Otherwise officially known as the Nai Lert Park Bangkok International Flower Show, is held annually at the five-star Swissotel Hotel. In its 28th year in 2014, its proceeds go to charitable educational, mental illness cure and children development causes, with recent years’ funds approaching THB 5.0 million ($ 155,000 USD) for the 4-day event.

“Enormous” is not used here to describe the number of floral items as it is used to literally say each floral display or arrangement is simply humongous and impressive.

At the show, take time and concentration to admire each piece. See how meticulously and painstakingly the flower designers and arrangers have created and put together their work. Like putting yourself in a giant garden, full of colorful flowers in various shapes and forms, you get the feeling of being in another world, one filled with fragrance, beauty and grand design.
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Driving on Wireless Road in Bangkok, one can’t miss the hug sign announcing the event. At the turnoff to the hotel, a guard stationed at the security post stops visitors, vehicles and pedestrians alike, for a quick visual check and maybe a few questions. Then it’s about a quarter mile (400 meters) drive from which one gets the sense of entering a garden resort. Trees and flowers line the road, and statutes along the way beckon a welcome feeling. One can hear, but not see, soft waterfall sounds coming from some distant spot.
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The lobby is expansive. Head to the right of it for check in. Head to the left for the flower show. Or before all that, just take your time and enjoy a couple of tropical cocktails at the bar straight ahead while listening to the two performers, accompanied by a pianist, singing past and present favorites.

At the entrance of the flower show, giant floral birds, bees, rabbits greet visitors. They even have a big pot (of Thai tea?) waiting for guests as well. And the eggs seem to have been freshly laid.
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Inside the show, among many others, are five goldfish that most homes would not be big enough to keep, a big red high heel shoe filled with flowers that any girl would envy to own, a reclining mermaid that many a young man would dream about meeting, and a tall flower vase that if filled would break most men’s bank account. An extremely wonderful show, not even counting the events that are part of it: auction of fine paintings, a dining experience given by a world-class chef, and afternoon tea. Rounding it out, to statisfy your gastronomical appetite after fulfilling aesthetic tastes from the show, do the lunch buffet at Swissotel’s ISO Restaurant, whose tall-ceilinged dining room with huge windows overlooking a lush garden area extend and add to the idyllic feeling from the show experience.
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For more information: http://www.tourismthailand.org/See-and-Do/Events-and-Festivals/Nai-Lert-Park-Bangkok-International-Flower-Show–5712, http://www.swissotel.com/hotels/bangkok-nai-lert-park

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“Just how far outside of the box are you thinking?” My husband’s concern was mounting when I announced that Laos should be the destination to celebrate our 10th anniversary. We had agreed that we wanted to visit a country that was off the beaten tourist path, and a couple of Australians that we had met while traveling convinced us that Laos was truly “magical.” “It’s like Thailand 30 years ago.” We’d never been to Thailand, but pictures of the temples and landscape piqued our interest. So I read the few guidebooks available and studied the internet. Not a whole lot out there…that should have been a clue…

Jeff, as usual, said “you arrange the details, I’ll get the time off work.” Not one to examine the itineraries I so carefully put together, he seemed to like the element of surprise. Jeff and I are not package tourists. We stay in budget accommodations, with some stipulations. I want my own toilet, one that allows me to take my sweet time without exposing me to Charlie horses or worn out knees from squatting over a hole in the ground. We want a shower, too, at least every couple of days, with warm water, please.

For this trip we agreed to temporarily redefine our comfort zone, knowing there simply were no such accommodations available for our village stays in Laos. Our method of transportation would mainly be by kayak. We would be sharing quarters with our local guide, with the outhouses located a fair distance from the living quarters. We were prepared to bathe in the rivers, as the locals did. (I even purchased a really cute sarong for modesty’s sake.)

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After countless tweaks to my itinerary, we finally arrived in Laos. We had taken the overnight train from Bangkok to the Lao border, walked across the Friendship Bridge connecting the two countries, and boarded a ‘tuk tuk’ into the capitol city of Vientiane. “Tuk tuk. That’s quaint, I wonder how they got that name?” The minute we climbed aboard, our driver started up its 2-stroke engine. Tuk tuk tuk… we easily maneuvered through the busy street in our brightly painted yellow and blue motorized tricycle.

At the tourism office, we hired a local guide to take us down-river to several villages. We were introduced to a short, stocky twenty-year-old, dressed in camouflage pants and a faded black AC/DC t-shirt. Proud of his high school education and military training, Pon took his job as a guide seriously. “My name is Pon, but you call me Porn Star. I am know my country very good. I chow you everything.” As we learned more about our eager leader, including his mandatory two years spent as a Buddhist monk-in-training, we realized that another tourist had dubbed him Porn Star as a joke, and Pon had no clue as to the meaning of his moniker. We convinced him that Pon was an easier name to pronounce and agreed to meet him first thing next morning.

At sun up, our Laotian alarm sounded. “I am here for take you to river-we have tea then go for boat!” Pon’s enthusiasm was catching, and after gulping some hot tea and a biscuit, we hopped into the tuk-tuk and chugged along the potholed road to the river’s edge, where we boarded our kayaks and set off.

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The main mode of long distance transportation in Laos has always been by river, and given the choice between the national airline, whose aging fleet of 17 Russian and Chinese-made planes had been declared unsafe by most foreign embassies, and complaining about a wet ass for a couple of hours, we chose the latter.

Cramped legs and sore butts aside, travel by kayak definitely afforded us the opportunity to not only see, but also to hear this magnificent country. Exotic birds and numerous species of monkeys screeched at us from the trees above. Along the way, we passed locals standing in the river washing clothes or bathing. We were greeted with a smile and wave, the children often chasing our brightly colored plastic boats, so unlike their wooden dugouts, along the banks of the river. The scenes reminded me of my hometown in rural Appalachia, where the shacks and trailers of the underclass were perched precariously beside the river, seemingly waiting for the next flood to wash their homes and belongings away forever, where outsiders were greeted more often with suspicion than a warm smile and wave.

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On our first night in the village, we were invited to play a common drinking game with eight of the local men. The “winner” of the game took a drink from the communal jug of rice wine. I was immediately intrigued by this game, reminiscent of my high school days, though I was now over forty and the youngest of this oddly assorted bunch of men. I was also the only female taking part, and from the whispers and sideways looks, I imagined that few blonde-haired southern girls shared in this ritual.

Rice wine is made by fermenting raw rice husks in a big clay jug that is buried under ground for several weeks. When it’s good and ripe, the jug is unearthed, the seal broken, and the wine is tested. The jug then gets passed around for the group to sample (I suppose that this is to make sure no one goes blind or dies immediately ). It tastes nothing like the wine that we drink, and in fact burned my throat like the pure moonshine that was once commonly stilled in my home state of Kentucky.3d67269d0

I was the first to take a drink. (I still believe the game was rigged). The straw was pushed in my direction. The others ooohhed and aaahhed, talking among themselves in their guttural Laotian language, then, as I drank, an eerie hush fell over our audience. I had vivid flashbacks of the Russian roulette scenes in “The Deer Hunter”, wondering if I would ever get out of the Laotian jungles alive. Finishing my drink, my audience clapped and gave me many toothless smiles, as if to tell me that indeed, we were welcome here.

The Laotian people were very accommodating. If they perceived that we wanted something, they always tried to furnish it. When Pon saw me searching around for my toothbrush, he immediately fetched the communal one that hung from a nail on the wall of our hut. “OK, ok, we have toothbrush here for you.” I was relieved that Jeff found his so quickly, since it was considered rude for a guest not to accept something offered her.

Eating in the villages was a new experience. Eating with our hands was not only acceptable, it was required. No utensils, napkins or individual plates were used. We just balled up our sticky rice (the primary food in these Asian cultures), reached over our neighbor, and dunked it in whatever we wanted. “Whatever” was anything from young bamboo soup to yesterday’s scrambled eggs, fish (head intact) or other unrecognizable staples of the local diet. Leftovers were then bagged up for the next meal. No refrigeration meant premature ripening, leading to smells associated with our Dempsey-dumpster the day before trash pickup. By the third day I was relying heavily on bananas and bamboo shoots for nutrition.

One night in the village, we were given a choice between duck or chicken. “Oh, duck, definitely! What a nice change!” Only then did we understand that our meal was being chased around the yard, quacking vociferously, on its way to becoming dinner. It was fresh and delicious, and made an appetizing soup for the next day, as well.

As we headed downriver in our kayaks a couple of days into our adventure, rain began to fall in a steady downpour. My initial reaction was to dig in my pack for my poncho, but feeling the clear, cool water rolling down my face and dripping from the ends of my hair, I leaned back and enjoyed the shower. My intention had originally been to bathe in the rivers, but after my first foray to the water’s edge, tie-dyed sarong and biodegradable soap in hand, I was put-off by the cappuccino-colored currents flowing briskly past.

The tranquility of the rain was abruptly interrupted by several thunderous explosions, followed by mushroom-shaped blasts of water exiting the river in front of us. Jeff and I ducked low in our kayaks for cover. Those imaginary visions of war came rushing back, and I was sure we’d be taken prisoner in the surrounding jungle. “Blast-fishing with dynamite,” explained Pon. “Probably Burmese people, it’s illegal here.” I spent the rest of the day wide-eyed and on edge.

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Pon arranged for us to go on a Laotian BBQ with two of his friends and their girlfriends. Our first stop was a colorful market where we picked up fresh lettuce, rice, and a variety of local produce. The crowded stalls were filled with fresh vegetables and fruits that comprised every color in the rainbow, and the sounds of vendors hawking their goods, which often quacked or oinked, permeated the stalls lining the dusty lanes.

Next, the six of us boarded a small, flat-bottomed motorboat and motored out on a huge lake toward an island about an hour away. Jeff and I took a long walk around the island and went for a swim. This was as clean as I had felt in nearly a week. After drying off, I helped the girls prepare a salad from our bounty of vegetables. Realizing we had no fresh water to wash them, I voiced my concern. “No problem, lake is good!” I caught Jeff’s eye to remind him of the safety precautions that we had read– Never eat the salad (we did), make sure all meat is fully cooked (it wasn’t), wash your hands before every meal (no one did). “Guess I’ll be eating bananas again” I whined. “None left” Jeff quickly pointed out. And the fresh-caught fish (undercooked as it was) smelled so good. “Oh, well, when in Rome…” I reasoned. We knew that we were tempting the gastro-gods to punish us. And punish us they did. By bedtime we were both questioning our wisdom at having thrown caution to the wind. At 2:00am, I was in a desperate search for the headlamp to find my way to the outhouse.

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Going to the bathroom in Laos was an adventure in itself. Toilet paper was not used, at least not in the villages we visited. Instead, a bucket of water was placed inside the outhouse. In the bucket was a scooper used to wash yourself (left hand ONLY). The physical structure of the outhouse did not lend itself to the privacy we are used to at home. The walls were built about two feet from the ground, and anyone standing taller than five feet had a clear view of their surroundings.

The morning following our BBQ, while in the outhouse for what seemed like the tenth time, I was shocked to see several little heads pop under the door and walls, no doubt questioning my frequent visits. Desperately craving some privacy, I bared my teeth and snarled at them like a rabid dog. “GRRRRRRR!!!” With deer-in-the-headlight eyes, some banging their disheveled little heads on the walls of the privy, they scattered like mice, running to report the movements of the “yellow-haired one” to their elders.

Bedtime in the villages came early, as there was generally no electricity, and the Laotians lived according to the sun and moon. They always cleared a space for us, had floor mats laid out all in a row (me, Jeff, and Pon) with a big mosquito net hanging from the palm-thatched ceiling. Thank God Jeff had the foresight to bring a hefty stash of sleeping pills! “When we get home, IF we get home, I am going to have to kill you,” Jeff half-joked several times during our trip. Despite his keen sense of adventure, I knew that this trip had genuinely challenged him. “Next time, you may want to read my itinerary a little more closely” I’d retort sarcastically. I would never admit that I, too, had been tested by this experience.

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Back home in Atlanta, in our cushy environs complete with interstates and Super Wal-Mart, we had plenty of time to reflect on our trip while examining the digital photos we had processed in just under an hour. “Wow-remember that market—it was so colorful!” “The kids all thought your digital camera was magic!” The more we reflected, the fonder our memories became, and the funnier our once “harrowing” experiences seemed.

Joining some friends at happy hour several months later, the subject turned to travel. “We’re looking for somewhere unique to go. Can you suggest someplace that you enjoyed?” asked Terri, my cousins wife, who never ventured anywhere without her hairdryer or travel iron. Jeff and I looked at each other and smiled. “Laos”.
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Julie Fredrick jnjfredrick@gmail.com worked as an adventure travel consultant and tour escort throughout Latin America for several years, before deciding to make her own adventures to share with her husband.” I believe the closer you come to the edge, the better the adventure, and certainly the more entertaining the story. At least a few of my adventures have brought me in close contact with law enforcement or personal danger, but I like to think that the difference between an adventure and an ordeal is attitude. When I am not planning our next big adventure, I serve as the European Travel Editor for Bellaonline.com and freelance for fiftyshift.com.
I live in Atlanta with my husband and 3 rescued dogs.”

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Friends have said to us, “You are going to Thailand – again?” We reply, “We have been there a dozen times and there is always something wonderful to do.” This trip was no exception.
Any reason is a good reason to visit Bangkok. My husband and I are frequent travelers in Asia and we make sure that Bangkok is on the itinerary. Some of our trips are long – some are as long as three months. During our three-month trips, John and I plan mini-vacations – our R&R time. On our most recent Asian trip we decided to treat ourselves to a stay at one of the world’s most famous hotels, The Peninsula Bangkok. We walked taller when we exited the new Bangkok airport and saw the sign for the Peninsula and knew it is for us. Nothing so plebian as the guest’s name on the sign board! A slight nod and the tuxedo-clan sign holder quietly acknowledged, “Mr. and Mrs. Scott. Welcome to Bangkok. Your car is waiting.” Shortly the black Mercedes pulls up. “Here is a chilled bottle of water and today’s paper. Relax and enjoy the 40-minute ride.” And we do. My husband whispers, “Let the relaxation begin!” It is like returning to an old friend as we marvel at things that are uniquely Bangkok – the mystical figures gracing the flower-clad roadway, the bright pink taxis, the Chao Phraya River, and other familiar sights.

We barely noticed the call the driver made alerting the staff of our arrival assuring that they were out front to greet us. Everyone needs to feel special and important – and at the Peninsula Hotels everyone does. The award-wining hotel is so tech sophisticated that there are buttons for everything from closing the drapes to dimming the lights. The bathtub has a built-in TV and a valet button. I wonder, “Why does one call for the valet when in the bathtub?” There is a small box near the closet that can be accessed from the hall. Shoes placed in the box at night are returned shined in the morning. When the red light is on it means the box contains a message or the newspaper. Very cool!

Besides being an amazing hotel the Peninsula has the three most important aspects of any property – location, location, location. The hotel is located on one of our favorite rivers, the Chao Phraya. All the Peninsula rooms have a river view. Watching the Chao Phraya is as mesmerizing as watching a campfire. It is a vital river with tiny tugboats pulling barges up and down the river. Long-tail boats zip along reminding us of a James Bond movie. Ferryboat attendants whistle their arrival at a dock. Thai-style boats from the Oriental and Peninsula Hotels crisscross the river. In the evening the lights of the city are reflected in the river, plus the brightly-lit dinner boats add a festive look. We started each day with a long leisurely breakfast at the water’s edge and ended the day lounging in a sala by the pool with the river always in view.
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We have transited through Bangkok many times, and there is always something to do. This time there were many colorful signs wishing the Thai monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej a happy 80th birthday, so we felt a visit to the Grand Palace was appropriate. He has been king for 61 years making him the world’s longest serving monarch. He is much loved by his people for creating royal projects including tree-planting programs to protect the environment long before it was popular to do so.

The expansive grounds of the Grand Palace are awash with golden temples and glittering mosaics. The most revered temple in Thailand is the one that houses the Emerald Buddha. The small Buddha is actually made of jade and has a fascinating history of being captured and recovered, then lost and found. According to reliable chronicles, lightning struck a chedi in Chiang Rai, Northern Thailand, in 1434 chipping the stucco off the Buddha image. The abbot of the temple noticed a green color showing through. He removed the stucco covering and found the Emerald Buddha. And that is only part of the amazing story of the Buddha. The last time it returned to Bangkok was when a rainstorm washed away the plaster that had kept it hidden for a century.

We have so much to learn about other countries’ religions and cultures. I am always embarrassed by our ignorance of Thai culture and the Buddhist religion. We try to learn a little more each time we visit. Within the palace grounds are scenes from Ramakian, the Thai version of the Hindu epic, Ramayana. The scenes depict the Thai creation story. I liken our learning to the beautiful and intricate mosaics that decorate the buildings and statues. Each time we visit Bangkok we learn a few more pieces of their colorful history. Maybe someday we will have the whole picture. Regardless, I appreciate the beauty and intricacy of the temples and find the impressive statues of the mythical guardians especially intriguing.
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One of my favorite places in Bangkok is the Wat Pho, Temple of the Reclining Buddha. Each visit reveals a new level of understanding. We always marvel at the size of the reclining Buddha, which is 151 feet long and 49 feet high. “And to think it isn’t even the largest in Thailand!” I tell John, but he is busy getting change so he can make his merit offerings in the 108 bronze bowls. On this trip I was surprised to learn that Wat Pho is considered Thailand’s first public university. The murals spread throughout the temple complex explain a wide variety of topics from geography to science to religion. It is famed as the birthplace of Thai Massage.

“Welcome back, Mr. and Mrs. Scott.” How do they do that? How can the Peninsula staff remember everyone’s name? One of the staff asked, “Have you seen our new spa? It is only one year old and quite beautiful.” A Thai massage seemed like just the thing after visiting the birthplace of Thai massage. There are spas and there are spas but there is only one Peninsula Bangkok ESPA. It was like entering another dimension. The music whispered, and the candles flickered as we were shown to our private salon with a Jacuzzi, steam bath, reclining lounges, and herbal tea. After tea and enjoying the Jacuzzi, our therapists arrived and we relaxed totally. As if we were not relaxed enough, after the treatment, we went to the relaxation room, put on headphones, listened to the music, gazed out over the pool to the river, and watched nighttime arrive.

At dinner in the Thai-style Thiptara Restaurant, we listened to traditional Thai music and enjoyed the river scene. I savored the Thai spicy soup with prawns and lemon grass while John delved into the green mango salad with grilled prawns. “I wish we could stay forever.” John reminded me, “If we don’t go we can’t come back.” Hum, I guess that makes sense.
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We drove about one hour from Bangkok to the ancient capital of Ayutthaya and boarded a rice boat on the Chao Phraya River. Boats are no longer used to transport rice, so some of the teak boats have been converted into restaurants and a few into houseboats. Our boat could accommodate 12 passengers; however, we were lucky because there were two other guests along with our two guides, a cook, and the boat’s pilot. Interestingly, the other couple only lived 200 miles from us.

We traveled the river for two days and one night stopping along the way to visit small villages sometimes by bicycles, which are provided, sometimes by walking. We slept in the lower portion of the boat where the sleeping area was divided by curtains. There were two bathrooms and one shower. The main deck had ample sitting area and a small upper deck had a few chairs.

Many people still grow rice, but during the time when they are not busy in the fields some families have created small businesses to make extra money. Everyone in the family works together. We visited families that make bricks, drums, incense sticks, and charcoal. Especially interesting was learning how they grow mushrooms. They are so successful that expansion is planned. Regardless of the product, each process was so much more complicated than we thought. Mainly the families make things that can be used by people in their community.
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Buddhism is the main religion in Thailand and our houseboat usually tied up by a Buddhist temple, which is the center of the community. Buddhist monks live a very simple life without any personal belongings so the people of the community give them what they need including food. One morning we got up before the sun and with food our cook had prepared waited for the monks to walk by so we could give them the food. The monks in Thailand wear saffron colored robes, sandals, and shave their heads. We had a bowl with rice, and the cook had put a soup-like mixture that contained chicken and vegetables in small plastic bags. In a show of respect for the monks we took off our shoes, bowed our head, then divided the food between the four monks. After the food was distributed the monks thanked us by chanting a blessing and went on their way. Buddhists believe that if you do good then good will come back to you. If you do bad, then bad will come back to you.

One day we visited an orphanage with 1400 children. It was dinner time so one group at a time chanted a prayer of thanks and then got in line for their dinner of rice and a mixture of vegetables. We saw many boy scouts helping to distribute the food. We also visited a school. The children were so excited to see us. They all wanted to have their picture taken with us. Before we entered the classroom we took off our shoes. Thai people do not usually wear their shoes inside their homes, temples, or schools. Surprisingly the students knew how to say many words in English, including how to count.

When our houseboat was traveling down the river toward Bangkok, we relaxed, waved to people on the shore, and watched the activity along the river. People were fishing, watering their crops, and just relaxing by the river. The barges were especially interesting because families live on little houses on the barges. They were cooking meals, doing laundry and other daily chores. We saw the barges being loaded with sand. Now we know where the barges come from. It was an amazing trip that was over way too soon.
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Thai food is popular the world over, so we decided a cooking lesson was in order. Just mention the name “Yingsak” and everyone breaks into smiles. Flamboyant Chef Yingsak is the most popular chef in Thailand with his own TV show and cooking school. My husband and I joined one of his classes for the morning. We were given a booklet with the recipes for the items we were going to make then watched a video on how to prepare them: Miang Kwuay Tiao (rice noodle packets), Kaeng Keow Wan Sai Kok (green curry with sausage) and Kaeng Liang Pak Ruam (clear spicy soup with vegetables). Chef Hoon went over the instructions verbally adding more tips. Luckily there were students with an excellent command of the English language to help us when we needed translations. Then we all went to the kitchen where working as a team we helped to prepared various parts of the food – chopping, slicing, stir frying, and so on. It was an incredibly smooth team effort that ended with tasting everything.

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I left the USA from Fort Myers,Florida at an unearthly time of day-9.30 in tthe morning-ok maybe its not an unearthly time for all of you out there, but what I had to face was a daunting., 23 hours of flying to Southeast Asia., Another world, somewhere mystical, I thought, reminiscing of my journey to Bangkok some 20 years ago. I knew it has a peaceful but hurried pace of life and was somewhere I thought would be a good starting point for my journey all around Asia.

I got to Detroit after a trouble-free flight from Florida, now thinking this is going to be easy. The North West airlines ogre at the counter harassed the woman in front of me for having too much luggage and in a surly way announced, “Well that’s your problem, Ma’am …pay the extra $25 or go get yourself an extra bag.” At which point she announced she only had four years till her retirement and she was not going to get reported for being rude and jeopardise that retirement!!!

Next came the TSA…a thankless job. I put down my tiny rucksack fitted with chains and padlocks to keep prying hands at bay when I put it down anywhere. Praying they were not going to make me unlock everything really did not do any good. I guess there was a line in the prayer department that morning as locks came off and investigative hands probed everything and asked far too many mundane questions.

With that done I was off to the Land of the Rising Sun. After sitting there for 13 hours my legs had all but gone to sleep, and now I know how it feels to have no legs, except, of course, for all the pain which resonated down my legs and the numbness of my right foot. The hours passed slowly as I looked at row after row of Asian faces all in the upright, fast asleep pose. Don’t Asians snore, I thought, perusing the assembled legions of faces… mmm, I guess not…Japan must be a quiet place at night, I thought to myself with a chuckle.

After eating my third meal of the day on NW Airlines, (mmm, gourmet it is not… and all on plastic trays, in fact plastic food on plastic trays!), I pondered what my insides were looking like right now?? We came in to land at Narita in Japan. What time it was and what day it was, I was uncertain. But just being able to move was a joy!

How different, I thought,Japan is such a breath of fresh air compared to the USA. The airport staff were so courteous, from the baggage handlers to everyone else who worked there. It was all orderly and clean beyond belief. It was as if none of them had hands… they all wore gloves and bowed and were ever so helpful and polite. Everything was just so meticulous, all on time and calculated. Nothing was off-kilter. it was, as Pink Floyd says, “the machine.” It was all so robotic in a way but nice, I have to say.

The bathrooms at the airport were incredibly spotless and the man who cleaned them seemed to take pride in his job, which others might have thought mundane. But this was his kingdom and he promised to keep it spick and span, through thick and thin. I saw him as the samura…-mop in hand, guarding the entrance to his kingdom. Onwards! I thought as we boarded another plane for a further seven hour flight to Bangkok, that peaceful, fairly serene city of Southeast Asia.

Sawadii-The year of the Rat- was welcomed in ancient times as a protector and bringer of material prosperity. I’ve never been partial to rats, but then, who am I to argue with billions of Chinese, all celebrating? So finally, after another seven hours on the plane and five movies later, I can become a film critic, if anyone needs me to be???
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We come in to land in Bangkok… the city is aglow with orange lights for miles. This is not the Bangkok that I remember. It’s all changed! This has become an international city with tons of expatriates. The traffic is horrendous, even in the middle of the night, and you can cut the air with a knife the pollution is so bad! I board the bus which should take me downtown with a couple of fellow backpackers going to Khao San road, the haven of accomodations for backpackers, but I shall stay at a much more luxurious accomadation on Soi Road 8 off Sukumvit Road.

The bus drops me at what I thought was around the corner, to finally a bed, only to discover he has dropped me off in the middle of *&%***- nowhere, and it’s starting to rain. Being an adventurous and capable Brit, albeit with a limp, I wave a taxi and get taken to my base for the next few days. Trust me when I say luxurious, by whose standards I’m not too sure. I can barely get through the front door; i’ts so narrow… not made for strapping Americans. A bed, a chair, and a light, and a small balcony I can just about turn around on without falling over and dying…commiting suicide, as it would surely look to the police.

From here I gaze upwards on the white tower, an apartment block filled ,as it seems, by expats, all who have come seeking fame and fortune in the Far East. The Tower is guarded by sentinels, who check and recheck everybody that enters from their bouganvillia-adorned outpost. It strikes me, as I sip morning coffee on the balcony, that all who leave and go off to work for the multinational corporations here have no sense of what the real Thailand is about. They could basically be in any city in the world, as Bangkok has become a frenetic, hurried pace of life, abominable traffic and skyscrapers everywhere. These business people leave in their BMW’s and SUV’s and come back in the evening the same way as they left, never stopping to see what goes on in the Lane of Life.
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Let me explain this small street you could live all your life on and have what you need. There’s the wash shop, a hole in the wall with a washing machine. There are street sellers plying their food trade day and night; a barber; and then there are the bars and the ladies of the night…well, come to think of it, Ladies of the morning, afternoon, night, or whenever you are available, basically, and for such little pocket change. It’s so sad. There are the foot massager and all over massage shops, a tatoo artist, Indians and their restaurants…everything that one needs. But up there in the White Tower they are missing all that goes on in life down below.

I watch, taking it all in. I stop momentarily in a bar for a desperately-needed beer, to rejuvenate the spirit … you know what I mean!!!! I spy an Australian, seemingly lost in his thoughts. He’s the archetypical Aussie, a lined face, one hand on a beer the other with a cigarette, reading the morning copy of the Australian. I ponder why and what he’s doing here in Bangkok. He looks sad all wrapped up in his thoughts…no money, bad marriage…I know not why, but he just really looks incredibly sad. And just then, to lighten up the moment, a flower seller passes with gorgeous arrays of flowers on his cart but with slogans exalting Manchester United, and I chuckle.

But I digress; watching life as it unfolds on the Lane of Life, which is a far cry from what happens on the streets at the top of the Lane. I’ve missed out telling you of my first morning’s excursion. Not having slept in 23 hrs makes me feel like a zombie, and I catch a couple hours of sleep before I go to discover what else happens in Bangkok at 5:30 A.M. But thats for another story, which includes Bill from Saudi Arabia, The Russian from Georgia, the woman from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and her shopping and running foul of the Law…Was I to be imprisoned as in Midnight Express?

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The life of tribal people outside of Puerto Princesa City is more difficult than inside the city, where Mayor Hagedorn”s tribal initiatives can help them.
In 2005, Reyster Langit, the son of a famous Philippine broadcaster set out with his team to document how malaria was ravaging the Palawan tribe and the Tau’t Bato people, who live at the southern tip of Palawan island. Shortly afterwards, Langit and his team came down with cerebral malaria. They were sent to a hospital in the US, where they all died.

For people living in the remote regions of the island, far from the somewhat urban center of Puerto Princesa, malaria is just a part of life. For tribal people, who live in extremely hard-to-reach communities up on the mountainside, malaria is a matter of life and death. On a recent mission to explore the life of the tribal people, we discovered that malaria was just one of many issues facing these tribes. The Batak and Tagbanua, tribes who live inside of the Puerto Princesa city limits, are protected by Tagbalay Foundation, the City Tribal office, and Mayor Hagedorn”s tribal aid projects which include medical assistance, education, free seeds for farming, and a push to establish land deeds for the tribal people under the Ancestral Domain legislation. But the tribes outside of the city limits are more or less on their own, with little or no aid coming in.
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The Palawan tribe are one of the oldest tribes in the Philippine islands. Anthropologists believe that Sabah, Malaysia and Palawan may have been connected by a land-bridge at some time in history. The theory is that the Palawan tribe walked across the bridge and became the first settlers of the Philippines. In ancient times, the Palawan tribe lived in caves. They developed their own written language, which they used to adorn pottery. It is also supposed that they wrote on banana leaves with a sharp stick, but obviously none of these banana leaves has survived to the present. Today, the writing system seems to have been completely lost by the tribal people themselves. It has been preserved in the museum in Puerto Princesa and in books in Europe.
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Historically, the Palawan people had contact with Muslim traders and pirates who worked the waterways around Palawan. It is from trade with the Muslims that they acquired their first metal implements. As they never invented a system of metallurgy, all of their tools and weapons were made of wood and stone. Over the years, many of the Palawan became “civilized.” This is an English word they have adopted to mean that they have moved out of the high mountain caves and now live in isolated villages at lower altitude. Those who remain in the caves are referred to as Tau’t Bato, which means the “people of the stone.” The two groups; Palawan and Tau”t Bato are simply shades of the same tribe. They speak the same language and historically had the same culture and beliefs. The culture of the lower-dwelling Palawan has changed through contact, and in some cases, marriage with Catholics and Muslims.

The jumping off point for a visit to the Palawan tribe and Tau’t Bato people is at the end of a jarring seven hour bus ride from Puerto Princesa city. My colleagues, from Tagbalay Tribal Foundation, and I set out on foot into the jungle. The first five kilometers were quite easy walking. The trail was well marked, and we didn’t need a guide. Along the way, we met a guide from the Palawan tribe, on the way down to town, with two chickens under his arms. When we asked, “Are you Tau’t Bato?” he answered, “I used to be, but now I am civilized.”

Even in their language, they use the English word civilized. The cave dwelling Tau’t Bato follow an animist religion steeped in spirit beliefs. All of the lowland Palawan that we met claimed to be Christian. I wondered if the missionaries told them that part of being civilized was converting.
We asked the guide why he was carrying two chickens. He explained that earlier, he had bought some gallon jugs in town, and already put them in his hut. Now he was walking back down the mountain to pay for them. Apparently, the tribal people used a barter system. This made sense, since there didn’t seem to be a lot of opportunity for cash business. Rather than living in a classical village setting, we found Palawan tribal people living in individual houses with their immediate families. The houses were quite far from one another. None of them had access to the river or any source of water.

The children were all suffering from skin diseases and distended bellies. With little or no water to drink, it is no wonder none could be spared for washing.

The chairman of the local government had told us that the Palawan tribe didn’t want land titles granted under the Ancestral Domain Legislation. This is a law which would give the right of land ownership to the tribe, as a group, forever. “They don”t want it,” said the Chairman, “Because then they couldn”t sell their land because it would belong to the community.”
Obviously, the government”s prohibition against allowing the tribal people to sell their land was put in place to protect the tribe from being fleeced by lowlanders.
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“But they don’t own the land now,” I pointed out. “So, how can they sell it?”
“They do sell i,.” said Marifi. “And lowlanders can still push them off of it. Currently their land is considered a timberland.” The timber concerns can buy the land from the tribal people at a low price, then cut down the trees and sell them.

“If they accept the Ancestral Domain Land Grant,” said Marifi, “The land would be in tact forever, and the people could never be forced off by the lowlanders. If they don”t accept it, there is a chance they will sell off all the land and have no place left to live. ”

If the land were granted under Ancestral Domain, then logging would be strictly prohibited. Technically, logging is prohibited everywhere in Palawan. But the ban on logging is strictly enforced in Puerto Princesa. Mayor Hagedorn has taken a strong stance on environmental crimes. In addition to imposing fines and jail sentences on loggers, he also created alternative jobs for them as forest wardens and garbage collectors. Now, the loggers still have an income, and the Puerto Princesa still has trees. But in south Palawan, there is no such protection.

Further up the trail, we stopped to talk to a Palawan family, sitting on the porch of their small hut. Marifi bought pineapples from the family. The price was a measly 10 Pesos. She bought bananas from another family and the price was also ten Pesos. It was strange that everything was ten Pesos. Marifi suggested, “Maybe they don’t really know how to count. Or maybe they know that a ten Peso coin has value, but they don”t understand the other money.” When Marifi paid for the pineapples she couldn”t get a straight answer if it was ten pesos each or ten pesos for the whole bunch. She paid them ten each.
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Literature we had read told us that during the dry season, the Tau”t Bato lived in huts, near their small swiden fields. The books said the Tau”t Bato only lived in caves during the rainy season. But, Tau’t Bato we met along the way told us a different story. Although they did relocate during the year, they simply moved from one set of caves to another.

In the old days, they would have supplemented their diet by gathering forest products. Once a month, they would have journeyed to the coastal area to trade with the Muslims for salt, seaweed, lime, and products they couldn”t make themselves. They would also have done some fishing. Today, the Palawan have no access to the sea and very little room to forage.

Two kilometers further on, we arrived at our first destination, a Palawan market site called Balin Balin. Complicating the other problems faced by the tribe, there seemed to be a complete lack of knowledge and interest on the part of the lowlanders. When we asked how far to Balin Balin, lowlanders gave us answers ranging from 8 to 18 kilometers, when in fact it turned out to be only five. We had also been told that there was a market everyday. There is only a market on Wednesday. The misinformation simply proved that lowlanders had never had contact with the tribe.

Amid the market stalls, devoid of people, we found a sixteen-year-old Palawan boy, named Ramlan. Having absolutely nothing else to do, he sat on the porch of his hut all day, staring into nothingness. Even our arrival didn’t awaken him from his catatonic state. Marifi, an expert at talking to tribal people, eventually got Ramlan to open up. The boy seemed horribly depressed, as he told us his story. He quit school during the second grade and can read only a little bit. He admitted that he would like to finish school, but it won’t be easy. There is a school in the village, but there is no teacher. There is another school, several kilometers away, which he could walk to, but Ramlan feels he is too old to sit in a classroom with small children.
While Marifi tried to convince Ramlan to return to school, we heard another young voice come from inside of the hut. This voice belonged to Ramlan”s 19 year old cousin, Alvin, who was so shy and sad, that he refused to come out, only speaking to us through the space between the bamboo walls of his house.

Apparently, Alvin had been given a scholarship by a missionary group. They had taken him to Puerto Princesa, where he graduated high school. Afterwards, he entered Palawan State University and completed one year towards a degree in social work. At that point, the missionaries hit him with an ultimatum. If he wanted to continue his education, he had to agree to become a missionary. They wanted to take him away from Palawan, and send him to Bagio to study religion and mission work. When Alvin refused, he was sent back to the mountain. “There were about ten of us from the tribe in the same situation.” Said Alvin. “I think all of us chose to come back here.” Ramlan told Marifi, “I really hoped to graduate college and then go work abroad so I could send money back, to help my tribe.” Now Alvin, like his cousin Ramlan, just sits all day, with nothing to do.
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Occasionally he helps with farm work, but it is obvious that after five years of education in town, he no longer fits in the tribal environment. His spoken Filipino language is perfect, like a lowland native-speaker, and he also speaks English. The house he shares with his mother has no electricity, and the only water in the village comes from a communal pump. The water smelled so badly, that I didn’t want to wash with it, waiting instead, to bath when we returned to town. The tribal people drink this water.

Marifi is a staunch supporter of education for tribal people. “Scholarships need to include not only tuition fees but also room and board and school supplies. Most of all, I think the curriculum needs to be culturally sensitive.”
In my opinion, aid should be given for free, no strings attached. If a church group wants to help children and educate them, then they should do so, expecting nothing in return, not even conversion.”

Right now, all of the government educational programs for tribal people are the same as those for the Christian lowland majority. Consequently, much of the lesson plan is outside the realm of what is relevant for or interesting to tribal children. “Additional modules should be created which focus on tribal history, language, and culture, much of which is being lost.” Said Marifi.

The Palawan tribe for example actually has their own writing system, which is the oldest alphabet in the Philippines, but nearly 100% of the tribe cannot read it or write it. Most aren’t even unaware of this fact. The ones who come down and become civilized often convert to Christianity and lose their tribal belief system. Eventually all of the customs and culture disappear. This could be remedied by educating them in tribal culture and religion at school.
“You cannot force tribal children to understand the same things as the other children. There must be teaching of cultural or indigenous knowledge practices. When tribal children go to school in the lowland, they don’t know any of the things from the regular education program, because it was not intended for them.”
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Hiring Alvin and Ramlan as guides, we began the second leg of the journey, up to the domain of the Tau’t Bato. From the market, we walked down a steep valley. We crossed over the river and immediately, the terrain lead straight up. It was the most difficult climb I had done in years, and it just went on and went on, up and up. Alvin and Ramlan didn’t even seem to notice the climb or the heat. Marifi was the first to fall back, opting to wait for us at the river. Eventually we passed a large bamboo hut with a tremendous porch. I would later be told that this is the overnight point for trekkers who wish to visit the Tau’t Bato. Outside the big house was a small house high up on stilts, which locals referred to as a farm house. These smaller houses are built next to swiden fields, and locals only stay in them when they need to plant or harvest.

If you wish to visit the Tau’t Bato, the optimal way to make the trek is to set out early in the morning, rest at the markets, as we had done, then climb to the overnight point and stop. That would be a relatively hard day of trekking, but probably only about eight kilometers of distance. The next morning, you could wake up early and continue up to the caves, only three or four kilometers further up. Safety is very important here because you are far from the nearest help. Make sure to bring plenty of clean, bottled water. It would be risky to drink the water in the river. When I was down to two bottles of water, I paid a tribal woman to boil the river water and refill my empty bottles with it. Still, I put these bottles at the bottom of my pack, vowing not to risk drinking them unless I was nearly dead. At best, boiling can kill bacteria. But boiling will do nothing for chemicals or other impurities in the water. Fortunately, I made it home on my remaining two bottles of water, and didn”t have to test the boiled water.

Malaria is your other major health risk in this location, so it is best to travel at a time when there are fewer mosquitoes. There are less mosquitoes during the dry season than the rainy season. The mosquitoes are more of a problem at night, than during the day. In the day time, you need to apply mosquito repellent frequently and generously. At night, you must sleep under mosquito netting. As the risk of contagion was explained to me, the mosquitoes carry malaria because they have recently fed on an infected animal or person. So, the trick is to stay away from infected animals and persons. In theory this decreases the risk of mosquitoes carrying the disease. Many, if not all, of the tribal people are living with malaria. So, sleeping near the tribal people is dangerous. It is best to plan your trip in such a way that you can leave the tribal area before dark. If you get stranded on the mountain, don’t sleep inside the village. Walk as far from the tribal area as possible and make camp.

Another kilometer up the mountain we found the massive stones which marked the entrance to the tribal domain, Signapan. On the other side was the domain of the sacred spirits.

A local government worker told us proudly that when he goes up the mountain, he spends time with the tribe. “We eat and sleep together. I understand them.” He said, suggesting no one else did. “I don’t believe in the spirits.” He told us, proudly. To understand the Palawan tribe, however, you must understand the spirits, or at least know of the Palawan”s reverence for them.

The wife of the government worker, on the other hand, understood. She told us, “When Reyster Langit, went up to the Tau’t Bato, they said he died of malaria. But I think it was something else. He was very noisy and laughing, disrespectfully to the spirits. He even moved his bowels in the sacred river basin.”

She believed, as did many locals, that the man died of some type of curse brought on because he offended the spirits. A guide, who had been working in the mountains for years, told us. “You have to ask permission to take pictures of the Tau’t Bato. You must ask where, when, and what. For example, the background, if a tree contains a spirit you can’t photograph it. Also the time of year or day may not be appropriate to take photos. That team of journalists didn’t ask permission, and they died.”

It was rainy season. Looking at my watch, I knew that we had run out of time if we were going to get back before dark. I was tempted to pass the stone gate and enter the domain of the spirits. But instead, I turned around, and we headed back down the mountain. The spirit domain will have to wait for a longer expedition, which we will launch during April, the driest month of the year.

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“The way we found out that our mother had diabetes was that ants would appear every time she peed.”

The teachers had been standing at the front of the room talking about bodily functions and toilet humor for nearly an hour. The next story was a Thai legend about a half woman and half snake spirit monster, which fed on human waste. I would have been appalled, except that it was all in Thai, and yet, after only a few weeks of study, I understood what they were saying. Maybe it would have been better if I didn’t understand. I could have tuned out. But I had paid money to learn the Thai language through this innovative approach, and apparently it had paid off. The shocking humor of the subject matter forced me to remember the new language.
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The lessons weren’t always so unappetizing. Sometimes they were down right fun or silly. The teacher would say the Thai word for ambulance and the students would have to make ambulance noises. Or, she would say the Thai word for train and we would all make choo-choo noises. We were alowed to shout, laugh, get up, and act out. The one thing we were not allowed to do was to speak Thai. If a student answered a question in Thai, he would immediately get told off by the teacher.

Sometimes it was difficult, Thais have no sense of political correctness, which has been stressed in the Western world. More than once a Thai teacher, named Hom, would pull his slacks up to his nipples, squint his eyes nearly shut, stick out his buck teeth and pretend to play golf. “Look, I am Japanese,” he would say.

The first week of class I thought everyone associated with the program was insane. “If I wanted to listen to two hours of racist banter, and get yelled at for speaking my mind, I would just go have dinner with my father,” they admonished. After I understood the concepts behind the program, it began to make sense. Soon, it was like joining a cult. People who believed in the program couldn’t believe there was any other way to learn Thai. And now I think they are right.

The program, called ALG (Automatic Language Growth), was developed by an innovative American linguist, named Dr. J. Marvin Brown. ALG was based on a much earlier theory, dating back to the 1920s, called the Silent Way and later called the Natural Way. Basically the commonality between these theories is that they were listening based, and that they started by observing the way children learn language.

Chinese, Arabic, Thai, Korean, and Japanese are considered some of the hardest languages to learn, and yet small children in these countries speak them fluently. What is more, the children never sat in classes, learning their mother tongue. So, how did they learn it?

Children learn through listening. Children hear their mother and other adults speaking for months on end before they start speaking themselves. Obviously, you can’t be expected to do something correctly until you have seen it done several times. The same is true with learning a language. If someone tells you a Thai word once, you won’t remember it. If they tell you fifty times, you may remember it, but you will mispronounce it or misuse it. The only way to correctly learn a Thai word, or anything for that matter, is to hear it used, correctly, in context, repeatedly.

If you call someone, but they are already talking on the phone, you say the line is busy. If you are staying in a hotel and you don’t want the maid to enter, you hang a sign which reads, “Do not disturb.” If someone is using the toilet on the airplane, the sign reads, “Occupied.” If you want to sit at the movies, but someone is holding the place for a friend, he says “This seat is taken.”
Busy, do not disturb, occupied, taken all have similar meanings, but it would seem strange to us if you called someone and “the line is taken” or if the seat at the movie theater was “do not disturb.” You make linguistic choices everyday, when to use which of many similar words. If you think back, there was probably never a time in your past when you wrote out these four examples and memorized them.

You never wrote the phrase, “Always use occupied for the bathroom,” fifty times in your notebook. And if you did, it wouldn’t strictly be true. If you are in the bathroom in your house, as opposed to a public toilet, when someone knocks, you say “I’m in here.” Not, “occupied.”
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When you tried to learn French or Spanish in school you probably did write out lists of when to use certain phrases and words. And, you probably got them wrong most of the time. Moreover, you would get frustrated when you discovered that every rule had fifty variations and twenty-seven exceptions.
Language existed for thousands of years. Rules have only existed for hundreds. Language is organic. It grows as we need it. Rules are static. And they are only amended long after they are out of date. Have you texted someone recently? The spell check on your computer tells you that word doesn’t exist. But we use this word every day. It may be years until the rule matches the reality.

So, how did you learn these intricacies of the English language?
“Experience is the best teacher,” says David Long, head of the Thai language program at AUA, Ratchadamri. David came to Thailand nearly twenty years ago to study under Dr. Brown. Since Dr. Brown’s death, David has been continuing his work. “To learn something, we have to have a meaningful, transportable experience.”

In other words, you learned “Occupied” because you flew on an airplane twenty times and needed to use the toilet. This was a real experience, and it was meaningful. You never forgot the experience of dancing around, waiting for the bathroom to be unoccupied. “Something taught through experience is infinitely better remembered than something taught through school,says Long. Homework, tests, and dialogues are all school concepts, not life concepts, so they are absent from the ALG program. ALG creates experience through teacher student interactions. The teachers stand at the front of the classroom, acting out stories. One hour of sitting in class is exactly one hour of listening, because the teachers talk constantly. More importantly, the teachers speak perfect Thai. So, the students are exposed to a perfect model. If students were permitted to speak Thai, then the other students would be hearing an improper model.

In lower level classes, the students interact, but not by speaking Thai. The interaction may be that they are asked to perform tasks or make noises. The concept here is that we can have meaningful interaction without speaking.
“Words are overrated,” says David Long. “We use them so much, they have no meaning.” According to David, studies show that we only hear one of five words spoken in our native tongue. This suggests that 80% of our communication is non-verbal. If we communicate in our native tongue non-verbally, why then would we expect to communicate in a foreign language using words? That is the first question ALG asks of language learners. Until your level of Thai approaches your level of your native language, you shouldn’t expect to be able to communicate effectively in Thai. “Most Thai people have had several years of English at school. It is not logical that you would be able to communicate better than them after only a few weeks or months of Thai lessons,” I was told.

A major key to ALG is, we don’t want to start speaking too early.
If we ask the average westerner to imitate a Chinese person speaking English, he will inevitably reverse his Ls and Rs. “Oh, me so solly.” The belief is that Chinese people can’t say the letter R. But Chinese babies adopted by western parents have no difficulty saying the letter R. So, it is not genetic. It is a question of learning, of modeling, hearing, and observing. Once again, Chinese babies adopted by western parents will listen for at least a year and a half before they start talking.

Thai is a tonal language, which means, changing the tone of a word completely changes the meaning. I asked a taxi driver to park the car, and instead, he kissed me. I felt flattered till I found out the difference between the word kiss and the word park was just a matter of tone. The next problem with learning Thai is that Thai has at least three times as many vowels, both long and short, as English. Once again, a small mistake in vowel choice can be disastrous. It can mean the difference between riding a horse and stepping in dog pooh. Hearing a word once or twice won’t help you to pronounce it correctly. You need to hear it in context and in some memorable and meaningful way, many times before you can remember it.

When I was a young lad in school, we had to make sentences with vocabulary words and memorize them. This was completely meaningless. As a result, of thousands of big words we were forced to “learn” at school very few of them became part of our English vocabulary. Children learn the words they need when they are ready to learn them. If you have a two or three year old at home, you have no way of predicting what they will learn on a given day. The child will decide. ALG allows adults to learn the same way. What one students learns on a given day may vary dramatically from what another student learns. But they are both learning.

The ALG Thai program lasts about 2,000 hours. Classes begin early in the morning and continue till late in the evening. Students can come and listen as many or as few hours as they like. Some students try to do two hours per day, others do six or seven. The program is perfect for busy people. As a travel writer I am constantly leaving Bangkok for periods of weeks or even months. When I come back, I simply walk back into the classroom and start learning again. Students are even encouraged to take breaks of several weeks to give their brain time to process what they have learned. Often, after a break of several weeks, a student finds his listening ability has improved.
Why are skeptics so resistant to a method that requires them to listen, without speaking?
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“There are pride issues involved,” explains David Long. “People want to speak and get positive reinforcement. If you say anything at all in Thai, Thai people will say to you, oh, your Thai is so good. Even if they have no idea what you said.” Another common criticism of ALG is that it is 100% teacher centered. But looked at from another way, having a learner centered classroom is also the wrong model because we are focusing on the ones who don’t know the language instead of focusing on the experts, the teachers.

David Long feels ALG is learner centered. “Our way is learner centered because students decide what they will learn on a given day.” A professor of mine, at University of Mainz, told me, “I can’t sit down with my four year old and say, ok today we will learn the third conditional.” The child will just pick up the language, because the child has a constant perfect model. My sister took her four year old to the Bronx Zoo to see the lion. While the tour guide was explaining about the eating and sleeping habits of the massive cats, my niece turned to my sister and asked, “Mommy, how do they make a web like that?”

“Lions don’t make webs.” My sister answered, a bit perplexed.
“Not the lion!” exclaimed my niece. “I mean the spider.”

My sister looked where the little girl was pointing, and sure enough, there was a spider, building a web in the corner of the lion’s cage. The adults had planned a lesson about lions, but the child chose to learn about spiders.
Should this be called a failed lesson? In a traditional classroom, this would be considered a failure, because the daily learning objective was not met. In an ALG classroom, the day would be considered a success, because the student had learned something useful, even if it wasn’t the intended lesson. At the end of the day, a teacher’s intent is not important. The purpose of education is for a student to learn. If the student learns, the education is successful.

David expanded on Dr. Brown’s work and created a concept called Cross Talk. In the cross talk seminars, two people, who do not share a common language, are paired up and taught to communicate with one another. By the end of the first session, they usually come away knowing each other’s life story. “In Crosstalk, you can have genuinely interesting conversations with native speakers because you are concentrating on the content and meaning rather than the language. The communication becomes the focus, not the language. We need to do the same in language teaching.”

If you do your homework while you are watching a movie and cooking diner your grades will be lower and your comprehension of the movie will be lower. If we divide our attention, we under perform. The same is true of a language learner trying to have a conversation in a new language. If he concentrates on language as well as content, syntax, pronunciation, and meaning…the outcome will be poor communication, and enjoyment will be zero.
Enjoyment, meaningful experience, fun, freedom these all sound like appealing aspects of the ALG program. From hard linguistic standpoint, the idea of listening, not speaking, being the key to learning definitely makes sense. Anyone who has tried to learn an Asian language, especially Thai, knows the frustration of saying all of the words, but no one seems to understand you. Listening more and speaking less may make the difference.

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The four Muslim provinces of southern Thailand Narathiwat, Pattani, Yala, and Satun have made international headlines in recent years do to an extremist insurgency which has left hundreds dead. The bad press emanating
from the south has left the rest of Thailand’s many Muslim groups in an undeserved dark cloud. The various Muslim peoples in Thailand are an extremely diverse group, each with their own unique history, language, and culture. Often the only similarity they share is their religion. In the north, the majority of the Muslims are ethnic Chinese, from Yunan. In central Thailand one can find the Cham people, the last descendents of the Kingdom of Champa. Dispersed throughout Thailand are various groups of ethnic Thais whose ancestors converted to Islam, centuries ago.
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In Phang Nga Province, Thung Nang Dam village, Kuraburi District, near Phuket, the Muslim people are ethnic Thai, rather than ethnic Malay. The people speak Southern Thai dialect. Unlike the four southern provinces there is no insurgency. The biggest problem this poor fishing community faces is their struggle to recover after the 2004 tsunami. This was one of the worst hit areas, with countless deaths, and numerous people still missing. Entire
villages were swept away by the monstrous waves which also took their fishing boats, leaving the villagers with no way to earn a living.

Through the help of foreign and local aid organizations, most of the fishing boats have been restored, and new homes have been built. Often, villagers elected to rebuild further from the sea, for fear of a future calamity. Community based tourism projects, such as North Andaman Tsunami Relief (NATR), have been trying to create tourism businesses for the locals, arranging for tourists to sleep in a home-stay, with a Muslim family. The goal of the project is to create new sources of income for the Muslim families, while hopefully educating the outside world about the plight of these gentle people.

Upon arrival at the NATR office, I was met by my guide and translator, Mustafa, who promised to give me a glimpse into the life of a Thai Muslim community. Mustafa, an ethnic Thai, converted to Islam after his fiancé, a Muslim girl, was killed in the 2004 tsunami. Her parents told him “Mustafa we just lost a daughter. We don’t wish to lose our son too.” Mustafa changed his religion and officially became their son. “The circumcision wasn’t a bad as I thought it would be.” he said. Traveling in the district with Mustafa was like riding around Hollywood with a big movie star. Everyone knew Mustafa and they all respected the hard work he and NATR had done in the community.

Our first stop was at a beautiful Islamic primary school, which lay across a quiet stream, along a tranquil, dusty road in the midst of scenic fields. According to the teacher, a bright young Muslim woman, wearing a head scarf, boys and girls attend the same school but they are separated in class. They spend half the day learning religious subjects and half the day learning secular ones. The children learned an impressive array of languages. They studied Arabic, Malay, Thai and English. They used the Roman alphabet to write Malay language, which they call piasa Jawei (an old term which meant Indonesia and Malaysia). Although all Muslims in Asia attempt to learn Arabic, Malay, which tends to be infinitely easier to learn, becomes the primary religious language. The teacher explained that the school was mostly funded by the Thai government, but children paid a nominal fee of about 600 Baht per year. The school is free for orphans. The children graduating from grade 12, at the Muslim school, are qualified to attend any state university
in Thailand. For those parents who prefer that there children receive a more religious based education, there are two Muslim universities; one in Bangkok and one in the south of Thailand in the four Muslim provinces. Muslim boys, like their Buddhist counterparts, are required to attend national military service. They are also permitted to become career soldiers or police.
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In other countries, ethnic minorities are prevented from participating in local government. In Thailand, however, this seemed not to be the case. The local governor is elected by the people. Typically, in a Muslim area, he is a Muslim, a member of the community. “We also have a Toe Imam, or spiritual leader of our community.” Explained Mustafa. “The Toe Imam is generally the oldest male in the community. He holds this position for life
unless he dies, retires or commits some horrible act.”

Muslims differ greatly from their Buddhist neighbors. For example, Muslims burry their dead. Thais burn their dead. The Thai Muslims eat halal food and are forbidden to eat pork. They don’t drink alcohol, but some of them chew beetle and another stimulating leaf, called gaton. Gaton is a bitter tasting leaf which they chew like coca.

They consider themselves to be Sunni Muslims and pray 5 times per day. Friday is the big Muslim service, mostly for men. Some mosques allow women, but then they are separated from the men by a sheet. Many families chose to worship at home, where men and women pray together. During prayers, Men wear a saraong and a clean white shirt.

The average family has 4-5 children. Some have as many as seven, according to Mustafa, “The religion prohibits family planning.” Circumcision is done only on boys and typically at the age of five. There is a large festival once a year when all eligible boys are circumcised.

The main business of Thai Muslims is fishing. The Muslims tend to have a small garden for herbs, fruits and vegetables, but as a rule, they can’t be considered farmers.
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“The people are poor.” explained Mustafa, “They know that they can go to the sea and in thirty minutes they can find food. So, they are lazy. They go out in the morning and drop their nets. In the evening they go and recover them. They could be doing so much in between. That is what the Chinese do. But our people say in the hot season it is too hot to work. In the rainy season it is too wet to work.”

Mustafa, like the rest of this coastal community, lost everything in the
tsunami. “My dream is to work two more years, save my money and go to Mecca.” They use the name Haji for people who have been to Mecca. Mustafa hoped that one day he could be called Haji.

“Although we are all Thai, there is racism against the Muslims.” Said
Mustafa. “Your religion is written on your ID card. Even if it wasn’t,
they would know from the name.”

“Speaking of names,” He said, eyeing me thoughtfully. “Your name is
too hard for Thai people. I will give you a Muslim name, so people will find it easier to talk to you. Let me think of a good name for someone like you.” That sounded great to me, but there was only one Muslim name I wanted. It is the one name that has meant a great deal to me my whole life. I was both pleased and surprised when Mustafa suddenly said. “We shall call you Ali.”

Every Muslim house we visited had at least one song bird in a cage.
“Muslim people like to keep birds.” explained Mustafa. “They also like to bring their birds to competitions to see who has the best bird.”

At the market, there were yellow shirts everywhere to show support for the King, in the wake of Thailand’s recent military coup. “We love the king here.” Said Mustafa. “But we are afraid. He is old…It is a natural fact that he will…” Mustafa couldn’t even finish the sentence. “You mean he will eventually die?” I asked, also not happy about that
eventuality. “Yes.” Said Mustafa. Other political issues aside, it was clear that the Muslim people held the king in the same reverence as the Buddhists.

At dusk, we stopped off at the beach where the water buffalos came down to swim. Wanting to take photos, I crept up on the massive herd, slowly getting closer and closer. While the herd swam, three large bulls stood guard on the
beach. The closer I got, the more agitated the centuries became. Visions of Steve Irwin began to run through my mind. Finally, when the guards looked as if they were going to charge, I backed off, fighting the impulse to run.

I stayed over night with a Muslim host family in Bahn Tatle Nock Village. The original village had been completely destroyed by the tsunami. The village was rebuilt through the help of aid projects, but unfortunately it no longer reflect the authentic Muslim way of life. Out of necessity, the villages were rebuilt in the quickest, cheapest manner. The houses were all two stories with the kitchen downstairs and the bedrooms up stairs. The living room living room and dinner table were outside under the shelter of the second story. The typical Muslim house, on the other hand, is only one story, raised off the ground, to prevent reptiles from entering. The kitchen is normally in the back.

In trying to communicate with my host family, I discovered that Southern Dialect was so different from Northern or Central, that we couldn’t understand each other at all. Another observation I made was that the people looked different than the Thais I knew in Bangkok and Chiang Mai. I finally decided it was the constant exposure to the sun and the fact that they were probably pure Thai, rather than part Chinese like the people in the North. In some way, these Muslim people were more Thai than the Thais.

My host mother prepared a simple dinner of rice, eggs, and fish which the father had caught earlier in the day. I was constantly afraid of offending my Muslim hosts. I have lived with Buddhists for years. I know and understand their customs. But the Muslims were new to me. In Thailand, simple meals are eaten with a spoon alone. They rarely use a fork and never a knife. Among Buddhists, large chunks of meat or fish are held on the plate with the right hand and cut with the spoon. Eating with Muslims, I knew not to eat with my left hand. The Muslims held the spoon in the left hand and used the right and to touch the food. But I found it impossible to navigate a spoon with my left hand. So, I put the spoon in my right hand and touched the food with my left. It probably grossed everyone out, but the fish was really tasty.

Inside the house we slept under mosquito netting which was like building a blanket fort when you were ten. Just like rural Thai families, they didn’t use beds. They slept on top of a thick blanket on the floor. For some reason, the family gave me a pink mosquito net. The light filtering through gave everything a surreal candy-world glow.
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In the morning, Mustafa picked me up and we stopped by the market, where we had coffee with the fishermen. Only men sat in the restaurant drinking coffee. The fishermen lead a leisurely life. In the morning, they had nothing to do. They wouldn’t even go set their nets till noon, when the tide changed. So, they just hung out, drinking coffee, chewing leaves and
talking. Later, they would throw out their nets, and then have coffee again for five or six hours, before retrieving them. “The fishermen are very poor” repeated Mustafa, while we sipped the syrupy coffee from small glasses. “When the boat breaks, they have no money to fix it. When they need petrol or any extra expense they have to
borrow from sponsors.” These sponsors are basically creditors who become partners of the fishermen, taking part of their catch. “Debt is very common among the fishermen. In one village, of about 120 houses all but two families owe money. But because of the sea there is
always hope. No matter how bad things are, they can always go to sea. And, they can always eat.”

I asked Mustafa why it is that in Vietnam, Cambodia, and other countries I have been to, the Muslims generally are fishermen not farmers. “Most families have a small farm, but the Muslims have a special reverence for the water. And, they like the freedom of being fishermen.” He answered.

Near by is Banji Island, also called James Bond Island, where the film, “The Man with the Golden Gun” was filmed.
“Three families came by boat from Indonesia and settled on the island. They put up a flag on the beach to signal that this was a place of good fishing. Soon, others came. Now there are 1,000 people, 250 families in the village.”

The sea no longer yields what it once did. A Muslim woman, named Pern, told me. “The fishermen used to catch ten kilos of squid per day. Now they have days when they only catch a single kilo. The gas alone cost 250 Baht a day.
With ten kilos they would catch fish, subtract gas, and then split four ways with the other helpers on the boat. Even in the best of times, they would only earn a few hundred Baht a day. And that had to feed the whole family. Nowadays, with 1 kg, they don’t even cover their gas. But, they still need to eat.”
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Today, thanks to education and a certain degree of open-mindedness, the children may have the opportunity to do something different. An old man, named Solet, told me proudly, “My son is in ninth grade.” This was the highest level of education anyone in his family had ever achieved. “He also plays football!” exclaimed the proud papa. Even football was a foreign concept to people who normally spent all of their energy trying to feed a family. The arrival of football was also a sign that the times are changing. “I would like to see him go to university.” Said Solet. “He could qualify now for the sports high school, followed by the athletic university, but I am afraid that if he leaves home he will lose his religion.”

Mustafa reminded Solet about the Muslim university. “Yes,” said Solet, “that might be a good idea.” Maybe Solet’s son will go on to be the next great leader of the community. The men excused themselves, wishing me peace. It was time for them to go
through out their nets.

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I spent the entire day trying to get out of Chiang Mai. All flights booked. All trains full, buses too. Finally I chose to go 3rd class, leaving at 6:30am to go for twelve hours to Lopburi (south toward Bangkok) to see the monkeys. Then probably on to Ayuthaya (the old capitol) then to Kachanaburi to hike and see bats. Just so happens tomorrow is the king’s birthday and this is a week long celebration, plus the &*#@^! flower show… Harumpf, “long live the king”.What a hoot the train turned out to be. It was hotter than blazes, hard as rock seats, completely packed, disgusting holes for “toilets” and I had a great time!

There were only three farangs (foreigners): myself, Hussein, and a baboon-type creature, Vern, from Australia who was on a two day love affair with a cute Thai chick, Nong (not her real name, farangs don’t fair well with the real names… The other names are real, couldn’t make those up if I tried). Hussein, who is from Yemen, had worked for the Saudis for years as a financial advisor but got fed up with the strictness of the society. We ended up taking over the dining car and hanging with the police, army dudes, train staff and conductors, (Who was driving the train?, I didn’t want to know). Then we arrived at Lobburi after eleven hours, and Oh My Buddha! What a part-ay was goin’ on!!

It was, after all, the king’s birthday and full moon taboot! So this enormous carnival was happening and, wouldn’t ya know, Nong’s mum worked it! So, we stashed our huge packs in a carnie tent and did the scene. Drank these weird mini keg like things of beer and listened to Thai rock and roll. Finally, a wee bit inebriated, we piled onto motorcycles with our huge packs and zoomed off to our hotel.
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The following day I went to see the monkeys, my main reason for coming here. They have taken over the ancient wats (which remind you of a mini Angkor), and they are seriously outta control. Immediately one jumped on my back; I screamed like the girl that I am and flailed like a maniac. The park staff gave me a stick to beat the buggers back. The scene was fantastic. Monkey scratching and grooming, tiny babies, monkey fights… really hysterical.

I caught a bus to Ayuthaya, the old capitol. The wats are also really old and are spread out over the entire city. Other than the wats, it is just another crowded, noisy, dirty city, so I just quickly went to see the famous Buddha head with the tree enveloping it. Then on to Kanchanaburi. The entire day I was the only farang on all the buses. I’m beginning to wonder if I am just missing things, or finding a less beaten path. At the bus station cafeterias and really almost everywhere I went, no one spoke English, none of the signs or menus were in English or even our letters, so the waiters would just look at me and offer “pad thai?”.

I decided to splurge and pay a whopping $30USD to stay on Kasem island smack in the middle of a tributary to the River Khwae. Wow! They bring you here by boat and it is gorgeous. The transvestite men “lady boys” are a really amazing phenomenon here. Evidently there is no stigma to this, and you can see them developing from a young age growing their hair and nails out, wearing make up and then, evidently, they take hormones to get breasts. They are often quite beautiful and they work in any job from restaurants, travel agencies or boutiques. I went to a shop that was having a “Coup Sale” (yes, capitalism reigns supreme) and had such a good time.

On the other side of things are the “man-girls” I guess you would call it. Holy Moly they are tough little things! Anyway, a “man-girl” named “Gow” brought me here to the island.There are little bungalows on the water, a swimming pool, internet and soft Muzac playing… I believe this one is “you take my breath ahhwaaay, oooh,ooh, ooh…” There are little bunnies everywhere (Darwin would be quite confused) and the most enormous slug or snail (I didn’t get close enough to thoroughly identify it – I was afraid it might eat me) on the wall of my outdoor toilet. Don’t ask me why they have these beautiful rooms and then put the damn toilet outside.I am transitioning well and am actually liking being alone. I had gotten overly attached not just to the elephants but also the group. What great kids they are. All in their twenties, from England and two from the states. I shall tell you all about them another time… I gotta go wrastle with the slugmansnailboy, he’s drinking the toilet water again.

Oh boy, I have really gone off the map now… What on earth possessed me with these damn bats? I was peacefully lounging on that island in the river in Kanchanaburi and thought I’d go up to Soi Yok to see some waterfalls, springs and bat caves. Instead, the crappy Lonely Planet guide (which I have a love/hate relationship with anyway) picked just the tiny map I needed, to screw up. So I ended up with my huge pack on the side of the road about an hour from where I was supposed to be. Hmmmm, I wandered around trying to figure it all out and could only find tour groups or Thais who spoke no English. Really, I don’t expect anyone to learn English, it is just such a surprise since this place has got to be one of the most touristed places in the world! One guy I met thinks it is because they have never had an occupying force, so … good on em’… I’ll just keep pantomiming and getting lost.

Anyway, I decided to make the best of it and swam in some falls and hiked around a bit. I started up a “conversation” with the ranger and he, in a few words or less, indicated that there was even a BETTER cave in Rachanaburi, which was where I wanted to go anyway to catch a train south. Now, as fate would have it this place isn’t in the freakin’ guide either and certainly no mention of the bats. Well, that is just the sort of challenge I get wild hairs about so I took off on it. A few hot bumpy bus rides later with much more theatrics ends me up in what appeared to be Rachanaburi except I couldn’t read a thing as there were no signs in our letters. I get this little guy with those saengtaews, the big trucks with seats in the back, and he says or mimes that he’ll take me to the bats for 400 baht… I think this sounds expensive but I have absolutely no idea where I am or where I am going so I agree. We drive for about an hour… Geez… Where the hell am I? And finally get to a temple with huge bats on the light posts! So, he just wants to drop me off, and I say, “no way Jose, you are coming with me…”

He looks aghast but follows along and we climb friggin’ a thousand stairs past monkeys and dilapidated Buddhas to a huge hole in the ground… And then wait… Sitting there perched on the side of this steep cliff, no one else around because all the sane people (all Thais) are down below to watch… And we try to converse… Ha ha. His name is “Pinchen” and what a sport he was. At one point he starts flailing and screaming and indicates something has bitten him on the ear. He thinks it is a bat, but I’m pretty sure it was just a plant thorn, or something like that. Anyway, I start getting worried he’s going to bail on me, but Lo! At precisely 6 o’clock the bats start… Wow. A few, then thousands upon thousands of tiny black fuzzy things swarm. They sound like rain gently falling with a few chirps here and there. The hawks are around to try to catch a few and the line of bats just keeps going and going… Holy moly.
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I film a bit then we decide to go down so I can get some shots of the enormous line of these things… It was like a creepy mesmerizing Dracula movie or something. Well, I was just beside myself thrilled and Pinchen was still freaked out about his ear… I cheered him up by calling him “Superhero Batman..!” He liked that. He took me to a hotel and I gave him 1000 baht. Now I know that some people think that is bad because then “they learn to charge more or too much”… But to hell with those people. This guy was a real trooper and so thrilled when he realized he got to keep all that money. At least it might pay for the rabies shots, I figure

I spent the night in a pretty nice place but still no English. They kept trying to get me to go to Bangkok to catch transport south, but I insisted that I didn’t want to go there, I wanted to continue on from here. I am just too stubborn at times. This morning I caught a moped (yes, with backpack and all, again) to the “bus” station in someplace called Ban Phong… Which turned out to be a train station. OK, that’s better… No space on first class train… Only 3rd class… Surprise, surprise… really, too many tourists here. I take the 3rd class for eight hours… So hot, the only farang again… Not even a dining car on this one. But really that’s OK cause they pass by with all sorts of interesting things to eat and drink. And very clever ways of serving in leaves or bamboo or plastic bags. I ate well but determined I would not use the scary bathroom and am perfecting my camel bladder… Yup, made it the whole day!
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Toward the end, I met a Norwegian guy and his Thai wife who live in Chumphon where I intended to stay, and they helped me book a room. The lady at the guesthouse, Sedu, speaks great English and is very helpful. This is a junction town where people decide to go to the islands in the gulf or to the Andaman sea side. I am so fried I am opting for Ko Tao and surrounding islands here in the gulf even though a typhoon just passed by… I think all will clear by tomorrow. So that’s that. I’m in total tourist town now and seemingly from now on. Guess I can do some laundry now.

I have determined that Lonely Planet definitely needs to prep more on what to and not to bring. For example, wear a skirt or easy to remove capri pants on the train. Have a buddy watch your bag cause there is nowhere to hang it in the can and the floor is disgustingly wet. Wear very thin light clothing, you only need the top of your shoulders and maybe knees covered to pass the modesty test and you seriously only need flip-flops. Forget your hiking boots and rain gear. Even if it rains you’ll dry in five minutes. I did want a warm hat in the mountains. I think brushing up or having a cue card for some basic Thai words like “bus”, “train” or “hotel” would have helped. The Lonely Planet guide was too cumbersome on the spot. And finally, a real live map of Thailand with the towns in both English and Thai… Granted it would take a bit of the thrill out of it all. But most of all… I have wanted shampoo bottles that don’t leak… Is that possible Mr. travel engineer? I finally chucked the darn things and am going with the dred look; it matches my bites, burns, rashes, scratches and god only knows what under my nails.

Somehow in my fatigue after the eight hour hot sweaty 3rd class train… I allowed myself to book everything with Sedu Guesthouse. Sedu, is a really nice lady and speaks English well. However, I should know better and not assume she knows my tastes in accommodation, etc. She was around my age so I did think she might kinda get that I wouldn’t want a party town. Turns out I get booked at “Bans diving resort,” the biggest on this Ko Tao. The ferry from Chumphon takes two or so hours and I met some people who had been to this island in the past. I have subsequently seen them here and they are horrified by the changes.
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I did get the resort to let me move down the path to a little bungalow right on the beach. Sounds great doesn’t it… But the truth is, it is small, cramped, hotter than hades and no mosquito net. During the day there is no end to the sounds of building going on and at night no end to the mopeds passing, drunk English boys till 4am, and then the gangs of dogs howling. The good side is, I have a nice couple next to me. I went on a snorkeling tour around the island yesterday with a boat full of young adult Thais from Bangkok who had all studied in the U.S. We had a really nice time and the fishies are gorgeous.The people who run my bungalows are really old. And grumpy. I can’t blame them. I wish I could talk to them about the changes they have seen. It must be so depressing for them. I have also spoken with a few business owners and found out there is no city council, therefore no rules whatsoever. I encourage anyone coming to this part of the world to simply avoid this place and all these islands over here. I hear Ko Lipe, way down south on the Andaman side, still has no electricity and you can find some peace. I’d have to see it to believe it. I think this part of the world has probably already been ruined by all of us.

If you are just morbidly curious, I can say if you go all the way down to the end of this beach (Sairee) you can find a bit quieter spot. Or you can hire transport and go to some other part of the island, although I hear they are more resorty and without sandy beaches, mostly rocks. I go tomorrow to Ko Phangan, the small island between here and Samui (where I will do the yoga retreat). I hear it is really crowded too. That is where they have that full moon party which is gratefully over now. I can only pray that the yoga place is secluded and quiet. Oh how I miss the elephants. I will have to cancel my scuba diving since it is raining so hard. That is a shame because diving is the main thing to do around this island. Although, I think you see everything with the mask and snorkel, it’s just pretty cool to breathe under water.I finally found a peaceful beach!!

Left the din of Ko Tao for Ko Phangan with not much hope, but then “Sunny” picked me up at the pier and showed me where we were going… And I nearly cried. It is a tiny place called “Coconut Beach” at the very tippy top of the island with its own private little bay and beach. AAHHHHHHH… Finally. We stopped and met his family including at least a hundred year old granny, ate and drank coconuts, then on to a little fishing town to eat some soup from a stall on the side of the road, then on over very rutted dirt tracks to reach a few little bungalows where I have not budged for three days. The people are great here and quite a few have been staying for ages and plan on staying even longer. Folks from Switzerland, Australia and Holland mostly, really nice people. And of course the owners are wonderful hosts also. There is fabulous snorkeling just a stone’s throw away and we go out in our little kayak. And today I went on the Piña Colada run in our rickety little boat. We only have electricity from 4pm until midnight, no hot water (but, again, you don’t need it, it’s so hot). The name of the bay is Hat Khom and it just on “the other side” of Bottle Beach (which is closed at the moment). So here it is… The one quiet place in the gulf.

Tomorrow I am off to Samui and the yoga retreat… I hope I can move in the heat and humidity. Honestly, I’m a bit worried… I have done so little for so long and my Thai food belly, bites and rashes look frightening… Not so yogini-ish I’m afraid. I arrived to Yoga Thailand on Friday on the verge of a full system meltdown: neck not moving, tummy rumbling, heat rash everywhere, serious bad attitude. Much to my dismay, the electricity was out so no fan or hot water… I was a bit peeved for near $50 per day! But electricity did return, the food was fab and I slept ten hours. Next day we had a restorative yoga class and I ventured out in the downpour to explore. A german baker, Sonja, picked me up on her moped and we got soaked together on the way to her bakery. I came home and napped two more hours, then to bed at 9pm to sleep another 9 hours!

Finally, and thank god, this morning I felt almost back to normal just in time for Mysore yoga, and now I realize that it really isn’t named after the city in India, no, it is because ‘my’ just-about-everything is really ‘sore’ now. They are fairly brutal in a spiritual sorta way and wouldn’t even let me have my $10 cheat sheet I had just purchased (why, one might ask, do they sell it here?) I was squashed into positions I really didn’t think I was capable of. Today, the rain let up slightly and I went to ‘Big Buddha’ … And well, that sums it up… It is, indeed, a big ol’ Buddha. There are actually a few fairly cute areas for this crowded island and my little yoga place is quiet and on a private beach. I am feeling pretty rested and healthy (no drinking or smoking here, and only vegetarian food), so I think it was a good call to do this right before coming home.The yoga “retreat” turned out to be a bit too expensive for what you got. Although the one class, Mysore, in the morning was kick-butt. They are very serious. I had thought there would be more classes included, but these people charge for every little thing. I did end up resting and reading a lot, and I believe I did improve my practice somewhat, at least my sobbing knees, crying ribs and screaming neck certainly think so.

I met a young lady from Seattle and she was brave enough to rent a moped (the transport of choice in these parts). She was willing to cart me around the island so I think I’ve covered quite a bit of it. We went to Namuang waterfall and I opted to go to the top. I acquired a guide of sorts and it turned out to be a blessing (my friend chose not to go; those youngins wear out so quick). The route was quite slippery as it has been raining off and on for the past few days and there were many alternate routes. My friends are familiar with how quickly I can become hopelessly lost. In addition there were ropes and rocks to criss cross the falls. I was relieved to have my “Tom” (or Ton, Tun, Tan). At the top there was a pool and a cave with the falls where you hung on to a rope to guide yourself through the falls and into the cave… It was pretty cool and I was the only one up there, with my faithful guide of course.

I have moved from the Yoga place to Buddha beach and a bungalow to myself. I’m not up for most of the touristy things to do here, which include elephant trekking (yikes), crocodile and monkey shows (ugh), canopy zip wires (done it), Thai boxing and water buffalo fighting. I do believe I am ready to come home to the rain, friends, family and even… Work. The weather here has been preparing me for home with stormy skies and big waves. I can’t say as I have minded too much because the temperature has been quite pleasant. I found a more ritzy hotel that agreed to let me use their pool if I drank… Ahhh, the pressure. The ocean has just been too choppy to swim in and strangely I have had enough of sun, salt and sand. I chose to go see a movie and get out of the wind. Rather than renting a moped I went with the “taxi moped,” who at least know the roads and traffic. They say more people die here than anywhere else in Thailand due to all the tourists who don’t know how to ride mopeds, are drunk or aren’t familiar with driving on the left.

The movie scene was yet another study in culture. You select your seat and wait for an invitation to enter. They, like us, have twenty minutes of previews but then everyone is asked to stand to honor the king. They sing, kinda like the national anthem, and show a video of the king and his good works. They really love him here. Every day of the week that you could be born on has a color. He was born on a Monday I guess, and the color is yellow. His wife, Friday, color blue. On these days you will see the majority of the population in royal yellow shirts (or blue on Friday). The shirts have the emblem of the monarchies flag and say “long live the king” in English or Thai. Anyway, I saw some English sci-fi movie about dragons and it was a nice break. I would like to see some of their movies that were advertised, like the exploits of two chubby boys off to their stay in a monastery to serve their obligatory time as monks. It looked really cute and a view into this uniquely Thai custom.

Today, I went to the Samui airport to catch my flight back to Bangkok and wow, what a gorgeous airport. They even served complimentary snacks, drove in little trolleys like at Disney World to the plane and served a delicious lunch even though the flight was less than an hour. Truly, they got the tourist gig down. I have to admit I was not so excited to come to Thailand because I generally prefer less touristed places. But really, there were still some adventures to be had and fantastic people to have them with. And most of all, there is good work to be done here by those of us blessed with the time, money and inclination to do so.

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The popular tourism destination is Thailand! Good weather, nice people and this country is very familiar with the western tourist, so traveling around here is easy. The hardest part is getting here. So after a mind, leg, and butt-numbing, 20-hour flight… please, and aside…WHY CAN’T SOMEONE DESIGN A COMFORTABLE PLANE??? I mean really, couldn’t it be like a train with berths? or hammocks? Is it really necessary to cram us in like that? and what is up with this “class” system? I say, “Out with it and the rest of the kings, queens and dictators!”

 

I did arrive without incident. As I mentioned, this is one of the easiest places I have ever been for traveling – smooth as Thai silk. The people are lovely, patient and helpful. Of course they start off with double the price for everything, beginning with the taxis from the airport to the city. If you go downstairs in the airport you can get the metered taxis to town at about 300 Baht plus road tolls versus the 900 they try to get you for upstairs. My hotel, The Siam, is clean and quiet and the pool refreshing. It is near enough to the popular Th Khao San road where all the backpackers are but far enough to not be bothered by the noise and crowds. I thought the people would speak more English than they do since they have so many tourists but am happy with whatever I can get, of course, as I don’t speak any Thai and can completely butcher the simplest of languages – and this one is not simple. It is important to have your destination on paper in the Thai characters, not just in our letters.

 

I arrived in the afternoon and decided to stay up until the night so as to switch my body clock. I wandered around locally but this area is a backpacker haven and you see more foreigners than locals. The streets are full of food stalls, clothes, chinese junk and massage parlors. But everything is pretty clean and peaceful and no one hassles you too much. I was so tired I figured I would just sit around in the lobby of my hotel and drink the local beer, Chang, which I heard has inconsistent quality control, so you are never sure what percentage of alcohol you are getting. As always in these places you meet other travelers. I was fortunate to meet Claire, a feisty young Scottish girl fresh from working in Australia; big, buxom and brash. We determined of all the things to see and do here in Bangkok, the girley show was the most bizarrely interesting, since we had heard about the Thai sex shows. So we recruited Tom from Italy as our chaperon and self-proclaimed tour guide. We stopped at the Saum Lam night Bazaar, an enormous shopping area touted as the cheapest place and where “the locals shop.” There were mostly locals in fact, and the prices, as with everything here, are ridiculously cheap. Mostly it is just ordinary things like clothes and shoes and handbags. Not much in arts or crafts. But my companions shopped like mad for all the latest knock off fashions. (They are young and into all that). Me, I was just looking for meditation pillows.

 

We made a quick stop off at one of the gazillions of food stalls for some reasonably yummy, healthy 50 cent noodles/rice/strips of miscellaneous animal flesh, then off to the selected show! Now really folks, this place is about everything I hate in humanity, but I tried to go with an open mind and heart. The streets are lined with neon signs advertising each show. I have to admit that I appreciate unapologetic “sin”. Like ice hockey, which is just violent, period. If you don’t like it, leave. Or like the Republican party: open, honest, in your face greed, no glossing it over. Confronted with this blatant expression, people finds themselves questioning their self righteous judgment and try to figure out the other side. I had to see this, like a train wreck; I was just morbidly curious. As a nurse I was curious to see what these women could do with their bodies.

 

These places try to get you to pay more so you have to resist massages, lap dances, etc. We got in with drink included for a whopping $5. To describe this experience adequately would be too x rated to print: It is dark and smokey with black lights so everyones eyes and teeth glow eerily. There is a stage with what appear to be fifteen year old little girls in thongs, pasties and knee high black leather boots. They wriggle a bit around the silver poles and, as far as I could tell, were completely bored. They visit amongst themselves like teenage girls would do in the hallways of any high school. Then, they take turns doing various obscene stunts alone for the “show.” I wanted to laugh, cry and vomit all at the same time. The most noticable thing about the whole experience was the audience. There were a few couples, like us I’m sure, sickly curious. But then, there were all these men, even some Thai men, all rather homely, balding, with big guts and wedding rings… or drunk frat boy types… . It was all so utterly mesmerizing and yet… strangely… dull. And that was that. No big deal. And yawning, we waved cheerio, see ya later, thanks; came home and went to bed. Tomorrow, sight seeing to all the temples.
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Day two in Bangkok was much more tame. Just the usual wats (temples), which are spectacular with lots of gold, tile, jade, monks and Buddhas. It was an auspicious day so all the monks were about doing prayers and what-not. Then we accidentally stumbled upon the long boats (colorful, thin wooden boats with enormously long engines) and bartered a good deal (500 Baht or $15US) to go through the back canals of the city. You have to pass through locks like a mini Panama Canal passage. The canals take you by all these fantastic little houses and temples and local folks going about their daily lives. Really pleasant. We also did the obligatory “amulet market” to pick up miniature Buddhas, beads and tiny jars with unidentifiable goo and bits in them; not sure what they’re for, but I loved the old lady selling them, and a wrinkly monk smoking cigarettes and listening to an iPod got involved in the sale. I think he didn’t want me to get ripped off, a whopping 25 cents.
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We then went through horrendous rush hour traffic in a Tuk-Tuk (I really do suggest traveling around by AC metered taxi as to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning ,and they actually are cheaper (Tuk-tuks lose their novelty quickly in ninety degree weather) to the MBK shopping country. Yes that’s right, it seems as big as a country…
way overwhelming, but my Scottish companion Claire is a shopping machine. I did find some of those $5 cool cotton fisherman pants, a must for the hip backpacker. So now, the luggage seems ridiculously full, already. Another tip: be careful trying to get cabs at rush hour. They turn off their meters and charge whatever they want because of the terrible traffic jams.

 

I got lazy and didn’t take care of business regarding the next leg of my journey so I had to pay a bit more to fly to Chiang Mai. It is more expensive to fly on the weekends and most the hotels are full because of the flower show happening up there for three months! I lucked out and found something downtown for a reasonable price, but I
recommend booking in advance.

 

My last day in Bangkok I decided to try the famous Thai massage rather than the river market (which is supposed to be quite nice but I didn’t have time before my flight north), and I swear she said her name was “Ew”. Just a little wisp of a thing, who would have thought she could toss me all over the place! They use amazing body mechanics and just push/poke/pull harder if you groan. I took a taxi to the airport ,and ,I don’t know if I mentioned it, but the taxis are every color from pink, yellow, green, purple… Quite festive. And they drive on the left, which means I am always getting in on the wrong side. During my ride I made a few “notes to self” of things I noticed. For example, I never hear any traditional music, only English or Thai pop blasted everywhere. The food, oddly enough, has not impressed me but I think that is because, as all my eating companions know: I Hate Cilantro… And it is in EVERYTHING. And, what’s up with the 7-11’s? My gosh they are making a killing here! Seriously, they are on every corner, it’s weird. The cigarette packs have pictures of skulls, black lungs, rotted teeth, etc. Made me wonder.

 

It’s a quick trip to Chiang Mai so my first evening I did a tour of the Night Bazaar. In fact, my hotel was called “The Night Bazaar” as it is right smack in the middle of things. I was the only farang (meaning westerner – it is pronounced as “all wrong”, not as “gosh dang”). It was nothing special, this hotel, but clean and with AC. Breakfast was included; Wonder Bread white toast and Nescafe. The Bazaar was just so crowded I really couldn’t take much of it and most the stuff is all the same, row after row. Really, as a species we will simply be buried under all of our crap.
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During the day I went to Wat Umong, a jungle temple. I lucked out and met a Thai English teacher who was volunteering with a program that has monks teach young kids about Buddhism. Everything I love wrapped up into one great experience. I got to see a few men get their heads and eyebrows shaved to join the monastery. It was a big deal with all the families there to celebrate. Then got to hang with the monks and kids for awhile, and with a translator taboot! She dropped me off at a place to catch sawngthaews (yeah, go ahead and try to pronounce
that one), which literally means “two boards”. They are trucks with two rows of seats in the back, definitely the cheapest transport. Again, tuk-tuks are the most expensive, believe it or not, and in Chiang Mai there are no metered taxis. Anyway, took one of these things up to Doi Sutep, a really amazingly beautiful temple up on top of a mountain overlooking the city of Chiang Mai. They have a program called “the International Buddhist Center” that offers retreats and training in English that I am considering. Kinda scares me I hate to admit… sitting still and quiet… I might just crack up and end up at the local mental hospital. Speaking of which,I have not seen even one schizophrenic on the streets! Where are all the crazy people? My English teacher friend assured me they have them. In fact she says she wants to study in the US how to teach hyperactive kids. I can’t believe it, the kids I have seen are all so well behaved. And, as you know, the boys all go to do training as a monk sometime in their youth. They can’t touch women by the way, the girls in the truck taxi all had to cram to one side so the monk boys could have their space. I realized I had accidently touched my old monk in Bangkok and that must be why he screamed. He probably has to come back again as a rat or something thanks to me. Well, finished the day walking down the Sunday market street. I have had my fill of markets already and am looking forward to going to the Elephant Nature Park.

 

 

RUN, DON’T WALK TO THIS ELEPHANT NATURE PARK!!!!

Oh my gosh, indeed I could die right now a fully content woman… OK, only fully if I knew these amazing creatures would never again be abused, tortured or made to serve Man. I cannot even begin to describe this experience but I will humbly try: The Elephant Nature Park (www.elephantnaturefoundation.org) is about forty or so kilometers north of Chiang Mai in the middle of a valley with lush jungle and a river running through it. There are thatched huts for us volunteers (with a mattress on the floor and a mosquito net) and the permanent staff. It is rustic but not really rough. We have electricity, shared toilets, cold running water for showers (you don’t really need a hot one) and the most delicious food I’ve had yet in Thailand. There are twenty eight elephants, forty dogs, and probably twenty or so cats, three cows and maybe thirty people counting permanent staff. The elephants have been rescued by this amazing woman, Dr. Sangduen ‘Lek’ Chailert, the founder of the elephant park who has dedicated her life to saving them and trying to change the cruel practices of “taming” them called the pajang. This is where they take the baby away from its mother and starve and torture it. Lek also discourages people from riding the elephants, which actually elephants are not designed to do as it hurts their backs. And of course trying to get them out of the circuses doing demeaning tricks or begging on the streets. I will let you read about her and the park on your own because the history of both is just too much for me to go into here. What I can say is that this is one of the greatest experiences of my life. We actually feed and bathe the elephants! There we are right in the river with them! My Gosh! I was so blissed out I was nearly hysterical.
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They are all around you, and you are splashing and scrubbing and they are letting you! The babies are just like ours, they just play and play and don’t want to come out of the water! Each elephant has it’s own painful story of how it ended up here… eyes poked out, foot blown up by a mine, mother shot for eating the crop, etc, etc… and these creatures, who never forget… have chosen to forgive and let us love on them. How blessed we are!

Needless to say, I am trying to stay another week. Lek came to the camp today and she heard I was a nurse and hopes I can come with her and a doctor to the villages to treat the local people. I also want to help the veterinarian and maybe even teach some mahouts (trainers), English. There is sooooo much to do! We need your help!
Today we planted half a field with grass shafts; soggy, muddy, scratchy work, but so rewarding because this will be food for the elephants. What Lek really needs is land, more land, and of course the money to buy it. Evidently this is the only place like this in Thailand so far. Hopefully this can become the new tourism. It is so much more fulfilling than a ride or a show.

Week two at the park and our group is preparing to leave on the “Jumbo Express,” eight hours in the back of a truck and one or two nights up in villages in the mountains to treat the people and their livestock and then do public relation visits to some schools. Lek is going so it should be a great opportunity to finally get to know her. We volunteers have been working our patooties off! Still, this is a truly amazing place. We went for an overnight trip to the mountains to get the elephants used to foraging like they would normally do in the wild. One of the big boys ran off and ransacked a village which we subsequently had to repair. The other morning one of the little babies decided a new game was to head-butt me and eat the flowers in the garden, then come up on the platform which I had dashed to for “safety”. It took three mahouts to get her out. So now we have had to change the fencing structure and the new issue will be that the other elephants have seen her get up on the platform and they want to try it too. I think they are plotting a take over. Some of us old timers got to change to nicer rooms. However, the showers are still freezing
cold, we wash our clothes by hand, and the “bamboo bounce” keeps you up at night (that is, whenever anyone walks by or turns over in bed, the whole structure sways). One of the bulls is in musthe, that is when they are ready to breed. You can tell because a fluid leaks out of their temples and runs down their cheeks. The males have to be chained during this time because they are so aggressive, so they bring one of the females over to him every day and we get to see “ele porn”. Actually, it is really beautiful to watch them nuzzling and loving on each other.

I’ve gotten to play nursey a few times with people falling or a mahout cutting himself or just plain getting depressed. The mahouts are generally from Burma and were living in refugee camps. They don’t speak Thai or English, but are reportedly better with elephants. For the most part they are all sweet and we try to teach English as they teach us. However, there are still bad ones, one guy got drunk and macheted his elephant… needless to say he is gone now. It will take a long time to change the centuries of thinking these creatures have no feelings. Really, they are so much better than we are; you should see the family groups and how they protect each other and the young.

Well, we arrived, again, to Chiang Mai. There are seven of us left from the original group and we have really bonded. Yes, yes, I am the Grandma. We are here to meet with our volunteer coordinator, Bryan (he’s even older than I am!) and celebrate our time together. I am so tired and dirty I can’t wait for a hot shower. The Jumbo Express was
really LONG. We were in the back of a truck on bumpy dirt roads with extreme hills for at least eight hours. We stopped at one elephant camp to check on their condition (which was not good… again, DO NOT RIDE ELEPHANTS), then carried on to the Karen village. We got in late but the people were so welcoming. We handed out toys to the kids, helped prepare an amazing dinner over the fire and then were invited around to all the homes to meet everyone. You sleep on the floor and the outhouse has a ceramic hole, not too bad really. It was SOOOOO COLD, though, and the women arise at five A.M. to beat the rice. They try to get up before the chickens, so they don’t eat it. They use this very cool levered pounding system then throw it up in the air so the husks blow away. After that we went from home to home to treat the animals. The houses are up on stilts and the animals live below. We treated pigs and water buffalo.
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This village does have elephants but they are all out working the trekking. One is with us at the park and is called a “leased” elephant because we pay and it will have to be returned one day. The families send their boys to work with the
elephant as its mahout. The hope is that they learn kinder healthier ways to manage and train the elephants and eventually return home. Lek hopes one day to send volunteers for home stays in these villages. Again, building the bridge between the park and the local people is key to the success of saving the elephants. We also treated the villagers with deworming formulas, cough medicines, etc… simple stuff, plus gave out basic hygiene items, school supplies and clothes. There were about forty families in this village; it was a bit chaotic but appeared enjoyable to all. Then we drove like mad from school to school over pretty bad roads, gave out prezzies, took a group photo, then zoomed off to the next one. It was a bit confusing. Again, I think Lek is just trying to build up community support.
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We were grateful to get back “home.” These last couple of days have been sad, preparing to leave. All of us feel completely lost as to what to do next… And the park is full so we can’t stay. I figure I will take a day or two to clean up, eat pizza, and ponder the next step. Nothing seems to grab me at the moment. The hill tribe visits turn out to be real human zoos: Evidently the long neck people stopped wearing the rings for awhile but then realized they could make money from tourists if they did it so they started it up again.I don’t think I can take that. At the moment everything to do sounds meaningless; I’m afraid I’m hooked on this volunteering thing.