Tag Archives: tourism

Food Party, Luang Prabang Style

At some time or another, pretty much everyone who travels in SE Asia takes a cooking class. Our hotel in Chiang Mai, for example, had brochures for no less than 10 culinary outlets, each offering the same basic itinerary: choose 2-3 dishes you would like to make, visit a local market to learn about various ingredients, and then return to the kitchen — sometimes at a restaurant, sometimes at an organic farm, sometimes in a pavilion overlooking a river — to learn how to make your chosen dishes. And then you EAT them!

We ended up taking our cooking class at Tum Tum Cheng, a restaurant in Luang Prabang that specializes in traditional Lao cuisine. For a while, it looked like it wouldn't happen because I was the only person signed up and they won't hold a class unless there are at least two students. Luckily for me, however, Tim was game enough to sign up too, even though he was ambivalent about the whole cooking class idea.

Our morning began with an a cup of coffee and a list of dishes to select from. If there had been more students, we could have chosen three dishes to make, but since it was just the two of us, we were allowed to choose just two. I chose two very traditional Lao dishes, Ho Mok Kai (steamed chicken wrapped in banan leaf) and Aw Lam (Luang Prabang beef stew.) Tim chose Nem Juen (fried spring rolls) and Kai Kua Sai Si Kai (lemongrass chicken). Chef Linda, the instructor for what amounted to a private class, complimented our choices and then sent us off to the Phosi Market, accompanied by a team of expert shoppers and our own personal tour guide (whose name I have since forgotten).

The Phosi market was a quintessential locals' market, selling everything from shoes to blankets, hardware to cookware, fresh vegetables to pickled crabs. Our guide walked us through the maze of stalls, occasionally stopping to identify various ingredients or to offer us a chance to sample some of the wares.

These are banana flowers.

Dried chilies, chili powder, and a variety of dried fish parts.

Small eggplants, about the size of a tomato. Not to be confused with what the Lao call baby eggplant which are bright green, a little bigger than a sweet pea, and both hard and bitter.

Stainless steel steamer pots. Along with a woven bamboo basket which fits on top, these are the most basic and vital cooking implements in the Lao kitchen. Without them, it would be impossible to cook sticky rice, the foundation of any Lao meal. It is impossible to underplay the importance of sticky rice to Lao culture. Lao for “breakfast,” for example, is “khao sao” which means, literally, “morning rice.” When the monks gather in the morning to beg alms from Luang Prabang's residents, they are given morsels of sticky rice. If you pay close attention while walking around LP, you will notice balls of this rice placed on the roots of especially old or beautiful trees or in front of statues of the Buddha or in the mouths of the sculpted nagas that guard the temples.

Rice noodles.

This is curdled blood, a very traditional Lao ingredient, but one that was thankfully absent from our cooking class.

These are not French Fries. These are cut up pieces of water buffalo fat. To prepare them for eating, they are either soaked in water until soft and then cooked, or simply deep fried. The smell is an unimaginably gamy combination of leather, meat, and feet.

Catfish, probably caught in either the Mekong or the Nam Khan.

This is Sakhan, aka chili wood, another traditional Lao ingredient. A vine that grows in the jungle, this wood provides a peppery, smoky and slightly sweet note to a variety of dishes (including the Aw Lam that I chose to make.)

A variety of fresh greens, some familiar — cilantro, basil, spinach — and some untranslatable. The recipe for Aw Lam, for example, calls for 1 handful of local edible leaves. These are usually wild-foraged in the jungle.

 

Not only are these markets places to buy your daily necessities, they are social centers for the local community. The sounds of laughter, gossip, yelling, and conversation fill the air. As Tim and I passed, enormous and clumsy falang that we are, the vendors would often stare, comment to each other, and smile conspiratorially.

Wen we got back to Tum Tum Cheng, Chef Linda gave us a quick rundown of the staple ingredients that form the foundation of Lao cuisine: galangal, lemongrass, ginger, spring onions, and of course, sticky rice. She also taught us how to make a rose-like garnish using a tomato peel and a carefully sliced cucumber.

We then ventured into the kitchen area where we learned how to make our dishes. In all fairness, it should be said that we did not prepare these dishes from start to finish. Rather, the restaurant's team of sous chefs did all the preparatory work — washing, slicing, chopping, and organizing the ingredients — and we simply assembled, mixed, and stirred.

This is the Ho Mok Kai. It was extremely aromatic, providing a complex layering of flavors and textures within a custard-like suspension.

The Kai Kua Sai Si Kai and Aw Lam. The chicken, according to Tim, was “infused with lemongrass flavor…delicious, moist and succulent.” The beef stew — thickened with mashed eggplant and roasted sticky rice and flavored with chili wood and local greens — tasted both unfamiliar and yummy.

Fried spring rolls wrapped in rice paper. OMG!

And of course, the sticky rice. The cooking method for Khao Neow is unlike any rice preparation that I've seen. The rice is washed, soaked overnight, and then washed until the water runs clear. The drained rice is them placed in a bamboo basket and steamed. After 20 minutes, the rice is flipped over and then returned to steam for another 10 minutes. After it has been cooked, the rice is placed on a damp wooden tray and gently folded to let the heat dissapate. Afterwards, the rice is placed in a traditional basket and served alongside the other dishes.

The Lao meal is communal and all the dishes are served simultaneously. Older people serve themselves first, but once they touch the sticky rice, everyone else can begin eating too!

Chef Timmy!

Iron Monkey Chef Fil!

I will admit that when I was first informed that we could choose only two dishes to make, I was a bit salty. I wanted to learn how to cook three dishes! Three! But after eating the meal we prepared, including a dessert of bananas and pineapples carmelized with powdered sesame seed, I realized the wisdom behind Chef Linda's decision. This was an ungodly amount of food. When we got back to our guesthouse, I literally passed out from overeating. Tim remained ambulatory and took himself for a walk while I slept.

When I awoke and Tim returned, we headed to Wat Sop to help with Sayfohn's English class. And then we took Sayfohn out to dinner at a hotpot restaurant on the banks of the Nam Khan. We ate chicken and beef and pork and shrimp and squid and egg and all manner of greens and sprouts and veggies, barbecued and/or boiled at our table. By the time we were done, Tim was woozy with food. We thanked, hugged, and then parted ways with Sayfohn and then we headed back to our guesthouse.

But I wasn't done yet. While Tim stumbled back to the room, I walked to the nearest crepe stand and ordered a banana and Nutella crepe. And then I ate it. And it was GOOD!

 

Welcome to Laos, PDR!

 

After a couple of practical and not particularly noteworthy days in Chiang Mai, we left the relative comfort and familiarity of Thailand. On February 25, 2013, we entered the People's Democratic Republic of Laos, the first communist country either of us have ever been to. The visa-upon-arrival process was relatively easy, but no less confusing because of it. We each had two passport photos, $US35.00 and two forms that we had filled out while waiting at the Chiang Mai airport — one a visa application, the other a customs form. Beyond this, all that was required was an additional $US1.00, patience, and the willingness to smile and shrug when being confronted with scowls and military uniforms. Everyone on our flight — including a foursome of middle-aged Aussie girlfriends, a beer-happy Spanish couple traveling with one of their mothers, several pairs of Germans wearing beige traveling get-ups, one of the ubiquitous couplings of old-white-dude and much-younger-Asian-woman, and an American who insisted upon complaining about the fact that the visa fee charged to Americans was a whole $5.00 more than that charged to Europeans — was admitted.

The currency in Laos is the Kip. One US dollar is equivalent to about 7,888.77 Kip. The old white dude traveling with the much younger Asian woman apparently did not realize that crossing a border into another country might entail the use of an entirely different currency. I guess that's what happens when you become part of the Euro Zone. When the woman manning the taxi stand portion of the airport's welcome desk informed him that it would cost K50,000 to have an air-conditioned van drive he and his companion to their hotel in the center of Luang Prabang, he went on for several minutes, throwing his hands around and sputtering something about “zee Internet.” When his tirade was met with blank stares and a half-smirk, he repeated with greater volume, “ZEE INTERNET!”

The Lao welcoming committee stared pointedly at his companion, who attempted to explain the whole Lao Kip v. Thai Baht thing. English, the first language of neither half of this couple, was an unwieldy tool with which to pry open this dude's brain. Eventually he got it and then spent the next minute trying to apologize and explain away his ignorance. The Lao welcoming committee returned an expression that seemed to say, “you have made us all lose face and we are not amused.”

I understand that Laos is becoming a much more open society, and that tourism is growing in leaps and bounds. Still, it seems to me unwise to antagonize the people who greet you upon arrival.

Me, I was raised right by my Filipino parents, and so I was respectful and raised no stink at all, even when our guesthouse's promised “airport transfer” turned out to be the same K50,000 taxi trip that everyone else had been using. My inner brat wanted to wave my hands about while exclaiming “zee Internet! Zee INTERNET!” but I was wise enough to realize that such antics were likely to be unwelcome. I guess that's what turning 42 gets you! We simply paid the woman, received a slip of paper which we then handed to a waiting driver, and got into the next silver mini-van waiting by the curb.

One of the first questions that one gets asked in Laos is, “Where are you from?” That is the first thing the taxi driver asked us and when we answered “America,” he gave us a big smile and said, “Dollar! Very good!” Many Americans might attempt to argue this point, but when $1.33 can buy you a heaping plate of home cooked Lao cuisine, such behavior borders on downright offensive. Not that being offensive seems to trouble most of the falang visiting Laos, but as I said, I was raised right by Filipino parents. And so I nodded and agreed and gamely took the taxi driver's “card” — a scrap of paper with his name and number written on it — in case we decided to go to the waterfalls outside of Luang Prabang.

We arrived in central LP just as the heat and glare of the afternoon were softening into evening. Smoke from nearby slash and burn agriculture spread a diffuse golden light and as we wound our way through Luang Prabang's outer neighborhoods towards its historic center (and UNESCO World Heritage Site), a happy exhaustion spread over me. Traveling to unfamiliar places, immersed in languages that are beyond your capacity to hear or speak, navigating arcane procedures; it's an exhausting affair. Everything we had done that day — from negotiating with a tuk tuk driver to get a reasonable fare to Chiang Mai's airport to checking into our flight on Lao Air to entering a communist country to getting local currency from a bright red ATM to figuring out where our guesthouse was — had required all of our attention and all of our vigilance. We had done it all without a hitch, but my brain was pretty much fried.

By the time we arrived at the Sieng Khaen Lao Guesthouse and were shown to our boxy first floor room, it was all I could do to keep my eyes open. Tim turned on the air conditioner, I lay down on the utilitarian mattress and fell instantly asleep.

I woke up just as the sun was setting. Luang Prabang has a 12:00am curfew, so it was either get up and get out or surrender to sleep and start over in the morning. Not wanting to spend my first night in this famously beautiful town in the company of a disgruntled New Englander and a television, I pulled myself together, completed my first costume change, and stumbled out into the shady warmth of dusk.

Much has been made of Luang Prabang's charm. I will not offer any contradictions. It is a beautiful little city, still carrying the stains of French Colonialism with a strange sort of pride. Its historic district extends into a peninsula flanked on one side by the storied Nam Mekong, and on the other by the smaller Nam Khan. Despite the droves of (mostly French) tourists and the bustle of the nightly handicrafts market, the city has a languid, relaxed air that is best experienced leisurely and on foot. That first night we wandered all the way from our guesthouse, along the banks of the Mekong, almost to the very end of land. There, we happened across a Wat, one of the most important and most famous monastaries in Laos, Wat Xieng Thong.

As we wandered the grounds of this lovely temple, a young man approached us and said, in a sweetly accented English, “There will be a candlelight procession later on. If you like, you can stay and participate.” Whatever friendliness Tim and I had experienced in Thailand, we had never been approached by a complete stranger unless some sort of monetary exchange was expected, so we hung back a bit, waiting for the sales pitch. There was none. Instead, under the full moon and in the sultry night air, the young man told us about the history of the temple, helped us grasp some of the basics of the Lao language, and explained how he had come to speak English (and French and German and Korean) so well.

This was how we met our friend Syfohn. “Sounds like cellphone!” he said cheerily as we introduced ourselves. We chatted with him for an hour and a half, while the temple grounds slowly began to fill with both locals and tourists. At one point a trio of novices approached him, their orange robes muted in the darkness, and asked him an undecipherable question. “Candlelight procession,” he replied carefully. “Candlelight procession,” the monks repeated.

“They are my students,” he explained. “I teach an English class at a monastery school.” He paused and then added, “perhaps, if you have time, you would like to come to a class and help. You are native speakers, and it is very helpful to hear native speakers.” His English was careful and deliberate and very charming. Even if we had wanted to, there was no possible way we could refuse.

And so this was our welcome to Laos. Bureaucracy, exhaustion, beauty and kindness. We hung out with Sayfohn for the rest of the evening, until he had to go to what I believe is his third job, that of a security guard at a hotel. The monks held a service in the ornate temple, the sound of chanting spilling out into the night air while tourists gawped and peeked through doorways. The three of us sat on the pavement outside, nibbled by ants and mosquitos, chatting quietly. Local children ran and laughed, giving a happy, festival edge to the night. After a while, the energy within the temple loosened and released. Perhaps twenty monks, each of them lit by glowing candle flame, emerged into the courtyard. The people who had been waiting there gathered up their offerings — various flowers as well as complex forms made of folded banana leaves and marigolds — and lit incense and candles. Sayfohn dismantled his fistful of devotions and gave us each a stick of incense and a flower. Then, barefoot, we were caught up in the gentle flow. Led by an orange blaze of monks, we circled the temple three times.

After the third circuit, people made their way to a trio of chedi, where they knelt, offered prayers and sent their wishes out into the universe. For a while, the three of us were silent, stilled by immediacy. Then, we put on our shoes and began walking through Luang Prabang's historic streets, as closely and as casually bound as three childhood friends. Sayfohn was separated from us by age, culture, history, geography, economy, and language. And yet somehow, as easy and courageous as a smile, he had reached across those distances and transformed us from falang into friends. Sayfohn, if you are reading this, thank you once again. You are a hero to me.

On our walk, Sayfohn pointed out Wat Sop Sickharam, the temple where he held his nightly English classes. We made our promises to meet him there in a couple of days and said our goodbyes.

I started off this post by making fun of the older-French-dude-with-younger-Asian-girlfriend for not realizing that the unit of currency would change once he entered Laos. Bu it turned out I had made a similar mistake. Perhaps because of the short plane ride, or because of the similarities in language and food, I had believed that Laos would be just another kind of Thailand. Different in some abstract, historical and/or political way, perhaps, but not in any way that would be obvious or discernible to the senses. Cross the boundary from southern Indiana into Kentucky, for example, and you might never know the difference. A few short hours in Luang Prabang had proven me wrong. Laos feels as different from Thailand as silk does from cotton. Due in large part to Sayfohn's open heart, I felt welcomed and at home in Laos in a way that I had not experienced in all of my time in Thailand. It was surprising and lovely and I was eager for more.

I could not have known it at the time, but Laos had even greater surprises — both weird and wonderful — waiting just around the corner.

 

Wat Phrathat Doi Sutep

Another day, another temple. The famous, the legendary Wat Phrathat Doi Sutep. Set high in the mountains outside of Chiang Mai, this is another of the must-sees that is listed in pretty much every single guidebook and/or website devotes to things Chiang Mai. Apparently, this location was chosen by a white elephant who was carrying a relic of the Buddha. He wandered around a bit, climbed a mountain, found a spot where he trumpeted three times and then died. And so, King Na Nuone, leader of the Lanna empire and one who could recognize a sign when he saw one, built Wat Prathat Doi Sutep on the site of the white elephant's death.

Getting to this temple nowadays is a bit of a process, but at least does not involve killing white elephants. We caught a tuk tuk from our hotel out to the University area and then from there, we sat at a songthaew stand, waiting for a full complement of riders. Once our group assembled — a Japanese family of three, a Thai couple, a pair of gays (one of which was wearing the best t-shirt I've seen in Thailand; multicolored appliqué letters spelling out “SUPER LADY BOY”), a young woman from Germany traveling solo, Tim, and yours truly — we loaded up and wound our way up the flanks of Doi Suthep. For the first time since landing in Bangkok, we cleared the layer of haze and/or smog that has followed is everywhere, and saw a blue(ish) sky!

The scene that greeted us at the foot of the temple complex was part Disneyland, part Chatuchak. Stalls selling everything from Buddhist tchotchkes to roasted chestnuts, watermelon slices to hill tribe clothing, lined the four lane road leading past Wat Prathat Doi Sutep and on to the highest point of the mountain, Doi Pui. Hordes of tourists were congregating around three points: the base of a giant golden statue of Sumanathera (the monk whose dream started off the whole Buddha's relic/white elephant adventure), the aforementioned market, and a ticket booth selling combined admission to the temple and a ride in funicular rail car, thus bypassing the naga-lined stairwell. The Japanese family headed to the market. The ladyboys hurried to the tram building.

Tim and I made for Sumanathera and then climbed the 309 steps leading to the entrance to Wat Prathat Doi Sutep.

Inside this temple was everything. When I say everything, I mean everything.

A burning Ganesh.

Bugs.

Big tacky billboards featuring the King of Thailand.
Ladyboys.
Pretty flowers.
Fresh squeezed orange juice.
Beautiful views of the rainforest.
Weird, kitschy sculptures.
The mess and clutter of everyday life.
Fruit that looks like testicles.
Tourists. DUH.
Beautiful Buddhist forms.
Shopping carts parked in unexpected corners.
Flip flops with the word “SPERM” embossed into their foot beds.

I guess that's one of the things I find interesting about Buddhism. There is room for everything. It's not about denying your body, or the griminess of earthly existence, it's not about attempting to be pristine or perfect. It, like the great mystical traditions, sees this human incarnation not as a punishment, but an opportunity. Yes, there is suffering, and pain, and inexplicable tragedy; there is happiness and joy and love. And when the right perspective is found, when all of these individual forms reveal their great unity, what is revealed is beauty. Everything, all together, is beautiful.

 

Wat Pra Singh

One of the most famous, most venerated and well documented wat in Chiang Mai. Also, one of the most photographed. I am pretty sure that thousands of other visitors have taken the exact same pictures you see here. Oh well, what can be done? It is truly a magnificent place and when you're there, its difficult to take the camera off of your face.

Please no comments about Asian tourists and their cameras.

Ah well. In the end, I can't help but feel that it's worth it. Even though the Internet is stuffed with images like these, these are mine. And now I share them with you.

 

In Chiang Mai, Buddhist culture has become fully manifest. These wat, even those as tourist-friendly as Wat Pra Singh and Wat Doi Sutep, are not museum displays of an historic and irrelevant philosophy attempting to withdraw from the secular world. Rather, they are vibrant, engaged, and productive. In this Wat alone, more than 700 monks are studying away, trying to bring an end to human suffering while grappling with how to address the complexities of the changing world. A nearby wat (Wat Soun Dok, which I will document later) houses the Chiang Mai branch of Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University, a public university which offers 26 undergraduate programs, 10 masters programs, and 2 doctoral programs as well as other educational offerings.

It is as intriguing to me as it is inscrutable. A part of me wishes to dive deeper, to seek out a greater understanding of this thoroughly modern aspect of Buddhism. On these campuses, young men and women in western-style uniforms mix easily with the orange, saffron and red robes worn by monks. What are the classes like; what is the curriculum? How does the holistic All-Is-One interface with the parsing, dissecting mindset of academia?

These questions, like the sound of unnamed birds and temple bells, fade into the hum of everyday life. Our time in lovely Chang Mai is short, and my attention span is even shorter. I am distracted by the smell of frying foods and by the heat, and by my attempts to untangle some meaning from the flow of Thai syllables. Peace and an integrated mind, even in the heart of Buddhist Thailand, remains elusive. Luckily for us, wonder, excitement, and a full stomach are much more accessible.

 

Views of and from the Chao Praya River

Waiting for the boat with the other farang. In the distance, Wat Arun.

Wat Arun means Temple of the Dawn. The entire spire is covered in ceramic tile that had been used as ballast and left behind.

We didn't make it to Wat Arun during our first stay, nor did we ride a longboat. Next time!

Another temple on the banks of the Chao Praya. Who can keep track?

Tim in a long-sleeve shirt on a very hot, polluted day!

Rich people stay here.

Chinese tourists on the Express boat. Most of the ferries do not have an open deck like this, so this view is relatively uncommon.

Longboats in the Bangkok haze.

These barge trains are always moving trash, dirt, sand and other things up and down the Chao Praya.

Believe it or not, people do swim in this water. These kids will survive the apocalypse.

One can only imagine what is sharing the waters with them. Garbage? Absolutely. Corpses? Maybe. Mercury? In all likelihood.

What do you think would happen if you drank this water? These kids do it. I saw them.

Standard size ferry boat.

The engines on these longboats are crazy. Half steam punk, half blade runner.

Hot, impatient, farang.

The buildings that line the Chao Praya are incredibly varied. From ramshackle stilt houses to ultra modern hotels to abandoned warehouses.

Showers? Rooms? Toilet stalls? Restaurants?

Patchwork architecture.

I am happy that gentrification has not pushed the local population from the Chao Praya.

These are the folks that work on those barge trains. It seems a romantic life somehow. We saw them sitting under a canopy sharing a pot of coffee and smoking while all of Bangkok passed before them.

Another longboat. Honestly, these guys are everywhere.

The Express Boat. Much larger, twice as expensive, includes tour guide.

Another view to Wat Arun.

 

Just Another Manic Monday

After our long, hot, and draining walkabout to Wat Pho, we opted for a much quicker route to its next door neighbors, The Grande Palace and Wat Phra Kaew, home of the Emerald Buddha. From our hotel in the Sukumvhit district, we caught the SkyTrain to Siam Station, transferred to the Talat Phiu line, disembarked at Saphan Taksin and descended to Central Pier, terminal stop of the Chao Praya Express ferry system. Needless to say, we were becoming quite comfortable with Bangkok's public transport systems.

Here is what we saw when we drew near to Central Pier: dozens and dozens of tourists. Australian, German, French, Dutch, Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Middle Eastern, American, Spanish (as well as those not immediately identifiable by language, style of dress, or accent). Red-faced, sweating, and clearly overwhelmed, they milled about like bug-eyed fish in an overpacked aquarium, trying to figure out just how this Chao Praya Express thingy actually worked. Many (yes, including yours truly) were poring over their guidebooks, studying the system of colored flags that denoted exactly which boats would make which stops. In theory, it seemed like a good system, but in practice, it is far from clear.

Travel Tip: When in doubt, get in line and hope for the best. The Thai people are famously laid back and you may be sure that no matter how badly or absurdly you might fuck up, they will do their best to set things aright without making you feel like an imbecile or a cretin.

I may spend more time writing about the Chao Praya Express at a later date. For now, suffice it to say that when you hear news stories about ferries sinking and people drowning, these are the sorts of boats to which they are referring. The Chao Praya river doesn't seem that wide, and there is no shortage of boats within hailing distance, but when you are on a creaky old thing as crowded as a rush hour train on a river as crowded as a highway, it is easy to imagine the worst.

“If the boat begins to sink,” I murmured to Tim, “swim as far as you can as fast as you can. You don't want to get pulled under when it capsizes.” This is the sort of advice that my mother loves to give.


Our ferry arrived at the Tha Chang dock without incident and we, along with our cohort of tourists, were swept out of the ramshackle building and right into a vibrant little street market. Assaulted by the sights and sounds that surrounded me — people hawking fresh coconut water, hats, fans, and of course, food of all stripes and colors — I immediately became hungry. We chose a stall, sat down, and soon enough we were eating deliciously spicy Thai food. I threw in another couple of teaspoons of chili powder just for good measure.


Travel Tip: If you are planning to blog about your time in Bangkok, invest in a thesaurus. There are only so many ways to describe heat and you are going to have to employ every single one of them. As a corollary, don't be afraid of spicy food. It may seem counterintuitive to those of you from more temperate climates, but spice really does help you deal with Bangkok Hot. The relief at comes from a pineapple smoothie ends once you finish that last sip; a hot and spicy soup, however, can take the edge off for a good long while.

Sated and then stuffed — I couldn't resist a serving of mango and sticky rice — we headed towards the Grand Palace.

Upon entering The Grande Palace grounds, you are informed that you cannot wear tank tops, sleeveless shirts, or shorts that do not cover your knees. They offer you free items of clothing if you come unprepared, but what this means is if you were hot and sweaty before you arrived at The Grande Palace, get ready to be even even hotter and sweatier. And should you have to take advantage of a free sarong or hammer pants while visiting, you are also going to look pretty ridiculous. Recap: Very hot, very sweaty, very foolish looking. Now welcome to the Royal Palace.

Travel Tip: When visiting locations and engaging in activities that the guidebooks describe as “must-see,” be prepared to surrounded by thousands and thousands of other tourists must-seeing them right up next to you. Our idyllic, genteel experience in Wat Pho lulled me into a false sense of security. I imagined the other wats would generate a similar energy; a timeless reverence, a delicious quiet, a humble devotion. Boy was I wrong.

My time at Wat Phra Kaew, was dominated by a single experience: overwhelming annoyance at my fellow tourists. They were inescapable, they were everywhere, and they were terribly obnoxious. While Tim waited in line to pay for admission, I had the pleasure of watching a British man scream at and berate his young daughter: “Immi! Imogene! Get over here NOW!” When she did not respond quickly enough, he grabbed her by her shirt and spoke through clenched teeth, “When your mother calls you, you come! Not later; NOW!”

From then on, it was an endless display of questionable behavior. Chinese tour groups hogging every single shady spot and posing for pictures as if they were at Disneyland. Australian tourists taking pictures inside the temple of the Emerald Buddha, despite a multitude of signs proclaiming such things completely inadmissable. Spanish tourists seated on the floor of this same same temple, right next to the section reserved for visiting monks, chattering away like teenagers at a food court. American tourists expressing their endless boredom and lack of curiosity, openly mocking the Thai language. German tourists bumping into everyone. Indian tourists and their screaming children. British tourists pretentiously expounding upon their extensive understanding of Buddhist thought. And on several occasions, Japanese tourists erupting into full-blown yelling matches.

Everywhere I looked I saw thoughtless, inconsiderate, entitled, irreverent and disrespectful behavior. Here, in this magnificent temple devoted to the ideals of compassion, forgiveness, and non-attachment, I was filled with nothing but judgement and disdain for my fellow man. I wondered how the monks and nuns who come here on pilgrimage perceive this ignorant throng of humanity? Do they pity us? Do they ignore us? Do they consider us brothers and sisters on the wheel of Samsara?

As we continued from Wat Phra Kaew on to the grounds of the Grande Palace, my irritation and annoyance endured. What were these people thinking? How could they behave in such thoughtless ways? I wandered in and around elaborately decorated rooms that once served the Thai royal family, regarding my fellow tourists with unbound hostility. What a pathetic bunch of idiots!



Eventually on the steps to another royal hall, we crossed paths with Imogene and her father, last seen at the admission booth several hours ago. 7 or 8 years old, she looked to be close to tears, perhaps from exhaustion, perhaps from frustration. Her father looked disheveled and sweaty, his eyes casting about as if looking for something. “Don't cry, Immi, I'm sure we'll find them soon. Maybe she's waiting for us right in here!” His optimism seemed hollow and forced. Imogene whimpered quietly and the two of them disappeared into the crowd.

We found momentary respite from the madness in the lovely Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles. Here, we learned about Her Royal Highness and the strong bond she has formed with the entire nation. We also saw some fabulous fashion and learned how silk is made. WERQ! It was air conditioned and quiet and dark and after the bright glare and suffocating haze of the Bangkok afternoon, it was just what we needed.

The Museum of Textiles was our last stop at the Grande Palace. As we made our way to the exit, we once again saw Imogene and her father. The little girl was expressionless and her father seemed close to panic. Tim and I, ever compassionate, joked that perhaps his wife had taken this opportunity to steal away from a man she no longer loved and a life that she no longer wanted. “Run!” We whispered to each other, “RUN!”

We continued on, surrounded by a train of brightly colored tourists. We turned a corner and there, standing behind a metal barricade, we saw a woman with an infant in her arms and an intent gaze on her face. She seemed to be scrutinizing every person that passed within sight. On impulse, I turned around and approached her. “Are you looking for your husband and your daughter, Imogene?” I asked. Her eyes widened with relief and she said, “yes, have you seen them?” We told her where we had seen them just a few minutes ago. She thanked us, turned, and then hurried into the oncoming crowd.

A few seconds later, I looked down and saw my talisman — the number 22 — staring back at me. I took that to mean that they had found each other.

Travel Tip: Forgive yourself, and then forgive everyone else around you. Help alleviate suffering when you can. Be kind. Love.

 

Benton Harbor, MI to Toledo, OH

 

Waiting for the Southwest Chief

the #3 southwest chief lost an engine outside of lamy, NM and was delayed for close to three hours. cold and windy though it was, Tim and I chose to wait on the platform rather than in the overcrowded waiting room. eventually we gave up and went for coffee.

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day 72 ~ wilmington to new bern, nc via emerald island

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