Sunday, January 24, 2010

Chatuchak Weekend Market

On our last day in Thailand we caught the hotels shuttle service to the Chatuchak Weekend Market. I had my tour book in hand, my mental wish list, and the sections I knew we wanted to hit marked off. We arrived early – 9:30 – just as many of the vendors were starting to set up. It’s a perfect time to arrive, there are no crowds, it’s not beastly hot yet and you can take your time to look at the endless variety of goods being offered. There was eye-candy everywhere. This is the mother of all markets with over 15,000 vendors catering to the hundreds of thousands of visitors who hit the market each weekend. Our first stop was an information center where we picked up the Chatuchak Weekend Market map.

With our navigator leading the way we arrived at Section 1 which houses antiques and collectibles. We were in search of some gift items and as well as some interesting Thai hammered silverware. Score! As they were unwrapping their wares, I hovered outside of P. Rangsan’s Stainless Steel shop – spying a number of items that were “must haves.” Surprisingly, even Jeff was onboard with all the purchases … although he did hustle me out of there when I started asking about the silverware sets, declaring “no more! Besides, how are you going to get that on the plane?” I would highly recommend stopping by this shop if you are in the market for some Thai stainless steel – check out their website at or contact them by email at Mr. Rangsan (see photo) and his son were delightful and their English was excellent.

We stopped in Suleeya’s silver shop (see photo), also in Section 1. She has a nice variety of silver boxes. I found myself a beautiful box with twin elephants on top, as well as some gifts. She was lovely to deal with and I’d recommend a stop by her shop. You can contact her at if you need a more specific shop address.

Our last sections to hit were 26/25/22 – I found some beautiful Thai silk scarves, saw some beautiful fabric that I wished I could have ditched the family and just submersed myself in. Wrenn was on a quest to find her lucky elephant – she had been holding out and finally found the perfect one. The man we purchased it from was actually sitting in front of his stall carving items that he sold – and when I asked him if he’d carved the elephant he smiled and said he’d carved everything in the shop. Tourist trick? Perhaps, but I like the idea of buying straight from the artist – and so I asked to take his photo, we paid for the elephant and called it a morning. It had become quite steamy under the awnings and we were all desperate to get out and breathe some fresh air. Of course that term in Bangkok is relative – the aroma wafting through the streets is a mixture of incense, rotting food, sewers – quite overpowering at times to our western noses.

Jim Thompson House
After a day going up to Kancnanaburi to satisfy the WWII history buffs in my family – today was my day to counter that with a different type of Thai history and culture. Our next stop after the Chatuchak Market was the Jim Thompson House. This was easy to get to using Bangkok’s rapid rail system – that seemed to be filled with more westerners than native Thai’s.

Jim Thompson was an American who was stationed in Bangkok during WWII, who worked for OSS. He fell in love with Thailand and rediscovered the Thai Silk Industry. He purchased a number of traditional style Thai houses and had them brought to a site in Bangkok where he had them joined together to form his home and office. The Asian artifacts he collected while living in Southeast Asia are on display throughout the home. His life is surrounded in mystery following his disappearance while out for a walk in the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia. No clue to what happened to him has ever turned up.

There is a lovely restaurant on the premises that was doing a hopping business while we were there. We decided to stop in after our tour. Our food was good and the air conditioning even better – it was a nice way to end the day. For more information on Jim Thompson and his home visit Photos are only allowed on the grounds and since I had the wrong lens attached to my camera, and at this point in my trip was suffering from camera fatigue, the only photo I took was of the Spirit House.

So that was it. Our trip to Thailand was over. We headed back to our hotel via the rapid transit and waited for our airport pickup later that night. There were some good things about our trip – most of our disappointments had more to do with our tour package – what was “promised” vs. what was delivered. If anyone wants the low-down on where not to stay in both Phuket and Bangkok or if you want to know which elephant trek to avoid or any other tourist traps to avoid in Phuket please feel free to post a comment and I’ll be happy to share.

One final note: on our way from the Skytrain to the Jim Thompson house, two British ladies asked if they could follow us since they were for the moment apparently lost. As we were walking we struck up a conversation and it turns out one of the ladies has been living in Bangkok for the last 5 years teaching school there. She asked what were my impressions of Bangkok and I tried to be somewhat diplomatic but honest and said that it wasn’t what we were expecting. “How so?” was the response. And I mentioned we were all struck by the amount of poverty we saw, the streets being so dirty. She asked where we were living and I said Japan and she said “Isn’t it very rigid there?” I laughed and thought to myself “I suppose … but only in a very good way! And thank God. I couldn’t wait to get back – and if rigid means clean streets and order and efficient waiters and polite friendly service and not having to worry about pick-pockets and taxi's not taking you where you want to go – then I couldn’t wait to get back to my host country. There’s no place like home."

Till next time, sayonara.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010


Probably one of the highlights of our trip to Thailand was our daytrip to Kanchanaburi. This is the home to the infamous Death Railway portrayed in the 1957 World War II classic Bridge Over the River Kwai. With two 14-year-old boys that are not only Civil War buffs (I’ve been to more NPS Civil War sites than I care to recall – nearly 20 but who’s counting?) it appears that now that we are in the Pacific Theatre this mom will be on some sort of forced march through World War II sites on this side of the world. Truthfully, some of this is of my own making. When they came home from school and said they had to read 2 novels over winter break I suggested they look up some options on the web. The web being very organic, one click led to another and they landed on The Bridge Over the River Kwai. Mmmmm, not exactly what I had in mind but when I realized that “hey, wait a minute, I think that took place in Thailand …” which led to a few more clicks of the mouse (what was life like before the web?!) and I quickly realized we could take daytrip to Kanchanaburi from Bangkok.

For all the glory young men see in war films, this mom of two boys and the wife of a service member sees things very differently. I made sure they’ve been to Andersonville to see the horrors of what humans can do to each other and Arlington where silent soldiers markers tell the story of the ultimate sacrifice. Here on the other side of the world was another chance for them to see a side of history where there is no glory in war. The Japanese Army used slave labor and prisoners of war to advance their war effort in building the Thai-Burma railway. During construction of the railway and bridge over 100,000 conscripted locals and 12,000 POW’s died.

Our first stop was JEATH War Museum (Japan, England, Australia/America, Thailand and Holland). This is run by a local Buddhist temple and has reconstructed bamboo huts like those used by the POW’s. The hut contains photographs, newspaper articles, paintings by POW’s, weapons and other war memorabilia. It was interesting if not in need of a major overhaul. But I did read a very interesting article about the bridge blowing up – which in reality is nothing like the Hollywood version. Click on this link to read about the harrowing bombing run of the American B-24 Liberator crew who blew up three spans of the steel bridge.

From there we went to the Thailand-Burma Railway centre – this museum was excellent and we all wished we had had more time to go through it. The stories, the exhibits, it was well thought out and well done – and I’m picky about my museums having worked on a couple of NPS exhibits. I would highly recommend this as a must see stop if you’re planning a visit to Kanchanaburi. It is across from the Kanchanaburi Allied Cemetery where 7000 prisoners are buried. For more info you can go to

Next stop was the railway itself. We were to ride the train from Kanchanaburi up to Thamkrasae where we would have lunch on the river. We had a bit of time before the train arrived and they allow you to walk out onto the bridge. You will notice in the photos that the bridge sections that are rectangular are the replacement sections of the bridge that were blown up by the B-24 crew.

The train ride was one of my favorite things I did while in Thailand. It was nice once you got past the t-shirt vendor, the cap vendor, the tourist photo vendor, the drink vendor … gee did I leave anyone out … everyone in Thailand seems to have their schtick. You traveled through agricultural land with beautiful mountains in the background. We passed by sugar cane fields, tapioca fields, sweet potato fields, banana trees. With no air conditioning and all the windows down, wind whipping through the train cars, the swaying back and forth and the rhythmic clacking of the train and the landscape stretching out for miles – it was an hour and a half meditative journey.

We arrived at Thamkrasae station and had our lunch over looking the river. The lunch was fine, not that it was anything that I would rave about, and it was clearly geared to the tourist crowd. The kids and Jeff walked back over the tracks down to the area that the tracks were along a shear cliff by the river. We returned to Bangkok passing by countless sugar cane trucks with their cargo spilling over the top – this is harvest time for sugar cane. With one more day to go we in Thailand we made plans to hit the weekend market early the next morning.

Till next time, sayonara.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Grand Palace and Temple of the Emerald Buddha

The tour of the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew were the highlight of our stay in Bangkok. They were everything we expected and then some. The superlatives are endless – beautiful, breathtaking, majestic and it is hard to describe the vastness of the complex and the powerful impact on visitors. There are the buildings covered in thousands of tiny porcelain pieces and mirrors that glitter and sparkle in the light, there is the polished golden chedi that shimmers and the yaksha’s the brawny guardian giants that guard Wat Phra Kaew where the Emerald Buddha resides and there is the Grand Palace with it’s unique blend of European and Thai architecture. All the guidebooks I’d read, websites I’d researched said this is a “must see” stop if your visiting Bangkok – they were right on the mark. It is not to be missed.

Wat Phra Kaew

Built in 1785 by Rama I , the main building houses the Emerald Buddha, Thailand’s most sacred holy image. No photography is allowed inside the temple and a visitor needs to be briefed in temple etiquette - your feet cannot face towards the Buddha at any time, men must wear pants and shirts, women must have covered shoulders and pants or long skirts. No shoes are allowed within the temple. The Emerald Buddha itself is quite small, measuring only 31-inches tall and is carved from one piece of jade (not emerald). The king is the only person allowed to touch the Emerald Buddha – three times a year he changes the Buddha’s robes for the hot season, the rainy season and the cool season.

Some of the more interesting architectural details we learned about on our visit were:

The Phra Siratana Chedi (the tall polished gold monument)

This is the reliquary said to hold a Buddha relic. There are five purified elements represented in chedi architecture (I’m not sure this particular chedi has all of these qualities):

• the square base represents earth

• the hemispherical dome/vase represents water

• the conical spire represents fire

• the upper lotus parasol and cresecent moon represent air

• the sun and dissolving point represent the element of space


A Thai architectural decorative ornament seen at the top of a wat or palace roof. It resembles a tall thin bird and is generally believed to represent the mythical creature Garuda, half bird and half man, who carried the god Vishnu across the sky.


Guardians protecting the Emerald Buddha from evil spirits. Twelve of these 20-foot tall yakshas are dressed in battle attire and are seen throughout the temple compound,

Kinnara/Apsonsi (these terms were both used to describe these golden creatures)

Beautiful mythological creature, half-woman, half swan, with the head and torso of a woman yet below the delicately tapered waist she has the body, tail and legs of a swan.

Grand Palace

Built in 1782, this former royal residence is used today by the king for ceremonial occasions. The palace is a blend of neo-classical architecture and traditional Thai architecture – referred to as “westerner wearing a Thai hat” because each wing is topped with a mondop – a layered heavily ornamented spire.

The visit to the Grand Palace compound was definitely a highlight of our trip to Thailand. The architectural details were fabulous – there was eye candy everywhere I turned. I tried my best to edit down my 100+ photos of Wat Phra Kaew to a more manageable 15 – hope you enjoyed the entry.

Only two more blog entries to go, check back in on my wrap up of our trip to Thailand.

Till next time, sayonara.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Phuket Temples

What’s a Wat?

A wat is a Buddhist temple or monastery and, in general, is more like a compound than a western equivalent of a church. Many times, a wat will have a temple, school, chedi, bot, and a mondop. A chedi is the conical or bell-shaped tower often with relics of Buddha. The holiest prayer room, or bot, is often where monks take their vows. A mondop is usually a square building with a pyramidal roof, and is used to worship religious texts or objects.

Wat Chalong, Phuket Thailand

We visited Wat Chalong on our first day in Thailand. We were still trying to reconcile our expectations with reality – right off the tour bus we experienced one of these contrasts. Here was this beautiful wat, with traditional Thai architecture built some where in the first half of the 1800’s (the date is debated), when suddenly very loud firecrackers startled us. People were igniting strings of Chinese firecrackers hanging near the wat’s sermon hall. Our tour guide said they do this to give thanks for prayers that have been answered. It was quite loud and a steady stream of firecrackers continued to sound off while we were there. This practice is apparently unique to Wat Chalong.

Buddha details

Mudras - are the hand positions of the Buddha statues. The mudras represent Buddha's teachings or incidents in his life and were created by his disciples who used them to enhance their meditation. There are over 100 different mudras - seen in the photos are 3 of the most common. Meditation - the center Buddha seated in the lotus positions has his hands in his lap with the palms facing upwards, this hand position represents a disciplined mind. Absence of Fear - the Buddha with the arm bent and palm facing out with fingers pointing up represents Buddha’s absence of fear or encouraging courageousness in his followers. Subduing Mara – Mara is a demon who tempted Buddha with visions of beautiful women, the marble Buddha is sitting with his right hand on his right thigh with his left hand palm upward in his lap signifying his renouncement of such worldly desires.

Laksanas - these are the sacred marks that a Buddha's body must display. They usually have slender toes and fingers, a full lion-like chest, long eyelashes and elongated earlobes that is a reminder of the Buddha's original life as a prince, when he wore heavy earrings.

Monkey Temple

At the end of our second day in Phuket we stopped at the Monkey Temple – a frequent stop for those returning from James Bond Island. Somewhere between 50 to 100 monkeys were roaming around outside the temple. They were cute and one could buy bananas to feed the monkeys. Not being terribly fond of monkeys, I was glad for my zoom lens and kept my distance.

The temple itself is a cave with a large reclining Buddha; worshipers believe that a reclining Buddha symbolizes him dying and reaching nirvana simultaneously. The temple is a holy place and a Buddhist monk was there – sitting so still and quietly that at first I didn’t realize he was real. But this was my second Thai Buddhist temple in two days, and I was still struck by how different it is from western churches – you could buy a prayer from a carnival-like vending machine with flashing lights around it. Cats were roaming all around, and bats were hanging from the ceiling – giving the cave a distinct aroma.

The Monkey Temple was the end of our touring in Phuket as a few members of our family came down with Thai Tummy that night, and we ended up staying pretty close to the hotel room for the remainder of our visit in Phuket.

Hey daddy-daddy …

Some of the things that will stay with me from our visit have nothing to do with any “must see” tourist spots. Motor scooters are apparently the equivalent of a family car in Thailand, with the car taxes there making it difficult for most to own cars. Jeff and I were appalled to see moms hanging on the backs of the scooters holding infants in the free arm – no helmets of course (not sure if you can see it, but there a tiny hand peeping out between the two adults that is holding onto the dads shirt - the scooter is holding a family of four). Or the pickups that act as pseudo-buses – I would count the number of people standing in the bed of the truck as they passed us, the most I got to was 15. Thailand is the second largest market for pickups in the world after the U.S.

And the dogs, there were stray dogs everywhere - in Phuket, in Bangkok, in Kanchanburi. Lying in the street, lying on tables, sidewalks and they were pitiful to look at. There are efforts in Thailand to reduce the number of stray dogs and feral cats – for more information you can go to

But we will have funny stories too – our kids could not wait to get back to the hotel and tell me about how Jeff got propositioned with the kids in tow walking down the streets of Patong, by a “scantily clad woman” hanging outside of a bar. “Hey, daddy-daddy you get rid of kids, come back see me later.” Mmmmm – well this was supposed to be an educational vacation afterall, just not sure we were planning on explaining that one to our 11-year-old daughter quite yet! Or, the beach that Jeff took two of the three recovering victims to for a last ditch effort to go snorkeling – only to discover that this particular beach was “european style” – we were already trying to wrap our heads around the very senior men who walked the streets and rode the scooters in nothing but their Speedos (eeeeeeeeeuuuuuuuwwwwww), not sure we needed that visual too!

There are a few more entries to wrap up our trip to Thailand. Check back in to hear about our visit to the Grand Palace and Emerald Buddha in Bangkok, our excursion trip to the Death Railway and our last day when we visited the Chatuchak weekend market, with over 15,000 vendors.

Till next time, sayonara.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Phang Nga Bay

On our second day in Thailand, we caught an early bus and rode for about 1.5 hours to a tiny inlet where we caught a longboat that would take us out to the Phang Nga Bay sea caves, to James Bond Island, and for lunch at the floating Muslim village of Koh Panyi. As we made way towards the huge limestone monoliths, known as Karsts, they appeared to rise from the water far off in the distance The scenery was beautiful, passing through mangrove forests said to be the largest in Thailand. There are more than 40 limestone islands rising 1000 feet out of the water that were breathtaking. But it was not a peaceful ride – the longboats are loud, I was starting to wonder if the decibel level was some sort of outboard motor alpha-male status – sort of “mine’s louder than yours.” And if you sit in the front of the boat you will get wet; we were all drenched by the end of the day.

Sea Caves

You have to time your visit according to the tides in order to be able to enjoy the cave formations. Our kayaking guide took us in and out of nooks and crannies carved out by centuries of water from the bay. At times, we had to lie on our backs to give us enough clearance to get into the cave areas. This is certainly a high destination spot for tourists – if you’re looking for quiet solitude you won’t find it here. We had to wait our turn to get into some of the caves and experienced kayak-jams. This area is definitely a commercial enterprise with several sea canoe outfitters and a floating “7-11” that you could stop by and quench your thirst (see photo). Even having said that, I would recommend this stop on the way to James Bond Island. It was nice to get off the longboat and see a bit more of nature up close and personal.

If you are planning a trip to Phang Nga Bay and would like to do a bit of background reading I would highly recommend checking out Bangkok Babylon by Jeffrey Hopkins, and the story of “Caveman” John Gray. Gray formed one of the original sea canoe companies to take tourists out to the caves. Very interesting story and gives you a much better take on the ins and outs of doing business in Thailand.

Koh Phing Kan aka James Bond Island

This area of Phang Nga Bay was made famous in 1974 with the James Bond movie Man with the Golden Gun. Knowing that it is part of a national park, I had envisioned a quiet moment to sit and reflect on the beauty of the islands. I should have known better. The stop for taking pictures is crawling with tourists – like a bunch of ants on an anthill. The longboats and speedboats pull in and out at a quick pace to let off boatloads of tourists with cameras in hand. You practically tumble out of the boat into rows of tourist stalls selling their wares – James Bond Island t-shirts, postcards, beads, jewelry – “You buy? You buy?” as they follow along beside you.

We took our photos and we will be able to watch the movie and know that we were there, so I suppose that’s a good thing, but with so much tourist traffic on the island I have to wonder what the long term effects on the island will be …

Koh Panyi - Muslim Fishing Village

The boat took us from James Bond Island to the Muslim Fishing Village of Koh Panyi where they had a meal already prepared for us. This village is built on stilts and has about 1200 residents. The meal was decent and clearly they cater to the tourist trade with our tour boat being one of many arriving in during the lunch hour.

With much of the day behind us we headed back to shore by longboat. There was one more stop for the day – the Monkey Temple. Check back in tomorrow for more about our visit there and to the wat in Phuket.

Till next time, sayonara.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Thai Rubber Plantations

One of the side trips we took in Phuket was a stop at a Rubber Plantation. We had seen the acres and acres of the rubber trees growing along side the highways with the small cups attached to their trunks to collect the sap. Truthfully, I had not given much thought to rubber production prior to our trip but you could hardly ignore the vast stretches of trees planted row upon row. Turns out, Thailand is the world’s biggest producer of rubber.

Our guide told us the trees are cut through the bark at an angle to a certain depth to release the milky white sap. The sap runs into coconut halves where it is collected each day. The cut is made in the middle of the night, which is apparently when the most sap is released. The trees do not begin producing the sap until they 6 to 7 years old and they can continue production for 25-30 years.

The roadside stop to this rubber plantation was actually quite interesting. For some of us, this was one of the more interesting stops on our trip – rubber is something that is integral to our daily lives, whether it’s the latex gloves Jeff uses at the hospital or the tires we have on our cars and bikes, and I knew nothing about where natural rubber came from (doing my research for this entry I did discover that there is synthetic rubber production for these products as well but that it is tied to the oil industry).

The workers demonstrated how the sap is poured into flat tubs and mixed with formic acid which causes the rubber to become solid – and is shaped into a round flattened ball. This is then pressed through two cylinders several times into the shape of a small mat (you can see Jeff and Walker pulling one of these mats against each other in the photo). The mats are hung out to dry and change from the milky white color to a light to dark brown color. The mats are usually bought by middle-men who collect them and take them to factories where car tires and latex gloves are produced.

Perhaps some of us enjoyed this stop so much because it was a nice break from all the tourist-traps that seem to be as abundant as the sand on the beach in Phuket. Sure the owner had his little gift shop but for once thankfully, there was no pressure to buy.

This was the first stop on a long day, we headed to Phang Nga Bay from here where "James Bond Island" is located. Tune in tomorrow to read about our next Thailand adventure.

Till next time, sayonara.

Spirit Houses or San Phra Phum

Throughout our tour of Thailand we saw these miniature houses outside of homes, businesses, restaurants, hotels, and like much of this land filled with contrasts, you could see extremes – from the down right opulent miniature palace to the plain and simple traditional Thai-style house.

These are small shrines to animist spirits - every dwelling has one. They are placed in an auspicious location, usually a corner of the property on which the shadow of the main dwelling will not fall. They are located high above the ground – almost all with a ladder leading up to Spirit House. They are high enough to show the respect for the spirits that reside within, but low enough for offerings to be made.

Over 90% of the Thai people practice Theravada Buddhism. But as our guide tried to explain, spirit houses are neither Buddhist, nor Muslim, they are just Thai – with a blending of different religions that are not in conflict with each other. These are shrines to what is known as Animist spirits – the belief that not just humans and animals that have souls but also plants, rocks, rivers. Offerings are made to the spirits in order to appease them or to make a request - for a job or to have safe travels. The offerings are usually flowers, or water, or food.

The houses usually have small figures or symbols that live within the center of the spirit house. Various animal figures like elephants, furniture and figures of people such as a married couple can be found on the Spirit House as well. The balcony which usually surrounds the spirit house can have incense holders, candle sticks and/or vases for flowers.

Till next time, sayonara.

Thailand Trip

Thailand is a land of contrasts. This trip was what we were expecting and at the same time it was nothing like we had imagined. Parts of our trip were interesting, equally there were parts of our trip that in time we hope to forget. Over the next week I will post highlights from our 10-day visit to the country known as the Land of 1000 Smiles.

I have always wanted to go to Thailand. When I was in 4th grade I made a book for a school assignment on the top 10 countries I wanted to visit – there are only a handful of countries that I remember, Thailand is one of them. Maybe to a 9-year-old it was exotic. Perhaps watching The King and I fueled my childhood imagination about far off places and architecture shimmering in gold – whatever it was, a visit to Thailand for me had always been on my wish-list.

We were able to do a lot of what we wanted in Thailand – ride an elephant; go to Kanchanaburi, home to the infamous death railway and where The Bridge over the River Kwai took place; see the Emerald Buddha and Grand Palace in Bangkok; go to James Bond Island; visit the Chatuchak Weekend Market and the Jim Thompson House. But there were things we did not get to do … and I won’t whine about that too much because we did after all get to go to Thailand. But traveler beware, even with extreme caution - no ice, only bottled water, no salads - some in our family got hit, and hit hard with Thai Tummy. All seasoned travelers probably have their tales to tell … our kids will certainly have theirs. I am not too sure we’ll be able to get a couple of them outside of Japan ever again – unless their suitcase is stocked with MRE’s (Meals Ready to Eat) and a water purification system attached to their Camel Backs. That was about the time that the question arose “what’s a third-world country?”

Developing Country, NIC or Third-World?

You look at the travel books and go online and see the websites and of course you know in the back of your mind everything has been edited (or touched by Photoshop)… but it’s not until you come face to face with reality that your brain registers a disconnect. There are of course the beautiful wats, the impressive urban shopping areas in Bangkok and the rapid transit system we found easy to use, clean and at least on the day we used it primarily filled with westerners. But from our hotel you could see shantytowns, the streets were a far cry from pristine and the street odor at times could be overwhelming, and for all the new construction and modern hotels and office buildings the streets were also lined with concrete buildings in desperate need of a whitewash – there was depressing squalor everywhere. As I mentioned, one of our boys asked “what’s a country a third-world country?” (darn those kids for keeping me on my toes), after sort of skirting around the issue I finally had to admit that I would need to get home and look it up – or better yet, he should look it up! For those of you who are like me and too much time has passed between your last World History/Economics class and today, here's the very brief run down: third-world is apparently cold-war terminology, when the world was divided up into First-world (U.S. allied countries), Second-world (Soviet allied communist countries) and Third-world (all the others). Today the U.N., WTO and IMF classify what were then called Third-world countries into Newly-Industrialized Countries (NIC’s) or Developing Countries – but believe me it is not as black and white as all that, and I am certainly no economist having detested all 5 of the econ classes I had to suffer through in college - if you want to know more you’ll have to do your own research. But the information I was searching for is where exactly does Thailand fall in all of this? Thailand is a NIC. They have a constitutional monarchy, their king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, is the longest reigning monarch in the world and by all accounts beloved by his countrymen, and Thailand is the only Southeast Asian nation never colonized by Europeans’ - something they are fiercely proud of. Their economy has moved from primarily an agricultural one to one of exports for goods such as garments, footwear, furniture, jewelry and technology products. However, they are the top (or second, depending on the data you look at) producer of rice in the world. While more than 15 million of their population earns less than the United Nations measure for poverty levels (that’s roughly 25% of the population) and there are 1200 officially designated slum neighborhoods in Bangkok alone – Thailand makes up for it in their social services with the official UN poverty figure of 9.8%. Just FYI, that’s better than the UN rates the U.S. at 12% – guess those social services rank high with those crazy UN folks.

So there you have it in a coconut shell … more about Thailand than you may have wanted to know but it helps to set the stage for what we saw during our visit. Why we continued to be baffled by our expectations vs. reality. Hope you can check back in throughout the week and enjoy the visit to Thailand.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Forewarned is Forearmed

Many of you have asked about celebrating American holidays here in Japan - do we celebrate Halloween (yes, on base), Thanksgiving (yes, on base) and Christmas (yes - but outside the gate it is more of a secular celebration than a religious one).

One of the first pieces of advice I received upon arriving here in Japan was "stock up on butter." Really? Apparently for those who have lived here a while they still recall The Butter Shortage. Seriously. For some unknown reason the commissary was out of butter starting before Thanksgiving until after Christmas a few years back. Holiday bakers were apparently having a major crisis. And so, following this advice I stocked up on butter (5 lbs in my freezer) and have now crossed the line from "be prepared" to "be a hoarder."


My friends and family know that I do not like to keep unnecessary items - "purging is cathartic"- could be one of my mantras. Stocking up is against my nature - which is probably why we don't belong to places like Costco, I start to hyperventilate when I enter those places - there's just too much stuff. However, apparently to survive here on base during the holiday season (which starts here around Labor Day when the Halloween candy comes out) one must become a hoarder in order to make it through the holidays without having to grovel for let's say ... cocoa. This year apparently the item "to have" - instead of the latest Coach purse or Jimmy Choo shoes is baking cocoa. At social events you could hear the whispered conversations of “where did you get the white chocolate for Peppermint Bark?” or “You have baking cocoa?! How did you get that?”… “The commissary has been out since October and they're not getting any more in?!” “If you’re really desperate, I heard “so-and-so” has some in her pantry … she’s a hoarder.”

Pumpkins, Turkeys, and Christmas Trees

I have been given many good pieces of advice since arriving – some of which include:

• buy your Halloween candy as soon as you see it out, and set a price limit - you will never have enough.

• buy your turkey as soon as you see it in the commissary, last year they ran out (I bought mine right after Halloween).

• buy your Christmas tree Thanksgiving weekend when they go on sale. They will run out by December 1.

For someone who tends to procrastinate when it comes to these sorts of things – this forced holiday preparation is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s sort of like preparing for a hurricane back east, where you have an emergency kit to survive for a week with food items that need little prep only here it would include things like canned pumpkin – because I was told they ran out last year before Thanksgiving and they never received another shipment. Or, Halloween candy – you’d better get it the first week it’s out or you may not be able to get any. Oh, and you can’t buy enough Halloween candy because they open the base up to Japanese guests – this year we had over 600 pieces of candy and the advice I was given was one piece per child. I didn’t even make it an hour – that’s more than 10 kids a minute! It was madness.

I had our Thanksgiving Turkey in the freezer for a month before Thanksgiving, which meant I had room for very little else what with the 5 lbs of butter already being stockpiled. And our Christmas tree, we went to Nikko Thanksgiving weekend but you can bet we managed to stop by and get our Christmas tree – the kids were confused “but we’ve never gotten our tree this early.” I think mom's holiday preparedness freaked them out just a bit - I can just hear them thinking "Who is this woman? Where's my mom who would run out to Target on Halloween to buy candy and then come home to carve the pumpkins and hope somehow it would all be done before the first trick-or-treater arrived?"

It is amazing though when you think about it, that the commissary actually ship pumpkins, turkeys, and Christmas trees all the way across the Pacific so that we can enjoy our American holidays here – and yes, we do have to pay for them Koggie – the pumpkins were so expensive I was relieved (but also somewhat saddened) that our boys decided this year they did not want a pumpkin to carve.

You can take the Southerner out of the South but not the South ...

Most people that meet me are genuinely surprised that I am a Southerner – whatever accent I had has all but faded over the 25+ years of moving all across the U.S. There is the occasional “y’all” that will slip out and I’ve been told if I have “enjoyed a few glasses” my words start to sound southern, it’s in there – deeply embedded. There are some things that a true southerner just could not do without – one being, bringing in the new year with greens and blackeyed peas. Thank goodness someone out there knows that a certain portion of the military population was raised “south of the Potomac” – as my mom would say – and as a southerner you absolutely cannot bring in the New Year without Collard Greens (for money) and Blackeyed Peas (for good luck). The Commissary had fresh Collard Greens (thank God because I’m not sure I could swallow canned greens, I think that’s some sort of southern sacrilege) and plenty of blackeyed peas. Our family sat down to our New Year’s Day Dinner of Luck and Money and I took quiet pleasure knowing that this annual tradition continues despite being half way around the world from my southern roots.

Shortages? Bring it On.

None of us know what 2010 will bring. I love the end of one year and the start of another – the end and the beginning – see sidebar quote from T.S. Eliot. Jeff mentioned on the 31st as he was walking out the door to work “What? You look pensive.” (which I know unsettles him … when he sees me staring off and thinking – it’s like oh no, here it comes she’s going to want to repaint the living room for the third time or tear up the entire backyard and landscape or decide to throw herself full steam ahead into training for another tri). “No, I said, I’m just reflecting.” I enjoy looking back on the last year and taking stock. Almost as much as looking forward to the New Year with all the anticipation and hope that new beginnings bring.

Will we have butter/cocoa/turkey shortages in 2010? Who knows, and honestly I don’t care – I can learn to make do. Looking back over the last year I am reminded how much we have to be thankful for and it has nothing to do with how much butter I had stashed in our freezer. It was much more about what we do have, like our friends and family that were there for us, helping our military family make an international move and bring us together again – and for that we are forever grateful.

I wish my friends and family much Luck and Money in the new year. And, new beginnings.

Till next time, sayonara.

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