Ayutthaya

January 22. After breakfast, we go to visit the ancient city of Ayutthaya. Founded in 1351 it was the capital of Thailand until 1767, when it was sacked by the Burmese, and the capital was eventually moved to Bangkok. First, we stop at the summer palace, beautifully manicured, but not all that interesting.

Thereafter we photograph the numerous ancient temples, two reclining Buddha’s and more, stopping for a Pad Thai lunch between two of the sites.

The weather is hotter than hell so our visits to the various sites were not as long as they might otherwise have been, knowing that the air conditioned bus awaited.

We also saw some people, and, of course, a couple cute kids.

We return to Bangkok around 5PM, and say goodbye to our guide of the past two days, Moo, who is a nice fellow and tries hard, but is pretty much incomprehensible, so the Group largely tunes him out. Carol and I have an unsuccessful shopping expedition at the Jim Thompson store not far from the hotel, then return to relax and shower.

We go out to dinner with Joseph and Robert at a restaurant not far from the hotel, called Somboon. Excellent meal and fun conversation. Back to the hotel to pack and retire.

Floating and Royalty

January 21. After breakfast at the hotel, we depart on a large, luxurious bus for Damnern Saduak (Bangkok’s famed “floating market”). On the bus, our guide, Moo, talks to us about Thai culture and history. We learn the greeting “swatikop” ( for men) and “swatika” (for women), and the proper way to bow to show respect. We pass fields of salt and go through towns with pictures of the king, Rama X, one of which I took a photo of yesterday, somewhat ironically, with my iPhone X. After the hour and a half bus ride, we explore and photograph the daily spectacle of the floating market from our private long-tailed boat. The market is very crowded and not too easy to photograph, but both the boat ride and the market were great fu

After some delicious iced mocha coffee, we take the 1 1/2 hour bus ride back to Bangkok and have lunch at the Navy Court.

In the afternoon we visit and photograph Bangkok’s ornate Royal Palace. Moo was our guide.The Palace was amazing.

Part of the fun was watching other photographers.

And guess who showed up as a surprise photographer; the person who was never going to go on another photography trip.

After a much needed rest, and an even more needed shower, we met and walked to dinner at an excellent nearby restaurant. After a terrific dinner, out for some night street photography and then to the Pink Panther for some 11PM pole dancing and Thai kick-boxing.

Bangkokok

January 20

Long plane ride from Chicago to Bangkok via Hong Kong. Time to read all of Priestdaddy: A Memoir, by Patricia Lockwood, a very funny, interesting and well-written book (and one of the ten best of 2017, according to the New York Times Book Review).

Time to play with your iPhone X, taking photos of your wife, and even of the flower they’ve put in your little cubicle.

Part of the time is consumed reading material relating to the trip, which contained this warning from our travel company (highlighted among various dos and don’ts):

Both the former and the present King of Thailand are revered by the Thai beyond any comparison with other countries. Never EVER make a remark about the King or the Royal House that can even remotely be interpreted as critical or disrespectful. The Royal House with the King as head is a very sensitive subject for the Thai. Any criticism, however small or well intended, will not be tolerated by any Thai. Disrespectful behaviour towards the Royal House or the Buddhist religion is punishable with imprisonment.

Never ever start a conversation about the King or the Royal House by yourself. Should a Thai start talking with you about the King, then just only talk about how good the King is and has been to Thailand and the countless good things that the King has done for the country.

Thailand has a strict Lese Majeste law that includes extremely high penalties and fines and even imprisonment on everything that can be interpreted as defaming the King or the Royal House. This goes very far. For instance, if a bank note blows away by the wind, and you run after it to get it back, then NEVER step on the bank note to prevent it from blowing further. Because banknotes have the image of the King. If you step on a bank note, that means that you put your foot on the face of the King, one of the largest insults that a Thai can imagine. Never step on a coin for the same reason.

My reaction to all of this was that I hope to hell that Trump or Generalissimo Kelly don’t read this, or we’ll all soon be subject to the same constraints, and Trump, appropriately enough, will be pictured on the fake three dollar bill, which he’ll declare to be a tremendous bill, and the largest denomination, ever.

Our connection in Hong Kong is too tight to go to the business lounge, so we go straight to the gate. Arriving in Bangkok three hours later, we have some difficulty finding our ride at the airport, but eventually succeed and driven to our hotel, The Siam Heritage, which is some 45 minutes away. We check in, shower and go right to bed at 1:30 AM to get some rest.

Up early for breakfast (because neither of us sleeps too well) at the hotel, which our itinerary, taking great poetic license, describes as “the beautiful Siam Heritage”. The place is certainly adequate, but nobody will mistake it for a Four Seasons or Oberoi.

We’ve elected to arrive a day early to shake the jet lag and to see a bit of Bangkok. We change money in an ATM and I damn near leave my card in the machine. I’m not awake yet, really. Our first stop is the Jim Thompson House which we get to by taxi. (All three taxis we take during the day come to a total of $9.). One of the taxis has medallions of Buddha and the king dangling from the rear view mirror.

Thompson was an American businessman who fell in love with Thailand and decided to live there. He built a beautiful house and grounds, and had an absolutely exquisite collection of antique sculpture, porcelains and paintings. Young guides wait to show us around.Thompson was largely responsible for developing the Thai silk industry. His house was completed in 1959 and in 1967 Thompson mysteriously disappeared on a trip to the jungles in the highlands of Malaysia. The house and grounds are now a stunning museum, which currently has a beautiful batik show.

We resist buying some of the beautiful silks on display in the store there.

in our next taxi, we drive by large portraits of the king that appear in front of buildings.As Mel Brooks said, on the 2000-Year Old Man, “its good to be king.”

From there we go to the Susan Pakkad Palace Museum, which contains very ancient art and artifacts. Eight Thai houses are scattered through lovely grounds. The Lacquer Pavilion from the 17th Century, previously located in Ayudhya was brought here and restored in 1959as a 50th birthday gift to the then princess.

The palace and museum are interesting, but we needed explanations to fully appreciate them.

We return to the hotel, where we have a good, simple lunch, with a very cold beer!

After a much-needed, long nap, we meet our group in the hotel lobby at 6:30. Carol and I already met Karl Grobl at his photography exhibit in Lisle a couple days ago. And we’d had dinner with Robert Cook and Joseph Henson at our friend Dee Dee Sandt’s house in Atlanta. Robert was a patent lawyer for Amgen Pharmaceuticals, has a PhD in chemistry, is fluent in French and Spanish and loves photography.  Joseph was a real estate attorney.  Both were born and raised in Atlanta, but have traveled extensively. They’ve vowed, with us, not to discuss photography technicalities at meals. The rest of the group includes a couple from North Carolina, Tom and Julie, a couple from Denver, Mike and Judy, Isabel from Phoenix and Meredith from Connecticut..

We all go out to a nearby Thai restaurant, which has some dancers.

Carol and I then taxi over to Chinatown to take in the colorful scene there.

We taxi back to the hotel, Blog and retire.

Off to Thailand

January 18-19.

We’re in the business class lounge.

About to take off. Almost twenty hours to Hong Kong, then less than a two hour layover before our short flight to Bangkok.

We’ve never visited Thailand, but I spent much longer than I wanted in the Bangkok airport five years ago. We were flying to Hong Kong from Myanmar and had arranged for a very special dinner at a private club in Hong Kong. I became quite ill on the flight to Bangkok and wound up spending over seven hours in the Cathay Pacific airline club and visiting an airport doctor who looked to be about twelve years old. We missed the flight we were scheduled on and the dinner we were to have enjoyed. Rather heavily medicated, I was wheeled onto the plane, greeted with a wheel chair at the other end and pushed to our Hong Kong hotel, which we’d changed from The Four Seasons to an airport hotel. I was feeling considerably better the next morning for our flight back to Chicago. I’m hoping to spend a good deal less time in the Bangkok airport on this trip.

Carol and I are going with a small group of ten on a photography trip, Carol having recanted her vow never again to go on a photography trip after Namibia. We both loved Namibia, and Carol actually did not object to the time we spent photographing. But she hated the fact that virtually all the discussion between participants at meals was on photography, and so she said, “never again.”

Three things convinced her to change her mind. First, through a friend in Atlanta, we met Joseph and Robert (of which more later) who we liked a lot and convinced to come on the trip. The four of us have taken a solemn vow never to discuss photography at meals. Second, she really wanted to go to the places we are going on this trip. And third, the trip is being led by Karl Grobl, a professional photographer from Illinois, who has lived in Cambodia for many years and whose specialty is photographing relief efforts around the world. We’ve heard great things about Karl from multiple sources, and because we didn’t have enough to do on our last day in Chicago, Carol and I drove an hour to Benedictine University in Lisle to see the opening of Karl’s photography show and to hear him speak about photographing relief efforts. Well worth the trip. Here’s a link to Karl’s website, if you’d like to see his work, http://www.karlgrobl.com/

Okay, I try to provide a brief overview of where we’re going, so here’s a too long, incomplete and disjointed view of Thailand. Other than that it’s good, though. Read of it only as much as you choose. After all, if I did little preparation for this trip, why should you?

THAILAND, GEOGRAPHY AND HISTORY  Thailand is located in the centre of mainland Southeast Asia, and has about the same land area as Spain or France.  It consists of two broad geographic areas: a larger main section in the north and a smaller peninsular extension in the south. The main body of the country is surrounded by Myanmar (Burma) to the west, Laos to the north and east, Cambodia to the southeast, and the Gulf of Thailand to the south. Peninsular Thailand stretches southward from the southwestern corner of the country along the eastern edge of the Malay Peninsula. Located wholly within the tropics, Thailand encompasses diverse ecosystems, including the hilly forested areas of the northern frontier, the fertile rice fields of the central plains, the broad plateau of the northeast, and the rugged coasts along the narrow southern peninsula.

Until the second half of the 20th century, Thailand was primarily an agricultural country, but since the 1960s increasing numbers of people have moved to Bangkok, the capital, and to other sizable cities, such as Chiang Mai in the north, Nakhon Ratchasima (Khorat), Khon Kaen, and Udon Thani in the northeast, Pattaya in the southeast, and Hat Yai in the far south

HISTORY. Most scholars now believe that the Tai came from northern Vietnam around the Dien Bien Phu area and that about 1,000 years ago they spread from there northward into southern China; westward into southwestern China, northern Myanmar(Burma), and northeastern India; and southward into what are now Laos and Thailand.

As the Tai moved south into mainland Southeast Asia, they encountered the Khmer of Cambodia. Between the 9th and the 13th century, Khmer rulers expanded their domains from their capital at Angkor, establishing an empire that, at its height under Jayavarman VII (reigned 1181–c.1220), extended over approximately half of modern Thailand. Whereas Mon kingdoms were predominantly Buddhist in character, Khmer civilization—which found its supreme expression in the great temple complex at Angkor—was heavily influenced by Hindu ideas and practices. The Tai borrowed from the Khmer many elements of Indianized culture, including royal ceremonies, customs followed at the court, and especially the Indian epic Ramayana, which influenced not only literature but also classical dance. Even in modern Thai culture the legacy of the Indianized culture of Angkor is still evident.

The Ayutthaya kingdom—situated in the rich rice plains of the Chao Phraya River basin, about 55 miles (90 km) north of present-day Bangkok—lasted more than 400 years (1351-1767). During the Ayutthayan period the Tai consolidated their position as the leading power in what is now central and north-central Thailand, as well as throughout much of its southern peninsular region. Since many of Ayutthaya’s neighbours called the country “Siam” or a name similar to it, the Tai of Ayutthaya came to be known as the Siamese.

Ayutthaya at first was only a small city-kingdom on the northwestern edge of the powerful Khmer empire. Within less than a century, however, Tai kings succeeded in pushing back the Khmer, and in 1431 they sacked their great capital of Angkor.  When the Siamese conquered Angkor, they brought many Khmer captives back to Ayutthaya with them, some of whom had been officials or craftsmen at the Khmer royal court. From them Ayutthaya’s rulers adopted many of the Hindu ideas and practices that had been followed by the Khmer, including the concept of the ruler as god-king (devaraja). The king acquired power to determine the life and death of all his people.

A new era in Thai history began with the rise to power of Taksin, a military commander of great skill and charismatic personality who succeeded within a decade after the fall of Ayutthaya in expelling the Burmans and making himself king of Siam. In 1767 Taksin established his new capital at Thon Buri, on the opposite side of the Chao Phraya River from present-day Bangkok.

Within a few years of seizing power, however, Taksin showed signs of serious mental instability, and in 1782 he was overthrown and put to death. He was succeeded by his former military commander, known by his official name of Chao Phraya (“Great Lord”) Chakri. The new king founded the Chakri (or Chakkri) dynasty, which has continued to the present day.

One of the first acts of the new king—who would come to be known as Rama I (reigned 1782–1809)—was to move his capital across the Chao Phraya River to Bangkok, which at the time was still a small village. By the mid-19th century, Bangkok had become a city of some 400,000 people, swelled by the huge numbers of Chinese who had poured into Siam during those years.

Demands for free trade and diplomatic representation in Siam accelerated with the British advances into Myanmar and Malaya and the opening of several Chinese ports following the first Opium War with China (1839–42). In 1855 Queen Victoria sent Sir John Bowring as her personal emissary to Siam to demand an end to all trade restrictions. He was also instructed to secure the right to establish a British consulate in Bangkok and, in addition, the right to set up separate law courts to try cases involving British subjects (an element of extraterritoriality). The resulting Bowring Treaty (1855), in which Siam acceded to those demands, was followed shortly by similar treaties with other major European powers and the United States. Although those treaties left Siam intact politically, they severely reduced the country’s sovereignty and independence.

There followed many kings, Ramas II-VII, and much history that I’m not going to tell you, because you wouldn’t remember it, anyway.

Siam, as Thailand was officially called until 1939, was never brought under European colonial domination. Independent Siam was ruled by an absolute monarchy until a revolution there in 1932. Since that time, Thailand has been a constitutional monarchy, and all subsequent constitutions have provided for an elected parliament. Political authority, however, has often been held by the military, which has taken power through coups. Thailand faced a new external threat along its eastern border following the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia in 1979; as one consequence of that occupation, Thailand found itself forced to shelter a growing number of Southeast Asian refugees, arriving primarily from Cambodia. During the last two decades of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st, parliamentary democracy steadily gained wider popular support. Although a crisis emerged in 2006, when the military, aligned with the monarchy, overthrew an elected government, new parliamentary elections were held—as promised by the interim government—in 2007.

POLITICAL PROCESS. Prior to the 1980s the political process in Thailand was usually controlled by elites whose power was derived from the military. However, the idea of parliamentary government, first enshrined in the constitutions of the 1930s, never totally disappeared. Thailand has had universal suffrage since 1932, and the minimum voting age is 18. Although no laws have prevented women from involvement in politics, few women have stood for election to the legislature.

Elected parliaments began to gain influence over the political process in the 1980s, and since 1992 governmental power has been exercised through an elected National Assembly, except for a 15-month period in 2006–07, when the military took control.

The role the military has played in the Thai political process reflects an often enunciated principle by leaders of the armed forces that only a well-disciplined military can preserve public order and protect the monarchy. This principle has been challenged both inside and outside of the legislature by those who see laws developed and passed by an elected National Assembly as the basis for a diverse yet orderly society. Like military politicians, however, elected officials often have used their power to advance their own private interests rather than those of the society as a whole.

RELIGION.  The vast majority of people in Thailand are adherents of Buddhism. The Theravada tradition of Buddhism came to Thailand from Sri Lanka and is shared by peoples in Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, and parts of southern China and southern Vietnam. The community of monks (sangha) is central to this tradition. In Thailand almost every settlement has at least one temple-monastery (wat), where monks in their distinctive yellow robes reside and where communal rituals take place.

When Thailand was still primarily an agrarian society, rituals held according to the Buddhist calendar at the wat were central to communal life. At most of these rites, laypeople offered various combinations of food, clothing, medicine, and shelter to monks. Laypeople acquired Buddhist merit (bun) from these gifts, which would improve their chances for a good rebirth. Monks also conveyed the teachings of the Buddha through sermons and actions that exemplified the lessons. The Buddhist ritual cycle continues to be followed in villages, but in urban settings it has become less pronounced.

There has long been a tradition among the Thai for young men to ordain as monks for at least one period of phansa (the Buddhist Lent), which lasts for three months during the rainy season. With the expansion of secular schooling and increased opportunities for nonagricultural work, however, fewer men have adhered to the tradition. In the 21st century, many young men have chosen not to enter the monkhood, or they have spent a much shorter period of time as members of the sangha.

Thai religion has incorporated beliefs and practices from local religion as well as from Hinduism. Although there are only a small number of Hindus in Thailand, largely the descendants of immigrants from India, Hindu religious elements are common. Since the 16th century the Thai court has engaged court Brahmans to oversee some of the most elaborate rites associated with the monarchy. Shrines to Hindu deities are found throughout the country, and the shrine to Brahma at the Erawan Hotel in Bangkok attracts hundreds of people each day who seek the help of this deity in confronting the vicissitudes of urban life.

A number of distinct and competing movements have developed among Thai Buddhists since the late 20th century.

While Buddhism is the dominant religion, other religions are also found in the country. A small but significant minority of Muslims lives primarily in southern Thailand, but also in and around Bangkok. Although Christian missionaries first came to the country in the 16th century, only a tiny fraction of Thai have converted to Roman Catholicism or Protestantism, and most Christians are members of ethnic minorities, mainly Sino-Thai. The influence of Christianity is not, however, limited to those who have converted to the religion, since many of the non-Christian elite attended Christian schools.

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REFLECTIONS ON PREPARING FOR A TRIP

January 16, 2018. So, I started to write this a couple weeks before we take off, on January 18, for Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. (You may wonder, since we were just in Vietnam in October, why didn’t we just do Thailand, Laos and Cambodia then? Well, we didn’t realize that they were all so close. No, actually, we did realize that, but we could not stay long enough to see all of these countries on one trip, which would have taken a month.) A couple weeks before departure is about the time that I typically think, jeez, we’re really going to do this trip, aren’t we.

Right next to me, on my desk, sit four large books about Angkor Wat that our friend, Mike Lewis, loaned to us when we first signed up for the trip, about a year ago.  Until last week, I had not opened the books and now that I have, I’m overwhelmed.  So, when you’re overwhelmed, what do you do? You start to wax philosophical about preparation for a trip.

Mike’s books are full of wonderful photos that I’ll certainly look at. But there are also a whole lot of words and dates and unpronounceable names in those books.  What do I do about those?

There’s no question in my mind that the more you know about something the richer your experience can be.  Up to a limit, though.  Do I need to remember the name Jayavarman VII, or know that Ta Prohm is the terrestrial counterpart of the star Eta Draconis?  Of what real value is that going to be?  More importantly, how am I going to work that into a cocktail party conversation?  And am I really going to remember whether something was built in the late twelfth or early fourteenth century?

Is it worth trying to cram some of this stuff into my head, even if I’m not going to remember it, long term, because short term, maybe I’ll remember some stuff and that will enhance my experience while I’m there, or at least allow me to ask a question of the guide that will dazzle others on the trip with my apparent knowledge and grasp of the historical/cultural/geographical/archeological significance of what I’m looking at?

Maybe all of this reflection is aimed at justifying my natural laziness.  I’m not sure I actually want to make the rather large effort it would require to understand everything (or even a lot of) what’s in the books or in the descriptions on websites that I’ve also begun to read.  At some level, there’s got to be a cost/benefit analysis and, for me, I think that the cost of trying to master all of this stuff is not worth the benefit.  I can learn enough (for me) by doing a half-assed job of reading some websites, looking over some books and gleaning what I can from knowledgeable tour guides. And Carol and I did learn more about Cambodia in an hour and a half visit to the Cambodia Association of Illinois where, among other things, we saw the memorial to those killed by the Khmer Rouge and listened to our guide sing and play music on the roneat aek.

Indeed, beyond laziness, there’s the troubling question of whether I’m even capable at this point in my life of mastering and retaining the material.  I’m put in mind of a poem by Billy Collins, called Forgetfulness:

Forgetfulness

BY BILLY COLLINS

The name of the author is the first to go

followed obediently by the title, the plot,

the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel

which suddenly becomes one you have never read, never even heard of,

as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor

decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,

to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

Long ago you kissed the names of the nine muses goodbye

and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,

and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,

something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,

the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.

Whatever it is you are struggling to remember, it is not poised on the tip of your tongue or even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.

It has floated away down a dark mythological river

whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall

well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those

who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.

No wonder you rise in the middle of the night

to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.

No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted

out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.

Billy Collins, “Forgetfulness” from Questions About Angels. Copyright © 1999 by Billy Collins.

All of this reflecting about preparation for the trip made me think back on the travel that Carol and I have been so fortunate to do, starting with our honeymoon, 52 ½ years ago.  What, I wondered did we take away from those trips? I decided to make a list of the most memorable experiences I’d had on those trips. So far, I’ve listed more than eighty.  There are many more that could easily have been put on the list, but I’ve decided to be somewhat judicious in my selection. Don’t worry, I’m not going to list all 80-some, but I thought it might be fun to give you a few of the top picks.

Under some duress, Carol agreed to review my list and we each, separately, picked our top ten (category A), our next fifteen (B) and our next fifteen after that (C).  There was a rather high degree of agreement between us, though some of my As were Bs for her, Bs were Cs, and the reverse was true as well.  Out of the ten As, we agreed on six, so here they are, not necessarily in order.

Varanasi. The holiest place on the Ganges overwhelms as you see the colorful dress of those approaching the river, watch people bathe in the filthy waters, others throw in the remains of cremated family members, laundry being scrubbed and, each evening, Mother Ganges being put to sleep in a religious ceremony with bells, incense and chants.

Michelangelo’s statue of David, carrying his slingshot. Exquisite and larger than life, as you gaze up at this work of art, it seems almost impossible to believe that a human being created it.

Dunes in Namibia, a surrealistic experience to see these natural, sculptural formations, changing ever so slowly with the wind.

Grand Canyon under the moon and stars. On a rafting trip with our daughters, camping out at the bottom of the canyon, by the side of the Colorado River, we experienced the awe of this magnificent sight. The next day, walking by the side of the river, I slipped and fell, breaking my ankle, and had to be helicoptered out. Not so good.

Game Seven of the 2016 World Series, Cubs beating the Cleveland Indians in ten innings, to win the World Series for the first time in 108 years. We traveled only about 300 miles, but we reached a country called Euphoria. Perhaps the greatest baseball game ever, ending in pure joy—and relief from a burden borne by many generations before us.

Well, as I said, these are just a few. There are many more—trekking gorillas and chimps, walking among the tree tops of the forest, sitting in a Jeep beneath a tree at night while a leopard munches on a warthog above us, flying in a balloon over the stupas in Bagan, attending weddings in India and in Lagos, Nigeria, dog sledding in Wyoming, gazing at the gigantic heads on Easter Island, riding in helicopters on our helihiking trip in the Canadian Rockies, walking by the pyramids and the Sphinx, visiting rural villages in Ghana, fly fishing in New Zealand, biking in Beijing, seeing tigers from elephant back, going to the Royal Ascot races in London, scuba diving with manta rays and hammerhead sharks in the Galappagos, marveling at Machu Picchu in Peru…this and more, all amazing. But, of course, it’s not the individual elements of a trip, however marvelous, that make travel so wonderful, but the overall experience and especially the amazing people you meet along the way.

So, I’m feeling a lot more comfortable about my laziness in preparing for this trip. In the end, that’s not what it’s all about. And, besides, I know enough about Jayavarman VII already. He followed Jayavarman VI.

(Apologies for the length of this post, but, hey, that’s what happens when you wax philosophical 😀.)