A Very Merry Christmas from Istanbul

Presents under the tree

Clare, John and Jessica arrived the Saturday before last to spend Christmas with us. Unfortunately, Clare's suitcase (the one with all the presents in) failed to arrive (it still hasn't). Fortunately, Father Christmas was able to make a plan B.

This meant frantic shopping, not just for the Christmas presents, but also to clothe Clare, who only had the clothes she arrived in. The weather has been quite miserable - bitterly cold and sleeting - which is a pity as, up until Clare, John and Jessica arrived, we have had mild sunny weather.

Jessica left a plate of chocolate and nuts for Father Christmas, which she arranged especially for him.

Jessica enjoyed opening her presents on Christmas Day.

On Christmas day the sun shone and, after opening our presents, we went to the Hilton Hotel for Christmas Brunch. This involved travelling on a dolmuş (a small bus); a ferry across the Bosphorus; a tram; a funicular railway and a taxi. The lunch was amazing and well worth the travel as we managed to stay the course for three hours! Thanks to Skype we were able to talk to Jane in South Africa and Suzi in Australia, so we felt our family was together. Hooray for technology!

We were grateful for the sunny Christmas day, as, on Boxing Day, the rain came down again. Fortunately our apartment is warm and we can look down on the world going by outside in our very busy street. It was so cold and wet that we decided to defer my birthday dinner and ordered in pizzas instead! Today is dry, so the dinner is on!

As to my birthday, I went from being an insurable 65 to an apparently decrepit 66 (as far as insurance is concerned) over night, and yet I feel no different. In fact, 66 sounds wrong. How can I possibly be that old?

Just to prove I can be domesticated, I have just taken up the hem on Clare's new trousers!


Home Again to Istanbul

Happy to be home, even to a grey winter's day in Istanbul

Home at last! After a gruelling two days, I finally managed to fly out of Thailand. I should have flown last Saturday but, as everyone now knows, the People's Alliance for Democracy had taken over the airports and all regular flights had ceased. I was among the lucky ones, booked on a carrier that had made a plan! Turkish Airlines telephoned me on Sunday morning to say that I had a seat on a plane on Monday and I was to report for check-in at the Radisson hotel, Bangkok at 07:00 on Monday morning. Margaret rushed me to the bus station to book a ticket for that day. Most buses were full but I found a seat on one departing at 15:00 hours. We arrived in Bangkok at 00:30 hours, and I took a taxi to the Hotel. I had phoned the hotel to book a room, but they didn't even take my name as the hotel was virtually empty of guests and I could have my pick! I finally got to bed a 01:30!

The next morning I got up at 06:00 and grabbed a quick breakfast before going down to the lobby where we were to check in. It was crowded with potential travellers, all queuing at makeshift check-in counters. I was very impressed by Turkish Air's organisation, we were checked in and given our boarding passes in the hotel and then loaded into luxurious air-conditioned buses and driven to U-Tapao military airport. Unfortunately, the chaos at the airport meant that we had to wait for hours before we were finally allowed onto the plane, which finally departed at 20:15!!!

Chaos at U-Tapao Airport! There was only one baggage scanner for all these people (plus the thousands still outside the building)!!

However, the Thais had done their best in impossible conditions; there was entertainment, free water and market stalls, giving a festive atmosphere, and there was an air of camaraderie among the passengers. I met some wonderful people; there was a delightful lady from Hungary and her Italian husband, a young Austrian couple, a charming young man from Switzerland and the lovely Ursula from Poland, who looked after me as if I was her elderly mother. We were amazed, when we finally boarded, to find we were all sitting together! Ursula, who is a Buddhist, said it was Karma!

I am so pleased this mess has come to an end; mainly for the sake of the Thai people and their economy; it has been devastated and will take a long time to recover.

A big thank-you to Turkish Airlines for getting me back to Istanbul, where the sun is shining and the weather amazingly mild...

...and thank you, Ursula, for looking after me so well


Life in Thailand is Fascinating

Last Thursday, a new restaurant, La Gondola, opened, virtually at the end of Harry and Margaret's drive! It is attached to an hotel, but is independently owned by Stefano and Jim, the owners of La Girasol Restaurant, in which we frequently dine. The day began with a blessing, of the hotel and restaurant, by nine monks. The ceremony was quite new to me and I was honoured to be allowed to be present. I found the chanting of the monks very calming, and, although I had no idea what they were saying, I could feel a definite spirituality about the proceedings.

The nine monks seated ready for the ceremony. The one on the extreme left is holding an enormous ball of string, which played a part in the ceremony. The monks' chanting was quite hypnotic.

Everyone taking part in the ceremony was connected with a length of string.

Here the monks are winding the string up again, with which they 
bound everyone together during the ceremony.

The proprietors of the hotel and restaurant were blessed by the monks.

A delicious buffet lunch was served to celebrate the opening of the restaurant and if the food served was an indication of the standard in the restaurant, we will definitely be going back, it was excellent. There was both Thai and Italian food on offer, in great abundance, and everything was quite delicious. We found it quite difficult to drag ourselves away and go back to the office! (The photo shows Margaret, Harry and me enjoying the buffet lunch.)

Stefano (on the right), with his wife, Jim, are presented with flowers at the opening of their restaurant.

The Montfort Boys' Choir performed on Friday at Payap University, and what an excellent evening that was! The boys sang in English, French, Italian, Zulu and, of course, Thai. Montford is a very large Catholic boys' school here in Chiang Mai and we were really impressed by their performance. The music ranged from John Rutter's 'The Lord Bless you and Keep You' to an enchanting medley of nursery rhymes, sung by the junior choir and a rousing rendition of the African song 'Shoshaloza'!

The Montfort Boys' Choir was joined by their Junior Choir for some rousing numbers.

FERC (the Foundation for the Education of Rural Children) held a gala charity evening at the Shangri-La Hotel. There were raffle prizes and a silent auction to raise more money, and our show 'Let Me Entertain You', for which we had been practising all this time, finally came to fruition. The evening was a great success and I hope lots of money has been raised for this worthwhile cause.

Mark bidding for the Buddha. I would have bid too, but I thought I might not get it onto the plane home!


Loy Krathong Festival

The monks at the Yee Peng Sansai Ceremony for Loy Krathong at Mae Jo.

Loy Krathong is held on the full moon of the 12th month in the traditional Thai lunar calendar. In the western calendar this usually falls in November.

The Celebrations last for days! This festival represents a symbolic letting go of all one's grudges, anger and sadness, so that one can start life afresh.

Our first celebration for Loy Krathong, was at Mae Jo University. Frank and Becky had arranged a trip out to the Buddist Ceremony of Yee Peng Sansai, the festival of hanging lanterns, which is held there. This is a festival of light, held in homage to the Lord Buddha.

This was an amazing sight. First of all came the processions, then the monks were seated on a circular dais and prayers were chanted, calling for peace in the world, before thousands of people lit their lanterns and let them float into the sky.

As you can see from the photos, Glynn, Becky and Frank finally managed to launch their lantern, although it was not easy, there is obviously a technique!

'Elf and Safety would have a field day here! The heat for each lantern is generated by a circle of wax which is set alight. As the lanterns rise into the sky, hot wax drips down. I carry proof, as a lump of hot wax dripped onto my arm! Also, the odd lantern burst into flames, causing some consternation among the crowd!

The lanterns are constructed using traditional bamboo formed into hoops and then coated with either tracing paper or Saa Paper made from the branches and leaves of the mulberry tree. A small candle or ring of wax, is placed in the base which provides the hot air that fills the paper envelope and floats the lantern gently skywards. These giant hot air balloons, called Kome Loy, rise into the sky like huge orange lanterns. Some people attach fireworks to them and then they leave a sparkling trail.

Thousands of lanterns floated into the sky.

All this week, firecrackers have been sounding through much of each night. So many firecrackers that, at times, it has sounded as if there is a civil war going on!

Another aspect of this festival is the sending off of the 'krathongs' down the river. These also symbolise the letting go of all misfortunes and sorrows in life and beginning anew. The word 'loy' means to float, and a 'krathong' is a banana leaf cup. People place a candle and incense sticks in their krathongs and then float them on a local river or pond. As they push away their krathong, they ask for forgiveness in polluting the waterways and also for good luck in the coming months. They also do it to honour and thank the Goddess of Water, Phra Mae Khongkha.

On Wednesday, Glynn, Margaret, Harry, Janet and I went to Regina's restaurant by the River Ping to launch our krathongs into the water and to float more lanterns into the sky. It was such a magical evening, with fireworks, floating lanterns and krathongs sailing off down the river. Loy Krathong is a truly mystical and magical festival.

Me about to launch my krathong, (notice that I am holding on tightly so as not to fall in the water!)

Margaret and Harry prepare to float their krathong.


The Northern-Most Point of Thailand

Last Saturday, Glynn and I had to do a visa run to renew my visa. We went up to the northern-most part of Thailand to Mai Sai, on the Thai-Myanmar border.

Renewal meant crossing over into Myanmar (erstwhile Burma), spending a while shopping and then crossing back again to get a new stamp in my passport, granting me another month's stay in Thailand.

(Note, the rules have changed again since then!)

Burmese puppets on sale. The two on the right are angels.

A Burmese trader selling fried beans and nuts.

We then travelled on to the Maekok River Village Resort, owned and run by friends of Glynn, Brian and Rosie. This luxurious resort also runs an Outdoor Education Centre where schools go to experience a range of outdoor activities to 'learn new skills, develop the ability to work as a team, to test leadership qualities and ultimately to learn about themselves'.

Their website is http://www.mrvproject.com check it out for yourselves!

Rosie kindly took us on a tour of the facilities. The students' dormitories and recreation rooms are separate from the guest cottages, so there is no disturbance for people wanting to enjoy the resort.

On the way to the resort we passed this procession of happy people on their way to present the money they had collected for their temple.

This week I was also very privileged to attend the ceremony, at the regional education offices, to present the FERC Scholarship Awards, for the second semester, to six rural children. These children would not be attending school at all were it not for these scholarships, as their families are too poor to pay for the uniforms, books and materials. Every one of these students has done well in their studies and they all want to go on to university. They were quite charming and so grateful for the help they have been given. It was very touching! (The photo shows a student thanking Glynn for presenting him with the scholarship money to continue his studies.) If you would like to see what FERC does, please check out http://www.thai-rural-education.org

The students and their teachers, together with the education department officials and Frank, Glynn and me, at the FERC presentation.


Three Choirs in Chiang Mai, Thailand

I have been so busy that I haven't even had time to update my blog! I am going to try to catch up this week.

If you have been following my blog, you will know that I belong to three choirs here in Chiang Mai. One is a madrigals choir 'The Spirit House Singers', another is an ad hoc choir especially got together for a charity performance of show tunes for FERC (the Foundation for the Education or Rural Children (Chiang Mai Thailand), and the third is the Chiang Mai Choral Society.

Our madrigal group performed at the Chiang Mai Friends Group. This is a group that brings together Thais and Farangs (foreigners) to help each other and to understand each other's cultures. Below is part of the report by the Chiang Mai Mail:
'The last item on the programme was a performance by the Spirit House Singers, formed almost a year ago to specialise in Renaissance music, both sacred and secular. The short and charming concert featured 6 madrigals, all dating from the time of Queen Elizabeth the First in “Merrie England.” As the group’s founder stated, “Music is the international language which transcends time.” '

Before we sang, Becky gave a presentation informing us about FERC ( the Foundation for the Education of Rural Children (Chiang Mai, Thailand). Becky, her husband Frank and Glynn are all on the board of FERC and devote a lot of time to this project.

The following evening, Becky and Frank held a party at their house to welcome a group of Americans to Thailand, who had each donated $500 to FERC on top of their travel expenses. We had lots of fun and the food was amazing. Becky had also organised a performance by Mark, Art and John (the leaders of our charity concert group). Thank you Becky and Frank, that was an amazing evening!

The rainy season here in Thailand should have finished by now, but it has rained incessantly! So much so that Glynn's house became an island – a sea of mud on one side and a lake on the other, with the result that I have moved over to Harry and Margaret's house, rather that wade through the water every day. No. that is not Glynn's pond you see. It is his garden – under water.


Happy 70th, Glynn!

Last Sunday (Columbus Day) was Glynn's 70th birthday. We started celebrating on Saturday evening with a dinner, at The Duke's Restaurant, with Frank, Becky and Richard. There was much hilarity and great discussions centred on old movies. Richard, who was involved with the movie industry for many years in America, told us countless anecdotes about well-known films. As a result I will never watch the likes of Cassablanca again without laughing! Richard told us that the movie, Cassablanca, was shot entirely in the studio, and, to make the ending have the right perspective, (that is where Humphry Bogart is saying farewell to Ingrid Bergman and uttering the imortal words, "We'll always have Paris!") they used a reduced sized aeroplane in the background and had midgets running around dressed as ground crew!

On Sunday we drove out to Tharnthong Lodge for lunch with David, a member of the choir, and Aow, a delightful Thai lady. To get there we drove up into the Mae Kam Pong Mountains to a beautiful wooded area. The lunch was excellent and Glynn's birthday was celebrated in style!

Yesterday I went to the Chiang Mai Silverware Factory, where traditional craftsmen and women produce sliver jewellery, together with silver artefacts, that is produced using the same methods they used in ancient times. Naturally, I couldn't resist buying some silver jewellery for myself!

Thai silversmith at work.


Surprise! I'm in Thailand!

Surprise, surprise! I am in Thailand! I flew to Bangkok last Friday (a week ago) and stayed overnight in the Alexander Hotel before flying on to Chiang Mai on Saturday. On Sunday, David left Turkey for an IB Heads' Conference in Marrakesh, and is now in Cassablanca. I've asked him to say hi to Sam!

The weather here is a change from Turkey, where it was beginning to get cold. Here, of course, the weather is also cooling as we are going into winter too, but the temperatures are vastly different. Today it is 18° and raining in Istanbul (according to the BBC weather centre) , but here it is 33° and sunny.

As always, Chiang Mai is a very busy place. I arrived at lunch time on Saturday and that evening we went to a concert at Payap University, where the final year music students were giving a recital. There was all kinds of music, from Mozart to Dizzy Gillespie, played on a variety of instruments, culminating in the Madrigal Choir that every music student is required to join. It was a most impressive performance by all!

This week I have been to Glynn's madrigal choir rehearsal; a Thai massage; a Broadway show rehearsal; a Chiang Mai Choral Society rehearsal; out to dinner every night and watched the DVD of Mama Mia!

I also said, 'Hi and Bye' to Barbara and Peter, long standing friends of Harry and Margaret, who have been staying with them, This was the last leg of their world tour, before returning to New Zealand. The photo is of their farewell dinner.

I couldn't resist taking a picture of this rice in the shape of a teddy. I was quite enchanted to be presented with it at the 'See River Restaurant' in Chiang Mai! ...and just in case you ask, yes, we could see the river, we were right on the edge of the River Ping!


Recession? What Recession?

When Marilyn and Dick were here, we often sat on the balcony overlooking Bagdad Street and marvelled at the expensive boy's toys passing by. Ferraris, Corvettes, a Bentley, a Rolls, Porsches (rather common!!) and top-of-the-range Mercedes and BMWs, not to mention the jaw-dropping Harley Davidson motorbikes and other gleaming chrome machines. Yesterday there were two Ferraris parked just across the road (see photo of the nearest). Dick was a fund of knowledge and was able to give detailed specifications of most of the vehicles passing by, now we are just reduced to oohs and aahs!

Many of the cars and bikes belong to clientèle of the restaurant next door - The Mid-Point Restaurant. It's there that the beautiful people go to see and be seen. The recession has definitely not come to our street. Especially as many of the toy-owning boys are accompanied by females dressed in designer gear and toting the latest accessories and bedecked with glittering jewellery. Ramadan or not, the restaurant has been full every day with merry patrons eating and drinking. The strange thing is, most of them eat, drink and smoke incessantly while talking endlessly on their mobile phones. Quite fascinating.

I would have more photos but the battery in my camera will no longer hold the charge - oh well, time for a new camera! Surprising news soon - watch this space!


Goodbye Dick and Marilyn

Marilyn and Dick in the Surrey with the Fringe on the Top!

Marilyn and Dick have returned home and the apartment seems empty without them. We had such fun while they were here. On Friday we took the ferry to Heybeli Island where we stayed in the, very grand, Halki Palace Hotel. The original building is thought to have been built between 1852 - 1862 and was a fine example of Ottoman architecture. Although the hotel burned down in 1991, it was completely reconstructed as an exact replica of its earlier grandeur. That evening we enjoyed a meal of mezzes and fish in one of the restaurants by the harbour before returning to our hotel to sleep enveloped in the silence of the island - such a change from the hustle and bustle of Bagdad Street!

The Halki Palace Hotel

The next day, we had planned to go to Büyükada - Big Island - but we discovered that the Prime Minister was visiting it that day and it would have been very crowded; also Marilyn wasn't feeling very well, so we opted for a tour of Heybeli instead. On Heybeli, private cars are not allowed so the only form of transport is by horse and buggy. This is a very relaxed way to travel and there isn't even noise from the horses' hooves as they are shod with rubber. That evening it was raining, so we ate in the hotel dining room - another sumptuous meal! On the way back to Istanbul on the ferry, a rather large lady decided that David should shove up and let her sit down - even though there wasn't any room. He would have stood up and offered her a seat if she hadn't actually sat on him!

After all the eating we had done over the weekend, we decided to be more active on Monday. David went back to work and Marilyn, Dick and I took a dolmuş to Kadıköy and the ferry to Emınönü. There we disembarked and walked across the Galata Bridge, took the Tünel up the hill and then walked along the three kilometres of Istiklal Caddesi (Independence Avenue) to Taksim Square (often called the heart of modern Istanbul). (See photo of old Italian Church off Istiklal.) Our ultimate objective was the military museum to see the daily show. Unfortunately the museum is closed on Mondays, so we were foiled. Dick and Marilyn will have to come back again so we can do that another time! On our crossing we were fascinated to see the cruise ship, The Queen Victoria, in harbour. It is very impressive!

Tuesday was Marilyn and Dick's last day, so we went to a must-see in Istanbul, the glorious Aya Sofya. Hilmi, our driver, snaked through the Istanbul traffic to deliver us right next to the museum. The Basilica of St. Sophia, was built by Constantine the Great and reconstructed by Justinian in the 6th century. It is an impressive building and we marvelled at how they could possibly construct it without modern tools. After admiring the mosaics and exploring the site, we left for the Grand Bazaar so Marilyn could buy some pashminas, only stopping briefly for a less than memorable lunch - the only one disappointing one in 12 days. Finally, Hilmi whisked us back to Bagdad Street in time for Marilyn and Dick to pack before going to the Mid-Point restaurant next door for a wonderful dinner - thank you Dick and Marilyn!

Cheers, until next time!

Spoons at the ready for the amazing desserts!

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