Family Visit Part 2

The second half of my family’s trip to Thailand was spent in the south, in the Andaman coastal province of Krabi.

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For midwesterners, a trip to the beach is a highlight of any trip to Thailand. Amber waves of grain don’t have anything on the warm tropical waters in Thailand.

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For the one-hour flight to Krabi, we once again flew Nok Air (“Bird” Air) which was a big hit with the girls. The planes are painted like birds, which they thought was pretty cool.

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We stayed at a resort right on the beach, giving us a spectacular sunset view every evening.

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The resort is small – only about 50 rooms – and quite out of the way. While this limited the ease of travel elsewhere in the province, the two pools and the beach provided enough attractions.

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We did sneak out one day for an elephant ride – here, my sister and youngest niece pet a baby elephant – and a visit to a spectacular crystal clear natural spring in which you can swim.

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While out, we had a chance to stop in the main town for authentic southern Thai food – Hat Yai style fried chicken, a steamed fish mousse, and “Chinese style” rice noodles with curry sauce and fermented vegetables. I’m glad that everyone gave the food a try and for the most part, seemed to like it. Well, the fried chicken at least.

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Every day at sunset we were on the beach. Here, recreating some picture from a childhood, I give my sister a push on a swing.

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One of my nieces also provided the gymnastic antics to create this beautiful picture.

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Our last full day there, we hired a long-tail boat to take us to a pair of islands about 10 kilometers off the coast. The nieces weren’t too happy about the boat ride but the rest of us enjoyed the experience.

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One nearly-deserted island had an interesting isthmus that largely disappeared at high tide but provided a comfortable spot to enjoy the breeze and take in the views of the steep limestone cliffs.

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At a second island, we cruised into a lagoon in the middle of the island that is only accessible during high tide. The water was less than three feet deep and the cliffs surrounded the lagoon on all sides except for a narrow opening to the sea.

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Finally, we docked at the other side of the same island (called Koh Hong) where there is a large protected beach. It is part of a national park on employees keep a careful eye on visitors to ensure there is no littering. While the waters were a bit cloudy because of the monsoon season, we did a little snorkeling near the large rock and were able to see quite a few schools of fish.

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All in all, I think it was a very enjoyable four days for everyone and a good final experience for Thailand. I’m glad we saved the beach for the end of the trip.

 

Visiting Mae Sot with my Family

My parents, sister, brother-in-law, and their two girls are visiting for two weeks. During the first part of the trip, we flew to Mae Sot, a town on the border with Myanmar, to visit an orphanage and other related facilities at which I’ve volunteered before. Here’s a look in pictures at our visit there.

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Boarding our Nok Air flight out of Don Meuang Airport in Bangkok, arriving in Mae Sot one hour later. As we touched down in Mae Sot, the ground was dry. By the time we reached the end of the runway and taxied back to the terminal, a torrential rain shower had unleashed.

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At a secondary learning center (essentially high school) for Burmese migrant students, my nieces helped prepare the afternoon meal: a big wok full of fried rice cooked over a gas fire.

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Stopping at the orphanage where I’ve previously visited, my family quickly started interacting with the approximately 80 children who are there. There is nothing these children seem to cherish more than love and attention. My dad sat on the floor and had a queue of children waiting to sit on his lap.

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My brother-in-law, who had missed his regular workouts, used some of the younger children to catch up on his weight-lifting.

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The first day we visited was my sister’s birthday, so we brought cake for everyone and they sang her “Happy Birthday”. Afterwards, many children kept coming up and saying “Happy birthday!” and pretending to make cake for everyone.

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These two fellows cleverly repurposed a Superman plush toy to turn it into something of a sled. Here’s a brief video capturing the hilarity of their new ride:

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The following day we traipsed through muddy rice paddies to visit a four-day-a-week day care center run by the same orphanage. It provides some education and a free meal for the children of migrant workers from the surrounding fields.

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One of the volunteer coworkers leads the children in a prayer before they eat their mid-day meal. For many of the children, this will be their only complete meal of the day.

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Later in the day we were back at the orphanage, where my eldest niece started kicking the ball around with several of the children. Football (soccer) is very popular here.

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Several of the girls, all of whom wear their hair very short, were captivated by my younger niece’s long locks and proceeded to braid them in all sorts of creative ways.

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My mother was spending time with one little girl who seemed like she needed some extra attention. When I was feeding her the day before, she cried every time I tried to pass the spoon off to someone else.

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There is one young boy who is both blind and suffers from polio. My father spend a while massaging his legs, trying to stretch and strengthen the muscles.

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The new craze we introduced was walking on the visiting adults’ shoes. I don’t know why this was so popular, but we were followed by a queue of children waiting for a ride.

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As it neared dinner time, everyone began to wash up for the evening meal and we took our opportunity to leave for the airport and our flight home.

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The winner of the unintentionally ironic t-shirt contest. I want to go buy a bunch of funny t-shirts and donate them to the orphanage. It is just too cute when they wear something like this.

If you are interested, here is a short video I shot up in Mae Sot when I was there over Christmas with a group of Singaporean volunteers. It shows some of the work we did at the day care center to bring a bit of holiday spirit to them.

 

Coup Deux – Come Visit

Thailand is a country that likes its “collect stamps” cards. Patronize a business ten times and get a free coffee, or the like. When it comes to coups d’etat, it seems to have a similar proclivity. Depending on your count, this is the 17th, 18th, or 19th coup since Thailand became a constitutional monarchy in 1932. For me, I have collected two “coup stamps”. After my fifth, I get a free t-shirt.

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The last coup was in 2006. A link to some of my entries about it is here. As for why Thailand has so many coups, there is an interesting article here. And if you want some insight into what is going on and what the next steps may be, the Economist has a useful article here.

As soon as the coup happened, and even when martial law was announced two days earlier, I was flooded with messages from friends who were worried for my safety. Thank you to everyone for your concern, but I’m afraid the important message is this:

Keep Calm

The words “coup” and “martial law” seem to prompt a visceral response, aided and abetted by the media showing close-up photos of soldiers, protesters, and political violence. In reality, the political violence over the last six months has been limited – only 28 people killed. Not to minimize the importance of that loss of life, but we regularly have bus crashes on the road here that take that many lives.

Considering the size of the country, and even the size of the city, political violence in Thailand is not sufficient reason to be alarmed or for governments to issue travel alerts warning their citizens not to travel to Thailand.

The last thing this country needs is for its economy (which is teetering on the edge of recession) to be further damaged by tourists staying away. It is an excellent time to visit the country – the weather in the early summer has cooled a bit from the Songkhran highs but the full monsoon has not yet arrived. Plus, hotel prices are amazingly low because… well, because of the political unrest.

I would ask you to help me be a de facto ambassador for Thailand. As you hear people talk about the country, let them know that your friend Chris lives there and assures them it is okay to visit. And, if anyone you know is considering travel here, urge them to come! They can always contact me for recommendations!

 

Songkhran Splashing

As mentioned in my previous entry, last weekend was the Songkhran holiday or Thai new year’s. This actually isn’t an exclusively Thai event; it is celebrated under different names across of swath of countries in Southeast Asia.

Every year there is an outpouring of nostalgia for the “traditional” forms of celebration – bathing the Buddha statues and gently pouring water on the hands of others as a new year’s blessing. The Bangkok Post disabused readers of these sentimental longings by printing a selection of archival pictures, showing rough-and-tumble water play dating back to the 1950s at least.

This picture, taken just in front of my condominium complex, shows a fairly typical Songkhran scene:

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People set up small outposts in front of their houses with buckets of water, hoses, water guns, or a combination thereof. There is usually music blaring loudly, snacks, and alcohol. People dance around and splash each other and other passers by.

There are also pickup trucks loaded with revelers, usually with a large bucket of water in the back. Sometimes large blocks of ice float in the water, adding a special thrill to the experience. There is usually most loud music and, frequently, alcohol. The trucks drive around the neighborhoods so the passengers can engage in water wars with the people partying in front of their houses.

This is all done in the spirit of good fun, although sometimes it isn’t as fun for those who want to pass by without a soaking. Many revelers take aim at passing motorbikes, leading to accidents as the drivers try to avoid a soaking and lose control, crashing. In some areas of town or on some smaller roads, the caravan of pickup trucks brings traffic to a crawl. And of course with the alcohol, the water, and the number of people dancing about in the back of a pickup truck, there are unfortunate falls.

I won’t be the grumpy farang who complains about the Songkhran celebrations, though. They are what they are. Hopefully, over time, greater awareness will be paid to safer ways to celebrate and the high rate of accidents and deaths over this period will diminish. In the meantime, though, this is undeniably a part of the Thailand experience.

 

Anantara Riverside Resort

The middle of April marks the arrival of the year’s hottest days in Thailand. It also marks the start of the Thai new year, a festival known as Songkhran. A few million of Bangkok’s residents escape the city, leaving either for a holiday out of town or returning to their home province to spend time with family. Many of us Bangkok residents stay in town to enjoy our city at half its normal capacity. I took the opportunity for a one-night “staycation” on the Thonburi side of the river at the Anantara Riverside Resort.

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The Anantara, owned and operated by Minor International, a Thai based multinational, is not the newest riverfront property, but it is well-maintained and just far enough downstream from the heart of the city, to truly feel like an escape from the hustle and bustle. At the heart of the complex is a large pool, which was quite busy with sunbathers and water-splashers of all ages.

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The hotel’s lush gardens are very tranquil. One of the nice aspects of it being an older resort is that the landscaping has a volume that cannot be easily achieved by newer properties. Everywhere you look, both inside and outside the buildings, you see greenery.

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As the resort’s name implies, it is located directly on the river. There is a restaurant and a bar that lie adjacent to the water and the hotel’s private pier offers ferry service to the pier upriver that is near the BTS Skytrain station. The ferry also runs across the river to Asiatique, the two-year old outdoor night market and entertainment center.

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The rooms are nicely furnished in a contemporary but slightly tropical style. We upgraded to a riverfront room that was very comfortable. There isn’t that much to see on the river besides barges slowly making their way up- and downstream, but it is a nice setting.

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Public places in the hotel are tasteful and contemporary, with lots of natural light. There are several “mini lobbies” where you can find a nice place to sit with a book or just absorb the atmosphere.

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We ate a sumptuous Sunday brunch at Trader Vic’s, the “tiki tiki” themed restaurant that features just about every type of food imaginable, including a wide variety of fresh seafood.

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We also had a nice breakfast the following morning at the Marketplace restaurant, which spills outdoors onto a patio overlooking the river. All the food was good and the staff was very friendly.

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Most of our day was spent by the pool, although we hid beneath umbrellas and in the shade of a large tree. As evening came, a cultural program was presented poolside with young ladies in traditional Thai costumes dancing and lighting the torches around the pool.

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A man dressed as Hanuman, the mythical white monkey in the Ramakien, the Thai version of the classic Hindu epic called the Ramayana, performed around the pool to the beat of a drummer. He attracted many young followers who tried to catch his tail and also copied his poses.

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In the evening, there is another classical performance held by torch light for the diners as the Marketplace restaurant. While I suppose you could quibble over whether guests really learn much from this minimal amount of exposure to culture, it surely creates a memorable impression for them.

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The resort also offers cruises aboard converted teak rice barges. These cruises, one of which I did several years ago, can be just a daytime excursion, a dinner cruise, or a two-night trip to the ancient capital of Ayutthaya and back.

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All in all, the Anantara Riverside Resort proved to be an ideal place for us to get away from the city for a night. If we had children, it would be even more well-suited for us as there are many activities geared to families.

 

First Trip to Pattaya

After having lived in Bangkok more than eight years, I am greeted by expressions of surprise when I tell people that I have never been to Pattaya, the famous beach resort town just a two hour drive southeast of the Thai capital city. Well, I can no longer truthfully earn those expressions of surprise because I finally made my first trip to Pattaya last month.

Why didn’t I ever visit Pattaya? Well, there was an image I held in my head of a city that was a sleazy and crowded tourist trap with a nice beach, questionable water quality, and even more questionable businesses operating until the wee hours of the night.

It turns out, that image was pretty accurate. Sure, there might be corners of Pattaya that are reasonably nice (someone told me Jomtien Beach), but the main section of town where I was staying for work was exactly as I had expected it.

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The hotel I stayed in, the Hilton, was gorgeous, with an infinity pool and lounge that offers a breathtaking view of the sunset. But even up on the 29th floor with very heavy balcony doors with thick triple-pane glass, I could hear the music amplified from the surrounding entertainment venues and it didn’t take long until I had reached my fill of seeing bright red rotund foreigners accompanied by barely legal (or maybe not legal at all) tiny brown girls or boys a quarter of their age and a fifth of their size.

The work experience was lovely – a two-day leadership development workshop for a multinational company – but I am comfortable that I can check Pattaya off the “to-visit” list and add it to the “no need to return” list instead.

 

Office of Snacks

One of the things that has been a bit of a challenge working in a Thai office for my first time, is to get used to the sheer volume of snack foods that are around. Yes, I know that all offices have their share of snack foods, but it seems to reach new extremes here in Thailand.

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Conference tables are for snacks, not people.

Each business unit, department, or cluster of desks has a stash of snack foods, not including the fresh fruit and perishable snack items bought daily by my colleagues. And what makes it even worse is that most of these people are skinny to the point of looking malnourished.

After the first few weeks, I started to buck the trend and avoid the snacks. My trick is to eat a bit extra at lunch so that the munchies don’t come calling in the middle of the afternoon. But then my colleagues look at my lunch tray with two dishes on it and express dismay that I’m eating so much food!