Category Archives: Eastern Hemisphere

These posts are related to Beth and Todd’s Eastern Hemisphere trip from September 2015 to January 2016

hindsight and the end

TripIt

I used a service and software called TripIt for our entire trip. All along the way, I plugged in each flight, each hotel where we stayed, and most major activities. At one point in our journey, Beth had a little rebellion against TripIt, and was mad at me because I wanted all our plans to be organized, but she didn’t want to be organized. It turned out to be handy for a lot of things, though. Now I can go back after the fact and have it tell me some things about our trip, like the fact that we were gone 150 days and traveled roughly 110,000 miles.

Here’s a map showing the cities we visited along the way (not counting Frankfurt, which was a surprise due to airline snafu). From this perspective, it looks like we covered Southeast Asia pretty well. But of course we only saw a minuscule fraction of it, and almost all of that was cities.

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Lessons Learned

Maybe this deserves a post of its own, but I’m not in the mood to go into great detail. So let me just throw out a bullet list, looking back on our journey the week after we got back to America.

  • Don’t take a laptop: Everyone says this, and I worked hard to keep my list of possessions light. But in hindsight, I sure wish I could’ve avoided the need to do any video editing on the trip. Then I could have left my laptop at home and only used my iPad.
  • Don’t take stuff for roughing it if you’re going to stay in hotels in cities: Too many of the things I packed were items that would be useful if we were sleeping on couches or in hostels – like a camp towel, a sleeping bag liner, a first aid kit – but weren’t relevant since we stayed in hotels in cities all the time. If we needed first aid, we were never far from a pharmacy or from someone who had first aid.
  • Don’t take a camera: This one sounds weird. One of my big goals for the trip was to get lots of good photos and especially 4K video. So I bought a nice camera and carted it all around. But it was a liability more than an asset a lot of the time. I didn’t have a long enough lens to get good wildlife photos anyhow, and a lot of the places we visited I didn’t want to take a big camera for fear of theft (or loss or damage). Plus, most of the things I got photos of are the same things that every tourist photographs; there are really good professional quality photos of all this stuff if I really want to show someone what it looks like.
  • Don’t visit Indonesia during burning season: It was dumb to go to Indonesia to see the orangutans during the “burning season” when visibility was so bad. Maybe I’d be complaining about the rain if we went another part of the year, though. But there are good times to visit and there are bad times and we mostly didn’t take the calendar into account.
  • Don’t visit Phuket if you want a relaxing trip to an unspoiled beach: We’d heard so many good things about Phuket that it didn’t occur to us that most of the island is really touristy unpleasant beach towns. Especially the one we chose (without adequate research), Patong Beach.
  • Don’t walk home after dark in Phnom Penh: It didn’t occur to either of us that a 1 km walk to our B&B from the cinema would be dangerous, but we almost got mugged by a motorcycle gang. The feedback from our B&B hostess: Duh, don’t you know you should never go out on foot after dark in this city? (no, we didn’t know that, obviously)
  • Travel insurance is a very good thing: At least in our situation, with Beth’s father in poor health, it was a very smart decision to get travel insurance. We got two insurance claim payouts worth about four times what we paid for the premium, and it allowed us to continue our journey after Bill’s death. If not for that, the trip would’ve been over because we ran out of money.
  • Everything costs more than you think it will: We had this fantasy that we’d find decent hotels in some developing countries in the $15 a night range. Almost all the time it was twice that. Now fifteen bucks doesn’t seem like a lot to an American on vacation, but if you’re living in hotels, that adds up. Our budget only allowed for $100 a day total, to cover lodging, food, entertainment, transportation, souvenirs, etc. The extra $15 a night we spent could easily pay for most or all of our food costs for a day.
  • Spend the extra money to hire a local guide: Before we left, I had this fantasy that I would hire local guides to help me explore and sample street food in cities. That turned out to be unnecessary. But having a professional guide when we visited the big sites like Taj Mahal and Angkor Wat made the visits so much more meaningful.
  • It’s a lot cheaper to visit fewer places for longer: People talk about how expensive it is to travel. The big expense on our journey wasn’t day-to-day things like food and lodging, it was airfare. Each time we flew from America to Asia or back, it was about $1000 each. And long flights within Asia, like from Delhi to Bangkok, were several hundred dollars. Short flights are amazingly cheap. You can fly from one city to another within India or Thailand or Indonesia for about $50. So considering we spent $100 per day on food, lodging, and everything else (that’s an average between expensive countries like Australia and inexpensive countries like Indonesia), it was much better to stay in one place for an extra week than to travel to a new country. So if you want to do something like we did…
    • …don’t bother taking a vacation to Asia if you can’t spend at least 3 or 4 weeks there; you’re better off waiting to save more money so you can go longer, and
    • …visit as few countries as possible for as many days each as possible.

Thanks for Reading

If you’re still tuned in to my writings about our travels in the Eastern Hemisphere, thanks. The biggest motivation was to think that my friends and family could read about what we saw through these posts. I never claimed to be a travel expert or an expert in any of the countries or cultures we visited. So the best I could do is write about where we went and what we saw.

If you want to see an entire list of all the posts about our big journey, they are listed on this web page. Including this final one, I wrote 75 total posts about the trip. Did you have a favorite? I’d love to hear your feedback.

easing back into “normal” life

Moving In

The day after we arrived back in Denver, I rented a car from Enterprise, loaded up my meager belongings, and moved into my new temporary home. I’m staying with a friend in Lakewood, who has a big house and several housemates. One of the bedrooms in her place opened up about the time I was starting to wonder where I was going to live at the end of the Asia journey, so it worked out perfectly.

But “moving in” consisted of just unpacking the few possessions I’ve been carrying around for the past five months. That didn’t take long. Most of the really useful stuff was in our storage unit in Aurora. So I picked up Beth at the AirBNB where she was staying, and we went out there. I went through some of the boxes in storage as best I could without totally unpacking them, and stuffed the most useful things into the car – warmer clothes, extra underwear, more shirts, etc.

Meanwhile, Beth surveyed her stuff to size it up. She planned for some time to return to Kansas City, and had to decide between driving a U-Haul truck with all her stuff now, or just taking the bare essentials and coming back to Denver later for the rest. After that I took her back to the AirBNB and I went back to Lakewood.

The Car

That night I didn’t sleep well, so I did several hours of research online about cars. I knew I needed a car as part of being back in the US. My original plan was to buy a used car for the near term just to get by and then buy something nicer later. But I decided instead to just buy a new car.

Buying a car is so electronic these days. In the middle of the night, I filled out an online loan application with USAA, and their computer approved me for a bunch of money (way more than I wanted to spend on a car). They also have a car buying service, so I entered the info for what I wanted, and it told me about the dealers in the area who had either a perfect match or a near match. Then it sent messages to all of them that I was interested. The prices were pre-negotiated through the car buying service, so I knew exactly how much I was going to pay.

A little after 8:00am Saturday morning, I got a call from one of those dealerships and set up a time to go test drive the car. After some breakfast and much-needed coffee, I went in about 9:30. Four hours later, I drove my new car off the lot. It’s a dark blue 2016 Honda Civic EX-T.

If Honda wanted to compete with BMW’s entry level models, their 2016 Accord and Civic would be the competition. The Civic looks sharp and sporty. It has every comfort and safety feature I’ve ever heard of, and several that I hadn’t. The seats are very comfortable, way better than our last car, the 2010 Prius. And the handling is nicely responsive. Plus, it’s got a ridiculous amount of acceleration that I’ll probably never use except when passing. In fact, this “compact” car’s 4-cylinder engine with turbocharger generates almost as much horsepower as the big V-8 that my Dodge Dakota had. And it gets twice the mileage, 42 mpg highway. That’s not as good as the 45 to 50 that the Prius could get, but better than most cars on the road. Overall, it’s a good combination of comfort, practicality, and performance.
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Next up, I guess I need to start looking for a place of my own to live, preferably in central Denver. But that’s going to be a big task, and I’m not ready for it yet.

I need more time to ease back into American life.

Transitions

The night I bought the car, I had been invited to a birthday party at Casa Bonita. After seeing all kinds of weird stuff and cultural attractions in Asia, Casa Bonita seemed perfect.

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Of course the food isn’t great. Of course the entertainment is cheesy. But it’s very American. Perfect.

The next day, I finally dug deeper into the boxes of clothes I got from our storage unit. I found all kinds of joyous surprises. Lots of warm socks, just in time for the snowstorm that was blowing in, for example.

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The next day, Beth and I went to visit Bob and Diane, who were our downstairs neighbors at the apartment where we lived for a year and a half in Capitol Hill. They’re nice people.

Bob is in his 90s and is a pretty well respected artist with galleries of his works in a couple cities in the midwest. He was in the US Navy in World War II, and remembers sailing around in the south Pacific near many of the places we visited 70 years later. Beth showed them some of her photos from our trip, and Bob pointed out which ones had the most artistic merit. He encouraged her to choose the best 20 and put together a gallery exhibition of them. Diane is a retiree from the big business world who was more interested in what we saw than how Beth composed photos of it.

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It’s sad to think about, but I wonder if we’ll ever see them again.

Getting Used to America and Americans

The first few days after we got back to America were pretty strange. I’m sure I’ll get re-acclimated faster than I expect. But here are some things that struck me as strange after being in India for a month and then Thailand for a month.

  • There are so many white people here! Everywhere I turn, there’s more white people. I’d gotten pretty used to Beth and I being the only Caucasians most places we went. We’d see more when we went to tourist traps and the beach, of course, but in India especially we’d go for days without seeing another white person.
  • People drive on the right side of the road here! Walking around in Denver the first night we were back, I stopped at a crosswalk and looked both ways before crossing. But of course I looked right first, assuming that’s where oncoming traffic would be. No, traffic will be coming from the left here! In the past five months, I only spent two weeks in places where people drive on the right instead of the left.
  • Everyone speaks English here! I have to admit, toward the end I was getting pretty fatigued by living in Asia, even though it was just a short time. And the main reason was that all the interesting local people I met were difficult to talk to due to language. A lot of people in India and Thailand can speak English to some degree, but it got old having to use short words and simple sentence construction all the time. It’s almost like a miracle to just go around in Denver and every single person you run into – even immigrants – speaks English.
  • Milk and bread. Have you ever talked to a French person and had them tell you how croissants in America don’t really taste like “real” croissants? There’s some essential difference, like our American flour is different or the butter is different or something. Well, in Asia most people don’t drink very much milk. And the western bread products they make are off a bit in a way that’s hard to explain. And I imagine that my reaction to having Thai pastries is the same as a Frenchman’s reaction to having American croissants.
  • Snow. As I write this, we’re having a big snowstorm. The snow is piled up several inches outside, the roads are all snow packed, and I’m not even sure I could get my new low-to-the-ground car out of the driveway and subdivision to a road that’s been plowed. Five days ago I was in Bangkok wearing shorts and a short sleeve shirt, with the air conditioning on. The snow is beautiful, but it’s just so weird.

Back to Work

I told my boss I’d be back at work on the Friday after we got back, leaving me one week to get some things in order, acclimatize, etc. That seems about right. I still have a few days of vacation left, but after that it’s back to the office for me. And I’m sure that’ll take some getting used to.

For much of the past month, my schedule has been totally my own. Some days I’d do maybe two or three hours of writing, and then a couple hours devoted to seeking out and eating food, an hour or two of lifestyle maintenance stuff like laundry, and then the rest was just reading or listening to audiobooks or whatever I felt like. My free time is going to be shrinking a lot, and fast. I hope I can cope. Wish me luck.

the journey home

Sam: “All right, we don’t have that much left. We have to be careful, or we’re goin’ to run out. You go ahead and eat that, Mister Frodo. I’ve rationed it. There should be enough.”

Frodo: “For what?”

Sam: “The journey home.”

— Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

Our last few days in Bangkok were spent going to a symphony concert in the park, seeing the Grand Palace, and then saying goodbye to the Bangrak neighborhood.

On the final day in Bangkok, January 27, we tried to do all the things we liked most. We ate street food, I had duck noodle soup, we had massages, and I saw the neighborhood turkey.

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The next day, we got up early and finished packing our bags. We had breakfast in the hotel, tipped all the hotel staff, and then took a taxi to the airport. We had a long day of travel ahead of us – three flights over about 25 hours. We flew from Bangkok to Beijing on a 747, but not before Beth did some stretches to limber up.

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The Beijing airport was the only time I’d ever been in China, so I had to take this selfie in front of a Chinese garden they built inside our concourse. We ate a meal there, supposedly Malaysian food.

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The next segment was Beijing to Vancouver. That was the longest flight of the three, at about 10.5 hours. We left late and arrived late, but fortunately we were still able to make our connection. From Vancouver we had a quick flight to Denver.

At long last, we were back in the city where we started from, 150 days earlier.

Looking back, it was a pretty bizarre day. We left on Thursday January 28, flew for about 25 hours, saw the sun set twice, and still landed on Thursday January 28. The International Date Line is weird that way.

Beth and I were both relieved and happy that all our bags arrived safely, unlike our trip from Kansas City to Delhi. Later, I found that the Chinese government had searched my suitcase, and confiscated one rechargeable camera battery. Oh well, that’s a small price to pay in the context of this huge journey.

We ate some supper in the Denver airport, since we didn’t get any on the United flight from Vancouver, and didn’t have enough time in the Vancouver airport to buy anything. Then we caught an Uber to an AirBNB that Beth reserved. That bed felt so good after sitting in economy class airplane seats all day. I hate long distance flying like that, but love getting to a bed at the end.

The Grand Palace of Bangkok

Dateline: January 25, 2016 / Location: Bangkok

The last tourist attraction we visited during our month in Bangkok was The Grand Palace. It’s probably one of the first places most tourists visit, and for us it was the last. Maybe that tells you something about our time in Bangkok overall. We put a lot higher priority on exploring different parts of the city than we did hitting the big sightseeing locations.

What’s the Grand Palace?

The Grand Palace in Bangkok is a complex built by one of the previous kings of Thailand, after the capital moved from the west side of the river to the east. It includes a temple (which houses the Emerald Buddha), palaces, and governmental buildings. It started with just a few buildings, but they just kept filling in the empty space in the area with more and more buildings until it was very crowded. The king wasn’t happy because the breeze that used to exist here was now blocked by all the buildings. So the king started spending more time in a city to the north that wasn’t so crowded.

Realizing this was kind of a dumb approach, since Bangkok is the capital after all, the king had another palace built in a new location in the city. At that point, the royal family moved there. And then later, the monarchy’s absolute rule was replaced by a democracy. At that point, the king was no longer the head of government, so the government moved all the government functions out of the Grand Palace area as well.

That left the complex with a palace that the king no longer lived in, and a bunch of government buildings that were no longer used by the government. So now it’s mainly a place for tourists to visit.

Getting There

I had read lots of advice online that you need to get to the Grand Palace really early to avoid the crowds and the heat. Fortunately, there was a cold snap while we were there, so the heat wasn’t an issue. But still we wanted to beat the busloads of Chinese tourists, so we set out as early as we could by express boat, headed north.

After the second or third stop of the express boat (a water bus), it was clear something was wrong. I don’t know whether the boat had serious mechanical problems or if the driver was really bad, but it took him several tries to dock correctly with the pier to let people off. And black smoke was pouring out of the back of the boat. A couple stops in a row, the driver hit the pier with such force that the passengers all were shaken around and I was afraid the boat might break or bend or something. By the second time this happened, Beth was getting really nervous, and so we hopped off the boat prematurely. We went to a Starbucks, I had a cappuccino, and we used the restrooms. After regaining our will, we got back on the next northbound express boat.

This one worked fine, and we were soon at the right place. A short walk from the pier led us to the entrance. We didn’t get hassled by tuktuk drivers or any other scam artists. We bought our tickets (500 baht each), rented two audio tour players, and were soon on our way.

Camera Choice

A funny thing happened over the course of our several month trip, and I guess I might as well talk about it now. I took my new Panasonic GH4 camera on this trip, with a couple of microphones, a couple lenses, and related basic accessories. My original plan was to shoot some 4K video and get as many nice still photos as I could. The camera is smaller than almost all DSLRs, as it uses what’s called a Micro Four Thirds format lens system. But with all the stuff – and even without – it still weighed a fair amount, and meant that whenever we went somewhere I had to take my backpack to put it in with all the stuff.

But I realized once we got to Agra, India, that the people who were tuned into these blog posts liked the photos I was taking from my iPhone 6s just as much as the photos from my GH4. So I started alternating them. Some outings I’d take the GH4, some outings I’d just take my mobile phone. And then toward the end I was just taking my phone. That’s why these pictures of the Grand Palace are from my phone. In fact, all the photos I took in Bangkok were from my phone. My expensive camera just sat in the camera bag in our hotel room the whole time.

In hindsight, I might have saved the hassle and weight on this journey by not even taking a “real” camera with me. Maybe I’ll do a “lessons learned” post later and touch on that.

Temple of the Emerald Buddha

Most of the time we spent at the Grand Palace was what they call the “Temple of the Emerald Buddha“. The Thai name is Wat Phra Kaew, and it is the most sacred Buddhist temple in all of Thailand. I guess that’s because the Emerald Buddha is the most sacred object in Thailand.

There’s a lot to see in the temple area. Here are my photos.

 

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Here, Beth and I stand in front of the golden stupa called Phra Sri Ratana Chedi. It is said to contain some of Buddha ashes.

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Here is a miniature model of Angkor Wat that the king had made. I guess having a model of the real thing makes it so the Thais don’t feel compelled to go to Cambodia (a long time enemy) to see the real thing.

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I loved these two statues of giants that guard the entrance to the temple area. There are several of these giants all around the grounds, and there are a pair of giant statues like this at the Bangkok airport.

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Buddha is for respecting. Not furniture. Not tattoo. Here you can make offerings, but I took the photo to show the message on the umbrellas. A lot of tourists visiting Thailand take home tattoos of Buddha or furniture or other trinkets, not realizing that it’s disrespectful. The Thais look at Buddha tattoos sort of how you might expect the Italians to look at Jesus Christ g-strings.

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Here’s where we took our shoes off before entering the temple. Unlike the Sikh gurdwaras we’d visited in India, there was no attendant to guard your shoes. But nobody took mine.

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This is the outside of the main temple. The people are lined up outside to get inside and have a chance to see the Emerald Buddha.

I didn’t actually take a photo of the Emerald Buddha. Nobody is allowed to. A very stern security guard will stop you, grab your camera, and yell at you if you try. I know, because a Chinese tourist near me tried. It doesn’t really matter, though, because you can’t get close enough to it to get a good photo anyhow.

Here is a photo from Wikipedia, so you can see what it looks like.

The Emerald Buddha isn’t actually made of emerald. “Emerald” in this case just means that it’s green. It’s actually made of jade.

The Rest of the Palace

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This great building was designed in European style at the time when Thailand first started to become modernized. The architects originally designed it with three European style domes, but advisors to the king suggested they be replaced with something of a distinctive Thai style, and that’s what you see here. So the building is a nice mix of Western and Thai architecture. It’s used for big state functions still. Most is off-limits to tourists, though there’s a weapons museum in the lowest level.

After seeing the Buddha, we left the temple to see the rest of the Grand Palace area. There are a few of the government buildings to see.

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In this photo, the big European style building is on the left, and to the right is one of the king’s palace buildings. Like I said earlier, no king has lived here since the royal residence was moved to a different palace in 1925.

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Close-up showing the Thai style roof. Look closely at the corner where the two parts of the roof come together. There is a statue up there. I think it’s a deva.

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And that’s all she wrote, as the saying goes. You can see from the crowd of people leaving that even though we beat the worst of the rush, it was very crowded there. No, the exit isn’t down from the sign. For whatever reason, the downward pointing arrow means “keep walking in this direction”.

After leaving the palace complex, we stopped for some much deserved lunch, and then caught an express boat back to the Central Pier near our hotel. Though the excursion took about six hours total, we were only on the Grand Palace grounds about two hours of that.

 

Bangkok Folk Museum

You probably know how I’m interested in human geography, in particular how cities are born,  grow, and change over time. So I was psyched to learn that Bang Rak, the part of Bangkok where we’ve been staying, has its own little history museum. It was a bit confusing at first, because I found three different names for this museum: the Bangkok Folk Museum, the Bangrak Museum, and the Bangkokian Museum. It turns out those refer to slightly different things. The Bangkokian Museum is another name for the Bangkok Folk Museum. And one floor of one of the buildings of the museum is the Bangrak Museum. They all have free admission, are in the same location, and apparently share the same volunteer staff.

Getting There is One Third of the Fun

My knee has been hurting since I twisted it getting onto the long tail boat to go see James Bond Island the week before, so Beth and I were trying to minimize the amount of walking I did. To that end, we took the river bus (what they often erroneously call a “river taxi” around here) north a couple of stops and got off there, to shorten our walk.

On the way out of the pier area, we passed the Portuguese embassy, and then walked through this area of really expensive art stores. That included a statuary, and one of the statues caught my eye in particular. Most of them were things that looked like some rich Bangkok family might have in front of their house – a religious or historical figure, or a fountain, or a Greek god or something.

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But this one was definitely a Native American on horseback. I guess there must be some market for this sort of thing in Thailand, which for some reason surprised me.

We walked a ways farther and found underneath the elevated expressway is a sort of holding facility for all kinds of stuff related to garbage removal. There were dozens of garbage trucks, mostly in new or near new condition. There were piles and piles of garbage bins and recycling bins. We even found some piles of large wicker baskets that I think are for collecting and removing recyclables.

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In the photo above, you can see they have a big pile of those long fluorescent bulbs, hopefully being stored here until they can be properly disposed of. Beth loved it and took about six thousand photos.

Once we continued on, it wasn’t much farther to the museum. I spotted the gate leading to the museum and soon encountered the security guard. As soon as he could see us coming down the street, the guard came out to the gate and started waving me on, like “You found us! Come in!” This museum is way off the beaten path for tourists. He proudly displayed the guest book, which I signed. We were only the sixth group of visitors for the day, and the only from the USA.

Bangkokian Museum

Just in case the security guard excitedly waving us in wasn’t enough of a clue, this sign made it clear we found the museum.

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I read somewhere the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA), which is the city government of Bangkok, had a problem to encourage this sort of small museum in various districts around the city. In fact, this museum may have been the first one of the BMA Local Museum program. Here is the faded sign.

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A volunteer greeted us, gave us a brochure in English, explained briefly that there are three buildings here, and made it clear that we are to remove our shoes as we enter each one.

I’m not going to go into detail about everything we saw. You can check out these two great web pages that describe the museums in detail:

But I’ll say that we saw art, and lots of furniture and other home items that were in common use in the first half of the 19th century. The theme of the museum is sort of a slice of life of what it was like for a middle class Bangkok family in the Bangrak district from the 1920s to the 1950s (and in some cases a little beyond).

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A lot of the stuff, like this furniture, reminded me of my grandparents’ furniture in the western United States.

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But the kitchen and cooking stuff was definitely different, like these tiffins. I’d known tiffins were an Indian thing, but I guess they were (are?) used in Thailand, too. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone with one of these in Bangkok.

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These coconut shells are actually low tech kitchen shells. If you put one in a bowl of water, it sinks at a given rate depending on how many holes it has. when the shell is totally submerged, then the time is up.

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Before gas or electric, here’s what Thai kitchen stoves looked like.

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Light was provided by what I’d call a “Coleman” lantern.

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Interspersed in the old stuff in the museum were some art exhibits, including one of these Japanese style paintings that use “tadpole writing”. If you could read Japanese, I don’t know if this would mean any more than it means to me, which is almost nothing.

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Bangrak Museum

The Bangrak Museum, which was the main thing that I wanted to see, was probably the least impressive. There were a lot of photos and some written descriptions, but almost all of it was in Thai, with no English translations. So we just had to guess at what we were seeing.

I can tell you some of the photos were showing how the Bangrak streets looked 50 years ago and now in modern times. Some of them showed the old canals and farmland that was back then.

Most of the photos hadn’t been enhanced in any way, and many were printed on colored card stock. So that made them even harder to understand, and almost pointless to photograph. So I didn’t take any pictures of this museum. I’m sad to say this part was a let down. The greatest praise I can give is that it’s in the one building that has air conditioning.

Once we finished the Bangrak Museum, we used the restroom, made a hefty donation to go to the maintenance of the museum, and then walked back to our hotel. This part of town is now heavily Muslim, so we found and ate at a Middle Eastern restaurant. I was too busy enjoying the delicious hummus to take any photos. Sorry. Oh, and the kebabs were outstanding.

 

 

exploring more of Bangkok, especially Bang Rak

I’m writing this on a rainy Sunday afternoon, our last Sunday in Bangkok. Thursday morning, we leave to return to America, so I’m feeling contemplative.

A Very Good Decision

I posted a blog article in late September about good and bad decisions we made in the early part of our trip. We’ve made lots of other good and bad decisions along the way, over the past four months. But one of the best decisions regarding Bangkok was choosing a hotel. We decided on Pas Cher Hotel de Bangkok almost by accident. Back in late October, when we were in the Philippines, Beth was doing a lot of research online about where to stay in Bangkok. We’d never been here before, and about all we knew was that it was a good idea to stay near the river, since it’s sort of the heart of the city. And we knew staying near a BTS (their elevated metro system) station was also a good idea. This hotel had both things going for it, pretty good reviews, and a reasonably price in our budget. So we stayed here a few nights before moving on.

Since then Beth has been back to this hotel twice, and I’ve been here another three times. We still like the hotel itself, and the staff, but what really sets this place apart is the neighborhood. Bangkok is divided into 50 districts, one of which is called Bang Rak, and that’s where Pas Cher hotel is. This district has a mix of middle class housing and international tourist hotels, old historic houses and modern high rises, inexpensive Thai food stands, and foreign food restaurants, including Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and American. Shopping is a mix of day and night outdoor markets with different specialties, department stores, and standalone shops.

Since we can’t cook in our hotel room, we dine out at least two meals every day, sometimes more. The hotel plan we’ve gotten each time includes breakfast, but sometimes we go out for a second breakfast if we want something special. And lunch and supper are both eaten out every day except when we take leftovers back to our room. So I’d done a lot of sampling of a lot of different low- and medium-price food options in the area. That suits me just fine, as you can imagine.

Breakfast at Pas Cher

Here’s part of a typical breakfast from our hotel’s breakfast buffet. They offer both Asian style breakfast items and Western style breakfast items. But other than the toast, butter, and jam, I’ve found the Western items to be pretty gross. That includes sunny side up eggs and sausage that looks and tastes like American hot dogs. But the Asian items are more interesting. Usually there’s a Thai curry dish with white rice, like this.

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And every morning they have rice soup with green onions, some other herb, and some chunks of ground meat (pork or chicken, I’m not sure). I really like this stuff. The rice isn’t cooked way down like with congee (I wish it was); the grains are all solid and whole. One of the herbs they use in it must be the same as something in pho, because even though I can’t identify what it is, it hits the same taste buds.

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bridge

Another nice discovery I’ve made in the Bang Rak area is an art gallery and cafe called “bridge” (always spelled lowercase, apparently). By pure luck, it’s located not far from the Pas Cher hotel where we’ve been staying. There are several coffee shops closer, but they’re chains – a Starbucks, a Black Canyon, and a Coffee World (in decreasing order of price). I like supporting my independent coffee shop when I can, and I found bridge.

The whole time I’ve been here has been between art exhibitions, so I can’t speak for the art side of things. But their cafe is great. They have very good food and coffee, friendly service, and a comfortable space.

Here’s the main barista who has been there every time I’ve visited, next to the espresso maker and related stuff. She’s very nice, speaks English well, and is a great cook. I think she told me her name once, but I can’t remember it.

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I guess you could say the coffee drinks are almost all Western style food, since they’re Italian style espresso drinks for the most part – cappuccinos, lattes, and so on. Their food menu has Thai food, Chinese food (I think), and Western food. One day I decided to try fish and chips there, and it was amazingly delicious.

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One thing I like about the coffee drinks is the presentation. Here’s how they serve a cappuccino, in a wood tray with a little wooden spoon and a packet of sugar.

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Wat Arun and Khaosan Road

If you know anything about Bangkok, you’ve probably heard of Khaosan Road. For years and years, it was the international traveler haven of the city. Books have been written about it, books have been set here, and so on. It contains one of the four red light districts of Bangkok (that I’m aware of – there may be more), a ton of bars and restaurants, and all forms of entertainment and shopping targeted to young international tourists with disposable income.

Khaosan Road (sometimes spelled Khao San Road, and pronounced COW-sawn, not COE-sawn as many tourists say) is  so famous that it’s the first thing people often associate with Bangkok. I remember when we were in Christchurch, New Zealand four months ago, there was a bar near the B&B where we stayed and it was called Khao San Road. Anyhow, we wanted to visit to see what it was all about. Not being too excited by hard drinking and ping pong shows, we didn’t really expect to be into the Khaosan scene so much. But we couldn’t say we saw Bangkok until we saw what others so often saw about Bangkok. The advice we got was to visit at night, which makes sense.

We decided to combine that with a trip to see Wat Arun, the “Temple of the Dawn”, at sunset. We’d heard it was really pretty, and there are bars and restaurants set up across the river from the temple just for this purpose, since so many people want to take in the sight around sunset. We had the Nancy Chandler map of Bangkok and after reading a little about the two places it recommends, we chose one that sounded more our style, Sala Rattanakosin.

So one day we got on the orange Chao Phraya Express Boat, and headed north. Finding our way from the express boat pier to the restaurant/bar wasn’t too hard. Climbing the five flights of stairs was a bit more of a challenge, considering I’d sprained my knee the week before in Phuket climbing aboard a long tail boat.

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Drinks were very tasty but expensive. Food was also expensive. But the view was magnificent. We spent 2000 baht at this one place, which is $55. That’s the most expensive night out for us ever in Bangkok, and we didn’t even get a real meal, just one small appetizer each (and two drinks each).

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After we left Sala Rattanakosin, we caught a tuktuk to Khaosan road, paying way more than we should have, but getting there quickly.

The Khaosan Road area was pretty much like what we expected. There were lots of Western tourists out in the streets and in streetside bars drinking away. Lots of backpacks. Lots of loud music. Lots of people selling stuff to tourists – sunglasses, bikinis, scorpion-on-a-stick to eat, toys that light up and go into the air, and so on. There’s a police station right at one end to make sure things don’t get too crazy for too long, I guess. We also got sales pitches from people selling custom tailored suits, ping pong shows, dinner, beer, and so on.

I looked for little trinkets to buy to take my family and friends back home, but came up empty-handed. We found one shop of crafts that our Nancy Chandler map recommended because everything in it is Fair Trade, but they were closed by the time we got there. There are supposed to be some stores that carry used English language books, something you’d expect to see in an area full of tourists, but we couldn’t find them.

So, with our hopes of shopping dashed, and still being full from the expensive rooftop restaurant, and not wanting to sit around and have a drink in the din of the street, and feeling hot and sweaty from the humidity, we headed for “home”. Beth flagged down a tuktuk, quickly negotiated an even more ridiculous price (since he’d pulled over where he wasn’t allowed to, and it was right in front of a traffic cop), and we were off through the late night streets of Bangkok.

Here’s a photo of us holding on for our lives.

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I may have made it look and sound a little more dramatic than it really was.

Lumpini Park

One thing I just love about living in a city is the density of interesting things I encounter just by chance. I guess any city is like this, but a city that’s new to me obviously feels like it has more new stuff. And Bangkok is especially so. I think that’s because there are so many things going on in the streets that take up less space than things in America. In Denver, you never run into a business that takes up less than about 50 square meters. But here, a business can be as small as a 1 square meter cart, and stuff is packed into smaller spaces than in most of America.

Lumpini Park is a major public park in Bangkok, just east of the Bangrak (aka Bang Rak) area. It’s easy to get to by BTS. Lots happens there, as with a big park in any city. But since there’s no snow in Bangkok, stuff happens in Lumpini Park even in the middle of “winter”.

We read about a series of free concerts in Lumpini Park every Sunday night. From doing a little online research, I learned than these concerts are by the Bangkok Symphony Orchestra. So hey, free culture! Sunday had been rainy in the morning, which cooled things down immensely. But the sky cleared up by afternoon, and so we headed for the BTS station.

On the way, we gathered up various bits of food from food carts along the way. And when we got enough of it assembled, I realized that our picnic supper looked a lot like a picnic in America. We had fried spring rolls (OK, that’s not very American), corn on the cob, and fried chicken. We didn’t have a picnic blanket, but I brought my Marmot Goretex jacket which would be good enough if we needed it.

After the short train ride, we walked into the park past the statue at the entrance of King Rama VI, who created the park back in the 1920s. There were even more food carts there, and I couldn’t resist stopping for a shave ice.

I got orange flavor with sweetened condensed milk on top, in the Asian style. The guy’s ice shaver was totally old school: a big block of ice on a hand-cranked turntable and a metal blade. The resulting grains of ice were bigger than Hawaiian style shave ice, and it was more like an American snow cone.

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After that, we discovered an art display of a bunch of elephant statues. From what I could understand, different groups or companies submitted their own elephants as a way to show their uniqueness or represent some cause or another.

Some of the organizations did things as boring as just putting their company logo on the side of the statue. Others modified the standard statue and painted it with a custom design. For instance, I remember one elephant was a land mine survivor and had a prosthetic foot. This elephant caught my eye because it is clearly a representation of Spinal Tap’s first album. None more black. And music symbols.

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But then I saw Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer as an elephant and had to get a photo next to it.

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The concert was supposed to start at 5:30pm, and we could hear the music off in the distance, so we knew we were late. But then the bells sounded to indicate that it was 6:00pm.

And you know what happens every morning and eight and every night at six in Thailand, right? The national anthem is played, and everybody stops in their tracks and stands. It was eerie, since this was the first time I’d seen it. Everyone who had been walking to or from the concert, or checking out the elephant statues, or playing games just suddenly froze like in the world’s largest game of freeze tag. When the music ended, the bells played again, and everyone suddenly unfroze and went back to whatever they were doing.

It’s weird that in all the time we’ve spent in Thailand now, roughly five or six weeks, I haven’t been in public at either 8:00am or 6:00pm to witness this. I didn’t take video of the event, but I found a couple YouTube videos of it that other people made.

Once the anthem was over, we made our way to the area where the concert was going on. There were yet more food stalls there, but we didn’t need anything else. Since the turf was water logged, we found a section of unoccupied curb and sat there listening to the music and eating our picnic. The fried chicken vendor near the east entrance to the Saphan Taksin BTS station makes the most incredible fried chicken. I don’t know what herbs and spices he uses, but I daresay his are better than the venerable and inscrutable Colonel Sanders.

The music was a mix of vocal and instrumental pieces, and a mix of Western and Thai. They played some Thai pop songs from past eras and also a tune or two from Les Miserables.

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One thing I thought was strange was that the attire of the orchestra was very casual. Some musicians wore blue jeans, some wore black slacks, some wore skirts. Most, though not all, wore yellow polo shirts like the one the conductor is wearing in the photo above.

In hindsight, even though this whole evening was supposed to be about the concert, the concert itself was the least significant thing. Watching all the people, seeing the art, and enjoying the park were what I’ll remember most.

how the city changes, and why I’d like to study it more

In Bangkok, I had a chance to do something I couldn’t do in any other city we visited in our Eastern Hemisphere travels – see how the city changed over time. When we settled back into the Pas Cher Hotel de Bangkok on January 19, it was my fourth stay there over the course of two and a half months.

Beth and I have been here enough now that many of the staff recognize us. Yesterday when we arrived to check in, the three women who work in the restaurant area – I call them “the breakfast ladies” – all came running out of the building to greet us back to the hotel with wais. They’d never done that before. Strangely, the front desk receptionist, even though she recognized us, didn’t seem unusually happy. Not sad or gruff, just nothing out of the ordinary. I think she said “welcome back” but that’s about it.

So Much to Notice

One reason that it seems things change is that we just notice more and more. Bangkok from street level is very dense compared to our baseline of urban areas of medium-sized American cities. What I mean by that is that if you just stand on the sidewalk and glance at a building, you may or may not notice what kind of business goes on there. But as you learn what to look for, and spend a little more time, you see more and more going on behind that first business.

There are signs everywhere, and the eye is sometimes drawn to the biggest or brightest one at the expense of the others. I can’t count how many times I’ve walked past a given business and only on the six or seventh time actually noticed that there’s another business behind it through a tiny passageway, or on the second floor, or something like that.

I think part of this is just me being ignorant of the visual cues. For instance, when a business is closed here, there’s often a big security door that looks kinda like a garage door that the owner pulls down over the storefront. This covers up the windows so you can’t see that inside there is normally a sewing machine repair shop or wahtever. And the big garage doors often cover over the signs that would be another clue of what goes on there. But also it means that after hours you often can’t tell the difference between a store that is closed for the night and a vacant space.

In a post from several weeks ago, I was complaining about how hard it was for me to find a barber that would work on men in the neighborhood of our hotel. At the time, I imagined some sort of “rent a friend” service where you could hire a local guide who would help you find that sort of thing. And I still think that’s a good idea. In fact, an acquaintance of mine turned me on to the fact that there is already a website where you can find people like this. It’s called rentafriend.com. If I’d known about it on my first time to Bangkok, I probably would’ve used it to help out with some of this kind of thing.

But now that I’ve been here a little more, I’m starting to see where there are more shops of whatever kind I’m looking for, but they’re just not obvious at first glance. I remember asking the woman at the front desk of our hotel where to go to find that mythical men’s barber, and she gave some vague directions about walking down to the hospital, and then looking across the street. I spent an hour wandering around where she described, and never finding the barber shop. Now I realize she doesn’t actually know this neighborhood very well. She just works here, but doesn’t live here. And since the hotel is so new, she hasn’t actually even worked here for very long. So of course she wouldn’t know exactly where to find a men’s barber. She doesn’t spend any amount of time on foot walking around this area. When she’s done with work, she commutes to her home in some other part of the city, spending about as little time in this neighborhood as possible. And since she’s a woman, why would she ever really pay attention to where the men’s barber shop is located? Duh.

So there’s more than meets the eye when you’re walking around Bangkok. No big surprise there. But I don’t think that’s the only reason that it seems things in “our” neighborhood are changing.

Rapid Changes

The first time we stayed at Pas Cher hotel and walked around the area to find places to eat, we found about four or five options. That doesn’t include the restaurants that are in the shopping mall at the end of the street, since those are really obvious and easy to find because they’re clearly marked.

Four or five food stalls seemed like plenty, since they all had different stuff. We could just rotate through them and never get bored. Plus, if one or two turned out to be duds, it’s no big deal because there are others to choose from.

But since then, in only two and a half months, another half dozen food stalls have apparently sprung up from out of nowhere. There’s one right across the street from our hotel now that we haven’t tried, there are two just a couple doors down, there’s a Chinese place midway down the street, and so on.

Also, there are some food carts that have just appeared from out of nowhere. In November, if I wanted coffee, I’d have to walk to one of the coffee shops in the shopping mall or make my own Nescafe in our hotel room. Now, every morning there is a coffee cart in the street near our hotel. There’s also a fruit smoothie cart and a tea cart halfway to the shopping mall. The tea cart also makes coffee, I think. I’ve seen it listed on her menu, but haven’t tried it. More importantly I’ve discovered she makes magnificient chaa yen, what we think of as “Thai iced tea.”

Human Geography

I know this topic probably bores the hell out of most of you. But I have a big fascination with human geography, in particular how cities grow and shrink and change over time.

What forces would cause more food carts and stalls to open up in a short amount of time? Well, the hotel we’re staying in is one force right there. It’s only been open a few months. Some time ago, it was an apartment building, and then everyone moved out and it was remodeled to be a hotel. So I’m guessing that for a period there weren’t as many people in the area, and then suddenly there were more. In particular, there were foreign tourists who eat two or three meals out every day, and have the money to pay for them.

Or maybe these other food stalls were there the whole time but temporarily closed the first time we were here, due to the owners being on vacation in November. Is November a popular time for vacations in Thailand? I really don’t know. But I wish I could settle into a neighborhood of Bangkok for six months or a year and take notes and photos documenting how and why the neighborhood changes. My gut feeling is they change a lot faster than a neighborhood in Denver.

There’s only one problem. Who’s going to give me the money to do this urban geography study, when I have no training as a geographer and can’t speak Thai? Oh, and there’s another problem. I would probably die if I was here for six months. Make that two problems.

bye, bye, Sukhumvit

When we returned to Bangkok from our jaunt to Phuket, we decided to stay in a different part of the city. We chose a hotel in the Sukhumvit area, a new hotel called Aspira D’Andora Sukhumvit 16. It’s only been in operation a few months, and the reviews were good. Also, the price was lower than comparable hotels in Bangkok.

The Sukhumvit area is a long band of the city that has a little bit of everything. Sukhumvit is the longest street in Thailand, and supposedly goes (almost?) to the border with Cambodia. That reminds me of Colfax Avenue back home in Denver. And like Colfax, Sukhumvit has a little bit of everything, either directly on it or on one of the hundreds of lanes that branch off from it. Bangkok’s world famous red light district is there, but several internationally recognized shopping malls are, as well. It’s not just a street, but a whole district. The “Sukhumvit 16” in the name of the hotel refers to the fact that the hotel is on Soi Sukhumvit 16. The street naming and numbering system in Bangkok is amazingly convoluted, so I’m not even going to try to explain it here. But the relevant part is that Sukhumvit 16 is one of the side streets that branches off the main Sukhumvit, and it has a different flavor than where we stayed in Bangkok before.

Sukhumvit 16 from Google MapsThat was a good thing, as we got to see a new neighborhood, but in the end we didn’t like it as much as the area where we’d stayed before. So today, after five nights at the Aspira D’Andora, we moved back to the Pas Cher Hotel de Bangkok.

What didn’t we like about the Sukhumvit area? The hotel itself was pretty good, though they had a bunch of problems with their internet service. But the street, Soi Sukhumvit 16, just isn’t as interesting as the soi where Pas Cher is. Soi Sukhumvit 16 has a lot of traffic congestion in the morning and afternoon rush hours. Traffic in this area is notoriously bad, which is one reason they built the BTS SkyTrain above the main street, and our street was just packed with cars and motorcycles feeding into that main street, full of people going to work or coming home from work.

Here is the main Sukhumvit. This isn’t the side street we were on, obviously, but that side street feeds into this one. You can tell this isn’t the part of the street with the worst traffic, because there’s no SkyTrain overhead.

Soi Sukhumvit 16 also doesn’t have many reasonably-priced Thai food stalls. Thanon Cheroen Wiang, the soi (side street) where Pas Cher is located, has probably a dozen restaurants, stalls, and food carts where you can get a plate of food or a bowl of soup for a dollar or two. Sukhumvit 16, on the other hand, only has two. Everything else there is more upscale, often way upscale.

Thanon Cheroen Wiang from Google Maps

What Thanon Cheroen Wiang looked like in 2011, according to Google Street View. It’s still essentially the same. Narrow but mellow, lots of food carts and stands.

Lastly, Pas Cher is midway between two BTS stations, both of which are only about a 1/2 km away, at easy and quick walk. But Aspira D’Andora is much farther from the nearest station. It’s not a long distance, but in comparing the two areas, I’d rather be in the place where stuff is closer, not the one where I have to walk to get to anything.

Somewhat related, Pas Cher is also close to the river, the central pier of the express boat system in particular. So when we want to go somewhere that’s best accessed by river, it’s easy. All of the Sukhumvit area is distant from the river.

Oh, I guess one last reason that we decided to move back to Pas Cher is that you can buy a breakfast package there for cheap. They serve a variety of stuff for a buffet breakfast – some really good Thai food and some OK western food. But Aspira D’Andora doesn’t offer breakfast so you have to walk to one of the cafes nearby, which will cost a few dollars for coffee and a basic meal.

Why am I telling you all this? Maybe one or two people in the future will read this and find it useful in making their own Bangkok travel plans. But way more importantly, I wanted to document the kind of things we consider when we choose a place to stay on our travels.

We’ve been trying to stick to a $100 a day budget for all expenses. That includes lodging, food, ground transportation, entertainment, souvenirs, etc. But it also includes big ticket items like health insurance. The first $25 or so of our $100 goes to pay for health insurance. How we decide to spend the other $75 is a big deal. In some cities, most of that $75 has gone to a hotel or B&B or homestay. But in Bangkok, given the quality of hotel and location we want, we can spend $25 to $40 a day for lodging. Same goes for Indonesia, India, and Cambodia. They’re all in that range. For some reason, the Philippines was more expensive, and of course Australia and New Zealand were more expensive still, even with a good exchange rate working in our favor.

Thanks for reading. It’s hard to believe, but next week we’re going back to the USA.

thoughts about my hanky

(this post has no relation to Mr. Hankey, the Christmas Poo)

When I was packing all the stuff I thought would be necessary for a six-month journey around Oceania and parts of Asia, I was on the fence about whether or not to pack a handkerchief. But I thought to myself about how little space and weight it takes up, and decided to take a chance that it would be useful. Good decision.

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This hanky (a “square piece of cloth or paper used for cleaning the nose and drying the eyes”) has come in handy for many uses in many countries. Over the course of the past five months, I’ve had a common cold a couple times, and it has been useful then for the intended purpose – cleaning the nose. That’s especially important because of the difficulty I’ve had finding cold medicines that dry up post-nasal drip, something I take for granted in the USA.

But I’ve used it way, way more to wipe sweat off my face since we’ve spent so much time in the tropics. I had hoped that being in warm countries so much during our travels would toughen me up a bit to warm, humid weather. Back home, I’m a wimp. Even though I lived the first few years of my life in Texas (Beaumont and Houston), I don’t remember the heat and humidity being an issue. I guess when you’re four years old, you just don’t think about those things. But I’ve been in Wyoming and Colorado since the mid-70s, and it just doesn’t get hot and humid that much. Sure, some parts of the American west are hot during the summer, but definitely not during the winter. Tropical southeast Asia is hot (by my standards) even in the winter time. And as anyone from a sweaty climate will remind you, “it’s not so much the heat as the humidity.” Am I more acclimatized to heat and humidity than I was six months ago? It doesn’t feel like it.

My hanky has also been very useful in cleaning off dirty and foggy windows in Indian trains and Indonesian planes. And wiping up spills or marks left by sweating drinks on furniture.

I read an article before we set out from Denver about what one traveler (who calls himself the Expert Vagabond) considers so important that he takes his wherever he goes. It’s called a shemagh, or keffiyeh.

Shemagh as used by a US Marine in Afghanistan

I didn’t have a way to get one of those on short notice before leaving America, nor did I think it was all that important. But if I could, I’d go back in time and get one of those instead. Why? Well, it does everything a traditional handkerchief does, PLUS it’s much bigger – big enough to double over as an eye mask. On the long flight from LAX to Sydney, one of the many reasons I couldn’t sleep was that the cabin was always too bright. If I’d had a sleep mask, it would help. But I didn’t, and my American hanky was too small to make a difference.

By the way, it’s not just Expert Vagabond and desert military men who recognize the value of something like a big scarf. If you’ve read Douglas Adams, you know that the “Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” says the single most important thing to take as you travel is a towel, for many of the same reasons that a shemagh are handy in the real world.

A towel, [The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy] says, is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have. Partly it has great practical value. You can wrap it around you for warmth as you bound across the cold moons of Jaglan Beta; you can lie on it on the brilliant marble-sanded beaches of Santraginus V, inhaling the heady sea vapors; you can sleep under it beneath the stars which shine so redly on the desert world of Kakrafoon; use it to sail a miniraft down the slow heavy River Moth; wet it for use in hand-to-hand-combat; wrap it round your head to ward off noxious fumes or avoid the gaze of the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal (such a mind-boggingly stupid animal, it assumes that if you can’t see it, it can’t see you); you can wave your towel in emergencies as a distress signal, and of course dry yourself off with it if it still seems to be clean enough.

Douglas AdamsThe Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

I’m pretty sure if Ford Prefect had known better, he would’ve taken a shemagh instead of a towel. They’re lighter.

I didn’t think about the shemagh much more for a couple months, but then when we visited Cambodia, I learned about a garment they have called a “krama“. It’s essentially the same thing, with just a different name. I really wanted to get one of those, but due to circumstances I never had time to shop. So I filed it in the back of my mind.

The krama is apparently really versatile, as shown by this Tumblr blog, 101 Uses for a Krama.

Krama as a baby seat

 

The krama I want

A month later, when we were in Rajasthan province in India, I saw a lot of men, particularly auto-rickshaw (“tuktuk”) drivers, who had a scarf they would use for warmth. Theirs looked to be made from a soft but thin wool. I remember one driver who had his scarf tucked up into the awning over his head during the day, and then when it got cold at night or in the morning, he could just pull it down and wrap it around his head as a scarf or hat or turban.

I really wanted one like that, but I never found one that I thought was authentic and reasonably priced. So eventually I bought a cotton scarf. It was hand made in a village in Rajasthan, but only looks marginally manly. The ones I’d seen in Cambodia and on the tuktuk drivers of Rajasthan had a very masculine look to them, I thought.

As I write this, I’m in Thailand in the dead of winter, where it’s hot and humid, at least by my standards. So getting a warm scarf is about the last thing on my mind. But next week I’ll be back in Denver, where I anticipate it’s going to be freaking cold. I’ll whip out my “marginally manly” scarf and see if it helps, but I’m a little skeptical.