Tuesday, May 27, 2014

In the Sketchbook: On the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok, Thailand

Longboat on the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok
7" x 5" ink and watercolor sketch
Here it is -- about 1 in the afternoon and I am riding in a longboat on the magnificent and choppy Chao Phraya River in the central part of Bangkok, Thailand. I've been up since 5 a.m., flown from Cambodia with some of my touring friends, gone through a very busy customs area, met our local guide, and ridden the tour bus to the very modern downtown. Again, I pinch myself -- am I really in what, to me, is this very exotic location? I am mesmerized by the mixture of skyscrapers and pockets of old, and in some cases ramshackle, houses.

My sketch captures part of  the longboat with it's beautiful wooden construction, colorful canopy, and decorative flowers hanging from the prow. You can see that my lettering was definitely freehand. We sit two to a seat. Our boatman manipulates a small engine which has a very long rod with propeller that trails behind us at an angle so he can traverse not only the river but the shallow klongs (canals). The Coast Guard is out warning drivers to slow down in the fast moving current and stopping boats where passengers have not donned their life preservers. The city buildings rise above us on both banks and there are several royal sites on one side.

Longboats speeding along the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok
Thailand loves its royal family; the king now very elderly, has been kept alive for about 5 years in a medical facility. There is a parliamentary form of government, but periodically the royals or the military intervene in politics, as was just done this month. The country, formerly known as Siam, takes great pride in the fact that it was never colonized by Western powers, unlike the surrounding countries. Our guide explained that cleverly the reigning king took action in the 1800s to make the country modern and westernized and did a good job of playing the French against the British.

The guide also laid to rest any thoughts that we believed the story as told in "The King and I." People were insulted by the portrayal of their King. The King at the time was most proper and would not have had any intimacy with the woman he hired to teach the royal children as part of his modernization of the country.

We made a few stops to see the royal barges and Wat Arun, the Temple of Dawn. The royal barges are very beautifully decorated with gold and mythical figures. The temple is amazingly beautiful. Here and at other sites, we see the clever way the Thais used broken pottery that had served as ballast on ships delivering goods from China to decorate the outside walls.
Wat Arun
Broken porcelain used as ballast on Chinese
ships is reused decoratively on the temple buildings

We also went down the klongs, but I save that sketch and story for another day. We checked into our very modern hotel and had a relaxing evening.

Monday, May 26, 2014

In the Sketchbook: Cambodia

Carvings on Ta Prohm Temple
Angkor Wat, Cambodia
5" x 7" Ink and Watercolor 

"Royal Palace"
Phnom Penh
7" x 5" Ink and Watercolor

One of our weekly rituals when home is to have breakfast on Saturday at our neighborhood bagel shop run by a Cambodian family. They were very interested to hear that we would be visiting the country. Our first discussion revealed that Jennifer would be visiting her homeland soon, but before we left, she told us she would not be going back now because of the political situation. She did not explain what prevented her return to her country under the Communist regime; she told us as tourists we would be just fine. And we were.

We spent four nights in the town of Siem Reap, the staging area for tourists visiting the magnificent temples of Angkor Wat and surrounding areas. Here we were to visit both Buddhist and Hindu complexes. My sketch of Ta Prohm cannot do justice to the ancient carvings of this 12th to early 13th century monastic complex.

Beautiful carvings enhance intact parts of the complex

This site is especially interesting because it remains in its natural state, with fig, banyan and kapok trees spreading their gigantic roots over, under and between the stones. This popular spot was used in the film Tomb Raiders, a film I have not seen, but I am not a movie buff.

A Banyan tree growing amidst the ruins
of Ta Prohm

We visited other ancient temples, including the magnificent Angkor Wat. This we did in temperatures above 100 degrees with matching humidity. We were a pretty wilted bunch by the end of each day. 

Bob and I suffered from turista there, so we were unable to do every activity, including visiting the Landmine Museum, a heritage of the war with Vietnam. I did a little volunteer project at Journeys Within Our Communities, which teaches English to children and young adults, and runs preschool and after school programs. I spent a half hour helping a young woman in a wheelchair practice her English. She was very bright and had quite a good command of our language. Collette Explorations, provider of our tour, is a nonprofit and gives back to the communities in which they travel, so JWOK is one of their supported projects.

In Siem Reap we had more opportunities to venture off on our own in the evening to eat in local restaurants. We used Tuk Tuks as our transportation for a few American dollars. I felt quite elegant and very exhilarated as we traveled through busy city streets and intersections where the only rule that applies is bully your way through.

Riding a Tuk Tuk to a restaurant
We would end the tour of Indochina in Phnom Penh, with some of our group leaving for home and 11 of our group of 21 flying on to Bangkok, Thailand. The bus ride to Phnom Penh was very lengthy because a March typhoon had removed much of the pavement, so 199 miles took us 7 hours. Essentially we arrived mid-afternoon, had a half hour to freshen up and then toured the Royal Palace and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. I know this will sound strange, but I like when things are not simple. I didn't fly half way round the world to experience a US freeway.

The entire way I prayed I would not be sick again (I wasn't) and I was most grateful for good health when I found myself standing ankle deep in water using a squat toilet at a rest stop. The countryside was really worth seeing.

A typical country home

We shared the road with many different vehicle types

Phnom Penh was a busy city with many luxury cars owned by government officials who take graft. The guide explained that when foreign companies who invested there complained about corruption, a Corruption Bureau was set up right across from the Lexus and Mercedes dealers. In five years, exactly one person has been prosecuted. I was amused by the cars that had their brand painted across the side of the vehicle, announcing Lexus, BMW, Mercedes. The owners are obviously proud of their affluence.

We visited the Royal Complex and I chose to sketch just the top of one of the buildings. They are covered in gold and sparkle in the sun. We were told that Bangkok has a much larger and more impressive royal complex, but I found this one to be very beautiful even though of smaller scale.
Part of the Royal Complex
Phnom Penh

Interestingly, there is a King of Cambodia who lives at the complex. He was out of the country when we visited. The King is a classical dancer, in his 60s, and has never married. The government of Cambodia is described as  "vaguely communist free-market state with a relatively authoritarian coalition ruling over a superficial democracy." In other words, this is a one party government that allows capitalist ventures.

The country has a very bad human rights record, and those my age recall the atrocities of the "Killing Fields." We visited this part of their history at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, the former jail that details the genocide by the Khmer Rouge perpetrated during the Pol Pot years. Our guide April told us that Collette will soon rearrange the tour and no longer have this sad piece of human history be the final site visited on the tour. I found the people of Cambodia to be very friendly and welcoming. They are hard working people and do an outstanding job of living in a challenging climate and providing for their families. Their temple complexes are amazing; their history is long and complex.

We ended our Indochina tour with a final dinner and prepared to leave for our optional tour of Thailand the following morning.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Exhibit entry inspired by Vietnam visit

"Fast Food, Vietnam Style"
19" x 14" Watercolor
One of the members of Santa Clara Valley Watercolor Society owns a chain of restaurants in the area by the name of Hobee's. Peter introduced healthy food to us long before it became trendy. He is hosting a society exhibition in July at one of the restaurants. Hobee's motto is "Fast, Fresh, and Friendly" and it's the theme of our show, to be loosely interpreted.
I have a lot of wonderful market scenes from my travels in Vietnam. One photo from Hoi An captured my imagination. I like the design element of the conical hats in a diagonal row. So with lots of artistic license and editing, I focused the painting on the three women. I like a painterly approach, so I muted anything I chose to include in the background. I painted the entire piece in the compliments of blue/purple, yellow/orange, with a bit of red in the center of interest.
People in Vietnam believe in fresh food and go to open markets daily. They usually arrive on foot, bicycle, or scooter. Many of the sellers do the same. It's a fascinating scene.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Monday Morning Drawing Class: Sweet Peas in a lovely vase

14" x 12" Pastel

In case you thought I quit my longstanding Monday drawing class, I have not. Classmate Mary provided a beautiful vase and Sweet Peas from her garden. We spent two Monday mornings on this drawing, and it was a challenge in many ways, not the least of which was a whole new arrangement on the second Monday because bouquets don't last a week.

Three of us worked on this setup while Bob was spending a good deal of time with new folks in the class. However, at critical points we requested some help and critique. For florals, Bob emphasizes masses of values, rather than detail. Be sure to push the lights, mostly on the right of this bouquet. Make the most of your darks, as seen at the top of the vase and in the dark greens of the leaves. Pump up those highlights. It's all about values.

Monday, May 19, 2014

In the Sketchbook: Luang Prabang, Laos

"Alms for the Monks"
Luang Prabang, Laos
As we neared the end of our stay in Vietnam, tour manager April prepared us for traveling to Laos and Cambodia. She said that in terms of economic development, Cambodia was 15 years behind and Laos was 30 years behind. The accommodations in Laos would be simple and pleasant. She taught us a few new words. I managed to learn hello -- "Sabaidie" - beautifully written in their alphabet, an Indic script, as ສະບາຍດີ.
After a very efficient entry at their small airport in Luang Prabang, a World Heritage town,the former royal capital of Laos, and the center of a thriving tourist industry, we boarded the bus for a short ride to our hotel. I was immediately struck by the change in architecture and alphabet, and suddenly had that aha moment when I understood we were in Indochina. Vietnam has been very influenced by China and the French, while Laos was influenced by Thailand and India. The architecture, even on small homes, looked like something from "The King and I." I wish I knew what they call the curlicues, and stacked structures. The Buddhist temples and former royal buildings were especially decorative. As we drove through town, I had one of those, "Wow, I am really here" moments.
We stayed at the Sala Prabang. I loved this little place where we filled the majority of their rooms. The room was exotically simple, roomy, done in blacks and white. The lobby was open air with a small courtyard in the middle of the buildings where we were served breakfast, a delicious affair with eggs to order, fruits, yogurts, Asian foods, and the best bread I had on the trip -- toasted over a wood fire in a barbecue kettle. Unfortunately I did not take pictures, but the link to the hotel will give you a peek. I liked all our hotel locations. Some tours will put you in nice hotels, but they are far from the action. All our hotels were right in the middle of town and sites.
Over the course of the next few days, we would visit temples and see the saffron-robed monks, and learn a bit about Buddhism. We were very taken with their approach to being a monk. Males of any age can become a monk and stay for as little as a few days to as much as their entire life. Our guide had been a monk twice, once when his father died when he young, and again as a young adult. He is married now with children. The temples housed many statues of Buddha, from the very large to small, and many do not have the girth of what I think of as a Buddha.
We had two of my favorite experiences here. One was alms giving for the monks. Around 6:00 every morning, the monks walks in single formation through the town gathering alms. I previously assumed alms was money -- wrong -- it's food that you place into their bowl as they pass silently. It is a way for people to connect with the spiritual. We were provided with sticky rice, some wrapped sweet bars, a prayer shawl, small stool, and rug. We placed the shawl over our shoulders, sat on the stool on the rug, and removed our shoes. I have to admit I felt a little like Lucy (Lucille Ball) on an assembly line. I could not get the sticky rice into the bowls very quickly.

Our second wonderful experience was visiting an elephant rescue sanctuary, and I got to be a Mahout for the elephant and drove Maecom, a 38-year-old female, across a small island while her trainer took photos. The elephants have been saved from the logging industry where they are worked to death as the land is denuded to supply wood to China under contracts with the Laotian military. The elephants have a quiet life here and give a ride a day. The females are very gentle and sure-footed, which was good when we descended and ascended a treacherous riverbank.,

I climbed out of the basket and onto Maecom's head, placing my knees behind her ears. Those bare legs you see belong to Bob! It was quite fitting that I drove and he was the passenger as that is the way things are at home -- Bob is a public transit and bicycle kind of guy. We also got to take a rustic boat across the river and visit a 7-month old baby elephant. He's gotten old enough to be naughty and now must stay in his pen when visitors come to see him and Mommy. He enjoyed our company, though.

 On our final morning in Laos, we toured the National Museum, the former Royal Palace. We saw how the last royal family lived. Their furniture and clothes remain. The guide tactfully explained they were sent to a reeducation camp when their government was overthrown by the current ruling party. They had been pulled into the Vietnam War and sided with the USA.  In an aside with our tour manager, I learned that they died in the camp, probably of starvation.
The temple at the National Museum

We had many other experiences here, including visiting Kuang Si waterfall and having a picnic lunch with everything wrapped in banana leaves, participating in a Baci ceremony to call our soul and pray for a safe journey, and visiting a Hmong village where the families wove beautiful silks and made paper. The Laotian government has a history of genocide against the Hmong and many fled through Thailand to the US. This small town is thriving. This tour was jam packed, but we had time for social hour with our tour friends and getting some laundry done. I have a soft spot in my heart for this small country.

After our museum visit, we were whisked off to the little international airport and flew to Siem Reap, Cambodia on Vietnam Airlines.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

A Painting for a Dear Family Member

"Birds of a Feather"
15" x 18" watercolor

Back in February a family member who has been valiantly battling cancer took a beautiful photo from the window of her home in Vermont. She captured a gorgeous white/grey world with tree branches full of cardinals and a few other birds. Can you find a tiny brown one and a Dove? I asked her if I could paint from her photo.

Life and travel happened, but I finally completed the painting and it is on it's way to her, promised to arrive by tomorrow. I hope it brings her some peace and comfort. If you read my post, kindly send good thoughts or prayers as suits you.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

In the Sketchbook: Halong Bay, Vietnam

"Halong Bay"

"Halong Bay Fishing Village"
This beautiful UNESCO World Heritage Site tops my list of places you must experience if you go to Vietnam. The bay is filled with unusual limestone karst formations. There is a fishing village where the people live totally on the water in small homes on rafts. Children are born and raised on the water and are not comfortable on land. The people make a living catching and farming fish. There is a tiny community center and a school. After their early years, the children go to the mainland if they desire further education.
Children at play in front of their home

There are hundreds of  limestone karst formations in Halong Bay
We traveled by bus from Hanoi on roads filled with scooters, trucks, pedestrians, and bicycles. The road had a  35 mph speed limit, so it took us several hours, which included a stop for bathrooms and gift shop. There we boarded what is known as a luxury junk, which sounded like an oxymoron. Actually, the wooden boat was very nice with enough cabins for our group and a few more folks. The top floor had a restaurant/bar where we had a cooking demo, lunch, dinner, wakeup buffet and full breakfast buffet in our approximately 12 hours on the boat. The middle floor had our cabins with private bath -- small, modest, and charming.
Mostly women are the oars people
The women from the fishing village have found a new source of revenue -- tourists who want a ride on the Bay. We go by fours on boats that they row to visit the village and the interesting formations on the Bay.
In the morning we are offered a Tai Chi class on the tops deck by one of the young crew. The experience was very mystical. Our boat slowly sailed through the fog on the bay and we were moving slowly and deliberately. I had to pinch myself and say, "yes, I really am here...."
 Early morning Tai Chi class on the top deck

Amidst the fog

In Hang Sung Sot Cave
After a pre-breakfast we boarded tenders and traveled to see a famous and very huge cave. There was no need to be a caver to do this along with dozens of other tourists. We did have to climb on steep stairs quite high up the karst to enter the cave.

Spelunkers we are not
Returning to the boat, we enjoyed a huge breakfast as we motored back to our tour coach. We returned to Hanoi and checked back into our hotel for a single night. In the evening we signed up for a street food tour, something I would not have attempted on my own with the concern over food health. We made the rounds in little alley streets for a first course up several flights of stairs, fabulous pho soup (a specialty of Hanoi), coffee with the locals, and a sandwich that became lunch the next day. We sat on the little children stools with our knees at ear level. Fortunately, our hosts brought higher stools for the taller people in the group. There was no way with Bob's artificial knees that he could have pretzeled himself onto a tiny stool.
We had an early wakeup call to visit the tomb of Ho Chi Minh and the simple dwelling where he live as President of North Vietnam. The leader's body was not available for viewing. Rather he was being renovated in Russia. The man wished to be cremated, but followers refused to let him go.

We left for our flight to Luang Prabang, Laos. Our nine days in Vietnam had flown by. We had a lesson in corruption on the way to our early flight. The bus was stopped by a policeman, to "check" the tourist license for carrying tourists outside of approved hours. The bus had such a license, but it would be necessary to grease palms with money if the bus driver wanted to get us to our flight in time. This type of corruption is well-known and openly discussed. I have thought often about the corruption and decided that basically in the USA, now only the highest officials benefit from corruption -- Congress comes to mind with lobbyists that "buy" their vote. Citizens do not expect to pay bribes to local officials.
Here at home Bob and I attended a large showcase hosted by our dance studio. A nice and very long day.
Scottish guy and the dancing diva