. It is sort of a mishmash of Vietnamese and European styles, built into a hillside on three separate levels, with a bust of the emperor at the top. This exploration just about did us in, so we settled for a drive by of the other tombs.

Cocktails at La Residence after a Grueling Day

Cocktails at La Residence after a Grueling Day

We had lunch at the Mandarin Café – going native ordering noodles and eating them with chopsticks. In the afternoon we returned to our cool and elegant hotel to drink gin and tonic and retire to our rooms for a nap. We had hoped for a swim, but the pool was closed (we suspect due to the fact that the water in it was probably coming to a slow boil by then) so we had to make do with drinks and naps.  We had experienced a problem with the water in our bathroom (e.g. there was none) earlier in the day and the management  had not only seen to its prompt restoration, but also sent an arrangement of orchids to our room with a handwritten note of apology from the hotel manager, confirming our impression that this was indeed a fine hotel.

Evening om the Perfume River

Evening om the Perfume River

We had a great noodle-free dinner at a French restaurant across the Perfume River from the Citadel called Le Parfum.  We have really enjoyed our many meals with Asian food, but I don’t think I have ever been so thankful to see steak and potatoes.   We know that we left much left unseen here – we would come back when it was cooler, but since we were there in February and it’s the northern hemisphere we aren’t sure exactly when that cool time might be.

 

 




Southeast Asia Part 4: Hoi An and South Vietnam

 

Southeast Asia

Part Four:  Hoi An to South Vietnam

 

February 25, 2012

Dateline: Hoi An, Vietnam

Latitude at Hoi An 15.88 Degrees North, 108.33 East

Beaches of Vietnam on the South China Sea

Beaches of Vietnam on the South China Sea

Today we drove a scenic route, south on Route 1 from Hue via Danang, through dramatic mountain passes,  past the Marble Mountains and several beautiful beaches stretching for miles, including the famous China Beach , where many US servicemen spent time in the evacuation hospital or on R&R. We also saw the equally beautiful Lang Co Beach.

The morning was cooler, but foggy from all the moisture still in the air from yesterday. We took the old road over the Pass of the Clouds (Hai Van), climbing to a blissfully cool 5,000 feet near the Bach Ma National Park. Our final destination today was to be the old fishing village of Hoi Ann. We noticed that there are countless little markets lining the road selling produce and the local beer, Huda, seemingly oblivious of the dust the traffic generates. Ngoc pointed out that while no one obeys traffic rules, it works out okay because if they did, it would create massive traffic jams.  I am thinking there is something profound there if I could just put my finger on it.

A Common Sight in Rural Vietnam

A Common Sight in Rural Vietnam

On the ride Ngoc entertained us with a discussion of how all Asians do not look alike.  Take the eyes for instance.  In Westerners, Africans and Indians the eyes tend to be round or almond shaped. Indonesians have a teardrop shaped eye, with the point next to the nose.  Chinese have a lidded eye with a fold of skin at the top so the eye looks flat on the top and round on the bottom.  Mongols have just the opposite shape with eyes appearing round on the top and flat across the bottom. Then there are faces –Westerners have a mixed bag of face shapes, but Chinese are almost always round and Melanesian, Indian and Indonesian are almost always oval.  And then there is the matter of the nose.  Caucasians tend to have a big honker (relatively speaking) with a pronounced bridge. Chinese have a very flat nose with no bridge and just a slight protrusion for the nostrils.  Melanesians and Indians tend to have a small dainty nose with a small dainty bridge.  As for skin color – if it is light – the owner of it is probably a Westerner or Chinese, if it is dark, they are likely Indian or Malaysian.  Hair of Asians  is almost universally black, except for the occasional person with Mongol blood who may have light brown hair.

Rice Paddy with a Farmer and his Water Buffalo

Rice Paddy with a Farmer and his Water Buffalo

From this discussion Ngoc proceeded to give us information on various and sundry topics such as  farming. Central Vietnam is able to have 2 crops a year and in the Mekong Delta in South Vietnam they can have three.  Farmers typically wear long sleeves in the fields to protect them from the sun and from leeches. Local wisdom says that wherever you find water buffalo, you will find leeches. Ngoc told us that rice is best grown on mudflats in shallow water with a consistent depth. The water helps keep the weeds down, but it has to be drained for the harvest.

On the topic of social media, Ngoc told us that sometimes Facebook is blocked and sometimes it is not, since the technology is easily able to outstrip those who want to restrict it. They must think there is something subversive about it, but they do not restrict email, texting or cell phones. They have made huge strides in education since today 70% of Vietnamese children go to school whereas 20 years ago it was only 15%.  Ngoc also cautioned us, and I quote “do not flash your dong in public or you may encourage ‘tieves’  (thieves)”.  Of course here the currency is called dong, but still it sent us into a fit of snickering.  Ngoc, of course, was quite puzzled, but we decided it should remain lost in translation.

We drove around the Bach Ma National Park rather than through it since a recent monsoon had washed out the road. It is a wildlife refuge with some of the most rugged countryside in Southeast Asia. We took Route 1 all the way from Danang to Hoi An. Much of what is today the National Park was sprayed with defoliants during the war including Agent Orange, but it had a negligible and limited effect in this part of the country where vegetation grows rampant.

Lang Co Beach

Lang Co Beach

We stopped to see Lang Co Beach, with its small fishing village in the distance with its pastel buildings on a spit of land between the lagoon and the open ocean.  There were pristine sandy beaches below heavily forested mountains in the background with long rollers coming in. We had left much of the humidity behind and were enjoying the welcome change of sunny skies and a brisk breeze. Off the coast we saw fishing sampans that look like a canoe with an igloo shaped cover on it. Fisherman go out around 4 in the afternoon and will fish all night We had heard about resorts being developed and saw first-hand the reasoning behind that.

Old Fortifications on the Mountain Pass

Old Fortifications on the Mountain Pass

In front of us was Cloudy Mountain which we would have to traverse. There is a 6 kilometer tunnel going through it, but since it was a beautiful day, we went over the mountain pass. We first drove into the clouds and then we were above them. From the top of the pass, the clouds lifted and we had a wonderful view, hemmed in by the sea on one side and the Truong Son Mountains on the other. There were a number of bunkers and military materiel used by both the French and the south Vietnamese that was still there, but the real attraction was the view.  From the pass we could see the peninsula, village and beach of Lang Co and its saltwater lagoon with the South China Sea beyond.

As we made our way to Danang, we noticed many family altars along the roadside. Some of the most interesting had a touch of Vegas with neon lights on Buddha accompanied by flower and cigarette offerings. We also saw a real assortment of shade devices as local people worked hard at keeping the sun off. Ngoc tells us that the Vietnamese value pale skin, much more than dark, and to maintain the palest skin possible they always try to find shade or provide it somehow. To that end we saw (in addition to hats) books and magazines, parasols, dish cloths and assorted items of clothing, all being used to provide shade to heads and faces.

Vietnam War Era Quonset Huts at Danang

Vietnam War Era Quonset Huts at Danang

At Danang, now a large industrial city of 2 million people, we saw rows and rows of Quonset huts left by American troops during the Vietnam war.  Near a village called Dong Hoi, we visited the Marble Mountains where we found the Xa Loi Temple and the Tang Chon Cave where the Viet Cong set up hidden artillery positions to fire on the Danang Air Base, set up by the Marines in 1965, which had to be defended on a daily basis.The Viet Cong however, had a totally different way of fighting – guerilla warfare. They would strike and move with no bases.

 

In Danang we visited the Museum of Cham Sculpture, also called Bao Tan Dieu Khak Champa. The Cham Empire existed in Vietnam for around 1,600 years until 1832 when the last principalities of the Kingdom were wiped out. Today there are still Cham people, but no empire. The artifacts at the museum were gathered from nearby sites in order to preserve them.

Pagoda at Xa Loi

Pagoda at Xa Loi

The sculptures here date from the 7th to the 13th Century and include altars, and busts of Hindu gods including Vishnu, Shiva and Brahma , as well as scenes from the Ramayana, an epic poem in Sanskrit that is one of the foundations of the Buddhist and Hindu religions. It is intended as a historical account of events in India around 1000 A.D. and offers up stories of dharma – the principles of cosmic order and the teachings of Buddha. The art from this collection rin addition to Hindu deities, also has demons and dancing girls, which are called apsara (a celestial nymph, where elaborate jewelry and hairstyles and/or headgear were the order of the day. The demons included mythical sea creatures called makara and  an eagle/dragon combo called a garuda. One of the more interesting artifacts was an altar pediment sculpted with a circle of female breasts, which were said to represent the Hindu mother goddess, Uma. There were also beautiful altar friezes in both marble and sandstone depicting detailed sculptures of mortals in their daily pursuits such as riding a horse or playing a flute. All the sculptures came from sites nearby and tomorrow, we have a visit planned to My Son, one of these sites. It was kind of jarring to see that they were selling American dog tags and cigarette lighters from the Vietnam War era in the museum gift shop.  We could only hope they were knock-offs and not taken from dead soldiers.

Getting Acquainted with Ganesh - Cham Museum

Getting Acquainted with Ganesh – Cham Museum

Perhaps one of the most interesting, certainly from an appearance perspective is the deity Ganesh, who has the body of man and the head of an elephant which creates an arresting visual. There are several stories of how Ganesh came to be and some of these tales get a little convoluted, but as we understood it (at least in  this version), there was a woman named Parvati who was the mother of a small boy. She took a shower and told her son to guard the door. The dad who happened to be the god, Shiva, came home and demanded that Ganesh open the door. He refused in order to keep his word to his mother and his dad chopped his head off. Mom insisted that he fix it, so Dad went out and got an elephant head and attached it and Ganesh came back to life. This is only one of several versions of how Ganesh came into being, but they are all equally bizarre. Today he is venerated by the Hindus as the god of wisdom and learning and his statue can be found throughout Hindu communities and shrines.

The Cham people came from India centuries ago to settle in what is today the Danang and Central Vietnam.  There are only about 70,000 of the Cham left today.  The Vietnamese drove them south and then in turn drove the Cambodians out to occupy this land. When the US left Vietnam, they buried tons of war materiel used at the Danang Airbase to keep it from the Viet Cong.  Later the locals dug it up to sell for scrap metal. Today there is a casino across the street from where the base was and a Hyatt Regency, although many of the hangars and bunkers still remain. According to Ngoc – the turning point in the Vietnam War for the local people was when American planes starting bombing temples. That tipped the balance and made them regard the US as the enemy.  Before that they were indifferent.

Water Buffalo on Break

Water Buffalo on Break

We drove past the scenic China Beach which has perfectly white sand and a line of causuarina trees along the beach with the mountains looming behind it. Today China Beach is catering to golf resorts (including one just built by Greg Norman) and sun-seeking tourists. There is a bridge to a small island called Monkey Island, however the locals during hard times apparently ate all the monkeys so they are now monkey-less.  From April to August it is jellyfish season so there is not much ocean swimming going on during those months. Vietnamese who left the country after the fall of Saigon were denounced as traitors at the time, but have since been welcomed back with open arms to spend some of that money they made and the can be found at these resorts, alongside prominent Communists who choose to sample a bit of the good life that capitalism has to offer. Given the difficulty Vietnamese have with certain consonants grouped together Communist sometimes becomes “communik” and so those could have been “communiks” under those beach umbrellas at China Beach. It seems that the Israeli leader, Moshe Dayan, was correct when he said “the best way to defeat Communism is to let it win first”.

Along the coast we saw a Boat Temple where fishermen go to pray for a good catch. It was also interesting to see their boats which are round and made of bamboo, about the size of a large bathtub. They are supposedly easier to steer in the waves than a long boat. The seawall was lined with a dozen of these little bowl shaped vessels. In the lagoons there are fish and oyster farms tended by squatters on stilt houses. They have fished the streams using electric shock to the point of depletion so now almost all fish comes from farms.

Two of the Five Marble Mountains.

Two of the Five Marble Mountains.

Our next stop was for a tour of the Marble Mountains just south of the old Danang airbase. They are made up of five rocky outcrops that are believed to represent 5 natural elements and are the source for many legends.  There are huge caverns within the mountains that have in the past housed temples, an army hospital and hidden artillery positions used by the North Vietnamese. At the time of the Vietnam War, the river at Danang was still navigable and thus provided a valuable port for military operations. It was both heavily attacked and heavily defended, as was the air base, the latter quite often from the Marble Mountains.

Buddha in the Xia Loa Temple

Buddha in the Xa Loi Temple

n the past the mountains have also provided high quality marble for statues and construction, but today it is a venerated site with a Buddhist temple, the Xa Loi, at its summit so marble is quarried mostly elsewhere. In the heart of the mountain is the Tang Chon Cave which today is a grotto with all sorts of shrines and statuary, but back during the Vietnam War, it was used to conceal Viet Cong soldiers who could fire on Danang and then seemingly melt into the jungle.  Finally American gunships figured out where they were and would bomb the cave trying to eliminate enemy positions. There is only one pagoda left that dates prior to the Vietnam War.  The rest are shrines and memorials built since then.  There is a great deal of marble statuary and other gewgaws for sale along the hundreds of steps up to the top of the mountain and down into the cave.

Pagodas in the Xa Loi Gardens

Pagodas in the Xa Loi Gardens

The guards here were the only camera shy people we met and we thought that perhaps it’s a security thing. They sat in groups of two or three eating the tiniest of little ant-sized oysters. They picked them out of the shell with toothpicks and ate them, smiling and nodding the whole time. They did offer to share with us, but we declined as graciously as we could. We have found throughout Vietnam that the local people are unfailing polite and friendly. Being kind to other people is part of their religion (just as we Christians are taught) however they seem much more frequently to put it into practice.

 

Streets of Hoi An

Streets of Hoi An

We ended our travels for the day in the delightful little village of Hoi An, (pronounced “hoy ann”),  where we found a nice breeze from the ocean, but it was still so humid we needed to change clothes twice a day. Hoi An is on the banks of the Thu Bon River and was an important trading post for several centuries before the river silted up and the ships went elsewhere.  There were Japanese, Chinese and European traders here from the 16th to the 18th Century who have left their imprint on the village including Chinese pagodas, a Japanese covered bridge and the so called “tube” houses which feature a shop in the front, two courtyards in the middle (one just for women) with living quarters and a kitchen and bathroom areas in the back. They are an amalgamation of Chinese, Japanese and French design. They could be as narrow as 6 ½  feet wide and as deep as 262 feet, and thus the “tube” moniker. These houses were the forerunners of the “rocket buildings” we saw in Hanoi, which were limited in ground area by original deeds, and so the only place to expand was up.

The covered bridge was built in 1593 by the Japanese Trading community who needed it to access the Chinese Quarter in the old town . However in 1663 the Japanese Shogun decreed that Japan would no longer trade with foreigners and the Japanese community here ceased to exist, but the bridge and its Japanese character were maintained. Hoi An has remained untouched by modern warfare, which enabled us to enjoy it as it has been for centuries.

In its prime, Hoi An was a trading center along the lines of Macau, and an international melting pot.   In the Old Town there is still a specific Chinese Section and a Japanese Section. We took a walking tour of the Old Town which still has almost 850 ancient structures.  Today 2,000 people live here – a much smaller population than in the olden days when it had a deep water port. The city used to be called Faifo and it reached its peak prominence during the 16th Century. The houses were largely built by Chinese, Thai, Portuguese and Dutch who needed “trading houses” to wait out monsoons and storms. Wares from India and Europe were traded in the old Chinese Quarter. It has narrow streets, two story shops with elaborately carved pillars and facades.

We had a stroll though the village and walked through some of the houses and community halls that were open to the public. We stopped at the Cantonese Assembly Hall (Quang Dong) which was built in 1786 by seafaring merchants. We had a short walk through to see the elaborate carvings on the altar and the wall hangings. The altar is dedicated to a Chinese Warrior named Quan Cong, identifiable by his red painted face. The Chinese Dragon, symbolic of power, stability and prosperity is prominently featured in the majority of the ancient buildings.

 Beaches of Hoi An

Beach at Hoi An

We also visited the the Quan Kong Temple and the Central Market. At the Fish Market we missed the action since it starts at 5:30 a.m. and the market closes when the fish are all sold.  Chinese specialties in the Old Town today are tailoring and cooking classes.  No cars are allowed in the old part of city, which is about 30 kilometers and 100 years away from Danang.

We had lunch at a Restaurant called the Morning Glory, which we understand is a flower that the locals actually eat.  For certain hours the streets of Old Town are pedestrian only which makes for very nice leisurely strolling. As we walked we found that there is stiff competition for laundry business here and the ladies, extolling both their skills and affordability, clamor loudly for business. We gave our business to an enterprising woman who met us at the gates of our hotel hawking the superiority of her enterprise called the #1 Laundry.

We checked into the Life Resort Hoi An, a beautiful garden oasis of tranquility amid the hubbub of the village of Hoi An. There is an abundance of flowering trees and shrubs that make the hotel grounds spectacular such as frangipani, hibiscus, oleander and gardenia. We were thoroughly pampered at the hotel with cold towel and tea, flower arrangements in our room and rose petals scattered across out bed.

Life Resort at Hoi An

Life Resort at Hoi An

By the pool with flowering vines dangling over the water, we enjoyed cool cocktails, followed by more drinks at happy hour at the bar.  We walked into town for dinner at the Brothers Café and had a great meal beside a waterfall with a table overlooking the river.  The weather had cooled to perfect and we enjoyed the tropical gardens and ponds with lily pads. The ponds had big brown frogs that have a croak that is something of a cross between a dog barking and a duck quacking.  On our walk back it was very quiet with no motorbikes allowed, but we did see a few renegades furtively sneaking down the deserted streets.

 

February 26, 2012

 

Woods at My Son

Woods at My Son

We were to start our day with a tour of My Son (pronounced my sohn), one of the principle centers of the Cham civilization. We continued to see strange vehicular sightings – today’s highlight was two men and two dogs on a single scooter.  We thought it was really sweet until we remembered that it is not unusual for Vietnamese to eat dogs (they put the dog in hot dogs literally), but we chose to believe these are just two guys and their pets going to the dog park. In other strange vehicular sightings, we also saw a guy balancing a big pegboard full of cheap sunglasses on his motorbike and a woman on the back of a scooter, balancing a laundry basked full of plucked chickens heading into town.

Motorbike Mania Every Day

Motorbike Mania Every Day

We were told that corruption among traffic police is quite rampant and payoffs are openly and frequently made to them.  Motorbikes do not legally have any sort of right of way here, but they seem to just take it, and the traffic cops, if properly incented, turn a blind eye. There is a law against vagrancy here, so to avoid detection, the unemployed often erect ramshackle shops full of useless stuff they’ve gathered and advertise it for sale.  This provides a front to allow loitering by the would-be proprietor and would-be customers.  Apparently the government wants to give the illusion that everyone is happily employed.

As we drove the 1 kilometer to My Son, we had time for a quick refresher in Vietnamese. Hello is xin chow (pronounced seen chow). Thank you is cam on (pronounced cum un), yes is vang (pronounced vung) and no is khong (pronounced comb). Good is tot (pronounced tote) and bad is khong tot (or no good).  Thus armed, we were ready to mingle with the locals.

There were stands along the road selling sticky rice which the local people buy for special occasions such as a full moon or an offering at a temple or shrine, hopefully in exchange for a blessing. Shrines are often in incongruous places, often seen in the middle of rice paddies. We followed the course of the Thu Bon River, which gets its start in the mountains of Laos and proceeds to the sea at the village of Hoi An.

Ruins at My Son

Ruins at My Son

The translation of the name My Son is Beautiful Mountain and it is indeed beautiful here.  There were at one time 70 classic Cham monuments dating from the 7th to the 13th centuries set in the valley below Cat Tooth Mountain. They were made of bricks with tree resin used as mortar and adorned with sandstone carvings. It was the center of the Champa (a.k.a. Cham) Kingdom from the 2nd to the 15th Century A.D., and it actually predates the more famous Angor Wat in Cambodia by several centuries.

 

 

Bomb Crater at My Son

Bomb Crater at My Son

Until August of 1968 they were in relatively good condition, but American B52 Bombers destroyed many of the structures when My Son became a battle zone in “The American War”.   Large craters are still in evidence today and only 20 buildings were able to be restored. The rest have just a few vestiges of rubble and foundation to suggest their presence. The Viet Cong had been operating bases out of My Son and other historic sites, thinking they would be safe from American bombs, due to our regard for historical treasure.  Unfortunately for that historical treasure, this was not always the case. My Son is only 30 kilometers, less than 20 miles from the Ho Chi Minh Trail. After efforts by archaeologists to intervene, the US State Department in January of 1971 ordered that all possible measure would be taken to protect what was left of My Son. The French had left behind detailed architectural drawings so some efforts at restoration are achieving results, but much of the site was simply obliterated.

The Alar in a Hindu Temple featuring Bodhisattva of the Many Arms

The Alar in a Hindu Temple featuring Bodhisattva of the Many Arms

Throughout our journey through Vietnam, we saw people making offerings of money to whatever spirit from which they seek blessings. They burn this at the pagoda, but it is only copies of paper money (they aren’t crazy, after all), but it was interesting to note they are paper copies of US Currency. The idea is that the smoke will drift to departed loved ones in the afterlife and provide wealth for their next re-incarnation, but then if they are reincarnated as a gold fish for example, they would have no use for money – but of course faith is not always logical – that’s why they call if faith. Other offerings we saw included Marlboro cigarettes (or the box anyway), Coca Colas (or the cans anyway), flowers, incense, rice cakes, fruit and photos of ancestors.

Ruins of the Temple Complex at My Son

Ruins of the Temple Complex at My Son

We walked the paths of the ancient complex, which is still impressive, despite the destruction.  The Hindus have sacred cows as they do in India and so it was not uncommon to see them grazing amid the ruins.  (We wondered if the phrase “holy cow” come from the Hindu religion).  A short Hindu-style dance performance was staged for us, which seemed to have a lot of Middle Eastern touches. For the second number, a guy playing what sounded like a kazoo came out to serenade (a.k.a. toture ) us in a tune that sounded like the one you here when the snake charmer is coaxing the cobra out of the basket.  We found that a little of this music goes a long, long way.  But after that there was story telling which Ngoc translated for us which went something like this.  The brother of Ganesh (the god with the elephant head) had a brother named Skanda, and while Ganesh represented good and peaceful things, Skanda represented war and other bad things.  Their mother set up a competition to see which of her two sons could run the fastest. Skanda tried to cheat and to ride a peacock and took off. Ganesh simply walked behind her and then appeared before her coming from the opposite direction and declared himself the returned winner. We were wondering if Ganesh’s mom was a little slow not to pick up this small deception.

Remnants of the Cham Culture at My Son

Remnants of the Cham Culture at My Son

In My Son, the statues and sculptures were created by building brickwork and then carving relief forms into the brick. My Son was not known to the outside world until the late 1890’s when the French found it, although it had been a religious center for centuries.   The 70 original temples are divided into 11 groups, named after letters of the alphabet.  Some of the distinctions between groups are based on influence and time frame. For example the deities portrayed in a structure designated C1 seem to show Javanese influence, demonstrating a link to Indonesia. All the Cham towers are divided into 3 parts – the base represents the earth, the center is the spiritual world and the top is the realm between earth and heaven. Temples contained sanctuaries called kalan, and were dedicated to one of the gods, typically Shiva. The Shiva Lingam is a phallic symbol and the yoni is the symbol of the goddess. In a ceremonial ritual water would be poured over the lingam through a spout in the yoni to symbolize creation. Typical embellishments were stone pillars, religious carved images, and ornately decorated false doors. There were also causeways and meditation chambers called mandapa. Typical carvings might include figures of Dancing Shiva, Shiva, Nandi ( a mythical bull) and a stone Garuda (a large mythical bird).

In the Hindu Religion there is a triumvirate of gods:  Brahma is the Creator of the universe, Vishnu is the Preserver of the Universe and Shiva is the Destoryer of the Universe. This is a continuous process, but the destruction is not necessarily a bad thing in that much that is evil or impure is what is destroyed and the world and people are continually improved.

On Site Museum - My Son

On Site Museum – My Son

In Structure D2 there is a small museum showing sculptures including apsaras (dancers) salvaged after the bombing, with a modern roof with skylights added. Structures in Groups E,F,G,H are heavily  damaged with only fragments surviving.  Much of the sculpture in the Cham Museum that we saw in Danang has been rescued from these sections.  The structure designated B6 is mostly noted for  its image of the Hindu god Vishnu being sheltered by a 13 headed naga (dragon). Group A was almost totally obliterated by the bombings of 1969, but it once had a very striking tower and sanctuary.  Almost all Cham temples have a door facing east. The one here had a west door to associated with death – facing complexes B,C, and D which are believed to hold tombs of Cham kings.

The Cham had dark curly hair and it  is believed that they came from Java.  They are one of 54 minorities in Vietnam today and interestingly enough, they all seem to get along today. There was once a huge number of Cham people, but the Dai Viet tribes from the north started encroaching on the Kingdom of Champa and eventually their society was wiped out.

Bikers Visit the Countryside Near Hoi An

Bikers Visit the Countryside Near Hoi An

We had lunch and relaxed by the pool at the hotel, and then in the late afternoon, Ngoc came to get us for a bicycle ride through the rice paddies and into the countryside. It was a leisurely ride of only 3 to 5 miles, with many stops to see rural Vietnam. Notable sights that we chuckled  at en route were – a bike repair shop called Hung Manh, a laundry service called the Dung Laundry and a shop run by a family named Thit ( we laughed about this and then Ngoc told us the “h” was silent and we tittered anew). Leaving town we noticed a gas pump, not as at a typical gas station, but in a portable tank with a hose set up on the sidewalk under an umbrella, with a steady stream of motor bikes stopping in to fuel up.

 

Young Water Buffalo on a Family Farm

Young Water Buffalo on a Family Farm

In a more educational vein, we stopped to watch a family working a field with their water buffaloes, and then turning them out to pasture for the night. The pasture was about the size of a postage stamp so it is a good thing it is quite the jungle here so they could have enough to eat.  We saw many of the local people with conical hats and baskets balanced on poles to haul goods that we have grown accustomed to here. We also saw our first Vietnamese scare crow which entailed bamboo poles with plastic bags wired to them to simulate a farmer flapping his arms and legs.

 

 

Good Luck Rub on a Buddha Belly - Hoi An Beach

Good Luck Rub on a Buddha Belly – Hoi An Beach

We stopped at a beautiful beach, just steps from out hotel and a young girl selling fans and chop sticks gave her sales pitch to Gary, and he promptly bought a pair of her top of the line chopsticks.  When she learned that today was his birthday, she gave him a complimentary vial of tiger balm (which is eucalyptus oil) which is good she said for headaches and mosquito bites.  She then pronounced him “Happy Buddha and rubbed his belly for good luck, and” as the locals often feel free to do for good luck when they see a large man.

After our bike ride we retrieved and paid for our laundry, which was a considerable bargain of $25 for 10 kilos, washed, ironed and folded, but alas a few garments were also made significantly smaller in the process. It is a good thing clothing is cheap here.

Relaxing at the Life Hotel

Relaxing at the Life Resort

At dusk we had drinks at the Heritage Bar at our hotel, outside under trees hung with lanterns. Gary was presented with a gift of a bag of peanuts by the waitress when she learned that today was his birthday. And of course she took the liberty of the requisite belly rub as well. We asked her to teach us how to toast in Vietnamese and it was something like “Moi Hai Bai Yo”. There is no telling how badly we mangled this toast, and the staff probably did some tittering of their own.  The hotel brought out birthday cake (of sorts) and the staff sang a mangled version of the birthday song, something starting out “hop burse dai to ooh). Then there were roses presented to the ladies and matchbooks for the gentlemen.  All in all it was a really special birthday for Gary.

We walked into town and had dinner at the Good Morning Vietnam restaurant (apparently they liked the movie here – it never would have flown in Hanoi). It was Italian food instead of American, but we were glad to have it since we were getting “noodled out” at this stage of the trip.

February 27, 2012

Dateline: Ho Chi Minh City

Latitude at Ho Chi Minh City 10.75 Degrees North, 106.66 Degrees East

Saigon Rush Hour 24 x 7

Saigon Rush Hour 24 x 7

Today we caught a Vietnam Airlines flight out of Danang and flew to Ho Chi Minh City known during the Vietnam War  as Saigon. Here the Vietnam War is called  by government propaganda the War of American Aggression, but more commonly, when mentioned at all, it s called the American War,  and nobody seems to be bearing a grudge. We arrived at the former Tahn Sa Nhut Air Base, which is now their commercial airport. We were met by our local host for Saigon, the lovely and vivacious Mandy who said that Hanoi thinks of Saigon as  a crazy place full of naughty people too immersed in capitalism for too long – straying far for the ideals of Communism. Mandy told us that she learned English by listening to Voice Of America Radio Broadcasts.

The city is home to 11 million people.  Government people call it Ho Chi Minh City, locals call it Saigon (which has a much more exotic ring to it). We saw the Korean Volleyball team at the airport baggage – we just knew they were Asian, but Mandy recognized them as Korean by their appearance – she says Koreans are tall people (by her standards, not ours) with flat faces and a more pronounce fold above their eyes.

Tree-lined Streets of Saigon

Tree-lined Streets of Saigon

We arrived in 35 C degree heat  (about 95 Fahrenheit), and while this is winter and the dry season, the humidity combined with the heat was close to suffocating. And so we decided cocktails at the hotel would be just the thing to revive us, but we did have one military museum to visit first.

Mandy told us they have “military museums” all over the country, even in small rural villages, but most often they are just war left-overs stuck on a parking lot, but it passes for culture here, since the powers in Hanoi tend to micro-manage culture and strive to keep it non-Western. Saigon tends to resist this sequestration from things Western and is consequently much more sophisticated than Hanoi and other parts of Vietnam.

There are many parks here and a lot of traffic with vehicles everywhere – mostly motorcycles, taxis, bicycles, but it seems more sane than in Hanoi with its kamikaze drivers. There are still propaganda posters everywhere that are so stereotypical, that they are almost parodies of themselves – except nobody local who might see the humor is actually allowed to laugh – at least in public.  We tourists can, but locals can’t because Big Brother is indeed watching. Saigon is much more westernized than Hanoi and not nearly as grim looking. They say it is hard to get people to live anywhere else once they have seen Saigon (along the lines of “how do you keep them down on the farm, once they have seen the bright lights of the city) and seems obviously true. Vietnamese pay a 10% Income tax and a tax on luxury items, but not on food. Government workers make very low wages and it is a common practice to peddle influence and insider information to supplement their income.

The Old Post Office

The Old Post Office

The heart of in Saigon is a street called Dong Khoi, now lined with shops, restaurants and museums, along with leftovers from the colonial era such as the Post Office, the 19th Century Notre Dame Cathedral and the Municipal Theater (also known as the Opera House, which was once the center of French Society). During the colonial era it was known as the Rue Catinat. Back in those days the street had elegant shops that co-existed with bars and brothels, although the communist regime pretty much cleaned up the sinful stuff. They also renamed the beautiful Hotel De Ville (essentially City Hall) with the name “People’s Committee Building”, which sounds like it would be a drab blocky structure, but they had the good sense to keep the building intact. After the economic liberalization of 1986, the glitz came back, minus the sleaze factor.   The Jade Pagoda, the most renowned in the city is nearby, as is the district called Cholon, or China Town. Ethnic Chinese are known as “Hoa” and they sell all sorts of traditional medicines and other Chinese goods.  Some of the most ancient pagodas are found here.  A popular way to explore is the motorbike taxi called “om”, but this looked a little too death defying to us, so we stuck to our Mercedes van.

A View of Saigon from the Presidential Palace Entrance

A View of Saigon from the Presidential Palace Entrance

We drove to the Grand Hotel down wide tree line boulevards (Saigon has been called the Paris of the East, as well as Pearl of the East) and since these boulevards and many structures were constructed during colonial times, the similarity is no co-incidence. In 1855 the French selected Saigon as the capital of what they called Indochine. At that time the French were the top of the pecking order, but with today’s oligarchy, the Communist Party members comprise the aristocracy.

There are two seasons here – Hot and hotter and even now in the so called dry season it rains around twice a day for around 30 minutes.  In the wet season if there is to be any contrast,  it must rain all day.

Office workers get a 2 hour lunch break from 11:30 to 1:30 to allow time for lunch and a nap and people actually take pillows and mats to work. They work late, from 7 until 10 p.m. in some cases.  In 1975 the Communists tried to introduce commercial farms (collectives) which involved sending city people out to farm, which proved to be a monumental failure.  The city people lacked the skills and the will to do farm work and there were widespread food shortages. Vietnam ended up buying food from China and Russia, who had already pretty much arrived at the conclusion that the collectives were not such a good idea.  In 1985, the government leaders agreed on capitalism for farms and they have been largely self-sufficient ever since and even have leftovers for export.  With that came added wealth, which led to Western business invited in. It seems somehow that once McDonald’s and KFC infiltrate, Communism is doomed.  It has continued to slide downhill ever since.  Retirement age in Saigon is 50 for women and 60 for men and in Hanoi, it is 60 for women and 65 for men which gives Hanoi more reason to discount the value of their Southern countrymen.

We are finding that South Vietnam doesn’t seem to be as thrilled with the Reunification of the country as the north is.  There seems to be a lot of civil liberty abuse and Big Brother activity, and of course the seat of power is now in Hanoi, which seems to be an irritant

We saw the Continental Hotel, steeped in history, where most of the Western journalists stayed during the Vietnam War and had cocktails at their sidewalk café. We had an excellent lunch at the Vietnam House and briefly visited City Hall and the Rex Hotel – another popular place for westerners during the war.

The Presidential Palace

The Presidential Palace

Our stop after lunch was the former Presidential Palace which is now a museum called Reunification Hall. It was first home to the French Governor General and called Norodom Palace.  Then after the French left, President Diem moved in to take up a rather tumultuous reign, along with his Vice President who happened to be is little brother. The little brother was married to a woman known as Madam Nhu , who virtually ran the country, made possible by the ineptitude of the two brothers. In 1962 Diem’s own air force bombed the palace in an assassination attempt. That particular attempt failed and the palace was rebuilt, but then there was a successful assassination in 1963 before Diem was able to move back in, masterminded by Vietnam’s military generals.  Diem was succeeded by a series of leaders until they settled on President Thieu. It was here at the palace that President Thieu

State Dining Room in the Presidential Palace

State Dining Room in the Presidential Palace

received a steady stream of dignitaries, until, seeing the writing on the wall, he resigned,  leaving the country to his Vice President named Huong (as in Huong out to dry). Thieu boarded a helicopter at the American Embassy, and fled Saigon, as the city was falling to the North Vietnamese. There is an iconic photo of a North Vietnamese Tank breaking down the Embassy gates that has furnished no end of propaganda to the Communist regimes.  President Huong was only in power for one day before he fled, and left it up to his top General Minh (no relation to Ho Chi Minh) back at the palace to surrender.

 

 

President's Bedroom - Presidential Palace

President’s Bedroom – Presidential Palace

They have kept the palace just as it was in 1975. (They say it “fell” here in the south, but they say it was “liberated” in the North). The palace looks very much the part of a 1960’s building, sort of an art deco vibe with lots of wood paneling and marble floors and really uncomfortable looking furniture. It is not an enduring architecture for the ages, but quite evocative of the time.

Our next stop was the War Remnants Museum, located in the former US Information Service Building. Mandy sent us into the museum and cautioned us to be careful about what we say. We would not get into trouble, but she would. She said guides have been disciplined and lectured and re-indoctrinated if they should stray from the script, so she chose to not provide a script.

War Remnants Museum

War Remnants Museum

The museum was filled with pretty much one-side propaganda, but they did lose an estimated 3 to 5 million people in the war and there were some awful things that happened in a lot of places, and so this is the spot where they choose to point out the horror of it all. They didn’t spare any grisly details including a human fetus deformed by Agent Orange which we chose to skip looking at. The most interesting display was a collection of war photos of the 134 journalists who were killed in both the Indochina War (the French) and the American War. The journalists were from all over the world.

There was a lot of US military materiel in a large parking lot adjoining the museum which was rounded up from around the country including Huey and Chinook helicopters, downed planes and so-forth. Of course in 1975 when Saigon fell, anything that could fly did fly so they only have the disabled equipment to display.  It wasn’t a particularly well organized museum, given the number of odd historical juxtapositions, such as a French guillotine next to an Army tank.

A US Tank Left Over from the Vietnam War

A US Tank Left Over from the Vietnam War

For those who may wonder or have forgotten or never known just how the US got embroiled in the war, here it is in a nutshell. The French were defeated by the Vietnamese in a decisive battle in 1954, leaving a power vacuum. World powers at the time came together and came up with the Geneva Treaty, splitting the country into North and South.  The treaty said they should hold elections and reunite the country under whomever was elected. Ho Chi Minh, a Communist was the candidate in the North. Supposedly the South, without a strong candidate and backed by fervent anti-communist French and American influences, reneged on the treaty and established what was supposed to be a democracy, but it looked, smelled and tasted like a monarchy under Diem. At this point the French pulled out and over the course of 10 years the Americans pulled in, largely out of fear of the Communist Domino theory that was prevalent at the time, i.e. if one country falls to the Communists, they will all follow suit. (If they had only known to send in our burger joints and fast food places, maybe along with some headliner entertainers, things might have been vastly different. Instead thousands of US soldiers and millions of Vietnamese were killed, Communism took over and failed miserably.

Notre Dame Cathedral

Notre Dame Cathedral

We stopped by the Notre Dame Cathedral, (called Nha Tho Duc Ba),  built in 1880 by the French. It is built of locally quarried stone and ceramic tiles imported from Marseilles, France and was the tallest structure in the city at that time. A statue of Virgin Mary outside erected in 1959 with the hope that she would bring peace – which eventually did happen, but only after a lot of bloodshed. Religion  struggled here under the Communist regime, but today  10% of the population is Catholic. Mass is held 3 times a week, with one service each in Vietnamese, French and English.  Buddhism and Hinduism both are waning here. Buddhist in Vietnam are not allowed to ask for food in exchange for blessings as they do in Thailand. Mandy told lazy people would dress up like monks to get free food ( a big news story exposed by journalists) and also it looked bad for the Communist Party ( like maybe their system was not working so well).

Inside the Old Post Office

Inside the Old Post Office

We also visited the Post Office, which sounds like a yawner, but this is a most unusual post office with a beautiful French Colonial exterior and interior. It is a salmon colored building, with elaborate carvings of western philosophers an scientists. Inside it is reminiscent of a train station with intricate tile floors and columns.  In the midst of all this spendor however is a larger than life portrait of Ho Chi Minh which somewhat detracts from the overall ambiance.It still functions as a post office but there is also a souvenir shop What used to be banks of telephones are now ATM’s. There are benches inside and it is blissfully cooled by air conditioning.

We did a drive by of the old US Embassy which was turned back over to the US and demolished. Today there is a US Consulate there and the US Embassy now is in Hanoi.  Pictures are strictly forbidden, but there were so many trees it was hard to see anything in the first place. This was the scene in 1968 of an attack during the Tet Offensive and also in 1975 of the chaotic evacuation where so many Vietnamese desperate to get out had to be left behind.

The Opera House from the French Colonial Era

The Opera House from the French Colonial Era

We also drove by the Municipal Theater ( Nha Hat Thanh Pho), also called the Opera House. It was built in 1899 as a concert hall for the French.  It has a sweeping staircase, fountains and statuary that you would expect from the French, and another refreshing change from the austerity of Hanoi.  It served in 1956 as a government legislative building, but today, it is back hosting performances.

After 1975 a new urban zone was created and Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City. The zone encompasses former towns and districts into one zone, so names like Saigon Cholon and Bien Wa are still used.  In French Colonial times, Saigon was sort of an outpost, and it gained all of its sophistication once it was the capital of South Vietnam.

Make Your Own Martinis at the Rooftop Bar

Make Your Own Martinis at the Rooftop Bar

Back at the hotel, we went to the rooftop bar at our hotel where journalists used to congregate during the days of the Vietnam War. We decided there must be a new generation of bar tenders since when Gary ordered a martini, they brought him a glass full of Martini & Rossi. He tried to explain how to make a martini and ended up going behind the bar to make his own and to make them for other customers who wanted one. It was quite an evening, concluded with a quick supper.

There are two things among many that we will have to save for next time – a walk around Cholon (the Chinese District) and a tour of the Jade Pagoda. We were out of time and energy at this point and since we still had Cambodia and Bangkok to visit, we figured we might get overloaded with pagodas.

February 28, 2012

At breakfast we were talking about a CNN news story and Stu and Sharon said they did not get CNN. Mandy had to explain that at the hotels they have rooms for westerners with all the news channels and rooms for locals with no outside media. It appears we had a western room and Stu and Sharon had a local room. We chalked it up to “Big Brother trying to maintain control of the locals and still cater to tourists and business people from abroad.

Market Boats in the Mekong Delta

Market Boats in the Mekong Delta

Today we had our choice of seeing the Cu Chi Tunnels used by the Viet Cong during the war or to go the Mekong Delta. We chose the delta, thinking it would be the cooler of the two, both literally and figuratively. We drove south from Saigon in madhouse traffic, resembling a motocross race with a new adventure at every intersection. As they were in Hanoi, suburban Saigon buildings and houses were narrow with very little road frontage and none of the French charm we found in the older parts of the city. Twenty million people live in the 11 cities and departments in the Mekong, so it is by no means a rural outpost.

We passed a lotus farm that looked remarkably like a swamp from the road, but on closer inspection you could see the blossoms. Lotus is both cultivated and grown wild. It is a water plant with big round leaves resembling lily pads. The blooms are held up by pods that hold seeds and are quite decorative in their own right.  All available real estate is used for agriculture. We saw people planting grass by hand in the medians to feed their animals.

No Helmets Required for Children Under 6 - Very Strange

No Helmets Required for Children Under 6 – Very Strange

We were told that helmets are compulsory for motor bike riders over the age of 6.  We didn’t  quite get that logic, but maybe they figure younger ones will be okay in a collision.  Mandy’s husband and daughter are members of the communist party because – he is an engineer and that is the only way he can win bids for projects and the daughter wanted to go to one of the best schools and you have to be Communist to get into it. Mandy is not a member, but nevertheless has to toe the party line.There are a wealth of billboards leaving the city, the government ones clearly evident with their  self congratulatory propaganda that we wonder if anyone believes.

Once the Communists in power learned that people do not work well on land they do not own (and it took them 10 years to figure this out), here in the Mekong Delta each little farm has a family plot that is owned by the farm workers. We also saw grave markers in the rice fields so they make multiple uses of the land.  The rice fields we saw were a pea green color and we were told the rice had two more months to ripen (it is a 3 month process).

A Lotus Blossom

A Lotus Blossom

We were told that they are building an amusement park here – sort of a Disney knock-off which is another interesting venture into capitalism We stopped at a rest stop – similar in some ways to those in the US in that they offer restrooms and things to it, but different in other ways – you can nap in a hammock out back by a lotus pond under the coconut palms and almond trees. Motor bikers often use these and they can sleep as long as they want at no charge. Mandy says these only exist in the south.  In North Vietnamese, this would be considered naughty and slothful.

 

Stilt Houses on the the Mekkong

Stilt Houses on the the Mekkong

The name Mekong comes (a.k.a. Song Cuu Long meaning the River of 9 Dragons) It is named for the 9 estuaries of the river that flow through the province of Vinh Long. There are two main channels,  the Mekong and Co Chien, creating islands with canals crisscrossing them. The river has its origins in Tibet and  it transits China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia before entering Vietnam. The delta is called the Rice Basket and the Fruit Basket of the nation, covered with coconut, mango and longan trees (a relative of the lychee) growing in the rich alluvial soil from the thousands of years of silt brought on the 2,800 mile journey from Tibet. This area has long been the center of conflict with occupation and wars including the Vietnam War with a liberal dousing of Agent Orange, and a bloody 1978 massacre and takeover attempt by the Khmer Rouge of Cambodia. Today if you knew nothing of the history – there is nothing here to give it away.  There are numerous pagodas throughout the delta belonging to the Khmer, Vietnamese and Chinese that reflect the ethnic diversity and all seem to peacefully coexist now. There are beautiful beaches and islands to see here, but our focus would be on the busy river itself.

Village of Cai Be

Village of Tay Ninh

We stopped at the Mekong Delta town of Tay Ninh, home of the Great Temple of the Cao Dai sect, established in the 1920’s. Cao Dai has attempted to create a synthesis of all the great world religions. The sect uses spiritual mediums who channel spirits of the dead, and this is an essential part of its worship practices. The religion was codified (written down) in 1926, largely based on spiritual séances conducted by the founders, channeling such notables as Joan of Arc, Descartes, Shakespeare, Pasteur and Lenin. Entrances to the temple are separated by gender.  We passed on the temple in order to take a Mekong Cruise.

Low Tech Candy Factory

Low Tech Candy Factory

We met up with our boat, a private sampan, in the village of Cai Be, a 3 hour drive from Saigon. Our boat guide was Su An. Our first stop was the land market and factory complex called Cuu Long where they made candy, rice cakes, popcorn treats, crackers and other snacks that we sampled.  Our guide here was named Phuc (no tittering – the “h” is silent, and it is pronounced “puck”). We encountered a hat salesman who convinced Gary that he need one to keep the sun off – a fine idea, but this one had a distinct Gilligan look that was not the least flattering so I think it might not have been worn since the day of its purchase.

The Mekong is a fascinating place.  A wide brown river the color of yellow tinged chocolate milk flows lazily through dense jungles in various shades of green, and if you ignore the fact of gasoline engines powering the sampans, you can imagine they way of life has it has been for hundreds of years.

Cang Rai Floating Market

Cang Rai Floating Market

We saw the Cai Rang floating market that has been in operation for over a thousand years. Farmers sell to merchants who use their boats to reach their customers who come shopping in their own boats, or in some cases,  the seller’s boats go house to house along the river.  They advertise what they are selling by hoisting it up like a flag.  E.g. a man selling, onions, garlic and cabbage will display those on a bamboo pole. The fish sellers have live wells to keep their fish river fresh, except for the unlucky display specimen.   And the chicken salesmen – yep they hoist up a chicken, protesting all the way.  We learned that his way of life is actually endangered.  Well intentioned Americans built a bridge, and investors built grocery stores and imported vehicles. We felt fortunate to experience it before it is gone.

We had a delicious lunch at a home stay Bed and Breakfast call Ba Linh. To reach it, our sampan had to plow through water hyacinths to get us close to a dock. From there we had a short trek through shacks and jungle to get to our restaurant – feeling somewhat skeptical about the whole thing

Fabulous Fresh Fish for our Wraps

Fabulous Fresh Fish for our Wraps

We made our own fish wraps (called, we thought, something that sounded like “yum” – or maybe we just thought it was the name since they were “yum” indeed. We later saw they were called bahn trang and weren’t sure how we derived yum from that. They brought out a whole fish and showed us how to flake the meat off to make our wraps and this was some of the best fish we have ever had anywhere, chocolate milk colored water notwithstanding. We started with what they call rice paper, but it is totally edible made from a thin batter of rice flour and water. It is stretched over a pot of simmering water. The steam cooks the wrapper in a matter of seconds. It is not that different from a flour tortilla, but it is thinner. Included in the wrap were the fish, lettuce, mint, cucumber – all wrapped in rice paper. We also had chicken soup with noodles and the best eggrolls ever along with prawns, pork sticky rice and local fruit – papaya, jack fruit, guava and pomelo.  We all agreed that this was the best meal we have had on this trip, and interestingly enough, it was in the most humble surroundings.

Cruising the Mekong

Cruising the Mekong

There are two types of houses here – stilt (fixed on bamboo poles above the river and floating (drifting on pontoons which in many cases are 55 gallon drums). Bridges here connecting houses to the shore are often what they call “monkey bridges” – not that different from the monkey bars from American playgrounds only more rickety. Along with the floating homes there are often floating villages offering all sorts of goods and services Roofs of both houses used to be thatch, but almost all have converted to corrugated metal since it is cooler and lasts longer. Many floating house have fish traps and thus many residents of the river rarely have to set foot on land.   There is a covered hole in the floor of the floating house, under which is suspended a large net. Fish caught here are stored live until they are ready to be eaten. The area is also used an in incubator for fertilized fish eggs.

In the Gardens at our Lunch Stop

In the Gardens at our Lunch Stop

We had a tour of the restaurants gardens and orchard where they showed us how they grow just about everything they serve. Then we had a little local music and some folk dancing,  involving hoes and brooms, which was intended, so we gathered,  to represent local history and customs, but I have to say it was a little hard to follow. Local music still sounded quite tinny to us, but they finished off with a rendition of Auld Lang Syne and Freres Jacques so we could all sing along and make our own awful music. All in all – it was a fun day.

 

 

Sampans among the Water Hyacinths

Sampans among the Water Hyacinths

Then it was back to the dock and through water hyacinths to get back to open water.  We were told that water hyacinths can be a menace because they grow so quickly, but he locals use them for weaving and erosion control. As we made our way back to the dock, our local guide provided individual foot massages – truly a full service operation.

We started back to Saigon in the late afternoon.  On the way home Mandy pointed out a kite flying park jam packed with both children and adults flying kits. Saigon is too congested  (including traffic and  low strung power lines) for kite flying, so families come here and bring a picnic and make a day of it. Mandy said sometimes people will put a flute-like on the kites to make “music”.  Saigon also has an annual kite competition with Hue, but we weren’t quite sure how the judging went.

Sometimes attendees will have sort of rolling picnic, eating en route, such as the family we saw, each with a bowl of rice on the back of a motor bike, eating away at 40 MPH. The driver thankfully was not joining in the meal on wheels while they were underway. Mandy said that in addition to kite clubs, Vietnamese also have goldfish clubs, nightingale clubs, bonsai, stamp collectors – all on the tame side and then on the wild side they have motorbike clubs.

Fishermen going up the Mekong

Fishermen going up the Mekong

It is also common for people to work as volunteers. Mandy does this herself to work with the monks taking care of abandoned babies, some of which are just a few days old by unwed mothers. Such abandonment is common since there is no such thing as child support in Vietnam and many babies are adopted overseas. She said that some mothers come back to the agency saying they want to meet with the adoptive parents, but often it is just a scam to shake them down for money, and  so that is not allowed.

We returned to the city close to dusk and decided to visit some of the hotels made famous by journalists during the Vietnam War for rooftop cocktails. Our hotel, the Grand was another one frequented by journalists and westerners was built in the 1930’s, but we had visited its rooftop the night before. Three other hotels prominent during the Vietnam War included the Caravelle, the Rex and the Continental. The 10 story Caravelle Hotel (with its bullet proof glass), was built in 1959 and became popular with journalist and diplomats

The Rex Hotel

The Rex Hotel

The Rex, built in the 1950’s was the tallest building in Saigon during the Vietnam War, topped by the much patronized rooftop Garden Bar where journalists also used to hang out. Many famous journalists stayed here, most notably Walter Cronkite, whose candid reporting convinced then President Lyndon Johnson that support for the Vietnam War at home was evaporating. This report generated the famous Nixon quote: “If we have lost Cronkite, we have lost the nation”.  The Rex was also the hub of US and social and military activity. It was from here that US military officers gave the daily press briefings that became known as the “Five O’Clock Follies” which were blatantly misleading and self serving.  These are the briefings that Cronkite largely debunked after his visit.  The hotel is once again a hub of social activity today.

The Continental Hotel

The Continental Hotel

The Continental, built during French colonial times, has an elegant atrium which is popular for afternoon tea. The rooftop terrace bar on top of the Continental Hotel was dubbed the Continental Shelf.  Prior to the war it was popular with writers such as Somerset Maugham and Graham Greene. All the major American Newspapers established news bureaus in Saigon.  Reporters joked that they could cover the whole war and never leave the rooftop bars. Of course all this glamorous hotel and war correspondent business ended with the fall of Saigon in 1975.

Mandy had told us about a Tex-Mex place that is really popular. We did a walk by but kept on walking – it was way too popular and had too many menu items that were neither Tex nor Mex.  Finding it was a challenge because street addresses were never numbered sequentially. People kept their original house number so you might have 112 next door to 114 or you might find a lot of other numbers in between.  There was no odd-even numbering either.  We asked Mandy how fire or policemen find an address if someone calls for help.  She said every neighborhood has someone who knows every person in every house and quite a bit about them so they can do double duty (1) they can direct the emergency crews to a specific house (2) they can report to the government if there is anything that might be unapproved going on.  (like having foreign guests in your house). They also can keep an eye on suspected criminal elements and drug addicts so they can be rounded up and sent to a rehab center to be reformed. Mandy also told us that many Vietnamese would like to travel to the US, but visas are hard to get.  The government of their country and ours are afraid they won’t come back. She says the best way to visit the west is to escort a tour group, but you are under constant scrutiny to make sure you don’t defect. We thought it was interesting that so many structures are said to belong to the people (e.g. The People’s Committee Building) but they are not open to the people.

Our Last Evening in Vietnam with Mandy

Our Last Evening in Vietnam with Mandy

We have had a wonderful and fascinating visit to Vietnam, far exceeding our expectations .Tomorrow we fly to Siem Reap, Cambodia to continue our adventure. One of the key lessons learned here was that the Vietnamese seem to bear no ill will toward Americans. We were told that the Vietnamese feel that Russians, the French, the Chinese all came to take. The Americans came to try to give something of value – democracy, and that is why they like and welcome Americans so much today.

 

 




Southeast Asia Part 5: Cambodia and Bangkok

 Southeast Asia

Part Five: Cambodia and Bangkok

 

February 29, 2012

Dateline: Siem Reap, Cambodia

Latitude at Siem Reap 13.36 Degrees North, 103.86 Degrees East

Today we had a one hour flight from Saigon (a.k.a. Ho Chi Minh City) to Siem Reap , Cambodia  on Vietnam Airlines. We paid $51 in excess baggage fees – that’s $5 per kilo so we apparently acquired a lot of heavy treasure in Vietnam.  Upon arrival, we got our visas at the airport – again providing pictures and $20 in cash and then we learned we would be paying another $25 when we leave.  The currency here is the rial (pronounced ree-all) and it takes 1000 of them to be worth 24 cents in US currency. However, the US dollar is widely used here and can even be dispensed in local ATM machines.  They don’t like any US bills with any sort of tear, crease or marking on them. The Thai Baht is also accepted in most areas.

We met our guide Sophai  (with the interesting pronunciation of “Soap-Eye”).  Sophai told us that he is one of 2,000 English speaking guides in the area. The name Siem Reap literally means “Siam defeated” and the city was named to celebrate the 17th Century victory of the Khmer people over Siam, which is current day Thailand.

Lotus Blossoms on Display

Lotus Blossoms on Display

Cambodia is a small country of about 69,500 square miles, bounded by Thailand to the north and west, Laos on the north and Vietnam to the east. The capital of Cambodia is Phnom Penh today, but in ancient times it was a city called Angkor. From 802 A.D. to 1432 A.D. it was the political and religious center of the Khmer Empire and covered a much larger area than Cambodia does today.  The remains of that city now cover approximately 77 square miles. Much of the old city was comprised of wooden structures, long since rotted away, but what remains are the stone temples. tombs and other ruins.

The Khmer Empire was founded  in 802 A.D. when Jayavarman II declared himself to be the divine king (or devaraja as they called it) of all the land.  Ancient Cambodia was primarily Hindu at the outset, but during the 10th Century under the reign of Jayavarman VII, Buddhism began to spread and is the predominant religion today. Jayavarman II was a follower of the Hindu god Shiva and built in the town of Roulous, a temple-mountain  in his honor, representing Mount Meru, the sacred mythical home of the Hindu gods. This was the first in a series of grand temples and structures of staggering proportions, but the capital was moved to Angkor in 900 A.D. and all subsequent building took place there. Following Jayavarman VII’s death, the area entered into a long decline, hastened by four different attacks from the then Kingdom of Siam from 1352 to 1431.

Our visit here was during what they call a cool dry season with winds from the Northeast (November to March), but we found it to be neither cool, nor dry, nor breezy. It didn’t rain, but it didn’t need too to get us wet since the air was already saturated.

Mandevilla

Mandevilla

Cambodia, like the other countries we visited had some interested rules of etiquette. For example:

-Do not raise your voice. It is considered unseemly to show too much emotion. One should stay calm and not lose one’s temper. This will result in a loss of “face” or respect by others.

-When negotiating prices, allow the other party to save face by letting the final price favor them a bit more

-When someone offers a gift, decline the first time and then accept, taking the gift with both hands.

-Never use the  left hand to touch, eat or give something to someone. This hand is reserved for “private duties”

-Avoid discussion of Khmer Rouge

-Do not touch anyone on the head and do not display the soles of your feet for another to see.  This is considered disrespectful.

-Wai or Nop (the gesture of putting your hands together below your chin in greeting )here is called “Som Pas”

-If you give a gift for the home  –  give no hankies, no knives and don’t wrap it in white. You should pass  gifts and any object using two hands.

-Monks get more respect than even the most elderly. No women can touch a monk. If a monk is sitting, you should sit before beginning a conversation with him. Be respectful of a monk’s food restrictions (no eating after Noon) and do not snack in their presence.

Ancient Carvings at Ta Prohm Temple

Ancient Carvings at the Ta Prohm Temple

Ninety percent of the population of Cambodia are farmers. The rice fields were dry this time of year. They only have one crop a year during the rainy season, called the monsoon season.  Technically the monsoon is the name of the wind that brings the rain, which can create serious flooding here and lasts from May to October.  Fishing was once a major occupation and Tonle Sap Lake was once home to quaint fishing villages, but it was fished out so there was a 2 year moratorium placed on fishing to allow replenishment.

Ninety percent of the people are of Khmer (pronounced Ka-mare” with the accent on “mare”) descent and that is also the name of their language.  Ninety percent of Cambodians practice Theraveda Buddhism. The other 10 per cent are made up of ethnic minorities such as Chinese, Vietnamese and Cham.  The hill tribes here are called Khmer Leu.  Elections are fairly new here, with the UN coming here in 1993 to monitor the first elections.

Sophai pointed out an interesting photo phenomenon showing cultural differences between East and West.  He said Americans and Europeans typically want to shoot a photo with scenery or monuments with no people, whereas Asians favor people over scenery and monuments. That is why we so often have seen Asian tourists mugging for the camera while obliterating a lovely sight. Riddle solved!  But we did observe a world-wide commonality, perhaps with the influence of social media, that there is a plethora of teens, not just Asian, who take on a fashion model slouch and simper and vamp for the camera, tossing their hair this way and that, while the splendors of a beautiful structure such as Angor Wat just become so much backdrop. While the girls tend to go for a Britney or Kim Kardashian look, the boys tend to go for the Justin Beber’s  disheveled but cool look, accompanied by the most ludicrous expression they can manage.

Weddings here are a two day event, typically at the bride’s house if there is enough space.  The groom’s family pays the bride’s parents 3 to 5 thousand dollars for entertaining expenses. (In india it is just the opposite).  They typically will consult a fortune teller to determine the most auspicious date for the ceremony.

Borei Angkor Resort and Spa

Borei Angkor Resort and Spa

We checked into the Borei Angkor Resort and Spa and had lunch and then Sophai picked us up at 3:00 p.m. for some touring.  We would see the main attraction here, the Temple at Angkor Wat tomorrow. We saw the countryside, whether temple ruins or open fields, dotted with termite mounds which they leave alone.  Sophai says it is considered bad luck to break up a termite mound, because that will let the evil spirits out.  Who knew that’s where all those evil spirits lived?

We had a basic language lesson – hello is a word that sounds like” suhr-sdei “.  Good is la oh, yes is ba, no is tee.  We didn’t quite pick up the phrase for “get outta my face” but we could certainly have used it. We found some of the most persistent children sales people marketing post cards and trinkets that we have ever encountered anywhere, except perhaps in India.  With adults, politely saying no thank you and holding up a hand palm extended seems to do the trick. But with the little kids – they are more persistent, probably like kids everywhere, although these are selling trinkets versus wanting to buy them. They are little shy on the math angle of their marketing though. We were offered one bracelet for a dollar of three for 5 dollars so we suspected it might behoove them to curtail the selling sessions and get back into math class at school.

West Baray at Angkor Thom

West Baray at Angkor Thom

Siem Reap is home to 4 temple complexes:  East Baray, West Baray, Angor Thom (thom means big) and Angor Wat. (Angkor means city and Wat means temple or monarchy) Barays are large reservoirs, hand dug, whose waters were intended to give the illusion that the temples beside them are floating.  The belief is that the moat at Angkor Wat was created to simulate Mt. Meru where Buddha dwells.  Today only the West Baray has water. We saw an ancient wall defaced by a Hindu king who Sophai described as greedy and lazy. He systematically ordered all faces on all Buddhas obliterated from the thousands of statues in the area, including the wall which had a Buddha every few feet house in a lotus petal shaped shell.

 

Ta Promh Temple as seen in Lara Croft Tomb raider

Ta Promh Temple

We had a short drive to our first stop, a tomb and temple called Ta Prohm, (the name means Ancestor of Brahma) built in the early 13th Century. It was the filming site of the Lara Croft, Tomb Raider movie, starring Angelina Jolie. It is a fascinating tangle of giant cotton silk trees ( also known as kapok) that have grown up around the tomb, which was neglected for centuries and only rediscovered in the 19th Century.   The trees range in age from 400 to 700 years old and today they actually hold the temple together.  It was sort of like the movie,  Little Shop of Horrors on steroids.

 

Buddha Enveloped by a Kapok Tree

Buddha Enveloped by a Kapok Tree

There is a Sanskrit inscription that states 79, 365 people were required to maintain the complex.  It goes on to list 18 priests, 2, 740 officials, 2,202 assistants and 615 apsara dancers. ( recognizable by their pointy headdresses, with hands and feet pointed away from the body at right angles, the feet often  in what would be second  position in classic ballet – apart and pointed in opposite directions). The remainder were monks, workers and villagers.  The mortality rate among workers was around 50% so they needed a steady supply of people to get it built.  Today workers are trying to preserve and restore the complex, earning about $350 per month. Married couples working here typically do not live together – they live with their parents to save money, but fortunately there is a free children’s hospital provided by private funding which also funds restoration.  Much of the funding comes from Germany, Japan and India.

Most of Cambodia has been deforested for agriculture, but at this temple complex, the jungle has been preserved.  On the grounds we saw wild green parakeets with long tails flitting about.  It was quite exotic, but still hot as blue blazes.  It was a steamy heat, which even in the shade seemed excessive.

Pro Rup Temple at Sunset

Pre Rup Temple at Sunset

Our next stop, called Pre Rup, was a temple complex built in 961 A.D.  made of red sandstone that really radiated heat with no shade at all.  It is sort of a combination temple and man-made mountain, again intended to symbolize Mount Meru. It is built in what is called a quincunx – that is a central tower surrounded by 4 other towers at each corner.  It was the state temple of the first Khmer capital at Angkor. It is a high, abruptly rising,  5 level structure with square  terraces  steep steps, that are spaced more like the rungs of a ladder instead of a staircase that give access (if you can climb it) to the 5 sanctuary towers. It was used as a cremation site for royalty in ancient times and the name Pre Rup translates as “Turn the body”, as in turn the body to ash.  It provided a good place to see the sunset, which allowed the temperature to cool slightly from broil to bake.

Nightlife in Siem Reap

Nightlife in Siem Reap

We had a chance to shower and change at the hotel before going out to dinner on our own. Here the motorized tuk-tuks (essentially a motor-bike with room for passengers in a small compartment)  are called “remorks”  and the motorbike tows a buggy-like carriage which holds two people.  We took remorks to the Angor Palm Restaurant, located in the center of the old town where the Siem Reap River meanders along and enjoyed a great meal on a balcony overlooking the festivities in Pub Street, which like Bourbon Street in New Orleans, is closed off at night for pedestrians.   It was actually a little reminiscent of Bourbon Street, minus the booze and the strippers. Instead we saw market stalls, massage places where massages versus sex for hire takes place and the fish tanks we saw in Chiang Mai where you can have little goldfish nibble the dead skin off your feet.  We took a leisurely stroll (you have to be leisurely in this heat) around the town and found remorks to take us back to the hotel.

 

March 1, 2012

In 1979, with military resources freed from battling the United States,  the Vietnamese toppled one of the most brutal regimes in world history, the Khmer Rouge, and installed a communist government.  Hun Sen became Prime Minister in 1985 after the death of the prime minister. They had free elections in 1993 in which Hun Sen was defeated, but he refused to leave office. He reformed the election system to only have one candidate running which would of course be himself.   He is still in power and Cambodia is run by one party under a constitution.

Elaborate Carvings at Amgkor Thom

Elaborate Carvings at Angkor Thom

Cambodia has an ancient and bloody history In the First Century A.D. an Indian Brahmin ( a nobleman) married a local princess and founded a kingdom called the Phnom. He introduced the Sanskrit language and Hindu customs into law. In 800 A.D. the king named Jayavarman II – a Khmer king united all of the Khmer people into one Hindu Kingdom called Kampuchea. It was during his reign and in subsequent years that the fabulous structures we would see today were built.

In 1863 The French Established a Protectorate which morphed, as protectorates tend to do, into a French Colony, but the French left the area along with Vietnam after a disastrous military defeat at the hands of the locals in 1954. Cambodia became independent from France and in 1955 Prince Sihanouk became the prime minister. In 1969 the Vietnam war spilled over into Cambodia and in 1970 Lon Nol led a successful coup against the king, and Cambodia was invaded by the US chasing Viet Cong across the border. The U.S. carpet bombed the northern part of the country in a failed attempt to drive them out.

In 1975 the Khmer rouge took over, led by Pol Pot ( a puppet of the Chinese Government). During the period of 1975 to 1979 as many as 2 million people were killed by the Khmer Rouge in a purge of intellectuals, handicapped people and anyone suspected of opposing the Khmer Rouge.  The movie The Killing Fields documents this horror of what is among the worst acts of genocide in history. Surviving Khmer rouge leaders were tried in a United Nations tribunal in 2005. However, it is interesting that the current prime minister, Hun Sen, served with the Khmer Rouge.

Angkor Thom Tour by Elephant

Angkor Thom Tour by Elephant

Today we were to explore several temples within the complexes at Siem Reap, the most celebrated being Angkor Wat. Our first stop was Angkor Thom ( which means Great City) which had 54 towers with 216 faces of Buddha . French archaeologists. When the Khmer Rouge came into power, they burned as much of it as they could and what we were able to see was what was left. It was essentially a temple with a town around it and it served as a religious and administrative center for the Khmer people.  (Angkor Wat, although more famous, is smaller and is only a temple). The central temple in Angkor Thom is called the Temple Bayon and it is built on top of an earlier monument. The French during colonial times had undertaken restoration with  documenting numbering  around 36,000 pieces  of the temple complex and trying to figure out how to put it back together.  This process continued until they fled in 1975 just ahead of the Khmer Rouge, who found the documents left behind and used them for rolling papers for their cigarettes.

Causeway at Angkor Thom

Causeway at Angkor Thom

Angkor Thom is believed at its zenith to have a population of over 1 million people.  The royals, priests and military officials lived inside the inner walls and the laborers and everyone else lived outside.  It is said that they suffered a 50% mortality rate in the 5 years it took to build the structure. The wat of Angor Thom is still relatively intact, as is the South Gate with its stone causeway across what is now a dry moat. The Bridge is decorated with a row of 54 gods and demons on each side, who, it was believed, would be able to untangle the naga (mythical dragon) from the mountain. Each figure has a section of the 7 headed naga under his arm. We weren’t quite clear on how the naga got into this dilemma in the first place.

Tower with Faces at Agkor Thom

Tower with Faces at Agkor Thom

Temple of Bayon is part of the Angkor Thom complex.  It was built later than Angkor Wat and has much more Buddhist and less Hindu influence.  It is also considered to be of much less quality, e.g. it is chunkier without as many of the fine sandstone carvings.  The south gate has  one of the most interesting aspects of Angor Thom which are the larger than life faces of Buddha  that are constructed on each of the  4 sides of each tower out of stone blocks, one face looking in each direction.  You sometimes have to look hard to see the face there. It was built by King Jayavarman  VII   and there was  some rebuilding and modifying over the years by subsequent rulers. The kings were considered to be devarajas  (god kings descended from the Hindu god Siva).

Singhas on Guard

Singhas on Guard

Stone lions called singhas  are also prominently featured. (It is also the name of a local beer). As are a number of chedis (also called prangs) which are  pagoda-like structures for the ashes or royal and noble remains. Everywhere we went here we were struck by the height and steepness of the stairs. The Cham and other people back in the day were not tall people, nor are their descendents, yet they have these monster stairs that are not the least be ergonomically friendly.  We were told that the idea was to project an image of grandeur out of respect for the deities.

We saw a structure called the Baphuon which was a grand temple built in the middle of the 11th Century. Which was constructed just outside the walls of Angkor Thom. Unfortunately it was in shambles.  An effort was made to reconstruct it, but this was abandoned in 1972 when war came to Cambodia.

Elephant in the Restoration Workshop

Elephant in the Restoration Workshop

We also saw the Phimeanakas , another temple from the early 11th Century where the king worshiped (and only the king was allowed to worship). It was described by a Chinese visitor in ancient times as having  a tower of gold (but it was only a covering of gold leaf.  The legend is that the temple was associated with a legendary tower where a magical serpent/spirit with 9 heads lived. The spirit appeared as a woman who said he (the king) had to sleep with her every night before he could have sex with his wives and concubines back at the palace.  If he missed a single night, he would be dead and the royal lineage would die along with him.  Apparently he didn’t miss any nights since there were many kings after him

Terrace of the Elephants Angkor Thom

Terrace of the Elephants Angkor Thom

We exited Angor Thom at the Terrace of Elephants, so called because there are so many statues (full scale) of elephants.  It was added to the complex at the end of the 12th Century and further modified in the 13th.  There are 3 long 300 meter terraces for the king and his retinue to observe whatever festivities might be taking place.  These are not regular elephants, but are 3 headed and are gathering lotus flowers with their trunks. They are accompanied by lions and garudas (a mythical bird) carved in bas relief on the walls. Festivities according to Sophai included a sort of elephant polo, with riders playing a game whose rules seem to have been lost in time.

Land Mine Museum Display

Land Mine Museum Display

From Angkor Thom we went to the Land Mine Museum. During the 1980’s Cambodia became the most heavily mined war zone in the world. Today there are several organizations who are attempting to locate and dismantle land mines and his museum was created by one of them. This has been a painstaking process that has taken decades so far and continues to be necessary.

After lunch  we spent the afternoon exploring  Angkor Wat, the largest, most intact and most elaborately decorated temple in Cambodia, and by far the most famous. It was built in the second half of the 12th Century with construction begun under the reign of Suryavarman II, who reigned from 1113 to 1150 A.D.  The building took thirty years to complete.

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat is the single largest religious monument in the world. The literal translation is “the City which is a temple”.  It was originally dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu, the Protector of Creation. The layout is based on the design of the Hindu cosmos called a mandala.  The central sanctuary of the temple has a large tower surrounded by 4 smaller towers and, like the temples at Angkor Thom, they are intended to represent a lotus bud and the celestial home of the gods, as well as the center of the universe,  Mount Meru. The outer walls represent the Edge of the Universe and the moat the cosmic sea.  The sanctuary has four entrances, each with images of Buddha, reflecting that Buddhism eventually replaced Hinduism in Cambodia.

Monks on the Causeway at Angkor Wat

Monks on the Causeway at Angkor Wat

The temple is accessed by a wide causeway which once crossed a moat,  which now is largely dry. The balustrades of the causeway are carved with nagas (the mythical serpent dragon type creatures) which line both sides of the causeway. The walls are covered in intricate carvings, a single 1,970 foot panel along has 2,000 individual carvings of apsaras (celestial dancing girls).  The apsaras are said to be alluring with their suggestive smiles and poses. They are typically adorned with elaborate jewelry and headdresses. Another panel features scenes from the Hindu epic, Mahabharata. The carvings here depict warriors engaged in combat.  Other panels portray the king on his throne surrounded by courtiers complete with fans and parasols, with princesses being carried on palanquins. There is also one of the king on a war elephant, which were actually used in battles.

The temple faces west which is unusual for Khmer temples since it was believed that the West represents death. It is an interesting parallel with the Egyptian beliefs a half a world and several centuries apart.  With the sun getting low in the western sky, we took this as our signal to return to the hotel for a refreshing swim in the pool and to get ready for dinner.

Remorks for Hire

Remorks for Hire

We took a tuk tuk to  a restaurant called Viroths for dinner,  which was billed as a French restaurant, but we found it to be no more French than French fries, yet still tasty. Tuk-tuks here are called touristic remorks and differ slightly from a regular tuk tuk which has room for passengers in a buggy seat mounted on the back of a motorbike.  The remorks have a buggy that is towed by a motorbike. We took a stroll around the Night Market. Tomorrow will be an early day and a long one so we went back to the hotel  and collapsed in our beds, heads spinning with visions of  nagas and garudas.

 

 

March 2, 2012

Dateline Bangkok

Latitude at Bangkok 13.75 Degrees North, Longitude, 100.5 Degrees East

Sunrise at Angkor Wat

Sunrise at Angkor Wat

Today we had the truly sublime and  wonderful experience  of seeing  sunrise at Angkor Wat.  We found it to be mystical, magical and spiritual – one of those defining moments that are imprinted on your mind for the rest of your life. We watched beside a small pond that was at one time part of a moat with the towers silhouetted against the delicate pink and orange sky, created by the rising sun and reflected in the still water, turning first mauve and then lavender. We had skipped the morning ceremony with the monks rising at 4:15 a.m. which including chanting and blessings, but were glad not to miss the sunrise because it was stunning.

Sunrise Spectators at Angkor Wat

Sunrise Spectators at Angkor Wat

We were picked up at our hotel at 5:15 a.m. and arrived in total darkness at the temple at 6:00 a.m., using small flashlights to make our way across the causeway with other visitors, so numerous their flashlights looked like mid-summer fireflies. We settled on a small rise,which Sophai assured us was the prime viewing spot, which we learned when the sun arose that we were sharing with perhaps a thousand like-minded souls, including tourists as well as local people. But meanwhile in the darkness, just as the sky to the east began to glow, we heard the chanting and the drumbeats from the monastery, as the silhouette of Angkor Wat emerged from the blackness and the cicadas took up their “song” if it can be called that – something akin to a drill bit grinding into metal, but only making fleeting contact. It was amazing to us how quiet the amassed humans were, even after the sun was up. The whole crowd seemed to be awed into contemplation (well, maybe if you discount all the cell phone photos being snapped) you could see it.

Strange Cargo in Siem reap

Strange Cargo in Siem reap

We went back to the hotel for breakfast before catching our 35 minute morning flight to Bangkok on Bangkok Airways.  En route to the airport we found that Cambodia still had plenty of sights to turn our heads. We saw one of the strangest cargoes yet on a tuk-tuk –  towing a trailer holding a coffin – we assumed it was empty since there didn’t seem to be any sort of funeral procession. We saw a remork which normally carries two passengers, but  which had four orange robed monks jammed into two seats on a four lane highway with robes flapping. We saw a broom salesman on a bicycle hawking his hand-made brooms as he pedaled down the street, weaving in and out of traffic.

Gary went to the men’s room at the airport and came out to report a man filling his rice cooker with water. In the ladies room we saw a woman washing her rice bowl and chopsticks so apparently the line between bathroom and kitchen is often blurred.  So, apparently, is the idea of privacy in these bathrooms since Stu reported using a urinal while a woman right next to him cleaned out the adjacent one.

Modern Bangkok

Modern Bangkok

Upon arriving in Bangkok, we learned that the guide we were supposed to have had a conflict and so we got “Bob” (or something similar – we never quite got the spelling so he was Bob to us.) and drove into Bangkok to check into the Rembrandt Hotel and Towers. To say hello in Thai you use the word “sawadee and add “ka” if you are addressing a woman and “ kob” if you are addressing  a man.  However, given the number of transvestites and transsexuals here (surgeons specializing in this particular operation advertise on billboards to a degree that would put American ambulance chasers to shame), you are always safe with a plain greeting of “sawadee”. The palms pressed together here called the wai  and is a polite way to greet others. It  is said to copy the shape of the lotus bud. The higher you hold your hands the more respect you are offering to the person you are greeting.

The City of Bangkok, we learned, has 10 million people. It is a very modern-looking city, complete with skyscrapers, especially in the section we were staying in called the Sukhumvit. This area is comprised of a series of small alleys off the main road the Sukhumvit Road which stretches from the center of Bangkok to the Cambodian border. The small side streets off of it are  called Soi (pronounced “soy”).

Shuttle Service at the Rembrandt

Shuttle Service at the Rembrandt

We checked into the Rembrandt hotel just off Sukhumvit Roadand  and had lunch at a restaurant across the street called the Lean on Tree, but never quite got the meaning behind the name, although there were a lot of trees around it that one could supposedly lean upon. We all had delicious Thai food and suspect we may be going native here.  We did note they have what must be the smallest napkins in the world, single ply, maybe two inches squares, about the texture of really cheap and ineffective toilet paper, which was surprising since people eat with their hands here much of the time, but they do employ the practice of dedicating one hand to eating and one to “other” tasks so maybe that explains the hygiene issue.

On the River in a Longtail Boat

On the River in a Longtail Boat

From there we walked to Sukhumvit to catch the Sky Way train to the Chao Phraya River (River of Kings) which runs through the center of Bangkok out into the Gulf of Siam (a.k.a. Gulf of Thailand) only 12 miles away. We met Bob, the guide, at the train station, who showed us how to buy tickets. The fare was 40 baht (about $1.30) each way.  We all journeyed together to find our long-tailed boat that would take us on a two hour cruise on the Chao Phraya and its tributaries and canals called (khlongs).  The long-tailed boats are so named because they use motors salvaged from WWII Japanese vehicles which have a long drive shaft in order to advance the rear wheels. The boats are long and skinny with the engine mounted on the very back and thus the motor is separated from the propeller by that same long drive shaft.  It would appear to me that some modification could be made to shorten this, but if so, no one seems to have come up with it.  The solution may be that they should buy a motor designed for a boat, but then that would have a negative impact on the charm of it all.

Smal temple on one of the klongs of Bangkok

Small temple on One of the Klongs of Bangkok

We went by a temple with monks feeding river catfish and there was quite a feeding frenzy.  The monks do this several times a day every day and so the catfish are huge to gigantic. Bob wasn’t clear on if anyone catches and eats them, but the monks are vegetarian so they certainly don’t.  And speaking of frenzies, we were assaulted by boats in a steady stream, participating in what is called the Floating Market.  It seems to be not so much as place of business , as a free-for all. Gary did buy a carved and homely  little wooden frog with the added attraction of having a stick to be struck along his back to make a distinctive “ribbet” sound.

We learned quite a bit about Buddhist rituals and practices throughout our journey, including these gems:

Streetside delicacies

Streetside delicacies

The daily alms round, called bintabat, takes place shortly after dawn when the monks leave their temples to search for their daily meal. Giving food to the monks is a way for lay pepole to make merit and practice generosity (the act itself is called dana). Monks eat only food given to them, they share it among themselves and it must be eaten before noon. Merit making is based on the belief that good deeds lead to good outcomes either in this life or the next. It is a way to take responsibility for your own karma (destiny).

Offerings for Buddha are usually symbolic.. Lotus buds represent the purity of the Buddha’s thoughts.  Incense sticks are burned in groups of 3 and symbolize the Buddha, (the dharma or teachings) and the sangha, (the monkhood), whereas candles stand for the light of understanding.

Meditation purifies the mind and clears it of distractions. Monks practice it regularly as do many lay people. Monks have their heads shaved monthly on the day of the full moon

People buy and apply gold leaf to a Buddha image to honor his teachings. Most people visit their wat once a week but there are no set services

On the Chao Phraya River

On the Chao Phraya River

The city of Bangkok is only 5 feet above sea level, so it is no wonder that waterways are key to its existence. The name Bangkok translates into Krung Thep, or City of Angels. The Chao Phraya River and the khlongs are key transportation and commerce hubs, with its many ferries and all manner of vessels, rafts and barges. Water borne vendors still market their wares from long tail boats that cruise the khlongs., or really from anything else that will float. Bangkok was once actually a floating city with stilt houses and houses built on rafts. Roads have replaced many waterways but the Thon Buri district remains much as it was.

 

Wat Arun

Wat Arun Temple

In Bangkok an estimated 2 million people (of the 10 million population) l live on the river. The city also has 30,000 Buddhist temples, but we were only going to visit a few. We stopped at the Temple of Dawn called Wat Arun – named for the Indian God of Dawn. According to history, in 1767 King Taksin arrived here at sunrise and decided it to be the appropriate spot to build a temple. The first one was tiny but it was enlarged and expanded over the years by Rama I and Rama II. Rama IV added the ornamentation created with broken pieces of porcelain which sets it apart from other temples.  The central design of the temple symbolizes Hindu Buddhist cosmology – sort of a wedding cake looking structure (big cake!)The central prang (tower) represents Mount Meru (roughly equivalent to Heaven, but with a lot more detail) and its ornamental tiers depict worlds within worlds.  The top tier called the Devaphum is the peak of Mt. Meru . It has six heavens within seven realms of happiness.

Royal Temple Complex from the River

Royal Temple Complex from the River

The next level is the Tavatimsa Heaven where all desires are fulfilled and is guarded at all 4 cardinal compass points by  the Hindu God Indra who is a God of Heaven, also in charge of rain and thunder.  This layer also has small coves or niches with are kinnari, mythical creatures half bird, half human. The third layer (or base layer)  is called the Traiphum and it represents 31 realms of existence across 3 worlds of Desire, Form and Formless of the Buddhist Universe. There are stairs ascending the Central prang but they are very steep, intended no doubt to signify how difficult it is to reach the summit of the highest levels of existence.

Small Buddha at the Wat Arun Tenple

Small Buddha at the Wat Arun Tenple

There are 4 minor prangs in each of the four corners all with niches and statues of Nayu, the god of the winds on horseback.  Interesting note – there are demon statues made of the broken porcelain lining the walls of the central prang, symbolizing the constant threat of evil against goodness. There are statues of Chinese guards at the entrance. We have seen this blending of Chinese, Indian and Thai religions and cultures in several temples we have visited.

We walked around and took pictures and found that they are strict about ladies knees and shoulders being exposed (in 100 degrees soggy heat no less) so they loan pashmina like wraps for those daring hussies who show up with offending body parts exposed.  Just the thing you want to do is to add a layer of clothing to an already over-heated body. Despite the strictures of the temple regarding modesty, the three P’s of immoral behavior are rampant here  in Bangkok– Prostitution, Pedophilia and Pornography, but while at the temple you’d never guess that to be true.

The garuda ( mythical bird) is now used as the seal of the country and is  symbol of the king. Its shape resembles the US Eagle with wings spread, but this bird has a very stylized outfit and headdress that are unmistakably Asian.  However today, it seems that a different symbol of the king is quite prevalent and can be found on giant billboards with photographs of him forty years younger.  They sort of alternate with billboards advertising cosmetic surgery and sex change operations in a general blur of visual pollution.

Thai Mexican - not recommended

Thai Mexican – not recommended

It was jam packed in the Skyway as we made our way back to the hotel since we were hitting it at peak rush hour.  By the time we reached the Rembrandt we were ready for some cocktails and discovered a Mexican Restaurant of all things, called Senor Pico’s. Now normally we would be quite cautious about mixing cultures like this so radically, particularly in a non melting pot like the US or Canada. However the margaritas, the chips and guacamole, the salsa were excellent.  If only we had stopped there. But no, we ordered enchiladas and tacos.  The tacos had a distinctive flavor, but not a Mexican flavor, more like what you’d find in a Bolognaise sauce over spaghetti.  The enchiladas had nutmeg or some other spice would expect in a pumpkin pie, which we found to be more than a little off-putting.  We went to our rooms wishing we had called it a night with just drinks and appetizers, but we did learn (once again same lesson, over and over) you should not order Mexican food just anywhere.

March 3, 2012

Delivery Tuk Tuks in the Old City

Delivery Tuk Tuks in the Old City

Today we  spent  the entire day exploring  Bangkok , (whose name we learned means “Village of the Wild Plum or Krung Thup as they call it) which we found to be not nearly as wacky as other metropolises we have visited in the region in terms of both vehicular traffic and cargoes. Taxis in the city are vivid shades of hot pink and lime green and are called Taxi Meters (what we would call metered taxis). They replaced the old system of gypsy cabs and predatory charging, making it much more attractive to foreign tourists and investors. Traffic is just as bad as anywhere we have been, but we were told that most accidents are caused by people obeying the rules. We did have to ensure that we wore clothing that would cover both ankles and knees since we would be visiting some temples with strict dress codes (no high water pants – no Capri pants) and feet should also be covered. It was a day filled with fabulous sights and the most impressive Buddhas we have seen, and we have seen a bunch of them.

Solid Gold Buddha in Wat Traimit

Solid Gold Buddha in Wat Traimit

Our first stop was a temple called Wat Traimit which had an interesting sign indicating parking for foreigners only.  Another interesting sign inside the temple cautioned that we should beware of non-Thai pickpockets  (and so,  we wondered,  were Thai pickpockets considered okay?), but of course the implication was that any thieves must be from outside the country.  The Wat Traimit is also called the Temple of the Golden Buddha and of course there are thousands of golden Buddhas throughout Southeast Asia, but this Buddha was quite the most imposing of them all – It is 13 feet high and made of solid  18 karat gold and weighs 5 tons. It was sculpted in the 13th Century and was discovered quite by accident  when the port facilities of Bangkok were being expanded. At the time it was covered in stucco and was tucked away at the Temple Wat Traimint for 20 years. A crane dropped it while attempting to move it, revealing the gold treasure beneath. Scholarly thinking is that it had been covered in stucco to hide it from Burmese marauders centuries ago and somewhere along the line, those who knew the secret, died before revealing it.

Gongs at Wat Traimit

Gongs at Wat Traimit

The temple walls are equally impressive with gold leaf and elaborate carving and paintings. The Chinese who live here come to “make merit” by applying golf leaf on the temple’s smaller Buddha images. They also burn what is jokingly referred to as “hell’s banknotes” , which serve as kong tek – that is paper replicas of real objects which are burned to provide for the dead in the next life. They are way too practical to burn real money.

Today the Chinese typically are 5th generation and have assimilated quite well and it seems everyone gets along. Right next to China town is India town where Indian immigrants originally settled and have pretty much kept to their neighborhoods – not too different from the melting pot that New York City was and is. As in old New York, the family quite often lives in rooms above their family business. These structures are called “Shop Houses”. They also paint elaborate signs in gold on a red background to ward off evil and sickness. Thais (including Chinese Thais) are very superstitious people.  Almost everyone wears some sort of protective amulet. They are sold in specialty markets, often near a shrine or other spiritually auspicious sites. Many are religious, but many are of a baser, more practical nature such as a phallus to guarantee potency. Fortune telling is an industry in its own right in Thailand as well. No major decisions are made without consulting a fortune teller.

Pak x Market

Pak Khlong Market

After being dazzled by the Golden Buddha, we walked the streets of nearby Chinatown to visit the vast markets including the Pak Khlong Market, where there are blocks and blocks of vendors selling fresh flowers and produce, both grabbed up by the armload by people heading to the temples to make an offering. The market is open 24 hours a day. Deliveries arrive by 1:00 a.m. every night and by 9:00 a.m. the most diverse selections in the world are on view.

After China town we visited the Temple of Wat Pho which is Bangkok’s oldest and largest temple. It as built in the 1780’s by Rama I on the grounds of a 16th century temple.  In 1832 Rama III built the Chapel of the Reclining Buddha and turned the temple into a palace of learning. Traditional Thai massage is one of the key areas of study. Thai massage is quite vigorous and involves pulling and stretching limbs and torso in sometimes quite strenuous ways.

Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho

Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho

In the wihan (translation is chapel)  of the  Wat Pho Temple we saw the famous Reclining Buddha which is truly enormous. Buddha is lying on his side with his head resting on his hand and propped elbow. The statue is 150 feet long , built of brick and covered in gilded plaster. The statue totally fills up the wihan. His feet are quite interesting in themselves with mother of pearl images on the soles which represent the 108 lashanas (auspicious signs) of the true Buddha.

 

They had large statuary “guards” here are called farang at the inner gates of the compound. They have big noses, beards and top hats that created a distinct Charlie Chaplin look. The word “farang” means one of European ancestry – which would sort of explain the big nose. But we never did find out why foreigners are doing the guarding, but they were quite common here. There is an entire quarter in Bangkok called the Farang Quarter which at one time was the hub for commerce with foreigners.

 

Complex

Wat Phra Kaeo Temple Complex

Our next stop was the Grand Palace and the Wat Phra Kaeo temple complex, built in 1782, by King Rama I, (one of his many titles) as his residence and, in fact it was a self sufficient city. The wat is actually a sub-complex within the Grand Palace complex. Unlike other wats, it has no resident monks.  It is massive, (around 538 acres) walled on every side with elaborate gates. It has ornate with temples and bejeweled Budddhas and nagas everywhere. The Grand Palace was so grand in fact that the Rama VII  decided to move into a the more modest Chitrlada Palace in the Dusit section of the city in 1925 and just use the Grand Palace complex for ceremonial and religious purposes.

 

A Gallery of Buddhas

A Gallery of Buddhas

This was the palace for which we had to do our modest dressing, and we noted with interest all manner of rental enterprises lining the streets around the palace offering suitable clothing. We saw some remarkable transformations such as a gentleman with a perfectly respectable looking striped golf shirt with khaki shorts with sandals become covered with a loud sarong in colors and garish patterns totally at odds with his golf shirt. It came to about mid-calf. Then he rented socks to wear with his sandals (still another color from the garish palette) with his hairy legs showing above.  Somehow I had to think Buddha would be laughing  – I know we certainly were.

 

Phra Si Rattana Chedi

Phra Si Rattana Chedi

When approaching the grounds from a distance you can see the extensive walls and inside the soaring spires of the various structures and steep roof lines of the complex. Once inside we found so much more. There was the way over the top ornate Audience Hall where the king received guests and held State Visits amid mother-of-pearl inlaid art covered walls.  Nearby was the king’s private chapel with exquisitely painted murals showing scenes from Buddhist life, ancient legends and proverbs. There was also the king’s library called the Phra Mondop which was a repository for scriptures.

Mural in Ramakien Gallery

Mural in Ramakien Gallery

One of the more impressive sights in terms or artwork was the Ramakien Gallery, which surrounded the temple complex, much like a cloister. It is decorated with lavishly detailed painted murals that depict the legend of the Ramkien which tells the story of Rama  (the good king) and how he defeats Tosakan (the demon king). The Ramakien originated in India, but has become Thailand’s national epic,

There were 8 prangs (small elaborate tower like spires) inside the complex intended to represent the 8 elements of the Buddhist religion which lead to Nivana – the ultimate enlightenment. We also saw the Phra Si Rattana  Chedi  (a chedi is a repository for funeral ashes) where the ashes of royals are interred, and this one supposedly contains a piece of the breast bone of Buddha.

Demons on Guard to Ward off Evil Spirits

Demons on Guard to Ward off Evil Spirits

There was an abundance of mythical creatures, both in the painting and sculpture throughout the grounds. We were familiar with many such as the Naga – dragon serpents and the Garuda- half man, half bird, but we also learned of some new ones, such as the Apsonsi – half woman, half lion that adorn the upper terrace of the Wat Phra Kaeo and the Yakshas – demons who protect the Emerald Buddha from evil spirits. To us this seemed to be odd to have demons warding off evil spirits, but it might be one of those subtleties that we Western cultures can’t grasp.

 

The most important structure in the temple complex is the Bot of the Emerald Buddha. A Bot is a sanctuary, whereas a wat is a temple complex. The doors to the bot are inlaid with mother of pearl, and marble. It is guarded by gilt bronze garudas and tone lions called singhas. The walls depict various scenes of Buddha’s triumphs and his separate lives called jatakas.  Originally there was a monastery on site, but there are no monks at the temple of the Emerald Buddha anymore.

The Bot of the Emerald Buddha

The Bot of the Emerald Buddha

The Emerald Buddha, the most famous Buddha in Thailand, is quite small, but highly revered and receives the highest volume of wishes by worshipers. It is considered the most holy Buddha in the land As a testament to its importance, one of the titles of King Rama I was Royal Monarch of the Emerald Buddha. The Emerald Buddha is not actually made of emerald, but of a single piece of green jade.  The Buddha itself is smallish, only 26 inches tall and 19 inches wide, sitting in a glass case on a very high altar of gilded carved wood.  Buddha actually gets 3 costume changes per year – summer, winter and rainy season and his costumes are changed in a ceremony presided over by the king. His summer outfit is a crown and jewelry and in the winter he wears a shawl, In the rainy season he wears a gilded monastic robe and a headdress.

Ho Phra Nak - the Royal Mausoleum

Ho Phra Nak – the Royal Mausoleum

The Emerald  Buddha was first discovered in Chiang Rai covered with plaster. According to the story, the chedi that housed it in Chiang Rai was struck by lightning in 1434 and the plaster flaked off to reveal the jade. The abbot at the time mistook it for emerald and thus it got its name. Upon learning of the discovery, the King of Chiang Mai sent an army riding elephants to retrieve it. It was retrieved, but the elephant which was carrying it refused to take the road to Chaing Mai and thus the entourage took that as a sign it should not go there.  It had several homes over the years and was taken to Laos to a royal wedding where it stayed for 226 years until 1778 when the Thai Army invaded and took it back.

A Funeral We Mistook for a Flower Shop

A Funeral We Mistook for a Flower Shop

The visit to the Emerald Buddha concluded our tour here so we made our way out of the complex. Unbeknownst to us there was a funeral in progress at one of the pavilions, and we more or less that   stumbled into thinking they were selling flowers. We bowed using the wai gesture and nodded as politely as possible and edged our way out of the middle of things and to the nearest exit.

We stopped for lunch at a place near the Elephant Pier where in the olden days royal elephants were brought down to the river for a bath. Our restaurant was the Khun Kung Kitchen in an expansive area that the Thais refer to as their Champs Elysee, with a Hall of Justice and monuments to their constitutional monarchs scattered about.  Having seen the Champs Elysee multiple times, I have to say I was not struck by the resemblance myself, but perhaps from another angle it might jump out at you.

The V Palace

The Vimmanmek Mansion

After lunch we left downtown and drove out in the Dusit section of Bangkok where the current King of Thailand actually resides in the Chitrlada Palce. We didn’t drop in on His Majesty, but continued on to the Vimmanmek Mansion, also known as the Teak Palace. It is a Victorian structure built in 1900’s intended as a retreat for the King Rama V who attended and graduated from Oxford  in 1903. The palace was constructed entirely without nails and is the world’s largest golden teak building. It was reassembled here in 1901 after being moved from the Thai Coast to the south.   The palace was the first structure in Thailand to have both electricity and indoor plumbing. We noticed they had some interesting rules posted in the public restrooms, e.g. no standing on the toilet and no sprinkling water (urine?) on the floor.

The palace became a favorite retreat for King Rama V and his many concubines.  He reportedly loved to have his photo taken and there are many of them displayed throughout the palace in which he looks like a kid with a fake mustache. He also had many pictures taken of his many concubines, who in the photos look very much  like men with pompadours from the 1950’s.  Apart from the King, the mansion could be visited by women only. It was closed in 1935 and fell into disrepair, but was refurbished in 1982.

Jim Thompson's House

Jim Thompson’s House

Our last stop of the day was Jim Thomspson’s House. He was an American expatriate with a very interesting life.   He was born in 1906 and fought in WWII in Europe where he became part of the OSS, which evolved into the CIA. He worked as a CIA operative in the post WWII years in Thailand. His claim to fame however was taking the cottage industry of silk weaving global after its demise during WWII and making a fortune at it.

The style of the house is traditional Thai, but he dismantled 6 traditional teak houses and brought them together to create his own house,   which was complete in 1959. Some of the walls were reversed so that exterior carvings would face the interior.  Each building is elevated, per the Thai custom to deal with periodic flooding

He assembled his “house” in the Ban Khrua district of Bangkok, noted for silk weaving.   He followed the Thai custom of selecting a day to move in that was favorable per an astrologist. Reportedly this same astrologist told him he would die at age 61 which apparently he did when he disappeared in the Malaysian Highlands in 1967 and was never found. There is speculation that the CIA was somehow involved, but nothing was ever proven.

Thai GirlDemonstrating Local crafts at Jim Thompson's House

Thai GirlDemonstrating Local crafts at Jim Thompson’s House

He was an avid collector of antiquities spanning 14 centuries, including paintings, porcelain and carvings. His collection of memorabilia was quite unusual, brought from all over Thailand. Instead of having a television for entertainment, he had a mouse maze, adding the Chinese custom where you could wager on the mice. He had a chamber pot in the shape of a cat where a guest could lift the head off and pee and then the servants would empty it the next morning.  He also had an open air toilet in the shape of a frog. He also collected broken antiquities that Thais gave to him. They didn’t want to keep them thinking they were bad luck.  There may have been something to that since he disappeared so mysteriously at such a young age.

Exhausted from the full day of touring, perhaps our busiest and most wonder-filled yet, we rode the Skytrain back to our stop on Sukhumvit Road and walked the few blocks to our hotel.

March 4, 2012

A Curry- free Taste of Home for the Desperate

A Curry- free Taste of Home for the Desperate

This was our last day in Southeast Asia and we would depart this evening for the airport and the long flight home, so  we chose a massage and some pool time to be followed by naps and packing.  We did have an all American indulgence – lunch at Burger King. Our taste buds were ready for a change from Thai food.We had an overnight flight leaving at 11:15 p.m., with connections in Tokyo and Dallas. We got back the day we lost when we came here so we were able to arrive in Atlanta at 1:00 p.m. on March 5. It was a wonderful and a wonder filled trip and so culturally enriching it remains among our favorite adventures.