Saturday, September 24, 2011

Bangkok: day 1

After our week adventure in Phuket, Mom and I took a 12-day customized tour of the rest of Thailand through Asia Adventure Tours. In Bangkok we were set to stay at the Royal View Hotel, but our ride from the airport had trouble finding the place. Apparently it was new, but we got there around midnight. There was a rather interesting coincidence that our flight was 222 and our room was 222, which we took to be an “auspicious” sign (more on that word later). The Royal View had an even better breakfast buffet! Besides the pancakes, French toast, cereal, fruit, salad, and eggs and other stuff the Ibis Phuket had, there were omelets made to order, bacon and ice cream! It was amazing. Our guide, Chiya, picked us up at 8:30. He was a native Thai and had his masters in religion, so he was extremely knowledgeable and spoke English very well. Besides him, we had our own private driver in an air conditioned van to take us everywhere, so it was basically one-on-one, and we could come and go anywhere as we liked!

Our first day was jam-packed. First, Chiya took us to Wat Traimit, or the Temple of the Golden Buddha. (“Wat” means Temple in Thai.)



Out front there was a huge portrait of the King. Even though he doesn't rule anymore (they have a constitutional monarchy like England) and he has officially proclaimed that he is not a god as was supposed of his grandfather, he is considered the "father of the nation." Pictures of him hang everywhere, and people worship him by bowing down before the huge portraits and offering incense and gifts. The do the same for the queen, only less so, (there is a small portrait of her in the hotel lobby) and I noticed that nearly all her portraits make her no older than forty. We arrived during her birthday month, so everyone was flying her blue flag, though the king's yellow flag was also prominently displayed everywhere. It's all very strange to me.

The statue is made of solid 18 karat gold, 3 meters high (9.9 feet) and weighs 5.5 tons. It was probably made in the 13th century during the Sukhothai period in the ancient capital of Ayutthaya. When the Burmese besieged the city, the statue was covered in plaster so they wouldn’t know it was gold and steal it. For two hundred years everyone forgot that it was really made of gold. But after World War II when the statue was being moved, the workers accidentally dropped it in the mud and damaged it. A monk discovered that there was gold under the plaster:



So who exactly is it depicting? This is what I learned through many conversations with Chiya and online research: “The Buddha” is a historical figure born in present day Nepal with the name Prince Siddhartha Gautana. His father, king of their territory, sheltered him from every pain and showered luxury on him. He married young and had a son, but early on in life he began to see pain and suffering and shunned his wealthy life to pursue a career as a traveling monk. At first he fasted into starvation and tortured his body as was the custom of Hindu monks in that day, but realized that was pointless too. So he came up with the concept of the “middle way,” saying you shouldn’t enjoy too much luxury at the expense of others, but you shouldn’t punish your body either. Shortly after that at the age of thirty-five, he was sitting under a bodhi tree and “attained enlightenment.” He then traveled throughout India and taught others to do the same. There are hundreds of stories about him stopping wars, ending famine, and performing other miracles. He eventually went home, his wife became a Buddhist nun and his son a priest (same as a monk), so there are no descendents of Buddha today. (However, some modern-day sects of Buddhist monks, such as a few in Japan, allow intercourse within marriage and children. But most sects do not have nuns. We saw one nun at a Thai temple but they are rare and almost unheard of in some countries like Japan. In the old Hindu system which leaked into Buddhism despite the Buddha's teachings of everyone as equal, women were seen as dirty. Those who are allowed to be nuns must live even stricter lives than the monks.)

Anyway, there are twelve different traditional statue poses depicting various stories of the Buddha after enlightenment. The golden Buddha pose is the story of him meditating under the bodhi tree when the king of the demons came to attack him. He lifted one hand to stop him and reached down with his other hand to touch the ground. The goddess of the earth came up, wrung out her hair and the demons were all swept away in a vast flood. Various attributes of the statues also remind worshipers of various aspects of the Buddha. In all statues, the coiled curls on top of the head represent wisdom and suffering, and the big ears “all hearing” (he knows what others are thinking). The eyes are cast downward to show self-reflection, which does not seem to be a strong point in many Buddhists (explanation later).

No matter how many questions I asked, I couldn’t figure out what “enlightenment” was, though apparently the Buddha taught others to do it after he did it.

“He knew all that is important to know,” Chiya explained. “How to end all war and stop all hunger and pain and suffering.”

I was struck by how different this was from Christianity. The Buddhists actually believe human beings can attain those things on their own, versus needing God and grace. If Chiya’s right, I wondered, then why do Buddhists fight just as many wars and suffer just as much as other people? I think over 6,000 years of human history has proved that we’re way beyond self-help when it comes to ending all war and suffering. But aloud I simply asked, “So, is this enlightenment a sudden flash of lightening “aha!’ moment, when suddenly all the secrets of the universe are laid bare before you?”

He struggled to find the right words. “No, it’s…gradual. Enlightenment can only come after much study and meditation.”

“So…anyone who studies and meditates will sort of slowly grow into enlightenment?”

“Well, certain people, yes. The Buddha said people are like lotus flowers. Some live on the surface of the pond and all they need is a little sunlight to make them bloom. Others are under the water and need more light. And some are in the mud and need to be cleaned and purified and given lots of light to blossom.”

“So when does a person know when they have become ‘enlightened?’ ” I insisted. “How do you know ‘This is it! I have now attained all the secrets of the universe.’ ”

“Um…you just know,” he said. “And other enlightened people know by looking at you. You are very peaceful, content. Miracles are one sign. Jesus was probably enlightened.”

As if any ‘enlightened’ person ever raised themselves from the dead. I kept my sarcasm to myself.

“Most Buddhists aren’t,” he clarified, probably able to read the skepticism on my face. “It’s rather rare, actually. Anyone who attains enlightenment also becomes a Buddha and is worshiped, but ‘The Buddha’ was the first, the great teacher.”

”You worship Buddha?” I asked, already knowing that they did. “But didn’t Buddha say he wasn’t a god and not to worship him?”

“Well, yes, but it’s deviated a lot since then and people have to worship something. So they worship his footprint, his shadow, his statues, his relics.”

Even though I don’t understand this mentality, there was no point in questioning further since he had simply stated a fact, so I asked a different question. “How is Thai Buddhism different from Japanese Buddhism?”

Chiya explained the different denominations to me, but I couldn’t quite get it all. The first major division seemed to come around after the Buddha died and the different monks who knew him came together to compile all his sayings and teachings into sacred scriptures or “sutra” which are still chanted in the original Sanskrit that few understand anymore. If I remember correctly, forty monks got together and had their own little council apart from the others, so they were shunned. That is the smaller main sect in Japan and some other places. The sect in Thailand comes from the council of the larger body of monks. Something like that. Now there are dozens of sects.

There are very few Buddhists in India now, since they were uprooted by the Muslims. There were too many Hindus for them to do that with them. Thailand I would say is a mixture of India and Chinese culture. This is evident in their architecture, food, performing arts, and even their religion. In addition to Buddhism, they have all the Hindu gods plus there own local deities. Each building, park, forest, and river has its guardian spirit. There were shrines everywhere.

Next, we visited the flower market on our way to Wat Pho. Hundreds of craftsmen lined the streets making garlands, bouquets, and other offerings that tourists and locals could buy to present at the Buddhist alters. They have a whole industry out of it! There were all kinds of fruits and foods too, most of which we didn’t recognize. Mom said she never knew so many fruits existed! Duran, mangosteen, longon, and jack fruit, just to name a few.



Before we went to Wat Pho, the temple of the reclining Buddha, the largest and oldest temple in Bangkok, we stopped for lunch at a small local restaurant. We took a boat across the river to the temple and here’s what we saw:



If I look disgusted in the picture, that’s because I am. That is the biggest idol I’d ever seen. It’s 15 meters, or about 50 feet high, and 46 meters, or about 150 feet long. This image depicts the story of Buddha’s death, when he lay down, surrounded by his family and followers, to “pass into nirvana.” Buddhism retained the reincarnation cycle of Hinduism, with the ultimate goal being complete oneness with the universe or being absorbed into it, thus becoming free of all joy and sorrow, pain and pleasure. Basically it’s a total loss of individuality and conscious thought, or ceasing to exist. No, thank you!

Here’s the feet, made from mother of pearl:



The hall was lined with bowls. People buy fake coins and put them in each of the bronze bowls to improve their karma, or chance of being reincarnated as something better in the next life. So the temple was full of the sound of tinking coins.



I asked what they did with the coins at the end of the day and Chiya said they get them out of the bowls and resell them. That’s a way to make money! Similarly you can pay to put a layer of shimmering cloth over the reclining Buddha. At the end of the day, the priests take it off and someone buys it again the next day. Now that’s a way to make money. No wonder the temples are so filthy rich and coat everything with gold. It’s disgusting. They should give that money to the poor in Thailand. There are plenty.

Next, we took an hour long-tail boat trip down the Chao Phraya river. The people lived in houses built on rotting stilts in the water and tin roofs:



I asked Chiya what happens when the river floods.

He shrugged. “The houses flood too.”

“Why don’t they move?” Mom asked. “Isn’t it dangerous to live along the river?”

“Sure, but they’ve been living here for generations. Why should they move?”

Locals paddled up to us in little boats and presented wares to sell, but we didn’t want anything. Chiya gave us some bread to feed to the fish. They swarmed us! So the tourists feed the fish and the locals catch and eat the fish. Very efficient system.

Then we stopped by Wat Arun, or Temple of the Dawn, named for the way the sun glows behind it when it rises. For reason I didn’t catch it was an extra special temple, so ladies had to wear long skirts over their pants. I had on a skirt. I told Mom she should have worn one, but she hadn’t so she had to rent a cloth to wrap around her and tuck into her pants like a skirt. The temple consisted mostly of giant stone carved stupas.

“What’s a stupa?” I asked.

“A stoopa,” Chiya explained, pronouncing it funny, “is a Buddhist tower that houses relics of the Buddha, like a lock of hair or piece of bone.”

“Oh, kind of like a pagoda in Japan,” I reasoned. “Or a chedi.” I glanced around the place. There had to be dozens of them, and I had seen hundreds of similar structures in Japan, China, and India. “There sure are a lot of them, all over the world.”

Chiya laughed. “Yes, the Buddha must have been very big, don’t you think? I wonder how they could possibly have enough of him to fill all the millions of pagodas and chedies and stoopas, whatever architectural style they prefer.”

I realized then that Chiya didn’t really believe the myths and stories himself, as with most “Buddhists” in Japan. Yet he still offered incense before every statue and prostrated himself. I asked what that was about.

“If you don’t think Buddha is a god, then why do you worship his statue?”

“I’m a modern, educated man,” he said seriously. “I believe in evolution and all that, not these gods. But I worship out of respect for my culture and for the Buddha as a great teacher.”

I found out later the Chiya was actually a Buddhist monk for seventeen years. Seventeen years of performing rituals you don’t even believe in! Reminds me of the Japanese argument, which goes something like this: “we don’t really believe in these ten thousand gods and goddesses we bow before each year, but we’re Japanese. It’s just what we do.”

Socrates said “The unexamined life is not worth living,” and I’m inclined to agree. But Socrates was a Western philosopher and maybe I’m just failing to understand Eastern mentality. (Interestingly enough, I learned recently that Japanese and perhaps other Asians too have no idea what you mean when you talk about “Eastern” and “Western” mentality. There is “European” and “Asian,” but Jerusalem is not the center of the globe for them, so “East” and “West” doesn’t make sense. When they use a globe, China is the starting point. They also don’t have a concept of Euro-centricm. Just as Asia plays a manor part in America history books, America and Europe play a lesser roll in Japanese textbooks. Thailand doesn’t even use A.D. all the time, since that’s Christian era. They use BE, which is Buddhist era, starting from the time the Buddha died. They add about 545 years to the A.D. year, so this year would be 2556 to them. So instead of using “East” and “West,” Asians more often use “us” and “outsiders.” In Japanese, the proper term for foreigner is “outside country person,” but people more often than not use the ruder slang form, which is simply “outside person.”)

Buddhists just think totally different from the way I was raised, so it’s very difficult to wrap my head around anything they say or believe. Even after hundreds of questions, I don’t think I’m any closer to understanding it, and I would bet that most of them don’t understand it either, but their religion does not emphasize understanding. The ritual matters more. Just give your offerings, say your prayers, do your good deeds, and you’ll be a good Buddhist. Forget the fact that you’re a “modern man” and know these statues are made of lifeless stone and metal and have no power to do what you ask. What seems like a waste of time to me, given their true beliefs, is meaningful to them. They just don’t stop to think about it. In their defense, however, I think some Christians do the same, and certainly most modern Americans do, at least in terms of religion. Essentially, that’s what an agnostic is. Is there more value in going through religious rituals you don’t believe or understand to “honor your culture” or to simply practice no religion at all? Well, if Truth is real, then that’s a moot question. If there is absolute Truth, then any belief that isn’t True, religious or otherwise, is a waste of time. Unless it can lead to the Truth.

Anyway, Mom and I climbed to the top of the highest stupa. Here’s what it looks like at a distance:



The statue beneath it is of the fat Buddha. The story goes that the Buddha was very thin and handsome, so he worried that people only listened to his teachings because of his good looks. So he transformed himself into a fat man. People continued to flock to him, so he realized it must truly be his teachings that drew them.

And here’s the view from the top:



It was decorated with bits of broken pottery. Story goes a bunch of expensive porcelain plates were shipped from China for use at the temple, but smashed during the long voyage, so they were formed into flowers and plastered onto the temple like this:



By the end of the hour, we were in a stuper from stupas.

After that, we went to the Grand Palace and Temple of the Emerald Buddha. Here is the entrance to the three main structures:



The royal family no longer lives in the palace but uses it for ceremony. Therefore, portions were blocked off for one of the princess’s funeral rites. They last several months for royalty. The Thai royal family is the richest in the world and one of the largest, again, something that rather disgusts me considering how many of the people are impoverished. The King used to have many wives, up until the recent one, who only has one. I wasn’t able to get a clear answer out of Chiya as to whether polygamy is technically illegal or not. From research I found out that it has been since 1935, but only in law. From what I gathered from the comments of various men, including Chiya and our other guides, many men have several mistresses or even wives without telling the others.

Here’s a closer look of the three main structures in the royal compounds:



Here some interesting mythological beasts, lion women:



Wouldn’t want to get in a cat fight with them!

Speaking of myths, there was a room in one of the temples that had a lot of murals depicting the Hindu Prince Rama and Princess Sita. Story goes she was kidnapped by the demon king, who sent back the body of his own daughter in Sita’s image floating down the river to make it look like Sita died. The bereaved Prince was about to bury the body, and the demon king’s daughter planned to return to the underworld once she was in the ground. But Prince Rama had a very clever monkey king for a friend, who suggested the burn the body on a funeral pier. Sure enough, the demon princess couldn’t take the heat, and started to fly off, but the monkey king caught her and made her his wife, forcing her to tell them where princess Sita was. (They had a half monkey, half person baby, by the way.) The monkey king and Rama led their armies to the demon’s layer, but along the way, the had to ford a stream. They piled up rocks, but the demon king’s mermaid daughter kept taking the stones away. So the monkey caught her and made her his second wife, forcing her to stop taking away the stones. (They later had a half money, half fish baby.) In one of the battles, they fought late into the night, and it was getting dark and dangerous in the demon king’s layer, so the the monkey king swallowed Rama’s army to keep them safe until dawn. Here is that mural:



Finally, Prince Rama won and Sita was returned to them. In some versions, they lived happily ever after, in others, Rama cast her away because she had been violated by the demon king, and in others they went into exile together. Chiya told me the stories. I suppose it made about as much sense as most myths.

Here’s an entrance with two demon/monkey guardian things. The gold is covered with cut colored glass to make it sparkle different colors:



The entrance to the emerald Buddha looked rather similar, but no pictures allowed there, since it’s the most sacred relic in Thailand. Thousands have fought and died over that idol; churned my stomach just watching all the people prostrating themselves before it. It’s not even really emerald but a single piece of carved green jade 45 centimeters (18 inches) tall and clothed in gold cloth, in the same pose as the golden Buddha. Very beautiful to be sure, but not worth blood. Of course, I don’t understand why Christians killed each other over some pretty cup they claimed was the “Holy Grail” either. It’s really scary when human beings give more value to a physical object than it was ever meant to have.

Here’s a link to pictures of the emerald Buddha:

http://www.google.com/search?q=emerald+buddha+images&hl=en&client=firefox&hs=cCX&rls=com.yahoo:en-US:official&prmd=imvns&tbm=isch&tbo=u&source=univ&sa=X&ei=8hV-ToX3DsnFsQLDlqQT&ved=0CCwQsAQ&biw=1067&bih=673

After all that, we went to the teak wood palace. No pictures allowed there, but it is what is sounds like, a palace made entirely out of extremely expensive wood, the largest in the world.

We got back to our hotel about 5:00. Back in Puhket, Mom was only able to exchange $200 of her dollars for Baht, and boy am I glad now! She had just barely enough to pay for the rest of our tour, since they wanted it in USD. God was lookin’ out for us. We were exhausted, so we took a nap and accidentally slept right up until someone was supposed to pick us up for the evening cabaret show. We rushed to get ready and ran downstairs, but no one came. I called the tour company but no answer. Fortunately, the hotel staff was very helpful. Someone drove us there and we got there just as the show was starting before our front row seats.

That was the one and only performance I’ve been to where I wished I didn’t have front row seats. They told us it was a family show. Ha, ha. I’ve never seen anything so racy in my life, at least not live. And so cheesy! Most of it was in English, but everything was lip sinked. Lady boys galore! Now, a little cross dressing I can handle. There was one guy who dressed like a Japanese geisha and did a really funny dance in full kimono. In another song stuff kept going wrong with the music (on purpose), and that was cute. But the “fantasy of calypso” number went way over the top! The men stripped on stage down to bra and underwear and then you didn’t know whether they were guys or girls. A very obviously man turned woman danced to a song called “you’re so beautiful” and made out with a guy on stage. Talk about your culture shock! A lot of people think I’m totally biased, but in truth, I don’t mind gay people as long as they don’t flaunt it, and I’m the same way with heterosexuals. I don’t like sex being thrown in my face regardless or gender or leanings!

In another song that told a story, and woman in a wedding dress danced with a man only to have him leave her to dance with other women in terribly revealing underwear. The wife got angry and pulled a gun on him, then threatened to shoot herself, then stripped out of her wedding gown (with the help of some men) to reveal a very riskea dress, danced with them, and then her husband came over and kissed her, only so he could take the gun out of her hand, and she was forced to get back in the wedding dress. Weird. I think the caveat in the middle, “Ladies and gentlemen, you are about to witness a story of murder, theft, adultery, and treachery, all the things we hold near and dear to our hearts,” about summed up the whole show.

The only beautiful number was a Korean dance performed in traditional hanbok and glow-in-the-dark fans. Why couldn’t they all be like that?

I couldn’t wait to get out of that joint, but of course we had to find a ride back to the hotel. We got a tuk-tuk (a motorcycle with two seats and a canopy attached that gets its name from the “tuk-tuk” sound it’s exhaust makes). But like the guy who brought us from the airport the day before, the driver didn’t know where our hotel was. This became apparent after we drove around in several circles for far too long. I tried to talk to him but he didn’t understand me. Finally he stopped.

Oh, no! I worried. This isn’t our hotel. Why are we stopped? There are some big guys over there. Are they going to rob us?

Our driver, who was maybe only sixteen or seventeen, went over and talked to the guys. The big burley one came over to me.

“Where you hotel?” he asked in broken English.

“Um…I don’t know. It’s called the Royal View.” (I had the phone number and email of our tour company on me but not the hotel, and the company wasn’t answering the phone since it was 10:00 at night.)

“Ok, you follow me.” He started down a dark alley.

I glanced back at Mom. “Um…you wait here.” I figure if he tried something, I could scream and she could then scream out in the street where there were more people.

But he led me right to a nice hotel and told me to ask the clerk at the desk where the Royal View was. The clerk got on the internet and printed me off a map, which I then brought back to our tuk-tuk driver, who was still waiting. Then he brought us right there. Thai people are so nice! Did I mention Chiya was nice too, answering all my dozens of questions so easily? They really bend over backwards for you, and I think it’s more than just money, because nobody asked me for a tip. I gave it anyway, of course, but I really think they want to please the tourists, just because they’re nice. But also, I think God was looking out for us. That’s the third time! I didn’t sit on the lion fish, Mom had just enough to pay for the rest of our tour because she hadn’t been able to exchange all her USD to Baht, and we were safe wandering around at night with strangers. God is good, but I will endeavor not to put Him to the test. From now on I will always carry all addresses and phone numbers of the places I am staying on my person!

Only then, upon arriving at the hotel, did we learn that our driver had come to pick us up for the cabaret five minutes after we left. He was late due to traffic.

So that was our first day in Bangkok!

Thursday, September 15, 2011

scuba diving!

Saturday, July 29th, Mom caught up on her rest and went to get the laundry done while I had my first day of open water scuba diver training! I’d been wanting to get it ever since I went scuba diving last summer in Japan. I thought I would be really scared. I’ve always been afraid of going under water since my baby brother drowned when I was almost ten, but for some reason it doesn’t bother me when my face and nose is in a mask and I have a regulator in my mouth. The air is cold, but I can always count on it to be there. Some people just can’t do scuba diving. I love it.

It basically allows the certified person to dive in any open water (lake, river, ocean) with a buddy who is also certified up to 16 meters, or about 60 feet. I had done the book training online prior. There’s a lot more to it than I thought, and just the online portion took ten hours. The major skills were nitrogen calculation, depressurization, equipment types and uses, different types of diving environments, various tides and how to handle them, underwater hand signals, basic safety, emergency procedures for helping yourself and other divers, what to do if something goes wrong with your equipment under water (rare), and other such things. I had to take a bunch of online tests and quizzes.

As far as nitrogen goes, the deeper I dive and the longer I stay under, the more nitrogen builds up in my system, which can cause nitrogen narcosis and various other nasty medical problems. There’s also depressurization sickness, which one can get from rising too fast (nitrogen bubbles get caught between bones or even organs and then burst). I have to worry about these things even more than air supply, since nitrogen levels usually force me to go up before the air tank is even half empty. I also had to learn what to do if I see different kinds of animals, such as dangerous fish, sharks, sting rays, etc. Basic policy: don’t run. Just bypass it slowly. Don’t touch ANYTHING if it can be helped. Even if it looks safe, there’s more danger of me harming it than it harming me, and ocean ecosystems are very fragile.

In Thailand, I had to take a quick test to ensure it was me that did the online training before we went to the pool with my instructor, Danny, who was from England. He had a rather thick cockney accent, which I’m not familiar with, so sometimes, especially when my ears were all clogged after a dive, I had trouble understanding him, which made me feel rather slow and stupid. The first day is called “confined water” I had to demonstrate basic swimming skills, learn how to put my equipment together, take it apart, store it, make sure it’s working properly, etc. I demonstrated “neutral buoyancy,” which is the ability to stay completely level on the bottom of the pool, which is a lot harder than it sounds. I had to compensate for a weight belt, buoyancy control device, and my own breathing, which made me rise about two feet every time I breathed in, and sink two feet when I exhaled. I learned how to lose and recover my regulator, “sip” air from the regulator (in case it malfunctions), emergency buddy regulator breathing and “buddy breathing,” clear my mask underwater, use the hand signals to communicate with my instructor, swim to one side of the pool to the other while exhaling slowly the entire time, among other things. All of this would have been no problem, if I didn’t keep have problem with my ears. They wouldn’t equalize. The further I went down, the more they felt like they were going to pop. I’ve always had trouble with my ears, (had tubes as a kid and they still get clogged quite often) and my dad actually ruptured his ear drum once. This made everything take forever. It took me ten minutes just to get to a decent depth every time we went under.

We’d only gotten halfway through the skills when I had to run to catch the sunset cruise. I was too late to catch the free shuttle from the hotel, so I caught a cab. I arrived and ran down the pier just as the ship was pulling out. I ran back to the office.

“That’s my boat!” I cried, pointing to the Chinese June Bahtra as it sailed into the open ocean.

Without saying a word to me, the woman pulled out her cell phone and gestured for me to follow. She spoke to the harbor gate guard in Thai, who opened the gate for me. Then a young man appeared and pointed to a small boat. Boat isn’t the right word. It was a large inertube with an engine on the back.

“You want me to get in that?” I asked.

He just smiled.

Well, why not? So I jumped in and he jumped in after me. Before I knew it we were whizzing toward the cruise ship, my hair whipping in the wind, the blue green ocean rushing under us. We reached the ship in about five minutes. I handed the young man a tip, climbed up the rope ladder and jumped on deck.

“All right, the party can start now!” I cried.

Boy was Mom glad to see me! “I asked our guide if we could wait a little longer but she said we had to leave at 5:00. I saw you waving as we were leaving. I asked if we could turn back but there was no way. But being Miss Drama Queen you had to go James Bond and arrive in style! Typical.”

While I had been away, a woman from South Africa who lived in Australia with her husband kept telling Mom “ ‘Tis a pity ‘bout your daughter.” Mom couldn’t understand her until she’d said it several times. I don’t think we met a single American on the entire trip. But I could understand her just fine (I have two friends from South Africa) so I could translate while we had a nice conversation.

We enjoyed a nice buffet dinner while chatting with our guide/captain, Jenny. There was something…strange about her. She wore the clothes and make up of a girl, but had a man’s voice. I finally got up the courage to ask her,

“Are you a lady boy?”

Mom about slugged me, but Jenny said, “I’m not offended. I am a lady boy.”

A “lady boy,” is a boy/man who’s had a sex change. They’re apparently quite common in Thailand and there is little to no discrimination against them. But if you ask me…it’s disgusting! They have to take hormone supplements their whole lives and end up being neither man nor woman, but something monstrous in the middle. I know that many people disagree with me, including many Thai who say lady boys are beautiful. That’s fine. If they’re entitled to their opinion, then I’m entitled to mine. The basic liberal philosophy is “it’s their body so they can do what they want to it” but I believe our bodies and our lives belong to God. More on that later.

Apart from being disturbing, Jenny was fun to talk to, very smart and informative. The cruise was lovely. Here are some pictures:







The next day was my first day scuba diving from a boat. Mom came too just to snorkel, since she’d discovered she loved that on the Phi Phi islands by speedboat tour. First we took two shuttles to the dive site. There was a Japanese family I chatted with until our second transport arrived. One Chinese kid (he had a name but I’m not putting it here) who sat next to me was from America (the first!) but he was living in Singapore. He told me he was flying back that evening.

“Uh…then you probably can’t dive,” I told him. “You shouldn’t dive if you’re going on a plane in the next eighteen hours. Depressurization sickness.”

“I’m sure it will be fine,” he said, “but I’ll ask.” Sure enough, the captain and his guide wouldn’t let him. I feel a little guilty. They would have let him go if I hadn’t mentioned it to him. He raised a stink for about an hour, he was so mad. But I think it’s good that I told him. Depressurization sickness can be pretty severe. He ended up having a good time snorkeling anyway.

It took half an hour to get to the dive site, so I spent the time up top deck feeling the wind and sun on my face. After a while, the captain, who was from Ireland, came out and talked to me. He was a very stereotypical captain, grumbling about the Chinese guy giving him trouble, complaining about his various aches and pains. He started telling me about his life and mentioned he’d been thinking a lot about death lately. He talked about how he saw so many horrible things when he fought in some South American war, killed a lot of people. He wondered how life could be so beautiful but human beings could be so rotten, and wondered how any “supreme being” could let it happen that way.

Wow, here’s the perfect opportunity. For several days I’d been praying that God would open up a way for me to witness to someone. So I said,

“You know, I believe God didn’t make the world this way. I think He made it perfect, but human beings screwed it up. But if we earnestly seek God, we can still find Him. He’s not far off from any of us.”

He nodded. “Huh, that’s makes sense. So do you think if we try hard enough, we can be good and reach God?”

I shook my head. “No, I think that when human beings messed up in the beginning, the world became broken. That’s what causes earthquakes and hurricanes. It wasn’t meant to be this way, that’s why natural disasters and disease and death always seem so unfair, you know?”

“Yeah, I do. During the war I saw innocent children get hurt all the time. I always wondered, ‘whatever did they do?’ Human beings just keep screwing up. There’s no hope for us getting better. There’s something…rotten about us, down to our very core. We can’t be good even when we want to be.”

“Exactly,” I agreed. “It’s hopeless for us, but I believe that God, because he knew we were hopeless, came down to Earth and became one of us. To show how much he loves us. And then, He even died for us. He paid the price for all the bad stuff we’ve done, because he knew we couldn’t do it ourselves. All he asks is that we put our trust in Him and try to share the same kind of love He had for us with others.”

“Man, that’s amazing!” he turned to me. “What’s the name of your religion?”

I almost laughed. “Christianity.”

“Really? Protestant? Catholic?”

Knowing this is a particular sensitive point to the Irish, I smiled. “Just Christian.”

He mulled over this a minute, then sure enough began talking about the Protestant and Catholic fighting he’d seen growing up, often leading to loss of life.

“You know what?” I told him honestly. “I don’t think those people you saw killing each other were really Christian at all. “Christian” means “follower of Christ,” and Christ never killed anyone; he saved lives. Real Christianity is about modeling his love for others. I think those people you saw simply wore religion like a political party.”

He nodded. “That’s for sure. What about the crusades?”

I told him about my time in the U.S., Mexico, Africa, India, and Japan and all the Christian good I’d seen while volunteering in those places. “No one ever talks about Christians doing those things, do they?”

He smiled. “Guess not. But you’re right. I saw a lot of Christian missionaries working during the war. They sacrificed their lives, literally, to help everyone they could. But I think it’s too late for me. God doesn’t want me.”

I put a hand on his shoulder. “It’s never too late. God loves and wants everyone. All you have to do is put your trust in Him.”

Just then, my instructor Danny called me down to start putting together my equipment. Perfect timing. Come on, God definitely planned for that encounter. It’s easy to evangelize, when you pray for the opportunity.

Here’s me putting my gear together and testing it:



We had two dives scheduled for the day. I loved the first one. It was mostly swimming around getting used to all the gear in the open water, coral reefs, swimming with currents, stuff like that. I took a banana with me again and the beautiful tropical fish swarmed all around! I saw a giant green trigger fish, which you have to watch out for because it will attack if you get in its territory. I don’t think it even noticed us.

The second dive was not so fun. We had to spend a lot of time catching up on skills I didn’t get in the pool. I swallowed a lot of salt water learning how to take on and off my equipment and weight belt in the water, and the waves were really choppy on the surface where I had to learn and demonstrate other skills. I felt really sick when I got back on the boat. I sat next to the Chinese guy, who seemed to have had a good time. He even saw more than I did, a school of baby barracuda. All of a sudden I got even sicker and threw up all over the floor. My instructor came to get me and chastised me for throwing up inside and brought me to the side, where I continued throwing up. He was not very nice about it. He kept saying we had some paper work to fill out. I resisted the urge to throw up all over his lap.

I spent the next hour and a half utterly miserable. Mom never came out to see me, which in addition to her extremely disgusted face and lack of any kindness while I was throwing up inside, made me really mad. I only found out later that she had done the smart thing and taken a seasick pill, which conked her out shortly after I threw up. After awhile my instructor came out again and said tomorrow’s schedule would be even more rigorous with three dives and going out three hours one way to the Phi Phi islands. I knew I couldn’t take that. Finally he let up and suggested something useful, that I downgrade my certification from open water diver to scuba diver. We had already done all the training for that. Tomorrow, if I was up to it, we would come back to the same place and just do two fun dives. By the time we arrived back at the pier the seasick pill had finally kicked in, so I was feeling better and I agreed to his new plan. (I learned that many pills take about 1 ½ hours to kick in, so I have to take them before I get on the boat!)

As a scuba diver I could do everything an open water diver could do, except I always had to have a guide with me and I could only dive to twelve meters, or 40 feet. Because of my ears I don’t think I can dive deeper than that anyway, and I never planned on diving in the same place twice, so having a guide is just smart anyway, since he or she would know all the best places to see beautiful coral and fish.

That evening Mom and I both took a nap because of the medicine. I was hungry from no lunch and throwing up my breakfast, so I went out for some dinner about 7:00. There I met a German woman living in Australia, and we talked about our travels. She was a ER surgeon with a strong passion for Samalia. Very interesting lady. I had pizza (I needed something easy to digest, easier than Thai food, anyway) and fried ice cream, then tried some of her delicious “banana pancake” that she couldn’t finish. Here’s the fried ice cream:



So the second day was just “fun diving” without instruction, and was certainly a lot more fun. I saw eels and pencil fish and giant puffers, baby puffers, urchins, neon fish, and almost sat on a lion fish! They’re so poisonous that they’ll kill you in two hours if you touch them. My instructor pulled me away just in time. Another reason to always go with a guide. I got much better and swimming by myself, though. At the end of the second dive of that day, he didn’t have to hold onto me at all. I could switch my direction in the middle of a current even and keep perfect buoyancy at all times.

Diving is like being in a magical world or an alien planet. You see so much! The fish act so different than they do in aquariums, and everything is much closer and real, rather than artificial. It's one of the few habitats in the world where you can still see tons of native animals roaming around in the wild. I’m hooked! Next I want to go to the Philippines and swim with the whale sharks. They are called “the friendly giants of the sea.” They are sharks but only eat microscopic plankton, hence the name “whale” in front of shark.

I didn't get sick on the second day because I was sure to take the medicine plenty in advance, but others did:



Our final day in Phuket we were planning on taking the Phang Nga Bay 4-in 1 tour, but we were both tired and sick of boats, so I canceled it. Instead we spent the day packing and actually enjoying the beach and hotel. There were some beautiful gardens around. Here's some flowers in the windows of a nearby apartment:



A nearby hotel called the "Austrian garden" where lots of German speakers stay:



Path through the palm trees:



A shrine in the garden. They offered fanta grape to the spirits, that was funny:



We both got a Thai massage:



It hurt! Little did we know that unlike Western messages, Thai messages are not meant to be relaxing, but stretching! The bend and pull you in all kinds of uncomfortable directions! It’s supposed to improve circulation and all that. It was one hour of near torture, but they assured us we would feel better later. Maybe we did, maybe we didn’t. It’s hard to tell.

But the beach was nice:



Someone parasailing. Cost over $30 for five minutes:



The waves were too high to swim in and filled with trash, so we went back to the hotel pool to swim:



For dinner, we ate succulent Thai dishes like coconut pineapple chicken, Thai salad, orange chicken, beef kabobs, and other mouth-watering delights while sipping pinacoladas by the pool in lounge chairs. Not kidding. It was heaven.

We headed for the airport at 6:00 and caught our 8:40pm plane for Bangkok, arriving at 10:05. We got to our hotel at 11:00 and crashed. And that was the end of the Phuket portion of our summer 2011 vacation!

Until next time, keep loving and praying,
L.J. Popp

Friday, September 9, 2011

4-in-1 safari and Phuket Fantase!

On to my favorite day in Phuket! Friday, July 28th, we enjoyed another excellent buffet breakfast before being picked up at 8:00 for our four-in-one safari! As we neared the little traditional camp with grass huts, we saw elephants walking along the road. The little Dutch girl in our group cried out "oliphant, oliphant!" It was really cute.

First they told us about traditional Thai tea and coffee, and we got to try some, along with the delicious egg pancakes. Coffee used to be imported from Brazil for only the rich people to drink, but in 1979 it started to be grown in Thailand. Now everyone, even the poor farmers, drink it in the morning. They like it really sweat. Whiskey is also popular, but Thai people don’t mix them together. Then we saw how they used water buffalo to plow a rice field:



Some farmers still use water buffalo because they are very ecological, but most use gasoline tractors now. If they can’t afford their own, they rent one. Next we rode in a six-person water buffalo cart! Those are strong animals. While I was waiting for my turn, I played with the cute kittens running around. They were all over the camp.

Then we saw how they harvested the rice and winnowed it:



Winnowed rice (rice with the chaff taken off) can last two years in dry storage. Most grains are like that, which is why they used to make up the majority of the human diet, especially in winter. Vegetables and fruits, apart from being dried, did not keep well until the invention of canning in 1810. Of course in Thailand everything but rice grows year round, but other countries are no so lucky. A pre-industrial non-tropical winter diet might consist of some grain, eggs, milk, dried fruits and vegetables, roots, and whatever meat could be hunted or raised. Subsequently, in nearly all countries that have seasons, the staple grain doubles as their word for “a meal.” This is true for Japan (rice or gohan) Malawi Africa (ensima or corn porridge), South American countries (maize or corn) and even English. The word “meal,” means “ground grain,” as in corn meal, wheat meal, rice meal etc. Waiters often say, “What kind of salad would you like with your meal?” Two hundred year ago, that used to be literal, and in some countries it still is. (Interestingly in Old English, the word “meat,” also doubled as the word for “food,” as in the old Psalm: “My tears have been my meat day and night.” This shows just how important meat was and still is in the British and American diet, and according to historians, King Henry XIII refused to eat anything except meat and bread, which is what eventually did him in. Many historians also attribute the high intake of meat and bread without fruit and vegetables in the Medieval English court to the high number of miscarriages in the royal family, higher than the peasant population.) In China, rice is the meal which is accompanied by several “side dishes” of vegetables or meat. In southern Thailand where it’s warmer and rains more, they can grow two rice crops a year. In northern Thailand in the mountains, only one. Any place that grows rice has to have a rainy season. Wheat requires less rain and cooler climate. Corn (maize) less rain and hotter climate.

Next, we learned about coconuts. There are actually dozens of species and hundreds of varieties. The smaller species that is green upon maturity is good for drinking the coconut water inside, but there isn’t much meat (there’s that word again; see what I mean?) and it’s very soft without much flavor. The larger, brown coconut is good for eating and making coconut milk and oil. They shave the coconut by cracking it open and scraping the meat against a spear or other sharp object stuck point up in the ground. Coconut milk is made by squeezing the shaved coconut meat. So you see, coconut milk and coconut water are not the same. They don’t even come from the same species of coconut!

For coconut oil, you add water to the coconut milk and boil it for a whole day. Something black falls to the bottom of the pot. This is very sweet and used in all kinds of coconut candy. The oil is yellow or white and very good for you. People used to think it was bad because its solid at 70 degrees Fahrenheit. But the body is 98 degrees, so inside you it flows just fine. My doctor actually prescribes for me to eat lots of coconut oil in the winter when my hands and lips get very dry. It’s good for all kinds of skin conditions. It is used in cooking, in lotions, hair products, scented oils, and many other things. They gave us peanuts roasted in coconut oil and they were very tasty. Mom cooks with coconut oil all the time. It adds a sweet flavor.

After getting all these products from the coconut, they use the shell as cups, containers, or as bras for the “lady boys,” our guide joked. Mom could hardly understand a word he said this whole time, even though he spoke English, so I had to translate everything for her.

“Why does he keep saying, “ladies, ladies?” Mom asked. “Is he still talking about those awful lady boys?”

“He’s saying, “like this, like this,” I explained. “He says it every time he demonstrates something.”

You see, totally opposite of the Japanese who always add an extra vowel to the end of their words (it’su hoto today ne?”), the Thai cut off the final consonant. But like the Japanese, the TH sound is hard for them. So “like this,” comes out sounding “Lie dis.”

Next we saw the rubber production:



Rubber trees are also not native to Thailand but are imported from South America, I think Brazil. They cut spiral strips of bark off and catch the dripping sap in coconut cups tied to the tree. They then take that product, boil it, add acid, roll it flat, and sell. The usual rubber farmer owns about fifty trees, which can make one kilogram (2.2 pounds) of rubber every day. Each of those, rolled flat, sell for about five dollars. In Phuket, the number one industry is tourism, followed by rubber, then rice farming.

After that, we saw the Thai cooking demonstration. They passed around some traditional herbs and spices, ground them up, and made pineapple coconut chicken. It was soooo good! I bought a packet of Thai mild spices to try in my cooking at home. Key seasonings in Thai cooking are bay leaves, lemon grass, ginger, and many kinds of peppers. Our guide proclaimed, “We Thai men, we don’t want beautiful or sexy lady. When we walk in girl’s house, we want to hear pestol grinding spices. Hear it? Good cooking, good lady! No spicy, no happy.”

Then we saw a baby elephant show:



So cute! You know how they say elephants never forget? I think I know why. Most animals in shows need constant reinforcements to do tricks. Sealion trainers, for example, keep a bucket of fish on their hip and toss a fish to the sealion every time it does something right, or even just sits there patiently while the trainer explains something to the audience. The same goes for dolphins, river otters, mice, rats, birds, and other hyper animals. They have such short attention spans the trainer has to constantly reward them or they’ll get distracted. Trainers also have to use “targets,” bright objects on poles or their fists as points of reference to show the animals where to stand or that they did something right. The animal does a trick, the trainer puts out the target, animal comes back to touch it, animal gets treat. Elephants don’t need that. The elephants went through the whole show without any treats or targets. They remembered everything perfectly and could stay focused on the task at hand. But you should have seen them run for the guard rail once the show finished. They remembered what was coming! All the audience members lined up and fed them fruit, sugar cane, and coconuts. The elephants were able to imagine that reward and go through the whole show flawlessly in focused anticipation. I don’t any other animal that can do that!

Here’s us with the elephants after we fed them. The elephant on the far right is bobbing its head really fast to say it wants more. Elephants use lots of gestures to communicate between themselves and their trainers:



Then we got to ride an elephant through the jungle:



Here’s a beautiful view of the ocean from on top of the elephant:



So there you go! 4-in-1. Elephants, water buffalo, food production and rubber production, plus a one hour lunch cruise on a Chinese Junk! Again, the buffet was amazing, not to mention the view from the boat:



We met a newly married Egyptian couple. Mom and I wondered if the woman was royalty and the man had somehow married above his station. They said they were Muslim, but the wife must have been liberal because she wore shorts and a tank top, no hijab. She was very beautiful, though chubby. Her husband served her hand and foot and kept taking her picture. She was so aloof, quite snobby, actually. She spoke good English from the few sentences she said to me but mostly ignored my questions. This feeling intensified when we finished the cruise and went with them in the back of a truck to our hotel. The man was very talkative and asked us lots of questions and talked about Egypt, but his wife remained silent and poised like a queen. When it began to rain, the driver pulled down the tarp. The woman laughed a little at getting wet but then she returned to her somber face, giving the general impression that this was all beneath her. They didn’t act like a couple at all. Besides my previous theory, the only other thing I could think of was that they were lying about being newly weds, that she was some kind of princess and he her servant/bodyguard pretending to be her husband for safety purposes? Or maybe I’ve read too many royal scandal novels.

We got back to our hotel about 2:30. Mom and I were hopping to see the Big Buddha statue, supposedly with lots of wild monkeys and cats running around it, but the rain damped our plans so we just too a nap at the hotel. It’s a too thing, too, because the Fantasea show that picked us up at 5:30 kept us out until midnight!

Phuket Fantasea is a theme park open only from 6:00 midnight, but we could have spent all day there! We spent too much time just at the entrance! The ticket booths were gilded in gold and beautifully painted murals. There was also a huge koi pond filled with statues of mythical creatures:





Once inside, there were shops selling everything from local oddities to gorgeously cut glass, street performances, dancing, and several other attractions. We went into the animal adventure, which featured white parrots and crows, white tigers, and hamsters:



Why are they trying to go up those ramps? They have the whole area to play in! But humans are like that too.

We wanted to go into the bird paradise and see the cultural dancing and Prince Kamala magic show, but we didn’t have time. Instead we spent an hour in the MASSIVE buffet! That was the best food and the most food I’ve ever seen in my life! The best was the mushroom chicken, roast beef, barbequed duck, and dark chocolate deserts. So good!

Here’s the buffet hall with its sculpted ceiling and murals:



And one of the statues:



It’s a kinnaree, a mythological woman/bird who sings very beautifully and gives good luck to her possessor. They were said to live in the mystical mythical mountain forest of Himawanta, somewhere in the Himalayan mountains. Evil men try to catch them and make them their lovers, but it is very bad luck to catch a kinnaree.

Wow, three buffets in one day! And all of them so good, but that one was definitely the best. We felt like royalty!

Then it was on to the 9:00 show, the main attraction! There was so much to see and do in the theater. They even had baby elephants you could give fruit to and infant tigers you could hold and feed a bottle to. Talk about a tourist trap!

The show itself was spectacular! The story was about Prince Kamala, his magic elephant, and many adventures. As far as I could research, there was no prince Kamala. Kamala is just the name of the area, but magic elephants are an important part of Thai mythology, and the show featured many other mythical elements. The best scenes were the flying kinnaree women trying to avoid being caught, and the acrobats dressed as glowing stars doing flips from trapezes. Prince Kamala fell in love with a local village girl, and there was a hard-to-get scene somewhat like Curly and Lori’s “People Will Say We’re In Love” from the musical Oklahoma, only Thai style with rice farmers dancing in the background, and chickens, ducks, and goats running across the stage. But the girl was then kidnapped by the demon king, and Prince Kamala had to rescue her. Kind of like the Hindu story of Prince Rama and Sita. All during the battle the elephants were perfect, despite the loud noises, explosions, and other chaos, in perfect time to the music. How do the trainers get them to do that! I wouldn’t want to be around a spooked elephant. Of course Prince Rama won, and in the victory, they brought out a baby elephant, and many children came out to dance with it to the Thai song “Chiang, Chiang, Chiang,” which means elephant. Then, there was a magnificent elephant circus with them balancing on balls and each others backs and such. Wow! As the theme song says, Phuket Fantasea, that’s where I want to be! I highly recommend it.

Here is the theater:



I met another Egyptian woman there, who reminded me of one I met in Japan. Talk about hyper! She spoke a million miles a minute. “Hello where are you from I’ve never been to America but I want to but now I’m here all by myself and my family says I’m crazy to travel alone but I don’t mind because I think it’s fun don’t you?” I don’t even know Americans who talk that fast!

Mom left her bag at the theater, but fortunately when we went back for it, it was still there. I wanted to stay longer but Mom was in a hurry to get back to our hotel since it was late. We got back about midnight. What a day!

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Phi Phi islands by speed boat

Finally, time to write! Now I get to tell you all about my trip to Thailand with my mom! (And Japan too.)

Tuesday, July 26th, I left Nabari at 1:42pm on the train to pick up Mom at Kansai International Airport in Osaka. I arrived at 4:10 and she came through the gate a little later. We embraced and then took the train thirty minutes to Spa World! On the way, who should call but my school! They didn’t trust me to clean up my apartment, so they actually went there to inspect it (for the third time). My supervisor called me to chastise me for leaving three dishes in the sink. What did she expect me to do, go all the way back and wash them? I apologized and explained that I’d been trying to get my book off to a publisher before I left, and that my clock was slow, so I realized last minute that if I didn’t run to catch the train, I would miss it. Yes, I shouldn’t have left the dishes, but she shouldn’t have called me! My contract was over! They weren’t paying me anymore, so they had no right to bug me while I was on vacation with my mother. I then asked her if she’d left the stuff in my apartment. She said she’d thrown most of it away. I got really upset, because I’d told her three times that I was coming back for those things in another month. Finally, I thought I understood that she had only thrown out the food. (The confusion lay in the fact that her English isn’t very good, and my Japanese isn’t very good, and between the two of us, communication just isn’t very good.) Feeling relieved (at the moment), we ended the call. But that story unfolds more later…

As I’ve said before about Spa World, they have an Asian and a European spa. Both allow no clothing, so the men and women switch off spas every month. In July, the women had the European spa, (the better one in my opinion) so we were in luck. Roman bubble bath with statues, Greek herbal bath (rosemary, jasmine, sage, and peppermint) Spanish waterfall, Mediterranean lounge, Atlantis (with fish tanks) blue grotto (milk and honey), gold cold bath, Finland cold, steam sauna, regular and super hot sauna, salt sauna (where you rub salt on yourself for exfoliation), and Dr. oxygen bath. Plus a pool, lazy river, water slides, work out gym, TVs, game room and restaurants, and message places on the other floors where you have to wear a bathing suit or clothes. They even have those Dr. fish that nibble the dead skin off your feet (costs extra, though). We could have spent a week there! Mom loved it. At first she was real self-conscious with everyone being naked, but pretty soon she hardly seemed to notice.

It’s only 1,000 yen ($12) per day if you don’t spend the night, but we decided to and it was only an extra 1,300 ($15.50). That’s cheaper than any hotel you’ll find in Osaka. Originally, we were going to go back to my apartment, but that actually would have cost us more in train tickets just getting there and back to the airport in the morning! Plus we would have had to have gotten up really early to make our plane on time, since it takes about three hours to get from my apartment to the airport. So we slept on the cushy mats on the floor. Much more comfortable than tatami, but bright and noisy. The next morning, we headed back to the airport for Thailand!

The next day was a travel day. It takes 5 1/2 hours to fly from Kansai to Bangkok. Of course we flew Thai airways, “smooth as silk,” with our own personal video screens. I spent the flight watching Mr. and Mrs. Smith and Arthur III. Airplanes are half so bad when you’re distracted. Here’s us at the Bangkok airport. A nice Indian fellow took our picture:



At the Bangkok airport, Mom looked like a little kid staring into the front window of a toy store. Two Muslim ladies in black burqas passed us, and then we saw a Buddhist monk in his orange robe ordering a shake from McDonald's. I had to tell her to stop staring and snapping her camera.

“We’re not in Oklahoma anymore,” she noted.

“Tell me about it,” I replied.

From Bangkok we took another 1 ½ hour plane ride to Phuket. We got in around 7:40 Thailand time, which is about 9:40 Japan time. We walked out of the airport and it was mass chaos. Our tour company, Asia Web tours, promised to have someone to pick us up, but as we pushed our way through the sea of bodies, we didn’t see our names on the signs the various chauffeurs held up. We must have gotten asked, “Taxi, Madam?” a dozen times. Finally I stopped and asked one of the other agency chauffeurs what to do, and he called the company for us. (Good thing I had the number written down and within easy access! ALWAYS have important contact info ready when you’re traveling.) Someone came to pick us up in fifteen minutes.

Our hotel, Ibis, was about forty-five minutes from the airport, but in a nice central location of Phuket city, and only a five minute walk to the beach. We got there around 9:30pm, no time to really do anything except get settled in and sleep. By that time, we were exhausted, especially since it was about 11:30 in Japan.

Our first day in Thailand we woke up around 7:00 and enjoyed a delicious buffet breakfast. They had everything from cereals, breads, eggs, bacon, pancakes, and French toast to more Asian style rice, noodles, vegetable stir-fry, and soup, and of course yogurt, exotic fruits, and juices. We got that every morning for seven days! It was great.

Here’s how our tour worked. My Malaysian friend told me I should really visit Phuket, so early on in the planning process for this trip I knew we would go there. Most of my research online was at http://www.phuket-travel.com/. It had all kinds of information about things to see and do, hotels, tour packages, restaurants, the works. I ended up choosing two three-day packages and a one-day package, because I had no idea that the main industry in Phuket is tourism, and it’s perfectly safe and very easy just to figure out where you want to go and get a taxi service there and get your tickets at the place. I honestly don’t know if that would have been cheaper than the packages, but tours tend to be crammed full of stuff when Mom and I would rather just absorb and enjoy where we are. I would say it’s better to go there, see what’s doable, and just plan each day as it comes. For most places you can’t do that without a lot of hassle (or have to buy tickets in advance), but in Thailand you definitely can.

We got picked up around 8:00am for the Phi Phi islands by speed boat, Phuket’s most popular tour. (It’s pronounced “pee pee.” One of the islands we passed by was "pee pee dung island.) The tour bus goes around to the various hotels and picks people up on a set schedule. They call the hotels if they’re going to be late. Usually they were on time. The driver was nice and let Mom and me stop by a bank to exchange some money, since every place had been closed when we arrived the night before. (Always check current exchange rates before you go anywhere; it wasn’t a problem that time, but it was later. I’ll get back to that.) We got to the boat about 9:00am. We waited for awhile and then climbed aboard. Our guide was French with a very heavy accent. I had to translate everything she and our Australian companions said for Mom. (Everyone on the boat was Australian.) I think a lot of Australians come to Thailand during the summer to escape their winter. For a country of only 20 million people, we couldn’t seem to stop running into them! The Americans go in the spring, I think, when the weather is said to be nicest and less hot. But the weather was great!

We were OK for the first hour, but pretty soon Mom and I got sick. Mom was worse that I was, I think. The guide gave us sea sick tablets, which took a long time to kick in and helped only slightly, but it was better than nothing. (Note: You should take sea sick tablets a good hour before you get on the boat!) I wish we spent more time at only two or three islands instead of spending so much time on the boat and going to five or six. But it was nice.

First we saw Viking cave, where the local people gather swift’s nests for the Chinese delicacy “bird nest soup,” which costs at least $100 a bowl. Too many tourists were going in their, flashing their cameras and scaring the birds, which really hurt the birds and the industry. So tourists aren’t allowed to go in there on pain of death. (There’s a guard who will shoot you if you do.) But we got to see the outside of it:



No one is sure why it’s called “Viking Cave.” There’s no evidence that Vikings ever went there.

Then we went swimming in a beautiful green water of Lho Samah Bay and Phi Leh Cove (I think that’s the place):



The cliffs are limestone, which react to the water to make it a gorgeous emerald/sapphire color.

Next we went to Monkey Island and fed the wild monkeys:

Here’s me feeding them:



Baby hiding behind mama:



Monkey with its tongue out:



Who gave this monkey coke in a bottle? It’s bad for it, but it drank it all right and seemed to love it!



Then we had a buffet lunch on Leamtong Beach at P.P. Erawan Palms Resort beachside restaurant. We moored about a quarter kilometer (1/8 mile) from the beach and walked through the crystal clear water to get to it:



We couldn’t eat much since we were so sick to our stomachs, but the restaurant was beautiful.



You can see that the interior of the island is tropical forest, and that’s something like a tropical myna bird sitting on the chair. They were everywhere, quite opportunistic! And the beach was immaculate white sand:



From there we went to the coral reefs around Hin Klang Island for snorkeling from the boat. Mom and I both took bananas and the fish swarmed around us! They were so beautiful, like gems sparkling in the perfect blue-green waters. Mom said she had a hard time keeping her face in the water at first while she breathed through the snorkel, but once she got the hang of it, she loved it!

Next we passed by bamboo island, named by Chinese traders, but it doesn’t actually have any bamboo on it; they only thought so from a distance. Lastly we stopped at Khai Nai Island. The snorkeling there was not so great because of the bad sedimentation, so I went for a little walk into the interior. I found something rather unusual:



What do you make of that? Toilet bowl garden.

If I were to do it again, I would take the slow boat maybe and ask them to cut out Khai Nai to give us more time at the other places. It was a great tour, but it took another 1 ½ to get us back to Phuket. I got soooo sick! I was hoping sitting in the front would help without the smell of exhaust and with the wind in my face, but it was very bumpy!

We got back to our hotel around 6:30. We watched the sunset on Putang beach. It was mostly covered by clouds, but I thought the clouds made the part we could see extra beautiful. Mom fel asleep with little white sand crabs scuttling all around her. I woke her up when it got dark about 8:00, and we went in search of a swim suit for me, since I forgot it back in Japan. I bought a beautiful purple one-piece with sparkles. The guy kept pressuring me to buy a sun dress, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as China or Africa. When I said no, he left me alone. No one followed us on the streets trying to sell us stuff. We walked down the street to see some of the night life. A car blared by with an advertisement on their loud speakers, “Tomorrow night, tomorrow night, Thai boxing!” There were men on top of the car in their boxing gear. People whizzed by on their motorcycles, three to a seat.

Mom felt really overwhelmed with all the new sights, sounds, and smells, so we headed back to our hotel around 9:00. We weren’t terribly hungry so we just stopped by a seaside cafĂ© and ordered a coconut, drank the water and ate the meat:



I once saw a rainforest show in Singapore. The lead actress was a Chinese woman with a British accent (as with many Singaporeans), and I’ll never forget how she said, “now I’m going to have some refreshing coconut water!” It was rather funny. (In case you’re wondering the difference between coconut water and coconut milk, that’s tomorrow’s lesson.)

So stay tuned for tomorrow!