What a way to learn!

Learning was never this much fun during my school years! Why couldn’t all of my lecturers be like those on Road Scholar trips? Or could it be that I have changed?

Our first two lecturers, Jim Lehman and Tony Zola, were both peace corp volunteers, who stayed in Southeast Asia. Jim was a Buddhist Monk for three months, because he didn’t want to be “unripe”, or as our guide Tippy says, “uncooked rice”. Those are the terms for Thai men that do not spend at least a little time as a monk. If you marry someone who is “uncooked” or “unripe” the Thais believe the marriage will not work out, so it was off to the temple for Jim, so that his Thai wife’s family would approve of the union.

Jim explained that Theravada Buddhists don’t believe in god, however anyone visiting a Wat cant help but notice the Buddhists are deep into Hindu mythology.

Ganesha, son of Shiva and Parvati, at Wat Prathap Doi Suthep in Chiang Mai
Ganesha, son of Shiva and Parvati, at Wat Prathap Doi Suthep in Chiang Mai

In fact, they believe Buddha was the last incarnation of Vishnu. When I asked how Theravada Buddhists reconcile “no god” with their belief in Hindu gods, Jim gave me the answer he got from his Buddhist teacher. “When you have an arrow in your chest, you don’t ask how it got there.” In other words, Buddhism teaches us the way forward. It is not concerned with how we got to where we are. I, on the other hand, would DEFINITELY want to know who shot that damn arrow!

In addition to blending Hinduism with Buddhism, Thais throw animism into the mix. Spirit houses are everywhere, and have varying degrees of grandeur. We saw this one on our daily walk to the SkyTrain from the Loft Hotel. I think my dad might have one just like this in his back yard. (Right, Sue and San?)
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This fancier spirit house is far more typical.
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Our second lecturer, Tony Zola, talked about the socio-economic-political climate of the countries along the Mekong River, which flows from Tibet to the South China Sea. Sixty million people depend on it for food. They receive 80% of their protein from fish, so the “health” of the river directly impacts the health of the people.

Two of the countries we are visiting are constitutional monarchies (Thailand and Cambodia); Laos and Vietnam are People’s Republics. Per capita income ranges from a high of $8,700 in Thailand to $2,100 to $3,100 in the three other countries. One last demographic fact: half of the population of Southeast Asia is under the age of 25.

Tony didn’t just give us facts and figures; he also told us interesting stories. Thailand’s former Prime Minister received a degree in criminology from the USA. He had a creative way of solving Thailand’s rising drug problem. Somehow, the word got out to rival gangs that each was encroaching on the other’s turf. The resulting murders remain unsolved, which triggered a protest at the United Nations. Again, the Thais had a novel solution. The Thai ambassador’s wife utilized her staff’s cooking abilities to prepare delicious Thai food, which was set up on tables in of the demonstrators. It’s hard to be angry with a stomach full of Thai food. Problem solved…demonstration over. We can learn a lot from the Thais.

Did i mention that my posts are not necessarily in chronological order? Random…that’s the way my brain works. After Tony’s lecture, we headed off to the airport for our flight to Chiang Mai. And what an airport it is! Comfortable lounge open to all ticket holders,. With free wifi, drinks and food. No need to belong to a president’s club here.

At Wat Suan Dok, we had a “monk chat”, a discussion of Buddhism from a monk that was not just passing through, doing time so he could become “ripe”. He was a wonderful speaker, who explained that the goal of Buddhism is to be happy right here and now, to relieve suffering by learning detachment. To a Buddhist, the test of a religion should be whether it helps us to be able to live together peacefully. (I’m thinking there are a whole lot of religions that are scoring big red F’s on that particular test. After showing us how to wrap yourself in an orange robe (or as my cousin Kristy would say “rock his robe”)’ we received a crash course in meditation, and I left with an increased fondness for Buddhism.

Wat Suan Dok
Wat Suan Dok

Wat Prathap Doi Suthep is located about 40 minutes from Chiang Mai, atop a mountain. This wat is renown because the pagoda contains ashes of the Buddha.
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A couple more photos for your viewing pleasure.

Another Naga, a multithreaded snake
Another Naga, a multithreaded snake
I love the animal statues!
I love the animal statues!

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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