Beijing

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November 16, 2013: We got to Beijing late Thursday afternoon, and it started with a bang! Right out of the gate, my sister had a throw-down with the taxi driver. He saw a couple of American women and saw opportunity. My sister saw a taxi driver who was trying to take advantage. He lost. But not before we threatened to get out on the exit, and had the airport authorities over for a visit. My sister, pointing at his meter saying, “Meter! Meter! We’ll get out if you don’t charge according to the meter!” He responded by yelling at me in Chinese, showing me his cell phone, and pointing at my suitcase, which was sitting on the seat next to him. (He wouldn’t talk to my sis.) Dude. No matter how loud you yell at me in Chinese, I’m still not gonna understand a word you’re saying. Exhilarating way to start this leg of the journey. All I can say is my sister is bad ass.

We were in the lobby getting ready to check in when my sister got a call from her good friend in Beijing. Her water had just broken (a month early), and her husband was still in the states. We met another friend of hers, and they went to the hospital and acted as last-minute, surrogate coaches. I stayed at the hotel, ordered room service, and watched the whole first season of Breaking Bad. I think I had the more relaxing evening.

Friday was a lot less contentious, but very eventful. We had a guide that drove us to the Temple of Heaven, which was really interesting. It is in the middle of a park, and there were hundreds of Chinese folks that gather for a variety of activities. The Chinese are very communal, and they congregate at the park to sing patriotic songs (loyalty to the communist party), take dance lessons, play cards, dominos, and exercise. The Temple itself was beautiful, and is constructed without nails or glue. Everything has meaning … the number of steps, the tablet in the center, everything. We went from there to a jade factory, then on to the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall. Our guide, Patrick, was fascinating to talk to, and we named our driver, Mr. Yan, “Mario”. He was a maniac. Susan preferred to avert her eyes, but my tendency for carsickness had me watching the road the whole way. You truly take your life in your own (driver’s) hands on those winding, mountain roads. Near miss after near miss, yet I’m here in Seoul to tell the tale. And the Great Wall is … epic. How this was accomplished, at the time it was accomplished, defies explanation.

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We headed back to the Olympic Village, saw the Bird’s Nest and the Water Cube, then headed off for an authentic Chinese banquet. My sister, who had traveled extensively to Beijing, is changing jobs, so it was a farewell in her honor. It was absolutely fascinating, and extraordinarily meaningful. So much ritual and ceremony. And, boy, can those Chinese drink! There is toast after toast of this alcohol called baijieu. (52% alcohol content … yikes!) And it’s considered rude to pass on a toast. From there, it was on to another favorite Chinese pastime … karaoke. You get a room of your own, where you dance and sing with your own group. With all of the toasting, I’m afraid I sang. This is not my gift. I did, however, perfect my patented Jackie Chan dance move. At the end of the night, I told a woman in our group that she had a beautiful voice. She said to me, in her heavily-accented English, “and you have a beautiful dance.” This was one of the most glorious moments of my life. I was born lacking the rhythm gene, so even if she was only being gracious, I know this was likely the one and only time I will hear these words.

Yesterday, the winds blew in and cleared the polluted skies. (Beijing is not conducive to asthma.) The weather gods were smiling on us the whole trip … we had one rain squall in Bangkok that lasted about an hour. Other than that, we were under beautiful skies, warm air, and tolerable humidity. We visited the new baby, shopped at the Silk Street Market, had dinner, and now … homeward bound!

I am so grateful to live in the United States. In China, if you are wealthy, you can enter a lottery to win the right to buy a car. You can drive every other day, depending on your license plate number. You must fill out paperwork to request permission to move to another city. People wear masks in the city because of the quality of the air. We, on the other hand, have western toilets. And Charmin …

Chiang Mai, Day 2

November 12, 2013: Best. Day. Ever. And that’s something, given the quality of days we’ve experienced in the last week and a half. We spent the day high in the hills of Chiang Mai. Now, THIS is what I imagined Thailand to be … beautiful, expansive rice paddies and thick jungle. And the Patara Elephant Farm is no ordinary ride high atop a houdah.

The experience starts with a bit of storytelling … And what a story it was. Pat, the owner, fell in love with a woman from Chiang Mai, and wanted to start an organic farm here. He found his little piece of heaven, but it came with an elephant. If he didn’t take the elephant, he could not buy the land. So, he did. He knew the elephant needed a partner, and from that union came their first baby, Lucky. At times, the farm has had in excess of seventy elephants, and right now there are around 50. They’ve bred, rescued, and nurtured these beautiful creatures over the years, and Pat has become a sort of cat lady of the elephant world.

We are partnered with an elephant for the day, and mine was a middle-aged 28-year-old named Mae Khan Jun. My sister spent the day with Bun Pao, a 19-year old, headstrong young man, who gave her a run for her money. He was a fan of getting his bum rubbed, against a tree, a bank, pretty much whatever was available. He also wasn’t a fan of the beaten path, and trekked off in unplanned directions.

The interesting thing is that you first must see if your elephant likes you. You spend some time with them, feeding them bananas, sugar cane, and bana grass. If they like you, you’re in. If not, you’re out. On to another elephant. Fortunately, neither of us were rejected, and we had our partners. I was initially a little concerned. Mae did not seem enamored. She apparently was not a fan of my sunglasses … I took them off and looked her in the eye. Made all the difference. I fell in love with those bright, intelligent eyes.

The next step is to assess the health of each animal. An elephant that sleeps lying down is healthy. You check this by seeing if they have dirt on their sides. A happy elephant swings its ears and wags its tail. Are they sweating? This is determined by sliding a finger between their toes. And finally, the unadvertised special … what’s up with their poo? Count of poos (five or more is good), consistency, scent, and the amount of moisture. The counting part? Piece of cake. The other checks? Done by hand. Yes … Today I squeezed elephant poo. I was concerned at first, because Mae had no poo in her vicinity. She accommodated me, however, by presenting me with a warm, fresh pile. I think I would have preferred an aged one.

Then, it’s off for bath time. You scrub, rinse, scrub, rinse, then scrub some more. My trainer did not approve of my light touch. Their skin requires a more vigorous rub. I was afraid to hurt her, but I think they’re pretty tough. Then, we were off for our trek. You ride on their neck, knees braced behind their ears, with a single rope loop to hold on to, behind your back. One hand holding the loop, the other flat on her head. Initially, this feels unsteady, precarious, and just the tiniest bit terrifying. But soon you acclimate to the rhythm. You lean forward on the uphill, lean back on the down. We traversed the jungle … up, up, up … down, down, down. Bamboo, unsteady ground … butterflies. An iridescent beetle, the shiniest green I’ve ever seen. We stopped for an authentic Thai lunch, then played with two new babies, one of which was only six days old.

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Then, it was back up on our new friends, heading home through a river under a bamboo canopy. The scenery was breathtaking … acres of rice paddies, wildflowers and orchids … more of the prolific, dancing butterflies. Then, goodbye. I don’t think you’re the same after looking into an elephant’s eye … pressing your cheek against its cheek. They’re magical, these creatures. This was a day I will never forget.

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What a way to end this leg of our trip. Thailand, that’s a wrap …

Chiang Mai

November 11, 2013: Early exit out of Bangkok. Five o’clock in the morning was the only time we saw light traffic. There were still stale traces of night life … that is one mo’ fo’ crazy-ass town. I was able to take advantage of the time zone difference and make a quick call to my son from the airport. I was excited to tell him about getting a tattoo in Bangkok. He spent a good part of his life thinking I was so NOT cool. Finally! My chance! His hip mom, livin’ life on the edge! First words out of his mouth? “Mom! That is VERY dangerous!” Sigh … before I knew it, my window of opportunity had slipped through my fingers. My boy is now … dare I say it? Mature.

Chiang Mai is beautiful. The Mae Ping River runs all the way through the city. It is flanked by trees, and a multitude of fountains send a cooling mist over the streets. It seems simpler than Phuket … more gentle. (Though the scooter riders are universally nuts.) We spent a lazy day by the pool, recharging after the frenzied bustle of Bangkok. The night market is right next to our hotel, and we shopped for a few trinkets on the way to get a Thai massage (our fourth of the trip). This one was a doozy. My masseuse walked on me! Luckily, she weighed about 85 pounds. We had a moaner in the “stall” next door. Not sure what was going on over there, and I’m fairly certain I don’t want to know. Yikes. After our massage, we had dinner at a joint called “Lemongrass”. Its motto drew us in … “No view, but tasty”. Who could resist?

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We experienced a short-lived adrenaline rush as we traveled from the airport to our hotel this morning. Never laid eyes on the protesters in Bangkok, but one of the first things we saw in Chiang Mai was a large band of angry marauders. Hostile desperadoes, sporting red bandanas, gunshots … fists in the air. Well. Turns out Owen Wilson is starring in a movie that is being filmed here called, “The Coup”. It’s the story of an American family in the midst of rebels attacking the city. Less dramatic than an authentic uprising, but infinitely preferable.

Tomorrow, we spend our day with the elephants. I am so looking forward to learning about and playing with these gentle giants. Until then ….

Bangkok, Day 2

November 10, 2013: Bangkok … total. Sensory. Overload. It’s loud, dirty, colorful, ancient, and chaotic. We had a couple of cups of coffee this morning, and headed to the Sky Train, which, by day’s end, we had mastered. It is an efficient, albeit crowded, mode of transportation. Two train lines and a boat ride later, we arrived at Wat Pho, where there is a concentrated group of temples.

While we were cruising down the Chao Phraya River, we thought, “Oh, shoot! We forgot to eat breakfast!” “We¬†can just grab something there”. Wrong. Not unless you’re jonesing for some dried fish parts. We got off the boat, and stepped in to a makeshift market that was really just a shack on pilings. You had to duck under the chest-high support beams, where they hung partially-full water bottles, so you wouldn’t conk your noggin. In hindsight, this was genius, especially for a noggin-conking expert, such as myself. We exited the shack, and walked past the street vendors, who were selling the aforementioned fish parts. Yikes … that was stinky.

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The temples were truly magnificent. To enter, there were to be no shoes, no bare arms, and no shorts. Fortunately, and since I was (as per usual) breaking the rules, Rent-a-Robe was available for our convenience. This is a sublime corner of the planet … it was like nothing I’ve ever seen.

After touring Wat Pho, we caught the boat. Going the wrong way. This, in no way, is a reflection of our sense of direction (or lack thereof), we simply knew the thing eventually had to turn around. So, forty-three stops (I might be exaggerating) and an hour or so later, we reached the end of the line. “Excellent!”, we thought, until the rare unfriendly Thai said to us, “Get out.” Wait … What?! “Get out.”, she repeated. We’ve been waiting DAYS for this rig to turn around! But nooooo … we had to get in the OTHER boat. That would have been useful information forty-two stops earlier.

Five o’clock in the afternoon. Still. Have. Had. No. Breakfast. At last we reach our hotel. Chicken satay, spring rolls, cosmopolitan by the pool. Whew.

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Next mission … find Bangkok Hard Rock Cafe to buy my boy a t-shirt. This was easier said than done. This city is a maze that you navigate body to body in a sea of bodies. But we did it! Two more for the collection. (It was challenging enough to find that it merited a second.) Dinner at the amazing Basil restaurant, where I had fish with its head still connected. I’m getting more adventurous. I ate an egg the size of a marble the other day. I don’t want to know its origin.

Off to dreamland … four a.m. wake up call to head to Chiang Mai. Until tomorrow …

Bangkok

November 9, 2013: “One night in Bangkok, and the world’s your oyster …” Thanks, Murray Head. That song has been stuck in my head ALL day. My sister and I decided we would save a little money and time by taking the express bus, then the Sky Train to our hotel. This seemed logical. Until you throw in a 50-pound suitcase, a small carry-on, and a backpack. Escalators or elevators? I think not. Even the rare escalator has stairs leading up to it. I am going to be SO buff by the time I get back home. We noticed that all the other travelers were taking taxis. They were definitely on to something. When we arrived at the hotel, we calculated our savings. About ten bucks. This was not a well thought-out plan.

We spent a good part of the afternoon relaxing next to the rooftop pool, sipping colorful drinks with umbrellas in them. We are in a tropical oasis in the midst of an urban metropolis. You literally have no idea you are surrounded by a city with a population of around 12 million. Wildly different than Phuket.

Last night, an ingenious plan was hatched. This has been an amazing trip. It simply had to be commemorated. So mom and dad, we’re probably going to get grounded when we get home, but we’re comin’ home with tattoos. Our virginal flesh is now inked. A hummingbird for my sister (in an area that will rarely see the light of day), and the word “breath” written in simple Chinese symbols on my ankle. I considered “breath” in Thai, but it was a LOT more letters. The hotel recommended Jimmy Wong, tattoo artist to the stars, or at least Kate Moss. Jimmy and his studio are a story unto themselves, but we’ll save that for another day. Getting a tat in Bangkok was just too good to pass up. And I’m going to love to tell that story when I’m 80.

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Tomorrow, we’re hitting it early, and are going to see as many temples as we can. We’ll try to do some shopping at the local markets, too, and hopefully locate a Hard Rock Cafe to add to my son’s t-shirt collection. We really have only one full day here before heading to Chiang Mai, so we need to go in to turbo mode! Until then ..

 

Flying Hanuman

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November 8, 2013: The Flying Hanuman jungle zip line course, or as my sister refers to it, “The Flying Human”, was a hoot. There were 28 lines that ran through the rain forest, and a couple of them were about two football fields long. We traversed swinging bridges, belayed down about 75 feet, and even “surfed” across one stretch. We did a double zip, where we were tied together and instructed to hold hands. This activity was a workout, no ATVs, trams, or jeeps to get you up that mountain … no sir. Foot power all the way! And I didn’t fall today. Even once! Okay, maybe once. And that was on the hotel tram. Hardly counts at all. Noteworthy fact … the safety instruction was delivered in Russian. The good news is that my sister and I both know the most important word in this circumstance … “nyet”.

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So, mission accomplished on our quest to locate and utilize all the hotel pools. We discovered two waterfalls, a number of lagoons, two water slides, an underground cave, and four full-sized pools. The first water slide was a little sluggish, so we expected the same on the second. My sister went first, and a good hint of what was to come was the fact that she was there one second, gone the next, like an astonishing magic trick. I thought, “I’m game”, so I slid in. One full-on nasal rinse, a nip slip, and a wedgie later, I realized this was no ordinary water slide.

We went to dinner to a restaurant in Kata called, “The Boathouse”. Best meal so far. There were couples on the beach lighting lanterns and sending them floating through the air. Beautiful.

We have a 4:00 a.m. wake-up call for our flight to Bangkok tomorrow, where there is apparently some civil unrest. What’s a trip without a little protest, eh? Amnesty, red shirts … Whatevs. Girls just want to see some temples and get a little shopping in. Until then ….

Phang Nga Bay

November 7, 2013: Interesting trivia … there are “Elephant Crossing” signs in Thailand. Even more interesting trivia … they actually do cross the road.

There were a number of fascinating sights on the way to our boat ride, and that was before the day officially started! We saw two elephants, lending credence to the warning signs, then saw a water buffalo grazing along the road. We saw a rubber tree farm with rows and rows of trees with spigots, reminiscent of the maple trees in the northeast. Our driver today had symbols painted above his sun visor. I asked him about them, and they are apparently a Buddhist safety blessing. You need all the help you can get while driving through Patong Beach, so we were more than grateful for the blessing.

Today’s boat ride was more of a thrill ride than yesterday’s amble through the islands. It was very fast, and our first stop took us to a hong at low tide, which meant we walked in, rather than paddled. We were given helmets, which was puzzling until I walked head first in to a stalactite. Then I fell again in to the incoming tide / bat guano. I really do take klutz to the next level. (My sister apparently has this on video. I can only hope it was too dark in there to really capture my graceful plunge.)

After our hike through the drained lagoon, we headed out for some more kayaking through a mangrove forest. Our guide thought my sister and I were lovers, and he made us a heart-shaped frame from a leaf, through which he took our photo. There were two Polish cousins on our trip that were experiencing the same misconception, so we had a good chuckle over that.

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The next stop was my favorite of the day. We went to a Sea Gypsy village … a linked group of run-down shacks on piers attached to a small island. They were granted the special privilege to stay there, since the village has been there for a couple hundred years, but it is the only one of its kind. There is a school, restaurant, a market, and the homes. It was absolutely fascinating.

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On the way “home”, we discovered the method for troubleshooting electrical problems in the spaghetti bowl of wires that generate the local electricity. You lay your ladder against said wires, and jiggle things around until they work again. Whatever works!

Tonight, we went to dinner, and ordered up a couple of cocktails. I had a Cosmo, which they served in an extraordinarily large glass. So why not have another? Afterward, we decided it was imperative that we get a local aloe vera massage to soothe our sunburns. Well, let’s just say I had to take a “break” midway through (which happens when your Cosmo is served in a vat), so I had to go down a hallway to the ladies’ room, which is shared by a restaurant and several other establishments, wearing nothing but a sheet. I don’t think this is a common occurrence, because all the ladies were giggling.

Tomorrow … Jungle zip lining.