Friday, December 2, 2011

The Inauspicious Purple Train & Siam Ocean World

The following day, Thursday, August 11th, we had a relaxing morning to pack our things. During a leisurely breakfast, I met a couple from Las Vegas, the wife a teacher and husband a card dealer at a casino. I had just finished the book Mom brought me (Wyrms, by Orson Scott Card), and wanted something to do for the upcoming long plane trips, so the man gave me some of the books he and his wife had brought but finished. I really liked Pirates! about privateers in the British Jamaican colonies of the 1600s, but the others weren’t my style.

A driver picked us up at 10:30 for a cruise along the Mae Ping River. Our guide pointed out various peasant huts as well as the U.S. embassy, the teakwood residence of the former Thai Prime Minister, and the Thai Bible Society and school. Here’s a really big, four hundred year old bodhi tree, the kind that’s so prominent in Buddhist mythology. (At least, I think this is a bodhi tree):




After an hour, we arrived at a “farmer’s house,” not really a functioning farm, but a place to show tourists what rural Thai life is like:



We saw fruit trees (including star fruit and bananas), herbs and spices, jasmine rice, (which is simply a variety of Thai rice with a sweet smell, not rice mixed with jasmine) and some vegetables, pheasants, chickens and ducks all with their eggs, pigs and guinea pigs. Frogs, crabs, shrimp, and small fish live in the rice paddies, and Thai farmers harvest those too. The guide/boat pilot served us watermelon, pineapple, and logan juice (very sweat and tasty). We also saw the inside of a small hut where the movie Rocky IV was filmed:



The dress I’m wearing in the picture is the one I bought at the hot spring town I mentioned last time. Thai dresses are so cool, light, and cheap! We got back on the boat, followed by a van, and arrived at our hotel around 1:30. We wondered if we should go see a monkey show or something, but we didn’t want to be rushed. And it’s a good thing we got some rest! You’ll see why in a minute…

About 3:30 we got picked up for our night train back to Bangkok, which left about 5:00. When we first arrived at the station and saw our train, we thought it looked very nice. Purple:




“That’s an ‘auspicious’ color, right?” I asked, using one of the favorite words of our first Thai guide, Chiya.

Boy, was I wrong! We were soon calling it the “inauspicious purple train.” First of all, our compartment was near the bathroom, so it stank. Really bad. The toilets were simply pits, and it was almost impossible to use them with the train bouncing and clanging every which way. (This was a very old train, very clicketly clack, not a relatively smooth ride like those in Japan.) No one on the entire train spoke English. Our compartment mates were a French couple, and though they were nice enough, they made it pretty clear that they couldn’t communicate with us. The staff didn’t feed us. It was pretty hard to sleep with all the bumping. We stopped for a really long time during the night. Turns out, the train broke down. We were supposed to arrive in Bangkok around 7:00am, but it got to be 8:00, then 9:00, and we still weren’t there. Mom and I both tried to ask when we would arrive at our destination, but no one could tell us in English. The guide to the French couple came in and tried to explain the situation in broken French, but when we asked them what he said, the man just shrugged and said in the little English he knew, “I didn’t understand.”

To top it all off, we didn’t know what stop to get off at. On all trains I had ridden before, the train staff called out the name of the station as we pulled in. These guys didn’t. Our tickets simply said, “Bangkok,” but it turns out there were multiple stations in Bangkok. A train staff member looked at our ticket, puzzled, and told us the name of the station he thought we should get off at. We finally came in around 11:30am, our supposedly fourteen-hour overnight ride turning into 18 ½ hours on that literally stinking train, and to the wrong station. No one was waiting for us. We had to take a taxi to our hotel and hope that this time the taxi driver would know where it was (unlike our first two nights in Bangkok). Fortunately, he did, though it cost a pretty penny since it was clear on the other side of town.

In summery, don’t ever take the night train! I thought it would save us time and money, but it didn’t. The worst part is, I should have known better! I’ve taken the night train in India and the night bus in Japan, and those were terrible too. Night travel just isn’t for me.

But here’s a picture of the view outside, a flooded rice field:



Our consolation prize was that our hotel (the Royal View again) upgraded us to a suite for free, though I don’t know why. Maybe they forgot we were coming and booked our previous room to someone else, so to make up for that they gave us a suite. Whatever the reason, we sure appreciated spending our last two Thai nights in style. Just as we got into our room, the people who were supposed to pick us up five hours ago called, very worried, and we assured them we had made it all right.

Once we settled in, we hired a driver to take us to the “largest aquarium in Southeast Asia,” Siam Ocean World. The guide was very nice, led us through the huge mall to the aquarium, and got our tickets so we didn’t have to wait in the ridiculously long line. At first we were surprised by all the people (there must have been thousands) and most of them Thai. She explained it was a national holiday, the Queen’s birthday, and Mother’s Day. She suggested I take my mother out to eat, since there were so many mother daughter specials. But first we enjoyed the aquarium.

There were some beautiful fish and nice feeding shows with divers in the tanks, though all the spoken explanations were entirely in Thai. The plaques were in English besides Thai, and that was enough. Here’s a beautiful blue wrasse:



We got a “behind the scenes” tour to see some baby fish, and a glass bottom boat ride. There was also an interesting children’s area with these exhibits:

Refrigerator fish tank:



Microwave fish tank:



A “fish car”:



We enjoyed some cotton candy and popcorn, snacks I haven’t had in a long time, while watching the playful Asian small clawed river otters and adorable river rats. (I never thought I’d ever write “adorable rat,” but these guys were pretty cute.) We stayed from about 1:30 to 6:30, then had dinner at the food court. Shrimp wantons and roasted duck soup for me, Kentucky Fried Chicken sandwich for Mom. (But she couldn’t handle that either; the Thai version is too spicy for her. I think if it weren’t for cashew chicken and stir-fry, Mom would have starved in Thailand.)

I figured out how to use the sky train (similar to the Singapore system) to get to Victory Monument Station, then we walked about thirty minutes to our hotel (we got lost a few times and ended up showing our hotel card a lot). Several guys offered to take us there on the back of their motorcycles for a small fee, which I would have probably done if it were just me, but Mom didn’t like that idea so much, so we just walked. I’m glad we did, because I enjoyed seeing the streets of Bangkok at night. If it were just me, I probably would have used public transportation a lot more too, but I know Mom doesn’t like it so much. You get used to it after living in a small, crowded country for two years. I like adventure, Mom likes stress-free vacations, though I know she stretched herself a lot on this trip. I have to admit, it was nice not to have to worry about how to get here and there, instead having someone to pick us up and drop us off everywhere and guide us around and answer all our questions. I got to have my scuba diving adventure and pet a full-grown tiger and figure out the Bangkok subway. So I think we had a good balance of adventure and other people taking care of us.

We got back to our hotel about 9:00 and watched a little Thai TV for the first time. About 1/3 of it was American with Thai dubbing, ¼ was Japanese, and another ¼ was Korean and Chinese. There were only one or two channels originally made in Thailand. It was funny to see Americans and Japanese speaking Thai.

The next morning, we got picked up for the airport about 8:00am. We arrived pretty early for our 11:30 flight, so we walked around and enjoyed the airport again. Here’s a beautiful statue at the entrance of international departures:



An explanation from the plaque: "Scene of The Churning of The Milk Ocean: This scene depicts the Vishnu Kurmavatara and the churning of the Milk Ocean. The naga (the king of serpents), Vasuki, is curled around the mountain Mandara. Vishnu (the god who preserves and sustains the universe in Hinduism) incarnated in the form of a great turtle, supports the mountain on his back. Devas (demigods) and Asuras (demons) pull on the naga's body to churn the water of the ocean for thousands of years in order to produce the nectar of immortality, Amrita. From the churning, numerous opulent items are produced, including Dhanvantari carrying the pot of Amrita. In the end, the cooperation between Devas and Asuras is shattered. The Devas, fulfill their plan of acquiring all Amrita and disperse the Asuras out of Heaven to the Underworld."

Those are the kind of stories you get from India and Southeast Asia, and come to think of it, all mythology in general. They really don't make a whole lot of sense to someone outside the culture, and even those who grew up with the stories find them strange and inexplicable. Those who believe them accept them purely on faith, realizing that there is more out there than we mere mortals can possibly understand. So I have a far bigger tiff with people who deny any sort of supernatural at all than I do with people who at least admit that, logically speaking, there is no way finite beings such as ourselves can possibly measure, test, and otherwise comprehend an infinite universe and the Being that created it, especially since He, by definition, would exist outside the perimeters of His creation, just as an animator or novelist exists outside the rules and boundaries of his or her own work of art. Completely incomprehensible, that is, short of God "writing Himself into the story" or otherwise revealing himself to us, which is what I believe He did through the Bible and Jesus Christ.

This picture’s actually from our first time in Bangkok airport. Ronald McDonald, Thai style:



We enjoyed buying some last-minute souvenirs with our remaining Baht, then exchanged the rest. Our Thai Airways flight (“smooth as silk”) had a pretty cheesy safety video that made us laugh, though not quite as cheesy as the Delta one. I think airline videos are almost a genre in and of themselves. Just how cheesy can we be about giving these safety instructions, with soothing background music and smiling, sexy flight attendants as we play out these emergency situations and talk about all the ways you could die if something goes wrong with the aircraft?

It was about a five and a half hour flight, with all announcements done in Thai, English, and Japanese (since it was a flight bound for Japan). I spent the time watching movies, reading, sleeping, cracking jokes about the safety videos, and translating the Japanese announcements before they were said in English, proud of myself when I almost got them word-perfect (once).

Descending over Honshu island (the main island), we saw the most gorgeous cloud formations, with mountains poking through like islands in a foaming sea, and a rosette sunset. This isn’t Mt. Fuji, but it’s some really tall peak:



After customs, baggage, train, bus, (yes, plane, train, and bus all in one day), we got into Nabari about 10:30pm. We grabbed food at the combini (convenience store), dragged our suitcases up to the third floor, and got in with the spare key. Thapello (pronounced Tapello) arrived a few minutes later. She’s the new Assistant Language Teacher at Kikyogaoka High School to replace me, and she agreed we could stay in her apartment (which used to be mine) for a few days. She’s from South Africa, but I don’t remember the name of her tribe, maybe Zulu. She speaks something like five or more languages, and her English is perfect. I knew a few words of Zulu (or maybe it’s Swahili; I really need to brush up on my African cultures) from my high school choir days, and sang them for her. She was able to sing the song with me and was surprised that I knew it. We performed it for Kuwanza during the Christmas Spectacular at the Tulsa Performing Arts Center with all those amazing artists when I was a junior, in celebration of the tenth anniversary of the end of apartheid.

Anyway, she and I hit it off pretty good at first, which is nice because I was afraid we wouldn’t. I had been hoping she would take over my Christian class at the church and Jet Christian fellowship library, but she’s Muslim. I almost wonder if the school chose a Muslim from South Africa on purpose, because they were so annoyed with my “American ways” and talking about my faith with the students, especially when the band kids played at the Easter service at our church to raise money for the Tohoku disaster victims. I gave my testimony in front of them. We tried to pass out Japanese comic book Bibles to the kids afterwards, but the teachers forbade it. At my going away speech, I even told them that Jesus loved them and died for them. I still think the school probably chose Thapello partly for those reasons (not wanting a Christian or an American again), but she’s nice. I think she’ll do really well with my kids, and I found someone else to take over the other positions.

Anyway, that was our entire adventure in Thailand! Stay tuned for our week in Japan!

Laos, Golden Triangle, and Hill Tribes

Oops, I mixed up these two blogs! The previous post, about the elephants, orchids, and tigers, was actually Wednesday, Aug 10th. This day was actually before then, on Tuesday, August 9th. Oh, well. Mistake fixed!

The following day was our big trip up north from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai to visit the Golden Triangle, Laos, and hill tribe villages. We were picked up at our hotel around 7:30 in a big van. Our guide, Nam, was a Thai woman who’s English wasn’t quite as good as Chiya’s, but still understandable. Along the way, we stopped at a beautiful hot springs.

Here’s some of the mountains you can see in the north:



And the hot spring:



I bought a really pretty pink dress in that town. I bought a total of three summer dresses in Thailand, all very nice and cheap. The dress I’m wearing in the picture is from Japan, a present from Pastor Toshi and Kumi for my two years of service at the church.

Next we stopped by the famous “white temple,” a very strange, contemporary structure designed more as a tourist attraction than a place of worship, I think. Here’s Mom and me in front:



And here are the hands before the entrance supposedly “reaching up from hell.” That was really creepy.




We weren’t allowed to take pictures of the inside, but right alongside the pictures of people in modern dress from all nations being flown on magic carpets to meet the Buddha in heaven, were images of spider man, the Hulk, Superman, Neo from the Matrix, even Japanese cartoon characters. Modern-day superheroes painted all over the walls. I asked Nam what that was all about. I assumed it had something to do with “karma” or heroism or something semi-intelligent like that, but she said no, the temple designer simply liked those characters so he included them inside the temple. Talk about irreverent. Who could possibly take their religion seriously when they’ve got anpan man (red bean paste bread man), Snoopy, and violent video game characters right alongside Buddha, who preached against violence and worldliness? They were still working on the mural too. It’ll be a sight to see when it’s finished.

Even creepier was the full-sized figure of a monk meditating in the middle of the temple in front of the Buddha statue. He looked like a real man, right down to the wrinkles in his skin and robe, but he turned out just to be a wax statue. Nearly fooled me!

The creepiness didn’t end there. There were demon heads hanging from all the trees with mossy plants growing from them like hair and beards, and weird statues sticking up from the ground, designed after the creature from Alien and other horror movies:




If they’re trying to freak people out, they got what they wanted!

Of course, if you visit the white temple, you’ve got to visit its golden bathroom. It’s gold on the inside too!



From there we took a river cruise to the golden triangle. Our guide explained that this was a triangle-shaped area of sandbars between Myanmar, Thailand, and Laos in the Mekong River. In the old days, that’s the only place where trader were allowed to buy and sell opium, and since the currencies of the three countries were all different, everyone had to use gold.

“You want opium?” Nam asked. “I can arrange for you. You buy drug, then get free stay in jail. Good deal, no?”

The river is also a major form of transportation. Boats can sail down it from as far away as China, and we saw some bearing the red five-star flag. We passed a lot of casinos, fancy hotels, and famous residences. Here’s some photos:





We finally got off at Laos. The difference in wealth was immediately obvious, even more striking than when you cross over from the United States into Mexico. In contrast to Thailand’s constitutional monarchy, extremely consumerist, tourist, capitalist society, Laos is communist, and it shows.

As soon as we arrived, some of the children got onto the boat, road it for a few seconds, and then jumped off to swim back to the pier, probably the only fun they ever got. But most immediately started begging for money. I gave them each a little something, and then said, “photo, photo!” Even though they spoke little English, they sure knew that word!



Some more pictures:



Sorry my finger’s partly in the way of this one:



Apparently we were in one of the richest parts of the country too, right on the boarder with Thailand, one of the few areas allowed to sell products to tourists. The big attraction in Laos is the super cheap fake name brand goods, but Mom and I weren’t interested in that, so we went for about a twenty minute walk, since we only had thirty minutes in Laos. Here’s what we saw.

Mother and daughter shrimp fishing:




Kids watching over their cattle:



Some huts for who knows what:



Mom and I wondered if the proper adjective for everything from Laos was “Lousy.” We joked about that for awhile. Laos sure does have a “Lousy” economy. Here are some “Lousy” ducks:



Here’s “Lousy” snake whiskey. Yes, that’s a real cobra biting its own tail, and “Lousy” doctors prescribe that you drink a small cup twice a day before meals to cure “rheumatism, lumbago, and sweat of limbs.” It’s supposed to make you stronger too.



Nam told us the proper term is “Laotian,” not to be confused with the term “Laodicean” used to describe the church in the city of Laodicea in the New Testament. I sure hope things improve for the Laotians.

After that, we had a nice buffet lunch, then headed to a bustling market street on the boarder of Myanmar (former Burma) and Thailand.

Here’s a strange sight in front of a modern clock shop:



Ethnic dolls from the hill tribe peoples:



Woman with an umbrella hat:



Mom and me in front of the border crossing:




We didn’t cross, because that would have cost 500 Baht, or about $16.21 per person. It also takes time off your Thailand VISA because Thailand and Burma have never been on the best of terms. It’s like how India cuts your time in India or denies you all together if you’ve been to Pakistan or have relatives in Pakistan or any connection with Pakistan whatsoever. Israel does that for some places too.

Here’s a peak at Myanmar:




Next, we stopped by some of the hill tribe villages. I felt like we had stepped into a national geographic special:



The bridge into the long neck and long eared villages. Quite wobbly!



Some pictures of the long neck ladies and their weaving:










These were a nomadic or aboriginal people (many of them Christian) who got kicked out of Myanmar, much like the Myanmar refugees I now teach in Oklahoma. At first Thailand didn’t want them either, but now they’re making quite a pretty penny from tourists as a novelty, so the Thai “let them stay.” But they don’t have any legal rights and none of them are allowed citizen cards, even those who were born in Thailand to families who have been living there for a few generations.

We asked why they put those long brass coils around their necks. Some suspect it used to be to protect from tiger bites. Others think it’s just considered beautiful. It looks awfully painful. Some think it’s a symbol of “women’s oppression,” since only women wear them, but in recent years it’s actually helped their status. While the men are out working in the fields (or in many cases are unemployed), the women make scarves and other weavings and look beautiful and exotic for the tourists, bringing in most of the village income. So women are more valued in their culture than ever before. Kind of strange how that works.

Here’s a “long-eared” woman. The tribes are related, but not the same:



Here’s a little tribal girl who hasn’t started wearing the bronze coil yet:



We stopped by a little store on the way back and bought some dried papaya. It was OK, not nearly as good as the kind from the Philippines I bought while I was in the airport there last year. But the chocolate and sesame coconut was really good!

Then we had the long drive back to Chiang Mai and arrived at our hotel about 9:00pm. What a wonderful day!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Orchids, Elephants, and Tigers!

On our free day in Chiang Mai, our hired driver first took us to an orchid garden. Here are some of the beautiful flowers:







They grew in long, tidy rows inside hanging planters. At the gift shop they sold orchid perfume (which they must use in extract form, since orchids don’t have much smell), orchids dipped in gold to pin to your shirt, and other orchid jewelry.

After the orchid farm, we visited Mae Sae Elephant Park. First, we saw the trainers bathing the elephants and washing their tusks:



Afterwards, during the show, they didn’t talk about the elephants, which was fine because we’d already heard several talks on them. Here are a few tricks:



An elephant “giving a message” to a trainer:



Elephants playing soccer:



And an elephant painting!



The trainer just gives the elephant the brush with the right color and the elephant paints. Most animal psychologists think the elephants simply remember the order of the right strokes. They don’t really know they’re painting a tree or a landscape or a trainer. Each elephant has a set number of pictures it is trained to paint, and depending on which color the elephant gets first, or some other cue from the trainer, it knows which image the trainer wants it to paint. So the saying proves true once more. Elephants never forget!

Elephant paintings sell pretty high! I think the most expensive on record was several million dollars, which was then donated (both money and painting) to the park. So people don’t just buy the paintings for the novelty of them. The profits support conversation.

Some other interesting facts about elephants. They live in small, matriarchal herds and have a primitive form of communication. Besides not forgetting what they paint, they also don’t need constant reinforcement with food like other, more hyperactive trained animals (such as sea lions, otters, dogs, and parrots). Elephants are capable of doing a whole show without getting a treat until the very end. They are more focused and remember when they will be fed. (You can tell because as soon as they finish the finale, they run to the fence where the audience sits with newly purchased bananas and sugar cane. Sometimes the elephants come so fast they scare the children.) If you tried to wait until the end with the other above animals, they would lose interest in doing tricks pretty quick.

Speaking of the finale, here it is:



After the show, Mom and I rode a big, twenty-year-old male elephant through the jungle for over an hour. A trainer rode on its head, guiding it. Sometimes he got off and took our picture in a good spot. He often gave a command for the elephant to raise its trunk. Here’s what that looks like:

And here’s us in the middle of the river. The trainer stood on a stone to take our picture.



Here’s a picture of the jungle.



That house you see is where they’re keeping the dominate male elephant who likes to fight with the others. (You can see him beside it, with HUGE tusks!) In general, all ungelded males have to be kept separate from the others.

After the ride, we bought a coconut to drink the water and eat some of the soft flesh inside, and then gave the empty shell to our elephant. What a hefty crunch!

Next, we went to tiger kingdom. We debated for awhile if we wanted to play with the baby tigers (3 months) or the newborn tigers (1 month). The latter cost more (about $40 per person for 10 minutes versus $30) but we finally decided that’s what we wanted, and it was worth it! About three pairs were allowed in at a time to play with the six tiger cubs. While we stood outside the glass cage waiting for our number to be called, I took this video of a cub getting cleaned:



Finally, it was our turn! They were really frisky just before we went in, but when we had them the poor things were so tired they wouldn’t climb on our laps or even open their eyes. (They have to play with people for 8 hours straight everyday. The trainers don’t change them out or give them any rest!) We weren’t allowed to pick them up. But here’s two pictures of me petting one:





Mom thought I was nuts, but I really wanted to go in with the big tigers too, and she went with me. We had to sign a release form first saying if the tiger mauled us we wouldn’t sue. I have no idea if that’s ever happened to anyone at Tiger Kingdom or not. Anyway, a trainer went in with Mom and me and instructed us on how to approach the tiger from behind, which is not what I would have thought. I expected to approach them from the front so they could see me coming and not get spooked. Turns out, the back is better because they don’t have as much power in their hind legs as in their front. I saw one trainer get kicked a little while the tiger was sleeping and it didn’t leave a scratch, whereas the front claws are used for hunting and tearing. The front is also where the teeth are.

Our big tiger was pretty tired too. Here’s us with him:







And here’s some weird, red ants I saw on a tree who found some kind of food. I thought I was in a National Geographic special!



There were some other tigers sitting up with the patrons, but they all looked pretty lazy. I hope the keepers don’t drug the tigers. Maybe they were only like that because it was the middle of the day. We saw lots of grown tigers in cages who were not being petted, especially ones with nasty tempers. One of them sprayed and hissed at the tiger in the neighboring cage, who just lay down like she didn’t care, so I assumed the mean tiger was a male who wanted to get at the female and couldn’t, so he was mad. Turned out, the trainer said, it was a female tiger in heat! I knew female house cats can get territorial and hormonal with other females, but I didn’t know female tigers did that too. I learn something knew every day!

When we finished with the big tigers, we spent the last remaining open hours of the park watching the baby tigers again (though only from afar; inside the cage would have cost more money). I got some cute videos:





And here’s a Japanese father with his son. The little boy was afraid of the baby tigers, so he kept climbing all over his daddy to get away from them!



Then we headed back to our hotel to get cleaned up for a Kantoke dinner and show at 7:30, featuring northern Thai and hill tribe food and performing arts. We were seated on the floor with reclining cushions around a circular, rotating tray of eight dishes. Here’s all the food:



Starting from my left shoulder: spicy curry soup, vegetable stir-fry (cabbage based), some kind of fried, crunchy vegetable, the appetizer fried banana (so good!) fried sweet potato, fried chicken, tomato paste, raw vegetables in the middle (celery, cucumber, carrot tomato), plus a bowl of clear chicken soup next to me, and rice! Anytime we ran out of something, they came back to refill it. We had to ask them to stop. It was all so good! I ate way too much.

Here’s Mom and me with one of our waitresses, who’s dressed in a traditional hill tribe costume.



About five minutes into dinner, the musicians started playing. It was repetitious and not very melodic (what melodies did exist were all pentatonic, based on the five-note Chinese scale), though less repetitive and atonal than Japanese music.



About thirty minutes into dinner, the show started. It was about an hour long and consisted mostly of dances similar to those we’d seen in the previous cultural show near Bangkok, but we were closer to the stage, so that was nice. Here’s the beginning procession:



Here’s the lion dance, which we hadn’t seen in the previous cultural show. (I believe it’s originally of Chinese origin.)





Each Asian country seems to have their own version. There are actual world competitions in the art of dragon dance. Last year, America won, believe it or not, though all participants were Chinese immigrants.

And the sword dance, which we also hadn’t seen before:



We left the theater around 9:30, but our van went back after ten minutes because someone must have called that I had left my black backpack. I hadn’t even realized it was missing! How they knew it was mine and what van I was in I’ll never know. What service!

And that was our free day in Chiang Mai! Stay tuned for Laos and the Golden Triangle!