Author

Netra Ruthaiyanont

“The corona virus is here to stay,” said the Professor Ooi Eng Eong in the recent zoom webinar on “Covid-19 Vaccinations and Coping with Anxiety” organized by the Singapore Global Network. This was an expected but unwelcomed statement, a reality that most of us find it hard to swallow.

In any case, life since the COVID 19 pandemic has not been totally bad. We, as humans, have learned to cope, one way or another. Some good things have also come out of this pandemic.

I, for one, found out more about my neighborhood in Nonthaburi, a place that I have lived in for over 15 years but never had the chance to explore due to work and social commitments in Bangkok area. When the Thai government imposed a lockdown in April 2020, my husband and I started taking morning walks in our housing estate for exercise. At first, I would take a stick to ward off unfriendly dogs but we eventually figured out which sois to avoid. The anxiety of catching the virus made me lose some weight initially, to my great glee, but a few months later, my craving for good food surmounted to my desire to be thin. But not matter, I got into the groove of exercising and was in better health as a consequence.

For American-born Rose Marie Wanchupela, the proprietor of Rose Marie Academy who has made Thailand her home for the past 50 years, being stuck at home enabled her to relax and enjoy the ambiance of her cozy home and bountiful garden.

“After the initial lockdown ended and schools reopened and then closed down again, I was anxious about how our students would be affected,” said the former Peace Corps Volunteer who has been running the school for over 25 years. “Fortunately, they adjusted very well to online learning under the guidance of their teachers who all rose to the occasion. I am now confident that our students will succeed in learning regardless of circumstances such as what we we have just passed through.”

“Finally, I would say that it has been a struggle to fathom the millions of deaths and the destruction this pandemic has wrought upon us,” concluded Rose Marie. “To be empathetic and to carry on a normal life at the same time is a dilemma and a real challenge I face. Knowing we are all in this together is fortifying and reassuring.”

For Chinese-American Michele Chan Grover who lived in Thailand before moving to Canada, she and her Canadian husband, Paul, stayed home for most of the part since Covid-19 restrictions were stricter in Canada than Thailand.

Nonetheless, exercise was something they never neglected. Bike riding, walks and runs continued to be part of their daily lives in the summer and fall. And when winter came, skiing and walks were their regular routine.

When gatherings with family and friends came to a halt, they started Zoom calls with family and friends instead of having people come over for dinner. Zoom calls were something they had not done before, but this activity quickly caught on and became a superb and crucial technique to keep in touch to family and friends.

“When indoor gatherings were not allowed, we had outdoor dinners on our porch (just among the family) and we still kept 6 ft apart from each other,”said Michele. “We also had friends, just one couple at a time and sat in the garden, often around the fire pit, in the evenings in the summer.”

House cleaning and getting rid of unused stuff also become another routine activity.
“At the beginning of the pandemic, we went through our storage area and got rid of a lot of things — old textbooks, notes and photos,” expounded Michele. “We also did a bunch of home maintenance stuff, painting, chopping wood, going through old books, uncluttering.”

Husband Paul also found the time and inclination to learn to play the guitar which opened up a whole new world for him.

“It was something he had always been interested but never made the time,” said Michele. “He found a great website which is free and learned from a young instructor who is so good at his job that now Paul is always serenading me.”

“I myself started a drawing programme through a book which I have had for 30 years, but like Paul’s guitar, never finding the time…”

“Paul and I realized quite early on how lucky we were in spite of the pandemic,” added Michele. “We don’t have young kids and have to worry about their schooling,” Michele concluded. “We don’t have to worry about losing a job. We have a nice place to live, friends and family to zoom, have the ability to go out and exercise and be outdoors to socialize, and enough resources to keep us from getting depressed. We have learned to be super grateful.”

Danai Chandrangam, General Manager of GT Auto Co., Ltd., had this to say about his Covid experience.

“The pandemic taught me to be happy with what we have,” said the Netherland-born Thai-Dutch who made Thailand his permanent home when he moved here to work after he graduated from university. “I have come to appreciate the thoughtfulness and support I received from my loved ones during these stressful times. Life would have been a lot more difficult without their understanding and encouragement.”

“On a general scale, it was wonderful to see that the Thai people abided by the Covid-19 prevention rules enforced by the Thai government strictly and without resentment,” commented Danai. “Whether they agreed with it or not, people cooperated for the benefit of everyone around them.”

For someone who led a socially active life, Covid 19 caused a marked change in Danai’s lifestyle.

“My wife and I started staying home more.  We cooked and ate at home and found that I actually enjoyed staying home and felt more relaxed. After the rules were eased, we had small gatherings with friends and family members and we came realize how important the time spent with these people are to us and we came to cherish these times more than before.”

“I became more health conscious to minimize the possibility of getting the virus infection and as a result, became heathier and did not get sick at all during the past 12 months,” added Danai.

“Workwise, it was tough,” Danai acknowledged. “I had to make many unpleasant decisions.  Thankfully, most of our staff were supportive. It was a great team effort where many executives rose to the occasion and worked tirelessly to achieve their targets.” 

“Another blessing in disguise was the Bangkok traffic,” said Danai with a big smile. “With people staying home more, the traffic got lighter, to the delight of many of us.”

“One regret that I have though is that my parents who live in Holland could not visit us last year.” 

Danai’s Thai father and Dutch mother usually visit Thailand once or twice a year, spending a few months in the country during each visit.  

“It is sad that we were also not able to fly over to see them. Of course, we stay in touch with WhatsApp and so on, but nothing beats face-to-face contact. I hope this issue will be solved by the end of this year.”

“All in all, people are more resilient that we give them credit for.  Many found creative ways to make a living. They don’t give up but move on with enthusiasm, courage and hope.”

Similar to Danai,  New York-born Dar Lim Chakrabandhu who has lived in Thailand for more than 30 years, said that not being able to travel overseas during that pandemic was one thing she really missed. 

“But I’m basically a home body so it’s been fine for me,” said the owner of The Vintage Shop and Very Vintage Jewelry. “I have started reading daily which I used to do but didn’t have the time. I have also tried out new recipes and some gardening techniques that would not have gotten my attention before the pandemic.”

“I think it has brought me closer to friends and relatives living far away.  Previously, I did not correspond with as often as I should have,” Dar Lim added. “Covid 19 sure has made me value my relationships so much more,” 

“I also got around my local neighborhood and discovered some nice little gems I may not have checked out before,” said Dar Lim, who spends most of her time in Chiang Rai where her family’s Katiliya Mountain Resort and Spa is located. “We found some new businesses and cafes and restaurants that are now regular stops  for us.”

As far as advice for young people regarding jobs, Dar Lim recommends that now is the time for soul searching, especially for those who are out of a job. 

“One needs to decide what work would bring you joy through all of the madness going on around us. It may be necessary to learn something new or return to university for further studies.”

“During tough times there are always new opportunities if you keep your eyes and ears open,” she continued. “Right now, anything having to do with the medical field, pharmaceuticals or research offers endless possibilities. As well as work in the field of energy and products and services that have climate change in mind. Many new businesses started during this pandemic will be around for years to come.”

“No matter what the circumstances are around us, life goes on,” Dar Lim added practically. “Some couples may choose not to have children given the state of the world and that’s OK. For those who want to start a family, now may not be the time if you are having financial stress. Or if you are affected by the news each day, that would only add undue worry while pregnant. If you are anxious to start a family and are financially secure and in good health, then go for it. But remain vigilant avoiding any risks while Covid-19 is still with us.” 

“I think that Covid-19 will not end but be with us forever like the flu. But we will be able to manage it through vaccines and revised inoculations as time goes on. It will be a few more years before we start to really understand this disease and have enough research to truly be confident about making predictions.” 

Covid-19 has taught us to stop, step back, and look deeply into our own lives to figure out where we go from here.  It also taught us to appreciate the simple things in life, be it a pleasant cool breeze that brushed our faces during our early morning walk or a nice hot cup of coffee that tasted so good because we did not rush to finish it to beat the traffic to get to work. And stay optimistic and be confident that the answers to our dilemmas will come to we when we calmly think things through.



About the author.

Netra Ruthaiyanont is currently the Marketing Director of GT Auto Co., Ltd., authorized Volvo Car Retailer.  The former member of the print media enjoys writing stories about travel, education and the challenging lives of women.

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The year 2020 which ushered in the horrific Covid-19 pandemic has been a traumatic one for all of us. Having been cooped up in Bangkok for the last eight months, I was getting itchy feet and ready to travel. The invitation from the Thailand Incentive and Convention Association (TICA) to visit Chiang Mai in November for three days was a timely and welcomed offer. 

It has been years since I visited this popular Northern city Chiang Mai. When I saw that the first item in TICA’s programme was a visit to the indigo dyeing community of Lhong Him Khao, I signed up for the trip without hesitation. I remember fondly the happy times I had making tie-dyed T-shirts at the backyard of my friend’s house as a teenager. I thoroughly enjoyed the art of tie-dyeing. The only drawback was that my family and friends, to their chagrin, had to tolerate seeing me in my vibrant creations for many years to come.

Those of us living in Thailand have been more fortunate than those living overseas in many ways. We are very grateful that we can move around quite freely to do our day-to-day activities and travel to other parts of the country, as long as we are careful of course – wear masks when we are outside, maintain social distance, avoid crowded places and wash our hands often.

On the day of the familiarisation trip, I packed my masks and alcohol and boarded the Bangkok Airways’ one hour flight to Chiang Mai. There were about 30 of us in the group. After we landed and collected our luggage, we travelled by coach to Lhong Him Khao village for our indigo dyeing adventure. Our party was warmly welcomed by a Thai musical band and we were soon ready to get to work. Unlike my previous experience where we used strings to tie-dye our T-shirts, the equipment for this procedure was quite surprising. They had on the table for us, chop sticks, clothes pegs, paper clips, round and square boards and rubber bands. Each of us used whatever we fancied to tie the cloth however we desired. The finished pieces were then taken for dyeing and after that process, VOILA! I was quite pleased yet intrigued with the design that I created. Unfortunately, I will never be able to repeat that pattern again.

Soon, it was time to head for the Ratilanna Riverside Spa Resort for a short rest and to get ready for a networking dinner at Kiti Panit, a fine dining restaurant housed in a 132-year-old teak tree mansion which once operated as a General Store run by Chinese immigrants. We were served Lanna and Tai Yai dishes, many of which were tasty yet quaint. It was a marvelous gastronomic adventure, nonetheless.

Early the next morning, we early risers had the pleasure to offering alms to the monks at the hotel’s beautiful riverside pier. Conveniently, the hotel staff has already prepared the alms for us. All we had to do was offer them to the monks. One of the TICA members gave a short explanation of the Buddhist ritual of alms giving to the non Buddhists in our entourage.  Although I am a Buddhist myself, I even learned a thing or two from the narrative.

A lovely breakfast by the river followed. The weather was pleasantly cool, perfect for breakfast outdoors, but not cold enough for me to show off the several jackets that I had dug up from storage to wear them should it get cold in Chiang Mai.

After breakfast, we headed off to the Araksa Tea Garden located in the foothills of Mae Tang District. It took 90 minutes of driving on winding roads to get up there. The organic tea garden spanned over 100 rai of land. It was my first visit to a tea plantation and was pleasantly surprised that the tea trees, over 20,000 in number, were planted on fairly flat land and not on a plateau. That made it easier for us to carry out our assignment for the morning — picking tea leaves.  

We were given a briefing on proper tea picking by the friendly staff. Thereafter, we each got our own basket and attempted to pick as many tea leaves as possible. We were going to make green tea, which meant we had to choose one bud with 2 leaves. For white tea, we would only pick the bud and for black tea, we would pick the bud and 3 leaves. Time passed quickly as we were having fun playing farmer and before we knew it, it was time for us to turn in our tea collections for the next step. Mae Jan, our tea expert, began kneading the tea leaves and thereafter began roasting the leaves. After some time, the big pile of tea leaves shrunk to perhaps one tenth of the original size. My earlier inspiration to become a professional tea picker also shrank in size in proportion to the roasted tea leaves. I then got the understanding of how many tea leaves must be collected to produce a small package of tea. It’s a good thing I didn’t give up my day job before I left for this trip.

After all this hard work, we were invited to taste the 15 types of white, green and black tea at the plantation. Now, that was more my kind of thing and all of us happily obliged. It was very refreshing to sample the different tastes of tea, some more subtle than others. The aromatic “Kularb” or rose flavour was my favourite. I was pleased to hear that it won an award last year.  

In a little while it was time for lunch. The Araksa lunch menu included Thai rice salad with condiments or “Khao Yum” in Thai. The colourful ingredients, once mixed together, had the sweet, sour and salty taste (and hot if you add chillies). This dish has become very popular among health conscious diners since it has lots of fresh vegetables like purple cabbage, bean sprouts, coconut shaves plus flowers. I personally find that that this dish takes a bit of getting used to, since I still consider eating fresh flowers a bit bizarre. The fried crispy tea leaves with pork spicy dipping was quite delicious. It was addictive like eating French fries. Once you start, you cannot stop. Serving organic rice crackers made with watermelon juice (Khao Tan Nam Tangmo) accompanied by — you guessed it — hot or cold tea of your choice was a perfect way to end the meal.

Visiting Wat Umong, a 700 year old Buddhist temple was next on the itinerary. Located at the foot of Doi Pui Mountain, the temple was home of old ruins with meditation tunnels. After climbing up a multitude of uneven brick steps, we came to a large brick pagoda, made famous by a Thai popular soap opera. But honestly speaking, I would give this spot a miss.

We did a quick check in at the Shangri-La Hotel and got ready to go to dinner at Food for You by Chef Tutu. Chiang Mai is well known for its numerous restaurants and variety of international cuisine, and this homey restaurant did not disappoint. Soon after we arrived, the Chef, whose full name was Prapatsorn Na Chiangmai, started energetically cooking his signature dishes for us. Crab salad, fried duck, grilled shrimp, crab soup and steak… most dishes cooked to perfection. And a good selection of fine white and red wine served with the dishes made the dinner even more palatable. The only comment I would like to add was that the chef was too trigger happy with his chilies for someone like me who doesn’t take hot food.

After whisking off his last dish for our group, Chef Tutu came out to greet his guests. We found out he has been cooking since he was nine and has been serving special dishes to his clients for the past 30 years. He enjoys going to the local market daily to get the freshest ingredients for his dishes. He is very adventurous and is happy to concoct special dishes not in the menu for his customers. Just let him know.

The trip to Chiang Mai ended all too soon on the third day of our trip. After a leisurely breakfast at the Shangri-La Hotel, we headed for the airport amidst heavy traffic. We were amazed to find that the airport was very crowded. People are travelling again. The flight was also fully booked. After a one hour flight, we were happy to land in Bangkok and go home for a nice rest from our fun and informative excursion. 

Where in Thailand shall we go next? It took a lockdown for us to realise that we have so many interesting and beautiful places to visit right here in Thailand instead of going overseas for our vacation. Life’s paradigm has changed drastically and going abroad for a holiday is a privilege that is not accessible to us for the time being. So why not rediscover the amazing wonders of Thailand instead?

However, always keep in mind that wherever we go, we must keep our guards up against the possible infection of the Covid-19 virus. Always social distance and keep our masks on and of course wash our hands often. The pandemic is not over yet. We must remain vigilant when we are in public areas, especially in crowded places.  

———-

About the author.

Netra Ruthaiyanont is currently the Marketing Director of GT Auto Co., Ltd., authorised Volvo Car retailer. The former member of the print media enjoys writing stories about travel, education and the challenging lives of women.

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Jambo, jambo,” the deep and gentle voice of the security guard breaks the dead silence of the night. “This is your morning call.” “Jambo”, meaning “hello” in Swahili, was the first word we heard as a greeting from our wake-up caller. He was our  mobile alarm clock since there were no telephones in our tented camp. It was 4.30am and we were to get ready for our game drive at the Maasai Mara National Reserve. We had arrived at this site which was situated in South West Kenya, 240 miles from Nairobi the night before.

The weather was about 11 degrees centigrade and there was no heater in the tent. Shivering, we took our hot showers and quickly got dressed. We took a long walk in the dark to make our way to the open-air dining room of the camp to have our breakfast. It was a good breakfast – with eggs, sausages, beans, toast, cereal, coffee and tea and much more – but all went cold very quickly because of the chilly weather. But no matter. Or “Hakuna Matata”, meaning “not a problem”  in Swahili.

Safari

There were five of us among the tour group of 18 holidaymakers from Thailand. Most of us hadn’t been to Kenya before and were very excited to experience the game drive. We all got on our respective jeeps and headed for the Maasai Mara National Reserve, the large game reserve in Narok County which is adjacent to the Serengeti National Park in Mara Region Tanzania. Each year, during the months of July to September, over a million wildebeest, zebra and gazelles migrate to Maasai Mara in search of greener pastures. Like every year, they cross the Mara River which is inhabited by fierce crocodiles Fortunately, two people in our group had brought digital cameras with zoom lens and were able to capture beautiful shots of the animals and scenery.

We looked out for the big five animals and saw lions and a glimpse of a leopard pouncing on a gazelle to have his meal of the day. Hippos lazed around in the water, some half submerged. Looking at them snoozing by the embankment, it’s hard to believe that they are very agile as well as vicious and can fatally attack crocodiles easily. We had previously misunderstood that hippos were afraid of crocodiles. But in actuality, crocodiles were afraid of hippos and stayed well away from them.

By afternoon, the weather became warm and eventually hot. We came across huge elephants that came close enough to our jeep for us to see them spraying water on themselves to cool off at close range. The only animal we did not catch sight of was the rhino. Time passed quite quickly. By late afternoon, our drivers found a spot that was safe enough for us to get down and we ate lunch provided by the camp under a tree. It was good to stretch our legs and have a bite to eat. Not that we were hungry. We had brought a lot of snacks with us in case anyone got hungry and had been eating nonstop.

After our meal, we spotted more wild animals such as cheetahs, zebras, Thomson gazelles, giraffes and wildebeest. We also saw vultures feasting on the carcass of a gazelle killed by perhaps a cheetah. As the sun started to set, we made our way back to the tented camp. The road was bumpy as well as slippery because of the rain the day before. After an hour, we arrived at our destination. Apparently, the British influence still prevailed in Kenya, our friendly driver suggested that we enjoy a cup of tea first, before we go back to our rooms. Sure enough, tea and cookies were waiting for us at the dining area and we were happy to sip a cup to tea after a long ride.

We soon headed back to our tented camp to freshen up before dinner. It felt a little bizarre to be in a room with no telephones or locks. Internet access is almost impossible. We simply zipped up our tents when we were ready to retire. We also merely zipped up our “windows” when the weather grew cold during the night. Dinner was served at the same open-air dining area. There was a big bonfire next to the dining area where a smiling entertainer played his guitar and sang his native songs as well as some old popular English songs.

Our group had already been in Kenya for three days before we went on the game drive but the other attractions we visited earlier paled in comparison to this one. Yes, the ride was bumpy and not so comfortable and it was not fun eating cold and dry food from the lunch box. But all this discomfort disappeared the minute we saw a beautiful animal moving nonchalantly in their natural habitat, oblivious of the hundreds of tourists peering at them from their various vehicles, many equipped with high-tech cameras with their huge zoom lenses.

Maasai village

The day before, we had visited the Maasai Village inhabited by Nilotic ethnic group. Dressed in their bright red tribal costumes, the friendly Maasai people welcomed us with their tribal dance and songs. There was also a short demonstration on how to make fire. They also told us about life at their village. The village head explained that the way they selected the head of the tribe was to have the men compete in a jumping contest and the man who jumped the highest would become the village head. The villagers live in harmony by observing their customs and traditions strictly. Anyone who left the village and come back had to go through strict re-orientation procedure to assimilate back into their society.

Giraffe centre

The Giraffe centre was a bit of a disappointment as the place was crowded with camera-wheeling tourists who wanted to get their photo taken with a giraffe at all cost. After fighting our way through the camera-clicking crowd to get glimpse of a Rothschild giraffe named Daisy and her two friends, we ourselves went photo-crazy and managed to get some photos with Daisy who was happily slurping away the food pellets that the visitors were feeding her.

“We had visited the Maasai Village inhabited by Nilotic ethnic group. Dressed in their bright red tribal costumes, the friendly Maasai people welcomed us with their tribal dance and songs.”

Karen Blixen Museum

Novel and movie lovers went down memory lane at the Karen Blixen Museum. It was the farm that Danish writer Karen Blixen actually lived from 1917 to 1931. The house became famous when her book on the memoirs of her life in Kenya was made into a movie “Out of Africa” in 1985, as most of the Oscar winning movie starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford was filmed in the house. The house eventually became a museum and the caretakers of the house has maintained it the way it was when the author lived in it. We toured the house, the gardens as well as the coffee processing equipment area.

Homeward bound

After five amazing days in Kenya, we took the long dusty drive from Maasai Mara back to the Joma Kenyatta international airport in Nairobi. There wasn’t sufficient time to do much shopping on this trip to the delight of our husbands. But we did pick up some souvenirs from the street vendors who were more than enthusiastic to sell their wares. The happy memories in our minds and beautiful photos in our cameras were more than enough for us to remember our trip to Kenya.

“The happy memories in our minds and beautiful photos in our cameras were more than enough for us to remember our trip to Kenya.”

Karen Blixen Museum garde

Karen Blixen Museum garden

 

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Koh Tao 6 Jansom

Of all the beautiful beaches in Thailand, the ones in Koh Tao or Turtle Island are, by far, our all-time favourite. Located in the Gulf of Thailand east of Surat Thani, this 21 square kilometre island has many attractive beaches that visitors can never get enough of.

It is a popular place for scuba divers many of whom come to Koh Tao for the purpose of taking their open water diving course. This little island is also a favoured destination for snorkelers because its shallow coral reefs and beautiful marine creatures that are so easily accessible, since most are just within a short distance from the shore.Take for instance, Jansom Bay which belongs to the Charm Churee Hotel where we stayed. Where else can you wade just a few metres from the beach into the sea, stand is waist deep water and see the fish swimming all around you in crystal clear water?

There’s a small trick to enjoy this experience though. You need to take a piece of bread, or going Thai style, a handful of sticky rice, and hold it in the water. In no time, swarms of fish will dash in and feast on the food literally from your hand. They are so wild that they are not afraid of us don’t seem to realise or care that we are humans. They just want to fill their bellies and go on with their lives. The wonderful feeling we experienced from this activity was magically amazing. We were mesmerised with watching the commotion of fishes darting all around us and we soon found out that the bread we brought didn’t seem to be enough and the fish never appeared to get full.

Koh Tao Arriving

Despite Koh Tao’s magnificent natural beauty, the main deterrent that discourages people from going to Koh Tao often is the inconvenience of getting there. First, there are no direct flights to Koh Tao. It takes about six hours to drive some 600 kilometres from Bangkok to Chumphon. Then, you go to Lomprayah pier to take the 1.45 hour ferry ride to Koh Tao. You can fly from Bangkok to Chumphon but the airport in Chumphon is quite far from the pier. It is also possible to travel by sea from neighbouring Koh Samui and Koh Phangan.

During our last trip, we opted to drive to Chumphon to take the ferry to the island. We started off really early in the morning, at the ungodly time of four in the morning, to avoid Thailand’s famous traffic jams. After being on the road for almost six hours, we arrived in Chumphon around lunchtime. We parked our car at the Pomprayah pier and took the 1pm ferry to Koh Tao. This schedule was different from our last visit. At that time, we left Bangkok later in the day and arrived in Chumphon in the afternoon. We spent one night in Chumphon and took the ferry across the next morning.

Before getting on the ferry, it helps to check out the weather. In any case, you pray that the sea will be calm so that you won’t get seasick. During our last trip, the sea was so rough that I got terribly nauseous. For fear of making a mess, I kept a plastic bag close to my mouth for the next two hours and it became my best friend until we moored. This is a common phenomenon and it is not unusual for visitors to have to unexpectedly extend their stay for a few nights due to bad weather and patiently wait for calmer seas and for the ferries to start operating again.

Unlike Phuket, Koh Tao is relatively a new travel destination, being discovered in the 1980s. Most of the hotels, tours and restaurants are run by Thai owners and long time expats living on the island. So far, there are no six star international hotel chains. However, there is a wide range of lodgings for visitors to choose from, starting from non-air conditioned guest houses at the rate of 300B a night to beachfront rooms at 18,000B a night. WiFi is available everywhere but we were surprised that there was no TV in our room.

Koh Tao Feeding the Fish

In general, the food in Koh Tao is good, readily available everywhere, and the prices are quite reasonable. Eateries offer Thai, Western, Italian, French cuisine, whatever you fancy. Shops offer tasty hamburgers and pizzas, a nice breakfast coffeeshop with great bread and pancakes. Sidewalk stalls offer rotis (Indian style flat bread) as well as crepes to tourists. Sandwiches are also sold at every corner. We saw some shops making their own buns. One shop owner told me the chocolate flavour was the most popular among visitors.

Koh Tao 10 Night Fall

Snorkelers visiting the island usually join tours for the day to visit places like Shark Bay, Hin Wong Bay, Aow Muang and Koh Nang Yuan. Many hire a long tail boat for the day to take a private tour of the various spots.

Once on the island, you walk a lot on hilly, not so smooth pathways. You can rent motorbikes to get around but be warned that the lanes are small and not well constructed. However, wherever you stay, it is most likely that there are restaurants and beaches are within walking distance. If all else fails, you can always resort to buy everything you need at the ever popular 7-Eleven which is doing brisk business all day and night.

Take mosquito repellent. Good shoes. Enjoy the long drinks and fresh fruit as you watch the sunset.

Koh Tao Spectacular View

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brahm

Meditation is not for everyone. If you like it, embrace it. If you don’t, let it go. Like many things in life, I got into meditation by chance through an invitation of a dear friend. Her family was a great supporter of the venerable Buddhist monk Ajahn Brahm and he was coming to Bangkok to give a Dhamma talk.

I told myself, “Why not give it a try?” and I attended Ajahn Brahm’s talk on “Happiness.” All of us know him as Ajahn Brahm but the jovial monk’s full name is Ajahn Brahmavamso, his official religious name being Phra Visuddhisamvarathera. Currently the abbot of Bodhinyana Monastery in Serpentine, Western Australia, Ajahn Brahm travels all over the world to give his Dhamma talks and lead meditation retreats. He visits Thailand and Singapore regularly where he has a huge following.

After listening to his talk, I signed up for one of his meditation retreats. The first one was a bit uncomfortable, but the more experienced meditators helped me through with a great understanding and compassion. And little by little, I was hooked.
As far as religion is concerned, I was raised as a Buddhist.

When I was five, my mother sent me to the temple to practice meditation. But what can you expect from a little kid whose major concerns were playing, eating and sleeping? I fell asleep, of course, and that was my memory of Buddhism. So, it was only much later in life, after I had attended Ajahn Brahm’s meditation retreat, that I came to understand the significance of meditation. Ajahn Brahm’s meditation retreats enable novice meditators to ease into the process. I started off with two nights at a nice, comfortable hotel.

There was no need to sleep on the floor or forgo air-conditioned bedrooms like other meditation retreats. The beauty of these retreats is that one does not have to be a Buddhist to attend them. People from other religions sign up on a regular basis, and the number is growing. At the last retreat in Thailand, Ajahn Brahm said that one should think of coming to the retreat as coming out of jail (the trials and tribulation of one’s daily life) to enjoy the freedom of not having to worry about anything for a little while.

He encouraged us to enjoy the beauty of the retreat. Don’t linger in the past, worry about the future, he said – just enjoy the present moment, the freedom. The dress code for the meditation retreat was simple. No jewellery, no makeup. (Fine, no worries mate.) Wear a white top, dark trousers or long skirt (nothing tight or fitted). (No sweat, can do.) All are to observe the five precepts of Buddhism. (OK by me).

The five Buddhist precepts are rules that most of us go by anyway (except for number 5 for some of us):
1. Thou shall not kill
2. Thou shall not steal
3. Thou shall abstain from sexual misconduct
4. Thou shall not lie
5. Thou shall not get intoxicated
During the retreat, all meditators were to observe three more precepts:

1. No solid food after 12 noon. (That gets a little tough.) When I joined my first retreat, I was so afraid that I would not last the night if I skipped dinner. Thankfully, the organisers were kind enough to provide us with hot drinks, chocolate and cheese at 5pm. That was really helpful for those of us who probably got hungrier by worrying about the possibility that we might get hungry in the middle of the night. The feeling is similar to when one has to refrain from eating and drinking after midnight if have a blood test the following morning. One starts getting uncomfortable with the thought that one cannot eat.

2. No talking, all must observe noble silence. (Say what? Oh no!) Most people think that it is easy until they try it. It just
shows how much everyone takes speech for granted. It doesn’t take more than 15 minutes for us to realise how uncomfortable it is not to speak. We soon realise the importance of noble silence. By keeping quiet, we can clear our minds and concentrate on meditating.

3. No TV, no music, no dancing and no mobiles in the conference room. (Now that is going to be too much!) No entertainment? How do we pass the time? The days got longer than usual and the nights were not so peaceful, especially if one’s stomach decided to growl in the middle of the night! We began each morning of the retreat with a meditation session at 5.30am. Then, we did some chanting with the help of the Ajahn, and afterwards, we happily moved to the dining room to consume the much awaited breakfast.Then at 9am, we returned to the conference hall to listen to a Dhamma talk by Ajahn Brahm. The topic that morning was about letting go.

Ajahn Brahm gave the simple example of holding up a glass of water. After a while, the glass gets heavy because one is getting tired from holding the glass for so long. So, what to do? Very simple. Put it down, he advised. Give yourself a rest, and then get back to it later. By having a rest, one may come up with some solutions. If you approach your “problems” in the same manner, he noted, you will be able to handle your life much better.

A guided meditation session followed. Afterwards, all of us headed to the restaurant for a quiet, and peaceful lunch which had to be eaten before 12 noon. More meditation practice followed after a short break. In the afternoon, participants could also sign up for a 10-minute interview session with Ajahn Brahm. These sessions fill up quickly and if one had any questions, they could be written out and put into the question basket for the Ajahn to answer in the evening session.

There were many things Ajahn Brahm said in his talks that made a lot of sense. He kept his talks simple and humorous. He cited similes that most people could relate to, one way or another. Meditation teaches you the value of patience, he said. Tell yourself you will sit still and think of nothing for half an hour. OK, let’s start with five minutes. You will find that your mind will not stay still at all. It starts wandering without your permission: Oh, I have to make dinner. I forgot to call so-and-so. What shall I do this weekend? Problems at work, sick child, Worry, worry, worry.

meditation-sunset

There is no doubt that meditation takes time and practice. It is just like learning to ride a bicycle or learning a language. How long it takes depends on each person. Some will get it quickly while others take longer. However, there is no need to compare. And one day, one will have the “aha!” moment and things will become easier and the meditator will be more relaxed about getting to the next level. Patience will eventually lead to enlightenment. In any case, one should not jump to conclusions too quickly. If one doesn’t succeed this time, try again, and if one doesn’t succeed the next time, well, try again. Eventually, a sense of peace will come to the meditator, who will be glad that he or she tried. Ajahn Brahm’s talks are available in You Tube and also by clicking on to this link: bswa.org/teachers/ajahn-brahm

 

 

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Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall Taiwan

Taiwan, here we come

Although Taiwan is only a little over three hours by plane from Bangkok, not too many people living here in Thailand think of it as an enticing holiday destination. But after spending five days there recently, we can happily conclude that Taiwan certainly is a place worth visiting.

One fine November day, the four of us (Terri Thomas, Terri Alexander, Rose Marie Wanchupela and Netra Ruthaiyanont) flew to Taipei for a short holiday. We didn’t have great plans, just the intention to have a good time.

A peek into the history of Taiwan

Once we arrived in Taipei, the first item on our itinerary was to visit Dr Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall. It was a good place to get an understanding of Taiwan’s history since he was the founding father of this island state of 23 million people. After passing the huge imposing bronze statue of Dr Sun Yat-sen in the hallway, we browsed through the impressive chronology of this eminent man’s life and the revolutions he led.

Next was the visit to Memorial Hall of Chiang Kai Shek, former President of Taiwan from 1949 to 1975. Not surprisingly, feng shui (the ancient Chinese art of geomancy) played a role in the design of the building: octagon shaped to symbolise fortune and wealth in Chinese culture. The numbers of steps on the stairway leading to the main hall was 89, which was Mr. Chiang’s age at the time of his death.

We then got a glimpse of legendary man’s personal life at Chiang Kai-Shek Shilin residence, the last home where he lived with his wife Soong Mei-Ling. Madam Chiang, as she was better known in many circles, was a highly influential international figure in public life, but in her private life, she loved to paint; it is her beautiful brushwork that brightens up the rather gloomy aura of the residence.

The solemn atmosphere of the residence immediately changed for the better when we silently stepped out into the pleasant and refreshing Chinese and Western style gardens. It was no surprise that this place was the first ecological garden of Taipei City as the gardens are actually more beautiful and better maintained than Taipei’s Botanical Gardens.

The most popular spot in the residence is Victoria Chapel, a simple but charming little church where the first couple prayed regularly. (We were told Mr Chiang had to convert to Christianity in order to marry Mrs Chiang – which just goes to show the power of women and religion). Today, the church still serves as a popular venue for romantic wedding photos.

View from above

Continuing to play our tourist roles, the four of us made our way to the city’s most well known landmark, Taipei 101 Tower, to get a panoramic view of the city.

A crowded elevator took us up to the 89th floor in a matter of seconds. The ride was so quick that the elevator operator barely had time to finish her introduction of the tower, which she recounted in at least three languages.

Originally known as the Taipei Financial Centre, the Taipei 101 Tower, with its 101 above ground floors and five basement levels, was once the tallest tower in the world until 2010 when it was surpassed by Burj Khalifa in Dubai.

Although the skies were a bit hazy during the time we were there, the view of the city was nonetheless breathtaking. Taipei is certainly a mature, crowded city with its fair share of traffic jams.

Dr Sun Yat Sen statue

Chinese treasures

The highlight of our tour was the National Palace Museum. The remarkable history of the museum began as far back as 1925 in the Forbidden City in Beijing on mainland China. In 1933, the museum collection was moved to southwest China to avoid being destroyed by the impending invasion of Japan. Then in 1948, when the civil war between the Nationalist government and Communists intensified, 600,000 objects of the collection were relocated to Taiwan by the then government. Today, the National Museum boasts more that 690,000 objects, making it one of the most extensive art and cultural collections in the world.

The Palace Museum has something of interest for everyone: bronzes, Chinese jade through the ages, ceramics, painting and calligraphy, and pottery, amongst others. The four of us explored separately according to our interest in specific collections and came together to share numerous photographs, most of them widely different from one another. All the displays were amazing, unique and striking in their own way. We could have stayed at the museum all day but a more important activity came up – lunch!

Lunch was a delicious assortment of Chinese dishes. The saying “the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach” is certainly true when it comes to “Xiao long bao”, Chinese dumplings filled with soup and other delicious ingredients. And of course, we enjoyed the hot and spicy tofu dish that leaves one’s lips numb and puckered because of the chilli oil.

Up to the mountains

Also on our agenda was the trip to Hua Lian, which was a two hour train ride from Taipei, to tour the famous Taroko Gorge. After we arrived in Hua Lian, we stopped at a quaint little hotel for a typical aborigine lunch. We sipped millet wine from tiny boar shaped cups, and enjoyed our meal which included wild vegetable soup, wild boar skin salad and glutinous rice in bamboo tubes. Taiwanese aborigines make up about 2% of the country’s population and about 70% of them are Christian. We couldn’t help chuckling when we saw their version of a Christmas tree as it was quite unique looking.

We left the restaurant with full stomachs and droopy eyes and arrived at Taroko National Park. A favourite but dangerous place for hikers, the authorities give detailed travel safety instructions on how to prepare for hiking – watch out for falling rocks and wild animals, wear a hard hat, good shoes and bring along food and drink. However, since no one in our group was an ardent hiker, we drove around and enjoyed the picturesque scenery of striking rocks and gushing stream waters, occasionally stopping to take photos in the midst of hundreds of noisy tourists waving their selfie sticks.

We stayed overnight in this peaceful mountainous county and headed back to Taipei the next day. Our last night in Taipei was spent having dinner at the top of Mount Yang Ming and getting a spectacular night view of the bustling city.

On the fifth day, our Taiwan excursion ultimately came to an end and we headed back to Bangkok, slightly exhausted but filled with good memories and a better understanding of this unique country.

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