Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Tiger's Tale

I booked the trip to the Bridge over the River Kwai and the Tiger Temple at the same place on Soi 11. The ladies were nice, they picked me up on time, the guides were wonderful, and it was easy. Later, I was glad I did because some other friends tried to go direct with a Bangkok taxi, and they never made it there. The taxi driver got lost. We left Bangkok at about 7am and ended up in a caravan with several other vans. We all had booked different tours, and the guides kept switching us from van to van, depending on where we were going.  I was amazed at how smoothly it all went, and I don’t think they lost anyone.
Our first stop was the cemetery honoring Dutch, Thai, and English soldiers who died in the Japanese POW camps by the river. I read some of the plaques, and watched some of the older men relive the moments for a bit. I was glad it was a short stop.

Next, we drove to the museum of the actual camp. It was a strange museum filled with photographs and mementoes of war.  I had not really planned to go in, but it was so interesting I ended up taking pictures of the soldiers, very young guys, hanging out in the camp. Even though I wasn’t even born, it was strangely nostalgic because of all the old movies I’d watched as a kid. My dad was a big World War II movie fan, along with John Wayne westerns; and I had probably seen scenes from these pictures as a child. There was also a very unusual letter from Hitler to the Japanese command. Again, I almost refused to read it, but the idea of actually reading something written by that bastard was too intriguing. The strangest thing was it was a letter like many other letters written by pompous men regarding the rules for other men, rule that usually those same men exempt themselves from following. I then took a walk to through the tourist trap town, walked over the railroad crossing, looked at some jewelry in the many gold shops, and waited for the next stop.

We were about one and half hours outside of Bangkok, and the countryside of Thailand was so much like some parts of Hawaii. I was reminded of how many times I had driven over the Pali on Kauai to Hanalei and felt like I was back in Southeast Asia, and it was not my imagining. Driving through Thailand was like being home, with Palm trees, papayas, mangos and lush greenery by the river. We drove on a dusty road down to a train station right out of the old English Empire days, out in the middle of nowhere. The train pulled up and we all got on an old train with wood seats and open air windows. It was a bit like the little tour train we have in Lahaina. My niece will laugh when I tell her the Thai train was very similar, but a lot more interesting! We had a good ride on the train, and I spent the time checking out my fellow passengers. We were going on an ancient track over very high mountain passes and very rickety rails. I thought these might be the people I spend my last days with. The old white guy with his gnarled hand resting on the knee of his very pretty, young Thai companion. The German couple; a fat loud little man and his old wife who was dressed like an Amsterdam whore in very short shorts and a tight top stretched over her layers of white fat. The interesting family with the adorable little boy with his Thai mother and his young white father. I tried to figure out the family dynamics. Was that his mother, with her pursed, disapproving lips who seemed to have no interest in amusing the baby boy?

The highlight of the trip, of course, was the actual bridge over the river that was built by prisoners in the harshest imaginable circumstances. My friend later reminded me of the actual tune they whistled in the movie, and I can hear it as I’m writing this. After the train ride ended, we drove through more bush and bramble to a restaurant on a boat for lunch. We walked down a long ramp to the boat on the river, took off our shoes, were served rice, fish, and vegetables; and ate on the barge out in the river watching river boats cruise by slowly and water taxis speed by with Thai men guide them with wooden tillers. It was an idyllic scene, and although it was a bit awkward being on my own with all these other strangers and couples, I managed to enjoy myself.

After all this, I was getting pretty tired and we still had a bit of a drive to the Tiger Temple, which was my main focus for this trip. I was a bit apprehensive because I had read some reviews online, and some negative stuff about how the tigers were drugged, and the monks and handlers abused them. To be really honest; I don’t know enough about how tigers in this situation should be handled to know what is abuse, and I didn’t have much qualms about them being drugged while I was around having my picture taken with them. I also had a very good friend who really wanted me to see live tigers on this trip, and I was determined to do this for him. 

We pulled into a very large dusty parking lot with many vans and several buildings, and then walked down a very long road into the monk’s compound. I was already very tired, and wished I had come here first, but I was able to push my energy up because it was a very unique experience. This was not an amusement park or a zoo. It was very primitive, and not like anywhere I’d been before. We walked to down the road to a kind of grotto surrounded my small hills. There were European and Thai handlers controlling entrance to the place where about 20-25 tigers lay in the dirt. A very abrupt English girl was telling everyone the rules; while this very silly English lady tried to go around the line and straight into the grotto. She was stopped and led back into line. I had a nice chat with one of the handlers about negative stuff on the internet. She tried to convince me that the tigers were not drugged, “they are just well fed, and don’t need to be aggressive in this setting.” I wasn’t buying that, but was fine with them not being aggressive while I was there. I was led by the hand to each tiger, and assured told where to sit and where I could pet the animal. I used my own judgment and basically kept my distance. I don’t care what they are given or what these handlers (who are mostly young kids) say; these are wild animals and will never be predictable. I posed with the tigers while another handler took pictures. It was very organized and there were probably 30-40 tourists all taking pictures at the same time in that grotto.The funniest thing was watching that same English lady with her red face posing in her safari hat while ignoring the handler and putting her face right up to the tiger to stroke the tiger’s head as if she was trying to enact some genetic fantasy of being a big game hunter in the wilds of Africa.

I walked up a steep hill to where the baby tigers were supposed to be, but they were being fed and were not available. Then I continued down the dirt road to a wood platform where a tiger was being held by a monk, and two very young handlers were placing people for pictures. I stood waiting patiently while many people had their pictures taken and walked away. I was standing there deciding if I wanted another picture when suddenly the tiger stood up and strained on the lease. I could tell the monk was surprised, and the tiger was growling and straining toward the road. The handlers were trying to figure out what was upsetting the tiger, when they saw a family from India with their very small children heading over on the road. The tiger was very agitated, and the handlers finally yelled over to the family to walk quietly away around the building with the children. They ignored the young people and kept walking toward us while I could see the monk was having a hard time holding the tiger. Finally the monk yelled to them, “the tiger wants to eat the children…take them away.” Finally the father looked as if he understood, and shooed his family away. The tiger was pacing on the platform, while I stood watching this like a scene in a movie. Finally, the young boy said that I could come have my picture taken and that the tiger was fine. They were both encouraging me to come have my picture taken; that the tiger was fine. “I don’t think so.” I looked at the monk who tightly held the leash on the tiger who had finally laid back down stretched out on the platform, probably dreaming of a snack on a child or two.  “I have to follow my heart.” I patted my hand to my heart and the monk laughed, nodding his head. 

The next enclosure was a narrow path through a maze with one very angry monk and a bunch of tourists squeezed together in front of a very large tiger, who kept getting up to move away from the crowd. Another French lady was following the tiger, reaching out to stroke his back and even patting his head. She completely dominated the event, and it was evident other tourists were getting irritated that they couldn’t take pictures themselves. I was at ease because I didn’t really care to have any more photo opportunities with these animals. It was amazing to watch this young girl following this tiger with no regard for her own safety, as if the tiger was a cartoon. The monk was getting angrier and angrier, but for some reason he did not know how to control the situation. She finally lay down on the ground with the tiger, and then this other silly lady did the same thing and pushed her away. I finally left them to their mad enactments, and walked until I found the temple. I walked through a herd of water buffaloes that were a bit intimidating, especially the large bull who snorted at me; but once I walked up the steps to the temple and saw the monks scrubbing the temple floor, I felt a peace. I sat there in this wild place in the middle of Thailand with two monks scrubbing the tile of the temple and the breeze blowing through the open pillars remembering to breath and “be here now”, and after about ten minutes it seemed as if the monks knew I was there and blessed me.

I got up and walked back down the road past the other enclosures to the exit, where I had a few minutes when I thought my bus had left. A guide found me and led me back to another bus back to Bangkok. On the way out of the park I saw a young biker with a jacket tagged from Thailand. I wanted to take a picture for my friend on the Big Island, but we were leaving and I was a bit shy. I’ve never met an unfriendly biker myself, but I’d had a long day and was really tired so I didn’t feel up to any new encounters. The coolest thing was, he had two small boys with him, and they all three got on this Harley and drove out of the park. I haven’t checked my pictures yet to see if I got the shot, but it will make a great poster if I did.

On the way back to Bangkok we stopped at a waterfall. It was a really Hawaiian scene, with Thai families spread out over the riverside on blankets surrounded by containers of food. There were children running around in and out of the water. It was a lovely, laughing riverside scene, and was so much like home. We walked up to a large rock waterfall which you could climb up to take pictures. It was very slippery and I was very tired, so I took pictures from the bridge. It really did remind me of home, and the good old times I’d had with my husband and friends at the waterfalls by Camp Maluhia in the West Maui mountains, the falls above Camp Keanae near Hana, and all the grottos and pools Kent and I went to in Hana and on Kauai. I got very nostalgic and a bit tearful. It’s funny how you can be all the way around the world and come to a place that seems just like home. 

We ended our very long tour arriving back at the hotel safe and sound at about 8pm.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Bangkok Tours; Temples and Tigers to come...

It's been a long while since I've posted, and a lot has happened. I will have to cheat and check out the pictures on my camera to refresh my memory of the first trip to Bangkok, but I will do my best to catch up to where I am today.

I've had really good luck picking tour ladies in different countries to help me plan things, and several times it has been easier and more economical than trying to do everything on my own. I've been willing and able to spend a bit more to take the easier, softer route; which I hardly ever did when I was young. It worked out great in Kerala, and here in Bangkok, again I was walking down the street and got a feeling and walked into this place and talked to these ladies and they helped me book my few days of tours; including one whole day of temple tours, and a trip to see the tiger temple. They picked me up at the hotel and my guide was a young lady who I found out later was a history teacher who had taken this job to improve her English. She was very well versed in the history of Thailand, and had a lot of interesting stories to tell. I visited the Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha), Wat Pho (Temple of the Reclining Buddha), Wat Sutat, (Great Swing), and the Wat Traimit (Temple of the Golden Buddha). I'm not going to expound on the history and stories, as you can look all these up for yourselves, if you are interested. What happened for me, as I went around viewing these incredible sights was a serious of vignettes with monks and other visitors. The day I toured was a holiday and there were a lot of local people visiting the temples, which was really special because I was able to experience special offerings and prayers that would not normally be taking place. 

The first temple was the Golden Buddha, and as I walked up the steps to the temple could see the whole city of Bangkok. I entered the temple after removing my shoes and sat with a group of Thais making offerings. It was a holiday and all the temples were full of petitioners and monks in prayer. As I left the temple I went and threw some money in the large bronze bowl for good luck. As much as I deplore the negative effect organized religion has had on human history; there is something wonderful about churches,
temples, places of worship. It is an aspect of the very highest that we strive for, communion with the best parts of us. It is also an reflection of the very worst; corruption, greed, and the use of funds to build golden Buddhas inside walls while outside there are children living on a bowl of rice a day. Overall, I'm not sure how much good or bad religion does for us all, but I do understand that it is a basic need that we seem to have to explain the mystery of existence. I'm met very few people who, when faced with death, choose to believe in nothing.

As I walked around amidst the holy bells with orange robed monks strolling by or knelt in prayer, I was also surrounded by merchandise and hawkers of souvenirs. It was a juxtaposition of the highest human aspirations, elevation of the spirit; and the most base human elements, commerce and greed. Somehow, because of my mood, my guide, the experience overall, or the influence of the monks and petitioners; I did not feel offended or disconcerted by any of it. It all felt perfectly natural to see monks received, alms, mostly from elderly Thais, who offered them packages of food, bread, blankets, and other necessities. My guide explained that the monks were not allowed to work or do common labor, so all of their needs were provided for by offerings. In turn, they chanted, prayed, and lit incense for the people.

I could gush on about the immense lying Buddha or the awesome golden Buddha, or the incredible detailed panels which were carved to tell the complete life story of Buddha. These are all amazing sights, and I am grateful to have visited them twice in my life, because I did see them when I was here in the 70's also. But what affected me even more, and what touched my heart, was the small boy who had a bag full of change and he went down this long line of bronze bowls for offerings and he put some change in each bowl, and his bent head and small hands were so intent on the rightness of his offering, and I was so touched my the purity of his actions. The tiny old ladies kneeling in front of a row of seated monks with their colorful wrapped offerings of food and goods. The monks in their robes, both old men and very young boys, lining up and taking the packages as they bowed to each soul requesting their prayers. Sitting cross-legged in a crowd of people in front of an immense statue of Buddha with the smell of incense and the ringing of bells in the background with tears in my eyes, feeling this strange connection to all those around me. Watching the lady slowly put one 20 baht bill in the offering box, then seeing her lips move in prayer, then she put another bill in the offering box, then her lips moved in prayer. She did that for many 20 baht bills. The line of bells in the palace with small delicate girl child standing while her elderly grandfather held her hand and explained to her, I presume, what the bells meant. My guide, with her lovely young face and her almost perfect English telling me a story of each figure and each temple; telling me how much they loved the king who is now 84 years old. I later found out that it is a crime not to love the king, which put a different slant on how respectful everyone was in the palace, but did not change the immense feel of a country with tradition and heritage which has been pushed around and shoved into a changed world, a world vastly different from their ancient teachings.

I spent a full day visiting temples and then the grand palace, which I was less impressed with, although it was built to impress. The King is not there. He is in the hospital, and the palace is beautiful but it is only one of his many palaces. I did love it when visitors were taking pictures of the solder in front of the palace, and my guide asked me if I had seen the soldiers in front of Buckingham Palace. I told her yes and they looked very much the same, the young Thai solder standing tall with no expression while tourists stood beside him, laughingly having their pictures took. The day I toured was a holiday and there were a lot of local people visiting the temples, which was really special because I was able to experience special offerings and prayers that would not normally be taking place. Next stop...full day trip to Bridge over the River Kwai and Tiger Temple!

Friday, December 9, 2011

Bangkok, baby…Days and Nights

End of India…last days in Chennai.

I spent a week in Chennai, and only left the hotel once to go to a meeting. The drive from the airport and my one evening out were all I needed to see of Chennai. The main impression I had of Chennai, outside of the Sheraton Park Towers, was a smaller Bombay. It was pretty clear that I was ready to leave India. I also got a killer flu, and was sick in bed for three days; so the last few days I just hung out by the pool and watched movies in the room. I was very grateful to be in a nice hotel while I was sick, even though it put a big dent in my savings.  The staff was wonderful, and I was very blessed to be so well looked after. I’ve also come to realize that when you are on a trip this long, you just can’t be a tourist all the time. It’s exhausting, and sometimes you just need to stop and do nothing.

I left Chennai on a midnight Thai Airways flight to Bangkok. The airports in India are amazingly disorganized, messy, unhelpful, and make you feel like there is no chance that you will ever get on the right plane going to the right place with all your stuff. They are building a new airport in Chennai, and the pictures look wonderful. The flight was filled with Indian men whose main goal was to drink as much free booze as the Thai stewardesses would give them, which was annoying at first but then I felt so sorry for the stewardesses that I got over being annoyed for myself. It was only a three hour flight, and landing at the airport in Bangkok was like a time warp; “back to the future”.  Everything was efficient, modern, with easy to read and follow signs, and everything going as smooth as Thai silk.

I took a long taxi ride to my hotel, which is in Soi 11. It is a brand new Aloft, and is perfect for me. It has all the basic amenities, is very modern, and has a pool table in the lobby. I checked out the pool deck on the 23rd floor, and plan to spend a day hanging out there. My room is awesome for points and $30.00 a night. I have free Wi-Fi everywhere, a huge rain shower, and a 46 inch flat screen TV. As my sisters will verify, us Robinett girls love a good hotel room. It’s in the blood. We are nomads at heart, but we like a nice cozy tent wherever we go.

I don’t like to compare countries, because each place is unique and deserves to be respected for its own culture and society. It is also pretty clear to me that there are some places I feel better than others. Bangkok is a city of 12 million, but it is amazingly clean for such a large city. The traffic is really bad in the central city, but it is organized; drivers actually use the lanes, there are lights, and very little honking; unlike India, where no one uses lanes and the constant honking creates a cacophony of mind-numbing noise. There is a great sky tram which takes you all over the city, and transportation is easy and available. The air doesn’t stink. There are not piles of refuse lying around. There are not people yelling at you to buy their stuff. People on the streets are not shoving, pushing, and bumping you out of their way. People actually smile at you, which almost never happened in India, except in Kerala. I could go into a long rant about the Indian economy, the abundance of wealth that is being thrown around, and the boasts of taking the world into the 21st century. I will spare us all, but what I will say is that India has a long way to go before I will take it seriously as a leader for the future of humankind. Taking care of basics like having clean toilets in International airports, and treating all people with respect and consideration would be a good start.

It has been thirty-six years since I was last in Bangkok. I won’t go into the Quentin Tarantino/Robert Rodriquez script involving mad Chinese drug dealers, a friend who betrayed me, the flight home from hell, the DEA welcome committee at SFO, and the end result long term stay at Terminal Island Federal Correctional Facility; that is a story is best savored at another time. It never occurred to me to be worried about getting back into Thailand until I was on the plane, and then I had one of those speed drill paranoia runs, “will they still have my name after all this time, and what is the statute of limitations in Thailand”; with additional footage of me being led off to explain how I had the nerve to return after all this time.  I let that go on for about three seconds, and then realized all would be well. All has been well on this trip and all would be well. And it was. I’ve been clean for 29 years, I’ve paid my dues over and above, and I’m a new person in a new world. It was a good feeling walking through immigration being me.

I slept until around 2pm, then I got up and took a walk around. I’m in a great location right off Sukhumvit Road in one of the main Soi’s. There are restaurants, bars, shops, and stores everywhere. I went to a cozy, plant filled outdoor place called Zanzibar’s and had the best steak I’ve had since Paris. So much for going Vegetarian. It was fantastic. Not cheap, but a great meal especially after almost of week of not feeling like eating at all. I went back to the hotel and played a game of pool in the lobby. It’s been years since I played, but it did start to come back pretty quickly. Kent and I used to play together at Koho’s in Napili. We had so much fun trying to beat each other, and telling stories about the old days when we were pool sharks (ha!). 

It was a full moon, I’d slept most of the day, I was in Bangkok, and after being in a hotel in Chennai for a week; I felt like getting out and about. I decided I would go find some live music. I spent about two seconds wondering if I should be leery about going out on my own, then I went to my room, took a shower, put on some makeup, fixed my hair, sprayed on some Channel #5 from duty free, put on some black jeans and a fancy top, got the address to some live music joints, got a cab, and ended up at the Witch’s Tavern. I also put on some attitude, which I felt I needed to pull this excursion off. I’m a 62 year old woman going out on the town where all the men are here for one thing, and one thing only. Young, nubile, sexy, Thai women. I could easily let that undermine my sense of myself, and my own confidence, and I was determined I wouldn’t let that happen.   I had originally thought this place would piss off some remnant feminist part of me, but most of what I’ve felt is that life is very hard, and whatever comfort anyone can find they are welcome to it, as sad as it may seem to me. I did wonder if there wasn’t a Bangkok for old women, and if so, where was it? It was a long ride from my hotel, so I had time to think of all this stuff, and wonder if I could find my way back.

Let me note here that it has been a very long time since I have hung out in bars. I don’t drink, drug, or do one nighter’s anymore, and normally would not go unless I had a very good reason and an entourage. My very good reason was…I wanted to have some fun in Bangkok! I’ve had a serious, difficult time, a very sad time, and I have been on a very long trip, and I just wanted to go somewhere and hear some live rock and roll and have some fun. And I guess I also wanted to see if I had the nerve to go out on my own.  So I did. The Witch’s Tavern was a dark two-story bar with not a big crowd. I sat at a table near the stage and drank a coffee. The band finally came on, and basically they rocked. Heard some Stones, some Lady Gaga, and some Bruno Mars. The girl lead singer really rocked. It was some lady’s birthday, so her and her party kept the place lively. I drank a soda, grooved to the beat, and basically felt pretty okay in my own skin. The band was as good as bar bands can be, the place wasn’t packed, it wasn’t rockin’, and basically bars are boring if you don’t drink; but it was an adventure, and I did it. I got bored with it all, went out and flagged a cab, tried to find this place called Mojo’s but the cab driver couldn’t find it. I was tired, so I decided to try the sky train back to the hotel. It was easy, only two stops. I walked back to the hotel feeling pretty good, played another game of pool, and crashed.

Today, I slept late again. Got up and booked the afternoon tour on the river. That was really nice. Took a boat and then a rice ferry all up and down the river. Remembered Kent telling me about him and his friend, Bob, taking that trip when he was in Bangkok. I thought of him as I was going down the river. I think of him often, but it does get easier to remember the good times. I am grateful I am so good at being on my own, because if I wasn’t it would be a thousand times harder to lose the love of my life. And it was hard enough as it was. For those worried about the flooding, there are not many signs that I have seen so far here in Bangkok. They have done an incredible job of clearing things up here. I just realized its ten pm, and I have to get up at 6:30am for the full day tour of the temples tomorrow. Doing Bangkok, doing good.