Author Archives: Eliot Hale

ลอยกระทง (Loy Krathong)

I was sitting on my back deck the other evening, reviewing my “Thai For Beginners” text (constant review of even the basics is essential if one is not immersed in the language). The sun had gone down about an hour ago, but it was still very warm out. The book was at my 10 o’clock, my writing tablet was directly in front of me, and there was an ice-cold bottle of Heineken sitting at my one o’clock. It wasn’t a dinky little bottle, either. It was one of those big ones you get if you order a bottle for your table at any restaurant in Thailand (Heineken does in a pinch if you can’t get your hands on a Chang!) Half of the bottle was gone, and the porchlight shone through the green bottle, casting an emerald glow on my studies. 🙂

My wife, Pon, was standing on the edge of the deck at my six o’clock (out of view, of course). She had just returned home from her ESL (English as a Second Language) class. A couple of weeks prior, she had discovered a cache of old fireworks out in my workshop. The stash consisted of firecrackers, roman candles, sparklers, and things that shoot straight up into the heavens with a whirrr when you light ’em. They had been out there in the shop collecting dust and spider webs for about three years, so I was kind hesitant to let Pon set them off. We finally agreed to let her just light the sparklers. I figured that if the accelerant in these things had gone unstable over the years, at least they had little chance of doing any damage if they went south, so to speak.

sparkle!

Pon had really taken to those sparklers, and she lit up a few every night when she got home from school. That is what she was doing on this particular evening as I sat at the table writing out my exercises. The half-consumed bottle of beer, coupled with the 4-mile run I had just completed an hour earlier, had put me in a very mellow and introspective mood. I was finding myself looking up and around my yard, more than I was looking down at my studies.

As Pon lit her third sparkler, I got a whiff of the strong gunpowder-y smell. I turned to look at my wife, who was standing in the shadows, out of reach of the porchlight. The light from the sparks cast her face in a yellow-orange glow. She was softly singing a song. I could not hear the words of the song, but I knew that a) I had heard it many times before; and b) it was, of course, a Thai song. All of these sensory inputs; the beer, the gunpowder smell, the lights, and the warm evening, the singing, instantly took me back to last year’s Loy Krathong in Pon’s village of Bahn Bong Chang.

Loy Krathong probably needs no introduction with this group of readers, but just a brief description for the uninitiated. This is how it is described in the 1999 printing of the Dorling Kindersley Travel Guide for Thailand.

One of Thailand’s best-loved national festivals. Pays homage to the goddess of rivers and waterways, Mae Khongkha. In the evening, people gather at rivers, lakes, and ponds to float krathongs.

krathong
A Thai lady floating a krathong.

Now, I had been in Thailand during Loy Krathong before, but never had I spent the holiday way off the beaten track, with no farang (I can only assume) for miles. I had never seen another pale face while there, even when we went to the fairly large outdoor market that is only about 20 km outside of Chiang Rai. Pon had told me, on my first visit to her village, that many of the schoolchildren in that little hamlet had never actually seen a farang in the flesh. This little fact, which was kind of hard to believe, was corroborated whenever I went for a nightly run at the elementary school that is adjacent to Pon’s parents’ house. I had no sooner completed a lap around the grounds, when I was followed by about 8-10 boys (and some girls on bikes). Quite an oddity I must’ve been. After two weeks of nightly runs, and the same gaggle of kids following my footfall, my flattery at being a spectacle wore off a bit (for those people who fantasize of being famous, and being observed constantly, think twice. While my situation was nothing like that, I got the feeling that this must be what the paparazzi become like after awhile. Being famous probably isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. I loved those little kids, and never showed even a hint of annoyance, but a quiet run to myself at the end of the day is like therapy to me. Quiet and lonely it never was in Bahn Bong Chang).

Anyways, I digress. It doesn’t take a geography whiz to realize that Chiang Rai is kind of landlocked. Oh sure, there is a big river going by, and a small pond dots the landscape here and there. But for the majority of the people living in the countryside, there is no body of water in which to float your krathong. At least I never saw anything to prove otherwise. What they did have, however, was something else that floated in another way entirely. Here it is:

air krathong!!

Forgive the blurriness; I tried to find the right setting on my digital camera, but it wasn’t happening. What you’re seeing is a group of people that have a large plastic silo-shaped balloon. The balloon is open at the bottom just like the hot air balloon that people ride in. These guys hold the balloon over an open flame and fill it with hot air. They then release it and it floats way way way up in the sky, with the fire trapped inside! It looks really cool. Especially if it floats past the full moon (which is always in the sky during Loy Krathong).

full moon in Bahn Bong Chang
This picture was actually taken in Bahn Bong Chang on Loy Krathong. The moon is behind a tree.

Pon and I rode her father’s motorcycle to the wat to watch everybody light off fireworks, and to see them raise those balloons. Unfortunately, there were a couple of people who had imbibed a bit too much of the local spirits. They took to shooting roman candles off at each other and into the crowds. There were also a couple of close calls with some boomers, which we call M-80s in the US. One, I think, even singed the hair off of my lower leg! So we hopped on the scooter and went back to Pon’s house to light sparklers (thus the impetus for me writing this particular entry in the first place).

Loy Krathong at Bahn Bong Chang
Back at Pon’s house in Bahn Bong Chang.

It truly was a great evening. Everybody obviously enjoyed themselves immensely. I liken it to the 4th of July here in the States, but with a bit of a religious twist to it. Earlier in the day, we had accompanied Pon’s father to an altar. He took a cooked chicked and a bottle of the village homebrew (akin to moonshine, I think). He put the chicken on the alter, along with a cup of the alcohol. He said some words and we prayed. Later on in the evening, Pon lit a row of candles in front of a small Buddha image in the house. Then we went to sleep with the sounds of boomers in the distance.

Buddha by candlelight

Isn’t it amazing how just a few sensory cues can send you vividly back to such wonderful memories. I could close my eyes on my deck the other evening and almost relive last year’s Loy Krathong as if it were happening all over again. I hope this entry evokes memories of your own speical Loy Krathong. Enjoy.

Another Blog About My First Trip To Thailand

Ever since I first picked up that book on the Thai language, back in 1990, I had always dreamt of going to Thailand. It consumed my thoughts. One time, the navy ship that I was stationed upon had a stop-over in Roosevelt Roads, Puerto Rico. I spread out a tatami mat on one of the upper levels of the ship to sun myself. I was accompanied by that ever-present Thai language book (by now a creased and curved companion). As I lay on my stomach on that mat, I looked out on the bay (I can still smell the Banana Boat tanning oil). The palm trees in the distance were some of the first palm trees I had ever laid eyes on. There was no wind, and that tropical heat was like a heavy blanket on my body. It was even hard to take a breath, such was the humidity. The sun was a small hot dot in the hazy sky. This was something that I was not used to, coming from the northwestern part of the US.

When I looked off at those distant palm trees, I tried to pretend that I was in Thailand, and I imagined that this was how it probably looked. For just a brief, achingly brief moment, I think I tricked myself into believing that I was truly there. I wanted to be there sooo very much. I know how Wit feels, as he waits for his first trip to Thailand. It seems like it will never come; you feel as if you’re missing something. You know in your heart that that is where you truly belong. Yes, readers, I really felt these things before I ever set foot over there. These feelings were only reinforced tenfold after my first visit. The desire to live there is stronger today than ever before. Unbeknownst to me on that oppressingly hot day in Roosevelt Roads, Puerto Rico, my maiden trip to Thailand was still nine long years away! 🙁

During the first US invasion of Iraq in 1991, my ship (The USS Virginia-CGN 38) went to the Mediterranean Sea, and we sailed around in circles off of the coast of Egypt. Once in a while we would head up to the mouth of the Suez Canal and launch a tomahawk missile or two into Baghdad. My job allowed me access to a navigational computer that told me the ship’s exact location in degrees of latitude and longitude. I stared at these numbers, particularly when we headed east (towards Thailand). As the number changed, I thought to myself, “We are getting closer to Thailand. Maybe we will go through the canal, into the Red Sea, out to the Arabian Sea, and go towards India (a far-fetched dream that would never happen). One of my friends, who knew of my intense desires to go to Thailand, jokingly said that if this ship did get near India, that I would probably dive overboard and swim ashore! Ahh..who knows…

More Bangkok Traffic
Always a source of amazement to me!

As I had written earlier, during my first trip to Bangkok, I had stayed in a large house in Bangkapi which lacked air conditioning. Once upon a time, that house had been a lone dwelling in a large field, interspersed with small copses of palm trees. The land around the house had been sold off in parcels, piece by piece, until only a small yard remained to the left, and in front of the house. A small, dingy klong ran achingly-slow behind. To the right of the house was another similar dwelling which was surrounded by a brick fence. The house that I stayed in, and it’s brother, sat at the end of a soi. In this particular area, I do believe, to the best of my recollection, these were the only true residential houses in the area. The rest of the neighborhood was a collection of the large, 4-5 story colonial concrete type of buildings that are so prevalent in Thailand.

Amazing Bite of Thai Seattle

Here in my hometown of Seattle, Washington, we have an event every July called “The Bite of Seattle”. This festival is held at Seattle Center. Seattle Center is a large chunk of property right amidst the tall buildings of the largest city in the State of Washington, USA. It has carnival rides, games of chance, and large open areas, fairgrounds if you will, that surround a big fountain that spurts laser-colored water in time to the beat of classical music.
Everybody, all year long, looks forward to this festival; which the locals refer to as, “The Bite”. As in…

“Hey, Ray, you goin’ to The Bite this year?” (one friend to another in the line of the local Starbuck’s, which are on every corner) The reply, more likely than not will be, “Yes”.

A little background about “The Bite”. It started several years ago. Not “several years” in Thai time; which would be about 200 years ago. I’m talking about several years ago in United States time (that would be within the last 30 years).
This event hosts local-area restaurants. All of these restaurants set up little booths on the fairgrounds, which have small kitchens in the rear. They cook some of their signature dishes and serve them to the masses for about $4-$5 a pop. This gets the name of their respective restaurants on the tongue tips of the public; and it exposes otherwise-fastfood-going-locals to prepared fare other than Mr. Ronald McDonald’s.

Space Needle
A beautiful Seattle afternoon ‘neath the Space Needle.

>Fruit Carving
This lady carved miraculous things out of fruit!

Wow!
A final product!

Every year there is a specific theme to this particular festival. Well guess what, folks? This year’s theme was…drumroll please…”Amazing Thailand!” bum-ba-da-bum!! (my attempt at trumpets blaring). What this meant was that a lot of Seattle-area Thai restaurants (and there are a ton of them) got together in one corner of the fairgrounds. They had a large stage in the center of their respective booths. This stage was the scene of all sorts of Thai-oriented spectacles. There was a Muay Thai demonstration, a couple of authentic dance demonstrations, and a whole bunch of classical Thai music demonstrations.

Classical Dance
She must have been hot. It was 90 degrees F today!

Long story short folks….it was a gorgeously hot day in the Emerald City, and I ate a ton of delicious Thai food while being subjected to sights, sounds, and smells that were truly Thai. Pon and I felt truly at home today. I’ve included some pictures from our afternoon.

P.S.-Just as Wit has extended his hospitality to anyone visiting D.C., Pon & I do that same for any of our “blog” friends that may visit our fair city. The door is always open.

The Fountain
This is that fountain I told y’all about.

Pon’s First Snow

12 days after Pon’s visa was approved, we touched down in Seattle, WA. A first time on US soil, foreign soil for that matter, for my soon-to-be wife. We collected our baggage and headed out onto the sidewalk to be picked up. Since 9/11, of course you cannot be met at your flight by family and friends. I had arranged to have my good Thai friends, Lex and Ahn, pick us up. I wanted Pon to have friendly non-Farang faces meeting her in her first minutes in this faraway place (more on that later).

..Lex, Anh, their daughter, Pon, and I
Christmas Eve at Kuhn Lex’s

One thing that I had hoped for, as we headed to the US, was for Pon to be able to see snow. She had never seen it! 26 years and the closest she had ever come to snow was when she watched movies or news footage on t.v.! In Seattle, we are always good for a couple of light dustings of the stuff, but seldom do we get a good dumping! However, if you want that, it is only a 30 minute drive into the mountains. Then you get all the snow you can handle.

I know that this is a blog post for Thailand, and Thai stuff, and this story really is a stretch for that topic, so I will keep it short. It was just such a kick to take a Thai person, who has never seen snow, up into a raging snow storm! What a way to be introduced to snow, eh?!!!
Here are some pictures of that day. Needless to say, Pon is addicted to snow now. She loves it! The look on her face..and that HUGE smile. It was such a huge treat to see her so happy!

Together in America at last!
She’s trying not to look freezing!

Pon is writing her name.
Writing her name.

Very happy.
A picture really does say a thousand words!

One Night In Bangkok

“Bangkok, oriental city….and the city don’t know what the city is getting” (Murray Head–One Night In Bangkok; 1984)

I think that this might have been the first time that I had heard of the city of Bangkok. It was 1984 and I was just a young kid living in the suburbs of Seattle. It was a cool song, but I thought nothing of it. Just some catchy tune about playing chess somewhere overseas. I must admit though, those flutes near the end of the song kinda gave me goosebumps….

Flash forward 16 years

Sunset in Bangkok
A view from outside of Pon’s apartment building

Dateline Bangkok, Mid-March of 2000

The Collapse
A typical sight after the financial collapse

That previous photo is typical of what happened after the financial collapse of Thailand back in the late 1990s. Lots of highrise buildings were left unfinished. A myriad still unfinished to this day in 2005 (I can’t remember which BTS platform it is; but on one of them you can see a partially completed skyrise just opposite you. All sorts of graffiti decorates the interior of that concrete husk).

Anyways, I got off the Eva Airways plane at Don Meuang in March of 2000. Being a Navy boy, I had traveled all about our blue orb. I had not, however, been to any place so exotic as Bangkok, Thailand at the onset of hot season. Folks, I would like to sit here and tell you that I was a well-seasoned traveler; but holy cow!….was Bangkok on another planet!?

Pandemonium
Some typical Bangkok craziness

My girlfriend at the time, Jum, steered me about in my culture-shock-induced zombie state. I grabbed my luggage and followed her towards the sliding doors that led to the taxi stand. Ohh-ohhh-uh? Ummm….what the..? Did you see all those people..? and all those taxis waiting for the people..? (take my advice, friends..and, shhhh, keep it to yourselves. Ready? When you get your luggage..take the elevator up to the next floor. The taxis are dropping people off and they aren’t queued up in a line. They aren’t supposed to accept riders (so I’ve heard), but you’ll never wait for a taxi at the airport again).

At the time, I didn’t know about that cool little trick (probably now obsolete with the new airport and all), and neither, evidentally did Jum. We stood in that taxi stand for while and then got our taxi. We went for a very long ride to Bahngapi, where her grandma had a house (no A/C).

Looking back on it all, keeping in mind that it was my first trip to Thailand, I had a very good time (obviously, as I have kept coming back).
Could I have done things better? Of course I could have, which is why I keep coming back. I need to perfect my holiday! 🙂

I meet Chang again!
Cheers!!