Thaipusam

Over the weekend we attended Thaipusam. We didn’t know anything about it in advance other than a couple Uber drivers had mentioned it to us as an Indian festival that we had to see. As we found out afterward, it is a Hindu commemoration of the Lord Murugan receiving the Vel spear (representing knowledge and wisdom) which he used to slay evil. As we found out while we were there, it was an unforgettable experience that is the most memorable thing we’ve seen so far on our trip.

Georgetown’s large Indian population makes it one of the largest Thaipusam celebrations in Malaysia with tens of thousands of attendees. On our way to be dropped off, crowds were forming blocks away. We got out of the car at the start of the closed street, and were instantly on sensory overload. Heavily-beated Indian music was pouring from massive speakers. Bright colors were everywhere – clothes, altars, highly decorated tents. Free lunches were being handed out in booths and at temples up and down the street, and the air smelled of delicious curries and vegetables. People were everywhere, some as participants and others to see the spectacle.

In Penang, the center of activity is the Waterfall Hill Temple, where a statue of Lord Murugan is brought the day before in a long procession. On the day of Thaipusam, devotees carrying kavadi walk and dance their way down the street and then climb the 500+ steps to the temple – all in blazing tropical sun & heat.

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A little hard to make out, the the top left is one of the metal altars being carried by a man about to start up the temple steps; two of the altars set up along the route.

We learned later that are many types of personal offerings and rites associated with Thaipusam, and each one has deep meaning. People may decide to go through with their offerings as a way to further their spiritual growth, as thanks for answered prayers, or to fulfill a vow.

Many shave their heads as a sacrifice and as a reminder to not let ego control their lives. Some devotees also bear some type of kavadi (burden) to the temple. We were awed by the physicality involved on the day of the celebration, even more when we discovered this is a culmination of a 48-day preparation time. During the lead-up participants, eat only vegetarian meals, fast the day before, practice celibacy, and strive keep actions pure and God foremost in their thoughts.

The most basic kavadi is carrying paal kudam – pots of milk symbolizing purity – the length of the route and up the temple stairs where the milk will be poured over the statue of Lord Murugan. We passed by dozens of people carrying the silver urns on their heads; many were wearing yellow and had yellow flowers. They all looked calm and their concentration seemed to be on making it to the temple amid all the heat and humidity.

Others carry tall, elaborately carved altars over their heads. Some are made of painted and decorated styrofoam and others of metal leaves adorned with peacock feathers. In either case, the altar is balanced on the shoulders and tied to a waist belt for stability. Stopping to dance en route, the journey to the temple can take hours. We also saw dozens of these – some of the styrofoam altars were shaped into peacocks or had dolphins, shrimp, or mice. Each was painted or decorated with feathers, bells, or ribbons, and some had milk offerings balanced precariously on top.

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Two men carrying portable altars – the silver jars are attached to hooks run through their skin.

More extreme is bodily piercing and skewering. While not quite as common as the first two, the numbers of people doing this shocked me. Thin spears, representations of the Vel, are run through the cheeks, tongue, or lips. Hooks bearing fruit or small pots of milk are attached to all sides of the torso, arms, and legs. There might be only a handful of pots; others had more than 100 hooked to their body. I can’t imagine what that would weigh, or how long it would take to prepare.

Occasionally, two lines of hooks were run down the back and tied to ropes held by a friend; the bearers leans forward, straining against the piercings during the journey. We even witnessed four men, with double rows of hooks down their backs, roped to a wagon topped with decorated horses and statues. They were slowly pulling the entire float down the length of the street, surrounded by crowds of onlookers.

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Look closely – two rows of hooks allow him – and several others – to pull the float.

Drummers accompanied those bearing altars or who are pierced, and loud music was piped through speakers all along the route. Kavadi-bearers often stopped to dance in the street – barefoot on burning pavement. Occasionally, someone was standing with a hose to cool and clean the pavement as a way to show their support. Each kavadi was accompanied by friends there to make sure the altars stayed balanced and carrying chairs so they could rest as the journey progressed. Finally reaching the stairs to the temple, the goal seemed to be to run up as fast as possible. It is a blend of solitary pilgrimage and group effort – the person making the journey was aware they were not alone, even though they were experiencing it on a far more intense level.

Food and drinks are served to all comers as a form of charity and a way of giving thanks to God; by feeding others you are feeding God. Along the route, temples and businesses set up booths that give away free meals and drinks – we saw Bosch, the Penang Airport, Intel, local doctors, and the police (who had an especially long line). We were pointed into a temple by a couple who was leaving. I suppose we looked confused on whether or not we were allowed to go in! They insisted the food was great and that we should just get in line. We did, and it was: yellow curried rice with sweet peppered mangoes, and a couple of kinds of veggies and sauce on top. It reminds me of Easter brunch at church, everyone is welcome and seated at communal tables in the back hall once you go through the meal line. Eating is done with your fingers. Drinks are thankfully served along the street all day -we needed as many as we could get in the tropical temps. We even got a take-away meal box as we were leaving the festival to have for supper.

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Meal at the temple, and the front of a booth serving hundreds of meals.

The atmosphere reminded me of a mix of religious procession, concert, county fair, and family picnic. Even though the main focus was on spiritual growth and making offerings to Lord Murugan, this blends seamlessly with stalls selling snacks, fabric, and jewelry, and what is obviously a time for people to come together.

Families are dressed in their best saris and tunics – absolutely beautiful clothes featuring incredible beading and lacework, often with intricate gold jewelry and strings of yellow flowers. In quieter corners, like down the street at the Botanic Gardens, picnics are going on. Everyone is incredibly friendly – people would come up and ask us where we were from and how we were enjoying Thaipusam.

Our photos are not that great, in part because it feels rude to me to photograph people who are on a spiritual journey. In any case, pictures are never going to capture the character of the celebration, the constant barrage of colors and noise and food, the fact that every second is something new to see and hear. I’ve never witnessed such a blend of the spiritual with the everyday or seen such enthusiastic devotion.

Trip Prep

Warning: Lots of words, no pictures…

We’ve been asked quite a bit about the steps we took before we left the States for a year of travel; this post covers the large items from our checklist. We spread out tasks as much as we could and managed to cover a lot of ground in the few months before starting our trip.

The most difficult part was the decision to move away from the comfortable, (relatively) predictable life we led in Seattle. The Pacific Northwest is a great place to be in all seasons, and there was lots of good food, hiking less than an hour away, an ocean, local wine, and lots of career opportunities for both of us. Traveling the world for a year meant giving that up in exchange for the unknown, both on the road and upon our return. We both love to travel, and every trip always felt as though it ended too soon and should have been the start of something grander.

The catalyst ended up being notice that my own job was gong to come to and end as the company I worked for downsized. It didn’t hurt that the lease on our apartment was gong to be up at about the same time, and Kevin’s desire to work for himself meant we could live anywhere with reliable internet.

We were never big spenders, and we worked to pay off our student loan debt as quickly as possible. Saving was also constantly on our mind as we had been building a reserve to provide Kevin freedom to go indie (the cost of living is so high in Seattle that even with me working full time, we would still need to dip into savings each month). The money we had saved to that end would go further abroad.

As anyone who lives in Seattle – or who wants to live there but has had to settle for suburbs – knows, it is a pricy city, especially where housing is concerned. Even a brief look at our budget and some comparisons for cities around the world proved to us that it would be cheaper to live elsewhere, even while moving each month. Of course, we had to rule out some big destinations like London, Paris, New Zealand, and Australia, where prices vastly outpaced our budget, but aside from a few exceptions, the decision to live abroad would give us a longer runway while allowing Kevin to work and both of us to experience new cultures and places on a frequent basis.

My job wound down, and we began taking steps toward the possibility of living abroad long-term. Everything we did and the amount of money we spent was relatively small until about a 6 weeks before we left; if something drastically changed we could have called the entire trip off and only been out a few hundred dollars. But then we bought airfare and booked apartments, gave final notice on our lease, and started telling family and friends – we were committed to at least a couple months of travel.

When we saw our potential plans included places where tropical diseases were a concern, we set up appointments at a travel clinic to decide which precautionary vaccinations we would need. We didn’t know which countries we would be visiting, so we played it safe and asked for almost everything that was available. That meant boosters for tetanus, polio, and Hepatitis A & B. It also meant prophylactic shots for Japanese encephalitis, yellow fever, and rabies as well as the oral typhoid vaccine. The cost of all the injections was more than $2,000 per person; thankfully our insurance covered all of those as preventative care! We were also given prescriptions for a high-powered antibiotic cream and antibiotics to use in case of wildly upset stomachs. Since the rabies shots have already come in handy for me, I’m going to applaud my own decision to get better at dealing with needles. I also got my vision checked and a new prescription ordered.

As you might guess, the internet is a sea of inspiration (some good, some awfully outdated), and stacks of travel books from the library didn’t hurt our state of mind either. While it is fun to pretend we were going to go everywhere, the world is too big and our budget too small for that. We settled for finding places we would want to call home a month at a time; cities that provided easy means of transit, good food, cultural variety, and were still relatively cheap. Since we book a few months out, this process will be ongoing.

We set up a mail forwarding service and began changing the addresses on our accounts with plenty of time to spare. We now have the option to have our mail stored until our return, scanned to us, or shredded (even 7,900 miles away, sending junk mail to its doom gives me a sensation of glee).

In our previous travels, we noticed foreign transaction and ATM fees can really add up, so with that in mind we opened two new accounts. The first was a credit card with no foreign transaction fees and which had points we could use toward later travel expenses. The second was a new bank account with a debit card that could be used worldwide with no ATM fees. It was important to us that our travel bank account be completely separate from our savings account so that, if our travel card becomes compromised, our savings are secure. Now that we are on the road, we find an ATM upon arrival so that all of our day-to-day purchases are made with local currency and our cards are used rarely and at locations that are as secure as possible.

Though we didn’t own an entire home’s worth of physical stuff, our apartment was still pretty full. We hadn’t moved in about four years, so items gathered in corners unnoticed. I couldn’t bear to part with my books, so we already knew that a storage unit would be necessary. (Kevin put up with me storing almost all of them, and doing the physical labor of moving a small library – I have a perfect husband.)

About two months before we left, we started seriously going through our material possessions to decide what was worth saving, what could be sold, what should be donated, and what could be recycled or left for free on the sidewalk. All told, about four large carloads went to local Goodwills – outdated fashions, unneeded cooking supplies, some small furniture. We drove many carloads over to a 10X5′ storage area, and with about three weeks left before vacating our apartment, we rented a Uhaul and moved the furniture (bookshelves mostly, but also a desk, dresser, and a few other bulky items). Large, unkeepable items were sold online. We spent the last days before our trip in an eerily empty house.

The most unexpectedly emotional part of the downsize for Kevin was selling Eva, our beloved car. I’m not convinced she ever liked me since she often threw a fit if I planned a trip; it didn’t matter if we were going to Mount Rainier or Montana… she found a way to complicate an oddly large portion of the getaways I planned. I think her jealousy of me stemmed from the fact that Kevin bought her on Valentine’s. We did find her a good home, but being without a car was an odd feeling, especially with so many last-minute errands. Even though we were used to walking most of the places we needed to be on a daily basis, a car is one of those things society expects you to have. By getting rid of Eva, it felt a little like going backward. Then we reminded ourselves that where we lived… and where we were going… we didn’t need a car. (We would still probably need roads… roads come in handy.)

One of the most frustrating aspects of our preparation was finding and applying for health insurance. Though healthcare in many parts of the world is cheaper in price and the outcomes on par with the US, going without insurance was not an option. We researched multiple plans with widely varying prices and coverage caveats. We finally settled on one with coverage in just about any country we could legally visit, emergency medical evacuation should there be a worst-case scenario, and a moderate price tag. Since international health insurance plans do not fall under the aegis of the Affordable Care Act there were loops to jump through and paperwork to produce. After producing the most mundane medical records going back years, we had to answer still more questions, and we received notice of our coverage only about a week before leaving. (It was an unhappy reminder of how miserable shopping for health insurance was before the ACA.) We would have started that process earlier if we had known it would take more than a month.

What might have seemed like dragging our heels to settle down became an advantage. With no debt, no house (too pricey in Seattle), no kids (not ready yet), even no pets, we had no strings strong enough to prevent us from leaving. Since we already lived on the other side of the country from our families, the other side of the world didn’t seem so far. And since we live in the future, keeping in touch and staying connected from anywhere isn’t the struggle it used to be.

We’ve already come more than 10,000 miles from O’Hare and every day has been worth the stress of upending our lives as we knew them.

 

Ferries and Georgetown, Part II

We took another trip into Georgetown to take the funicular up Penang Hill for a good view of the island. But upon arrival, we discovered it was closed for maintenance… good thing we are staying for a few more weeks! As a consolation prize we headed toward the waterfront and the Chinese Clan Jetties. Chinese families with fishing livelihoods set up the jetties generations ago, and many homes are still occupied. The wooden boardwalks and cobbled-together appearance give the piers a rustic vibe, contrasting the shops selling trinkets and snacks (ice cream) to tourists.

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Chew Clan Jetty

Just up the street is the Georgetown ferry dock. We took a 15 minute trip across the Selatan Strait to Butterworth to get a view of the cities from the water and spend time in the breeze. The ferries are smaller than those in Seattle but still carry cars and are more brightly colored. A cluster of passenger benches takes up the center of the upper deck, between two lanes of vehicles. Though two bridges connect the island to the mainland, the ferry can save time coming from Georgetown, especially in heavy traffic. The ferry ride ends at a bus and rail terminal, and there isn’t anything interesting in walking distance (yet… there were several construction projects underway), so we just paid the return fare and enjoyed the ride back and a view of a massive sea eagle skimming the water.

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Happily painted ferries, Georgetown from the water, small boats near the port.

Back in the afternoon heat of Georgetown, we stepped into the Han Jiang Ancestral Temple because it had shade. It turned out to be my favorite temple in Georgetown so far – recently restored, it was full of incredible artwork (tile floors, small statues along the roof, intricate corner beams, painted doors). Though it is still in use, there was almost no one inside and we were able to enjoy a break from the noisy traffic and spend time admiring the skill that went into creating the complex.

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3D Murals at the entrance, name plates of deceased ancestors, the front altar, ornate dragon at the corner of a ceiling beam.
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Offerings at the temple, dragons along the roofline, doors to the interior courtyard.

Around the rest of the city we discovered more street art, and that preparations for Chinese New Year, coming up on February 8, are in full swing. Lots of stores have displays for the Year of the Monkey, gift baskets, red and gold decorations, and red clothing (red being a lucky color). It is just like the excitement building up to Christmas in the US – everyone will visit family to begin the new year and celebrate with cleaning, gift-giving, and lots of food.

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Adorable mini-mural, a monkey set up in preparation for the upcoming Chinese New year, my favorite shop name, and Georgetown buildings in need of repair.

Speaking of meals, we can check a couple more local foods off our list: Penang Hokkien Mee (prawn-stock soup with egg noodles, rice noodles, prawns, pork, and a hard-boiled egg), and stingray (lots of bones). As usual, both were tasty choices.

 

Georgetown

We took our first trip into Georgetown to see some of the tourist sights and eat some local cuisine. Rather than taking the 45-minute bus ride (we really are out in the suburbs) or a taxi, we opted for Uber. It worked out pretty well – our driver had good advice for what to see and eat in town – and dropped us off in front of the best mee sotong (squid and noodles) stand in Penang, which happens to be in a food court outside of Fort Cornwallis.

The British (if the names Georgetown and Cornwallis weren’t giveaways) were responsible for the construction of the fort under the direction of Captain Francis Lightfoot. Ironically, he died shortly afterward and the first recorded marriage in the fort’s chapel was his widow’s to a new husband. Fort Cornwallis isn’t overly impressive – it has a relatively low brick wall and a few sea-pointing cannons; it never saw combat, so more secure battlements were never needed.

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Cannon at Fort Cornwallis, incense burners outside a Taoist temple, birds for sale – to be freed upon purchase, Armenian Street buildings.

Georgetown has an eclectic mix of architectural styles and heritages – a British-colonial style still defines the buildings of the banking core, just down the street is Little India (with saris, curries, and spices for sale in shop windows), Chinese and Buddhist traditions show up everywhere (temples are common in the Old Town, as are small, red altars at the front of businesses, and Chinese-language signs), Armenian Street betrays European character (low building with shutter-covered windows), and Islamic influences also have great significance (mosques, beautiful patterned and flowered tile work, and signs in Arabic). The area is a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to the unique blend of cultures and traditions that has shaped the city.

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Kapitan Keling Mosque, St. George’s Church, Kuan Yin Teng Taoist Temple – all within about three blocks of each other.

The area around Armenian Street is known for murals and street art, both intentional and unintentional. While we were there, some of the paintings were serving as the backdrop for a music video. I don’t think the group is overly famous yet as there was no crowd of screaming hangers-on.

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Armenian Street artwork.

The diverse types of meals that are available reflect the mixing of cultures. Chinese, Cantonese, Indian, Malay, Nyonya, Western, Portuguese, Thai, and Japanese are all often available at the same food court. Rice and noodles are still central components, as are spicy peppers and rich sauces (often too spicy for me, sometimes too spicy for Kevin).

Clay-pot-cooked meals have been my favorite discovery since arriving in Penang. Rice is already heated in a clay bowl and a choice of meat or veggie topping is added when you order. The flame is turned up and the flavors blend together for a bit. It is served piping hot with a separate plate so you can dish it out as you go and share with friends; the rest of the meal stays toasty in the insulated bowl.

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Other street art from around the Old Town.

One final note about humidity – the actual air temperature is only a few degrees fahrenheit warmer than Chiang Mai, and we adjusted to that fairly well. Penang averages about 88-90 degrees; we were often up to 85 in Thailand. But the humidity – 70% or higher -makes it feel much warmer and far more uncomfortable. Michelle, our Uber driver on the return trip, was amazed we had spent a few hours walking around outside in the middle of the day. She admitted even locals never get used to it, they prefer go from one air conditioned place to another. At least our apartment is higher up and near the water, meaning some parts of the day offer cooling breezes, but between about 1 and 6 p.m. and after 9:30 p.m the air stagnates and all pretense of comfort vanishes.

Final Thoughts on Thailand

We made it to Penang Island, Malaysia and are excited to explore our home for the next four weeks. We spend the first couple of days settling in and coming to terms with the high humidity (think of those handful of Midwestern summer days where everything crunchy in your cupboard goes stale in hours – that is every day), getting Malaysian SIMs for our phones (cheaper even than Thailand), shopping for groceries, and swimming in the pool. Since we are farther out in the suburb of Gelugor, our trips to sightsee will be more planned than in Chiang Mai.

So in the meantime, here are a few miscellaneous parting thoughts about Thailand:

  1. Packaging glue is something to be reckoned with in Thailand, especially when it comes to pre-packaged snacks. I don’t know why chips need to be childproof, but I needed scissors to open them. Every time. I feel so weak.
  2. There are so many snack flavors – various seafoods, hotpot, hamburger, bbq, extra bbq, nori seaweed, corn soup (that one was on a bag of popcorn), miang kham, cheese ice cream. Even chrysalis snacks for those willing to eat fried bug larva (it wan’t as tasty as I hoped, but I can see it being better freshly fried or as a topping).
  3. Forget credit cards and carry cash, preferably small bills. ATMs only want to give out 1,000 baht bills, so you have to break them at 7-Eleven or another chain store. Then you can go to the yummier places to eat with all the 100 and 20 baht notes you get as change.

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    Offering left at the base of a tree, the best restaurant name we saw (though we did not eat there), readily available electrical outlets for phone plugs, Star Wars hype at one of the malls.
  4. It is incredibly common to have dual-purpose outlets that support North American plugs without adapters. So that those converters you purchased are wholly unnecessary. Just toss the doohickey in the garbage, plug your phone into the wall, and forget about it.
  5. Eating street food might be the biggest highlight. There is a small chance you will get sick (we racked up one case of food-related illness between us), but that mostly doesn’t happen. And the thing that probably caused it was fish that had been sitting out, for a few hours at least, on a 90 degree holiday with fewer patrons than usual. And we ate just about everything else we saw, including other fish, with no ill effects except a craving for more.
  6. There are a surprising amount of tourists/expats in Chaing Mai, and that increases ten- or twenty-fold in the Old City. And a surprising number of those are older men with Thai wives/girlfriends/escorts. It is a little bit unnerving and a little gross. Don’t get me wrong, some have clearly fallen in love and both partners are happy, committed, and enjoying each other and their family. But others… not so much. I’m especially suspicious when the age difference is more than 10 years or so. I really hope that maybe I saw the couple on a bad day or that at least they each treat the other with respect and caring at other times. But I have a horrible feeling that some are one-sided with one partner is trapped by economics, lack of education, or some equally unfair disadvantage.
  7. Lighter skin is a big deal. I think the tanning craze has been over in the US almost as long as I’ve been out of high school, but here the opposite extreme happens. Not only is a dark tan frowned upon, but light skin is the focus of a large portion of lotions and soaps. They are advertised as ‘Whitening’ or ‘Lightening.’ I’m not sure what ingredients create this effect, but sunscreen is a better alternative.

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    Our favorite story of a monk and his need to gain weight, electrical wire chaos (yet the power always worked), skin whitening body wash.
  8. Written Thai is confusing. Words are not divided from one another in the same way as in English – so sentences appear to be one long string of letters. It makes picking out individual words impossible without prior knowledge. (**However, Thai TV is very good at being accessible to the deaf. Most news channels have an interpreter in the lower corner, and other channels, especially those showing movies dubbed from another language, will have close captions running along the bottom.) Thankfully, spoken Thai is easier to pick up and basic phrases and numbers are simple to learn in an hour or less.
  9. Street dogs are everywhere. Very few pets are leashed (and the ones that are have good reason to be) and are free to wander around day and night. In our neighborhood they bark a lot. And while their bite is not worse than their bark, they do bite.
  10. Which brings me to cheap and efficient medical care: Both post-exposure rabies shots, a series of antibiotics (which I ended up not taking because my bite didn’t get infected), and the doctor’s visit amounted to less than $100USD. There is a reason medical tourism is a growing industry. The hospital was (once we got to the right counter) clean, fully & competently staffed, and not much different than a hospital in a medium-sized city in the US. On a side note – before we left the US, we each received three rounds of pre-exposure rabies vaccine, and each was billed at a rate of $324 (thankfully completely covered by insurance as preventative care). Each of the two shots in Thailand was less than $30. So even paying out of pocket didn’t add to the pain. (We do have travel insurance, but are not yet up to our deductible.)

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    One of the larger spirit houses, adorableness.
  11. Everyone is really kind – willing to offer directions or suggestions if they see you are lost or confused, happy to work with you to get you the meal you want, and smile as you stumble through attempts at speaking Thai and nod encouragement and let you know where in the sentence you went wrong. Locals all spoke enough English to help us through our transactions. Occasionally they were hesitant to use it, perhaps because they were shy about pronunciation or grammear, but it was clear that their knowledge of English far surpassed our Thai vocabularies.
  12. Spirit houses and small offerings are commonplace. Spirit houses are usually placed in one of the corners of the property and are on a pillar. The small structures are often accompanied by flowers, fruits, open drinks, and figurines. Businesses that don’t have room out front will have a shelf set up inside with the same purpose. Offerings are sometimes left outside near doors or at the base of trees as well.
  13. It was an incredibly safe city. I never felt awkward or unwelcome or afraid walking around (though now I check twice where the dogs are at). Apparently pickpockets can strike at the crowded markets or tourist sights, but we never had need to worry.

Thai New Year

Thailand does New Year’s better. For starters, the weather is a vast improvement over any other end-of-December I’ve witnessed… no snow, no ice, no freezing temperatures, no gray Seattle fog hiding fireworks. Just a balmy 75 degrees at midnight, perfect for strolling, eating street food, and drinking outside.

And midnight on December 31 is just the first of three New Year’s celebrations. Why have just one when you can also give a nod to Chinese New Year in February and have the three-day Songkran in April with merit-making, firecrackers, parades, and massive water fights?

Holidays here are taken seriously – most of the local restaurants we’ve eaten at closed on or before December 30 and won’t reopen until January 3 or 4. (Some even closed between Christmas and the New Year or longer.)

And of course, midnight celebrations are a little different. We went to the Tha Pae Gate to celebrate. The area had already been setting up for the events days in advance – a small market sprung up last week along with more street food vendors than usual. A main stage was erected, and was occupied by a famous or semi-famous Thai singer and band for a concert the traditional countdown to midnight. Since the area is tourisy and restaurants stayed open, we ate there on the 31st (a German/Thai restaurant might not have been the most obvious choice but it was delicious) and that put us right in front of one of the main launching areas for lanterns.

The first sky-lanterns go up about 7:45, just a small handful from those who could not wait or had small kids to hurry home. Then, about 9 p.m., hundreds start rising from all directions. Several other sites around the city like the Nimman Road/Maya shopping plaza and Ping riverfront/Warorot Market had large celebrations and also contributed steady streams of lights.

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The lanterns are flimsy, and the slightest breeze sends them into trees or power lines (of course, it doesn’t help when they are launched directly under said power lines by inattentive people and then burst brightly into flame and rain down burning ashes on the sidewalk). But once the lanterns get around any obstacles, they are absolutely beautiful. One light floats up, joins dozens or hundreds of others buoyed along by the wind, bobs along for a while, then flickers, fades, and sinks back to earth. I think it might be the most quietly joyful celebration I’ve witnessed (just tune out the firecrackers).

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If you look carefully, there are already downed lanterns in the water.

Fireworks are not so strictly regulated, so roman candles and aerials can be bought by the side of the road, and carried around above your head as they explode in merry bursts (saw two guys doing this) or set off in the middle of the (crowded) street. It is assumed passers-by will notice and move out of the way accordingly. Most were made well enough and the explosions cleared the rooftops, but some explode closer to eye-level and sent people dodging.

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What goes up does come down, and after just five minutes or so. Burned-out lanterns already littered the moat and nearby trees when we sent ours up and we passed the their detritus all the way home. They skimmed along the streets the next morning, lingering gray husks of the celebration.