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Monday, November 20, 2017

Top 10s

We’ve been on the road for six months now, months that have flown by and yet have been filled with experiences. We’ve shed a lot of stuff and gotten used to the idea that this is our present life. And inevitably, there are moments that stand out more than the others. We started talking about what our most memorable moments of the traveling have been—our “top 10.”

Of course, I couldn’t just pick 10. It quickly became apparent that I would use up ten slots just with eating and drinking experiences, which I’m sure is one of the deadly sins. Nevertheless, in order to accommodate some of my favorite photographs—most of which have not appeared in The Discreet Traveler before—here are two “Top 10s.”

10 most memorable occasions:

Photo: Kandoo Adventures
1. Trekking the Lemosho Route, Kilimanjaro, Tanzania. It has to be. Of course it didn’t turn out as I’d planned, and I still go over those days and moments in my mind, wondering if I went too fast or started out wearing too many layers…Nevertheless, it was unforgettable from beginning to end, and I’m so glad I did it. This picture is from day 4, when Claire and I were setting the pace, and therefore still having fun. 

Scrubbing Grandma in the river
2. Karen Elephant Experience, Banpakangdoi, Thailand. I’m not sure what more I can say about Elephant Nature Park and this project they do with a Karen tribal village near Chiang Mai. It was just an amazing day of feeding, walking and bathing with elephants. I hope I never forget the feel of an elephant’s skin, especially rubbing mud on it!

3. Tengeru Cultural Experience, Arusha, Tanzania. The most unforgettable moments of this very worthwhile outing were when local Meru kids came out and talked and clowned around with us. It was all unstaged—they were just neighborhood kids who saw us pass by. And, they gave me one of my favorite pictures, possibly ever.

With our guide Sereu

4. Beaches. Okay, some of this has just been fun. We’ve hit beaches of various kinds in Donegal, Ireland (brrr!); Mimizan and Cagnes-sur-Mer, France; Bakio and Barcelona, Spain; Cape Town, South Africa; and of course, Mauritius. This picture was at Île aux Benitiers, where we went on a particularly memorable day, following…

5. Swimming with dolphins, Tamarind Bay, Mauritius. There are no dolphins in this picture but it wasn’t about photographing the dolphins for me; it was the experience. And that was made possible by T’s sister and brother-in-law, who at the very least, deserve this spot in the top 5.

6. Hiking with T. One of the unexpected pleasures of these travels has been how much hiking we’ve done together: at Glendalough and Diamond Hill in Ireland (pictured), the Cinque Terre in Italy, Šmarna Gora in Slovenia, Lion’s Head in South Africa, Black River Peak in Mauritius, and Doi Inthanon in Thailand. T. was never into hiking and, I thought, was only accompanying me so I could train for Kilimanjaro without hiking on my own. She tells me that the viewpoint above Nong Khiaw, Laos will be the last mountain we climb together, as it nearly killed her. We shall see.

7. Biking in Ayuthaya, Thailand. If T’s hiking surprised me, my getting on a bicycle apparently surprised her. It’s supposed to be the best way of getting around the ruins of Ayuthaya’s many ancient temples, and it is. We wouldn’t have visited as many without the bikes and it wouldn’t have been as much fun. I wouldn’t say it was a unique experience because I’d do it again. Not in a city, though.

8. Township tour, Imizamo Yethu, Cape Town, South Africa. Not the most fun or comfortable outing, but a real highlight of our time in Cape  Town. Most black South Africans still live in these circumstances and it was good to meet some of them, as well as learn some of what’s being done to improve things.
With our guide Kenny Tokwe
Melaji's brother finally makes himself useful.
9. Being searched by soldiers, Monduli, Tanzania. Most of our day with Melaji (and his brother, whose unexplained presence kept us crammed with Melaji in the backseat all day) was the opposite of what we’d expected—an undriveable road, hardly any hiking, no visit to his village—but this really took the cake. Because we’d passed Tanzania Military Academy on the way, we knew that was who was doing the checkpoint on the way back, and so we concluded that it must have been some kind of military exercise. No one told us that, though. All I knew was that Tanzanian soldiers made us all get out of the car and walk separately, at gunpoint, into the bushes, where we were told to empty our pockets. The Maasai guys got grilled about their knives, and T. and I were frisked by female soldiers. Not being able to talk to anyone I knew, knowing the woman behind had a gun pointed at me and was shouting at me to move, was not an experience I am soon to forget, although I remember feeling quite calm at the time. I just kept saying “Okay” which I hoped would be okay. I don’t have a picture of this, for obvious reasons.

10. Slow boat down the Mekong River, Laos. I haven’t had a chance to write up Laos yet but this was something I’d really recommend. We spent two days aboard the slow boat (with an overnight stop in the village of Pak Beng) and it was like going back in time. Not in the sense that the boat was uncomfortable, which it remarkably wasn’t, but because it appeared to be full of hippies of all ages. With all the long hair and card playing going on, we could have been back in the 1970s, which is quite evocative in southeast Asia. By the second afternoon our American acquaintance from the last post got out his harmonica and was playing us down the river. One of the young women got up and danced, and the character I will call Apostle-looking Guy clapped from his seat on the window ledge. I bet the American had dreamed of doing this for forty years.

Now the food and drink top 10, in reverse order: 

10. The cocktails at Be Cosy, Trou aux Biches, Mauritius. Partly because they had the only good margarita I’ve found outside Greater Mexico; partly because of the pina coladas (the last time I had one of those was when my Puerto Rican co-worker, Dalia, made her own recipe for a staff holiday party). But mostly because they had a swim-up bar.

9. Koaleng boat noodles, Chiang Mai, Thailand. There have been a lot of noodles in Asia and I’m sure there are a lot more to come, but it is possible to have bad and mediocre noodle soups. Not here, though. They only do six dishes: soup with noodles or with rice, and with chicken, beef, or pork. Simple. They know what they’re doing and we ate there every hot lunch we had. 
Chicken or beef? Note my iced coffee, the best drink in Thailand.
8. Soup, Kilimanjaro National Park, Tanzania. Every day of our trek, every hot lunch and supper, we started the meal with soup. It didn’t matter what kind it was or what kind Innocent, our waiter, called it, we ate bowlfuls until it was all gone, even if it meant we couldn’t finish the rest of the food. Chef David wanted to warm and hydrate us and we cheered when he did. Ask anyone on my team: soup was what we looked forward to most. (After all, they don’t have beer on the mountain.)

I don't have a picture of soup on the mountain, so here are tapas at El Tigre in Madrid--the best deal in all of Spain.
7. Baguettes, from France to Laos. Is there anything better than fresh French bread? Well, I’m sure there is, but it was ubiquitous in France so we could never be hungry. And I was glad to see it again in Mauritius and in what used to be French Indochina. Just wish they sold it out of street corner machines here.

Here I am drinking a mango lassi. 
6. Indian food. Indian restaurants aren’t found in quite as many places as Chinese restaurants, but they are in most countries we’ve visited and make a welcome change. Here in Southeast Asia, Indian restaurateurs tend to be Muslim, so no alcohol (and of course, no pork). The samosas and rotis in Mauritius made a wonderful cheap lunch. But this picture is from the curiously named Milan Indian restaurant in Moshi, Tanzania. All vegetarian, and really good. 

5. Shiraz, Cape Town, South Africa. I love shiraz and South Africa was really the last place I drank wine instead of beer. Why wouldn’t you? If it’s not too hot to drink red wine, there’s nothing better than a South African shiraz.

4. Everything we ate at our cousins’, Liguria, Italy. Every day at Gianmarco and Fiona’s we had something amazing and homemade. I’ve never had anything like Gianmarco’s seafood pasta, and it didn't last long enough for me to take a picture. So here’s one of me in Grinzing, Austria drinking white wine, which we also did a lot.

3. Wenceslas sausage, Prague, Czech Republic. I don’t know what the other types of sausages sold at street stands taste like because I never tried them. This one was the most delicious thing I’d tasted on all our travels. Or at least so I told T., every day we were in Prague and I ate another one.

2. Le Petit Verdot, Aix-en-Provence, France. For us, this qualified as a splurge, but it wasn't fine dining. They serve hearty Provençal fare here, along with wine so good even T. had a glass. We both had the slow-cooked lamb with mashed potatoes and vegetables. Really, this is one of the best restaurant meals I’ve ever had. Still thinking about it now.

1. Peach ice cream, Cacao, Ljubljana, Slovenia. I never knew this before but apparently Ljubljana claims to be ice cream capital of the world. I can tell you that the white peach flavor at Cacao is the closest thing I’ve ever had to the peach ice cream in Lakeside, Ohio when I was a kid. Ice cream isn’t my favorite food, but peaches are. This was another thing I went back and ate every day.

Having hiked Šmarna Gora, looking forward to my next peach ice cream 

Thursday, November 16, 2017

The American presence in southeast Asia: Chiang Rai province

I’ve mentioned before how useful my Swiss Army knife would be on these travels, and how I didn’t bring it because I (mistakenly) thought we’d be flying with only carry-on bags. Before September 11, 2001, I carried my knife everywhere, including on flights. I used it to open packages of peanuts. It’s been a pain not to be able to travel with it, but that’s the tradeoff for not getting hijacked by men with blades. You know?

Anyway, back to Thailand. The Western and in particular U.S. presence is becoming more obvious every town we stop in on this backpacker trail. In fact, for all the monks we see everywhere, the only Buddhist nun I’ve seen was an older white woman—bald of course. The main Americans who’ve been in our lives in recent days, though, are an unforgettable foursome, only two of whom are originally from the U.S.A.

We first encountered them in Chiang Rai, the delightful town in northeast Thailand where we based ourselves for a few days. On our last night, we stopped off for a “cock tail,” as the quiet bar called it, and a dose of ’70s music, which seems constant in these places. That’s when an American accent started cutting through like a piece of glass.

“Where are you all from?” T. asked gamely. One of the men is originally from Ireland (his mother back in Kildare is 96, so there’s an idea of how old he is), and his partner is a friendly woman from Spain. The other couple is originally from Illinois. I cannot describe the man’s accent and voice except with the cutting-like-glass image. I don’t think he means for everyone in a restaurant to have to hear him hold forth.

The same thing happened in a consulate where we were applying for visas, and a loud, perhaps hard-of-hearing North American man broke everyone’s concentration with his requests: could the officer look something up on her computer; could she verify whether their visas were approved immediately—none of which is how things work in this part of the world. But I’m getting ahead of myself. 

We ran into our four new friends again at the border with Laos. And when we were getting our tuk-tuk to the boat dock the next morning, the driver said “Four more people,” and we just knew it was going to be these four, and all of their luggage. Or rather, not all. The Spanish-American woman assured us that they’d left their luggage back at the hotel in Chiang Rai—these were only their bags for the boat journey! They had hard-sided cases, more weight than what we’re carrying for two years. The Irish-American man was friendly as could be, but also a living stereotype: he’s lived in the U.S. for 50 years but wore a different Ireland shirt every day, voted for the current president (I didn’t ask), and, when we had some down time later, pulled out and commenced to read a thick green book about the I.R.A.

But as I said, these were friendly folks. The last time I saw them, the American couple was tootling along our road on rented bicycles, despite being the age they are and her having a problem walking. “Maybe it’s more comfortable for her to cycle,” T. said. You’ve got to hand it to them!

Back in Chiang Rai, I’d discovered my lychee wine from the Hmong women didn’t have an actual cork after all, so I didn’t need a corkscrew. Once again, I’ve managed without my Swiss Army knife.

We really liked Chiang Rai. It was another of those places where we felt reluctant to leave, even though we felt the same way once we got to the next place. We called in for lunch at a little place that had no sign in Roman script. I should have known something about it from the logo, though.

“Can I have a Coke, please?” T. asked. After a moment, the waitress explained that the issue wasn’t her English, but that they only serve Pepsi! Welcome to the so-called Third World.

We had good food from the Saturday night walking street, too, and the next day was Sunday. Just for a change, we stopped by the First Church as they were having services.
First Church of Chiang Rai, 1914. Sunday morning services are now held in a larger building next door.
I recognized the hymns, including “Fairest Lord Jesus,” from my church growing up, even though the words were all in Thai. Following along in English in the bulletin, I was fine until we got to communion. There’s always that moment in an unfamiliar church when I do something slightly wrong at communion. Fortunately, the fact that it was grape juice rather than wine (and the warm welcome from congregants) made me feel more or less at home. 

Our next stop was the Hill Tribe Museum, run by a nonprofit to educate about the Karen, Hmong, Akha, and other tribal peoples of the region. It’s a little dated (they still have displays about Laos being filled with dollar-a-day backpackers stoned on opium for months at a time, which has been cracked down on for about 15 years). But it's sincere, and they put their money into helping the communities with things like family planning and HIV/AIDS prevention. We booked a tour of the province with them for the next day.

One of the highlights of longterm travel is always getting clothes clean, since we have so few of them. At this particular guesthouse, reception took our laundry bag, and a little while later I saw the woman down the road bike up and put it in her basket. Turns out everybody on the road has clean underwear pinned to her clothesline. 

The Population Community & Development Association (Hill Tribe Museum) representative picked us up the next morning. She was bonkers, but in a good way. Next to her and the young Swiss women who were also joining our tour, I felt hideously tall. You can imagine how I felt as the day went on and we met some members of the hill tribes.

There was a lot of driving because we had to get high into the mountains, and on the way, we passed a billboard for something called “Vaginal Tight.” “Don’t know what that’s advertising,” T. said succinctly. We were distracted by the tourist attraction that is the Golden Triangle, the former opium-growing region where Thailand, Myanmar (Burma), and Laos meet. It’s not that we’re interested in opium, which is not grown so much by the hill tribes anymore. It’s that one particular border town, Mae Sai, offers the opportunity to cross into Myanmar without the usually cumbersome process of applying for a visa in advance.

Myanmar is supposed to be a fascinating country to visit now, but it hadn’t been on our agenda. After emerging from four decades of brutal military dictatorship, the country had such hopes with the election victory of the National League for Democracy and its leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. Sadly, the Nobel Peace Prize winner seems less able in government than she was in opposition. While a disturbing pattern of “ethnic cleansing” [sic] goes on against the Rohingya, a Muslim minority in western Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi has taken to blaming journalists for reporting on the violence. One of my least favourite approaches is to claim that talking about a problem is the problem, rather than the problem itself.

We bought a day pass and dipped our toes into Tachileik, the town on the Myanmar side. All we did was visit the market, but we walked around and spoke to Burmese people, so I figured it was enough for me to collect another flag patch for my backpack. T. started pointing to my patches and asking salespeople where I could find one; she added a careful sewing motion, which I think is where the confusion began. Each person helpfully pointed around the corner or to the next shop in the bazaar, until we were thoroughly lost. Finally we found what we were looking for...a woman who was selling a cross-stitch set! I haven't done cross-stitch since back in Aunt Marie's time, though, so we gave up and just bought a patch back on the Thai side.
The Golden Triangle. L-R: Thailand, Myanmar, Laos
There would be three countries in twenty-four hours, but Laos can wait for another post. Our bonkers guide, who took lots of pictures of us as well as selfies, also showed me and the Swiss gals how to pray in a Buddhist temple. This one was called Wat Chedi Luang, like the one in Chiang Mai. I am beginning to think there’s something to this everything happens again and again belief.

Ban Lorcha is an Akha village, but a living one. So, while animal traps and the ceremonial village swing were demonstrated for us visitors, most of the villagers (who can afford it) now build their houses out of more fireproof materials than bamboo, and install satellite dishes. And I can’t blame them.

Akha traditionally hold animist beliefs, too, one of the least palatable of which is their attitude towards twins. This holds that only non-human animals give birth to “litters,” so the mother of multiple births (and her babies) have no future in traditional Akha life. This belief has become less common, though, as Akha have converted to other religions, whether Buddhism or Christianity. There’s a Christian church in Ban Lorcha today.

Each culture has to work out the balance of preserving precious traditions, while not at the cost of flammable houses or infanticide. Come to think of it, idolatry and child sacrifice are not unknown in the First World. But that would go back to the right to bear my Swiss Army knife.
I got an Akha bracelet, and T. got a picture with these women. Peace!

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Night train to Chiang Mai

I take back what I said about Germans being the only other backpackers talking to us. Oh sure, a German couple sat down at our table one night at a traveler-oriented restaurant (not great, but T. was suffering football withdrawal), and we talked with them for a while. For some reason T. always seems to meet Liverpool supporters. We ran into them again the next evening on the Sunday “walking street” of Chiang Mai. That’s when the whole street is pedestrianized and filled with booths, plus food vendors in the courtyards of the Buddhist temples. And they were friendly.

But nobody starts, or keeps up, a conversation like someone from the U.S.A. And travelers from the U.S., while plentiful in this part of the world, are also kind of a breed apart. As has been observed, it is highly unusual and difficult for Americans to take significant time to travel, compared with most other Western countries. So while backpacking is almost a rite of passage for many middle-class Europeans or Australasians, in order to do this type of traveling, Americans have to be more countercultural, like their hippie predecessors. 

We started talking to a couple at our guesthouse (or rather, they started talking to us). He was originally from Indiana and she from Kansas, but they looked and sounded like they’d left the Midwest long behind. They had been living in New York, but now were bound for a working holiday in Australia, to save up money for their travels in Europe. They talked of “burning their lives” back in New York, and clearly, what they’ve done is radical by U.S. standards. Of course, we thought it was great.

Then there was the day we left Chiang Mai in the morning, to get a bus to Chiang Rai. We got to the bus station in plenty of time, but the next bus with seats available didn’t leave for nearly five hours. Earlier in our travels—say Madrid—the prospect of spending all day on a three-hour bus journey would have felt like a major setback, but we’ve slowed down so much now that it didn’t faze us at all. We just settled in on a patio for an hour or two, had coffee and sandwiches, and caught up on our friends the Lawsons’ travel blog. Then we found seats back at the bus station. Trish got out the sewing kit to attach my latest country patch, Thailand, to my day pack.
No time is wasted.
Then this young foreign woman came and sat down opposite. “Do you speak English?” she said, in a voice that neither of us had difficulty hearing. I knew she was from the United States before she said so.

The next two hours passed like no time at all. I can tell you everything about this gal now, except her name: her history of sobriety; what injuries she’s had; her business that allows her to travel for weeks at a time (always a question where an American is concerned); how old her dog is; when her dad quit smoking; her dietary issues and allergies; how much her vaccinations cost. And, most relevantly, where she’s traveled and where she was going next. Chiang Rai, as it happened. We barely had to say a word, and when we did, it was just her cue to tell us another thing about her own life.

If I went on a date with someone this self-absorbed, I’d throw myself out the window; but she was the best thing that could happen to us in a bus station. God bless her, this is what you have to do if you’re traveling on your own. Americans are the best at it. The day we met the elephants, it was the solo American in our group who made us a group: she took seven disparate people and turned us into friends for the day.

We walked with them while they foraged for food.
She, and the elephants. T. has already blogged about our experience with the pioneer of ethical elephant interactions; it remains for me to add some pictures of my own. 

The encounters between large numbers of elephants and people at the Elephant Nature Park were all booked up, but this turned out to be a blessing in disguise. A small group, in a remote mountain village, meeting four elephants and their mahouts from the Karen tribe, was the kind of win-win experience I like most.
The bamboo floor took some getting used to.
Asian elephants have been used as beasts of burden for thousands of years, and these Karen people used to work in logging with the elephants. The numerous “hill tribes” of Thailand do not have Thai citizenship in most cases. The phrase “Third World” is not used much these days, but when I was growing up, we knew the Second World to be those countries aligned with the communist superpower, the U.S.S.R. You might say the hill tribes are almost Fourth World people, belonging neither to the developing nation in which they live, nor to the First World.

So they have enough problems, and now logging is outlawed in Thailand. This is doubtless good for the environment and for sustaining people’s future, and I’m sure the elephants don't miss logging; but it did throw their mahouts out of work. Many of them took to using their elephants in tourist interactions such as riding, shows, and street begging. These are at least as painful and unnatural for the elephants as logging was. Fortunately, Elephant Nature Park and its imitators are recruiting mahouts to turn to ethical elephant encounters instead.
We appreciated the traditional Karen tribal clothing.

Especially in the mud bath!
It made us feel good, because we weren’t contributing to the problem. The Karen are making money from their elephants again, and the elephants’ lives are free from abuse. Doesn’t get much better than that. Plus, it was amazing!
Grandma elephant at bath time

We had reached Chiang Mai aboard the overnight train, “old Number 9” as Libba Cotten sang in “Freight Train.” I was still feeling the effects of a second day on a bicycle, rented from the guy who called me “K-now-les.” The announcements aboard the train were in Thai, English, French, and a fourth language which I guessed was Chinese. Clearly, we weren’t the only foreigners aboard Train #9 (our German friends were with us too).

If we hadn’t already known we were backpackers, our simplified expectations for guesthouses should have made it clear. A shower hanging off the bathroom wall, nothing separating the shower from the toilet area? No problem. When our guesthouse in Ayuthaya offered a shower before we boarded the overnight train, T. was all ready to climb under a tree in the backyard—we were pleasantly surprised to find it was a room!

Smile House, Chiang Mai
Our guesthouse in Chiang Mai was supposed to have once been a safe house for Khun Sa, infamous opium lord of the Golden Triangle. I don’t know about that, but it was a very relaxed place to hang out, swim, talk to Americans, etc.  And, I finally had a chance to try boat noodles, the rich broth-based dish invented in Ayuthaya, at a no-frills place down the street. The guy in front sat on an overturned boat stirring a big pot, and we were the only foreigners. Boat noodles and an iced coffee for 85 baht. We ate there every lunch we were in town.

Chiang Mai was so relaxing after Bangkok, and inertia set in. I just wanted to stay and wander around the old city, where we were staying. We did manage to leave the city gate and cross the Nawarat Bridge, where we found this striking building from the era of teak logging.

This is First Church, founded by the Laos Mission from North Carolina in 1868. We visited on a Sunday, but as it’s now used as the Chiang Mai Christian School, there were no services.

This being Thailand, we had to tour some temples also. One of the most interesting experiences was actually outside Was Chedi Luang, where some schoolgirls asked if we would speak with them on video. It was a project for their English class. They talked to us for so long they almost could have been Americans (their English was very good too)!
Most of the elephants at the base of the tall ruined pagoda are reconstructions, but this one is original.
After all this, we were ready for a rot daang (red truck) ride back to our safe house. The rot daang is just what it says, a pickup truck with a cover and facing bench seats put in the back. It passes for a taxi or dalla dalla in most of Thailand. We were also ready for a beer, but 7-Eleven, which is almost literally on every corner, doesn’t sell booze between 2:00 and 5:00 P.M. (or lots of other times). Before I got to Thailand I’d heard rumors to the effect the country was a sleazy free-for-all, but I sure got the opposite impression on the ground!

We continued our hit-and-miss with Thai food—some hot and delicious, some cold and/or completely unappetizing. For a change, we tried a Burmese restaurant one night. Everything there was delicious, but unfortunately, I can’t remember what any of it was called.

Nothing could compare to our day in Karen garb being followed down a river path by elephants. However, we did make it to Doi Inthanon National Park, which is the highest mountain in Thailand. It felt a bit like cheating to reach the summit of Doi Inthanon, since it was accessible by minibus! But we did hike down from it, to the Pha Dok Siao waterfall and through terraced rice fields. Our guide, and the village of Mae Klang Luang, belonged to another Karen tribe.
The view from the king and queen's pagodas is better than from the summit itself.

Pha Dak Siao waterfall, Mae Klang Luang hiking trail
These particular folks, who are Roman Catholic, grow and sell coffee. Like many people in the “Golden Triangle” where Thailand meets Myanmar (Burma) and Laos, they used to grow opium. Nowadays the illicit production of opium has shifted to Afghanistan, and the good people of Mae Klang Luang are producing a more acceptable addictive drug. (Delicious, by the way.) 

We also visited a market run by Hmong women. The Hmong are another hill tribe, with a reputation in Thailand for being good at business (their reputation in neighboring Laos is somewhat different, as we shall discover). Several samples in I was talked into buying a bottle of lychee wine, only to realize that I had no corkscrew. This not being Europe, I can’t find one, either. I knew I should have packed that damn Swiss Army knife.

We were going to leave Chiang Mai on the 3rd of November, until our ever-helpful American from elephant day told us the Loy Krathong and Yee Peng festivals were about to begin. These festivals mark the full moon of the last lunar month, so the date is only nailed down one month in advance. Loy Krathong involves floating lanterns made out of flowers down the river, while Yee Peng involves the more dubious practice of releasing paper lanterns into the sky. Both, as far as I understand, represent letting go of negative things at the end of the year.

It’s a marker of how different things are here that no one thinks anything of letting thousands of people float lit candles off into the air. Sure, what could go wrong? We opted to float a krathong down the river and not participate in Flaming Litterfest.
Only sign of the fire department

I often think, if the attitude towards safety in Africa or Asia was averaged together with what now prevails in our home countries, we might achieve some happy medium. Like my childhood, which was a little bit dangerous, but not filled with fear of everything that might possibly happen. Then again, back then we genuinely thought a dolphin show was about the intelligence of the animals, and rode elephants without thinking we were doing any harm. 

People learn to do better. Maybe there is hope for humans and the species with which we share this earth.
Me and Mae-Yung

Monday, October 30, 2017

Individual style: Ayuthaya, Thailand

Kinds of transportation we’ve taken in Thailand since the airplane: Metered taxi, subway, elevated train, tuk-tuk (a 3-wheeled golf cart that passes for a taxi in most places), Chao Phraya Express Boat, train, rickety ferry, and sahm-lor (a bicycle rickshaw and not designed for two passengers, but that’s another story).

And bicycles. Riding a bike is that archetypal thing one never forgets how to do, and T. knew I could ride one. She didn’t, though, expect that I would. After all, I’d never really ridden in any kind of traffic, and it had been years since I was on a bike at all.

Biking past Wat Phutthai Sawan, a still-active temple and the first built off the island
 I was glad to have surprised her. Ayuthaya, the old capital north of Bangkok, is a small city on an island, and much of it is ruins of its glory days (1300s-1700s). It’s the ideal size to pedal around on a cheap bicycle, and after Bangkok, the traffic was nothing. Other than the hour or so we kept getting stuck behind a trash truck, I quite enjoyed it.
Aboard the Chao Phraya Express Boat, Bangkok
First, though, we had to get there. Ayuthaya is up the Mae Nam Chao Phraya, the river we’d toured by cheap public boat before we left Bangkok. Sadly, there’s no reasonably quick way to get there by boat, so we took the train. Third class. Cooled by wide open windows and fans hung from the ceiling. There were still bench seats available when we boarded, chatting all the while with a young German man who was headed to Ayuthaya for the day before boarding a night train to Chiang Mai. If it weren’t for Germans, we wouldn’t have any other backpackers to talk to.
From the window of the third-class train car
And if we didn’t feel like backpackers before, we did here. Our German friend Alex was going to get a "taxi" (tuk-tuk) for his day tour, but we were staying for a few nights. So we climbed aboard the ferry and crossed the Chao Phraya to the island.

When I say “ferry,” it was more like a large covered rowboat with an outboard motor. We saw it was departing and thought we’d wait five minutes for the next one, but the no-nonsense woman driving the ferry shot back to the jetty for us, so on we teetered. Not for the first time, I was glad we had only backpacks. The real fun was on the other side of the river, when we had to balance on a rickety board bridge forming three sides of a square, before finally arriving on dry land.

Later during our stay, the bike rental woman tried to convince us that the river was too high at the end of the rainy season to take a boat or ferry on. We just laughed.

T. had booked a place to stay over the phone, with an elderly woman who, upon learning that T. is from England, said, “Your English very good!” When I say elderly, I mean way past retirement age. Our hostess had one of those papery thin voices and didn’t even attempt to come up the stairs with us. Her guesthouse is a charming old schoolhouse made of teak wood, and still looks it (desks on the landings). 

We should have known something was amiss when we first walked in and saw a huge tree lying in the front yard. One of her employees waved us away from the fallen power lines. It turned out our hostess had no electricity and no water. Before we could even hit the hammock, she got off the phone and gave us the bad news that the electricity would not be fixed that afternoon, so we had to move on. “Good luck,” she said sweetly. “Leave now!”

So off we tramped around the corner to backpacker row, and found a room at the first guesthouse we came to. So much for booking things in advance! (Later during our stay, we biked past the elderly woman’s place and everything had been cleaned up, so I’m happy to report she’s fine.)

Not long ago, no window to look out of and a showerhead just hanging off the wall next to the toilet might have put us off taking a room. Now, paying Thai prices (maybe a third of what an Airbnb in Europe cost), we just thought, Hey, it’s spotless. The grass out front is green and the people are friendly. And our instincts proved correct: the next day, while we were drinking beer on the terrace, a shiny car from Bangkok pulled up, and an important-looking couple got out. They looked familiar (from formal portraits framed in the lobby, as it turned out). They were the owners, and used to seeing scruffy people hanging out in front of their house, as they chatted with us in a very friendly manner.

By the way, floors are spick and span because people take their shoes off everywhere. I haven’t gone barefoot this much since I grew up in Tennessee.

As in many other parts of the world, in Thailand motorcycles aren’t a statement but a way of getting around. Two Muslim women showing only their faces came by on a scooter, followed by two schoolgirls in uniform, followed by a whole family—dad, little girl, and mom—all under the same rain poncho. Did I mention it was pouring at the time? I was observing all this from a shelter while I waited for the rain to stop, since foolishly I’d set foot outside without my raincoat. Like almost everyone else I’d seen riding motorcycles in Africa or Asia, no one had helmets. 

The bike rental place did have a kind of helmet available for motorcyclists, just in case some foreigner wanted one. They weren’t like any helmets I ever saw before, but “any port in a storm” has become my favorite saying. We took two at no extra charge.

“Individual style!” the rental guy said. Meaning, he’d never seen someone on a bicycle wear a helmet before. Never mind; they coordinated with our outfits.

We saw a lot more birds in Ayuthaya than in Bangkok, where all I heard was a rooster along the canal. We also visited a lot more temples, or more accurately, ruins. During the centuries when Ayuthaya was the capital of Siam, its many temples and palaces glittered from afar, and merchants from around the world came to admire and trade. Some of them stayed.

In European history, the 14th to 18th centuries aren’t renowned as a time when religious difference was tolerated. I could think of many examples of Catholic kingdoms where Protestants were persecuted and vice versa, not to mention the many religious minorities who fled to America and other places. In Ayuthaya, however, it seems that there was space for different cultural groups to coexist. Peoples such as Lao and Khmer settled among the locals, while those from further away were given land by the king to build their own settlements.

We got directions from someone at the mosque at Friday prayer time.
Most of these settlements were across the river to the south. East of Wat Phutthai Sawan a Persian community settled, and the area is still Muslim today. St. Joseph Church was built by the French on land given to them by the king near the Christian Vietnamese settlement, and many people living in this community to this day are Catholic.
St. Joseph Church. The writing inside the church is in French.
There were also Dutch, English, Chinese, and Japanese villages, though nothing remains of most of these. Most of the Japanese people who settled in Ayuthaya were themselves Christians fleeing persecution back in Japan. I find these facts fascinating, because so often, history reads as if no one has ever gotten along. I had no idea that during the same years when Pilgrims were fleeing religious persecution in England, a Siamese king was making persecuted Christians feel at home.

The first Europeans to arrive, in Siam as in Mauritius, were from Portugal. There are still traces of the Portuguese settlement today, including the foundation of the first church in all of Thailand. St. Dominic was built in 1540 and we could still see this fascinating feature: a Thai-style spirit house, only with figures of saints inside. Two of them are St. Joseph and St. Paul. I’m not sure what Paul would make of this syncretism, but then, I’m not Catholic.

Both on and off the island, Ayuthaya is full of Buddhist temples, some of them still active. One of the active ones is Wihan Phra Mongkhon Bophit, which has the distinction of having been repaired with money from a Burmese government of the 1950s. You may recall that it was Burma that sacked Ayuthaya two centuries earlier, bringing its time as the Siamese capital to an end. It was nice of the prime minister to make this very belated gesture.

By far the coolest picture in Ayuthaya is at the ruins of Wat Mahathat.

All that remains of this sandstone Buddha is the head, around which have grown the entwined roots of a bodhi tree. I must admit that Shelley's "Ozymandias" went through my mind.

We were getting so confident on our bikes that we took a little detour to one more ruin, and this one didn’t even charge admission. How could it? Wat Lokayasutharam has a 42-m reclining Buddha, representing the Buddha at his death, i.e., when he passed into the state of nirvana. It was so impressive that we let some woman talk us into buying marigolds to pay tribute. The king, you know.
When I took this picture of the reclining Buddha, I didn't notice the reclining dog.
There were other women who “helped” us put our offerings in the right place and not commit faux pas. Afterwards, they showed us various amulets we could buy: one for money, one for men, and so forth. I was going to make a deal for two money ones, since I wouldn’t know what to do with a man; but I didn’t want to pay in any case.

On the actual day of the king’s cremation, we were wandering around trying to find the action, but gave up. We give up easily in the heat. That’s when the sahm-lor guy came by. We agreed that he would take us “home,” and on the price. Then he took us the complete opposite direction, to where everyone was lined up to pay their final respects to the king. We didn’t mind seeing this in fact, but when he asked for twice as much money, we decided he was crazy!

You know the joke about eating Chinese food and being hungry an hour later? It’s not a joke in Thailand. I don’t know if the portion sizes are just smaller because the people are; I always feel like I’ve had enough of Thai food, but I never stay full for very long. I have to keep going down to 7-Eleven and buying sandwiches and junk. Sometimes I even break down and order French fries. It’s a disgrace.

While I’m up eating every hour or so, I reflect on the many countries I read about on the African part of our travels. How many of them have the trappings of democracy, but supported by the military; or are “presidential republics, in practice authoritarian.” It’s a reminder how fragile democracy can be. I was obviously raised to believe, and always have believed, that the best form of government is to let people choose their own representatives. Lately, though, I’ve been wondering…
Wat Phra Si Sanphet. Monks in orange and everybody else in black