Friday, January 29, 2016

The Killing Fields Touched Me Today

“Those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it. Yet those who do study history are doomed to stand by helplessly while everyone else repeats it.” I read this quote on Facebook today and it was certainly timely. Today, we visited the Killing Fields and the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

It was certainly one of the most sobering days of my life. The atrocities committed by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979 are hard to believe. It is estimated that between one and two million people were systematically killed during this massive genocide. The victims included children, entire families, teachers, doctors and professionals, Cambodians, Thais, and Vietnamese. Anyone who might pose any kind of threat to the regime of the insane Pol Pot was killed and buried in one of the 343 killing fields that have been found in Cambodia.

Our guide, who lived through those years as a child, was able to provide  first hand witness to many of the hardships that affected him and his family. His narration of the political situation that gave rise to the Khmer Rouge regime and its subsequent defeat was spellbinding. The devastation of the population, the resources and infrastructure of the country has just begun to regenerate and improve very slowly over the past dozen years since their 2003 independence (despite a coup in 2007 and a current communist dictator, ruling in the guise of an elected prime minister).

What I found equally discomforting to the history and impact of the Cambodian genocide is the fact that I lived and grew up during that time and yet felt strangely ignorant of the severity of the atrocities. Of course, I knew via our western media of the “trouble” in Cambodia, but my daily life in Calgary as a family man and a school principal rolled along without any significant thought or assistance to the people in Cambodia. 

Our detached western lives have somehow removed us from the horrors that occur in our world on a daily basis. As well as the Nazi genocides, the major mass exterminations in Darfur, Bosnia, Rwanda and Syria and the expulsions of millions of refugees in every corner of the world, just seem to pass through our lives as stories on television. We are hard pressed to feel the actual horror and suffering of these real people, in our lives. 

Our first reactions tend to deny that there is much that we can really do, as we are too insignificant to make a difference. We may make a monetary offering in some fashion through a charity or church organization, and it may make a micro difference in someone’s life, but I sort of believe it is done more to ease our own conscience. And maybe that is just the cold hard reality of our world. Problems of the magnitude of the horrors that we witnessed on a small scale today in Phnom Penh were so massive that one individual (me) can do so little, that we should just accept that fact. Or is this acceptance comparable to putting a cheque in the mail to assist some larger cause and believing we have done all we can do?

I don’t know the answer, but I have been touched today in a way that even visiting Auschwitz in Poland did not impact me. I promise to try to find an answer, at least for myself!

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The Bamboo Train From Battambang to O Sra Lav

The Bamboo Train From Battambang to O Sra Lav

A quick check of Google indicates that there have been over 1000 songs written that can be called train songs. Trains have been a favourite subject for musicians and composers everywhere. You might recognize some of them and the recording artist on this tiny list:

The train they call the City of New Orleans…Arlo Guthrie
Chattanooga Choo Choo…Glen Miller
When that midnight special leaves for Alabam…Leadbelly
The wreck of the old 97…Johnny Cash
This train is bound for glory…Woody Guthrie
Freight train, freight train…Peter, Paul and Mary
Take the last train to Clarksville…The Monkees
Take that midnight train to Georgia…Gladys Knight

This lengthy preamble is to get you prepared for one of the next great train songs that should be hitting the market soon, “The Bamboo Train From Battambang to O Sra Lav”.

You are probably now shaking your head, if you have not already deleted this blog, and wondering if I am suffering from sunstroke or dementia. Probably a little of both, but the story of the Bamboo Train has to be told.

A ride on the Bamboo Train was on our itinerary during our Cambodian adventure so we were anxious to ride it through the rural countryside. I was imagining a cool adventure with fantasies of the Orient Express or the Trans Siberian Train as a starting place. I was envisioning plush seats, gilded passenger cars and a dining car for the ages. What we got fell a little short of my expectations.

The Bamboo Train departs from the outskirts of Battambang.The ride only takes about 30 minutes, but they are 30 exciting minutes. The local people have created their own rail service using little more than pieces of bamboo. The locals call the vehicles a "norry", or "lorry", but overseas visitors know them as "bamboo trains". 

The passenger accommodation is a bamboo platform that rests on top of two sets of wheels. Each bamboo train consists of a 3m-long wood frame, covered lengthwise with slats made of ultra-light bamboo, that rests on two barbell-like bogies, the aft one connected by fan belts to a 6HP gasoline engine. A dried-grass mat to sit on counts as luxury seating.

Each train carries two to four passengers, all seated Buddha style, and when the engine is fired up, down the track it sails. It travels about 30 - 35 kph down a railway track that does not have a straight rail on it! The rails are bent, buckled and often barely touch each other so the ride is more bouncy and twisty than a condemned roller coaster.

If they come head-to-head with another train, they both have to stop. The two operators will simply disassemble one of the trains, lifting the car off its little wheels, and they will set the whole mess along the trackside. Then the train that remains on the track will pass the other, stop again, and the “engineers” will work together again to re-assemble the train back onto the tracks. Then each train will head off in its intended direction as though taking a train apart was no big deal!

The turnaround point is a tiny village amidst the trees, O Sra Lav. There is a shop selling refreshments and some bamboo train souvenirs. (I was going to mention the roasted rat, but didn’t want to upset the vegans among you.) I am guessing that once one of you has composed the lyrics and music to “The Bamboo Train from Battambang to O Sra Lav” we will be on the threshold of a platinum album in a matter of weeks. 

This song might just be a natural for Ian Tyson. I’ll give him a call as soon as I get home!

Sunday, January 24, 2016

What Is Wrong With Me?

What Is Wrong With Me?

Today, I am requesting your assistance in helping me to answer the question, “What is wrong with me?” Before you get all excited and start pounding on your keyboard with instant psychoanalysis and opinion, perhaps a little more explanation is necessary. 

We have just completed our first day exploring the Angkor Wat temple complex in Siem Reap, Cambodia. It is truly one of the great exploration days of my many years of travel. The complex is massive and impressive in its size, condition, and complexity. 

As soon as I near an archeological site, I begin to get energized and excited. Why an old man gets so pumped by approaching a large pile of stones in a strange country has had me guessing all my life. My first travel orgasm (there is little better description) was when I first visited Westminster Abbey in London when I was 24 years old. I was totally in awe at its grandeur, and the hundreds of stories, artifacts and relics that it housed. I couldn’t get over stepping on the grave marker of a renowned poet, while staring at the tribute to a global explorer and leaning on a king’s headstone. I stumbled upon the graves of Charles Darwin, Charles Dickens and King Charles 11. My first immersion into a historical ground zero, completely overwhelmed me. 

Since that first experience with our historical past, I have become an addict. Over the years I have explored dozens of wonderful sites including the pyramids in Egypt, Machu Picchu in Peru, and the Great Wall of China. Each visit seemed more exciting than the last one and I instantly began to scan the horizon for my next destination. I was never bored and the more unique a historical site, the more excited I got. 

I think the pinnacle of my historical explorations occurred from 2000-2004 when we lived in Turkey. This marvellous country is home to more extraordinary sites than you can imagine and in fact, most people have never heard about many of them. I still marvel at every visit to Aya Sophia built in the 5th century, to Ephesus with its Roman ruins, to the mountain of fallen heads, Nemrut Dag, and Rumeli Hisari Castle on the Bosphorus. (I told you, you haven’t heard of some). As soon as I see a set of stone steps leading skyward I am like a young child, I have to start climbing to see what I can see from the top.

This infusion of high energy completely dispels any minor ailments that troubled me the day before - no more sore Achilles, no fatigue, no more aching knee. I become transformed into the Old Geezer Explorer as soon as I near a targeted archeological site. As we approached the complex at Angkor Wat today, I became thirty years old again and raring to go! So I ask, “ What is wrong with me?” This is not normal behaviour. 

I am appealing for your diagnosis of my illness and would appreciate your candid observations relative to my condition. Please help! I will be awaiting at least fifty responses. The first prize winner will be rewarded by having his email address deleted from the mailing list of my never-ending blog. That is worth fighting for!

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Add Cambodia To My Places of Wonder

Add Cambodia To My Places of Wonder

Cambodia is a name that has always connoted mystery, intrigue and the unknown to me. As a child, I remember listening to a radio program called, “Adventures by Morse”. Morse was a detective or adventurer, who in a series of episodes was involved in searching for some mysterious treasure in a place I had never heard of called Angkor Wat, which I learned was in Cambodia. 

For some unexplainable reason, I was always drawn to photographs that showed the bizarre temple complex, with its many towers. The place screamed exotic and exciting. Today, I arrived in Cambodia and we are set to explore some of the many temples in the Angkor Wat complex. Many authors describe Angkor Wat as the greatest religious monument every built. That is no small praise. 

Angkor Wat – built by Suryavarman II (r 1112–52) – is the earthly representation of Mt Meru, the Mt Olympus of the Hindu faith and the abode of ancient gods. The Cambodian god-kings of old each strove to better their ancestors’ structures in size, scale and symmetry, culminating in what is believed to be the world’s largest religious building.
The temple is the heart and soul of Cambodia and a source of fierce national pride. Unlike the other Angkor monuments, it was never abandoned to the elements and has been in virtually continuous use since it was built.

The sandstone blocks from which Angkor Wat was built were quarried from the holy mountain of Phnom Kulen, more than 50 km away, and floated down the Siem Reap River on rafts. The logistics of such an operation are mind blowing, consuming the labour of thousands. According to inscriptions, the construction of Angkor Wat involved 300,000 workers and 6000 elephants, yet it was still not fully completed.

Reading of the building of this religious complex reminded me in many ways of the Egyptian construction of the pyramids. Both projects were massive and involved thousands of workers constructing a tomb for the resident ruler. The pyramid’s project is well over 2000 years old; the Cambodian construction is almost a thousand years old. To have visited both of these UNESCO preserved sites has been an experience I have really enjoyed and now can treasure.

I will draw this boring entry to a close and leave you to wait for my reaction to the visit to Angkor Wat! If you can’t sleep because of the anticipation, take two aspirins and eight ounces of rye whiskey. Stay tuned!

Thursday, January 21, 2016

A Typical Sunday Night in Thailand (Technoland)

A Typical Sunday Night in Thailand (Technoland)

I am going to speculate that a typical family Sunday evening like we experienced last night is a lot different from when I was a child. I recall my Mom, Dad and I sitting together in the living room listening to the Lux Radio Theatre (there was no TV). Mom was crocheting a doily, Dad was thumbing through yesterday’s Calgary Herald, and I was colouring with my massive set of 12 new wax crayons. Could life get any better?

This past Sunday evening, in Bangkok with Wayne, Kelly, Sawyer, Helen, and Darlene, unfolded a little differently. Wayne was extolling the virtues of the GPS on his iPhone that he had shown to a cab driver to find a local address with unpronounceable Thai street names. At the same time, he was printing off the boarding passes for our next flight, which he had personally booked online the previous week. The rest of his evening he busied himself marking student homework submissions from kids in Alberta, 8000 miles away, who were taking some classes online with him. 

Kelly was curled up with an iBook that she had downloaded to her iPad for free and was content as a kitten. Her revery was disturbed when her computer rang to inform her that she was receiving a phone call on Skype or FaceTime. It was her girlfriend, Sarah, calling from L.A. so Kelly snuck into a quiet room to chat for an hour with her friend back home in the US. And best of all, free of charge!

Darlene was busy chronicling our Thailand adventure writing another blog and wirelessly sending some photos from her iPhone to her blog page to help illustrate the story. She finished and then sent a number of personal emails to friends in Canada, the US, Ireland and Turkey. Simultaneously, Darlene was listening on her headphones to the latest Adele album that she had downloaded from iTunes to her iPod. Boundaries in our Internet world are non existent.

I was multi tasking. For someone who is often not motivated to single task, that is an accomplishment. I was designing a photo album on my computer, to try to tell our Thai story in pictures. The Lulu site I use allows me to both create picture albums as well as self publish books. I have currently self published seven books and am working on number eight, which will incorporate some of my Padyourthai blog. 

Helen, our eight year old grand daughter was playing the Mindcraft computer game on her iPad, but soon became a little bored. She went to her room and hauled out her two robots, Dash and Dot, and started to program them to chase around the living room from the controls on her iPad. No playing with Barbies and doll houses for my grand daughter!

Sawyer, our ten year old grandguy, was also working on his computer, downloading the video from his GoPro that he had shot while we were on holidays. The GoPro straps to your forehead and captures all the action as your own eyes would see it. He then had to work on editing the video, create a voice over and see if he could post it on YouTube.

Finally, in order to include some quality family time in our Sunday evening, we all sat down to watch a Netflix movie using our Canadian membership, in Thailand.

I am also going to speculate that there is little use me buying a colouring book and set of wax crayons to demonstrate the joys of my youth to this modern high tech family. Welcome to Technoland, 2016!

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Quotes Of Buddha and the Dalai Lama

Living in Thailand we are surrounded by the influence of Buddhism. It is only logical that we take a little time and study some of the teachings of this major religion. I won’t insult my two readers by trying to write anything scholarly (As if that were possible!). Instead I will simply steal or plagiarize some of the teachings or quotes either from Buddha or a current day disciple, the Dalai Lama. 

Since I am such a shallow thinker, I often am most impressed by simple, but brief and meaningful observations or thoughts. From hundreds of quotes that I looked at, I found the following very interesting or relevant to me. Read on, if you choose!

  • If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.
  • Silence is sometimes the best answer.
  • Remember that sometimes not getting what you want is a wonderful stroke of luck.
  • Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.
  • Thousands of candles can be lit from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared.
  • Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon, and the truth.
  • The secret of health for both mind and body is not to mourn for the past, worry about the future, or anticipate troubles, but to live in the present moment wisely and earnestly.
  • Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned. 
  • What we are today comes from our thoughts of yesterday, and our present thoughts build our life of tomorrow. Our life is the creation of our mind.
  • If you light a lamp for somebody, it will also brighten your path.
  • Learn this from water: loud splashes the brook but the oceans depth are calm.
  • The trouble is, you think you have time.
  • People with opinions just go around bothering one another.
  • One moment can change a day, one day can change a life and one life can change the world.
  • Every morning we are born again. What we do today is what matters most.
  • Nothing ever exists entirely alone; everything is in relation to everything else.
  • If you are facing in the right direction, all you need to do is keep on walking.
  • However many holy words you read, however many you speak, what good will they do you if you do not act upon them?
  • It is better to travel well than to arrive.
  • Patience is key. Remember: A jug fills drop by drop.
  • Happiness will never come to those who fail to appreciate what they already have.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

The Seriously Special Siam Super Soup Shop

Nestled between a gold jewellery store and an empty building is the Siam Noodle Shop. It lies beneath the shadow of the overhead Bangkok Skytrain track and partially spills out on to the sidewalk in front. And it has become the latest hot dining spot in Bangkok, at least for our family.

The soup shop is long and narrow and is the width of two adjacent bowling alley lanes. Attractive decor, colour coordination, and curb appeal are sorely lacking. Seven sturdy wooden tables are each surrounded by four hard square-seated stools, and topped with a metal box of spoons and chopsticks, four sauces, a pad of napkins and several bottles of water for purchase

The half a dozen menu items are written on the wall in Thai, so we have learned to order in a more practical way. We walk up to the front of the shop and point at what we want in our soup. There are always the same choice of six different noodles, bits of beef and pork, fish balls, bean sprouts and a mixture of green flavouring veggie stalks. Once you finish pointing, you just sit down at a luxury table and wait three minutes.

The cook fills a small wire mesh cup on a long handle with your noodle choice and drops it into the giant kettle of boiling water sitting over a propane heater. Your selection of gourmet accoutrements is spooned into a good size bowl and a large cupful of hot beefy broth is added from the second monster pot in the “kitchen”. When your noodles are tender, all of your choices arrive at your table in one steaming hot soup bowl. 

Our first venture into this unassuming and rather dodgy looking soup kitchen was tentative, but now we head over almost every other day. From 8:00 am until midnight there is a steady stream of clientele, almost all Thai. I have never walked past the place when it was without a customer - morning, noon or night time!

To accompany your delicious soup there are little packets of deep fried pork rinds (Piggy Puffs in Canada) and your choice of water or pop to drink. The menu is minimal, but I figure with about ten different ingredients and four sauces it is possible to creatively order and eat a different soup combination every day for at least a year! 

When you are finished slurping, the “owner” arrives with calculator in hand and calculates your bill and shows it to you. Today we had five bowls of soup, a water and a piggy puff. Total bill $10. Basically, a two dollar bowl of soup that was simply delicious!

If I had three meals of soup a day, every day for a year, it would only cost me $182 a month. And that would probably be a better diet plan than the Subway turkey sandwich plan and, of course, a lot cheaper!

It once again illustrates that you can’t judge a book by its cover or a soup shop by its ambience or lack thereof!

Monday, January 11, 2016

Buddhism, Islam: Same, Same, But Different!

The previous entry gave me the opportunity to reflect again on our experiences when we lived in Turkey, a country with a 98% Islamic population. The four years we lived there were amazing in so many ways. I often found myself telling stories when we returned home about how kind and honest we found the Turks.

Their honesty was almost unbelievable. One day I answered the door bell to our apartment and a man was standing there holding a duvet wrapped in plastic that he gave to me. I didn’t of course understand his explanation and placed the quilt on the table and he left. When Darlene arrived home an hour later she was astounded. She had been shopping for bedding and had returned home a couple of hours earlier. Her arms had been full of parcels and after she paid for her cab ride she carried her bountiful purchases up to our apartment. Apparently, an hour later the cab driver found the duvet in his trunk, (which Darlene had forgotten about in the commotion) and returned to where he had let her out of the cab. The driver did not know exactly where she lived, but he inquired with the local merchants in the area and they directed him to the foreigner’s apartment. Would this have ever happened in Canada?

A friend of ours lost his wallet in a taxi cab one day and he was in a panic. Of course, he cancelled his credit cards, kissed his money goodbye and kicked himself for his carelessness several times. The next day he received a phone call at the school where he was teaching, and a man told the secretary where Peter could pick his wallet up. Peter rushed over immediately and miraculously everything in his wallet was returned untouched. The dentist who had found the wallet in the cab spoke English and to make a fantastic story even more incredible, he offered to give Peter a free dental checkup as he had no appointments that day! Believe it or not!

Stories of honesty constantly wove their magic through our Turkish experience. If you made a purchase in a shop and you left the store with the equivalent of one cent change still owed, the sales person would chase you down the street to return the money. If you purchased a $1 item with a $20 bill and the merchant couldn’t make change, he would tell you to take your purchase home and come back with the money later. This remarkable honest and trusting attitude even extended to the carpet sellers. If you couldn’t decide among three carpets, you were told to take them all home to try them and bring back the ones you didn’t want - with no deposit or written agreement. Again, I ask, can you envision this happening in Canada ?

After reciting endless examples of these stories of kindness, honesty and goodness I began to ask the same kind of question asked in Jack’s Thai experience. My totally unscientific explanation also tended to credit the religious dominance of Turkey’s principal religion, Islam. I could only surmise that the extreme honesty that we experienced was an integral part of the Islamic teachings and the only acceptable standard of behaviour.

In Islamic countries, the faithful are called to prayer five times a day every day. Of course, there are a lot of Bayram Muslims just as there a lot of Christmas Catholics, but the daily pervasiveness of the reminder to pray and give thanks becomes deeply engrained. The only common denominator that I could determine to help explain the wonderful treatment we were exposed to was a result of the total dominance of the Islamic faith throughout the country. 

I am also not naive enough to believe that whether it is the Buddhist tradition in Thailand or the Muslim faith in Turkey, this is the only explanation for our parallel observations. There are multitudes of other factor that I won’t even delve into, but it appears to me that one of the significant factors related to the demeanour and values of the people in both Thailand and Turkey are the dominant religions of each country. 

If there is any basis to my theory where does Canada stand? Do we really stand out as different from other English speaking countries besides our use of the epithet “eh” and producing maple syrup? Do we surprise visitors to our country with our honesty and integrity like the Turks and the calm dispositions and humility like the Thais? Or has our ethnic diversity, of which we are so proud, created a cultural and religious milieu that dilutes the teachings of our Christian religions to prevent a single dominant religious identity?

Of course, none of my musings are important. What is important is to recognize the powerful way that travel and global experiences present us with new quandaries that we never would have encountered had we stayed home. Sometimes our travels just entertain us, but on occasion, they raise some issues that require a little more reflection. I think this is one of the reasons I have so loved to travel all my life.

Sorry to have bored you all with my ramblings, but then, what are good friends for?

Friday, January 8, 2016

A Closer Look at Buddhism in Thailand  - by Jack Nearing

(This entry has been written and graciously shared by Jack Nearing, a fellow retired colleague of CCSB, who has made several visits to Thailand and resides for most of the year in Calgary.)

“Over the years, some of you have heard me muttering that Thailand is different, and I couldn’t figure out why that was so. I noticed it on my first visit to Chiang Mai and each year thereafter. I came here in 2015 determined to find an answer to that question, and I wonder if I’m any closer. 

Thailand bills itself as ‘The Land of Smiles’, and that seems to be very true. However, that conjures up images of people standing around with idiotic grins on their faces, and that is simply not the case. Thais seem contented, not just on the surface, but way down deep. A favourite Thai expression is ‘Mai pen rai’, which means, ‘Relax’, ‘Take it easy’, ‘No big deal’, ‘Don’t sweat the small things’. and that sums up my impression of the Land of Smiles better than most. We are so much the opposite, the average Canadian having more in material goods than the average Thai, but complaining with more or less bitterness about our sorry lot. Why are they different from us? A favourite t-shirt here has ‘SAME SAME’ on the front, while the back declares ’BUT DIFFERENT’. But finding out WHY it is different is the challenge.

I did hear one explanation that helped, but I have no idea whether it is true. That explanation begins with a reference to the tradition of Buddhist monks begging in the streets. Each morning at about 7 you can see monks carrying alms boxes in their habits. As they move along, people give them food or money, kneeling humbly before the monk even though he may be only a boy, and they really seem to feel honoured that they have been selected to contribute. The monk responds with a wai, says a few words and moves on. I’ve seen the process many times and it never varies. The ‘explanation’ of this constitutes the Thai difference: children witness this act of charity first thing every morning from their earliest years and this is burned into their consciousness. The sight of charity every morning provides a foundation of caring about others into their adulthood, one of the basic teachings of Buddhism. True? I have no idea, but it does have some plausibility. Compare that with our earliest memories and I doubt that there are many with memories like that, certainly not me or our children.

Thailand is 95% Buddhist. Buddhism is noted for its disdain for living a life that gets its satisfactions from material things and encourages its adherents to shun such. What is important is to behave decently, cultivate self-discipline and practice mindfulness. These are done by right speech and right action. Briefly these mean that in dealing with other people, one does not lie or steal or harm them in any way. If each of us would live his/her life in this way, then our fellowman is looked after as a result.

Is there any evidence that Thailand is a Buddhist country? It is reported to be 95% Buddhist. Or thinking about a parallel question, is there any evidence that Canada is a Christian country? Google tells me that it is 90% Christian. When I visit Thailand, I sense immediately that it is different and that difference may be due to the influence of Buddhism as suggested above. Would a Thai coming to Canada notice that it’s different and that difference is due to the influence of Christianity? I leave the answer to this latter question with you. I know what my answer is.”

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Attacked By Thai Piranhas and Ex-Kick Boxers

To say that 2016 started with a bang is an understatement. It was more of a bang, a slap, a punch and an assortment of jabs. But in the end, I am feeling ready for another twelve rounds. Let me explain.

Thailand is not only the Land of Smiles it is also the Land of Massages. Every third outlet on almost any street is a Thai massage parlour. You can get a foot massage, a full body massage, an oil massage, a facial massage and probably a hair massage if you look hard enough. Today, I promised the grandkids that I would “treat” them to a fish massage. 

A fish massage involves sitting with your feet submerged in a tank full of tiny fish, who for some demented reason love to eat the dead skin that encases your feet. Two days ago, we first witnessed this bizarre event in the market and people were laughing and giggling as dozens of tiny pin head size fish nibbled aggressively at their feet and legs. How difficult could that be to endure? Today we found out. The fish in our tank must have been on steroids as you could almost see the glint in their eyes when they detected new meat enter the parlour. I have caught smaller fish when I went fishing, than the whoppers in our tank. I swear they were salivating as they stared at our feet. These were monsters! Truthfully, it was a fun experience, to have your feet tickled by dozens of little fish, but with the theme song from Jaws resonating in the back of my mind, I was always on the alert. Been there, done that now, so it has been deleted from the list of massages that I need to try. 

After having our feet cleansed by the Thai piranha population, we felt that a foot massage would probably now be in order. Darlene dropped Sawyer and I off at her favourite massage parlour and left for a manicure. I will not soon forget the ambush we had been led into!

The little Thai girl, who drew me in the foot massage lottery, looked cute and harmless. After being assaulted by her for sixty minutes, she confessed that she had been an ex-Thai boxer. I think she was just jesting after she had given my thigh muscles a half dozen serious slugs, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see her fighting on ESPN in the future. 

After a few minutes of fending off her blows, I began to visualize her working in a meat packing plant as a meat tenderizer. She had a right cross that Rocky Balboa would have envied. I was even thinking that perhaps I should sign her to a personal service contract and sell her services to the US Military. I can assure you that after a couple of hours of her alone in a room with a Guantanamo captive and there would be no more need for water boarding. She would have extracted any secret information from any hard nosed Taliban within a day. She was a masseuse with an attitude!

As we headed home after our encounter with the piranhas and the Thai boxer, both Sawyer and I were pumped. I attribute our elation more to the fact that we survived two near death experiences in one day, than the accrued benefits of either massage.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Tell Me About Chiang Mai

I am sure by now that you are dying for me to tell you more about Chiang Mai, Thailand. Perhaps not dying, but incredibly interested. Well, maybe not interested, but if you keep reading you will be subjected to a little background on the second largest city inThailand in case you are ever a contestant on Jeopardy.

Chiang Mai is located about 400 miles north of Bangkok and because of its higher altitude and surrounding mountains (big hills), its temperatures tend to be slightly cooler than Bangkok. We are staying in a small B & B that reminds me of the Hawaiiana Hotel where we used to stay in Waikiki. We are walking distance to the centre of the city of about 160,000 and have easy access to tons of shops and street vendors, markets, and hotels. 

It seems that every block in Chiang Mai is designed like every other block. There is a fairly rigid pattern of shops on each street. A thai restaurant promoting pad thai noodles, sits next to a tour agent peddling treks and elephant camp visits, and next door to that is a message parlour. Restaurant, tour company, message parlour, restaurant, tour company, message parlour. Repeat, repeat, repeat! 

A second street pattern consists of a bar or a smoothy juice bar beside a guest house (small hotel) and next door to a souvenir shop. You can be assured that you will never be hungry or thirsty, need to suffer from sore feet or have trouble finding a place to sleep. You can also easily buy your elephant key ring souvenir while drinking a mango smoothy and booking your zip line tour over the treetops. You can achieve all of this within any given block.

The many holiday visitors to Chiang Mai include reams of Chinese, and numerous Germans and French from Europe. Lots of young gap year types, twenty somethings and a large number of lecherous looking seniors (my biased and unsubstantiated observation), as well as older looking non-heterosexual male couples. It is so important these days to at least appear to be using politically correct descriptors.

Chiang Mai is definitely a walking town. Especially in the evenings, the downtown streets are crammed with thousands of pedestrians and shoppers. For the less fitness conscious there are also hoards of bicycles, mopeds, motorbikes, tuk-tuks, pedi-cabs, taxi cabs and taxi trucks. Getting around is easy, with a lot of options at very reasonable prices. That is, of course, with all the street congestion, if any vehicle can actually move!

Chiang Mia is to Bangkok, as Krakow is to Warsaw, as Fethiye is to Istanbul - a smaller facsimile of its bigger and more famous relative. Our visit has been most satisfying and Chiang Mai would be on our recommended places to visit should you venture to Thailand. 

Saturday, January 2, 2016

New Year’s Eve 2016 Was A Winner!

New Year’s Eve 2016 was a winner! I have always been a major opponent of the silly practise of “celebrating” the movement of the hands of the clock from 11:59 to 12:00 to 0:01 at the end of December every year. I always thought of it as nonsensical and meaningless. Celebrating New Year’s Eve had the same appeal as undergoing a triple root canal. This year it was different.

We had a family dinner at a riverside restaurant across the Mae Nam Ping River from our little Thai hotel. On our way back across the old iron bridge, that reminded me of the old railway bridges of my youth, we saw what looked like a balloon floating up in the sky. Then another and another! As we approached the far end of the bridge, we saw that they were large lanterns floating upward powered by a burning candle. 

We learned that vendors were selling these paper lanterns for people to inflate and send skyward. Each lantern when unfolded was about a metre high and half a meter wide with an open circular base. A wax candle was wired to sit within the middle of the open base. When the candle was lit, the heat inflated the treated paper lantern and when filled with enough heated air, the lantern was released and it drifted slowly skyward.

In Thailand it is believed that launching one of these balloons can send a person’s bad luck and misfortune away into the air, especially if it disappears from view before the fire goes out. Often people will say a short prayer before launching the balloon. The process was mystical and surreal.

Within the half hour we spent on the bridge, the sky was speckled with hundreds of golden glowing lanterns all dancing in the night air. Similes to describe the spectacle included: a sky full of giant fire flies, a sea of drifting jelly fish or a nebula of twinkling stars. They were all right on target!

We spent an hour lighting and enjoying the launching of the lanterns. The bridge deck became filled with amateur and professional launchers, with some lanterns fizzling and dropping into the river and others zooming upward with Cape Canaveral speed. The lanterns seemed to float and drift for an hour before the candle died, and the sky west of us resembled a huge cluster of stars over downtown Chiang Mai. It was a unique and truly enjoyable experience, again enhanced by being able to share it with family and especially Sawyer and Helen. 

Following our lantern launching adventure we entered the firecracker stage of the evening. The kids enjoyed popping cherry bombs on the sidewalk and the evening ended with a major fireworks display directly in front of our hotel. It was truly one of the only New Year’s Eves that I can say I really enjoyed!

Who Wants to Wash An Elephant?

On our holiday in Chiang Mai, someone threw out the ridiculous question, “Who wants to wash an elephant?” By a nearly unanimous vote of 7 to 1, we signed up for just such an adventure. I couldn’t think of any better option, that did not involve shopping, so I hopped on board our luxury bus at 8:30 am to head to the jungle.

Our transportation to the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary was actually a small flat bed truck with side seats, a roof canopy and open sides. The eight of us squeezed in, complete with assorted backpacks and elephant washing equipment, and off we roared. I felt like a migrant worker heading off to the fields to pick vegetables and had flashbacks of the Great Depression chronicled in Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. (A little literary reference designed to impress.)

After an hour of singing such relevant work songs as Swing Low, Sweet Chariot and Old Man River we arrived at the final twenty mile stretch that led us up the mountain. The “road” definitely ranked in my top three worst roads ever travelled! It more resembled a dry river bed or a bomb damaged road into Damascus. Only two of our potential hearty elephant washers threatened to return their breakfasts into the bed of the truck on the bumpy drive.

Finally, we arrived at the mountain top and stopped in a hill tribe village that would have carried a no star rating in the Ozark’s. We began by descending about 200 metres to the valley floor and then ascending up the other side. We donned our local “feeding the elephants” shirts in order to appear more ridiculous that we already appeared by huffing and puffing and sweating as though we had just reached the base camp at Everest. 

We were then given a very informal lesson in elephant etiquette and headed up another mountain to make friends with and feed the elephants. And I admit, under no duress, that it was really fun! We were supplied with bags of bananas and cucumbers to feed the elephant family. By approaching the elephant slowly and calling out “bon” or something similar, we held our morsel up in the air and the pachyderm gently took it in its trunk and ate it. Four hundred cukes and ‘nanas later and we had fed the four elephants a mid morning snack. It was a lot of fun seeing the grandchildren develop the courage to feed and pet these rather imposing animals. I scoured the treetops for signs of Tarzan, but he must have been hanging out with Jane. 

We returned to the midway hut for lunch along a path that would have challenged Indiana Jones. The path hugged the side of the mountain and we had to cross cricks on thin twin bamboo poles, vault over deadfall, tiptoe along a muddy one foot wide path and envision our life flashing before us should we slip. Then to really test our mettle, we returned on the same death defying muddy path to bath the elephants, the reason for our special trip in the first place.

Bathing the elephants was an event I passed on, but enjoyed being the paparazzi, taking photos of the family for reasons of future blackmail and memory. The grandkids again were reluctant starters, but quickly began to splash and scrub the dirty elephant hides with a brush. The water babies on the safari had a ball. The Grandpa got his big kick out of recording the extra special event. The last order of the day was to participate in rubbing mud on the elephants to cool them down and heal mosquito bites. I have lived my entire live with an aversion to dirty hands so the last fun activity I wished to partake in was a giant mud pie throwing contest. 

The final highlight of a great day was the return journey across the Indiana Jones obstacle course, the hike up and down two mountains again and a return drive down the highway of detonated land mines. We returned to civilization eight hours after we left, and I still haven’t washed an elephant, but I had a heck of a good time! If you ever go to Thailand, give it a shot!

Christmas Party in The Slums

Today, I was invited to a Christmas Party in the slums of Bangkok. Not quite the same as a chance to party with royalty, but of course I could not say no. The school where Wayne and Kelly work, supports a small nursery school in a slum area of Bangkok. School staff and friends were invited to attend the neighbourhood Christmas party, to distribute some Christmas gifts to the children. 

The slum was situated beside a canal, or more correctly an open sewer, and under an elevated railway track. Not exactly prime real estate, but then slums generally have to take what they can get. My mind conjured up scenes of abject poverty, grime, filth and questionable sanitation and safety. I was about 50% correct. One of the hosts told me that a recent fire had destroyed ten “homes” in the area, with the displacement of about 400 people. That illustrates slum living!

The nursery school was tiny, about five rooms, not very well equipped, and lacking any kind of amenities that would make you want to send your child there. The workers were truly saints as their working conditions included cramped, dirty and claustrophobic spaces. 

After a brief school tour, we headed for the community Christmas Party about a hundred yards down a “road” that was home to endless huge trucks bumping and belching fumes, avoiding kids and dogs as they passed by. We arrived at a fenced outdoor basketball court that now incorporated a stage with seating, some children’s playground equipment and three long metal tables. I had the feeling the I had seen this under-highway playground in the movie West Side Story. 

As we arrived, the highlight of the party - the food, began to be served. The lineup for supper that sprang up was endless with most guests carrying their own dinner bowl. On the serving tables, six monster cooking pots with a capacity of about 60-70 litres were filled, two with rice and the others with an assortment of stews, meat soups and an unidentifiable green broth.

The word that the food had arrived raced through the local jungle telegraph. Hundreds of people poured out of the surrounding hovels and headed for probably the best meal that they had had in months. The instant the giants pots were empty and scraped clean, the fenced area was practically void of adults, with only the children remaining.

The highlight for me were all the friendly little kids that were having a ball, as only kids can have, running around, chasing each other and having fun. Occasionally someone on a small foot scooter raced among the many legs, and some kids brought some liquid string and began spraying each other. It was harmless mayhem.

I was surprised that all of the kids were wearing “clean” clothes, fairly new and modern. The rips and tatters that I had envisioned were absent. If the party had been held in a middle class neighbourhood you would have never known you were in the slums. I saw no crying, no anger, no fighting and general only joy among all those present. 

After a couple of hours we escaped the loud music and excited children. Organizers slowly raffled (with free raffle tickets) about a hundred food and housekeeping articles like soap, tissues, milk and a single teddy bear, one by one. We never did get to hand out any Christmas gifts, but we were not the reason for the party, so I am sure no one missed us when we left. 

A rather low key evening that left me with a nostalgic feeling. I had again witnessed an occasion where those with so little in the way of material possessions can be happy and accepting and welcoming. In many ways it was an Advent moment that prepared me for Christmas a week away. It is times like this that reinforce what is really important in life and how blessed I am in so many ways. To share it with my grandkids in a dark, dim Bangkok slum will always be a poignant memory. Merry Christmas!

What Do You MIss By Living in Thailand?

What do you miss about home now that you are in Thailand? Well, that question has been forwarded to me by dozens of my readers. Actually, nobody really asked, but I had an overwhelming urge to answer the question anyway. Someone was probably contemplating asking, but as usual, I beat you to the draw.

We have done a lot of overseas living, as most of you know, and the list of things you miss about home becomes shorter and shorter. When we first went to Turkey in 2000 there were quite a few things we missed besides family and friends. Darlene lamented the absence of peanut butter, salt and vinegar chips and pork products, especially bacon. Visitors to Turkey were given strict instruction to pack the above essentials for life in their suitcases or stay home! I often had delightful dreams thinking about Wendy’s Hamburgers, toasted ham sandwiches and soft ice cream. (I didn’t request that visitors pack these.)

Over the past fifteen years, whether living in Turkey, Poland or the Bahamas, we have learned what globalization really means. Everywhere we have been in the world during this time now sells Diet Coke as well as Coke Zero, all the things from our 2000 wish lists and more. Thailand has MacDonalds, Burger King, KFC, Tony Romas, Swensens Ice Cream, Dominos Pizza, and of course a Starbucks in every mall. Thailand, and most of the rest of the world, is one big homogeneous food court. If you can’t find it, you haven’t looked hard enough. It’s here somewhere!

That doesn’t mean that there are not things that I still miss, but they are not really consumable products. In our current apartment, I am bemoaning the act that we do not have ONE comfortable chair to sit in. Our Ikea-like furniture is not designed for my non-Ikea-like body. I dream of my recliner at home and a bright reading lamp snuggled up beside the chair. 

Living in a city of millions is compounded by the lack of green space and walking paths that I am so used to along the Bow River and Edworthy Park. Traffic never stops and the heat and humidity are both high, but I am not complaining when I check Calgary temperatures. 

On the bright side there are a lot of things that are real pluses. Thai food comes in a million varieties, is very tasty and is very reasonably priced. It is not possible to walk a block without finding a food vendor, little restaurant or granny selling samosas or rice dishes. The little food store on the main floor of our building makes major shopping unnecessary. You can pop downstairs in two minutes to buy just about anything. The movie theatres are ultra modern and showing exactly what is playing in Calgary and more. We’re already getting ready for the Star Wars invasion this week. While we have no watchable TV, I am blessed by being able to watch the CBC nightly news on my computer. So, I even get my weekly fix of Rex Murphy and that is a perk that is pretty hard to beat! 

Finally, the only thing that I still miss is the opportunity to have a chat with all of you on my blog mailing list. Using my years of experience with the CGS (Catholic guilt syndrome), it would be great to get a brief personal update from each of you to let us know how you are doing. The busy Christmas season is no excuse. And if Charlie Brown had a Christmas Special this year, he would probably say, “Writing to your friends is a wonderful holiday gift!” Snoopy also agrees!