Category Archives: Travel Blogs

I began blogging during my first trip to Asia in 2006.

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.

A Night in Beijing



There are a lot of routes to Bangkok and there aren’t many nonstop flights. It’s just a little too far. So you can get there via Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Frankfurt, Beijing, and other cities. I chose Beijing because Air China (the national airline of the Peoples Republic—as opposed to China Air, which is based in Taiwan) offered the cheapest round trip to Thailand—and among the shortest. The two legs totaled just over 19 hours, with a 90-minute layover at Beijing. The short layover turned out to be a poor choice, for reasons that I will explain shortly.

When I booked the flight in December, I neglected to check the phases of the moon. It didn’t occur to me departing on February 3 would put me in the middle of the Chinese New Year celebration. No wonder the plane is full! In the crowded 119-seat aft cabin of our Boeing 777, where I managed to snag aisle seat 53J, I’m one of three or four non-Chinese.

The New Year is celebrated for about two weeks not only in China but in most of East and Southeast Asia. It’s a time for reuniting families—for returning to the ancestral village. Many of my fellow passengers are doing just that—going back to their “villages,” even if that village is now a city of 12 million.

Seven years ago, in February 2006, we flew into Ho Chi Minh City at the height of Vietnam’s New Year celebration. On arrival at the airport there—on my first trip to Asia—I was struck by the mountains of baggage that Vietnamese expats, mostly from America, were lugging into Vietnam. Not just giant suitcases, although there were plenty of those, but huge cardboard cartons and plastic tubs full of clothing, detergent, toothpaste, even small appliances. These folks, many of whom had fled their country at the end of what the Vietnamese call “the American War,” were bringing evidence of their more prosperous new village back to their old village.

The eyes of relatives and friends standing behind a barrier with small welcome signs and armloads of flowers, expectantly scanned the arriving passengers. Trom the tears that flowed, I guessed that, for some, this may have been their first time back—some 30 years since the end of the war.

At JFK today, the departure gate is alive with families. Everyone queues up well before the boarding announcement, even though each person already has a seat assignment. (The Chinese seem queue naturally when it seems like something might be in short supply.) The mood is ebullient as we board the plane. Celebratory music drums from the PA system and excited chatter reaches a crescendo as the generations settle into their seats.

Because of the steady snow in the Northeast, departing planes are being held for de-icing. The boarding is delayed more than an hour, and once in our seats, we wait for two more hours before getting into position for de-icing. After the glycol bath, we take off forthwith—three hours late. I know before leaving New York that I will miss my 90-minute connection to Bangkok.

A JAL plane is de-iced at JFK International.

A JAL plane is de-iced at JFK International.

So here I am in Beijing, at a decent hotel near the airport. After promising a free room for the night, the airline makes me pay150 yuan (about $25) for a single room because I refused to double up with the next Flight 984 refugee, another American on his way to Bangkok. Don’t get me wrong; he seemed like a nice guy, but was a total stranger. My protest to an Air China agent at the airport next day would be fruitless. In China, there may be a one-child policy, but two strangers must share a room when marooned en route.

The van to the hotel is reminiscent of the customs line at Ho Chi Minh City eight years ago. At the Beijing airport, huge bundles and gargantuan suitcases appeared on the baggage belt while officious mamas and grandmas loudly supervised their loading onto a flotilla of luggage carts. My photo tells the tale. Our driver is somewhere behind these bundles of—well, it’s hard to tell except some of them looked extremely heavy. My little suitcase is under there somewhere!

Our hotel shuttle driver is behind this pile of baggage.

Our hotel shuttle driver is behind this pile of baggage.

In the unheated hotel lobby, it’s Wednesday, Feb, 5, and I’m not particularly sleepy. My brain thinks it’s about noon on Tuesday in New York. Several of us English speakers, including a Chinese American from Baltimore who is making his familial pilgrimage, rouse a waiter in the darkened restaurant, order beer and noodles, and swap travel stories until after 2:00. The Chinese guy pays for the food. Happy New Year!

A flat bed and five hours’ sleep, a shower, and a shave feel great, and I’m ready to head back to the airport for a restart. I don’t mind the unexpected on a trip like this. There are always new people to meet (including friendly, helpful Chinese with little English but a strong desire to connect) and new places to see—like the Golden Phoenix Hotel near the Beijing International Airport—if you stop, look, and listen.



Stop, Look, and Listen

The Other Side of the Tracks

Snow is floating earthward in fat, wet flakes as Train 172 rumbles under the Barry Bridge in Chester, Pa. Harrah’s Casino gleams on one side of the tracks; a state prison glowers on the other. Ironically, gambling and incarceration are the two biggest industries in this downtrodden rust-belt city—by many measures, Pennsylvania’s poorest.

I’m on my way to JFK to catch a plane to Asia, but right now I’m wondering about train tracks—how they both bring people together and divide them. “The other side of the tracks,” a common idiom, is about the divide.

The snow covers up a lot of the ugliness along the Amtrak line—the abandoned businesses, warehouses full of frigid cold air, crumbling walls, rusting cars. But a blanket of white cannot hide the prison or the casino. Rows of houses huddle along the rails, their dirty windows glimpsing us as we hurry by in our cozy Quiet Car. A rich man rarely builds his home along the Northeast Corridor main line, and in some ways these tracks that speed us to our destinations in comfort—with free WiFi and a glass of merlot—are like prison walls, barriers that are dangerous and even impossible to cross.

As I head to Thailand for a few days of sightseeing, then on to Cambodia to build houses for the Tabitha Foundation, I must pay attention to the tracks. “Stop, look, and listen,” the crossing signs once said. Be still, be mindful, with eyes wide open. Listen to the other voices. Find the words. Write.

Here I go again.