20 September, 2007


somewhere not too long ago thejayfather heard that blogs are often considered nothing but "brag books", places where people get to thumb their noses at the world and say "look at all the cool things that i've done and you haven't." despite the reports of our fun travels on these pages, the idea has never been to show off, only keep a record of a few of my doings. effectively, this blog is my personal journal, and only remains out here in the ether because i don't seem to be able to keep one any other way. for long, that is. i start them on January 1st every couple of years or so, but by the 4th or 5th the entries are already getting patchy. there have only been a couple of times that i've been able to keep up the momentum, times when the reason for keeping the record has stayed fresh in my mind.

for this blog the reason of course is you, Dear Reader, and you may well imagine that i kept a reasonably up-to-date diary at least for much of my time in Taiwan. but the first journal that stuck, the one that sparked all the others, was a record of the trip that pretty much ignited the international wanderlust you've been reading about here for the last two-and-a-half years. at that time Blogger was a mere twinkle in Google's eye--i hadn't heard of it anyway--and where i went there wasn't much in the way of broadband anyway. but i did take a small notebook and a trusty Parker pen, and the results of their mating are now available for the perusal of a select few in my recently published, fully online, thoroughly modern Samoan Jornal: My experiences in the tropical South Pacific paradise of Samoa.

thejayfather before he was even thejayfather, standing outside his beach fale on a remote corner of Savai'i island, Samoa. this picture was taken between Christmas and New Year's, 2003-2004.

where here i can ensure my thoughts are expressed appropriately, when writing my Samoan journal i never considered anyone but me would ever read it. for this reason, there is no link to to the hallowed pages containing a transcription of my uncensored thoughts; only those who are invited will be able to read. if you'd like to be one of those lucky souls, let me know who you are and what you're hoping to gain from the experience. and of course, come back and let me know what you thought.

please tell me who you are and why you'd like to be invited to view the Samoan Journal:

01 September, 2007


i knew i was famous somewhere... it was rewarding to arrive in Thailand and find i was already practically a household name.

after biding our time earning a hefty tax break in Taiwan, we were finally able to head on our long awaited tour through Southeast Asia, beginning on that most Asian of holidays: the Fourth of July. when Americans plan a trip, the first impulse is to stay as far away from travel agents as possible, but as with all else this impulse is just the wrong one to take to Asia. our plans were not straightforward and we never got as good a price going through airline and hotel websites as we did just handing over the dates to our agent and letting her go to town. actually, i handed several sets of dates to several agents all over Taiwan and let them duke it out for the best deal. they each have these networks all across the region that give them sweet deals on certain airlines and hotels, and we finally chose what turned out to be a really good set of flights and lodgings from an agent named Jeannie Leng in Taipei. she was so good we even tried to get her to do all of our trips from Japan, but she couldn't arrange anything that didn't originate in Taiwan. so we took off on a China Airlines 747 for Bangkok and three and a half hours later we were safely on the ground and through customs at Don Muang airport.

following all of our adventures in Taiwan we thought ourselves pretty savvy travelers, and though we didn't feel like we had left our comfort zone, there was this awareness that we didn't know quite how things worked anymore, and we definitely didn't know our way around. we hadn't wanted to get guidebooks for each of the countries we'd be visiting, so we got one that covered the whole region, and so it wasn't very detailed regarding any single place. for that reason we decided to bite the bullet and take a taxi to our lodgings, rather than try to figure out a bus or something, as we usually would have done. good thing Thailand is cheap, because that airport (which is no longer in use for commercial flights) is way out of town, the taxi ride taking almost half an hour, most of it at freeway speeds (even on surface roads). fortunately, we had heard from several friends that taxi drivers at Don Muang pass along to passengers the hefty fee the airport charges them for getting in, so we hiked out of the transit loop (to the dismay of many drivers) and flagged down the first car we saw outside the gate.

our self-congratulation for being so travel smart was pretty short lived however, as the next day we got one of our best ever lessons through our own painful experience. our first intended stop in Bangkok was the impressive Grand Palace complex, formerly the residence of the Thai royal family. the huge area is walled and surrounded by water, either river or moats, and is not only heavily guarded but heavily visited. our taxi dropped us some distance from the main gate, but we espied another gate close by and made for it. before we could get to the guard however, a helpful English-speaking guy came over and asked if we were going in. "you'll have to wait," he said, "the palace is closed right now for morning prayers. is there anywhere else you'd like to see in Bangkok?" indeed, we told him, there were several other places, some of which we pointed to on our map. "no problem, just take a tuk-tuk (one of the small three-wheeled taxis for which Thailand is so famous) around to some of those places, and come back later in the day."

Jill in our first tuk-tuk. it's just as cramped as it looks, and much noisier besides, but has excellent air conditioning--at least when the cab is moving.

at that moment, a tuk-tuk just happened to pull up right next to us, and our helpful friend offered to tell the driver where we wanted to go. how nice, we thought, as we boarded our cramped and noisy ride, and the palace guard looked on. soon we were on our way to our next-best spot, the Golden Mount, or Wat Saket (Saket Temple). or so we thought, anyway. he first took us to a local temple he said was quiet and overlooked, which was enjoyable though in some disrepair. there we found people selling small birds for tourists to set free and by so doing gain answers to their prayers; we later learned that those birds were all trained to return to their cages. then, supposedly on our way to the Golden Mount, our driver began to tell us of a special deal whereby he would get some free gas for taking us to a duty-free shop, which would enable him to honor the low fare he had promised us (the other guy had negotiated with him to take us to about five places for 50 Baht, the equivalent of $1.25). fair enough, we agreed, as he assured us that all we had to do was look and pretend to be interested for a few minutes, and then he would get his free gas and we could go to the Golden Mount.

having done our duty we returned to our carriage, whereupon we were told we hadn't looked long enough, so we would have to go to another store. this process repeated itself a few more times, with each one making both the driver and me more angry. at the last stop we even bought a few of the cheap trinkets, but when he told me we hadn't spent enough i laid it out: he had better take us to the mount, or things were going to get nasty. he finally drove us there and let us out across the street, saying he'd find parking, but surprise surprise, when we came out he was nowhere to be found. at least we didn't have to part with our buck-25. it started to dawn on us how intricate and well orchestrated the scam had been, and how we hadn't seen it coming at all. the taxi driver drops us far from the palace entrance, right by a guy who just happens to be walking by and wants to help the foreigners. it also just happens to be prayer time and we can't go inside, but you can go see some other things and "oh look", there's a tuk-tuk right now, let me help you get a good deal. very smooth, and i'm sure every driver in town is part of that or a similar scam.

the overwhelming gold of the Wat Phra Kaew, Thailand's most sacred Buddhist temple, at the Grand Palace, which we finally saw later in the day. clockwise from top left: the Phra Sri Rattana chedi, a stupa that looks a lot like the Golden Mount; the guardians of Phra Mondop, the library; Jill doing her best gracious Thai pose in the clothes she was loaned and had to wear to be considered modest enough to enter the complex--shorts are not allowed; and some of the Yaksha demons that adorn the chedi. below, the Wat Arun, or Temple of the Dawn, lies directly across the Chao Phrya River from the Grand Palace and is one of the most visited temples in Bangkok.

it was frustrating that the guard hadn't done anything, but i guess that's not his job, and you've got to let your fellow countrymen hustle to earn their money. Thailand is very permissive with that kind of thing, but we're lucky this tame experience has taught us to be very cautious in all our travels, including helping us to avoid the very costly art scam in Beijing. i did wonder what King Bhumibol thinks about all the scamming. Thailand's long-serving monarch is widely revered in his country, possibly due to his having spent some of his vast personal fortune on development projects in rural areas (also perhaps because to insult him is a jailable crime). we went to see a movie at what was rumored to be the world's largest movie theater, in the MBK shopping center, and following the previews there came on a song for which everyone in the theater stood up. as we rose we saw pictures of the king flash up on the screen in slideshow fashion, a demonstration which continued for the full five minutes of what we determined must be the national anthem. it was kind of surreal but people seemed to genuinely reverence their very own Rama (IX).

one of the many large monuments to current King Bhumibol Adulyadej and his wife Queen Sirikit, this one just off a large intersection. below, a longboat like the one on which we cruised the mighty Chao Phrya River, which runs right through Bangkok. if you follow this far enough out, you come to huge floating markets, wherein people sell their produce from tiny punts. where we went there were only a couple of ladies floating around and selling Singha beer, and who urged us to buy one to thank our driver. not very smart, perhaps, but certainly politic.

at some point during our stay in Thailand, we knew we would have to satisfy one of Jill's greatest ever dreams: riding on an elephant. to her this was synonymous with a trip to Siam, and since there isn't much room for the giant creatures in town anymore, we signed up for an all day excursion out to one of the national parks. before going to Khao Yai, which lies (i think) to the northeast of Bangkok, our awesome guide Sumpit took us to some village markets and for what she called an ock-cart ride. it took us a while to figure out that x is a hard letter for Thai people to say.

the authentic Thailand trip, clockwise from top left: our great guide Sumpit, whose English wasn't quite excellent, but may have been eckellent; some of the tasty morsels available in a typical Thai marketplace; Jill and me in front of the Haew Narok waterfalls in Khao Yai National Park; and us on our ock-cart, which was much more fun than we thought it would be.

the actual elephants were really cool, and it was amazing to be riding through a jungle on them. there were signs all along the road through the park that warned of elephants crossing, though we didn't see any that way. our mounts were brought to a tall platform by young fellows who used hooks to steer the beasts by their ears. there were seats strapped onto their backs for us, but we were also allowed to shuffle off and sit right on their necks, which meant you had their haunches pressing into you with each lumbering step. no fear of lawsuits here; in fact, there was a Dutch family on the tour with us, a couple and their two sons. the father, René, was riding with one of the boys when the seat mount slipped and he almost feel clean off the elephant. somehow he managed to stay on but he looked a bit shaken up--it feels higher than it looks up there.

Jill and me on our sturdy beast, spurred on by the handler's constant shouting of "ma maa, ma ma maaa!". in the picture above, try to spot the deliberate mistake, an act of which we were mercifully unaware at the time. below, we had been wisely advised to buy some bananas at the country market, each of which our hungry elephant took down whole. this was way better than the zoo.

but we had to come down at some point and return to the zoo of Bangkok. it's a busy city that is actually a lot less dirty than it very easily could be, but is kind of packed with dirty old white guys, all walking around with 12-year-old Thai girls. but once again, this is something that everybody in the City of Angels (that's really Bangkok's nickname) seems to turn a blind eye to, and we tried to ignore it also as we avoided the clubs and headed off the see more Buddhas. i think i've already mentioned that despite there being literally millions of Buddha statues in the world, each one of them has a very specific claim to fame, usually relating to size. we visited the (supposedly) tallest seated Buddha in Taiwan and saw the (again supposedly, there's no way to really tell) tallest seated Buddha in the world in Hong Kong, along with Japan's largest in Nara. we've seen some of the largest standing Buddhas in the world, and probably the largest Buddha that sits right on the Tropic of Cancer. i'm sure there's also a category for largest Buddha built by blind monks, as well as one for largest Buddha standing on a hill or resting in a valley or even on a park bench; the categories are literally endless. but here in Thailand we entered a whole new league: the reclining Buddha.

the "Reclining Buddha" at Wat Pho, or aptly enough, The Temple of the Reclining Buddha in Bangkok. his mother-of-pearl-inlaid feet are very famous and come with a sign warning: "DON'T TOUCH MOTHER OF PEARL". Jill's cape is to piously cover her arms rather than a sartorial choice, although it does make her look quite English departmenty. below, the Phra Buddhajinaraja, an impressive Thai-style Buddha inside the Wat Benchamabophit, or Marble Temple, a heavy tourist draw in its own right.

not so much reclining as just lying down, the Buddha is still pretty impressive at 46 meters (151 feet) long, and is probably claimed to be the widest Buddha in the world. well, whatever, we've pretty much seen them all, the skinny Thai ones, the moderate Japanese ones, and the jolly fat Chinese ones, and i can tell you that once you've seen a couple of each kind you've more than seen them all. so after a long day of Buddha watching and shopping at the endless street markets, you... take a tuk-tuk to one of the night markets, of course. the one we went to is called the Suan Lum Night Bazaar, and is huge and more organized than its name makes it sound. rows and rows of very interesting shops, along with several restaurants and the strange but famous Joe Louis Puppet Theater, made for some good souvenir shopping, dinner and sightseeing. Suan Lum is definitely a place you have to go in Bangkok. but even night shopping has to come to an end at some point, so we headed back to another recommended spot in town, our hostel the Suk 11:

views of the very friendly Suk 11 hostel, named after the road on which it stands. the main road across town is called Sukhumvit, and all the side roads are sois, each with a number. this cabinesque lodge is, oddly enough, on Sukhumvit Soi 11. clockwise from top left: the Swiss Family Robinson look of the outside; the acceptable graffiti on the inside; the communal-feeling lobby; and us leaving our mark, in English and Chinese. below, much less comfortable accommodations on the train to Malaysia.

mercifully far from the hippie mecca of Khao San Road, the Suk 11 is nevertheless pretty bare bones and communal, but is clean and convenient, not to mention really atmospheric. and it sure beat our lodgings for the next couple of nights: a train sleeper carriage on the way to Kuala Lumpur. check out the preview of that little adventure above, and thejayfather will bring you the full story soon.