Thailand – Best days

1461So we go from the lowest point of the trip to the two absolute most shining moments of the trip – and the two experiences could not have been any more different.

 The last full day in Chaing Mai was a Sunday. The morning was left open for everyone to do as they pleased but there was an activity planned for those who were interested. In addition to visiting several more local temples, it included a visit the temple directly behind the hotel in order to make an offering to the monks who lived there. There were 6 of us that went. The hotel did a beautiful job of packaging up the food (see photo) and we were led not only by Pranee but also by one of the hotel staff. Again, I suck with names and I did not record hers, but she was young, enthusiastic and absolutely lovely. What struck me about her as with other guides I have seen is how much she loves her country and her culture. There was a pride in the way she told us about ceremonies or the history of certain activities. She patiently answered all of our questions and when a tourist from another group started to listen to her, she simply included him in the discussion.

 She reminded me of a different tour guide from a different trip. This tour guide was slightly older and had a master’s degree in art. We met her on my trip to Istanbul several years ago. During our visit to Hagia Soffia, we heard the Muslim call to prayer and one of the members of our group asked this tour leader how she reconciled not being able to pray at that moment. The woman paused and took several minutes to give her answer. She simply said that her god understood she had responsibilities and that she would pray when the time was appropriate. She had tears in her eyes as she told us and you could see that her worship was a very important part of her life. It was one of the most stirring moments I have ever witnessed first hand. And I respected her more for it. I don’t know how to convey my feelings here. What moved me was her conviction that she had a deep connection to her god and that god, in her view, did not think that her devotion had a specific timetable.

In Chaing Mai, our visit to the temple and our offering was very ceremonial and I did not understand a word that was spoken. I am not sure that I truly get all the pageantry but I respect it. I was not brought up with any formal religion so this is just different to me. One of the questions I never asked, but should have, was whether or not the monks were speaking in a language that everyone understood or if it was a language like Latin and no one understood it.

 The remainder of the day was spent poolside and then there was a massive night market just after dinner. The market was just behind the hotel and stretched for several blocks in every direction. It is a weekly occurrence and you could buy anything you wanted. There were even banks of massage chairs set up for foot massages. The following morning we headed to the airport for our third city – Phuket.

 Now I am not sure these two cities could be more different. Chiang Mai is agricultural, mountainous and quiet. Phuket on the other had is like Miami meets Vegas in Thailand. Where there were no buildings in Chiang Mai over five stories tall, Phuket had many hi-rises all along the coastline. The beaches were crowded and you could hear any language you wanted.  Our hotel did not have beach access but it did have an infinity pool and a swim up bar. And that is the location of the second high point of the trip which was happy hour on our first day in Phuket.

 I don’t know if it was the heat, the liquor, the fabulous pool or all of us just deciding at the same time to let our hair down, but it was just a blast. There was great conversation, splashing and silliness and a bonding that happens when a group travels together for two weeks. At one point, I was being goofy and twirling around on one of the granite stools in front of the swim up bar. I actually convinced one of the women in the group that the seats actually spun… Like I said, there was a little alcohol. In every single picture from that afternoon and early evening, everyone has a broad grin on their face and there was not a single negative comment. Okay, perhaps that’s not true. We did have a tough time getting the bartender to pay us a little more attention but that was so minor it’s barely worth mentioning… and yet I just did. The afternoon stretched into early evening and many of the concerns from earlier in the trip disappeared.

By this point in the trip, the photographic opportunities were winding down, but there are two more events worth mentioning, but that will be my next post. Until then…

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Thailand, Chiang Mai and Days 3 and 4

952AI love this photo both because of the solemnity of the pose as well as the tactile nature of the piece from all of the gold leaf that Buddhists have rubbed onto the icon. The application of the gold leaf was another way to send your wishes out into the Universe. And if I had to guess, my wish at the time I took this photo was perhaps more time to take photos and a little less time with the group.

I have been struggling with whether or not to express how I really felt on parts of this trip because it might hurt someone’s feelings. But in the end, I think I have a readership of five on a good day and my blog has never really been about anything more than writing, preserving some things for my son and processing how I feel about certain situations. And so the gloves come off and away I go. As I have previously mentioned, the group I traveled with was extraordinary but that does not mean all things were perfect all the time. As with all group dynamics, there were moments and exchanges that I could have handled better – and not to finger point, but there were times when some folks in the group were just rude.

From my perspective, I tried very hard to keep up with the group and to never make them wait on me because I wanted to take one more photo. I could have visited a dozen more temples and taken a thousand more photos. But by the time we hit days three and four in Chiang Mai, the majority of the group was “templed out”. Each new location brought eye rolls and sighs of dismay that we were seeing yet another gold Buddha. And while many in the group may have thought I did not hear or didn’t care if I did, the temples were the main reason I was there. As a result, I started to get a little resentful that while I was acting responsibly, being prompt and deferential at their activities, they were beginning to get a little fed up with what I wanted to do. Continue reading “Thailand, Chiang Mai and Days 3 and 4”

Thailand and Chiang Mai

658Well finally, we have arrived in Chiang Mai – as far as blog topics. What a difference from Bangkok! Chiang Mai has a very small town feel to it even though there is a significant population. There is also a little bit of smog but because of the surroundings, it just didn’t feel like it did in Bangkok.

The first notable difference was our hotel. The rooms were built around a grand tamarind tree and the hotel buildings were only two stories tall. All dining was done poolside which is never a bad thing. The hotel front desk had a roof over it but was not enclosed and the staff of the hotel was small but exceedingly pleasant. There were several ways to access the hotel but perhaps the most charming was the formal entrance from the main road. The driveway itself was almost enclosed – there were very tall walls on either side of the drive. The pavement was cobblestone and there was bamboo planted in the margins. As the bamboo grew, it leaned over the drive from each side making an arched bamboo canopy. Within the bamboo there was subtle up-lighting from the ground and softer, billowy fabric light fixtures hung from above. The overall effect was enchanting.

On our first morning in Chiang Mai, Pranee, our fearless leader, took me and two other travelers out on an early morning exploratory walk. Okay, I’ll be honest – it turned from a casual walk to find interesting photo opportunities, into a full blown monk chase. Tacky but true. Now before going on about my somewhat stalker-ish mission to get casual monk photos, I’d like to make some observations about Buddhism in the West versus Buddhism in the East. Continue reading “Thailand and Chiang Mai”

Thailand – Day 2

202AWhich photo to pick for Day 2? I like to pick my photos first and let them set the stage for the blog post but Day 2 actually started again at oh-dark thirty with texting to my son in order to get my phone set up properly to make calls in Thailand. So this is really a Day 1 issue and I took so many photos on Day 1 that I will bend my self- imposed rules a bit and use a Day 1 photo. What you see to the left is the Reclining Buddha. (Just as a side note, please read the embedded article above about the Reclining Buddha. Just the soles of his feet contain 108 symbols sacred in Buddhism which takes us back to the symbolism of the number 108 which, if you have never read it is fascinating.)

After enjoying breakfast, the group trundled onto our bus and we were off for the day. My group leader let me use her phone and I was able to call my cell carrier and get my phone to work in the event of an emergency which was a great relief. We traveled by means of a rather large bus and had the same driver and tour guide the entire time in Bangkok. The buses were well stocked with water bottles and wet wipes. While I had packed a water bottle with a carbon filter, I never needed to use it. Between the water bottles provided by the hotels and the water on the bus, water was not really an issue the entire time we traveled. And I can happily report that recycling is alive and well in Thailand. In fact, on the whole, although some members of the group might disagree with me, I thought, relative to India, there was very little trash cluttering the landscape.  Continue reading “Thailand – Day 2”

Thailand and the official Day 1

052This tangled mass of black spaghetti is how electricity gets from point A to Point B in Bangkok. And while this is not an artistically beautiful photo, it is certainly realistic and representative of what we saw over and over again. On the whole, I found the city of Bangkok to be one of contrasts much like the photo. With over 8 million people and multiple skyscrapers, it is a very modern city but there are certainly issues with the speed with which the city has grown. Clearly, the infrastructure has not been keeping pace. The cars that clog the roads are all fairly new and it was easy to spot Toyota Camry’s and Nissan mid sized cars even though they were called something different. There were also SUV’s as well but most surprising were the mopeds! They were everywhere and clearly the preferred method of transportation. When traffic was stopped, they would zoom past to get to the front of the line. It was crazy! They were like a living organism – moving when everything else was sitting frozen. At the other end of the spectrum, there were hovels, built in clusters mere blocks away from the gleaming towers and also at various places along the river. And while there was extreme poverty, I do not recall seeing even one pan handler. Yes, I did see street vendors with very limited wares, but that was an attempt to earn a living. Bangkok is known as the Venice of the east and there is also a vast network of river traffic and connecting canals. There are long boats, water taxis, ferries and barges on the river. Often it is faster to travel by water to a destination rather than by road. In addition, there was at least one light rail system that we rode. It ran late and we were stalled for some time, but it was still faster than traveling by car. Continue reading “Thailand and the official Day 1”