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Has it really been four days since I've written a blog entry?  Mai pen rai; I'll try to get caught up now...

Tim and I spent a lot of time between Friday and Monday watching the extensive television coverage of the events surrounding the 60th anniversary of the ascension to the throne by King Rama IX (Bhumiphol Adulyadej).  Many of the ceremonies were governed by ages-old Buddhist traditions and all the Thai television stations carried the exact same feed (no English commentary).  While it all looked grand, after a couple of hours of hearing the Dhamma chanted by 99 monks or watching members of the royal family pass along candles, taking turns waving and blowing on them, my eyes and mind seriously began to wander.  Not exactly riveting TV, but it's illegal in this country to say anything bad against the monarchy so you can't exactly make sarcastic remarks out loud.

Anyway, the best part of each days' celebrations were the huge fireworks displays in the evenings.  I'd been anxiously awaiting the Royal Barge Procession on Monday afternoon but, unfortunately, we missed all but the end of that due to returning home late.  I did see a bit of the highlights on the late evening news but they concentrated on the arrivals of the many foreign heads of government rather than showing the boats.

There are, of course, many souvenirs in the shops commemorating this Diamond Jubilee.  You see the Thai red, white & blue tricolor flag everywhere as well as the yellow flag honoring His Majesty.  There are also t-shirts and polos available in yellow with the special 60th anniversary royal cipher emblazoned on the left breast (Tim and I bought ours in Bangkok).  During the King's address to his people from Temple Hall the other day, the grand plaza was filled with a sea of these yellow shirts — some 450,000 of them if the media estimates are to be believed.  The book shops are filled with biographies of King Bhumiphol (mostly in Thai, but one from several years ago has just been reprinted in English).  And two sets of postage stamps honoring the King (including the largest stamp ever released in Thailand) have already been issued (a third will be released on his birthday in December).

My favorite commemorative, however, is the new 60 baht banknote.  The design is great but I don't yet have one.  They printed 9,999,999 of these and distributed them to banks nationwide in a special pamphlet for sale, one per person, at the price of 100 baht each (the surcharge going to various Royal relief projects).  These all sold out within hours of their release on Friday and we couldn't obtain one by the time Tim and I got to the bank (around three in the afternoon that day).  However, I read in the newspaper this morning that the central bank will be printing more to satisfy public demand, to be released by the end of June; they will only be available from the central bank and you have to apply there this week in order to have a chance.

We also did a fair amount of sightseeing (or, as Tim puts it, "looking around") over the past several days with motorcycle rides on Friday, Sunday, and Monday.  We spent a couple of hours Friday afternoon driving around the older sections of Phuket Town, specifically the historic Thalang Road.  This area features many hundred-year-old-plus examples of Sino-Portuguese architecture and was originally settled during Phuket's tin mining heyday.  Some of the best-preserved examples of the old shop-houses can be found on Soi Rommanae, leading off of Thalang.  Nearby, we also found the main post office and the neighboring Phuket Philatelic Museum in the old Post & Telegraph building.  I think Tim was impressed that I was able to direct her through the labyrinth of one-way streets that run through this area of town; she'd ask "left or right?" at various intersections and I (almost) invariably chose the correct route.

Sunday saw me directing her south of Phuket Town towards Ao Makham and Cape Panwa.  My main goal was to find MV Doulos, the world's oldest ocean liner having been constructed two years after the Titanic sank on her maiden voyage in 1912; I only knew that it was anchored somewhere in Phuket's Deep Water Port.  However, I kept Tim in the dark about this quest as I wasn't entirely certain whether or not I could find the ship.  Knowing my everlasting search for scenic views, she turned down a small road leading to the coastline; the tide was out and there were a number of beached fishing trawlers with a tropical backdrop.  Coming to the end of the road, I glanced south and saw the Doulos tied up at a quay about a mile or so further.  I pointed her out to Tim and explained that the ship was 92 years old and that we should try to get closer for some photos.  We drove back up to the main road (Highway 4023), soon turned down Highway 4129, and found the entrance to the Port of Phuket.  A bored-looking security guard waved us through, despite a sign in Thai and English saying that visitors needed to leave their identity cards at the gate.  We drove past a large warehouse, turned a corner, and there sat the large liner gleaming white under rather threatening clouds.

I shouldn't have been surprised but I was by the large collection of street vendor stalls (most on motorbikes) grouped alongside the ship.  I was also happy to see a pair of blue gangways allowing public access for a 10-baht admission fee.  After taking a few photos pierside, Tim and I purchased a pair of tickets and climbed up to the promenade deck.  We were amazed to see that much of the ship was a large bookshop with a large variety of books (in many different languages) for sale at reasonable prices.  I discovered later (through an article in the Phuket Gazette) that the ship has been sailing the world since 1978 in a role as a floating bookshop and Christian ministry.  In the last 18 years, the Doulos has sailed 315,000 nautical miles (583,000 kilometers, or about 14-and-a-half times around the world), made 515 port calls in over 100 countries, and has received more than 17.5 million visitors.  Although this was her first visit to Thailand (she arrived June 1 and will depart on the 26th), last year a hundred volunteers from her crew of 415 came here to build houses for people who had been homeless since the December 26, 2004, tsunami.

We spent some time browsing the books but the only things we purchased were some postcards, a coffee mug, and a keychain featuring images of the Doulos.  I took a number of photos on-deck and from the pier; for a ship of her age she certainly is very well-maintained.

By the time we departed, it was after 5:00 and I expected Tim to turn back north towards home.  So it surprised me when she turned left out of the port and we continued heading down to Laem Panwa.  This area is very scenic and there are a number of fancy resorts being constructed here.  I find this a shame because the virgin forests are being razed to make way for hotels and condos.  Eventually, we came across a large Royal Thai Navy base and then the Phuket Aquarium.  It was past closing time when we arrived here but now we know it's location we plan to return at some point (the building certainly is modern).  We stopped at the Phuket Marine Biological Center pier and walked towards the end (despite a large "No Trespassing/Government Installation" sign), watching the scientists collect specimens in the tidal basin.  I managed a few decent shots of a heron among the rocks and also of the sunset out towards Lone and Aew Islands.

On the drive home, I noticed a couple of billboards advertising an upcoming concert by Thailand's biggest rock band, Carabao.  I really enjoy their music (kind of a blend between America's Santana and souped-up traditional Thai rhythms) and recently ordered their 20th anniversary concert DVD and a greatest hits CD.  They will be performing on June 19 at Saphan Hin (near the Phuket Bus Terminal) and we'll definitely be attending (an added bonus is that the show is free).

Monday, we started out driving to Patong via Kata/Karon.  We had no real goal in mind and ended up eating lunch with La at a noodle stand on Nanai Road.  After walking along the northern stretches of Patong Beach (near an area which has recently been reconstructed and now features a nice causeway above the beach), we drove north towards Kamala.  I didn't want to stop here so we continued further up the coast to Surin Beach.  This is a fairly nice one, although there's quite a bit of trash around.  It was virtually deserted so we enjoyed walking in the sand without having to dodge soccer balls, etc.  We purchased some excellent homemade icecream from a stall and then continued on our drive, heading east through the predominantly-Muslim village of Bang-Tao and eventually connecting with the new Bypass Road at the Heroine's Monument in Thalang.  We stopped at Tesco-Lotus (I was in need of black ink for my printer) and I FINALLY found an electric barbecue grill (I had practically given up looking for such a grill and we were actually looking at gas burners when I came across this); we also bought some Italian sausage and chicken breasts to grill in the near future.

As we were cruising down Chaofa West Road, we were amazed to find Jum following us.  Tim and I had had a talk just a couple of days before about her friends just showing up at the house unannounced at any time of day and night (it's becoming a real problem again).  I wasn't too pleased but decided to just bear with this visit as Jum is the nicest of Tim's friends and I didn't want to appear "angry."  When we pulled up to the house, Lek was waiting outside.  I don't think Tim was very happy, either, especially since Lek was holding Jum's new puppy (the last time this dog visited, it had an "accident" on the living room floor and had been "banned" from the house.  We all hung out on the front porch for a while before Tim and Jum decided to walk to a nearby market to buy fresh crabs — Tim wanted to try out our new grill by barbecuing these but in the end we just steamed them in the pot.  Although we were reluctant at first to host such a get-together, we were both very gracious and were soon enjoying ourselves.  This was helped by Lek purchasing drinks (several bottles of Leo beer, some water, yoghurt drink for me, as well as a roast duck that wasn't really very appetizing in the end).  We spread a blanket on the side patio and enjoyed an evening picnic.  It was just the thing we needed to unwind after our long afternoon on the motorbike.  We had the television on and watched the last bit of the Royal Barge Procession in Bangkok and a ceremony with many foreign heads of state.  Later, when it began to rain, I even prepared myself for the likelihood that Jum and Lek would be trapped there overnight (luckily, the downpour didn't last very long).  After they left, Tim seemed very happy that I'd been such a good host.

This post is also a good time to mention that, although we are officially both on a diet, we are eating much better now.  Before, most of our meals consisted of Tim purchasing Thai food at an open-air market which often proved way too spicy for these tastebuds (and I haven't yet acclimitized to the ten chiles in a small dish style of hotness that Tim prefers).  Usually, Tim would buy me some stringy-looking fried or barbecued chicken or pork which would be consumed by tearing off small bits of meat and mashing it into a ball of sticky rice (occasionally accompanied by a dip in a sweet chili sauce).  Sometimes, I would have a bowl of rather bland noodle soup (sometimes with pork or fish balls).  But this would get old day after day and when we'd go to the market (or, increasingly, Tim alone because she gets better prices without the farang tagging along), I'd usually tell her that I wasn't hungry or I had "jep tong" (stomach ache) and would just skip the meal rather than endure another day of pork or chicken.

Our trips to a "real" grocery store would usually see us buying plenty of food for Tim but very little for me aside from a bag of Granny Smith apples or tins of lychee or longan.  I was trying too hard to maintain what I felt was an out-of-control food budget.  However, after two months of tracking food costs I found we really weren't spending as much as I thought we were.  Over the past week or so I've really felt like I could splurge a bit and buy a few things I really wanted.  Tim sometimes balks at the costs of certain items so I've taken to adding things to the cart when she's not looking.  Still, the cost of most food items is less or at least comparable to what I'd pay back in the States (except for cheese and good beef).

I'm also beginning to lose my "fear" of trying to cook in Tim's kitchen.  My first real breakthrough in this area was when I made a batch of salsa last week.  I'd purchased a small bag of salsa seasonings while in Kansas in early April but had thus far resisted making any.  For one thing, I hadn't been able to find cans of diced tomatoes in the shops.  I finally bought a can of whole tomatoes in juice and diced them myself, adding the Kansas seasonings and a dash of Tim's chile powder.  I only used half of the seasoning packet because I wasn't certain how it would taste and I wanted to reserve the rest for a future batch made with diced onions and green peppers (we didn't have any in the house at the time).  Also, genuine tortilla chips proved elusive but I finally found a bag amidst the numerous strange flavors of potato chips they sell here (for example, prawn- and green curry-flavored — yuck!).  The resulting batch of salsa was some of the best I've ever tasted (including some of the more expensive home-made jars I'd seek out while in Albuquerque).  I had a bit on the first day (Tim only tried a little) but it tasted even better the second day and Tim ate more than I did (we finished the batch in one sitting).

This weekend, I broke down and purchased some sandwich fixin's — a loaf of bread, some German pastrimi and salami.  We already had mustard.  I also bought a package of what was purported to be slices of cheddar cheese (searching long and hard for slices of any kind of cheese) but which turned out to be a moldy brick of some foul-tasting white cheese of an unknown variety; this only was used on one sandwich before being tossed in the bin.  The pastrami is especially good being so tender as to remind me of a juicy slice of premium roast beef (another item that so far has proved elusive to me in Thailand).

With the addition of my new barbecue grill, my time cooking will certainly increase.  I grilled some Italian sausage tonight (a BIG hit) and we have some chicken breasts for tomorrow.  As soon as I see a decent looking steak in a local supermarket (and I check Big C, Central, and Tesco-Lotus everytime we visit) at a decent price (Australian and American beef sell for more than $30/kg) I'll definitely buy it.  A1 steak sauce and other steak seasonings are widely available here.

Since I'm using this blog entry to catch up on all sorts of different topics, I'll end by mentioning that I think I'll be driving again very soon.  We now have a collection of three motorbikes.  Tim's original motorbike, the one that got stolen, has been recovered but is in very poor shape (it has a very rusty sidecar and the brake handle came off when I tested it out, not to mention the registration expired FIVE years ago).  Also, Lek has given me a year-old Suzuki (which is actually properly registered and now signed over in my name); this was a belated combination "thanks for being so great for Tim" and housewarming gift as well as an attempt on her part to reduce her "inventory" (she seems to collect motorbikes the way some people collect coins; always seeking out the perfect bike for her job as a taxi driver).  I've (almost) overcome my fear of the traffic patterns down here and have a very good sense of direction, especially compared to Tim.  I understand the concepts of motorbike operation, knowing which handle and lever does what, and I'm pretty sure I can keep the bike upright.  Tim plans to give me actual driving practice very soon; we think the best place to do this without me worrying about other vehicles would be a schoolyard on a Saturday or Sunday morning (when all you have to worry about is hitting stray dogs and wandering monks).  Eventually, I'd like to rent a car for some slightly longer trips but first I need to get (very) accustomed to driving the small bike in all sorts of traffic.

Whew, I made it to the end!  It's so hard to write long entries sometimes because of the numerous household duties and other interuptions that occur throughout the day; my usual preferred time to write these is early in the morning before Tim wakes up but I haven't felt much like doing that the past few days.  Anyway, the bulk of this entry was written in the evening while Tim watched a couple of movies.  We purchased VCD's of "Kill Bill, Volume 2" (which I have on DVD in storage back in New Mexico) and "Cellular" but they both ended up being dubbed in Thai WITHOUT English subtitles (yet another reason I prefer DVD over VCD, but they were only 45 baht — USD $1.17 — each so I can't really complain much).

Until next time...