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Beautiful Patterns, Common Threads


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Outside Bangkok Kanchanaburi, a city west of the capital not far from the border with Myanmar (Burma). One of the sites in Kanchanaburi is the bridge over the River Khwae, which was made famous in a movie made in the 1950's from a book by Pierre Boulle. The bridge was built by Allied prisoners of war during World War II as part of the "Death Railway" the Japanese wanted built to supply their troops in Burma. Thousands of prisoners, and even more local Thai and Burmese people forced to work on the bridge, died because of the brutal treatment they received from their captors and from diseases (especially malaria) common in the area. This photo is from a sound-and-light show done once a year to commemorate the events of that time.

Travel outside of Bangkok can be difficult because most people don't speak any English. (Even inside Bangkok, very few people are fluent in English, probably a reflection in part of Thai people's fierce independence and desire to remain un-colonized, even in terms of speaking others' languages.) These workers at the Tourist Assistance Office helped a lot. Here, they are saying hello ("sawat dee") to you all using the hand gesture called atidthan. This gesture is always used to show respect when greeting someone you don't know or who is older than you or in a position of high status.

Travel abroad can be frustrating -- but it can make you laugh, too. I was trying to find out what time the train was leaving for Kanchanaburi from a ticket seller at the train station. I figured she'd know SOME English, because so many foreign travelers go to Kanchanaburi, and if not someone else working nearby would. Boy, was I wrong. "What time" -- I pointed at my watch -- "does the train" -- I pointed at the train -- "leave?", I asked, pointing down the tracks and making a "choo-choo" sound. She laughed (well, I WAS trying to be humorous, at least a little), but obviously had no clue what I was asking. I drew a clock on a piece of paper; that didn't help a bit. I thought the train left at six-o'clock, so I tried something different: I pointed at my watch, and at the clock drawing, then held up six fingers and hunched my shoulders up in that way you do when you're trying to show you're asking a question. She only saw the six fingers, though, and immediately pulled out her ink stamp, thunking out six tickets for me to buy! Guess I learned my lesson with that one, though I'm still not sure what the lesson was.

This Swensen's store is connected to one of the most "incongruous" experiences I've ever had. Don't know what that means? READ THIS EXCERPT FROM MY DIARY:

Diary Entry: December 6, 1998

Right now, I'm at Swensen's Ice Cream, eating a hot fudge sundae with a nice maraschino cherry on top. Two waitresses are singing "happy birthday" to a young girl surrounded by her family. Those familiar stained-glass lamps hang overhead, and we're all seated at booths or on chairs of red naugahyde.

Sound familiar? (Even if you haven't been to Swensen's, you may have been to some family-oriented ice cream place just like it in a mall near you.) Here, though, the menu is in Thai, the "happy birthday" song sounds completely different, and my sundae cost me 39 baht.

This is Nakhon Pathom, Thailand. Thirty minutes ago, I was leaving Phra Pathom Chedi, the tallest Buddhist monument in the world. It's old, too, the original pat of it dating back to around the year 500 CE. The picture here is of a reclining Buddha figure that is part of the temple; many other parts of the temple are equally beautiful and even spectacular. It is one of only six temples in Thailand that has reached the highest rank called Ratchavoramahavihan. The ashes of Rama VI, one of Thailand's great kings, are even interred (buried) here.

It was really hot (and this is the "cold" season!), and I was tired from a long day, so I pretty lazily went walking through the town's pretty fruit and flower market. A really nice woman gave me some pomelo (a sweet, grapefruit-like fruit) to eat; her husband offered his daughter's hand to me in marriage, but I had to decline. (We all laughed.) I was REALLY tired by this time, and with the sun now set and no place to stay yet, I was getting pretty grouchy. I needed to sit down, but I had to find a hotel. Should I walk all the way to the one hotel listed in my travel guide? Should I take a taxi? I don't see any, not even a tuk-tuk (three-wheeled motorcycle taxi). What if I walk all the way there, and the hotel's closed down? Why's it still so hot at dusk? Why's my damn backpack so heavy? Grrr.

Suddenly, I was next to a brightly-lit store. (Most everything along the street was closed or down or lit dimly, their businesses replaced by the street vendors at night.) It struck me: this is Swensen's! SWENSEN'S? What's this doing here? Couldn't be...yup, it's Swensen's, all right. I could even hear "Frosty the Snowman" on the speaker overhead. (I doubt anybody else here has ever seen snow, let alone a snowman!) I've made a point of avoiding Western food as much as possible on this trip, but ice cream's my big exception. I ran inside.

And, THAT'S what "incongruous" means: it describes things that just don't seems like they connect together. One minute on a Thai street, in an ancient city, hot and sweaty; the next, eating a hot fudge sundae at Swensen's. THIS is incongruous.

I love it!


On my way back to Bangkok, I saw this small stand through the bus window welcoming athletes to the Asia Games. The elephant is used as a symbol; it is considered a sacred animal in Thailand. Indeed, I just read that Thai scientists are working to clone a preserved tissue sample from a holy white elephant that belonged to King Rama V (who lived over 100 years ago)!

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