New Delhi India
Lanzhou China 1
Urumqi China 1
Urumqi China 2
Bishkek Kyrgyzstan 1
Bishkek Kyrgyzstan 2
Almaty Kazakhstan 1
Zharkent Kazakhstan 1
Almaty Kazakhstan 2
Zharkent Kazakhstan 2
Urumqi China 3
Zhang Ye China
Wu Wei China
Lanzhou China 2
Bangkok-Lumphini Park: Statue of one of the Thai kings.
Good morning from Bangkok Thailand,
Here, the sun rises at 6AM and doesn't set until 6:30PM. For the benefit of a few folks who seem to worry more than most, I made it to Bangkok with only one problem. My "dangerous" toe nail clippers were taken during the plane change in Hong Kong by airport security people who were determined to take no chances with a dangerous looking character like me. I tried to imagine the hijacking scene they envisioned: "Tell the f****** captain to open the cockpit door or I'll notch every ear on this pretty young stewardess!"
After only four and a half hours sleep on Wednesday night and six hours traveling to LAX, the fourteen hours flight to Hong Kong got tiresome long before we landed Saturday morning. Another four hours to Bangkok and I quickly dashed over to the Bumrungrad Hospital Residence for a desperate nap. The next day, Sunday I went through the $287 comprehensive health checkup program. Strong heart, strong mind: I may live to a hundred.
Monday I consulted with Dr. Natee, my ophthalmologist and started the process of being qualified for cataract surgery. All is well and tomorrow early afternoon I get my second IOL prosthetic. I can hardly wait... two teenage eyes... full spectrum bright vision I took for granted so many years ago.
I guess that is more than is necessary to let those who care know I'm O.K. and ready to start the visa chase for venturing into India, Bhutan, Nepal and China in a few weeks. Until the next postcard,
25 December 2003
Highly seasoned greetings from Bangkok.
Judging by the CNN weather reports, many of you are enjoying some very chilly weather... with a magically snowy Christmas in the forecasts. Here in Bangkok it is unpleasantly warm and air-conditioning is a welcome luxury in the hotels. The food, as always in Thailand is hot and spicy, excessively spicy if you are not careful. Bangkok is one big food bazaar during any time of year.
Food is cheap and unusual. Yesterday I had fish lips soup, passing up the tempting roasted pig hoof. Food is best selected by color. If it has festive Christmas red specks, flakes, or slices in it, make a different selection! The Thais like their food spicy. American fast food chains alter their menus for the Thais: try the KFC breakfast special of Congee (rice soup) and coffee for a dollar, or Mac Donald's corn pie for fifty-five cents. I don't know if it is my finicky eating or all the walking about but, I've already had to tighten by belt two full notches... must have lost at least five pounds during the last four weeks.
Christmas decorations and promotions here are no different than what one would see in any major American city. When I ask who gets all the presents and when, I'm told Buddhist Thais treat New Year's day like Americans do Christmas... and that the Chinese are stocking up for Chinese New Year due a few weeks later on January 22. Christmas celebrations have little to do with religion as there are very few Christians in Thailand, about one percent of the population. Most Thais seem to be secular Buddhists, not conspicuously devout in public, though I suspect the teachings of Buddha account for the dramatically kind and polite behavior of the people.
There is an ongoing debate within the Thai Theravada order of monks. Some think their dependence on Royal patronage has created an elite priesthood now out of touch with the people, especially in the rural areas of the country. I read one unfavorable comparison of the contemporary Theravada Buddhist institution with Rome and the Roman Catholic Church. Book stores have crowded shelves featuring the works of an endless parade of popular gurus: personality "cults" abound. That reminds me of my intractable bewilderment over George W. Bush's popularity in our country. A friend sent me an article (Silence is Consent) that explains some of the mystery. I pray the spirit of the Christmas season will soften some of the hardened hearts that need to "kick ass" in order to validate their featureless lives. Contact with other cultures, other value systems, other religions would go a long way toward enhancing tolerance of all the "others" out there in the world... and reducing fear of those so unlike us. Those of us who have been privileged to taste the full spectrum of humanity's diversity, have an obligation to tell those who have not what we have seen and experienced. Greed and power only seem to be answers to strengthening national and personal well being. When the least of us suffers, we all are diminished.
Prepaid cell phone service here in Bangkok works differently than in the States: a new local GSM number (1-2-Call) costs $10 including a $2.50 calling credit on the SIM chip. All incoming calls are free: outgoing calls to numbers within Bangkok are 12 cents a minute and calls to the rest of the country are 20 cents a minute. If you feel like spending an arm and a leg to say hello, call me anytime between 6PM and 9AM California time. The number is (66) 07-825-8974 for the next week or so... then it is off to India by air. Another traveler assured me the same system is in use there.
I've been here a little over two weeks and can't believe how much "bad news, good news" I've managed to cram into 15 days. First, the "good news," which includes the clean bill of health I got during the $300 ultra-comprehensive physical checkup performed at the Bumrungrad Hospital: strong heart, though slightly sweet blood and my normally extremely high cholesterol counts... all in all it looks like I might celebrate a hundred birthdays if I can learn to live lean. Next, the new left eye prosthetic has added unbelievable wonders to my vision. Whites are white and colors are bright, everything is in sharp focus... now in both eyes. Here twelve days after the replacement of the left lens with the cataract, I am nearly symptom free. My surgeon confirms that Caucasians do indeed retain some limited ability to change focus with the flexible plastic lens, a completely unexpected bonus. Asians are not so lucky due to their smaller physiognomy.
A few days after the operation, overcome with glee I tossed out all the various paraphernalia needed to support my suddenly useless contact lens regimen... all the while thinking of the exuberant cripples at Lourdes flinging their crutches to the wind after experiencing personal miracles there. The difference really is that amazing. Another lady also sporting a bandaged eye confided that her daughter said she looked like a PILOT, which made no sense until I remembered the trouble most Asians have with L and R.
To keep reality in balance, fate saw to it I received some "bad news," too. Some prankster, probably the same one who had been placing silent calls to me every 20 minutes during working days for the past month, altered the Cingular Wireless billing for my Big Bear number and added $650 to the bill I found when checking the on-line statement! Customer Service has NO email address making it impossible to contact them outside the country. Eventually, I found one of the executives in the president's office with a published address and enlisted her help in getting things straightened out. The first billing "error" occurred on the same afternoon the first silent call came in. Another minor "bad news" catastrophe, a broken tooth will be corrected before leaving Bangkok.
I've now gotten both my Chinese and Indian visas, but have learned the border between Myanmar and India is closed. That means I'll need to fly to Calcutta/Kolkata to start the real adventure instead of trekking across Myanmar by bus as planned. With this "postcard" come my very best wishes for joy, prosperity and peace during this special season and the coming new year.
1 January 2004
Happy New Year from Bangkok,
It is 12:00 here in Bangkok, the first day of the new year 2004. Your own midnight celebration may still be a few hours away, so this is likely the first New Year's greeting you will receive. As I think about the year ended and ponder where this new beginning will lead, I once again hope more of us will see the futility of forcing the rest of humanity to do our bidding. The Buddha observed 2500 years ago that the unenlightened life is suffering. In more modern language he pointed out that acquiring things and controlling the behavior of others never leads to lasting peace and happiness for us individually... or for nations. Living a gentle life, respecting the harmony of nature, using whatever talents and capabilities with which we happen to have been endowed to their fullest, and most importantly appreciating all of the wonders which life bestows on every one of us every moment of our lives is the way to banish suffering from our existence. Impossible? Not at all. Here in South Asia those lessons are learned by most Buddhist men at some point in their lives when circumstances and custom allow them to trade their worldly attachments for the shaved heads and orange robes of a monk.
If there is but one supreme being, the wide diversity of religious expressions I've seen must all be reflections of that one, single majesty. How else can it be? Yet, so many of us still hold tight to the secure view that we alone have been privileged to see the "truth," despite the contradictory claims of so many others around the world... not to mention within our own communities. Some ancient civilizations worshiped many gods who, reflecting the behavior of men, were frequently at war with one another. Most religious movements today have settled on a single deity, but believers insist on fighting over the precise nature of their deity as if they still believed in many gods. Does it really matter if that single deity is a she or a he? Does it really matter if we worship in Arabic or English? Does is really matter if that deity speaks to prophets who lived six thousand years ago, fifteen hundred, or even just yesterday? If we find joy and comfort in our religions, that is justification enough. My deepest hope is that we can all find the compassion to respect and tolerate religious beliefs of others, though different than ours, which bring the same joy and comfort to those who have chosen differently than have we.
After responding to "Mr. Fred" for the tenth time, it finally dawned on me the Thais handle names differently than do Americans. Family names are used mainly to specifically differentiate one Fred from another using the same name. My ophthalmologist is Dr. Natee Poopipathiranyakul and is called Dr. Natee. I finally asked her to pronounce her family name. It took her several seconds carefully saying each of the 7 syllables. No wonder first names are preferred.
One sees orchid flowers everywhere in Bangkok: potted house plants, in formal gardens, floating in bowls of water in public restrooms. They are more common than Daisies in America. Picnic baskets full of luxury food items are given employees at the end of the year, much like American companies give turkeys at Thanksgiving.
My flight to Calcutta leaves at the crack of dawn this Saturday. I'll be on a tiny 70 passenger plane, part of (all of?) the DRUK Airline, the royal Bhutan airline. As my Thai visa expires on Sunday and everyone wants to fly during this holiday season, I had no other choice. The advantage is that the two and a half hour flight gets me into Calcutta early and I can begin my explorations and search for a hotel before it gets hot. The disadvantage, other than being forced to awaken at 3:45AM is that the same time I am going through Indian customs around 7:30AM the mosquitoes will be organizing for their morning hunt... with me the prey. Calcutta/Kolkata is the malaria capital of the world. Not only is malaria endemic to this part of Asia, but a new, often fatal strain has taken over: malignant malaria! I started the doxycycline daily prophylaxis and plan to use copious quantities of a topical DEET insect repellent, something I've avoided in the past. The papers are full of scary statistics suggesting large numbers of people are dying from mosquito bites in the very part of India and Bangladesh I will be visiting.
One more glimpse of Bangkok before I depart. If you have been curious about the quality of photos being produced by my new Philips key-chain camera, what you see on this page is an example. The tiny camera snuggles in my pocket ready for work on a minute's notice... and automatically recharges its batteries anytime I process the pictures.
Until my next missive from somewhere in India,
Bangkok - Cataract December 2003 December 15, 2003 - 21 photos. Photos during the December 2003 stay in Bangkok when I got the left eye cataract surgery.