Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Yasukuni Shrine & Home Again

In the morning, we raced out for one last sightseeing adventure before our Friendly Airport Limousine arrived. Where to go? I took dad to the Yasukuni Shrine, adjacent to the Imperial Palace grounds. I feel it is important to point out something dealing with Yasukuni here, before I continue. Yasukuni isn't exactly Tokyo Disney. Nor is it just another shrine. In Japan, it's considered among the most holy of shrines, dating back hundreds of years as the destination of warrior spirits. Shogun, samurai, soldiers, kamikaze alike.

This is where the difficulties start.. in that several neighboring countries who were so busy trying to neuter Japan at the end of World War II (known at Yasukuni as the Great Pacific War), decided that a place like Yasukuni isn't so nice for their own memories. Fortunately Japan didn't demolish Yasukuni, although over the years did bend to pressure from places like Korea and China. Prime Ministers then suspended their annual trips to pay tribute to Japan's fallen warriors and politically, Yasukuni became a bit of a pariah destination. Those countries were (and are) quite vocal in feeling that Prime Minister visitation trips imply Japanese tacit approval of atrocities and aggression at the hands of leaders past.

My personal opinion. Every country out there- the US, China and Korea included- have been the instigator on one level or another, in one conflict or another. To insist that one country ignores it's history is sheer ignorance. To go further and again insist that it's leaders ignore ancestors, or not show tribute to it's warriors past isn't something I agree with at all- as a proud Marine or otherwise. Warriors are an ingrained part of a countries past and present, positioned to guarantee a future. Good or bad. In countries like the US and Japan, military members almost to an individual wear the uniform not because of a hidden agenda, but because they truly believe. Many pay for that belief with their own lives. So why take that away from them? I see it as the equivalent of foreign powers at some unseen day down the road insisting that the US ignore Arlington National Cemetery and what it represents. Not going to happen.

A recent Prime Minister (Junichiro Koizumi) bucked the trend and did visit Yasukuni each year. When he did, I applauded his decision. If I recall correctly, so did most of his country. People need to have national pride, and need to be mindful of their past.

Walking inside the adjacent museum, I was pleased to see that curators have begun to paint a more accurate- or at least contemporary view- of Japanese history which was definitely more skewed a few years back. Actually, to say "more skewed" is a blatant understatement. Regardless, I am pleased that Japan has this shrine and appreciate it's importance on Japan's people. The other thing that I am pleased to note is that artifacts are lovingly maintained. Any time you see an 800 year old Samurai katana sword that is so well cared for it might be mistaken for something crafted yesterday is highly impressive. The place is literally chock full of Japanese war artifacts from years past and they are all in amazing condition.

One of my favorite items is a battle standard from the 321st Infantry Regiment, still completely intact and now prominently displayed. In WW II, the Emporer issued an order to his forces upon unconditional surrender- destroy your standards, or face the wrath. Any Marine could tell you how much of a defeating morale killer this would bring to a unit- heck, even today I dragged one of my unit guidons to the top of Everest as a showing of unit pride. Then as a person who -sort of- understands the Japanese (it would take a westerner about 1,000 years to truly understand), I am surprised that one or two units out there actually defied an order and kept their standard. The story behind this one is particularly compelling when you read about how many individuals in the unit went to such great lengths to hide their plot and ultimately saved it from being burned. I think my units would do the exact same thing, so it's a great example of soldiers being proud soldiers no matter what unit, nationality or culture.

There is a large atrium at the end of the museum where you can see larger items, including kamikaze Baka Bomb, mini submarines, and Zeros. It's definitely a weird feeling, but still highly interesting and worthwhile to see a different side to a war that affected so many people across the world.

At Tokyo Narita, we dropped off bags, grabbed some udon for lunch, and did some last minute shopping.

And then we were off. Slipping quickly and smoothly skyward, I had a strange feeling.. this trip is almost over. How odd. It has been almost three months to the day since I left, and several times through the flight I recalled the stress, hectic packing, and checklists that basically were my last two days of life in Seattle before leaving. How dramatically different from now.

Streaking across the Pacific, I barely had time to watch "Fools Gold" for the fourth time before Flight Attendants were on an intercom announcing our upcoming landing. When we looked out the window crossing the Olympic Peninsula, dad had the chance to see the Olympic Range. His college fraternity nickname was "The Gods" and their symbol was Mt Olympus, which is a mountain that I led a team of five on for a 30 hour speed ascent. So I had already sent dad images of this remote and rugged peak deep inside Olympic National Park, but this was the first time that he had a chance to have it pointed out while so close. It must have been great to lay eyes on an object that had that sort of meaning for so long.

And then there we were. Back in Seattle. Almost as cold as when I left in March, definitely as grey as when I left. It has been fantastic to catch up with friends, eat real Seattle food, be back in my place. Sure, it's covered in a thin film of dust and feels like I just entered a time capsule. But truly, surely, good to be home.

Or is it. In the ~96 hours since I have returned, I have been stared down by some drunk guido Cubano guy who wanted to fight (ooh, scary man) and landed a $124 moving violation on Henry's motor scooter for making an illegal right hand turn from some asshole cop with an attitude. Where do you think the City of Seattle came up with $124 as the penalty, anyway? Sort of an arbitrary number.

Welcome home! Yeesh. Time for another trip..

Monday, June 16, 2008


Japan is known worldwide for it's effective, highly accessible, well managed and punctual-to-a-fault rail lines. These include subways, maglev (magnetic levitating), and bullet trains that run like clockwork in a way that would confuse the hell out of any other country. So on Saturday morning, we walked about five minutes to the local subway stop, hopped the Maranouchi Line to Tokyo Station, and then boarded the Shinkansen (bullet train) to Kyoto. The Shinkansen operate about every 10 minutes, so there really isn't much concern on whether you will make it onto the train or not. But what is amazing is that the Japanese love their trains so much that there are three different kinds of bullet train. The fastest and most expensive is known as the Nozomi and will get you to Kyoto a full 20 minutes faster than the next fastest bullet train. It's sleeker, sexier, and sounds way cooler than anything else offered, so we opt for that and are soon thereafter heading down the rail lines at warp speed. Kyoto or bust!

Upon arrival, we notice dramatic changes almost immediately from the dizzying pace of Tokyo. Kyoto is much more relaxed and less frantic. People walk and look around, and in many instances will actually smile at you. In Tokyo, no one smiles or talks on the sidewalk. And subways... forget about it. Ask Huntington about what happened to him in February when he was joking around on the Ginza Line. Yee cats.. he got a serious talking to by some older Japanese man. Here in Kyoto, we even see people walking around in Kimono, going to the store, walking down the street. Not like a "hey let's go meet the tourists" or even like a Disney display. But like they want to dress in traditional robes, and do so with no weird looks.

Dad and I had signed up for tours in English, which worked out really well. On my first visit to Kyoto, I didn't tour.. just visited shrines. This was expensive, tiring and boring. The Kyoto shrines aren't exactly next to each other so you need taxis. Taxis know this, so they kick off their fare at 610 Yen- almost $6 and then rise rapidly. Gotcha, silly tourists. Shrines charge too. Like lots for the more famous ones. And most signs are in Japanese, so you get to do this little exercise whereby most money flies out of your pocket and then you walk around a shrine w/o knowing much about what you see. This time, we had tour guides who could speak English and relate what we were looking at.

But I still took some of it with a grain of salt. When I was 22 and working as an intern for Senator John Warner, I was asked on a particularly busy day to help run tours of the U.S. Capital Building. The problem at the time was that I really didn't know much about the building's history, so Marion (the regular) asked me to go along with her and pick up on the facts. I think after eavesdropping on two tours, I had about 1/3 of the random fun-facts locked in before being thrown to the wolves. Man, what a tour these poor people received.:

- "Hey, who is the person in that statue, and what did he do?" "Wow, good question. You know, his statue is in the Capital Building, so he must have done something important."

- "That canvas was painted in 1845 and hung in 1856" (I had no idea)

Ever since then, I don't truly trust facts & figures of tour guides. But they were able to get us into some fantastic shrines- several of which I hadn't seen on my first visit. A quick sampling of those shrines are below:

While there, we had some unique experiences. Like this one, taken of a "good luck fountain". I'm sure it was good luck, and many people swear by it. There are three cascading lines of water that people will dip a cup into and drink from. Each stream stands for something different. One stream is for good fortune in business. One is to have success in meeting a new boyfriend/girlfriend. And one is for something else, like having a kid. the problem is that I can't remember which is which, and the guide screws it up also. This is serious business, people. So no way am I going to go over there, and think I'm getting success in business, only to find out that I just drank from the kid stream. So, I just stay to the side and watch.

And then there are these little guys, good luck Buddha's nestled away happily in their pagoda homes. If you do succeed in drinking from the correct stream and the stork delivers you a little bundle, you come back to this shrine and dress up a Buddha in a red bib. Or, you can go overboard and buy the accessory pack. This one looked like an artiste though- complete with a little pillow and beret to accompany his bib. Its all about accessorizing, so I'm told..

And we thought that the Bengal Tiger were ferocious (once we actually saw them). Those guys don't hold a candle to the ones we saw in Kyoto. Check out this woman, quaking in fear at the prospect of being discovered by the tiger for stealing his water:

Yes, tiger in Kyoto were a force to be reckoned with. But from what we learned, the real threat to the Shogun and Samurai warriors were thieves and assassin, which took their shots on a regular basis. At one temple, the Shogun actually had something installed called the "Nightingale Floor"- a wood floor designed and constructed to clearly squeak once stepped on the slats. We, basically, have the ability to stroll the halls and enjoy the squeak as we walk he length of what was the Shogun's quarters. But at the time, if you were a Ninja trying to take someone out you would very quickly be SOL and find out just how sharp the business end of a Katana really is. Yes, that means even if.... you... are... Ninjaaaaaaaaaaaa......

And who wouldn't be worried? We were walking down the street when a real, live Ninja appeared out of the fog. Here's one that snuck up on us- Ninja were highly trained in the art of stealth in order to carry our their assassinations of Shogun and Samurai. So when this one crept up on us, I know I was scared. Wouldn't you be?

I don't understand why (especially with the new, svelte version of me catting around), but for some reason in Japan, kids think that I'm a baseball player. The favorite guess on my team seems to be the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks. Personally, I'd rather play for the Tokyo Giants but I guess my agent didn't work hard enough to get me onto that team.

Curious. So it wasn't much of a surprise when we stopped at one temple and I was approached by two boys who wanted to take their picture with me. Since its in-vogue for Japanese to throw up the peace sign when taking pictures, I did the same and walked away from two boys with ear-to-ear grins:

Finally after two fun-filled days in Kyoto, dad and I looked to make our way back to Tokyo and one last dinner/day before flying home. I was definitely excited- again we took the super-fast Shinkansen Nozomi back to Tokyo Station. The Nozomi is the latest iteration of the Japanese bullet train network and it's hyper fast speeds will crank passengers back to Tokyo in a little over two hours at well over 150mph. The next fastest bullet train takes a full twenty minutes longer, and the third version twenty minutes behind that. Pish posh. Who would want to take one that slow? I mean, come on. In all seriousness, how amazing that this rail system is so advanced that you have your choice of a variety of bullet trains.

The first time I saw the Nozomi, I was at the Nagoya Worlds Fair in 2005- it's grand unveiling. In order to get to the JR Line pavilion though, you had to take a maglev train (magnetic levitating).. yes, Japan has these also. The thing floats on a bed of air and magnets push the train along. Man, our country needs to get it's act together. Japan is so wired rail-wise that there aren't many places you can't reach quickly, conveniently and cheaply via rail. A far cry from a city like DC where the sparse Metro lines run clunky and old cars to stops that are inconvenient and expensive.

Upon arrival in Tokyo, Mr & Mrs Sasaki met us for a fantastic meal. Mr Sasaki knew the manager of a special restaurant and as a result we landed an amazing room and special menu to sample all sorts of fish, meats and vegetables from. One plate even included this cool little crab that you ate- little legs, shell, beady eyes and all.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Enroute to Japan

Finally, we are on what appears to be our way home. Waking at 04:30, dad and I hopped a "maxi-cab".. essentially a mini-van that then justifies it's inflated costs for carting you around with all of your massive bags by adding "maxi" to the front of it's name. Need a ride before 6am? So sorry, that will be a $10 surcharge. Wierdism #1 for the day.

Arriving at Changi, we checked in at the United Airlines counter. Now it really feels like we are going home. After processing through immigration, we meandered over to the lounge and grabbed some breakfast and watched some of the last parts of one of those Euro soccer matches that are in the final stages. This was great, but then I learned something else about Singapore: they have an incredibly confusing Duty Free process.

While many airports either allow you to buy Duty Free once you have cleared immigration, or place your articles in a sealed bag for you to bring along, Singapore, makes you purchase your items, which will then be delivered to your plane, apparently where you then pick them up. I was all excited to bring back a bunch of Tiger Beer cans, and searched for them high and low. Finally, I found some and went to buy them. "So sorry, you are within 30 minutes of your gate opening. Can't buy them, we cut off purchases 30 minutes beforehand." WHAT. Thanks for the frikkin' warning on that one.

Maybe, just maybe, someone could come up -fangled gizmo that will end this ridiculous liquid ban. I'm all about security, keeping the public safe, and fighting the War on Terror. I get it, and am all for it. I'm so all for it that I went to Iraq twice, so I am all-in, literally and figuratively. But. This liquid ban? Get on with it and come up with something that keeps passengers safe and doesn't result in warehouses full of half-used hand lotion bottles.

When we finally did take off, our flight to Narita International took us directly over the Pacific, so this was one of the first times that I had access to an in-flight altimeter (that little map thingie that you can watch in-lieu of movies that appears in your seat TV monitor), and a direct view of sea level. So, when our flight hit 29,000', I snapped this picture. Everest is 29,035', so this is as close to a direct example of just how high we were as I can get. The Himalayas are incredibly high already, so even when I took pics from Everest summit- and man, did that seem high- it didn't give a full scale of just how high that summit was from sea level until I saw this out my window:

So dad and I arrived uneventfully in Narita and hopped the Friendly Airport Limousine- a bus, into the city center and to our hotel. We checked in, and 45 minutes later were met by Mr. Sasaki, one of dad's closest fraternity brothers from college days. He's retired from the corporate world now, but works almost daily as a language teacher and loves it. We all went to a teppanyaki restaurant where we ate the night away with delicious food. Oishi!

Wednesday, June 11, 2008


My father and I just arrived in Singapore.. it's hot, humid, and oh so nice to be here. The plane flight from Bangkok to Singapore only lasts about 1 1/2 hours, but it's always amazing to me how in this part of the world- or at least, on this level of latitude, that little an amount of time can give way to such dramatic turns in varying degrees of hot & stickiness.

Still, I have a special fondness for this city. It is clean, organized, civilized, and completely unique. The jungle gives way to about as close to a perfectly played game of Sim City you can find, and the people here are just as proud of that as they are of their ability to coexist as one of the smallest nations in SE Asia along one of the most heavily travelled shipping lanes in the world.

Singapore was more or less "founded" by Sir Thomas Raffles in 1819 when he came across a Malay fishing village and quickly identified what could become a deep water port and strategic trading post. He had spent many years searching the area, waving off sites like Malacca because of concerns ranging as far and wide as Malaria to defendable terrain. So Singapore it was, and with it came a true melting pot of culture and law. Even today, Singapore has four official languages that locals speak with fluency and harmony: English, Malay, Tamil and Mandarin.

As a tourist, Singapore is about as safe as it gets. Rumors about gum chewing are over-blown (you can bring it in and chew it, just don't expect to find it for sale or spit it out on the street), the caning of Michael Fay did happen, although it was largely for show. And whatever you do, don't even think about bringing drugs here- the landing card says it all in big, bold red letters on the very front: "WARNING DEATH FOR DRUG TRAFFICKERS UNDER SINGAPORE LAW"

So there ya have it. In honour of Singapore's roots dating back to Sir Thomas Raffles, and also in honour of the deep English roots still prevalent in Singapore, I will use the Queen's English to spell and provide proper pronunciation in other parts of this post.

Our flight out of Bangkok on an Airbus aluminium (pronounced aloo-min-e-yum) aeroplane was smooth and uneventful, despite myriad of bags which we somehow managed to dodge yet another excess baggage fee on. I don't know how this is possible, but I learned in Bangkok after placing our bags onto the Thai Airlines carousel that dad's two bags are almost equal in weight to my three giant climbing gear bags, for a combined whopping total of 90 Kilos!! 90 Kilos. Brilliant! I don't know how we didn't get hit with an excess baggage fee, maybe the agents just felt sorry for us or something like that. We were therefore able to avoid some controversy (con-trah-ver-see). Father and I looked at each other and said "good show, old chap!"

I had made a mental note to see if I couldn't search out the fabled A380 Superjumbo once we landed in Changi International Airport - keeping in mind that I'm a bit behind in my recent news from two months of news blackout bliss. I last heard that only two were in service- both with Singapore Airlines. So here I am, winging along to Singapore and getting more and more giddy about the possibility of being able to see one of these new aerocraft. And truly, it didn't take long. As we taxied along the long I-shaped terminal that is Changi, we rumbled right by one that was parked for a flight to somewhere like London. This image shows the giant bugger parked next to a 747-400, which was extremely nice of Singapore Airlines to do that for me since I wasn't expecting them to go through all that trouble of allowing me a size comparison shot. But, very kind of them nonetheless.

This is dad's first trip to Singapore, so it was great to see him commenting on how clean, neat and organised everything here is. We are staying toward one end of Orchard Road, which is truly great since any visit to Singapore isn't complete without a stroll down this famous boulevard. I have difficulty trying to explain this road to people who haven't been to Singapore, but it's essentially an everything goes supermall spread out along a tropical five lane road. Comparable roads would be if you somehow morphed Paramus Park in New Jersey, an Asian supermarket, the Champs Elysees in Paris and Kalakaua Rd in Honolulu together where kitchy trinket stores, 6 storey malls, and movie theaters could somehow be squished in between Cartier and Tiffany's with durian stands and restaurants thrown in for good measure. All of this with taxis and other cars whizzing by as thousands of pedestrians wave magazines in the scorching sun or dodging from awning to awning in daily cloud bursts. It's extremely unique in it's own right.

So once we made our hotel, we quickly unpacked and headed out to "Night Safari". This attraction is a part of the Singapore Zoo and worldwide, is the first Zoo attraction ever to be dedicated strictly to nocturnal animal behaviour.

While there are walking paths to follow between animal pens, the most effective and quick way of maximizing your time at Night Safari is via a tram that winds it's way through the park and is narrated by a well-informed guide. The thing that makes Night Safari so special is the pens truly seem like natural habitats and allow you up close and personal views of animals not traditionally viewed during the day.

The last image shows a tiger laying in the grass. Yes, just like in Bardia National Park.. play Where's Waldo with the tiger if you feel up to the task.

After spending several hours at Night Safari, we made our way back downtown and prepared for the next morning, when we set off fresh and new for one of the worlds best zoos- The Singapore Zoo. While at the Night Safari, we bought a discount pass that works across all three of Singapore's wildlife parks. Since we are no longer in a place where you need to drop the equivalent of GDP for a Third World country in tips, its nice. But in leaving that sort of environment, we did wind up in a place known for being insanely expensive. So? We buy the discount pass.

The Singapore Zoo, has tigers. Wily... How many times are you going to dodge us, cat? We set out determined to get a good shot of one, and the Zoo does a great job of letting you know just where to go in order to see one.

Here's dad about to be eaten by an anatomically correct tiger statue:

Scary! But not as scary as this little fun-fact we found painted on the sidewalk. In a nutshell, what it says is that if a tiger pounces, it can happily maul Bob Combs from a full 10 meters away. Ten meters. How tall were our elephants? Not ten meters, that's for sure.

Finally, we found a tiger, in exactly a pose we hoped for in Bardia. Maybe I'll photoshop this into some Terai grasslands shot we took. Success!! The tiger hunters return successful. Talk about calm though. I wonder if the zoo has them on Prozac.

After the tiger, dad managed to make friends with some of the locals:

We spent a great deal of time running up and down Orchard Road, even catching in the latest Indiana Jones movie (yawn) at a Singapore theater. But the road side restaurants? Out of sight cool! We stumbled on this place, complete with Tiger Beer, pizzas and swamp coolers to keep the midday heat away. None of the previously mentioned durian though. I was hoping to introduce dad to this spiky fruit that many love and others hate with a passion.

For our final night in lovely Singapore, we went on a bank busting dinner to the top of the city- a restaurant as close to Windows on the World as you are ever going to find. Located on the 70th floor of the Swisshotel Stamford, Equinox boasts stunning views of this city, allowing diners to look all the way to Indonesia and Malaysia.. ok, not that hard given that they are only a few miles away. But the view is incredible.

It would be even better if we had a window table, but we learn after a few minutes that unless you drop an additional 20 Singapore Dollars per-diner, you don't get a windowside table. And... this is where we notice yet another Singapore trait. The added surcharge for things that you don't understand the surcharge for. Want a taxi before 6am? That'll be 10 dollars. Taxi to another part of the city? Sometimes you pay the rate on the meter, sometimes the driver pushes a little button and -poof- that 7 dollar taxi meter magically turns into 18 dollars with a surcharge referenced. There's really no rhyme or reason to any of this, it just happens. Sometimes we pay, sometimes we just look at the waitress like she's an alien.

Speaking of expensive with no cause, we wandered over to the Raffles Hotel, one of the oldest and most prestigious hotels in this part of the world. It's not for the faint of heart.. this is the place where the likes of Prince Charles stay when they swing through town on their golden chariots.

We wandered into the Long Bar- fabled to be the place where the last tiger in Singapore was shot (ok, I just SAW a tiger in Singapore. Let's change the story to make sense, shall we?). Editors note: Place where the last wild tiger in Singapore was shot. Wait. That doesn't work either. The back story on this tiger is that it escaped from the zoo. So what's the deal? Ok, there is actually a tiger, and it actually was shot when it was discovered under a pool table in the Long Bar. This is also the place where the Singapore Sling was invented. So while I had a beer that I later found out was 22 dollars, dad had a watered down Singapore Sling, which I later found out was 27 dollars. Seriously. Maybe the tiger was shot because he was protesting these ridiculous prices. How can they justify that sort of highway robbery? Well. While we were sitting there eating Pygmy Peanuts and throwing the shells on the floor, no fewer than 30 tourists in two tour groups came in. This in-turn caused me to look around the room in curiosity, and I counted seven (including dads) Singapore Slings on tabletops. Oh. Now I get it.

Time to head out, next stop: Tokyo

Monday, June 9, 2008

Bangkok Redux

Three days in Bangkok.. man, is it good to be back in civilization. After breezing through immigration and security, we were in a taxi whizzing into the city center and our hotel, the Millennium Hilton. Located on the opposite bank of the Chaopraya River, this brand new hotel is still highly accessible to the main city area via river taxi and Skytrain.

We arrived into the hotel late in the afternoon, so instead of heading out onto the town, we ordered in-room dining. What was the A #1 item on the menu for me?? A big, giant cheeseburger. Talk about heaven in a bun. Finally, after a food craving for weeks on end, a legitimate, non-water buffalo, normal bread, normal tasting cheeseburger. Better than Super Mila's tough and chewy Yakburger, better than that crazy thing I ordered in Thamel. Better than the spicy (spicy!?) burger I ordered at Dwarika's Hotel that left me drinking 5 glasses of water. A normal burger. I could then sleep normally, knowing that my life was complete. Ha.

The next morning, one of my good friends parents who live in Bangkok graciously offered to show us around for the day and take a trip to Ayutthaya. Located about an hour to the north of Bangkok, Ayutthaya was in it's heyday a kingdom that existed from 1351 to 1767. Spreading across a vast SE Asian region, the kingdom frequently did battle with it's neighbors- especially Burma, and eventually became Siam, the predecessor to modern day Thailand. The leaders of Ayutthaya were quite friendly with foreign traders, leading to an eventual strengthening of ties with foreign powers and setting up present day Thailand with one of the strongest western cultural influences in the region.

Art and Saovalak picked up dad and I first thing in the morning, and we were off like a shot, heading north on a relatively quiet Sunday morning. The highways, famous for Thai congestion that rivals Washington DC traffic were wide open and as a result we made Ayutthaya in no time.

Along the way, we caught up on family issues and talked excitedly about our destination, which they hadn't been to in quite some time and were looking forward to heading back to. Saovalak brought along a big bag of rambutan, a sweet fruit that you peel like a lychee, but is much sweeter. It's only in season for a few weeks in SE Asia. So like Rainier Cherries, when it hits the market everyone snaps it up in large quantities.

In no time, the temples of Ayutthaya were on the horizon, peeking through palm tree tops and visible from the highway. I visited here several years ago with Chris when he lived in Bangkok, but it's a site that I could go back to over and over. Most of the complex was torched by the Burmese when they ransacked the city in 1767, but the skeletons remain and are quite dramatic. Check out this picture of Ayutthaya temples. If it looks remotely familiar, it may be thanks to seeing them in several movie settings. One example is the opening scene of Mortal Kombat where two fighters whale on each other with the temples providing a unique and recognizable backdrop:

Many temples are still adorned with monk orange silk. Unlike Buddhist monks in Nepal who wear maroon robes, priests here in Thailand wear royal orange color fabrics- a hybrid of yellow and orange that is bright, visible, and dramatic. At Ayutthaya, Buddhist images are adorned with this fabric, as are temple tops and other religious symbols. The direct contrast to blue and white skies, deep green trees, and brown temples provides for a photographer's paradise.

After returning to Bangkok and thanking the Pratoomsuvarns profusely for all they did to welcome us, drive us around and feed us, we said our farewells and headed across the Chaopraya River to grab a sunset dinner at the Oriental Hotel. This hotel has a fantastic riverside deck where you can grab a beer and look out across the busy river at an ever-fading sun, complete with oranges, reds and yellows. Dad had a great time and also enjoyed a quick walk through the hotel grounds. In the background of this pic, you can see our hotel in the distance.

The next morning we hopped a river taxi to head upstream- destination: Wat Pho and Wat Pra Kaew.

Wat Pho is the one of the largest and oldest wat (temple) in Bangkok (80,000 square meters!), and is home to more than one thousand Buddha images across the complex. But, it is most well known for the Reclining Buddha, a forty-six meter long and fifteen meter high Buddha completely plated in gold and mother-of-pearl. The feet are where most of the mother-of-pearl are located, and have 108 auspicious scenes in Chinese and Indian style. Don't ask me why Chinese and Indian get top billing here, but they do.

From there, we hopped a cab for a quick ride across to Wat Pra Kaew, a.k.a. the King's Palace. Constructed in phases beginning in 1785, man is it an ornate and complex facility. The labor alone on one of these temples is mind boggling thanks to inlaid glass, gold plating and intricate paintings. Just coming off a Taj Mahal visit, dad commented that this place was much more elaborate and detail oriented than what he had just seen a few days ago.

Even though I had just visited Wat Pra Kaew a few weeks back on my outbound trip, I have to say that this is very much like Ayutthaya- I could visit over and over, never getting bored here. The one downfall though: last visit, I chowed down on lotus seeds as I walked around. This time? I made a beeline right for the planter pots that had lotus plants and some other hungry tourist must have beaten me to the seed pods. Oh well, better luck next time.

On our way back downriver, we arrived at the river taxi stand and noticed the water clogged with a thick covering of water plants. Uh oh.. that's bad news- means the river is going bananas upstream.. and that in turn means rain. Lotsa rain. Sure enough, the clouds opened up shortly thereafter and we experienced a true Thailand rainfall. It was so rainy that within minutes you could barely see Wat Arun, just a short distance down the Chaopraya. Dad wanted to stick it out under the protective covering of the taxi waiting area, but we had to keep moving. 10 seconds out on the pier and we were completely wet... I was laughing. Dad was not.

From there, we spent the rest of the day getting drenched on a 3 block walk over to Bahn Jim Thompson (again, I loved the rain, dad did not. He let me know.), Siam Square, Night Market, and Panthip Plaza for $3 DVD shopping to dry out. All in all, a great few days in Bangkok .
On to Singapore!!

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Karnali Lodge & Bardia NationalPark

After packing, cleaning equipment, thawing out, team dinners, award ceremonies, drinking beer and catching up on much-needed sleep, my team flew out of Nepal and my father and I headed the opposite direction and flew down to Bardia National Park from 31 May to 6 June. Located at the far western side of Nepal and adjacent to the Indian border, the Karnali Lodge is one of the Crown Jewels of Tiger Mountain, a conglomerate of lodges focused on animal conservation and one of the original eco-travel groups of Nepal.

From Kathmandu, we took a relatively short 45 minute hop on a relatively new Yeti Airlines twin engine turbojet to the remote and under developed town of Nepalgunj, well known in this country for an active Maoist presence that was operating here during the insurgency days. The Maoists were so bad out in the Nepalgunj area that Tiger Mountain actually shut down it's lodge for several years thanks to the threat. Animals weren't so lucky: One-Horned Rhino were poached from a population of 75 to 33, over 40 Bengal Tiger were poached down to 17.

Landing in Nepalgunj, we were met by one of the Tiger Mountain naturalists (Raja) who escorted us the two hour drive over paved roads which then gave way to dirt trails before finally arriving at Karnali Lodge.

Located on the southern edge of Bardia National Park, the Karnali Lodge is a group of well maintained thatched roof buildings and central meeting hut that is airy and relaxing. It is one of the larger lodges at Bardia and has a well-stocked pen of six elephants, a range of 4x4s and a solid relationship with local game wardens who work jointly on a range of local issues from animal conservation to microcredit loans and women's groups. When we arrived, dad and I learned that even though the monsoon season had kicked off and was in full swing, they had left the lodge open just for us! Pretty cool all things considered and we were the only two guests, with a staff of 56.

Over the next six days, we went on elephant rides, jeep rides, nature walks and rafting trips to check out nature in this amazing jungle setting.

The main highlight of course was the difficult search for the wild and elusive Bengal Tiger from elephant back. Jesus are those things fast. They are beautiful and amazing though, but the trackers we had with us are out of control. They were speaking in Nepali so mostly I just heard "durka durka durka" and would catch sight of an occasional paw print in the sand every 30 minutes or so. But then we would get a translation of what they were working on, and would learn that between the elephant driver and tracker, we had been tracking not one, but two tiger over the last 45 minutes.. and they were hot on their trail.

The problem though, is that most of the bushes looked like this:

and when they didn't look like that, they looked like this, a pic of dad on his elephant wading through the eye high elephant grass prevalent in this area:

So the chase would continue. On and on, over the course of several hours. The tiger would hide, we would follow on a giant, lumbering elephant that would wade through grass and trees alike. We would get close, then the tiger would jet in the opposite direction before we were near. We would continue on though, tracker and elephant drivers determined and persistent in their search, At times, we would employ tactics to encircle the tigers with multiple elephants. That was the only time we came close, and eventually succeeded in seeing them for a brief fraction of a second.

But most of the time, we would push through the brush and that's when other animals would emerge. One of the most interesting, and entertaining was the highly endangered One-Horned Rhino. We ended up seeing 20 of the 33 in the park, which was a higher proportion than we were expecting. Before poachers, these were all over the place at Bardia, but the Chinese l-o-v-e rhino horn because it gives them virility, or whatever BS they believe it does for them. So instead of just dart them and take the horn, the poachers feel it's better to just outright kill the Rhino and leave the entire body to rot, save the little horn. How stupid can you get. They actually poached these beasts to extinction in Bardia, but the Government thought that it was important to spread load it's Rhino population in case of a "disaster" in the relatively poacher safe Royal Chitwan National Park. So they moved 75 to Bardia. Now there are 33. That's smartness at it's finest.

Anyway, so we would come on these animals in the grass, or wallowing in a well-hidden mud hole. After they would huff and puff in the most entertaining manner, all 3000 lbs of them would trot off at breakneck speed through the grass. But man, are they cool, and I was surprised at how nimble they are, although one of my favorite scenes in Ice Age is where Sid the Sloth eats a dandelion and almost meets his maker except for the help of Manny the Mammoth. they have terrible eyesight and when they look at you with their beady little eyes it looks almost equally as funny as when they slowly wander up to one of our elephants, only to make a snort and bounce away like a little puppy when they finally realize what they are being curious about. A puppy that would put a serious dent in my social calendar if I were just walking along and he rolled over me like a steam roller. Here are my two favorite pics of them:

The elephants we were on really could have cared less about the Rhino. As far as they were concerned, they were just blow-hards who posed. But then occasionally, we would accidentally bump into one of the 130 wild elephants that exist in the park. Fortunately for these creatures, no one poaches them here so it's one of the few mega-fauna at Bardai that are actually increasing in number. These guys are something the elephants we are riding on do worry about.. except when one of the wild bulls isn't creeping into the Karnali Lodge elephant pen to convince one of the ladies to go with him back into the forest. Talk about smart. And anti-human. While we were there, one of the wild bulls went up to a blind and was so pissed at the humans that he used his trunk to rip out the stairs. When we would stumble on one of these guys out in the park our elephants would shake, make noises, and want to get the hell outta there. Except for one- Ram Kali. She snuck off into the jungle for days at a stretch with wild bulls on three separate occasions. Three! The only way they would get her back was after she'd get hungry and be looking for her special food the handlers give her.

So finally, after seven rides we saw Bengal Tiger on three separate occasions. There were two other wily tiger that we were hot on the trail of, but never spotted. You know, how many times have you seen these amazing tiger pictures of a beautiful creature, crouched and about to pounce. Or, lounging around and relaxing. No way. After three sightings, here's the only- not the best, not the worst. The only picture we have of a tiger that we sighted. I know how amazing it is, and how it will win an award for best animal image of the century:

It was great- truly great though. Talk about electric to see one and to go through the thrill of the chase as many times as we did. It made the 24 hours, tired hands, sore back and bug bitey collective 24 hours of elephant rides.

Anyway, the trip to Karnali was fantastic from another perspective too. No Internet, phone, tv.. none. It was the pinnacle of relaxing. But, absolutely no way to communicate with the outside world either. And Jesus was it HOT there. I know, I prayed for heat every single night as I jammed a hot water bottle down into the foot of my sleeping bag on Everest. But Karnali was ridiculous. I think mosquitoes and other bugs took a pint of my blood too, and I have the bumps to prove it. These things would drop out of trees onto you while the elephant lumbered on, or come humming out of the forest at a low drone. And yes, I know that it's only going to get worse as we get closer and closer to the Equator. But that's ok, it was worth it. Because in a few weeks, when we are home, I won't think about the elephant rocking like a rowboat on stormy seas.. I'll think of how cool it was to see that tiger jetting through the grass at Mach 3.

Here's a census of a select group of animals we saw on our 6 days at Bardia:

3 Bengal Tiger

3 Wild Bull Elephant

20 One-Horned Rhino

1 Fresh Water Dolphin (of 9 left)

2 Ghiral Crocodile

1 Blue Bull (Ngali Antelope)

Herds of Wild Boar

Herds of Chittal (Spotted Deer), Hog Deer, Swamp Deer, Barking Deer- Tiger food.Yum



Etc etc