Khlong Toei

During our time in Bangkok, there was one location to which we took many of our visitors.  Its location was central to the happenings of our daily life.  We went past it many times during our first weeks in Bangkok.  It was only one station away from our MRT stop in Lumphini.  When we were first there, it was on our way to the super open-air market, Chatuchak.  Sometimes, we weren’t going anywhere in particular and we would see it.  Deenaree passed it everyday on her way to work and Sundays on her way to volunteer. In the beginning, the name “Khlong Toei” was not new to us, but we were little aware of the magic of its market until we had a chance to have a look for ourselves.

We were able to walk to the Klong Toei market from where we lived and it beat taking the subway one stop and wasting 30 baht.  The walk was a straight shot down Rama IV Road.  It was loud, hot, and usually required a few terrifying traffic crossings where you could only guess where the cars were coming from and what they were going to do.

Finally, Klong Toei market appears on the right. At first, it looks nothing more than a collection of prepared food street stalls that are found all over Bangkok.  But as you walk past those stalls, the market starts to open up.  At street level, the unknowing eye could miss the lone side-walk leading right into the fray, but once you’re in, you’re in.

Klong Toei market is dirty, smelly, busy and absolutely magical.  Like most markets, it seems to be loosely split into specialty departments.  The fruit area is right at the entrance.  Some sellers provide a vast smorgasbord of tropical fruits for the pickings, but most specialize in an individual product.  The banana guys come first, with bananas as small as an index finger up to those the size of a sawed-off shotgun.  The pineapple lady seems to have her business down to an art, with pineapples split into at least a half-dozen price categories based on size.  Watermelons are more standard in size, but that doesn’t stop many shops from selling only them.  Fruit sellers call out their products while young men in official-looking neon vests push dollies containing massive woven baskets – a true Bangkok shopping cart.  Market patrons hire the carts for the hour and if one wants to protect their toes, it’s best to stay out of the neon vests’ way.

At the end of the fruit trail is the animal area.  Most are dead, some are not.  Chickens cluck around in their cages at stall after stall, apparently oblivious to their slaughtered, skinned compadres sitting on a tray right over their heads.  Seafood is sold by specialists, some fish still fighting for their last breath on the tray as hungry shoppers inspect them to find the perfect dinner.  Most other animals are impossible to distinguish by any but the most knowledgeable eye.  Various limbs and organs are grouped and piled at different stalls and we try hard not to put much stock into what we’re looking at.

Finally, we reach the back of the market which houses the veggies.  This long stretch has tent after tent full of mostly green veggies that we have never seen before.  The ones we do know – green peppers, carrots, tomatoes – are few and far between and cost a pretty penny.  Stands of chili peppers break the monotony of green with their red, orange and yellow colors spilling out of crates and baskets.  They seem to be the fast sellers and why not?  Thai people practically mainline these fiery morsels with every meal.

As we turn to leave the market, we catch one more glimpse of all of these beautiful areas.  It’s a cultural gem that isn’t naturally stunning like Thai temples or full of history like some of the nearby ruins of kingdoms, but it captures a perfect snapshot of Thai history and culture that is slowly disappearing from a city that is rapidly modernizing.

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Bilingual Prayer

At around 9:30 each evening, the smell of incense floats throughout the house we share with my dad’s family.  Usually, Ben and I are in the living room unwinding from a long workday.  I may be in the middle of sharing a school day story or Ben sharing a golf tidbit, but when the delicate aroma wafts it’s way through second floor floorboards to our noses directly below, I have to take a moment to smile and look upwards.  No longer do I need to catch that glimpse of my grandmother laboriously climbing the stairs to know that she is performing a nightly ritual that has probably gone on for more than 60 years.  It is her night’s closing, her workday’s unwind, and although her joints have become merciless in their approach to steps, she ascends and descends anyway.

She’ll kneel in front of a lifetime’s collection of Buddha statues on a raised succession of steps, light a few incense, cup them between her hands, and bow her head in prayer. As much as I would like to try, I couldn’t tell you what a Buddhist prayer includes.  My Thai language skills diminished immediately upon my family’s move back to the States in ’86 when my 5 year-old mind set itself on an assimilation plan of its own devise.  It was during an exchange that included my dad speaking to me in Thai and me noticing nearby playmates giving us strange glances that any chances towards a lifetime of bilingualism were thwarted.  I put my hands up to my ears to bar the sounds of something that kept me apart from my American counterparts.  It would be a move that I would regret forever and always.  Little did I know that the decision to be like everyone else would ultimately keep me apart from family conversations for the first 10 years worth of visits back to Thailand.  Even with many of my Thai relatives now speaking English, the most sought out conversation is the one I desperately wish to have with the woman kneeling in prayer in front of the Buddha statues.

It is one of the reasons for being here, for attending Thai language classes, for digging at the recesses of my brain in search of clues on how to shape my mouth for that tricky consonant or curl my tongue around a funny vowel that doesn’t exist in English.  I have faith that somewhere in my brain, there’s a treasure chest of Thai intonations that I just need to unlock in order to say naturally.

Time, like my grandmother’s joints, is unforgiving.  I am aware that she holds the key to our history and the chances to access it are slipping.  However, I also recognize how fortunate I am to have had the opportunity to return here and to be an observer of a nightly ritual she holds so close to her heart.  And it’s enough for me just to feel connected to her even if it is through something as delicate as incense smoke.

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Pieces of Our Happiness

This post is dedicated to the people of the couchsurfing community who not only took the time to provide us accommodation, but also took the time to welcome us into their lives and just be there for us when we were lost.  At times, traveling can be a lonely experience (even as a couple), but it only took a glance at our CS host album to conjure up the memories that put the smile back on our face and the stride back in our step once again.  We are unable to put into words exactly how grateful we feel for every single moment and we know that our experiences would not have been half as interesting, amazing, or fun without your kindnesses along the way.

From you, we learned how to make roti, tortilla and egg breakfast, mate, chicken marsala, arepas, homemade hamburger buns, green fettuccine, and Greek salad.  We learned how to toast correctly, greet politely (one kiss or two according to region), and travel safely.  We learned the importance of slicing cheese at the right angle, buying bread from the bakery on a specific street because the lady is nicer, and ordering skepasti from the restaurant nearby because it’s the best.  We were happy to drink at the hole-in-the-wall pubs with the cheapest beers on tap, eat flavorful cuisine at local hangouts, inhale fruity-smelling shisha smoke at shisha cafes, sip bitter Turkish coffee on floor cushions, and lick fingers after partaking in greasy street food.

From you, we learned about your frustrations with or your loyalty to your government, your interest in your nation’s history and how it shaped you, and your passion to advocate change and make a difference inside or outside of your country.  From you, we learned to step outside of our comfort zone and consider travel to regions we would never have glanced at, we hitchhiked, tried eye tacos, and (despite her fear of flying) Deenaree’s actually entertained the idea of sky-diving.  We learned to view our own country with a newfound appreciation because of your documentary on your small-town U.S. road trip or because of the book you are writing based on your quest to trace your family history here.

If it wasn’t for your suggestions, we would not have hiked up the Devil’s Molar, or been aware that the Latvian Song and Dance Festival is a great time to catch up on Latvian traditional dress, or known which open-air market to buy the best vegetables, or where to catch the ferry over the Bosphorus, or where to grab some ice cream in Buenos Aires at 11:00 at night.  We wouldn’t have known where the best place was to watch the World Cup in Vilnius, or to view ships crossing the Panama Canal, or catch a Tobago sunset on a quiet beach, or see kitsch decor at it’s most appalling in Stellenbosch, or observe Lithuanians madly playing trivia in Klaipeda.

We experienced art on a new level because of your pottery lesson, your ambition to see every movie ever made, your collection of cd’s that range in the THOUSANDS, and your recommendation to read books by a famous Columbian author who happens to be your favorite.  Some of you are incredibly talented musicians, photographers, singers, actors, writers, and artists.  We thank you for sharing your gifts with us.

We so appreciated your inclusion of us in your family gatherings and friend’s events.  We had barely just met, but that didn’t stop you from inviting us to your cousin’s wedding, your birthday celebration, or your family’s dinner table.  And although we had barely just met, your willingness to speak openly of your own dreams to travel, pursue additional education, change your career, start a new entrepreneurial venture, or move to another country and begin a new life left us inspired (and some of your biggest fans), too.

We thank you for the opportunity to have had this glimpse into your lives.  Our time with you was so valuable to us that we tended to leave wishing for more of it or even for an opportunity to live just a bit closer to you!  Thanks again for everything.  We hope we can see you soon somewhere in this world.  Keep in touch!


Ben and Deenaree

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Things We Learned and Liked-Latvia

Things we learned:

Currency: Lat (1 Lat=$1.75 USD)

Places Visited: Ventspils, Kolka, Riga

Venspils (and Latvia in general) is a great place for families and recreational activities.

Internet is everywhere including pay phones and bus stations.

In Kolka, it seemed as if there were only 2 cafes/restaurants and 2 hotels.  Our advice is to skip it unless you have a car and can stay in another town.  Additionally, bring mosquito repellent as there are tons of nasty mosquitoes here.  During the Soviet era, Cape Kolka used to be a restricted Russian military zone.  You can still see the ruins when walking near the beach.

There are assigned seats on buses.

It is cheaper to purchase train/bus tickets on the day of departure.

Riga is known for its art nouveau so keep eyes upward so that you don’t miss all the decorative flair that make buildings unique here.

Deenaree´s list…

  • Food: Dark rye bread
  • Experience: Beach day in Ventspils
  • Something to remember:  Riga is one cool city!

Ben´s list…

  • Food: The moistest potatoes I’ve ever eaten!
  • Experience: Seeing the amazing array of Art Nouveau buildings in Riga
  • Something to remember: Reaching the northernmost I ever have in my life at Cape Kolka
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Ventspils Beach

Our flight to Thailand was scheduled out of Riga in mid-July which meant that Latvia was officially the last country on our RTW trip.  In true travel fashion, we changed plans as we moved our way up Latvia’s coastline and decided to spend a few extra days in the seaside town of Ventspils instead of at Cape Kolka as we had originally intended.  Part of the reason behind the change was that the bus schedule between Ventspils and Kolka was not conducive to our schedule so we were faced with choosing between spending one day in Venspils or three.  Originally, the plan was for one day because I envisioned Latvia’s cape to be like South Africa’s cape and I was pretty determined not to waste time in some insignificant port town.  However, Ventspils captivated us almost immediately and our decision quickly changed to a stay that lasted three days.  During our time in Ventspils, we were comfortable with the fact that we had made a good decision, but a visit to Kolka confirmed that it was one of the best ones we had ever made.

For starters, we found some lovely accommodation in the home of a really nice family.  Although their English was a bit limited, their warmth was enough to make us feel very welcome.  Our room was a spacious attic room with ceilings that slanted.  Its windows provided a magnificent vantage point for Latvian sunsets in addition to a great view of the charming garden below.  This bed and breakfast style lodging fostered our decision to stay longer and if it hadn’t been for those plane tickets to start our new life in Thailand, I can imagine that we would still be there now.

The house was a stone’s throw away from the beach for which Ventspils is known.  Promenades in the form of boardwalks lead visitors to stretches of white sand and this white sand meets the calm waters of the Baltic Sea.  When we first stepped foot on the beach, we noticed that there were all types of interesting-looking mechanisms resembling playground equipment all around its perimeter.  We saw children and adults alike sitting on giant rope loops that circled around a central axis.  We observed more people standing on humongous wooden logs that swung from right to left.  We also noticed adults on a few “porch swings” scattered about and children climbing on suspension rope jungle gyms.  To my delight, there were shower stations for people to wash sand off and changing stalls that looked like gigantic blue and yellow dice.   In the first 5 minutes, my “clean-freak” and “bright color loving” self came to the conclusion that we had finally found the beach of my dreams!  Although we were there during a long holiday weekend, we did not feel as if we had to fight for our patch of sand as there was plenty to go around.  We marked our patch with my blue sarong, pulled out our picnic lunch of cucumbers, meat/cheese sandwiches, and chips, and spent the good part of a day basking in the sun.

The town of Ventspils itself was incredibly family-friendly.  In fact, I think this move towards family-friendliness was their “mayor’s” initiative to increase tourism at some point.  Every restaurant had a children’s area full of coloring books and toys along with TV screens that played Tom and Jerry episodes nonstop.  There were also lots of parks containing play areas with different themes (i.e. spaceship, pirate ship, zoo) and colorful, animal-shaped flower displays.  To top this all off, there was an aquapark!!  Apart from the beach, we spent our time enjoying and testing each and every water slide of the Ventspils Aquapark.

Beyond its award-winning recreational qualities, Ventspils’ old town contained buildings with architectural features that provided a bit of personality.  We used a walking trail book obtained from tourist information to learn more about the sites of this historic area.  Although there was hardly anything notable about these building in the grand scheme of world history, we were happy to spend time learning a little bit of local history.

Our time in Ventspils, as with most places we’ve enjoyed, came to a quick end.  We moved on to Kolka with high expectations, but in the end, we found it to be a bit dull, mosquito-infested, and hard to enjoy in full without a rental car.  We even decided to leave a few hours earlier than planned because we had run out of things to do.  It was the “insignificant” port town of Ventspils that turned out the be the most fitting place to spend our last few leisurely days of travel freedom.

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