I’m taking a departure from my normal travel adventures to ask for your help. We sometimes have a tendency to push tragedies out of our minds, dismissing them as having happened so far away that they really don’t impact us. We are compassionate, certainly, but we don’t really do much of anything. Today I had a vivid reminder of just how small the world is when I received an email from a friend of mine who lives on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, where I lived for nearly 11 years. He informed me that mutual acquaintances of ours, Andy and Jean Anderson, are searching for their daughter, Taylor, who hasn’t been seen since the earthquake and subsequent tsunami in Japan.
Taylor is living in Japan, teaching American culture to children in Mangokuura Elementary School in the town of Ishinomaki, which was virtually ground zero for the tsunami. She has not been heard from since the earthquake despite a previous erroneous report that she was found. The State Department is now engaged in the search and there is still hope that Taylor will be found, as many parts of the area are still physically cut off. However, resources are too few and search and rescue teams are confronted with an environment than we cannot imagine. To make matters worse, cell communication is spotty and satellite phones are desperately needed.
The United States currently has American Disaster Assistance Rescue Teams (DART) on the ground but they are not assisting with the search and rescue operations. The Andersons are asking that we all contact our Senators and Congressman and deliver a message that the State Department needs to deploy the necessary resources to find Taylor and any other American still unaccounted for in Japan.
Andy and Jean know this is a long shot, but are trying desperately to pursue every option to find their daughter. If you know anyone in the area or have any thoughts on what to do, please let them know by leaving a comment on this blog. They will be monitoring it. Taylor’s person finder record is http://japan.person-finder.appspot.com/view?id=japan.person-finder.appspot.com%2Fperson.2538296&query=. We all thank you for whatever you can do to assist, even if it just prayers or a few phone calls.
Like most people who have seen the 1957 film, any mention of the famous Bridge on the River Kwai conjures up images of leech-ridden swamps; a relentless, searing sun; and sweat-drenched prisoners marching back to camp in formation while whistling the Colonel Bogey March. With my knowledge admittedly stemming solely from the movie, I decided to take a day trip from Bangkok to Kanchanaburi to see if reality lived up to movie myth.
Based on a true-life story, the film depicts World War II British POW’s who were forced by the Japanese to build a bridge that would facilitate movement of supplies on the Burma Railroad. After a brief stop at the local War Museum, I slogged two blocks in oppressive heat to the foot of the iron trestle, gazed out over the placid stream and tried to imagine the torture prisoners had to endure in this unforgiving landscape. More than 100,000 conscripted laborers and 12,000 prisoners of war died during the project.
Stepping carefully between railroad ties and track, I crossed slowly to the other side, at one point scrunching to the railing to allow passage of a tourist-filled miniature steam locomotive that chugs across every few minutes. Although the movie ended with a spectacular explosion of the entire structure, the arched iron spans at either end are original, as are many of the iron tracks. In fact, I learned that the bridge was actually destroyed by bombers, not by explosive charges set by ground troops, as portrayed in the movie.
The list of inconsistencies and mistakes in the film is extensive but perhaps most glaring is that the river over which the bridge was built is not the Kwai. Kanchanaburi is located at the confluence of the Khwae Noi and Khwae Yai Rivers and the bridge spans the Khwae Yai. Not unsurprisingly, British corrupted the word Khwae (correctly pronounced “kwhere“) to “kwai.” Kanchanaburi, hoping to capitalize on tourism and bowing to the power of the cinema, renamed the stretch where the bridge was built to River Kwai. Still, the movie’s mystique endures. I marched back to my minivan, accompanied by rhythmic marching and whistling carried on the winds of history.
The aroma of rich coconut milk and sweet, juicy mangoes stopped me in my tracks; someone at the Damnoen Saduak floating market was whipping up my favorite Thai dessert. Sniffing the air bloodhound-style, I wandered along the narrow canal hunting for the source of the delicious smell. Like a heat-seeking missile, a Thai boat lady paddled to the edge of the pier and grinned up at me. I may have had a nose for sticky rice and mango, but she smelled an easy mark. There would be no bargaining over this sweet treat.
Deftly balancing in the gently rocking flat-bottomed boat, she leaned forward and scooped a mound of white rice from a steel pot perched on a cross slat, surrounded it with a circle of golden mango slices, drenched it all with some extra coconut syrup, and topped it with a handful of crunchy toasted rice. “Neung roi baht,” she insisted. “One hundred baht.” Helpless, I nodded my assent and dropped a bill into the plastic basket attached to a long wooden pole she thrust at me. Pulling the pole back into her boat, she replaced my bill with the platter and shoved it back over the water toward me. Practically drooling, I dug into my obscenely expensive dessert. The perfectly ripened mangoes melted in my mouth like lumps of brown sugar, while the starchy rice was sweetened with just the right amount of coconut milk. Heavenly! And worth every cent of its $3.50 price.
The sticky rice vendor serenely paddled back into the melee of floating vendors jockeying for position in the narrow khlong (canal), repeating a scene that has occurred daily since the King Rama IV ordered the Damnoenssaduak khlong dug in 1866 to to connect Read More
The Erawan Shrine beckoned me. Following its siren song, I hopped on the Sky Train, which whisked me to Chitlom station in a matter of minutes. I stepped to the edge of the elevated walkway and gazed down on the first site I had ever visited in Bangkok. On this, my fifth trip to Thailand, I seem to be meandering down memory lane and with so much change evident in Bangkok I was gratified to see that worshipers still flock to this historic site to petition the gods for fame, fortune, and success.
As Hindu holy places go, the Erawan Shrine is no more spectacular than hosts of others around Asia, but the back story is fascinating. The shrine, which has as its centerpiece a statue of Phra Phrom, the Thai representation of the Hindu creation god Brahma, was built in 1956 during construction of the government-owned Erawan Hotel. The project was plagued by cost overruns, injuries, and the loss of a shipload of Italian marble intended for use in the construction, thought to be the result of laying the foundations on an inauspicious date. An astrologer advised building the shrine to eliminate this bad karma; once it was in place, hotel construction proceeded without further difficulty, earning it the reputation as a place to pray for good fortune. When the original hotel was demolished in 1987 to make way for the Grand Hyatt Erawan, the Hyatt carefully incorporated the shrine into the design of the new facility.
The best view of the Erawan Shrine is from the elevated Sky Train walkway but nothing compares to joining the crush of supplicants at ground level. Weaving through flower vendors clogging the narrow sidewalks, I passed through the iron gates of the shrine and squeezed through to the front of the seething crowd. Worshipers placed burning incense sticks in sand trays and prostrated three times before Brahma. Others placed flowers, food, and a variety of mementos on the altar, hoping to win favor from the gods. One man, obviously in dire need of celestial help, hefted two giant trash bags through the gates and fought his way through the jostling horde to the altar. From the first bag he extracted an opulent pair of golden sequined headdresses, which an attendant prominently placed on either side of Brahma. The four large wooden elephant carvings he pulled from the second bag were given places of honor on the four sides of the shrine, and as a final offering he handed two bottles of water to the attendant to be placed on the altar, just in case Bramha was thirsty.
I’ve always loved the Humpty Dumpty sidewalks and gaping sewer holes in Bangkok. The rat’s nest of electrical wires atop telephone poles, tuk-tuks belching black smoke, and motorbikes clogging the broad avenues delighted me; not even the acrid odor of rotting trash mingled with fish sauce put me off. And so it was with great excitement that I headed back to one of my favorite cities in the world after a four-year absence.
Changes in my beloved Bangkok were immediately apparent. All the king’s men have put the sidewalks together again and nary an open sewer hole is to be found. Cars now outnumber motorbikes, although ever-present tuk-tuks still scoot through the streets, preying on tourists who don’t yet realize that riding through exhaust-suffused streets in these open-air carriages will leave them breathless and choking. But though the city’s temples are as exotic and gilded as ever, the smiles of its residents seem slightly tarnished.
Perhaps my impression is skewed because I am staying in Siam Square this time, home to a glittering collection of some of the world’s largest shopping centers. In years past I have chosen hotels in the Embassy district or hostels in Khao San Road, more commonly known as Bangkok’s backpacker district. Each has its own peculiar charm: the Embassy district is loaded with great restaurants and is conveniently located just steps from the Sukhumvit line of the BTS Sky Train, while the city’s two most popular temple complexes, The Grand Palace and Wat Po, are an easy stroll from KSR.
But for shopping, Siam Square is the place to be. Getting there is a breeze, since the Sukhumvit and Silom lines of the Sky Train converge at Siam Square, but it was even easier for me, since my hostel was a short two blocks away. After recovering from 36-hours of travel I headed out to get reacquainted with Bangkok. I climbed the stairs to the Sky Train’s elevated walkway for a bird’s eye view of the mega-retail complex. Through a constant stream of pedestrians and posters advertising upcoming concerts by Eric Clapton and The Eagles I spied the mirror-fronted MBK, a seven-story mall famous for its maze of shops and escalators Read More