Friday, April 30, 2010

Accommodations, Part 3: PJ’s Place

If you’ve traveled much you probably have memories of favorite places you’ve stayed; hotels, bed and breakfasts or guest houses you remember fondly long after you’ve returned home – sometimes with more than a casual longing in the middle of an endless morning sales meeting or an especially stressful afternoon. I have a few that are my favorites, but people often have different criteria; my tranquil bed and breakfast may sound terrible to someone who wants a state-of-the-art gymnasium or 20 yards of buffet tables or bell boys available on their breaks (for an additional tip).

I almost hesitate to mention one of my favorites for fear it’ll be spoiled by the unappreciative or otherwise boorish, but I did promise the owner a review last Fall and guess it’s time to deliver, so here goes:

You know those rare occasions when you start off just booking a room but end up checking out feeling more like you’ve visited friends? That’s PJ’s Place: small, comfortable, and homey. The view above is what greets you when you arrive “home” after an evening out, along with the occasional chic-chic-chic of geckos, the gentle sound of the fountain in the garden and the distant buzz of cicadas. It’s nothing less than lovely.

One view of the garden areas

There are only six rooms. Well, actually seven, but one is the residence of Peter and Jiab – the “P” and “J” – who are the bookends that hold the place up, aided by two delightful young men who do most of the day to day maintenance.

Gan (on the left) and Dang (on the right) both arrive early for work and you’re liable to run into them several times throughout the day. They take breakfast orders, cook and serve them and then clean the dining room when breakfast is over. They then move on to their other responsibilities; housekeeping, gardening and things needing attention around the small complex.

To answer the question for some of you hoping otherwise: neither of them are “interested” or available. Understanding the value of quality help Jiab learned early on that some guests weren’t content to take “no thank you” for an answer, and he’s (wisely) hired accordingly.

The dining room (above) and a cooked-to-order breakfast (below)

Located on a quiet soi just off Huay Kaew Road PJ’s has most anything the casual visitor would need for a quiet break on a whirlwind tour – all within a five- to ten-minute walk. One of my favorites was the Lemon Tree restaurant (a fine casual setting for Thai food) just a couple of minutes away. The Kad Suan Kaew mall is maybe another couple minutes further, where you can catch a movie, eat at several “chain” restaurants or do some shopping.

ALSO within very easy walking distance:

1) Hillside Condo, with a pool and fitness center available for public use
2) Le Gong Kum, serving Vietnamese food
3) Salsa Kitchen, serving Mexican food
4) Chiang Mai’s #1 private hospital, Chiang Mai Ram
5) SoHo Bar, a friendly place to have a drink, visit and meet new friends
6) B-Beez, a small but accommodating male massage venue, and
7) House of Male, Chiang Mai’s one true sauna

One of a thousand possible views of the acres of night market

You’re only a short tuk-tuk ride from the walled old city, the night market and most any other visitor spots.

Room Five, upstairs, overlooking the garden

Your room includes everything you’d expect for a comfortable stay: TV, a DVD player, a safe, tea and coffee making supplies, WiFi and LAN connections and a full English breakfast. Something I especially appreciated was that ALL of the rooms are non-smoking.

Room Five shower (the doors open out from the corner)

The bathrooms are spotless, the bed was very comfortable (even Goldilocks would have approved… it was just right) and the patio is a wonderful place to sit and read in the afternoon.

PJ’s Tours is a personal touring service, coupled with the guest house and led by Jiab in a roomy, air conditioned van. You can either book your trips in advance from their web site or on the fly from a binder in the sitting area of the dining room, and after three different days on the road with him I heartily recommend trying it out. It’s probably best to book your tours in advance (especially during the busiest months) to avoid him not being available as – surprise! – he can only be in one place with one group at a time.

Jiab, on an orchid farm outing

As you’d expect of an experienced native guide he’s quite well versed in all things Chiang Mai and seemed to have contacts for most anything we were looking to see or shop for. Patient, informative and – having a lovely sense of humor – he’s great company.

One of the nicest points about this oasis is also the only unfortunate part: there are only six rooms; four double rooms and two suite houses, so plan in advance and make your reservations early. Take along your partner or special friend for a memorable stay.

You’re in for a real treat.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Motorcycle Taxi Safety (Or Not)

Back in high school a friend of mine pulled his Vespa out of the student parking lot and got knocked through the air by a woman in one of those big 60’s land yachts. He never stood a chance, and probably wouldn’t have even if he was wearing a helmet. As I stood there dumbstruck the next morning, looking at the remnants of his blood not yet fully washed away I decided I’d probably never ride on one ever again.

Fast forward to 2005, and I’m out for the afternoon with the charmed offspring of a fairly well-off family in Bangkok. By “well off” I mean they owned the hotel I was staying in, he had a personal bodyguard and his biggest decision that day was whether he’d pick me up in his BMW or his Mercedes; that kind of “well off”.

He knew most of the motocy drivers outside his family’s walled compound and picked one for me that he assured me would get my sweaty self to one of the family restaurants for dinner unscathed. After dinner he assured me he’d have one of the hotel limos pick me up to take me back for the night. He said with the traffic as it was the cycles were the only way to get there in any reasonable timeframe. For some reason I didn’t consider the hundreds of other drivers we’d be jockeying for position with along the way and got on, my friend on another just behind us.

Had it not been that I would’ve been embarrassed to wet the back of the driver’s trousers I may well have peed my pants. Helmet or no helmet, this was a hell of a lot more risky than I’d bargained for, and as I tried re-learning to trust leaning with the bike while he zig-zagged his way along I was reminded of my decision some 40 years before.

I’d often been surprised at the devil-may-care attitude of cycle riders there but since that day I’ve paid closer attention to the hordes of people who evidently take the “if it’s your time, it’s your time” thing to heart. While on elevated walkways over intersections at commute time I like to watch the cycles filter their way to the front of the pack of four-wheel commuters at a red light, listening to the whine of their engines revving when the light changes and they rush out ahead of the cars and trucks.

Although I did hear one (mentioned in an earlier post on accidents) fortunately so far I haven’t witnessed an accident involving one of these cyclists, but I suppose that time will come. Evidence of past “road rash” is a fairly common sight on people and I’m surprised at the number of folks who have helmets but don’t wear them. It’s not all that much of a fine if you’re caught without it – usually about 100Bt – but I should think there’s a certain amount of inconvenience to trying to get around without a portion of your head.

One of my early friends there needed a loan for the down payment on a cycle to get him from his rural home to work and school, and to my knowledge kept his side of the agreement to wear at least his helmet to protect him while he paid the bank and myself back… but I still worried about him.

I suppose life’s full of choices, and I didn’t always think all that far ahead when I was their age, either. Ah, the invincibility of youth!

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Staying Well On Vacation: Planes

My Fall 2006 outward-bound flight from the US to Taipei was not a pleasant trip. Not only did I have a half-dozen drunk college guys whooping it up couple of rows behind me about all the pussy they were going to get in Bangkok but across the aisle from me was a husband and wife with two sick kids, the three year old boy with a wracking cough that was only slowed by his bouts of projectile vomiting onto the seat in front of him every hour or so (“Sorry, he has whooping cough,” the father apologized!) and the rest of the family coughing and sneezing almost constantly throughout the 12 hour flight. The plane was full so my requests to be moved were futile. I myself was sick four days later. You do the math.

From what I’ve read over the years, the ONLY two things one can do to avoid cold and flu-like viruses is to drink plenty of water or juices – not coffee, tea or alcoholic beverages, all of which just dehydrate you more – and wash your hands frequently, especially if you have a tendency to touch your eyes, nose or mouth very often. The “waterless” hand sanitizers are also very effective when water’s not available and can be put into a small travel bottle that fits into a purse or pocket.

As for airplanes, none of us probably want to know how unsanitary they are overall. It's not only the recirculated air from the hundreds of others around you; there's the low humidity, necessary cabin pressurization, higher ozone levels and other contaminants added into the mix we breathe, too. It all can pack a punch to anyone's immune system.

I’m not a “germophobe” but I’ve taken to folding up about 10 of those disinfectant pop-up wet paper towels, folding them into something the size of a playing card and putting the stack of folded wet-naps into a baggie that I put into my carry on. As soon as I sit down in my seat I take one out and wipe off anything I’m liable to touch on the flight: recline buttons, the wired remote for the movies, the touch screen (if applicable), the folding table, the window tab, everything.

I’m guessing I’m the first one to clean them since the plane was put into service. I do the same in hotels with remotes, door handles and the likes.

Drink water, wash your hands, get a decent night’s sleep. That’s the best you can do. When we’re working a few sick days can be a break in and of themselves, but when we’re on vacation it’s a needless shame, at best.

New Photo Series: Thai Smiles

“If you smile at me I will understand, because that’s something everybody everywhere does in the same language” - Wooden Ships (Crosby, Kanter, Stills)

If you do much reading at all about Thailand you’re bound to run into a reference to the infamous Thai smile fairly early on, and well you should; it’s a key communication tool of the culture and something we as Westerners rarely get a handle on. I don’t pretend to understand the subtle nuances most of the time and just enjoy seeing them, myself.

I’m not quite so pig-ignorant that I can’t spot someone who’s grinning through gritted teeth when I’ve mistakenly just stepped on their foot but I choose to continue to live in my fool’s paradise regarding the other times when I’m the recipient of what I take as a warm smile that may mean “please – just go away and let me get back to my life”. I’ve undoubtedly been on the receiving end of a few of those when I’ve been out walking and taking pictures of everyday life in Thailand, but most people truly are gracious there.

Sometimes a smile is part of self-preservation of one form or another. Just as you’d smile as you wish the officer who’s just given you a ticket a nice day or thanked the nurse for the pain medication you’d had to wait an hour for, I’m quite sure not all is sweetness and sincerity in the Land of Smiles, as well. However, we often reap what we sow; the kinder we are to others the sweeter any returned kindness tends to be, I’ve found.

It’s been my experience that the more often I maintain a warm, friendly expression on my face as I bumble around there the more easily my days go, the more often sometimes challenging requests are met and the more likely it is that the next time I meet the same person that I’ll be greeted with a smile even before I smile a greeting to them. To roll out a hoary old chestnut: do unto others as you’d have them do unto you.

Today might not be altogether the most appropriate time to begin a series of happy pictures, but maybe it is. As sad and tense as the situation is in so many places there now perhaps it IS best to remember the good nature of the Thai overall – and send wishes for peace their way.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Sunrise, Sunset - Part 2

Another couple of sunset photos. The top one taken in Pattaya is a repeat from the April 17th "Another Photo Test" post, but since that post's going to disappear soon it's saved here. The second one was taken far up into Isaan.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Sunrise, Sunset - Part 1

Looking South on Pattaya Beach - 2006

There's a benefit (of sorts) to the particulate matter lingering in the air weeks after farmers burn off post harvest crops, along with the by-products of internal combustion engines, dust in general and the trash of millions burned in countless locations: they certainly help color skies at the beginning and end of the day. Those gorgeous yellows, oranges and reds at the longer-wave section of our visible spectrum can be stunning, especially when accessorized by clouds highlighted by the rays of sun that are as close to the aurora borealus as most of us will ever see.

Early morning and late afternoon are my favorite times for most any kind of nature photography, and I try not to miss seeing it - even if I can't make the time to take pictures. It's a time of (brief) reflection for me.

Rather than bowl you over with a flood of images I think maybe it would be nice to just share one at a time, maybe giving you a moment's pause, too.

Here's the first.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Imagine - One Enchanted Evening In Bangkok

[This is a piece I've previously posted elsewhere but it's a story that has a meaning for me (on a few levels), and it seems with things as they are in Thailand at present that maybe it's appropriate to re-publish it today. The video is dark, but the thought is light.]

It had been a busy couple of weeks in Thailand, and I was more than a little worn out the evening this occurred; a moment of focus that encapsulated the trip for me. You know how sometimes something happens that causes you to stop and say “perfect”; apt punctuation to a series of events that are drawing to a close? This is about one of those moments.

My travel partner hadn’t taken my cautions to heart about hydrating himself on his first trip to a hot tropical destination, and had spent the day in bed a couple of dozen floors above where we were now having dinner. He was still a bit wilted so we weren’t having our usual conversation, instead just enjoying the food and atmosphere of a place we wouldn’t normally indulge in, except on vacation.

Twenty feet away from us a local man stood at a microphone, acoustic guitar hanging around his neck, singing a variety of “dinner songs”; some in Thai, some in slightly stilted English he undoubtedly learned phonetically to entertain the hotel guests he was playing for. Nevertheless, he played earnestly and sang with a sincerity that comes from at least a basic understanding of the lyrics.

While going by the dessert portion of the buffet I realized he was sitting at a table taking a break, checking his cell phone and looking about the dining room at the people there. I reached for one of the quarter-folded 20 baht bills I keep in my shirt pocket for street folks, quick snacks, small tips and the likes, but thought better of it, and instead took out a 100 baht note.

He looked up as I approached his table and smiled. I smiled back, gave him a quick nod of approval and asked in Thai if he spoke any English. “Nit noy,” he smiled, holding up his thumb and index fingers, their tips a half inch apart to indicate “a little bit.” I used the usual “my Thai is weak” phrase back at him, but we were able to chat for a few minutes. I thanked him for his singing, handed him the 100 baht note and asked if he knew any songs by the Beatles, figuring from his repertoire so far that he might.

He asked why I was in Thailand, and I explained how it was the first visit for my friend who doesn’t care to travel much but that we were here visiting some students we sponsored. He asked a little more about that and I shared about it the best I could. Usually when someone asks me what I get out of the volunteer and charity work I enjoy so much I say “we can’t save the world, but we can save little pieces of it,” but that was difficult to get across this particular time. He understood enough to say “good heart” to me, and I thanked him for his thought. “I know Beatles,” he said, “I sing it for you.”

I went back to our table with my cake and coffee, and even though I didn’t expect it to be light enough or loud enough to capture for some reason took out my camera and was ready to record him when he again approached the microphone and started playing. It took more time than I’d have been allowed on “Name That Tune” but eventually I caught on that he was beginning to play John Lennon’s “Imagine.”

On December 8th, 1980, I’d returned home from work and was sitting on the sofa in front of the TV when news of Lennon’s death came on the screen. The evening news began soon afterwards, and someone had hastily assembled a collage of photos and behind them played “Imagine,” his haunting song of wishful hope. I cried then, and it gave me a chill again this evening; sitting in a foreign land, hearing a man with whom I’d been able to share the same simple idea.

“Same same, but different,” I thought to myself as he turned and looked at me while singing “You may say I’m a dreamer… but I’m not the only one.”

It was a moment there that I’ll always remember.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Disturbing Times in Bangkok

To the regulars: I'd planned to start a photo series today about Thai smiles, but with the madness in the streets of Krung Thep I just don't feel comfortable doing that. I doubt it will end in the next couple of days - and odds are it won't end peacefully - but there's always hope, I guess. Regardless of who/what is to blame it's profoundly sad and disturbing.

To my many friends there: please stay out of the way and stay safe.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Same Same, But Different! - Part 2

Sticking with the gum theme from Part 1, here are a couple others I’ve tried in Thailand. The first is Green Gum, made by a company based in Japan, if I recall correctly. The only English on the packaging other than the brand names reads “A light and mild sweetness, coupled with lasting flavor and comfortable chewiness. Enjoy the delight only possible from Lotte”, which sounds like Japanese marketing lingo at its best to me. It has a mild spearmint flavor that lasts quite a while.

Everyone’s tastes are different, but I think this next one is just wrong: Wrigley’s Doublemint, with pineapple. I probably won’t buy another pack.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Te, The Taxi Driver

It was dangerously close to commute time and I knew it wasn’t going to be easy getting a taxi back to my room near the Chao Phraya river. I’d already walked a half-dozen blocks trying to catch one who was willing to make the trip but not many were available. The first one that stopped for me wasn’t interested and waved me off, leaving me at curbside.
The second one said “400 baht!” - which was outrageous. I’d said “OK, chock dee,” (good luck) as I’d closed the door and watched him wedge his way back into the stream of traffic, but in my mind I was thinking “kiss my ass, buddy,” – out of character for me so I knew I was worn thin.
Barely back onto the sidewalk I noticed a taxi with the red “available” light on pulling to the curb close to me, evidently seeing the previous one as he crawled along. I opened the passenger door and told him where I was going, and when he said “100 Baht” I agreed and more or less dropped into the front seat beside him, relieved. I knew it was a little higher than I’d have paid had he used the meter, but maybe not a lot because of the distance, location and the hour of the day.
After re-adjusting the aircon he’d set to “FARANG” when I got in I settled in for what was probably going to be a long ride. We moved along in stops and starts but being the passenger I was able to look around, people watch and rest my eyes a little now that I was out of the direct sun and heat. As I often do I asked his name, and he introduced himself as Te. Glancing at the license on display in every taxi there I looked over at him, and noticed that the two faces didn’t match. That’s not all that uncommon, I’ve learned, but there was a resemblance so I asked him about it.
“My father,” he said. His dad drives the taxi at night and many days Te drives it while his father sleeps. If he gets caught it’s a 100 baht fine, but that rarely happens, he said. He spoke some English, thank goodness, and that made the trip more pleasant as we could visit a little bit. He was 28 at the time and lived at home with his parents and two younger sisters a ways out of central Bangkok. He laughed easily and often, and enjoyed seeing some of the photos I’d taken that afternoon on the camera screen while we sat at intersections, waiting for the red lights to count down.
I mentioned that he reminded me a little bit of Sek Loso, a Thai singer I’ve enjoyed and he laughed heartily, partly from surprise “You know Loso??” and partly at my comparison. He said he would tell his girlfriend that when he saw her in a few hours. I don’t recall her name, but they’d been together for two years and he was thinking she was “the one” and that they’d probably marry soon. Actually, he hadn’t really wanted to drive the cab today but was doing so because she’d been away for a couple of weeks and he wanted to take her to dinner someplace and needed the money, so he was skipping his regular afternoon of football with the guys he played with.
Te had enough experience driving to know the back streets and got me home in a little more than 30 minutes. Normally when the fare’s been set off meter I figure they’ve already gotten a tip built into it, so I don’t tip on top of that, but I’d enjoyed visiting with him so decided to go it one better: instead of a single 100 baht bill, I handed him four. “Take your girlfriend to dinner,” I said “I’m paying.”
His eyes widened with surprise and he broke into a grin, giving me a wai and thanking me. Since I already had the camera out and on I took his picture and asked “Where do you go now?” He smiled again and replied “Home, shower.” I closed the door and watched him pull away.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Bangkok - From The 59th Floor

If you look too closely Bangkok can be a dirty city, no doubt about it. Everything along the streets usually has a layer of soot from the traffic, the buildings are often antiqued with mildew, alleyways can be full of abandoned trash and plastic bags and the noise pollution can be deafening.

There are many things about it that make it special, though - enough that I've yet to finish my list. The outstanding views are high on that list, like this one of the city lights from high above. This photo was taken from the 59th floor of the Le Bua Hotel last October when a niece and her new husband were passing through on their way to China.

It's actually five separate images, stitched together in a somewhat ham-handed fashion, but it's one of my favorite images from that trip.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

...And Always Ask For The Sale!

No doubt about it: you see colorful characters of every stripe while frittering away an afternoon on the tourist beaches of Thailand. I don’t mean literally colorful, although there are enough tints of pink to red on visiting farang to color a sunset sky; but rather a quirky mix of nationalities, languages and, of course, personalities.
What makes it all the more entertaining is the endless parade of Thai locals as they make their rounds between the rows of sling chairs beneath the canopy of colorful umbrellas, plying their products and trades to all and sundry.
On one afternoon I observed at least two or three of EACH of these: foot, shoulder and body massage people, pedicurists, manicurists, people selling fruit, popsicles, ice cream, satay sticks, VCDs (both of the “adult” variety and mainstream), DVDs (same same), CDs, sandals, scarves, T-shirts, jet-ski outings, island outings, sunglasses, BBQ shrimp, Crocs in a rainbow of colors and I'm sure many, many more things I can’t immediately recall.
I suppose if they had a baht for each time they were told “no, thank you” over the course of their vending careers they’d retire with a nest egg larger than many who wave them away as if shooing away a fly circling their heads. As it is they make a humble but honest living and even the most cynical should admire their dedication and perseverance.
You quickly learn to avoid eye contact as they pass nearby (or risk finding yourself under full siege from all others in the area who sense an easy mark) but some come and stand next to you or at your feet, as if to wear your resistance down. For these more determined folk it sometimes seems there’s no understanding on their part of “no thanks”, even in their mother tongue.
One young man in particular comes to mind; a man I thought had more patience than sense at the time, but I had to admire his determination.
He appeared in my peripheral vision as I was admiring the physique of a couple of 30-ish Thai men at the water’s edge; and while I deliberately didn’t make eye contact with him, he stood at my feet and stared at me for a couple of minutes until there was no gracious way to go back to my book and ignore him without feeling rude. Looking just over the top of my book I could see he had on clean denim jeans and a long T-shirt that’d been well laundered from black to dark gray. Still only viewing him indirectly it looked as though he was carrying a stack of papers or something. Throwing better judgment to the warm afternoon breeze I looked up at his face.
Soft dark eyes looked back at me from a handsome but somewhat somber face, peeking out from beneath a curtain of long dark brown bangs. He didn’t break into the salesman smile I was expecting, but instead lifted the bundle up to his belly level where I could see it looked like a stack of over-sized construction or craft-paper cards, each covered on the outside with a colorful fabric.
With no change of expression he opened one of them and a sort of doily-style yellow paper cut-out of an elephant rose from the center of it, making a distinctive crackling sound as it opened and the edges moved against each other. He stopped and stood, motionless, watching me look at the card. I looked at the elephant, up at his face, back at the card, then back up at him. “No thank you,” I said – somewhat regretfully – expecting him to close up “shop” and move along out of my view… but he didn’t.
Still stone-faced he slipped the elephant card to the bottom of his deck and opened the next card. A small square two-toned building stood up from inside the card, making the same sound the elephant did. Again he stopped and stood there looking at me, card splayed open for my consideration. “No thank you,” I said a second time “not today.”
He closed the card, moved it to the bottom of the stack and opened a third card, this one with a different elephant, larger and orange this time. Again the expressionless look and again my refusal but I was getting a little uncomfortable, wondering if he was "all there" mentally but not wanting to appear impatient or impolite. He gave no indication of being stoned, drunk or unhappy, and I was puzzled.
We did this a few more times until it was getting to be humorous and I was laughing while waving each new card off, waiting to see if he’d break a smile to share the silliness of the whole situation. After all, he was a handsome guy and probably had a dazzler of a smile, if he’d just let loose with it. No such luck.
Aha!” I thought to myself, as he was getting ready to open card number eight “Maybe if I make like I’m going to take his picture he’ll go away to avoid it or smile to try and make the sale!” I had my camera out and open, so I put it in front of my face, smiled at him and said “yim” (smile) while I focused on him. Nothing.
I took a picture (he didn’t visibly move a muscle) and then set the camera down, sitting up the best one can in those beach-side sling chairs and stared back at him, squarely in the eyes. “I’m sorry,” I said as firmly as I could without being rude “but I don’t want to buy anything now.” I took out one of the quarter-folded 20 baht notes I keep in my pocket for just such things and handed it to him, trying to soften the rejection. “Good luck today, though” I said with a smile, and he turned and moved a couple of steps away from me, scanning the chairs ahead for his next stop.
What I learned later from a couple of regulars there was the guy was deaf. Deafness can be one of those "hidden" disabilities so without him saying anything (and if he's deaf there wasn't anything so odd about that, it was his expressionless face that seemed odd) there was no way of my knowing it. I'd run several scenarios by in my head – just broken up with his girlfriend, was hung over but hid it well, that sort of thing – but I'd missed the possibility of his being deaf.
What makes this a story worth telling is this: two years after I’d taken that first stone-face photo I finally went back to sit on the same spot, carrying a print I’d had made the day before – and what do you know: here he comes, cards in hand. He now carries a small sign explaining he’s deaf and selling the cards for a living. I was able to finally buy a half-dozen cards from him, and get him to smile.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

A Photo Test

Since this still a learning experience for my aging brain there isn't a photo standard yet on Bao-Bao's Blog. I've tried to keep pictures posted at a size that won't take readers too long to download, but have been told that since most folks now have faster internet service I shouldn't worry about that. As usual, I need a 10-year-old to explain the technology to me. Uggh.

The "standard" I've been leaning towards is 5" x 7" at 72 dpi, but you've also seen a few 6" x 9" at the same resolution, and unless someone can enlighten me otherwise that's probably where its going to remain.

Different browsers function differently (and there are plenty of them) - Chrome, Firefox, IE, etc. - but my guess is that most of you have already figured out that if you "click" on an image in the post that it will open as the full sized image, although that's not a lot larger if your monitor's set for a higher resolution (as I prefer myself) and you can use your "back" button to get back to the post. If you didn't know that you can consider that your Tip of the Day, and no day's a total waste when we learn something new!

The test we're trying today is with larger images - what most would call a panorama images. Some of you have panorama cameras still in a box somewhere, retired but still taking up space. Nowadays we mod a-go-go folk are spoiled by digital cameras. These enormous batches of "ones and zeros" allow what's called stitching, or blending multiple images together. I love the idea, and can even manage (every third or fourth try) to get the damn fool things to work as I'd intended.

Here's are a couple of test images. Try clicking on them and you should be able to scroll left/right to view it, if it doesn't display fit to your browser window by itself. If it fits, try clicking on it a second time to try the scrolling thing. The top image is a panorama looking South from above Pattaya Beach, the bottom image is the large snack shop adjoining a roadside restaurant Southwest of Bangkok.

If you're feeling helpful, let me know how it works for you in the comments section below. Anonymous comments are fine.

Khup kun krub!

Friday, April 16, 2010

Dongtan Beach Massage

Dongtan is a beach in Jomtien at the end of Thappraya Road, right where it curves sharply left and becomes Beach Road. If you're on foot at that turn and make a right at the (what else?) 7-11 on the corner there's a long stretch of promenade that parallels the sand and ubiquitous umbrellas/chair concessions.

On the wide strip of sand between the walkway and umbrellas there are invariably a number of blankets spread out, each with a massage guy crouching over someone flat on their back or belly. Their clients are people they've found as they walk along in the shade under the umbrellas, going from group to group and chair to chair. "Massage?" they'll ask, quietly, "Foot massage? Neck massage? Head massage? Body massage?" Some are more persistent than others, but if you say no they move along; plenty of other fish in the sea - or in this case tourists along the shore. Hundreds, actually.

If you agree to a foot massage it's done right there in your beach chair with them sitting on something facing you, propping your feet up on their leg or lap while you read, listen to music, sip your drink or whatever it was they interrupted when they came by to ask for your business. Head and neck massages are done where you sit, too, but if you agree to a body massage they'll wait while you gather your things and lead you back to their spot on the sand, next to the promenade.

[Note: It's always prudent to take valuables with you when you leave "your" chair, but basics like your towel, sunscreen and simple items are usually safe. After all, you've rented the chair from the concessionaire for a fee and it's yours for the day. Most places keep an eye on their turf, though, and that includes what you've set down if you go into the water or wander off to use the hong nam (toilet) or something.]

While out walking one afternoon I came upon a few guys on one of the blankets on what I assumed was either a slow day or break time between rounds to trawl for customers. One was doing double-duty: walking on the back of a friend while massaging the head of another. Ah, the benefits of friendship!

There's something close to ethereal about being able to lie under swaying palm trees with the smell of BBQ shrimp wafting over you, the sounds of the nearby surf mixed with the whisper of the palms, punctuated by the call of the birds flying between them while someone does a credible massage for you - but it's not for everyone. The sand can be hard and unforgiving (not to mention gritty if it sticks to lotion or oil), there can sometimes be bugs buzzing around your head and there are people walking the promenade, just 10 feet away from you.

Europeans tend to be less bothered by nudity than some (most certainly less than the modest Thai themselves) and they, too, are on display. I don't notice most of it, myself; I personally often feel those who are the least covered usually have the least attractive wares to display. More often than not I see a falang flashing on the beach and ask "Do we really have to see that?"

A pair of guys were working over a couple on the same blanket one afternoon, and the woman was topless. The guy working on her boyfriend was doing his best to concentrate on the business at/in/under hand, but just couldn't seem to to keep his eyes averted, as you'll see in the photo's inset below). Watching him I had to laugh, and when he realized he was "busted," (OK, pun intended there) he rolled his eyes and laughed silently, too, giving me a wink.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Happy Songkran!

April is usually the driest month in Thailand, a month when the temperatures regularly creep over 100F/38C and the days are better spent indoors or in the shade, well protected from the mid-day heat.

Except during Songkran, the Thai New Year.

The original tradition of an annual cleansing of Buddha images (at temples and at home) and pouring a small amount of water over the hands or shoulders of respected elders in one's extended families has grown into a joyful festival of water play by children of all ages. It's something I personally haven't witnessed but may well get to some year; a time of laughter and sharing.

The problem is that the "joyful festival" has also mutated into a boisterous hydro-brawl wherever that good ol' Western culture has weaseled its way in, and the drunken mobs who have turned a gentle blessing into aggravated assault have soured me on the whole idea in places like Pattaya.

Friends who have family in the "real Thailand" still observe the holiday in a way I hope to see one of these times. For now I'm content to enjoy the simple blessings of rain, like this Bangkok downpour pictured above. I get plenty wet enough, and at least have a choice in the matter.

For those of you there braving the buckets of iced klong water... good luck!

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Gift Of A Lifetime, A Lifetime Gift

Today’s post is an appeal. What I’m asking you to consider is no more than a single drop of water in a pond, but let me explain how that one drop can spread circles across the surface much farther than our eyes can perceive.

Several years ago I learned from a friend about the enormous amount of selfless, ongoing good work being done by the Pattaya Street Kids Support Project, a charity based in England that indirectly has made futures brighter for hundreds of Thai children. More importantly – looking back at the ripple effect just mentioned – it will most likely make a positive difference not only in their lives, but the lives of their children and their children. If you continue to follow this blog you’ll read more stories about my experiences with them, the students and the other kids they help, but let this serve as an introduction, if you will.

Normally it’s not polite to stand here online with a hand out (even if it is on behalf of others), but I wanted to pitch the possibility today of a personal reward I can heartily recommend from my own experience: making the commitment to yourselves that you'll become a child's school sponsor on an on-going basis. This means you'll be giving educational stability to a child and assuring that they'll be able to complete their basic education, giving them essential and valuable tools for a better life; both for them and their families.

For the relatively small sum of around $100USD per school year (here’s a currency calculator) you provide nearly everything a child needs for school except their lunch. If you stop to think about it, that's about 25 cents a day over a calendar year. Thankfully very few of us can say we couldn't come up with that. Younger children’s fees tend to be a little less than this, high school students can be a little more. You can pay in a lump sum or monthly, either way - either by bank draft or PayPal (which accepts credit cards).

You don't sign a contract, you just make the decision to do it: contact them through the web site below, let him know if you have any basic preferences (elementary school, secondary school, girl or boy, two from a family if needed, etc.) and - just like expectant parents - you "receive" a child. They know where the needs are most urgent, so I’d recommend letting them arrange for you if possible. If circumstances truly change and you can not afford the upcoming year's funds next year they'll do their best to arrange another means of funding so the child can continue school. One of my students was previously sponsored by a woman who could no longer afford it due to age and health issues.

Please take a moment to look at their web site, if you haven't already – and please note the funds many would use for the polish and flash of a “professional” site have been channeled into something more useful! Administrative costs are almost zero…you'll see that your funds truly DO go where you intend them to go (board members pay their own expenses to visit Thailand, for example), there is reliable transparency up front, and it is NOT a religious organization with an agenda.

OK, so why am I posting about this now, you ask? Because it's the middle of April, the new school year will begin in a few weeks and fees are due very soon. There is a year-round need, but if you've ever considered doing this, the time to act truly is NOW.

If you do, when you look back years from now you’ll be able to think warmly of the far-reaching ripples of hope you started with this single act of kindness today.

You won't regret it.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Same Same, But Different!

There are many examples of how the Thai speak Tinglish, the mix of Thai and English. One of my very favorites is the title of this post; you may well have your own.

One of the more common usages I've encountered is used to describe two items that are almost the same, such as convenience stores:
Q: "You want 7-11 or Family Mart?"
A: "Same same... up to you."

Another is used to denote (or imply) a difference in two seemingly identical things:
Q: "You want shirt?"
A: "Have. Everybody sells that same shirt."
Q: "Not have. Same same, but different! Take a look!"

It's the second one that's caught my attention the most while in Thailand.

Some differences are easy to overlook if you're not paying attention. A half-aisle of Lays Potato Chips can look much like at home, until you see different lettering or a bag of "Nori" (seaweed) flavored chips. I tend to look for the similar-but-different and thought today I'd share a couple with you. Both of these are things you're certainly used to seeing in the US or Canada, hopefully where you live, too. Here's the first one...

Did your mind automatically read "Oreos"? I'd guess so; this isn't a real challenging example. The packaging and lettering fonts are very similar to the originals, and at a glance most people tell me they just think Oreo.

Actually, the Oreos sold in Thailand are made in Indonesia, and - to my palate, anyway - aren't as sweet as the cookies sold here at home, which is probably a good thing. Here's another example...

I grew up with Wrigley's Juicy Fruit gum, and eventually graduated to Spearmint and Doublemint - didn't you? The packs have changed over time, but the gum's still much the same. It was nice to run across it in Thailand. I didn't have a pack of Doublemint, so I threw in one of the metal cannisters of mints available there now.

I'll rummage around and see if there aren't more examples to share soon. I'm sure there will be.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Erawan Cave - And The 611 Stairs Up To It

I'm not an anti-social person, but I always rate a place higher overall if I don't see many other farang there. On an early trip I had the experience of visiting the shrine and limestone caves near Erawan, far up into Isaan - and didn't see another "round eye" the entire day. It was wonderful.

I'd guess Tham Erawan to be about 90 kilometers (55 miles) West of Udonthani along Highway 210, very close to the border between provinces Loei and Nong Bua Lamphu. For those who use coordinates for mapping things, it's at 17° 20' 51.39" N 102° 1' 5.77" E. For those willing to take my guesstimate it's at the blue circle on the map image at the top of the post.

Tham is Thai for cave, and Erawan is the Thai word for the mythological three-headed elephant known as Airavata to most Hindus. If you've been near Samut Prakan Southeast of Bangkok you may well have seen a huge statue of Erawan towering over the Erawan Museum and temple. You'll see a post on that at some point.

We approached the mountain from the East, leaving Udonthani right after breakfast when my friend arrived in his cousin’s truck to drive us around for the day. The ride through the countryside was relaxing and the Isaan music coming from the stereo was pleasant, and the day was off to a good start.

From quite a ways away we could see the statue of the Buddha - detail enlarged in the photo - sitting peacefully at the entrance to the cave, high up on the hillside. Believing the top of the mountain itself resembles a kneeling elephant (clue: it's facing to the right) it's sometimes referred to as Tham Chang, or elephant's cave. "How do we get up there?" I asked, as we pulled into the parking area, joining three other vehicles. I hadn't seeing tram lines, but was hoping against hope. "Stairs," I was told, so I began putting my affairs in order, downed one bottle of water and tucked another into my large side pocket.

It was peaceful as we approached the statue of Erawan at the base of the stairs. There were only a few people milling around listlessly nearby, having ice cream and snacks and resting in the shade after making their way down the mountainside. It was an unsettling omen. My friend paid the minor collection box fee and headed up the stairway ahead of me, turning to see if I was behind him and laughing at what was probably a look of dread on my face although I'd tried to put on my "good sport" face.

Note that the red collection box is at the base of the stairway as you enter. After my visit I wondered if that was in case you didn't survive the climb. "Have you been here before?" I asked my friend. "Sure," he said "many times." How many stairs to the cave?" I asked, somewhat dreading the answer. "Six hundred eleven!" he replied gleefully with a big smile, anticipating my reaction. I didn't let him down, but I doubt he fully understood the sacrilegious reference to the person some accept as the son of God, especially the way I colored it up in my surprise.

I paced myself (as if I really had a choice) and made it to the Buddha statue at the entrance to the cave. We had stopped to rest and enjoy the magnificent views any number of times, and a few people passed us up. Once at the entrance we paused to make merit at the statue, and as we turned to head into the cave itself we were joined by a young boy who attached himself to us as our guide. My friend said "he wants 40 baht," and I agreed, even though my friend had been through the cave before. It looked a little like he'd be kicking the dirt around or been there a while or both, and I dubbed him "Dusty."

Dusty grinned and trotted off down the somewhat steep path into the cave (the green pointer shows two people heading down), sliding along with a practiced skill I couldn't imitate, but it did give me an understanding of why he was so dirty as the clouds of dust rose around me while I did my best to avoid falling onto my butt.

You could feel the air change and become cooler as we soon left the open shade of the entrance and were bathed exclusively in the glow of bare fluorescent tubes, hanging every 20 feet or so from a single cord and strung on crude wooden poles along what served as a path. We continued on a downhill slope, deeper into the cave.

"What would you call these in Thai?" I wondered out loud, pointing to a light that I had to push to the side as I went past. He told me, but of course I've forgotten. I thought to myself "In the U.S. we'd call these 'a lawsuit waiting to happen'" as I slid another few inches and started taking smaller steps.

Soon the cave opened up above us in the first of several large caverns, and the formations were absolutely amazing. Towering far, far up into the darkness they formed a number of stalactites and stalagmites; the walls sometimes looking like a series of waterfalls set in stone. My flash was next to useless, and I soon abandoned the idea of attempting many photos allowing my eyes to adjust to the near-darkness (some of the lights were out) and just enjoy the formations, walking as carefully as I could.

Dusty - being in his element - skipped circles around us as he ran from spot to spot, climbing up some of the rocks and waving his water bottle around to point at things as he spoke in Thai, explaining points briefly before hopping down and moving quickly off ahead of us again. I didn't understand a word of it, but he seemed to be enjoying showing us around. My friend didn't try to keep up translating Dusty's commentary for me, saying "Not interesting - don't need to know," and I didn't push further. It was enough to just be there.

After a while we began to see light ahead and could feel a gentle breeze, slightly warmer than the air we'd been walking through. When I asked what it was I was told it was from a lookout we were approaching on another side of the mountain's top, and soon enough I saw a series of basic (OK, I'll be judgmental and just say crude) wooden stairs rising 60 or 70 feet up to it. These were not designed to hold a lot of weight; each step being about five feet wide with nothing to support it in the center other than the air below it. I stepped on the side edges of each one, cringing a little each time the structure creaked and groaned; my legs already a little shaky from the other 611 less than an hour ago.

Reaching the edge of the opening I stood at a railing just as rickety as the stairs behind me and got a little fright when I accidentally leaned on it as I peered down the steep drop to ground level below. It was a fantastic view, though, and I was glad I'd decided not to blow off the last few flights of old stairs and skip it.

I think I was more nervous going back DOWN the stairs than I was coming up them. Going down I was more aware of how far I'd fall and what I'd bounce off of than when I'd climbed up. Dusty hopped up on the railings and slid down them, one after another; more monkey than boy. You can see him far ahead of us at the bottom in the picture above. We re-traced our steps through the semi-darkness, uphill this time, and made our way back to the cave entrance.

I stood with my legs shaking a little with fatigue, wondering how my tired knees would do going back down the stairs still awaiting us. My friend lay down on the wooden platform to one side and promptly fell asleep. I tipped Dusty his 40 baht - actually, I gave him 60 - and sat down myself to rest a bit and finish my back-up bottle of water before waking my friend and heading back down to the parking lot.

A breeze had come up while we were inside so we had that going for us as we descended the stairs. Taking our time we again enjoyed the views along the way. We, too, stopped for ice cream, water and snacks before getting into the truck and heading back home.

My legs hurt for three days afterward.