Travel as Metaphor

The blog of novelist Sue Swift.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Keith, one year gone

There’s a saying in sports: adversity doesn’t create character, it reveals it. Keith died one year ago, and everyone who was privileged to witness his passing saw his character displayed. The courage which enabled him to face his fate without complaint or whining. The determination and love he showed in staying with us as long as he could, despite tremendous suffering, so he could enjoy every minute with us possible, and so we could spend as much time as possible with him.

Those around him also showed who they truly are. I was honored to see what a fine man my nephew Tony, Keith’s oldest son, has become. At age 30, he was the rock upon whom we all depended. Wendy’s strength and steadfastness throughout the year-long ordeal of Keith’s illness was extraordinary, testimony to their deep love and commitment, one that death cannot break. Alex and Jake showed courage, love, and maturity beyond their meager years.

In the year that’s passed, their example has given me what I have needed to continue my journey, which has come full circle since I am now back in California and preparing for a new life. Thanks seem inadequate, but I thank everyone who’s supported me and who continue to be a part of who I am becoming, especially my mother and my surviving brother.



Thursday, April 05, 2007

17 March: today would have been Lizzy’s birthday had she not killed herself in 2005. It’s also her brother Eliot’s birthday, so I phoned him. He seems well and is still struggling with the same issues that occupied him before I left for Thailand six months ago—whether he should continue to grow richer giving colonoscopies to rich people or figure out something more meaningful to do with his life. Maybe he needs to take Eric Maisel’s course in meaning-making. Anyhow, he appreciated that I remembered Liz’s birthday and phoning.

With the conference over, I spent the remainder of my time in San Diego hanging out with Wendy and the boys. They seem OK…strangely enough it doesn’t seem weird to stay in the same room where Keith died. Wendy claims that she and Keith talk often. When she mentions this I quickly change the subject.

Keith's stonesetting is on May 3, the first anniversary of his death.

I also explore San Diego…with a job offer pending, it seems wise, though the SD lifestyle is not one I crave. I know what I want, and it doesn’t exist in California. Portland, with its milder summer weather, excellent public transport and less expensive costs seems to fill the bill. And if it doesn’t work out, I’ll go someplace else. The world is big and fascinating and full of people who might become my friends.

Back in Sacramento, it seems more than ever that I have gone backwards. Though it’s nice to see people from my past, I’m eager to get on with it. The six-month sojourn overseas is possibly the best move I ever made in my life, which has been full of wrong turnings and regrets. I now understand what makes me happy…getting away from the expectations and needs of family and spouse enabled me to experience myself more directly, to experiment with location and lifestyle.

The writing is back (yay!) and if I quit being in vacation mode, I have books to write, revise and sell.

So it’s all good.

Onward and Backward: BK to London to California in ten days

11 March: I had a pretty darned good birthday. First of all I was in my favorite place in the world, London. I had am English breakfast with a strong cuppa tea. Went to Notting Hill, nothing like the movie. Walked around Portobello Market and resisted buying a soldier’s red coat for 85 quid, a good deal had I needed one and were I not worried about excess luggage charges, which I avoided going from BK to London only by tossing out quite a lot of stuff. OK, it was stuff I didn’t need but…

I visited Uncle Li, who looked quite chipper for someone who’s half-paralyzed and been bedridden for six months now. We chatted for about 40 minutes…should take photos to him tomorrow.

Had tea with the Lazari in Hampstead Garden Suburb and then the sr Lazari took me to dinner. They were quite jazzed that it was my birthday.

Cindy Gestler phoned—she asked me and a friend to lunch at her place in St. John’s Wood. Mostly salads and a wonderful soup followed by a walk with her shih-tzus in Regent’s Park, where the locals were playing football (soccer to you Yanks). Left her a copy of Triangle which she appreciated. I also autographed a pile of them for Li’s caregivers. Anything to elevate the level of care…I am really not happy about the fact that he hasn’t visibly improved in the four months I lived in Thailand.

I find myself napping often, just dropping to any convenient couch wherever I am. Napped at Lo and Mo’s and then at Cindy’s. I’m not shy about it, either. Can’t be when I am so hellaciously jet lagged. The night I got to London I was so tired that I ralphed. My eyes were all puffy and my skin saggy. So much for my overseas health tour.

Went with Auntie Liz to Allison and Jeremy’s house in Hendon. NEVER get into a car with Liz at the wheel. She seems to regard the lines painted on the streets as tracks rather than boundaries. The house itself is beyond awesome. Allison is a very intelligent person and gives more than lip service to the idea that her four children are paramount. For example, the great room on the lower floor is huge, and painted all white, even to the smooth wood floor, which is to big and slick that one can roller skate on it…and that’s exactly what Max, their youngest son, was doing. He was wearing a pair of those trainers with wheels on them. With the furniture pushed against the walls, there was plenty of room. Later we played volleyball with balloons from Max’s birthday party in there. There was an upright piano painted black and silver, and a big dining room table at the far end swathed in crimson velvet, where Ariella was doing homework. Clearly Allison realized that there are many days when the weather prevents outside play, so the kids have enough room inside to go nuts without hurting anything.

The doorframes are encrusted with seashells, painted bright white. The kitchen is painted in greeny-grays and looks like an undersea cave. At one end is a nook with comfy chairs and a red velvet couch and a huge TV/DVD. The kids’ toys, books and games are in shelves hidden by long, thick red velvet drapes. The light fixtures were as fanciful as everything else.

The master bedroom was romantic, with Indian wooden screens covering shelving and closets, painted off white. The bed was peachy and welcoming.

Allison’s is the boldest house I’ve ever seen. Totally OTT but very livable and highly inspiring.

13 March: I flew into SFO from Heathrow and for once United business class didn’t let me down. A reasonably pleasant flight on which I managed to get some sleep which stood me in good stead because when I reached California, I had to rent a car, drive to Sacramento, then drive to the Sac Airport the next day to fly to the NINC conference.

I rented another car and went to Wendy’s. She looked shocked when I walked in and told me that she thought I was arriving the next day. Nevertheless, she welcomed me and popped me into the guest room.

The jet lag continues…I went to the NINC conference and barely made it through Eric Maisel, taking copious notes and glad he provided a pretty good topic list. But he was, as usual, worth all the travel. His discussion of meaning-making made all the effort to hear him worthwhile.

Chiang Mai notes and on to Bangkok!

All the restaurants I frequent feature taped music, some of it good, a lot of it drink-splatteringly funny. The sushi place I eat at on Wednesdays and Saturdays (when they get the fresh fish in) plays a song in some Asian language I can’t identify. The song has a “Grazing in the Grass” sort of sound and feel, but the words, (and I swear I am not making this up) sounds like “pussy-pussy-pussy-marijuana…pussy-pussy!”

But I really do go there for the fish, not to giggle into my teacup and make a spectacle of myself twice weekly.

* *
Same with Thais’ use of the English language. I don’t mean the occasional grammatical error, I mean stuff like the menu item “Finger Salad.” I don’t know what that is and I don’t want to ask. Squid tentacles, maybe?

The white guy sitting next to me at the internet café is researching Thai prostitutes. Not photos. He’s reading text. How ridic is that? I can’t rid myself of the idea that if you have to pay for it, you’re pathetic.

3 March 2007: On to Bangkok

It’s not 7 p.m. and I’m exhausted and achy. Checked out of the Baan Thai, then Anong drove me to the airport. Got onto the plane for BK w/o incident. For the first time this trip, no excess weight charges but my main bag is so heavy that I toss stuff at the hotel and resolve to toss more when I leave.

The hotel is lovely, right on the Chao Phraya river and a short walk to a public boat pier, one where public transport boats stop regularly. I’m on the 9th floor with a partial river view. The a/c went out, requiring two visits to fix, but service was prompt and with Thai smiles. Now I am sitting on the hotel terrace next to the river, watching the full moon rise romantically over BKs giant TV antennae. (See the photo on the left, above)

The city is a trafficky steambath by day and delightful as night. I plan to do most of my sightseeing in the morning followed by hotel, shower and relaxation, then out again at night. But tonight I’m tired, so drinks, bath, bed and maybe a movie or a good book…who knows, maybe I’ll write! Stranger things have happened.

6 March—Tuesday.

It’s Bruce’s birthday today. I sent him an e-card several days ago and wonder if I’ll hear from him.

My prediction of how my BK days will go was way off the mark. I did realize quickly that the worst way to travel in BK is on the streets. There’s always a nice breeze over the river, so Sunday I took the boat down the central pier and then used the Skytrain to tour the city. It initially seems overly air conditioned but after a sweaty session at the Jatujak outdoor market it’s delightful.

This is a remarkable and interesting city. I went to the home of Jim Thompson, a farang who was OSS during WW2 and then settled here. He was instrumental in promoting the Thai silk trade. Had a lovely, traditional Thai home along one of the klongs which is full of beautiful antiques. (The house, not the klong, which is a canal). Was quite tired during the tour, so found my way back to the hotel and had a foot massage.

Yesterday—Monday—I put on my yellow “I love the King” shirt and took a boat to the #9 pier to tour the Grand Palace. Most of it is closed to the public except for the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, the holiest shrine of Thai Buddhism. The buildings are amazing, with every surface decorated with, tile or glass mosaics. Giant statues of guardian demons and gilded apsaras everywhere. (see the right hand photo, above) No apparent order to the place which made it hard to stay oriented, and the map they give you isn’t accurate.

By 11 o’clock I’m exhausted. I eat lunch is the little café, have an ice cream, tour the Museum of the Emerald Buddha which has some nice stuff in it and then head over to the area some people call Baglamphu which has a street called the Khao San, the primary backpacker haven of SE Asia. I have a feeling I can get a good cheap massage there.

I’m right—an hour and a half later I head out, totally rejuvenated. I toddle around the area, find an Internet café, do some work and then look around some more. I like this part of the city. I notice that the sky is bluer than in Chiang Mai and think that I could happily live in BK, if I could get used to the heat and humidity, which gives me the sensation of always wearing a thin sticky film over my skin.

The hotel is a riot. It’s more than a bit retro…it has one of those built in radios with a control panel next to the bed. I switched it on just before I got into the shower, and when I got out and wrapped my west hair in a towel, I heard old protest songs, Peter Paul and Mary, playing. First “If I had a Hammer” followed by “Blowin in the Wind”…it made me a little weepy, and I realized that maybe it’s time to bring back those old songs.

The impact was spoiled by “How Much is that Doggie in the Window.”

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

From the “Who wouldda thunk it” file: Sue and the orphans

My buddy Gladys, who used to teach the weightlifting class I take, recruited me to help out with what seems to be her favorite charity: an orphanage. The residence, which houses twenty children of varying ages, is a series of shabby buildings in a suburb of Chiang Mai.

I am not quite sure how Gladys persuaded me to fix the kids an American meal. I am not a kid person. If it were left to me, the human species would reproduce by cloning.

The whole pregnancy thing creeps me out. It’s like the movie Alien, where the monster is growing inside a victim’s body and finally bursts out, killing the host.

Did you know that women still die in childbirth?

As a child, I never played with dolls. We had puppies, which are—face it—much cuter, don’t need their diapers changed and don’t get colicky.

When Gladys asked me what I really enjoy doing, I told her that I love to cook, never dreaming that she would persuade me to cook for twenty orphans.

But she did.

My first idea was that I wanted to make something thoroughly American, food that the kids would never eat in Chiang Mai. Hamburgers and hot dogs, of course, with fries.

Then I went to see the orphanage. It’s not as primitive as the average Boy Scout campsite, since there’s a fridge, big sinks and long tables. But there’s a dearth of silverware and there’s neither a grill nor an oven.

But I am a creative cook and well able to switch gears when necessary. There’s a range with a couple of burners and two big pots, so I could prepare spaghetti with tomato sauce. OK, so it’s more Italian than American, but so what? Gladys assured me that the kids would love whatever I cooked, and knowing the appetites of growing children, I was sure she was right.

Then I had oral surgery and a tummy ailment and just felt generally tired. I suggested to Gladys that we simply take the kids to Pizza Hut. We could get a couple of sang-dhows—these are pickup trucks outfitted with camper shells and bench seats down their length, and very cheap transportation--pile the kids in and take them to the restaurant. Easy-peasy.

Gladys nixed that as too expensive, and when I figured out that the excursion would cost about $100, I decided she was right.

So a spaghetti feed it would be. Today we went to the biggest supermarket in Chaing Mai, the Tesco Lotus near the airport, to buy food. Accompanying us was Steven, one of the orphanage staffers, who drove an Explorer so we could carry all the food.

We get to the store and start to look for the ingredients. Basil--check. Italian pasta—check. We pick Tesco brand fusilli, a noodle we’re sure the kids have never seen and would enjoy.

But when we got to the sauce fixings, we crashed into a brick wall. There were a few sad-looking jars of Prego, but we’d need about ten of them to feed this crowd. Because they’re imported, that was out of sight. And although there are plenty of tomatoes grown in Thailand, there are no canned tomatoes except—you guessed it—expensive ones imported from Italy. Because it’s winter, the tomatoes in the produce section are more green than red, and we’d need about a bushel of them to make sauce for the gang.

But if I’m anything, I‘m creative. If these kids wanted to experience what American children actually eat, I could do that easy. I grabbed three loaves of bread, two jars of peanut butter (Jif smooth and Skippy super chunk, my fave), strawberry and grape jams. I found hot dogs, buns, mustard (French’s) and ketchup (Heinz). Potato chips and Tesco cola.

I was good to go.

We hurried back to the orphanage, where I found out that the kids would return from school at 3:45, no doubt hungry. I whacked out two dozen or so PB&J sandwiches while Gladys made fruit salad and another staffer warmed the hot dogs in a wok. Then Steven and I put together the dogs. I squeezed mustard onto the buns, he plopped the meat in and put them on plates next to the sandwiches.

The kids arrived, an astonishingly organized, polite and well-dressed group. Two or three of the girls and a couple of the boys were dressed in scout-style uniforms and, instead of the kids attacking the partially laden plates like a plague of locusts, two older boys washed their hands and helped open chip bags and arrange chips onto the plates.

After a very few minutes, we were good to go. With a minor amount
of prompting, the kids chorused, “Thank you Auntie Susan” before sitting down and eating.

I’ve never encountered so much gratitude for so little effort…really, this could not be defined as my finest culinary moment. But the kids were curious and explorative, finding the mustard weird but liking the ketchup so much that one was spooning it into his mouth as though it were a food (remember when the Reagan administration sought to define ketchup as a vegetable? This kid would have gone for it).

When we left, Gladys explained that some of the kids were actually orphans while others were abandoned by parents who preferred drugs to parenthood. Some of the moms and dads were in jail while others were just…gone.

The orphanage is privately owned, but the couple who started it is running out of savings. Only four of the twenty kids have sponsors.

It costs about $100 per month to sponsor one of the Rainbow House orphans. If you want to contribute to the orphanage, or just want to know more about it, here’s their website:

Friday, February 09, 2007

On to Krabi

Sunday January 21: This is the kind of day that makes me think that I need a keeper. My flights to southern Thailand were YESTERDAY. I don’t know how but my mind mysteriously transmuted Saturday into Sunday…a lot has been going on emotionally. The Walua house closed this week and that was very emotional. Bruce and I had a lot of hopes and dreams bound up in that house…

I got lucky. I went to a travel agent recommended by a new friend and she got me onto flights south later today and made sure that the hotel still had my room for me.

Tuesday: I hate this place. Maybe my subconscious mind knew I’d loathe it and didn’t want me to go, made me forget the Saturday flights. The resort is a total backwater, dull as the dusty dirt beneath my feet. It’s utterly generic, could be plunked down in Palm Desert, Cancun or Florida—or anywhere—and fit in perfectly. So what’s the point?

The room itself looks nice, but it smells like rat poison and sweaty socks. It’s probably one of the three worst rooms in the entire place, being on the edge of the resort with a crappy view of the adjoining property, which is under construction. As a single older woman traveling alone, I have become accustomed to getting crappy rooms, and I am not in a position to tell the staff that I know they have better rooms available…they do have a big convention on site. (I have occasionally demanded a better room when I know that they are available. And gotten it).

On top of that, this place is nowhere near Krabi town, not that Krabi is anything special. Unless one gets a shuttle, it’s a 500 baht ride to the beach. That’s about $13. I would have rather stayed at the beach. My brother recommended this place, and it’s the last time I take his travel advice, since we don’t share tastes. (When I talked with him after the fact, his response to my belief that the place could be anywhere was an enthusiastic YEAH! As though it was a good thing.)

The staff have minimal notions of service, and later I heard from others that southern Thais are snotty, unlike the sweet northerners in Chiang Mai. The hotel internet costs 100 baht for a half hour, about fivbe times what it costs everywhere else in Thailand, including in Krabi town. The ladies at the desk refused to make a deal for the week, unheard of conduct. The workout room is minimally equipped.

Krabi itself is hot and humid, which I expected. The resort grounds are lovely, but it’s really not enjoyable when at 5:30 p.m. one is chased indoors by the heat. It was hot out at 10 in the morning, too. It’s totally enervating.

I am trying to make the best of it but wish I were home in Chiang Mai, where living wouldn’t cost me $75 per day. Unfortunately it would cost me more to leave now than to stay and stick it out. But I resolved to get the most out of the southern Thai experience that I can. I booked excursions for the next two days, one to the islands and some snorkeling, and the other a kayaking trip through the mangrove forests.

Island hopping ‘til 2 p.m. left me whipped, but did engender an appreciation of the Andaman islands of Thailand. The ocean’s temperature is comfortable, and I saw corals and sea urchins I had never seen before, as well as a couple of white tubular sea creatures with dark spots curled on the ocean floor which I wondered were sea snakes. I decided not to get close and find out since every sea snake I have read about is extremely venomous.

The seascape itself is quite interesting, with huge limestone monoliths thrusting out of the ocean, their sides dripping with stalactites and clothed with forest. Makes one wonder what geological process created them.

Check out the photos above--there's one of me in a cave and another of an island.

The next day I took the kayaking excursion through the seashore caves and mangrove forests, which was great. I have terrific photos, including some of a monkey perched on a kayak drinking from a woman’s water bottle. I also met some lovely people, a couple from Vancouver Island who were hanging with a guy from Brazil…we had a lot of fun.

24 Jan 07

I had a cool and interesting dream. I was with an unmarried cousin of mine who lives in London, but we were in downtown Sacramento. I come upon her when she was being harassed—someone was trying to take one of her rings, and I got rid of him. We wanted to get home to my mom’s but didn’t have a car. We walked to a place where a freeway offramp spilled onto the street next to a supermarket, where I thought a lot of taxis would pass (in waking reality there are few taxis in Sacramento, though it was at Q or P, where there might be some taxis. Maybe. But in reality there isn’t a supermarket there).

Good idea? But there were a lot of other people there clamoring for taxis and there were none, except one on an adjoining street, and someone got that.

I took her over to the state capitol to get a streetcar north that would go to Northridge which, btw is a suburb of Los Angeles and nowhere near Sacramento. It was late, and we went into the trolley office to talk to the lady there and get change. Finally the streetcar came and we got on. She stayed on while I got off somewhere, don’t remember when, and walked, sort of following the track, but climbing around and through other things.

Finally got home. Mom drove around to find me, I remember her exclaiming, in her usual dramatic style, “Where have you been?”

Weird, huh????

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Back to Thailand

I had a free morning before checking out of the Angkor Star, so I did preliminary packing and then went on a balloon ascension.

On this trip, I have taken almost every conceivable type of transportation: car, motorcycle, tuk-tuk, elephant, boat, plane, and now, balloon. I wonder if I should round out the Cambodian experience by taking one of the cute horse-drawn carriages I’ve seen around Angkor, or perhaps ride a train back to Thailand.

It was a perfect morning for a balloon ascension. Sunny, light cool wind, clear air. I am wearing black denim capris with the cuffs rolled up above my knees, my pink Chicks Rule T-shirt and a black lightweight wraparound sweater. I have a hat and sunglasses in my zebra print satchel, and black Mary Jane style Sketcher flats with white sox on my feet.

A word about the hat. My trusty, washable Sunday Afternoons explorer hat with the wide brim and excellently long neckflap is filthy, so I have one of those hilarious bamboo and cloth hats, the ones that fold in on themselves like a fan. I first saw and fell in love with them, their campy faux Asian print patterns and general kitschy silliness. Mine is hot pink, gold and purple. It’s a sight to behold, as am I.

The balloon ascension was marvy, except for the photos…unfortunately I was shooting into the sun when taking pix of Angkor Wat. Angkor Thom wasn’t visible due to the mist of evaporation. After a few tries, I quit, took a shot of the baray and then just absorbed the wonderfulness of it all. (The baray, BTW is a huge artificial reservoir that waters the area…there are two or three in the area, and the west baray, which I face, was built in the eleventh century by Suryavarman I. It looks to be about five miles long and one across, and half full.

Back at the hotel, I found that I couldn’t pack everything including all my new clothes and gifts, so I opted for buying another backpack. Unbelievably, I don’t have one on this trip, so why not? Who cares if I have a gazillion at home? A person can always use a gazillion and one. Backpacks are like that.

After a half hour of invigorating shopping, I went back to the Angkor Star, packed, ate lunch and checked out. The experience was marred by finding bugs in my rice. Rice was replaced with apologies, but not, as I’d hoped, by a reduction in the bill. This place has no class. Then checkout was marred by the clerk’s retention of my credit card…I’ll admit I forgot to get it back. Very unlike me…must have been distracted by my new silver and carnelian bracelet. Or maybe it was the dead flies in the lunch.

The hotel called my tuk-tuk driver, and after several miscommunications, a bellboy net us at the airport with the missing card. Paranoid, I decided to check my credit card transactions online to make sure that no one had lifted my information.

Moved through ticketing, passport control and security at Siem Reap without incident and am not drinking a latte in the Café Ritazza. My croissant is everything it should be, warm and flaky, completely unlike the cold, lardy lumps offered by the Angkor Star…If one is going to consume carbs, they’d best be perfect, I say.

The view out the window is graceful, an oblong green pool bordered by rock and surrounded by lawns. It’s reminiscent of the baray reservoirs and other artificial ponds in the Angkor complex. Laughing baristas cluster at the next table; it’s a staff meeting. I mention that I used to work at Starbucks and we chuckle. Camaraderie among the hairnet and apron set.

The flight to Thailand was likewise without incident. As we flew toward Bangkok, the dusty land became progressively greener, more verdant, with more water in ponds and paddies flooding the land even though this is the dry season. Testimony to the King’s water management efforts. We flew along the Gulf of Thailand’s shore, hundreds of miles of white beaches interrupted by occasional mangrove forests.

We landed. We taxied. We disembarked into buses to take us to giant Suvarnabhumi terminal. On the bus, a group of us farang women chatted about Cambodia, Angkor, the kids, the sights…as we approached the terminal, we were greeted by giant yellow banners, with the symbol and image of King Bhumibol and the legend, LONG LIVE THE KING. Upon seeing them, I murmured, “It’s good to be back in Thailand.”

Next to me, another American woman said softly, “I missed the King.”

I said, “I did, too.” And I meant it

Thursday 11 January

I had a couple of very vivid dreams last night. The most interesting of them had me getting from an island to the shore with a lawnmower belonging to my parents. I climbed down a ladder to the water with the lawnmower clanking behind me. Down and down I went, until I was underwater with the heavy metal lawnmower dragging me down. I couldn’t stay afloat with it. I would drown unless I let it go. But wasn’t the lawnmower valuable? And it belonged to my parents. Shouldn’t I return it?

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Thursday, 4 Jan 2007: Cambodia

I have to make what we farangs call a visa run, i.e., leave the country for a few days. I have two 60 day tourist visas, which means I must leave Thailand between each 60 day stint. So I booked tickets for Siem Reap, Cambodia, the nearest town to the Angkor complex of temples.

Travel is less pleasant than usual due to the New Year’s bombings…several bombs were detonated in Bangkok in New Year’s eve, and apparently a mosque in Chiang Mai was also bombed, though no one mentioned it to me—I read one line about it in the Bangkok Post, an English language newspaper. But security greeted me, or rather us, at the Chaing Mai airport in the form of a line to get into the building, an unusual event. At the head of the line was a fatigue-clad soldier, and it was only after I had returned to my place in line after asking him if I was in the correct line for Nok Air did I notice that he was carrying a submachine gun. Eyes of an eagle—what can I say?

Despite the extra security, everything moved quickly, even though when one is standing in line, time seems to enter a bizarre Einsteinian other-dimension and slow down to a relativistic crawl.

People with ridiculous amounts of carry-on are lining up to get on the plane despite seat assignments. I checked my small bag because I brought my toiletries. With only four days in Cambodia, I did not want to waste my time shopping for Nivea, Dove and Colgate. So before I left, I lit incense to
the luggage divinities and hoped for the best.

As I stepped onto the plane I was greeted by a screaming child.They seem to be drawn to me like cats are drawn to allergy sufferers. It’s a gift.

We reach Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok a mere half-hour late. My bag pops off the plane promptly and I’m glad I lit the incense, because I then lose another half-hour by misdirection. I foolishly follow signs reading “International Departure” only to be told I have gone completely the wrong way. This is the reason I built a three-hour gap between flights. As Gilda Radner as Emily Litella said, “There’s always something.”

I get ticketed for the trip to Cambodia by Bangkok Air and am stickered with a pink plane. It looks nice on my yellow shirt with red hearts that says I love the King in Thai. I feel very local.

I’m eating again at the same airport café where I ate my first meal in Thailand. This time I’m having spaghetti with red sauce, a dish which the Thais do quite well.

Our plane hangs around the runway for quite a while and we arrive in Cambodia very late. The air is very warm and humid, and clouds of flying insects obscure the airport light standards. I wonder if my hotel has sent a driver for me.

My driver, Thy (pronounced T) finds me promptly and I have no idea how. As a farang woman it’s as though I wear a sign: I’M LOST. Thy’s main ambition is to get out of Cambodia. I don’t understand why, for in the next few days I discover that I really like Siem Reap. It’s not small, but not unmanageably large. It’s got all the mod cons but retains the charm that Chiang Mai has sacrificed to growth and Weternization.

The next day Thy drives me to the Angkor complex. First I buy a three day pass, and then we go along a road busy weith all kinds of vehicles from horse drawn carts, the ever present scooters, tuk-tuks and cars—the Cambodians seem to favor Toyota Camrys.

My first glimpse of historical Angkor is a wide waterway that looks like a river the width of the Sacramento as it winds through downtown. I ask Thy what river it is and he tells me it’s the moat.

The moat.

It’s the biggest, longest, widest moat I’ve ever seen or heard of. It’s 190 meters wide according to one guidebook, and it surrounds all of Angkor Wat, which means it’s 5.6 km long, and entirely dug by people who lived almost a millennium ago. Angkor Wat was built by the Khmer devaraja (god-king) Suryavarman II, who lived in the 1100s.

We turn left and drive along the moat and past the massive causeway that crosses the water into the temple itself, but Thy doesn’t stop, instead explaining that for photographs, the sun’s angles will be better for Angkor Wat in the afternoon.

So he takes me to Angkor Thom, which is at least as interesting if not more so. Angkor Thom is a city; people still live here and pray in its temples as they have since the reign of devaraja Jayavarman VII, its principal builder, who lived a few decades after Suryavarman.

But it is a city like no other. People don’t live in the stone monuments but in palapas within its walls, which is surrounded by a dry moat longer than the one surrounding Angkor Wat. Stone structures are for gods and kings, not for people.

Thy dropped me off at the south gate, which is the best-preserved one. On each side of the bridge over the moat are seven-headed naga serpents supported on one side by perhaps a score of devis—angels—and on the other by asuras, demons. The gate itself, which is layered, basically, and about 20 feet thick, is topped by a four-sided tower decorated on each side by a face, said to be a Lokeshvara but to resemble Jayavarman VII. The bridge and the gate-tower is a symbolic representation of the Churning of the Sea of Milk to Produce the Elixir of Immortality, one of the seminal creation myths in southeast Asian mythology. There is a gorgeous modern representation of this myth in, of all places, Suvarnabhumi Airport.

The next structure is the Bayon, a temple with four towers cornering the walls, four more in the center of each wall, which enclose a structure with—get this—29 more towers. It has three levels, but alas, one can’t climb into or onto the towers.

The structure and the towers are a symbolic representation of Mount Meru,m a mythical holy mountain in Hindu mythology, where the gods reside. The Bayon’s walls and towers are lavishly decorated with thousands of bas-relief carvings—one guidebook says more than 11,000. Some are of Khmer daily life during the reign of Jayavarman VII. Many are dancing apsaras, my favorite, who hold hands as they caper. Most are the image of—you guessed it—Jayavarman VII as the Avilokiteshvara, one of Buddha’s avatars. This is a little mystifying since Jayavarman was a Hindu and one of his projects was destroying images of the Buddha; there are temples with scores of empty niches where Buddhas formerly sat.

I think that what the statues are said to be depends upon the guidebook one reads. They are moon-faced and smiling, amazing art, and if you want to see examples, check out my site, or just google “Angkor.”

There are hordes of tourists, as many as were in line to see the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City, but, fortunately spread out over much more area.

In the Baphuon it occurs to me that historical architectural restoration must be a hugh international business. Everywhere I have been, there’s scaffolding and restoration. Everywhere except the United States, though, where people would rather tear down beautiful old buildings and put up strip malls.

The Baphuon, another symbolic representation of Mount Meru, is a three tiered pyramid of sandstone build over a sand embankment (no wonder it fell down!). The French started to remedy its inherent instability early in the 20th century but were interrupted by the Khmer Rouge, leaving chunks of the temple scattered through acres of forest.

At the Baphuon I met the most fabulous woman. London, a photographer, is staying at a guest house in Siem Reap for the next few days. We pal around for the next few hours, chatting and taking photos while we walk along the the Elephant Terrace and the Terrace of the Leper King, then check out smaller temples across the street. She’s from Colorado, is in her late thirties but looks about 28 and has an explorative, fearless approach to life. I guess if one is a freelance journalist and photographer, one has to be explorative and fearless.

Lunch was great—Thy showed me to a restaurant where I ordered curry served in a coconut with rice. The food was great and the presentation even better.

Then I walked across the dusty street to Angkor Wat. Despite a long rest at lunch, I was already exhausted from the long walk around Angkor Thom, the heat, the dust, the crowds, and the unrelenting attention of the kids hawking everything from postcards to silk shawls to guidebooks to water…they’re so pushy that one is forced to be rude. I started handing out Cambodian rials just to get them to leave me alone.

After I spent a couple of hours in Angkor Wat, mostly in the shade of the colonnades looking at the elaborate carved friezes. My favorite was an incredible representation of the Churning of the Sea of Milk.

I wasn’t supposed to meet Thy for another hour or two, so I went shopping.

I have come to realize that I am always shopping, strange for a woman who is a minimalist at heart. I mean, when I left California, I gave away closets full of clothing.

But wherever I go, there always seems to be something I need or, less rationally, an item that clamors to be bought. Southeast Asia is full of gorgeous, inexpensive clothes that fairly clamor to become part of my wardrobe, regardless of how stupidly exotic the outfits will look when I get home to the States.

The excuse I usually use, and that is working well in Angkor, is that I packed the wrong stuff. Touring the temples of Angkor is a humid, dusty undertaking, one that I have already discovered leaves body and clothinbg coated in a sticky film of sweat and dirt thickened by sunscreen and insect repellent. The best clothing for major sightseeing under these conditions is a loose dress and a minimum of lingerie. No bra, unless you have an insane desire for perky breasts as you struggle up the main tower of Angkor Wat. Given that I am middle-aged and sexually invisible in southeast Asia, I don’t worry about the presentation of my breasts and am solely fixated on comfort.

So when I set forth at 9 a.m., I wore the only loose dress I own, a dropped waist black and pink flower print in cotton sheeting with buttons up the front. Really, it’s less appalling than it sounds, even though my late brother once told me that the print was like his downstairs bathroom wallpaper. When I told himn that his wife picked out the dress, he stated that she’d also picked out the wallpaper. The pluses of this dress are that the print conceals my lack of underthings while the calf-length skirt and cap sleeves make it appropriate for touring temples and shrines. I’m really quite presentable.

But—and here’s the reason for the Angkor shopping—I came with only the one dress. Just one. Everything else I have with me requires some sort of over-the-shoulder boulder holder, and although I have a comfortable bra, it would be filthy with sweat after one morning of Angkor. So obviously I had to shop.

I was looking for loose dresses like the one I wore and didn’t see anything that would fit. Being a Westerner, and much bigger and taller than the average Asian woman, few garments were designed for me. I ended up with a pair of pants for a mere $5 in shades of purple which I figured I could top with a loose Mandarin style shirt I bought as well as a T-shirt. Not stylish—I hate not looking stylish, even if the style is unconventional—but practical. It would do.

I also bought a two piece skirted outfit in shades of green, and about ten silk shawls in different colors and patterns, with the excuse that I’d give most of them away as gifts. Well, some of them, at least. I wore the green outfit and a cream colored shawl embroidered with little flowers the next evening when I went out to dinner with London.

On Saturday, my second day at Angkor, I started early and arrived at Angkor Wat at about 8 a.m. planning to give it another go-around. This time I wanted to climb the central and tallest tower, but to my disappointment learned that it can’t be done. It’s just not designed that way. But I climbed up as high as I could, and was awed by the monumentality and beauty of this place. I left by the less-traveled but more picturesque eastern gate, encountering cattle grazing peacefully outside the walls. I walked back to the causeway along the north side of the Wat toward the lily pond, planning to take photos of its flower strewn surface. I encountered monkeys along the way and bought yet another guidebook from yet another really cute Cambodian kid.

I then misread my watch, mistaking ten for eleven, and decided it was time for lunch, after which I bought yet more silk scarves and went to Ta Prohm, a temple famed as a film set for Indiana Jones and Tomb Raider. The focus at Ta Prohm is to preserve it in the condition it was discovered in late in the 19th century, a pretty problem since it is overgrown with tree roots and it is impossible to just stop nature in its tracks.

The next day, I gathered my energy and visited Angkor Thom again, riding an elephant from the south gate to the Bayon, then walking the Terraces of the Elephants and Leper King. I visited the lesser temples of Pra Khan and Neak Pean in the afternoon. Both were built by—yep! Jayavarman VII, the first as a university and the second as his residence. With a central stele surrounded by artificial ponds, now dry, it must have been lovely.

There is nothing like poverty to foster an attitude of gratitude. On Monday London and I took a tuk-tuk to Tonle Sap, which in the rainy season is southeast Asia’s largest lake. There are communities on the shore and floating on its waters. When we arrive, we rented a boat to take us along its shores and estuaries to see the floating villages.

There’s trash everywhere, and I wonder how poor these folks really are. I have heard that truly poor communities are immaculate, for a use can be found for every scrap. Even bits of plastic bags can be used for insulation. And nowhere in southeast Asia have I seen big-bellied babies with flies buzzing around their mouths. Everyone seems relatively clean, dressed however shabbily, and well-fed.

Still, I am grateful for what I have, for my excellent health and the choices I have always viewed as my birthright.

Tonight I went to Dead Fish Tower, a restaurant/guesthouse that aspires to be the hip place for foreigners to go to in Siem Reap and Phuket. Probably just a matter of time before there’s branches in Bali, Singapore and the next block, just like there’s a 7-11 on each block in Chiang Mai.

I chose to go there because they advertise traditional Khmer dance performances, so I arrived at 6:40, twenty minutes before a performance was supposed to take place. I was shown to a table with a good view of the stage, ordered a Bombay gin and tonic, then looked around the place.

It was the height of 80s Polynesian chic. Lots of wood, neon palm trees and even a disco ball. Greg Kihn and Cheap Trick playing. The heavy wooden chairs weren’t particularly comfortable, but the drinks were cold and the server refreshingly direct about the menu options. She warned me away from the green curry and toward the chicken.

She was right. The soupy curry, which benefited from the addition of a little chili, boasted tender chunks of chicken and eggplant, with keffir lime leaves and lemongrass for flavor. There were a few pea-like legumes I wasn’t sure I liked.

Eating leisurely, I finished at about seven, ordered another gin and tonic in lieu of dessert, and waited for the alleged Khmer dance performance. At 7:15 a pretty girl in purple wrap pants, a white top and a lot of makeup showed up and sat cross-legged on the high platform that served as a stage. A patter of applause greeted her. Recorded Khmer music came on, and she bent her fingers back into an improbable but graceful curve, then caressed the coconut shell she held in her other hand.

A young man stepped onto the stage. He held two coconut halves and was dressed in blue garb I assumed was also Khmer. He didn’t appear disinterested, exactly, but as though he’d feel more at home in front of a computer playing Halo 4.

Another coconut half appeared in the girl’s free hand, and the two began to turn and tap them together, producing a clopping noise that reminded me of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I hid my giggles by sipping the dregs of the G and T. If the disco ball had started to revolve, I don’t know if I could have handled it.

The entire performance lasted ten minutes. I then wandered back to my hotel, tipsy and happy. When I got back, the Cambodian doorman opened the door for me and asked me how I was doing. I said OK, then asked him how his evening was going. He said “awesome.”

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Doi Suthep

The other day, my friend Brett took me up to the top of a mountain overlooking Chiang Mai, where on a clear day one can see a spire glittering golden atop the hill. This is Doi Suthep, one of the oldest shrines in Thailand. It was built in about 1373, as we reckon time (The Thais count from the birth of the Buddha, 2550 years ago).

This was a fascinating place…if you want the photos, email me. To describe it: we went on his scooter up a twisting, two lane road to the top of the hill. We left early enough so there was little traffic, just the occasional tour bus or one of the red trucks the locals call song-taos, that are fitted inside with thinly padded bench seats running up the length of the truck. Strangely enough, the top of the hill was crowded. Booths selling everything from jade Buddhas to food to clothing line the road to the temple. They jam the square in front of the stairs leading to the shrines topping the hill, and once we struggled up the many steps, found that there were even more stalls, many selling flowers and incense as well. I couldn’t help being reminded of Christ and the moneychangers in the temple.

But the shrine itself is marvelous. Two enormous nagas—water dragons which live in the rivers—line the stairs. They are gorgeous, finely modeled in ceramic, each scale perfectly shaped and glazed in bright green, with fierce teeth that really feel sharp to the touch.

The temple complex at the top of the stairs consists of several small buildings, some enclosed, some like gazebos. Leafy trees, palms and bougainvillea festoon everything. Sculptured mythic animals abound along with Buddhas, most gold-leafed, tucked into niches.

At the top we remove our shoes and buy incense, flowers and candles before lighting the candles and the incense in front of the shrine. The shrine, which looks like it’s three stories high and leafed in gold, is enclosed by a fence on which tiny bells hang. The bells are inscribed with people’s names, and as we walk three times around the spire, we brush each one with our hands, a prayer for the person whose name is written on the bell, leaving a graceful tinkling music in our wake.

We enter another shrine, kneeling, make an offering. A monk prays over us, shaking some unknown liquid on us…I hope it’s water. Then a string is tied around the right wrist, also an act which is supposed to be auspicious, as is ringing the gong in the tiny museum.

There should be a view of Chiang Mai., below, but the inversion layer shrouds the city. When I arrived I had been misinformed that there were but a quarter of a million people in the city, but that’s wrong. There are at least 2 million in greater Chiang Mai, and with the loose enforcement of the environmental laws, the air is not clean, leaving streaks of dark soot on the stucco buildings. Thailand is a fascinating mixture of the pure and the profane, the free and the trammeled. The word Thai means free, yet, since the September coup d’etat, the country has been under martial law. On the other hand—this place has more “other hands” than a Shiva Nataraja—the soldiers are unobtrusive, smiling and helpful when encountered, which is rarely. The air is dirty and the tapwater clean; the canals and rivers appearing to be so filthy that I always order sea fish not river fish when given a choice.

This is a remarkably interesting place and I am very glad to be here.