For our last week in Thailand we booked this traditional wooden house on a canal in north Bangkok, a neighborhood called Bang Yai. This house and the people in it have made me fall in love with Thailand in a way that I hadn't thought to experience. There are things on this trip that I don't need to do ever again. For example I never need to go to a Thai beach again. I found them overpriced and dirty and far too full of tourists. We have much nicer and cheaper beaches in my own hemisphere that don't require 32 hours of flight time to get to. The plastic garbage really is a problem that the country is going to have to recon with. But this house, built of teak and rosewood, in the traditional style, is an aesthetic paradise! Surrounded by fruit orchards and plant nurseries, the air is cooler and cleaner, and the noise of the city is left far behind. The family here has lived on this property for 5 generations, and the house is infused with love and history. It was the perfect place for me to relax, consolidate my design ideas for the coming 2019 season, and learn to cook tasty Thai dishes from an amazing woman who absolutely loves to cook and teach. Both mornings since I've been home I've woken with thoughts of this house in my mind. The green canopy, the frogs chirping in the night, the call of the Koel bird, and the wonderful family who lives here. Pip's grandfather built the original house on this property 100 years ago (and it's still standing right next to the canal) and she grew up going to school in a little hand carved teak boat, and coming home to work the rice fields with her very own water buffalo. The canal was everything; food, transportation, marketplace, water source, and bath house. Today the canals are not as clean as they once were, and the family no longer uses them as a water source. But we did have the privilege of visiting a market in a boat that left from the original steps down into the canal! And monks still collect morning alms from those who've maintained their connection to the canals. I took 3 full days of cooking classes with Pip. Her instruction is excellent and I intend to practice, and cook the recipes with the techniques she taught me at home for friends and family. The stories she has to share about life in Thailand from the days of the canal to the days of the sky train will live in my memory for life. I'll hear her voice when I cook, and hope that I can infuse my food with as much love and flavor as she does. And you can be sure that if I ever return to Thailand, her house will be my first stop!
We’ve just spent an amazing week on this beautiful wooden boat visiting villages and waterfalls along the Mekong river in Northern Laos. The villages were all quite different from one another, being made up of different ethnic groups found all over the country. When describing the people of Laos they used to classify them by where they lived. For example the Hmong live in the high mountains. Other groups live in the lowland valleys etc. But that simply isn’t true anymore. All the villages we visited were located on the banks of the river, and they were all different groups. The boat itself was the highlight of the week I have to say. Pure luxury. I’d never experienced that before. They turn down your beds at night, clean your shoes when you come on board and leave them by the door, serve you refreshing drinks after you go on an excursion! Ok, I see why people like this kind of thing. Mostly it was peaceful on the river. No cars, motorbikes, pollution, noise. I was surprised at how little people actually seem to use the river anymore. Every year more and more places are connected by road. Sure they still fish, but many environmental factors are changing to make the catch less and less all the time. Our cruise director gave us a copy of a documentary film that we can watch once we get home about the effects of dams on the Mekong. We got really lucky on this cruise because only 4 passengers signed up to go! The other couple was from Switzerland and you couldn’t have picked nicer people to travel with! One night we all had a big BBQ on the sandbank in front of one of the villages and the head of the village, his wife, and a few other individuals (and I think every kid in the village) came to join us. We couldn’t speak the same language, but good food, local whiskey called laolao, and some music, and we were all buddies in no time! It was kind of a magical night actually. I will cherish the memories for a long time to come.
Laos has been my favorite part of our trip to date! The streets of Luang Prabang in the north are filled with families selling traditional bamboo baskets or groceries out of a front room in their home. Noodle shops on every corner! Good coffee. 33 working temples. A night market everyday where you can buy handmade textiles or mulberry paper products. And a morning market everyday where you can shop for food from the delicious to the ridiculous! Our guesthouse has 4 baby cats, so naturally I’m in heaven. We visited the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Center to view some original Hmong clothing, now worn only during the New Years celebrations in April. I took a weaving class in a village outside town. And a visit to the UXO Information Center was really important to me. UXO stands for unexploded ordinance, and it’s an enormous problem in Laos, historically the most bombed country in the world per capita. From here we catch our boat, The Mekong Sun for a 6 day cruise on the Mekong River!
We just finished spending some time on an island with my niece’s Thai grandparents, and her Thai aunt and uncle. This was the first time we had met any of them, so it was kind of emotional. By the time we had to say goodbye we were all so happy to have met, and talked of when we will see each other again. Jon and Jojo are back on their tandem bike cycling around the country and Andy and I are now in Luang Prabang in Laos. But we will fondly remember Koh Kut and the excellent times we had with family!
As expected I have absolutely loved the north, though my experience was rather limited. I spent nearly all my time here at the metalsmithing workshop at Wat SriSuphan. The first day I took a short class on the basic metal chasing technique that has been practiced here for over 700 years. The next day I began a more in depth project under the tutelage of a master named Kru Tu. She grew up in a metalsmithing family right next door to the temple, and completed much of the work you see adorning the Wat today. They made me my own set of tools and I worked on a smallish picture frame. 3 days later I had progressed, and I feel I finally started to hit a bit of a stride with the technique, but now we must leave to go meet family in the south. I would willingly stay a month or more here, studying and practicing. Maybe one day I’ll be back. Andy was such a trooper here! It was raining much of the time, and he managed to keep himself amused. On our last day the weather finally cleared and he was able to get out and about the city, and even rent a motorbike and visit some outlaying areas. He actually saw more of Chiang Mai than I did. But I’ve had an outstanding experience and feel so privileged to have been a student of Kru Tu’s!
This year we are spending New Years on Railay beach in Krabi province. Andy was here rock climbing 20 years ago, and like much of the world, it has changed a ton! I was expecting to be surrounded by climbers and their jargon, and they are here by the bushel, but so is everyone else! At mid afternoon the day we arrived every square inch of the small-ish east Railay beach was covered with sun bathing bodies from all over the world. I really wasn’t expecting that. I guess when the guide books list something as the top 3 activity to do on holiday in Thailand people do it. There are thankfully serious climbers here. Andy’s first day out he met two right off the bat. But most of the folks here have never climbed before. They maybe spend 3 days here hiring one of the local guides to take them out for one day. I’m glad I booked our accommodation back in October, and I understand now why our options were so scant! It’s funny, we’re about 10 days into the trip and I don’t really feel like I’ve experienced Thailand yet. Other than the food, there isn’t that much distinctively Thai on the island, or here in Krabi. It’s the same recognizably tourist-geared shops and activities that you find all over the world. With the functional yet uninspiring concrete and steel architecture that has become ubiquitous on planet earth. While I’m practicing and learning a little more Thai every day, and sticking to Thai food exclusively, I find myself hankering for the North of the country, where I hope we’ll feel a little more immersed in their culture. And I’m very excited to meet the Thai family next week! Location to be determined.
After another plane, a bus, a minivan, and a speed boat (that broke down twice en-route) we finally make it to Koh Lipe island hot, sweaty, and exhausted. It will be nice to stay put for 5 days. Our little cabana has amazing views, and thank god it has AC. I know I came to escape winter, but 90 degrees with matching humidity is a bit much. We spent Christmas Eve on a beach clean up mission with 60+ other folks. We took 6 long tail boats to a beach on an uninhabited island, spent a few hours collecting trash, and swimming, and got a free lunch afterwards. It was awesome, THIS is the kind of ecotourism that needs to take off globally as soon as possible! But it does make you a little sad too, this is not the solution. What are we as humans doing! Everything we make needs to be engineered from the beginning to have a long useful life, that in the end is easily recyclable, or biodegradable. Single use plastics must be banned, and this has to be implemented in society in a way that makes it easy and natural to comply. We spent the evening at a concert of the famous Job 2 Do, Reggae singer (he’s like the Bob Marley of SE Asia) and his band. It was super fun!
After 4 plane rides (32 hours) we got to recover from jet-lag here! It was an emaculately clean apartment on the 22nd floor of this 41 story skyscraper. We walked around a bit and saw absolutely no tourists which was so refreshing. We used the gym, and then went swimming in the “sky pool”. For dinner we walked up the street until we saw some charcoal braziers outside a rather unassuming little restaurant that was jam packed with Thai couples and families. They had one menu with English, but the waitress was still asking us questions we didn’t understand, when an incredibly nice Thai gentleman named Paul came over and offered to help. He told us he and his wife drove for over an hour from another part of Bangkok to eat here! They ordered about 10 dishes for the two of them! It was incredibly delicious. Before this trip I had confided in some that I was nervous about the food. I don’t like spicy food, and I can’t really digest rice too well... I’m not nervous about the food anymore!
We fly on December 20th, and arrive December 21st. My first time crossing the international date line! I've always traveled to India across the Atlantic. I've been reading Kukrit Pramoj's "Four Reigns". Loving it so far. We are planning to meet some family there, so I've been preparing gifts, and practicing a few words in Thai. Mostly I'm looking forward to being warm!
If you like the vintage glass jewelry that I make, check out this video...
It's filmed in the Gablonz region of Czechoslovakia and demonstrates the process and techniques used to make the Czech glass cabochons, buttons, drops, and chandalier components that I use in my jewelry. The pieces I use were made before the 1960's, mostly from the 1920's, but this family glassworks in the film is the only glassworks left that is still using the original facility and techniques!
Alison B. Sweeney
Why We Travel?