Saturday, March 29, 2008

San Bruno Mountain County Park

Take the Pied Piper. Give him four children to lead on a gentle gravel path amongst spring flowers in the rolling hills of the San Bruno mountains.

Make the children four little giggling girls under 5 years of age, the youngest just half of that with an appetite for raisins. Add fierce gusts of winds on some parts, sun all the way through and skipping little girls picking up rocks in their pockets.

Sprinkle California poppies, blue-eyed daisies, sticky monkey flowers and Douglas irises in the green grasses. Fear the shiny leaves of poison oak.

Insert a side trail through watery bogs and a level finish amongst eucalyptus trees back on Saddleback Trail. However, if you want the travelers to get to destination, do not ever ever tell the Pied Piper the hike is going to be 2.5 miles long.


Friday, March 28, 2008

Puppets at the Parkside Library

Celebrate the San Francisco Library Puppet Festival! Each month of March is dedicated to our friends the puppets and we had to see a show before the month was over. As this week coincides with my girls' Spring Break, it was a good way to entertain them too. When you're 4.6 and 2.6 years old, puppets are the best kind of entertainment. We went to see "The Boy Who Cried Wolf" at the Parkside Library.

The Puppet Art Theater is a long-standing puppet company in the Bay Area and they are unique in that they write their scripts and make their puppets. Just like Children's Fairyland in Oakland has their own (fantastic) puppeteers, Fairy Tale Town in Sacramento has the Puppet Art Theater as a visiting guest. In addition to their Sacramento commitments, these puppeteers tour the Bay Area from North to South and East to West so check out their calendar of events to catch them on the go.

"The Boy Who Cried Wolf" was great. I've always been impressed by the ability of puppeteers to modulate their voices according to the character and their inimate knowledge of the public. This show was no exception. As soon as the furry purple puppet Fellula got on stage, all the kids at the library started laughing. There's magic in this. Just by appearing and dawdling around, Fellula brought smiles to everybody's face.

Then came the bleeting sheep who went "Baa! Baa! Baa!" while skipping everywhere, the little shepherd who was late and wanted to play tricks on his dad, the dad who installs a 2008 Wolf Alarm with two red police lights and calls the sheep "Here Lammie lammie lammie", and the wolf who's not so bad after all. My girls (especially the older one) loved it.

After that, we headed towards McCoppin Park, a four-block city park with a cute sandy playground. A tall structure with high steps and big slide kept my older busy during an hour (up and down and up and down again) while the little one discovered a new sense of balance and spent her time going sideways along climbing structures. I was surprised by how much time we spent in such a small space. Granted, the place was almost all ours and it was sunny but still. If not for these two heavily-repeated activities, we wouldn't have lasted half an hour.

Monday, March 17, 2008

One Night in Bangkok

Just when I'm back in San Francisco, I find myself sending tips on nights out in Bangkok to newfound friends. Here they are.

The best live blues and rock will be found at the Saxophone Pub & Restaurant at the Victory Monument. Great Thai and Filipino bands with good scene-view tables upstairs if you want to grab a bite. Even if I've never been a jazz fan, I have to say that the Brown Sugar on Soi Sarasin offers the best jazz gigs in Bangkok if only because it's been a staple of the music scene for so long and has attracted so many talents.

In the Thai music department, there's quite a bit to be said. After my younger brother converted me to Thai folk music a few years ago, I started listening to legendary Ad Carabao, a Thai political song writer who plays acoustic guitar. Given his fame and songwriting skills, he'd be the Johnny Cash of Siam. Now, if I wanted to listen to good Thai folk music, I'd probably head to the Raintree Pub & Restaurant another Victory Monument hangout. The Tawandang German Brewhouse at Rama III is known for its night shows mixing dancing girls, shadow puppets, Elvis covers, Thai ballads and the like.

Last but definitely least, Bangkok sports some great dragqueen shows, some in formal theatres such as the Mambo Cabaret, but the show I saw didn't have the zing and efficiency of the slowest scene in Priscilla Queen of the Desert. For hot stuff, I'd say head to Patpong's gay clubs such as the DJ Station. The midnight daily shows are famous.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Floating Market at Amphawan

There are several floating markets around Bangkok and the infamous Damnoen Saduak market has long become a tourist trap. Rather than squeezing on a long tail with a carload of fellow tourists, I decided to look for other options. Fortunately, in an effort to revitalize sleeepy neighborhoods, several new markets on waterways have been recently created. The Bangkok Post recently ran a story about new floating markets in Thonburi, near Bangkok. Amphawan, one and a half hour south of Bangkok in Samut Songkhram province, is the fruit of similar efforts.

Driving to Samut Songkhram, you'll see many a salt farm with wind mills and roadside stalls selling rock salt and fine salt by the kilogram. It's one of the local productions alongside pomelo (som-o) and palm sugar.
Amphawan Nam Talad (Amphawan floating market) happens to be an afternoon-evening floating market, the kind that caters to diners and fireflies enthusiasts. It looks like early morning markets sell more produce while evening ones feature more restaurants on boats. As a result, when we got to Amphawan round 4pm, the market wasn't open yet. We parked in front of beautiful traditional thai buildings by the Wat Amphawan and decided to visit them.

Luck had it that Amphawan has one of the nicest gardens I've strolled through in a long time: the King Rama II Memorial Park. With acres of green lawns, landscaped canals with lotus flowers, wooden buildings built in traditional Thai style and displays of traditional artefacts ranging from antique puppets and benjarong ceramic to musical instruments, it is almost more worth the trip than the actual market.

Being wheeled around, my grandmother marvelled at the different species of trees in bloom. Stopping by a banyan tree overshadowing a pond, my grandmother remarked that there were probably fishes who'd like to eat some bread. By coincidence, I had a bread stick left from lunch in my bag. My four-year-old ran by the water and broke down her stick. In a matter of seconds, the water was covered in riddles and fish came jumping out from below. My two-year-old squealed in delight and followed her sister's footsteps by the canal. It made my grandmother's day.

After all the bread was gone, we strolled between coconut trees, bread trees and banana trees, all laden with fruit. The gentle blossoms of the hibiscus and plumeria filled the air with sweet scents. By then, it was time to head to the market and so we did.

Leaving lush quiet gardens behind us, we entered the hustle and bustle of the street market leading to the canal. It was a Thai food lover's dream: coconut custards steamed in clay pots, fried shrimp pancakes, sticks of meatballs covered in sweet spicy sauce, tiny rice doughnuts, barbecued bamboo sticks filled with sweet sticky rice and red beans, curries steamed in banana leaf boats and more. We hurried long as we had to be back in Bangkok for dinner time.

Finding a boat was easy, there are several by the left side of the foot bridge. We paid Baht 600 (roughly $16) for a 40-minute ride. The boat quickly left the market behind as it mainly consists of a few blocks by the water. We then got to big river, the Mae Klong, which we raced through during twenty minutes. On my signal to come back, we entered a smaller canal and the best part of the trip began.

Wooden houses on stilts were coming to life after a hard day's work. Lights on, home interiors revealed to us their bare furnishings, shell decorations and hammocks by the boardwalk. Grandmothers were cycling home with grandchildren, seniors were idly sitting by the river feet dangling above the murky waters, fishermen waist deep in the canal were throwing their nets in front of us. I even saw a few signs for homestays, evidence that tourism is taking new forms in Thailand. Local is in!
As night was drawing nearer, we reached the pier. Time to go home.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Prayang and Chai Manee Get Married

Prayang and Chai Manee got married on March 13, 2008. Each time we learn about a wedding in the village, it's because they come in two versions: loud and louder. We live a block away and yet there was no doubt from early morning on the day before. Music blaring out powerful loudspeakers was a giveaway. Sitting by the pool under the plumeria (or frangipani) trees, I listened to the Khmer and Chinese melodies. Around mid-morning, I thought to myself that I rather liked one of them. It sounded famliar too. That was until I realized it was the Khmer rendition of Sonny and Cher's "I Got You Babe"! There was no sign of the music dying down any time soon so I candidly asked around if I could go attend the wedding. After all, we're neighbors. By mid-afternoon, I packed my camera, videocamera and an enveloppe with a donation for the bride's parents.

As I walked to the house, I expected to find hundreds of people mingling on the street and getting out of pick up trucks. Not so. The place was empty. Empty chairs sitting around empty tables. The wedding was not due til the following day so they were setting up. The morning music was merely rehearsing the following day's program. However, I was directed to the upstairs and only room of the wooden house. As I arrived on the landing of the stairs, I realized that the bride and groom were in the middle of a blessing with four monks and an officiant. I felt embarassed but I was ushered inside before I could back down. Show time.

A loud whisper followed my entry and all heads turned to me. More reason to be embarassed. On the front row, nobody had noticed me yet and the ceremony was going on without interruption. I knelt on the ground when a little old lady shoved someone else aside to make room for me. Her wide grin showed years of betelnut chewing, the scary-looking bloody gums with yellow teeth. Several old ladies around me also belonged to the betelnut club. They were wearing the traditional sarong with a silk scarf wrapped around the shoulders. In the far right corner of the room, a reduced television crew was bliding us with lights and recording the ceremony. To my further embarassment, the camera stayed a long time on me. I put up my best behavior, hands joined in a high wai and legs to the side, peeking over people's shoulders to figure out what was going on.

I must have peeked too hard because all of a sudden, I was gently pushed to the front of the scene with the cameraman. I smiled to the bride and groom and the bride smiled back after a few (long) seconds of "what the heck?". Sitting underneath the lights I felt sweat dripping down my back and felt for the bride and groom.

They were both wearing a purple and gold jonkrabeng with white long-sleeved tops and lots of shiny jewelry from waist to head. If not for the occasional head bending to receive the monks blessings, these two were as lively as wax figures, as tradition demands.

Since I was so close to the ceremony, I began taking pictures and filming the scene. There was nowhere for me to hide so I might as well take advantage of the location.

I tried to understand what the objects in front of me were but with no knowledge of the Khmer language and hardly any of their customs, it was a big guessing game derived from my Thai experiences. The one thing that struck me was that objects, candles, offerings came in pairs whereas in Thailand they would have been counted in odd numbers for good luck. In front of me, two bright pink rectangular boxes. I couldn't help wonder. I was told later they included costumes for the bride and groom.

My phone rang and I left it at that. Upon leaving, I went to pay my respects to the parents of the bride and handed over my donation. Wide grin. At least on that point, I'd done the right thing. Downstairs, village children were playing amongst the empty tables.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Mekhong = Environmental Disaster in Cambodia

A few miles outside Phnom Penh, the dirt and tar promenade gives way to rural villages living in harmony with the Mekhong river. Houses are built on stilts or high up on the river banks. When the rainy season comes, the river grows and grows until fields are flooded and roads covered. I went on a boat ride in the nearby countryside three years ago. I could see fence posts coming out of the water and people living on boats. Under us were fields of rice and greens waiting for the waters to recede.

However more recently, the Mekhong river has been facing a major crisis and I wanted to find out more. A combination of the river altering its course and dams built upstream are redefining the landscape. Houses that were formerly by the riverside are now eight feet above solid ground all year long, looking at the river a half mile away. Low snow levels in the Himalayas and more concerning, a string of recent dams (built in China mainly, but also in Laos and Vietnam) upstream are blamed for a dramatic change in the lower Mekhong river region's ecosystems and habitats. Since countries down the river don't seem to be consulted before major dams block their access to water, it doesn't look like this problem will be reversed anytime soon.

My mother's house used to have a lovely view on the river. Now she has a lovely view on green thickets full of snakes and boats passing far away look a lot smaller than before. The Mekhong river used to a long stretch of silver brown waters to the other side. Now the river is cut in half by rising sand islands that get bigger and drier every year.

I went for a walk down to the riverside with a friend to check it out. Locals make a good business out of selling sand recovered from the bottom of the river so right next to my mother's house, they built a dirt road for easier access. At least, we didn't have to worry about our ankles and snakes on the way down. When we reached the sandy shore, there was a car parked on the beach and men loading up a drill and boxes on a makeshift raft. My friend explained they were going to get sand.

Further up the stream, I could make out a party of young people playing in the water. How deep could it be? I walked in the river to get a feeling for it. The sand was fine and mixed with dirt that sent clouds of brown around my steps. Tiny fishes were swarming in the warm waters. The slope was super slow and to get to swimming depth, I would probably have needed to go far. I wasn't looking to swim though. I was way too afraid to step on fishing hooks or dusty beer cans.

We looked at the island in the middle of the river. It used to be shoulder to shoulder fishermen's boats, my friend explained. Now there was only one left. As we were standing there, a larger boat made its way past us. Because the river has become so shallow, it can't get close to the edge anymore.

As we were leaving, the group of young people came close. Some rowed, some ran, a little one was carried by older members of the group. One of them went looking inside a hollolw tree trunk on the beach. He first removed a dirty old shirt, then a green mango. When the others saw the mango, they all started chasing him in the water. Fortunately there were other mangoes in the tree trunk. Life on the Mekhong.

Shopping in Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh still has the charm of years gone by. Streets offer an incredible sight of mayhem on wheels with cyclists crossing the path of motorists cutting off buses jerking off their way and almost pushing the local tuk tuks in the gutter. Phnom Penh also has a few interesting shopping spots that are worthy of attention.

The Russian market is probably the most touristy and awkward attraction. The only Khmers you'll see there sell stuff to foreigners. Oh my the amount of stuff! Shelves of silk in all bright colors, wooden tables overflowing with local celadon pottery, dusty musty stalls of antiques and antiques-look-alikes, thousands of pirate DVDs in plastic jackets with all proper copyright mentions, garment shops selling American brands that fell off the truck, food stalls with curries and marinated clams, silk elephant keychains and local embroidered rucksacks. There's literally anything and everything. Strolling through the alleys to buy some celadon teapots and cups as gifts for my girls' friends back in San Francisco, I was regularly intercepted by beggar children offering to polish my shoes. I guess nowadays they can't just beg anymore. They have to offer some sort of service. As revolting as the idea of begging children is, at least those weren't too young, between 6 and 10 years of age. I've seen toddlers in the past and that's really hard to stomach. Sadly giving them money is not helping the problem so I told them off and bought my pottery.

Away from the rustle and bustle of the Russian and Central markets are some beautiful shops catering to locals or better-off foreigners.

Ambre is one of my favorite designer shops ever. The owner, Romyda Keth, was formerly educated in Paris and started a clothing line a few years back. She's now very successful and the old business has expanded to a beautiful colonial house where you can browse through the collections in color-coded rooms. Elegant women are the target audience, but also children and now a growing line for men. I love the simple lines as much as complicated ruffles and embroideries, beads and different textures. Apart from thew silk models. most dresses are machine washable and I've used them in all sorts of social gatherings in the US and in France. Regardeless of your shape and size, Ms. Keth can adapt any of her models. She's got 120 seamstresses working in an adjoining building and new dresses turn up in 48 hours or less. Casual/cocktail dresses go for roughly $80-120 but wedding and evening dresses cost more.

On the Quai Sisawath is Decor de Chine (formerly known as Orient), an antique store run by a French brother-sister team. They do everything from hunting down unique pieces in remote provinces of China to lovingly restoring them by hand. Behind two heavy wooden doors right on the river front, their collection of fine pieces attracts visitors from every nationality. If you are looking for genuine beautiful Chinese or Tibetan antiques, that would be the place to go.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Three child-friendly restaurants in Bangkok

While Bangkok is home to a multitude of excellent restaurants, not all qualify as child-friendly for various reasons. We recently went to a few very enjoyable places and I thougt I'd mention them for the traveler parent with preschoolers in tow.
The Food Loft, located on the 6th Floor of the Central Chidlom, is a revamped version of a food court. Think ethnic food booths (Western, Thai, Japanese, Chinese, Desserts) with clean tables at the back, dining room with fountain flowing and DJ table ready for groovin'. The prices are a bit steep for Bangkok but it's clean good fun for the kids. Their stylish highchairs and super-clean restrooms make for extra bonus.

The Dusit Thani Shogun Japanese restaurant makes for a great outing if you choose the Teppan Yaki option as your family will be able to enjoy of talent show right at your table. Teppan Yaki is a full meal cooked on a gas grill right in front of your eyes, the chef swinging his arms in graceful maneuvers on the grill to cook your meat, vegetables and rice to perfection. Children just love it. The other thing they'll enjoy is the giant bib everybody gets (kids and adults) and the children plastic tray with matching Hello Kitty cutlery. What's not to like?

Every international hotel in Bangkok offers first class buffets but the Dining Room at the Grand Hyatt Regency is one of a kind. First, if your little ones get antsy, the lobby is surrounded by lush palm trees and a stream flowing through rocks and pebbles. Second, the children will certainly find something they like, if only the chocolate fountain for dessert! Third, there are Chinese carps and big goldfish in the street level ponds. Last, the hotel is two doors away from one of Bangkok's best attractions, the Erawan shrine. If you're lucky, you may be able to see Thai traditional dances offered by worshippers to make their wishes come true.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Bang Pa In and Ayuddhya

Bang Pa In and Ayuddhya make for a wonderful day trip from Bangkok mixing landscaped Victorian gardens, elephant rides and medieval ruins.

Bang Pa In used to be the summer residence of the king of Thailand. It is now a museum open to the public and a pleasant day excursion from the City of Angels, if only to visit its beautiful gardens with manicured lawns, topiary trees and wooden pavilions. As an added bonus, we rented an electric car to visit the extensive grounds which my girls thoroughly enjoyed. We all climbed on top of a Chinese tower to look at the Chinese Throne Hall. What a view! Not for the faint-hearted though, the railing is pretty low.

Ayuddhya was our second stop and probably my girls' favorite. At ages 4 and 2 years, they are unfortunately too young to appreciate the beauty of 17th century Thai temples such as Wat Yai Chaya Mongkol (the Great Temple of Auspicious Victory), the only wat we visited. However they squealed with delight when we went on an elephant ride at the nearby Pha Nakhon Sri Ayutthaya Historical Park.

The idea behind the elephant rides is not simply to take a tacky picture under a golden umbrella. It's also to help elephants make a living in modern day Thailand when their services are no longer required at the fields, battles or in the forests. To date, the Ayutthaya Elephant Camp has provided a home and a purpose for more than 100 domesticated elephant with the generous support of visitors who take advantage of the once-in-a lifetime opportunity for a elephant ride. We, on our side, loved the ride and my four-year-old spent 20 minutes feeding sugar canes and watermelon quarters to the elephants on our way back. This is a rare enterprise in Thailand where wildlife preservation is association with touristic endeavours.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Turtle Temple

Bangkok sometimes reserves surprises in the most unlikely places. Wat Phrayoonwong, a Rama III temple near the Memorial Bridge on the Thonburi side of the river, is host to a colony of dozens of turtles. The turtles are such a staple at this temple that worshippers come from everywhere to feed the turtles and pray for long lives.

Wat Phrayoonwong is an oddity in the realm of Thai temples because it mainly consists of a stucco island on a pond with a surrounding walkway replete with miniature replicas of houses hosting ashes of deceased locals. The replicas (some of them boats or ornate storied little buildings) are weird but interesting for children who might see them as doll houses (except for the black and white picture of the "inhabitants"). However the main attraction here is a four-legged amphibian.

When you enter the temple, pick a plate or two (each 10 Baht or $ 0.3) of turtle food: split fish balls, cut up bananas or balls of dry food. The stench emanating from the pond combined with the food "ripening" in the sun with flies can be slightly overpowering, but it's well worth a try. Then everyone picks a three-foot long sharp stick and the show begins. We squatted by a small terrace right by the entrance where we'd seen a few turtles. Some were baking in the sun, some were swimming, some were walking around. The bananas were a hit. Toothless creatures, the turtles had a harder time with the fish balls.

My two girls were squeaking with delight. "Maman, help me feed another one!" they asked. I was holding on tight to my accident-prone two-year-old because the idea of jumping in this marsh was really not appealing. After a while, the turtles gave place to humongous catfish fighting for the fish balls (fish cannibalism, sort of). We could see their big whiskers frantically swaying under the water and their oval mouths wide open. As the turtles grew tired of their treats, we moved further along and when even the catfish showed little interest, I threw a plate half full of fish balls up in the air. Our little excursion thus finished in a fish ball firework followed by a squirmy battle under water.

We were far from home but to please my little girls, we took a tuk tuk on the way back. Ah, the simple pleasure of inhaling bus fumes in a traffic jam in Bangkok's Pahurat neighborhood lined with fabric shops...

Monday, March 3, 2008

DreamWorld: The World of Happiness

Want a theme park fix and cant fly to Anaheim or Tokyo? Bangkok boasts two major amusement parks, the aging Siam Park and the more recent Dream World. Both are located an hour away from Bangkok and while Siam Park is known for its water park, Dream World heavily advertises its Snow Town, a climate-controlled warehouse with snow slides and Christmas tunes breaking your ears. Snow-deprived Thai people love it.

I remember going to Siam Park as a teenager and loving it. The water park, the unavoidable sun burn, the scary roller coaster, it was great. I also remember looking at a big ride with metallic cages taking you around a big wheel. We all knew it was a third-hand ride and rumor had it it killed two people when their gates sprung open at the highest point of the ride. Siam Park unfortunately has a sad record of accidents killing or injuring children and I would not feel comfortable going on the high rides there.

We chose to go to Dream World instead, if only because I'd never been and wanted to check it out. It's divided into four different areas with alluring names such a Dream Garden, Fantasy Land, Adventure Land and Dream World Plaza. While it's nowhere near as professional as Disneyland, it's still good fun in pleasantly landscaped gardens.

Foreigners get to buy an all-rides-included ticket at 450 Baht ($15) per person above 90 cm, while Thai people pay by the ride (discrepancies in prices according to Thai/non-Thai are very common in Thailand). We started out strolling in the cutesy Fairy Tales Land, a garden with stucco replicas of storybook landmarks, most including automated wax figures. As much as it was fun to see the seven dwarves snoring in their beds in the little thatched house and an old woman knitting in a giant shoe, it was creepy watching poor Hansel and Gretel behind bars while the witch was rolling dough in her gingerbread cottage. We moved on to a house inspired by Jack and the Beanstalk called the Giant House. It had oversized furniture and the giant snoring on a giant bed and scary sounds that totally spooked both my girls. "Out!" they screamed. And out we went.

We went on to the Adventure Land part of the park, passing by two elephants whose feet were chained and seemed to be readied for elephant rides and banana feedings. My girls hardly paid attention to the elephants, lured by a commercial mall of flashy stuffed Kitty Kats and other tasteful memorabilia. Right after a small petting farm called Uncle Tom's Farm (with a small goat on leash outside the fence for everyone's petting desires), I tried to go to the Haunted Mansion with one of my girls. The first one chickened out before we even went in and the second one didn't make it past the first room. To her credit, I have to admit it was rather scary. In typical Thai fashion, safety concerns are low on the list of priority so the room was hardly lit at all and a light garland was supposed to lead the visitor up carpeted stairs with candelabras going on and of and ghostly sounds filling the room. Perfect for Halloween but thank you no. We much preferred the Bumping Boats ride, a water version of bumping cars on a small lake. Right behind that, a big sign awaited us. "Snow Town". I just couldn't resist.

First off, you trade your shoes for rubber boots in the same size. Then you receive a padded jacket and once properly dressed, you're allowed in that big freezer. It's minus 6 degrees Celsius in there. I don't know what's most outlandish in Snow Town. Is it the plaster igloo? The Christmas lights and Jingle Bells in March? or the Swiss mountains painted on the walls looking on the white and icy sliding hill? Hard to tell. Regardless, Thai people seem to love it. We were getting cold in our thin rubber boots so we exited shivering. "Is it that cold in America?" asked Pi Thawin who was accompanying us. Colder sometimes, I replied. He raised his eyebrows and shook his head in disbelief.

The far end of the park was much more appropriate to my little girls' adventure thirst than the early rides. Between flying spaceships in Thunder Bird, little boats floating down a blue stream in a plastic tube called Indian Boat, flying helicopter-fish called Flying Fish and small cars going around on a raised track called Monza, it's the real preschooler part of Dream World. My girls had a blast paddling on their boats and flying in their fishes, asking for seconds and thirds every time.

The other thing they really enjoyed in that area was watching the big round rafts of the Grand Canyon ride rushing down white waters with their occupants being splashed from head to toe. It was a lot of fun. By then, my girls were getting tired and it was time to retreat.

I stopped to buy some fresh guavas and watermelon on the way back and when I turned around, there was a dozen people surrounding my little one's stroller and posing for pictures around her. With her fair complexion and strawberry blond hair, Thai people call her "little doll" and she's usually a squeaking young women's magnet. In the meantime, a basketball game keeper had "adopted" my oldest one and kept handing balls to her during a good twenty minutes, helping her to score here and there. A last jump on the Cable Car soaring high above the park, a go at Racing Car for my girls and we ent back home. What a day!

Toddler + Kiddie Pool = Danger

This shot almost cost me my younger daughter's life. While I was sitting in a chair waiting for my oldest daughter to jump so that I could take the picture at the right moment, my two-year-old was struggling under water in a pool under two feet deep.

I thought when children reach a certain age (2.6 years in my daughter's case), when they can walk, run and jump, you're pretty safe from them losing foot in water because they'll naturally find their balance back. WRONG. When that happened, we had been playing in a children's swimming pool (roughly 60 cm deep) for two hours. Both my girls had been going down a slide into the pool, swimming and splashing around and given the size of the pool (30 feet across?), they knew their way around. Even so, that did not prevent my daughter from losing balance and almost drown. I believe she tried to reach a kick board, slipped and started panicking.

When I put down the camera, I saw my little one struggling under water. I didn't realize right away she was drowning, I thought she was playing. When I did realize (two, three seconds maybe), my heart jumped. I ran there (six feet away) in no time and pulled her out of the water. She had been heavily swallowing water, her mouth and eyes wide open. She looked terrified. Poor thing, she was so scared. It took her a minute to get her breath back and then she cried and cried and cried. I felt like the worst mother on earth. I wanted to hug her forever and I kept saying "I'm sorry".

I undressed her right away and wrapped in a towel that had been sitting in the sun and was nice and warm. Then I called my mother. After I put down the receiver, I heard a small voice say: "I want to call Picky too." (Picky is my mom's name for her grandchildren) I dialed my mom's number again and my two-year-old explained how she fell into the water, how the swimming pool was scary, how she cried and how she was safe in a towel now.

I hope this will help prevent future accidents, not only to me but to other parents. Never guesstimate your child is safe in water however shallow the pool is. There's a reason why all swimming pools on earth require children be under adult supervision.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Siam Society

Ancient teak houses on stilts surrounded by green lawns and banana trees exist in Bangkok. You just need to know where to find them. The Siam Society, the kingdom’s foremost historical and cultural society, owns two remnants of a 19th century rural Thai houses. Built in 1848 by a northern Lanna princess on the banks of the Ping river in Chiang Mai province, the Khamthiang House was moved to Bangkok in 1966 and opened then as a museum. The Lanna culture and lifestyle are very particular to the northern part of Thailand and it is my favorite style here. Lovers of flamboyant rococo wooden snakes and elegant gilded roof lines, Lanna is for you.

That morning, my mother was meeting with Mrs Eileen Deeley, a Siam Society lecturer and expert on Chinese art, to discuss the launch of Patricia Bjalaand Welsh’s new book Chinese Art: A Guide to Motifs and Visual Imagery. I decided to show the ancient houses to my girls, to give them an idea of traditional Thai living. Before entering a Thai house, you remove your shoes. That part, my girls loved. Bare feet, they ran up the stairs to the verandah of the main house. Designed as an open plan, a raised covered terrace connects the verandah to the house which consists of a single long room. My 2-year-old paid attention to lift her feet to get past the threshold, as Thai doors in wooden houses always have a high step to keep spirits away (supposedly spirits are too dumb to get past the step). Inside the house were several educational displays on traditional ceremonies and house customs, experience enhanced by the sound of Thai music playing in the background. As typical young children, my girls immediately found the TV showing a documentary movie and sat down right in front of it.

The verandah then leads to a small room that was by far the most fun. It’s a traditional Lanna kitchen complete with vegetable baskets, earthen pots on fire stoves and utensils everywhere. The kitchen comes to life with another documentary movie showing a grandma in period costume preparing a typical dish (frog and sesbania plant curry) in the same kitchen with all the sounds of the cooking process (fire burning, grinding…) amplified through loudspeakers. My 4-year-old really enjoyed playing house by the hearth sitting on a small bamboo stool. The little one, on the other hand, ent out the other door and found the small wooden bridge leading to the other house, a rice granary. What I love in utilitarian Thai buildings is that they sometimes have a gap in the railing surrounding the house, to load and unload elephants. How cool is that?

After we repeated the tour a second time with mucho gusto, it was time to find my mom so we left the Khamthiang House and its lovely garden. So long mosquitoes...

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Thai Puppets at the Suan Lum Night Bazaar

Whenever I see the word "puppet" on paper, my heart jumps. My girls love puppets and I'm all for live performances. When I read about the traditional Thai Puppets in the Time Out Bangkok guide, I decided to attend the next performance with my little misses. Basically, there are two theatres for regular Thai puppet shows. One is a school of Thai performing arts (the Patravadi Theatre & Studio), the other one is a theatre dedicated solely to the dying art of Thai puppets (the Joe Louis Theatre). I chose the latter.

The Joe Louis Theatre is named after a famous Thai puppeteer called Sakorn Yang-keawsot (Thai: สาคร ยังเขียวสด) who was nicknamed Joe Louis. He was a master of the hun lakorn lek (traditional Thai small puppets). In 1985 he founded the Joe Louis Puppet Theatre and since 2001, the theatre has been putting on nightly shows at the Suan Lum Night Bazaar. Suan Lum Night Bazaar happens to be ten minutes away from my home so it was easier for me. Unfortunately the shows start kind of late at 8pm, which I believe is normal in an adult world. However when you look at a form of art mainly enjoyed by children, you'd appreciate an earlier seating too. Never mind.

After a brief visit at the Queen Sirikit Convention Center to browse through the Thai Travel Fair, we arrived at San Lum at 5pm. Since the box office open at 6pm and I needed to choose close sitting for my girls, I preferred to be there on the early side. We got fourth row seats (beaten to the center front seats by a large group) and the cashier actually offered me a free seat for my oldest one, suggesting I take my younger one on my lap. At 900 Bath (roughly $28) per seat, I was very grateful.

Tickets in hand, we still had to wait it out because the show wouldn't start until two hours later. Shopping! After all, that's what Suan Lum Night Bazaar is famous for. It's sort of a Chatuchak Market redux only at night. Clothes, shoes, Thai handicrafts, glasses, watches, light fixtures, framed scorpios: there's a number of the usual tourist trap selection. I was looking for a long sleeved shirt so I was happy to find a small stall selling white cotton tops. Luckily for my sweaty northern climates girls, there was a fan too. Once they discovered the "seven year itch" effect of a fan blowing under a skirt, they couldn't get enough giggles out of it. Eventually I got a shirt too and everybody was happy.

Sad to say, happy only lasted until starvation loomed on the horizon of 6.47pm. "We're hungry! We're thirsty!". Time to hit the "food court". The food section at Suan Lum Night Bazaar caters to everybody from beer-drinking Germans to middle-aged proper European couples via strolling Indian or Thai families. I almost settled for a cute biergarten under a large green tree but the prospect of ants biting my ankles while mosquitoes were having appetizers on my legs seemed less than charming. Plus, at 6.47pm in a biergarten in Bangkok, everybody around you is drinking beer and it's sort of odd surroundings for a nice toddler dinner. Therefore we crossed the street towards the restaurant of the Joe Louis Theatre. I'm glad we did.
The food was by no means outstanding. I ordered a standard khao pad moo (fried rice with pork) with gai ma-muang (chicken with cashewnuts) so there was nothing to scream about in the food selection. The drinks however made everybody happy. My littlest one had a freshly squeezed apple juice. My older one had a young coconut with a straw and a spoon (to scoop out the flesh - yum). I had a margarita. Yay!

By the time we got to our assigned seats, I thought it best to explain the plot to my girls before the show because subtitles can be confusing to read. The show featured the birth of Ganesh, a pretty complicated story with mean-looking demons forging alliances with Brahma to rule the universe and a decapitated boy, son of a powerful god but beheaded by him by mistake, coming back to life with an elephant head found in the jungle. I had never seen puppets like that, whose arms, legs and head are moved by three people dressed in black from head to toe - men for male puppets, women for female puppets. The performance was accompanied by a traditional Thai orchestra and five singers. For a moment I feared my girls would fall asleep. They did not understand the words sung in Thai and the minutely choregraphed moves of the puppets were not always self-explanatory to the outsider's eye. But no. My girls were captivated by the story. I had to promise that we'd take a tuk tuk back home as an ultimate reward because they did not want to leave and I didn't want to face competition for my transport back home. Five minutes before the end, we got up. Ganesh was about to win the battle between gods and demons. It was great. I'd happily return for another show.