An Unimaginable Day

From Saigon: Our sons were born in 1966 and 1968. At that time deep in the jungle not far from Saigon,  Viet Cong were building and fighting from a vast tunnel system in Cu Chi Provence that included 125 miles of tunnel through hard clay. These local villagers had first banded together to fight the French in the early 50s, or more to hide from the French using a limited tunnel system from house to house and eventually village to village.   The French were defeated and the US supported the new government of the South.  We became the enemy since these people in large measure supported Ho Chi Minh and the government of the North.

For us, in that day even if we did not support the American war effort fully,  the Viet Cong,  the VC, were the enemy.  Our soldiers were being killed in combat in Cu Chi daily.  Patrols never knew whether they would encounter boobytraps, or fire from hidden bunkers,  or just get savaged by mosquitos. Today this area is a National Monument and a major tourist site.  The least damaged tunnel area has been preserved as it was after the war.  This was where we went to tour today. I helped “locate” a hidden entrance to the complex.  A patch of leaf littered jungle, just like all others, with a small blaze on a tree nearby,  I never would have seen the blaze on my own. Finding the trap door entrance was another matter,  we tapped on the forest floor until we heard a hollow sound. Our site guide cleared the leaves away opened the lid,  lowered himself down lifting the lid overhead. As he got almost down he reached out and covered it with the leaves and disappeared leaving no trace of the entry.  A couple of us tried it.  I managed to get down the entry and lower the lid,  but this entry was meant for underfed VC men and women,  not overfed Americans.  We did enter and duck walk through several sections of tunnel entering several chambers, including one that purports to be command chamber were the Tet Offensive was planned.  We were treated to sections of jungle floor containing a variety of primitive but effective traps which struck fear in the minds of our soldiers patrolling there.  I took no pictures!  Those images will haunt my dreams for a while with no the need for visual reminders.

So far this is touring a 50 year old site that is open to tourists for a fee.  We reboarded our bus and headed off to lunch at the home of a well off family nearby.  Understand that the well off in Cu Chi today were all Viet Cong.  After the war,  those who were on the roles as active VC were rewarded with land which now is mainly rubber plantation. Those who were not on the roles,  or who had the misfortune to have their supervisor die before revealing their involvement to authorities got nothing but a pension.  At lunch were three guests,  a 90 year old former village chief whose major role was to supply food and other material to the troops,  a Colenel who commanded 1000 troops and a Capitan.  Both of them had served in Cu Chi among other fronts and now are the leaders of the veterans association.  I sat across from these two officers and had an amiable conversation about life in the tunnels and their war roles and we shared about our children and grandchildren.  The great spooks of my 20s and 30s turn out to be more like me today than I ever would have expected.  On the site we saw small shards of shrapnel left over from the many bombs that fell on every square meter,  we saw bomb craters from bombs dropped from B52s that were so devastating that the shock wave blew out an adjoining bunker,  yet the men who we met who survived this seem to bear no animosity towards us.

Flower City

No, not Rochester, NY! Da Lat Vietnam!  This modest sized city of about 250,000 sits at 5,000 feet in the Central Highlands not far from Saigon,  9 hours by road,  35 minutes by airplane. It is in the region the Montagnards call home. It was established by the French about 120 years ago as an escape from the intense heat and humidity of Saigon.  More recently people discovered the climate is perfect to grow flowers year round.  Most are grown in greenhouses to protect them from the heavy rains in July and August, not to keep them warm or shield them from the sun.  There are 25,000 greenhouses covering the valley floors and hillsides today. 

As we arrived we saw signs for the opening of the biennial flower show,  the next day. Pictures cannot do it justice.  Every roadway,  sidewalk,  building was covered with and lined with flowers.  The medians of the roadways were rose gardens.  The hills were ablaze in the glory of so many different flowers and colors that it is difficult to describe.  I have taken hundres of photos and will eventually post some,  but .  .  We asked our tour guide to change the plan for a city tour to a visit to the show grounds,  it cost $1 dollar for entry. If you are mad about flowers and love to travel start making plans now for last week in December 2015. The hotels are booked solid and prices have been doubled and tripled,  but do see it. 

Special note to a friend:  Henry Hamlin,  have you been here to see the bonsai?  They are marvelous, not just at the show where there was a competition,  but at Truc Lam Zen Buddhist Pagoda which we reached by cable car.  There are many examples of bonsia permanently displayed there.

This is also a great time of year to visit Vietnam,  even Saigon’s weather is moderate – mid 80s.

Speaking of cameras.  Murphy has friends.  No sooner did my camera “self repair” then the next day Carol’s Nikon felt left out and gave her the same lens error message on her mid range lens.  The telephoto works fine,  so far.  Out came the new little Canon and Carol has been shooting with that for the last two days. 

Back to the folks and flu racing through the group.  Carol and I have been unscathed so far.  I have to believe that the flu shots we got last September were the “right” ones.  People are recovering and there don’t seem to be any new victims. This may be an interesting night.  Or room “has a window” as promised by OAT, but it is a narrow slot of a Window that admits some light and the crowing of a rooster nearby in the middle of Saigon.  It turns out Windows are a valuable commodity in Vietnam.  The French tax structure here before 1954 taxed property on the width of the property on the road.  Thus it is most common to see houses that are 10 to 12 feet wide, several stories tall and 30 to 50 feet deep.  They have common walls so as not to waste space that is taxed,  hence no side Windows on many buildings.  Even hotels are built this way in the more moderate price range. This tax structure had been retained by the Communist government and so has the resulting architecture.

I have wandered over many subjects in this post.  My comments about the government and politics have been limited,  I know.  Tomorrow we visit the Cu Chi Tunnel, a major construction by the Viet Cong that served as their base near Saigon during the war.  We will also meet with VC veterans and have a chance to talk with them.  Later when I can gather my thoughts more coherently,  I expect to write about the nature of government in Vietnam and try to sort the propaganda from the truth (whatever that may be). For one example we were permitted to enter a mountain village of relocated mountain people,  but only with a government provided guide.  Everyone seemed happy and reasonably well off,  but I have no idea what I was not permitted to see,  if anything.

An Ill Wind

Not me or Carol!  This fourth tour with OAT seems cursed with colds and flu. One member arrived with flu like symptoms she picked up on the flight over.  Since then about half the travelers have come down with symptoms.  Yesterday,  An, our tour leader,  reported that he too has the bug. The bus ride back from our day’s adventures sounded like a college infirmary.  When we were approaching the hotel,  An lead many of the stick people off the bus to a pharmacy to help them buy the “cures” of their choice. We stayed on the bus back to the hotel and Carol ran down the street to where she knew a primary school would be dismissing the children.  It is quite a sight as hundreds of children exit the school yard to meet their parents and get on the motorbikes to ride home. This is the biggest motorbike crush we’ve seen since Hanoi.

Our day started with a boat ride on Cam Rahn Bay to an island fishing village where we landed and walked through the village market. It was very active. We kept wondering why the middle school kids were not in school.  Christmas Day is not a holiday here. They had just taken a national exam and had two days off.   When we got to the end of our walk there was no place for us to board the boat from shore.  We were offered two options;  1 ride a raft pulled on a line hand over hand or 2 try a wet foot transfer to a round bamboo basket waterproofed with tar and try to paddle out to the boat.  Fortunately the boats came with boatmen. Naturally Carol and I had to try the boats.  We went separately in hopes of taking pictures of each other. I got to paddle,  she didn’t.  All you lovers of kayaks and canoes,  think about paddling a round tub with no keel or skeg with one paddle on open water in a stiff breeze. The good news was we were headed mostly downwind.  Paddling on one side and the other did not work.  Then I watched the boatman paddling from the “front” and realized he was using a draw stroke.  I took over and was able to make headway.  It ain’t easy even though they make it look so. We finished the morning with two hours in the sun on Mi Ni Beach where lounges and sunshades were provided.  We had a good read,  nap,  rest which was most appreciated.

We then went to a village outside of Nha Trang where we were met the village chief and his wife who prepared lunch for us. Our team did not get the word that the road was being renovated and we had to dismount twice to let the driver negotiate around piles of dirt left in the middle of an already narrow road. The chief was a combatant in the south Vietnamese army, our team.  The land we were on which has been in his family for several generations had been a battle field in the war.  He was permitted to return and build up the village.  Their major occupation is working with bamboo to make baskets used in the various markets to hold and transport produce,  chop sticks in eatng,  cooking and stirring sizes. They also make rooster cages.  I’m not sure I’ve mentioned that cock fighting is a big sport in Vietnam.  Cocks are treasured and they do not fight to the death but rather are judged and the fight is stopped if it looks like one will be seriously hurt. This is how it was explained to us.

After Carol got her pictures we went shopping to buy me a hat to replace the one I lost along the way yesterday.  I need a full brim to keep the sun off. This one had the Red Star and Nha Trang on it.  It may last the rest of the trip, who can complain for 50000 Dong ($2.50)

Speaking of shopping.  My camera appeared to have given up the ghost yesterday.  The lens would not retract and I had a lens error message. We found a camera store and bought a new pocketable Canon camera.  As I was going over the features in the hotel room I heard a noise like a camera lens retracting. I looked over at the old G12 and found it had “recovered” I shot with it all day today.  ???

Learning and Discovery – a trip to Emergency Room in Hoi An

One of the Overseas Adventure Travel’s themes is Learning and Discovery or L & D. Generally it means getting off on our own and having adventures that are not on the itinerary.  Today’s L&D required the presence of our Tour Leader,  An, to give guidance and cross the language barrier.  Shocking as it may seem my vocabulary in Vietnamese is limited to sin chow (Hello) and gum ang (Thank you). Those transliterations are approximations as is my pronounciation.  People tend not to laugh to hard.  But I am avoiding the subject.

Back on December 6 I entered yet another new hotel room. The designer had very cleverly created a platform that extended about a foot from the foot of the bed.  It has nice sharp corners.  Three of us men,  naturally,  impaled ourselves on the corners upon entering the rooms. One got a scratch and Kelly and I managed to draw blood.  In my case, infection combined with edema from travel to give me a swollen leg.  I’ve been dragging it around with cleanings and a course of the wrong antibiotic until yesterday.  It got worse and the knee swelled up.  Overnight it returned to the way it had been,  but I had gotten An involved, so off to the hospital we went after lunch.  We arrived at 1:30 knowing that An had to lead an optional tour which we had cancelled at 3 PM. The short story is that we had completed my treatment in time to be back at the hotel by 3. Total cost for me was $58, including meds.

Longer story.  The hospital looked like something out of the 50s. I was placed in a room that was a cross between a storage room,  an exam room and the pathway to the WC. The walls were glass and the door was left open.  Passersby peered in to watch the treatment,  all in all not what we are used to,  not that we spend a lot of time in ERs.  There was no attempt to take vital signs,  for that matter no blood pressure cuff or stethoscope was in view.  They did eventually take my temperature with a Mercury thermometer in the armpit.  They did not take a medical history of any sort.  I had to speak up to say I had type 2 diabetes and was allergic to penicillin.  The latter caused great consternation on the part of the doctor who obviously was planning on something from that family.  The rest of my history was not even considered.  I have since sent the treatment information to my doctor who confirmed most of the recommendations by email.  You can’t imagine how grateful I am to be able to communicate this way when I am far away. 

I will not talk about this episode or my recovery again unless there is something out of the ordinary or funny to report.  After an afternoon of rest Carol and I took the hotel shuttle into ancient Hoi An and walked just a bit until we found our way into the Cargo Club where we had a wonderful meal sitting at a terrace table overlooking the river.  Cab back to the hotel, $3, and we are packed for an early departure from Da Nang airport in the morning.

Hanoi to Hué

While in Hanoi we made a stop that OAT does not include in the itinerary because of the controversy that it raises. This is the “Hanoi Hilton.”  Much of the exhibit there is devoted to the use of the prison by the French when they ruled the area.  The displays include cells used to house political prisoners,  the death row and the guillotine used to execute Viet revolutionaries.  The small exhibit devoted to the 400 American fliers imprisoned there from 1968 to 1972 is a well done propaganda piece that left many of our group enraged.  The exhibit touts how well our men were treated and explains our imperialist, illegal attacks on the people of Vietnam. I was not enraged,  only because this was neither more nor less than I expected.  After all, this is a monument built in the capital of the “victor” by those who see themselves as in the right.  Why would they show themselves in a poor light even if the story as we know it is different. 

A trip to the north by bus brought us to Tho Ha, an island village reachable only by ferry.  This village,  going back more than 7 generations,  makes rice paper used for making spring rolls.  We watched the process, then we tried our hand at it.  Sadly,  I suspect most of what we made went on the reject heap.  We visited the community leader in his home.  He is about our age and served on the North Vietnamese army. He served near Saigon and said his primary role was to entertain the troupes.  He went on to sing several songs using a variety of regional instruments. Next we stopped by an area where coal dust from a mine 40 miles away was being made into cylindrical blocks with holes through them to provide heat for the rice paper making process.  We were more successful here in pressing the wet dust into the mold to make the blocks.

The next morning we were up rather early to board the bus at 8 for the 4 plus hour drive to Halon Bay where our junk awaited us. The boat looked to be 30 years old although we were assured of was only 9. We boarded from a tender which gained access by jamming in between our boat and a neighbor and then forcing the boats apart so we could clamber over the side and watch the crew pass our hand luggage up. Our big suitcases stayed on the bus,  no room in the cabins!  Actually barely room for us and our hand luggage.  We cruised off into Halon Bay amidst an archipelago of Rocks jutting up from the water in every direction.  I think “as seen on National Geographic” is the only way I can describe the views.  Later in the afternoon we stopped at a very large cavern on one of the Islands.  It is mostly a dry “dead” cavern as the normal forces that yield cavern formations were halted by a rise in the sea some 1,000,000 years ago which filled the space and killed the normal formation process.  Back to the boat for sunset,  dinner and bridge.  I guess I haven’t mentioned I am the required fourth for bridge.  Ethel and Richard play regularly and Dorothy travels to play in major tournaments around the country.  Give me a few more days and my bidding may become tolerable.

Friday was a travel day.  The junk spent the night a few hours from the disembarkation point and arrived there about 11. We boarded the bus for the 4 hour trip to the Hanoi airport and made two stops.  One stop for lunch and shopping at the attached sheltered workshop and another at a northern village where we were greeted with an opportunity to try bettle nut.  I did,  I won’t again!  We visited several homes and saw chickens (of course) pigs (naturally) and pigeons that looked to my inexpert eye like giant runts – see my post about visiting Colonial Williamsburg with Alex in Fall 2012. We flew from Hanoi to Hué (pronounce that with a rising inflection on the é) arriving at our hotel at 10 PM without dinner.  Dinner at the hotel restaurant was an experience I would rather not repeat.  I may see the humor in it upon retelling in a month,  but mediocre food (to be kind) lousy service and a major language barrier do not make for a pleasant time when hunger and tiredness from a day of travel are combined.  This schedule needs some help.

Saturday dawned with cooler weather than expected,  low 60s, and nonstop mist.  Just enough to keep us damp and a bit chilly.  We took a dragon boat ride on the Perfume River to the Pagoda and from there we bussed to the Citadel built in 1810 to 1830 during the Nyguen Dynasty which ruled from 1802 to 1945. The Citadel was taken by the North Vietnamese in the Tet Offensive 1968 and pretty much demolished in the bombing and shelling that followed.  It is a Unesco World Heritage site and is slowly being restored. We visited the harem area which had 250 concubines at its peak and the bombed out remains of the Forbidden Inner Palace. There is a lot of restoration work being done.  Much of the work will be reconstruction rather than restoration as all that remains are foundations.

Hanoi Vietnam

The change from Bangkok is much greater than I expected.  First the weather is much cooler.  Second,  although Hanoi is large at 7 million it does not feel as overwhelming as Bangkok.  On the other hand the motor bikes seem to fill every spot between the buildings.  They seem to flow like water around obstructions like pedestrians. Crossing the street is a matter of picking a moment when the nearest approaching bike will have a chance to adjust his course to avoid you and then just walking through the flow at a steady pace. The steady pace is very important as it gives everyone a chance to plan on where you will be when they get there.  Our Tour Leader,  An, walked sixteen of us through heavy traffic last night with no problem. The pace is brisk but does not feel obsessive and people seem to be generally courteous. We have been warned of noise level but have not found ourselves disturbed by it.  Adjusting to yet another currency,  the Vietnam Dong,  is a bit of a trial.  It has made me a millionaire in my pocket instantly.  The simple conversion Dong to dollar is shift the decimal point 4 to the left and divide by 2. Or $1 = 20000 dong! There are lots of bills with many 0s.

We started today at the Mausoleum for Ho Chi Minh. We were lined up single file no bags or visible cameras and escorted a short distance to the beginning of the walk parallel to the building.  Then we were instructed to form a double file along the railing. A small group of Korean business men was lead past us and they set a wreath at the entrance to the Masoleum.  After they entered, we were instructed to follow, no sunglasses,  no hats and no talking.  We solemnly climbed the stairs on the red carpet and filed into the room where the embalmed body lies in state. He looks quite good for one who has been dead since 1969. So far this trip we have walked by the mausoleums for Lenin in Moscow and Mao in Beijing.  This is the first one we have entered.  To complete the cycle of embalmed communist leaders we only need to wait for Fidel Castro to join the ranks. After this visit we toured the grounds of the Vietnam president’s house,  the building where Ho spent the later 50s and the stilt house built for him of Rosewood on the same grounds.  He lived in that from 58 to his death in 69. There is no toilet in the house,  he said he could walk and felt it spoiled the clean design of the home.  Also there is a very strong bunker a few steps from the building used whenever our bombers were overhead.

After a lovely lunch we went to the Museum of Vietnam Ethnology. Here we learned much about the ethnic make up of Vietnam.  The Viet makeup 80% of the population which consist of 54 ethnic groups. We are most familiar with the Hmong from the northern mountain country and a broad grouping called montagnards consisting of them and other neighboring groups.  The museum is very well done and if  we had extra days we might choose to go back to spend more time.  It won’t happen this trip as we have much more to see and do.


Not much to talk about.  We had an uneventful flight from Chiang Mae to Bangkok once we got through the airport hassle.  Nok Air added a new twist to passenger abuse.  They changed the weight allowance per person from 44 pounds to 33 pounds. This put us 22 pounds overweight for a charge of about $75. Since OAT had not warned us about this,  Lucky had them book us as a group and we all fell under the group allowance. We had no idea what airline we were traveling on since this was all booked by OAT. No way we could have adjusted our weight mid tour or gotten down to 33 pounds for our travel.  I was so flustered, having been the first to learn this,  I forgot about my pocket knife, which is now in the great airline pocket knife bin in the sky 🙁 Guess I’ll have to buy a new one.

Today was two more Buddahs and a return to Jim Thompson Villa.  I bought another shirt.  We had already been to the Reclining Buddah but not to the Golden Buddah,  yup,  its big and it is very gold actually reputed to be 5 tons of gold. I won’t argue.  Tonight is farewell dinner for this part of the trip.  We say good bye to Lucky and tomorrow we fly to Vietnam and meet An.

Music and Elephants, Unrelated Subjects

Music: I’m not sure what my expectations for hotel lobby music were when we arrived in Thailand three weeks ago before Thanksgiving,  but I do know they did not include Christmas music,  nor did they include Calypso music from the 50s. Imagine my surprise when I heard Jingle Bells, in Thai!  coming over the speakers at Pantip Suite in Bangkok.  This was followed by a collection of some of the worst old songs from the 50s and 60s repeated on a loop of maybe 6 numbers.  It was enough to send me out of the lobby where the only good wifi connection was available. Later we were in a dinner place and I started listening to the “background” and realized the song was “Day O” as sung by Harry Bellefonte when we were in high school. I assumed this a freak occurrence and someone had made a mistake in setting up the mix,  but numbers from the era continued for the duration of dinner.  There was nothing in the least Caribbean in the setting in Bangkok.  Okay, it was an anomaly,  wrong! At dinner in Golden Pines (!) In Chang Rei in the far north of Thailand the live performers during dinner moved into a set of the same Calypso standards.  However we have had very little Christmas music in the north.  I haven’t tried to track down the reason for the apparent love of Calypso in northern Thailand.

Elephants: these wonderful animals are prime movers in this part of the world,  or were until the development of heavy machinery that could cope with the environment.  They are still capable of heavy work,  but we are more likely to see them as tourist attractions. How many of us have seen them in a circus or at a zoo and wanted to get just a little closer? Today we had the opportunity to get as close as we wanted to many elephants.  In Tanzania we stared at them from our safari cars often from just a few feet,  but the rules were clear,  hands in the car,  no touching!  As we entered the MaeTang Elephant Camp this morning,  we walked across a path under a canopy and realized that elephants with tourists in the houdas were coming toward us from the boarding area and there was the mahout sitting on the elephants neck just like in the movies or at the circus.  We walked over to the show area where a show had just completed and found elephants and mahouts lined up with the elephants lifting people on their trunks. Before I knew I was straddling an elephant trunk rising into the air.  After dismounting I offered the elephant 20 Baht (about $. 65) which it accepted gracefully and handed to the mahout. This was repeated with Carol and many others in our group.

After watching them bathe in the river and perform the usual elephant tricks including painting on paper made from their dung, we went to the boarding area and Carol and I soon found ourselves on a padded seat atop an elephant behind the mahout heading out for a ride over the river and through the woods.  Along the way there were places to buy bananas and sugar cane to feed the elephant as he walked without even dismounting. The mahout dismounted twice taking my camera to take pictures of us which I will post some day. We also had the chance to feed bananas and sugar cane to them, well actually hold it up in their presence and be prepared to let go a whole bunch at a time.  One noticed some bananas that were sitting between Carol and me on the bench and reached out to help himself.

Oh, music,  one number had the elephants playing harmonicas with their trunks while dancing to the beat they created.  No recognizable music here,  it must have been local.

We went on from the elephants and lunch to a ride on bamboo rafts down the river, MaeTang, adjacent to the elephant camp.  We saw several other elephant camps along the way and our boatmen had to alter course slightly several times to avoid them as they crossed the river with riders aboard. At one point a baby elephant broke from its herd and ran down to the water edge where it stopped briefly as we floated by.  Behind us it charged on into the water followed by its mother, several other elephants and some excited mahouts.  Our group behind us had quite a show.

We bought some “elephant paper” note pads for gifts.  This paper which is also used for the elephants to paint on is made from elephant dung.  They eat a lot of very coarse fibrous material and their digestive system is relatively inefficient so their dung contains a lot of crushed undigested fiber and with cleaning and other treatment a reasonable quality of paper can be made from it.

Continuing North in Thailand

We have continued on the bus for a couple of more days. It feels almost like one of our early road trips,  except for the early starts and someone else is driving.  Lucky,  our Tour Leader,  always had his eyes open for interesting stops,  some planned and some just happenstance with a bus driver who is not afraid to block traffic so we can make the stop. We made a stop along the way for “happy room” tour name for toilet break,  and found a great coffee shop.  While some of us enjoyed coffee,  someone else noticed a festival along the lakeshore.  Off we went to explore the festival.  At another happy room stop there was a new temple with a huge reclining  Buddah, only 20 years old,  giving the tour a chance to live up to its name Oh, Another Temple (OAT for those who missed it). I am struggling to remember all the stops. 

Today,  Tuesday the 10th of December as I write,  we stopped to visit several Hill Country tribes. First the Padong known for the women having their necks wrapped in brass coils as well as their ankles and  calfs. They are immigrants from Burma where they are no longer welcome.  Next to them are the Palong whose women have greatly extended ear lobes with open rings inserted. Another nearby tribe wear hats covered with silver baubles. To get to these tribes we road in the back of pickup trucks with bench seating. Although much of this visit felt a bit commercial as other for groups hiked through the forest as well to see these people and all the women had items for sale to augment their living, it is clear that the people are living a modification of their former lifestyle and adapting in small ways to the 21st century. The pickup trucks brought us out of the forest to a filling station where our bus met us and we continued north to The Golden Triangle.  Although celebrated and marked with a golden Buddah this site represents the worst of human nature.  Thailand,  Burma,  and Laos meet on the Mekong River and another smaller river. At the confluence is a delta that is actually an island since the rivers cut it off from Burma.  Here opium dealers gathered to trade opium for gold through the 1970s. Then the area was accessible only by river or 4 wheel drive through the forest. The benches at the view point are stenciled with a note that they are a gift of the US DEA!

Along the way Lucky spotted some rice farmers threshing newly harvested rice using pairs of sticks with a string between them at one end to hold bunches of rice stalks so they could beat them on the ground to free the rice from the stalk.  Naturally we stopped and got down from the bus to photograph this sight.  Within a matter of minutes most of us had to try our hand at the process.  This resulted in much laughter from us and the workers and not a lot of rice being threshed. I am sure my back will be fine in the morning.

We were picked up at the Museum of Opium History in vehicles called “Japanese Water Buffalo” start with what looks like a very large tilling machine,  throw away everything except the engine and Mount that engine sideways in front of a 4 wheeled hand built truck body with steering wheel, two speed transmission and no springs. Climb into the back on padded (Thank G-d) benches and set off through back roads through farm land to a restaurant in the valley for lunch.  Great lunch,  Lots of fun.  One of us,  not me, tried his hand at driving. No power steering,  a wicked clutch and the driver was sitting on the gear shift so we were limited to first year. As we road back to our hotel on the bus we were tangled up in a traffic back up caused by an accident.  Lucky jumped down and ran ahead of the bus.  We thought he was trying to find the cause.  As we overtook him he had a bag in his hands,  he had taken advantage of the hold up to buy local pineapples for inclusion in lunch tomorrow.

And so it goes,  we have a couple of hours to ourselves and then off to the local night market and dinner.

Miscellaneous Thoughts and a Road Trip in Thailand

Geek time: on our boat ride in Mandalay,  as I mentioned,  we stopped on a sandbar to watch sunset.  After the sun had set there was a very bright star overhead.  I surmised it must be Venus given the brightness and lack of apparent motion.  I wanted to confirm that using Google Sky map. Having no Internet access that seemed unlikely.  Kayw had his smart phone but did not have sky map loaded.  He fiddled for a minute and then said to turn on my wifi and look for “john”.  Sure enough there was  “john” with a strong signal and access through his phone to a data connection.  The bright star was indeed Venus. To my geeky friends and family I am sure this is not surprising.  Even to me,  once I realized what he was doing, this was not particularly surprising,  although given where we were I will admit I was impressed.

I failed to realize how much data I would need to handle with two cameras shooting every day. My tablet cannot handle the uploads and leave me any time to do anything else.  I wanted to at least back up the camera cards so I went to buy a hard disk with sd card input.  The dealers I saw in Hong Kong assured me they were obsolete,  I think that meant they didn’t have any.  They sold me a box that connects to the tablet via wifi and has an sd slot to handle the transfer.  The box connects but doesn’t see my sd card 🙁 It does have a network connection and I was able to plug in a network cable I found in one hotel room and make my own wifi. Hmm, was I pirating someone’s Internet? Nah I was in a hotel and the cable was there even if it was unmarked.

Siam Niramit dinner and show! In Bangkok.  Traffic getting there was so bad we were fearful we would not have time for dinner.  The show was wonderful.  They advertise the largest stage in the world,  there may be some hyperbole, but not much.  And they have performers and support staff over 300.  This does not include two elephants that are not only on stage,  but also on the main cross aisle in the audience!  At one point there are 12 actors flying above the stage and where did that river on the lip of the stage come from a third of the way into the show.  Absolutely worth going to at least once.  There is so much happening that going a second time would be worthwhile.

We left Bangkok by bus the next morning for a two night overnight in Hintok River Camp along the River Kwai. While there we walked across The Bridge and road a train over it as well.  Then we hiked through Hellfire Pass.  This is a 4 kilometer stretch of 400 kilometers of rail built by forced labor over 18 months.  The death rate was one life for every sleeper laid,  well over 200,000 Allied troops and Thai workers died. The famous book and movie embellished the importance of the act of sabotage at the bridge over the river Kwai for dramatic purposes.  The entire story of suffering and repeated sabotage would not make a suspenseful movie.  Hellfire pass was so named because of the torches lit along the cut so work could continue around the clock.  The workers worked as long as 18 hours and had an 8 to 9 kilometer hike through the jungle and over ridges to get to and from their camps. We also had a boat ride on the river Kwai.  We passed floating hotels,  many birds and even working elephants along the way.

The next day brought a long bus ride, 500 kilometers,  that was broken up with stops every couple of hours and another boat ride,  this time on a rice barge where lunch was served.  After a one night stop we were off again. We spent much of the morning in Sukhothai, the first capital of what was to become Thailand dating to the 1200s.  The temple complex is very elaborate and has hints of Angkor Wat and of Hindu places we have visited as well as signs of Portuguese presence in the area. After lunch we boarded the bus for a 180 kilometer run to the Chang Rai area. We stopped along the way to watch rice harvesters,  chopstick makers and finally Indigo dyers. Carol found a couple of lovely shirts to buy,  that fit!

That sort of catches me up.  I’ve ignored some fun in Bangkok, but we will be back there in 6 days which I am sure will pass in a flash. I ought to describe our bus,  especially for my RV it friends.  It is about 36 to 38 feet long and seems to be over 8 feet wide.  The height is all of 13’6″ and it has a great turning radius.  The sides are well battered from encounters with anything that comes near the roadway and the occasional taxi.  The top deck has seating for over 30 although we are 16 plus a guide and two staff,  plus driver and assistant.  The bottom deck, or basement,  houses luggage storage, a toilet and sleeping quarters for driver and assistant. We make u turns with abandon and it seems that red lights are considered a suggestion,  or at best a recommendation if convenient.

Another early wakeup tomorrow,  on the bus by 7:30 AM which means 5:45 wakeup assuming I shower in the next 15 minutes.   Good night.