Benician abroad: Joys, observations from a world away
❒ Judie Donaldson chronicles her year of travel around Southeast Asia
By Donna Beth Weilenman
Judie Donaldson, a Benicia writer, announced last spring that she would be leaving in June to spend a year in Asia, primarily in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Donaldson recently wrote that she is adjusting to the new year in places so far from her Benicia home.
“Because I didn’t experience a traditional holiday, I missed the usual indicators that herald the end of one year and the start of another,” she wrote in her WordPress online travelogue she calls “Judie’s Journey, A Southeast Asia Experience”.
She spent Christmas in the mountains of Vietnam, and New Year’s Day in Siem Reap, Cambodia.
She has returned to Chiang Mai, where she has been told the Christmas decorations placed along the streets and in store windows were primarily for Westerners, since the holiday isn’t celebrated there.
“Or it may just be another example of how most everything Western is migrating into other cultures,” she said, wondering at how homogenized different parts of the world are becoming.
In Vietnam, the holiday decorations herald party times in larger cities, she said. Younger people have embraced the custom of giving gifts at that time of year.
New Year’s Eve in Southeast Asia resembles celebrations in the United States, she said after watching television coverage of various nations’ displays.
In contrast, she said, is Loi Krathong, a special holiday in Thailand celebrated early in November last year. It takes place the night of the first full moon of the 12th lunar month. “It is a festival that exists to thank the river goddess for providing life to the fields and forests, and to ask forgiveness for the polluting ways of humans. Isn’t that a lovely reason for a celebration?” she wrote.
“And, believe me, you can feel the city come to life. Everyone is involved.”
She said her guide’s 3-year-old son won a costume contest for which his mother had rented attire and had spent time making up his face.
Temples, called wats, and hotels and shops place decorative arches at their entrances, and on the first night of the celebration sidewalks are illuminated by thousands of votive candles, she said.
Monks prepare and launch lanterns into the sky, and any leftover lanterns can be bought and sent aloft, too, she wrote.
Donaldson and Benicia friends, some of whom bought a 3-foot lantern, watched as the airborne lights began to resemble a constellation. “What a magical sight!” she wrote.
Another part of the celebration involves filling a banana leaf boat with flowers, coins, incense and a burning candle, then sending the boat into a waterway.
“The idea is to make a wish and hope your boat’s candle will remain lit and your boat will travel a far distance,” she wrote. She and her friends bought some boats and walked them beyond the surf line of the Andaman Sea.
“And off they went into the night,” she wrote.
“Just picture this. Balmy weather. Warm water. A beautiful sandy beach. A lovely resort setting. And a sea of lights dancing on the water. What a sight!
“It reminds me of the illusion that I inevitably have when new fallen snow is on the ground and it seems to me that all is at peace in the world,” she said, thankful for her illusions. “I had a similar sense with this.”
Donaldson is trying to transition from being a tourist to becoming a resident of Chiang Mai. Sometimes she gets to guide visiting friends to some of Thailand’s notable sights.
One is the chance to visit and ride on an elephant, Thailand’s indigenous animal and a symbol of the country. The animal has been critical to Thai history, but now acts as a tourist attraction as well, she wrote.
Donaldson worries that some “tourist attraction” elephants are abused, but said the country also has several preserves that provide homes for elephants that are rescued from ill treatment.
Thailand has springs so hot that eggs can be boiled in them, and those springs are popular sites for picnics involving freshly cooked eggs.
Chiang Mai is popular for more conventional Thai cooking classes.
“There must be 50 cooking schools here. At least. And they have their systems down to a science,” she wrote.
She participated in a class in which each of the 16 students visited a local market to shop for ingredients, then had a chopping station, a wok cooking station and a place at the dining table to eat what they’d cooked.
She said her new home has amazing landscapes. “The area is well known for Ao Phang-Nga, a spectacular landscape of limestone rock cliffs that jut up out of the sea,” she wrote.
She described half-submerged caves reachable only by those lying on the floor of a kayak piloted by experienced boatmen.
“As if these natural sights weren’t enough to captivate anyone and everyone, the piece de resistance for most tourists is a visit to — prepare yourself — James Bond Island,” she wrote.
That island is where the ninth Bond film, “The Man With the Golden Gun,” was filmed in 1974.
During her travels, Donaldson has traveled the length of Vietnam, riding trains, boats and planes and seeing its “soaring mountains, a killer coastline, the mighty Mekong, and a country rich with rice fields.”
But not all of the accommodations resembled those Donaldson experienced in the United States. A train compartment consisted of two primitive bunk beds that she and a friend might have had to share with strangers if they hadn’t paid extra. She also learned to share a bathroom with 16 others.
The country is twice the size of Arizona, with a population of 84 million, nearly half of whom are farmers.
Her visit taught her much about a country that she previously knew only because of war, which the Vietnamese call “the American war,” after which the country struggled with reunification.
She observed the changing of the guard at Ho Chi Minh’s tomb, saw the “Hanoi Hilton” where Americans were imprisoned, and visited the Women’s Museum that described the roles of women, including in combat and intelligence, during Vietnam’s wars.
In Saigon, she saw the War Museum that tells of American actions in Vietnam, including the impact of Agent Orange, a chemical used during the war. Photographs illustrate other American actions during the war, although Donaldson noticed no mention was made of similar acts committed by the Viet Cong.
“I hate to sound so simplistic, but I just don’t ‘get’ war,” she wrote.
On the other hand, she was told that the Vietnamese consider the American war to be in the past. They focus instead on the present and future. “Vietnam is a place to work hard and to succeed,” she was told.
She saw Sapa, which she described as resembling a Swiss mountain village with an Asian twist, and she took an overnight boat ride at Halong Bay to view more than 3,000 limestone cliffs and islands rising from the Bay of Tonkin.
She saw the influences of multiple other countries in the evolving architecture and art of Hoi An. “I could have decimated my entire budget purchasing interesting art and crafts,” she confessed.
She has learned that Ho Chi Minh is a national hero because he resisted Japanese occupation in World War II, the later domination by China, and established independence from France and forced the United States to withdraw in 1975.
The red of Vietnam’s flag represents blood and revolution for freedom, and its five-pointed star represents five categories of the population: peasants, workers, intellectuals, traders and soldiers.
The country is socialist, having only one political party. But its National Assembly is elected. That body then chooses the country’s president and prime minister.
“The marriage of capitalism and communism was obvious and the hopes and energy of the young people were palpable,” she wrote.
As in other Asian countries, Vietnamese life revolves around family, particularly in rural areas, where the eldest son and his wife live with his parents and work for his family.
“I was most intrigued by the Vietnamese people, who seem positive, industrious and friendly and helpful,” Donaldson wrote. She said she experienced multiple “random acts of kindness.”
She spent only two days, however, in Cambodia, a country about the size of Oklahoma. “More accurately, we visited Siem Reap, the home of Angkor Wat, a famous UNESCO World Heritage Site,” she wrote.
Angkor Wat is shown on the Cambodian flag, she wrote, though multiple countries have invested in restoring the site.
It comprises the ruins of 12th-century temples that are part of the largest Hindu temple and religious monument in the world, taking a million people working 35 years to complete the carvings on the main temple alone, Donaldson wrote.
“I’ve seen a lot of temples over here, but none like this. They are architectural and artistic treasures,” she wrote.
Not only is their construction complex, “but it is the intricate stone carving that puts them in a class by itself,” she wrote.
The country itself has been occupied by other nations, and its own people were victimized by the Khmer Rouge and the rule of Pol Pot, she wrote.
In the early 1990s, the United Nations helped Cambodia become an independent country, though it remains poor. Its primary industries are garments, tourism, agriculture and construction, though 75 percent of the population are employed in subsistence farming.
After spending months in Asia, Donaldson said, “It is so interesting to be in an area of the world where the U.S. isn’t dominant and the axis of interest is Asia.” Instead, the Association of Southwest Asian Nations is the major organization, though its members are aligned with various major world powers, creating “a basic challenge and strain,” she wrote.
Her next move, she wrote, is to another abode in Chiang Mai.
“I unexpectedly need to move from my charming townhouse, so I’m heading off to pound the pavement and figure out where I’m going to settle myself for the remaining five months of my tenure here,” she wrote.
“Wherever it is, it will be interesting.”