A Travellerspoint blog

Bridging

sunny 20 °C

We decided to hire a car and driver for the trip from Agra back to New Delhi airport to avoid having to deal with luggage and taxi’s twice plus the train ride and it was surprisingly close to the same price. For an extra 300 rupees, about US$6.00 the air condition would even be turned on. With a temp. of over 40 degrees Celsius that was a nice option to have and use. The car trip was not 4 hours, closer to 7 but we had allowed for plenty of time after seeing New Delhi’s traffic from close up the week before. The drive gave us an opportunity to observe life in India in the smaller towns. Not too many of the cow pictures we took turned out while many, many cows were seen walking by and on the road. We asked our driver; who took care of the cows, who fed them? We learned that the cows take care of themselves. They look overall quite well and happy as they saunter in front of cars and buses whose drivers take greater effort avoiding the cows than the pedestrians. After checking in at the airport and clearing immigration, India had one more surprise which did not sit well with foreign tourists, including us. With 3.000 rupees left, the equivalent of $60.00 we stood in line at the foreign exchange counter and were made aware that rupees could only be changed into another currency if one had an Indian passport. The same held for all the stores in the departure hall, including the ones selling Indian souvenirs/merchandise, rupees only for those with an Indian passport otherwise US dollars. The only exception was the coffee shop but how many cups should one drink before boarding a plane for a 6.5 hour flight to Istanbul. Moral of the story, get rid of your rupees before setting foot in the airport and do not buy too many.

In Istanbul foreign tourists have to buy a Visa upon arrival. No paperwork is filled out, no one asks how long or where one plans to stay in Turkey, all the visa entails is an exchange of money (Euros) for a pretty stamp in your passport. Mine, for a Dutch passport cost 10 Euros and the identical stamp affixed in Tom’s American passport cost 15 Euros. Payable with a credit card. While waiting for our luggage I tried to exchange Indian Rupees for Turkish Liras, and was not surprised when that did not work. Turkish liras could not even be bought with a credit/debit card at the exchange, cash for cash only, and the only ATM was once again outside. All we wanted at that time was a 1 lira or 1 euro coin since that was what would unlock the chained dolly’s and we needed one for our luggage before hauling it through customs. Sweet revenge came when we wondered if a coin…is a coin..is a coin, and stuck in a 2 Indian rupee coin (worth an American nickel) and lo and behold it worked!!!
Istanbul is an absolute, delightful city. People of all walks of life live together in the mystery of the East and the practicality of the West. Our hostel is on the Historical Peninsula, steps way from the walls of Topkapi Palace and a couple of cobble stone streets up from the Bosphorus Strait which connects the Black Sea with the Marmara Sea and divides Europe from Asia. It is there where we headed to upon arriving last week. It was a great place to sit and be while inhaling fresh sea air and smelling the flowers which can be found throughout the old city and beautifully offsets the old, grey stone from the ancient mosques and palaces. We spent the better part of our first day inside Topkapi Palace, which was built in the 15th century but like a living organism it continued to grow and change. The palace was turned into a museum in 1924 with many treasures and relics stored inside. It was interesting to see side by side the arm bones of John the Baptist and inside jeweled casing the beard of the Prophet Mohammed with on the opposite wall, the staff which Abraham used to part the Red Sea. The biggest building, with 8 domes, houses the rich collection of old weapons, many adorned with precious stones. We walked inside the council room where the government held their meetings at which the Sultan could not be present but could listen through a window opened on a high point of the Harem section and covered with a curtain. The Palace has been beautifully maintained and the grounds were ablaze with the many colors of blooming tulips and pansies. Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia are separated by a park where the tourists gather throughout the day and evening for tea, Turkish coffee and the great pastries from the many bakeries surrounding the square. The Blue Mosque is one of the most famous monuments of the Turkish and Islamic world and the only mosque built with six minarets. The interior is a big hall where the men still gather in prayer 5 times a day while the women kneel in a separate, enclosed area in the back. It is one of the mosques which wakens us each morning long before the sky’s lightening with the muezzins call. This ancient call to prayer beckons a sleeping city and throughout the day it is heard again, from all the mosques surrounding us. Prayer is part of the day, part of life and it does not disturb. We were outside the New Mosque during an afternoon prayer meeting and watched hundreds of men, as one, bow their heads to the floor and after rising, leave and continue on with their day before gathering again later in prayer. Hagia Sophia, once a Christian Church (for 926 years), a mosque for 481 years , now sustains its historical function as a museum. It served as an example, even if on the basis of ideas and it is a product of the synthesis of the West and East. Upon entering, high up a mosaic panel can be seen depicting Jesus and his mother and throughout Hagia Sophia there is blending of Christianity and Islam, wonderful to see.
Old Istanbul has lots of charm and walking the narrow cobbled-stoned streets even without stopping at the many museums, mosques, palaces and bazaars is highly entertaining. Many wares are displayed, especially the rugs and the walking- by tourists will be encouraged to stop and take a look. Not being fueled by desperation, aggression is not present here and with a friendly wave one can walk by. One of our favorite walks is by the water of the Bosphorus where a bridge within minutes can connect one with Asia. It is a great people watching place where especially on a Sunday evening families take a stroll and stop to eat a doner sandwich which is fast becoming a favorite of ours. It is refreshing to see men and women walk hand in hand with their children hopping close by. The Muslim women are dressed in full length coats with their heads covered in brightly colored scarves . We have seen few women donned in the full black with scarves covering their faces. On one of our walks, when taking a picture, a young man stopped us and asked if we knew the significance of the statue which picture we were taking and we did not. He happily explained while walking next to us, hand in hand with his girl friend and the pride this young man took in his city Istanbul, the cradle of civilization, was evident. He was a young student and while pecking a kiss on her nose told us of his plans to marry this beautiful girl after completing his studies and mandatory 6 month tour in the Military, even if her father would not approve. In one of the guide books we read, the tourist is reminded that Turkey is a laic country where the Turkish people enjoy eating, drinking and dancing and that religion and government do not walk together like some other Arabic countries. Istanbul draws many tourists, especially the young, and throughout we hear Bulgarian, Romanian, Dutch and English spoken as well as many other languages. The traffic once again drives on the right side and with our many months seeing it on the left , at first this came across as being on the wrong side. As far as we are concerned after seeing the traffic in Thailand, Nepal and India; Pick a side and then please stay on it!

Tonight we will board a bus and travel through Turkey for 7 days stopping in Cappadocia,Pamukkale and Ephesus before returning to Istanbul for a couple more days, where there is till plenty more for us to see and do.

Gule-Gule

Tom and Els

Posted by tomstrick1 08:04 Archived in Turkey Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Impressions

sunny 45 °C

We flew out of Nepal on Good Friday, heading for New Delhi, India and the flight over Nepal offered us great views of the Himalayas majesty which made us once again understand the draw and promise of adventure Nepal offers. Leaving the Kathmandu airport was as thrilling as arriving. Not once, twice but three times each passenger was thoroughly hand frisked and had to empty their total hand luggage and explain the items, which became quite comical with the language barrier. In front of me was an English woman and I admire and still chuckle on how she tried to get across to the male guard the function of birth control pills. “Head ache pills?”. “No, pills for when you do not have headache! “. We were prepared to pay the exit fee of 1750 rupees each (at exit rupees are accepted), made sure to have extra in case the number was not correct but lo and behold, no money was asked of us and now we have 6000 Nepal rupees on our hand which no one wants to exchange in India.

New Delhi airport is comparable with any large, international airport in the world and runs very efficiently. Retrieving luggage, immigration and customs was a breeze and within minutes we found ourselves in the arrival hall where signs alerted travelers to be on the safe side, not be subjected to touts and buy a government approved pre-paid taxi ticket, which we did with our newly acquired Indian Rupees which cost 50 per $1.00 as opposed to the 80 Nepal rupees an American dollar can buy. Armed with a paid ticket from the airport to Hotel Ashiana in down town New Delhi we lined up for our taxi which arrived shortly. We assumed that our driver spoke no English since our greetings were not returned or any other attempts in conversation by us. After giving him our ticket we took off. Almost immediately he lit up cigarette inside the taxi which was surprising but after all we did not know the customs here. New Delhi around the airport area and outside suburbs looks surprisingly like any big American or European city with impressive, towering business buildings and apartment dwellings but the scenery changed abruptly when we neared the inner-city where chaos took over as did the stench of animals and people living on the streets. In the heart of the city, at an intersection of very narrow alleys our taxi driver who had not interacted or acknowledged our existence at all turned around and in plain English said” Get out. Cannot find your hotel. Get a rickshaw. “ We were stunned but refused to get out since a crowd had immediately formed around our taxi and attempts were made to open our backseat doors. Our backpacks were tied on the roof of the car. Quite a bit earlier I had locked my door and Tom later mentioned that right before our driver pulled his stunt, it was a passing child who pointed to the then still up lock- button and made a locking motion which Tom did. Not surprisingly, it was men dressed as Holy Men who where the most aggressive. Tom and I insisted to be taken back to the airport if our driver was unable to find our hotel and that under no condition would we get out. Tom advised the driver to find traffic police for assistance since maybe they could give him direction at which time our driver moved on with a “ No, police”. He was able to find our hotel after all and a combination of exhaustion on my part and the aftermath of the scary and intimidating experience sent me into a weeping spell. It did not help that the hotel was by far not the accommodation advertised on the internet so I booed that this was not where I wanted to be at Easter and I may have added that I was ready to deck the next “Holy Men” who came close. Tom did a great job comforting and reminding me that it was all part of the adventure. It is true, we set out for experience but how we want each and every experience to be enjoyable and pleasant.
It is very easy to let first impressions, good or bad, cloud the rest of vision. In Nepal we had our very first rickshaw ride which has cured us of taking another. While still in Katmandu we planned a trip to Durbar Square and after consulting with owner Bishnu decided on taking a rickshaw. He warned us to be sure and have an agreement of the price before taking off, advice we read over and over in travel guides, and mentioned the customary fee for a ride to the square. Immediately when setting foot in the alley rickshaw drivers surrounded us and we asked one how much. His price was 3 times more than Bishnu’s recommended price and we declined. Immediately the price went down. We agreed and off we went. Rickety is a good name for the bikes, they bounce, rattle and shake and most of the time my eyes remained tightly shut. Fear can do that! The bike had a handmade horn, cleverly crafted from an old Nivea lotion bottle. Our driver decided to stop along the way, hoping to show us additional sights but we insisted that it was Durbar Square we wanted to explore. Upon arriving at the square he declined the money and instead grabbed the Nepal guidebook out of my hand and said he would wait for us. That’s all good and well but our book he was not keeping and I grabbed it right back. Money again was declined and we wandered in the square after being stopped to pay the “foreigner entrance fee”. Blondes do stick out as do men with bushy moustaches and Australian hats. After an hour we were ready to head back and our rickshaw driver must have kept a close eye on us and showed up next to our side We gave him our hotel card with the address and strict instructions to go only there before we hopped on once again. He stopped in a narrow, busy alley quite a while away still from our hotel and demanded payment for the 4 hours we had hired him as our guide. We totally agree that being a rickshaw driver and pulling tourists down busy, potholed dirt streets has to be a very difficult job and in our hands we had enough to double the original price(roundtrip now) and quadrupled it for a generous tip. We had been gone one and a half hours in total. He wanted 24x more!!! What Tom knows and the rickshaw driver was fast learning is that I have a temper and will stand my ground and cunningly not taking us back to the hotel did not sit well. Soon a guard walked close by and the rickshaw driver took off in haste after taking the offered money .
I thought back on this after our first taxi driver experience in India. Even when paying close attention to the warnings and following recommended guidelines, tourists can and will face unexpected encounters, some more pleasant and entertaining than others. We spent two days in the heart of New Delhi. One afternoon we explored and wandered around and again we were overcome with the poverty displayed. There were quite a few puddles on the dirt roads while New Delhi has not had significant rain fall in a long time. After noticing quite a few males urinating on the streets, often not turning around but showing the full Monty, we kept our boots on even with the temperatures in the 40 degrees Celsius mark. We found a great restaurant around the corner of our hotel where the non-veg Thali included an egg curry with a whole hardboiled egg floating on top. It became Easter dinner and was great. We took a guided day tour of the city and saw many beautiful temples including Shri Lakshmi Narain ( Birla Temple) where throughout paintings describe the Hinduism philosophy of life. None of the temples we saw in New Delphi allowed you to bring in cameras or cell phones and upon entrance were placed in a lockbox and we were given the key. Our last stop was the Swaminaryan AkshardhaM, a very unique complex of Indian culture, set in a vast 100 acre site on the banks of the Tamuna River as professed by HDH Yogiji Maharaj in 1968. His vision was fulfilled in 2005 when this grand spiritual monument was blessed by his successor HDH Pramukh Swami Maharaj. It took 5 years to complete. Upon arrival, before parking, all vehicles are thoroughly searched, both inside and out. There are signs alerting all on what cannot be brought inside the temple, the list includes at least a 100 items e.g – No bombs(duh), gum, papers, documents, purse, weapons, drugs, cigarettes, toffee, shampoo(?), brush, comb, pen, etc….the list went on and on. Batteries had to be removed from cell phones and cameras and turned in separate. It probably would have been simpler to post that what could be carried in and that’s the clothes on your back, money (without billfold) in your pocket, one watch per group (yes) and women could keep on their jewelry. Hand frisking before entering. Since our hotel did not have a safe and our sense of security there had not been very high I carried in my little purse our passports/tickets and had no intention of parting with those so Tom and I decided to have one of us wait with my purse on the outside and take turns entering and seeing the site. Good decision however it meant that I missed seeing Tom wander through the complex dressed in a yellow Sari since his knee length shorts proved to be unacceptable. Swaminaryan AkshardhaM is beyond description. It beautifully showcases Indian art, wisdom, heritage and values as a tribute to Bhagwan Swaminaryan(1781-1830)a torchbearer of Indian culture. The carvings out of red stone and marble are so detailed that one could spend hours admiring the craftsmanship. The Holy footprints of Bhagwan bear the 16 sacred signs of God and water is continuously showered on them from four auspicious conch shells in tribute to his (Bhagwan Swaminarayan) inspiring life and work. Walking through the complex is meant to radiate peace, beauty, joy and divinity. I expected to see Alladin floating by on his carpet. This was the India of story books and the fables I grew up with. Upon leaving and only minutes away we again saw the slums and cannot help but wonder how a country which can build such grandiosity as the Sawminarayan Akshardham cannot take care of its people. Why built such an empty extreme while the people still live on the streets and try to find shade with rags over their head while digging through trash hoping for a morsel. Should peace, beauty, joy and divinity not radiate for them also? Our driver was ready to show us more temples but we realized we were templed out. We had seen the temple of all temples and it would have been like going to the county fair after having spent a week in Disney World.
The very next morning, Easter Sunday at 5.30 am we left by train for Agra, home of the Taj Mahal. The train ride was great, once we made it on, and can be highly encouraged as a mode of transportation between New Delhi and Agra. The trip took around two hours and while it does not offer much in views it gives a great people watching opportunity. We were pleasantly surprised by the service; newspaper, bottled water, tea/coffee and a full breakfast were served and it was not until days later we learned that we travelled first class. Our three days in the Grand Hotel in Agra have been good. The hotel caters mainly to Indians and appears to be the place to celebrate special events like wedding receptions. From our balcony we observed a Hindu wedding and as sneaky observers we took no pictures. Enormous firework displays and outside the gardens the groom was kept for hours while quite a celebration was going on for him alone. At the hotel we met Barbara, a delightful woman from Melbourne, Australia who is here as a guest and member of the wedding celebrations which will start today for the son of the Hotel owner. The event will take three days and we would have loved to see more close up but we will head back to New Delhi for our flight to Istanbul later today.
Tom saw the Taj Mahal, our reason for the India stop and I could see in his eyes how much the moment meant. It is monumental to touch and be close to this seventh wonder of the world, built in the 1600’s , also on the banks of the river Yamuna. The entrance gate of the Taj bears inscriptions of the entire chapter of Koran. The most amazing feature of the Taj Mahal is its proportion and symmetric construction. Standing in one of the surrounding temples arches the whole Taj Mahal will be artfully in view. Peeking over the side we saw 14 women who while squatted cut the enormous lawns with small hand sickles while subjected to a male who angrily pushed them on. The other life, once again. We spent the day touring the other sites of Agra including the 14th century built Royal Palace of Fatehpur Sikri. Legend goes that King Akbar had three wives, Muslim, Christian and Hindu, and none had born him a son. After a battle he stopped in Sikri, the dwelling place of Sufi Saint ‘ Sheikh Salim Chisti’, who was famous for his spiritual deeds. The King asked for prayer to bless him with a son and it is said that Sufi Saint sacrified his own six month old son ‘Bate Miyan’ and thus the soul of this sacrificied son was reborn in the womb of Empress Jogha Bai, the Hindu wife. The Tomb of Salim Chisti is a shrine where one can buy a wish and with this purchase comes a sari which then will be donated to Agra’s widows and we hope that will happen with the sari we bought. At the entrance we were again asked to remove our shoes and knowing that we would be visiting temples we had dressed accordingly. It is such a strange culture where I see the Hindu and Sikh women walk in their beautiful silk draped saris, often with their midriff fully exposed, sometimes even from the belly button up, while I have lost the right to bare arms. My sensuous shoulders have remained covered in India and the few shirts with sleeves that I brought are getting quite a workout in the 45 degree heat. While dressed according to culture we notice that in the sacred temples souvenirs can still be sold and while trying to listen to our guide and taking in the history I am being followed by a very persistent young man who continuously holds 7 bracelets in front of my face …chanting “ How much”. Ignoring only goes so far when both vision and hearing are blocked. No, no, no obviously was not working once again and I got to that point where I stopped and asked if payment would mean his leaving. Yes! I bought freedom and the bracelets are a bonus?

This past month has been a whirlwind of travel, we have seen so much and attempted to absorb cultures so foreign to our own. Health wise we are doing great. We each have dealt with “travelers curse” and learned that squatting toilets have both pros and cons. For hygiene purpose they are better than the Western “sitting counterpart” but after a 20 KM hike, mainly uphill, squatting is the last thing legs want to do. Eating strictly with the right hand since the left here is used for another purpose is difficult if one has been raised in Europe where food is never eaten with hands and where the fork belongs in the left with knife in the right hand. It helps that here in India knives are not part of the cutlery laid out at the table. One custom which we do not believe we will ever get used to is the early morning practice we heard both in Nepal and now India. It is the hacking, grunting, attempting to remove every additional fluid out of lungs and sinuses and with lots of retching spit the wad out, preferably in front of our feet. This is common for both men and women, especially in Nepal and seeing this from dainty, delicate, exquisitely dressed women was shocking. These past couple of mornings we have been spoiled once again and are reading the Agra newspaper in English. Election time is getting near here and on both mornings we read of potential candidates found hung without much additional information. We read about a family of 4 traveling late at night on their motorcycle after attending a wedding celebration. Father, mother and two young children, ages 4 and 6. The children both died with the parents wounded. It happened the night after we observed the wedding celebration in our hotel’s garden and with the many children present there we now wonder if we saw them before they,as a family and with their heads unprotected, left for home.

At one of the temples we read the following, one of Hinduism philosophy of life.
Therefore , without attachment constantly perform the (right) action which is your duty for, by performing action without attachment men verily reacheth the surpreme one. “Gita”.Namante India. Take care of your people.
Tom and Els

Posted by tomstrick1 00:36 Archived in India Tagged round_the_world Comments (1)

Money matters

overcast 38 °C

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Happy Easter from Agra, India, home of the Taj Mahal only minutes down the road from our hotel. We arrived this morning by train from New Delhi and this Easter will go down in memory as one like no other but impressions of India will follow later. This is the story of our time in Nepal.

Upon landing in Kathmandu, Nepal, on March 31 we were informed to set back our watch one hour and 15 minutes from Bangkok time. Strange time change and when asking why, we learned it was to differentiate from India, which is 15 minutes West of Nepal since after all they are two separate countries as yes, they are. Kathmandu is the capital of Nepal and really the only large city left in the historical Kathmandu Valley and surrounded by the foothills of the Himalayas which because of the horrendous smog are seen only as distant shadows. Flying over the city showed us the crowdedness which we would experience soon but first one had to deal with Nepal immigration and the buy- upon- arrival visa which is a story in itself. It was almost at the last minute of our very pleasant Thai airlines flight from Bangkok that the paperwork for Nepal was handed out, including the Visa form which showed where a recent passport picture needed to be affixed. We had extra passport pictures with us but not that what was also required for admittance to Nepal….25 US dollars or Euros, since Nepal does not accept even its own currency for entrance. Obviously we were not the only tourists taken off guard at the foreign passport gate. Nepali’s and SAARC Countries were not subjected to the fee and happily walked through another gate while about 100 confused foreigners lined up at another gate wondering how in the heck we would find US dollars or Euros while so far from the countries where they are actually manufactured. I remained in line while Tom went on an ATM mission together with some very frantic tourists. Tom was even mentioned in the line as being the only one who was not losing his cool. True to form he calmly asked and did not appear upset in being sent left, right, upstairs, downstairs and eventually Tom walked through the Nepali passport exit gate and was not seen again for probably 30 minutes at which time I wondered if he found the solution to this whole dilemma and was waiting for me on the outside to join him. He eventually returned, with the correct amount in US dollars and the only ATM in the Kathmandu airport is indeed outside and I wonder how many chose not to return to pay the fees due, but of course on the way out of the country you are screwed since the correct papers for exit will not then be in your hands. Luggage was another matter. Before you can enter the area where your checked in luggage can be retrieved you have to go through security where they screen the hand baggage you brought in but do not check anything upon leaving with the rest of your luggage (?) Oh well. We were blessed to have the manager/owner of our booked hotel still standing outside with an ELS STRICKLAND sign held up high. Never before have I been so relieved seeing my name in print. Bhishnu, from the Katmandu View Hotel came through for us many more times during our ten days in Nepal.
Our inner city Thamel hotel was probably less than 10 KM from the airport but the sights, sounds and smells of Katmandu sent us in sensory overload long before arrival. I wonder if I would have ever complained about traffic in Bangkok, Australia and New Zealand if we had chosen to travel with the rising sun instead of the setting and seen Kathmandu first. Kathmandu traffic is beyond description but I will try. Very narrow, dirt streets, packed with pollution belching vehicles, low quality fuel, total lack of emission control and whether they have two wheels, three, four or more they are all destined to be there first and at all times will try to pass whoever is in front of them even if that means totally ignoring the left side of the street they were meant to drive. It is a given that upon passing the horn will be honked and since all are passing all, never waiting for even an opportunity, the incessant honking is an absolute lesson in futility. That is Katmandu and Nepal’s traffic in a nut shell. Most of the time the traffic is of course totally tied up and still, every one honks. Pedestrians account for over 40% of all traffic fatalities. It was during this drive we learned that electricity is only available in Nepal 8 hours out of every 24 and the hours while we were there appeared to be between 4.00 and 8.00am and 4.00 and 8.00 pm. Prime times? Power is still needed the rest of the hours, especially for the hospital located across the alley from the hotel, so diesel fueled generators operate during the off hour which adds not only to the noise but also the pollution and I learned to use my recently purchased Thai headscarf as a mask. Garbage covers and lines the streets and in the morning women sweep the alleys and on the spot the trash, including lots of plastic is burned. Our first hours in Nepal were spent exploring the narrow alleys of Thamel, lined with stores all ready to have us enter and see the wares. While years ago it was the tie-dyed hippies crowd which frequented Kathmandu , now it is the gore -tex hiking bunch it attracts evident by the merchandise displayed. Every other stand carried North face products, Mamot and trekking poles. While some enjoy the banter needed to bargain for prices, we do not. We learned that the prices asked are hugely inflated and through artfully negotiating on both sides one usually only has to pay a third of the original asking price. Not on our list of enjoyable moments, we truly prefer the ability to walk around, look peacefully at the items and see a price affixed which we either want to pay or not. In Nepal, like Thailand, that is not going to happen. Begging is quite common in Nepal partly because both Hinduism and Buddhism encourage the giving of alms. It is a very difficult, heart rendering dilemma ….to give or not to give… when encountering children on the street who point to a store and then raise their hands to their mouth. Feed me? We learned that Kathmandu has over a 1000 street children, lured by the easy money and that by giving you encourage a life style which serves no one, especially not the child. We learned of the various agencies in place assisting and supporting the children of Nepal who have been orphaned through the latest uprising, the insurgency which placed the Maoists in charge. Over 12.000 Nepali’s were killed and many more are still in jail while their children roam the streets. An organization recently formed is called “one Voice” and made up through efforts of Norway, the Netherlands, Japan and the USA. Upon our return we hope to assist the Nepali children and learn more about how to raise Kathmandu’s children’s living conditions while remaining loyal to the Nepali culture. The child who broke my heart was a little girl, at the most 4 years old. Sitting alone by the side of a congested, very busy street, tin cup in front. I squatted in front of her and asked. ” Who, my child, is looking after you”? Without any expression she stared back. I noticed a bottle of water next to her and a rag over the railing to protect her from the sun and knew somewhere close, someone was watching and would take the money I left in the tin, praying that somehow that little effort would help this little girl while knowing it would not. It is especially around the religious shrines where lines of beggars can be found, knowing where the tourists are often headed. Standing on a street corner, looking at our map we were approached by two “Holy men” who without asking planted a Tika on our foreheads and demanded significant payment for a “blessing” we did not request. It was frightening at first and while we have tremendous respect for the Hindu and Buddhist religions and respect their tradition , having two fake Holy men paste a large red dot on our forehead while unaware did not sit well with us. Let’s say the Tika, ticked us off and while walking quickly away I started rubbing it off while Tom pointed out that I had now successfully dyed my whole forehead red. We scrubbed each other clean with only our own spit at hand and learned to watch out for future Holy men. We learned that the true Holy men are in the temples and treat all with respect. At our hotel we met a couple from Belgium, Miriam and Arnold who have trekked at regular intervals through Nepal for over 20 years and days earlier finished a twenty day trek with their 5 year old son Arno. Quite a feat. They came within 500 meters of Everest Base camp.
Nepal is a country that needs to be seen and explored with an open mind. It is one of the poorest countries on earth and greatly depends on the tourism trade. Tourism has been down these past 5 years mainly because of Nepal’s political unrest and now by the trickledown effect of the World’s economy. Last year’s insurgency brought the Maoists in control but it was very evident during our stay that all is not well. On the day we had bus tickets for Chitwan Park, a supposedly 5 hour drive away, a strike took place which closed the roads in the whole country for the day. We were unaware and together with a young worker from the hotel walked to the bus station. We thought nothing of the quiet roads, only driven by motor cycles, since it was after all only 6.30 am. Our escort did not mention the strike until we arrived at the bus stop where many other tourists were waiting and learned for the first time of the boycott/strike called by a disgruntled opposite political party. It was evident that all knew in Nepal except the foreign tourists who were waiting in vain for buses which never arrived. I questioned why our hotel had not informed us of the strike and instead had us walk to the bus stop with one of their employees but remembered reading that the Nepali people love to please and it was evident that our young friend hated to be the bearer of bad news and had chosen to avoid the inevitable for as long as he could. We headed back to our hotel, a little disgruntled and disappointed with hopes to leave later in the week. Later in the day we walked briefly through Kathmandu but after seeing the streets lined with heavily armed and armored Military Police and groups of young people carrying opposition party and Maoist flags we headed back to our hotel and spent the day reading on the roof top. Ironically my book was titled “prisoners of birth”.
We took a three day guided trek and hiked through Shivapuri National Park up to Nagarkot and back to Bahktapur and are forever changed by the experience of trekking through Nepali’s beautiful hills and villages. We met our guide Jun the night before leaving. It is highly advisable to hire a guide, not only for the safety, security and understanding it offers but it also provides employment and brings money into the hill’s economy. Jun, is a very well read, highly intelligent and insightful young man who has guided tourists, clients as he calls them, now for 14 years. When he asked us where we lived we noticed a small smile when he heard America. We learned the next day why. He mentioned that not often, but at times he has guided American clients but they always said they were Canadians but still he knew through listening where they were truly from. He asked us why they would not have wanted to disclose, was it being afraid or ashamed? We told him that we could not talk for them, did not know their reason, but that we were neither afraid nor embarrassed to say out loud there where we lived. Friendship with Jun started immediately and he shared so much with us about his country’s history, struggles and disappointments. While still driving the chaotic streets of Kathmandu, on our way to the trek take- out point, Jun asked us “You live in America and now see Nepal. What does Nepal have to do”? Our reply was that America does not have the answers still his question stayed close in my thoughts during the next three days hiking. Nepal is second in the world with riches in water supply still the country does not come close to supplying electricity. Spending time in the villages while waiting for lunch at a teahouse gave us opportunity to observe wholesome living. In the village all have their part to perform and Nepal village life can teach us all about sustainability. Elderly women sat on the roof sorting the grain while others attended to the children who happily were doing what children do best….play and make noise. The younger women were attending to the beautiful terraced fields with their babies very close by just like the goats had their kids, the buffalos their calves, the chickens their chicks all within reach. Throughout the villages we were greeted with” Namaste” while hands were placed in respectful prayer with head bent. Often after our Namaste exchange the village children opened their hands and asked for “balloons, pens, chocolate, money?” signs of the tourists and Jun explained the wrongdoing to the children if their requests were met and we agreed. Jun himself was raised in a mountain village and his marriage to a girl from a nearby village was arranged at the age of 15. His marriage did not last. While a devout and sincere practicing Buddhist he believes all are entitled to find their own life partner. He moved with his son to Kathmandu a couple of years ago so that his son can have the advantage of a good, private school education which Jun supplies through his earnings as guide while they live together in only one small room. Education is very important for the Nepalese and children are taught English from Kindergarten on and we were amazed by the Nepali children in their ability to converse with us. After primary school all the subjects are taught in English only. Both private and government schools demand their students to wear uniforms and while the government schools are free, the uniforms are not which adds a financial burden to many. In Nepal, public display of affection between men and women is frowned upon and was never seen while there. What is very noticeable is the affection the men show for each other and men holding hands, or with arms draped over shoulders, even sitting on each other’s laps is constantly observed as well as the obvious love the women share for each other and usually walk with arms linked. None of this carries sexual overtones but does appear somewhat bewildering when raised in a society where usually men only slap each other on butts during football games and are afraid to show any additional affection in case it is misconstrued. Traveling Nepal allowed us to look closer at our own culture and life style. On our first day hike while covering 800 meters uphill mainly done over baked steps and watching the village women carry their heavy load up these steps after their weekly shopping trek to town I mentioned to Jun how in America women pay money to climb steps and described a stair climbing class. He thought that to be hilarious …Pay money to climb stairs which go nowhere? Yes and let me explain stationary bikes and treadmills. Jun taught us how to trek in the mountains and basically he slowed us way down and introduced what Tom now calls the Himalayan shuffle but it meant hiking for 20Kilometers uphill while never needing to stop for a rest. There is no reason to catch your breath when it is not first lost. Jun described the distant brick ovens seen in the valley and how the brick industry is one of their exports, with high quality bricks sent to Japan and China with lesser quality bricks manufactured for Nepal. He mentioned the same for all the products made in Nepal, high quality for the exports with considerably lesser products to remain. We noticed his boots which were not near the quality of ours while his feet equally deserved and I wonder when this country will learn to treat their own people with the same respect as they give to their visitors. It was noticeable at the teahouses that it was Jun who was always served last, long after us, while we shared the table and would not leave until Jun had finished his meal. The main dish in Nepal is called Daal Bhat and is basically white rice with lentil soup on the side. Sometimes curried vegetables and meat are served with it as well as a small dish of pickles; however they are not the pickles we are used to. Jun, like most Nepali’s eats this dish for breakfast, lunch and dinner, day in and day out. He ate it at every meal we shared and we asked him if he ever gets tired of it, bored with it? He looked at me bewildered. “Why? It is food”. I decided to join him one day and strictly eat Daal Bhat and was tired of it before the day was over and went back to changing it up with fried rice and chowmein and even that became tiresome. The choices we want in our diets and how we miss them when we cannot. We heard Sanskrit chanted outside the temples and at times we would stop in for a visit. We were careful to dress within Nepal’s culture but I was glad to learn that I did not have to hike in a skirt and that modest shorts are acceptable for men and women on treks. When stopping by a temple I asked Jun whether I needed to don a skirt and he simply replied it was not God asking women to wear skirts and to whom did I listen? It showed again the gentleness of his soul. If we ever return to Nepal it will be for trekking and it would be with Jun. We returned by bus to Bahktapur and in Nepal a bus never gets full. The roof will be filled with people and there is always room to hang on. With not even standing room left a mother entered with 5 children who stood so tight in front of us there was no way to even lose balance. The youngest child was a little girl around three who was wedged in tight. I patted my lap and held out my arms inviting her up. She was hesitant at first until her elder brother nodded his head and for the rest of our trip she sat silently in my lap looking out of the window and at times peeking a glance at me. When it was time for her to depart, she very gently placed a kiss on my cheek before folding her tiny hands and bowing while whispering Namaste. I was deeply touched. This Namaste had no strings attached. In Bahktapur there was a palace Jun thought we wanted to see, filled with antiques. All over Nepal, foreign tourists pay to enter to see the sights, cities and squares. This palace was $ US. 10.00 each and we decided Jun and his son would be better served with this money and declined and added it to Jun’s tip instead with the words that he had shown us Nepal’s true palaces and antiques in the valley’s villages and the extra-ordinary terraces which took centuries and generations to create and now feed the people well.
During our final three days in Nepal we were able to take the bus to the town of Sauraha, outside of Chitwan Park where we arrived at Hotel Parkland, very hot and sweaty after a 7 hour bus ride and met up with 5 outstanding young travelers. Sanna from Finland and 4 young Americans. We stayed together for the next couple of day’s hectic park adventures and enjoyed tremendously our time with them even if it made us miss our own children more. Sanna finished her studies in Social work in Finland and is spending time now in Nepal, working as a social worker and the stories she shared made us realize the hardship of especially the women and children in Nepal. Nicole, one the American women, teaches in a Katmandu private school and hopes to continue teaching in Nepal for a couple of more years. She finds it more rewarding than teaching in America since in Nepal the children still know that education is a privilege. Together we went elephant bathing which was not at all what we had envisioned. It was not standing in the river while gently pouring water over an elephant. We were on top of the elephant, no saddle or seat and the elephant took us down the embankment, into the river where it filled its trunk over and over with water and happily spouted it over us before rolling over and tossing us off. Naming this event “Tourist bathing “would be more apt. I asked our guide whether the river we now were splashing around in was the same river we canoed earlier in the morning and sighted crocodiles. Yes, indeed it was but he reassured us the crocodiles were down stream. That gives the same confidence as learning that the peeing section of the pool is on the other side of where one is swimming. It was wonderful to be once again removed from the city and able to see the moon and a starlit sky and awakened not by honking traffic but by the singing of exotic birds and elephants trumpeting the rising sun. One evening a group from a nearby Thuro village performed the age old stick dance and Tom joined them and became the star of the show. Very early, on our last morning in the park, we took a jungle ride, again on an elephant. This time there was a large padded seat with room for 4 . We had previously noted steps/ladders out in the nowhere which made no sense until an elephant was placed in front and we learned of their mounting purpose. Our jungle ride became quite intense when our driver (mahout) spotted a large rhino with her calf, pulled out a cell phone and started texting! Yes! Our mahout had a cell phone and coverage! That’s more than ATT has in Nepal. Obviously he made contact with the other elephant mahouts and the Rhino chase started in earnest. We no longer followed paths but went straight through the jungle while it was my face which tore apart the spider webs and sadly my glasses did not fully survive the assault. It all went by fast and briefly we wondered about the sensibility of it all. Do rhino’s not become very aggressive while protecting their young? Days earlier a guide on foot had been attacked and severely wounded by a charging rhino and here we were, chasing them through the jungle. We were right on their tails and at times the mother rhino would stop and turn at which time the elephant would be held back. Surrounding sounds made us aware of the other elephants involved in the chase and roundup and eventually, in a clearing the rhino’s stopped and looked dejectly at us, wondering maybe what would be next. We felt sympathy for the rhino’s but could hear that we were outnumbered and that for the others it had been an experience of a life time. On the more peaceful ride back many animals were sighted, including a couple of wild boars “Razorbacks”. Later that day we again boarded the bus back to Kathmandu. The drive offers great views of living by the river and the busy road. Small children walk inches removed from large trucks and buses, seemingly oblivious of the danger.
Nepal has two seasons, dry and wet and the times to visit are the months before either season has set in. For mountain trekking October and November were mentioned as the prime months while March and April are still considered good months since the heath and monsoon rains have not yet started. With temperatures in the Chitwan Park reaching near 40C degrees while we were there we wonder what the summer, wet times are like. Clothing was more relaxed and shorts, t-shirts and swimsuits were acceptable, thank goodness.

In the Kathmandu Post, English version, we found a poem written by 11th grader Aastha Khanel. While we do not know who she/he is, the poem beautifully speaks loudly about Nepal, now..

The Horizon.

I was up one morning,
And gazed at the horizon
I no longer see the reddish hue,
I find dark bloodshed clouds instead.
Nepal is a peaceful country
Where the tales, I heard long time back.
No longer doves fly across the skies
Vampire, bats hunt the silence of our night
Brothers against brother,
Dust to dust and ash to ash is what they believe in
Mothers are crying in agony
What could equal the grief of their dead ones?
I wish I had a Pandora’s box
I would open and let fairies come out
Make my land as I have heard in grand Pa’s tales
A land of love and peace.

Namaste Nepal. We wish you well. We wish you peace. Tom and Els.

Posted by tomstrick1 03:05 Archived in Nepal Tagged round_the_world Comments (1)

Extremes

semi-overcast 35 °C

This morning, while talking with our children thanks to the great inventions of both Skype and the magic jack, it was our son Tony who asked if we were homesick. No, we are not homesick however we so miss our children’s presence, as well as the laughter and good times with friends. Tony also reminded us that we are not only half way done time wise, but also half way in our pursuit to travel the earth fully in its roundness. We are indeed now exactly 12 hours ahead of our home town Conway and traveling closer back home with each flight we take.
No where yet on our travels have extremes been so manifested as here in Thailand. These past days were spent on Phuket island, on beaches named Patong, Karon and Kata, names which 4 years ago were mentioned worldwide during the 2004 tsunami devastation and frankly we had forgotten as the people here want to do . Diamond Cottage resort and Spa, nestled in the hillside of Kata Bay among lush tropical greenery with beaches minutes away, is the place where at night we hang our wet beach towels and cool off in an air-conditioned room where directly outside fountains flow in the pool we step out in when opening the sliding door to our private patio. Somehow we were upgraded to the honey moon suite and I am convinced Tom was the reason. Wherever we ventured in Bangkonk and now on Phuket Island, Tom is greeted and revered like Buddha’s first cousin. At first I thought it was his big Australian hat since “cowboy” is murmured in passing but it ends up that this favoritism is caused by his bushy moustache, the same one which has been covering Tom’s upper lip since he was 17 and according to Tom is to hide a scar. I have never, not in the 27 years I have known him, seen Tom’s upper lip to learn the truth of this reason but here in Thailand this thick, white moustache is creating quite a stir. The island is not near as quiet as we hoped it to be, it is a haven for tourists from Northern and Eastern Europe as well as tourists from China and Japan. In the resort’s “library” where books and magazines are left at random for other travelers to now enjoy I could not find any reading material to take along. Nothing there in English, Dutch nor German but plenty of American authors translated in the various Scandinavian and Asian languages as well as Russian. It appears that few English or American tourists visit Phuket Island while ironically it is English that is used by staff and guides as the language to communicate in and for that we are very grateful. Soft, English music is crooned nonstop in restaurants and stores, often songs we have not heard in decades and enjoy hearing once again. Elvis popularity never died here and signs are out advertising a performing a Thai Elvis impersonator with banners acclaiming “ Elvis is alive”. Words learned in the English language by hotel staff, shop owners and taxi drivers are enough to serve the purpose intended but sadly not enough for conversation and we have of course so many inquiries about culture and history. We learned a couple of basic words, like thank you and good evening. Personally I always enjoyed and appreciated when those who visited my native Holland took the time to learn a few Dutch words and in the eyes of the Thai people we see the same appreciation for our small effort.
The long, white, sandy beaches are very crowded and lined with thousand of reclining chairs with much needed parasols (sun-umbrella’s). For the cost of 100 baht (about 3 US dollars) one can sit on these all day and watch tall, very blond people turn beet red. In Florida we get “winter birds” in Thailand a fitting name could be “red birds”. Europeans are easily identified by their swim suits (Speedo’s for men) or lack of them (topless women) and the breast stroke must still be the first swim stroke taught there since seldom we saw any one swimming the crawl. It was amusing but refreshing to spend a day next to a Swedish family on the beach. Father, mother and two daughters, one well up in her teenage years who laid sprawled, topless in the sun and mom, very worried about her daughter’s exposed feet covered those with a towel. The Andaman Sea is incredibly clear and the color changes from turquoise to aqua depending on the influence from the surrounding green jungle or the sky’s blue. The Sea is so tranquil that even the moving tide barely leaves a ripple and stretched on the water naps can be taken and I believe I did while floating on this mirror in the absence of waves. Incredible to imagine that this is the same body of water which snatched so many during the Christmas tsunami now 4 years ago. Phuket Island has rebuilt and working on revival. Safaris and elephant treks are back in place, restaurants and bars in the swing of things once again, Starbucks has reopened and the harbors are buzzing with departing cruise ships. Here one sees not construction but re-construction. The same can be said of the small island of Phi Phi Don where we snorkeled yesterday and our guide mentioned that on the same beach where we landed everything disappeared during the tsunami, including 4 thousand people. Tourism is the lively hood for the majority of the Phuket people and they are gratified for the return of the tourists. We struggled with the enormity of the loss experienced here late in 2004 and now our presence but do know that for the people here life must go on. One of our tour guides in Thailand, upon hearing our home state asked if we had tornadoes there. When we affirmed his eyes grew huge and shuddering he kept on saying “twister, twister. Oh no!. The movie must have made a big impact here. While in Windsor, Australia we talked with one of the locals there and she said the same “How can you intentionally live in a place that produces tornadoes”? We reminded her that she willingly lives in a place prone to flooding and bush fires. We all live in places where the elements of earth, wind, water and fire can and do produce great tragedies while learning that when we live in fear, we stop living.
During two of our days here we took a boat out on the Andaman Sea. The first one was out to Phang Nga Bay where in less than one generation this remote corner of Thailand has been transformed into a favorite water sport and boating destination for the tourists. Not too many years ago it was only the long tail boats carrying the fishermen one could find under the shadows of the gargantuan rocky monoliths which make up the island landscape. Now throughout the bay, tourist laden boats and sea canoes can be found mixed with the fishermen still hunting for prawns, fish, crabs, squid and jelly fish. We somehow left on the canoeing cruise with a notion that we ourselves would be the ones paddling the canoes. Not so, at the first drop off, the canoes/kayaks were thrown in the water from our boat and there were all our guides, sitting in the back, smiling and waiting. Alex, the main guide, obviously chosen for his best command of the English language kept on shaking his head when we asked to man our own boat. Obviously that was out. Venturing inside the caves of some of these rock formations, literally lying flat on our backs while barely above our faces the stalactites were hanging while in the dark traffic jams were forming were probably better navigated by our young Thai friend. I could have done without the flashlight he brought along which showed bats inches away and I was too stunned to even scream, I only clenched my eyes and mouth tight and hoped for the bats to have a very good grip. We stopped by many islands until we reached our main destination, James Bond Island, which our boat could not reach, based on the shallowness of the water surrounding the island and we all were transported by long boat to what I can only describe as a shopping nightmare. It is known that tourists come with money and the whole idea is for ALL the money to stay in Thailand. I abhor shopping and had successfully managed to not make any eye contact with the constant flow of vendors selling wares on the beaches. We had even learned not to stop while strolling the streets of Phuket and never to glance at the items displayed. I was not prepared for the James Bond Island approach. I blame it all on my good manners which made me automatically respond to a hand reached out which I presumed was in greeting. Immediately, this tiny Thai woman , pulled my solid six foot frame into her stall while repeating “ You buy, you buy”. I wrestled myself loose with a no buy, no buy and thought I had been successful and almost reached Tom who was watching it all in wonder when her helper grabbed my other arm and back I went while they were filling a bag with Thai souvenirs. The only escape to freedom came through succumbing and children of ours, you will understand and hear more of the story when Christmas stockings are opened next year. On the way back to the boat I walked with my head down and hands very close to my side. We spent another day snorkeling the clear water around various islands in the bay and enjoyed being surrounded by the many tropical fish tremendously. Intriguing were the many sea cucumbers on the ocean floor which we had never seen so close before. On the islands monkeys were their cheeky selves and one happily ran over and grabbed a can of Pringles from two unsuspecting young beach goers. Here in Thailand plumeria grows in abundance as well as many other flowers and thick jungle growth. Almost daily on Phuket island rain is felt but does not lower the hot, tropical temperatures. Today, our last day we chose not to even venture out to the beach but stayed more in the shade and visited the temple built high up near the Big Buddha of Phuket in honor of Thailand ‘s King Adulyadej 80th birthday. Throughout our visit in this Buddhist Kingdom, the love and respect the people of Thailand have for their King is evident was well as the deep spirituality and reverence to Buddha. Cars, taxis and boats all carry flower leis for Buddha’s blessing in safe keeping. Taxi drivers create temples inside their vehicles through marked, light colored splotches ion the roofs. Not so much different from the St. Christopher’s medals Christians display for safe travel.
Most of the Thai people travel on mopeds and they travel fast while weaving in and out of traffic. If helmets are worn often it is only by the driver while whole families can be found on one moped with children before and behind the driver and on mother’s lap in the back, all without helmets. That was bothersome to see, as was the Russian mother who sat up front with her two year old child on her lap while we were all transported quite fast by van over the island’s main road to the harbor where the boat departed from. None of us were wearing seatbelts, there were none in the van but when our driver was pulled over by a sharp whistling policeman that was not the issue, neither was the speed he had been driving with or illegal passing. It is pure speculation on our part why he received a ticket/warning but it may have been in not responding immediately to the uniformed police. When trying to learn more our driver only smiled. Sam, our Bangkok guide asked us if we knew why Thailand is called the land of the smiling people and we did not. His words “When we do not understand what you are saying… we smile”. The people we have met here have been gracious, welcoming, incredibly efficient and serve with a friendly smile, sometimes more than we want to be served since yes, Alex, we do want to paddle our own canoe.

Tonight, after dinner we walked one more time inside this great room we have stayed in for the past week, it offers a beautiful view out back with riches and elegance but out front, right outside our door is the other Thailand where many live in poverty. We are glad to have seen both. Early tomorrow morning we depart back for Bangkok and go on to Kathmandu, Nepal where tomorrow afternoon we hope to glimpse a view of the Himalayas. It is time to trade our beach flippers in for our hiking boots and go trekking, once again.

Thank you Thailand,.
Tom and Els

Posted by tomstrick1 08:21 Archived in Thailand Tagged round_the_world Comments (1)

Temples of gold

sunny 35 °C

Flying the nine hours from Sydney to Bangkok were spent reading and watching, finally, the movie Australia. The book I read was traded up for at our hostel in Sydney the day before we left and it is the first time I am reading in Dutch, a translated book by John Irving, an author whose books I normally read in English and treasure when I do . Reading “ A prayer for Owen Meany” in the Dutch translated version, which by the way is extremely well done and kept to Irving’s style, while flying over countries and cities where as Americans we could not fly over without destruction, pain and loss when this book was written is something that will stay with me.
We flew with Thai Air which is overtaking New Zealand Air as the favorite and Bangkok is an airport which has arrivals, customs, declarations down to such an art that we landed and were headed in a taxi, for our down town hotel within 30 minutes. That was even after booking an excursion trip which resulted after looking way too lost while finding a taxi. Our hotel had been booked earlier through Club hotel and basically based on what we saw as a daily expendature so we were absolutely stunned to see what the same amount of money allotted in NZ and Australia suddenly brought us. The room is probably 10 times the size of our room in Sydney, it has hard wood floors, a large, flat screen Sony TV, sound system and the biggest bathtub ever which I have been floating in. The service is impeccable and it appears that every table in the hotels restaurant has at least three waiters anxiously hoping for an opportunity to serve and plates are whisked away the second the fork is laid to rest. Doors are opened and the greeting, bowed with hands folded together is so reverent, graceful and respectful and somehow when I return the greeting I feel and must look as a klutz. For the first time in my life I know what it is like to be absolutely lost in a world whose language I am not even close to understanding. Few speak English here and on a shopping expedition for a converter the shop owner brought in a young boy who is learning English at school and was able to assist us. The currency used here is called Baht and one US dollar buys around 35 baht at the moment. Our first purchase was buying a guided tour in Bangkok and cost 500Baht , around 14dollars and it was amazing that in exchange we were picked up at our hotel by private car and while one man chauffeured us through Bangkok the English speaking tour guide, named Sam, explained the many sights and escorted us through three temples and of course part of the tour involved dropping us by stores selling gems and handmade silk suits, neither which we are planning on toting along in our backpacks. Guide Sam informed us that he self-taught his English language skills and that it is his dream to one day go to America and see New York City, its freedom statue (Lady Liberty) and the Grand Canyon. Bangkok, like many other Asian capitals is a large, chaotic, and bustling city with sharp, mind-blowing contrast. Shanty dwellings versus modern high rise buildings. Saffron-robed Buddhist monks walking the street in early morning versus blaring music from pubs and bars the night before. Glittering Buddhist temples coexist next to worn commercial buildings, shopping centers, hotels and restaurants. Very noisy and crowded streets full of buses, mopeds, bright colorful taxis, tuk-tuks and chauffeur driven Mercedes, Rolls Royces and BMWs. The mass of people trying to ply the streets of Bangkok is captivating and one could spend hours observing this phenomena. Thais drive on the left side and that’s about it. Other than that anything goes. Right-of way is apparently determined by the size of vehicles and the white dash lines are for the mopeds to slither on. Driving against the flow of traffic is normal as demonstrated by our driver who had no patience with slow moving traffic. Walking takes a special skill since crossing can be quite hazardous and mopeds will hop on the sidewalks when the street traffic slows them down. One can actually take a ride on the back of these mopeds, many serve as taxis. Neither Tom nor I were that brave. Thailand appears to have three seasons: hot, hotter and hottest. March is the hotter stage and spending the noon hours walking the temples became gruesome and we started looking for shade at every chance. Sam , our guide, was a world of information and he shared it with great enthusiasm. He explained why on almost every street corner a small Buddha temple can be found. If you built a temple you are guaranteed a place in heaven. Ninety five percent of Thais are Buddhist with the rest consisting of Muslims, Hindus and Christians. Sam took us to three temples. What Pho was the largest and is also the oldest temple in Bangkok and is home to more than one thousand Buddha images, more than any other temple in the country. It also houses the largest Buddha image, the reclining Buddha which is 46 meters long and fifteen meters high and fully decorated in gold plating with mother of pearl on its eyes and the soles of its feet. At the temple of Wat Trimit we observed three Buddhist monks removing the bad luck from a woman while her family prayed around. It was very moving and throughout the visits at the temples one could sense the holiness and sincerity of those who came in prayer and left their offering for Buddha and the monks at the altar.
Shoes are removed at the doors and shorts and sleeveless shirts are not allowed so I draped a shawl over my arms and wore the skirt I brought especially for temple and church visits. Learning the culture and manners of the countries we travel in is fascinating. What is considered good manners in one culture may be considered rude in another. In Thailand doorway thresholds are considered a sanctuary for spirits, it’s important not to step on a raised threshold but rather to step over it. Especially in the temples the thresholds were quite high but in our hotel room the threshold for the bathroom was equally high enough to stumble over in the dark.
Thanks to Sam we are flying out of Bangkok to the small island of Phuket in South Thailand where it will be quite calmer than Bangkok with its 10 million inhabitants and treating ourselves to the beaches and snorkeling there. During the economic boom of the mid 80’s to mid 90’s hotels have been overbuilt in Thailand . As a result prices are very reasonable compared to most countries given the high accommodations and services offered. Most hotels include a breakfast buffet and it is amazing what is served for breakfast in Thailand. With my love for exotic food I find myself in heaven. This morning I started the day with Sparerib soup with bamboo and fungus, yes that is how the mushrooms floating in it were called. Maybe not every one’s idea of breakfast food but it hit the spot for me.
Time to wait in the lobby for the driver who is taking us to the airport for the unexpected to Phuket.

LA-KON, Tom and Els

Posted by tomstrick1 23:21 Archived in Thailand Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

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