Monday, December 30, 2013


I've been hanging around ChiangMai, Thailand with my friend Connie since December 20.  She's on Christmas break from her job as a counselor at an international school.  I'm over the bronchitis that came here with me and have been enjoying life as Connie's shadow.  We went to a Christmas party where I met some of her friends.  We enjoyed some all-American food at her husband's favorite "farang" restaurant on Christmas Day and ate a delicious seven course holiday feast at another of their favorite eateries the next night.  We've made popcorn and watched movies, drank wine, gone shopping for elephant pants and a few Christmas gifts for others and ourselves, and eaten most of our meals at little restaurants in Connie's neighborhood.  One day we had ice cream at this very popular place where this weird pink dog stood guard over the premises.


On this New Year's Eve, I cooked dinner for Connie and Nat, we watched a movie, and then at 11:15 p.m. we went up to the roof of her building (11 floors) to greet the New Year.  There we enjoyed the most spectacular 360° display of fireworks I've ever seen.  In every direction there were colorful displays, and down by the river there were hundreds of floating lanterns being released into the sky.  This is a Thai tradition that symbolizes a letting go of the bad things in your life and wishing for good things to come.  It was a beautiful sight.

I delighted in doing these ordinary things with a friend and getting to know her even better.  I'm not visiting any UNESCO Heritage Sites or any temples or palaces on my second viisit to ChiangMai. I've forgotten to take my camera most of the time we've gone out, so there are very few pfotos to illustrate this segment of my journey.  Connie and I are simply creating some good friend memories.



Wednesday, December 25, 2013


My friend Connie signed us up for a date with some big guys.  We were minibussed to The Elephant Nature Park about 60 kilometers north of ChiangMai in a secluded mountain valley which is bordered by a river.

This camp is completely different from the elephant riding camp I visited last year.  There is no riding the elephants, no performance of tricks by the elephants, and no hitting them with sticks to herd them here and there.  You just hang out with them for a day, or do an overnight stay.  You can also pay to be a volunteer worker for a week or two if you really want to get cosy with these gentle giants.

This is a sanctuary for distressed Asian elephants, all of which have been abused or injured.  Each elephant has its own mahout, or caretaker, who is trained here in the use of positive reinforcement to control the elephant's behavior.  They are controlled entirely by voice command and rewarded for compliance.  There are 36 elephants in residence here, as well as around 400 rescued dogs, 50 water buffalo, and a bunch of cats.  It's quite a story of compassion for mistreated animals, made possible by the devotion of the camp's founder, Lek Chailert, a Thai woman who was named Asian Hero of the Year by Time Magazine in 2005.  She wasn't at the camp when we were there, and I was sorry to miss the opportunity to meet this remarkable woman.

Elephants are purchased by the camp from their abusive owners.  Many lost their employment when Thailand banned further logging several years ago.  The stories of abuse are heartbreaking.  One was blinded by its owner for disobedience; another was crippled by a landmine explosion.  Several were rescued from a life of begging on the streets of Bangkok or ChiangMai.  

It was feeding time when we arrived.  Elephants are vegetarians and this herd consumes about 5 tons a days.  That's a lot of veggies!  They eat bananas, corn, squash, sugar cane, and melons.  Each elephant here has its own food basket, because some cannot digest rinds, for example.  We both enjoyed the feeding frenzy.  

We were toured around the grounds afterwards, and we visited the clinic where 3 elephants were receiving treatment.  This elephant has a nasty abcess on her shoulder.

We learned a bit here about the anatomy of elephants.  Connie is holding an elephant tooth here, which weighs about 6 pounds.  Elephants have 4 of these molars to grind their vegetable diet into pulp.  

We were also vegetarians on this camp visit.  We were fed from a buffet of 20+ dishes, all of which were delicious.  After lunch, we went to the river, where some people helped to wash the elephants.  Connie and I watched the show from an elevated seating area.  One of the elephants stopped to scratch her rump on the post below.

I think the bathing was mostly to provide photo ops for us tourists.  

I refer to all these elephants as "she" because the ones we were allowed to interact with were all females.  Because male elephants are aggressive, camp guests are not allowed to go near them.  After the bathing, a family with a baby elephant came to visit.  The elephants form in groups of 2 or more.  The females are very protective of their babies and we were not allowed to touch them.  The baby's mother somehow chooses another female to be her baby's "nanny", and the nanny spends more time tending the baby than the mother-- just like humans, eh?

We walked the grounds again to visit a group of three which were a baby, mother, and nanny, and passed by a herd of water buffalo on the way.

When we came back for the afternoon feeding, we found this camp dog claiming its table in the eating area.  We were told that every table was the territory of a particular dog.

At the afternoon feeding, we enjoyed the antics of these two adorable baby elephants.  What's really wonderful is that the camp's goal is to return as many elephants as possible to the wild, so these little ones will have a chance to live in their natural habitat.

This experience was very positive, even though the elephants were required to hang around with camp guests for photo ops.  It was a different kind of performance, much more humane, but it's income from tourist visits that provides a large chunk of the camp's operating expenses.  

Thursday, December 19, 2013


My Bangkok friend Dolly has a friend Anna who directs a hotel and restaurant management program at their university.  Anna loves to make food, eat food, and talk about food.  It's an obsession.  Dolly and Anna have dinner together at a new restaurant every Friday night.  I joined them for their weekly excursion to a recently opened restaurant called The Aston.  There was a set menu, but it wasn't printed so you didn't know what the courses were going to be.  It was a mystery dinner.

This was the first course.  I can't tell you exactly what it was, because I couldn't understand much of the explanation from our server.  We all thought we heard chorizo mentioned, but there wasn't a trace to be found.  We decided it was a potato-cheese croquette.  The presentation was impressive.

Second was this angel hair pasta with a sauce that had dried shrimp....didn't care for this one.

Then came a delicious medallion of salmon perched on a salad of radishes, capers, and salmon roe.

This tiger shrimp was delicious and huge.  None of us understood what the yellow powder was, and now I forget what it was resting on.

A grilled lamb rib chop nestled in a puree of smoky eggplant was the first meat course.  It was really  tender and succulent.  I passed on the okra and hot pepper.

Then came my favorite dish, a leg and breast of quail with fois gras and one little morel mushroom.  I added some shavings of white truffle to make it even more divine.

We had two desserts.  This was a sorbet and custard combination with grilled pineapple and kiwi.

And the finale was madelines, dark chocolate, creamy marshmallow squares and salt caramels.

What a sumptous feast.  This was not a budget traveler's restaurant, but once in a while you have to splurge, and Bangkok is just the place to do it.

Thursday, December 12, 2013


Traveling around southern Spain by bus or train is a bit boring.  The majority of the countryside looks like this.

There are miles and miles of olive orchards and these scrubby little bushes that are obviously cultivated in rows--maybe baby olives trees.  The Spanish olives and olive oil are wonderful, and almost every restaurant and tapas bar gives you free olives to munch on while you contemplate how many and which tapas you'll have.

When I arrived in Sevilla, there was a religious festival of some kind underway.  In Italy, it's easy to tell if it's a religious festival because they parade around with a religious figure on a platform, and there are usually priests leading the procession.  Here, it was a succession of marching bands.

One after another, mostly all young seemed as if they bused in every school marching band in southern Spain.  It was a weekend of bands marching around the streets and lots of people milling around.  These were some of the older band members.

I fell in love with Sevilla almost immediately.  It has a positive and contagious energy, and there are lots of things to do and see.  My little boutique hotel was in the old Jewish Quarter, an ideal spot for walking to all the significant sites.  The maze of streets in this area are really narrow, and it's very easy to get lost, but you just don't care if you do, because you're sure to bump into something interesting.  This was my street.

 Besides the Cathedral and the Royal Alcazars, which needed their separate blog entries, I visited several other spots worthy of note.  Built in the 1920's when Sevilla hosted the Ibero-American World's Fair, Plaza de España is a huge half-circle of buildings in the Renaissance Revival style of architecture.  My camera couldn't capture its breadth, so only by courtesy of the Internet can I share it in its entirety.

Around the front of the buildings are these beautiful alcoves representing all the 50 provinces of Spain.

There was a moat along the front with bridges across representing the four ancient kingdoms of Spain.  You can float in a boat if you want, although there isn't much distance to row.  Across the street is a large city park where you can walk, run, bicycle, or bird watch.  There was a lot of happy chirping to be heard when I walked through.

There were so many beautiful photo ops here, it was hard to choose the ones to share.  This is a favorite, because it must be obvious by now that I love arches.

Sevilla is only 50 miles from the Atlantic and is the only river port in Spain.  The Guadalquivir River runs through it, and there's a nice river walk if you're so inclined, and I was.

In the midst of an ancient city with a rich history, there is the Metropol Parasol, a very modern wooden structure that looks like 6 mushroom caps and cost the city 100 million euros.  That's over $200,000 a cap.  You could buy a lot of truffles with that and be much more satisfied!   It opened in 2011 (available for climbing), pretty bad timing considering Spain's severe economic crisis, and you can bet that it's a topic of great controversy among the natives.  It was intended to draw tourists to a part of the city that was declining.

This is just one of the beautiful hotels that I couldn't afford.  King Alfonso XIII ordered its construction to house VIP guests of the 1928 Ibero-American Exposition.  The least expensive room is $240 a night, or you can rent the Royal Suite for $2,650.   Coincidentally, later in the day I took this photo, I met a couple of American men who treated themselves to a night here.

There are more hansom cabs in Sevilla than I've seen anywhere else in southern Spain.  They congregate around the plaza where both the cathedral and the alcazar are.

Another very interesting place to tour is the Hospital de los Venerables.  It's a 17th century Baroque building, consisting of a one nave church and a residence that was originally used to house elderly, poor, or disabled priests.  This painting captures the patrons tending to the infirm residents,

There is a simple but lovely courtyard at the center of the complex.

There was some beautiful tilework in the courtyard area.

And through an arch next to it was this lovely garden area that was holding onto some of its summer color.

The small church was an eye feast.

Up these stairs was a wonderful exhibit of Islamic art, and the excellent audio guide provided me with a great education about light in art and science.

There was also a permanent art collection owned by the foundation that is now headquartered in this building, which regularly sponsors special art exhibits.

On the way back to the hotel, I couldn't resist taking a photograph of these niños who were sitting in the doorway of a shop, chattering away, while their mothers were inside chattering with the shopkeeper.

They were so absorbed in conversation that they didn't even notice me taking their picture.

Maybe now you're a little in love with Sevilla, too?


It's tough to compete with a wonder like the Alhambra of Granada, but The Royal Alcazars in Sevilla gives it a good contest.  True, it's smaller and doesn't sport museums, but it, too, is a distinguished UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Originally a 10th century Moorish fort, it was converted after the Reconquest into a royal palace.  And today, it's the oldest royal palace still in use in Europe (by the Spanish royal family as their official residence in Sevilla).  It's said to be one of the best remaining examples of mudëjar architecture.

There is room after room after room, and you think you will never see the end of them....external and internal facades, archways, and ceilings all decorated with intricate tiles or carved wood.

Once again, the geometric shapes so typical of this time. 

And, of course, beautiful courtyards.

The palace on the second level was added by Charles V and is decorated in the Italian Renaissance style.

The molding and arch treatment was entirely different from the first floor, but equally intricate and beautiful.

There were some stunning tapestries in one of the very large salons.

There were six wall tapestries in this room, all so huge that I couldn't capture any one of them in its entirety.  

The grounds were lovely as well.  About the grounds were several artists capturing creations of nature and man.  I loved the gnarlly trunk of this tree.

As did the artist trying to recreate its twists and turns.

Some of nature got a little shaping by man.

I turned a corner and almost bumped into this colorful garden denizen.  He was the only one of his kind that I saw, which is unusual, I think.

One of the bordering walls.....there's a very busy road on the other side.

Unfortunately, there is no attempt to show how these rooms might have been furnished in times's so much easier to imagine what everyday life was like when household items are present.  But the architecture and decorative work is worth seeing, and for this experience, I have only superlatives.  I feel so fortunate to be seeing all these wondrous sights!