OCTOBER  2006 AISA TRAVELOGUE  by Linden and Dan

THAILAND AND BHUTAN

We departed from Seattle at 4 a.m., October 22, 2006, headed for Bangkok, Thailand.  The beginning of a family adventure we all not only managed to survive but we enjoyed tremendously.  After a seventeen hour flight we arrived in Bangkok weary and jet lagged but excited.  This was my first international flight and I was amazed at the high quality of service we received.  It seemed like they never stopped feeding us which is a switch from the standard mini bag of peanuts usually served on domestic flights.  The new airport is 8 levels, 6,000,000 square feet, making it the largest airport and largest single building in the world.  I figured if we managed to find our way out of the airport we could probably find our way anyplace. 

We stayed at the Royal Hotel, a nice hotel suggested by a friend of Gretchen’s.  In the short time we were there we visited the Royal Palace, Jade Buddha and Reclining Buddha.  We did some shopping, took a longboat ride on the canals, ate the best Phad Thai street food you could imagine for less than $1 for the four of us, and tried to catch up on some sleep in-between.  The longboat ride was a photographer’s dream and there were three of them on our boat.  I was the only one in the family without a camera hanging from my neck.  Thank heavens because we returned home with over 5300 digital photos between the three of them!  Not to mention the 22 rolls of film Gretchen shot. 

The second evening we walked 8 miles to the train station through many interesting neighborhoods, including China town, to make our train reservations to Nong Khai.  That would be our entry point into Laos when we returned from India. There were several food vendors at the train station and to Derek’s delight one was Dunkin Donuts.  He would remark about this several times during our trek, looking forward to a Dunkin Donut when we returned to catch the train.

 Gretchen and I had to poke fun at the guys about them being the first to “shop”.  Usually it is the guys giving the gals a hard time about shopping.  In a rush to catch our connecting flight in Taipei, Taiwan, Dan left his “newly purchased for this trip” watch at the security check.  Thus, we ended up shopping for a watch in Bangkok.  Derek didn’t bring a watch.  Dan and Derek picked up identical watches for $8 each.  Gretchen didn’t have a band for her watch. My watch was fogging up because the gasket had stretched when I changed the battery in preparation for the trip.  Talk about prepared!

The following morning we had a 5:50 a.m. flight to Paro, Bhutan.  Flying into Paro on Druk Air, the national airline of Bhutan, was thrilling.  The small airport sits in a canyon surrounded by mountains.  The pilot flew the fixed wing like a helicopter, having to weave through the canyon to get low enough to land.  Welcome to the Himalayas!  Upon arrival Pelden, our guide, and Gudu, our driver, were there, in traditional dress, to greet us.  Thus began an 11 day cultural tour, including three days of trekking in the Himalayas of Bhutan.

      

 The country is remote and pristine with very few tourists allowed in the country each year.  It is only within the last 4 or 5 years the country has put in cellular phone service.  Internet access is extremely limited.  The cultural tour included day hikes up steep mountainsides to visit monasteries, nunneries and temples, and helped us acclimate to the altitude before we left on our three day trek.  Most days included travel in the van taking us to the where we would begin our hikes. 

Most roads were one lane, twisting through the mountainous countryside.  The original roads were built in the 60’s by India in exchange for hydropower.  They have started to widen the roads to two lanes between the major towns and cities.  The Indian laborers (entire families), live in road camps along the road near the work areas.  No heavy equipment is used.  It’s all done by shovel, sledgehammer, hand chisels, and sweat.  Thankfully Gudu was a very good driver.  The roads were full of blind corners which required the driver to honk to alert oncoming drivers around the corner.  Gudu negotiated corners like a pro, often having to squeeze by big trucks with only a couple inches in between vehicles.  Amazingly enough, we only saw two accidents our entire trip.  Never traveling faster than 25 mph it took forever to get anywhere.  Good thing the countryside was so gorgeous. 

We saw everything from terraced fields of rice being harvested, to huge blooming Poinsettia bushes that actually formed fences and hedges, to the jagged snow covered mountains of the Himalayas.  We had no idea Poinsettias grew in anything but the pots purchased during the holidays.  It was startling to see ten foot high bushes full of bright red leaves.

Two of the cultural highlights included day hikes to holy sites.  Our first day hike took us an hour up a steep trail to a nunnery made of clusters of shelters built on sheer cliffs that house 45 or so nuns.  On the way up we were joined by two nuns carrying there supplies up the hill.  Provisions are left at the roadside by the nuns’ families and must be carried up the trail from that point by the nuns, as is the case with all the supplies for the nunnery.  Because we were a small group and the tour company had applied for a special government permit, we were allowed to visit the temple.  Afterwards we were invited to have tea with the nun responsible for taking care of the temple. She had lived at the nunnery for 15 years. This was an incredible opportunity not available to large tour groups.  Some of the nuns take on the hardship of meditation for 3 years, 3months and 3 days.  A flag hung outside their hut indicates they are in meditation and are not to be disturbed.  Pre-arranged food is left outside their door.  They eat, sleep, and meditate in solitude.  They are to speak to no one during their only ventures outside the hut to visit the communal toilet and shower. 

The second day we hiked to the most sacred site in the country, Taktsang (Tiger’s lair) monastery.  For the Bhutanese or Buddhists, it is a holy pilgrimage, but for us, the hike up to the viewpoint opposite the monastery was exhausting and exciting.  The Taktsang monastery clings on a sheer, vertical cliff at 9680 ft.  The steep uphill climb to the tea house opposite Taktsang took us a couple of hours.  A stop for tea, cookies and rest at the tea house on the way up provided a fantastic view of the monastery.  A great photo opportunity!  Another hour of hiking brought us to the monastery.  On the way up we met a 68 year old man with his family on his first pilgrimage to the holy site.  Because of his balance he was not able to make it all the way to the monastery, but made it far enough to see Taktsang.  He remained there, praying and visiting with others while his family finished the pilgrimage.

The hotels we stayed in were very simple, traditional and charming.  They all had western toilets and showers.  The first night in Paro we didn’t have water due to the tanks being cleaned, but for the most part we had warm or hot water for showers.  Power wasn’t a sure thing either.  We learned quickly to grab our headlights first thing.  Each afternoon when we arrived at the hotel we were served tea and biscuits.  Taking time to relax, enjoy tea and conversation seemed to be a standard before heading to our room to unpack, clean up, update journals and rest before dinner. 

In Thimphu, at hotel Northung, the hotel owner spent time talking with us at the end of each dinner.  Her husband is a llama and was a playmate of the current king.  She was educated in Canada and has a PHD.  She was extremely interesting and shared her knowledge of Bhutan.  We discussed the changes that will occur in the country in 2008 when the king passes the crown to his son and the government becomes parliamentary.  She feels confident there will be little change.  The people love and trust their king.  Even though the government will become parliamentary, the king will have the final say.  Also, she feels change will be slow due to their culture and Buddhist religion being one in the same.   Most of the people live very modestly, and seem extremely content and happy.  Their national motto, “Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product” reflects what we saw in the smiling faces of the people. 

Another of the highlights of our time in Bhutan, actually in every country we visited, was the children.  English has been taught in the schools in Bhutan since 1957.  The top high school students in the country may choose to attend any university in the world at the government’s expense.  All the children walk to and from school, five and a half days per week, many of them walking several hours per day.

Our first evening in Paro several primary age school children joined us in our walk from town to our hotel.  They were delightful, asking us where we were from, telling us they were currently studying Canada in school, asking many questions about our country, wanting their photos taken and delighting in seeing their images on the camera screen.  Four girls in 5th grade gave us their names, the address of their school and requested we send the photos we had taken of them and postcards of our town.  They had me write down the information then asked me to read it back to be sure I had it correct.  Several boys entered in the fun and made the same request.  The children in all the countries were respectful and friendly, always greeting us in English or their local language.  Children and adults alike were curious about the photos being taken and loved seeing the images and themselves in the photos. 

The national sport in Bhutan is archery.  We were lucky enough to see a match in progress while in Thimphu.  Teams would be at both ends of the 460 ft. long range, over one and a half football fields long.  Team members would stand 20 feet away from the target while their team mates were shooting at it.  If somebody hit the target both teams would dance and chant.  We were close enough to be entertained by one team member trying to break the opponent’s concentration.  He even made fun of the king’s brother as he was shooting.  He worked hard at getting us involved and even invited us to lunch with the participants in the match.   

The 3 day trek starting in Phobjikha Valley was exhilarating and the views amazing. The four of us with a trekking staff of six, two horsemen, a cook, a cook’s assistant, a trekking guide in training and our guide, Pelden, spent three days hiking a trail that winds up, down and through fields and forests of blue pine, spruce, hemlock, magnolia and rhododendrons.  We carried day packs while the horses carried the rest of the supplies.   We slept in small tents. 

Our wake up call was a bowl of hot water to wash with.  Then tea was delivered to our tent.  The morning and evening meals were cooked in a tent and served in dining tent or on a small table outside in the sun.  Our cook had 13 years experience and we reaped the benefits.  Breakfast consisted of white toast, butter, peanut butter and jelly, porridge, warm milk, hot tea and instant coffee.  Eggs and chicken were banned in Bhutan at that time.  Due to the lack of flat ground to cook on (most trails in Bhutan are either up or down) lunch was a sack lunch consisting of a cheese sandwich on white bread, potato, a fruit, real Mango juice, 100% mango, and hot tea from a thermos carried by the trekking staff.

When we arrived at the camp site we were served hot tea and biscuits.  Later dinner began with an outstanding soup.  We were normally served three dishes of vegetables prepared in different ways, one meat and/or fish dish, some type of bread, and noodles or rice.  Every dinner ended with a dessert which was normally a fruit or light pudding.  The meat was like shoe leather and the fish was worse, skin left on , bones left in and fried, but the rest of the meal was very good and way too much. 

The same was true of most of the meals we were served in the hotels and at restaurants on the cultural tour.  We sat down and the food appeared, having been ordered by our guide.   Some of the meals were buffet style with similar dishes.  Dishes with cheese sauce are a Bhutanese specialty.  A chili cheese dish consisting of green and red chilies in a cheese sauce served over rice at almost every lunch and dinner in the restaurants, at hotels and on the trek, quickly became one of our favorites. 

After dinner we gathered around a fire built by the horsemen.  Some whiskey, many stories and lots of laughs were shared. The toughest part of the trek was the downhill hike the last day, loosing over 5000 ft. altitude in less than five hours.  The trail was steep, slippery and blocked in many places by downed trees.  It was rough on all of our knees. 

Derek became enthralled with yak knives with a 14 inch blade made from automobile springs, the utility tool of choice carried by yak men, horsemen and laborers.  The customer brings the knife maker the spring.  The knife maker makes the knife then keeps the remainder of the spring. Derek and the horsemen had a yak knife fest.  Derek and Gretchen both purchased yak knives, several of them.  I’m not sure what the final count was, but at least they didn’t try to take them out of the country in carry-on baggage!  Unlike Dan, who tried to take his Swiss Army knife in his carry-on bag on Druk Air coming into the country.  Say goodbye to that Swiss Army knife!  Lucky we all didn’t get arrested.  More shopping required by the man before our trek.  We had a few laughs over that one!

Before and after returning from the trek we visited temples, museums, handicraft schools, libraries and other cultural buildings.  The kids had studied Buddhism before the trip so were way ahead of us, but we managed to catch up some due to the fantastic job done by Pelden, teaching us about Buddhism and his country’s culture.  In Thimphu we shopped and took photos in the market and enjoyed walking around town and poking in small shops.  The handicraft school was especially interesting.  We watched students carving wood, painting elaborate murals, weaving and making garments.  The many temples we visited, along with Pelden’s explanations, helped us understand the complex history of Buddhism.  We visited Jungshi Handmade Paper Factory where we watched paper being made from the bark of the Daphne plant.  We had great fun with Pelden and Gudu and grew so close to them, it was very sad when our time in Bhutan came to a close and we headed into India.

INDIA

Our final day in Bhutan we drove to Phuntsoling, a southern border town with India.  The distance of 180km took us about 7 hours.  When we reached the town we could see the transition from Bhutan to India begin.  What culture shock.  Instant poverty, filth and what seemed like despair greeted us the next day when we crossed into India.  We completed paperwork then Pelden turned us over to the Indian tour contact.  All of us were fighting back tears as goodbyes were said, hugs shared, photos were taken, and we experienced our first encounter with beggars.  Pelden had been with us the entire time we spent in Bhutan.  He had become our security blanket, our friend, part of our family.  Now we were in the hands of someone new, a driver who had been sent to take us to Gangtok, a five hour drive away.

During the first part of the drive the road was lined with tea gardens.  Later in the drive, monkeys lined the road.  They are cute, aggressive and there are hundreds of them causing problems in India.  We stopped at a restaurant outside a small town for lunch.  Our driver told us he needed to go pick up our trekking guide and would return within an hour.  We watched him change his shirt then jump in the car and take off with all of our worldly goods still in the vehicle.  A couple hours later we were sitting outside the small roadside restaurant in the middle of nowhere wondering how we could have let this man leave with all of our gear, wondering if he would return.  Wondering how we would explain our stupidity to Pelden if we ended up having to call him for help.  As we were loosing faith, here he came, along with the owner of the tour company and our trekking guide.  Yahoo, we were on the road again.  Whew…..that felt like a close call.

We were taken to hotel Norkhil in Gangtok where our baggage was unloaded, silk scarves placed around our necks, and cherry liquor followed by hot tea, cookies and sweet breads were served in the lobby.  The lobby was incredible.  It must have been a five star hotel, old British Rajah.  Quite a change from the modest, traditional hotels we experienced in Bhutan.

 Derek had started the trip with a cold.  Dan caught it and passed it on to me.  I was just starting to feel better and Gretchen was coming down with it. We spent two nights at the hotel experiencing the old British five star service, relaxing in luxury, eating fantastic food, doing laundry in the bathtub and getting some well needed rest before we began the trek.  This is where we discovered Chacos, a cold breakfast cereal kind of like Coco Puffs except the real deal!  Eating a bowl of Chacos was like eating crunchy chocolate smothered with warm milk.  We were all drawn to this cereal totally lacking in nutrition!  We laughed over memories Derek and Gretchen have of us not letting them eat junk cereal for breakfast when they were kids.   We didn’t have junk around and made them eat oatmeal and granola, which they didn’t necessarily appreciate then, but do now.   So we went on a bit of a junk food binge those two mornings.  Derek ended up asking to see the box so he could purchase some to take home.

 

The nine day trek from Yuksom to Bakhim to Tsoka to Dzongri to Thanshing to Sumethang and then to the highest point of 15,100 feet, almost to Goeche La Pass, and then back down to Yuksom, was the most physical challenging adventure I have ever experienced.  Two days were especially grueling, the hardest being the trek up to our highest point near the pass which began at 4 a.m. in freezing cold and darkness.

The trek took us through beautiful country from grazing meadows through rhododendron forests to high, rugged, snow covered mountains and glaciers.  And I don’t mean those short, little rhodies we have in the states.  These were over 10 ft. tall!   On the trek in Bhutan we didn’t see another tourist, only locals on the trail.  There was much more tourist trekking traffic on the trail in India.  There were several nights we camped near other tour groups but were fairly spread out and had plenty of room.  When we arrived back at Tsoka it was like Grand Central Station.  Our guide had to vie for space for our tents.

Despite recovering from colds and Derek's bout with the gastrointestinal gods, we felt fortunate to avoid altitude sickness and had many fun times in-between trying to catch our breath at altitude and trying to keep warm.  The kids had an easier time of it than we did, but still found they had trouble talking and hiking at the same time at high altitudes.  Our guide never broke a sweat.  Much of the trekking staff ran up and down the trails in lightweight clothes, flip flops or barefoot.  The trekking staff of seven included two horsemen, a yak man, a cook, two assistant cooks and Lokpa, our guide. 

Our meals were much the same as they were on the trek in Bhutan with a few changes in fare.  Eggs and chicken were not banned in India so we ended up eating eggs cooked in different ways for breakfast.  The cook staff would pass us on the trail, set up, prepare a hot lunch and have it ready when we arrived.  Often we were met with hot lemonade, orange drink or tea on the trail as we neared our lunch spot and as we neared our camp for the night. On those very cold mornings and evenings we looked forward to the Cadbury hot chocolate mix in hot milk after meals.  Hot tea was the staple drink with instant coffee available.  Numerous dishes were served each meal as in Bhutan, several of them vegetable dishes.  We experienced less cheese sauces and more chunk cheese, more fried food, fried bread and lots of rice in India.  The meat and fish dishes weren’t any better on this trek; still the majority of the food was delicious.  After the total change in our normal diet, the addition of so many eggs, so much fried food and so many simple carbs, I felt lucky my heart didn’t give out on the way up the mountain!  At least we burned it off.

 

It was the freezing temperatures that almost killed me.  We slept in decent tents every night and brought much warm gear, but it was still a challenge to keep warm when at camp and during the night.  Four or five nights I slept in almost everything I took..............Smart Wool long underwear, Capaline hiking long underwear, hiking pants, turtleneck fleece top, down pants, down jacket with hood, wool hat, sock liners, Smart Wool hiking socks, down booties, rain jacket and rain pants..................along with a hot water bottle and my water bottle full of hot water in my -20 F. sleeping bag with liner.  I could barley move once I was zipped in my bag.  It was a bummer having to get up to pee during the night!  Needless to say I was glad when we returned to lower altitude with warmer weather!  I think Derek felt the same way as he had taken a light weight sleeping bag and he, too, was sleeping in everything he had with him. 

After a night in Yuksom at the end of the trek we were driven to Darjeeling, a larger high mountain town about five hours away.  As we drove into town we were in culture shock again from all the cars, exhaust, people and noise.  What a difference from the national park, wilderness and small towns where we had spent the past nine days.  We hauled our gear up 68 steps, none with the same rise and run, to stay at a modest, clean hotel with hot water and power.  It was located in the middle of town and we were able to walk everyplace we needed…………….restaurants, bakeries, shopping and Internet access.

We had a blast exploring town, eating street food, taking photos, purchasing world famous tea, and visiting the Tibetan Refugee Training Center where each of us made purchases.  One morning we had to laugh out loud after spying “Lipstick”, as we had dubbed her from the trek.  She had been an interesting tidbit of speculation as we crossed paths with her several times while trekking.   A trekking tourist sporting a bit of splash with her bright red lipstick, she looked rather sheik for the trail, as if she had walked out of an outdoor clothing catalog.  The rest of us, looking pretty haggard at times, wondered how she managed it.  You could see those bright red lips a mile away.  She was a trekking party of one with a nice looking guide who looked more European than Indian.  Of course we had to wonder what the deal was and had much fun speculating.  We were surprised to see those ever so red lips again in Darjeeling.   Small world or should I say small country.

Then it was on to Bagdogra, packed in a land rover on twisting roads for the better part of a day.  Actually, the scenery along the way was gorgeous, lots of tea gardens and small villages.  From Bagdogra we flew to Calcutta.  Our tour company manager lives in Calcutta and had arranged a driver and concierge to pick us up at the airport.  We didn't have a hotel reservation.  Had a tough time finding something we all agreed we could afford that wasn't scary.  We were hot, tired and grouchy.  We finally settled on something we could afford but was still pretty sketchy. 

The evening we spent in Calcutta was interesting.  It wasn’t one of my favorite places, filthy, stinky and depressing with families living in the streets, a couple of men naked from the waist down, but not many people begging and nobody reaching into our pockets. In all fairness, we didn’t have much of a chance to get to know the town, but I’m not interested in returning.  Although, Dan is considering relocating to India to take advantage of their cheap cellular service. The cost of service for a lifetime is the equivalent of $29.  Trouble is that’s incoming calls only.  The next day we flew back to Bangkok for a night prior to our train ride.

LAOS

Then we were on the move again, taking an early morning 13 hour train ride to Nong Khai, Thailand, the Thai side of the Friendship Bridge.  Dan spent most of the 13 hours taking photos out the train window while Gretchen, Derek and I watched the countryside, read, slept and drank everything cold in sight.  It was a hot ride.  The train was “cooled” by the breeze coming in from all the open windows.  Luckily, the train stopped at every little town along the way where local vendors boarded the train selling canned soda and juice from buckets full of ice.  Some of the local vendors also sold dried chicken feet and a variety of other treats we were scared to ask about. 

We were amazed at the amount of soot our skin accumulated from the diesel engine fumes coming in the open windows.  We arrived in Nong Khai in darkness with the name of a hotel and a notion of where it might be located.  Thought we would walk to the hotel but turns out the hotel was several miles from the train station so we ended up taking a Tuk Tuk.  The hotel was very nice and within walking distance of down town.  We spent that night walking town, enjoying the festivities of the town’s 1000 year birthday celebration.

 The next day we crossed the border into Laos which was almost of full day process starting with a Tuk Tuk to the Friendship Bridge, then a crowded bus just to cross the bridge.  After waiting in at least two lines we received our visas and went through customs.  Of course each step of this process cost money.  After going through customs we caught another Tuk Tuk to town.  Derek was our designated Tuk Tuk negotiator throughout the trip and did a super job.

After walking away from several Tuk Tuks because they were too expensive, he finally made a deal and we were off.  It may have been a good deal money wise, but turns out our driver had no idea where our “guest house of choice” was located even though we had the address.   He ended up asking several of other drivers for directions.  One ended up jumping in with us to direct our driver to the location.  Now that’s team work. 

We spent our first night in Vientiane at a $5 per night guest house, our first experience at very low cost accommodations.  The location in the middle of town was great but the rest was way too uncomfortable for us old folks.  We had a great time poking around town that afternoon and evening.  Just enough time to peak our interest in spending a couple of days on our way back to Thailand.

The next morning we took a nine hour bus ride to Luang Prabang.  What an experience!  Long, hot and tiring, but bottled water, a goodie bar and free lunch made it all worth while.  Our driver was a smoker so we stopped often for cigarette and potty breaks.  Everyone got off the bus, the men lined up with their backs to the road and the women headed into the bushes. The bus had a restroom which I attempted to use once.  Since I had learned to squat quite well by then it was a little hard to do the western toilet thing in such a compact space without sitting on the seat.  So when in Laos………….I was right there in the bushes with the best of them.  Actually, I was quite proud of the squatting skills I developed over the course of the trip. 

We never knew quite what to expect when we sought out a toilet in any of the towns, in any of the countries we visited.  The first day of the trek in Bhutan I peed all over myself attempting to learn the fine art of squatting.  Gretchen assured me I would improve with practice.  I was hoping so ‘cause if not, I was going to be pretty stinky by the time we finished the long trek in India.  The bus trip, although long and hot, turned out to be very interesting.  The road into the mountains passed through small villages and beautiful countryside.

Upon arriving in Luang Prabang we settled in a comfortable, simple hotel within walking distance to town center.  We were looking forward to relaxing for a few days.  It was nice not to have an agenda, to slow down and relax after weeks of going what seemed like 100 mph.  Over the next few days we rented bicycles and rode to outlaying villages where we watched paper being made and weaving being done in homes. 

We found a wonderful restaurant that served great Lao coffee, Beer Lao and inexpensive but good wine at Happy Hour, and outstanding Phad Thai and noodle soups and salads.  Since most of the coffee on the trip to this point had been Sanka, we were delighted to get back into good coffee country.   We walked and bicycled almost all the roads in town besides venturing out into villages during the day.  We strolled around the night market shopping for handicrafts and shooting photos then afterwards indulging in $3-$4/hour foot massages nightly. 

 The days flew by and soon we were looking at the prospect of another 9 hour bus trip back to Vientiane.  None of us were looking forward to that long, hot bus ride back.  We even looked into flying, but the cost was too high.  So on the bus we went, back to Vientiane to spend a couple of days before catching the night train back to Bangkok.  It was amazing…..the air conditioning on the bus halfway worked.  This time we were smart enough to pick up fresh baguettes with cheese and veggies for lunch rather than suffering through the meal provided at the lunch stop.

When we arrived in Vientiane my goal was to find an acceptable guest house.  The first two on our list were full which caused some panic (no, not another $5 dive), but we ended up running into a nice, clean hotel.  Although not a bargain at $20 per night, we stayed on the second floor while the kids stayed on the first, saving $4 per night. 

 The following morning we rented small motorbikes, happened by the Beer Lao Factory and stopped for a tour.  Derek claimed to have smelled the hops miles away.  On the tour we met an interesting couple, the gal from London and her fiancé from Zimbabwe.  They were on an 8 month trip using an around the world air ticket and had visited the U.S. as part of their trip.  They said the scariest places they had visited so far were Houston, New York and Los Angeles!  They planned to marry at their final destination.  We saw them again in Bangkok.  Like I said, small world. 

After the tour we headed out on dirt roads to small villages.  We were lucky to keep the bikes running, as they had not been well maintained.  On the way back to town we stopped and walked out to a paddy where two women were planting rice.  First Derek ventured in the muddy water to help, then Gretchen and finally Dan, while I stayed on dry ground shooting away with Dan’s camera.  The women did not speak English but we could tell they were getting a kick out of the situation.  We barely passed the rice planting skill test. 

The next morning Dan and the kids got up early to take photos at a local produce market.  Then we walked around, had a leisurely espresso, shopped for handicrafts and gathered food to take on the night train back to Bangkok.  The process of getting back over the Friendship Bridge through customs and back to Nong Khai was a repeat of the previous trip, but seemed less tiring going the opposite direction.  It was actually pretty fast. 

THAILAND

This was my first experience staying in a sleeper on a night train.  We had visions of a dirty mattress and linens but were pleasantly surprised at the cleanliness of the accommodations and efficiency of the staff.  The trip went by rather quickly and when morning arrived we were back at the station in Bangkok only an hour late.  This was Derek’s chance to get his Dunkin Donut and the rest of us jumped in.  A quick taxi ride back to the Royal Hotel put us back on familiar ground.  We enjoyed another two days in Bangkok.  We ate Phad Thai and cooled our thirst with fruit shakes from street vendors, shopped for Fisherman pants and enjoyed a Thai massage.  While Derek relaxed at the hotel drinking beer and catching up on his journal, Dan and Gretchen walked to Vimanmek Teak Palace, arriving a few minutes after closing.  Bummer!

I chose to take the water taxi connecting with the sky train to Siam Center, one of the big modern malls I had read about it in the guidebook.  The mall ended up being as modern as the new airport, with a kind of computer game graphics look to it.  My purpose was to see the garments of some well known Thai clothing designers.  Their designs are way out there, geared toward the younger hip generation.  Can’t say I picked up many ideas but it was very interesting. 

One evening we walked across the bridge to the other side of town where we were the only Caucasians in site.  We walked through neighborhoods totally inaccessible by car.  The 8 ft. wide walkways were a maze through restaurants, shop, and homes.  The maze would continue for the equivalent of 5 blocks before meeting a street.

The next morning we caught our flight home.  We had checked the weather a few times on the internet and all seemed well back home.  While in Bangkok we received an e-mail from Dan’s brother letting us know the weather had turned cold, snowy, icy and windy.  He was keeping an eye on our house and had shoveled snow from the driveway.  We thought he was pulling our leg so we checked weather.com.  The weather forecast didn’t seem out of the ordinary so we were sure he was putting us on.  It wasn’t until we reached Seattle that we saw the remnants of the huge storm that had hit our area hard a week or so before.  But we had to admit, it was nice to be back in the cooler weather.  It just doesn’t seem like the holidays at 80 degrees!  We were sad to see our grand adventure come to an end, but glad to be home for the holidays.