Recycling in the old days

Question: What do you do with your defective porcelain?

Answer: If you are Chinese, and it is the 1800’s, you use it as ballast in your cargo ships; however if you are Siamese, you realize it makes ideal building materials for your next temple.

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Although Wat Arun is called the Temple of the Dawn, supposedly it is best viewed at sunset, when the light makes all of the porcelain glow, and the temple slowly turns into a silhouette against the crimson sky. Mike and I had another location in mind for our sunset hours, so we visited in the morning. The view from across the river was spectacular enough for us, even without a dramatic sky.

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If you are game enough to climb the steep steps (check out the relationship between that guy’s leg and the step behind him to get a feel for it), you are rewarded with a spectacular view.

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Oh wait–those weren’t the steep steps, these are the steep steps, and someone thoughtfully left a bottle on one of them to provide scale. They are SHALLOW, steep steps, not designed for big western feet!

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Going up was like climbing a ladder; coming down was a bit harder, but the view was so worth it.

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On the top left, you can see the rooftops of the Grand Palace.

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The view looking up was pretty great too. Erawan, the elephant that the Hindu god Indra rides, is standing on the ledge above us. (Don’t see Indra, though).

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The grounds surrounding the temple, normally lovely, are even more so, because they are being decorated for Chinese New Year with red lanterns everywhere. Can you see the two Yakshas guarding the entrance? These spirit “monsters” were at the grand palace and also had green and white faces.

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I’ll end this post with a question:
What do Thais have in common with the Brits, Aussies, Kiwis (New Zealanders), Indians, Japanese and South Africans? This is a hard one. The answer will be in the next post.

Let the adventure begin!

To my surprise and delight, I discovered that crossing twelve time zones while confined to a small space for twenty hours is not as awful as I thought it might be. I’m not sure whether it was yoga (“breathe into it”) or my Bose noise canceling headset and iPod, but something got me to my happy state of mind and kept me there!

After flying over the Arctic, we landed at Incheon in South Korea. It is a gorgeous new airport built right on the water. With less than an hour to change planes, we quickly dashed from gate to gate, discovering just in time that our departure gate was one floor higher than our arrival gate. On our return, we’ll be spending five hours there, so our transit will be far more leisurely.

This was our flight path for the first 14 hours of our journey. We were literally on top of the world.

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Our plane landed an hour late, because the wings had to be de-iced. We went from a snow storm in Korea to 82 degree weather in Bangkok–at 11 PM, no less. Yikes! What will it be like in the afternoon?

By the time we got through immigration, collected our luggage and exited customs, it was midnight. We were a little concerned that our ride might have given up on us when we didn’t see anyone holding a sign with our name on it.

The Thais sure make it easy for tourists–staffing a help desk at the official meeting place (door 3 in the arrival hall), calling the hotel to make sure our ride was on his way to fetch us.

The airport is on the outskirts of Bangkok. With no traffic, the hotel was about 40 minutes away. We finally made it to bed a little after 1 AM Bangkok time, which was 1 PM our biological time, 24 hours after we took off from JFK.

Because of jet lag and the heat, we decided to take it really easy on our first day in Bangkok. Our big accomplishments were locating the SkyTrain station two blocks from our hotel, buying train tickets from the machine, touring the Jim Thompson House and having dinner at a restaurant on the river.

The Jim Thompson house is actually six separate teak buildings that he brought to the site in 1959 and combined. The buildings are at least two hundred years old and are filled with antique Buddhas, beautiful silk paintings and porcelains. Some of the buildings were moved from the ancient capital of Ayutthaya.

At the entrance to the house and museum complex, I saw my first Thai spirit house.

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Spirit houses are very common in Thailand and Cambodia. They are usually miniatures of the actual dwelling, and filled with offerings to the gods. Can you see the little figures inside?

Jim Thompson’s life story is quite interesting. He was born in 1906, and was an architect before
World War ll. During the war, he served in Thailand, as an officer with the OSS, the predecessor of the CIA. He fell in love with the country, moving to Thailand at the end of WWII.

He recognized the beauty and craftsmanship of handwoven silk, and did much to promote and popularize the industry.

In 1967, he went for a walk in the jungle of Malaysia and disappeared. No one has been able to determine what happened to him, although his astrology chart indicated that things would not go well for him after he turned 61, his age at his disappearance.

This beautiful young girl was our tour guide.

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She was full of interesting stories about the house, pointing out the previously mention
Astrological chart in his study and challenging us to find the children’s chamber pots in the guest bedrooms. Mike correctly identified the porcelain frog as the girl’s chamber pot, but no one spotted the boy’s–a cat, whose head came off. We weren’t allowed to take photos in the house. Too bad–those were quite cute.

After the tour, we had lunch at the museum restaurant. I was uncharacteristically adventurous, going for the the spicy curry with grapes, duck and pineapple.

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The gift shop was definitely worth a visit. They sold the cutest clothes for children. I may not be a grandmother, but I’m determined to be a great aunt, in every sense of the word…so there are some surprises for the little people in my life.

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On your mark, get set…

Twelve days till the Asian Adventure starts.  Phase One is in full swing!

I have benefited greatly from those that generously shared their travel tips and experiences, so this post is my attempt to do likewise.  Future travelers journeying to Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, this is for you.

Road Scholar sends out a terrific information package, but I almost screwed up big time because I under counted the number of passport photos needed.  As is usually the case, Mike was paying attention.  (I always knew there was a reason I married that man!)

Getting In and Out of Countries

  • Get three passport photos; four if you decide on a “loose leaf” visa for Vietnam.  Road Scholar takes care of visas for Laos and Cambodia, but we need to bring along the required photos.  No visa needed for Thailand.
  • I finally figured out the only advantage to the loose leaf visa was you didn’t need to mail your passport to the service.  The disadvantage was you had to keep track of that extra piece of paper.    No loose leaf visa for me!
  • Send away for Vietnam passport include photo (one or two depending on type of Visa chosen) with request; pack remaining two to ensure they don’t get left behind.  Did I mention that I tend to be absent minded?
    The service recommended by Road Scholar was excellent, and from my quick scan of the internet, appeared to be attractively priced.  I downloaded the application from their website and was pleased that sections that would have confused the hell out of me had been pre-filled for Road Scholar participants.  The cost was $129 per person, including the Road scholar discount.
  • If the passport has less than 4 blank pages, request additional pages from the state department.  It cost $82, and you DO need to send them the passport.
  • Both the visa and extra pages are more expensive if you need rush service, so it helps if you can plan ahead.

I dutifully copied the key pages of my passport and the Vietnam visa.  I also scanned a copy of my passport and emailed it to me.  (Hey, I actually lost my passport once–fortunately it was in Las Vegas.  No further explanation needed or forthcoming.)

Money
For this trip,  3 lunches and 3 dinners (out of the 18) are not included, so we will need to have funds for those, for our before and after travels, plus any purchases we make along the way.  Normally when we travel, we don’t bring cash, relying instead on ATMs and credit cards, but for Asia, that wouldn’t work well.  Here’s the scoop for Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam:

  • Current Exchange rates: $1 US = 30 bhat; 7,941 kip; 4,000 riels; 20,840 dong
  • Credit cards are not accepted in Laos or Cambodia.
  • We get dollars in Siem Reap, Cambodia from an ATM, but not in Vietnam.  Those machines only dispense dong.
  • Dollars are accepted everywhere but any change you receive will be in the local currency, so…
  • I ordered 7,500 Bhats from my local bank.  That sounds like a lot, but it is only $250.
  • I’m not going to worry about dong.  We’ll be in Vietnam for over three weeks, so I’m sure I will be able to spend any dongs I get from ATMs.  Besides, my cousins are quite fascinated by that particular currency, so I might give them any leftovers.
  • Road Scholar recommended bringing about $300 in cash for 18 days on the trip, so we will follow their advice.

Security
Because Mike and I spend all of our discretionary income on travel, there is little in our house worth stealing–unless you are looking to stock up for a gigantic yard sale.  Our concern is that anyone foolish enough to break into our house would completely trash it looking for non-existent valuables! So we take all of the usual precautions with police, security, mail, and newspaper delivery.   Additionally, we always call our bank and credit card company to tell them when and where we will be traveling.

Health
The CDC website didn’t indicate any dread diseases were rampant in the Southeast Asia countries we’ll be touring, other than the usual mosquito warnings.  Our booster shots are up to date, and our “health kit” has been stocked with bandages, neosporin, advil, Immodium,  Z Pack, and for me–sleeping pills to knock me out on the flights to and fro.

Communications
Although I use Wi-Fi whenever possible, I like having my iPhone as an emergency backup, plus I use Trip Advisor and other apps when the need arises.  I have read horror stories about huge phone bills racked up unwittingly because of roaming charges, so I had a very productive chat with Verizon Wireless.  Their international data plan costs $25 per 100 MB per month.  If you go over, Verizon figures you would want to buy another 100 MB, so they automatically take care of that for you.  To avoid unwanted charges, you can turn off “cellular” (under settings-general) and turn it back on when you want to use the internet.  That way, your phone will search for any available wi-fi.

Voice calls are $1.99 per minute in Thailand and Vietnam, but are prohibitively expensive in Cambodia and Laos, plus there is a “per use” charge in those countries when you access the data plan.  The Verizon service rep was very helpful.  She also taught me how to get to the + on my iPhone key pad.  (That little + is needed for international calls.)  Since my memory isn’t want it used to be, this is as much for ME as it is for anyone that doesn’t already know the trick:  You hold down the “0” until the plus sign appears.

Attire
Asians are conservative dressers, so for this trip, I won’t be packing any shorts or tank tops, despite the heat.  Surprisingly enough, Vietnam CAN be cool in March, so I will be bringing along a sweater and fleece.  Next post will be all about the fascinating contents of my luggage.