Saturday, February 11, 2017

The Legend of Mae Nak

King Mongkut, known as King Rama IV, reigned in Siam in the mid 19th century. Today he's regarded as the father of science, having presided over an Enlightenment period in today's modern Thailand. However, not all of the good King's subjects were ready to embrace modern, rational ways.

King Rama IV, made famous by the movie "The King and I".

Visitors to Bangkok today arrive in large numbers at well known wats (temples) such as Wat Phra Kaew, wherein lies the famous Emerald Buddha. It is a beautiful, opulent place where believers seeking merit also go to make offerings to resident monks.

Far away from the tourists at Wat Phra Kaew, and the adjacent Royal Thai Palace, is a very ordinary Thai neighborhood Phra Kanong Nua in the Wattana district. Exiting the BTS skytrain at Phra Kanong station, my friend Buakaou, her sister Pear and I took a taxi to Wat Mahabut on the Phra Kanong canal.

A narrow back street lined with shops leads to Wat Mahabut. Once inside the grounds - while vague, there is a discernible perimeter to the grounds - I had a feeling of stepping back in time.  There are market stalls, some selling religious paraphernalia to worshipers.  There are also food stalls, a massage shop and other merchants. Two main temples dominate the grounds alongside of a building where resident monks live. The wat is a living vestige of times past.  It was easy for me to envision when this place was the center of the village, now a neighborhood of Bangkok, called Wattana. 

Pear (L) Buakoua (R)
Buakaou and her sister Pear purchased baskets colorfully wrapped in cellophane and reminiscent of old style Easter baskets. Inside the baskets were everyday items such as soap, toothpaste and other necessities needed by a barracks full of monks. The ladies added a little cash in an envelope and presented the gift to a monk apparently assigned to accept offerings, allowing the faithful to participate in the Buddhist practice of earning merit. Then we sat cross-legged with about fifteen other people under a lean-to where a chubby monk chanted. The chanting monk used a bundle of wicker reeds tied together like a broom to sprinkle water over the worshipers. The ritual reminded me of Catholic priests similarly blessing their congregation with holy water using a fancier appurtenance. 

After the short service the ladies, and other folks present, purchased buckets of small fish and els releasing them into the water of the Phra Kaonong canal bordering Wat Mahabut.  Releasing fish expresses gratitude and abundance.  It's a practice that works, producing results in real life.  Just two days later I witnessed two teenage boys struggling to lift a very large fish they had just caught from one of the many Bangkok canals.

My experience at Wat Mahabut was not the same as visiting the big tourist attractions.  There was something poetic about the place. It gave me a feeling a being connected to the world around me. The feeling for me was tangible and a little profound.  Buakaou and Pear were not surprised by my experience.  They told me it was a special place.

Wat Mahabut is haunted.

During the reign of King Rama IV a young couple, Nak and Mak, lived on the banks of the Phra Kanong Canal.  They lived happily, Mae Nak being an ideal wife to the handsome Mak. Mae Nak was beautiful, devoted and pregnant, expecting the couple's first child.  Mak loved her beyond measure.

Phra Kanong Canal today, not so different from Mae Nak's time.

Mak was conscripted to fight against the encroaching Shan Tribe in Northern Thailand and was injured in the fighting, nearly dying. During Mak's slow recovery he dreamed about returning to his happy life on the Phra Kanong Canal. Mae Nak and the baby died in childbirth.

But when Mak returns home Mae Nak welcomes him with great affection. They resume their happy life together.  Mae Nak so loved her husband her spirit refused to leave.

Alarmed that the unwitting Mak was living with ghosts, a few friends and neighbors tried to warn him. Mak could not understand why his friends would tell such lies.  Infuriated, Mae Nak would steal into the night and kill the informers effectively silencing the town.

One night while preparing dinner, Mae Nak dropped a lime between the floor boards.  Now an etherial being,  Mae Nak simply stretched her arm through the floor board and ten feet below to the ground in order to retrieve the lime.  Working beneath the house, Mak saw the aberration, realized his wife was a ghost, and fled.  

The story has two endings. In one version a venerable monk from Wat Mahabut  captured Mae Nak's spirt and imprisoned her in a piece of the skull from Nak's corpse.  The relic today is kept by the royal family.  In the alternate ending, the monk captured Mae Nak's spirit and put it in a jar from which she escaped. Mae Nak's spirt roams Wat Mahabut still today.

I like the second ending.  I told Buakaou and Pear I felt Mae Nak's presence. I was certain that Mae Nak likes me.  They laughed. Modern people don't believe in ghosts.  But I saw the hair on Pear's forearm rise:)

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Yoga for Everyone

I've been practicing Hot Yoga for twenty years and teaching for twelve years. I owned studios in Massachusetts, The United States, and have led classes in The Philippines; Singapore; Australia; Vietnam and Thailand.  

Imagine a young person applying for a job and the employer tells the applicant they must pay $12,000.00 for training. And when their training is complete, there is no guarantee the applicant will be hired.

That's nuts!

But it is exactly what happens in the hot yoga business today.  It's time for a change.

Modern Hot Yoga will soon open a boutique studio in Bangkok.  I will invite ambitious students to practice with me with the intention of training them to be teachers.  As teachers develop, Modern Hot Yoga will employ or invest in the new teachers seeking to expand this social enterprise.  Our mission is to bring the practice of hot yoga back to a simpler, less expensive model where dedicated, experienced teachers mentor new people in the art of Yoga.

The price of our public classes will be low enough for everybody to afford also: 200 Thai Baht ($5.60 USD). 

Postural yoga is a gift that's been passed down over generations, from many sources. It is the mission of Modern Hot Yoga to pass that gift on to the next generation.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

The Idiot

Alison Krauss

The Russian novelist Fodyouer Dosteesky wrote "The Idiot".  I have a suspicion that the title translates a little oddly from Russian.  Whatever!

I discovered the book a few days ago.  It's not a tome one reads quickly.  But the overview is Fodyouer at one point in his life faced a firing squad for political dissent.  He was reprieved at the last minute.  Russian existentialists believed one can only appreciate the value of life if one has faced imminent death, as in a failed suicide attempt.  I think ole' Fodyouer's firing squad experience qualifies. Dosteesky wrote the novel about a man who survives imminent death and spends the rest of his days seeing the good in life, life's possibilities and the spiritual value of nature.

I get it.

I am aware that there exists a predisposition for optimism vs pessimism.  I am lucky to have been pre disposed to the former. I've always been able to find a positive path forward, always.  Now there have been dark times in my life, some of them quite dark, and long.  But even in the darkness, I knew I would find the light again.

I'm under doctor's orders, as I write, to stay home and rest. I have mild bronchitis. I'd like to ignore the doctor's orders about staying in and resting and go meet my friend Cindy, who is visiting Bangkok from the Philippines.  But I don't want to get her sick.  My daughter Keri and old friend Eileen told me to behave.  Okay ladies, I'll do as advised.  But with not much to do, I'll be ranting on social media and writing blogs, you know, old guy stuff.  But what to write about? Not much angst about. Hence my thoughts about "The Idiot".

Not my favorite title, but it fits me.

Fifteen years ago I was not killed at the World Trade Center.  Given my job in the fire department, I got lucky.  One of the dark times I just wrote about followed.  But I found forgiveness, and now, like Dosteesky's Idiot,  I am grateful for the gifts in my life, optimistic and happy.

In life, Dosteesky was depressed.  But I'm not a Russian existentialist, I'm The Idiot, or better still, I'm the Lucky One.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Hollywood Brings Crispy Bacon to Bangkok

Bangkok, Thailand

Whenever I'm asked why I like Bangkok, I quickly mention my friends in that city. It was easy to meet other ex-pats in Bangkok. There are many guys there from my generation as well; retirement money goes a long way in Thailand.  While some of the rural parts of Thailand can still accurately be described as an emerging economic region, the capital, Bangkok, is prosperous and modern, very first world. So it's a modern, inexpensive city of friendly folks containing a congenial set of western dudes with positive attitudes. What's not to like?

I noticed when describing my Thai social life to inquisitive state-side friends and family, I would often mention Guido.  He's actually a new acquaintance for me.  But he is a colorful guy in city that has a reputation as home to many colorful folks.

There are legends of former American CIA agents that decided to remain in Bangkok after the Vietnam War ended in 1975.  They opened bars and invented the bawdy nightlife the city has become known for, or so the stories go. There's a story for every bar. And the Thais - who no doubt really own the nightclubs - are happy to embellish the legends.  If you listen to the hype, Bangkok is filled with hustling, American wheeler dealers that converted their counter culture lifestyle into a party town fortune.

Well Guido is not one of them. Guido and my circle of friends are boring tea totalers. But Guido still qualifies as colorful.  I first met him at a gathering of guys for dinner. Guido was recovering from a leg fracture he sustained in a motor bike accident. He was joking about how the cane and his limp were a guarantee to a seat on the MRT.  I liked him right away.

Guido was a feature film set dresser with a long list of films to his credit. "Precious" (2009) and "Thirteen Going on Thirty" (2004) are amongst the many movies where Guido's sets are featured. When I asked him how he wound up in Bangkok, Guido said he once did a film with Oliver Stone set in Bangkok. They had a fun time partying whilst filming and Guido decided it looked like a good place to retire.  Currently Guido lives in Bangkok and is married to a local gal who now owns a restaurant.

Guido on his latest set

Under Guido's influence, the restaurant has become an oasis of New York style deli food that is hard to find anywhere in Southeast Asia.  I must assume Asians do not care for crispy bacon because it is nearly impossible to find around these parts.  Not so in Guido's "New Yorker Cafe" steps away from the MRT's bustling "Asoke" station.

"Crispy like thin glass" chuckled Guido.

And he serves all day breakfast, god love em.

So if you are in Bangkok and have a hankering for good New York food, drop in and tell Guido I said hello.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Vietnam: Anh

It was not her car I was impressed with, although it was a very nice car. It was the driver. It is only the truly wealthy that have full time chauffeurs. Anh had her own chauffeur. 

Modern Hoi An is a beach town much like beach towns anywhere. The town lies on the clear waters of a river delta a short distance from the sandy beaches of the South China Sea. Hotels, restaurants and upscale boutiques targeting tourists abound. My friend Rich met Anh on a dive boat out of Hoi An and made a date to have lunch later in the week, in Ho Chi Minh City.

Hoi An, Central Vietnam.

Anh had attended UCLA, spoke English perfectly and gave me excellent guidance on how to navigate the Vietnamese bureaucracy to obtain a business visa. Anh’s family owned several hospitals. She was accustomed to moving amongst Saigon’s elite. Anh was an affable woman, intelligent, articulate, socially conscious and aware.  Were it not for a slight Vietnamese accent, it would have been easy to mistake her for an American. But even in a rich country such as the US, Anh would not be considered average. She had many gifts, including that chauffeur, a really nice perk.  In Vietnam, Anh was a dramatic outlier; there aren’t many in her class.

Ho Chi Minh was a determined guy. He led an anti-colonial effort to unite North and South Vietnam, a politically divided country long before Ho’s communist army drove out the French and Americans. Ho Chi Minh died in 1969 before the end of the war. But in 1975 his successors united North and South Vietnam under classic communism. The New Republic of Vietnam elevated Ho Chi Minh to iconic status and erected a bunch of Ho statues. About five years later, when the country was starving to death, they dumped the commie ideology and invited in Starbucks.

My friend Anh is emblematic of Vietnam’s growing wealth under the current political and economic hybrid emerging out of the communist era. Ambitious and enterprising, the Vietnamese are becoming players in the world economy.  However, new Vietnamese wealth is concentrated in a very small minority.  Much of the country struggles to survive. 

Saigon street vendor.

In my next story I will introduce Nhung, a more typical Vietnamese woman doing whatever it takes to live and prosper.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Travel Stories You Will Not Read in Lonely Planet

Oil paintings for sale on the wall of The Swiss Hotel Singapore

I like some of the popular travel books. But you sure don’t read the really interesting things about traveling in “Lonely Planet”.
Last week I met an old friend Rich in Hanoi, Vietnam. Rich is a computer training consultant between projects; he is also a kind of gregarious roving gourmet. Rich travels quite a lot, speaks four languages and loves engaging folks around the world in conversations, especially about food and drink.
Accompanying Rich was Dan, an old farm boy from Tennessee. Dan is now also a consultant specialising in computer security. After spending a few days in his company, I was convinced the CIA is one of Dan’s clients. Dan, of course, would not confirm that.
From Hanoi we traveled south to Da Nang, Hoi An, and Ho Chi Minh City, still called Saigon by many locals. Having come of age in the nineteen-sixties, the names of these places are evocative for me, stirring memories of a more turbulent time. The American War, as it is known in Vietnam, was a war fought over ideology: communism verses capitalism. It seems to me since we stopped fighting our two countries have blended some aspects of both ideologies into each culture.
The night before Rich, Dan and I were to go our separate ways, we met at a Sushi restaurant in downtown Ho Chi Minh City, in a part of town frequented by visiting Japanese businessmen. The waitresses were dressed in school-girl costumes. Rich speaks Japanese and made friends with a somewhat inebriated Japanese guy who bought us all a round of sake. First we made a Japanese toast, then an American toast.
“Wait”! Said I. “We are in Vietnam”.
Having lived in Ho Chi Minh City for nearly four months, I considered myself the Vietnamese cultural expert in our group and taught them a Vietnamese toast.
“Mot, hai, ba (one, two, three) YO!
Our Vietnamese toast was met with approving laughter from the waitresses and a table nearby with two Vietnamese couples eating sushi. The Japanese guy bought the Vietnamese folks a round of sake as well.
So there we were: a computer consultant from Staten Island; a CIA spook; a drunk Japanese businessman; an old fireman from Brooklyn; and four Saigon locals out on a date surrounded by provocative waitresses in plaid, pleated miniskirts.
If Ho Chi Minh roles over in his grave we will hear about it. He is in Hanoi preserved and entombed under glass in one of those bizarre commie mausoleums that are open for viewing, like Lenin and Mao.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

When Traveling in Asia, Don't Order Meatballs

I was born, raised and lived most of my life in the United States of America. The US like many other prosperous and influential countries such as Canada; Australia; Singapore; New Zealand; Hong Kong and others, are former British colonies. Our language is basically the same, and many of our customs similar. British culture has influenced the world. I discovered it is easy these days for me to travel globally and really not truly experience foreign cultures. Observe and appreciate yes; but truly experience?

Not so much!

I have now travelled a little in this part of the world. Australia felt a little like my hometown Brooklyn: tough but good natured with an incomprehensible accent. In Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines I was a tourist staying in places that catered to English speaking customers. Not much in the way of assimilation challenges happening there.

My home for much of the past five year was Singapore. I once heard Singapore described as “Asia Lite’ because it is prosperous, English speaking and has many Western amenities.  However, when I first arrived in Singapore it took time to adjust. Climate, food and etiquette were Singaporean. In addition to English, most Singaporeans spoke Chinese as well. So it felt new and different to me. But I could always find a familiar restaurant and everybody spoke English. It was not until I moved to Vietnam did I start to really learn how to be part of foreign land.

Well-known Western business are present and growing in Ho Chi Minh City. But Vietnam has its own distinct way of being, a challenging language for an English speaker to learn, and a lot of pride in its national identity. I arrived here two months ago with an idea and a business plan. Putting the plan into action required me to let go of my ingrained ideas about how people think and act. I’ve learned to eat “local”. Truth is the coffee at the little mom and pop stall near my home is superior to the Western franchises. And the local shop is one-tenth the price. 

Really, one-tenth!

I am using the coffee shop as an example of the many learning experiences I have had recently as I seek out contractors, merchants, graphic artists, web site designers and all the folks needed to get a small business up and running. I have to communicate and negotiate with them in their language. And I must learn and respect their customs and etiquette. And the only way to do that is be part of it, not an observer. It is the only way to really lean the details. 

BTW: the title?  The thing about the meatballs?

 Ah yeah, I’m not kidding:)