Saturday, November 29, 2008

13 November to Chiang Kham, Ricoh Foundation

The kids manage to squeak in a final round of tennis with Leslie, and we have one last fabulous light lunch - my choice is a gorgeous light, “do-it-yourself” Thai tortillas - thaitillas? and pack it up, saying goodbye to the friendly folks at the Four Seasons. Our next stop will be the Ricoh Foundation - a growing non-profit tennis operation founded by Americans Rick & Corinne Fowler. The Fowlers have sent their friend, Pritcha, the van driver, to fetch us. Pritcha is a very slight, older Thai gentleman who sports a well-worn U.S. Army camo jacket, miles of wood bead necklace, well-engraved smile lines and a disproportionately large presence of calm.

We stop at another wat on the way out of town. This time, a quiet village wat where monks & workers are picking up from Loi Krathong festivities, and preparing a symbolic funeral pyre. Pritcha says the pyre is for all the villagers who can’t travel to Bangkok for the beloved Princess’ funeral festivities. (An entire park in Bangkok was converted to a wat-like altar honoring her life.) Villages all acrossThailand will be simultaneously honoring her life in festivities next week.

The 6+ hour winding drive into the mountains is well-utilized for alternately gaping at thick jungle, rice paddies & stray civilization and catching up on well-needed sleep. As darkness falls in the village of Chiang Kham, we pull into an unassuming little road toward the rice paddies. We are met with a candle-lit wonderland of gardens, pools, two porch-wrapped homes and the welcoming smiles of our hosts, Rick & Corinne and Victor. We sit down in the outdoor dining room for a fabulous dinner overlooking the rice fields and distant twinkling village lights.

12 November Loi Krathong Festival

Bailey & Mieke are in Chiang Mai shooting all day, while the kids & I try to take it slow...! Finn sneaks in an afternoon tennis lesson with the Four Seasons Pro, Leslie - “It was soooo much fun, mom!” (Leslie even manages to convince me to get onto the court, barefoot & skirt-clad, to join in a few exercises with the kids in a later lesson - no mean feat, as those who know me will attest!)

We’re saving up for a spectacular sunset, and the main event that evening: the Loi Krathong Festival in Chiang Mai. Held at the 12th (?) full moon of the year, the Loi Krathong festival, as I understand it, is one of hope, thanks and light. The delicate krathong - handcrafted in homes and markets - are gently floated down the River Ping to honor & thank the Goddess of the River for the water from which all life stems. The lanterns - some apparently up to 12’ in diameter with comet-like candle pots - are loosed into the sky by the thousands - each carrying with it the hopes & wishes of the senders. Magical.

Having been cautioned against being in the thick of city streets - “It can get a little crazy with the firecrackers!” - we watch from a riverfront open-air restaurant. (Everything’s open-air here!) The cantankerouscrazyraucous company of today’s fixer, and American and his rocknrolla buddy still can’t dampen the atmosphere. Finn and I step out to the street to pick up two little krathongs. Back “inside” the restaurant, we all tiptoe onto a little bamboo dock to light the incense, candles and sparklers of the little craft and loose them onto the river.

The music, fireworks, lanterns and krathong never cease throughout our 3 hour dinner. The festivities will go on well into the wee hours.

11. November Chiang Mai - Some Language Lessons and Wat Doi Su Tep

Bailey & Mieke do some shooting in the morning, then Nym joins us at around noon We all pile into the van for, firstly, a foiled attempt at shooting at a local Elephant Farm - crowded with police as the banner stated: The People of the Kingdom of Thailand Warmly Welcome Her Royal Highness Princess Alexandra of the Royal Kingdom. So cameras = no dice.

We then head into Chiang Mai to see local craft - from traditional to contemporary - in the galleries of a growing art district. There is more fantastic high-end weaving, painting, furniture and wood sculpture - including some figures playing the folk instruments we saw last night. There is a “tuk-tuk” - a groovy little 3-wheeled taxi - with some awesomely familiar propoganda parked outside of a gallery....

Nym and John, the driver, are kind enough to clarify some basic Thai lingo for us along the way:
Sawaddee-kah - A hello/goodbe greeting like aloha, said by a woman/girl.
Sawaddee-k(r)up - greeting when said by a man/boy
K(r)ab kun-kah - Thank you, when said by a woman/girl
K(r)ab kun-k(r)up - Thank you, said by the masculine
SooAY - beautiful
With “sooay” and manymany other words, the speaker has to be careful not to pronounce the word in such a way that it actually becomes a total insultingly rude remark... Thai is a tonal language, similar to Chinese. The rising, falling, dipping, etc tones can completely change the meaning of a word. For instance, the sentence “Mai Mai Mai Mai Mai” would be “Wet Wood Doesn’t Burn” with the proper tones!
Far and away my favorite vocabulary words, however, are the simple “yes” and “no.” In Thailand, there is literally no word for “no.” There is “yes” - “chai”, and “not yes” - “mai chai”. It’s the perfect summation of a very positive culture.

Then on to catch “magic hour” at Wat Doi Su Tep. The word “wat” itself means “temple” and “doi,” “mountain.” So it is the “Temple at Mount’ SuTep” Despite rampant tourism, it is a place of overwhelming peace and beauty. The kids & I wander the temple - marveling at the sagas of art and sculptures. Bailey & Mieke shoot, then find time to enjoy the wat for itself. As the sun drops, we ring bells and gongs and look out over the city of Chiang Mai.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Chiang Mai evening

Cooking School

Inspirational spicy salads!
Chef Srichan is holding a banana bud - the tendrils are baby bananas - selections are used as garnish.

10. November Market and Four Seasons’ “Spicy Salads” Cooking School

Today, in a challenge to take one for the Tennis Channel Team, Mieke, Maddie, Finn and I are required to chef it up at the Four Seasons Cooking School...! Like all good cooks, we begin at the local morning market. The streets are already lively - vendors, shoppers, dogs, orange-robed monks - we represent the only stray tourists. Everything is pungent, vibrant and fresh - from wriggling frogs to birds’ eye chili peppers. Also available are the accoutrements of the Loi Krathong festival: enormous paper lanterns, ceremonial hand-rolled cigarettes and beautifully crafted “krathongs” - miniature boats of flowers, leaves, candles and incense. The Cooking School kitchen has already purchased and prepped the ingredients, so our market visit is also rather ceremonial, but the sights & sounds are scrumptious, and Maddie & I have a light breakfast of a delicious coconutty sticky rice that comes wrapped in a banana leaf packet.

The grand indoor-outdoor kitchen at the Four Seasons is nothing short of inspirational. A half dozen massive coppertop gas ranges, stone chalice prep sinks, hefty wood chopping blocks, and endless wood bowls, baskets and jars of fruit, vegetables and spices make anyone think they might roll up their sleeves and create a masterpiece. Chef Pitak Srichan has readied a course on Spicy Salads, queuing a menu of:
Yum Nua - “yum,” appropriately, means spicy salad in the Central Southern Thai district, and “nua” is beef. Central Southern flavors incorporate spicy, salty, sour and sweet.
Larb Muang Moo - “larb” is spicy salad, “muang,” Northern style, and “moo” is pork. A northern/central salad features the two flavors of spicy and salty.
Yum Som-o Gai - again a Central Southern salad with “som-o” or pommelo (a large, drier grapefruit)
and, last, but not least, the Thai comfort food salad:
Som Tam Kung Yang - the green papaya salad with prawns

We venture back into Chiang Mai for an evening market. Our fixer is Nym - a talented 8-time published travel photographer/writer who tours the world in addition to her native Thailand. She is pretty and petite with an artsy-filmy New York jenesaisquois and a ready laugh. Thanks to Nym, we gain a little more insight about some of the traditions being showcased in the market: paper cutting and folk music - Finn gets to rock on the sahw, a traditional rustic violin-like instrument, with with a reknowned local artist...! The evening is capped from the aptly-named Rooftop Bar - a shoes-off, grass-mat, open-air place that overlooks the lit square below.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Nov 8 - 9 To Chiang Mai, Thailand

On the nightflight to Bangkok, Thai Airlines offers dinner that is a very civilized affair even in economy class with cloth napkins, metal forks (plastic knives) and a bottomless little glass of red or white followed by a port, cognac or coffee apperitif. No nickel & diming. Very few actually choose the alcohol options, I’d like to point out, so I’m sure the added cost of perhaps an average $3/head is well worth the value of high regard for the offer! We have just the right amount of time in Bangkok to stretch our legs, find a snack, and, for my part, admire the calligraphic Thai on airport signage, and promising translations on two airport billboards touting “Generousity” and “Gentleness”.

It’s a 1 hour jump on a packed plane larger than the international flight to Chiang Mai - a smallish city - bustling with life. Ensconced in hundreds of kilos of baggage which insulate us in an AC coccoon from the Thai heat, we all are glued to the sights. Jet lagged brain & buried camera prevented photos, but we were barraged in a traffic of scooters, mopeds, taxis, tuk-tuks and smiles. It seems the entire city has opened its collective door and is spilling onto the roadside. In fact, in most cases, there is no door at all. One market after another sits astride the street, tables overflowing with colorful produce and fresh fish, snacks, patties, brochettes of all manner. A flow of vendors & pedestrians blends through our windows as we wind out into the countryside.

The city falls away and villages quickly dwindle to just a couple as we near voluptuous, jungled hills, and, finally, (thanks to the production) the Four Seasons Resort Chiang Mai. We are greeted with lovely jasmine necklaces, endless smiles and breathtaking views. The area is so stunning and perfect with stream-inlaid jungle gardens, elegant bovines, and rice paddies sculpted into the valley that I double-check that the resort isn’t a little “Disney-fied” for tourists. The charming tennis pro, Leslie, who has offered to show us around, assures us that no - this is, in fact, real Thailand.

We have a few hours to get our feet under us before heading to the night market back in Chiang Mai. The markets, we’re told, tend to strategically occur in the morning or evening - bookending the notorious steamy daytime temperatures. The Sunday Night Market is essentially a locals affair - relatively quiet and few tourists. And Thailand is shoppers’ heaven. With bargain basement prices and about 35 Baht to the dollar, we feel like millionaires. I threaten to reserve a shipping container and fill it. By the end of the evening, however, I’m able to reign it in at a single 1400B purchase of a gorgeous hand-sewn & batiked coverlet - which ultimately ends up being my biggest purchase in Thailand at about US$40.

Along the sidewalks, and throughout the square are barbershop style reclining chairs where vendors hawk a famous Thai foot massage. Akin to competing shoeshine stands, the open-air massage “parlors” are at every corner. Bailey & Maddie take advantage of a half-hour foot massage, with all the mind-body pressure points covered, for less than $1.75 each. Aaaaahhh....

Nov 6 - 8 Gold Coast/Surfer’s Paradise

We are joined at our hotel here by Mieke, the host of the show Bailey is shooting for Tennis Channel. There is a very busy couple of shoot days for those two - some bits of which we tag along, some not. The kids are fairly happy to sit poolside in the afternoon.

Nov 5 Last Day in Byron Bay

We pack up our bags, and when we’re done, spend one more afternoon at Clark’s Beach.

Nov 4 Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary (just south of Surfer’s Paradise)

An incredible highlight of our trip. All the special wildlife unique to Australia. Topping the quirky list of personal Must Sees, I get to watch two husky wombats snuffle about in all their little wombatty glory. The wombats in question are the Southern Hairy Nose variety. Despite appearances, they can actually ramp up to a speedy 40 kilometers per hour. The tiny region of Australia they still occupy receives only 500mm or less of rain, so they essentially rely on roots & shoots for moisture.

There are two species of crocodile in Australia - the Saltwater & Freshwater varietals - just to cover all the bases. The largest crocodile in the sanctuary is over 15 feet long and could seemingly care less about anything. There is a double gate “land lock” system, however, just in case, as visitors walk through the crocodile arena to the kangaroo paddock....

There is an entire enormous corral of kangaroo that we wander through - feeding and petting the inhabitants! [Kangaroo petting tip: approach in a crouch or tucked position - a standing posture is seen as a challenge - you know, just in case this comes up the next time you meet one on the street.] Kangaroo are quite velvety soft and generally mild-mannered - essentially hanging about resting or eating with intermittent tustling. We saw mamma marsupials with little joey hind legs dangling out of their pouches and slightly bigger joeys, no larger than a housecat, popping about. Bailey had one kangaguy who was interested in a camera assistant position - he hung out hopefully next to the tripod for about 10 minutes as Bail filmed.

...And then the koalas! (Marsupials, not bears!) Both kids got to hold one - they wanted to get a good grip with those good tree climbing claws, but are otherwise quite mellow - spending about 14 hours a day sleeping, and then resting and eating up to XXX kilo leavesXXXX during the remaining hours.

Nov 3 Surfer’s Paradise, Byron Light

The majority of our days in Australia are spent commuting to the Gold Coast area about 45 minutes north of Byron Bay. Surfer’s Paradise is a Florida-esque vacation wonderland with theme parks, rides, a thriving nightlife, and miles of white sand coastline & a break to earn the city name.
In a park just off the beach, the kids pass on the infamous “Vomatron” but can’t resist trying the “flycoaster” bungy ride. On the way back, we just catch one last sunset in Byron at the lighthouse.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Today at about 3pm we watched President Elect Obamas first speech to the world from Byron Bay Australia -- yeah! My sister Abbi called from Park Slope, NY to help add the the New Year's Eve emotion of positivity for the future worldwide.

CNN and the Beeb have been broadcasting stories from countries around the world for the last few days -- all of whom have expressed new hope for the prospects of a President Obama.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Byron Market Finale

We missed it at Bangalow, but it seems most of the markets culminate in an awesome spontaneous drumming & dancing circle.... As we left, Maddie declared: "OK, that's it. You can't stop me from moving here."

Sunday Market at Byron

This week, the market is in downtown Byron... the moveable feast continues.... Maddie gets a much-anticipated hair wrap. Spring garden planning includes a choice of ginger varietals, grumichama berries and more. Local & organic fruit options are a little different, as well....

Tropical Farm

Nov 1 Tropical Farm

Fellow homeschooling family, Gwen, Michael, and their children Callum, Liam, and twins Imogen and Ewan have invited us to their farm - nestled into a stunning tropical hollow. They are working to both refurbish the property and build anew. The paddocks hold some goats and two recently acquired horses who happily trim the grass. Two lovely guard dogs of an ancient Italian breed patrol for wild dogs and keep the animals in check. Solar panels atop one workshed operate the electric fence. Kids play atop another shed adjoining a roof that is patrolled by a 9 foot carpet python who, unsurprisingly stays out of sight. Other creepy critters include an assortment of snakes, land leeches, 3 variety of ticks- the standard shellback variety, if it bites on the face, swells like a 2nd day shiner, a white “paralyzing tick” will do exactly as it says, eventually killing (dogs, etc) if untreated, and poison frogs. There are also koala, which we also don’t see, platypus in the pond, and unbelievable birdsong and serenity.

The farm boasts a number of old & wild fruit - lemon, lime, grapefruit, grumichama (a smaller orange softflesh fruit), passionfruit (which grows on a gorgeous evergreen vine that flowers like an exotic clematis), pecan, peach (they do poorly in this climate), a delicious wild raspberry, considered a weed, which resembles a strawberry crossed with lychee....

Michael is building the house with some help from Callum & Liam, and it features all recycled and native materials, including recycled pier pilings, stunning ironwood, Australian teak, jarrow and more. All are incredibly dense & heavy woods in rich, warm red tones, some yellow. Michael & Callum have constructed a stunning chess table out of contrasting woods inset to a raw edge burl which had been naturally hollowed. A porch runs the length of the North (sunny) side and overlooks a seasonal creek in the jungle. The kitchen will look west at more beautiful, vine-laden trees. A littler green-fading-to-rust snake suns himself on a sunwarmed log. The kids plan on installing a system of “flying fox”/zip lines to be able to float from the porches to the clearing below.

October 31 Halloween

Although it’s a completely different sensation to have a holiday honoring the lengthening nights, inner darkness, and memory of souls passed on during a warm, bright spring evening, some of the costumery & fun aspects of Halloween are catching on here. Much to the kids’ disappointment, there is no trick-or-treating*, so we make plans to catch an evening cabaret performance with a roughly tied-in theme of “Nightmare on Marvel Street” at the local Bowlo. There is are didgeri performances, jugglers, dancers, acrobats, and some stand up. Despite some inappropriate references - “Aowh, theere ah KEEdz heh?” quipped the comedian at the end of his gig - it was an entertaining variety show. Maddie was a shark-eaten surfer, and Quasimodo/Igor Finn won both the costume contest, by show of applause, and the door prize raffle. As the cabaret hadn’t planned on young contestants (four of the six were under 12 yrs), Bailey & I were treated to a bottle of champagne, and Finn happily went home with some gooey slime and a plastic bug. pictures to follow....

*A horrid statement on the unfamiliarity of Halloween was a news story the following day stating that a trick-or-treating boy had been shot and killed by a (clearly unstable) man who thought the child was a masked thief.

October 29 Homeschool Pottery

After dropping Bailey at Ballina - the local airport - we again met up with local homeschoolers for a paint-your-own pottery session. Many of the kids had previously sculpted or thrown their own clay treasures, but we selected some prefabricated mugs and a surfboard from the shelves to decorate. It was a lovely afternoon of painting, cardplay (Finn-initiated) and support chat -- parenting & homeschooling feels the same much the world over...!