Loved Thailand!

Sandra left a day early, so we I parted ways at the Hong Kong Central Station, where I boarded the metro for our (my) hostel, the Oi Suen Guesthouse. Luckily, I’d perused their instructions on Facebook, because everything was in Chinese. The 8th floor concrete hallway was dreary at best, and I followed it past a few hostels until I found the Oi Suen sign. A young Chinese man welcomed me but spoke no English. Sigh… We figured everything out, and he showed me to my cell. In its defense, it was clean. It was taller than it was long or wide—a light-green-tiled compartment, I’d call it. He pulled the dingy sheet off Sandra’s cot and flipped it up so I had a wooden platform for my stuff. No extra space. No window. There was an air conditioner and a fan, and a tiny green tile bathroom.

My “cell” at Oi Suen

I coped, thanks to earplugs and my computer. I wandered the streets and enjoyed a sweet & sour pork dinner with shrimp wontons–about the only Chinese food I’ve liked.
Next stop: Bangkok. Curt—the saintly husband of my friend Beth’s sister, Kathleen—waited in the endless arrival hall holding a sign with my name on it. He guided me across the city on public transport while Kathleen finished her day teaching at the Bangkok Christian College, a boys’ school. Curt gallantly carried my 35-pound suitcase up and down more stairs than I could count, and we finally landed at their classy apartment complex. Curt had just started working weekends for Habitat, refurbishing schools and building houses for flood victims. What a guy.

We shared a scrumptious Thai dinner, and the next morning Kathleen and I rendezvoused for breakfast with my good friend Leah.

Kathleen and I at breakfast


The five of us (Leah had two guests from the U.S.) took a boat upriver (an adventure in itself) to visit Bangkok’s Grand Palace–think Anna and the King of Siam.

 Leah and I on the boat to the Grand Palace

Big hotels provide these river shuttles

The palace was stunning in spite of the repeated showers that deluged us.

Love the rooftop decor on the Wat (temples)

A smiling monk welcomes visitors to the palace grounds

This lion guards the entrance to the Jade Buddha

I often saw these five-headed serpents guarding stairway entrances:

Even live guards prevent encroachments in the palace.

We also visited the 150-foot-long Reclining Buddha (gold) in the Wat Pho Temple.

This reclining Buddha’s head had to be  five feet from chin to eyebrow.

Temples abound in Bangkok, and if that’s not enough, most buildings have an ornate Spirit House at one corner, designed to please the spirits (both good and evil) that might otherwise create mischief for the residents. Saturday morning we passed a spirit house where people had left flowers, eggs, fruit, and a roast duck. I hope these are later shared with the poor (if the spirits don’t devour them, of course).

A typical spirit house in Thailand

After a few nights with Leah, I flew to Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. I was picked up at the airport by a young man who led me to what I thought was a pickup truck with a topper. Not so. It was a songthaew, or two-bench bus, a typical form of transport in Thailand. The covered bed of the truck has two facing benches, and the back is open, so it’s important to hang on to the ceiling rod. No seat belts. I sat alone in the back, although the passenger seat in front was vacant. Oh, well.

This  songtheaw waits to load outside a school

It took a half hour to get to the Secret Garden, an exquisite little bungalow resort 12 kilometers from the city. The air resounds with gentle music, bird songs, and the splash of a fountain near the thatched dining room. It’s absolutely lovely, rated second of over 300 Chaing Mai hotels (Trip Advisor). I’m staying in the Hibiscus, a spacious and well-appointed bungalow with a mini-kitchen, sitting areas indoors and out, and mosquito netting over the bed. Totally charming. I know I use that word a lot, but nothing else really works.

The Hyacinth, my home in Chiang Mai

a little fountain just outside the dining area

 The trickling fountain cools the atmosphere at the Secret Garden

Tuesday I visited the Elephant Nature Park, a preserve that rescues handicapped and mistreated elephants. Lek Chailerk, the founder, has dedicated her life not only to saving elephants, but also to educating both the public and mahouts (elephant trainers) of the need to treat the animals humanely. There used to be about 25,000 elephants working in Thailand, mostly in the logging trade, but since logging was abolished in 1989, many have been destroyed while others have been enlisted into begging, tourism, and various other uses.

Elephants roam free at the Elephant Nature Park

Some elephants are tame enough to be touched by anyone:

One of Lek’s elephants was blinded by her mahout when she refused to work after her baby died in a fall from the mountain. Another was maimed when she stepped on a land mine. After watching an educational video on our way to the park, we helped feed the 35 elephants (who eat 10% of their body weight each day), we climbed in the river to help them bathe, and we watched them cavort in the mud.

Tons of bananas, pineapples, sweet potatoes, and squash are delivered daily.

One very tired elephant waits for lunch

Visitors and volunteers help feed the 35 pachyderms

We helped the more tame ones enjoy a daily bath

A mud bath is an afternoon treat

A few performed tricks for us (former circus elephants), and one has developed her own method of kissing people on the cheek. Let me tell you, that’s some SMACK! The end of their trunks are huge and slobbery.


Each of the elephants has a mahout who sticks with it most of the day, and the loving bond between  them is almost tangible. Some of them are naughtier than others, and we watched the active and positive management of their mahouts.

This mahout stayed close to his elephant all day long.

And a final farewell to elephants!

Here’s a video of logging elephants at work in 1925 (Thailand was then called Siam)
Wednesday I caught a ride to the highway, where I climbed into a public songthaew for a 45¢ ride to the old city. I toured a number of temples (wats), then visited a museum, caught a very spicy lunch, and indulged in a Thai foot massage by a blind person. One hour for $4.50. Amazing.

A dichotomy at Wat Bupparam

Wat Bupparam rooftop:

Chiang Mai’s famous Wat Phra Singh graces the old town:

Wat Phra Singh Buddha

Wat Phra Singh back of the temple


Wat Phra Singh monk walks through park surrounding the Wat

On my last day in Chiang Mai I visited an umbrella factory where they make handmade bamboo umbrellas covered with handmade paper.
A worker ties supports to the umbrella ribs

Another worker pounds a top onto the umbrella frame

painted umbrellas dry in the sun

The umbrella and fan painters are also eager to paint your clothes, cell phones, and bags for a very reasonable price—between $1.50 and $5. These artisans worked like lightning and were great fun to watch. In addition to a few other embellishments on shirts and pants, I got an elephant butt painted on my camera lens. Why not?

An artist paints a design onto a tourist’s pants ($1.50)

I brought in a shirt to be painted, which cost me double ($3)

I’m now back in sweltering Bangkok, and tomorrow I head back to Istanbul to pick up Libby, then Monday I head back home to chilly Minnesota.
Actually, I can’t wait.

Our Continuing Saga of Far East Adventures

Sandra and I topped off our Taipei stay by basking in a mountain spa,

The hot-springs stream just above our spa hotel:

The hotel rooftop spa–can’t see the mountains in the fog:


then took the high speed train to stay with with Linda, Les, and Linda’s sister Chris in Koahsiung (Gow-SHUNG), where Linda teaches at the American School.

We biked everywhere in Kaohsiung—you can rent from bike racks on the street, and if you just use them an hour, there’s no charge. A full day of biking cost about $5.

Sandra pulling a bike from the rental rack:

I had just a little trouble raising my seat:

Linda and Les live near the Love River, which is lined with parkland and a well-kept bike trail.
The first day we biked to Linda’s school

The Kaohsiung American School—and Linda:

then Lotus Pond, where Chinese New Year festivities were in full swing. A Massive tiger and dragon regurgitated Chinese revelers from pavilions at one end of the lake.

The dragon and tiger spew revelers through open jaws:

We parked our bikes amid a thousand scooters, then elbowed our way through the street, occasionally pausing to indulge in street foods and bargains. The Purchase of the Day was a watch for $1.50 (still running a week later).

This Foo Dog guards a lakeside temple:

Street food anyone? Skewered grilled squid at the ready:

Sandra purchases a bag of cheap watches:

Lotus grace pools beside the lake:


Another Kaohsiung highlight was a lantern festival along the river. Schoolchildren spend months creating elaborate lanterns for this competition each year, and since 2012 is the year of the dragon, that was the predominate theme. My favorites were lanterns obviously done by the students (some looked WAY too professional), particularly those crafted with recycled materials. One dragon was made of bubble-wrap and soft-drink lids,

The bubble-wrap and drink-lid dragon:

another of sticks gathered along the river, and many were fashioned with recycled pop bottles. We wandered past scores of lantern displays, marveling at the creativity and effort put into each display. We also chatted with a few of their proud creators.

This princess was a part of a more professional lantern scene:

This dragon was recycled from bottles and cans:

Schoolchildren proud of their artistic creation:

We also trekked to the Foguangshan Monastery one day—an extensive edifice with myriad monks, numerous temples, and a massive retreat center. The air reverberated with musical chanting by worshipers in the main temple, and we were twice entertained by a small parade, surely a part of the new year’s festivities. We opted not to lunch in their total-silence dining hall and bought street food from booths outside the monastery—vegetarian options only.

I loved the eves of all the monastery buildings:

Monks seeking donations from the New Year’s crowd:

Devout Taiwan citizens chant and pray in a temple lined with thousands of Buddha statues:

A close-up of the niches covering the walls of this temple:

A laughing Buddha in the parade draws many donations:

High on the hill, a 118-foot golden Buddha gestures to all of Taiwan:

Our last day in Kaohsiung was another bike trek (hooray!) to   Qijin Island, a ferry ride across
the harbor. Crowded with revelers, it offered endless street foods and souvenirs, an entire indoor bazaar of dried fish stands, a black sand beach, and a hike up to the lighthouse. I splurged on a pair of flip-flops ($3). All in all, a good day.

Sandra and Linda crossing the street to the ferry boat to the island

This was one of hundreds of dried fish booths in the bazaar. The tassels twirl on a fan to keep the flies away:

For some reason, ice cream in a toilet-shaped container just didn’t appeal:

A view of Kaohsiung from the island lighthouse:

Sandra and I flew to Hong Kong, explored the art museum and surrounding city, then headed to the airport for our greatly-anticipated beach vacation in Hainan. Sadly, the web sites informing us we didn’t need a visa were mistaken. A speedy visa would cost $320 each, and we’d lose two nights on Hainan. We gave up our trip. Sigh…
After two hours on line searching for another destination that evening, we gave up and spent $200 for a room at the airport hotel. What do you do? Of course, the exclusive hotel included neither free wireless nor breakfast. I’ve never understood why exclusive hotels offer the least free amenities.
We finally found a little beach hotel on Lamma Island, a ferry ride from Hong Kong. We dragged our suitcases about a half hour up and down concrete paths through Yung Shue Wan village and through the forest to the Concerto Hotel on Hung Shing Yeh Beach. Our room is small but bright, and our balcony overlooks a sweet sand beach.

This is the beach view from our balcony:

Our sweet accommodations—not quite Hainan, but just fine for now:

Yung Shue Wan is a hippie-haven type place with more ex-pats than we’ve seen on our entire trip. Our activities here include relaxing, hiking, eating and napping, not necessarily in that order. So—in spite of a visa debacle, we’re content.