Elephants, Tigers, and Snakes, Oh My!

So, with the hustle and bustle involved in moving me from Shanghai to the Sanmen nuclear site where Michael works, I have fallen way behind on the blog. Therefore, I am going to quickly detail our last day in Thailand, letting the pictures and videos do most of the talking, and then start up again with my China posts.  So here goes!

Elephants

Elephant and Mahout

 

We spent the last day and a half of our trip in Chiang Mai, Thailand’s second largest city. Robert, our insect guide from the Punjen Hideaway, was traveling there to trap moths in the city’s hilly outskirts and graciously offered to give us a lift so we didn’t have to mess with the train. He also agreed to stop at the Thai Elephant Conservation Center in Lampang so Michael and I could see the elephant show and go for an elephant ride.

I had seen elephants before, of course, but always in a zoo or circus and always in a shamefully unnatural climate. I was excited to see an Asian elephant in Asia, not behind bars or in a traveling sideshow.

The Thai Elephant Conservation Center is a huge compound of forests, ponds, and trails. The Center’s vets and mahouts (traditional Thai elephant trainers) take care of more than 50 Asian elephants, including those of Thailand’s king and queen.

Feeding an elephant sugar cane

It was an hour before the next show, so Michael and I went for a 30-minute elephant ride around the grounds. Our elephant was a heavy, thick-tusked female. She hardly seemed to notice when we scrambled over her mountainous shoulders into the riding basket  buckled to her back. The elephant’s mahout sat bareback in front of us just behind the elephant’s head. He spoke to her conversationally in Thai as she walked us out of the gate.

The old girl bore the three of us easily and took her time wading through the Center’s ponds, crashing along the forest trails, and clomping down the paved road. You really get a sense of how big these animals are when you’re sitting atop one. The ground seems forever below you and when the elephant walks, its massive shoulder blades shift the riding basket up and down, producing an effect like airplane turbulence.

After the ride, we bid farewell to our mighty mount and her mahout and walked over to the elephant arena to watch the show.  The show was part living history, part gimmick. The amazing elephants demonstrated their beast-of-burden history in Thailand, where the country’s logging industry traditionally used the animals to move and manipulate felled trees and logs, by deftly pushing, stacking, and carrying, logs in the arena. But the elephants also bowed to the audience, played instruments (drums, a xylophone, and a harmonica), danced (unfortunately to Fergie’s “My Humps”), and used their dexterous trunks to wield paint-laden brushes with which they painted sixth-grade-worthy pictures of trees and flowers. It was all very impressive, if a little circusy. However, only the stoniest-hearted could leave the Center without a new appreciation for these mighty jungle kings.

 

Snakes

Jumping snake

Michael and I had failed to spot any dangerous, one-bite-will-kill-you-dead snakes while we were in Ban Pin. So, naturally, when we got to Chiang Mai, we told our driver to take us to the best cobra show in town. The place he recommended was a rambling collection of tin-roofed buildings prefaced by sun-faded billboards that advertised the joint’s snake handlers as, “The Best in The Business” and claimed that they had helped “train the cast of Rambo 4.”

Our driver walked us in, grabbed a newspaper from the front desk, plopped himself into a chair near the door, and began to read. Michael and I wandered around the showroom, which was little more than a cement floor lined with a few rows of wire snake cages, some potted plants, and a round, sunken show arena. Sunlight filtered down through the netted ceiling in bright squares. We peeked eagerly into the cages’ dark recesses and caught shadowy glimpses of jumping snakes, mangrove snakes, and the fearsomely beautiful monocled cobra.

We finished looking at the caged snakes and wandered over to the arena’s bamboo bleachers to wait for the show to begin. The cramped arena was lined with pilling green felt, and somewhere speakers thrummed with generically ethnic music that grew more frenzied as the handlers walked into the ring and readied themselves for snakes and spectacle. Our expectations were low, but the show turned out to be hugely entertaining: The handlers took turns sparing athletically with varyingly venomous snakes. The announcer ooo’d and awe’d along with audience and said things like, “Don’t worry, it takes at least two hours for monocled cobra venom to kill a human. By the way, the hospital is two and half hours from here…”

None of the snakes, which included a giant boa constrictor, two rat snakes, a jumping snake, two monocled cobras, and a king cobra (the longest venomous snake in the world), was defanged; a point the handlers drove home when they wrapped the riled serpents around the necks of the most willing whiteys in the audience (a.k.a. me an Michael) and shoved the snake’s open jaws in our face so we could give the ornery ophids a kiss.

Michael kissing reticulated python

The handlers were lithe and comical as they spun, parried, and danced around the watchful snakes. The cobras were especially poised. They stood tall, hoods concavely flared like the head of a spoon, above tightly coiled tails. The snake’s shining eyes followed the handlers’ every antagonizing move and when the men’s gamboling stopped in front of us, the snakes seemed to be looking directly at Michael and me, daring us to move or twitch or breathe. It was a marvelous feeling.

Me with Boa

When the handler’s got too close or too still, the king cobras struck confidently at the men’s abdomens, which were level with the snakes concentrated gaze. The handlers’ aim, according to the announcer, was to hypnotize or distract the snake’s attention so that the men could kiss the animal’s head before the handler’s mesmeric spell was broken and the snake moved it’s attention from the man’s twitching foot or wiggling finger to his face. This took some time and was clearly not 100 percent effective as many of the handlers had fingers missing or large, shiny purple scars on their hands and feet. The handlers stood close to the alert snakes, locked eyes with them, and bent slowly forward toward the serpents’ scaly heads until something about the animals would change, a subtle twitch, a slight muscle contraction, a cock of the head that said, “I know what you are trying to do, and it’s not going to work,” and the handlers would back away and try again.

After the senior handler had kissed his cobra, he invited audience members to walk into the ring and have someone snap a picture of us kneeling in front of the still vigilant and erect snakes. I would love to say I was more eager than Michael about the whole thing, but then, the snake didn’t strike at me and did take a full on lunge at Michael [See video] He still gets chills when he thinks about it. 

 

Tigers

Michael with juvenile tigers

The last animal attraction we saw that day in Chiang Mai was the tiger conservation and rehabilitation center.

Young tiger playing in its pond

The center raises and rehabilitates sick and injured tigers, so the animals there are very tame and used to people. This post is getting long despite my previous promise of brevity so I will just say that is was pretty cool. The tigers were large, apparently free of sedative drugs—though the largest ones seemed house-cat drowsy—and still had all their teeth and claws. Once you bought tickets, you were allowed to go into the tiger’s enclosures in small groups and take photos with the animals as the played and slept. It was pretty unbelievable. We had to sign a waiver, but we were actually allowed to lie down next to the largest the tigers and take pictures with our heads on their bellies.

Marian with large, lazy tiger

The younger tigers were very playful, as cats are, with string, bits of wood and toy balls, but were rather uninterested in us. Considering that my head could easily fit into the animals’ yawning, toothy mouths, their incuriosity was a good thing, no?  Their astounding banded, orange fur is  is one of nature’s best examples of disruptive coloration and, up close, the black bands are nearly patent in their glossy sable. Tigers are truly special animals and I think it’s pretty cool that there is a place that allows you to interact with the animals. I don’t know if it’s safe, exactly. But it’s pretty cool.

Wow! These Bugs Are Big: My Thailand Adventure, Part 3

Michael and me overlooking Punjen, Thailand

The next morning, before breakfast, Robert knocked on our bungalow door and said, “Hello! Pot’s found something for you…” I flew through the screen door and out onto the patio. Pot was cradling a long, forest-green stick insect.

Me with stick insect

Green stick insect

I had never seen a stick insect in the wild before, let alone one this big! “Pot found it crawling in the bushes near the kitchen,” Robert said. I let the living stick crawl from Pot’s hands into mine. The creature was so fragile, its legs painfully delicate. The insect’s body tapered like a blade of grass from one end to the other. For a while, it sat calmly in my open palms, but it soon began to sway back and forth, ever so slightly, from the knees. The transformation was marvelous: In front of my eyes, the insect morphed into a fresh sprig of grass, swaying gently in the morning breeze.

We ate breakfast quickly to get a jump on the day. While the guys readied the pony cart that would take us into the village, Ya, our guide for the day, led me to a small group of trees growing near the kitchen. “Have you ever seen and elephant bug?” she asked.

Lantern fly caught in web

I can’t tell you how thrilled I was to discover that what the Thais call elephant bugs, we call lantern flies, remarkably odd-looking insects characterized by enlarged heads that resemble trunks or noses that I had always wanted to see.

Lantern flies (Pyrops candelaria)

The lantern flies (Pyrops candelaria) are bright green with chalk-white veins running through their yellow-spotted wings. They were resting in groups on the tree trunks, their hilarious noises pointed skyward. Lantern flies get their name from a never proven observation that the insects can illuminate their elongated “noses”. This viridescent species is common in Thailand, but it’s amazing nonetheless. Another bug off the life-list!

Me with Punjen village schoolgirl

We rode the pony cart to Punjen village where Ya was going to give us a tour of the school. The classrooms were separated by grade (from kindergarten to high school) and organized in a sqaure around a grassy field. The students learn both Thai and English and the rooms were filled with pictures of fruit, animals, and weather events with the corresponding English words written below the pictures. And, of course, there were many framed photos of the Thai King and Queen. The Thai’s seem very proud of their royalty, and Their Majesties’ pictures are everywhere; homes, grocery stores, gas stations, highway billboards, etc.

The schools were great. The teachers appeared confident and the students seemed busy. They had books, clay, paints and even some old computers.

Rice miller machine

We walked from the schools to a rice mill across the street. The “mill” was really just a giant rice milling machine in a tumbledown barn.

Rice bags

Via a series of elevators, conveyor belts, agitators, and shoots, the machine  removes the grain’s brown husk, sorts the grains, and then shoots the husks out the back into a crowd of eager, expectant chickens.

Next, Ya took us through the village, a jumble of unpainted, wooden houses. She told us that two elderly people had died in the village the day before, and so many of the villagers were inside their homes, mourning. When a villager dies, the family keeps the person’s body inside the home for two days (the mourning period).

Villager shucking nuts with a hammer and knife blade

Grubs for sale at Punjen village market

The body is then taken to a crematorium and burned, which marks the end of the mourning period. Ya explained that, for the most part, the Thais view death as just something that happens, a normal part of life. Consequently, the mourning period is short and more celebratory than sorrowful.

In the village, a family was shucking nuts on their front stoop. We watched as the grandfather used a hammer and knife to expertly prey open the nut’s shell. He offered us a few nuts, the meat of which tasted like soft almonds.

These nuts tasted like a cross between an almond and a water chestnut

The villagers in Punjen lived up to Thailand’s reputation for friendliness. In marked contrast to the Chinese, or at least to the Shanghainese, who seem suspicious and defeated, the Thais are sassy, creative, and have a wonderful sense of humor.  We walked through the village’s small market street and the people, despite having very little, and spending most of their day knee-deep in mud or hand-reaping grain, seem happy and hopeful.

We found this rhinoceros beetle on a statue at the hill top temple

To get to the hilltop temple, we climbed this beautiful stone dragon stairway

We pony-carted back to the resort for lunch, then drove to a hilltop temple with a view of the valley, then walked to a waterfall where Michael and I went swimming, and then, finally, we went back to the resort. Whew! But the best part of the whole day, in my opinion, was helping Robert hang up a black light and white sheet at the back of our bungalow to attract insects. I’d seen researchers do this kind of thing on television, and I was giddy at the possibilities. As dusk fell softly around us, the black light’s weird purple glow burned brighter and, in an airy flutter of wings, moths and beetles flew past our heads and gathered in a jittery mass on the eerily lit sheet.

A beautiful orange Arctiid moth

There diversity of species was tremendous. There were sleek, streamlined hawk (sphinx) moths; colorful tiger moths; pale, papery luna moths, unreasonably big Atlas moths, large green katydids; small, hungry mantids, and a huge huntsman spider that stalked the sheet’s periphery, waiting to pounce on heedless insects.

a species of Geometer moth

One of the most charismatic insects of the night was a hulking five-horned beetle that buzzed loudly to the sheet. Robert picked it off and handed it to me. These beetles are some of the heaviest in the world but their legs and tiny, clawed feet are still awfully delicate, so as it crawled up my scarf, I was hesitant to remove it. Michael and I went inside the bungalow where the light was better to shoot some video of the beetle’s steady ascent up my scarf.

This huge Atlas moth camped out in the trees near the black light

By the time we got inside and readied the camera, the beetle had entangled itself in my wet hair and was desperately trying to free itself and summit my head [see video]. Its claws dug into my scalp and we were afraid that if we pulled at it too hard it would loose a leg. Robert to the rescue! In one confident swoop, he pulled the beetle off my head and tossed it in the air. It spread its wings and buzzed away into the growing darkness.

Before Michael and I hit the hay, Robert had one more surprise for me. I’d told Dwaila  in advance of the trip, that, bug-wise, I am particularly fond of arachnids. She  passed along this info to Robert, who promised to keep an eye out for interesting arachnids.  Robert said that he’d captured a curious little arachnid in his kitchen the night before, and had brought it with him to give to me.

He handed me a small, lidded plastic jar that contained a dark, scorpion-like animal. He called it a whip-scorpion, but I knew the strange little guy as a vinegaroon (Mastigoproctus giganteu). This was a relatively small one, probably just a juvenile. Adults of some species can be nearly four inches long.

With their spiny pincers, eight eyes, and long, thin tail, whip scorpions are fearsome at first glance, but they are harmless to people and are really quite adorable little things. I let this one walk around on my arm (see video) and I was struck by the gentle, probing way they used their elongated pair of front legs, which are not for walking but for  sensing and feeling. Soooo Cute! Vinegaroons are rather important pest controllers as they prey on crickets, grasshoppers, and other crop pests. Vinegaroons get their name from their ability to produce an acetic acid (vinegar) mist when threatened or attacked. Arachnids are the coolest!

Click here to see a slideshow of all the crazy cool insects we saw in Thailand!

Wow! These Bugs Are Big: My Thailand Adventure, Part 2

We boarded the train to Ban Pin, settled into our sleeper car seat (we’d paid for the first class car but found out that car had “wheel problems” and were told to get our refund in Ban Pin), and were promptly greeted by the stewardess, who was clearly a man, and my first experience with Thailand’s famous kathoeys—ladyboys—who are male-to-female transgenders, male cross dressers, or extremely effeminate gay men. Kathoeys are highly accepted in Thai society. Generally, they work traditionally female jobs: waitresses, secretaries, and stewardesses. Our Kathoey stewardess was not especially convincing—large jaw, broad shoulders, prominent Adam’s apple—but she was very friendly, especially to Michael. She pinched Michael’s cheek every time she passed our seat, much to his embarrassment.

An Argiope spider (Ban Pin Train station) stretched across her characteristic "St. Andrew's cross" web stabilimentum

For dinner, we ate an expensive, worse-than-airplane-food ready meal, folded down our beds and talked politics across the aisle with our seat neighbors, a young Swiss couple. They were concerned about American opinions regarding Switzerland, to which Michael and I replied, “I don’t think Americans really have many opinions about Switzerland, other than that Roger Federer’s a real classy dude.” They were worried that Americans hate the Swiss because of their country’s lax tax laws, an issue that, apparently, has greatly divided the Swiss electorate.

We arrived in Ban Pin train station at seven the next morning and were met by a gaunt, rawboned, white guy, who, in a lowborn British accent, introduced himself as “Robert”. He was going to be our insect guide for the Punjen Hideaway tour and generally would be taking over for Dwaila (the resort’s owner with whom we had booked) who was hiking in Indonesia. On the 40 minute-ride to the resort, we learned that Robert was from outside London, didn’t much care for his kin, had been living in Thailand with his Thai wife for the last five years, and skated the line between cynical and bitter.

 

Our Punjen Hideaway bungalow

Punjen Hideaway is a jungly, streamside resort replete with vine-covered, stone and wood bungalows and a charming hillside swimming pool. Two Thai couples from Punjen village staff the joint. The men are the wait staff and forest guides, and the women cook (surprise, surprise) and guide the village tours.

One of the many katydids we saw at Punjen Hideaway

Green praying mantis on cactus

Before breakfast, Michael and I wandered the Hideaway’s gardens to look for bugs.  In just twenty minutes we saw a large praying mantis, three different katydids, and a beautiful, wet moth, freshly emerged from its cocoon. It was paradise. And breakfast time!

The Hideaway’s dining room is on the top floor of an open-air bungalow that overlooks a bubbling, clear-water stream. During our western breakfast of scrambled eggs, ham, and French toast (a welcome change from China’s breakfast staples: kimchee cucumber and slimy, meat-filled dumplings), one of the staffers caught a silver dollar-sized beetle and brought it to us. It was a metallic-green beauty called a green-square beetle (Agestrata orichala orichala). [See video]. To my delight, over the next few days, the staffers would make a habit of bringing me bugs.


After breakfast, Robert and the staff took us on a hike into the hills behind the resort.  Thailand’s rainy season was ebbing but not over, which explained why Michael and I had the entire place to our selves. This also explained the foliage-choked trail on which were hiking. When the verdure became impassable, Pot, one of the staffers, pulled a large, shiny machete from his belt and, with a few hacks, made it passable. At times, the foliage was so thick that we couldn’t see our feet.

...

All I could think was “snake city… snake city… snake city.” I casually mentioned my concern to Robert. He chuckled and told us that, while there are lots of snakes, including some of the world’s most venomous, in Thailand, people rarely encounter them because the snakes are well camouflaged, wary of people, and often nocturnal.

We stopped at a stream-side clearing. Here, the water tumbled cheerfully over moss-covered boulders, forming a series of pools, one below the other.  A young Thai man was there already, sitting on a rock near the water, holding a cigarette in one hand and a butterfly net in the other. He was watching something near the stream bank.

Butterfly trapper

We followed his gaze to a sandy depression teeming with crayon-colored butterflies. Robert said the man was collecting the butterflies to sell in the insect trade.

The butterflies, he explained, use the forest streams like a highway system, traveling more easily along them than through the tangled jungle.

One of our guides spotted this chubby Atlas moth caterpillar along the way

He also told us that depressions like this one are man-made butterfly traps. Trappers make depressions in the ground near a stream, throw a few dead crabs in the middle and urinate on the sand. Butterflies, particularly males, are drawn to the crabmeat and urine, which have minerals in them that the insects need for sperm production and mating. While the butterflies feed, distracted, the trapper plops his net over the species he thinks will bring him the most cash, folds the insects into a paper envelope, and tosses the envelop into an old cookie tin.

Robert knows all this because he too is in the insect trade. He operates a butterfly farm down the road from the resort and catches and breeds moths for the “dead market,” which refers to the traffic of dried and mounted insects. The insect trade in Thailand is—like China’s traditional medicine market—largely unregulated. Many of the insect species that are caught and traded are done so legally, but others—the rare and endangered ones—are often still traded without the requisite paperwork.

We saw this dragonfly along the path

Here, CITES (Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species) permits are viewed as an idealistic and impractical inconvenience, a bureaucratic check on the villager’s livelihoods, and something that really only applies to big-time dealers, not humble trappers.

While the women cooked lunch, the men taught Michael and me how to “spear” for the fish that would go in the soup.  Armed with homemade, rubber band-action spear guns and old school scuba masks, Michael and I paddled about the clear pools hunting tiny fish that were suckered to the rocks.

Michael fishing

After twenty minutes, we’d each successfully skewered one fish (see pictures). We posed proudly with our prey for pictures and then dropped the two fish into a half-gallon collecting bucket, which our Thai guides, in the same twenty minutes, had practically filled.

We ate lunch on a floral tablecloth lined with banana leaves. In addition to fish soup, the cooks had prepared fried chicken with a spicy dipping sauce, fresh cucumber slices, and sticky rice that they had steamed in the chamber of a bamboo shoot, a traditional Thai method for cooking rice. We clumped the rice it into a ball with our fingers and dipped the sticky mass into the sauce. Delicious.

Michael and his fish

Me and my fish

We washed lunch’s greasy residue from our hands in the stream’s cool water and then headed back to the resort. On the way, we saw two of most wonderful spiders I had ever seen. The first was a Giant Golden Orb Weaver, and she was an arachnid queen: long, shapely legs; white, velvet head, and a svelte, bullet-shaped abdomen marbled neatly in yellow and black. She sat confidently in the middle of her monstrous web, which had been spun with strands of yellow silk and shone brightly in the reflected afternoon sun. The web’s sheeny spokes radiated two feet in every direction, hanging like a Halloween banner between two trees. Upon closer inspection we noticed that she was missing a leg.

Giant golden orb weaver

The second spider was a great deal smaller but equally impressive. It was a species of long-horned orb weaver, a marvelous creature characterized by the two curved horns that project from the spider’s triangular abdomen.

Long-horned orb weaver

By the time we returned to the resort I was arachnaphoric. I had just crossed two spiders off my arthropod “life-list.” And as any Audoboner will tell you, that’s a great excuse to celebrate.

Punjen Hideaway's pool

So Michael and I threw on our swimming suits and ran to the pool. We lounged and swam and talked, and sipped cold Singha beer from mugs that were molded into the feathered visage of a Native American chief, a kitschy touch of the familiar in a country that was decidedly, and beautifully, foreign.

Wow! These Bugs are Big: My Thailand Adventure, Part 1

Michael and I decided to celebrate China’s National Holiday—a week-long holiday that honors the founding of the People’s Republic of China on October 1, 1949—by going to…Thailand!

One of many Bangkok market streets

Street in Bangkok

We wanted to avoid Thailand’s beaches as the traveling predilections of Michael’s coworkers suggested that Pattaya (one the most heavily prostituted areas in south Asia) would be overrun with old, fat, white dudes. Instead, we planned a great trip that would take us into northern Thailand for a three day/two night tour at the Punjen Hideaway, a small ranch-like resort in the heart of rural Thailand that is owned and operated by an Iowan woman who has lived in the country for more than 30 years.

Snake-head Buddha at Wat Pho

For an extra 1000 Baht ($30), we also booked the insect tour, for which I was crazy excited and well prepared: I packed three insect books and my best David Attenborough-in-the-jungle looking outfit.

Wat Pho's mirrored tile work

However, our train to Ban Pin (the station nearest to Punjen) did not leave Bangkok until the next evening, which meant we had to stay in Bangkok for a night and fool around the city the following day. We were wary about blindly traipsing about Bangkok because the guidebook entries we had seen read more like travel warnings than tourist pointers: “Expect everyone who approaches you on the street to be looking for money”, “ the friendliest people in Bangkok are also the biggest tricksters”, etc.

Wat Pho's inner courtyard

The guidebooks weren’t kidding!

Metal lion statue

We spent most of the next day trying to ignore dozens of “unnaturally” friendly Thai scammers who offered us “discounted” Tuk Tuk (a small, cart-like taxi) rides–a scam in which the driver pretends to take you to a temple or shrine but then tells you the place is closed and instead drives you to his collaborator’s shitty jewelry or trinket stall. Fortunately, we were incredulous and failed to fall for the tricks. However, shaking off one guy is much easier than avoiding an entire group, as we discovered on our way to Wat Pho, the famous “Reclining Buddha” temple near Bangkok’s Grand Palace.

Floral mosaic

Michael and I were walking down a fairly open sidewalk toward the temple when a group of women, who had been sitting nearby, watching our approach, jumped up and surrounded us.

Young monk at Bangkok street market

They were trying to sell us bags of seasoned corn kernels with which to feed the countless pigeons that crowded the sidewalks. Man, were these chicks aggressive! They pushed up on us shouting, “Corn, 20 Baht! You want corn! 20 Baht.

Wat Pho

You in Thailand now! 20 Baht!” Michael and I tried to ignore them and continue walking but they hooked the bags of corn onto our backpacks and hung them over our arms as we walked. Michael and I didn’t realize they’d done this until they started shouting, “Police! Police!” alerting us to the stow-away corn. We quickly pulled the bags off and threw them to the ground.

Wat Pho's ornate tile work

At this point, I was scared and started half-jogging away from the obnoxious mob. I thought Michael was right behind me but a quick look over my shoulder revealed that the forceful women had besieged him and were shoving bags of corn in his face. He finally pushed them off and started running toward me. The women followed us for a moment and then relented and walked cheerfully back to their stations.

Courtyard pagoda

Stone monk

The pigeon ladies had unnerved us and we were grateful to walk through Wat Pho’s south entrance and buy tickets from a legitimate vendor. The temple’s stunning Thai architecture made up for Bangkok’s scheming citizenry, but just barely.

From the temple grounds sprout dozens of ornately tiled prangs, or spires, inlayed with richly colored floral mosaics. The temple buildings have traditional Thai-style, fish-scaled roofs that turn up sharply at the corners. The corners have all been painted gold and carved into delicately curved shapes that resemble flames or horns. Large “Stone giants” guard the many entryways and arches, and beautifully weathered stone monks with flowing beards and long fingernail stand solemnly in the courtyards watching over the gleaming, golden buddhas that sit, cross-legged and frozen in prayer, along the courtyard walls.

Golden buddhas

Temple bell

Michael and I wandered the grounds for a bit taking pictures and admiring the intricacy of the architecture before going into one of the large shrines to pay our respects to Buddha. The shrine was set inside a large room and before we could enter we had to remove our shoes and put them in a shoe shelf near the doorway. A “guard’ at the entrance checked people over and turned away those who didn’t have their shoulders covered or were wearing short skirts. Fortunately, Michael and I had planned ahead and were dressed appropriately, or at least, passably.

Ornate temple roof

Wat Pho shrine

The shrine was an enormous golden platform atop which sat a giant glowing-gold Buddha. The base of the shrine overflowed with offerings–glass-encased Buddha statues, ornate porcelain bottles, flowers, and candles—and the shrine’s walls were covered in what looked like hand-painted wallpaper.

Wat Pho's Reclining Buddha

Michael and I sat in front of the shrine and admired the lavish set-up. We kept our feet tucked beneath us, as it’s disrespectful to show the bottoms of your feet to holy figures in Thailand.

From there, we went to Wat Pho’s famous “Reclining Buddha.” This giant, gold-plated Buddha is one of the largest images of Buddha in the world and was created during Rama III’s restoration of the temple in the 1800s. The Reclining Buddha is 151 feet long and 49 feet high.

The Reclining Buddha's mother-of-pearl feet

Pretty impressive. The soles of the Buddha’s feet are inlayed with mother-of- pearl depictions of Buddha’s 108 characteristics.

Tiled shrine

After admiring this buddhistic behemoth, we headed to the train station to await our 6:00 p.m. train to Ban Pin. Wat Pho was lovely and quite spiritual in its architectural detail, but Bangkok’s hoards of con artists and duplicitous taxi drivers seemed at odds with such beauty. So we were content to sit with our bags, and hundreds of other travelers, on the floor of Hua Lamphong Railway Station and wait for a train ride outta there!

Continued in part 2…

Green Tea Anyone?

 

Bamboo forest in Longjing

 

Two weeks ago, Michael and I had a few days off for the Chinese Mid-Autumn or Moon Festival. It’s a 3,000 year-old harvest festival that celebrates the autumnal equinox. A friend recommended that we spend the short break in Hangzhou and nearby Longjing, one of China’s famous green tea regions. A little hiking, some Longjing green tea, a few days away from Shanghai…perfect! Almost.

 

Carved bell in tea village

 

Hangzhou is built around West Lake and while the parts of the city that border the water are rather pretty (half-moon bridges, weeping willow-lined shores, quirky fountains) the rest of the city could be, well, any other large city in China. In fact, from a tourist’s perspective, that is one of the most noticeable and unfortunate side effects of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. The termination and removal of historical, culturally vibrant, and religious sites, buildings, and monuments. As a result, China, and it’s cities especially, are disappointingly free of what Foreigners expect to see when they come to China: Temples with delicately upturned roofs, ornately appointed pagodas, and pictures of dragons and lions carved into every piece of stonework.

 

A type of orchid (?) in Longjing

 

While some of those traditional trappings are still around, they are often either restorations or recreations or, if original, are located in very rural parts of the country.

 

China's famous Longjing tea fields

 

In this way, Hangzhou is just like Shanghai; dirty, noisy, tall, but semi-glossed in a coat of western-style capitalism that makes it appear thriving: banks on every block, convenience stores on every corner and more clothing boutiques than Montana has casinos, which, as my Big Sky compadres know is a hell of lot.

Fortunately, we were only using Hangzhou as our base and the morning after we arrived we paid the equivalent of about eight dollars for a taxi to drive us the twenty-five minutes from our hotel to the China Tea Museum, which marks the entrance to the surprisingly undeveloped Longjing tea region.

 

Terraced tea hills

 

 

This caterpillar was at least six inches long and was patterned to resemble a small branch.

 

The museum sits at the bottom of a deep valley from which steep, green hills rise sharply on either side. The valley floor is densely rowed with dark, round green tea bushes. The hillsides are lushly forested but in places patches have been cleared away and

 

Stone path through the hills of Longjing

 

terraced with tea bushes. Michael and I skipped the tea museum and turned down the bus that takes tourists to the various tea villages in the area. We wanted badly to hike, to get away from people, and to see some wildlife, which for

 

These are a species of Dynastinae (Rhinoceros) beetles (the male and female). We found a number of these beetles in Longjing but they were all dead, either crushed or drowned. It was a shame and a bit mysterious.

 

me meant insects, the unseen majority. We had no idea where to start hiking as we did not have a map of the place but had heard from friends that there were trails everywhere and each one linked with the others. From the museum parking lot I spotted a small stone staircase that seemed to lead from the museum grounds, into the forest. Michael and I looked at each other, shrugged, and said, ‘Let’s do this.”

There was no one else on the stone trail, which took us deep into the forest and up, up, up the verdant hillsides. After about and hour and half we reached what we thought was the top of the hill we had been climbing but noticed the trail continued down and around toward the next hillside.  

 We were enjoying ourselves immensely–Michael loved the exercise and the solitude, I loved the amazing insects that called the Longjing hills home: tree hoppers, strange, bristly caterpillars, and gorgeous black and yellow nephila spiders.

 

This is a gorgeous spider of the genus Nephila. They are large, orb web spiders also known as golden orb weavers because they spin their webs with yellow silk (the yellow color comes from a mixture of chemical compounds in the silk) that scientists believe attracts bees and other insects to the web and helps camouflage the webs in shade. The males of Nephila spiders are significantly smaller than the females who usually eat the males after mating.

 

So we ended up spending the rest of the day hiking up and down the steep green hills. The only other people we saw on the trail were small groups of confused and tired-looking Chinese tourists gathered around trail maps posted at the trail junctions.

 

This is Argiope versicolor, a common spider Argiope spider in China. like most Argiopes, it sits with its legs held in four pairs in an "X" shape. For this reason, these spiders are often called "St. Adrew's Cross" spiders.

 

By late afternoon, Michael and I had been hiking for about four hours and were starving.  We stopped at a small tea village we had seen on one of the maps, hoping they might have nibbles to tide us over. We went into the tiny village square and sat down at a table in front of a small store that sold Lays potato chips, cups of dried noodles, and hot Longjing green tea. We bought two cups of tea and a bag of chips from the clerk who had to step away from a game of dice to grab us the chips and pour hot water into two cups of loose green tea leaves. We ate the chips ravenously and sipped the tea—which is famous in China for it’s smooth, clean flavor—by straining the leaves through our teeth. A large Rooster and his feathered harem came rushing in through a large red door on one side of the square and milled noisily about our feet. Three village mutts were hanging lazily about the square.

 

Red door in the tea village square

 

We watched while one of them walked over to the village’s small shrine (an unusual site in China) and grabbed an apple from the offering table near the door.

 

Loose leaf Longjing green tea

 

After we finished our tea and chips, Michael made small talk with the store clerk who was curious where we were from. Michael made him guess (he likes to do this) and the man guessed that we were French (Michael hadn’t shaved in three days so I can’t blame the guy). Canada was his next guess (Most Chinese don’t think we are quite fat enough to be Americans).

 

1400-year-old Gingko

 

On our way out, the man proudly showed us the village’s 1400-year-old Gingko, a massive tree protected by an iron fence and adorned with an old, painted placard that noted the tree’s age and species in Chinese and English.

By the time we reached the main road again it was dinnertime and we were hungry again. We got onto one of the buses that takes people from the villages to Longjing proper but got off after about five minutes when we saw what looked like a restaurant. It turned out to be a restaurant/hotel owned and operated by a woman from Hangzhou. She said she rarely got foreigners at her restaurant.

 

A traditional Chinese incense burner

 

This is usually a good sign that suggests the food will be spicy and authentic. Sweet and spicy pork ribs, garlic-sautéed hollow-heart vegetable, asparagus leaves (which are neither leaves nor asparagus) and a traditional chicken dish. We ate as the sun set behind the hills along which we had spent the day hiking. And when we finished, we asked the owner how to get back to Hangzhou to which she replied, “I’m going there anyway, I will just drive you.” It was a welcome kindness after a long day. Michael chatted with her in Chinese the whole way back. I stared out the window thinking happily about stone steps and Nephila spiders.

El Diablo

An exchange rate of bout 6 yuan to one dollar is deceivingly luxurious, especially when it means that cab rides are, on average, $2.00 a pop. After a month or so of getting around Shanghai exclusively by taxi, I realized I needed to man up and start learning to use the subway and maybe even purchase a bicycle. This required me to embrace the organized chaos that is Chinese traffic: pedestrians have zero right-of-way, bicycles share the road with garbage trucks, scooters, and large buses, and bikes and scooters are basically exempt from those pesky road laws and traffic signals.

 

 

El Diablo

 

I am proud to say that after two months here I have both mastered the Shanghai metro system and purchased a sweet, candy apple-red bicycle named “El Diablo”, which I can—after a few panicky, nighttime junkets involving one-way streets and bemused street police—ride comfortably to and from my English lessons, our friend Adrian’s apartment, and the grocery store.

Michael has been borrowing one of Adrian’s electric scooters to get to work. He picked it up quickly and enjoys the scooter’s automotive agility: He can weave easily through stopped traffic, hop onto the sidewalk if need be, and park almost anywhere. We also love the amused looks we get when we ride the scooter together, “China style.” The Shanghainese think it’s pretty silly when whitey-white foreigners try to adopt Chinese customs and behaviors. Hey! When in Rome…right?

Chinglish of the Week

A description at once apt and awkward

In America, this ad's caption could well be the motto for an anti-drinking and driving campaign. In China, it is the slogan for a bubble-tea store.

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