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Muay Thai: Muy Violento!

By | Blog Posts, Thailand | No Comments

Kickboxing offers unique glimpse into Thai culture

CHIANG MAI, Thailand — The public address announcer was speaking in a heavy accent over a garbled sound system and I couldn’t decipher what he was saying. Then I noticed the crowd began to rise. The announcer repeated himself and the second time I could clearly understand.

Chiang Mai kickboxer

A Thai kickboxer psyches himself up before the first round

“Please stand up to pay respect to the King of Thailand,” he requested.

In a country where King Bhumibol Adulyadej, also known as Rama IX, is highly revered, about 200 fans and I rose to our feet and stood silently. The Thai national anthem followed.

With the preliminaries out of the way, so began my first up-close look at the Thai national pastime – Muay Thai – a martial art otherwise known as kickboxing. It turned out to be one of the most intense experiences of my three-month stay in Thailand.

It was a Thursday night at the Chiangmai Boxing Stadium, one of two leading venues in Chiang Mai where kickboxing is on display. For about $20, I received a ringside seat, transportation from my hotel to the arena, and a can of Chang beer, my favorite local brew.

Muay Thai, which dates back to the 16th century, was developed by Siamese soldiers who lost their weapons in battle. It is known as “the art of eight limbs” because fighters are allowed to use punches, kicks, elbows and knee strikes, thus using eight “points of contact,” as opposed to “two points” (fists) used in regular boxing.

Thai kickboxing

Thai kickboxing dates back to the 16th century

There were seven fights on the bill, with the combatants exhibiting varying size, skill and experience. Indeed, some of the early fights involved teenagers who looked like they barely weighed 100 pounds.

I was told that the fighters at this venue were superior to the other leading boxing arena in the city – Thapae Boxing Stadium, the latter of which is more centrally located and considerably cheaper. In fact, tour operators who sell boxing tickets even hinted that the fights at Thapae were really exhibitions with fixed results staged solely for the entertainment value of the tourists. I wanted to see the real deal, so I paid more for what I hoped would be a far more authentic Muay Thai experience.

From the opening bell of the first fight, I could tell that the fights on display at the Chiangmai Boxing Stadium — undoubtedly – are for real. I was seated so close to the action, I was repeatedly doused by the fighters’ sweat. And I was struck by the sheer force of the blows and how much punishment the participants withstood on all parts of their bodies. At one point, I actually thought I heard a bone crack, when a fighter took a wicked kick to his leg before crumpling to the mat. The referee didn’t even bother counting him out; there was no doubt he wasn’t getting up.

Muay Thai reminded me of cage-fighting, only with traditional boxing ropes rather than a cage. Another difference is that when a fighter goes down, his opponent has to go to a neutral corner, rather than being allowed to pound a fighter on the canvass into submission.

Thai boxing knockout

Every fight ended in a knockout

Other than that, pretty much anything goes in Thai kickboxing – punching, kicking, elbowing, clenching, low blows, cheap shots, even knees to the groin.

In other words, it was like watching a Republican presidential debate.

Not one of the evening’s fights lasted the full five rounds; all resulted in knockouts – with the loser ending up flat on his back surrounded by trainers and medics.

Thai fighters wear no shoes, no padding – other than a protective cup — or headgear. As far as I could tell, none of the losing fighters were seriously hurt, although several of them had to be helped out of the ring by the medical staff. I’m guessing the fighters don’t get paid very much, although those who do well in Chiang Mai have the opportunity to move up the ladder and fight at the country’s largest kickboxing venue in Bangkok, where the purses are larger.

The violence of Muay Thai seems incongruous to the typically polite, calm and passive demeanor of the Thai people. Perhaps it’s an outlet for Thais to let off some steam.

On the drive back to my hotel, I reflected on the night’s event. I was glad I had gone. It had given me an interesting glimpse into Thai culture.

But like the time at a local restaurant when I had ordered khao phat nam phrik narok, which literally translates to “rice fried with chili paste from hell,” I wasn’t all that eager to try it again anytime soon.

© 2016 Dan Fellner

chiang mai monk statue

Wat Phra Singh’s Mysterious Monks

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Are they live, or is it Memorex?

The Arizona Republic — March 6, 2016

CHIANG MAI, Thailand – This elderly Buddhist monk is a tough guy to please.

monk in wat phra singh

A monk at Chiang Mai’s Wat Phra Singh

I observed him meditating inside Wat Phra Singh, a 14th-century temple in the heart of Chiang Mai’s old city.  Two other monks sat alongside him in the traditional lotus position in front of a sacred Buddha statue.  Four monks were meditating on the other side of the altar.  Throughout my one hour inside the temple, local people came inside and knelt on the floor, hands clasped in prayer in front of the monks.

Out of respect for Buddhist custom, I left my shoes and socks outside the temple and approached the elderly monk in my bare feet.  I wanted to take a good look at him.  From his weathered skin, his tired eyes, the liver spots on his hands, and his calloused feet, I could tell he had lived a hard life.

Plus, the dude was in desperate need of a skin peel and a pedicure.

I put a 20 Thai baht bill (about 56 cents) in the donation box in front of him and looked at him again, hoping for at least a slight glimpse of a smile.  Instead, I got nothing but a blank look of indifference, which I interpreted as disapproval.  I wondered how much would it take to get some sort of positive response.  So, I put another 20 baht bill in the box, strategically waving the cash in his line of site, hoping that would loosen him up.  Again, nothing.

Perhaps he was in a deep meditative trance, of which Buddhist monks are famous?  Maybe he wasn’t even aware of my presence?

Then, another thought occurred to me.  Perhaps he wasn’t really a he, but an it.  Could the grim-faced monk be a statue?  I honestly couldn’t tell.

Buddhists praying

  Buddhists praying inside Wat Phra Singh

Remember the 1970s commercial with Ella Fitzgerald: “Is it live, or is it Memorex?”  That slogan kept popping into my head the rest of the afternoon.

So I asked a couple of fellow tourists.  The first, an older French man, gave me a look as if I had just asked the most ridiculous question in the world.  “Of course, they are real,” he said, referring to the group of four monks.

As he walked away, I’m guessing he was muttering to himself: “Américain stupide!”

But a heavyset American woman disagreed.  “No, they are statues,” she said, with a look in her face that screamed “duh.”  Both people seemed equally positive of their assessments.

As I thought about it on the 45-minute walk back to my hotel, I still wasn’t sure.  There, I showed Bee, the owner of the hotel, my photos of the monks.  She smiled and in a typically polite and non-judgmental Thai way, confirmed that the monks were indeed statues.

Wat Phra Singh

Wat Phra Singh was built in the 14th century

Just to be absolutely certain, I returned to Wat Phra Singh a couple of weeks later.  Yes, the monks were in exactly the same places as before, with the same exact same expressions on their faces and their hands in the exact same positions.

Yes. They are statues.

I don’t know how they were made to look so lifelike, but Madame Tussauds and Disneyland could learn a thing or two from Wat Phra Singh.

On my most recent visit to the temple, I once again walked by the donation box in front of the grim-faced monk.  This time, though, I kept my wallet in my pocket.

He could scowl all he wanted, but he wasn’t going to get the better of me twice.

© 2016 Dan Fellner

Chiang Mai's Old City

Thai-living test drive

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Chiang Mai popular retirement spot for American expats

The Arizona Republic — February 7, 2016

CHIANG MAI, Thailand – This popular tourist destination and hub of northern Thailand in the rolling foothills of the Himalayan Mountains is undoubtedly a nice place to visit.

Chiang Mai elephant park

One of the many elephant parks near Chiang Mai

But would you really want to live here?

More than 10,000 Americans – about 30 percent of whom are retired — have answered that question affirmatively.  Having fallen in love with Chiang Mai myself three years ago during a short visit, I’m now asking that question of myself, spending three months here this winter as I take the semester off from teaching and transition toward semi-retirement.

I’m considering the experience a Thai-living test-drive.

Like thousands of other expats who have decided to spend their golden years here, I’m attracted by the tropical climate, low cost of living, and surprisingly high-quality health care.  It’s for precisely these reasons that Forbes magazine last year ranked Chiang Mai fourth on its list of “The 7 Best Places to Retire Around the World.”

Downtown Chiang Mai

           A tuk-tuk and songthaew head into downtown Chiang Mai

Add to the list a fascinating culture with much to see and do, a vibrant expat community, friendly and hospitable locals, amazing food and low street crime, and it’s easy to see why so many foreigners are moving to the city Thais refer to as “the Rose of the North.”

With nearly a million residents in its metropolitan area, Chiang Mai is Thailand’s fifth-largest city.  It’s about 470 miles – a 45-minute plane ride – north of Bangkok, the country’s capital and largest city.  Chiang Mai is cooler than Bangkok, and much less frenetic, congested and polluted.

The city’s name, pronounced Chang My, means “new city” in Thai, so named because it became the capital of the Kingdom of Lanna in 1296, the year Chiang Mai was founded.  Its historic old city, surrounded by a moat and the remnants of a wall, is home to more than 30 Buddhist temples, many of which date back centuries and are architecturally stunning.

Winter weather in northern Thailand is glorious.  Highs most days have been in the upper 80s, but it cools off nicely at night.  Rain this time of year is scarce.

Chiang Mai's Old City

 Buddhist monks entering Chiang Mai’s walled old city

Since I arrived in Chiang Mai a month ago, I’ve ridden an elephant through the Thai jungle at one of the many nearby elephant parks, sampled fried silkworms, and figured out how to get around town on motorized rickshaws known as tuk-tuks and ubiquitous red pickup trucks called songthaews (the Thai version of a mini-bus).

I’ve wandered through remote hill-tribe villages, and reached the highest peak in the country at Doi Inthanon National Park (8,415 feet). I’ve attended cultural performances and witnessed the beautiful simplicity of Thai dancing (to see a video clip I shot of Thai dancing at the Chiang Mai Cultural Center, click on this link: Thai dancing.)  And I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface.

I’m having little difficulty keeping within my budget of about $1,200 a month.  I’m staying at a 15-room boutique hotel called Vanilla Place Guesthouse, just a five-minute walk from Chiang Mai’s famous Night Bazaar.  Once here, I was able to negotiate with the owner a long-term rate of 700 Thai baht per night (about $19.50), including breakfast.

 

Wachirathan Waterfall

  Wachirathan Waterfall at Doi Inthanon National Park

The hotel is clean, quiet and has high-speed Internet, enabling me to stream my favorite TV shows from back home.  I could have rented a condominium for $200 a month cheaper, but wanted to be located in the heart of the city.  Plus, it’s nice not having to make my bed, clean my room, fix breakfast, or buy toilet paper or soap.  I pay an extra $3 a week to have my laundry done.

As for food, I have yet to tire of the always flavorful – and often spicy – dishes of pad Thai noodles, hot-and-sour soup called tom yam, and curry with chicken and peanuts, a northern Thai specialty.  I usually wash it down with a mango shake or a Chang beer.  A nice dinner out costs about $8.

If you really want to eat cheap, Thai street food is world-renowned.  Once or twice a week I’ll enjoy a plate of freshly stir-fried rice or noodles with chicken or pork, followed by a dessert of banana rotee smothered in chocolate, similar to French crepes but much cheaper.  A main course and dessert prepared by Chiang Mai street vendors costs 90 baht (about $2.50).  Watching the food being cooked is almost as much fun as eating it.

My one extravagance is getting Thai foot massages several times a week; a one-hour massage costs about $5.

Thai street food

Thai street-food is world-renowned

It’s common to hear other native-English speakers in Chiang Mai, whether they be tourists or foreigners living here year-round.  I recently attended a Saturday morning meeting of the Chiang Mai Expats Club, which has about 1,500 members, half of whom are Americans.  In addition to helping newcomers adjust to life in Thailand, the club is involved in a number of charity-related civic activities.

After the meeting, I met the club’s president, Nancy Lindley, who owned a nursery greenhouse business in Michigan before retiring in Chiang Mai in 2008 with her husband.  It’s a decision she hasn’t regretted.

“It’s exotic, yet it’s safe,” she says of life in Chiang Mai.  “The personal safety is really quite good.  You can be out at night walking and not worry at all.  And there are a lot of activities to stay busy.”

The Lindleys pay 13,000 baht a month (about $360) to rent a centrally located two-bedroom condo.  She says that the cost of living is 30-40 percent cheaper than back home.

Thai dancing

   Traditional Thai dancing at the Chiang Mai Cultural Center

“You can live a very frugal lifestyle here and still have fun,” she says.

Not everything about Chiang Mai is ideal.  It can be loud, clogged with traffic and is one of the least-pedestrian friendly cities I’ve visited.  There are few bike paths downtown and it’s tricky to find a safe place to jog, a necessity to ensure that the daily portions of Thai sticky rice I consume don’t stick to my belly.  I run a route that takes me back-and-forth across two bridges spanning the Ping River, but constantly must dodge motorbikes and street vendors on poorly maintained sidewalks.

When the time comes a few years from now, I don’t know if I’ll end up retiring permanently in Chiang Mai.  Based on the experience I’ve had during my first month here, it’s definitely earned strong consideration.

But I do know that – at least for now — it sure makes a nice home away from home.

© 2016 Dan Fellner

 

 

 

Bangkok's Grand Palace

The Jewish Traveler: Bangkok

By | Jewish Travel, Thailand | No Comments

In this city of nine million, the contributions of the relatively small Jewish community far outweigh its size.

Hadassah Magazine – February/March, 2014

There are few cities in the world that are as exhilarating and exhausting as Bangkok.  Asia’s most popular tourist destination, with more than 12 million international visitors in 2012, can be daunting at first with its stifling year-round heat and humidity, incessant street noise, wild and rowdy nightlife, and traffic jams that stretch for miles.
Bangkok's Grand Palace

Bangkok’s dazzling Grand Palace

But these become simply minor annoyances when put into the greater context of all the wonders offered by this chaotic city on the Chao Phraya River.

Bangkok’s splendor and history are most apparent in the central Grand Palace, a dazzling monument to the country’s royal family and Buddhist traditions.  There are resplendent temples and stunning, gold-plated statues visible with every turn of the head.

In this city of around nine million residents, the contributions of Bangkok’s relatively small permanent Jewish community far outweigh its size.  And the community has become more than adept at meeting the spiritual needs of Bangkok’s huge influx of Jewish visitors.  A few blocks from the Grand Palace, in a section of town popular with backpackers, there are so many Israeli tourists that it is not uncommon to see shop signs in Hebrew.

History

From the early 1600s, when they first settled in the Siamese kingdom of Ayuthaya, Jews have found a safe haven in this religiously tolerant country that is 95-percent Buddhist. In 1601, Spanish missionaries reported seeing Jewish merchants in Ayuthaya who maintained a synagogue.

Jews didn’t settle in Bangkok until the late 19th century, when a few Eastern European families immigrated to the city. One of those families – the Rosenbergs – established some of the first modern hotels in Bangkok.

Following World War I, the community grew with an influx of Russian Jews fleeing discrimination from the Soviets.

Downtown Bangkok

View of downtown Bangkok

In the 1930s, about 120 Jewish refugees arrived from Germany. With the help of local Jewish residents, they were admitted to Siam in spite of protests by the German government.

The country, which changed its name to Thailand in 1939, was invaded by the Japanese in 1941 and quickly surrendered. During World War II, some Jews in Bangkok were interned by the Japanese as enemy aliens.

About 150 Jewish Allied soldiers were imprisoned in the notorious Japanese POW camp in Kanchanaburi, about 80 miles northwest of Bangkok. The camp supplied the labor to build a railway line to Burma and the bridge on the River Kwai, later immortalized in the iconic movie. A rabbi was among the POWs at Kanchanaburi and conducted makeshift services at the camp.

The decades following the war brought slow but steady growth to Bangkok’s Jewish population, with Jews arriving from the United States, Israel, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and other countries. The Vietnam War brought hundreds of American Jewish servicemen to the city, and the first resident rabbis – American military chaplains – were brought in to meet their needs. In the 1970s, Bangkok began attracting significant numbers of vacationing Israeli backpackers. Several Israelis relocated to the city, a number of them working in the jewelry and gemstone business.

Bangkok's Temple Beth Elisheva

   Thailand’s only free-standing synagogue, Beth Elisheva

 

In 1993 Rabbi Yosef Kantor from New York took up residence as the first permanent rabbi in Bangkok. Twenty years later, as the chief rabbi, he continues to preside over Temple Beth Elisheva, which is Thailand’s only free-standing synagogue.

Community

There are three Jewish houses of worship in Bangkok, all under the auspices of the Chabad-Lubavitch-affiliated Jewish Association of Thailand (011-66-2-663-0244; www.jewishthailand.com).  The J.A.T., with almost 200 members, is administered by Kantor and a board of directors.

Temple Beth Elisheva (121 Soi Sai Nam Thip 2, Sukhumvit Soi 22; 66-2-663-0244) is named after Elizabeth Rosenberg Zerner, the Thai-born daughter of one of the first Jewish families in the country, who donated land for the building in the mid-1960s.  Portraits of Zerner and her husband, Winhalm Zerner, hang outside the sanctuary.

The three-story synagogue is located on a quiet side street off busy Sukhumvit Road, Bangkok’s business and commercial hub.  It is enclosed by a courtyard and surrounded by high-rise hotels and apartment buildings.  The second-floor sanctuary features a beautiful wood bima; the rabbi and his family live on the third floor.  A small structure in the courtyard houses Bangkok’s only mikve.

More Sefardic in prayer style, the Even Chen Synagogue (Soi Charoenkrung 42/1 New Road) is located on the fourth floor of an office tower attached to the Shangri-La Hotel.  The complex overlooks the Chao Phraya River in the heart of Bangkok’s jewelry district.  Many of Even Chen’s members are Israeli gemstone dealers.

By far, Bangkok’s busiest Jewish house of worship is Ohr Menachem Chabad House (96 Ram Buttri Road, Banglampoo; 66-2- 629-2770; bkk@chabadthailand.com).  The five-story building is located near Khao San Road, the center of Bangkok’s backpacker district.  The area is known for its budget accommodations, low-priced restaurants and tour companies.

Rabbi Nechamya Wilhelm has presided over Bangkok’s Chabad House since 1995.  He says that Friday night Shabbat services and meal typically attract between 200 to 400 visitors, at least 95 percent tourists from Israel.  Rosh Hashana holiday services have drawn as many as 1,500 worshippers.

Bangkok Chabad

  Bangkok’s busy Chabad house

The city’s only kosher restaurant, The Kosher Place (66-2-629-2754-5), is located on the first floor of the building. It serves several hundred meals a day and also offers delivery service.

Wilhelm estimates that close to 150,000 Israelis – many just having completed military duty — visit Thailand each year.  They are drawn to the country by its warm weather, relatively affordable prices, historic sites, jungle trekking, nightlife and beaches.  A lot of them arrive on daily nonstop flights from Tel Aviv and use Bangkok as a starting point from which to explore other parts of Thailand and Southeast Asia.

Thailand’s popularity with Israeli tourists has made Bangkok’s Chabad House one of the most popular Lubavitch centers in the world. “I don’t think there are many Chabad houses anywhere that have 400 to 500 people passing through each day,” Wilhelm says.

Estimates of the number of year-round Jewish residents in Bangkok vary from 700 to 1,000. But Wilhelm thinks it may be even higher. “Every day we meet Jews who live here that we didn’t know about,” he says.

Wilhelm says the Thai people and government have been more than welcoming to Jews, whether visitors or full-time residents.  He cites a recent example in which the Jewish community requested permission from the Bangkok police to build a large sukka on the street.  “Not only did they agree, they even helped us build it,” he says.

In 1997, the Jewish community bought a parcel of land and consecrated a small cemetery adjacent to a Protestant cemetery.  About 20 Jews are now buried there.

Sights

About a 15-minute walk southwest of Chabad House, Bangkok’s must-see attraction is the spectacular Grand Palace.  The complex was established in 1782 and houses the former royal residence and the most revered religious site in Thailand — Wat Phra Kaew – the Temple of the Emerald Buddha.

Gold statue at Bangkok's Grand Palace

  Ornate gold statue at the Grand Palace

It is well worth putting up with the thousands of tourists who visit the Grand Palace each day to explore its many monuments and admire its color and intricate statues.

The Emerald Buddha statue is actually made from a block of green jade and was first discovered in 1434. Enshrined on a golden throne, the Buddha is clad in seasonal costumes, which are changed three times a year in a ceremony presided over by the king of Thailand.

There are strict dress codes at the Grand Palace; visitors are not allowed inside the grounds with exposed shoulders or shorts or skirts above the knee.  As is Buddhist custom, visitors are required to remove their shoes before entering places of worship.

Bangkok’s much-hyped floating markets, in which peddlers on small riverboats sell everything from trinkets to made-to-order grilled and stir-fried foods cooked right on the boats, have become overly touristy.

A more authentic way to explore the city is to take a cruise on the Chao Phraya River and its many offshoot khlongs (canals) that offer glimpses into Bangkok’s history.  A major conduit for trade, the river used to be the focal point of city life.  There are many types of trips and boats from which to choose, including the ubiquitous long-tail boats and rice barges.

Jim Thompson House

   Silk-weaving at the Jim Thompson House

There may be more popular museums in Bangkok, but few are as interesting and well laid-out as the Jim Thompson House and Museum (www.jimthompsonhouse.com; 6 Soi Kasemsan 2; 02-216-7368).  Thompson was an architect and American military officer who moved to Thailand after World War II.  He devoted himself to reviving the craft of hand-weaving silk, a long-neglected Thai cottage industry. Thompson’s silks were used in the 1956 movie The King & I.

Entrance to the museum includes a guided tour of Thompson’s home, which is actually a cluster of six different historic Thai homes from central Thailand that were dismantled and rebuilt in Bangkok.  The beautifully decorated home contains a splendid collection of sculpture, carvings and paintings from the region.

In 1967, Thompson disappeared while on a trip to Malaysia and his body was never found.  However, his house remains as a tribute to his deep love of Thailand.  The museum is conveniently located near the National Stadium, a short walk from the BTS Skytrain, Bangkok’s elevated train system.

Side Trips

The magnificent ancient city of Ayutthaya, a Unesco World Heritage Site, is about a one-hour drive north of Bangkok.  Thailand’s most-visited historical site evokes comparisons to the more widely known Angkor Wat in neighboring Cambodia.  Although much smaller in scope than its Cambodian counterpart, the archaeological ruins in Ayutthaya are remarkable.

Ayutthaya Buddhist temple

   Ancient Buddhist temple at Ayutthaya

Ayutthaya was the former capital of the Kingdom of Siam, which existed from 1350 until 1767, when it was destroyed by the Burmese army.  At its height in 1700, Ayutthaya had a population of close to one million people, making it one of the world’s largest and most prosperous cities.

Day tours from Bangkok enable visitors to marvel at Ayutthaya’s expansive collection of palaces, temples and Buddhas.  The old part of the city is actually an island at the confluence of three rivers.  Architecture in the surrounding area offers an interesting mix of styles, with tall spires (prangs) from ancient Khmer (Cambodia), to pointed stupas from the Sukhothai Kingdom in northern Thailand. Some of Ayutthaya’s ruins remain in disrepair and restoration efforts suffered a setback in 2011 when there was heavy flooding.

Farther north, the popular tourist destination of Chiang Mai offers visitors a gateway for jungle trekking, whitewater rafting and an opportunity to explore elephant parks and small villages inhabited by hill tribes.  Chiang Mai is easily accessible from Bangkok by bus, train or plane; there are low-priced 70-minute flights that leave Bangkok virtually every hour of the day.

Chiang Mai is a bit cooler than Bangkok, less polluted and more relaxed.  The city’s name, pronounced Chang My, means “new city” in Thai because it became the capital of the Kingdom of Lanna in 1296, the year Chiang Mai was founded.  The city still is surrounded by vestiges of a wall and moat that were originally constructed for its defense.  About a quarter-million people now live here.

About 30 percent of the Israelis who visit Bangkok end up going to Chiang Mai.  There is a Chabad House in the downtown area (189/15 Chang Klan Road; 66-53-279-015; cm@chabadthailand.com), located a block from the Shangri-La Hotel.

Chiang Mai

     A Buddhist monk admires the view of Chiang Mai

Rabbi Yosef Pikel, who moved to Chiang Mai four years ago from Israel and lives there with his wife and three children, said about 10,000 people visit the Chabad outpost each year.  Rosh Hashana services in 2012 had so many worshipers – 550 – Chabad had to rent a ballroom in a local hotel so it could accommodate the crowd.  There is an onsite kosher restaurant and several Israeli-owned cafes and travel agencies in the neighborhood.

A few hundred Jewish ex-pats, many of them American, also live in Chiang Mai.  Some get together informally for Jewish holidays.

Personalities

Fleeing persecution from the Communists in the Soviet Union, Henry Gerson immigrated to Siam in 1920. An architect by training, he was commissioned by the King to do some interior work at the Royal Palace. Gerson later formed a successful furniture and construction company in Bangkok that employed thousands of people and he became an important leader in the Jewish community.

Ronald Cristal, an American lawyer, arrived in Bangkok during the Vietnam War as a united States judge advocate.  He remained in Thailand after the war and developed a successful business law practice, ultimately becoming a Thai citizen in the 1980s.  Cristal has a passion for numismatics and co-authored the first book in English about Thailand’s money: Siamese Coins: From Funan to the Fifth Reign (River Books).

David Lyman is the chairman of the largest independent law firm in the country and the former president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Thailand.  Lyman, who has served on several committees to advance environmental protection in Thailand, owns two elephants.

Reading

Jews in Thailand (River Books), published in 2011, is the only book that focuses specifically on Jewish life in Thailand, from its history to the present-day community.  It was co-authored by Ruth Gerson, Henry Gerson’s daughter-in-law, and Stephen Mallinger.

Bangkok Inside Out (Equinox Publishing) gives travelers a useful and entertaining heads-up on what to expect in Bangkok on everything from motorcycle taxis to stray dogs.

Bangkok traffic

  Traffic jam on Sukhumvit Road

There are few cities in the world that can match Bangkok’s sheer volume and quality of street food, with vendors on seemingly every block cooking up fresh fare for locals and tourists alike.  Written by Australian chef and restaurateur David Thompson, Thai Street Food (Ten Speed Press) is a definitive guide to Bangkok’s culinary street culture.

Recommendations

The Rembrandt Hotel Bangkok (www.rembrandtbkk.com; Sukhumvit Road, 19 Sukhumvit Soi 18; 66-0-2261- 7100) offers reasonably priced, good-quality accommodations in the city’s main commercial and shopping district.  On the hotel’s 26th floor is one of the city’s finest Indian restaurants, the Rang Mahal.  It features numerous vegetarian options as well as wonderful views of Bangkok’s skyline.  The Rembrandt is a 15-minute walk from Temple Beth Elisheva.

Bangkok is not an easy city to traverse.  A modern train and subway system, while clean and safe, covers only part of the city and traffic remains horrendous.  Walking the streets can also be challenging as sidewalks – if they exist at all — are often blocked by food vendors or used as parking lots by motorbikes.

But when inevitable frustrations occur, it’s best to do as the locals do and practice the Thai philosophy of jai yen, stay calm and cool-headed.  Do so, and Bangkok will more than make things right.

© 2014 Dan Fellner

Akha tribe in Thailand

Photo Essay: Exquisite Akha Headdress in Thailand

By | Photo Essays, Thailand | No Comments

Akha village; Chiang Mai, Thailand

This striking woman and her shy son are members of the Akha hill tribe in northern Thailand.  The Akha people live in small villages at high altitudes in the mountains of Thailand, Burma, Laos and China.  I took this photo in a village not far from the northern Thailand city of Chiang Mai.

There are now more than 80,000 Akha people living in northern Thailand.  Most of them make a living from agriculture, although increasing numbers of the Akha – like this woman – now earn a livelihood by selling hand-woven baskets and other handicrafts to tourists.

Akha women are known for their beautiful headdresses, which define their age and marital status.

Beautiful, indeed.

Copyright © Dan Fellner 2013

thailand hall of opium

Thailand’s Haunting Hall of Opium

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Museum gives fascinating overview of world’s most notorious drug

The Arizona Republic — January 20, 2013

CHIANG SAEN, Thailand – I’m not much of a shopper, but this was one museum gift shop I couldn’t wait to see.

The Hall of Opium in northern Thailand is to narcotics what The Louvre is to art.  The museum’s extensive and enlightening examination of one of mankind’s most enduring problems has made it a popular excursion for travelers exploring the Golden Triangle, a region covering parts of Myanmar, Laos and Thailand that has long been notorious for the production and trafficking of opium.

Hall of Opium

 The Hall of Opium in Thailand’s Golden Triangle

Everything you ever wanted to know about the drug – from its 5,000-year history, its countless victims, legitimate medical uses, the paraphernalia used to ingest it, and government attempts to control it – is on display in this three-story, multimedia museum.

It’s sobering, highly informative and even a little entertaining.

And no, they don’t sell samples in the gift shop.

Located in a 40-acre park overlooking the Mekong River, just a few miles from where the borders of Thailand, Myanmar and Laos intersect, the Hall of Opium was the brainchild of the King of Thailand’s late mother, Srinagarindra.

Determined to wean the hill tribes living in this part of Thailand from their dependence on growing and using opium, the Princess Mother initiated a public-education campaign in the late 1980s.  The campaign’s showpiece – the Hall of Opium – opened in 2003 at a cost of nearly $10 million.

The campaign seems to be working.  Thanks to improved public awareness, enhanced law-enforcement techniques and efforts to get the hill tribes to cultivate other crops, the Thai government has eradicated most of the country’s opium fields. the United Nations no longer considers Thailand to be a significant producer of opium.

Hall of Opium Eentrance Tunnel

  Walls inside the Hall of Opium’s dark entrance tunnel

That’s not the case, however, in other parts of the Golden Triangle.  According to the U.N., Laos and Myanmar have both seen significant increases in opium cultivation in recent years.   In fact, Myanmar is now the second-largest producer of illicit opium in the world, behind Afghanistan.

The Hall of Opium grabs you as soon as you walk inside the building and doesn’t let go.   The entrance is a dramatic 150-yard-long dark tunnel dug inside a mountain.   Haunting music plays while visitors walk past walls bearing sculptures of contorted, anguished faces.   An illuminated golden triangle cut into the floor marks the tunnel’s exit.

Prasert Thep-intha, the museum’s manager, said the entrance is designed to create an atmosphere associated with the pain and torment caused by drug addiction.

“When people are addicted to opium, life is like being stuck in a tunnel,” he told me after I had spent 90 minutes exploring the museum.

Blooming poppy plant in northern Thailand

  A blooming poppy plant in Thailand

A display at the end of the tunnel introduces visitors to all the intricacies of the poppy plant.  There’s even a small poppy field similar to those once planted in the region.

A few days earlier, I had visited a Hmong village in northern Thailand where a few blooming poppy plants growing in the garden.

The Hmong used to rely heavily on opium production but now cultivate other crops and market exuisite handicrafts.  The remaining handful of poppy plants is now just a novelty for the benefit of curious tourists.

“Too many plants and the police will come,” our guide told us with a smile.

The Hall of Opium also has exhibits devoted to the opium wars between China and Britain, a hollowed-out ship showing how opium was transported across the seas, and a section called Medical Marvels that shows the development of morphine and other opium-derived medicines.  I was surprised to learn that scientists at Bayer Laboratories actually patented heroin in 1898.

A recreated opium den at the Hall of Opium

   A recreated opium den at the Hall of Opium

There are re-created opium dens — complete with stoned mannequins — and a primitive lab showing how opium was extracted from plants in the jungle.

Another exhibit has every opium accessory imaginable, including pipes, boxes to keep the drugs fresh, even the pillows used by opium smokers to rest their heads while under the influence.  “Many pillows were designed with a hole for the ear to make a long smoking session more comfortable,” the exhibit noted.

The Gallery of Victims chronicles the demise of famous people who struggled with drug addiction, including Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, John Belushi and Kurt Cobain.

I was especially fascinated by an exhibit showing some of the unusual and creative places drug smugglers have attempted to hide their merchandise: inside teddy bears, dried chilies, and plaster arm and leg casts.

Close to the exit there is a Hall of Reflection, a quiet room where visitors can ruminate on what they’ve seen and look at quotes on plaques from various world leaders on the importance of leading a life of moderation.

The Golden Triangle

The Golden Triangle, where the borders of Thailand, Myanmar and Laos intersect

I found particularly relevant a quote from Mahatma Gandhi: “Remember that there is always a limit to self-indulgence, but none to self-restraint.”

All exhibits are in both English and Thai.  Thep-intha said the Hall of Opium attracts about 70,000 visitors a year, 80 percent of whom are Thai.

The museum is run by a nonprofit foundation called Mae Fah Luang, which is what the hill-tribe people called the Princess Mother.  In Thai, it means “Royal Mother from the Sky.”

As for the museum’s gift shop, it was stocked with clothing, ceramics, furniture and other products made by local hill tribes, with all proceeds being returned to them.

The only items for sale even close to being illicit were “poppy delight” bread rolls, made from poppy seeds.

Most likely, they were completely harmless. But after what I had absorbed during my visit to the Hall of Opium, I had no urge to try one.

© 2013 Dan Fellner

Fair and Balanced? Or Asian Porn?

By | Blog Posts, Thailand | No Comments

You never know what will pop up on satellite TV in Thailand

CHIANG MAI, Thailand — Mr. Kem, the proprietor of the Vanilla Place Guesthouse in Chiang Mai, led me up to the fifth floor to show me what would be my room for the next three days in this northern Thailand city that is a popular destination for tourists.

Chiang Mai Vanilla Place

Mr. Kem, owner of the Vanilla Place in Chiang Mai

I had booked a room in this small 15-room hotel largely because of Mr. Kem.  TripAdvisor reviews of the hotel itself were so-so.  But what distinguished the Vanilla Place from its competition in Chiang Mai were the glowing accolades heaped upon Mr. Kem for his wisdom and kindness in treating guests at his establishment as if they were his own family.

Need assistance in booking a tour?  Mr. Kem would not only do it, he would waive the commission.  Need some laundry done?  No problem.  Just leave it with Mr. Kem and it’s back the same day, clean and folded at a ridiculously low price.

Mr. Kem even drove me to an interview I had in downtown Chiang Mai because it was on the way to an errand he happened to be running.  “Happy,” his dog, needed to see the vet.

As Mr. Kem showed me the amenities in room 51, I asked him about the television. “Any stations in English?” I wondered.

“Yes,” replied Mr. Kem. Channel 56. “Fuck News.”

I was intrigued. I knew my room tariff of 1,100 Thai baht (about $35) included air conditioning and breakfast.  But Asian porn, too?  This was an unexpected bonus.

I couldn’t wait to see what Channel 56 offered.  As soon as Mr. Kem left the room, I picked up the remote, imagining some sort of Chinese version of Katie Couric doing unspeakable things in a rice paddy.

But no, as you’ve probably guessed by now, Mr. Kem’s English was less than steller.  Channel 56 offered a different type of perverse entertainment — Fox News.  There was Sean Hannity … fully clothed, railing against gun control in the wake of the Connecticut shootings.

Turned out the only naked body I saw on my trip to Chiang Mai belonged to an elephant.

Editor’s update:  I stayed at the Vanilla Place again in 2016 and was sad to learn that Mr. Kem passed away a year-and-a-half ago.  A friend of the Kem family, a capable young woman named Bee, now owns Vanilla Place.  And yes, the hotel still offers Fox News …    

Copyright © Dan Fellner 2016

jews in chiang mai

Chiang Mai’s Jewish Neighborhood

By | Jewish Travel, Thailand | One Comment

Israeli visitors flock to this city in northern Thailand

The Jewish News of Greater Phoenix — January 11, 2013

CHIANG MAI, Thailand – As I walked past the Shangri-La Hotel on Chang Klan Road in downtown Chiang Mai, I started wondering if my sunglasses had fogged up, distorting my vision.

Israeli owned business in Chiang Mai

 Jewish-owned business in downtown Chiang Mai

There were at least a half-dozen stores along a couple of blocks – restaurants and travel agencies – with signs that appeared to be in Hebrew.  The Thai alphabet bears at least a little resemblance to Hebrew, and I took a closer look to see if my eyes were playing tricks on me.

Yes, it really was Hebrew.

Turns out that Chiang Mai — a popular tourist destination in northern Thailand and the former capital of the ancient Lanna kingdom — has a Jewish neighborhood.  Who knew?

During my recent three-day visit to Chiang Mai as part of a 12-day trip to Thailand, Laos and Myanmar, I learned that Jewish life in the city is fueled by a huge influx of Israeli tourists as well as a surprisingly large community of several hundred Jewish expats.

I went inside one of the businesses with Hebrew signage, a travel agency called “Israel 669” (named after an elite Israeli military unit).  The owner, Israel Yehoshua, told me that there are at least seven Jewish-owned businesses on the street that primarily cater to vacationing Israelis.

Chiang Mai Chabad House

    Chiang Mai’s busy Chabad House

Thailand has become a magnet for Israeli travelers, who love the country’s warm weather, cheap prices, historic sites, jungle-trekking, nightlife and beaches.  Many of them arrive on daily nonstop flights from Tel Aviv to Bangkok, the country’s capital and largest city.

Yehoshua estimates that about 120,000 Israelis visit Thailand every year.  Of those, he said, about 30 percent find their way 470 miles north of Bangkok to Chiang Mai.  The city’s name, pronounced Chang My, means “new city” in Thai, so named because it became the capital of the Kingdom of Lanna in 1296, the year Chiang Mai was founded.  It now has a population of about 170,000.

Chiang Mai is a bit cooler than Bangkok, more relaxed and offers visitors a myriad of adventures.  During my stay, I took an elephant ride through the jungle, cruised down a river on a bamboo raft, rode an ox cart, and explored several small villages inhabited by hill tribes.

I was especially fascinated with a subgroup of the Karen tribe called the Padaung.  These people, who moved to Thailand from neighboring Myanmar, are known as the “long-neck” tribe because their females wear brass rings around their necks.  This gives the illusion that they have unusually long necks, considered a sign of great beauty in their culture.

Rabbi Yosef Pikel

       Chabad Rabbi Yosef Pikel

Two doors down from Yehoshua’s travel agency, I entered the Chabad House, the hub of Jewish life in Chiang Mai.  Rabbi Yosef Pikel, who moved to Chiang Mai four years ago from Israel and lives there with his wife and three children, said that Friday night Shabbat services and dinner typically attract between 100-200 people.

Rosh Hashanah services last fall had so many visitors – 550 – that Chabad had to rent a ballroom in a local hotel to accommodate the crowd.

A kosher restaurant in the Chabad House serves about 150 meals a day. A small store on the premises sells kosher food products.  A few blocks away there is a mikvah, or ritual bath.

Pikel said 85 percent of Chabad’s more than 10,000 visitors each year are Israelis, with most of the rest coming from France, England, America and Australia.

Hebrew signs for sale in the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar

   Hebrew signs for sale in the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar

The rabbi said there are so many Israeli visitors in Chiang Mai that many Thai vendors have picked up a few words of Hebrew slang, like achi (“my brother”) to woo shoppers.  Indeed, at the city’s famous Night Bazaar, I saw one vendor selling wooden signs, a number of which were engraved in Hebrew.

What’s it like being the rabbi in a community in which most of the Jews are just passing through?  Pikel said there are pros and cons.

“You meet many interesting people,” he said.  “But you only meet them for a short time.  As a rabbi, if you want to give something back to people, you have a very short time to do it.”

During my visit, I also met Barry Wasserzug, a Canadian Jew who has lived in Chiang Mai since 2009.  Wasserzug estimates that 400-500 Jewish ex-pats live in the area, about half of whom are American.

“In my condo building alone, there are at least 15-20 Jews,” he said.

Wasserzug organizes informal events for Chiang Mai’s resident Jews, most of whom he says are not especially religious and rarely attend services at Chabad.  A potluck Hanukah party at his home the week before I arrived – featuring homemade potato latkes – was attended by 40 people.

A member of the Padaung long-neck hill tribe

A member of the Padaung “long-neck” hill tribe

The retired jeweler, who lived in Scottsdale for three years back in the 1970s, said he was vacationing in Chiang Mai a few years ago and became intrigued with the idea of living there.  He hasn’t regretted making the move from Toronto.

“It suits me,” said Wasserzug.  “It’s warm, there’s no snow, it’s safe, it’s clean.  There’s good medical; the cost of living is low.  Most people are living on $1,000-$1,500 a month, some less.”

Pikel said he is working to forge stronger ties between Chabad and the Jewish expat community.  Last year, he hosted a second-night seder at his home, which was attended by 40 Americans.

During my final morning in Chiang Mai, I was eating breakfast at my small hotel on the outskirts of town and noticed a bookcase with about a dozen travel guides.

One of the books was Lonely Planet’s Thailand.  It was the Hebrew version.

Somehow, I wasn’t surprised.

© 2013 Dan Fellner

thailand ronald mcdonald wai

Photo Essay: Big Mac Attack in Bangkok

By | Photo Essays, Thailand | No Comments

 Overseas McDonald’s reflect local culture; Bangkok, Thailand

One common misperception of McDonald’s is that it’s exactly the same – regardless of where you go.  True, a Big Mac is a Big Mac, whether it’s on the menu in China or Belarus.  But I’ve eaten at the Golden Arches all over the world and find interesting and not-so-subtle differences reflecting local customs and culture.

Spirit House Thailand McDonald's

 Spirit House next to a Bangkok McDonald’s

Nowhere is this more apparent than in Thailand, where there are 88 McDonald’s restaurants.  Even before you go inside, you’ll realize you’re not in Kansas anymore.  There, by the front door, Ronald McDonald greets visitors with the traditional Thai greeting called a wai, in which the palms are pressed together in a prayer-like fashion.  It’s the way Thais show respect and friendship.

At another McDonald’s next to a swanky shopping mall in downtown Bangkok, I saw a Thai spirit house, or a small religious shrine. Commonly found next to homes and businesses in several countries in Southeast Asia, spirit houses are normally in the form of a miniature house or temple, and are mounted on a pillar.

They are intended to provide a shelter for spirits which could cause problems for the people if not appeased.  In this case, perhaps that means they really will hold the special sauce if that’s the way you order your Big Mac.  The shrines often include images of animals.  I observed several miniature elephants in this spirit house.

Thailand McDonald's chili sauce

Hot chili sauce and ketchup at a Thai McDonald’s

Once you go inside, the menu looks quite similar to an American McDonald’s.  However, when I went to get some ketchup for my fries, I noticed a condiment right next to the ketchup dispenser that you won’t find in a McDonald’s back home – Thai chili sauce.  Thai food is notoriously spicy and this sauce had a real kick to it.  I stuck with the ketchup.

I enjoy sampling local cuisine when I travel and don’t make a habit of going to McDonald’s very often.  But every now and then, I crave something familiar.  And if Ronald McDonald greets me with a wai on my way inside, so much the better.

Copyright © Dan Fellner 2013