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If Wednesday was sort of a bust, I more than made up for it Thursday. It was such a long day that I doubt if I'll be able to remember all of the highlights - but I'll try my best.

I got up and showered very early and beat everybody else, including Lek and Silvio, to breakfast. I had my usual cup of coffee, some juice, a fried egg, ham and bacon, plus toast with orange marmalade. I caught a tuk-tuk and was in Patong by eight a.m. My original plan was to catch a bus from there to Phuket Town but once again I got caught up in the community's addictive qualities and stayed there most of the day (and returned later in the evening as well).

After exiting my tuk-tuk, I made a quick circuit up Bangla Road, left on Rat-U-Thit Road, and back to the waterfront on Soi Sawadirak. It was still too early for any of the businesses to be open yet but I got to see workers cleaning up from the night before and numerous bar girls walking home from their overnight dates.

After arriving at the beach, I spent a few minutes sitting in the shade before walking over to the beach volleyball courts. I stayed there long enough to watch two rounds of qualifiers between Thailand and Sweden then Australia verses the Netherlands. I took some photos (my digital camera takes great action shots with the telephoto lens) and shot some video as well.

After transferring another 1GB memory card to 2 CD's, I had a cheeseburger with french fries at the Baan Laimai Beach Resort followed by a double-scoop of mangosteen sherbert at Baskin-Robbins. I then did some street shopping, buying a tsunami photo book, finally finding one of those cool Thailand Harley Davidson shirts, and a few other odds and ends.

By this time, it was late afternoon so I took a tuk-tuk back to the hotel. I figured I'd take a nap before returning later to check out the bar scene. There was also to be a fireworks show at eight.

When I returned a bit before eight, there was nobody near where the fireworks show was to be so I thought I'd gotten the date wrong. I walked up Bangla Road and was in it's upper reaches when the fireworks began going off, sounding like an artillery barrage echoing off of the buildings. The fireworks were barely visible above the rooftops.

At night, Bangla Road is blocked off to vehicular traffic. Numerous open-air bars line both sides, broken up with the occasional soi. These are basically dead-end alleyways lined with more bars and go-go clubs. The most famous of these are probably Soi Eric and Soi Seadragon. As you stroll down Bangla Road, it's best to stay towards the middle to avoid the bar girls trying to entice you into their bars (unless, of course, you want to be enticed). The sois are generally very narrow so it's more difficult to avoid the girls' charms. They are often armed with a drink menu so you can check the prices before sitting on a stool but I don't really think there's much of a price difference among most of them (exceptions would be the huge multi-level clubs like Crocodile or Tiger). As the night wears on, the girls become bolder - they'll grab your hand, stroke your arm, tell you they love you, etc just to get you to drink at their bar. Of course, what they really want is for y!
ou to buy them lady drinks (they could care less what you are drinking so long as you tip the bar) and to eventually pay the bar fine (typically around 500 baht - $12.15) which releases them from working the rest of the night. After that, you are free to do what you please with them; most bar girls are very happy to act as a tour guide and will show you around. It can be nice to have an attractive companion to talk to if you find one that can understand your language.

Of course, many men look at the bar girls initially as a source for cheap sex but it goes much deeper than that. The writer Pico Iver wrote about Bangkok bar girls in his "Video Night In Kathmandu", observing that "the girls did not simply make their bodies available to all while they looked at their watches and counted their money; they chose to offer their admirers their time, their thoughts, even their lives.". Many of the couples fall in love with the man continuing to send the bar girl gifts long after he has returned to the "real world". And a significant portion of these relationships do end in marriage. I can definitely see where it would be easy to fall for one of these lovely young women who hang on your every word and that physical pleasures would be secondary to the entire equasion. But I'm more of a bottom-line kind of person and I think it would be expensive to try and develop that sort of relationship considering the position I'm at in my life. Perhaps if!
I actually lived in Thailand, I'd consider pursuing a bar girl or other Thai woman...

Anyway, I didn't spend more than three hours on Bangla Road. I bought some t-shirts at Rock Hard A Go-Go simply because their logo is a direct rip-off from that of Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers (one of the coolest band logos around, I think).

I also spent some time at Playskool, one of the few enclosed bars on Soi Seadragon which was filled with bored-looking girls in schoolgirl costumes (in case you're wondering, there are no longer topless or nude bars in Thailand). The lone standout was a girl named Nui who was all smiles and sat with me for a while. The most exciting thing that happened was when the Thai national football (soccer) team came in the bar and all the girls went wild, having the team members autograph their shirts.

I was back at the hotel by 11:30 and fell asleep soon after.

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ISix o'clock Thursday morning here in Kamala Bay, Thailand, and I'm wide awake. I want to do something "significant" today to make up for an essentially wasted day yesterday. I'm a bit disappointed with myself for giving into weariness so early in this trip and feel I need to make up for it. After breakfast (a buffet is planned this morning), I'll go to Phuket Town, the largest community on the island, for a change of scenery. My right leg is feeling much better (although I think I'll have a wicked scar) and the swelling has gone down on my left ankle (plus my face started peeling last night).

I had lunch yesterday at The Pizza Company in Patong. The salad bar, a small pizza (about the size of a Pizza Hut personal pan pizza) and a very large Pepsi cost 217 baht (about $5). I had the Aloha pizza - pepperoni, ham, pork sausage, and pineapple on a thousand island base. It was very good. (I'm in the mood for a cheeseburger today and then it will back to experimenting with Thai food...)

After lunch, I made my way back to the beach where I happened upon a grandstand set up for the AVG Beach Volleyball Challenge. I watched the women's game in the grandstand - Vietnam verses Thailand (Thailand won) - and then Japan verses the Ukraine on a side court (Japan won).

Around this time, I suddenly had an urgent need to find a restroom - the combination of meaty lunch and hot sun conspiring against me. There are no public restrooms on Patong beach (I'm surprised they didn't set up portapotties for the volleyball tournament) and I was too far from the big hotels to go into one of them. I finally ducked into one of those ramshackle restaurant/bars that line the northern beach road and asked to use their toilet. It was in a very hot tin structure but served the use it was intended for. There was, however, no toilet paper so I got to use one of those sprayhoses that every Thai toilet comes equipped with - actually rather refreshing...

By this time, I'd had enough of Patong for the day so I caught a tuk-tuk back to the hotel; this one charged me 250 baht as my negotiating skills were worn out as well. I spent the rest of the afternoon sitting on the balcony in front of my room reading.

The plan had been for Mateo, his wife, and myself to go to FantaSea, a program of Thai traditional dancing, an elephant show, and buffet dinner which runs from 6:00 to midnight. I saw Mateo return about 5:30 and I went down to ask what time we were leaving. He said they'd decided not to go because he was going to get a tattoo later that night. I was disppointed and ended up going up to my room where I soon fell asleep, sleeping until just a short while ago. I think that I just needed the rest and that today will be better.

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I've made it as far as Patong so far but I'm not sure what I'll do.  My right leg is giving me problems — I think it's just a case of overworked muscles and not the motorbike exhaust pipe burns and sunburn.   I hobbled/limped as far as an Internet cafe on the northern end of Bangla Road before deciding sitting in air-conditioning sounded like a good idea.  It's still a bit too early for lunch but I'm very close to The Pizza Company so I'm sure I'll end up there.

I'm tempted to go to the hospital and see what they can do (I would think all they would do would be to wrap my leg in a gauze bandage which I don't really want since I've been wearing shorts or swimming trunks almost all the time).  Perhaps I'll do that tomorrow if my leg doesn't get any better.  Ironically, the left ankle is extremely swollen and the top of the foot is badly sunburned as well but hasn't given me any problems whatsoever.

Since I'm moving very slowly today, I'm finding it difficult to move quickly enough past the touts and tuk-tuk drivers so I'm having to wave my hand "no" more often this morning than I usually do.  I think I'll wait until tomorrow to drop off my memory stick.  Perhaps I'll see if I can find a good book at Bookazine (I almost put my Travelers' Tales Thailand into my pack this morning but decided against it at the last second).  Then, perhaps I can find a nice place in the shade and spend some time reading rather than walking all over creation.

I did have a nice breakfast at the hotel &@8212; chicken sandwich on toast with onions, lettuce, and some sort of dressing along with coffee and juice.  I'm turning into quite the coffee drinker on this trip.  Haven't had any beer for the past couple of nights, but I've decided I like Singha better than Tiger.  Apparently, there's several wineries in the area and I'm tempted to see if I could buy a bottle of Thai wine to take home to Marilyn and Keith.  Might be kind of difficult to carry it with me on all the flights home, but I'll see if I can get a special box for a bottle.

Well, I better sign off now because I just found out that this particular cafe charges 2 baht per minute, rather than the one baht most of the others charge.  At least I think I'm rejuvinated enough to be able to hobble to my next stop...  And I also (finally) figured out how to change the post times of these blog entries to local Thailand time (so don't be surprised if suddenly you think you've been transported to the future because it's 13 hours ahead of Albuquerque time).



Ysterday was yet another activity-filled day as I joined Silvio, his brother Mateo, and Mateo's wife (who is also Lek's sister) on a speedboat excursion to some of the many islands that dot the Phuket Sea. For only 1100 baht (approx. $28) per person, we were picked up by air-conditioned minibus at 7:30 for the 45-minute drive to the harbor in Phuket Town, taken to five or six islands for sightseeing, swimming, snorkeling, etc., given a huge buffet lunch, and then returned to the hotel a bit before six in the evening. A bargain!

The other passengers in the minibus included three guys visiting from Seattle. I talked to them for much of the trip to Phuket Town as this was the first chance I'd had for almost a week to converse with someone who understood English well enough so I didn't have to keep repeating myself. One of the guys has family who live in Portland and recommended some places to look for nice apartments there.

The staging area for the various speedboat tours was very well-organized. With many minibusses all arriving at the same time and many different tour itineraries, the operators were very efficient at getting everyone onto the correct boats. Once you got off the minibus, a person looked up your group name on his clipboarded list, giving you a color sticker to put on you shirt. Our boat was the purple sticker. They then ushered you into a building where you paid your tour fee. After a very short wait, another person gathered everyone with a certain color sticker and lead you to your boat.

The boats were tied up along the waterfront, stern first. We descended a short flight of steps from the pier and walked across a strip of sand before climbing onto our twenty-passenger speedboat. I took a seat in the bow (which turned out to be a very bumpy ride when skimming over the wavetops) along with several people visiting from South Africa. Some of the other nationalities represented by our boatmates included Russian, Japanese, British, and French.

Our first stop was Maya Bay on Koh Phi Phi Lay, where "The Beach" starring Leonardo diCaprio was filmed. We were one of the first boats to arrive so it wasn't crowded yet. We were given 30 minutes to explore that part of the island and to swim. After taking some photos of the beach and bay, I followed Silvio up a jungle path for a ways to a small pool of water at the base of some tall cliffs. It was very scenic.

After reboarding the boat, we were whisked around the southern tip of the island to Lo Sanah Bay but did not stop here. A journey along the eastern shores of Koh Phi Phi Lay brought us to Pileh Bay and it's beautiful lagoon where we were given 40 minutes to snorkel. I was given a mask and snorkel but not having done it before I tried to get someone to show me. Finally, I just climbed off the stern of the boat and paddled to the side to get my mask adjusted. I had just managed to get it on but hadn't yet put the snorkel in my mouth when I was hit from above by someone jumping in. I went all the way to the sea bottom, swallowing a lot of water on the way. Apparently, the Russian felllow had decided to jump off the boat despite warnings not to do so. The crew was busy trying to explain to him about the "out" and "in" ladders and didn't bother with me as I climbed back aboard gasping for air. But Mateo's wife had seen what had happened and clucked over me like a mother h!
en. I just laughed it off, there was no purpose in getting angry over the incident and I'm sure the language barrier was more at fault than anything else. I would recommend that the crew give some basic instruction and rules to the entire group before handing out the equipment, however.

Next, we raced across to Phi Phi Don Island where we pulled into several bays for photo ops but didn't get off the boat. These included the main town of Phi Phi, which was completely destroyed by the tsunami and you can still see the scars high on the trees, a series of cliff caves where the swallows' nests are harvested for bird nest soup (very expensive at 40,000 baht - almost $900 per serving!), and a small beach where there was dozens of monkeys entertaining the sunbathers.

I'm not exactly sure where we stopped for lunch but it was a long beach fringed by huge palm trees with a couple of resort hotels. Lunch was a massive buffet just off the beach with all sorts of interesting items. I put a little bit of each hotplate item onto my plate and soon had no room for anything from the fruit or dessert platters. I did add a salad plate and made a king-size salad with that orange dressing I've fallen in love with here (looks like a creamy thousand island but certainly doesn't taste like it!) and topped that with pineapple slices. I had water to drink because if you wanted anything else you had to purchase it from one of the resorts and be charged resort prices. Silvio ordered a "watermelon cocktail" for 100 baht and found that all it was was watermelon juice squeezed into a fancy glass. "For 100 baht, I could buy 10 whole watermelons," he exclaimed.

After lunch, we cruised to Koh Kai, very close to the town of Krabi on the Thai mainland. This island consisted of a few tree-coverered bumps of limestone and the rest was one huge beach. We stopped here for two hours of snorkeling, swimming, and relaxation. The four of us rented beach chairs with umbrellas and spent much of the time just laying there. I actually dozed off at one point. I think I'll wait until I can upload my photos before attempting to describe the beauty of the tree-covered islands, the clearness of the deep green and blue waters, and the intense whiteness of the sandy beaches. Mere words will never do them justice anyway.

At 4:00, we were ushed back on board our boat and sped westward across the Phuket Sea back to Phuket Town. Along the way, we encountered a number of fishing trawlers and several tramp steamers and larger cargo ships. At the dock, we were once again met with the model of efficiency as we were reconnected with the correct minibus to return us to our hotel.

I almost forgot about the souvenir photos: as you were about to board the boat a photographer snapped your picture. Now, as you disembarked the photos were on a table for you to purchase if you wanted. They were affixed to a plastic frame, complete with stand, and cost 100 baht. Mateo found mine and I purchased it; it wasn't until I returned to the hotel that I looked closely at the photo - it's probably the worst picture of me ever as I have a look on my face of intense pain, probably from my burned feet. It's funny, though, because it accurately captures the moment.

Mateo, his wife, and I had planned to attend the spectacle/show at PhantaSea upon our return but we got stuck in traffic in Patong and made it back too late. We'll go tomorrow night instead.

We had a dinner of giant prawns in garlic sauce served over rice made my Lek. Another awesome - and free - meal.

I played pool with Mateo for a short while and turned in rather early. I have no idea what I'll do during the day today other than transferring yet another memory card full of photos to CD. Perhaps I'll check out a travel agency and book a tour. I'm actually a bit worn put but I still need to find some monkeys and elephants.

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It's 6:00 in the morning on December 27 here, the earliest I've woken up on this trip. A short while ago, I heard monks chanting in a temple somewhere down the valley behind us. Now, there's at least one rooster crowing and I can hear several jungle birds up in the trees, plus the occasional car on the highway (no tuk-tuks or motorbikes yet).

A few random thoughts and factoids before I jump into the shower:

Bandaids over foot blusters are totally useless when you're wearing sandals and walking on the beach. They just come off after the first few steps. Just wash the sand out of any broken blisters as soon as you can find clean water if you don't want the wound to become infected.

The lightweight, moisture-wicking pants that convert into shorts are indispensible. I bought mine through Campmor's catalog and wore them in Patong yesterday. Great for keeping your legs clean while walking the town streets (and offering some further protection against additional motorbike burns). Then, when you arrive at the beach just zip off the bottom portion of the legs and you have an instant swimsuit...

One of the many perks here at L&S Kamala Bay Village is the free laundry service. Just drop off your dirty clothes when you leave the hotel for the day and they will be waiting for you when you return in the evening. Any items that need to be ironed will be delivered to your room early the next morning.

In Patong at least, there seems to be just a dozen or so different types of shops ad infinitum. You've got your tailor (usually Indian-run), tacky T-shirt shop, knockoff jewelry and handbag shop, 7-Eleven, massage parlor, open-air expat bar, go-go bar, pharmacy, currency exchange, Internet cafe, digital photo service, travel agency selling all sorts of local and regional tours, and a large variety of restaurants (both open-air and enclosed). These types of shops and business are repeatedly endlessly all over the town of Patong, with things like Muay Thai boxing stadiums and hotels breaking this up from time to time. Oh, yes - almost forgot the dozens of backpacker/expat slummy-looking hotels north of Bangla Road which I get the impression are more for short-time sex than anything else (you see A LOT of gorgeous young Thai women holding hands with fat old farangs - foreigners - headed towards those places from the bars).

The night market is the place to go for inexpensive food. There's a huge variety of stalls selling all sorts of wonderful-smelling items along the main beach-front road. Patong has several different night markets. I might check out another one tonight and see what they sell (I'm on a quest for a tsunami shirt, amazingly hard-to-find yesterday as the increased amount of tourists quickly snatched them up much like the newspapers).

More later

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Today was a day of remembrance in Thailand, particularly in these southern provinces. Although I woke up fairly early, I remained in bed until almost noon watching the television coverage of the various memorials.

When I finally got up and walked over to the restaurant, Lek made me a great-tasting chicken sandwich. After lunch, her nephew took me into Patong on his motorbike. I spent much of the day walking the length of the beach taking more photos. I also spent some time wandering around the new memorial plaza, looking at the tsunami survivors' artwork; I even signed one of the remembrance books (filmed by a Japanese film crew because a Japanese pop star was behind me in line, accompanied by plenty of cute women asking for autographs).

In the early evening, I dropped off yet another full memory card to be burned to CD (I've found I like the Fuji photo shops better than the Kodak Express ones) and spent the time waiting in an Internet cafe. I was finally able to clear out my MSN inbox (although I can receive and send email on my Blackberry, they remain on the server until I delete them from my account) and also format my previously-made blog entries with the initial large capital letters and smaller font for the tags ("Sent by..."). I'll save the typos correction for another time. Lastly, I cut-and-pasted the last ten days worth of 'Burque Blog entries into my Travel Journal - the easiest way to cross-post.

When I returned to Fuji, my CD still wasn't ready so I decided to get something to eat. I'd had my eye on a place I'd found on the upper reaches of Bangla Road called The Pizza Company. It was enclosed (meaning air-conditioned) as opposed to the open-air places that constitute 90% or so of the eateries here. But it was too far to walk on my sore muscles and sunburned feet. I opted for a place called Mexico, thinking I'd order some enchiladas or tacos. However, they had soy sauce-marinated steak on the menu. Since this was my favorite growing up (and Mom always made it for my special birthday dinners), I just had to get this. It was a large t-bone served with french fries and a salad. I also had some sort of mango frozen smoothie. It was all delicious and came to 460 baht (approx. $11.10).

After dinner, I picked up my photo CD's and then stopped in at Baskin-Robbins for a double scoop of mangosteen sherbert for 79 baht (a little less than two dollars). I also tried to find a copy of the Bangkok Post as a commemorative of the tsunami but every place was already sold out. I finally found a copy of The Nation, Thailand's other English-language newspaper.

Strolling back to the beach, I discovered that a big concert was underway. I caught the last half-hour or so of it, enough to catch a very pretty Thai singer perform a couple of songs (including the Celine Dion song from 'Titanic', "My Heart Will Go On") plus a great drum corps. The finale was a mass singalong by all of the performers on a song in Thai, the only word of which I knew was "tsunami".

Once that was over, I decided to call the hotel to see if Lek's nephew would come and pick me up. It took me a while to figure out a payphone (first you have to change the language of the instructions from Thai to English and then you need to dial "0" before the number if it's a Thai local call). However, her nephew wasn't there and Lek couldn't understand exactly where in Patong I was). Nobody else was there so she recommended I just take a tuk-tuk.

Before I did, I walked along the row of night market food stalls lining the beach road, doing a bit of filming and then buying some pineapple from a vendor. Got back to L&S Kamala Bay Village a but before midnight, had a Pepsi in the restaurant while telling Silvio and Lek about my "adventures" today, and came up to my room to recharge various batteries in preparation for another full day tomorrow. We're leaving here at 7:30 in the morning and are renting a speedboat that will take us not only to Khoh Phi-Phi but also to some of me more remote (less crowded) islands in the Phuket Sea.

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I arose fairly early this Christmas morning and, after another cooked-to-order breakfast at L&S Kamala Bay Village, I took a 40-baht motorbike taxi ride to Kamala Beach. I found a nice lounger about halfway down the beach (I was early enough that I had my choice of spots) which cost 30 baht for the day, complete with umbrella and plastic endtable. I was to spend the next six hours there.

The day started put overcast with a threat of rain (the rainy season has lingered too long already in this part of Thailand but stopped the day before I arrived; terrible flooding is going on right now south of here - all the way to Malaysia - however). I forgot to slather on my sunscreen until much later in the day, a mistake I'm paying for now. It was nice to just relax for most of the day without running all over the place. I just lay there catching up on some reading and watching the boats and bikini-clad women go by.

At one point, I looked up and saw a couple of television news crews filming on the beach. I figured they were probably filming B-roll for a piece on the post-tsunami return of tourists. I suppose they must have thought I was some sort of big white beached whale because on of the crews began filming me! A cute Thai girl who didn't look to be a year older than 16 then approached me with a microphone.

"Mister," she said to me. "Can I ask you question?".

"Okay," I nodded, already anticipating the usual "where you from," "first time Phuket," and "how long you stay" trio of questions. I indeed got those and then a new one:

"What you like most about Thailand?"

I didn't have to think about it at all:

"Beautiful people and beautiful beaches," I told her, thinking it was too corny for them to actually use as a soundbite in their story.

A short while later, I noticed everyone on the beach had turned around and were looking past me. I turned and saw a whole lot of Thai police (who's uniforms look very military to me: earlier, there had been several military helicopters buzzing the beach and then hovering over it but I'd assumed it was just part of some sort of exercise) and almost as many Japanese-looking men in dark business suits. It soon became apparent that some sort of memorial was about to occur.

Ever the curious person, I grabbed my camcorder and digital still camerand theaded my way through the crowd. It turns out that a memorial stone was being dedicated, a gift from the people of Japan. The Japanese ambassador and numerous other dignitaries were in attendance, alll who gave long speeches in Thai, Japanese, and one other language I couldn't identify. The monument itself was a large polished marble stone with an inscription in gold, ringed with brass rails, all topped with a copper Japanese bell. The best part of the ceremony was at the end when everyone filed up to the stone to lay flowers at its base, accompanied by monks chanting the Dharma.

The remainder of my day was taken up with more sunbathing. At six or so, I caught a tuk-tuk back to the hotel. Since Silvio and his wife, Lek, were in Phuket Town all day shopping they had arranged for Lek's friend, Tip, to come and cook me dinner. We had been introduced the night before because Lek felt I should have someone to talk to who spoke English better than the rest of them.

Tip is a chef at an Italian restaurant in Patong and she arrived directly from work. She asked if I'd like to see her home as she got ready for the evening. Her apartment building, along with an adjacent monestary and school, had been newly-built with money provided by the American Red Cross so I got a first-hand glimpse of where some of my donation went to. Her small apartment - a living room, kitchen, bath room, and bedroom - was sparsely-furnished but very homey. I sat on a pillow (there was no furniture) and played with her three-year-old daughter while she took a shower and changed. Tip also has a son who is studying to be a veternarian in Bangkok. I then learned that her husband had been killed in the tsunami, along with other family members. In fact, the entire area around there (the southern portion of Kamala) had been destroyed ("sea come in, wash everything away," Tip told me).

We rode back to the hotel with her daughter on the front of Tip's motorbike (you see entire families precariously balanced on these little 100cc bikes around here) and me on the back. At the steep driveway at the entrance to the hotel, I noticed Tip was driving one-handed while talking on a cellphone! We hit a rock and the bike began to fall over. I put my leg down to stop it, burning my leg on the exhaust pipe in the process. Not a good thing on top of an already severe sunburn but I was more worried about Tip's daughter falling than myself. Luckily, she stayed upright with ease.

Dinner was a stirfry with pork and various vegetables with sticky rice. I had asked for it to not be too spicy. Tip added "only one" chile pepper and it was still fiery hot. Very tasty.

Tip left soon after to drop her daughter off at her grandmother's and I spent a couple of hour playing pool with Lek's nephew. He beat me six straight games, but I think I'm getting better.

At 10:00pm (9:00 Christmas morning in Kansas), I made my phonecall to Marilyn's home where everyone was gathered to open their gifts. They passed the phone around and I got to talk to everybody. Even Jonathan (Lyn's son) was there from Colorado. When I told Dad about my motorcycle burn, he told me I should go immediately and get something on it.

After hanging up, I went down to the hotel and tried to ask the one helper still there if the pharmacies would still be open that late. She didn't understand but she called Lek and handed the phone to me. Lek then had me talk to Silvio who said they would be returning in an hour and he would take me to a pharmacy in Patong. We rode down to the town on his big Harley Davidson. There's nothing quite like roaring over twisting mountain roads in the middle of the night on a Harley, sometimes in the path of oncoming traffic as you pass slow-moving vehicles.

At the pharmacy, I asked the girl for something to put on a bad sunburn. She pointed me to an entire wall of creams and medicines. I made my purchase and Silvio and I roared back over the mountain to the hotel. We hung put in the restaurant for a while with Lek and Silvio's brother, Mateo, visiting from Italy. We had a toast with some blueberry vodka from Russia and then retired. Another very long day, but fairly relaxing.

Today, I plan to go into Patong and watch some of the tsunami memorials. It might actually be less-crowded than Kamala because the king will be there. I also want to spend some time at an Internet cafe cleaning up some of the typos in my blog entries and seeing if I can upload some of my photos. Tomorrow, I've been invited to join Silvio and his entire family on a cruise to Koh Phi-Phi. We're going to invite the other guests as well

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It is a little after 8:00 on Christmas morning as I write this and already the temperature is over 80 degrees Fahrenheit and I'm sweating from the humidity. I awoke to the sound of motorbikes and tuk-tuks racing by my hotel on the main road connecting Kamala Bay with Patong. Shortly, I will go down to eat breakfast with the owners of the family-run L&S Kamala Bay Village, a place where I truly feel welcomed into the family.

Last night's Christmas Eve celebration dispelled any misgivings I may have had over whether I'd be lonely spending the holiday in a Buddhist country. The hotel (run by Silvio from Italy and his Thai wife) hosted a barbeque for it's guests (currently only myself and a large Swedish family - there are only ten rooms). We feasted under the stars, eating all sorts of grilled beef, chicken, fish, octopus, etc. along with Thai noodles, rice, curries, plus a huge variety of fruits ranging from papaya and mangos to the best-tasting pineapple I've ever enjoyed. In addition to eating as much food as I possibly could (hard to resist Silvio's wife's demands that we take seconds, thirds, and even fourths), I tried a variety of Thai beer (my favorites are Singha and Tiger) and spent much time talking to many of the other people there. Silvio's brother and I played pool and we soon divided into teams with two others for a long tournament (never a very good pool player, I was getting q!
uite good by the last couple of games). The conversations and good cheer lasted far into the night and I made my way up to bed around 1:00. It was a perfect capper to a very busy first two days on Phuket.

My plane on Friday from Bangkok to Phuket had been delayed over three hours because of a "bad motor", but my driver was still waiting for me when I arrived at the airport. The final landing approach was very spectacular with the plane coming in low over the Andaman Sea and then over a beach at the very end of the runway. Lush vegetation, including huge palm trees covered the hills on either side of the runway as we landed and taxiied to the terminal.

It was a long drive from the airport to the hotel and I spent every minute of it gazing at the sights along the roads. I call the traffic here a "beautiful chaos" and there is no simple way to describe it. One has to experience it firsthand to truly appreciate it. I must say that there is a tremendous amount of construction everywhere I've been on Phuket, much of it as a result of last year's tsunami and most of it paid for by the king. Everyone helps everyone else in these building projects.

After settling in at the hotel (and eating the first of many home-cooked meals in the open-air bungalow that serves as the restaurant and main gathering place), I rode on the back of a motorbike into the bustling town of Patong. I spent several hours that night just walking among the shops lining the beach road taking it all in without buying anything (and there's a HUGE variety of things to spend your baht on). I eventually made my way to Bangla Road and had a few beers (Chang, which reminds me of Corona) in the Let's Go Bar on Soi Eric. I caught another motorbike ride back to the hotel from a girl I met at the bar. Pui was to be my personal guide for much of the day on Saturday. She took me first to Kamala Beach where we walked around taking photos and looking at the scenery. A lot of construction was here as well, with grandstands being built for Monday's tsunami memorials.

Our next stop was tiny Laem Son beach. This is a very well-hidden and beautiful strip of sand north of Kamala, reached only from the sea or after descending a very steep trail through the jungle. As a result, very few tourists make it there. After finally getting to the beach, Pui and I climbed atop some rocks at its southern end and sat there drinking our water, asking more questions about each other's lives, and enjoying the spectacular views.

After a lunch consisting of a pineapple and prawn salad covered in a creamy dressing and served in a hollowed-out pineapple, we spent the rest of the day at Patong. We walked along much of the beach looking at the multitudes of tourists. I was surprised at how many women were topless because every single guidebook I saw stressed how offensive and disrespectful this is to the Thai people. There was all sorts of activities going on in addition to the sunbathers such as jet-skiing, parasailing, and riding those long inflatable tubes. Again, there were preparations for the tsunami memorials underway. We spent many hours once again browsing the shops and I bought several t-shirts, a beach towel, and had the images from one of my memory cards burned to CD. In the late afternoon, Pui had to return home so I took my first tuk-tuk ride back to the hotel.

I plan to spend today at the beach, trying to put a tan over the sunburn I've already developed (I forgot to put sunscreen on yesterday when we were walking around). I'll probably go to Kamala as it will be less crowded. It will be nice to do a bit of reading and relaxing as I feel like I've been on the go since I got here.

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The last place I ever thought I'd awaken to the sounds of Christmas carols would have to be Buddhist Thailand. But that is precisely what is happening today. There's a school outside my hotel and I can hear the children singing such songs as "Frosty The Snowman" and "Joy To The World". And when my phone rang with my wakeup call, it played "Winter Wonderland". It's enough to make one homesick for Christmas in the States...almost.

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It's almost 2:00 Friday morning here in the City Of Angels (11:45 Thursday morning back in 'Burque if I did the math correctly). I'm laying here in the Ebina House Hotel near the airport feeling completely refreshed after having taken a long-overdue shower. I decided to go ahead and find a room tonight only after I'd breezed through Customs. The room was 2400 baht for the night (approx. $60), which included transfers between the hotel and the airport plus breakfast in the morning.

It seems like ages since I checked out of my Portland hotel at 3a.m. Wednesday morning. It was fairly cold waiting for the train to arrive but the time passed quickly because I spent it talking to a very nice older man. He turned out to be a political refugee from Ethiopia. I was a little stressed at the Portland airport when, among other things, a TSA agent managed to break my cool dual-time watch when he wasn't paying attention and started running things off the end of the conveyer belt. He also smashed a guy's laptop so I certainly wasn't alone or the worse off.

In the Vancouver airport, they even had the International connections passengers go through the basement maze of Customs procedures. After several of the Portland passengers finally arrived at the gate for the Tokyo flight, we discovered that ALL of us were also connnecting in Tokyo for Bangkok-bound flights! Even stranger was that almost all of our Tokyo to Bangkok flights were on different planes that were scheduled to land within a half-hour of each other. There were four flights involved among the eight of us; it felt like an episode of "The Amazing Race"! We spent the next three hours talking about Thailand and giving each other tips about what to do and see.

The Air Canada flight to Tokyo was nine hours of bordom. I tried to read and sleep but neither worked so I watched two of the three movies ("Must Love Dogs" which I enjoyed and "Batman Begins" during the last hour of which I dozed off and on).

They hadn't let any of us check in for the Bangkok-bound flights in either Portland or Vancouver, and I'm sure each of us has similar experiences in Tokyo. That airport was the most confusing I've yet been in. After following the signs for International Transit Passengers, I found myself confronted by a security checkpoint. Not having a boarding pass yet, I asked an officer where to check in for my flight. He said I could do that at my flight's gate and waved me through. However, there was nobody at the gate, just a sign saying the flight would be delayed ten minutes.

I didn't see any of the people I'd befriended in Vancouver so after several minutes of waiting, I went in search of someone who could help me. The person manning an information booth seemed confused after looking at my Air Canada ticket and made a couple of phone calls. She then told me I had to go back through security and check in at Japan Airlines which seemed odd to me since it was a code-share with Royal Thai Airlines, All Nippon Airlines, and Air Canada NOT JAL. Still, she assured me that this was the case. The time for the flight to leave was rapidly approaching...

When I finally got to the JAL counter, I was relieved to see two of the Portland/Vancouver passengers who I knew were on the same Bangkok flight as I. However, the girl at the counter told me I had to go to ANA. I pointed out the couple who were on my same flight but the girl stood her ground. At ANA, I was told I had to go to Air Canada!!! (By this time, I was getting extremely tired of the runaround and worried that I was going to miss the flight.)

"Well, where's the Air Canada counter?" I asked, not having seen it anywhere. "You must go to other terminal. Take shuttle train.". (It was now less 50 minutes to my departure time.). I followed her directions and finally saw the Air Canada sign at the entrance to the shuttle train station - it was hand-written in marker tacked to the bottom of a sign reading "Domestic Passengers"! To increase the stress levels, once I arrived at the Air Canada counter I found myself at the end of an extremely long and meandering line. Forty minutes to departure...

I then noticed that the bulk of the line was being directed towards some Japan Airlines counters at the far end of the counter. I showed an attendant my ticket and pointed to the Air Canada sign. "Shouldn't I go there?" I asked (pleaded). "No," she responded, "you are in right line.". After several more impossibly long minutes, suddenly I saw a JAL-uniformed girl running towwards me. She grabbed my arm and ran with me pass the multitudes of others in the line, leading me to the farthest away JAL counter. The girl at the counter said, "So sorry, Mr. Jochim, we'll issue your boarding card.". Even though I had booked a window seat towards the front of the plane, I was she told me the 44J listed on my just-issued boarding pass was the last available seat on the plane. (It turned out to be the aisle seat of an exit row so I had plenty of room to stretch my legs but no video monitor or tray table and I kept getting bumped into whenever the flight attendants were rolling the !
food and beverage carts up the aisle. But at least I got a seat...)

After finally checking in, they wisked me away in a motorized cart back to the shuttle train (allowing me to bypass a fourth trip through security). At the other end of the train, another cart was waiting to take me back to Gate C87 (I still don't know what prompted this sudden change from a wild goose chase to VIP treatment). But I had been looking at the time and knew we were arriving at the gate several minutes past the delayed departure time. So I was very surprised when the gate area was still packed when I arrived. It turned out that the plane still wasn't there. All that stress for nothing!

Anyway, the flight ended up taking off 90 minutes late. The seven-hour flight passed extremely slowly. I spent most of it alternately dozing off (but never approaching anything close to a restfull deep sleep), eating (we were given two multi-course meals and numerous snacks), and watching the gorgeous flight attendants (Thai Airlines, who ended up being the main operator of this flight, has a reputation for hiring the most beautiful women in the airline industry).

We finally arrived in Bangkok around 11:30. We parked way out on the tarmac and were bussed to the terminal, the first time I've been on a flight where this was done. After withdrawing some Thai baht at a post-Immigration ATM, I began to head for the domestic terminal to find a quiet place to sleep when I happened to see the same guy who'd helped me with my hotel back in June 2003. Of course, I just had to let him book me another room (he even remembered me from the last time!) and that's where I'm at now.

Tomorrow, it's back to the airport for my 80-minute flight south to Phuket. Only when I arrive there, the hotel picks me up, and I get checked in to Kamala Bay Resort then I'll truly feel like I can relax...

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THE BEST THING ABOUT PORTLAND... meeting so many nice people. Everyone I've met here have been so nice and have gone out of their way to make me feel welcome.

Today was another very rainy one but still I walked virtually everywhere (except one short ride on the MAX). Among other things, I mailed a box of stuff back home, transferred more of my photos to CD, watched people at Pioneer Place, and had a great lunch at a Greek restaurant. I also explored Chinatown and nearby neighborhoods full of old buildings including several with promising apartments.

When the drizzling rain turned into a torrential downpour, I ducked into a Fifth Avenue club to dry out. That was where I met Ali who sings and plays guitar in a local rock band called Destitute. We got into a very deep conversation that covered a very wide range of topics and she constantly surprised me with her knowledge of all sorts of things that I'm interested in. She also gave me a number of recommendations and advice for when I move to Portland; she even offered to give me her "super special Ali tour" when I return in April or May to do my apartment hunting (since the weather was too bad this week for that, I'd decided it made more sense to return closer in time to the move).

When Ali and I parted, it was after ten o'clock and the rain had stopped. I was starving by this time but nothing seemed to be open along the route of my walk back to the hotel. Finally, I found a McDonald's and bought a chicken sandwich and fries.

Now, I'm all repacked and waiting to check out of the hotel in three hours. Then I'll walk up to the MAX station and take the train out to the airport for my 6:20 flight to Vancouver. I probably won't post another entry here until I get to Bangkok in a couple of days. See you then...

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They can't!

Tonight's concert at Portland's Rose Garden was superb - two-and-a-half hours of passion, excitement and emotion. The highlights were numerous - it seemed like Bono and the boys pulled out all the stops with the show being the last of the US tour.

I had set out from my hotel shortly after four o'clock. It didn't begin to rain until I arrived at the Pioneer Courthouse Square station. After a fifteen-minute wait in the freezing cold drizzle, a huge crowd squeezed about the MAX train. After arriving at Rose Quarter Transit Center, I walked across the plaza to the arena. I took a couple of photos of the marquee and venue, looked at the huge lines of people with general admission and fan club tickets, and took my position at one of the entrance doors (thankfully under and overhang that protected me from the now steady rain).

The doors opened shortly after six and I actually had to take an elevator to the level where my seat was located (complete with an elevator operator who told me that they jokingly call the 300 level the "penthouse". It was pretty high in the arena but at least I was in the third row, on a slight angle from the stage and elliptical catwalk. Not a bad seat at all as it afforded me a good view of all the action.

The opening act was rapper Kanye West, an unusual choice for U2 but it actually served as a nice musical counterpoint. He was accompanied by a scratch DJ mixer and a string section consisting of four violinists, two cellists, and a harpist - all attractive Asian women wearing black gowns (except for one in white). The sound mix was fairly muddy and bass-heavy at the beginning of Kanye's set but soon improved to an acceptible level of clarity. I just wish the strings had been featured more prominently in the arrangements (and that the video screens had shown more closeups of the various members of the string section). I thought that some of the tunes were quite good, although I much prefer singing to rapping.

After a 30-minute or so break, U2 took the stage to "City Of Blinding Lights" at 8:50. A fixture of the band's shows since their beginnings (and taken to new heights on this tour) has been Bono's ad-libbing of different song segments within the main songs. There were many of these impromptu lyric changes at this concert; I wasn't able to take setlist notes so I'll have to wait until I download the concert before I'll be able to pick them all out. However, two that I can remember were "Rock The Casbah" by The Clash and the Civil War tune "When Johnny Comes Marching Home."

In the lead-in to "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," Bono made a reference to their 1981 Portland gig where his notebook of lyrics for thru still-being-written second album was stolen.

The biggest surprise of the night came after the band had played "One," the main set closer at all of the other shows on this leg of the tour. Bono seemed reluctant to leave the stage and made a quick huddle with Adam, Larry, and The Edge. He then told the audience that he'd been thinking a lot about John Lennon for the past few days (the 25th anniversary of his murder was a little over a week ago) and that they wanted to try something out on us. A ragged but highly-energetic version of Lennon's "Instant Kharma" followed which featured a mid-song breakdown of "Happy Xmas (War Is Over."

Another surprise occurred just prior to the third and final set of encores when virtually all of U2's touring crew (approximately 50 people) came out and lined up along the ellipse. Bono had been name-checking them throughout the previous several songs, thanking them for the fine work they did on the tour. When the band came back obstage, they led the crowd in singing "Happy Birthday" to one of the crew members.

Following a long version of "40" from 1983's "War" album, the house lights took an especially long time to come back on, promoting me to wonder if we'd get one more end-of-tour song. Alas, it wasn't to be and the lights came on at 11:15.

The train station was absolutely packed when I arrived and it took a couple of trains and thirty minutes before I was able to squeeze aboard one. At least the rain had stopped! I got off of the MAX at 5th Street and enjoyed the brisk walk back to the hotel. I'm looking forward to reading the concert review in tomorrow's newspaper.

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Since the weather was still very bad this morning, I decided to spend it lounging in my hotel room. The temperature warmed to above freezing in the wee hours so the rain over downtown area helped to melt all the snow and ice from last night. It looked like the Columbia River Gorge got the worse of the storm with some areas east of Portland receiving a couple of inches of snow each hour this morning.

I did some reading while flipping between the various local news programs - a few sections in my 'London At War' book and the first couple of chapters of 'Travelers' Tales Thailand'. I also dozed off for a while before jumping in the shower around 1:30.

Hungry, I walked a couple of blocks north to Carl's Jr. A lunch of sourdough bacon cheeseburger and fries filled me up for less than six dollars.

Satisfied, I made my way over to Broadway to take some photos of the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall (formerly the Paramount Theater, home of some famous Bruce Springsteen concerts in the 1970's among others) with the huge "Portland" sign. I really love this type of old theatre. Walking behind the theatre to check for different angles, I discovered a small park with an old fountain and statues of Abraham Lincoln and of Theodore Roosevelt on a horse. The park was bordered by the Portland Art Museum, the Oregon Historical Society Museum, and a couple of old brick churches. I think I'll investigate the museums after I move here next summer.

One last stop before heading back to the hotel saw me picking up two large Priority Mail boxes at the post office in the courthouse. I'm planning to mail home the books I bought at Powell's and a shirt or two before I head to SE Asia on Wednesday.

Now I'm just watching a bit of television before heading over to the Rose Garden Arena for tonight's U2 concert. I can either take the No. 40 bus from the stop at Sixth and Jefferson (a block north of my hotel) or walk approximately six blocks to catch the light rail at Pioneer Courthouse Square. Depending on how heavy the rain is when I set out, I'll probably take the train to the concert and the bus afterwards. Both will likely be fairly crowded as I'll be travelling at rush hour. I'm going to risk taking my camera.

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IWhat a difference a few hours can make; it was sunny and windy as I left my hotel this morning but in the now Portland has been essentially closed by snow and ice. As I lay here this evening watching the closures scroll across the bottom of the TV screen, I'm wondering if anything at all will be open tomorrow.

At least I managed to do a few things today. I had decided to spend some time at Powell's City of Books first. On my walk north, I happened upon a camera shop so I transferred the photos I took yesterday from my memory card to a couple of CD's. At Powell's, I sought out a Czech phrase book so I could learn a bit of the language before I see Daniela and her mother again; just from a casual look at the book, it seems to me that Czech is very similar to Russian and I recognized several phrases. I also found a much better (easier) Thai language book than the ones I already owned so I added that to my basket as well. My final purchase was a World War II-themed guidebook to London which I wish I'd had for this last visit but will come in useful for the next.

Lunch was at a place downtown called Island Joe's; I had a grilled Kons need sandwich with potato salad. This was followed by seeing the new "King Kong" movie at Pioneer Place (I loved it!). When I exited the shopping center, I was pleased to see the world covered with a blanket of white. The atmosphere was extremely festive with the city sidewalks lined with light-strewn trees and many Portlanders outside enjoying the snow. I made my way to Pioneer Courthouse Square where I had fun taking holiday photos. The weather really put me into a Christmas mood; I can't believe it's only one week away and that soon I'll be laying on the beach on Phuket.

On the way south back to the hotel, I noticed the busses were having an increasingly difficult time climbing the hills because of ice underneath the snow. It was only a little after 5:00 but already dark; I passed up a Carl's Jr. (one of the few eateries that I saw that was open. I had already decided to have dinner in my hotel's restaurant. However, when I arrived I was disappointed to find it closed because of the weather. Room service was closed as well and I couldn't find a single place that would brave the icy streets in order to deliver a meal.

I decided to brave the weather once again and asked for a recommendation from the desk clerk. She steered to Higgin's, a two-block walk, which turned out to be fairly pricy. I knew I was in "trouble" when I was handed a ten-page wine menu and the least expensive glass was $13.00. In spite of this, I decided to splurge and ate a very good steak, along with a Czech beer (Rebel Pils). I had a nice view of the cars sliding back down the hill after they became stuck at the ice-slick intersection. It was a very good dinner and I did manage to spend under $50 after tip. I'll skip eating dinner tomorrow to make up for it.

Good news: I just happened to glance up at the television screen in time to see this message - "Monday night's U2 concert will go on as scheduled." I was getting worried as it seems as if every other event and business imagineable has been cancelled or will be closed tomorrow. It looks like many busses won't be running regular schedules but the MAX will be running every 10 minutes to keep the tracks clear. What really worries me now is news that the airport is cancelling a number of flights and these conditions could persist until midweek. I just hope my Wednesday morning flight to Vancouver isn't delayed because I wouldn't want to miss my connections to Tokyo and Bangkok.

I'll just have to wait and see what the next couple of days brings. I can't exactly control the weather so I should just not worry about it so much. Whatever happens, happens.

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I had the most enjoyable, unplanned, day yesterday spending some twelve hours participating in "Santa Con.". This is an annual gathering of people dressed as Santa Claus held in a number of cities throughout the U.S. I had never heard of it before stumbling across the very start of Portland's event shortly after 11a.m. Saturday.

I'd started out from my hotel rather late in the morning, braving the piercing winds and bitter temperatures to walk north to Pioneer Place, a large undeground shopping canter in the heart of downtown. After discovering the location of the movie theater and that I'd missed the beginning of "King Kong" by ten minutes, I decided to eat an early lunch. I had a turkey sandwich at California Crisp, my favorite eatery from my September visit. However, they were out of cranberry sauce - the best part.

I then took the MAX to the Skidmore Fountain station in order to check out the famous Saturday Market. After spending some time wandering around looking at the various booths and smellling the aromas of the international food market, I happened upon several Santas standing under the Ankeny Arch. A very pretty female Santa explained that this was the staging point for Santa Con. She invited me to join in the fun and presented me with a Santa hat. Every few minutes, it seemed that the number of red-suited men and women multiplied exponentially.

As the number of Santas increased so did the level of hilarity. There were many traditional Santas, but there were also Mexican Santas with huge sombreros, Elvis Santas with gaudy sunglasses and massive sideburns, department store Santa rejects, and all kinds of pretty female Santas and elves with short skirts and fishnet stockings (these were my favorite Santas of all).

For an hour or so, as Santas continued to arrive, the group took pictures of each other, danced to amplified music in the square, waved to the trains arriving at the adjacent station, and laughed at the spectacle of it all. With the number of costumed Santas approaching 300 or so, we began our "tour" of the city. We first marched up and down the rows of Saturday Market booths underneath the Burnside Bridge. Climbing up the stairs to Burnside, we walked west through Chinatown (picking up at least two Asian Santas along the way) before making our first beer stop - a strip club called Cabaret. The site of over 300 Santas and elves (about an even number of men and women) packing a dive T&A bar was nothing short of surreal.

We only spent a half-hour or so there before our "leader" (a Santa with a painted clown-face armed with a megaphone) had us move on, reminding is to tip generously. We then headed to the waterfront park near the Japanese Historical Plaza where we danced to Christmas music and had the Santa Olympics (events included the Christmas tree toss and the ever-popular fruitcake catapult into the Willamette River - quickly eaten by the seagulls and sturgeon).

The Santas then began walking west again into Downtown. Stops included yet another stripclub, the lobby of U.S. Bancorp Tower, and Pioneer Courthouse Square where we met even more Santas. A massive dance party then entertained the many surprised non-Santas before we once again began the Santa march. Everywhere we walked in Portland, cars would honk and Santas would wave back. One memorable photo op stop was outside PGE Park Stadium where the Portland Beavers (formerly the Albuquerque Dukes) play. A dinner stop was included in the meandering itinerary (I didn't eat, spending the time there speaking to some of the cuter of the female Santas) and we even got as far west as 23rd Street in the Northwest District. Somewhere in the Pearl District, one of the Santas at the head of the pack knocked on the door of an extravantly-decorated house and we sang "Jungle Bells" to the surprised occupants.

A late stop saw the army of Santas sitting underneath a bridge overpass. A big movie screen was set up and we watched a Santa Con video presentation consisting of Christmas movie clips. One of the highlights for me was our parading through Powell's - the world's largest bookstore.

After an entertaining stop at a bar called Matador, we seemed to lose a lot of the Santas on the way to Fez, a huge multistoried club somewhere north of Burnside around 10th or 11th Street. A couple dozen of us Santas wound up on the too level where a very good band from Seattle was playing (I never did catch their name). We danced to the music for a while (well, I was mostly bobbing up and down at this point) until I decided to call it quits around 11:30p.m. I had lost track of my Santa buddy (Shelly, who had given me the Santa hat all those hours before and who had been my arm-in-arm partner throughout the day as we strolled the city streets) and was beginning to approach my alcohol limit (about five beers these days). I bid farewell to some of my fellow Santas and began the long cold walk back to my hotel; at least the downtown city streets here are fairly safe so I had no worries.

Being a Santa for a day in the midst of hundreds of other Santas was a lot of fun, a real hoot. It also reaffirmed my feelings that most Portlanders are extremely friendly and that I'm making the right decision by moving here. And for next year's Santa Con, I'll be prepared with my own Santa suit

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Although the sun was shining this afternoon as I walked from the train station to my downtown hotel, it was still very cold. In fact, according to the local news, Portland is currently in it's 29th straight day of below average temperatures. And worse is on the way - a major snowstorm is predicted to hit Sunday into Monday and beyond which has the potential to "shut the city down". As long as Monday night's U2 concert isn't cancelled because of bad weather (and the trains run), I won't mind some snow and ice knowing that this time next week I'll be trying not to burn too bad while laying on the beach at Kamala.

Tonight, I'm just lounging in my hotel room watching some television. I had planned to walk up to Pioneer Square to see the new "King Kong" movie, but I'm fairly beat. I'll go see the movie tomorrow or Sunday, taking a nice break from my home-searching and shopping activities.

My flights this morning were uneventful. I took a taxi to the airport in Albuquerque and changed planes in Las Vegas. I'd never been through that airport but I resisted the temptation to spend my 90-minute layover playing the slot machines. I was fascinated, however, watching the girl working at the oxygen bar next to my gate giving massages to people as they sat there hooked up to the oxygen. The motto on the sign read, "Live Hard, Breathe Deep."

The flight up to Portland was very scenic. We flew along the eastern edge of the Sierra Nevada. The mountains were snow-covered with the occasional prominent peak rising high above the others. I attempted a photo as we flew over Crater Lake. Our final approach was a low pass along the Columbia River (including a low-altitude flyover above a large marina) with Mounts Hood and Adams clearly visible outside the portside windows.

Uoon landing, I took some time to scope out the locations of the Jazz Air ticket counter and gate I'll need to use when I fly out on Wednesday morning. I then had a nice sitdown lunch at the airport's branch of the Rose City Cafe. It was a hearty meal of clam chowder, a crab and shrimp melt with seasoned fries, and a Coke - a bargain at $12.80 (there's no sales tax in Oregon). Finally, I boarded the MAX Light Rail train headed for downtown.

It was a good day, a nice start to some 25 days away from home, and I'm looking forward to a great weekend despite the chilly temperatures.

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Bad start to the morning so far — I did get a good night's sleep (having gone to bed around 9p.m. and having awoke to my alarm at 3:30a.m.) but found I hadn't transferred my wash to the dryer!  I'm "patiently" waiting for my travel clothes to get dry enough to wear before I take a shower.  I had planned to take out the trash and run up to check the mail and withdraw some cash from the ATM before ordering a taxi but that's all been delayed at least an hour.  At least I still have plenty of time before I need to be at the airport...

While waiting, I decided to do some last-minute checking of e-mail and reading of weather forecasts, etc. on the computer.  But my main computer decided to be temperamental with Windows XP refusing to load.  It took almost twenty minutes of frustration before I got past the first splash screen and then it decided that it didn't like my password!  To make a long story short, I'm now working on that computer but I'm not certain it will start up again (I'll try a restart in a moment).

Ominous beginnings to this trip, but — hopefully — nothing else will go wrong.  The only other mishap I can imagine occurring would be to miss my connecting flight in Las Vegas; I book flights so that I do usually have enough time to account for short (less than an hour) delays so I should be okay....


After a record THREE days at home this time, I am preparing to leave once again early tomorrow morning.  My plane to Portland, via Las Vegas, departs at 06:55.  I finished re-packing earlier this afternoon (I have it down to a "science" now) and ran a few last-minute errands.  All that remains to be done tonight is a quick mini-load of laundry (for the clothes I'll be wearing on the plane).  I plan to relax while watching TV and to try and get a good night's sleep for a change.  I still haven't decided whether I'll park my car at one of the airport lots or if I'll call a taxi.

The past few days since I returned from New Jersey have been mildly hectic.  After unpacking and doing laundry (I love just dumping the packing cubes into the washing machine), I began editing the video I shot of the London Marillion "experiences" into DVD form.  I'd done a quick edit last week but several errors had cropped up in my first watching.  I'm very proud of the final version (complete with photo slideshow, set to my favorite song — the 17-minute "Ocean Cloud") and today mailed off copies to several fans I'd befriended in London.  I was so thrilled with the London DVD that I also (finally) put together a DVD of film footage I'd taken during the band's Pacific Northwest shows back in September.

With the DVD's (and burning of copies) out of the way, I began packing last night.  I actually managed to fit ALL of the clothes (including a pair of sandals) that I wanted to take into my carry-on bag!  I'm also taking a much fuller toiletry kit than I usually carry on a trip since I've had to add heavy-duty sunblock, mosquito repellant, etc. to the usual supplies of shampoo, deoderant, toothpaste, and the rest.  Unfortunately, I didn't have room to fit my sleep-sack or mosquito netting.  I'm sure I can pick those items up in-country, however.  Today's completion of packing concentrated on my electronics bag; this is a messenger-style shoulder bag that carries my various cameras and lenses, electrical adapters, battery chargers, USB cables, Blackberry, maps, Thai phrase book, airplane tickets, etc.  It's quite a jigsaw puzzle fitting everything in and in the end I had to jetison the really cool 30GB photo harddrive I'd planned to dump my memory cards into (I'll just burn them to CD-R as I go along like I did in London).

I had planned to take my Marillion hooded fleece jacket with me on this trip but today I switched it in favor of my regular coat.  It's not quite as warm, but it's a little less bulky and I won't care so much if it gets dirty, torn, or otherwise damaged.  It's also easier to fold up, important because I'll be dragging it around Thailand for a few weeks before I'll need to wear it again on the return trip.  (Perhaps I'll stash it in a locker at the Bangkok airport until I depart for home.)

There is one major thing that I haven't yet accomplished for this trip:  the all-important selection of "the book".  I don't have any room in my luggage to stash another item so anything I take to read will have to be carried outside of my bags.  Historically, I've found that I can concentrate on mystery novels more than other types of books while sitting in airports or on airplanes.  However, on the trips I've taken over the past six months I've been completely unable to read anything while in-transit.  I'm tempted not to take anything at all, but then what will I do during those long sleepless nights in the Portland hotel or further down the road?  I'll have to figure this out tonight because I certainly won't have time early in the morning...


Since I'm leaving town tomorrow morning, I've been updating the databases where I list such useless information as what CD's and DVD's I've burned and played.  I doubt that I'll burn any media while on my travels, nor do I plan to watch any further DVD's, so I can safely announce a few totals today:

In 2005, I burned a total of 530 DVD's.  Many of those were copies for various trading vines/weeds that I participated in; others were downloads (mainly through BitTorrent) or copies I made for friends and family members.  A good portion of these DVD's were Netflix "back-ups".  I didn't record which ones were burned to DVD+R or DVD-R, however.

I also burned some 880 CD-R's, missing my goal of one thousand.  It was probably an even split between downloads and music trades.

And the final total would be the 234 DVD's that I completely watched from start to finish (however, I no longer watch all of the bonus material where it exists).  Obviously, I'm receiving many more DVD's than I have a chance to watch (there are HUGE stacks of unwatched DVD's crowding my entertainment center).  I suppose one of my New Year's Resolutions for 2006 will be to attempt to clear this backlog of unwatched movies and concerts.

This past year, I only managed to completely read 33 full-length books — significantly shy of my annual average of just over 60, maintained since I started keeping track in 1997.  I guess I was too busy burning all of those CD's and DVD's to do much reading.  I plan to remedy that in 2006 as well.

With two weeks to go in this year, I have already listened to 862 CD's.  I rarely listen to portions of CD's or individual songs, so this is the number of complete discs that I've listened to (I don't count those where I fall asleep before the CD has finished playing).  Of these, 102 were Marillion CD's (with very few repeats); interestingly enough, I only listened to 55 Bruce Springsteen discs, all of which I played in the first five months of 2005 (I have NOT listened to any Springsteen since May 14!).

I have loaded my Nomad Jukebox 3 with a number of albums and plan to listen to these during my upcoming travels.  I will count those as individual CD's as long as I listen to the complete albums.  It will be interesting to see what music I'm in the mood to listen to while laying on Kamala Beach.  (The player has a wide variety of music, many of the "usual suspects" plus a fair amount of jazz, classical, Latin, and Christmas music.)

I think that next year I will also track new music I obtain, either through downloads or direct purchase.  Although I've been hard at work the past six months or so inventorying all of my media, I've never really kept tabs on WHEN a particular CD came into my collection.  Some I remember, many I do not.  It's this type of organization that brings order to the chaos of music and videos everywhere you look in my home...



For a previous trip, I added weather forecast banners to my blog making it easy for me to know what to expect.  Continuing that "tradition", here are the forecasts for my upcoming travel:

Also, I want to provide a link for my dedicated travel journal; so far, most of the entries are simply cross-posts with 'Burque Blog but with some cool features like trip maps and pop-up photos.  Once in Thailand, where Internet cafes are very inexpensive, I plan to post different kinds of entries between the two blogs (i.e., travel tips as opposed to simple recitations of what I did each day).  Phuket should be a more laid-back atmosphere compared to my previous travel experiences so I'll have more time to compile useful information for the blog entries.  The travel blog is located at:  It's replaced my previous pages at VirtualTourist as I feel it is more user-friendly.



I accidentaly let the "cat out of the bag" when I called Dad from Cincinnati last night.  Yes, my "secret destination" for the holidays is Thailand (and I can't even remember why I wanted to keep it a secret in the first place other than I wanted to phone home on Christmas Day and say, "Guess where I am?!").

A brief synopsis of my itinerary begins with the Portland, Oregon, trip this Friday morning, via Las Vegas.  I'll be looking at apartment and condo prices/locations while I'm there, as well as doing a bit of sightseeing.  I'm also attending the 10th anniversary celebration of a major U2 website (including prizes and a U2 tribute band) as well as the last concert of the real band's 2005 tour in Portland.

Next Wednesday, I begin a long series of flights.  I fly first to Vancouver from Portland (on a Dash 8-300, even smaller than my plane from Atlantic City to Cincinnati last night!) with Jazz Air, picking up an Air Canada flight to Tokyo.  The next leg is with Royal Thai Airways to Bangkok, where I arrive late at night on the 22nd.  The complete roundtrip from Portland to Bangkok was booked through Air Canada at significant savings — a total of $841 (if I'd departed one day earlier or later and/or returned one day earlier or later, the price would have been almost $3000 MORE!).  After a possible 12-hour stay in the Bangkok airport (all nearby hotels were already booked for that night back in August!), I complete the last leg of my journey on Nok Air to Phuket Island.

My accomodations for the next 11 nights is a new resort on Kamala Beach on the west side of the island.  This area was devastated by the tsunami a year ago but has almost been completely rebuilt now.  They are desperate to lure back the tourists and prices have been cut significantly at a number of locations.  I plan to relax on the beach (I bought plenty of sunblock so I don't return looking like a deep-fried lobster) and would love to do things like ride an elephant, sea kayak to the outer islands, snorkel, etc.  I might even take the train, bus, or plane down to Malaysia since I'll be so close in order to get another stamp in my passport and see a bit of yet another country.

On January 2nd, I fly back up to Bangkok.  There will be a brief period of "playing it by ear" as I don't have any other accomodations booked until five days later.  I'll probably take a bus up to Kanchanaburi and spend several nights in one of the floating guesthouses near the famous bridge over the River Kwai.  I might travel to the Burmese border if it happens to be open while I'm there.  A brief visit to Chiang Mai in northern Thailand is also an option.  I doubt it I'll have enough time to enter Laos or travel into Cambodia (the purpose of which would be to visit Ankor Wat).

The final portion of this trip is four days in Bangkok, where I'll be staying in the "Sky Zone" (upper 30 or 50 stories) of the Baiyoke Sky Hotel, until recently the tallest in the world.  I'd saved so much on my bookings up to this point that I wanted to splurge.  However, it seems like nothing is very expensive in Thailand at this moment in time (except, perhaps, the largest suites at the famous hotels along the river) and my room is less than $50 per night.

I'm really looking forward to this trip — the first portion will be completely relaxing (I might even try a traditional Thai massage) with plenty of time to just lay around and read or enjoy the sun and sand.  Bangkok will be very hectic, but exciting.  I'll try and do as many of the touristy things I can in the capital in the brief time I'll be there.  I think of it as chaotic as London but in a more difficult to understand (for me) language.  The Thai people don't celebrate Christmas (being predominately Buddhist) so I don't expect to see a lot of decorations (London certainly took care of that!).  There is a large expat community, however, so I can probably find a small Christmas party in a bar or something if I feel the need to be around people then.  I do plan to attend at least one of the memorial services on the 26th for the anniversary of the tsunami.

One is for certain:  it will be quite an adventure....


I returned to Albuquerque late last night from my most recent trip, three days in New Jersey to attend the funeral of my cousin Doug and to get reaquainted with Mom's side of the family.

There were actually three funerals for Doug — the first was held Friday night in Bayonne but I didn't attend that one because of my late afternoon arrival in Atlantic City.  Instead, I had dinner with my Uncle Ron, Aunt Edwina, and cousins Carol and Ken (and their three sons).  Edwina, Ron, and I were staying at my Uncle George and Aunt Marge's home nearby; that first night, we all turned in fairly early before George and Marge returned from Bayonne.  We had a nice breakfast before getting ready for the first of Saturday's services.

Doug had been active in his Presbryterian parish and the first funeral was held at his church (which had been built in the 1860's).  Approximately 50 members of the family attended that one.  I cried much more than I thought I would.  I was very impressed by Christopher (Doug's youngest son) and how he held his composure; the service ended with Christopher and the priest ringing the church bell.  A luncheon followed at the church.

The next service was held in the auditorium of Pilgrim Academy, a private school attended by several of the family's children.  This one was a very large funeral with full police honors and ceremony, including the riderless horse, police guards, trooping of the colors, and the haunting sounds of the bagpipers.  And, of course, "Danny Boy" was sung.  Many, many family and friends took the pulpit to talk about Doug.  The receiving line wrapped from the school's main entrance, through the lobby and halfway across the gymnasium.  Dignitaries who attended included at least one senator and several very high-up New Jersey State Police officials.  One thing that I found out about Doug that I hadn't know previously was how much he loved politics; he had even been on the police detail for President Bush's Inauguration.  I found the first service very moving, and this second one very impressive.

I don't know how long Doug's obituary will be available on the Press Of Atlantic City's site, so I think I'll reprint it here for future reference:

JABLONSKI, DOUGLAS A., 48 - of Galloway, peacefully passed away Saturday, December 3, 2005 surrounded by his loving family after a courageous battle with cancer. Doug was raised in Bayonne, but has been a resident of Galloway for many years. He was a devoted husband of Terri (Chapman) and loving father to Christopher, Jessica, and Jason. He was the beloved son of Barbara and Jay Jablonski, and treasured son-in-law of George and Margaret Chapman. A dear brother to Kenneth Jablonski (Dolores), Susanne Biancamano (James), the late Lori Jean Weaver (James) and brother-in-law to Carol Kisby (Kenneth). He was a fabulous uncle to Emily, Angelica, and Kimberly Jablonski, David, Lyra, Amelia, and the late Halley Biancamano, Meredith, Alyssa, Andrea, and James Weaver, and Kenneth Jr, Colin, and Kurtis Kisby. Doug was a retired Sergeant First Class in the State Police with 25 years of dedicated service. Prior to his retirement he was the representative for the NCO and STFA unions. After his retirement, he continued on as the Business Manager for the NCO and as a member of the Former Trooper Association. He was an active member of the Absecon Presbyterian Church, served as an Elder and a member of the men's club. He was an avid sports fan and was very involved with coaching and supporting GTAA, PAL, Atlantic United, and AAU baseball. He loved fishing, traveling, fine dining, karaoke, friends, and life. We will always celebrate his love of life that only he could bring to the world. He will be sadly missed by his loving family and many, many good friends. A memorial service will be held at The Pilgrim Academy, 301 West Moss Mill Road Galloway on Saturday December 10, 2005. Friends may call from 1 to 2pm with the service beginning at 3:00pm. In lieu of flowers the family asks that donations be made to the Douglas A. Jablonski Memorial Trust Fund, 433 6th Avenue, Galloway, NJ 08205.

Published in The Press of Atlantic City from 12/6/2005 - 12/10/2005.
There's also a very nice review of the a service held in Doug's honor, shortly before he passed away, on the New Jersey State Police NCO Association website.

After the second service (which lasted close to two hours), a huge buffet dinner was held at an exclusive golf resort.  In addition to visiting with the immediate family, I enjoyed talking to Lynn (Marge's sister, which I suppose makes her my Great Aunt) and Jim from Virginia Beach.  I believe the last time I'd seen them was probably in the late 1970's or early 1980's.  Lynn was interested to hear of my travels and I discussed the state of the music industry with Jim (he was involved with commercial radio for many years).

Sunday saw another round of family visiting, this time hosted by my cousin Terri (Doug's wife) at her home.  More good food (and deserts!) with insightful conversation ruled the day.  I particularly enjoyed playing with Curtis (Carol & Ken's 3-year-old) who seemed to enjoy me as well.  Ron and Edwina left Terri's in the afternoon to begin driving back to Washington, DC (Ron lives there and Edwina had a 6a.m. flight back to California).  After I returned to the "bunkhouse" with Marge and Lynn (Jim and George had returned sometime before), we had some wine and continued our conversations.  George also had me scrub clean the hard drive of his old computer so he could donate it to the school.  The long day ended with Marge and I struggling to stay awake for the end of the "Survivor" finale and then hitting the sack.

Monday morning, Marge and I had breakfast with Carol, Ken, and Curtis.  We then walked around the local mall for a short time before they dropped me off at the airport.  The flight to Cincinnati was on-time (it was on one of those tiny Canadair Regional Jets) and I had a two-and-a-half-hour wait before my flight to Albuquerque was due to depart.  I had been worried about weather delays; what we got were comic delays — first the plane arrived at the wrong gate.  The girls at our gate saw the plane taxi to the wrong jetway through the big windows, knowing nothing was due to be arriving there for hours.  They got on the phone and one ran down the jetway to let them know.  They had to back the plane up and taxi it over to our gate.  Once the passengers had disembarked and they loaded us onboard (it was less than a third full), it was discovered that an oxygen bottle in the cockpit had an unaccectible pressure level.  So, they ordered a new oxygen bottle from the stock room.  A half-hour went by with still no sign of a replacement bottle.  The pilot called over to maintenance and found out they had simply refilled the old bottle only to discover it had a leak.  At that point, they had to retrieve a bottle from a maintenance hanger located on the other side of the airport.  When that one finally arrived, the pilot had all of us applaud the maintenance worker who installed it.  In the end, we were almost two hours late taking off!  It was snowing when we arrived in Albuquerque.

It is good to be back home, but it seems like I have a million things I need to get done in the next three days.  I leave for Portland on Friday and won't return to Albuquerque again until January 11th.  I need to wash my clothes from this last trip and repack for the long one (difficult because I won't need my cold-weather clothes after next Tuesday).  I'm also trying to upload my London and New Jersey photos today as well as updating my financial accounts, etc.  All this after staying up all night editing the DVD of the Marillion concert in London so I can send out copies as Christmas presents before I leave.



I'm nearly to the end of a very long day. I checked out of my hotel at 5:00 this morning London time - almost 15 hours ago - after another sleepless night. I was still fairly wound up after my dinner & drinks with Daniela and too afraid I'd oversleep in the morning. I tried to sleep but gave up around 3:30.

I didn't feel like walking to Bayswater Station (and I don't think the Tube runs that early anyway) so I had the hotel call me a taxi to take me to Victoria Station. Although I had previously purchased a roundtrip on the Southern train to Gatwick, I couldn't get to the correct platform because of construction barriers. So I decided to take the Gatwick Express; there were advertisements along the platform saying that you could purchase tickets from an attendant on the train. During the entire 30-minute ride, I kept waiting for a conductor so I could buy a ticket but none came. So, I made up for the taxi ride with the free train ride.

After checking in for my flight, I went to the airport's branch of Harrod's to purchase some gifts. I couldn't sleep at all on this flight as it was an absolutely freezing (we flew over Greenland and the Canadian Arctic), even with three of those thin airline blankets on top of me!

I'm now sitting in the Cincinnati airport struggling to stay awake. My flight to Albuquerque leaves in another hour.

It will probably be a few more days before I attempt to write up the Marillion festivities. Daniela and I were comparing our notes and we both agreed that it will be difficult to decide where to begin and what to focus on. And, should we "protect the innocent" by not writing about some of the true highlights of the night/morning? Writing some of what happened may only make other fans jealous or angry that they weren't included. Some of what Daniela, her mom, and I witnessed and heard really should be kept among the four of who were there.

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It's 6:30 in the morning here in London and I just returned to my hotel room from the end-of-tour Marillion concert and after-shows "festivities"! Thus, this will be a very brief update before I attempt to sleep for a few hours.

Yesterday, I spent a couple of hours at the RAF Museum. It was excellent, but not quite as good as the Museum of Flight in Seattle.

After a brief return to the hotel in order to change clothes, I headed out to Kentish Town and The Forum. My experiences at the soundcheck, concert, aftershow party, and post-aftershow birthday celebration will have to be written about in a future entry - when I've returned home and can type faster on a "real" keyboard!

I must mention quickly that the night (and wee hours of this morning) were made even more special because of the lovely Daniela of the Czech Republic, whom I met at the soundcheck and became fast friends with. It was because of her that we got invited back to Marillion guitarist Steve Rothery's hotel where we had beers in the lobby and talked until dawn. After Rothers had had several Coronas, he told many of the secret band stories such as the real reason Fish left the band in 1988 and he even played is a few new tracks being considered for the next Marillion album (due out sometime next year if the recording sessions go well).

Tonight, instead of my planned Jack The Ripper Walk, I'm having dinner with Daniela. She invited me for dinner and drinks (10 or so, she said!) when we shared a taxi back to our respective hotels. Plus, I have a standing offer of a personal guide if (when, she said) I visit Prague.

Like I wrote previously, it will take a VERY long future blog entry to try and describe all the hightlights in a day and night full of them! Look for that entry sometime next week...

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I took the "slow" train into London; a round-trip ticket on Southern cost £18 - 6 pounds less than the Gatwick Express. It made a couple of stops along the way (including Clapham Junction which I was familiar with from my previous visit). Total time to Victoria Station was about 45 minutes.

By this time, I was hungry for some lunch (it was about 11:30) so I decided to eat at Victoria. Much of the old station is "open" to the outside with the various entrances and train tunnels; it being fairly cold and drafty, I started looking for an eatery that was enclosed so I could warm up some. I finally discovered the food court on the third level and had a chicken salad at KFC. That, and a small soda cost £3.79 - London is an expensive city.

I then took the District Line Underground to Bayswater Station, close to my hotel. Exiting the station, I found myself on a nice street filled with interesting shops and sidewalk cafes. The short walk to Leinster Gardens took me through a nice residential area of row houses and the occasional apartment block. Holiday Villa Hotel is located about halfway down a pleasant street filled with Victorian row houses that have been converted into small hotels.

I arrived too early and my room wasn't ready so I was invited to wait in the very posh lobby. I thought, "this is too luxurious for me!". After a short wait, I was allowed to check in which consisted of me handing over my voucher and signing a key-card which allows me a free full breakfast each morning and access to the hotel's basement nightclub (open 11:00pm until seven in the morning!). My room is on the fifth (top) floor and we (the receptionist and I) rode up in the smallest elevator I'd ever seen!

It turns out that the elevator matches the scale of my room; everything here is "pocket-size). I don't really need a large hotel room, it just takes some getting used to when you first arrive. The window gives an excellent view east over the city, the Post Office Tower is almost on a direct straight line east.

I was so tired that I neglected to tip the receptionist who had carried my bags up to the room (a very friendly Malaysian chap). I did remedy this later with a tenner (£10). I had planned to take a nap until about 4:00 or so, but was so restless that I ended up phoning both Dad and Marilyn.

After a quick shower in a stall that I couldn't even turn around in (which wasn't as distressful as not being able to get the water as hot as I would have liked), I dressed and set out on a photo-taking mission. It was only a little after 3:00 but it was already beginning to get dark (the sun had finally broken through and was shining brightly when I'd walked to the hotel). My goal was Royal Albert Hall and I decided it would be easiest to get there by walking south across Hyde Park.

As I hurried along the paths of Kensington Gardens (the western portion of Hyde Park), the sun was already setting to my right. I paused a couple of times to shoot photos of the orange and yellow clouds through the huge trees. Suddenly, I came upon the simply-named Round Pond which was filled with dozens of ducks and swans. I took a few photos in the rapidly diminishing light. My new telephoto lens got a bit of a workout here.

I could see the top of the Albert Memorial and the dome of Royal Albert hall above the trees to the south of the pond so I knew I was heading in the right direction. Before breaking out of the trees at Queen's Gate, I caught a view (and took a picture) of the last rays of the sun glinting off the gold of the Albert Memorial.

All of a sudden, Royal Albert Hall was directly in front of me, illuminated under a rich indigo blue sky. The Albert Memorial was to my left, the sculptures at each of the four corners lit up by bright spotlights. I took a number of photos over the course of the next hour - the nighttimes were spectacular - but I don't think the resulting pics give justice to the scene laid out before me.

After some time, I walked across the busy street, around the Albert Hall, and found myself at the South Patio. The Royal College of Music was right in front of me and I good just make out a large statue and a very tall monument or obelisk in the dark gloom. There were also a number of satellite trucks parked to the side for some sort of Christmas pageant being held inside. Suddenly, a crowd of people began pouring out of Royal Albert Hall and my solitude was broken.

The dozens of cheerful people all seemed headed in the same direction I was (roughly southeast, towards Harrod's), so I let myself be carried along with the crowd. This took me around the sides of Imperial College and the Natural History Museum; the Victoria & Albert Museum was visible across Exhibition Road. Much of the crowd I was following descended into an Undeground station near here (which, oddly, isn't on my map) but I continued walking south.

At the southeast corner of the Natural History Museum, I came across a temporary ice rink filled with happy Londoners enjoying a Sunday winter's afternoon. Stretched out in front of the museum was a Christmas Market with a couple dozen shops selling all sorts of gifts. The trees in the square had strands of lights strung through them and the museum's facade was lit brightly. It was a very festive scene and put me right in the Christmas mood!

I continued my (long) walk along Cromwell Road, which soon turns into Bromwell Road as it veers northeast. The traffic here was extremely heavy and the sidewalks crowded with holiday shoppers. I could soon make out the lights outlining Harrod's in the distance on the opposite side of the street. As I approached, I had several good vantage points for picture-taking. The building itself was much larger than I had expected.

After I braved the traffic and swarms of people to successfully cross the street, I ventured inside the crown jewel of British department stores. The experiene was different to any I've experienced in shopping; I think Harrod's should be put on the "must see" list of anyone contempllsting a visit to London. Mere words cannot adequately describe the spectacle. There are dozens of rooms on six different levels, all selling different types of products. It's easy to get lost (even contantly referring to my map, which uniformed employees give you upon entering, I rarely knew exactly where I was). But that's part of it's charm - you're never quite sure what treasures you will discover in the next room. Just trying to describe the Food Stalls (which actually consist of many different rooms, each devoted to a different type of food) would take an entire blog entry!

In all, I spent over an hour threading my way through the crowds inside Harrod's, just taking in the spectacle of it all. Although I didn't spend any money, I goy some great ideas of what I'd like to get later; I'll return sometime on Tuesday to do some shopping.

Finally, I entered the Knightsbeidge Undeground station (I had to walk up to the Sloane Street entrance because the one below Harrod's was closed). I took the Piccadilly Line to Piccadilly Circus Station and changed to the Bakerloo Line for Charing Cross Station. I exited that station, turned around and there was Trafalgar Square laid out before me. At this time of year, it's dominated not by Nelson's Monument but by the huge Norwegian spruce Christmas tree donated each year since the end of World War II by the people of Norway. I took several photos of the tree and monument, as well as the National Gallery, the fountains, and St. Martin's In The Fields church, but it was too dark for the photos to come out as clear as I would have liked. Perhaps they'll look better when I view them on. My computer screen back home (all the photos I take on this trip will be uploaded to my Webshots account, probably after December 12).

Finally, it was time to return to the hotel as I was exhausted (it was only 6:30 in the evening). I took the Bakerloo Line to Tottenham Court Road, changing to the Central Line for the westward journey. I had to get off at Lancaster Gate station because Queensway is closed until next year (was it damaged in the bombings last summer?). It was a pleasant walk from there to the hotel; along the way, I found an Internet cafe and a shop where I can get the photos on my memory card transferred to CD. I also purchased a 2 liter bottle of Sprite so I'd have something to drink in my room.

I watched a bit of television (an episode of "Seinfeld" and something about a Lamboghini road rally across Britain) before turning in around 8:30. I woke up at 5:00 this morning. As soon as I shower, I plan tol get some breakfast and head out to the RAF Museum in Hendon. I have to be at The Forum at 4:00 for Marillion's soundcheck and tonight of course is the big end-of-tour concert. Should be a great day!

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