Traveling With a Tender Heart

Refugees from northern Thailand have lived for three generations under the highway in Bangkok, squatting on Port Authority land. They have nothing to go back to. IMG_8944The rice fields and their homes are long gone.IMG_8940

There’s a man named Thai who was a champion kick-boxer who runs an open air gym underneath the overhead thumping and growling traffic. He wants to keep kids away from drugs and other bad influences by training them to excel in a lucrative competition that offers a chance for success.

Young men sacrifice gallons of sweat, honing the sport on dreams filled with hope.

I walked with the mayor of this small village, down narrow paths hemmed in by ramschackle dwellings made from items found in garbage bins. Babies played or old men napped in the golden afternoon light.

There’s a small grocery in the front room of one home. The owner wheels a cart, piled high with goods for sale. Her voice echoes up and down the maze of passageways. Chickens are raised in one section, roosters saved for fights and gambling. There’s a meger pharmacy, sans a druggist, doctor or nurse. The community struggles to be self-sufficient.


I became a pied-piper, drawing in so many children who wanted stickers I brought to pass out in exchange for a smile. A few crafty ones returned with another shirt, hoping I wouldn’t recognize them, waiting in line for a second helping of goodies.

Why don’t these families move on, absorbing themselves into the open air and sunglight of Bangkok? When faced with the question, the mayor answered, “This is our home.”


Visiting the Hmong refugee village near Luang Prabang in Laos felt much the same. These northern people, in danger from unexploded United States cluster bombs, were moved by their government from hollowed craters where poppies grow, ripe with opium.


Life moves on in this village, where these strangers aren’t accepted by other Laotians. A woman pumps air into a forge where her husband squats at the flame and crafts knives. A retired man makes bird and fish cages out of reeds. Women thread looms, making scarves  with babies at their sides. Another group of women embroider fabrics to sell at market. Children play games with rocks, climb trees, and go to a one-room school. Everyone smiles and waves.


The best way to keep cultural identity and traditions alive is to remain in a group strengthing the community, even if living conditions aren’t ideal.  We were invited into the leader’s home and spent some time talking about the dispersed Hmong people and what a typical day is like.


He later dressed in a traditional outfit and played music for us. Plied with local moonshine, we were embolded to eat appetizers of fried crickets, silk worms, and cacoon of moth before a beautiful feast was prepared in our honor.


We were welcomed with such grace and open arms.  I wondered at the cost and time of hosting such an elaborate meal and felt guilty about using their resources.

‘HOME’ is a complicated word that cannot convey the depth of feeeling within a heart or an ethnic group. If I were a painter, I’d splash and swirl colors of the rainbow to try and give you the meaning. Musicians might compose a sound that would vibrate inside your soul. All of these arts cannot surpase the simple act of a well meant hug.

City of Angels (Bangkok, Thailand)

Bangkok was a sleepy fishing village until the early 15th century when the Ayutthaya rulers left the ransacked remains of the royal capital and resettled at the Chao Phraya River that flows to the Gulf of Thailand.


In 1782, the King of Siam began construction on the grand palace. The mighty splendor of ordination halls, temples, stupas, and phras can be seen today.


Every surface is covered in gold, glass or ceramic tiles. The 15th century Emerald Buddha (really semi-precious jasper) is the most important piece of art housed in the temple here. This icon represents the heart and soul of Thailand. There are three golden and jeweled outfits for the emerald Buddha, changed in great ceremony by the king with each season.IMG_0122 Outside, the temple is held up by 112 Garudas (King of birds) holding Nagas Serpents.IMG_8902


The surrounding gallery has murals, many coated with gold, depicting the Ramakien story about the battle between the demon Tosakanth who kidnaps the beautiful queen married to human King Rama. He unleashes a mighty monkey army in a tale younger than Helen of Troy but older than The Wizard of Oz and saves the goodly queen from rape and mayhem. Mesmerized in the art work, I got lost in the tale.


In the late 1700’s, Rama 1V ruled from this palace and became famous in the play The King and I. Governess Anne did come from England to tutor his children and harem, but sadly, everyone agrees that a love story is a gross exaggeration.


Flash forward to WW11 and Japanese occupation, resulting in Bangkok being bombed by the allies and a post war United States presence. Later, US bases in Thailand bolstered the Vietnam War and became an R+R destination for our fighting men. With that came a flourishing sex trade and many a watering hole, especially in the red light district.


Remember the 1984 song: One night in Bangkok? It was banned in Thailand for giving the wrong image of the largely Buddhist nation.

The bars are temples

But the pearls ain’t free

You’ll find a god in every cloister

And if you’re lucky,

Then the gods a she….

Everything is for sale on the streets of Bangkok: from trivial to magnificent. From the profane to the profound.


Crossing the road safely with speeding vehicles requires a blindfold or formidable courage. A green light means Indie 500. A red light does not mean stop, but a running roll, dodging pedestrians like a pin ball game. Don’t look for safety on the sidewalks.


If all things that glitter are gold, Bangkok at night is priceless. Stop counting the high rise cranes and modern architecture. Concentrate on the lights. The multi-layered roof of the Banyan Tree Hotel offers 360 degree dining or a special seat in the moon bar to see the city shine. Be sure to have a credit card and a reservation! photo courtesy of Bonnye Frostbonnys photo