Category Archives: Travel

Bangkok 2015: “The King and I” at the Grand Palace

One of a handful of posts from a couple of days’ stopover in Bangkok, Thailand.    

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If you’re a Yul Brenner fan, you’ll be interested to know that King Bhumobol Adulyadej of Thailand — a.k.a. Rama IX — is the modern-day King of Siam.*  It’s a shame I didn’t get to meet him on my trip through Bangkok. Between the two of us, “The King and I” have a combined US$30 billion, control 3,000 acres of downtown Bangkok, and have reigned over Thailand since 1946. Admittedly, most of that is him: he’s the World’s Richest Royal, and the world’s longest-reigning monarch.  They say Rama IX is well respected, but then it’s against Thai law to not respect him, so take that for what it’s worth.

 

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This sign stands next to the river, in front of the Grand Palace. Notice that it’s (exclusively) in English. Signs and advertisements around the airport and the historic, shopping and tourist areas were just as likely to be in English as in Thai.

 

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Outside the temple of the Emerald Buddha, you could sprinkle yourself with sacred Buddha water using a symbolic lotus flower. I opted out, but a couple of folks slung water my direction anyway.

The grounds of Rama’s Grand Palace look more like Disneyland than many parts of Disneyland do.  If you go on a Sunday, let me just warn you that you’re making a mistake: you’ll be elbow to elbow with a sea of locals and international tourists alike. Touring the grounds is as much about Buddha as it is about Rama. There’s an enormous “Wat” (temple complex) on site with Buddhas galore, including the tiny-but-most-revered Emerald Buddha (made of jade, not emeralds). You don’t see much of the King, aside from a handful of grand portraits. The faces around the Palace are Palace guards in formal pink uniforms, backed up by more conventional-looking military guards in green.  Over at the Wat, cameras were prohibited in the Emerald Buddha room — I saw one of the guards literally spank a woman with a handheld “No Photography” sign.  Some of the same folks enforced a strict dress code. You can’t show your legs or shoulders – or your tattoos.  And if you come unprepared, they make you rent pants.

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On guard at the Royal Palace, it was this guy’s turn to be serious.

 

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See what I mean about Disneyland?

 

 

* Before he was Ramses and before the Magnificent Seven, Yul Brenner played a 19th Century King of Siam in the musical “The King and I” in 1956.  His favorite word was “etcetera.”  The iconic role earned Brenner a mention in the 1990s pop song “One Night in Bangkok.”  “Siam” is what the rest of the world called Thailand for centuries, but the Thais never used it themselves.  Thailand is the only Southeast Asian country that was never under European colonial rule.   I was hoping to wedge the phrase/pun, “Yes, Siam!” into this writeup, but couldn’t bring myself to do it.

Scotland: Skye and the Outer Hebrides

 OKAY!  Finally — the last of my pictures from Scotland.  Yes, I’ve been home for quite a while, but these were some cool places and I still wanted to share what they looked like.

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Dunvegan Castle has been the headquarters of the MacLeod Clan for over 700 years.

Not surprisingly, Dunvegan Castle, the home of the MacLeod clan chiefs for the last 800 years or so, was chock full of old paintings of men named MacLeod wearing kilts and high socks.  After my visit there, I headed for the ferry from the Isle of Skye out to the Isle of Lewis & Harris, and the big semi next to my car said, “D.R. MacLeod Transport.”  Two of the workers who were getting me checked in on the ferry had name tags with the last name MacLeod.  Apparently the MacLeod clan is alive and well on Skye and Lewis & Harris, just like they have been since before Columbus sailed west.

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The harbor town of Portree — the biggest ‘city’ on the Isle of Skye — was my home base for a few days on and around the Isle.

The Outer Islands have their own culture.  The area is known for its strong religious heritage – mostly the Presbyterian-ish Church of Scotland, as I understand it.  On Sunday, there was almost nothing open: I finally found one café and one gas station that were (apparently) heathen-operated.

The highway and other signs in the area are written in both English and Gaelic, but a long-time local I quizzed thought that was mostly symbolic.  He didn’t believe there were many people who spoke only Gaelic. I was surprised that I had no trouble understanding the Scottish accents in the Highlands and islands, even though I could barely understand the folks down in Glasgow.  (I was briefly concerned that I was going to be detained at the Glasgow airport because I was unable to understand and answer the several security-screening questions asked in Glasgow-accented “English”).

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These 600-year-old carvings of swords, displayed inside St. Clements Church on the southeast tip of the Isle of Harris, probably once marked the graves of prominent members of the MacLeod clan.

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Looking east from the southeast coast of the Isle of Harris, with the Isle of Skye on the horizon.

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This igloo-looking monument on the Isle of Harris is a modern memorial to a group of protesting local farmers from the late 1800s. A part of it marks the spot where the local sheriff (literally) “read the Riot Act” to the protesters. The Riot Act was English law; if an unruly group gathered (creating a threat of a riot) the sheriff could read a section of the Act ordering them to disperse or else be arrested. I knew the modern idiom of “reading someone the Riot Act” — giving them a strong scolding or warning — but never knew its history!

Before I made the trip, I learned the words and music to “Scotland the Brave”.  It’s the anthem (sometimes regal and sometimes eery) you always hear Scottish bagpipers playing as an iconic musical symbol of the country.  At a minimum, I knew it would be running through my head while I was there, and I wanted to be prepared in case I was caught up in any pre- or post-Independence vote revelry and felt compelled to amuse, or to show some local musical allegiance.  I was ready play it on either guitar or ukulele.  Among the resulting disappointments:  no occasions arose where my would-be barroom antics would have been appropriate; no real patriotic revelry erupted anyway; and — worst of all — I learned that the song was a 20th Century creation (written perhaps in the 1950s).  Somehow I’d imagined it being played for those kilted soldiers who fought alongside Braveheart in the 1200s — not something written for a potential gig on the Ed Sullivan Show.

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My most-remote destination was the Uig Sands area, on the west side of Lewis & Harris. At low tide, there was a mile or so of flat sand between my 400-year-old guest house and the water. At high tide, the Sands were flooded and the water was only a few yards away.

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In one sense, the Outer Islands were a lot further from home than the mileage might make it seem.   I started toward home at about noon on a Tuesday.  A drive to the port where the ferry would leave the next morning; hotel overnight; ferry to an Inner island; drive to the town where I’d rented my car; taxi across the bridge to the mainland; train to Inverness; another train to Glasgow; taxi to Glasgow airport hotel; morning flight to Newark; airport tram; flight to Houston; parking shuttle; then my trusty Chevy Tahoe back to the house on Thursday night.  I spent almost my entire two weeks in Scotland on the out-of-the-way islands rather than seeing the major cities and sites.  I didn’t even make it to Loch Ness to see the monster.  I had a great trip, but I don’t think I’m ready to cross Scotland off my list.

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Coastal sands on the Isle of Harris

 

 

Scotland 2014: Lighthouses, Sheep, and Dead Economists


Yes, I’ve been home from Scotland for a while, but I’ve got a few more batches of pictures to share.

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For 190 years, the Eilan Glas lighthouse has sat on the small peninsula off the Isle of Scalpay (a prior lighthouse was on the same spot in the 18th century).  Scalpay is a tiny island recently connected by bridge to the Scottish Isle(s) of Lewis & Harris.  The peninsula it sits on sticks well out into the Minch – the branch of the Atlantic Ocean that goes between the Inner and Outer Hebrides – which is presumably the reason someone thought a lighthouse was needed there in the first place.  In better light, you can see back to the Isle of Skye.

Honestly, it’s probably hard to be more photographically trite than a bunch of cliched pictures of a lighthouse with a sunrise in the background.  But my pre-dawn hike through the sheepfields of Scalpay was a pretty special experience, and – if I may say so myself – these pictures turned out pretty well.  I only got lost (and wet) a little on my two-hour hike — taking the long way — through coastal sheep fields back to my car.

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Much of the land in Scotland’s outer islands is part of a Common Grazing system. Local committees generally supervise the land and decide how much livestock each farmer is allowed to graze.

This area of Scotland has lots of sheep, and lots of land dedicated to “common grazing.” In a common grazing system, grazing lands are controlled by the town or by some sort of semi-governmental cooperative, and the individual citizens have some ability to put their livestock on the land for grazing. But nobody owns the grazing land (or maybe everybody sort of does). This is especially interesting (to me) because there is a famous principle of Economics called the “Tragedy of the Commons,” which analyzes the ups and downs of common ownership of resources like this (mostly the downs – thus the term “tragedy”).   The grazing tragedy occurs because every farmer with access to the common grazing land has the incentive to graze as many animals as possible on the seemingly free public land, so the land becomes overgrazed and barren and thus no good for anyone. This rarely happens on privately owned grazing land, because a property owner tends not to spoil his own land. The moral of the story is that when nobody owns the land (or other resource), nobody has a great incentive to care for it.

Solving the “tragedy” can take two seemingly opposite courses: heavy governmental regulation (like the Grazing Committee); or private ownership of the lands. Environmentalists analogize to the concept to argue that something must be done (i.e. regulation) to prevent a similar tragedy from occurring in the “common” air we breathe and water supplies from which we drink.  Because nobody owns the skies or rivers, people are unfortunately inclined to abuse them absent some government control.  On the other hand, conservatives (more precisely: capitalists) point to the “tragedy” concept to teach that private ownership of resources (where possible) is the best way to ensure that they will be well cared for and preserved. Both these arguments are mostly correct, and that’s why the Tragedy of the Common idea is such an important, interesting concept.

Somehow it’s also interesting that Scotland was also the home of Adam Smith, the 18th Century economist and author of Wealth of Nations. Smith is the one who taught the modern world that a capitalist system – where people act in their own financial interest – generally creates better outcomes for a society because private ownership and profit interests usually lead people to direct resources to their most productive and valuable uses. It’s a little ironic that the odd pocket of common grazing systems persists in the country that is Smith’s homeland. He may be rolling over in his Edinburgh grave.

So if you ever wonder what I think about on a two-hour solo hike through quiet Scottish sheep fields on the way to and from an isolated lighthouse, now you know.

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Sheep graze near Uig Sands on the Isle of Lewis

Scotland Stone Circles

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I included the picture with the dog in it mostly to give some perspective on the size of the big rocks that make up the Callanish (or Calanais) Stone Circles.  The biggest ones are probably ten feet tall.  The main circle sits on a hilltop on the west side of the island called Lewis & Harris in far west Scotland.  There’s actually a person in one of the other pictures — can you spot her?  There are lots of those stone circles all around Scotland — in fact there were two other (smaller ones) within sight of the big one at Callanish (the last three photos in the grid below).

I just missed the better image of the dog that had happened a few seconds prior — of course he had hiked his leg on those 5,000-year-old Stone Age relics.  I know they’re just giant rocks, but there’s something odd about the fact that these stone circles sit unguarded and unprotected on a barren hillsides, where a regular stream of visitors shows up to touch them, climb on them, and let their dogs pee on them.  Sheep graze among them.  One family was playing hide-and-seek behind them.  The neolithic megaliths are unphased.

Nobody knows for sure, but it’s generally assumed they might have something to do with a ceremony or ritual of some sort.  Recent archaeology digs have revealed structures near some of the circles that are surprisingly sophisticated.  The late Stone Age builders of these circles weren’t the cave men you may imagine (Neanderthals lived at least 30,000 years ago; these ruins are “only” 5,000 years old).  Very recent work at a similar, nearby site in far north Scotland shows that the neolithic farmers who built these circles had art, masonry homes, and extensive agriculture.  (Like Fred Flintstone without the dinosaurs?)  At 5,000 years old, the Scottish stone circles are from about the same era (or maybe a little older) as Stonehenge, which is a few hundred miles to the south, in England.  These folks would have looked pretty much like modern Europeans do.  In fact, based on a scientific reconstruction, I may look more ‘neanderthal’ than they did — at least when I haven’t shaved.

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 (Photographers:  I had no tripod, no assistant, no lightstands and just one small flash unit, so I didn’t get very creative with the stone circle pictures, and I didn’t bother staying past dark.  Some of these shots do have that single flash unit (triggered remotely) propped up on a rock or camera bag and pointed toward some of the stones.  I just exposed for the ambient light (minus a stop or two), then experimented with the flash on manual settings.)

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CARLOWAY:  Not far from the Callanish stones is another stone relic, but one from a much more recent era — “only” 2,000 years ago.  It’s the Carloway Broch.  A brooch is a round double-walled building made of stacked (no grout or cement) stones.  It’s unclear if it was a fort, a castle-like home, or perhaps a factory, of sorts, for pottery.  Like the Callanish Stones nearby, you’re likely to have the place to yourself if you visit — except for the sheep.

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Scotland 2014: Oban, Staffa and Iona

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Dunollie Castle, at the north end of Oban Bay

Scotland’s odd little Inner Hebrides island of Staffa is famous for more than sightseeing.  The 19th Century composer Felix Mendelssohn wrote a now-famous overture about it:  the Hebrides Overture (a.k.a. “Fingal’s Cave”).  Too bad there was no orchestra around to play it when I went to visit.  (You can listen to it here if it’s not playing automatically:  http://www.vicenzapuericantores.it/mp3/mendelssohn_hebrides.mp3 ).  The Isle of Staffa is just a few hundred yards across, and is a geological fluke.  It’s a volcanic island with a huge layer of crystalized basalt columns.  Its most famous feature is that sea cave Mendelssohn focused on, now called Fingal’s Cave. It’s about 200 feet deep.

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Staffa

 

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The trip back from Staffa consists of an ferry ride to the Isle of Iona, another ferry to the Isle of Mull, a car ride to catch the ferry back to Oban on the mainland.  The church in the pictures is the Iona Abbey, established in 563 A.D. by now-Saint Columba and now a busy pilgrimage destination for folks who (for some reason) want to visit Columba’s grave.  That prominent stone cross, St. Martin’s Cross, is over 1200 years old.  The pretty pictures of the bay and from the ferry are Oban Bay.

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I was lucky to be able to travel Scotland with Jim Richardson and a couple of Scotch natives as guides. Jim is a long-time National Geographic photographer and is their go-to guy for Scotland; he’s been there dozens of times. In fact, the August 2014 edition of NatGeo has one of Jim’s photo essays from Scotland as its cover story. Great to have Jim to show about a dozen of us around  Scotland. That’s Jim in the red jacket waiting on the dock in the picture above (apparently someone from the group was late getting back to the boat . . .)