Farewell Lunch, Drinks and Dinner with our Tour Group & Cecile and I are Back to Thailand for 4 More Days

Cecile and I and our small congenial tour group had our final lunch at Pho Hung, cocktails on the top floor of our hotel and a farewell dinner at Viet Village Restaurant in Saigon with Lin, our main guide, from Overseas Adventure Travels OAT). Together we toured and learned about the Ancient Kingdoms of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. Arthur, our local guide was also present. Together with our pre-Trip to Myanmar (Burma) that Cecile and I did on our own, we have been out of the country for one month and I have to say even though the time passed quickly, the memories will last a lifetime. We are currently back in Bangkok, Thailand for four nights at the Marriott Marquis where we are going to relax by the pool, do some leisurely shopping and hopefully hook up with a friend before heading back home to California.

This was our first trip with OAT and I have to say we have been very impressed with the first hand knowledge and insight of the trip leaders. They made the history and culture come alive. They bent over backwards to anticipate our every need. They displayed unbridled enthusiasm, caring personalities, and with respect to Lin, a wickedly funny sense of humor. They demonstrated an ability to bring a diverse groups of travelers together and provide an atmosphere of shared experiences that made it possible for our group to bond together. Finally, they introduced us to unique culinary experiences we never thought we'd ever be a part of. Southeast Asian countries are known for their gracious hospitality and along the way we were touched by it many times. Throughout our journey, Lin made it clear that we would not only going to witness and experience the beauty and the spirituality of these countries, but we would be exposed to the poverty and the dark side of history as well. Yet, to be fair all countries have a darker side including our own, and life goes on. Our experience in this area made me think about a quote by L.R. Knost who once said: “Do not be dismayed by the brokenness of the world. All things break. And all things can be mended. Not with time, as they say, but with intention. So go. Love intentionally, extravagantly, unconditionally. The broken world waits in the darkness for the light [you bring to it].”

 

Exploring the Underground Bunkers of the Vietnamese Communist Forces and Shaking Hands with a Viet Cong Veteran who Lost his Arm During Battle

After breakfast today, our tour bus driver drove us to the Cu Chi Tunnels—a mile-long underground maze where thousands of fighters and villagers hid and fought during the Vietnam War, referred to by locals as the “American War.” The conflict began in 1955-1975. The South Vietnamese Communists, or Viet Cong, built an elaborate and vast network of tunnels in and around the district of Cu Chi and worked continually over the years to expand the multi-level network. The tunnels include mess halls, meeting rooms, an operating theater, tiny cinema, small factories, and vast ammunitions stores, allowed the Viet Cong to control large areas of Saigon. Today, Cu Chi Tunnels provide invaluable insight into the war era. 

We had the unusual opportunity to meet a retired Viet Cong Veteran named Chia who was invited by Overseas Adventure Travels (OAT) to meet with our group to answer any questions we had about the tunnels. Chia is married, has four kids and seven grandkids. After taking down an enemy tank in November 1, 1967, a second tank fired back and shot his right arm off. He collects about $195 a month which is sufficient for his living standards and he and his family get free education and health care. He told us that the underground bunker was capable of holding twelve thousand soldiers but normally accommodated an average of 2500-3000. The main problem was getting enough oxygen, so they created “air holes,” which made it easier for the soldiers to breathe. When asked how he decided to join the communists he said he was merely following family tradition. They began building the tunnels in 1954 which allowed Ho Chi Minh to defeat the French. He said no one wins in war and seemed to harbor no bitterness towards the American people. He said it was very apparent that most US citizens were against the war. Afterwards, a few of us took photos with him. While standing by his side I placed my arm around his back and I was moved when he took his "only" hand and gently placed it in mine.

Chia thanked us for coming to Vietnam and invited us to tell our friends to come visit his country.
We were then assigned a young soldier to show us the underground bunkers and how to enter into them for those who were willing. It was an amazing experience moving from descending into one tunnel and getting out through another. Our Vietnamese guide, Arthur demonstrates the tool soldiers used to dig out the tunnels.

On the bus ride home, our Thai tour guide Lin led us in singing the iconic 60s lyrics to the anti-war protest song: “Where Have All The Flowers Gone,” by Peter, Paul and Mary which essentially is a meditation on the horrors and losses of the Vietnam war which begged the answer to the question from our government, “When Will They Ever Learn?”

After the tour of the tunnels it was so nice to come out to the other side and be greeted by the parents of three beautiful young children who were only too eager to take a photo with us (see photo). The last photo of me duck walking out of the tunnel was unexpectantly taken by an enterprising photographer.

Exploring the Famous & Scenic Mekong Delta on Sampans & Paddle Boats, A lunchtime Feast & Dancing the Night Away

"Southeast Asia has a real grip on me. From the very first time I went there, its was a fulfillment of my childhood fantasies of the way travel should be."
—Anthony Bourdain

We journeyed outside of Ho-Chi-Minh City to Vietnam’s famous Mekong Delta. We stopped at Cafe Sake for a bathroom break and coffee and relaxed on some hammocks, before continuing on to the picturesque province of Ben Tre near where our local guide Arthur’s family is from. Our group walked through the village along the canal which also serves as the areas irrigation system. People move to this area to escape the fast pace and noise of Ho-Chi-Min City. I can see why. We hardly saw a soul and it was so serene walking through the coconut plantations and passed quiet homes this area is known for. We saw a beautiful Torch Ginger Flower seen in one of my photos, Pomelo fruit, and Longan (Lychee type fruit).

At the end of our walk we climbed into a skinny sampan boat and was handed a conical hat to put on our heads. We cruised the canals and quiet waterways of the Delta. Cecile and I were accompanied by Lin, our intrepid, guide from Overseas Adventures Travels (OAT) who has been with us from the beginning of our tour and of course the oarsman who propelled us through the groves of water based coconut trees. We were taken by the simple living and the quiet scenic beauty of this part of Vietnam. We stopped at a village factory to learn how they make the sticky, toffee-like coconut candy. We were offered shot glasses of tea with honey and cumquat as seen by the photo of me and fellow traveler, Charlie from Florida. We were also shown how they break a coconut to get the juice out and tasted the coconut fruit. We cruised to nearby Phoenix Island where Arthur told us about a religion started by Ong Dao Dua, known as the Coconut Monk, after engaging in meditation at Chau Doc’s Sam Mountain. It was a fusion of Buddhism and Christianity. Toward the end of our visit we tried on a live Python on our shoulders as demonstrated by Arthur, and I was invited to have a beer and fresh fruit with a group of local guys from the village.

We switched off to a large paddle boat, enjoyed sipping fresh coconut juice and pulled onto a dock of a local plantation style restaurant for an elaborate six course meal that included sticky rice globular bowls cut into sections, vegetables, a crepe type dish, and a full large whole fish called Gourami that the staff deboned and prepared for us. 

When we returned on our bus for our one and half hour bus ride back to our hotel, we napped and had our own private party, singing and dancing on the top floor of the hotel, overlooking Ho-Chi-Minh City's version of a Times Square building that was changing colors every few seconds. Our guide Lin had a playlist that got us rocking the night away. We then had pizza and pasta with newly made friends Eileen and Jerry from Buffalo, NY, before calling it a night.

Good Morning & Good Evening Vietnam! A Local's and Tourist Paradise of Fun Activities During TET

Touring the Presidential Palace, Participating in a Lion-Dragon Ceremony, a Water puppet Show and a Cyclo Ride through Ho-Chi-Minh City were just some of the activities in store for us.

After breakfast at our hotel we set out to tour the grounds and interior of the Presidential Palace (aka The Reunification Center), the former office of the residence of South Vietnam’s president during the Vietnam War. The communist Vietnamese won its independence in 1975, right after the tank crashed through the palace gates, symbolizing the “Fall of Saigon.” The tank still graces its front lawn. Even though the city is officially called Ho-Chi-Minh City, many people still call it by its cooler name Saigon.

After the Palace, we visited a day in the life of local residents in a poor section of the city. One couple with their son welcomed us into to their cramped flat to see how they live, knowing that comparatively speaking we all had a much higher standard of living in the US. Two symbols that stood out throughout the neighborhoods we visited: The red flag and five pointed yellow star is the National flag of Vietnam and symbolizes the history of Vietnam’s anti-colonial struggle and later becoming a communist state. The red refers to the “red blood,” of resistance fighters and “yellow skin.” The hammer and the sickle is the symbol of the Communist Party of Vietnam.

We visited a Chinese temple in Cho Lon, Saigon where people were lighting incense sticks and offering to the gods and their ancestors. One of our group heard what appeared to be a drum beating and Lin, our general tour guide for the trip said lets go across the street to see the Unicorn/Lion/Dragon dance. Boy, was that a great call. This Vietnamese traditional custom is usually performed on major festivals and major occasions, especially on Tet (Lunar New Year). The belief is that the dance dispels evil spirits, and brings about good luck for the rest of the year. There was a young dance and musician group performing. Apparently, a local English-speaking business owner sponsored the event and by the coaxing of our guide allowed us to participate with him, his family and the neighborhood. The young performers are paid for their participation. 

After a nap, we resumed our activities by attending a traditional "Vietnamese Water Puppet Show" that dates back to the 11th century in the Red River Delta area of northern Vietnam. When the rice fields would flood, villagers would entertain each other. I was equally entertained by two young girls directly in front of me who were enjoying the show with their parents. Able to suspend reality, you could see by their actions this felt very real for them.

After the show, we rode a rickshaw (called Cyclo) that have essentially been banned (except for tourists) due to traffic jams cramping the city residents. One person was assigned to each cyclo driver. My driver was called Thien and he began by taking a photo of me. I even managed a selfie along the way that he participated in. It is totally mesmerizing to see the motor scooters buzz around the streets just inches apart from one another. There are about 13 million people and a mind boggling 8 million motorbikes.
Without question, this was a real highlight for the group. We caravanned around town on the way to happy hour at a local beer club followed by another delightful dinner before calling it a night. The Orange Drink I'm holding up that I had for lunch is called a detox beverage: Fresh orange juice, carrot and ginger.

Enjoying the Explosion of Color in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) During the TET Holiday Season

“We travel to open our hearts and eyes and learn more about the world than our newspapers will accommodate.” 
—Pico Iyer

Cecile, myself and the Overseas Adventure Travels (OAT) group landed in Saigon this afternoon. Before checking into the Nahtha 3 Hotel near the center of town, we went to see the Cathedral of Notre Dame which marks the center of the city’s French colonial heritage. Though not as grand as the one in Paris, it is still a beautiful site to visit. It boasts high towers, stained glass windows, wooden pews and classic plaid floor tiles. There is also a towering Virgin Mary in the backdrop. Unlike the other Southeast Asian cities we have visited thus far which are predominately Buddhist, Vietnam is about 55% Buddhist.

After seeing the Cathedral we then went across the street to see Saigon’s Central Post Office that began construction in 1886. It’s French colonial architecture makes it another renowned standout for the city. It was designed by Gustave Eiffel, the same architect who engineered the Eiffel Tower in Paris. It is fully functional and a top tourist attraction. It also has a portrait of Ho Chi Minh on the back wall. Cecile and I had our photo taken in front of the stunning, yellow flowering apricot tree. We then went to the Saigon La Poste Cafe next door and created a post card of our facial images behind red cardboard cutouts. In addition to the Chinese New Year festivities still going on, the Vietnamese are also celebrating their New Year (TET). Many of the commercial buildings in the center of town, are all lit up. Some of the lights are leftover from the Christmas Holidays. The photographs I have taken here are of colorful red and yellow dragons, merchants like the Beer Club and Diamond Department store decorating their exterior with colorful lights and decorations. I also photographed street vendors that were out in mass, locals and tourists enjoying early evening strolls and a son and his mother having a tender moment while waiting for customers to buy their wares. It is a reminder that all we have are these precious moments to enjoy and savor as life goes by in a flash.

A Pilgrimage to to Angkor Wat: One of the Seven Wonders of the World

A Pilgrimage to to Angkor Wat: One of the Seven Wonders of the World

The mystique of Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia brings out the adventure in all of us. It was the site where "Tomb Raider" and "Indiana Jones Temple of Doom" were filmed. My son Jason and I first visited Angkor Wat in 2004. I was amazed how he climbed up and down the steep steps like a gazelle. I was more tentative and cautious and with the passage of time I am even more so now.

Our group ventured into Angkor Wat, an incredible 500 acre temple city complex. It is considered the largest religious monument in the world that was discovered by Portuguese missionaries around 1580. It was originally a Hindu Temple that was gradually transformed into a Buddhist temple at the end of the 12th century. It was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1992 and is considered one of the Seven Wonders of the World. It has been named the top travel destination by Trip Advisor and Lonely Planet. It is an expression of Khmer architecture genius. The soaring awe inspiring temples and monuments were built between AD 800-1200. They are surrounded by a 570 foot wide moat that is filled with pink lotus flowers. It is the heart and soul of Cambodia and is a source of national pride. During its prime there were as many as 750,000 to one million people were living there.

Angkor Wat is famous for its 3000 beguiling heavenly dancing nymphs carved into its walls. In the afternoon we passed through the South Gate of Angkor Thom, the capital city of the ancient Khmer rulers. We concluded with a visit to Ta Prohm, which has been left the way it was found, covered with dense jungle of trees as first discovered by the French in the mid-1800s. Our group had fun taking photos of each other at various strategic points throughout the complex. I suggested some yoga poses that fellow travelers Debbie from D.C., and Ingrid from Laguna Beach, CA seemed to enjoy. One of the most common questions asked by tourists is what do the four mesmerizing faces on all sides of the towering Buddha Statue towers represent? During my meditation studies over the years I learned that they are symbolic of loving-kindness, empathetic joy, compassion and equanimity. Often referred to the four radiant or heavenly abodes or realms, they are the universal expression of an open heart and mind that are the meditative states, thoughts and actions to be cultivated in Buddhist mindfulness practice. 

What added whimsy and joy to the day was getting permission to photograph the lovely couple seen here celebrating their wedding anniversary with their children who were more interested in the westerner in his elephant pants taking their photo rather than the photographer their parents hired. Then there were the monkeys making mischief and eating corn. 

After walking many miles and climbing many steps to heights that can be challenging at times, we rested our bodies and quenched our thirst at the Angkor Cafe. I had enjoyed a cold fresh lime and mint shake and contemplated the magic of what I had once just experienced. It gave new meaning to the famous quote by architect Mies Van Der Rohe who said: “God is in the details.”

Enjoying the Angkor Paradise Hotel, Riding a Buffalo Cart & Visiting the Floating Villages

"By reaching out to and connecting with communities around the world, we learn to appreciate firsthand...our commonality...and the understandings we gain can be life-changing."—Harriet Lewis

We checked into the Angkor Paradise Hotel yesterday after a four hour bus ride from Phnom Penh, Cambodia. We were greeted by staff with the traditional cold drink a cold towel. Cecile and I were captivated by the large vase of lotus flowers and a Buddha statue with hands in prayer as seen here and a young woman playing soothing local tunes on a decorative wooden xylophone. 
The next day we went to Tonle Sap Lake where we rode on a water buffalo cart for 35 minutes, visiting with rice patty farmers and women who were emptying fish traps of snakefish, a common variety of fish we had for for dinner the night before. Speaking of "buffalo" the delightful couple we were fortunate to meet riding in the cart behind us is Jerry and Eileen from the Buffalo, NY. 

On the way to visiting nearby floating villages by boat, our bus driver stopped so we could photograph the lotus flowers which is always a site to behold. The floating villages were absolutely fascinating. There was a laundry service, a bank, a grocery store and a Catholic Church (a small minority in these neck of the woods of a mostly Buddhist population). Of course there were an infinite variety of floating homes. We made a stop to visit one belonging to a husband and wife of over 40 years. They are essentially retired though the husband, Bou, has a crocodile farm in an under water containment pen in the back of their home that he said is a lucrative past time. his wife Ny, 64 seen here in a purple and white flower print dress with her husband and Jack, our local Siem Reap guide is a midwife. She is an amazing woman. She has successfully delivered over 100 babies in the village and is well respected. She does not charge for delivering babies. She sees it as a community service. She had a little delivery kit and demonstrated how she employs it for the benefit of her patients. She learned to deliver babies from her grandmother and did some additional training at a hospital. She is very passionate about what she does. When it was time to say goodby the husband assisted us in getting back on the boat. This is another example of the Grand Circle Foundation-the philanthropic arm of Overseas Adventure Travels (OAT) providing support to a family and in the process provide travelers to experience a day in a life of people throughout the world. In this case a bathroom facility was provided for the family. After returning to the hotel we enjoyed a little down time at the hotel pool.

Happy Southeast Asian New Year 2018

Images from Southeast Asia I photographed. They follow the lunar new year calendar. A very colorful time to be vacationing in this region.

Meeting Spider Woman in a Cambodian Village & Eating Fried Tarantulas Just Like Angelina Jolie

As our tour bus with Overseas Adventures Travels (OAT) made it’s way toward Siem Reap, we stopped at a small village in the Kampong Cham Province to visit a widowed mother of four who supplements her income by capturing and selling “Tarantulas.” Fried spider is a regional delicacy in this region. There is even two sculptures of tarantulas erected on the center divider in town that emphasizes this fact. 
Though generally nocturnal, tarantulas can be found during the day. She showed us where the spiders are bred in holes in the ground behind her home. Once caught, she removes the venomous fangs from the furry creature, to prevent being bitten.

She then walked us toward the front of her house and placed the tarantulas she had caught on a branch of leaves that allowed us to hold the creatures at a distance. Having a mind of their own, they began to crawl on my hand, arms, shoulder and circled around to my back. She then marinated them in sugar, salt, crushed garlic and whiskey and demonstrated how to fry them in oil until fragrant. Some of us took turns frying one until they were completely stiff. The taste has been described as a cross between chicken and cod. It has a crispy exterior to a soft center. 

As you travel around the world, you end up trying a lot of cuisine you wouldn’t dare eat at home. However, as adventurous as I am, I never thought in a hundred years I would be eating a spider today. After all, for many of us the Tarantula represents the stuff of nightmares and horror movies. 

Cambodians have long hunted spiders for food and medicine but it wasn’t until the severe food shortages during the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime in the mid-1970s that people turned to them as a food staple. 

Tarantulas, have been rumored to be used as a traditional cure for backaches and breathing disorders. They are also a good source of protein, folic acid and zinc, making them an excellent supplement to one’s diet. They are also known to make women more beautiful as our local guide, Jack told us. He reinforced his claim by rhetorically asking, “Isn’t she beautiful?” Jack is single and is looking for a woman but said “She’s too pretty for me.”

The merchant trade in tarantulas got a big boost from celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay, who captured and cooked them in an episode of Gordon’s Great Escape in 2011.

Postscript: Actress Angelina Jolie cooked and ate tarantulas with her kids (see last photo) during an interview with the BBC to promote her movie filmed in Cambodia last year called "First They Killed My Father" about the genocide of the Cambodian people by the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot.

The Honor of Meeting The Artist Who Survived the Killing Fields of Cambodia

In 1975, when Cecile and I first moved to San Jose, CA to start my podiatry practice, the Cambodian genocide orchestrated by the Khmer Rouge (KR) regime led by Pol Pot was underway. It is estimated that between 1.5 to 3 million Cambodians were killed during the vicious four-year campaign. 

Members of my tour group including myself had the rare opportunity and honor to meet Mr. Bou Meng, one of the survivors of the notorious Tuol Sleng prison in Phnom Penh, Cambodia—the site where it all happened.

I had been to the Killing Fields and Genocide Museum about 14 years ago with my son Jason during a one month tour of Southeast Asia. I wanted him to know that there were other genocides that have taken place around the world other than the one of his Jewish heritage. No words can describe the incredible sadness one experiences when you see photos of the merciless torture of Cambodians. Amazingly, with all that Meng went through including the loss of his two children to disease during the Pol Pot years, and the loss of his wife, the 73 year old survivor is a delightful, humble and affectionate man. When he walked into the room to greet us, he took each of our hands into his then clasped his hands and bowed toward us. We each told him our name and where we were from. After the introductions we had a Q & A with our local guide, "Sun" doing the translation.

Bou Meng’s said he owes his life to his ability of being a artist. He was first asked to paint pictures of machine parts for a training program for the Khmer Rouge soldiers. Later, he was asked to paint portraits of Pol Pot. If he failed, he would have been executed. Due to his skill and Pol Pot being happy with how he was portrayed he was rewarded with larger portions of food to eat.

“Every night I looked at the moon,” Bou Meng said. “I heard people crying and sighing around the building. I heard people crying out, ‘Mother, help me! Mother help Me!,” he repeated. They were being loaded into trucks and sent to a killing field.” Every night he thought his time would come, but when midnight passed, he realized he would live another day. “ It was during the 2009 war crimes tribunal that Meng learned his wife, Ma Yeoun (Prisoner 331) was arrested, tortured and killed on August 16, 1977.

The ghost of those who died says Meng, call out to him every night pleading to seek justice on their behalf.

Monks Tutor Our Group in Meditation at the Temple of 10,000 Buddhas & Visiting Other Magnificent Sites

"The goal of meditation is not to get rid of thoughts or emotions…it is to become more aware of them and learn how to move through them without getting stuck.”
—Dr. P. Goldin

Cecile and I are currently in Vientiane, the capital city of Laos. It is a place of grandeur and laid back at the same time. Our first stop is Wat Sri Saket. There is a joke that Lin, our practicing Buddhist guide tells us. OAT which is short for Overseas Adventure Travels also means: OH, ANOTHER TEMPLE. But she will be the first to tell you that Wat Sri Saket is not just another temple by any means. It is a nineteenth century Buddhist monastery built in 1827 that houses over 10,000 Buddha Images and appears in its original form. Approximately 7000 of these Buddhas are contained in niches within the cloistered walls. The right hand gesture of the larger Principal golden Buddha image in the main hall is touching the ground, “Calling the Earth to Witness,” the “Buddha’s Awakening." After all, the Buddha means the “Awakened One.” It is here where we had the opportunity to ask questions of the novice and senior monk about their daily, routine, witness how they fold and unfold their robes and have them tutor the group in a ten minute meditation exercise. Phet (pronounced Pet) our English-speaking Lao guide, who was an ordained monk for 8 years translated for us. We sat with our spine erect either on chairs or on a mat like I am doing here in the photo. The monk had us concentrate on the moment to moment movement of our breath and the rising and falling of our abdomen while witnessing any thoughts or sensations that arise as simply background noise and nothing to get attached to. The premise is that all mind states, uncomfortable emotions and bodily sensations, come and go and it is our constant identification with them that makes one feel agitated, unsettled or subject to feeling dissatisfied or discontented. It is that constant ruminating about the past or the future that robs us of the present moment.

After our visit ended with the monks our bus driver took us to Wat That Luang (The Great Stupa), Laos’s most important monument. The three-layered gilded stupa is a magnificent site to behold at every vantage point, especially on a sunny day when the suns rays make it glisten. Gold is more than just a color to behold, it is a symbol defining the very best of Vientiane. We then went to the Patuxai or the “Victory Gate,” which resembles the “Arc de Triomphe” in Paris. Built between 1957 and 1968, it is a war memorial to remember those who lost their lives during the struggle to gain independence from France. It is a popular site to take temporary refuge from the afternoon sun and mingle with locals. The last photo is of Cecile and I with a Lao man who wanted very much to take a photo with us.

Playing a Shaman's Flute While Dancing & Shooting a Crossbow in a Laos Village During a Cultural Exchange

"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness."—Mark Twain

During a visit to a small Laos village, Cecile and I and our small tour group from Overseas Adventures Travels (OAT) got to experience “A Day in a Life of the Lao People”. We were greeted by the mayor, vice mayor (who is also the shaman) and their wives. The backdrop of the introductions left most of us puzzled. We kept hearing rapid fire gunshots and didn't know whether to duck or run for cover. We found out later that there was a military training camp nearby.

We were given a tour of the village community hall, housing, a small shack of a school and weaving wheels local women use to make scarves and other products. It is a very poor village but they give thanks to the Grand Circle Foundation (the charitable arm of OAT) for assisting them with helping to put in a water tank, and donating two weaving wheels. The school children were excited, cheerful and inquisitive about their visitors. They were also very affectionate. We saw a senior teacher lead a class, we sang American songs like, “Old McDonald’s Had a Farm…and did the "Hokey Pokey" to name a few—after the class was over. Having had been an elementary school teacher, Cecile was very touched by the experience, especially by the young girl who took her hand and showered her with affection.

Norseng, the vice-mayor who also doubles as a shaman for the village put on a show for us by dressing up in his native dress and played a flute called a “Khvang” while dancing like a whimsical pied-piper. He, is from the Mon people, one of the earliest settlers to reside in Southeast Asia that resides on the border of Thailand and Burma. He called for volunteers and I was one of them as seen here in the video clip. Norseng also demonstrated how to shoot a crossbow. I was more timid about shooting the crossbow than dancing while making an attempt to play the flute since several of the volunteer’s arrow hit near the center of the target. But, I gave it the “old Yankee try” and to my surprise, rather than hit center mass, I hit what would be considered a forehead shot. 

When asked Siya how he became mayor? He told us he was chosen as a candidate for mayor by the Communist Party and won the election by the majority vote of the villagers. He was embarrassed to say how much he made. It was meager. Then again, there are municipalities in the states where city officials essentially are volunteer positions. 

We then assisted our hosts in preparing a very fine Lao meal with some of the ingredients we bought earlier in the day at the street market. The mayor served us shots of whiskey that is made here in Laos and we all shared a meal on his dining room table. The back and side walls were walled with framed certificates of merit by the communist party for his service to the village. When his wife was asked what she liked about her husband being mayor, she responded with "all the people I get to meet."

When we said our goodbyes, Norseng, came on the bus to give us a blessing and thank us for our visit and support and hoped that someday we will visit again. It was a very humbling experience overall and any reservations that the villagers had about hosting us believing they could never satisfy our standards were set aside as we all came together as one.

To view the short audio-video clip of Dennis playing the Shaman's flute while dancing in the village in Laos click on the link below:
https://www.facebook.com/dennis.augustine.18/videos/vb.519921667/10156036910086668/?type=2&theater&notif_t=video_processed&notif_id=1518366868066252

Our Early Morning Alms Giving to the Laotian Monks: A Time Honored Tradition of Mystery & Meditative Calm

"Accepting the miracle of the moment, this breath, this day, this life..."—Terry Patten

Just before the sun rose in Luang Prabang (Laos), we passed locals waiting for the procession of around 200 monks that were getting ready to make their alms rounds for the day called “tak bat.” It is a time-honored tradition that dates back to the 14th century that is done silently. We ourselves positioned ourselves, along the roadside near a local monastery in town waiting in anticipation for their arrival. It was a rare opportunity to experience this ancient Lao tradition. We each had a small covered weaved basket of sticky rice. As a sea of monks in their orange robes passed us one by one (oldest first) in a meditative state I dropped a small portion in their bowls which are attached to a strap hanging from their shoulders. 

Once we were finished giving out the rice, we were permitted to take photographs from a distance without a flash so as not to disturb the monk’s meditative peace. It is a uniquely, spiritual experience. The daily ritual is a collaborative effort between the monks and the laypeople. It is not charity the way the West interprets it. Rather it is a symbolic connection between the monk who requires daily physical sustenance and the layperson who gets to practice generosity and loving-kindness to a monastic who provides spiritual sustenance to the community.

I had been a recipient of offerings (sticky rice and mango) by locals during my monastery stays in Burma as a gesture of gratitude to us Westerners for coming thousands of miles away to study meditation and Buddhist, mindfulness teachings. However, this was only the second time I made an offering of rice to a monk. The first time was when my son Jason and I travelled to Southeast Asia more than 16 years ago. During the Alms offering we were invited to quietly recite a loving-kindness chant to ourselves for the benefit of "all beings everywhere" ending with "may peace, love, kindness and compassion be revealed in the world and in ourselves.

After alms rounds, the monks returned to the monastery and one of them was designated to take a seated cross legged position in front of the entryway with a platter to receive other food goods that we offered to the monks as a group after which he did a closing chant.

Visiting the Richly Decorated Temple of the Golden City in Luang Prabang in Laos

“Be like the lotus: trust in the light; grow through the dirt; believe in new beginnings.”

Cecile and I arrived in Laos with our group from Overseas Adventures Travels (OAT) this morning and checked into the Le Palais Juliana Hotel, a boutique hotel in Luang Prabang. It is situated on the peninsula formed by the Mekong and Nam Khan River, and has earned the distinction of being a UNESCO WORLD HERITAGE SITE.
In the late afternoon we visited Wat Xieng Thong, otherwise known as the “Temple of the Golden City, which is one of the most important Lao monasteries. The richly decorated temple combines the spirit of religion, royalty and traditional art. It was built 1159-1560 and was a royal temple until 1975. The Lao kings were crowned here. There are carved gilded wooden doors that depict the Buddha’s life. The walls of one section contain a glass mosaic that depicts the tree of life and the wheels on the ceiling symbolize the Buddhist recognition of the law and circle of reincarnation. In total there are over twenty structures on the grounds including shrines, pavilions and residences in addition to gardens, ornamental shrubs and trees and lotus capped stone pillars. The lotus is considered to be a sacred flower in various thousand years old eastern traditions and is a metaphor for personal transformation. The lotus grows in muddy water, and it signifies that each one of us can rise above the murky waters to achieve the clarity of enlightenment.

I captured two monks outside a side entrance waiting to be called to prayers, one monk hitting the large circular gong to announce time for prayers and chanting. The rest of the monks in these photos were taken in the sim (main congregation hall), after they had gathered together. Traditionally, a monk bows (prostrates) three times before and after a ritual like this. It represents the three precious gems of the Buddhism: The Buddha, The Dharma (teachings) and the Sangha (community of monks). In non-monastic mindfulness meditation centers throughout the world a "sangha," would could also apply to lay practitioners who come together as group to meditate and chant during meditation retreats. 

Afterwards, we went to stroll the colorful night markets and ended the evening with an amazing traditional Laos dinner and some of us enjoyed a Laos beer with the group.

Touring the Grand Palace to Stepping into a Kick Boxing Ring in the Slums of Bangkok

The Grand Palace, that Cecile and I had seen before is Bangkok’s most famous landmark and is spectacular in every sense of the word. It was also not surprising to learn it is considered the spiritual heart of the Thai Kingdom. Built in 1782 it has been the home of the King, The Royal court and the administrative seat of Government. It continues to draw a record number of people from all over the world to see it’s amazing architecture, intricate detail and absolutely stunning craftsmanship. It simply takes your breath away. 

After a colorful canal boat ride, a Pad Thai cooking demonstration and lunch by a lovely Thai woman, her husband and family at their home that sits on the edge of the Bangkok canal; we had optional events to participate in. 

One of the options I chose was to visit a kick boxing training camp called 96 Penang Gym located within the infamous “Klong Toey” slums. The attraction for me was to see all aspects of Thai life and to witness what a dedicated Thai boxing coach was doing to keep young kids off the streets. 

When myself, and three other guests (Cecile stayed behind) arrived at the gym by Tuk-Tuk, our guide Lin introduced us to the coach who calls himself “Mr Thai.” During a Q & A, the 50 year old veteran of the sport told us about the basics and said he began training at the age of 10. He fought professionally from the ages of 20 to 30 before retiring. Two of his students were currently training for an event the next day. He then demonstrated with a student from each weight class how he trains them.

At the invitation of Mr Thai, an award winning coach and a former champion in the Thai boxing world, I stepped into the ring to spar with him. After I left the gym, all I could think of was if I only had a few more lessons “I could have been a contender.” 😎😎😎

Postscript: The charming young man I am posing with named Bangpleenol is in fact a contender and has won a 50,000 Baht purse ($2,000) and will soon be fighting for over a $3000 purse. Also cover story photo of him.

Note: To view a video clip of me sparring with the coach check out this Facebook link:

https://www.facebook.com/dennis.august…/…/10156023075076668…

enjoyyourlifenow.net

Visiting the Incredible Ruins of Ayutthaya & the Elephant Taxi Controversy

Cecile and I hooked up with a group tour of 16 people with Overseas Adventures (OAT) in Bangkok. Our ever joyful and passionate tour guide Lin, is from Chiang Mai. We are currently staying at the Evergreen Laurel Hotel. This morning after breakfast we travelled north of Bangkok, past fields of rice and coconut palms to the ruins of the ancient city of Ayutthaya. It was a kingdom of enormous wealth that existed from 1350-1767. The name means “undefeatable,” in Sanskrit. That all changed when the Burmese army reduced it to rubble and made off with more than 170 kilos of gold. Only a few temples survived the attack and the rest are remnants of its former glory that are preserved at Ayutthaya Historical Park, that has been designated a Unesco World Heritage site. Ironically, even in its brokenness it has an ephemeral beauty and peace about it. We saw the stone head of a Buddha ensconced firmly in the roots of a Bodhi tree and Buddha statues that were cut in half as modern day looters searched for more gold artifacts that is believed to be still hidden within statues. In the area there were elephant taxis which is a controversial subject these days as animal rights groups claim in order to make it possible for people to ride elephants they have to be trained and the taming process is not the same as with a wild horse, it is much more brutal and needs to be done when the elephants are very young. 
After getting back to the hotel we rested up, enjoyed dinner outdoors at a local Thai Restaurant near the hotel.

Celebrating a Friend's Daughter's Milestone Event at the Mandalay Hill Resort & The Golden Duck Restaurant

“Sometimes the best friendships are the unexpected ones.”

Our friend Maybelle’s daughter Michelle, who is at the half way mark of obtaining a Bachelor’s degree in Engineering will be obtaining her Diploma in English on February 6, from the University of Foreign Languages Mandalay (Myanmar). Today Michelle and her fellow students assembled to rehearse for this much anticipated milestone. Her English speaking skills have advanced remarkably well from when we last spoke by phone during her visit to the USA to visit her auntie Teri.
Having photos taken at local parks, monasteries, and other venues for graduation or other important events are customary here. While we couldn’t attend, we invited Michelle and her mom fo a photo-shoot on the magical grounds of the Mandalay Hill Resort. It couldn’t have been a more idyllic setting. After the shoot, Michelle and her mom presented us with a scarf—made from bamboo in the lobby of our hotel as a parting gift as we will be leaving for Bangkok in the morning.

We invited Michelle and her mom, and Michelle’s boyfriend Jason (Ye Myint Myat) to dinner at a restaurant of their choice to celebrate.
They chose the Golden Duck. What are the chances that I would take my first trip to Burma over 10 years ago and become friends with a family whose daughter was also named Michelle, who would later become involved in a committed relationship with a nice young man who goes by the same name as our son, Jason. It is a coincidence that on first glance defies logic. Such is the magic of synchronicity. Michelle and Jason have known each other since they were seven years old and they love playing music together. She sings pop rock and he plays the guitar. 

The Golden Duck, a three story restaurant with a red Chinese lantern at the entrance was as good as they said it would be. While some tourists eat here, a good majority of patrons appeared to be locals. 

After dinner we went to see an old friend named Kathleen, a Catholic sister from Ireland who lives in an apartment on the grounds of Sacred Heart Church. The last time I saw her was at one of my three week meditation retreats back around 2009. Sister got permission from the archdiocese to do the Buddhist mindfulness retreat. Somehow I was comforted by this surprise and the interest in interfaith harmony we shared.

Postscript: Our daughter Michelle and son-in-law Kyle Lewis attended Maybelle’s daughter’s birthday party at the Golden Duck last October during their honeymoon to Southeast Asia.

Running of the Bulls in the Ancient City of Bagan & the Riverboat Sunset Cruise

“We travel not to escape life but for life not to escape us.” —Anon

Cecile and I hired a driver named Min Min to take us to the ancient city of Bagan that was the capital of the prosperous Bagan empire from the 9th to the 13th century and controlled most of present day Burma. After the four hours drive, we checked into a deluxe old world room at the Bagan Thande Hotel on banks of the Irrawaddy River. Bagan has the highest concentrations of Buddhist temples, pagodas, stupas than anywhere in the world. We focused on visiting the most well-known antiquities.

At the end of our first day when most visitors had their fill of visiting the ancient ruins, their tour guides recommend that they take in the sunset off observation hill. A French woman next to me agreed that it was not so much the sunset but the running of the steer that took center stage. It had the feel of the “Running of the Bulls” in Pamplona, Spain I had heard so much about, only in this case the handlers of the cattle were ushering the wild, yet obedient animals to the river for refreshment.

Burmese cattle herd in Burma isn’t as much a vehicle for producing beef as it is to drive the vital non-mechanized agricultural industry for farmers to lighten their load. What differentiates Burmese cattle from some other types is that they have horns, floppy ears and a distinctive hump on its upper back located between the head and neck.

On the second day at 8:30 AM, we took in several more grand pagodas, etc., after which we agreed to have lunch with Min Min at the Mimosa Restaurant he had highly recommended as being clean, reasonable and a fun place to eat. He was right on all counts. We started out with fresh Ginger Tea, a common cold remedy his mother used to make when he was a kid and one that is easy on the digestive tract. The waiters brought out a heart shaped pile of rice to add our curry dishes to, either with chicken or vegetarian options. Min Min chose the mutton option, common in this part of the world. The owner of the restaurant brought two complimentary dishes including crispy spinach (much like crispy Kale that is so popular in California) and fresh fruit.

After lunch Cecile and I took a nap and Min Min arranged for us to take a sunset riverboat cruise on a large motor boat. The sun went down at 6 PM and we made our way back to shore where Min Min stood waiting to take us back to our hotel.

A Visit with my Meditation Teacher in Upper Burma and The Reclining Buddha on Mandalay Hill

"My hut lies in the middle of a dense forest; Every year the green ivy grows longer. No news of the affairs of men, Only the occasional song of a woodcutter. The sun shines and I mend my robe; When the moon comes out I read...poems.
I have nothing to report, my friends. If you want to find the meaning [of life], stop chasing after so many things."
—Zen Master Ryokan

Our friend Maybelle drove us to Kyaswa Monastery, an hour from Mandalay to visit with my esteemed meditation teacher, Michele McDonald who was just about to complete leading a three week meditation retreat. She was kind enough to create a half hour window for us to meet, which wasn’t easy, as I contacted the retreat manager last minute. I hadn’t seen Michele for eight years, yet she remembered me. Over the years Cecile and I have supported the local nunneries and school affiliated with the monastery. This year was no different. One of the highlights of doing a meditation retreat at the monastery is the opportunity after the retreat to give out uniforms to the kids in their classrooms and having the young nuns sing loving kindness chants just before the last sit of the evening. 

With over 30 years as an insight meditation teacher, Michelle was the first woman to teach a formal silent meditation retreat along side senior monastic figures at Kyaswa. I was fortunate to have her as one of my main lay teachers several times in Myanmar (Burma) and the US. I found her down to earth style of teaching to be accessible, incisive, compassionate and illuminating. She definitely assisted me to find entry points into stillness and find peace no matter what challenges came my way both in the meditation hall and in everyday life. The last time I sat a retreat with her was around 2010. 

In the early evening Maybelle took me to see the gilded majestic looking reclining Buddha, housed in an old museum type building on the lower part of Mandalay Hill not to far from our hotel. It appeared to be closed. The door was locked and the lights were out. That didn’t stop Maybelle as she is as persistent as she is kind, and she managed to find the custodian of building who is a young monk who also lives there. The pleasant monastic is pretty handy. Apparently, all the donations visitors place in the glass container are used to maintain the statues and the pedestals they sit on. This is the Burma I know, based on the wisdom of kindness and generosity. 

Speaking of generosity, I have learned a lot from Maybelle. In a country that is 90% Buddhist, she makes it a regular practice to help people that are hungry, disabled, elderly at any given opportunity, no matter what their religious preference. She is also a part of a sisterhood who make small seed loans to women for small opportunities.

Photos: With the exception of the reclining Buddha, all photos were taken at the monastery on this trip and in 2010. The wrap around dress is called a longyi and along with a white shirt is required clothing for men at these monastery retreats. The four story building with the stone steps to the right is the meditation hall. The hut I was assigned has a bed, closet, desk and bathroom. I was quite happy there.