Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Smile for the Python

I've never met a snake I liked and I'm not about to change my ways now! No wonder I freaked yesterday at the Damnoen Saduak Floating Market - was wandering along the land market area when a touch on my arm stopped me - turned and there was a smiling man, python around his neck, urging me to have "photo, lady, 10 bhat" ( about 2 cents).

You've all seen posters and iconic pictures of Thailand showing a typical longboat, crammed with exotic fruits, navigating blue waters. The reality is a little different.

Located about 40 miles southwest of Bangkok , the Damnoen Saduak Floating market is on most tourist agendas. Lured by those aforementioned iconic images, I couldn't wait. The tour company told me 1.5 hours. I was ready, coffee in hand, for a 6:30 a.m. pick-up. Read the small print! The trip took well over 4 hours - most of that time spent inching through Bangkok's notoriously heavy traffic to three other hotels to pick up fellow tourists. Nightmare mitigated by getting to see areas of the city I doubt I'll see again - including the infamous red light section of Phang Pong.

Once the missed opportunity to get really up close and personal with the python had passed I boarded - not decorously - a motor propelled long boat for a tour of the klongs - canals that function as streets complete with curbs and street lighting. It's not Venice. No soothing gondolier with arias from Puccini - rather a raucous barrage of engine noise and yells from other boat drivers that I think translated as "stay back". Nothing romantic about these waterways. Pretty grim in fact. Traditional teak built Thai houses have been romanticized - many of the ones we passed were in major decay, tottering on stilts above the murky water, the underneath areas filled with rubbish. The surrounding land, a dismal swampy place filled with massive vines, coconut trees and, as far as I was concerned - pythons! One or two houses were beautiful, and most showed signs of a woman's touch in pots of flowers along deck rails. All business is conducted along these klongs - from hardware stores to bars, and entertainment houses inviting the visitor in to watch cobra milking. I passed.

The ride took us to the true purpose of the trip - the Floating Market - where the motorized boat was exchanged for one with pole power - the "drivers" being women. I'm a kayaker - imagine sitting in kayak position, no back support and no place to stretch and brace legs. Not the most comfortable mode of transportation but the Thais appear to have it down to an art form. I'd like to say that we pushed off into a wonderland of long-ago Thailand . No way - the market has been taken over by dross - cheap souvenirs hawked from klong-side stalls. Show any interest at all and hooks wielded by stall owners pull in your boat, hold it captive and the sales pitch begins. It's all very good-natured - the Thais are intrinsically polite and charming people.

Colorful longboats are wedged side to side in the narrow waterways - you really could cross the klong by stepping (very carefully) boat to boat. Eventually we inched our way past gold and red satin boxer shorts, elephant emblazoned handbags, and wooden knicknacks that once home would vanish into a drawer to be forgotten forever, to what I'd come for - the food section of the floating market - and I was not disappointed. Go to A Foodie in Paradise for more on that.

Return to Bangkok was punctuated by a side-trip to a Thailand National Woodcarving center. Obviously the place where all that intensely detailed carved furniture from Thailand that you can find in pricey shops stateside originates. Also the place for massive chairs carved from solid pieces of teak wood and elephants and Bhudda's from tiny to collosal. Lot's of the more elaborate pieces appeared to be commissioned and were labeled with the buyer's name and country. Recessed table tops, a fretwork fantasy world of miniature jungles, houses, animals - amazingly intricate and precise work.
I thanked my lucky stars that we did not have time to visit the snake farm!

Two and a half hours into the return trip and stuck once again in traffic our charming guide informed us that it was traditional to end the tour with a visit to "the largest gem workshop and store in Thailand - not long one hour you see it." That got to me big time - I played the age card -"No thank you" said I. "I'm old, please take me back to the hotel".

Total trip cost 750 bhat - roughly $28 USD. A bargain.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

What's not to love - starfish fingers, gas smiles

Finn was born in the wee hours of January 21 in Bangkok, he came 'home" to the apartment rented for the next few months a little while ago. Mom feels great; Dad looks like the cat that got the cream, and Maxine assures everyone that she loves "brudder" - personally I think she is more interested in snagging a set of bath toys someone left for the newborn.

He was born at the Samativej Sukhumvit Hospital - Annie received first class treatment from day one, and given the rough ride this little guy started out with he deserved the best. Parents live in Ethiopia and a malaria scare early in the pregnancy saw Annie medically evacuated to South Africa for care and for a while there things were touch and go. This 8lb.2 0z, 20.5 inch long boy is a testimony to his own grit and superb medical care in far-flung places. By the time he's a year old he will have been around the world.

What's not to love about a newborn? Peach fuzz tops a perfectly round head, eyes squint but never quite open and those star-fish little fingers reach out to the world. Doesn't matter what race or gender , newborns bring out the best in us.

Thinking of our good luck in having this perfect child received into a loving family, safe, warm, secure also makes me think of those newborns struggling now in Haiti and my heart goes out to frightened, destitute mothers. What contrast and how blessed I am.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The King and I

Butterfly this morning

Can't get the image of Julie Andrews and Yul Bryner waltzing in that great movie - The King and I. The current king is very well-liked here and street signs proclaim, "We love our king". His photo is in most shop windows.

Arrived in Bangkok around 1 a.m. Sunday morning Bangkok time after 32 hours of continuous travel. Wow, that takes it out of you. Popped a Melatonin and much to my surprise slept soundly and appear to be on Thai time now.

Chris, Annie's Mom, joined me on this trip but it was a surprise for the kids. We didn't travel all the way together - met up in Tokyo. It was fun to see their faces when they opened the door to me Sunday morning and found Chris there too. Maxine is delighting in having two "G'Mas" at her call.

Sunday was spent exploring the hotel surrounds and re acquainting with Maxine, now 2, who I last saw in July in South Africa. She talks a mile a minute, it very independent and charming. Annie's due date is today but despite spicy food, foot reflexology and long walks - that baby is not about to be launched in a hurry. We visited the hospital this a.m. - more like a five star hotel than any US hospital I've seen. Whole ground floor is full of chic little restaurants, coffee shops - even a Starbucks.

First impressions of Bangkok - clean; well organised; traffic follows rules; people universally smiling and polite. Striking modern skyscrapers dominate the skyline with an occasional gaps through which the elegant and distinctive old buildings can be glimpsed. Lot's of cupolas extravagantly scrolled and decorated; shrines with intoxicating scents of incense every few feet, and elephant motifs everywhere. Street food is tempting but I have yet to succumb. The three restaurants I've been to have been inexpensive and the food wonderful. Have sampled a fantastic salad of prawns, pomelo, toasted coconut and a spicy sauce; steamed sea bass in lemon grass and coconut "soup" and cold noodles in a hot sauce. All very good. I'm glad my studio apartment is only a one floor elevator ride to the in-house gym and I did my treadmill cardio this a.m. watching BBC World News on the monitor, and Bangkok come awake through the window.

I navigated taxi and streets today to learn the route to Maxine's school - traffic is congested and there are scores of small engine motor bikes - some piled high with baskets heading for the markets and others with two or more passengers.

This evening we plan on a river cruise to watch the sunset light up the temples along the river bank. I like this city and can see why it attracts so many fans from the western world.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

It's really simple - limit terms served

Like many I'm disgusted with the puerile, self-serving behaviour of elected officials in Congress and the Senate. I'm disgusted with them openly admitting not to having read proposed legislation but being "convinced" its wrong; voting yes or no on party lines; callously disregarding what might be good for the majority of Americans to curry favor with a wealthy, influential few; cavalierly dismissing innovation and change because it will hurt their personal pocket book, and above all, I'm disgusted with the acceptance that Congress and the Senate are sinecures for many.

Look at the reality of not having term limits. It means that every day served is a bid for re-election. For as long as we continue to allow unlimited terms of office in in the Senate and Congress we do not have a true democracy. When the Constituion was written , life expectancy amongst white males (and let's face it - despite progress, those are the majority to inhabit our halls of government) was significantly less than today. Founding Fathers did not envision someone serving 60 years in Congress.

I have a proposal - a grass roots movement to limit the amount of time someone can yank strings and pull this country along a in a dance of personal gain and public division. The argument that we need continuity is easily demolished. It's the staff who read the bills; know the ins and outs, get the work done. Too many of our members of Congress and the Senate see it as a job for life with huge financial gain and perks that you or I, the Americans who pay their salary and pensions, would die for. And do die for in that I know not one person who wouldn't leap at the opportunity for the same health care insurance that these people have.

With term limits we would have people genuinely interested in moving America forward rather than seeking re-election. Trouble is, the very people who could start this movement for reform are the ones cushily installed and they are not about to rock their own boat. We have to do it. Worth a thought isn't it as we head into another cycle of elections and the preening, posturing, belligerence and out right lying has already begun.