Monthly Archives: February 2014

Buddha Day in Bangkok

Buddha at Wat Wra Chet Tha Ram, Ayutthaya, Thailand

A van picked me up at the hotel at 6:30 (yawn … I was just beginning to sleep through the night) and we drove across the city at dawn, picking up at other hotels. About 7:15, about 10 of us were let out onto a street corner and tagged with various colored pieces of tape—mine was two triangles, one blue and one yellow—to be sorted into other vans and sent on to various destination and tours.
It took a while to do this, because at least five vanloads of tourists were milling about on the street. Wranglers with clipboards and stickers variously unloaded new arrivals and bustled “you, you, and you” onto the next van. These were clean white Mercedes with aircon and up to 14 seats. After about a half hour, we were on our way, weaving in and out of Bangkok’s insane traffic and onto an expressway out of the city. The driver was a pedal-down guy, both with the accelerator and brake. We were in a caravan of four white vans—one of which contained our young Thai guide—and this appeared to be  the Ayutthaya Grand Prix.
The ride took about 90 minutes, with one pee break at a truck stop. (We refueled with CNG, as did all the trucks stopping there. Nice.) I got a Diet Coke, of course. The sights that followed will be described in more detail elsewhere, but it was very interesting—especially since son Joseph and I had visited Sukothai, the first capital, in 2011. We saw six different temple sites from the earliest to the most recent, all in slightly different architectural styles and flavors. Here’s the famous reclining Buddha at Wat Lukaya Suttha:
Reclining Buddha at Wat Lukaya Suttha, Ayutthaya, Thailand

Reclining Buddha at Wat Lukaya Suttha, Ayutthaya, Thailand

It turned out this was Buddha Day, a national holiday in Thailand, and Ayutthaya was teeming with monks and worshipers, tents and loudspeakers, vendors and hawkers. There were buses, processions, gongs, chanting, music blaring—the usual Asian chaos, which seems cacophonous and confusing to westerners, but must be pretty normal to Asians themselves. It was all very festive, albeit more crowded than usual.

Tents and crowds mark Buddha Day at Wat Phra Si Sanphet, Ayutthaya, Thailand

Tents and crowds mark Buddha Day at Wat Phra Si Sanphet, Ayutthaya, Thailand

The guide was very good and there was a simple restaurant buffet for the four van loads—about 40 people in all. I  ate  with two Canadians, an English woman, and a couple other Americans. Also in our van were three young Vietnamese women—graduate students on break from a university in Melbourne—who spoke fluent English with Viet-Aussie accents.
The final stop came about 3:30 at the Thai Royal Summer Palace, where after a long hot day of walking and climbing dusty ruins and getting in and out of the vans, it was like being at Longwood Gardens or Versailles—but with the unfortunate prospect of a 3k walk to see  the highlights. Or you could rent a four-person golf cart for about $12/hour. The three Vietnamese  students and I chipped 100 bhat each in for a golf cart and saw the whole place in great comfort and style.
Vietnamese women Connie, Lan, and Ngn met as students at the University of Melbourne.

Vietnamese students Connie, Lan, and Ngn met  at the University of Melbourne.

We headed back to Bangkok in late afternoon traffic, having been re-sorted into different vans by destination hotels. I was back in my room, hot and tired, by 6:30—a 12-hour day of tourism. I would not have seen all that I did had I not paid for the transport and the guide. The sites were about 10-minutes apart through winding streets. Parking was difficult (remember, it’s Buddha Day) and the guide made us keep to a schedule so we could see three sites before lunch and three more in the afternoon. The afternoon temp was about 35C and I drank a full bottle of water at each site.

Back in Bangkok begins a new Buddha Day story. I drank a beer that I’d stashed in the room refrigerator, took a delicious shower, and researched nearby places for dinner. One recommended was the Wine Pub in the Pullman Royal King Hotel, which looked to be a short cab ride from here. I took the precaution of going to the front desk to get them to write directions and phone number in Thai, which the bellhop communicated verbally to the taxi driver.
Almost immediately I knew (from a map I had consulted) that we were going the wrong way. The driver spoke almost no English, but when I asked, “Where you go?” he said, “Pullman Silom.” We seemed to be headed to a different part of the city called Silom, famous for its bars and “nightlife.” “You want boom-boom?” the driver asked, referring to a certain kind of “massage.” “No,” I said, “but where are you going?” He seemed to say that he was going exactly where the bellhop had told him to take me.
After about 40 minutes, we pulled up at the Pullman Silom—which I discovered was one of two Pullman hotels in the city, the other being about six blocks from my hotel in the Pratunam district. Either my front desk or the bellhop had given the driver the wrong address. It was not his fault, but we were both really frustrated.
I said politely, “Take me back to Pratunam.” By now it was 8:30 and I could have gnawed down one of those pig trotters you see in the street markets. Plus I was looking forward to a glass of red at the Wine Pub. The driver argued; he wanted to put me out at the Pullman Silom. His meter, which should not have exceeded 50 bhat for the short (correct) trip, was pushing 100. I refused to budge. “Back to Glow Pratunam,” I insisted. “I pay you meter there.”
After 140 bhat and well over an hour in the cab, we arrived back at Glow (the curious name of my hotel). The driver wanted a piece of the bellhop who had given him the wrong address; he  was duly summoned from the seventh-floor lobby. Much excited chatter ensued, with my scrap of paper from the front desk entered repeatedly into evidence. Another person from the seventh floor arrived with better English and I asked him to pay the cab fare. He agreed to take care of it. Everyone calmed down once money changed hands. I was asked if I still wanted to go to the Wine Pub at the Pullman Hotel in Pratunam. Warily, I said yes, and got back in the same cab.
Less than 10 minutes later, I was dropped off at the correct hotel—a five-star joint with a vast entrance and lobby. I ascended the marble stairs to the second-floor Wine Pub, washed my hands, and took a seat at the bar. The place was curiously uncrowded, with a few Valentines Day balloons and about a half-dozen diners who seemed to be finishing up. After all, it was 9:00.
The bartender approached, smiling and nodding in the usual friendly hotel staff manner. He saw my eyes scanning the chalkboard for a nice shiraz or pinot noir, and he said, “Sorry sir, no alcohol today.” What? “It is hotel policy in honor of Buddha Day,” he said. I thought at first he was kidding. But he explained with the calm of a monk that the entire country was dry today for the national holiday. Not only could I not get a glass of wine at the freaking WINE PUB, I could not get a drink anywhere in Thailand.
I retreated to Glow, hungry, thirsty, and defeated. The hotel kitchen was closed, so I went to the McDonalds at the street level and ordered my first Big Mac and fries since the 1970s. To go. I knew that there was one last beer in the refrigerator.
Big Mac and Fries—same the world over.

The end. A Big Mac and Fries—same the world over.

Killing Fields IV

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How many times can you go to the Cambodian killing fields and hear the story of the Khmer Rouge genocide? Never enough.

How many times can you remember what happened here, where bone fragments and teeth still surface after a heavy rain, like fragments of teacups and old marbles in my vegetable garden? Were I to till this soil, would I disturb a child at rest, a mother who grieves no more, a tortured man whose only mistake was to wear his glasses as he fled Phnom Penh?

Could I grow heirloom tomatoes in this hallowed ground? And if I did, would the fruit be bitter or sweet?

A superfluous sign says, “Be Quiet.” Could you be anything but silent as you walk these paths amongst the pits where hundreds of skeletons lay, as you pass the Buddhist bracelets on a tree where children’s heads were smashed? It hurts to be here—but nothing like the hurt that was imposed in the killing fields and, earlier, at Tuol Sleng.

Yet as I’ve observed before, this is also a place of great peace: sunshine and water, earth and sky, birds singing in the trees. (Do they bend their songs to blues as souls fly by.

This is my fourth time at the killing fields. It’s required by Tabitha Foundation of all who would come to Cambodia to build houses. Nobody minds, even if they’ve been many times before. For me, it was a chance to confront something I’ve not been able to deal with during earlier visits—going inside the stupa where thousands of skulls are stacked 17 levels high. Each has been carefully examined and catalogued by forensic specialists, and many have actually been identified through DNA and other evidence.

I’ve always avoided this place, merely taking photos from outside. This time felt different to me; for some reason I was ready to wrestle with the evil and embrace the memories that live inside the stupa. I knew I would cry, and I did, and it was OK. I found myself praying (not easy for a nontheist) in the midst of all these spirits, wishing them peace.

In the van on the way back to Phnom Penh, we talked about how many times since the Khmer Rouge atrocities that the world—and our own United States—had failed to recognize and confront genocide. United to End Genocide reports that between 1.7 and 2 million people died during the Khmer Rouge’s four-year reign, mostly from starvation as a result of ideological decisions made by the regime.

Estimates heard here in Cambodia go as high as 3 million—in either case around a quarter of the country’s population at the time. Were this sort of upheaval to befall the U.S., the death toll would exceed 75 million. Would the world come to our rescue?

I prayed, I cried, I lit some incense; I laid flowers at the stupa door. It’s not enough, but perhaps it’s a start—at least for me. And when I come back to Cambodia, as I surely will, I’ll return to the killing fields to grow this seed of peace and to take another step toward heirloom tomatoes and universal grace.

My 10k

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Here I am at the finish line of a 10k walkathon to raise money for and awareness of Nokor Tep, a planned women’s health care center in Cambodia. More than 500 walkers—and a few hardy runners—got up early (we left the hotel at 6:00) to finish the event by about 10:00 a.m., when the morning sun really starts cooking.

I’ve never walked 6.2 miles with a number on my shirt. Our house-building group numbered 19 folks, ranging in age from their 70s to Sam, who is 11. Much of the walk was in semi-rural country just south of Phnom Penh, on the long peninsula between the Tonle Sap and Mekong rivers.

We set off with the cheering pack after a pre-walk dance concert by a Filipino performers. The runners were from all over the world, and about half were Cambodians, many of whom had come as teams from schools. I settled into a slow but steady gait around the middle of the pack, but by the end of eight clicks—there were watering stations at each kilometer, marking our progress—I was pretty spent.

We walked mostly dirt paths and back roads with a few paved stretches through  villages. About half the route was shaded and it was interesting and beautiful to get away from the city and see how people lived. I’d brought my camera, but it remained brick-like in my backpack because I knew if I stopped to record each interesting scene, I’d never finish. I sat down just once, around km8, before I made a big effort to finish. I wasn’t the last person in, but my hips, knees, ankles, and feet were glad to have a rest.

A few other photos follow:

Dawn on the river at Phnom Penh

Dawn on the river at Phnom Penh

 

We took this ferry across the Tonle Sap.

We took this ferry across the Tonle Sap.

 

Not exactly Coast Guard approved. (I went topside.)

Not exactly Coast Guard approved. (I went topside.)

 

 

Janne Ritskes' sister Nancy pumps up the crowd.

Janne Ritskes’ sister Nancy pumps up the crowd.

 

Ready, set, go.

Ready, set, go.

 

 

 

 

Cambodia and the Broken Open Heart

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 NOTE: This post has no other pictures. I try not to photograph what I am about to describe.

The taxi ride into central Phnom Penh from the airport is typical of most Asian capitals like Beijing, Bangkok, or Hanoi. The trip takes about 45 minutes; there’s a choking amount of traffic; and there’s  evidence of growth and modernity. Except in Beijing, Bangkok, and Hanoi, there are no modern highways. Except in Beijing, Bangkok, and Hanoi, there are high-rise buildings with construction cranes. Except in Beijing, Bangkok, and Hanoi, there’s increasing prosperity.

Phnom Penh has none of these. No elevated or limited access roadway whisks the visitor to the city. Instead, you squeeze through surface streets crammed with wheeled vehicles—motorbikes carrying all manner of human and material cargo, tuktuks and trucks piled high with pillows. beer, or morning glory stems—even  the occasional horse cart. Cars and trucks are a minority of these conveyances and they are at a definite disadvantage in these teeming, potholed, trash-strewn streets.

As in Beijing, Bangkok, and Hanoi, the streets are lined with all sorts of enterprises. The typical arrangement is a two- or three-story, row-style building, around 10 meters wide. These house storefronts, restaurants, warehouses, or mini-factories on the ground floor and living quarters above. Block after block, these enterprises spill out on the sidewalk, with tables, goods, and people flowing together in an endless stream of commerce and daily life.

Yet in Phnom Penh, something’s different. A film of dust—or should I say dirt?—covers every untouched surface, tree leaf, and empty lot. It coats the children barefoot in doorways. Piles of uncollected trash and debris await a clean-up that never seems to come. Some blocks have a powerful sewer smell. On others, stretches of pavement or sidewalk are crumbling or torn up, as if reconstruction was begun but never completed. Shot through this scene are islands of modernity—spiffy signage, gleaming glass, spotless showrooms, and brightly lit Smile mini-marts. But in the end, you see that millions of people live among piles of sand and rocks, heaps of litter, and collections of bent metal.

At one point, my frustrated taxi driver—constantly distracted by both his dispatch radio and cellphone—stopped at a toll house and handed a couple of small bills out the window. Finally, I thought, we’ll get moving on a better road. But the next few kilometers were the same impossible tangle of weight and wheels—except that this section was truly a construction project. New curbs were being installed to connect sidewalk to street, and the road had been reduced to rubble by machines. We lurched left and right to avoid the worst of the tire-wrenching abysses that awaited.

I wondered where the tolls had gone and how long the road had been deconstructed in this way. It looked like it had been months, for even the modern road machines parked in vacant lots looked shabby and idle, covered with the same brown dirt that tinged bricks, brothels, and hungry boys.

To be sure, Phnom Penh has a more modern heart—a capital city with greensward boulevards and government ministries staffed by well-dressed Cambodians with their own motorbikes and cars. Fine restaurants serve these functionaries and tens of thousands of NGO workers who have come to the aid of this poor country. We ate last night in just such a restaurant—although in our case it was one called Friends, a little NGO of its own that trains restaurant workers, pays a fair wage, and has mentored hundreds of young Cambodians who would otherwise be scratching out a living on the street.

I’m not sure what draws me back to Cambodia. Perhaps it’s because, of all the people I’ve met in my travels, Cambodians on those streets to the airport and in the rural village where I will go tomorrow, are the people who break my heart. And a broken heart is an open heart. Here in Cambodia, my heart opens wider than anywhere else in the world. It opens with anger, with love, and with transformation. Cambodia changes me as I seek to affect small changes for its people.

The Unitarian Universalist minister David Owen O’Quill asks the question: “Who is it for whom your heart breaks?” This is the central question for an engaged religious life. And as I return to Cambodia for a fourth time, I find this country answers David’s question.

Do I have to travel halfway around the world to have my heart broken? No. There are plenty of people for whom my heart breaks right in my own city of Wilmington, Delaware. In Chester, Pennsylvania. In any and every city in the United States and the world, there are such people. But Cambodia is a holy communion of heartbreak. For me, it’s the body and blood of heartbreak.

The Quaker writer and teacher (some would call him a theologian) Freeman Palmer writes in his essay “The Politics of the Brokenhearted”:

There are at least two ways to picture a broken heart, using heart in its original meaning not merely as the seat of the emotions but as the core of our sense of self. The conventional image, of course, is that of a heart broken by unbearable tension into a thousand shards—shards that sometimes become shrapnel aimed at the source of our pain. Every day, untold numbers of people try to “pick up the pieces,” some of them taking grim satisfaction in the way the heart’s explosion has injured their enemies. Here the broken heart is an unresolved wound that we too often inflict on others.

But there is another way to visualize what a broken heart might mean. Imagine that small, clenched fist of a heart “broken open” into largeness of life, into greater capacity to hold one’s own and the world’s pain and joy. This, too, happens every day. Who among us has not seen evidence, in our own or other people’s lives, that compassion and grace can be the fruits of great suffering? Here heartbreak becomes a source of healing, enlarging our empathy and extending our ability to reach out.

This is the experience I find in Cambodia—a deep draught of compassion and grace, of being “broken open” to the largeness of life.

The Siam

The Siam has its own private launch that plies the river.

The Siam has its own private launch that plies the river.

 

 

In Bangkok, I stayed at The Siam, with a capital “T.” As grammatically offensive as the upper-case article seems to this crusty old editor, in this case it just be a pretension fulfilled. In 2011, I wrote a profile of The Siam’s general manager for his alumni magazine (not Swarthmore’s). He liked the piece and extended an invitation to stay when next in Bangkok. I don’t forget an invite like that!

At the time, my profile subject (who will remain nameless here) was beginning construction of this “urban luxury resort” on the [name] River. His is an interesting story, from a first experience of Southeast Asia as a college student to post-college years bumming around there, mostly in the Malaysian archipelago. His little scuba diving school—he is a certified instructor—turned into a place for divers to crash.

Then someone told him about the Cornell School of Hotel Management and he decided to make a career of “hospitality.” I’ll bet he disdains that word, for The Siam offers more than howdy-folks, set and stay a while. It is by far the most luxurious and perfect lodging experience I’ve ever had. (Granted, I’m a Doubletree sort of guy, but I’ve stayed in some really nice hotels on other peoples’ dimes.)

The Siam is beautiful. Every detail, every service, every moment is perfectly designed. The rooms are more than rooms; they are retreats. Mine was long, high-ceilinged space that was artfully divided into a living room with a view of the river, a large bedroom, with comfortable office space between the bed and the three-room bath. A giant tub (no cheesy Jacuzzi here) and separate tiles shower and toilet. The décor was historical, with interesting collections of Siamese memorabilia and artifacts such as two vintage dental chairs (a little macabre) and a fabulous ceramic miniature horse and cart. The food was impeccable and impeccably served. And the hotel had its own scheduled private launch service to various points along the river. It could not have been nicer.

Of course, even with all my Hilton HHonors points and Star Alliance miles, I felt a little out of place. Yes, I’d been brought up into a country-club life and I’d stayed in great hotels before, but I’m not used to—or immediately comfortable with—the level of service that The Siam offers its regular—and with the highest rack rates in Bangkok, very wealthy—clientele.

Upon arrival, I met my personal butler, Gup, who showed me to my suite and explained some of the amenities. He arranged for a massage before dinner. (It was the best massage I’ve every had, of course.) When I discovered that I had once again neglected to pack a reader for my camera memory cards, the butler went shopping for me and brought one to me. In the dining room and at the lovely dockside bar on the river, the wait staff knelt each time they approached to give me a menu or take my order.

For its regulars, The Siam is just another extension of the privileged life. Nothing is left to chance here, and I thank and congratulate my host on achieving his dream of a luxury urban resort in the heart of Bangkok. But it’s so otherworldly as to make the gulf between the lives of its patrons and the rest of the world even more apparent. As if it weren’t already.

Proceed as the Way Opens

The royal temples at the Golden Palace show a variety of architectural styles. The earliest date from the 1780s.

The royal temples at the Golden Palace show a variety of architectural styles. The earliest date from the 1780s.

I speak no Thai. None. I’ve been here a day and am thankful that the hotel staff speaks English. More about the hotel later, but I want to relate an extraordinary encounter of friendship across the language barrier.

Due to the delay leaving New York, today was my only full day in Bangkok. As a tourist, you want to see the highlights—but those are always the most crowded. I toured the Royal Palace like everyone else (and I mean everyone), then took the ferry across the river to the famous Wat Arun, with its towering stupa and glittering surfaces. It was still very crowded, because everyone who tours the Royal Palace seemed to want to crowd onto the ferryboats to Wat Arun.

A glittering tower at Wat Arun. The surface is covered with mosaic.

A glittering tower at Wat Arun. The surface is covered with mosaic.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Looking at the map, I saw a few wats (a wat is a Buddhist temple complex, often with resident monks and a school in addition to the temple proper) that weren’t likely to be so mobbed. Transportation: the trusty—and often exhilarating—tuktuk. So I set out into the streets. It was hot, but I had bought extra water—and a plate of wok-fried chicken with basil—outside the palace.

At what looked like a tuk-tuk repair shop, I found a vehicle but no driver. Tuktuks and their drivers are usually inseparable, like elephants and their mahouts. Someone was loudly drilling metal inside a garage bay, so I leaned into the restaurant next door and said the magic word: “Tuktuk?” A woman came outside and began to yell at the man making a racket with the drill. The noise stopped momentarily, and a different man emerged from the shadows.

Next thing I knew, we were on our way, a breeze blowing across my face. (The tuktuk is naturally air-conditioned when underway.) We had negotiated his 400-bhat offer down to 200. Did I say it was hot?

The large seated Buddha at Wat Kanlayimit.

The large seated Buddha at Wat Kanlayimit.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Getting to the point of this story, my motorized mahout took me to Wat Kanlayimit, a large comples of buildings, shrines, bells, and a temple with a large seated Buddha. I bought incense and made my offering, then sat quietly with other worshipers. Outside, a gong was ringing. When I emerged a few minutes later, the tuktuk was waiting. Using the map, I tried to ask the driver if, after Wat Prayoon, he would take me to the ferry dock near the old Portuguese Church of Santa Cruz. I offered another 100 bhat.

My mahout was out of his neighborhood, so we were having trouble coming to an understanding. Just then, the wat school let out for the day, and the yard filled with chattering children.

 

Schoolboys come over to see what's happening.

Schoolboys come over to see what’s happening.

Several boys came running over to see what I was doing there—likely to try out a few words of the English that many children study here. I showed them my map and asked them to explain to the driver how to get to the ferry dock near Santa Cruz. Ah, Santa Cruz! Knowing looks all around, but not much serviceable English.

The boys chattered away in Thai with the driver, and I kept asking about the ferry dock near the church. One of the boys could actually connect subject and verb, but we weren’t getting anywhere.

A woman approached, the mother of one of the several other children who had gathered gathering about the negotiations like reporters at a press conference. The woman talked with the boys, the boys talked with the mahout,, I pointed at the map, the boys pointed at the map—then suddenly, all three boys jumped into the tuktuk and gestured for me to join them. The woman nodded and smiled; it seemed the negotiations had borne fruit. Our mahout mounted his driving saddle and off we went together—Jeff and his three new best friends, none of them older than 10. One of them was giving directions to the driver.

I had no idea where we were going, but I thought I might as well go along for the ride. The beauty of the boys’ plan finally dawned on me as we pulled up to the ferry dock. They had decided that the only way to get me there was to show me—and the driver—where it was.

My guides. Their ingenuity helped cross a language barrier.

My guides. Their ingenuity helped cross a language barrier.

 

 

But there’s more. There seemed to be no ferry operating at this dock. But a narrow elevated walkway snaked along the riverbank and the boys set out on it, gesturing me to follow. We walked together for about five minutes, and suddenly, there was the Church of Santa Cruz!

Unfortunately, it was closed to visitors, but no matter. We struck out again along river walk, playing a game of “find the tuktuk.” I had not yet paid the mahout, so I was quite sure he would right where we left him. He was waiting at the ferry dock, so in a few more minutes we were all back at Wat Kanlayanimit.

 

Ferry dock. But no ferry operating.

Ferry dock. But no ferry operating.

 

 

By then, it was getting late and I needed to get back to the hotel. But how? The Siam, which fronts the Chao Phraya River, provides a private river launch service, but I needed to call to get them to pick me up. Having no phone, I gave the hotel number to the boys and asked them to place a call for me. (All three had mobile phones—two of them iPhones.) One of them dialed the number and handed me a phone. The hotel boat could pick me up at Wat Arun in 20 minutes.

We bid goodbye. I had not set foot in Wat Prayoon, but I didn’t care. The tuktuk driver took our picture. I got from one of the boys a gmail address so I could send it to them. Smiles all around.

My three new friends.

My three new friends.

So, back to square one: Wat Arun. As the tuktuk roared up a busy boulevard toward the towering stupa, I thought about the importance of spontaneity and of the Quaker admonition to “proceed as the way opens.” Life just happens and it can be beautiful if you allow it to unfold naturally.

Language didn’t matter; culture and nationality didn’t matter. Three fifth graders had enriched my day. Maybe I enriched theirs.

Our motorized mahout was delighted too, a big smile on his face from the moment those kids hopped into the tuktuk. He was also pretty happy with the 500 bhat I handed him at Wat Arun.