Saturday, March 28, 2009

Luang Prabang, Laos - February 19-21, 2009

Thursday evening we made arrangements with our hotel to take a short boat ride on the Mekong. We didn’t really have the time or inclination for a day trip to the caves or waterfalls surrounding Luang Prabang, but a little ride in one of the many long boats to see the sunset seemed a fitting way to end our first day here.

The current on the Mekong is very strong so where-ever you go it takes twice as long to get there as it does to return. This time of year the surrounding hillsides are covered in haze from slash and burn agricultural practices. It’s not too bad right now, but later on in March and April it gets so bad even the locals complain about irritated eyes and smoky clothes. For us the haze meant the sunset consisted of a glowing red orb descending slowly into the hills beside the river. We had a nice relaxing time watching the children swimming on the shore, the men fishing, the women gathering vegetables from their riverside garden plots.

That evening we ate right around the corner from our hotel at a restaurant called 3 Nagas. Their garden was beautiful and the food tasted great, but something about it disagreed with me. I developed a severe case of cramping – touristas Asian style. That was too bad, because our activity for the following day was to be our long-awaited cooking class at Tamarind Cafe. I would still be able to cook but I wasn’t sure how much I would be able to enjoy the results.

The next morning we met our group of fellow cooks at Tamarind. We piled into a couple of tuktuks (there were 11 of us) and followed Joy, our teacher for the day, to the local wet market. There we first wandered through aisles filled with dill, morning glory, basil, eggplant, onions, garlic, betel nuts, river weed, tomatoes and spicewood. Then we headed over to the meat market where chickens, dried buffalo meat, pig’s ears, partially fertilized eggs, congealed blood and chicken feet vied for our attention. It’s true that market items that once would have disgusted or alarmed me (hairy pig’s hooves, chicken entrails with the remains of unformed eggs) now merely elicit a wrinkled nose and a more careful step.

Joy (our intrepid teacher-chef) collected the ingredients needed for our class and off we went. We headed way out into the country to an idyllic spot overlooking a little stream. There everything was ready for our class. Under Joy’s careful supervision we made lamb stew, lemongrass chicken baskets, fish in banana leaves (the Laotian version of amok), sticky rice and a purple rice, coconut and mango flavored dessert. It was lots of fun using a mortar and pestle to crush the spices and to cook our food over an open flame. The food was delicious and every cook’s result was slightly different depending on our choice and proportion of spices. It was too bad that my stomach was still in a state of rebellion and I couldn’t eat very much.

After the class I fell asleep for a couple of hours, exhausted from our adventure and my intestinal problems. Then that evening we went back to the night market, determined to buy another duvet, a bag made from Laotian embroidery and a silk wall hanging. We succeeded on all fronts and for very little money. The prices here are amazing.

This morning as we got ready to leave to go back to Bangkok I suddenly realized that my wedding and engagement rings were missing. I used to never, ever, EVER take them off, fearing my spacey habits would cause something just like this to happen. But in the past couple of years my vanity has seen me removing them before I apply lotion. Normally that only happens in my own bathroom and I put them right back on. I stood in the middle of our hotel room in a state of shock. I couldn’t even begin to think what I had done with them.

Lee walked in and I told him what had happened. Did you take them off yesterday while we were cooking? He asked. No I said at first, but then I remembered. I had taken off my watch and bracelets and put them in the pocket of my apron before we started. Had I taken off my rings as well? I must have.

Lee ran down to Tamarind and told them what had happened. Meanwhile I continued to pack, feeling sick at heart but also a bit numb. How could I have been so stupid? Those rings were so very special. The engagement ring had been a present for our 25th wedding anniversary, to replace the one I had lost years ago while helping with Daniel’s t-ball team. The wedding ring was also very new, purchased a couple of years ago to match the new engagement ring. What would I do if they didn’t show up?

After packing we headed down to the lobby of our hotel and struck up a conversation with Richard, the owner. He is originally from Australia and runs Lotus Villa with his wife, sister and brother-in-law. They take turns being manager for the day and making sure things run properly. They had visited Luang Prabang many times before they fell in love with the place and decided to try to live here. It’s not a difficult thing to do. We are half in love with it ourselves.

It was almost time to load up our taxi and head for the airport. There was nothing to do but send Lee down to Tamarind one more time and make sure they had all of our contact information in case the rings showed up. He walked down there while I tried not to despair. Then he returned, a broad smile on his face, and placed a small tissue-wrapped bundle in my hand. It was the rings. Tears darted to my eyes and I suddenly needed to sit down. I thought I was handling it all very calmly but it obviously was a big front! I could hardly believe it.

Since we’d spent most of our money we decided to run by the ATM on our way out of town and leave a reward with the staff at Tamarind. Those rings represent over 5 year’s salary to one of the local people, according to Richard. Their kindness and honesty in returning them safe and sound meant the world to us. We took out $500,000 kip (about $60US) and gave it to the staff at the restaurant. The young man I gave the money to looked alarmed when I handed him all that cash, but he understood when I said “Please give this to Joy”. We decided to call Caroline (Tamarind’s owner) as well and explain what we had done. When I told her the amount she said “you mean $50,000 kip don’t you?” I said no, it was almost our 30th wedding anniversary (well in a year and a half anyway) and it really meant a lot and she said she would make sure they shared the reward money fairly. I don’t think there was any doubt that they would.

We’ve had a wonderful wonderful time in Luang Prabang. We’ve added it to our list of places where in our stranger fantasies we would live or at least stay for an extended period of time. It’s somehow comforting to feel like no matter what happens we have all kinds of options no matter how peculiar they may seem.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Big Party Going On Luang Prabang Laos February 19 2009

And now, back, back, back we go…back in time to mid-February and Luang Prabang once again…

Gail and Phil said that one of the nicest things about the Lotus Villa (our lovely little hotel) is that it is very quiet. That seemed to be the case, mostly. However, last night there was a raucous event next door. A big awning covered the street next to our hotel and a party with games, music, laughter and much talking seemed to be taking place. We puzzled over this. Maybe a restaurant or nightclub had opened since last fall when Gail and Phil were here. At any rate the room seemed to be well-insulated from the noise and we had no trouble sleeping through the din.

In the morning the “nightclub” had disappeared. By lunch something else was taking place. A big spread was laid out under the awning. There were trays with broths, condiments, and sticky rice. It all looked yummy. So, we decided maybe during the day the nightclub returned into a restaurant?

Later on in the afternoon the “restaurant” turned into a mysterious game. They are taking money from people as they enter, putting uncooked rice on the bills and then folding them into triangles. Then they place the money triangles on the sides of what looks like a large spirit house. People enter the awning area after placing their triangle on the spirit house and sit down, chatting with their neighbors while facing the spirit house. Maybe in the afternoon the restaurant turns into some sort of gambling establishment?

Still later in the afternoon we see monks enter the awning-covered area. Hmm, are they being given leftovers from lunch?

While we are waiting for the tuktuk that will take us to our sunset river trip I strike up a conversation with a British lady in the hotel lobby. She finally clears up mystery for us - it’s a Laotian Buddhist funeral! I tried to find out more about the funeral practices of Laos but found very little, and nothing that described the mysterious events we saw taking place next to the Lotus Villa. It seems to me an ideal place for an Anthropologist to make their mark!

I wish I had taken some pictures of all the activity but I think we knew what we were seeing was private in some special way and taking photos seemed intrusive. So, you all will just have to use your imagination I’m afraid…

Austin March 24th 2009

Let’s do a bit of “flash forward” for a bit, shall we? We’ve been back in Austin for a little over two weeks now. For the first week I was just disgusted by our old house. It was SO dirty, the yard was in shambles, the kitchen and bathrooms looked dingy…it was just a mess! Plus my first job was scrubbing the woodwork so that Lee could paint it so I was at insect level with the floor and the worst of the dirt. But now I’ve gone on to painting the walls, and slowly things are coming together. As each room gets the woodwork and then the walls painted it starts looking brighter, cleaner, and more inhabitable. It’s very satisfying.

This weekend they laid new sod in the yard. The yard was just a horrible mess. Our house sitter had gotten a large dog which just KILLED the grass. There were SIXTY bags of leaves in the yard! Not to mention all the fallen branches from the live oaks…just pitiful. Now with all the trash hauled away and the beautiful sod in place it really looks nice.

As one thing gets done, it makes all the other things that still need doing really stand out. So the green new yard highlights the filthy deck. The clean painted walls point to the dirty, scuffed floors in distain. The new stove and microwave demanded a matching new dishwasher as well. And on it goes…

Today the new carpet was installed in the bed rooms. It REALLY looks nice. I’ve had a bit of a dread and reluctance about moving back into the house. Because of our situation I’m very hesitant to get attached to it again since its entirely possible that we’ll turn right around and move back out of it sometime in the next couple of months. Of course, it is also possible that we’ll be here another five years! It’s a very unsettling situation, but I am getting used to it. Really I think things will get more settled, one way or another in the next few months.

By some sort of crazy blessing from the sports gods we’ve managed to return to the US right in time for the NCAA College Basketball tournament, and this year Mizzou is doing quite well. Their coach is in his third season at Mizzou and this is the team’s first time in the tournament since 2003. We’ve made it to the Sweet 16 and although the last game gave me a headache from the stress I’m totally delighted. Every game we win from here on is just icing on the cake.

I’m having fun with running too. Austin is such a great town to run in, especially this time of year. I’m running in the Capital 10k this Sunday, just for fun. I’m not doing any serious training yet. Once Sarah and I pick a half marathon for late summer / early fall for sure I’ll get myself back on a definite schedule. But I AM starting to introduce myself to some speed and hill training techniques. Its fun - breaks up my weekday runs and makes them more interesting. I’m either running in the neighborhood close to our service apartment or heading to Town Lake on the weekends. There are so many beautiful jogging and hiking trails in this town.

Spring is really underway in Austin. The wildflowers and blooming trees are just starting to appear. They’ve had some rain in past week that has really helped the wildflowers. I’ve taken some pictures, but really want to take pictures of the bluebonnets when they are at their peak. I’m going to be like the Japanese – running out onto the median on The Capital of Texas Highway (the wildflowers bloom all over the highways here) and snapping pictures like a mad lady!

As for my mental state, well it’s funny. Most of the time I feel fine, but little things can set me off and bring either tears or laughter. Last weekend we went to the China Village shopping center for a bowl of Pho at a Vietnamese restaurant there. This shopping center is very Asian, with signs in Chinese and a grocery store that has everything a homesick Asian could possibly want, from red bean ice cream to durian! I got a lump in my throat at the signs in Chinese and could have wandered around the grocery store for hours just drinking in the sights and smells. I wanted to go up to the very few westerners we saw and ask them where they had lived overseas! Ha, what an assumption! But they were all wielding their chopsticks expertly, so I don’t think I was entirely out in left field.

Except for occasionally fearing that I’m about to turn into on-coming traffic, or puzzling shopkeepers by trying to hand them money or credit cards with two hands, I think I’m adjusting pretty well so far. I’m not expecting this to be an overnight affair, but I also don’t think I’ll suffer THAT much…there’s a part of me that misses everywhere I’ve ever lived, and everyone I’ve ever known. There’s a part of me that holds onto everything and hates to let go. I was always the last one at a party to leave the room…

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Luang Prabang, Laos - February 18-19, 2009

Yesterday we flew out of Siem Reap and into Luang Prabang. What a difference a little peace and prosperity can make to a people! Don’t get me wrong, this is still a very poor country and they’ve certainly had their share of war and tragedy, but from the moment we got off the plane we could feel the difference. Cambodia made me want to weep. Cambodia made me want to DO something, anything to help. Angkor Wat and the other temples and ruins are magnificent, but the beggars are pitiful, the children are thin and dirty. Cambodia made my heart hurt.

Luang Prabang is a tourist destination par excellence. It’s Bali, but 10 years ago. The people are happy and well-fed, industrious yet relaxed and laid-back. Within an hour of checking in to our sweet little hotel we both gave a big sigh of contentment. Everything just went down about 5 notches in intensity.

After inspecting our room, Lee settled down for a siesta (and to enjoy the free wireless) while I took a quick walk around town. It doesn’t take long; Luang Prabang isn’t very big. Situated on a peninsula jutting out into the Mekong River, there are beautiful river views only a block or two away from our hotel. Walk down the street; enjoy the colorfully painted tuktuks, the beautiful silk weaving, and the well-preserved French architecture. Long boat drivers ask politely if I want to take a ride but don’t persist quite as desperately as they do in Cambodia. About every other shop offers Laos coffee (some of the best in the world) or various local snacks ranging from morning glory salads to banana fritters.

When I get back to the hotel, its time for a shower and then an early night on the town. Gail and Phil warned us about the weird Laotian showers – a depression in the floor at the entrance to the bathroom and a bare nozzle on the wall so the bathroom floor gets wet, but since we knew about it in advance we weren’t shocked or upset. Plus, this is the dry season so the floor dried quickly for us!

We ate dinner at a restaurant around the corner called Arisas. WOW! It was really, really good. Laotian cuisine goes far beyond the fried bats that Anthony Bourdain ate while he was here. The food so far has been really good; great baguettes at breakfast, wonderful fruit, fabulous coffee. What more could you ask?

This morning of course we had to rise early to see the reason that Luang Prabang has become the tourist destination of choice – the parade of the monks through the streets at 6 AM. One of the great things about our hotel is that the monks walk down the street right in front of us, so we didn’t even have to get dressed, just grab a sarong, some instant coffee and sit out on the front balcony as they parade by. Tomorrow I’m going to go to the effort of actually throwing on some clothes so that I can walk 100 yards down the street and get a picture of the locals giving alms to the monks. They give them sticky rice, but I’ve heard they like candy bars too!

After breakfast in the courtyard of the hotel we went off for a walk around town. We pretty much covered the entire place, plus a journey on a rickety bridge over the Mekong to a village on the other side that sells silk shawls, wall hangings and duvets. I think we’re going to go back there tomorrow if we can and make some purchases.
After lunch at a river-side restaurant (a bowl of spicy pork and noodle soup for me, a bowl of tofu and coconut milk soup for Lee) it was time for another afternoon nap. Lee is asleep, and once I’ve sent this to myself (I’m on Lee’s pc) I’m going to get underneath the ceiling fan too with a book…then this evening its off for a riverboat ride and dinner at another wonderful restaurant. This is OKAY!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Siem Reap and Ta Phrom - Tuesday, February 18, 2009

Tuesday afternoon we head back to the temples. This time we go to Ta Phrom. This is the temple complex of which you are most likely to have seen pictures, besides Angkor Wat. This is the one where they've left the banyan tree roots intertwining with the ruins. It makes for great (and famous) pictures. You can see the power of the jungle. It doesn’t take long for the jungle to claim its territory. Its really interesting to contemplate that ALL of the temples looked this way before they were restored.

We called it an early touring day; we’re just pooped. We head back to the FCC for dinner. By the way FCC stands for Foreign Correspondence Club. There is actually no Foreign Correspondence Club in Siem Reap; its just a branch of the restaurant in Phnom Penh. Its such a beautiful relaxing place, and the food is VERY yummy.

It seems that the tuktuk drivers have adopted us. They all wave enthusiastically and vie for our services, even though we no longer pay $2 a ride. Maybe they hope we’ll return to our prolifigate ways and they’ll be the lucky recipient.

I've thrown my "never give money to beggars" attitude out the window in this country. Children selling wooden flutes in the ruins? No flute but a dollar for a picture. Victims of landmines? Sure one dollar. Two little girls posing in a temple door sing folk songs - pictures and a dollar apiece. I just want these people to have a fighting chance to move beyond their terrible history to peace and prosperity. The beggars here are just trying to make a living, and they’re pretty creative about it too. That’s what’s so great, however, about The Ponheary Ly Foundation. By making it possible for these little kids to get an education they will break the cycle of frustration and anger between the poor and educated classes that caused the killing fields.

Wednesday morning we lazed about, sleeping until almost 7am. Now we're off to Luang Prabang, progressively smaller airplanes, increasingly sleepier destinations

Monday, March 16, 2009

Siem Reap and Angkor Wat - February 15th-17th, 2009

It’s a one hour plane flight from Bangkok to Siem Reap. Gazing down at Thailand and then Cambodia it all looks very rural. We land in Siem Reap at their small international airport. We are in a different world. Cambodia…the thought of this country brings images to my mind from 1968 and the illegal war, to 1975 and the killing fields of Pol Pot. My friends in Hong Kong that have been to this country either gush or yawn about Angkor Wat and the other temple complexes in the surrounding area. They either spend a week going from temple to temple in increasing states of awe and stupefaction, or spend a day at the must-see temples and then retire to the comforts of their five star hotels.

Our guide, recommended by our friends Gail and Phil Jones, met us at the airport. Dara and our driver take us to the Angkor Holiday, a pleasant hotel centrally located in Siem Reap. It’s not fancy but it’s quiet and clean, with an aura of days gone by. We wander down to the pool to have a cocktail (Singapore Sling for me, a beer for Lee) and then we follow Cyndi’s instructions and wander down to the river to eat dinner at the FCC. Up on the balcony overlooking the river, we order the Khmer Platter for our first taste of Cambodian food. It seems to be a mixture of Thai and Vietnamese cuisine, with some of its own subtle flavors.

The next morning we were up early, too early. My phone usually resets itself to the local time automatically, but here even the satellite signals are primitive, so it wakes us up an hour too early. It’s just as well, since we have to get up early the next day anyway. We opt for breakfast by the pool. Hey Gail, we thought it was just fine! There are a variety of breads, eggs, and fruit. Lee is happy with a bowl of noodles. But he is more Asian than me (or more Danielesque perhaps). And when someone tells me the breakfast at an Asian hotel isn’t great I have visions or having only salads and fried rice to eat, so I’m happy. Once breakfast is over we meet Dara in the lobby and it’s off to Angkor Wat.

Angkor Wat is big. It’s so big it’s hard to get my mind around it. We come in from the back, the east gate, there are fewer tourists and it’s quieter. There’s a big gatehouse, a huge stone fence, a moat that looks like a river. Angkor Wat rises in layers inside the moat. Dara takes us inside gradually. As we walk from the outer edges toward the center we begin to look more closely at the intricate stone carvings on each wall. There is a story being told, a “movie” as Dara so aptly puts it. Battles are being fought, one side against another, gods and demons, Buddhists and Hindus.

People are selling fruits and vegetables, cooking pigs in caldrons, giving birth, dying in battle. It’s amazing in its detail and level of preservation, especially considering that most of it is over 1,000 years old and has never been that well protected from the elements, invading armies, or the fingers of curious tourists.

Angkor Wat is in a continual state of restoration. Projects are begun, then abandoned as war or changes in government intervene. Angkor Wat is a microcosm of the upheaval this country has undergone in the last 40 years.

After Angkor Wat we drive back to town. On the way we stop at an artisan school. We know this routine – tour the school and buy something to support it, that’s okay. The school teaches students to make replicas of temple art so that they can support themselves – stone carvings, wood carvings, silk painting, and lacquer ware. We purchase a replica of one of the Angkor Wat stone wall carvings and we’re happy.

Now it’s back to town for a break. We take a Tuktuk to Pub Street and opt for lunch at Amok, where we (of course) sample the Amok and some curry. Little kids accost us – buy book? Buy postcards? No we say. Okay, then can we have your leftovers? We agree to the last one, but the kids are breaking a rule (which we didn’t know) so they grab the food and run before they get yelled at by the police.

In the afternoon Dara takes us to Angkor Thom, a temple complex of over 60 temples. This is overwhelming in a different way. The bridge to the entrance to the temple complex is guarded by a row of gods. We wander the grounds from one temple to another and soon they all begin to blur together in my mind. We climb to the top of one temple to gaze at the other temples in the distance. It’s hot and beautiful and tiring. We are not afternoon people, but we gamely trudge on.

We begin to hear a little of Dara’s story, which is tragic enough to make me want to cry. His father was a teacher, killed by the Khmer Rouge. His mother kept the rest of the family alive – he is the only boy, with 5 sisters. He was born in 1970, so he was 5 years old when Pol Pot took over Cambodia. He had no formal education until he was 12 years old. His father would meet him in the forest to teach him to read and write when he was little, but it was dangerous so they didn’t do it very often. After his father’s death, his mother kept her family alive by selling food by the side of the road. She was afraid to send them to school so he only began his formal education because he wandered into a schoolhouse when he was 12 out of curiosity and a longing for something more.

His sisters have all specialized in a different language for tourism – his specialty is English, the others tour in French, Thai, Japanese, even Russian. Their latest effort is a guest house to keep all the members of his extended family together, and a Foundation that helps educate students in rural areas. The foundation is called The Ponheary Ly Foundation. It was started by a woman from Austin, Lori Carlson. Their website is They are an amazing family and Lori is an amazing person. More on that later!

That evening we went back to Pub Street and had dinner at the Red Piano. Great name, but the food was just okay…I had a salad, and a beer, and samosas masquerading as Thai spring rolls.

One thing the guidebooks tell you and it helps to keep me from getting irritated. Remember what this country has been through and what happened to all the educated people during Pol Pot’s reign. In a country of 7 million, 2 million were murdered between 1975 and 1979, many of them the educated people. So if things aren’t done quite right, be patient. It helps me to take a deep breath and think, oh well!

The next morning up got up early again to see the sunrise, only there was no sunrise because it had rained last night and the sky was cloudy. We didn’t really mind though. Even with all our fellow tourists milling about it was still beautiful, watching Angkor Wat appear slowly in the darkness. After sunrise we tour a pink temple, and then go to a village to see a demonstration of palm sugar being made. We buy 3 tubes of the sugar (basically tastes like brown sugar candy) for a dollar. We drive slowly through other villages, see monks begging for rice, spirit houses that look like fishing shacks…as we re-enter Siem Reap Dara mentions that his house is nearby. Would we like to see his house? Yes, yes! Dara’s guest house teems with children and relatives. A Cambodian soap opera plays on the TV. Women cook in the outdoor kitchen. An old man squats on the front porch. He is a man from the rural area where we were during the war, Dara explains. He helped my father and now….you give back to him, I interrupted. Dara blushes a little. Yes.

Lee asks where Lori is, because Dara has mentioned that she is in the process of moving to Cambodia and arrived at the airport right after we did a couple of days ago. She is here Dara says. Would we like to meet her? Yes! Lori is from Austin Texas. She has sold her stuff and plans to stay in Cambodia and help the foundation grow. She is adventurous, committed, young, enthusiastic, realistic, and smart. Its fun to talk to her and we also think that she and Sherry should meet somehow…

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Bangkok February 14th, 2009

We flew to Bangkok on Valentine’s Day morning, Saturday, February 14th. Bangkok is both the prelude and the sequel to the “real” part of our vacation. It’s our entry-point; you can’t fly directly from Hong Kong to either Siem Reap or Luang Prabang, and flying from Bangkok is cheaper than other options, so here we are. We tried to spend a long weekend in Bangkok at the beginning of December, but their little impromptu revolution or whatever it was that shut down their airport put the stop to that. So, all-in-all I’m glad to be here, although somewhat anxious and excited to get to destination number two – Angkor Wat.

Bangkok is hot, dirty, friendly, beautiful, ugly. The stories about the traffic are true, if perhaps understated. The stories about the food on the streets are also true. We arrived around 11 am Saturday morning; met by our sleek Mercedes Limo and driver. We inched our way through the crazy traffic to our hotel, the Sheraton Grande Sukhumvit. Our hotel is just beautiful but unfortunately its way out in the expat area of town (we chose it for the special 3M rate we could get), which makes getting into the city where most of the tourist sites are difficult. We took a taxi into town for lunch and a little sight-seeing. I had my first opportunity to practice emulating Thai friendliness and patience, something that’s good for me, but difficult to achieve, especially when hungry.

Following the Lonely Planet’s directives we settled on a simple Thai restaurant for lunch Krua Noppharat. Seeing how it had been almost 9 hours since I had last eaten I probably would have thought cardboard tasted delicious, but it really WAS good – banana flower salad, pineapple rice, green curry, spring rolls, two glasses of lemon iced tea (while Lee drank a large bottle of Singha beer)…I was feeling pretty content after that.

Following lunch we decided to follow a short walking tour of the area we were in down by the river – Banglamphu. We don’t seem to pronounce any of the words correctly, since taxi drivers are initially puzzled by what we are trying to say, but their unfailingly friendly and patient attitude eventually helps us make our meaning clear. We followed the Lonely Planet path backward, first along the river and then back toward the city center. What did we see? Well, massage parlors in abundance. Every other shop seems to offer various massages, foot reflexology, aroma therapy, etc. Are they legit or are they really something else? Hard to say. I’ve heard that guys are regularly propositioned and asked if they want a “special” service, even when they are with their wives, so who knows. I’m tempted to try one though when we stop back here on our way back to Hong Kong.

Secondly amulet shops. Really this place could be mistaken for a Catholic shrine; it really isn’t that different. Shop after shop sells gold trinkets of various kinds that are used in the Buddhist worship services.

Thirdly, street food. I’ve never seen such an endless array of pushcarts, hole-in-the-wall eating places, hawker stands, you name it. Every imaginable food was for sale, and much of it looked delicious. Good thing we were absolutely stuffed from lunch. Lee was drawn to the stir-fried veggies. I yearned longingly for the banana-fritters, but couldn’t possibly manage to eat anything. It was terribly fun to see what each stand held to eat. If I wasn’t a bit afraid of getting the touristas I’d definitely try some street food when we return. I do think those little taco-like things we saw need to be sampled at the very least.

We entered one Buddhist temple along the way. A service was in progress, so the beautiful, peaceful sound of monks chanting filled the area. People sat in chairs along one side of the temple, sitting quietly, hands folded in prayer. A GIANT gold Buddha graced the center of the temple. I don’t know why, but these temples give me an overwhelming feeling of peacefulness. I experienced a similar feeling in Bali. I don’t feel the same way in Chinese temples. Chinese temples affect me more like Jewish synagogues. I may experience a feeling of respect for the history and culture, but as I watch the Chinese go about their rituals its seems more like something practical as opposed to spiritual is taking place. I’m not saying this is bad; it’s just different. Paying respect to your ancestors, honoring your roots, saying the prayers and doing the rituals to make peace with your God and the Universe, well, that’s a necessary part of life I think. But Buddhism as practiced in Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries is about something else. It’s why it’s perfectly possible to be a Buddhist and a Christian or a Buddhist and a Jew. Buddhism is a method of relating to the world. I’m not a Buddhist; I don’t have the temperament for it, or the desire to achieve that temperament. I love the world and I really think that’s all there is, that and our unknowable God. But I’m periodically drawn to the way my encounters with Buddhism make me feel.

So! See what happens to me in a Buddhist country. Funny me. Our walking about in Bangkok mid-afternoon was very heated. This is the “cool” season in Thailand. Good God, summer must be just unbearable! After about an hour it was time to stop in at the Bangkok Inn for a bit of air conditioning and an iced coffee. Lee was yawning (all that beer) and I was wilting from the heat. What a cute little boutique hotel. We sat there admiring someone’s baby, cooling off and rehydrating and recaffinating. Lovely.

We decided to grab a taxi back to the closest stop on the Skytrain, Bangkok’s lovely mass transit system. Too bad it doesn’t go all the way in to the city center. It took forever in the taxi just to get to the closest station. From there, it was only a couple of minutes the rest of the way back to the hotel.

We decided we wanted seafood for dinner, and I didn’t want to travel forever in a taxi to get there, so we opted for a very odd place relatively close to the hotel – Seafood Market. What a crazy place! It’s designed to make it look like you are eating at the bottom of the ocean. Fake fish sail above your head and what looks like the side and bottom of a ship float by on the wall. When they said market they weren’t just kidding. You grab a shopping cart and go pick out your ingredients – prawns, crabs, lobsters, grouper, etc., plus veggies, wine, whatever else you want. Take it all back to your table and the wait staff help you decide how you want it cooked. They take it all away and then bring back your dinner. For the most part it was pretty good, but relatively expensive for Bangkok and the prawns weren’t that fresh. I should have let Lee choose an authentic Thai seafood place; taxi ride be damned. Oh well.

After sleeping in (well Lee slept, I was up bright and early as I usually am nowadays) we had a delicious breakfast by the side of the pool at our hotel. Now today it’s off to Siem Reap. Angkor Wat – I can’t wait!

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Hello Austin!

We’ve been back in Austin now a little over a week but it doesn’t seem that long. I’ve forgotten how much work is involved in settling into a new place. It’s strange being back here, but not in a bad way. It feels both new and old. It really doesn’t seem like the same city I left three years ago, and I can’t really say why. I don’t think Austin has changed that much, but I HAVE. And that is the tritely profound thing that people tell you over and over about repatriation. But it seems to me that if I look at the changes that have taken place in my psyche and embrace and enjoy them they won’t be harmful to me or those around me. I don’t expect others to have changed in the same way, or even at all. I don’t expect that people will understand what I have experienced; how could they – they haven’t experienced it!

So it’s the little things about returning that have surprised me so far. I forgot how pretty Austin is. Hilly and green, even after the drought they had this winter. Austin is full of green spaces, places to hike and run, even in the middle of the city. Friendly people that talk to strangers (I’m a little un-nerved by this now, when just a few years ago I used to do the same thing!).

The other thing is I really don’t have time right now to be sad. There is so much work to do to get the house ready so that we can move into it when the time comes. Cleaning, painting, carpeting, landscaping…..I don’t see how we will accomplish it all but Lee keeps assuring me that all will be well.

I’ve also decided that I can’t keep saying that we are “living in Austin for now” or “we’re fixing up the house so that we can move into it or sell it”. There is no telling how long it will take for Lee to find another position in 3M or where that job will be when he finds it. So as much as it’s possible, I’m just going to quit thinking about it. We’re fixing the house up to move into it. We’ve moved to Austin. That’s it until it’s not anymore!

As far as this blog goes, well it seems a bit in disarray, even though I have a plan for it. Eventually I will get pictures posted and especially get the entries from our last Asian vacation up here. It may seem funny to start my Austin blog at the end of our journey through Asia, but it just seems right to me. Part of beginning a new journey is completing the old one, so I’m going to start the new with the old and employ a time-old literary tradition – the flashback!


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