Almost done building

We’re almost done with construction, and are due to move in around Thanksgiving.  You can see the yurt to the right, and the house is blocking the barn from this angle.


The barn is charming, and weathering well.   But the site is still pretty raw.


All of the topsoil is in a pile that’s due to be spread in a week and a half, along with a gigantic pile of well-rotted sheep manure.  Then Steve will lay out our paths and line them with crusher fines, and I’ll rake in native seeds for the spring. 


The naked area in the foreground is the leech field for the septic system, waiting for three loads of earth; then I’ll seed it in native grasses and clover. I’m hoping to lure deer and rabbits away from our gardens by providing them with high quality food watered by the septic system.   We’re scraping a pad for the greenhouse at the same time–it’ll be right in front of the leech field.  The site’d look better with the greenhouse to the left of the house, but it has to be near the road.


The yurt has melded into the landscape–the vegetation is almost undisturbed–and in another year the house will be nestled in as well.


Bob can’t believe that this task is almost done. He had surgery on his spine on Monday, and is a little delicate four days later but is basically fine.  And the timing was great–the floor was installed last week and has to rest for a week before it’s sanded, so there was a lull in construction.


This is the view from the dining room window–it’s breathtakingly wild here.

We need a big, capable dog, and I’m ready to start a puppy the minute it freezes.  And not a second before–can you imagine the mud?


Feeding Ghosts

Many houses and businesses maintain spirit houses near their buildings.  I was told that this is so the ghosts who follow people home have someplace else to live.  Instead of having a ghost in your house or haunting your shop, they have a nice place to stay right nearby.


I did a little research, and found that’s not exactly right: the large spirit houses, like this one, are for the guardian of the house.  The spirit houses are usually located in the corner of a property, or right next to the building.  This is the spirit house of a particularly fancy house, where incense is regularly burned to attract the spirit’s attention


Here we have a whole family of ghosts in the house, plus fresh flowers, a fresh apple, some red juice and a little palm leaf basket holding some tobacco.


This house has two spirit houses next to it: the taller one is for the guardian of the house, and the shorter one is for the guardian of the land.   There is no one living in the house at this time, but the flowers in the spirit houses are kept fresh.  The red sticks are the ends of incense sticks, burned in groups of seven at a time.


This is the spirit house for a big hotel.  There are fresh flowers in the vases, fresh coconuts for drinking, a whole plate of imported apples and another of bananas , and a heaping display of Thai coconut sweets–those are the colored treats on the etagere.  It’s all fresh, and you’d think it might be offerings to a religious shrine unless you look more closely and see the little people.


They’re feeding spirits here, not deities.  The hospitals have enormous spirit houses with so many little statues of people, roosters, elephants and horses that they are stacked in shelves next to the actual house.



This is the spirit house next to a small restaurant, with fresh flowers, a few horses and elephants, some dancers and a handful of people.


But in the end, it’s not the house that counts.  There are often little trays of ghost food on the sidewalk.  Here’s some fresh water, a few betel leaves, some coconut, a piece of galangal–Thai ginger– and a few cloves of garlic along with a half dozen food items I don’t recognize.  This is for a gourmet ghost.


This little tray of Ritz crackers, water and red juice is next to a fancy department store.   There is a big spirit house nearby with a big selection of food, but someone that works in the building thought that Ritz crackers were better ghost food.

On Christmas Eve, we used to debate what snack to leave for Santa. Would he prefer milk with his cookies, or beer? In Thailand, these decisions need to be made every day.

Getting around in the city

In Chiang Mai, Thai people walk as little as possible.  All the tourists stroll everywhere, so in lots of areas there are plenty of pedestrians. But as soon as you’re out of the tourist zones the sidewalks are completely empty. Everyone who can afford to has a scooter, and those who can’t ride the songthaews.


Songthaews are the little red diesel pickup trucks with caps on the back, and they’re set up inside with two benches (song=two; thaew=bench, tail or queue).  This isn’t  a great shot, but it sums up the transportation paradigm: there’s a Thai man on a scooter in the foreground, a tourist on a bench, and two layers of totally empty sidewalks between us and the songthaew.


In the US you signal a taxi by raising your hand, but here you pat the air down by your hip.  The songthaew swerves over, and you say where you want to go.  If they’re going that way, they’ll nod and you jump in the back. If they’re not headed that direction they’ll shake their head and drive on, which feels a bit like a personal rejection but it’s not.  All the kids use songthaews to go home from school, the monks all use songthaews, and everyone who is too poor to own a scooter jumps in back too.  Sometimes older kids on dates use songthaews so you don’t have to hug someone you don’t know very well on the back of a scooter.


They are privately owned, and the driver gets 20 baht per ride, about 65 cents.  If you’re going a far distance, they’ll sometimes ask for 30 baht, and if you want to go to the other end of town and you’re alone, it’ll cost 40 baht because they don’t like to go a long distance in an empty truck.  If there are a lot of people in back they might drive all over town before they drop you off.  It’s a cheap ride that takes you exactly where you want to go, but you don’t get to dictate your route.


Songthaews are a great place to practice Thai.  “What’s your name?” “Where are you going?” “Do you go to school in Chiang Mai?” “What a hot day!”  It seems like there’s thousands of songthaews in the city, carrying a constant flow of cheerful people to try my little conversations on.

The songthaew drivers work long hours, and they’ll often have their wife or child along in the evening to spend time together as they drive.  Thailand’s ultra low prices and no tipping rule is fun when you first arrive, but after a while it’s hard to understand how people can make a living. We tip our songthaew drivers now, and we must be the only people who do because the drivers are always startled into a great big smile and wai from them. In the evening, we often get two.

Shopping in Chiang Mai

Thai and English are so far apart that shopkeepers are very proud of their English skills.  I like to use my Thai, so when people ask me questions in English I usually answer in Thai.  “Where are you from,” they’ll ask.  “Dichan maa jaak pratheet America,” I answer, carefully modulating the tones.  It’s hard to speak with rising and falling tones, so I pretend that I’m a cartoon character enunciating phrases in a balloon coming out of my mouth.

I was in a store selling clothes made by the mountain tribes, with lots of fine embroidery. The tribal people are tiny, and the owner of the shop is an older man who could walk under my arm without ducking.

“You like shirt,” he asks.

“Suay kha,” I say. It’s beautiful. “Khun mii suanii bee XL may kha?” Do you have this shirt in an extra large?

“Oh, yes,” he says with a big grin. “I have shirt for fat fat fat womans! Fat fat fat fat fat.”

Between you and me, I’m objectively lean these days… but I’ll always be a giant in Thailand.

Naughty Boy

There are only four male elephants out of the 40 at the preserve, and three of the four were born there.  This is because male elephants are nothing but trouble.


Naughty Boy is four years old, and he is a holy terror. Elephants live almost as long as people do, and stick close to their mother for their first three years. At four an elephant is pretty big, and this youngster is completely unreasonable.  He trots over to the feeding station at a time when there isn’t any food being offered, and he is clearly looking for trouble.


There is technically supposed to be one mahout per elephant, but Naughty Boy has four Burmese elephant handlers trailing after him. They each are carrying a bag of treats to lure him away,  but nothing tastes as good as bad behavior.  A minute after this photo was taken, Naughty Boy decided he wanted to climb up onto the platform and join the tourists.  He had his front legs over the railing and was trying to get his back legs up as a dozen people were coaxing him down. “May aw”, they said, “May aw.”  You don’t need this.


He paused for a scratch, and headed straight over to a water tank


that he casually overturned, and then he started tearing up a small tree.  He was a four-legged wrecking crew.

The Burmese mahouts spend a fair amount of time and attention trying to keep Naughty Boy from ruining the place.  They are fundamentally unamused by his antics because they know perfectly well how to manage him, but they aren’t allowed to.  Because four years old is the age that every single elephant on the preserve was trained.

Elephant training in Southeast Asia is based on traditional methods that have been used for at least a thousand years, and perhaps much more. At four years old, the elephants are separated from their mother and placed in a very small bamboo cage called a crush. The crush is so small that they can’t move at all, and they stay in the crush without food and water for four days for girls and a week for the boys.  During that time, they are constantly beaten, hazed, poked with metal tipped prods, and harassed. Under a constant barrage of blows and shouting, they learn to step into a hobble, to raise their left and right foot on command, and most importantly they learn to submit.  When their time in the crush is over, the whole village drags them in chains to the center of the village where they are beaten some more. At the end of this ritual, bleeding, starving and nearly dying of thirst, they are ridden for the first time.

Chinese girls had their feet bound at about five years old, when they were strong enough to endure the process, and young enough that their bones could be molded into a more pleasing form.


Like rambunctious elephant children, Chinese girls learned how to behave when they were young.

Naughty Boy is born in a new era, and it’s possible that he will not have his spirit broken.


But if the mahouts had their way, they’d be teaching this boy some manners.

A new baby

A baby elephant was born 7 days before we visited.


The people working at the park hadn’t known the mother was pregnant, so the birth was a big surprise. The minute the little boy was born, two nanny elephants assigned themselves to a fulltime job. The nannies kept so close to the new mother that she was put in an enclosure to make sure they didn’t trample the baby.


The baby spent all its time nursing as the mom chatted with her nannies, ate, and tossed dirt on her back.


The elephant’s breasts were surprisingly small, even though her baby was about 200 pounds.


The baby, like all babies, was cute as can be.


Both of the nannies were older females, and this one has the sunken temples of a very old lady. She had worked in the forests until she stepped on a land mine over a decade ago, and lost part of her hind leg. She was very sad when she arrived at the park, and kept to herself. But as soon as the baby was born, she took on the role of number one nanny, and when I saw her she was radiating contentment.  Even for an elephant, you can never tell what life may bring.

Thai Elephants

At the turn of the last century, there were 200,000 working elephants in Thai forests.  Logging was banned in 1989 because it was obvious that the country would soon be clear-cut. At that time, 25,000 elephants were working in the forests, and they were all out of a job. Since Asian elephants eat between 300 and 600 pounds of food  every day, they are expensive to keep.  Some of the idled elephants were sold to Burmese loggers, and some were abandoned.  Today, the only jobs left for Thai elephants are in the tourist trade, and there are a bare 3,000 elephants.

We spent a day at the Elephant Nature Park a few weeks ago, thanks to my mom, and it was a deeply confusing experience.

The Elephant Nature Park is a non-profit elephant sanctuary that is home to about 40 rescued elephants.


This is a circus elephant who was blinded by camera flashes. One of the elephants had been used for logging and was blinded by her mahout. There is an elephant who stepped on a landmine and lost part of her back leg, and an elephant whose leg broke when she was mounted too vigorously by a breeding bull.  There were a few elephants with broken hips that hadn’t healed properly, and others that came to the sanctuary when they were too sick and old to beg in the cities. There are 36 females and 4 males living on about 200 acres of land with a river running through it, and it costs about $250,000 a year to run the park, or roughly $8,000 per elephant.  Only one of them was named Lucky, but they all were lucky to have ended up in this sanctuary.  They had been deeply wounded by humans, and saved by the same.

Our tickets cost about $75 apiece, and that allowed us to feed the elephants, and bathe them, and to walk and admire them for a long, slow elephant-paced day. Sometimes it rained, but the elephants didn’t mind.


The elephants were free to roam around during the day, so they spent their time in family groups.  At night they were chained, because otherwise they would leave the preserve and go eat the neighboring farmer’s crops.


They ambled about from meal to bathing to yet another meal,



and  sometimes they were happy.


A Cambodian Fire Eater

 Low season in Siem Reap is a tough place to make a living.  This street performer was out every day with his circle of knives and his kerosene tipped sticks.


First he’d juggle lit batons,


then he’d put them out in is mouth, and if there was enough of a crowd he’d do a series of gymnastics moves that started with a few standing flips and ended with him diving through a ring of knives.


This is a man who can really concentrate.  I was impressed by his tight focus, while


Sam was impressed with his abs.

In the US, a six pack of abdominal muscles is considered the height of masculine pulchritude.  Lots of websites explain how to build a six pack, and they all recommend a combination of strength training and an ultra low-fat diet. This guy has an eight pack: his core is so strong that his abdominal muscles are separated into eight distinct compartments.

And check out his serratus anterior muscles.


The serratus anterior is occasionally called the “big swing muscle” or the “boxer’s muscles”.  They help you throw a punch.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen them before.  Boxers are too bulked up for these muscles to show, and the rest of us never develop them.


But a Cambodian fire eater who dives through circles of knives needs strengths I can barely imagine.

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat means Holy City. It is the largest religious monument in the world, built in the 12th century when Cambodia must have been the wealthiest country in the world.  The money came from taxes on rice grown in fields irrigated by an enormous system of canals.

It is hard to grasp the size of this temple complex.  The moat and outer wall is 2.2 miles long, and the layers of walls, moats, reflecting ponds and buildings are so extensive that you’d have to be a bird to see how it all ties together.


We arrived at 7 AM to avoid the midday heat, but it is still astonishingly hot and humid.  These monks are on the road that connects the outer ring of buildings and the inner ring.  The bannister is a giant snake carved of stone, and there are enormous reflecting ponds covered with lilies flanking the walkway.


There are six libraries in Angkor Wat.  Two of these graceful stone structures were built on either side of the walkway, and you get there by a set of stairs guarded by seven-headed cobras (male) and lions (female).  There are lots of monkeys around the temple, including this one lounging on the snake bannister.  It’s the only place I saw monkeys in Cambodia, and I was told that was because they were protected on temple grounds; everywhere else they are eaten.  In Cambodia, nearly all the wild animals are eaten, right down to the smallest songbird.


 This is a lion guarding the enormous three-storied inner temple.  At one time these lions had bronze tails that curved up over their backs.  All of the bronze adornments and statues were scavenged entirely–there’s not a scrap of original metal left in the entire complex–but plenty of lions have holes where their tails were once attached.


This is the third floor of the inner temple, closed for cleaning.  It’s Wednesday, the Buddhist day of rest, and the third story is always closed on Wednesday.  Strangely enough, I was here last year as well on another Wednesday.  I cannot believe that I could have the lack of foresight to visit Angkor Wat twice in two years and never see the top story.  I am so dumbfounded by my mistake that we had the bad taste to vault the barrier and scamper up the stairs.


This is my Indiana Jones photo from the top story.  You can see the ring of rooves of the main temple, the walkway with the two libraries on either side, the ring of buildings from the outer temple, and a walkway beyond that.  Far in the distance, a tethered golden balloon is floating above the complex so tourists can get a bird’s eye view of this ancient site.


Trespassing in a holy site is truly poor form, and a guard chased us down from the top level.  We scrambled out the back way, crossing our fingers that my white skirt wouldn’t betray us.



This Cambodian had brought his costumed horse to the front of the main temple complex where children swam in the lily ponds. Cambodians are very small people, and this horse is just tiny. For a buck, you could climb on its back and have your picture taken, but I am so tall and the horse so elfin that I paid a little for a photo of just the horse.



Medical Tourism in Thailand

Sam has had a bump on his forehead for more than a year, and we had planned for him to see a dermatologist when he visited.


We went to Ram Hospital, the best private hospital in Chiang Mai, and met with a dermatologist on Sunday.  She said it was a cyst that needed surgery.  It was easy, she said.  It could be done in her office the next day.

Sam had not planned on surgery in Thailand, and nearly threw up at the thought.  He didn’t want a dermatologist with a scalpel anywhere near his face, so we made an appointment to meet with a plastic surgeon the next day.


The plastic surgeon had trained at NYU, and the plastic surgery wing was brand new.  We met him on Monday, and surgery was scheduled for Tuesday.  The new wing looked like a hospital in the US except that it was more stylish, and the nurses wore caps and cute shoes.

Unfortunately, the surgery was not in the new building. It was in the building next door, which was decidedly grubby.  Sam was nervous, and when he saw that his surgical gown had blood on it he almost bolted.  This is dirty, he said.  It was washed, said the nurse.  It’s clean.

He decided that if the operating room looked at all dubious he would run out the door with his bloodstained gown flapping around him. But it looked just like an operating room in the US, so he stayed.

The cyst was larger than the surgeon had anticipated, and it took 40 minutes for him to restructure the flesh underneath so there wouldn’t be a dip in his forehead after it was excised.


He did a great job.

There was surgical tape over the wound–no stitches on the surface–and the tape was supposed to stay on for two weeks.  But it sweated off in Cambodia, so we got a chance to see it before we got the wound cleaned and recovered.

It was perfect.  A week after the operation it looked as though there wouldn’t be any scar at all.

And I don’t mean to sound venal, but the entire cost from beginning to end was less than 15,000 baht, or well under $500.  The surgeon’s fee for the initial consult and operation was $270, and the hospital cost was $215.


There was a breakdown, just like in the US.  It’s just that the prices are radically different. Drugs were the largest single hospital cost, at about $60 for the antibiotics and painkillers we took with us.  Next was $40 in medical supplies, $40 for Operating Room medical equipment, $32 for the Operating Room itself, $20 for Pathology, and $16 for the recovery room. Nursing costs totaled $1.65.



 I looked it up: in the US, Operating Room costs run $147 a minute, and they’re charged in quarter hour increments.  Sam’s operation was 40 minutes, so we would have paid 45 minutes x $147 = $6,615 for the room alone.  The surgeon would have cost extra.

I’ve never saved so much money in such a short time in my life.

Feeding the fish was fun.  But surgery in Thailand is even better, especially when someone else is being cut.