Monthly Archives: February 2013

Pluses and Minuses

Well folks, here I am in my favourite place in China – Jiaxing Starbucks #1. There is a second one opening soon – it was supposed to be Feb. 1 but now looks like March 15. Sounds like home, doesn’t it.

Anyway, this blog is dedicated to the pluses and minuses of our experiences in China thus far.

Pluses

  1. We have experienced about 2 weeks of rain since our arrival 6 months ago
  2. We have experienced living in a very different culture
  3. We have met some wonderful people
  4. We have seen Shanghai – well at least a small part of it
  5. We have experienced Thailand at a very reasonable cost
  6. We have relatively easy jobs for which we get paid (especially Geoff!)
  7. We live in a nice apartment with nice neighbours in a nice part of a 3,500,000 person rural city
  8. Terry is loved by the administration at the Chinese school
  9. Geoff is tolerated and has yet to go to jail
  10. We are learning to speak Chinese – and Thai
  11. We live cheaply and are saving our pensions
  12. Geoff has lost a whack o weight,  learned to enjoy vegetables and is walking a lot

Minuses

  1. We miss our friends and family
  2. There is no central heating/air conditioning in the apartment or in the school (previously articulated)
  3. We miss our friends and family
  4. Now that the weather has warmed up, every window in the school gets opened so the temperature continues to hover around 10C.
  5. We miss our friends and family
  6. There are very few English speakers in Jiaxing so we get a little lonely
  7. We miss our friends and family
  8. Although it doesn’t happen often, the spitters and hawkers are still disgusting
  9. We miss our friends and family
  10. We still have many places in Southeast Asia to see
  11. We miss our friends and family

As you can see, the pluses narrowly out-number the minuses, so we have decided to stay another year and have told Terry’s boss so. He is very happy about that. We will be home in July – likely around the 8th, returning here around the 29th or 30th of August. We hope to see everyone over the summer and get reacquainted with our golf clubs as well – although that is a higher priority for Terry than it is for Geoff.

So there you go folks – our big news.

Wrapping up Thailand

Today a series of mini-posts (just like the mini donuts, small, sweet, hot and delicious).

The Damnoen Saduak Floating Market

If nothing else, the Damnoen Saduak Floating Market is colourful. We hired a driver to take us on a sightseeing adventure from Hua Hin for the day and our first spot was here. After an hour and a half drive, he dropped us off and said he would wait for our return in about an hour and a half. The woman at the entry told us it was 2400 baht for a boat, that we would see the market, the temple, how to do something with coconuts and get off to walk the land-based market, so we paid and in we jumped, not realizing that we now had our own long boat and that we could have lessened the cost if we had teamed up with another couple. Ah well, off we go. Our first stop is at a canal side shop with the usual trinkets. Thankfully Terry was on that side of the boat, so when we declined, the look that could kill she got from the vendor was directed at her and not me. From there it was off to the market’s “Main Street”.

You are lucky I chose this photo. In the next one the woman in yellow is further away and she was wearing large beige panties. It was very hot and she was sweating - a lot!

The Market’s Main Street. (You are lucky I chose this photo. In the next one the woman in yellow is further away and she was wearing large beige panties. It was very hot and she was sweating – a lot….)

This was no different from Bangkok’s traffic – solid boats. It was a marvel watching the pilots navigate the chaotic cacophony to get boats near to the vendors. The buying of these masks was something.

Our big purchase or Our Big Rip-off

Our big purchase or Our Big Rip-off

We had passed the shop and were in the middle of the canal, so the driver/pilot had to stop, back up and move over to the “shore” while about four other boats manipulated around him. It really was something to watch. Be that as it may, I was really ripped off, I think. These were some of the first things we saw and liked. If I compare them to other things we saw here and elsewhere, we paid 5 times what we could have got them for somewhere else. Having said that, I don’t think we saw them anywhere but here so maybe it wasn’t such a bad deal. (That’s my story and I’m sticking to it!)

Besides all the trinkets, there were the usual tourist traps. That’s me under there.

I was tentative at first, but it wasn't too bad.

I was tentative at first, but it wasn’t too bad.

After the Market of Crap, we went to the dirtiest, grungiest temple we saw in Thailand and then a market on the land where there were literally layers of dust on the items, and then back to the start. We never did see the coconuts.

From there it was back into the car and another one and a half hour drive to

The Bridge Over The River Kwai (?)

(can you hear Colonel Bogie’s March?)

Terry at The Bridge Over The River Kwai (?)

Terry at The Bridge Over The River Kwai (?)

After our big drive we arrive in Kanchanaburi, the actual site of the bridge and it is just over 100 degrees (who cares in celsius). We get out and wander off down the bridge, feeling quite something, not quite sure what. However, by now I have my phone out and looking at the history of the bridge. Some things you may or may not know.

  1. When David Lean made the film, it was made in Sri Lanka, not Thailand.
  2. This is the actual site of the bridge.
  3. There were two bridges built, with the first being destroyed by Allied bombing in 1943. This was the second one.
  4. When the film was released, the Thais faced a problem. Thousands of tourists came to see the bridge over the River Kwai, but no such bridge existed. However, there did exist a bridge over the Mae Klong. So, to resolve the problem, they renamed the river. The Mae Klong is now called the Kwae Yai (‘Big Kwae’) for several miles north of the confluence with the Kwae Noi (‘Little Kwae’), including the bit under the bridge. (from Wikipedia)
  5. Still, it was a very horrendous situation for the thousands of prisoners who were sacrificed in the building of the railway and the bridge.

However, we were pretty much done after an hour of seeing the bridge and the second rate museum at the site. Apparently there is a much better museum in town. We get back into the car for our three hour ride home. On the way we saw many many trucks loaded with sugar cane on their way to the refineries. They pack them high.

Piled high with sugar cane

Piled high with sugar cane

Do some math with me: 1.5 hours to market + 1.5 hours to the Bridge + 3 hours back to Hua Hin = 6 hours driving. 1.5 hours at the Market of Crap + 1 hour at the Bridge. So 6 hours in a car for 2.5 hours of sight seeing. Good use of time?

711 Training Ground

While we were in Chiang Mai, and in fact all of the time we were in Thailand, we saw hundreds – and that is not an exaggeration, of 7-11s. Clearly this is the training ground for management personnel throughout the corporation. There were so many, I took photos of some of the signs and made a collage of over thirty-five different 7-11 signs we saw in Chiang Mai – and we were only on about ten different streets while we were there. My favourite was taken on the street just outside our hotel. I am standing at the door of one and looking across the street and down about 40 feet to the sign for another. We would commonly see two of them in one block and once even three of them. It is also a very popular for men’s singlets (Terry refers to them as wife beaters and wouldn’t let me buy one) and children’s t-shirts. Sadly, when my hard drive crashed, I lost not only the photos but also the collage. Anyway Mal, this one is for you, buddy.

Look familiar?

Look familiar?

Some favourite photos of Thailand of mine.

I wonder if Sharon knew that Al had slipped off to Hua Hin for some quiet time with his iPad?

I wonder if Sharon knew that Al had slipped off to Hua Hin for some quiet time with his iPad?

For a few days we had 6 Thai naval vessels just off the coast protecting us.

For a few days we had 6 Thai naval vessels just off the coast protecting us.

Apparently there is Thinglish as well as Chinglish

Apparently there is Thinglish as well as Chinglish

And finally

Terry enjoyed all the food in Thailand - one way or another. These bagels were a particular hit!

Terry enjoyed all the food in Thailand – one way or another. These pretzels were a particular hit!

Reflections on Thailand and return to China

Terry here. Some of you can’t tell the difference between us as writers and you need to know that Geoff adds ed notes to his own blogs so you can’t count on that to distinguish us. Peter asked for a summary and I know Geoff has beat me to the punch but I will put in my thoughts anyway. Here goes.

The best part of Thailand for me was the food. Finally, we were in a place where they didn’t either deep fry or cook with a lot of oil. They grill!!!!!! Those who live/lived in the Tri-Cities may remember Carumba, a restaurant that used to exist in Newport Village, and was the only place around where you could get pan-fried calamari. I have been spoiled ever since and cannot abide deep fried squid. What’s the point, really? You might as well be eating a deep-fried onion ring or a piece of eraser–no flavour whatsoever. Imagine my joy, then, when I spotted grilled squid on the menu. Fresh, hefty squid, grilled so there are actually hatch marks on the outside, dirt cheap and wonderful! Dip them in the hot sauce provided or drizzle with a fresh lime. Deeeelish!

For $3.00 Cdn. you too can have this - and yes that is a regulation sized dinner plate it is on.

For $3.00 Cdn. you too can have this – and yes that is a regulation sized dinner plate it is on.

King prawns done the same way–terrific! Pad Thai, stir-fried morning glory or chrysanthemum, whole fresh snapper done on the Bar-B, yum yum! Geoff talked about the cooking school and I agree, it was fantastic! Really worth doing. We made our own curry paste from scratch, then concocted fantastic dishes. Lots of fun and such great flavours! Love Thai food!!!! Once you know what’s available, it becomes almost intolerable to eat less than fabulous food, hence our displeasure with certain establishments.

The single best moment for me was watching the baby elephant submerge itself in the river for an impromptu bath. Everything about the elephants was great! You can’t help falling in love with them, they are so big and wonderful. If I were to go back to Thailand, I would book well in advance a whole day with the elephants and go with one of the companies that assigns each person an elephant for the day, so you learn about their individual personalities and how to look after them. What fabulous animals!

Geoff talked about the dogs but he did exaggerate somewhat (Ed. note: a little only!). I wouldn’t want anyone to think the country is overrun with dogs. He said there were hundreds but we didn’t see that many. I had noticed in Chiang Mai that there seemed to be dogs hanging around, not really attached to anyone but not acting like strays either, although most of them appear to be pretty full of fleas. They are passive and as he explained, are fed at temples and by locals and seem to be pretty happy just being. It is a Buddhist country so of course, they are protected and treated with a degree of reverence by the population.

One of the places we visited in Bangkok was Jim Thompson house. He was an American who is credited with restoring the Thai silk industry. Interested in everything, his home is architecturally compelling as a combination of Thai and western sensibilities, full of art and beautiful teak trimmings. We learned about the little shrines that adorn virtually every home and business: they must not be placed within the shadow of the home–bad luck–and must have refreshed water, flowers and offerings daily. This place was worth a visit, plus the shop had some nice things for decent prices.

If you were to go to Thailand, I would say absolutely go to Bangkok and travel any way except by car. It is a vibrant city, safe and fun to explore (Ed. note: But one big traffic jam).

Traffic in Bangkok Chinatown at 11:30 a.m.

Traffic in Bangkok Chinatown at 11:30 a.m. It was like this for about 15 blocks.

Go on the river and see as many of the ‘big’ Buddhas as you can, then you can safely skip visiting any other temples. Someone told me they thought there were a lot of temples in Chiang Mai and I didn’t really notice as we were way past temples at that point. However, I did count 12 in a few minutes, looking out our hotel window, so yes, I guess there are a lot. Go to Chiang Mai–a wonderful “small” city with a great feel to it. Don’t go to Hua Hin–a bloated tourist beach town in the winter and a small town of no real import after that.

If you go, eat street food and be adventurous at restaurants. Eat light–make dinner a whole fish with a pan of morning glory–that’s all you need. Drink Chang or Singha beer–always cold! Get clothes custom made–why not? Cheap cheap cheap, so you can afford the few things that don’t turn out 100%. Fun to bargain and great deals are to be had if things turn out well. Bring a large expandable suitcase. You’ll want to bring home souvenirs. Get a pixie cut before you leave home as it is so hot that the last thing you want to do is mess with a hairdryer. And finally, be careful on the golf courses–they take OB seriously and line the area with razor wire, which is probably a good thing, since in many places, snakes like cobras live in those places.

Back in China, I got that pixie cut I so desperately needed, and learned some interesting facts in the bargain. Apparently, having a child out of wed-lock is illegal in China. How could that possibly be enforced, I wondered. The answer: the government withholds citizenship. Now, that’s serious! You can get it eventually, but it will take a lot of time, energy and money, things that people avoid, which is why there are so many abortions performed in China. Who knew? I also learned that the fruits and vegetables that we so enjoy are sprayed with chemicals, and the meat, fish and poultry is all spurred on to fast growth with hormones and is not all that safe to eat. Maybe that’s why I’ve grown a bra size since I’ve been here! All kidding aside, it may be why the kids now match their Western counterparts in size.

In Jiaxing, we were reminded again about the bad drivers.

Getting our suitcases home from the train station - just leave the trunk open, no problem at 100 k/h.

Getting our suitcases home from the train station – just leave the trunk open, no problem at 100 k/h.

The stereotype is more than accurate–the Chinese drivers are terrible! Not all, of course, but many many. Case in point, we watched a driver back out from a drive into a 3 lane road-way, so that he came out facing on-coming traffic, in a bus lane, and then cut across all 3 lanes to go in the direction he wanted on the other side. Today, we saw a police car pass by and ignore two motorcycles driving against the traffic on the wrong side of a divided highway. If you can imagine any bizarre driving habits, you can see them here. We laugh out loud when we walk pass the “Traffic Police” building in downtown Jaixing. All of them should be fired. What we see in Vancouver are Chinese drivers on their best behaviour.

This evening in Jiaxing, the fireworks have moved to the very balconies and roadways beside and under our apartment. Although we have become somewhat inured to the prevalence of fireworks, we were inspired to look up the date: today is the beginning of the Lantern Festival, which marks the end of the Spring Festival (which happens in winter), so we expect there will be many more fireworks to come. Also hoping to see some great lanterns around town.

We had dinner at newly renovated Krabi Thai last night and were treated like royalty, moved to one of the best tables after first being seated near the back of the restaurant, and serenaded by the singers at our table with “Unchained Melody”, a song I sang with them on our way out one night. What fun! We also learned from the owner that he has opened a wine bar in downtown Jiaxing, so we are eager to try that out one night. The food as usual, was terrific–not as good as in Thailand but a very reasonable facsimile.

So here we are, back home after three weeks away, ready to carry on to year-end and looking forward to the warmer weather to come. It was a beautiful sunny and warm day today, lots of blossoms around and people out and about. First day back tomorrow but our kids don’t start until Wednesday, so we have a few days to prepare. Second semester is bound to move by quickly and before we know it, summer will be here. Meanwhile, we are looking forward to visits from some friends from home and Shanghai, and our next school inspection in March. Cheers, everyone!

Home Again, Home Again or …

Clearly There Has Been A Failure To Communicate…

Well we are back in our cozy apartment in Jiaxing. When last we wrote, we were in the balmy climes of Hua Hin, waiting to play our last round of golf at the #1 Golf Course in Thailand in 2012. Well, a story indeed.

We check in and are told that we should be able to get off about 20 minutes early. Great. We get changed and go to the starter – at least that was her apparent title. A more inept, incompetent idiot I have never seen (except for the guy a couple of years ago at the Pitt Meadows Club Championship Weekend in LoudMouth Golf attire, but that’s another story). Anyway, we were about a hundred yards with a hill between us and the first tee and there are 8 power carts lined up for 8 golfers and their caddies. I ask 2 or 3 times “Are we 2 or 4?”. Terry’s caddy shows her the rentals, Terry frowns and away they go, back to the pro shop and get her a better set of clubs. I’m still asking “2 or 4?” I hear a guy drive up and say to a two some, “I think I’m playing with you.” All of a sudden, people are going off towards the tee, so my caddy says “Let’s go, we get off first”.  We head off, stop about 30 feet back to wait for the people teeing off and all of a sudden 3 carts whip past us, squeeze into the space so they can go next. My  caddy says nothing. I look out and see on the first hole the following: a twosome, a single, a foursome and in front of us the ad hoc threesome. Then the two of us and behind us another threesome. We tee off 5 minutes late! My blood starts to boil and continues as we wait on every single shot – and there is no exaggeration there – (with the exception of the putts) until the second shot on the eighteenth fairway. Any guesses on the kind of game I had? Here’s a hint – I walked more than I rode. On the other hand, Terry had a great game, shot a 97 and had fun with her caddy (who commented  “Papa upset” Ya think?). I do admit, though, my caddy didn’t have a great day.

Then it was back to the hotel to pack up our belongings and get ready for the trip to the airport. We went to our favourite Hua Hin restaurant – Hua Hin Seafood Restaurant – for our last Thai meal – Lobster Thermidor, Grilled Squid, Grilled Morning Glory, Rice and Chang Beer. It was excellent, although Terry feels we may have had some of our lobster misappropriated to other plates.

Terry, Bee and Larry the Lobster - soon to be Larry Lobster Thermidor

Terry, Bee and Larry Lobster – soon to be Larry Lobster Thermidor

We get picked up for our 3 hour ride to the Bangkok Airport at 8:30. Apparently, the driver’s sole goal was to get there in less than the allotted time, irrespective of speed limits, traffic, road conditions (ie potholes, bumps, construction) and the fact that any shock absorbers or springs his van once had were loooooooonnnnnngggggg gone. Our flight was leaving at 1:55 am (yes, a.m.) but we figured we would get a couple of hours of sleep in the van. HA! FAT CHANCE! We get there in 2 hours 25 minutes, with my back saying “Good luck on the plane, pal”.

Now let me tell you about the Thai Airport, where line ups mean as little as they do in China – sort of. Remember now, we are flying back to Shanghai, China. This is hard to describe. We get in line to check our bags and are about 100 feet from where the guiding ropes and stanchions start. I notice, however, that, just where these ropes start, frequently the Chinese travelers will just butt in and move ahead into the line up. As a result, after 30 minutes or so we have moved about 10 feet. I go for a walk. I get a drink and on my way back, I stop at the point where the line enters the ropes. The next Chinese folks who approach, I tell “No, line up starts back there – all these people first”. They shrug their shoulders and go to the end, thwarted in their attempts. This goes on for the next ten minutes or so, with “our” line now moving just fine. Terry was sure I was going to get either arrested or punched out by one guy who wanted to cross the line to get into a group he was traveling with. However, now many people in our line want to put me up for sainthood or least they thank me profusely.

So now we are on the plane. We are still at the gate. 80% of the plane is still boarding. Across the aisle from me is a guy who has his hands folded in his lap, his chin on his chest and he is snoring – and loudly! He continues this all through boarding, take-off, meal time, colicky baby screaming in the seat in front of us, drooling, rest time and landing. Unbelievable – he never moved once. I never checked, but he may still be on that plane. We land, they tell us our bags are on carousel 12 and we go down and watch about 60% of the bags get unloaded and then – nothing. After about 15 minutes of nothing, a young man comes over to us and says “You were on the flight from Bangkok with us, right? Well the rest of the bags are now on carousel 9.” No message from the airlines, no one to tell us (and many others). Just change the carousel. Yes we are back in China!

We check in to our favourite hotel  (The Paramount Gallery) at 8:30 a.m. “Yes Mrs. and Mr. Watt, of course we will get you into your room early – you must be very tired.” Terry goes off to get a cut and colour at Toni and Guy and I go off to hopefully get my computer fixed. I head down Nanjing Pedestrian Mall. Some Shanghai firsts: A 60 something, clearly gay white gentleman welcomes me to Shanghai and invites me for coffee; a buxom woman offers me a card which offers sex – I ask if it is her photo on the card – “No, no” she laughs; a second woman whispers “You want to pay for sex?” (isn’t that called marriage?) I say I am married “No problem”; a tall, 40ish very attractive woman with a shorter partner asks ” You want massage?” wink (literally) – somehow I don’t think it was going to be like Bird’s; two young (25ish), attractive women say “Aren’t you cold?  You strong.” (I am in a short sleeve shirt)  “Are you waiting for friend?” – maybe they were looking for a new Papa?

I go into the Apple store – “Maybe it is the cable, maybe it is the hard drive – you come back in 4 hours.” I come back and they say good news, it is the hard drive and we replaced it. “Good news? What is the charge?” “No charge” “What about all the data and photos from our three weeks in Thailand?” “Oh sorry, all gone”. Aaaahhhhh!! But, ta da ta da – Apple to the rescue – all photos you take (well, the last 1000) and upload to iPhoto go to PhotoStream – a giant hard drive in the sky so I am now downloading the photos back on to the computer, as I write. Thank you Apple (and thank you Geoff for having the foresight to buy an extra hard drive in January and back up your entire hard drive just before you left. Man, you are a genius!).

For dinner we go out with our bestest friends in China – Kim and Bruce, Chan and Greg, Lawrence and our newest bestest friends in China, Helene and Steve Henrichsen, at Lost Heaven – our favourite restaurant in Shanghai. We have much good food, much great wine and much much fun and conversation!

Today we come home – thus the subtitle to this blog (you were wondering, right?). Before we left for Thailand, I left a message with our neighbour Tina for our aiyu (cleaning lady)  about the things we wanted done. One of them was to take everything out out of the fridge and clean it and that she could have whatever vegetables were in the crisper. Poor Tina misinterpreted and told Huang to either throw out or take anything in the fridge she wanted, clean it and unplug it, so we come home to:

  1. No chocolate
  2. No chili sauce
  3. No black been and garlic sauce
  4. No ketchup
  5. No butter
  6. No chocolate
  7. No frozen pork
  8. No frozen lamb
  9. No frozen shrimp
  10. No $40 worth of cheese available only in Shanghai
  11. No assorted other condiments not easily available and gathered over the past five months in China.
  12. No things in the fridge at all
  13. Did I mention no chocolate?
Our very clean(ed out) fridge.

Our very clean(ed out) fridge.

Clearly, we need to be more careful about our communications! After all, the responsibility in any communication is with the sender, not the receiver, isnt it?

(Ed. note #1: I am noting a disturbing pattern here – fewer and fewer comments to keep us going. Will work for strokes, folks. 🙁 C’mon, do your part – there are hundreds of you and just two of us.

Ed. note #2: While you are now up to date with our last day, due to the equipment malfunction, we have missed some interesting anecdotes. In the next few blogs we will regale you with Tales of the Floating Market, The Trek to The Bridge Over the River Kwai, Jasmine versus James, Naval Protection, The King, The Return of Krabi and 7-11: The Training Ground)

Hua Hin stories

Ahh today. Our one and only Tuesday in Hua Hin. A twenty-four hour time period we shall never be able to reclaim. Where to start? How about with this. Why are people so timid? Included in our hotel package is an all you can eat breakfast buffet. It includes fruit, juice, a variety of yoghurts, a noodle station, traditional Thai breakfast foods, Japanese foods, (including sushi), bacon, sausage, grilled tomatoes and potatoes, eggs any style, pancakes, breads, muffins, bread pudding (Heaven,I’m in Heaven) cereals etc. This is a very extensive buffet and, as I said, eat as much as you want of it – they don’t care. Then why is it that people (ie Terry) feel guilty when she tries to sneak a baked pretzel out? After all, she eats less than half of what I do in the morning and less than a third of what some of our German friends eat. And today the people next to us we’re trying to surreptitiously slip two 4 inch bananas and 2 pretzel into their pockets. Do we think some little Thai person is going to jump up and done yelling “You steal! You steal!”

Anyway after breakfast it is off to Black Mountain Golf Course. On the way out we asked the driver about all the dogs. There are literally hundreds of them roaming around. They are very placid however – maybe its the heat. I think the driver told us that people sometimes leave pregnant dogs at the Buddhist temple where they get fed and then multiply. I also think he said it is illegal to kill them, but some people capture them and take them to Vietnam Nam where they are sold and eaten.

We had been told that the course is immaculate but that the staff is not terribly friendly. On the way out our driver told us the same thing – that the people in the pro-shop will do everything they can to avoid eye contact. Hmm, a challenge I think. In we go. Sure enough, about two minutes in, although they are dealing and talking with us, they haven’t yet made actual eye contact. Terry and the driver are standing behind me and Terry turns to him and says “You’re right”. He had also told us that he had heard that the owner’s perspective/response has been “If you don’t like it, don’t play my course.” so you can see where they get it from. The course was fantastic – beautiful holes and a really good test of golf. I had my best round here (84) but Terry not so much. I also had a great caddy who was lots of fun. Terry’s caddy carried on the course’s reputation. I wouldn’t say she was surly, but I would agree with Terry that after about the 6th or 7th hole she was disinterested in helping Terry play better. A couple of caddie stats: #1: 8 rounds of golf, 8 times the caddies have said to me “Madame very beautiful, (along with either very thin or very sexy); #2: 8 rounds of golf 7 times I get the friendly English speaking caddy and Terry gets, well, let’s just say that tomorrow Terry is choosing her caddy. Anyway, tomorrow we play Banyan which is apparently just as good a golf course but with a great staff.

Came back to town and went to Banana IT where I had left my computer, hoping they could fix it. Sadly, no joy there either.

To top it all off we had THE worst, and certainly the most expensive, meals we’ve had in Thailand.  One of the drivers who takes us to the golf courses recommended a few places to us, so we thought we would give one of them a try. Turns out the one the tuk tuk took us to (say that 5 times!) wasn’t the one on the paper, but Geoff said “Hey, let’s try it – sometimes the best places are the ones you stumble on”. We should have stumbled right back out. So we are shown to a lovely table and our waiter turns out to be a hoverer. He hovers as we look at the menu. He hovers after we order drinks, since he has told someone else to get them. He hovers about making suggestion after suggestion. Finally we order the fish cakes to start – just to get rid of him for a few minutes. “A most excellent choice, they are very good tonight.” Ha! I agree with Terry – the only fish was the fish oil the tofu was cooked in, and cooked until they tasted like flavored rubber. We should have left at that point, but oh no, we soldier on. When the hoverer returns, we tell him we like the food “Thai medium”, which means ten chilies per dish. It turns out he is a hoverer, not a listener. The kale in oyster sauce arrives stone cold with no spiciness whatsoever, the rice arrives stone cold, the baked fish arrives tepid, no spice and the grilled prawns arrived via a deep fryer. It was a disaster. When the hoverer returns I tell him the kale and rice are cold and he scurries off. To get replacement dishes? Not on your life. He never came near us again until he had to give us our change. I stand up and tell him “This was the worst food we have had in three weeks in Thailand. It was awful” The woman at the next table hasn’t ordered yet and her eyes are as big as saucers as I say this. I turn to her and say “Don’t eat here” and leave.
No response from the hoverer.

Luckily we had some good ice cream when we got back into town.

Welcome to Hua Hin…

Home to miles and miles of beautiful sandy beaches, thousands of multi-coloured beach umbrellas and chaise lounges, hundreds of pretty, friendly, young Thai ladies just waiting to say hi and make your acquaintance, many, many trinket sellers and acres of brown, sagging European men with a few yards of bathing material covering their nether regions. Have these men no sense of pride – or even consideration for the small children they are marring for life? As Terry said, they have clearly thrown in the towel and now enjoy their beer and bratwurst with abandon.  What is in very short supply up and down the beach are people not yet available for even early retirement.

(Ed. note: I know many of you have been wondering what is going on – have we  been kidnapped by Myanmar terrorists and being held for ransom? Perhaps we have been waylaid by a couple of the lovely Thai women who frequent the bars around our hotel and they won’t let us go. Or maybe we are so caught up in kite-boarding, that we just don’t have time for you anymore. Happily, none of the above is true. Sadly it is because my computer died on Sunday and I haven’t been able to get it fixed. Hopefully that can be in Shanghai on Friday. We will blog using the ipad – but there will be no photos. I will do something about that when I get my ‘pooter  fixed.)

On the other hand, if you can’t let it all hang out in your eighties, what’s it all about anyway?

We’ve been feeling somewhat peevish about our accommodation here and in Chiang Mai, only because we spent a big buck on this tour and expected everything to be top notch.  Buyer beware!  We were definitely spoiled in Bangkok at the Shangri La, but Le Meridian in CM doesn’t make the cut.  A smallish room with a smaller bathroom, a closet whose sliding door also closed the bathroom–if you we didn’t give each other good warning, we could seriously hurt each other.  Here in Hua Hin, any money that has been spent renovating the Hilton has been put into the lobby, restaurants and pool area.  The rooms are a good size but old; ditto with the bathrooms.  I would guess that they were last update in the 70’s, judging by the “futuristic” taps in the shower.  We have a picture tube TV (who cares, we are not watching it anyway, but…) and hard beds, a shade above Jiaxing.  Our balcony has a view of the sea but is above the noisy A/C units so you can’t hear the ocean.  Just  a bit of whining because we didn’t get what we paid for, not because we’re spoiled brats!

Hua Hin is a beach town with golf near-by and very little else.  It’s a great location to end our trip as we will alternate golf with swimming in the ocean or pool and lounging around reading and relaxing.   The sad news is that because of the clientele, even the tiny family-run cafes and restaurants are reluctant to serve real Thai food, blanding everything down so that it doesn’t at all resemble the taste sensations that are Thai.  When we first arrived, we went to a pub near-by and ordered some seafood curry, “medium Thai” which means with about 10 hot chiles.  It arrived with 2 pieces of chile.  When we talked to the server, he went back to the kitchen and came back with some chilies in a little bowl–not the same thing at all.  Still, meals are really cheap.  Today at lunch, I had a really decent chef salad and Geoff had a burger–the first non-Thai food we’ve had in 2 weeks.   Not bad and hit the spot after a very hot game of golf.

Speaking of golf, we played at a military course today.  After waiting on several T’s, Geoff told me that TripAdvisor said that the military have priority and basically do whatever they want–play 5’s, take endless time, play through if they feel like it but won’t let you play through if you’re a twosome and they are not.  So I was somewhat surprised, then, on the 17th hole that he decided to get into it with them.  In my albeit limited experience, it is NOT the best idea to mess with the military in any country, never mind in one where the king is good and gawd help anyone who says anything to the contrary!  So there we are, waiting–AGAIN–for these four guys to get going and Geoff starts chirping, shaking his head, sneezing in the guy’s back-swing–all stuff that could set off the mildest golfer.  By this time, another group was waiting on our T-box–they joined us so now we were 5 and our pace slowed down so I didn’t have to worry about facing interrogation; when we arrived in the clubhouse, fortunately the group in front was gone. (Ed. note: Come on – it was the Thai army.)

It is true in Thailand that the king and the royal family are revered and also true that one mustn’t say anything to the contrary.  Tuk-tuk and cab drivers offer up their opinions unsolicited and invariably they say, “He is a very good king.”  All around the country are posted giant photos of the king at age 60 or so.  He is actually in his mid-80s and has spent the last 3 years of his life living in the hospital, suffering from respiratory disease.  The photos show him to be a man of the people–fishing, reading a newspaper, sunning with his wife–always looking kind, intelligent and thoughtful.  For every temple in the country, there are probably 20 or more giant photos of the king everywhere–along roadways, suspended from overpasses, in front of industrial parks and private businesses, out in the country along-side rice fields.  One is never very far away from these images, much like China was images of Chairman Mao in his day.

Although the weather is hot and dry, Thailand is polluted, as mentioned in a previous blog.  As we drove into town yesterday, we saw the black smoke rising from the rice fields and settle over the horizon.  We haven’t seen a blue sky for two weeks and it really does get tedious, not to say a bit worrisome.  What about that king and his health problems?  A disappointment, to be sure, but Thailand is still a great place to be.

(And it is also home to the Hilton which, in turn, is home to the world’s slowest and most confused bank of 4 elevators. It is a practice in the art of zen when you want one and we are only on floor 3.)

Chiang Mai

Not a chance I can follow Geoff’s last blog with anything that entertaining so am just providing some observations about this city.

Chiang Mai metro area has nearly a million people but the city core itself is quite small and nothing like Bangkok:  only a few random highrises but mostly two-storey walk-ups interspersed with the ubiquitous temples and not quite so many corrugated iron shacks.  The city center is surrounding by a moat and the remains of an old brick wall.  It is a boon to cab and tuk-tuk drivers as they can never get anywhere without having to do fairly lengthy runs around the moat.  They were originally trying to keep barbarians out, if an.

A gray haze covers the city at all times but seems to be strongest in the morning, when we can barely make out the outline to the mountain a few miles away.  We have learned that it is caused by smoke from fires put to the rice fields after harvest.  The good news is that from our observations, the growing of rice is staggered, so as one pond is planted another is harvested, then burned.  Can’t imagine how intolerable it would be if all the burning happened at once.  My eyes are always red in the morning and at night but the air does not seem bad on street level.

We do find Chiang Mai to be a lot like  Jiaxing.  The streets are organized in themes, so that if you pass one music shop, you will pass 6 or more, all on the same block.  The next block might be plastic goods, the next engine parts.  Could be both a help or hindrance to competition.  Chiang Mai is far far more quiet, however!  No horn honking, no buses, just the red trucks and tuk-tuks.  Soooo much nicer.  No one is in a big hurry either, and we go at the relaxed pace of the speed limit.  Imagine.  Also like China, the cost of living is low but prosperity is on the rise, at least for some.  On our sojourns out of town, we see many billboards advertising a Western style of living in new homes that would fit any subdivision in North America, with names like “Esteem”, “Success” or “Bliss.”  BMWs and Mercedes are drawn in the driveways and garages and the happy families,  often very Caucasian-looking, smile out of the picture.  The dream is clear; for how many it is attainable, is not.

Personally, my favourite is The Bliss. For 2.39 million baht ($80,000.00), you not only get a home, you get a home protected by soldiers who salute you. (Sorry, not a great photo but we were traveling.)

Personally, my favourite is The Bliss. For 2.39 million baht ($80,000.00), you not only get a home, you get a home protected by soldiers who salute you. (Sorry, not a great photo but we were traveling.)

The city is within an hour and a half from the Golden Triangle, the area bordering Laos, Myanmar and Thailand.  A day trip was offered to go to a National park in that area where you are able to see the borders but it seemed a thrill easily missed.  There are lots of young people, here for the outdoor adventures, including the Flight of The Gibbons–a tree top park, filled with zip lines, high wires and numerous places where one can challenge a fear of heights and get an adrenaline rush.  Sky-divers come down in close proximity to elephant parks, where the view from above must be amazing.  Cyclists storm past on the roads during rush hour, even when the temperature is in the 90s, which it has been every day since we arrived.  We are told in Thailand the seasons are hot, hotter and hottest.  This is winter; not sure we could handle summer!

Our hotel is outside the moat and just across the street from a night market, which occurs every night, but requires daily  set up.   With lots of (Western) safety infractions, men on motorcycles move the 5′ x 3′ x 7′ display trolleys on and off the street by driving the motorbike with one half the body and pulling and guiding with the other hand and foot.  It’s fun but a bit like shopping on the streets of downtown Jiaxing or in most malls:  the same stuff appears over and over.  We had fun last night having a 15 minute exfoliation session where we put our feet in aquariums filled with little fishes who just love to munch off the dead skin.  Good times!

Off to golf on our last day in Chiang Mai.

Bird

Normally, before I start to write a post, I have the title all picked out. Today however, so many possibilities:

  1. Remember when your mother told you not to go out without clean underwear?
  2. Uncovered at 61
  3. My First Time
  4. Oil, Oil, Toil and Trouble
  5. Step two to Ladyboyhood
  6. Golfer’s Massage

However, as you can see, I went with Bird. Meet Bird.

Meet Bird - My Masseuse

Meet Bird – My Masseuse

Today, after a morning of wandering and touring, Terry went off for a pedicure/shoulder massage and I came back to the hotel. We met at 3:45 at the bar across the street for a drink. Me: “How was your massage?” Terry: “Very different from last night – much less gentle. Did last night (Ed. note: Thai massage) do anything for you?” Me: “Not too much, although my feet feel much better” Terry: “Well, maybe if you had a less gentle massage, you might be able to turn better tomorrow on the golf course.” Me: (after 0ne 16 ounce beer and effectively nothing to eat since 10:00) “Sure let’s see what they say.”

So we wander down the street to “Le Best Massage” and see that they advertise a “Golfer’s Massage” – 1 hour for 400 baht ($12) and in we go. The woman who did Terry was not available so after about a five minute discussion, (I’m not sure if they thought they had anybody who could do one) it is Bird who is anointed to welcome me into this world. He tells me to follow him upstairs to the third floor – there is no one else on the floor when we get there. We go into a little room, he closes the door and puts down a tunic and pants on the second bed/table and tells me to change. I go over to get the tunic etc. and he says no – take off clothes. (Is it now I should start to panic?) I take off my shirt and shorts, modestly leaving on the boxer shorts, and climb up on the bed.

Bird covers me with a sheet from the waist down (Ahh, I think) and starts to apply oil to my back and shoulders and working it in. Now, my back is not in good shape and as he works it in, he is getting reflexes and ohs, oohs etc. “Pain?” he says. “Yes,” I say, “but keep going.” which he does. It’s not too bad, I’m thinking. After about 15 minutes, he has done my shoulders, back and arms. He uses his fingers, forearms, elbows and fists when he is working on you. Good stuff. Then he reaches down under the sheet and pushes my boxers down, applying oil to my buttocks. Still, not too panicky until I feel him pushing my legs apart at the end of the table and climbing up between my legs. (No panic, just very very mild unease – after all, I have never had a man between my legs, with oil applied to my butt.) He sits astride me just on my thighs and continues to work on my back and butt, gently rocking back and forth. I didn’t realize there are so many painful areas in the butt. It didn’t help either that he was beginning to breathe a little heavily, due to how hard he had to work. Then he starts working with his hands and elbows on my thighs, and calves. I am so thankful I had on clean underwear! After 15 minutes of this, he tells me to roll over.

He removes the boxers completely, but maintains the sheet over my uh – area – and the leg he isn’t working on. However, by the time he has finished both legs I would say that there are now three people (Terry, Bird and I) who have an intimate, but appropriate knowledge of my uh – area. When he finishes with both legs, he ensures I’m covered up  and starts working with his elbows all the way up my lower body to the “groinal” area. Remember when I said Terry and I had been at the bar and I had a 16 ounce beer? Well, when I walked through the front door, I thought that maybe I should use the facilities but then “Oh, it’s only going to be an hour” Now I’m thinking, please don’t press any harder!!

Are we finished now? No. Bird ensures that the sheet now covers me completely from the waist down and climbs on to the table, sitting astride me and starts working the oil into my chest and shoulders from the front. I am keeping my eyes firmly closed although by now I no longer care what he does. Then he has me sit up at the end of the table and starts doing work on my back – pushing, pulling, stretching, etc.. Now he isn’t a big man, but his weight certainly “weighs” one down. Finally – he says “Finished”. With no modesty whatsoever, I jump up from the table, chat briefly, put my clothes on, rush downstairs, pay the bill, whip over to the ATM and take his tip back. If we were to be staying here much longer, I would go back every night. I feel great.

Plus, having a man sit astride me with no reaction whatsoever, reinforces that “I no Ladyboy“. (I think).

Cooking class, golf and body massage?

We were picked up at our hotel by an elderly man driving one of the many forms of transportation in Chiang Mei–a smallish truck with a covered back, without windows or doors, and lined with benched and both sides.  We’d seen many around the city but this was the first time we were in one.  From the sidewalks they look hot but are surprisingly cool, as the breeze comes in the windows and out the door.  We were the first in and three other stops made, to bring us all to the market we were going to explore prior to our cooking class.  There were 20 of us in all, a good number arriving in other trucks or on their own, many of them late.  These young people…

Pot and Terry

Pot and Terry

At the market, our host, Pot of the Siam Rice Thai Cooking School, showed us all the many flavourful ingredients that would be found in the recipes of the evening.  We were introduced to Thai ginger and eggplant, three different kinds of basil, tumeric, Kaffir lime leaves, different peppercorns, long green beans, lemongrass, green and red curry paste, coconut cream versus coconut milk and palm sugar.  I would have liked to have spent more time there and learned about uses for safflower and a myriad of unidentifiable items, but our time was short and soon we were back in the truck on the way to Pot’s home.

The Prep Table

The Prep Table

Cooking Kitchen for 10

Cooking Kitchen for 10

Pot explained later in the evening that he sacrificed his herb garden to install another kitchen in his back-yard once his business took off and he needed to expand.  Our crowd was divided into two groups of 10, with each having a “kitchen” and a dining area.  One was completely outside; our group ate our meal at an indoor dining room once our cooking was done.  Pot has a staff of half a dozen people who prepped the vegetables and protein for us, once we read the offerings and made our picks of 4 different categories plus one curry paste.  By the end of the evening, each of us had prepared and cooked a soup, a noodle dish, curry paste and a curry dish, and a stir-fry vegetable dish.  Way too much food to eat all of it but we did our best.  I made a green curry paste and dish which were extraordinary!  Green curry has a very unique flavour.  It starts with green curry paste, made up of green hot peppers, basil, garlic and a few other ingredients that do not include tumeric or other spices.  Fry it up and blend it with Thai eggplant, onions, tomatoes and coconut cream–not milk–and you end up with a most marvelous dish.  Yum Yum!!!  Geoff made a Panang curry but instead of reducing the ingredients on high heat, he turned it down, thus loosing the smokey richness that is the signature of this dish.  So sad–Geoff did not pass the course and has to return to try again.  Maybe slow down on the red wine next time, Geoffy!

Simmer over high heat.

Simmer over high heat.

The following day we had a great day on a new golf course, Alpine, so named because it snugs up against the mountains/hills outside Chiang Mei.  What a beautiful course, with narrow fairways and plenty of water but very playable.  The best part of the round? Clearly, once again, the caddies, if only for their names.  Ram and Porn.  Yes, you read it right – P o r n. We joined an ex-pat from Boston and one from Korea who are both living and working in Chiang Mei.  Lots of good conversation and fun.  I had my best game in Thailand but Geoff’s back stopped turning on 15, so he walked the last 3 holes.  No problem–time for Thai massage!

The Chinese could learn something from this kinder, gentler technique.  First, we changed into comfy tunic tops and loose pants then lay on fairly wide, flat beds, big enough for the girls to climb on board.  They use their bodies and not just hands and arms to manipulate, stretch and massage.   Thai people are mostly pretty tiny so you can take it when they press on your hips and thighs with the force of their upper bodies or bend your leg, put their foot just above the back of your knee and pull, leaning away from you.  My arms were twisted in ways I hadn’t done before but all of it felt great!  This was Geoff’s first experience with massage and he seemed to like it, especially the foot massage.  Normally, he can’t stand anyone touching his feet so this was quite amazing.  Maybe tomorrow we go for a pedicure?  Maybe he be a ladyboy after all?

Step one to becoming a Ladyboy.

Making new friends. Step one to becoming a Ladyboy.

There’s no Tipping like No Tipping in Thailand

Taking a bath

Taking a bath

Up at 6:00 am to have time for breakfast before heading off into our big adventures.  The cab picked us up at 7:30 and headed east to one of many elephant farms/tourist traps.  They have the gouging aspect down to a fine science, in spite of the stated no-tipping rule.  The cabby took us to the ticket kiosk where we paid for the package: 1500 baht each for an ox-cart ride up to the elephant station, an elephant ride followed by a half hour of “kill time” in the local shops, an elephant show, lunch and finally, a ride down the river on a bamboo raft.  All of it was absolutely delightful.

"Hooey, hooey, hooey"

“Hooey, hooey, hooey”

The drivers had good senses of humour and spoke a modicum of English, enough to offer Geoff the reins of the oxcart, much to the great amusement of all on-lookers, and later, to get him out of the seat and on to the elephant’s neck.  The elephant ride was a good 45 minutes, across land and river and was thoroughly enjoyable.  A baby elephant walked along aside its mother and provided so many moments of joy—ridiculously cute and lovable!   As we approached the disembarking station (not all of us can command an elephant to set up his trunk and leg as a ladder), the driver said in a voice just loud enough to be heard but without turning to look at us, “Pay me 200 baht.”  Which we did.  So far, 100 baht to the oxcart driver, 20 baht for a bunch of sugar cane for the elephant, 200 baht for the driver, 200 baht for our photo on an elephant in an elephant dung paper frame. (Remember now, no tipping).

"I am in command." (You figure out who the "I" is.)

“I am in command.” (You figure out who the “I” is.)

In the shops, we found canvas bags painted by elephants; bought the cheapest one for 1000 bahts.  Come on, a bag painted by an elephant?   Had to have it, plus all proceeds go to protect the elephant, etc, etc.  After an espresso and buying a T-shirt for me, it was time for the elephant show.

What we learned was that baby and young elephants are really easy to train but after 4 or 5 years, not so much, so those who came to this rescue camp young are part of the show, and those who are not, are put to mild labour.  If you didn’t like elephants before, the show is guaranteed to change your mind.  They bow and squeal, ham it up for the audience by showing their teeth and eating entire bunches of bananas in one fell swoop (no bran buds needed for these guys); they play soccer and demonstrate log moving; and did I mention they paint?  It was amazing to see two elephants hold brushed in their trunks and carefully draw the bare bones of a tree, then blot in leaves in two tones and finally sign their initials.  One of them drew an elephant and baby as well as the tree.  Pretty impressive!  They paused carefully before each brush stroke as if considering the overall effect on the canvas. (Ed. note: Here is a youtube video someone posted. Suda is one of the two elephants who painted today.)  No additional charge but you can buy the canvas!  The announcer reminded the crowd that, as each piece sold, there were more to be had in the gift shop.  We were intrigued but declined.  So far, total:  4420 baht.  Still have to pay the cab driver 1000 baht. (Ed. note: I will be adding a video over the next day or so of the show if you care.)

On to lunch—it was free!  Or included in your ticket, whatever.  After lunch, immediately after lunch, we hopped aboard a bamboo raft a la Huck Finn and were poled for about an hour down the river.  We passed concrete bungalows which were built high up on the river’s edge and on stilts – but are no longer habitable because the rainy season caused the river to flood even them. We passed grass huts where the “Karen” or long-necks live. Only the women put the permanent brass rings around their necks, gradually lengthening them over time and rendering them incapable of holding their heads up on their own.  Didn’t spot a one, and had already determined that this was a tour worth missing as they no longer live traditionally.  Still, the river trip was terrific.   Our guides were also entertaining and joked about crocodiles and taking us all the way to Bangkok.  Apparently, the Taeng Mae (I think) is a tributary of the Chao Praya but would take us several months to reach Bangkok via bamboo raft.  A very fun and relaxing end to the tour.   If you’ve ever gone rafting, you know that you put in one place and get out at another.   Of course the no tipping rule was heavily enforced at this end but we were without small bills.  Cost:  another 1000 baht.  Now before you start shaking your heads, consider that 20,000 baht is worth about $700, so it really wasn’t too bad but the last tip was certainly over the top. (Geoff hangs his head in shame here.)

The only bad part of the day were the long cab rides there and back.  45 minutes on a less than comfy cab seat was not what was really needed, especially with a driver who was quite happy to leave the A/C on very low.