Bye-Bye Bangkok

It’s hard to believe that last Monday, Bill and I woke up at 4:00 am in Bangkok, Thailand, arrived at Suvarnabhumi Airport at 6:30, checked our SIX bags of luggage at 7:30, departed at 10:00, and a mere 25 hours later arrived at midnight (also on Monday) at Raleigh-Durham Airport in the USA.  A full week later, we are still acclimating to this side of the world while missing that part of the world.  Don’t misunderstand, we are happy to be home and are eager to see all of our friends.  It’s just that we became accustomed to certain aspects of our daily life in Bangkok over the past six months and need a little time to adjust…

Our last week there was a whirlwind of personal good-byes and farewell dinners.  It’s amazing how many relationships can be formed over such a relatively short period of time.  So many people reached out to ensure we were comfortable in our home away from home.  I will not attempt to list each and every person that enriched our lives during our stay, for the list is way too long, but here is a collage of some of those special folks.

Speaking of home away from home, we could not have had this experience if it weren’t for our wonderful friends and neighbors who kept a watchful eye on our house, even during the wicked wet winter, with weekly walk throughs and monthly mail ministrations.  Bill and I had peace of mind knowing that our house was in better hands than our own.  We are truly lucky to have such amazing friends.

Thanks also to the blog readers and followers for their encouraging words.  It has been quite some time since I have written anything at all, other than an occasional Christmas poem, so blogging was quite the new venture for me.  I ran into some technical (or possibly operator) issues along the way, as I was writing on and gathering photos from an iPad, two iPhones, and an OPPO phone!  I apologize for misplaced captions and photos gone wild!  All in all, I enjoyed sharing the ride with you and hope that it wasn’t too bumpy.

Some of the things that didn’t make it into my blogs were the daily happenings and observances made throughout our six-month Thai time.  I would actually jot down fun facts on occasion; unfortunately, the jots were in my Notes App on my unrecovered phone.  To the best of my memory, here are my top ten (I’m afraid I don’t have pics that go along with facts, but I have sprinkled in some miscellaneous ones):

1.  When Thais park their cars, they leave them in neutral.  Then, if someone parks behind them, they can just push the vehicle out of the way!  Genius!  From my balcony, I enjoyed watching two garage attendants in an apartment building move cars around (without ever getting in them) so that residents could drive easily out of the lot.  

2.  Our apartment had no hot water in the kitchen; only in the bathroom.

3.  After making a selection, street food is placed or poured into plastic bags and then a rubber band is wrapped around and around it, filling the bag with air so that it can stand upright while I hunted for Baht in my wallet.  I am determined to learn this method of rubber banding, but if I haven’t succeeded after 6 months…

4.  Restaurants rarely provide diners with knives, which are not really necessary when eating Thai food.  Actually, I may eliminate knives as well and opt for the Korean style of using scissors at the table instead.  Napkins are also hard to find, making me realize just how sloppy Bill and I are at the table.

Cutting edge idea!

5.  At our complex, a Juristic Office was responsible for fixing everything from electricity to plumbing, pretty much 24/7.  Although we only had to call on them a few times, communication of the problem was made via photos and pantomimes.  I’m pretty sure the friendly staff had a chuckle or two when they left our apartment.

6.  It is common for homes, businesses, and restaurants to ask for a monk’s blessing on special days of the year.  We returned from a weekend trip to find a white string of yarn encircling our entire apartment complex, including the parking lot, about 15 feet above the ground.  Similar to the white string that a monk blesses and ties around a temple visitor’s wrist, the white yarn (also blessed) provides good health and protection to those within the building.  Our 4-month-old yarn was still there when we left Bangkok, and Bill and I feel great!  We are believers!

A wristful of blessings!

7.  Umbrellas are more prevalent than dark glasses on sunny days, and most were right at my eye level!

8.  Instead of asking “How are you today?,” the question is “Where are you going today?,” which is really a much better start to a conversation, in my opinion.  At first, I thought it sounded kind of nosy but then I realized that a person was really interested in my destination and often offered helpful information as to the best way to get there or additional places to see in the same area.

9.  Mobile phones are more likely to be used for preening and taking selfies than for making calls.  (And I never think to use my phone as a mirror, even though it’s almost always within reach.)  The favored communication app is LINE (I have 20 or so LINE friends!), which has adorable stickers/emojis! 

10.  My favorite observation is that it is very common to see two or three Thais, regardless of age or gender, holding hands, leaning on each other, or comfortably invading each other’s space.  In most cases, it carries no meaning other than an honest display of friendly affection.  When our guide in Myanmar linked arms with me as we walked around some temples, I was delighted.  Of course, she may have been making sure I wasn’t going to fall down or something, but I believed it was just a natural reaction to walking with a friend.  And Annie and her friends would often place a hand on my shoulder or just stand close to me while chatting.  It is a nice feeling that warms the heart, that’s all I can say.  So, be aware, my good friends, I may try to start something on this side of the world!

And a tidbit from Vietnam: On a rainy morning in Hanoi, we watched poncho-clad motorcyclists park, take off their brightly colored ponchos to cover their bikes, and then run in the rain to their destination!

I’m sure I’ll think of some more as time goes by…

A friendly gesture…

After just one week and a bit of jet lag, there are a few things (other than friends and acquaintances) that I’m already missing, primarily (and I say this without hesitation) the food!  Duh!  Fortunately, there are some wonderful restaurants here (I mean, the winner of the James Beard Award for outstanding chef in the U.S. lives in Raleigh, for Pete’s sake), but I yearn for some papaya salad from Shambala’s, morning glory from Baan Pueng Chom, lemongrass-stuffed salted fish from Lao Lao, Isan sausage from Lay Lao, and spicy deep-fried catfish from the lady on the corner.  I’m sure there will be some experimenting in our kitchen real soon, but I doubt it will compare to our daily fare there (no offense, Bill).

The Skytrain was such a great way to travel from one end of Bangkok to the other in lickety-split time.  I never understood why some people would actually choose to drive in the crazy traffic rather than hop on the Skytrain or Metro.  I miss having a Skytrain that can take me to downtown Raleigh!

The Skytrain would also take me to The Loom, my happy place where I learned to weave surrounded by colorful skeins of silk yarns.  Right outside the shop, the cutest kids ran around sock footed in a play area.  Their occasional high-pitched squeals and constant giggles were a pleasant distraction to my attempts at intense concentration.  I miss my kind instructors, but hope to continue my lessons locally.

I love returning to our house surrounded by lots of beautiful green trees and visiting hummingbirds, but I do miss having scones, dinner, ice cream, craft beers, and of course bananas, all within 100 yards of our apartment in Ari, not to mention being saluted by the friendly guards each and every morning!

Finally, I miss the ease of traveling from Bangkok to so many other countries.  Two hours to Myanmar and Vietnam, six hours to South Korea and Japan, or even 12 hours to Paris!  The United States seems so far away from everywhere else!  (Yes, I realize it’s only 8 hours to Paris from North Carolina, but you get my point, I hope).  I can join Bill in crossing South Korea and Vietnam off my to-go list and we both can add Myanmar to places we’ve been.  Japan was, and still is, on my bucket list, because flying in and out of the Narita Airport doesn’t count.

On the other hand, I am thrilled to be driving, I look forward to playing tennis, and I get tickled every time I see a friend that I haven’t seen since 2018!  I should also mention how excited we were to have dinner with our son on our very first night back.  He moved to Washington, DC, while we were away, but was attending a meeting near Raleigh last week.  We were able to grab a hug from him for the first time since he turned 26!

Long time, no see…

Bill is having a harder time adjusting than me, most likely because he has to return to work this week.  It’s hard enough to go back to a desk after a one- or two-week vacation, but six months??!!  He enjoyed interacting with his Thai colleagues, just as he does with his colleagues at NIEHS.  What he will really miss is engaging with the Thai students; he fulfilled the Fulbright mission by mentoring, providing guidance, and connecting them with potential resources and experienced researchers.  I must say that he is in his element when surrounded by a group of students.  He gets so excited while encouraging young scientists to pursue their interests.  If he could do that once a week back here in the States, it would be a win-win.  I hope he can maintain his current level of enthusiasm as he transitions back to work.

And of course he misses the relaxing massages, but here’s a funny little secret – Bill is also missing the crispy pork skins that he gorged on in Bangkok, believe it or not.  We’re talking about the man who will not eat them in the pork-inundated state of North Carolina!  Go ‘pigure’!  (Now that’s a sign that I should probably stop blogging!)

Toe-taly relaxing!

Anyway, thanks for your interest in my blog.  It has been fun documenting some of the highlights of our extraordinary and unexpected opportunity at this stage in our lives.  Happily, I can report that Bill and I survived the six months in two rooms!  Woohoo!

Sawasdee-Ka, a formal Thai good-bye!


Here’s to Hanoi!

About the time Holly and Dan left (see previous post – Bangkok with Buddies), another visitor arrived just in time to celebrate her birthday! Our daughter is spending the summer in Thailand conducting some research for her Anthropology/Public Health PhD. We have been fortunate to have some time together before we head back to the States! Because she speaks Thai, we introduced her to all of our acquaintances in the neighborhood so that she could thank them for their kindness and explain to them that we are leaving soon. And she introduced us to not only some street food that we had not tried but also an iced egg coffee (breakfast in a cup)! She left Bangkok a few days ago, heading west to an area in which she spent two years working for an NGO. We will catch up with her again in August.

Last week, we had one more out-of-country experience. When we left North Carolina back in December, one of Bill’s wishes was to take me to Ha Long Bay, a picturesque spot a few hours from Hanoi. He had been a couple of times before, and he really wanted me to see this special place. So, having never been anywhere in Vietnam, I tagged along with Bill to a workshop in Hanoi. Turns out, I did get to see the Bay, but not with Bill, who couldn’t scoot away for a whole day. Instead, I took advantage of a tour and traveled to the Bay with other first-time goers, including some women whose husbands were also stuck in meetings! It was an interesting 12-hour adventure, considering that one couple was left behind at a rest stop (and then rescued); my bus mate was very friendly, very British, and very chatty; and the guide had to be convinced that I could manage getting in and out of a kayak, thank you very much. Anyway, true to Bill’s words, Ha Long Bay was beautiful even on an overcast day and well worth a visit and the recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Bay is dotted with almost 2000 limestone islands that look like giant tree-covered boulders rising up from the water. Nature never fails me with its extraordinary surprises.

Some of us kayaked around a small lake formed by a ring of islands and watched families of monkeys watching us! (No pictures, I’m afraid, because I was nervous about dropping my phone in the water even though I VERY EXPERTLY GOT IN AND OUT OF THE KAYAK!) We also hiked through a humongous cave inside one of the monolithic limestone rocks. The geological formations were so cool, but the air was hot and humid during our hourlong trek. I was happy to see daylight and feel the bay breeze when we reached the other side of the cave. Needless to say, I slept well that night!

The next morning, Bill and I set out to explore the Old Quarter of the city, jam packed with traffic, hawkers, and shops of all sorts. Speaking of traffic, it is just as crazy as the traffic in Bangkok but with even fewer rules. There are stoplights and crosswalks, but it is quite normal for motorcycles, especially, to jump the gun on green lights. To cross a street, we basically took a big breath, stepped onto the street, and prayed that all the vehicles would go around us! It reminded me of the scene from Disney’s Mulan in which the grandmother covers her eyes and walks across a busy street with her lucky cricket! It was exhilarating each and every time that we reached the other side (thank heavens). Even the sidewalks were exciting because both motorcycles and cars would park on them, sending pedestrians back out into the hazardous streets! Although I consider myself to be pretty savvy at quick street shopping, I found myself distracted by the street vendors, amazed as to how they maneuvered alongside the crazy traffic.

After mastering some artful dodging, we opted to relax a bit by walking around a nice lake and across a small wooden bridge to a Chinese temple. It was a very serene place even though quite crowded. As we continued our walk toward the Old Quarter, it began to drizzle a little. I donned my raincoat and put my phone in its deep pocket so I could grab it for picture taking. Unfortunately, someone else managed to grab it as well, and in a split second, my Thai phone was gone. I will not bore you with details of my immediate sick feeling, the two different police stations I had to visit, the wonderful assistance from Bill’s colleague, and the realization that I had lost all my photos from our 6-month stay.

{So that your concern does not last as long as mine, I will tell you right now that when I returned to Bangkok, Annie and I went to a TrueMove shop (my phone service) and found out that I had miraculously backed up all my photos onto a cloud! I think I did it on a whim when I was trying to create more storage on my phone. I actually bought brownies for the young man who helped us; I was also grateful that Annie could converse with him. Anyway, although I miss my cool OPPO phone with its Thai calendar and Thai Google Maps apps, I am ecstatic that I have my pics!!}

To distract me that afternoon, Bill bought tickets to a water puppet show. He had seen the show on his previous trips to Hanoi and thought it would be a good diversion. And he was right! Although we had been to several excellent puppet shows in Myanmar, this one was quite different. Instead of strings and puppeteers working madly from above a stage, these marionettes ‘came alive’ on the surface of the water with the help of underwater puppet wizardry (long bamboo rods, string contraptions, and skilled artists)! Each scene, from boat races to a parade to phoenixes and fairies, was accompanied by live music played on traditional Vietnamese instruments. And although the movement of the puppets was more restricted than that of dangling puppets, it was all pretty entertaining and fascinating to watch. Apparently, the whole underwater puppetry idea began in the flooded rice fields of Vietnam back in the 11th century! How cool is that?

After the show, we hurried back to our hotel to get picked up for dinner at a hotpot restaurant, where burners were built into the table so that customers could cook some of the food to their own liking. We tried an assortment of dishes, all of which were delicious, especially the two types of fish. Our hosts were surprised as to how well we managed our chopsticks. Bill, however, is much more adept than me when it comes to eating slippery noodles.

The next morning, I parked myself in a coffee shop across the street from the Institute where Bill was lecturing a group of dedicated students (it was Saturday!). After his talk, there was a certificate ceremony and another tasty meal – two of Bill’s favorite things. He loves interacting with students and he loves to eat Asian food!

Then, Bill’s colleague took us to a ceramic village on the outskirts of Hanoi. I thought we were going to do some window shopping, but I was encouraged to make my own bowl on a pottery wheel. Another young woman and her five-year-old son had accompanied us, and I think he just wanted someone else to join in on the “fun.” So, I left Bill to wander through the shops (a Bill in a China shop, oh, no!) while I unleashed my pottery potential! In no time at all, I became the entertainment portion of the afternoon, giving several onlookers good reason to giggle! Bill’s friend, appropriately named Dr. Ha, could not stop laughing as she took videos of me on a crash course with a clump of clay. Every time I formed a decent vessel, my thumb would slip and the top edge would cave in. My admiration for potters increased tenfold in a mere 30 to 40 minutes. By the time my dare-I-call-it-a-bowl was finished, dried, and painted, a heavy downpour forced us back into the car. So much for my ceramic souvenirs!

After a short rest, we headed out for some dim sum with Dr. Ha’s family. The food was as flavorful as it was pretty! And the company was delightful.

Yum, yum, dim sum!

On our final morning, we snuck in a little bit more sightseeing, taking in the beautiful St. Joseph’s Catholic Church. The city’s oldest church was built by the French government in 1886, in a style similar to Notre Dame with its twin bell towers. We were lucky enough to enter while the choir was singing in French. The combination of sights and sounds within the church’s old walls was absolutely wonderful, and a great ‘note’ on which to end our trip…well, almost.

We did share one more healthy vegetarian meal with some of Dr. Ha’s family. Afterwards, Bill grabbed a quick ride (down a sidewalk, of course) from the restaurant to the car! He was tickled, as you can see.

Happy headed!!

Our next flight will be the one back to the States! Just a mere 25 hours from start to finish! Time to catch up on movies…

Bangkok with Buddies!

Last week was a bit different from all the others, as we were joined by our long-time friends, Holly and Dan, from Washington State. Bill and I basically morphed into tourists for awhile and had fun seeing some Bangkok sights with fresh eyes. More importantly though, we spent lots of time just enjoying each others’ company over excellent food and cold beer. We were also treated to some wonderful Washington State wines, a delicacy here due to the high cost of mostly imported wines! Because this was my first attempt at playing Bangkok tourist guide, not all of our adventures were successful, but none of them were dull.

We were quite fortunate to find an Airbnb in our apartment complex, just four floors below, which made all the difference in the world. This convenience allowed them to get a good sense of our life in the Ari neighborhood. We would meet in the lobby, travel by Skytrain to explore the city, and then return to our apartments for a much-needed shower before dining at every one of our favorite restaurants within walking distance. The only downside to the week, and one that not even the most experienced travel agent could control, was the relentless heat. Having left temperatures 20° cooler than the ones here in Bangkok, Holly and Dan managed remarkably well (and didn’t complain nearly as much as I did when the rivulets of sweat streamed down our necks, our backs, and…you get the picture). They powered on with the help of Thai tea frappes or chilled Singhas. Kudos to them!

In an attempt to ease the adjustment to the heat and the time change after the lo-o-ong flight, we took it easy on the first day. After a quick trip to the grocery store for some basics – coffee, milk, a $10 box of Cheerios (and a quick review of baht-to-dollar rate) – we were soon on our way to Bill’s favorite tailor, Mrs. King. Bill was getting a final fit on a sporty sportscoat, my linen suit was all ready, Holly had something silky in mind, and dashing Dan could not defy the determined Mrs. King (nor the deathly scorn of Holly)! He graciously subjected himself to a fitting for a couple of shirts. I had relented a couple of weeks earlier to the pressure of my sister and sister-in-law, and I have to admit that hearing my measurements called out in a language I couldn’t understand was a delightful experience! I highly recommend it! By the end of the week, we were all quite pleased with our one-and-only “wears.”

Of course, it goes without saying that we had to subject them to the craziness of the Chatuchak Weekend Market (see previous Market Mania Blog). The hunt was on for gifts for their four grandchildren. Although I was quite impressed with Holly’s quick decisions on purchases (I tend to hem and haw and end up empty handed), her bartering skills needed improvement. At any rate, she and the vendors were quite happy. Bill managed to pick up yet another good-size piece of metal ‘artwork’ from Fuji Joe (his third), which always adds a bit of bubble wrap drama in the airport. We eventually succumbed to the bargain buys, the filling lunch, and the everpresent heat, and taxied back to our apartments for well-earned naps!

Then we had a big-time tourist day. We all dressed in yellow, which is a common practice of showing respect to the king, especially on Mondays, and boy did we turn heads and elicit smiles as we headed to the old part of Bangkok to visit the Royal Grand Palace. The palace is indeed both royal and grand! It had just undergone a refurbishment in preparation for the new king’s coronation at the beginning of May. And although Bill and I have been a few times before, I have to say that the whole grounds seemed to sparkle and shine more than ever. It is difficult to describe the fairy tale-like quality of the palace. Although European palaces are impressive-looking feats of architecture from the outside, I think the furnishings and the artwork on the inside are what make them so beautiful. The palace in Bangkok, on the other hand, is glorious on the outside as well, with its buildings and chedis painstakingly decorated with small mirrors, gold gilding, and different colored stones.

Upon arrival, Holly and I were sent to buy additional coverings because our clothing didn’t meet necessary requirements for entering the palace grounds. (There was a time when shawls, which were returned at the exit, were provided for covering arms and/or legs, but I assume the large crowd numbers became too difficult to supply.) So, after complaining just a little (ha!), we made our way through the gate. We opted for a tour in order to get the most out of our time, but it was often difficult to hear. We did manage to see the miniature model of Angkor Wat, the highly revered Emerald Buddha, and several interesting statues. By the time we completed the tour, we were surrounded by hundreds of tourists all vying to find the right spot to take that picture-perfect palace photo. After a quick side trip to the queen’s Museum of Textiles, which housed beautiful displays of various weavings, we retreated from the royal grounds.

Just around the corner, Wat Po is home to one of the largest reclining Buddhas in Thailand, measuring 150 feet long from head to toe and 50 feet tall. This beautiful statue depicts Buddha before his entry into Nirvana. The soles of the humongous feet are adorned with flowers, animals, and other symbols that are inlaid with mother of pearl. Despite its size, this particular Buddha gives me a sense of calm every time I walk into its temple. It’s as if Buddha is smiling down on everyone and emanating a feeling of peace. The entire Wat Po complex is rather relaxing. I remember sitting under one of the trees almost 30 years ago and watching schoolchildren run around, giggle, and give me curious looks…one of my first memories of this special place. Wat Po is also home to the birthplace of traditional Thai massage, which is still taught and practiced at the temple, adding to the relaxing atmosphere.

A quick boat ride across the river takes us to Wat Arun, Temple of Dawn (although I think it’s prettiest as the sun is setting)! This temple, which was built before Bangkok was the capital, has a 70- to 80-foot spire decorated with millions of shards and small plates of porcelain that were used as ballast on ships coming to Thailand from China. The workers must have been incredibly devoted and patient to create such an amazing work of art. Holly and I enjoyed walking around the base of the spire looking at all the designs, while Bill and Dan ventured up the small steep stairs to get a better view of the river.

For another adventure, we decided to visit the Museum of Royal Barges, a place I had never been before. So, we hopped on the Chao Praya River Express Boat (the express part really just means that you better get on the boat extra fast because it does not dock for long). It makes several stops along the river, but is one of the best ways to travel to the older parts of Bangkok. Upon reaching our destination pier, we walked and walked down skinny alleyways that led to the royal barges. (It actually took us longer to get there than to view all the fancy barges!) Apparently, some of the boats will be used for the Royal Barge Procession later this year; what a regal sight to behold!

Other outings included a quick stop at the Jim Thompson House, to take a peek at the beautiful silk scarves, purses, and clothing. Some demonstrations showed the unraveling and spinning of the silk cocoons. And we got an eyeful and a noseful of the flower market one afternoon, but opted against returning at 3:00 in the morning when there supposedly is a bevy of activity, with flowers coming in and going out in huge baskets. Orchids, marigolds, and jasmine, oh, my!

In addition to sightseeing, we were eager to share our favorite local restaurants with Holly and Dan, who are both excellent cooks and are already planning a Thai menu for their Dinner Club. They liked the salted fish as well as the energetic atmosphere of Laoh Laoh so much that we had to return to it a few days later!! The second time we went, we met the winning Iron Chef Thailand from 2014! And Baan Pueng Chom served a mouthwatering tamarind-based soup with chunks of omelet in it. I thought Dan was going to use a straw to get the last drops of the delicious liquid out of the bowl! Needless to say, our guests thoroughly enjoyed the whole Thai dining experience. And to think their doctor had recommended they take Pepto Bismol after every meal (ew!)…well, that didn’t happen! We did introduce them to street food in a mall setting so they could be comfortable savoring the really local flavors, although Bill and I are hard pressed to walk down our street without grabbing something to nibble on from a food cart. We have yet to experience any digestive issues, knock on wood!

I did take them to a couple of non-neighborhood places for lunch, however. A little explanation was needed before we entered Cabbages and Condoms! (Yep, you read that right!) My daughter introduced me to this restaurant a few years ago. According to its website, the restaurant “was conceptualized in part to promote better understanding and acceptance of family planning and to generate income to support various development activities of the Population and Community Development Association.” Basically, money from each meal is used to support community programs that focus not only on health, but also on the environment, sustainable farming, and the importance of clean water. The food is quite tasty, but the decorations are the biggest draw. As you walk in, you are greeted by life-sized models adorned in, what else?, condoms! They are hysterical! Even the overhead lights are covered in whimsical condom designs. And all around the restaurants are some witty words regarding the whole overall theme; there’s even a gift shop with interesting souvenirs that can be purchased for a good cause! Definitely something to Google for a giggle.

The night before Holly and Dan continued their travels to Cambodia and Hong Kong, we had one more delicious Thai meal to celebrate our fun week together. Because they live across the States, we don’t see them as often as we’d like, so their journey to visit us in Bangkok was a special and much appreciated treat. As usual after we reunite, we have new stories to reminisce about and inside jokes to cherish! I’m looking forward to our next rendezvous (whenever and wherever)!

Royalty and Artistry

I apologize for not posting sooner, but for the past few weeks, we have settled into some rather routine days…especially when compared to those of the Thai royal family! If you haven’t heard, there was a wedding and a coronation last week! Maha Vajiralongkorn, the previous king’s son, married on May 1 and became the new king on May 4, followed by a three-day ceremony of ancient Buddhist rituals and royal traditions. Bill and I opted for viewing the events on TV, not only because it was extremely hot, but we were able to see everything going on inside the palace and temple grounds. I cannot describe all of the elaborate details, but the entire (and lengthy) process was fascinating to watch. On Saturday, the 16-pound crown was placed ceremoniously on the new king’s head. On Sunday, King Rama X sat on a gilded palaquin that was carried by soldiers along a seven-mile route lined with thousands of Thais wearing yellow shirts (the color associated with the king). Due to the slow and precise cadence of the marching band, military units, and other royal guards, the parade left the palace around 5:00 pm, stopped at three temples, and returned to the palace around midnight. On Monday, a national holiday, the king, queen, and other members of the royal family greeted the public from a balcony of the Grand Palace. What a weekend!

Prior to the coronation, great effort was made to clean and decorate the main roads leading to the palace, and shrines to the king were erected in front of various businesses all over Bangkok. In some places, blank books were set out for people to write congratulatory notes and send well wishes to the king. Although I do not have photos of the event to share, I do have a few taken the day before the celebrations just outside the palace. And, just so you know, we will be visiting the Grand Palace next week and taking lots of pictures. I am hoping that the coronation decorations will still be in place.

Other than that, Bill and I have managed to beat the heat by checking out some museums. A friend took us to the Bangkok National Museum a few weeks ago. The museum does a nice job of showcasing the different eras in Thai history. It houses a great variety of exhibits, from Buddha statues and artifacts to samples of woven textiles, from porcelain wares to pottery, and from ancient weapons to traditional musical instruments. It was hard to imagine a time when these items were actually used! One of the huge buildings on the museum grounds holds a collection of ornate carriages that were used for royal cremations. The wooden carriages actually glitter with gold gilding and mirrors, and they were all in excellent condition. Very impressive! (And a big shout out to our friend for sharing her photos!)

At a local gallery/antique emporium/shopping center, we were able to see a European Master Multimedia Exhibition called “From Monet to Kandinsky.” Over 1500 paintings from 16 famous European artists were presented via projector screen on the walls of a 360° gallery. Some of the paintings were brought to life through animation and music…it’s sort of hard to explain but spectacular to watch! It was a wonderful way to present art to children, but plenty of adults (ourselves included) thoroughly enjoyed it as well! We spoke to the woman who spent two years bringing the exhibit to Bangkok, and we could tell how excited she was about its success. And well she should be!

One of my favorite venues that I have been to a few times is the Bangkok Art and Culture Center, or BACC. It resembles the Guggenheim in New York City with its circular ramp leading up to the 8th floor. The exhibits there are constantly changing, so I never really know what to expect! And, because it is free, it’s really easy just to pop in, take a look, maybe grab a bite to eat, and then be on my way in a couple of hours. When Bill and I first visited, there was a tower (for lack of a better word) of hundreds of colorful plastic baskets in different shapes and sizes rising from the bottom floor all the way to the third floor. We assumed it was a permanent structure, but poof!, it was not there on my next visit! I have happened upon photographs taken by one of the royal princesses (actually, she is now the sister of the king so I’m not sure what her new title is!), a beautiful Buddha piece made from scraps of material, and interesting interactive exhibits, including a huge suspended cocoon-like sac that museum goers could crawl around in.

We both visited the Center on the final day of the Bangkok Art Biennale, in which 75 artists from 33 countries provided work based on the theme, Beyond Bliss. Some of the installments were in the BACC but others were in malls, near temples, and in parks (which we didn’t realize until too late). There were interactive pieces, videos, and definitely works from the heart. One area encouraged folks to answer the question “What Is Your Bliss?” on a sticky note and add it to one of the walls in several rooms. Another area showed the handfuls of plastic flowers that an artist brought to the Center on a four-hour walk every day for three weeks (which was filmed and “beamed” into the museum live), representing “the conceptual idea of bringing back the sense of being a human in this fast moving and isolated world.” And then there were interesting works of art by five female Muslims from the Deep South of Thailand. Their “bliss” centered on hope, courage, and human compassion, values resulting from life in a conflict zone. Their inspirational artwork ranged from drawings on local dry hay to 3D bas-relief-style prints in which paper is folded into forms of people going about their daily routines. All in all, there was quite a variety of blissful interpretations!

By far, my favorite exhibit was based on the Chinese proverb, Tian Tian Xiang Shang (meaning ‘study hard and climb higher every day’). The Arts Is Learning, Learning Is Arts theme involved artists from Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan, and Thailand who displayed their own versions of the character Tian Tian, a curious little boy who questions everything. There were over 200 of these adorable two-foot tall figures as well as some miniatures that the public was encouraged to design. I could not stop smiling the whole time I was there! I have to say, some of the little guys shared the personalities of my family and friends, which made me smile even more! I hope you will find delight in the few that I am sharing (there are more at the end of the post as well!).

In addition to the museums, artwork can be found throughout Bangkok. We have seen a shiny spoon-and-ladle sculpture in Chinatown, amazing artful decorations at various malls, and funky graffiti in our own neighborhood of Ari. Even though we often find ourselves looking down at the pavement so we don’t trip on an uneven sidewalk, we try to take in our surroundings that more often than not include some creative pieces of art!

On a personal note, our good friends Holly and Dan from Bellingham, Washington, arrived in Bangkok last night. They will be visiting for a whole week, so we will be balancing our time between enjoying the local flavor (in so many ways) and experiencing must-see-and-do touristy things. We are quite excited to be able to share our favorite spots with friends we have known for over 30 years! I’m sure I will have lots to blog about (and some things that I won’t be able to post – “What happens in Bangkok, stays in Bangkok!”) after we hit some of the city’s “top 25 things to do.” Stay tuned!

Easin’ Our Way Through Isan

My last blog described our wonderful Songkran experience in the Isan area of Thailand. Now I need to fill you in on the other amazing places and activities that Ubon, Bill’s friend, managed to cram comfortably into our long weekend adventure.

A morning toast to our upcoming adventure!

While Bill gave his seminar, I was able to tour the incredibly large Khon Kaen University campus (about 3.5 square miles) with the lovely wife of one of Ubon’s students. We rode on the campus bus to the Natural Science Museum, where I felt right at home! It was fun learning about some of the plants, animals, and seashells of the Khon Kaen region, although I could have passed on the liver fluke exhibit (ew!). I also received an initial education about the history of dinosaurs in this region.

A great group of faculty and students from the KKU School of Medicine.

In the afternoon, two students chauffeured us around the city, making stops at an 11-tiered temple (Wat Nong Wang), a textiles shop featuring the intricate local weaving patterns, and a central area of Khon Kaen that would soon be blocked off and inundated with Songkran festival goers. (We found out later that over 135,000 people showed up to take part in a record-breaking human wave! There’s even a YouTube!). Fortunately, we were there a couple of days before the big event so were able to enjoy the temple and the newly created sand sculpture without the crowds. We did try to limit our time outside of the air-conditioned car, however, as the heat was brutal, with temperatures reaching just over 100°!

Beautiful Textiles
Impressive Sand Sculpture

In the evening, Ubon and Champu, one of her PhD students, walked us through a local market, where we began to realize some differences between the Isan and Bangkokian diets. It was quite easy to recognize that folks from Isan love their bugs – from inch-long queen ants and their larvae to beetles and crickets, nothing was spared from the dinner plate! And, yes, we tried them all! I want my finicky eating friends (a few folks come to mind, wink, wink!) to know that I was thinking of you as I bit into the juicy and quite zesty abdomen of a brightly colored ant! For me, the tadpoles were more difficult to swallow (literally) than the crispy critters from the insect world. Even when wrapped up in banana leaves with local greens, garlic, onion, and peppers, I just didn’t find the soon-to-be-frogs (or not) all that tasty! We did eat a nice ‘normal’ and more filling dinner after our market munch.

The next day, after the department’s Songkran festivities, Bill decided to get a massage (his back was sore from all the sitting he did while watching the beauty contest, poor thing). I opted for a visit to the KKU Agricultural Co-op, where they sold lots of things produced locally, even right there on campus. I had read about cricket crackers, but there were none to be had (they would have been the perfect Isan gift!). So, off to Central Plaza, Khon Kaen’s main shopping mall, for a Thai tea and an air-conditioned stroll. The huge malls are so neat and tidy, and each floor is dedicated to either clothes, electronics and banks, pharmacies, housewares, etc. If you’re looking for a specific item, you only need to shop in the stores on one particular floor! Genius, in my opinion! And there was a Dancing Zone with a long mirrored wall where teenagers were working on their cool dance steps, mostly to Korean Pop music. What a great idea! Who knew malls could be so much fun?!

Later, we enjoyed entertaining conversation with some faculty members over a very nice dinner (no creepy crawlies). These folks charmed us with their stories of travel and we found ourselves reminiscing as well. I certainly hope we have the chance to meet again. Then we turned in for a good night’s rest.

At this point, I must say that Ubon was an exceptionally knowledgeable Isan guide with an innate ability to educate, fascinate, and exhilarate anyone around her! Her easygoing style led to lots of spontaneous decisions, all of which turned out to be wonderful, so although we never really knew where we were headed or when we would get there, we had complete faith in her. Our four days were jampacked with so many fun activities, some of which were planned, some a bit spontaneous, and of course others that focused on the religious as well as the water-dousing aspects of Songkran (as per the previous blog). I will hit the highlights here, so as not to make you too envious! I should also mention that Champu joined our travel troupe to make sure we stayed hydrated and kept our heads covered, and Sombot was a gem of a driver, never complaining when asked to pull off the road at the last minute or drive down some unmarked back road on a whim. Around 8 am, we were ready to go!

Our first stop right outside of Khon Kaen was at Buddha Monton Isan, where there is a beautiful crematorium for a most famous Thai monk, Luang Phor Koon Parisuttho, who passed away in 2015. Tens of thousands of mourners came here (and still do) to pay their respect to this special monk. All of the statues as well as the crematorium are painted in white, giving the place a true sense of purity and cleanliness. In addition, a really tall and serene Buddha statue stands in the distance overlooking the beautifully landscaped grounds.

We then made a quick stop at a manmade lake where scores of local families loaded with inner tubes, towels, and umbrellas were claiming a spot on the beach. This lake was created by a dam that pretty much helps this whole region stay green throughout the year. Other places are not as lucky, and we traveled through some very dry and dusty landscapes. Rather than making another stop along the way, we figured we may as well grab some lunch. The grilled fish and chicken smelled irresistible, and several women were pounding away with mortars and pestles making their local variety of papaya salad. After finally picking just the right restaurant (they all looked pretty much the same to me), we sat down to a very yummy food feast.

Next stop, a dinosaur museum in Kalasin, the area famous for the discovery of lots of dino bones. Although there were some big beasts that we were familiar with, the museum also sported one named after a Thai princess and another named for the city of Khon Kaen – the khonkaenensis. Although small, the museum had some interesting exhibits, cool holographic displays, and lots of information in English. There were also some ongoing digs, but it was way too hot to make the necessary climb. Even the featured T-Rex was all decked out for Songkran!

Then we had a lengthy drive up and over a mountain on a very curvy road toward Sakon Nakhon. We passed through very lush fields that turned into thick jungle, home to some monkeys that appeared every now and then on the roadside. Sombot was making good time until Ubon decided we needed to check out several stalls lining the highway. He cheerfully pulled off the road to take a break. New market sightings included honeycombs hanging in bags, edible flowers, local salt wrapped in leaves, and eggs steaming over pots of boiling water. There were also dried fish fashioned into nice flat disks – really neat looking! And, of course, there were bugs! I have to say that the cicadas stir fried with kaffir lime leaves were delish…can’t wait for Bill to experiment at home (just kidding).

Onward to the city, where we met Su, one of Ubon’s previous advisees. Over dinner, she asked if we’d be interested in learning the local technique of indigo dyeing. The indigo plant, or khram, grows in this area, and when mixed with ash creates a beautiful and long-lasting blue dye. Lots of dyed cotton clothes and woven indigo textiles can be found in shop after shop in Sakon Nakhon. To get the chance to dye our own shirts was a no-brainer! (Su is actually working on a contract to produce indigo-dyed underwear and socks for military personnel!) So the next morning, Ubon, Champu, and I learned the process while dyeing t-shirts. It is just like tie dying, but we used plastic strips to bind the rolled up shirts and create the designs. Then we dipped them in dye, squeezed them out, and dipped again. Next came the rinsing and re-rinsing, followed by the unveiling and drying. We were quite pleased with our results!

Naturally, we had to re-energize after working so hard, so we grabbed a bite to eat. I am excited to report that we had a wonderful, although brief, rain and thunderstorm during lunch. It was the first good rain Bill and I had seen (and heard) since our arrival in December. I had to stand out it in just to be sure it was happening! I was dry within minutes thanks to the return of the baking sun, and the five of us (Su decided to join us!) were ready to continue our journey east to Nakhon Phanom.

Upon arrival at the River Hotel (right on the Mekong River), we unloaded our gear and headed to the River Walk where craft, food, and other assorted stands were being set up for a Songkran street party. Just on the other side of the river was Laos, which could be reached by the nearby Friendship Bridge, but we were having too much fun in Isan! Another yummy dinner and the purchase of some crazy big hats, all the while listening to a variety of music, made for another special evening.

On Saturday morning, we visited Ho Chi Minh’s “safe house” (who knew?). The granddaughter of the woman who allowed Ho Chi Minh to live in a small house on her property served as the curator and was happy to talk about the late 1920s. Some of Ho Chi Minh’s belongings are on a desk, and lots of photographs and articles hang on the walls. There is also a sort of Ho Chi Minh shrine in one corner of the room. The most impressive part to me, though, were the surrounding gardens, with beautiful flowers, coffee plants, and really tall coconut palms, not to mention an awesome and very busy ant nest! A very nice setting for someone planning a revolution!

One last stop before dropping Su off – a beautiful museum honoring another well-known monk. Some of his meager belongings, such as his robes, a couple of bowls, and a toothbrush were displayed there, and the building itself was unique and quite artistic. I’m afraid the photos don’t do it justice. We poured scented water over several Buddha and monk statues before departing.

At this point, the plan was to head west to Udon Thani for a nice Vietnamese dinner (to sort of fit in with our Ho Chi Minh visit!) and then head back to Khon Kaen for one last night before Bill and I returned to Bangkok on Sunday evening. Ubon, however, wanted to fulfill one of Bill’s wishes – to visit Ban Chiang, a small town northeast of Udon Thani. Bill had recently researched information about the ruins that had been discovered there in the 1960s. Lots of beautiful red-painted pottery jugs as well as bronze jewelry and tools have been excavated there. Based on the dating of the bronze artifacts, this area may have existed before or simultaneously with the area of Mesopotamia, which has always been considered the cradle of civilization. Bill, being Bill, was intrigued by this idea and wanted to see it for himself. We arrived a bit late, however, so Ubon suggested we take part in the ongoing Songkran festivities and book a room at a Homestay, which is exactly what we did. The next morning, we visited an excavation/museum, so that Bill could learn more about this deviation from everything he had learned in school!

After our new history lesson, we went in search of a giant lotus temple in the middle of a lake, and THEN headed to Udon Thani, where we enjoyed a delicious and filling lunch at a very popular Vietnamese restaurant.

The final stop on our adventure was at a forest temple just out side of Khon Kaen. The grounds were huge and the Buddhas rather eclectic. In addition, there were statues of Disney characters, of all things, and little ceramic animals attached to trees. Individually, some of the Buddhas were stunning, but as a whole, we found this temple to be more of a park or nice respite from the city. It was just very, very different from the temples we had visited throughout the weekend, but we did have a nice walk through the pathways to stretch our legs before going to the airport for our flight back to Bangkok.

As you can see, we had quite the adventure as we toured around a very small portion of Isan. And even with the crazy hot temperatures, it was nice to visit some rural areas of Thailand. Not surprisingly, we found good folks, good food, and good fun wherever we went. Ubon, Champu, and Sombot (and for awhile, Su) were the ideal traveling companions, and we are happy to call them friends after such a short time together. We are already discussing what to do for next year’s Songkran holiday!!

Super Soaking Songkran

Lucky for us, we are enjoying a third new year celebration since our arrival! On December 31, we counted down and raised up a glass to the widely accepted new year; on February 5, we dressed in red, ate long noodles, and welcomed in the Year of the Pig; and for the past few days, beginning on April 13, we witnessed how the Thais make a big splash (literally) over their traditional Buddhist new year, or Songkran. Grab an umbrella and read on…

Happy Songkran!

It all started when Bill was invited to give a second talk at Khon Kaen University (KKU) in northeastern Thailand. I decided to accompany him this time as I had never been to the area and had never met his colleague and friend, Ubon, who he has known for over 13 years. Ubon suggested that we stay through the weekend to participate in various Songkran activities and offered to give us a tour around Isan, Thailand’s largest region. We were quite excited about this gracious invitation because we had heard that most Thais who live in Bangkok travel to their hometowns for the four- to six-day holiday, leaving the city eerily quiet and free of traffic jams. And those that do stay engage in humongous water gun fights, with Westerners being the favorite targets! As much fun as that sounds, we were looking forward to spending Songkran in smaller cities and villages and taking part in traditional activities. This blog is solely dedicated to all things Songkran; I will write about our Isan adventure later so as not to overwhelm!

The delightful Ubon!

After Bill’s seminar, one of Ubon’s students drove us to a roadside vendor selling brightly colored floral shirts, the appropriate attire for Songkran (we are styling in the first photo!). So the next day, we fit right in with the School of Medicine’s celebration. It began with a lively parade of the different departments, each group dressed in colorful or traditional outfits, laughing and smiling nonstop, even as onlookers tossed cupfuls of water on them as they danced by. At the parade’s end, everyone took turns pouring water down each others’ backs or sprinkling it on their forearms, while exchanging good wishes for the new year. They also rubbed a powder paste on our faces (symbolizing the chalk marks that monks sometimes use when performing blessings).

Bill was asked to sit with the elders so that he could receive the blessings of the students and staff, and, in turn, he could do the same for them. Fortunately for him, he sat next to the dean who could explain everything that was happening. He held a garland of jasmine petals over a big silver bowl; people lined up to pour small bowls of water over the handheld flowers of each of the elders, showing them respect and wishing them a happy new year, long life, and good health and happiness. I also joined the line of well wishers, and then headed upstairs for lunch while Bill accepted the blessings from 200 or so others.

He then had lunch with the elders while watching a beauty contest! I don’t think he stopped smiling all day long!

Lots of beauties!
Posing with the winners!

The following day, we began our journey through the Isan region. We stopped at several temples, including Phra That Chong Chum in Sakon Nakhon, to take part in the Buddhist new year ritual of cleaning the temple’s small Buddha and monk statues. All of the statues are gathered from around the temple grounds and placed out in the courtyard. As you make your way down the line of statues, you pour a little jasmine- or rose-scented water on each one; this activity will wash away any bad luck from last year and bring you happiness and a fresh start for the new year! At this particular temple, Bill also received blessings from a monk, and Ubon shook out a very positive fortune-telling stick.

When we reached Nakhon Phanom, our first stop was at Wat Phra Tat Phanom. Built in the 10th century, it is a huge and very popular temple complex that is revered by both Thais and Laotians, as it sits near the Mekong River.

It is a very sacred temple because its 197-foot tall Laotian style chedi houses a breastbone of Buddha. We were lucky enough to be able to help wash the ornate chedi by first adding water to a large vessel and then joining other devotees in hoisting it way up to the top of the chedi using a rope pulley system. The vessel was then tilted, allowing the water to flow out over the chedi. So awesome!

Also on the temple grounds was a much, much smaller sand chedi that worshippers decorated with colorful flags and flowers that they received after making donations to the temple. Despite its large size, this temple was by far the most crowded one that we visited; we did not stay too long but were glad we had a chance to see it.

During one of our lunches, a Songkran parade was just getting started across the street from the restaurant. We stood under a tree in the median of the road and watched several ornate floats and groups of locals go by. More beauty contestants were seated on the floats trying to smile through the heat, and children were “riding” on bamboo-constructed horses. Other groups were dancing as they passed by the local governor and dignitaries who sat in the shade clapping and waving at the parade participants.

That was the first of several parades that we saw as we passed through the different cities. We also saw lots of children, teenagers, and adults armed with buckets of water waiting patiently on the streets for a daring motorcyclist or tuk-tuk to drive by and receive a heavy dousing! Our van was even caught up in an occasional deluge of water. And pickup trucks were loaded down with passengers and barrels of water that were used for filling buckets and squirt guns as they “attacked” folks on the street or in other similarly loaded down trucks! It was all done in fun, with no one being ridiculously aggressive. A true family-style celebration!

Make my day!

Our personal encounter with the true meaning of Songkran happened unexpectedly in a very small rural town called Ban Chiang. We took a turn down a back road and came face to face with an approaching parade. We jumped out of the van while the driver maneuvered a getaway so as not to impede the procession. This parade looked pretty similar to others we had seen all day long, except everyone was soaking wet! As they paraded down the street, they were being sprayed, squirted, and splashed! And it didn’t take long before Bill and I were drenched as well by friendly well wishers! Some folks even jumped off the floats to pour water down our backs, our fronts, and anywhere else that wasn’t wet already!

Bill decided he needed his own squirt gun to defend himself, and went off to look for one. In the meantime, a fire truck pulled up and I got completely saturated by an extremely happy fireman! After the initial shock, it felt pretty refreshing! Then Bill returned armed with his high-powered Cinderella squirt gun with backpack water tank! Look out, Ban Chiang! Let the games begin!

We were two of a handful of foreigners in this village and were graciously welcomed not only with water but with big smiles, handshakes, dancing in the street, and occasional sips of beer. The festivities sans the water fights continued into the night with a children’s talent contest, more dancing and music, and of course food! After a Songkran experience, fireworks just might seem a bit dull, I’m afraid!

When we returned to Bangkok, the streets were empty and most of the shops and restaurants were closed. Some restaurants are using the downtime to repaint or even renovate for the new year. The Buddha shrines and spirit houses are receiving extra cleaning attention as well. And folks are purging their homes of things they don’t need and sprucing up the insides in hopes of a fresh beginning. I’m thinking I may need to tackle the pigeon droppings on our balconies just to continue the Songkran spirit!

Sending you all blessings of health and happiness! Happy Songkran!

Agro Tour and Much, Much More!

On the outskirts of Bangkok, just a 45-minute drive,
An agrotourism community is very much alive.
Bill and I took a boat ride on the Maha Sawat Canal
And were introduced to the interesting farming locale.


After feeding some fish that were rather aggressive,
Often flipping out of the water (pretty impressive),
We stepped into a covered long tail boat,
And hoped, with our weight, it would remain afloat!


The ever-smiling skipper steered us past a beautiful wat
That couldn’t have been built on a more serene spot.
The canal was quite pretty with lovely overhanging trees,
And lots of blooming flowers were swaying in the breeze.
(I applied poetic license in that last line, I admit.
Any movement of air was manmade and just a wee bit!)

Anyway, our first canal landing was at a lotus or bua farm
Where we were greeted by a pig-nosed turtle with charm!
We then stepped onto a pier that overlooked a pond –
It was as if someone had waved a magic wand.
There were lotus flowers as far as the eye could see,
As well as lily pads as big as you and me!
We hopped into a rowboat propelled by an oar
And paddled right through buas galore!

Most of the flowers had not opened as it was still early in the day,
But our eye-level view of the buds was fantastic, I must say.
Their huge veined leaves were so soft to the touch
And were also water repellent, pretty much.

It’s no wonder these flowers are so special to the Thais,
Particularly for Buddhists because they symbolize
A spiritual rise to enlightenment from a lowly plight – 
Starting out in the mud and growing toward warmth and light.
I was delighted when our ‘captain’ handed a blossom to me.
Perhaps good luck will come my way.  We’ll see…


We said good-bye to the turtle and boarded again
Looking forward to our next agro stop-in.
In less than 10 minutes, we were guided ashore
To a rice cracker demo and general snack store.
A young woman rolled then flattened rice flour dough
With added sesame seeds to give it flavor, you know.
Then she used cookie cutters just for fun
Before letting the snacks bake in the sun.

The next step was to toss them in oil for a second or two
And then, once the snacks cooled, she was almost through.
After brushing on a sauce and adding some fluffy pork (don’t ask)
We volunteered to perform the difficult (ha, ha) eating task!
The crackers were yummy enough to ask for more
And we had three bags full as we left the store.

Before leaving, however, we met a sweet elderly woman who
Started a farmers’ housewife group to give them something to do.
By making their snacks from all things locally grown
They have supported their community and become pretty well known.
The woman also gave us lotus seeds to try
They were ok but not tasty enough to buy!


Then it was time to shove off again
And head for the gac fruit right around the bend.
The bright-colored fruit was hanging from a vine
That provided shelter from the heat, which was definitely fine.
The gac juice was refreshing, but Bill said the pulp had little taste.
Hence, the homemade gac soaps and lotions, so as not to have any waste.
The gac, also known as baby jackfruit, is packed with nutrients
As well as carotenoids, vitamins, and anti-oxidants!
Too bad they have more color than flavor;
Just not a fruit we could really savor.

An orchid farm was the next point on the tour
And there were orchids there, for sure!
Rows and rows of the flower I have trouble growing at home
But no, I never once thought of pocketing some loam.
Actually the orchids – purples, reds, and yellows,
Were all growing out of dried coconut shell-os!
Now that’s an idea I just might have to try;
I’ll let you know if it works, by and by.

Our final disembarkment was at a good ol’ basic farm
Where picnic tables and scarecrows go arm in arm.
We were served some fresh mango, papaya, and banana, to boot,
As well as some interesting dried and candied fruit.
There were also melt-in-your-mouth tapioca treats,
But the star of the farm was not one of the eats.

Nope, the tractor ride was the unexpected hit of the day,
And it was not a cushy ride on top of some hay.
The tractor itself was far from your basic John Deere,
But more like…oh, brother, just see the picture here.
The farmer steered it in a rudder-like fashion
And had to jump out on curves to prevent us from crashin’!
It was quite a spectacle to behold,
And had us laughing like children, the truth be told.

Lunchtime was approaching as we finished our loop,
So we ordered a noodle dish (with jellyfish) and some tom yum soup.
We munched and reflected on our morning education,
Learning about all the products that come from this location.

It was definitely a terrific way
To escape the heat of the city for the day!

Oh Me, Oh My, Oh Myanmar!

(Fingers crossed that the photos show up; I had some technical issues this time around.) 

To mark the halfway point of our Fulbright stay, we decided to make the short trip to neighboring Myanmar (formally known as Burma) – a country that opened its doors to tourists a little less than 10 years ago.  Although Myanmar is in the news for actions that we obviously do not condone, we believe that tourism is one way to keep the country from becoming isolated and forgotten by the rest of the world. We also made a point of supporting the local Burmese restaurants and businesses throughout our trip. It was a wonderful and unique journey into parts of Myanmar that don’t make the daily news, and we would definitely return if given the chance.

Because the country was a big unknown to Bill and me, we let someone else make the arrangements. We also opted for a guide to accompany us and ensure we visited as many points of interest as possible without overdoing it. A lovely young Burmese woman named Snow (her grandmother thought it was snowing on the very misty morning that she was born!) provided history, geography, and language lessons throughout our trip. We were able to learn more about Myanmar and its people with her help than we would have on our own.


Snow and Mawmaw (our driver) collected us at the Mandalay airport, stopped by our hotel for a quick check in, and then headed to the Mya Nan San Kyaw Royal Palace. The original palace, built in 1857, was home to the last Burmese king. Destroyed in WWII, the palace buildings (including audience halls, throne halls, royal quarters, and a monastery) were rebuilt in the 1990s, but concrete rather than the original teak was used in construction. Just like the palaces we saw in South Korea, this one was quite large, surrounded on all four sides by mile-long walls as well as a 210-foot wide moat. We enjoyed walking through the buildings and looking at some of the old relics, and Bill climbed the watch tower to get a good view of Mandalay.



We were tickled when some of the locals wanted to pose with us for pictures.  Entire families would hand their cameras to Snow so they could record a moment with a couple of strange-looking Westerners.  These photo ops occurred throughout our trip, but always surprised me when they happened.  I guess the Burmese were just as captivated by and curious about our looks as we were with theirs!


Then we drove to the place where the king had moved the palace monastery, his father’s living quarters, saving it from destruction. Shwenandaw Monastery is the single remaining major building from the original palace. The incredibly ornate teak structure has definitely seen better days, but the workmanship is still quite obvious. About 1800 carved figures of varying sizes can be found in and around the building (a fact that I simply accepted given the limited time we had for counting). The entire building was once covered with gold leaf or paint, inside and out, which would have highlighted the artistic architectural details.  Can you even imagine how glorious that must have been?




Our next stop was the Kuthodaw Pagoda, also known as the world’s largest book because it is surrounded by 729 marble slabs, each in its own shrine, inscribed with Buddhist teachings. The white shrines are lined up row after row after row, making a pretty impressive sight, as if the pagoda alone doesn’t dazzle enough.





Set off by the white background, the pink-robed nuns really stood out!


Bill bought a flat bell of some sort (seriously?!) from a friendly local who then offered to “paint” our cheeks with thanaka, a paste made from the bark of a thanaka tree. Some women were grinding the bark on wet sandstone and then applying the paste to their faces. Burmese men and women use it as sunscreen as well as a moisturizer. It really did feel nice and cool on my skin.



We headed for the hills to catch the sunset at Su Taung Pyae Pagoda. There are stairs leading up to the top of Mandalay Hill, but I’m pretty sure we would have missed the sunset (and possibly the sunrise) if we had taken that route. I was happy to be in the van! What a spectacular pagoda at any time of day. Lots of colorful mosaics and glass mirrors, lending itself to being a very reflective place in more ways than one. Lovely, serene-looking Buddha statues overlooked panoramic views of the city and beyond. A nice ending to Day 1…






But wait, there’s still a Myanmar BBQ with entertainment back at the hotel! I will always remember the green tea leaf salad that I was introduced to that evening, the first of many over the next few days. It was addictive!


Myanmar is known for its puppetry, which dates back to the 15th century. Puppet performances were usually for the royal family, but eventually became popular for everyone. We saw three puppet shows in five days, always during dinner. The folks working the 12 to 16 strings per puppet were quite impressive. The first show had a little twist though.  At one point, two puppeteers appeared, one using strings to control the movements of a puppet and the other pretending to use strings to ‘control’ a real person.  It was hard to decide which “puppet” performed the best!



Believe it or not, on our first true morning of vacation, we received a wake-up call at 3:30! We had to get to the Mahamuni Buddha Temple by 4:30 to witness the face washing and teeth (or lip) brushing of the Buddha. It is believed that Buddha breathed his spirit into the image and therefore it is ‘alive’ and needs the daily caretaking. A monk performs the ritual by spraying the face with water, drying it with a cloth, rubbing it with the aforementioned thanaka paste, wiping it clean, and then brushing the teeth. The whole process takes about an hour and is watched by a lot of worshippers who offer flowers and food to Buddha and also chant during the cleaning. The men are allowed to sit in a small enclosure closer to the Buddha and can even add gold leaf to the body after the ritual. It was quite a special ordeal and definitely worth the early rise and shine.





After a fortifying breakfast, we headed north through town on our way to Bagan. At the outskirts of Mandalay, I noticed beautiful longyis (the skirts that the Burmese women wear) hanging outside of the shops. I asked Snow if we could pull over to take pictures. Instead, she had Mawmaw back up and go down a side street to a weaving warehouse! She explained that we were in an area well known for its longyi patterns. We were able to watch several women working the looms (often in pairs), others spinning the fibers onto spools, and a man dying the silk.  And of course there was a shop next to the warehouse – how convenient!



After a quick shopping spree (who could resist?), we continued on our way. We realized that there were no road markings and Mawmaw did not like to be behind anyone. Having been stuck in so many Bangkok traffic jams, we welcomed the wide open road. Mawmaw did slow down for a couple of overloaded 3-wheeled vehicles, but he still made good time to Bagan.


We checked into the Amazing Bagan Resort (gotta love it!) and had a nice rest, and a swim for Bill, before joining Snow for dinner at a local puppet/restaurant. Then it was time for bed because Bill had signed up for a hot air balloon ride, meaning he had to get up at 4:30 to meet the balloon folks at 5:00 (another early morning wake-up call…on vacation!).  And what a ride it was!!  Each balloon carried 12 people plus the pilot. There were over 25 total balloons, all lifting off from different areas and then landing on the bank of the Irrawaddy River. He took some great photos of pagodas, rice fields, pagodas, other balloons, and, oh yeah, more pagodas!  More than 10,000 temples and pagodas were built in this area from the 11th to 13th centuries, and 2000 or so remain.





Although we did not visit all of them, we managed to take in some special ones. The Schwezigon Pagoda is a prototype of Burmese pagodas. Lucky for us, arrival at the pagoda coincided with a Shinbyu, a special ceremony in which several young boys were on their way to become novice monks by entering a monastery for at least a week. Decked out in silk outfits, jewelry, and fancy facial makeup, the boys were either on horseback or riding in ox-pulled carts. Each had an adult holding a parasol over their heads as they made their way down the street. Family members and friends, also well-dressed, followed along carrying food, flowers, and other offerings. The ‘parade,’ which stretched out at least half a mile, was headed to a monastery where the boys’ heads would be shaved and their dazzling clothes would be exchanged for the customary robes of monks. Most likely, there would also be a big feast to celebrate this special occasion. What an unexpected treat!





While we waited for the onlookers to disperse, Bill got it in his head that he wanted a tattoo on his arm. Snow accommodated him (as she did the whole trip) by finding an artist on the outskirts of the pagoda.  I posed with some young ladies with tattoos of their own, while Billy got his wish!



Finally, we made our way into the beautiful gold-leaf-gilded pagoda, which was almost too bright to look at directly under the brilliant sun. We joined several barefooted tourists who were circling the pagoda rather quickly due to the hot pavement. Buddha’s collar bone and his tooth are thought to be enshrined in this pagoda, perhaps the rationale for the huge lion-shaped guardians at the entrance. Because of earthquakes and other natural disasters, the spire and dome have been renovated from time to time but the bottom level terraces are mostly original. I am always in awe looking at these immense structures and wondering how in the world they were ever built, this one in particular in just two years’ time.



After a quick trip to Bu Paya, a gourd-shaped pagoda that overlooks the Irrawaddy River, we stopped for a myo-myo lunch. Several small dishes were put on the table, we ate the ones we wanted, and then the owner somehow determined the cost.  It was the perfect way to sample lots of different foods.  (Unfortunately, I have no idea what happens to the untouched dishes.) The restaurant was noisy, chaotic, and a heck of a lot of fun!





Then, after buying our very own Burmese skirts, a longyi for me and a paseo for Bill (wish I had a video of him learning to wrap it!), we headed to the beautiful Ananda Temple that houses 4 huge standing Buddhas. As we approached one of the statues, its smile seemed to get bigger and bigger. It was the coolest thing! We kept backing up and walking toward it again and again because it made us smile as well.  I wish that experience could have been captured on camera, but I will never forget it.  There were also hundreds of smaller Buddha images in alcoves throughout the temple.  On its 900th anniversary in 1990, the temple spires were gilded for the celebration.  I hope I look that good in 900 years!!





Snow then directed Mawmaw to a particular nondescript pagoda where a lone man looked like he was ready to hop on his motorcycle and ride away.  Snow asked him if the sand painting artist still worked there.  The man smiled and told her that he was the artist! He had just packed up his paintings but was more than willing to unpack for us. Of course, after that, we had to make a purchase! And for good luck, he took our money and used it to slap the paintings that we didn’t buy. Then he rolled them back up and packed them onto his motorcycle. Lucky timing again for us!


Our Bagan adventure ended with an explanation of the handmade lacquerware process, from bamboo to beautiful wares, at a four-generation family business. Our photos were limited to the workshop, so you’ll have to believe me when I tell you that the store was more like an art gallery, with products ranging from bangles to large furniture pieces.


We actually were able to sleep in until 7:30 the next morning before catching a flight to Heho Airport near Inle Lake. We were sad to say good-bye to Bagan and to Mawmaw.


Snow arranged for a longboat driver to spend the next two days with us. No car was needed because everything we wanted to see and do was accessed by the water. Inle Lake is 14 miles long, 7 miles wide, and home to the Shan people. Many of them live in stilt houses right on the water and make their living by fishing and farming.



Young boys use fishing cages more to perform for the tourists than to catch fish, but serious fishermen are known for their skillful leg rowing as they stand on the end of their boats. Basically, they put the top of an oar under their armpit and wrap their ankle around the bottom of the oar, allowing them to paddle while using both hands to toss their nets. They say it’s as easy as walking because they start learning at such a young age.  I’m not so sure about that!



As for the floating plantations, the farmers collect sea grass and water hyacinths from the lake to create an island, which they stake into the bottom of the lake with bamboo poles. Then they put more sea grass and lake silt on top before planting seeds. Tomatoes are their biggest crop and they grow practically year round; we also saw flowers, cucumbers, eggplants, and gourds. A very unique form of hydroponics…





We took a 5-mile boat ride down beautiful canals to Indein Village. We passed by lots of boats, bathers, and other Burmese village folks along the way.  A half mile semi-hike from the river takes you to the Shwe Inn Thein ancient pagodas – hundreds of them in various shapes, sizes, and stages of preservation. These people really wanted to make Buddha happy! We wandered through the courtyard for awhile before making our way back to the river via a covered walkway lined with vendors selling all sorts of traditional Shan souvenirs.