Sawat dii kha and Happy New Year everyone!

Tonight we’re celebrating the new year in the vibrant city of Bangkok. A quick look at a Thai calendar might leave you confused, however, because here we’re actually in the year… 2551! This is because Thai people begin counting not from the birth of Christ, but from the nirvana of the Buddha, some five hundred years prior.

Bangkok is loud and modern, but we love it. In the midst of the urban chaos there are small altar-like “spirit houses” everywhere, even in front of shopping malls. They are built to resemble full-sized temples and are full of animal figurines, flower garlands, incense, and other offerings left by worshippers. Of course there are also large, beautifully ornate wats (temples) too. Derry’s favorite houses this colossal reclining gold leaf Buddha.

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He is well over 90 feet long, and his enigmatic smile itself is over 10 feet in breadth. Like the Buddha, people here smile easily, and their gentleness leavens the intensity of the city.

Soon after we arrived, we learned that we had just missed the 80th birthday celebration of Thailand’s adored King Bhumibol (December 5). No matter, since Thai people celebrate his birthday for the entire month. His likeness, usually adorned with flags and flowers, is everywhere. This one, in the atrium of a numbingly huge shopping mall, looks out over hordes of Christmas (yes, Christmas!) shoppers. (For scale, you can just see Kate in the lower right corner.)

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The King and the royal family are revered and loved, and the King himself is an interesting person — an accomplished painter, photographer, and musician. He has played jazz clarinet with Benny Goodman and Louis Armstrong, and there is a popular CD of his symphonic compositions performed by the London Philharmonic.

One Monday morning, we noticed that virtually everyone was wearing yellow polo shirts emblazoned with the royal crest. Finally we asked someone why, and we found out that this too is part of the King’s birthday celebration — every Monday in December is “yellow shirt day.”

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The following day we noticed that everyone was wearing pink polo shirts. (We didn’t ask.)

One of the reasons we love Bangkok is the food, especially the street food — stalls selling freshly squeezed orange juice, delectable sliced fruit, steaming noodle soups, barbecued skewers of chicken, pork, sausage, meatballs, squid, etc… with a delicious meal typically costing under a dollar. Just point and hope. When that feels too intimidating, we retreat to the mall food courts, where the same delicious dishes are on offer with less chaos and confusion. This stall sells Derry’s current favorite — mama noodles stir-fried with pork, green vegetable, and dark soy, doused with fish sauce and pickled chili peppers.

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Our first venture into the countryside took us south by train to the Andaman Coast. We then traveled by boat 35 miles offshore to the Surin Islands, a marine national park. We snorkeled over many dramatic coral gardens and shared the jungle with a three-foot long monitor lizard, a kamikaze flying squirrel, and lunch-stealing pig-tailed macacques. One of the Surin Islands is the rainy-season home of the Moken people, also known as Sea Gypsies. Most of the year they live on their boats in the ocean. On the beaches, they place families of brightly-painted protective totems.

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Much of this area was hard-hit by the 2004 tsunami. The Moken suffered a great deal, as did many small fishing villages along the coast. We lingered for a few days in the small coastal town of Khura Buri, which is making a comeback. The guesthouse we stayed in was surrounded by a lush garden tended by our gracious hostess. She is not only good with flowers, but also lends her garden hose to a large, thirsty neighbor.

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Further inland, we visited Khao Sok National Park and dramatic Chiaw Lan Lake. This lake is actually a huge reservoir created in 1982, through the efforts of the King, to generate hydroelectric power. The beautiful reservoir seemed to us like a “water bridge,” enabling us to explore by boat this otherwise unpenetrable limestone karst terrain.

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The surrounding jungle is filled with life. From our boat we watched langur monkeys swing through the treetops. We spent the afternoon hiking through the jungle to the din of cicadas and countless other insects, punctuated by the melodic hoots of gibbons.

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Beauty and reverence are essential components of Thai culture. On the busy street near our Bangkok hotel, we pass this life-size Shiva shrine daily. But what is the Hindu diety Shiva doing in a Buddhist country? This is just one of the fascinating things about Thailand. Buddhism, practiced devoutly, is interlaced with elements of Hinduism. Thai Buddhists regularly make offerings to Hindu gods, such as these scarves on Shiva’s arms.

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Also, while Shiva is a male diety, you can see that this figure expresses both male and female in one. To us, this captures another aspect of Thai society that we’ve been noticing: gender differences are less extreme here, and tilt toward the feminine end of the spectrum. For example, “third-gender” people — males who live as female — are just part of everyday society here, even in small towns like Khura Buri. Characteristics that we view as feminine, like gentleness, graciousness, and beauty, are highly valued and permeate Thai society.

Well, midnight is approaching and it’s time for us to celebrate! Hope this finds you all well; here’s to a gentle and gracious New Year. With love, Kate & Derry

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