the Long's Strange Trip

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~  Family Thais ~
November 6 through November 12, 2000
$1 U.S. = 42 Thai Baht
(Remember to click on the thumbnails for enlargements of the photos)

Bangkok, Thailand
November 6 through November 12, 2000

(ccl) Sitting here with Wiley on the balcony of our hotel in Bangkok, it occurs to me that we have been on the road for over ten months, and that we are less than three months away from pulling into the station and raising our lap bars, thus ending this ride.  Hard to seems like last week when we waved goodbye to Cristin and Harry as we entered the International Concourse at Hartsfield-Atlanta Airport.  Time flies: the understatement of the century.

We didn't get out of Kathmandu early, as we had planned.  We spent our extra two days there visiting the nearby city of Patan, which had an amazing area full of temples and monuments, just like Kathmandu, and one of the best museums we've seen in Asia.  One of the highlights of our visit to Patan was the Golden Temple, an incredibly  beautiful and peaceful Buddhist temple in the heart of Patan, made out of copper and gold.  Wiley got this incredible photo of a little monk lighting oil lamps.  He was chanting to Buddha as he happily went about his work.  little_monk_golden_temple.JPG (133340 bytes)

Despite the fact that we've been doing this for ten months, we still seem to be unable to leave a country without some stress and heart palpitations.  Leaving Kathmandu, we were at the airport at the appointed three hours before flight time, but after scanning our bags through the x-ray machine and getting in line to check in, I realized that we had not purchased the required exit tax stamps, and rushed to get in line at the bank to buy them.  Having only 2100 rupees (we needed 2200, 1100 each), I rushed back to Wiley to see if he had any rupees left.  No luck.  A girl from Germany was standing close by, heard our plight, and gladly let us have the hundred rupees we needed.  We chatted with her later and found out that she was working her way around the world, volunteering at various organizations along the way.  It seems that everywhere we go we meet people who are trying to make a difference in the world.

We finally landed in Bangkok at around 2:00 P.M., local time.  We had made arrangements via email with the hotel manager to be picked up at the airport, so we emerged from the customs area looking for someone holding a sign with our names.  To our surprise, we saw Wiley's sister Lele, and her friend Krista Baker, waiting to meet us.  Wiley's parents had donated their timeshare to us for the trip, so we had free accommodations for a week in the town of Ratchaburi, about two hours outside of Bangkok.  

Old and new peacefully coexist in Bangkok  Arriving in Bangkok, I realized how long it had been since we had spent time in a truly modern city.  Not since Madrid, way back in April, had we been in a first-world capital.  Bangkok is a stunningly efficient, dazzlingly clean, and terribly friendly place.  Centuries-old, yet impeccably Buddhist temples stand proudly in the shadows of enormous, glittering skyscrapers.  The aroma of delicious food permeates the air, whether from exotic and expensive restaurants or from a little lady with a wok and fresh ingredients, cooking on the sidewalk.  Beautiful young women clad in Ally McBeal-short skirts and gleaming, jet-black hair zip by, calmly balanced sidesaddle on the backs of speeding motorcycle taxis.  The signs of affluence are everywhere, from the late-model BMW's and Mercedes in the street to the credit-card sized phones the teenaged school kids chatter into.  However, if Bangkok has a black eye, it must be its horrendous traffic.  Although not chaotic (Lele might have a different opinion - we found Bangkok drivers to be almost mundane in their level of civility, after months of risking life and limb in cities like Cairo and Bombay) and not particularly dangerous, like many cities we've visited, the traffic is persistent and apparently never-ending.  We were stuck in traffic jams at 10:00 in the morning and 10:00 at night.  Typically, it took twice as long to get somewhere as you had imagined it would.  

About halfway through our week there we discovered the new Skytrain system, a spotlessly clean, noiseless, and smooth-running elevated train system that opened about a year ago.  The people of Bangkok have yet to fully embrace the system, as it currently only services a bare-bones route, so we usually had plenty of room on the comfortable, air-conditioned cars.  Often, we could get to our destination on the Skytrain, or we could at least get close enough to take a quick "tuk-tuk" ride (three-wheeled scooter cabs like the ones we risked life and limb in while in India and Nepal, but infinitely cleaner and in much better condition) from the train to wherever we were going.  Whenever the three of us stood in a Skytrain station staring at the city map in a quandary, someone came up and politely asked if they could be of assistance.  Thailand is predominantly (95%)  Buddhist, and Buddhists believe in the concept of karma.  Karma is the concept of getting back what you give, similar to the phrase from the Bible that states, "as ye sow, so shall ye reap".  Buddhists believe that the acts that you perform during this lifetime that help other beings will create good karma, thus facilitating your reincarnation as a higher being.  Conversely, bad thoughts or actions create bad karma, and ultimately slow your progression towards enlightenment.  I don't know if the Thais are trying to enhance their karma by being friendly to foreigners, but they do seem to be willing to go out of their way to help. 

When we announced our intention to take this trip, Lele quickly spoke up and vowed that she would be happy to take care of our beloved cats while we were gone.  Shortly thereafter, she also told us that she intended to meet us somewhere along the way.  Wiley's parents volunteered the timeshare, and Lele settled on Thailand.  She came bearing gifts, including another shipment from, vitamins, clothes, and homemade fudge sent by my mother.  Plus, both sets of parents sent money for us to have a nice meal out together, which was wonderful.  I guess no matter how old you get, your parents always want to be sure you're well fed.  

We were prepared for an onslaught of tourist activity once the wheels touched the runway in Bangkok.  When you're traveling for thirteen months, and someone comes halfway around the world to see you for a week, you know they're going to have an agenda.  That was fine with us.  It was nice to let someone else run the show for a while, and Lele did an admirable job.  She had thoroughly researched the city, and knew what we had to see and do, and where we had to eat.  Our first stop was Wat Pho, resting place of the Reclining Buddha, a huge gold-covered image of the Buddha in a reclining pose.  When the Buddha is seen in this position it means that his is close to achieving nirvana, or enlightenment.  Sometimes it means he is close to death.  The image was stunning, and huge, as it took nearly ten minutes to walk around the entire figure.  Buddha at rest

Tile rooftops of Wat Pho  "Wat" means "temple" in Thai, and the temples we have seen in Thailand are like nothing we've ever seen before.  They are typically white-washed plaster, with incredibly ornate, pagoda-like roofs which are decorated with mirrors and stunning colored glass.  The glass and mirrors reflect the intense sunlight and make for a spectacle at mid-day.  I never tired of passing the same temple again and again and admiring the beautiful colors and patterns emanated by the sun striking it.   

Our first morning in Thailand I awoke to the awful realization that the computer might possibly be broken again.  I took it out to put the previous day's pictures on the hard drive, pushed the "on" button, and got nothing.  Repeated attempts to elicit some life from this infernal machine produced nothing, and the oaths I uttered would have made my great Uncle Gid, who served as a sailor in the Merchant Marines, proud.  Eventually I discovered that there was a small piece of plastic that had become dislodged from the latch that the top closed on, which made the computer "think" (I use this word cautiously) that it was on standby.  I remembered with dread the moment that Wiley and I sat on a bench at the Ellora caves in India.  We had just left an impaired computer with Nilesh Shah for repair, Wiley had broken out from neck to knee with a voracious rash, and suddenly our camera had stopped working.  I asked Wiley, tearfully, if "the wheels had come off", a term I used to use in the software business when a project was headed straight for the flames of hell.  More proof that it's time for me to get out of the computer business.   But after a few minutes of fiddling it finally hummed confidently into life, acting as though nothing had ever happened.  

Floating chefs  Maybe you've heard about the floating markets of Thailand.  They're amazing.  Entire communities live in neat little houses on stilts and surrounded by coconut palms, bougainvillea, and jasmine vines.  In the past, the people who lived in these communities traded wares on the water, selling fruits, vegetables, and goods from small flat-bottomed boats.,  Now the markets are full of tourists, gawking at the locals.  The canals are packed with long-tailed boats powered by Nissan diesel car engines, and the waves rock violently against the sides of the canals.  But it's still very cool to see how business has been done in these areas for many years.  Typically the vendors selling the wares are women, and they could be selling anything from fresh fried bananas to hats from their boats.  The most interesting boats are the ones where people were cooking up Thai delicacies, right on their boats.  We tasted delicious, exotic fruits, like pomelos, which are huge, sweet cousins to the grapefruit, and rambutan, small fruits that are similar to grapes when the furry outer skin is peeled away.  Nice grapefruits!

Every good tourist knows that it's not just about seeing the sights, it's about experiencing the culture as well.  Lele had read about Thai boxing, known as "muay thai".  It's like nothing you've ever seen, with pretty much any type of hit to the body being legal.  At the beginning of each match the fighters came out and strutted around the ring, wearing garlands of flowers around their heads.  They each went through some pretty elaborate calisthenics, no doubt designed to impress and intimidate their opponent.  The fighters used their feet, knees, and elbows, in addition to their hands, on which they wore boxing gloves.  The referee only stepped in to separate the two fighters when they seemed to be hanging onto each other for too long.  The program listed seven or eight pairs of boxers, along with their weights.  I think I outweighed nearly all of them.  The less experienced fighters seemed to favor a movement that involved bringing their knees up in an attempt to jab their opponent's side, and the more experienced fighters used full contact kicks and brutal punches to the head.  The best part of the whole experience was that the crowd was overwhelmingly made up of Thai people, and they relished the event.  The betting got furious in the final round of each of the matches, and the crowd became increasingly vocal as each blow was landed. 

No visit to Thailand is complete without at least one Thai massage, and after having one you're hooked, and you've got to have more.  Upon entering the massage salon, you're escorted into a room with several twin-sized beds separated by a curtain, much like the emergency rooms in hospitals across the U.S.  Once you get undressed, an extremely small Thai woman enters the space, and proceeds to twist and turn your body in ways you've never dreamed possible.  My favorite position was when I was on my stomach, and she was sitting between my legs behind me.  She grasped my hands and pulled until my torso came off the bed, and I resembled the hood ornament on a Rolls-Royce.  She cracked my back, my neck, my toes, and my fingers, and I felt loose as a goose when I walked out of there.  One of the best things about a Thai massage is that no oil is used, so we were all relaxed and still looking good and ready for a nice dinner at the Shangri-La Hotel just down the street.  We tried to eat at the Oriental Hotel, a five-star Bangkok landmark, but were turned away because Wiley had on sandals, and displayed no visible evidence of even owning a sports coat, much less wearing one at the time.   How DOES she make her hand do that???

You can't have a satisfactory vacation without at least a hint of adventure, we don't think Lele was disappointed.  That night we took the train back to Ratchaburi as we had the night before, and called the hotel to ask for a pickup at the train station.  The hotel was a 30 minute drive from the train station, and there were no cabs to speak of in Ratchaburi, a town of less than 30,000 people.  On this night, we arrived at the station at around 12:45 A.M., and Lele got on the phone to call the hotel.  We soon realized that communication was next to impossible, as whoever was manning the desk that night spoke no English.  Wiley bravely got on the phone and attempted to say "railway station" in Thai, but we think that the only thing that was communicated was that we were at the railway station, and that we'd see him in the morning.  By this time it was well on the way to being 1:30, so we walked dejectedly down the streets of the small town, which was surprisingly active for a Wednesday night.  We parked ourselves across the street from a karaoke bar, where a girl sang the latest hits in a bikini to an audience of zero.  I sat with my head firmly entrenched in my palm, wondering which drunken driver we were going to be forced to take a ride with, when a very nice man stopped to ask where we were going.  He said he couldn't take us all the way to the hotel, as it was 40 kilometers outside of town, but he would take us to a hotel.  Exhausted, we checked in and crashed until 7:00 A.M., when we got up and phoned the manager of the hotel to come and get us.  We had time before he arrived to have a delicious breakfast of deep-fried shrimp and joke, a cereal made of rice and flavored with bean sprouts, egg, and cilantro.  We were quite the oddity in the small town of Ratchaburi.  Parents stopped by our table to feed their children a quick, hot breakfast before school, and we smiled and greeted all of them.  McDonald's executives would have been fascinated to watch the goings-on there, as busy drivers, both on scooters and in cars, pulled up to the curb and had their "usual" handed to them by the vendors, allowing them to speed on their way in no time, proving why the Egg McMuffin will never outsell the local product in these parts of the world.  2 over medium, burn the toast, side of hash browns

Yes, but will this level of cooperation continue when we get home?  Spending the night out is normally adventurous, but we had a Thai cooking class scheduled for the next day, and we were all somewhat less than alert.  But we rallied, and made our way back into town, after showers and a little breakfast.  Our destination: The Modern Woman Cooking Institute, which, thankfully, did not discriminate on the basis of sex, so Wiley was welcome along with me and Lele.  We had a great experience there, as the three of us were the only students in the class, and we all got to have intense hands-on experience.  First we made deep-friend pork spring rolls, with a great radish/chili dipping sauce.  Then we made soup with coconut milk, chicken, and a ginger-like vegetable called "galanga".  We made the coconut milk from scratch by adding hot water to a huge bowl of grated coconut, then squeezed the milk from the coconut by hand.  Thai food is very fragrant, rife with spices and herbs, and the flavors are intense.  Everything is made from scratch, and the results are really fresh dishes that taste totally unique.  Our main course was the national dish of Thailand, Pad Thai.  Each of us got to fix our own dish, straining and sweating over the fiery-hot wok.  Pad Thai is assembled by first cooking garlic and shallots in oil, then adding pork and shrimp.  Rice noodles and water is then added and the noodles are cooked until tender, and then a tamarind sauce is spooned in.  The final few steps are to add pickled turnips, bean sprouts, tofu, seasonings, and chives, and then a raw egg is quickly scrambled into the whole mix.  It's pretty harrowing, furiously stirring what's cooking in the wok while reaching all around you to add a pinch of this and a dash of that.  The result is delicious, and we were all exceptional students, if I do say so myself.  I've included a recipe for Tom Kha Kai, which is the soup we made in class, in recipes.   Call Lele now for a reservation - Pad Thai is her specialty!

On Friday we moved into Bangkok, as our week at the Ratchaburi Country Club had come to an end.  We went to a festival of Thai culture at Wat Arun, which is a beautiful Buddhist temple complex built in the early 19th century.  In those days, ships that called on Bangkok used old Chinese porcelain as ballast.  For some reason, the architects of the temple decided to make use of this beautiful garbage, and embedded both broken and unbroken plates in various patterns into the plaster exterior of the building.  The temple was dramatically lit for the festival, and we were probably luckier to see it at night than during the day.  The festival that was going on featured several different plays involving elaborate costumes and props, traditional Thai music, and a puppet show, which was apparently hilarious but also completely in Thai.  We enjoyed walking amongst the locals and gazing up at the full moon and the porcelain-encrusted prang  (temple tower).  Wat Arun in the full moon

Our final temple visit in Bangkok was to Wat Traimit, familiarly known as the temple of the Golden Buddha.  I've experienced what I call "Cathedral Fatigue" in many parts of the world - with churches in England, cathedrals in Italy, mosques in Egypt, and temples in India.  After a while, visiting ANOTHER house of worship can get old.  Each is beautiful and amazing in it's own way, but when the day is over, it's another house of worship, and if you've already seen several in a particular country, they begin to look the same.  But we had to go to Wat Traimit to see the five-and-a-half ton Buddha made of solid gold there.  Surely, this has to be the largest solid gold statue anywhere in the world, although I haven't read anything to that affect.  The really amazing thing about the Buddha is that no one knew it was made of gold until the 1960's, when a crane dropped the statue while moving it to a new building.  The plaster exterior cracked, and some came off, revealing the lustrous gold underneath.  Historians speculate that the statue was covered in plaster by monks to protect the statue from marauding Burmese (the Thais and the Burmese have a long history of hating each other, apparently) during an invasion many hundreds of years ago.  Today the image of Lord Buddha gleams contentedly from its resting place at Wat Traimit, and many faithful Buddhists come there to offer lotus buds at the feet of the statue.  

Getting ready to send our krathongs sailing  We decided to celebrate a holiday for each night that we spent with Lele, since we are missing all of the major holiday celebrations with family this year.  The first night we celebrated Thanksgiving, and we each talked about what we were thankful for.  We then celebrated Christmas, and on our final night together, we celebrated the new year.  It was completely appropriate, because it coincided with the Thai festival of Loi Krathong.  During this festival, held on the full moon of November, people set small "boats", made of banana  leaves, orchids, marigolds, and incense and candles, afloat on the river.  It is believed that the tradition began in the 17th century when the beautiful daughter of a Buddhist priest set afloat a small boat with offerings for the river goddess.  The festival gradually grew in popularity, and the focus has changed somewhat from festival revelers asking for forgiveness for past transgressions to them asking for good luck and blessings in their pursuits in the coming year.  We celebrated with the locals at a restaurant right on the Chao Phraya River.  After dinner we each took our little floats down to the water, where local boys held onto the side of the piers and graciously offered to set the krathongs afloat.  We lit the candles and incense, and sent our little floats out on the waters.  Before leaving the restaurant, we had each written a small note to send away with our krathong.  The contents of each person's note were private, but mine thanked God for this amazing time that I have had to travel the world and meet its people, to get to know my husband better, and to clear my mind and learn more about myself.  It's good karma to help other float their boats 

That night we traveled out to the airport to spend the night with Lele and help her get on her flight, which was at 6:00 the next morning.  Lele is perfectly capable of getting on an international flight by herself, but we had a "few" things to send home with her, so we had promised at the beginning of the week to get her as far as the check-in counter with the humongous bag we had packed to the gills with Nepalese souvenirs.  After three hours of sleep, we boarded the hotel's shuttle bus for the quick trip to the airport, said a tearful goodbye, and put Lele on her way to 36 long hours in the air.  

After returning to the hotel for the other half of our night's sleep, we got up and went back into Bangkok, back to the hotel where we had spent Friday night.  We only spent one more night in the city, just long enough to buy bus tickets south to the island of Phuket, and get incredible forty-five minute foot massages (you could quickly get spoiled in this country).  Bus travel in Thailand is far superior to any other we have experienced, with nearly fully reclining seats, bathrooms on board, and beverage service.  We went straight through from Bangkok to Phuket overnight, with only a 20 minute stop for dinner (included in the price of the ticket).  After a rigorous week of Bangkok sight-seeing, plus the frantic pace we kept up in Nepal, we were looking forward to some relaxing times on the gorgeous beaches of southern Thailand.

 Click here to continue in Thailand with "The Beach"



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