Thailand Day 1 part 2: Ancients and Elephants

Theoretically I knew we would be riding elephants.  But the reality of it didn't hit me until much later in the afternoon.  First, we visited an ancient Khmer temple.

From the little restaurant we went to Muang Sing which is the ruin of a Khmer Kingdom city dating back to 857 when that kingdom was flourishing.  
The place was similar to Siam Reap and built during the same Siam dynasty, around 1200 I believe.  We felt like Indian jones exploring around the  ruin.  One highlight was the explanation of particular structures within the temple.  The religion incorporates the worship of the phallus of God believing that it can rain down fertility, specifically into a uterine shaped receptacle.  That was fun to explain to the children. My favorite quote was when Jude or Silas said, "So they believe God's semen when it pours into that thing makes a good harvest?" Yep. You got it dude.
The area is well maintained and beautiful.  We were one of two groups of tourists checking it out.  

The kids were shocked when the guide said "yes, you can climb on it" and off they went.

I don't think this visit to Mueang Sing satisfied my interest in ancient temples.  Going to have to eventually visit Siem Riep in Cambodia.  And all those ancient temples in Greece.  And the ones in China.  Oh, also the Mayan ruins.  Ok, I need to go everywhere.

Next up, elephants.

We just pulled into this little structure with elephants hanging out nearby.  Just huts.  Some with elephants.  Everything made of bamboo.  Some plumbing but not much.  Second world, for sure.  

We handed over some cash (I want to say about $30) and up lumbered some giant elephants.  Like right up to us.  I was TERRIFIED.  

This is my favorite face Jude has ever made.

They put a little "seatbelt" on Jude and Silas so they wouldn't be so scared.

These animals are bigger than minivans.

By the way, I am not an animal person.  In fact, I'm a little afraid of all animals.  But here I am with all these little kids around me and I have to pretend that I think this is a totally normal and comfortable thing to do: climb up and sit on a twenty foot tall beast who could kill me.  I turned to the Hippie with tears in my eyes and begged him not to make me go and then promptly turned to my boys and forced them crying onto the elephants.  It all happened rather quickly and soon all six of us were marching toward the River Kwai on elephants and I was shaking in fear and pretending for my kids that everything was going to be fine.  I've never been so scared in my life and not three hours before I'd been bitten by a tiger.  

Down the steepest hill we went, crashing into the water, and then guess what the stinking' elephant's favorite thing to do is?  Dive of course.  And so scuba diving we went as the elephants fully submerged themselves.  Surprisingly, once we were in the water we were all a lot less scared.  They didn't seem quite so big because so much of their bodies were underwater.  They were not aggressive and the guides who rode with us didn't use any kind of force to get them to do activities with us.  The people running the place were very affectionate with the animals and the energy I got from everybody involved was that, though certainly these are wild animals made tame, the people loved being with the elephants and treated them like horses or dogs that they loved and enjoyed.  I obviously do not know the psychology of elephants but they seemed to be having a lovely time lounging about in the water and spraying us.
Elephants.  Just swimming along in the River Kwai.

Again with the fear cackling.

It really was amazing fun.

 They easily lifted us with their trunks and seemed to enjoy being scrubbed with brushes.  I was not super happy about getting sprayed with elephant snot, but I guess having a water fight with elephants is an opportunity not to be missed.

Probably at least 50% snot.

Just a man and his son.  Washing an elephant like it's a car.

There's my kid.  Doing a backflip off an elephant.

Jude age 9.

Running from the snot cannon.

Afterward the elephants dropped us off at the showers and we drove about two hours back to Bangkok.  The traffic in Bangkok is no joke.  Getting just about anywhere in the city in transportation other than a tuktuk, motorcycle, or subway/air train is a total hassle and takes hours.  Cars and vans are by far the least desirable form of transportation, but to get outside of the city there are not better options.

Here are a few more I can't live without:

Thailand Day 2: Temples and Tuktuks (this one Sparkles!)

Three little American Thai kids.
The reason I travel with my children is because I like them more when we're traveling.  I like them all the time, of course, but seeing the great big world through their eyes is the great payoff of parenting for me.  The value of travel is inherent, but traveling to the land of their ancestors was of special value for my children.  I'd visited Thailand as a teenager with my dad who went to pick up a missionary friend of the family.  There is something magical about Thailand and I knew that when I married a guy who happened to be Thai I would eventually get to share that magic with my little tan children.  They are Americans, only 1/4 Thai and they knew very little about their heritage before we visited.  Houdini left Thailand when he was only two and only met his Thai dad one other time in his life so he doesn't know a ton about his family history in Thailand.  As far as I understand, their Thai Grandfather Chai was a philosophy professor and died some time in the 2000's.  There were grandparents who we assume are also dead and an aunt we believe to be somewhere in Malaysia.  He had/has? and uncle who is a Buddhist monk.
Not a monk.  Bit of a monkey though.  Reclining Judah.

A major thrust of elementary education is ethnic heritage as an attempt to connect children who live in small childlike worlds to the greater world.  They're frequently asked to bring in outfits or food from their ancestral home, which, once you get to second and third generations immigrants, is a bit of a stretch.  But now my kids have been there and experienced the culture.  Though they're little, they understand a little bit more about who they are.  And experiencing that was magical.  Blake, the Hippie's son, also loved learning about the Thai culture.
And now we understand better they're just big weirdos.

Thailand has the exotic animals and the jungles, but it also has a rich culture of religion and mysticism.  There is something absolutely magical about the architecture both in the temples and outside every shop and home.  There's the Buddhist influence of over 4,000 temples peaking out around every corner, the folklore represented at nearly every home, the large Muslim population, and the historical Khmer Hindu-Buddhist ruins.  That's a ton of religious history.

The official religion of Thailand is Buddhism and the most important temple is the Temple of the Emerald Buddha which is on the same premises as the Grand Palace.  The Grand Palace is the current resting place of the beloved King Bhumibol Adulyadej who died last October 2016.  There were great lines of Thai people in black waiting to pay their respects.  The entire country is covered with shrines to this great king (it's a constitutional monarchy) who served for 70 years.  On the anniversary of his death in October 2017 there will be a giant giant giant party.  Nearly every Thai person we saw wore an image of the late King around their necks and he is worshiped nearly like a deity.  His son, however, is not.  It's forbidden to speak ill of the leaders but you can tell the Thai people think the new king is a bit of a turd with poor morals.  So the previous king's visage is every where.  I had no idea that amount of black drapery existed in the entire world.  Likewise, and less magically, I had no idea the amount of black wiring that existed in the world.  Most of it is in Thailand.  They have some wiring problems and it takes a walk of about one block to be reminded that Thailand is very much a second world in the city, third world in the country type of place.  But for all their faults, they loved their king.

The Palace grounds and the Temple of the Emerald Buddha left my eyes spinning with glorious mosaic beauty.  I have never seen anywhere more beautiful than the buildings and temples there and at Wat Pho.  To think of the labor and artistic precision it must have taken to create these structures boggles the mind.  Every tiny little tile and golden adornment, layers upon layers, buildings and buildings.  Man, these people can make some serious decor.  All of the roof swirlies (I'm sure they have names) and the mythological creatures all decked out in tiny tiling are sights to behold.  Go to Thailand to witness the artistry alone.

Visiting religious sites means that you need to explain the religion to the children.  Luckily my Athenian education and personal quest for all the good things has led me to some knowledge of Buddhism.  Also, we had the Hippie with us who has actually read Zen Mind Beginner Mind and the Tao Te Ching etc etc so he could fill in many gaps in my knowledge.  I feel somewhat like a religious tourist going to sacred places such as we did, but I feel some comfort in that we genuinely appreciated and respect the religions we experienced.  The temples feel a bit touristy (well, because we're tourists) and I wish we could have gone to one or two that were somewhat more peaceful.  I love talking about religion with my children right now because we are all searching for the same meaning in our scary America right now.  We're searching out the good and finding it in both the Buddhist temples and the Thai Folklore (about which we learned a ton at a production called Siam Niramit) and a variety of other places.  Rather than "this is just what Mormons do" we talk about everything religion and figure out what God wants for each of us.  I'm hoping exposure to these other traditions will help my children be very aware and discerning about what they are taught and be guided by their own relationship with God, wherever that may lead them.  This parenting may backfire somehow, but when I have a pregnant teenager I will likely just blame their daddy issues and not my varied and therefore questionable religious instruction.  Golden rule kids.  Find the good, shun the bad.

Stranger with a good picture idea so we joined him.

Nonetheless, we enjoyed explaining worshipping a statue which seems in opposition with LDS teachings about worshipping idols.    We got into a long discussion about idolatry that resulted in the general agreement that anything that leads you to God and peace is good.  I love the overlap of religious activities.  For example, before entering the temples there is a station for symbolic washing.  You cannot go in without your shoulders and legs being covered and you must remove your shoes.  You assume a posture of reverence, specifically including not pointing your feet directly at the Buddha.  And to worship you kneel.  There were special places where only Thai people were allowed to kneel before the Buddha and my children felt special and honored to be included in that opportunity.  They said they prayed for me.  Thanks, dudes.  I totally need it.

Washing before entering temple.

Mimi and Jude on the right.

After our visit to the ornate Emerald Buddha (who, by the way, gets his clothes changed by the King seasonally) we found our first tuktuk and headed for food.  I love tuktuks.  I want one so badly.  They're the perfect form of transportation.  You tell the driver what you want and he tells you how much and you pretend to walk away and he drops his price and you all pile in (yes, all six of us in one) and zooming away you go.  They're a fraternity and since the tuktuks are open air the drivers often talk to each other and ask directions.  There are few things more exhilarating than zooming around in tuktuks.  I found their prices were usually fair because sometimes things are far and they have to navigate around a ton of traffic.  To this guy we said "we need delicious food" and ten minutes later we were stuffing our faces.

Note on the food.  It's all good.  Every single meal we had was the most delicious thing I've ever shoved in my face.  Fancy restaurants have fabulous food.  Street stands have fabulous food.  It's all fabulous food.  Go to Thailand for the food.
By the head of the Reclining Buddha

Golden Buddhas galore.

Ok, next to Wat Pho.  We went to Wat Pho because it's the birthplace of Thai massage, but it more famously houses the biggest Buddha in the world (? Idk if it's the biggest, but it's hella big) called the reclining Buddha.  A Buddha after my own heart.  Napping Buddha.

We signed in to the massage school and right as a downpour started all six of us lay down for our massages.  The best.  Anybody who knows me knows I am a Thai massage believer.  In Thailand they only cost $7.  I probably know where the good one is in your city if you deserve a treat.
Jude fell asleep.  The rest of my crew was entirely converted and thus began our nearly every day Thai massage routine.

Thailand Day 3: Creepies and Cooking

You know you're with a good set of traveling companions when you wake up and say, "Mimi and I are off to find our cooking class, see you some time this afternoon!" and then you ditch the four boys to figure out their day.
Mimi and I had to get all the way across Bangkok at rush hour.  We hopped in a tuktuk and off we went.
Doing makeup in the back of a tuktuk going like 60 mph
Before we left I'd found and signed us up for the greatest little cooking school in Bangkok.  When you see a cooking school called "Cooking with Poo" you sign up.  That's just what you do.  Poo is apparently nickname for Rose in Thailand, as far as she explained, and her little school is rad.  Even Jaime Oliver has cooked with Poo. 
The way it works is you pay $45 for a morning of touring the outside market and then ride over to her little tiny house in a ghetto neighborhood of Bangkok.  This is not some giant building with fancy stoves.  Poo started small at her home and then grew her business but decided to stay in the tiny ghetto because she brings customers to the little neighborhood shops and feeds the impoverished families with leftover food.  She is truly an inspiring business woman and I encourage anybody who visits Bangkok to take a class with Poo.  The van picked the 8 of us (tourists speaking all languages from all over) up at a fancy hotel in the center of town and whisked us off to the market.  And when I say market, I mean a huge outside center of booths dripping with chicken guts, piled with exotic fruits and vegetables.  

Warning, this will be disgusting.

There was a little warning before we went in that told us this activity is not for the feint of heart nor weak of stomach.  It was truly one of the most exciting/disgusting experiences I've ever had, followed only by the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo.  If it wasn't dead and laying exposed in piles it was alive and squirming.  There were insects, frogs, poultry, and sea creatures in all stages of life and death and not a bottle of bleach for miles.

Eels in the market

The smells, the sights, the thai cursing for us to jump out of the way because some old lady was coming through with a giant basket on her back full of dead chicken was a shock to all of the senses.  The market was more of a tour than an actual purchasing experience -- Poo and her ladies buy the food ahead of time and just restock on one or two things while you're there. 
Pork on the left, dessert on the right.
  I had no idea there were so many fruits I'd never even heard of let alone bought at the regular grocery store.  We sloshed in our OPEN TOE'D SHOES (mom fail) through the guts and blood that gets hosed down nearly hourly but never get the slippery blood sludge washed totally away.  It was indeed harrowing but we absolutely loved every disgusting gross out minute. 
This kid is brave.  She's seen some gross stuff.

Making crepes/tortillas in the market

Mimi, 10, keeping right up.
 From the market we were taken to the ghetto where Poo has her school all set up.  She instructs you and her assistants prep the materials you need to cook the food.  Mimi and I can now cook an entire Thai meal: Tom Yum Gai (Hot & Spicy Soup with Chicken), Gai Ga Teum (Stir fried Chicken with Garlic) and Larb Bet (Minced Duck with Lemongrass).  Mimi was, of course, the only child in the class and she more than kept up.  I, on the other hand, barfed in the bathroom (I think from one of the dubious looking drinks in a bag I bought and bravely consumed) but soldiered on.  

After I nearly met my maker in their bathroom.

I love seeing her in her element.  Great kid hobby.

Our favorite: larb.  Sour cilantro tasting minced duck.

After our cooking lessons we sampled every exotic fruit available.  Mom would have loved that part.  It was like a designer fruit salad.
Bottom right are Mangosteen.  They're my new favorite fruit.

In case you were wondering if Mimi is Thai, here are three women who look more like her than I do.
We found our way back via skytrain and subway, and then Mimi conned me into a ride on the back of a scooter the last three blocks to our hotel.

Blake and Jude on their idyllic swan boat.

When we met up again the boys regaled us with stories of their adventures in Lumphini park.  Imagine a gorgeous pond with sweet little swan paddle boats.  Now imagine paddling out on those boats, the Hippie and Silas in one boat, Jude and Blake in the other.  Smile as you hear Silas gush, "This is the best day of my life" and then, as you glance down from the lush greenery to the water you see a giant reptile swim by.  And then another.  And another.
Before Silas saw the lizards.
The entire pond and lake is infested with four feet long monitor lizards.  

I'm afraid of animals, but I am terrified by reptiles in general.  They scare the hell out of me.  At the time when they noticed these beasts they didn't know what type of lizards they were.  In second grade Jude did a report on Komodo Dragons and these lizards look the exact same and he knows that Komodo Dragons eat cute plump little boys just like him.  I can only imagine the panicked paddling and how fast they hauled those idyllic Swan boats to shore.  But alas, there was not respite upon disembarkation.  

Might as well be a crocodile.

The monsters were everywhere, swarming, but nobody else in the park seemed to mind.  That's the funny thing about Thailand.  What seems like a horror movie to an American tourist is just another day in Thailand for the locals.  Seeing that nobody else was freaked out the boys apparently went exploring in the park or horrors.  

Count me out of this park.

Men folk in the pagoda

 They discovered a pretty rad pagoda and a stranger approached the Hippie and proceeded to manhandle him.  The guy approached him and in broken English said he was a boxing masseur. 

 Of course the Hippie waved him off.  But the stranger went ahead anyway and within seconds was administering what the Hippie reports was the best massage he has ever experienced.  It cost $2. Those adventures were followed with what the boys all agree was the best street food they'd ever had -- for about 40 cents.  

Stranger massage of a lifetime.

When we reunited we rested for a bit and then took a tuktuk in the pouring rain over to a mall type place in Chinatown.  It was a goal of mine to find authentic Thai outfits for my kids so that the next time they have Ethnic Heritage Day at their school they will be prepared and in costume because #greenanscommit.
I just want them to wear their Thai outfits all the time.
This is what little Thai kids wear for festivals and special occasions.

Mimi and her claws

We shopped around the Old Siam marketplace and once again ate the most delicious food we'd ever tasted.  From there we navigated via subway to the paramount Thai Cultural theatrical experience available in Bangkok: the Siam Niramit show.  This show was no joke.  Set in a constructed village similar to the Polynesian Cultural Center in Laie Hawaii, the purpose of this joint was to showcase all the mythology and history that makes Thailand so special.  It's absolutely commercialized and Epcot-esque, but that doesn't make it any less spectacular with its 100's of performers and more than 500 costumes.  The show takes you first through the four areas in Thailand and what makes them special: in the North The King and Queen lead a procession to worship Buddha and they do a ceremonial lantern release into a river on stage.  It's gorgeous.  Then in the south you see Thai Buddhist and Muslim cultures blending harmoniously with Chinese merchants arriving by boat.  In the Northeast you see villagers celebrating a religious festival before a temple and "Apsara" or angels come to life and dance.  Last, in the central area they show you farm life and a procession of royal barges.  It is spectacular and sensational.  The second half is all about Thai mythology and has subtitles (well, above titles) in a variety of languages explaining who the mythological creatures are and what they do.  Every scene was more magnificent than the last and my children especially appreciated visiting Fiery Hell where they learned what happens to parents who are naughty to their children.  Liars have their tongues torn out.  Alcoholics have to drink boiling water.  It's like a Thai Dante's Inferno.
But then off they whisk you to a mystical forest with flying magical animals, then finally to Blissful Heaven where the most beautiful women (and lady boys) float around on clouds.  Being Pam's daughter all I can think about is the cost of flying all those people.  Later they parade some elephants around and have a grand finale.  We LOVED it in all its weird sensational glory.  After the show you can take pictures with the performers and we were ready because I had made MJS wear their traditional Thai costumes.  Thailand, man.  We were rocking it.
After Siam Niramit show.

So glad I missed meeting this guy.