The Dog Days of Rainy Season

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Above: an exhausted dog keeps watch (barely) over a table of local eggs for sale along Soi Rang Nam.  The vendor was nowhere in sight.  I was curious whether, if I wanted to buy some eggs, the dog could give correct change.

The final days of Bruce’s trip were lower-key.  I had to get back to work and I think he was ready to just chill out and not see any more sights.  We picked up his tuxedo, custom made at the same shop many of our guests enjoy visiting, so that he will have something nice to wear for his performance at Carnegie Hall in New York next April.

The final night, we went across the street to Extra Virgin, the cute new Thai-European bistro that opened a few weeks ago.  The decor is very nice but Tawn and I were actually surprised by the food.  All in all, much better than we had expected.  Sadly, so many western or quasi-western style restaurants in Khrungthep are long on concept and short on kitchen execution.  Not so in the case of extra virgin.  Here’s a selection of the food we enjoyed:

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Top row from left: Indian-themed appetizers with fried calamari and vegetable samosas; Thai-themed appetizers with a take on fried chicken and sticky rice served with a “som tam” style salad made of guava; rocket and pancetta salad topped with a very light balsamic dressing.  Bottom row from left: seafood and vermicelli stir fry; a take on pad thai; grilled pork and sticky rice with chili dipping sauce.

My pictures of the western food did not turn out so well, but I thought the veal, which Bruce had, was nicely done and the coq a vin, while slightly less rich than I’m used to, was also tasty.

Below, Bruce’s plane taxis out to the runway after a full ten days in the Big Mango.

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P1100597 With Bruce departed, we had to find other ways to entertain ourselves.  Life returned to normal as we had dim sum with a group of Tawn’s school friends, Eddy, Sa and Job. 

Sa and Job brought their half-year old baby boy, J.J.  He has his mother’s fair skin and his father’s beautiful eyes and was the center of attention.

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J.J. was pretty fussy when other people would pick him up to hold him, but if you picked him up and held him facing towards his parents so he could see them, he didn’t fuss.

P1100614 Later on, Tawn’s friend Prince came by to get changed for a wedding.  His back was hurting him so he asked Tawn to stand on his lower back. 

Knowing how much Thais consider the feet to be the lowest part of the body (cultural note – you never touch another person with your feet, gesture to something with your feet, or put your feet up on furniture or objects while in public) you have to be a pretty close friend to be asked to step on someone!

Time to direct Prince to a chiropractor.

In short, things are returning to normal here at home.  I’m able to work in my office again, we can wander around the house without regards for our state of dress, and I can enjoy the fresh air and cooling breezes with my windows open and balcony door ajar.

Tawn and I were talking about this: it is nice to have visitors, but we’re not very used to having visitors in our small home, especially for extended lengths of time.  It is amazing how much it alters your normal routine.  Something we’ll have to keep in mind in the future as we travel and visit others.

 

Bruce’s Visit – Part 2

To recap the bulk of the rest of Bruce’s visit, we had a very busy several days as I played tour guide and tried to show him several different slices of our life in the kingdom:

Floating Market

After the year and a half of volunteering as an English teacher at Bangkhonthiinai village, I became very familiar with Samut Songkhram province – Thailand’s smallest – and especially the weekend nighttime floating market in the town of Amphawa.  My debt of gratitude to Ajarn Yai, the former director of the school, is deep as she has been a gracious host anytime I have guests to bring to the floating market.

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P1100431Ajarn Yai arranged and paid for a canal and river tour in the late afternoon, following a route that took us several kilometers down the Mae Khlong River and then cutting back through the smaller canals until we returned to the market area in Amphawa.

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It was a fascinating opportunity to show Bruce “life by the water” – a fixture of central Thailand and an important cultural touchstone as so many references in language (and even driving habits!) can be traced back to Thais’ relationship with bodies of water.

Since Ajarn Yai insisted on paying for the boat ride, Tawn and I insisted on paying for dinner afterwards at a riverside restaurant.  Not without a big fight, though: “I’m your big sister!” she protested, pointing to Thai custom that the puu yai – senior person – pay for dinner.

As I’ve explained to her several times, I can’t let her pay every time we have a guest in town; that’s not fair to her.  Of course, “fair” is a very different concept in my mind than in hers.  For Ajarn Yai, “fair” will be when we finally take her to the United States for a visit.

Road Trip – Ayuthaya

Long before Bruce arrived, we had discussed a road trip to Thailand’s wine country –  Nakhon Ratchasimaa province, also known as Korat.  Yes, we do have a small wine industry and as we found out, they produce some decent wine.

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We started out in Ayuthaya, the second capital of the Kingdom of Siam.  Located about ninety minutes north of Khrungthep, the city is full of ruins including a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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Our first stop was Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon, above and right, on the south side of the city.  Quieter than many of the other temples, it was famous as a place for meditation and still houses a large community of monks and nuns.  The large chedi or stupa is still intact and you can climb it for quite a view.

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After lunch and a stop at the Ayuthaya Historical Study Center, a decent museum that helps put the ancient city into context, complete with scale models of how the city looked before it was ransacked by the Burmese in 1767, we headed to see some of the ruins.

In the 17th Century, the city had a million inhabitants and strong trade relations with the Dutch, Portuguese, English, French, Chinese and Japanese.  Many Western visitors remarked how illustrious the city was, with the temples and many palace buildings decorated in the same fashion in which Khrungthep’s Grand Palace is.

Back out into the warm pre-thunderstorm afternoon, we visited Wat Phra Si Sanphet, once the largest temple in Ayuthaya.  This is the famous one with a trio of large chedis still standing in a row down the center of the park.  The surrounding walls have tumbled down, whether a result of the Burmese cannon fire or just a matter of time and weather.

There were surprisingly few visitors and Bruce was able to film a lot of video footage on his new camera while Ken and I tried to remain in the shade of the magnolia trees.  Afterwards, we stopped at a nearby market to watch the making of roti sai mai – a dessert popular among the Thai Muslim population with thin pandan leaf flavored crepes are stuffed with spun palm sugar – and, of course, to eat some.

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Our last stop in Ayuthaya was the elephant kraal.  North of the city, this is where the wild elephants were herded so ones could be selected for use in battle.

Today, it is where the elephants that visitors ride at the historical park are housed, bathed and fed.  Run by a pair of farang women, there is a program where guests can stay several days in cottages and learn more about the elephants while helping out with the chores.

We arrived at feeding time, with a pair of elephants unloading pickup trucks full of grass and bringing it to the other elephants.  For the most part, it looks like the grass is ground up before being served to the elephants, using a cement mixer as a gigantic food processor.  The elephants that were doing the heavy lifting occasionally snagged a few blades as a snack, having to be urged back to work by their mahouts, or guides.

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A baby elephant gets a shower while playing around and trying to drink the water.

Road Trip – Pak Chong

We continued to the northeast of Ayuthaya about two hours, arriving in the small town of Pak Chong shortly after dark.  Pak Chong is the first city you reach in Nakhon Ratchasimaa province and serves as the gateway to Khao Yai National Park, Thailand’s oldest and second largest.  Pak Chong at sunrise:

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We found a relatively new tourist class hotel.  It was clean and the beds were comfortable, so for 700 baht a night (about US$20) it seemed like a pretty good deal.  This far outside of the big cities, I think our options are limited.  The receptionist suggested a really nice restaurants that is located on the banks of a small river.  Decorated along the lines of a Cracker Barrel restaurant, the restaurant served pretty good northeastern Thai food, although the grilled chicken was a bit tough.

Khao Yai National Park

Tuesday morning we started out early and drove the hour up to Khao Yai National Park.  We were afforded gorgeous views and lots of lush foliage.

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From a view point looking north back towards Pak Chong.

There is a lot of wildlife in the park, including a herd of 200-300 wild elephants.  While we didn’t see any elephants, we did encounter several other animals including a few monkeys and deer.

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At one stop, there is a salt lick that “Friends of the Park” – a volunteer organization – created so that animals would have a place to eat their minerals in good view of the road.  The salt lick is shown above and below is the accompanying warning sight at the viewing point.

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It reads, “Do not walk to the Salt Lick – you smell bad to wildlife.”  Ain’t that the truth?

After stopping at the interpretive center we decided to take a short walk behind the center to see a waterfall.  Our information was bad and we ended up taking the long way around.

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Imagine, if you will, that the interpretive center was at noon on a clock face.  We started walking along the trail, only to eventually discover that the waterfall was at the eleven o’clock position, which we could have easily accessed if we had walked the opposite direction!

The trail was overgrown and in places, completely veered off into uncharted territory.  Along the way, we discovered a bit more of the local fauna than we wanted to: leeches.  Here’s a view of the leeches we acquired and the larger ones we managed to avoid.

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Mostly small but those things really have a strong grip.  One burrowed through my sock and was pretty firmly attached to my leg.  Five days later, I still have a purple welt from where its mouth was.

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The further we went, the more precarious the trail became.  To be certain, the forest there is beautiful and cool, but if we hadn’t heard the sound of a waterfall in the distance, I think we would have turned back.

We arrived at the waterfall and were terribly underwhelmed.  There are probably several in the park that were much more spectacular, because this one was more of a large rapids than anything else.  As waterfalls go, I think the Erawan Falls in Kanchanaburi province are much nicer, especially as I didn’t encounter any leeches there.

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Sadly, Bruce was the most affected by nature, suffering at least a dozen leech bites and having to pull them from between his toes.  Let this be a lesson to all of us: no shorts and sandals when you are in a national park.  On our way in to the park, we saw several truckloads of tourists who had these leg warmer type of padding around their legs, even though they had long pants on.  I thought perhaps they were protection for snake bites but realize now that they were designed to keep leeches off you.

Tough way to learn the lesson but glad we know that for next time.

 

After Bruce had had enough of nature we headed down the mountain to search out a pair of wineries.  They were pretty easily found and, sure enough, as you get up into that region and drive down some of the two-lane roads, you could easily imagine that you are in Sonoma County, the Barossa Valley, or another wine producing region.

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Above, vineyards at PB Winery.  The higher-end shiraz was pretty decent, albeit pricey.  The lower-end shiraz had the bouquet of molasses and was so young as to be nearly illegal.  The drive is pretty, though, and it was interesting to see what this nascent wine region is producing.

P1100535 By this point in the afternoon, we were hitting some rain and decided to make one last stop before heading back to the Big Mango.  Our destination was Chokchai Farms, a large cattle and dairy operation near Pak Chong.

Left, traditional “old west” farm architecture amongst the tropical foliage.

Chokchai is the most modern and productive cattle operation in Thailand and ostensibly their cows get a lot of opportunity to pasture, although I wasn’t able to take the farm tour thanks to the monsoon rains that arrived.  Instead, we hunkered up in the Chokchai Steakhouse and enjoyed a good steak lunch with inexplicably overcooked vegetables.  Really, they were aiming for Midwestern US cuisine with frozen carrots and green beans that had been boiled to death.  Only the steamed cabbage and daikon radish were fresh.

We returned to Khrungthep around rush hour, leaving unexplored many other parts of Nakhon Ratchasimaa province that I’ll have to return to in the future.  In particular, the capital city of Korat, about which I’ve heard good things, deserves some exploration.

 

Bruce’s Visit

As mentioned before, we’ve had a houseguest for the past week.  Bruce came for a visit from the United States and I’ve been busy playing tour guide for much of that time.  We have seen a lot of things and I’ve been so much on the go that I haven’t had time to properly update the blog – especially since the political unrest here in Thailand has increased recently and deserves some attention.

Let me begin with the political situation, since some of you have already expressed your worries and concerns.

Protest 9 To start off, rest assured that things are still perfectly safe here.  Unless you decide to go wander through the middle of the protest area (which Bruce and I did on Sunday, before all of this boiled over), life in the city is proceeding as normal.

Sunday was a local election here and one of the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD – the protesters) leaders was arrested as he came out of hiding in order to vote.  Realizing this would happen, he gave his supporters a letter to read after his arrest. 

Subsequent to his arrest, the protests swelled in size.  They expanded to include the area around the parliament building, effectively trapping members of parliament inside.

When the police moved to clear the protesters, using tear gas and – some reports say – small explosives, there were dozens of injuries and two deaths.  The autopsy report on one of the deaths indicate that the decedent died as a result of injuries from an explosive she had on her person, although I don’t know how that was established.

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Among the injuries were at least two people with severed limbs, providing some of the most shocking early morning news footage I’ve ever seen on television.  It is not clear how the injuries happened – do tear gas cannisters provide enough explosive force to tear off the bottom part of a leg?

Some level of calm has been restored, but the PAD has insisted they are the victims here and will remain in place until they have overthrown the government.  In short, the cycle will continue.

P1100319 Turning our attention back to Bruce’s visit, as I mentioned, we have been very busy.  Some guests just grab the map, ask me to point them towards the transit system, and are off.  Other times, I get the opportunity to revisit many parts of the city with my guests.

Bruce’s friend Fai, a Thai who lived in San Francisco many years and is back in town, was able to join us for dinner shortly after Bruce’s arrival. 

We met for dinner at Greyhound Cafe and had a nice visit.  While we haven’t met Fai before, he was very nice and reminds us of a friend in Hong Kong.

Left: Fai, Bruce and Tawn pose on the rain-slicked concrete in front of Paragon shopping center.

Unfortunately, Fai was heading out of town so there would be no more opportunity to visit with him.  So I put on the tour guide hat – actually, Bruce ended up with the hat to protect him from the sun – and we set off.  One of the first stops was the obligatory trip to the Grand Palace, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, and the Temple of the Reclining Buddha – a trio of sights that are really a must-see.

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Down by the river, as we waited for the boat, we saw the funny sight of a lady washing her dog in the canal.  I’m not sure which was cleaner afterwards: the dog or the canal!

Bruce brought his new High Definition digital video camera with him, able to record dozens and dozens of hours of sights and sounds.  No doubt he will have a lot of editing to do when he returns!

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With it being off season and a thunderstorm hanging over most of the city, we found the Grand Palace and Temple of the Emerald Buddha emptier – and cooler – than I have ever seen it.  While Bruce did the audio tour, I sat on a marble-floored sala – a pavilion – and edited training materials for my job.  With a deadline looming and still a lot of work to do, I had to squeeze every minute of work out of my time spent as a tour guide.

Passing through the Palace area, I snapped two nice photos of one of the main halls.

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Truly beautiful architecture, combining Versailles windows and arches with a classical Thai roof line.

Heading over to Wat Pho – the Temple of the Reclining Buddha – we encountered several touts, helpfully informing us that the temple was closed and would we like to instead go see the giant standing Buddha.  Of course, this was just a ruse to get us to go visit “gem” factories. 

Visitors beware: Khrungthep is full of these shady characters.  I noticed it much more this time than on previous visits to the sights and was, frankly, a bit perturbed by it.  Tourism is such an important source of revenue for the kingdom that with the downturn in bookings caused by the political violence, they can scarcely afford to lose more tourists because of scams.

We were rewarded for our perseverance: at Wat Pho we saw some craftspeople restoring detailed painting along the windows and door frames.  I cannot imagine the hours they must have spent, hunched over or laying on their side to add the small swirls and flourishes.

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While at the temple, we stumbled upon a monk conference.  Literally, it was a gathering of monks including visiting ones from China and Hong Kong.  According to one monk with whom I spoke, there were 10,000 participants.  They were sitting on mats surrounding the main wihan – chapel – of the temple, until the rains came and drove them under the eaves.  The chanting continued, though, as more and more monks arrived by bus and taxi, streaming inside and finding their appointed places.

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There is some video below.


That sums up our first day of hiking about town.  There is more to share and I will try to post it as soon as possible.  Meanwhile, hope everyone is doing well.  I’m quite behind on checking and responding to others’ entries so my apologies if I have missed any important events.

 

Chris and Tawn: The Early Years

In the process of sorting through things (I’m always trying to get rid of things I don’t need to keep anymore, sort of a reverse pack rat) I came across some CDs of photos from 2000, when Tawn and I first met.

Dating all the way back to the 4th or 5th of January 2000, here’s the first picture I ever took of Tawn.

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Cute, huh?  What a baby face!  Here’s the photo of one of our first dinners together, taken at the now-defunct Anna’s Cafe on Soi Saladaeng.

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Yes, I had glasses back in those days.  But no hair.  It wasn’t until the middle of 2000 that I had lasik surgery.

Tawn moved to the United States a few days before Christmas 2000 and we flew back to Kansas City to join my family for the holidays.  Even back then, Tawn was warmly welcomed to the family.  Here we are at my brother-in-law and sister’s old house, opening Christmas presents.

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Looking back at these pictures, I don’t think we’ve changed all that much.  If you look at us up close, we have a few more wrinkles and a few more grey hairs, and I’ve gained a few kilograms since then, but not all that different.

Speaking of changing looks, Tawn just had his hair cut quite short on the sides.  I’m always urging him to get the sides shaved because I like the way it looks on him.  He’s always very hesitant, feeling that it makes his face look too narrow.  I think it accentuates his face.  Here’s the picture of the new haircut.  You’re welcome to share your thoughts about it.

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One final one, from March 2001, shows Tawn and my good friend and former roommate Anita at a birthday party held and Brad and Donna’s former house in Sunnyvale.  Nice back-lighting!

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Looking more recently, almost exactly two years ago, here we are at Bua and Pom’s engagement party.  Bua very thoughtfully made CDs for all her guests, containing copies of the professional photos featuring the guests and, of course, the photos of the bride and groom and wedding party.  It is nice because the photos you always take yourself never turn out so nicely.  I hadn’t seen these before – they were hidden away on a CD that Tawn tossed into the box of computer things.

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Tawn and me with his school friend Pim and her adorable daughter Tara.  Tara, who is now going on four years old, always asks after me whenever Tawn goes over for a visit.  She keeps asking why I don’t have any hair.

Finally, here’s a picture of the two of us at the engagement party.

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Some of the best pictures of us have been taken at weddings.  It helps to have a festive atmosphere and a professional photographer.  And a glass or two of wine.