Monday, December 31, 2007

Lop Buri to Chiang Mai and New Year's Eve

After all the effort that I outlined in the previous e-mail to change train tickets so we could get to and out of Lop Buri earlier, it was all for naught. Once we boarded the train we moved about 100 ft. and stopped. Our engine had blown a gasket. After a while we asked how long it would be until we went again. We were told half an hour. After half an hour we asked how long. We were told half an hour. Apparently half an hour is the Thai version of manana.

We eventually got to Lop Buri, a very small town with limited tourist infrastructure. We set a new record there. We got a hotel for 260 baht per night. That's less than $9. I would have been happy to pay more for something better, but this was the best there was. It had a fan, a western toilet and it was clean, so I was happy.

The next day we woke and headed out to do some sight seeing. We started by trying to find breakfast, but the Thai breakfasts are a little scary (sticky rice), so we ended up with donuts and juice in the park. Next we toured the old royal palace, built in 1666 as a back-up to the primary palace in Ayutthaya. Moderately interesting.

We grabbed a bit of lunch from a dim sum place, then headed over to some of the old temples. Here it was a little more interesting. Monkeys have taken over many of the town's temples, and even roam the streets and power lines all around town. We went to one of the more popular shrines in town that is still being used as an active Buddhist temple. It was covered with monkeys. There was a great big buffet that had been set out for them, featuring monkey favourites like cucumbers and boiled eggs. There were hanging ladders going from tree to tree. And there were several pools set around for monkey usage. No wonder there were so many of them there, it was monkey heaven. The most impressive sight for me was monkeys jumping out of trees to land in a 10 ft wide plastic pool that had been set out for them. They were just having a great time.

After tiring of monkey heaven we went over to the monkey 'hood, another nearby temple long since out of use. Again, the monkeys were all over the place. We took lots of photos and Colleen had a few good chats with some of the monkeys. At one point she got a little too close and the next thing we knew a monkey was on her, trying to take her glasses. Colleen protected her stuff and handed me her camera so she could get the monkey off her back. Easier said than done. Next thing, she had two more monkeys jump on her. I helped her fend them off, after taking a few photos, but we did it gently, as much for her sake as for theirs. We were far more careful around the little guys after that.

We were now pretty monkeyed out. It was extremely hot, so we wandered through the shade of the town's chaotic markets, then went back to our hotel to cool off. I sent a few e-mails and Colleen napped. We wasted time for a few hours until dinner. Then we set off to find a nice place to eat. Since we were going to be taking an all night train that evening we wanted to be sure that we could find somewhere trustworthy, where we could be certain that whatever we ate wouldn't give us food poisoning or something else with similar symptoms. We knew from experience that the last place you wanted to have stomach troubles was on a train, where a squat toilet in motion is challenging at the best of times.

While looking for dinner we stumbled upon one more wat that we hadn't seen during the day. It was monkey free, but it was lovely, particularly at dusk when the lighting was perfect and the temperature was reasonable. We poked around there, then gave up on finding a good/safe Thai restaurant and settled for KFC. I trust the Colonel to take care of me.
We got to the train station with half an hour to spare, then had to wait for a couple of hours more for it to arrive. We had second class sleeper berths, which gave us spots to lie down and curtains for privacy. It was actually pretty decent. We awoke the next morning about an hour out of Chiang Mai, tired but ready for the day.

Chiang Mai is Thailand's second largest city and is considered to be its cultural capital. I find it interesting that it's the second largest, since Bangkok is the largest, but the two have populations of 200k and 8.5mm respectively. That's a huge drop from #1 to #2.

We got a tuk tuk to our guesthouse, ate a late breakfast, checked in, showered, and headed out to explore Chiang Mai. We took the recommended walking tour and visited several temples, however these were in far better shape than what we'd seen before. Some were still in regular use, built with massive teak pillars. The last temple of the day was Chiang Mai's most popular temple, the Wat Phra Singh, apparently one of the most impressive and revered due to its image of Phra Singh or Lion Buddha. Unfortunately, sort of, we didn't get to see that Buddha image because there was a celebration/service going on for the new year. Maybe a hundred Thais sat on the floor of the temple with a string wrapped around their head. On the other end of this string was a plastic envelope with money in it, which was in turn attached to a grid of strings running between the teak pillars of the temple. We asked one of the monks what was going on and he explained that it was a good luck celebration for the new year, and that all of the funds went to temple upkeep. Makes sense, but it was a pretty bizarre sight.

By this time it was getting to be New Years Eve. We headed back to our hotel to clean up then went out for dinner. We wanted to go somewhere nice, so we found a good sounding restaurant in our Lonely Planet bible. We jumped into one of the local sawngthaew, which is the primary form of local transport, sort of like a mini-bus to nowhere, and asked to be taken to our restaurant. The driver gave us a price, we got in, and headed off. A few minutes later I realized that we were going in completely the wrong direction. I asked the driver, as best as I could, if he knew where we were going. After a few more minutes we determined that he had no idea. He tried to call the restaurant, with no luck, and we gave up on him. We next tried a tuk tuk, with no better luck, and decided that we'd be best off just to walk somewhere local. After a lot of walking around we ended up at a place called The Wok where we had a terrific dinner.

After dinner we decided to walk around the town for a bit, what with it being New Year's Eve and all. It was then that we saw a string of lights rising in the sky. We followed them over to the main street and were able to make out that they were small lanterns with little fires burning inside that had been released into the air like mini hot air balloons. There were first a few of them, then hundreds, and they just kept coming. We walked over to the square where many of them seemed to be originating and found a mass of people in the main city square watching, selling and lighting these lanterns. We watched, learned how it was done, then Colleen and I bought our New Years lanterns. The idea being that you light a lantern and release it, and it takes away all of your bad luck from the last year. So we're starting out '08 with a fresh slate.

After releasing ours we stayed around to watch others let go of their lanterns. If you didn't hold onto it long enough after it had been lit, for a couple of minutes at least, then there wouldn't be enough hot air in the lantern to carry it off into the sky. It might rise at first, but then it would go horizontally, or even drop back down. This made it very risky, because you had public square with thousands of people and burning lanterns floating for a bit then dropping back to earth. On the other hand, sometimes a lantern would just rise a bit then go laterally, which would take it into one of the trees surrounding the square. Sometimes they'd stick in the branches for a minute or two, but usually they'd release back into the sky. Only a few stayed in the trees until they burned their fuel source out. Finally, some of the lantern fuel sources, which seemed to be just rolled up paper but were clearly something more effective and long lasting than that, dripped burning material as they crossed the sky. No one seemed to get hit by it, but it seemed like a good way to get a nasty burn. Danger aside, it was wonderful to watch the thousands of lanterns lift off into the sky.

After watching on the ground for awhile Colleen and I went up onto the city walls that were on one side of this square to watch the continuing festival of lanterns. At the same time, individuals were setting off fireworks all around us. Then, at midnight, with the continuing procession of lanterns rising through the sky, the frequency and size of the fireworks grew, until there were explosions going off all around us. Big ones in the distance, midsized ones right overhead. It wasn't a coordinated effort like you'd see at home. Rather, it was a hodgepodge of different fireworks and lanterns happening all around the city. It was disorganized, it was improvised, and it was terrific. We were surrounded by explosions and a beautiful light display throughout the sky. This improvised grassroots show was probably the best New Years display I've seen.

One final, possibly anal, thought on New Years in Chiang Mai. I wouldn't be surprised if there were 10,000 to 20,000 of those lanterns that floated through the sky last night. At some point they've all got to come down somewhere. Some poor farmer in the east is probably cursing the Chiang Mai celebrants this morning.
Happy New Year everyone.

5 Minute Book Review - Winning by Jack Welch

I'm not normally a business biography reader. I enjoy business books and, in particular, marketing books, but not necessarily books by business leaders on what they do well and why. It simply isn't normally particularly relevant to me. However, I was wandering through a Jakarta book store trying to find my next English read the other day and decided to try to find something by Jack Welch, the former Chairman and CEO of GE. I've always respected his opinions and commentary that I've read in magazines, he seems to be very down to earth and straight forward, and he got into his position the old fashioned way, rising through the ranks, which I thought might give him a different perspective than a lot of other business leaders. I couldn't find any books by him in the bookstore, but I did find one the next day in a tiny little bookstand in the Jakarta airport. Karma.

In short, I found this book to be exactly as I expected / wanted. It was full of straight talk and simple business advice. One of the reasons why I avoid a lot of business books is that they don't seem to deal with the reality of everyday work. Welch's book is very grounded, down to earth, and is about creating action. His advice will be helpful to me whenever I take on my next role.

Welch is also a very interesting guy due in no small part to his overriding philosophy of candor. Everything he does seems to be driven by the need to be upfront, honest and decisive about matters. And while that may seem simplistic, in my experience I have found that that is one of the biggest things missing in so many work environments. A lack of candor is also one of the things that I have always found somewhat frustrating in the ad agency environment, where far too much time is spent not getting right to the point. I believe that clients could be better served if they got a more straightforward treatment, after all they're paying for the agency's services/time. That said, the clients need to be willing to take the frank discussion and not blame the agency when they hear things they don't want to hear. Of course, that's easier said than done, and really comes down to a relationship built on respect and trust.

But back to the book; This reliance on frank talk and candor probably also makes Welch not seem like the nicest guy at times. His belief in a performance ranking system, with actionables tied to it, certainly creates a lot of angst. But I believe that he likely does far more good than harm in being honest and clear with people. And there's no doubt that his management style worked for GE over the two decades that he managed the company.

On a personal note, it was interesting to read this book after my recent work experience at Coastal Contacts. Welch's philosophy forces me to look internally for reasons why things didn't work out as well as to look at the external factors.

I would strongly recommend this book to anyone curious about how to become a better manager, leader or employee.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Bangkok and beyond

We arrived in Bangkok on the evening of the 27th and caught a cab to our hotel. For some reason I had pictured Bangkok as being a bit run down and poor, more like Jakarta, which I'm sure parts are, but the area we saw was busy, modern, loud and chaotic. But that's all we saw, since we had a train to catch the next morning.

The next day we went to the train station and got tickets for the commuter train to Ayuthaya. Recommended by our trusty Lonely Planet as the place to go. We loaded on to our train, which looked lovely with old wooden benches, but which numbed your butt pretty quickly. It turned out that we were fortunate to get on at the first stop, as after a few stops people were standing in the aisles or sitting on seat arms. Colleen had someone almost in her lap.

We arrived in Ayuthaya around noon and found our way to our accommodations, Baan Lotus, a nice little place just off a busy street. It wasn't necessarily nice, after our good hotels in Jakarta, but the woman running the place was very pleasant and helpful, it was clean with a nice view over a Lotus filled pond, and they had bikes for us to take out.

Ayuthaya was the Siamese royal capital from 1350 until 1767. In the 17th century over a million people lived here and it was claimed by every outside traveller who visited to be the most incredible city they had ever seen. At its peak there were over 400 temples in this small area. However, in 1767 the Burmese sacked the city, stealing everything stealable, burning everything burnable, and knocking everything else down. At that time the capital was moved to Bangkok.

Now some parts of the city have been restored. It was turned into a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1991. And some of the temple areas have been restored. We took bikes from the hotel and started with Wat Phra Mahathat. This was a mostly knocked down series of temples, but the remains were pretty impressive. The real draw here was a Buddha's head that had come off of its statue and then a tree had grown around it. The combination of the Buddha with nature has deep significance for some.

Next we went to Wat Ratburana, which we had seen from Wat Phra Mahathat. It has one of the best preserved "prang", a tall monument often built to celebrate dead relatives, in the area. This was pretty impressive, particularly when you thought of this structure standing like this for 600 years, with very little upkeep.

We next went for a drink at a cafe overlooking the temples. It was in the mid-30s and we were dying.

We had just enough energy left for one more temple, so we rode over to Wat Phra Si Sanphet. This one was impressive for its three huge stupas, lined up in a row. Our guidebook says this "epitomizes the quintessential Ayuthaya architecture". I don't know about that, but it was pretty cool.

We'd had enough. We headed back to Baan Lotus, showered, napped and headed for dinner. We decided to try one of the places on the river, thinking that it would have nice ambiance. I suppose it might have, but I wouldn't recommend it. We got the tourist menu, which was about 10% the size of the local menu. That was probably a bad sign. The other bad sign was probably when the diner sitting next to us decided to feed the fish in the river, by tossing his entire dinner over the rail. At least the fish ate well.

After having dinner at our first restaurant we went for a quick tuk-tuk (like a motorized wheelbarrow, with a passenger section) ride around town to see the temples at night. While you can't get inside the gates to see them, they're lit up beautifully. Then we went for our second dinner. At this place the food was great. However, the ambiance was a bit off. They had a Thai woman playing the guitar and singing 70's folk songs. My god it was awful.

Today started with me riding over to the train station to see if we could change our tickets for today. There are only so many temples that we want to see here, so we wanted to get out a little earlier than first planned. I grabbed a bike from the hotel and headed out, taking the bridge to get off the island. (I didn't mention above, but Ayuthaya is surrounded by 3 rivers and a canal.) It seemed a little busy, so on my way back I took the ferry. When I told our hostess, she was horrified. Clearly that was not the route to take.

After breakfast today I went to get a haircut. While already in the barbers chair I was upsold on the idea of a shave. This sounded pretty nice to me, since I already had 3 days growth going, and the idea of a hot towel and a good lather sounded somewhat luxurious. It would have been too, if I'd gotten either of those things. Instead I got some liquid spread on my face and a straight-razor. It might have been amusing, except for the look of concern on the barbers face when he realized that he wasn't sure if he could stop the bleeding. I think he put on all the coagulant that he had in the shop. On top of it, it was a terrible shave. I'm still scruffy because I think he was afraid to do any more damage.

That's it for now. We're hiding from the sun right now. Our train this afternoon takes us to Lop Buri, where there are apparently fabulous monkeys that have taken over the temples. The following day we're off to Phitsanulok, to access Sukhothai, another former capital. Then up to Chiang Mai for a few days.

p.s. I'm writing this in an Internet cafe with coin-operated computers. That's a new one on me.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Book review - Haunted by Chuck Palahniuk

So we're now in the Singapore Airport, waiting for our connection to Bangkok. Flew here with Singapore Airlines. What an amazing airline. The best I've ever flown with. Terrific service. Internet access here is free, but you get kicked off every 15 minutes. After logging in I've now got 10:40 left to write. Eeek!

I just finished reading the 5th book of our trip, Chuck Palahniuk's Haunted. If you don't know Mr. Palahniuk, he's the guy that wrote Fight Club. My all-time favourite movie.

This book is terrific. It's a collection of short stories, all tied together by the central theme of a group being trapped in an old theatre for the purpose of a writer's retreat. I'm not sure if that makes sense, but I'm against the clock with no time to edit.

The stories are all versions of horror or suspense or some sort of mystery, but most of them have a bit of a wink to them, making them somewhat playful. They have varying levels of disturbingness, ranging from the very mild to extreme. I've never read a book with one hand over my eyes before, but I actually did here. (Colleen will attest to that.) In fact, in the afterword the author writes about the number of people who have fainted during readings of the most shocking story 'Guts'. I know I stopped breathing for a minute or two there.

I'm going to strongly recommend this book to anyone looking for something fun, a little different, and not totally nice. Enjoy it and let me know what you think.

Leaving Jakarta

It's now the morning of the 27th and we're heading out of Jakarta today. We've got a noon flight to Singapore, and from there to Bangkok.

Yesterday was another relaxing day in Jakarta. We slept in. Read a bit. Hung out by the pool. Went to a mall for book shopping. And that's about it. Just the way we wanted it. We haven't really seen much of Jakarta, but from what we've read and from what we have been able to see and do, there's not a lot to see.

Now we have to check out of our nice hotel with the fabulous staff, clean rooms and full service. It's back into cheapies for the next 4 weeks. It was a nice little break though.

I'll post again soon.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Christmas Day

Today it's Christmas.

I woke up this morning and searched all over the hotel for something that would serve as a tree. No luck. They take pretty good care of the foliage here, and I would have felt badly about taking anything live. I ended up going down to the street, where I "acquired" a branch off of a tree. I also borrowed a gift from the tree in the lobby, to serve as decoration. Santa came last night and dropped off a filled stocking that looked remarkably like the socks that we were given on our Singapore Air flights, which added nicely to the decor. I also had a Santa hat that we bought at a local toy store. We were in full festive spirit.

When we got up, Colleen opened her stocking. Some lovely gifts were exchanged. And we spent the rest of the day being lazy. We've just eaten dinner. We watched White Christmas earlier, and we're watching Elf now. We've really accomplished nothing at all today, which is just about perfect.

I miss waking up on Christmas morning with my family. Watching Brynn and Cameron open their stockings. And swearing that next year, there will be fewer gifts under the tree. It's not to be this year, but I suppose that's the trade off for running away for two months.

Merry Christmas everyone. Or, in Indonesian, Selamat Natal.

Beautiful Jakarta

The next day was Christmas eve. We slept in, had a late buffet breakfast, then had another nap. It's so nice to be in a good hotel for once. We actually feel clean.

As much as we'd heard bad things about Jakarta, I wanted to get out and see the town. After all, it is a city with an official population of 8 million, and an unofficial population of 15 to 20 million. There really is no centre of town, it's just a big sprawling low-rise poor Asian city.

We caught a cab from the hotel and headed for Kota, the old neighbourhood in town. Kota was previously called Batavia when the Dutch ran things. It wasn't highly recommended, but the guidebook did say that it had some interesting old buildings, and was as much a tourist destination as anything else in this vast city. We headed over there and it was as billed - run down and falling down. The museum in the old square was closed, and the other buildings we checked out were all falling down. It was worth it, barely, just to have seen the area. Plus, as we stood in the square, we clearly stood out as tourists. Two student groups came up to interview us, to practice their English and find out our thoughts about Indonesian business and tourism.

We next walked down to the harbour. The guidebook said that it was very run down, but that the schooners at the docks were an interesting site. I can't say that we felt particularly comfortable walking to the harbour, and once we got there it didn't get any better. A pretty dodgy area. We stayed for a bit and looked around, then got the hell out of there.

Next we went to one of the many malls in town. It was Christmas eve, and I needed a gift or two for Colleen for Christmas. Perhaps not the perfect scenario, since she was with me, but it was the best we could do. And, since we're on a pretty tight budget during our travels, it was a fairly brief but fun trip. We got a few things then went to the mall's Starbucks for a holiday latte.

Later, when we got back to the hotel, we had a romantic Christmas dinner at the buffet in our lounge area. Perfect? Of course not. But we seemed to be the only people in this area of our hotel, so it was actually rather nice.

We miss our families for Christmas and Christmas dinner is when this is particularly hard. We're having a good time, but this is one time when we'd rather be at home.

To Jakarta

The day after Borobudur, December 23rd, we made our way to the train station to catch the 9:00 train to Jakarta. We had bought tickets a couple of days earlier in Executive class, as we wanted to avoid the Economy and Business class experiences we'd had before. And we had decided to take the 7 hour train ride to Jakarta instead of the hour long flight since I wanted to get a chance to view the scenery along the way.

Unfortunately, after getting on the train we discovered that our seats were right up at whatever you call a bulkhead on a train. There was no leg room at all, and the rest of the train was sold out. It was going to be a long ride. Nasty toilets and a lunch that Colleen declined but that I ate the rice out of. We were scared of the chicken wing that was included.

The train ride was beautiful. Rice fields and hills the whole way. As uncomfortable as we may have been, I think it was worth it. (Colleen may not agree.) 8 hours later we arrived in Jakarta. We caught a cab from the cab company that our hotel recommended. Apparently there have been attacks on tourists from some drivers from other companies. And we went to our hotel, the Park Lane Jakarta.

We had picked this hotel after hours online trying to find a nice place to spend Christmas. We checked in and found a lovely view. We went down to the lounge, included in our class of room, and discovered the bite to eat that we'd been told was available was actually a pretty decent dinner buffet. After no food all day we sat down and ate everything. Then we crashed. An uneventful but interesting day.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Christmas Eve, part 2

It's still Christmas eve here in Jakarta. We're in our hotel and, while it's nice, it's not particularly Christmasy.

The next dispatch on our travels:

The day after we went to Prambanan we woke up nice and early to head out to Borobudur. Our car picked us up at 5:00, so that we could be there by 6:00 when it opened.

On the drive out we had very good view of Mt. Merapi, the volcano that has threatened/abused Yogyakarta, Borobudur and Prambanan for centuries. It has been more active in recent years and this morning a good amount of smoke was coming off of it. The fact that we could see it was very good news, as it meant that we weren't going to get the kind of rain we saw the day before.

When we got to Borobudur we got a guide and did the rounds. It turns out that Borobudur isn't a temple at all, actually it's just a great big Buddhist monument. The difference is that there's no inside, it's a big structure built on a hill, but you can't go into it.

Temple or monument, it was fantastic. The thing is huge. It's got 10 stories, each one slightly different that the one before. The bottom levels were all reliefs showing the day to day lives of people in the 8th century, when it was built. This is meant to show the challenges of everyday life and how desire interferes with our attainment of higher states of being. However, you can't see any of that any more. It's been all covered over with a thick layer of stone, due to the fact that what was depicted was deemed to be pornographic, and all us tourists coming thousands of miles needed to be protected from 8th century stone porn. Pretty sad.

The next layers show depictions of the Buddha's life and a variety of statues of the Buddha. On each side of the monument he is depicted with his hands in different positions, which indicate different themes of Buddhist thinking. There are also some Hindu elements mixed in, showing the various influences that hit Indonesia at the time.

The top layers break away from depictions of the tangible world and move into a world without form. This is shown through rows of what look to be upside down bells (called stupas). Each of the bells has a Buddha inside a stone exterior with diamond or square shaped openings. Then, on the top, is one last big upside down bell, to indicate the state of uber-Nirvana. (Not a Buddhist term.) Even though this too is enclosed, when the monument was discovered there was one last Buddha hidden inside.

One of the upside down bells, on the 6th or 7th level, is considered to be good luck if you can reach inside and touch the Buddha. We had our guide take us there, where we easily reached in a touched him. I guess they weren't thinking of freakishly long and tall North Americans visiting when they decided that that would be good luck.

We also got our first taste of being "foreign objects" here. A school group from Aceh province on the northern tip of Sumatra (you remember it from the tsunami, which hit there particularly hard) was touring the monument at the same time as us and apparently appearing in photos with us odd white folks was pretty cool. We posed a few times, with what were probably perplexed looks on our faces.

It may not sound like it from this post, but Borobudur was terrific. First of all, it's huge. Secondly, the detail and work put into the whole thing is amazing. It's a beautiful monument to Buddhism in a wonderful lush setting. Definitely a highlight of Indonesia.

As we were leaving we realized the reason for our early arrival. The tour buses were pouring in. This is Indonesia's number one tourist attraction. Another UNESCO World Heritage site. And a very busy place after 9:00.

After we left we visited a couple more Buddhist temples in the area. The first one very small. The second larger, with a very large Buddha inside. We had a few more photos taken of us with Indonesians fascinated by us foreign devils. Then we headed back to Yogyakarta.

When we got back we crashed for the next few hours, trying to get back the sleep we'd missed. After getting up we went shopping on Yogya's main market street, which was chaos. Then went to bed after an early supper. The next day was to be a long train ride to Jakarta.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Christmas Eve Dispatch


Welcome to HawesBlog. This is my first posting. I decided I should start blogging instead of e-mailing when my last dispatch from our vacation ran to 15 pages. No one but my mother, and possibly not even her, has that level of detail in our lives. So I'll start blogging and send those who are interested the address, then they can find out about our vacation or post-vacation lives and thoughts as it happens.

I'm in Jakarta right now. It has been a few days since my last dispatch so I start from there and see if I can catch up. We haven't done a tonne since then, so it should be manageable.

When I last sent an e-mail we were in Yogyakarta. Pronounced Jogjakarta, or Jogja for short. In fact, I find it interested that on the streets you can find the city name spelled 5 or 6 different ways. You'll never find debate over the spelling of Vancouver or Seattle, but it's a little more flexible here.

Yogyakarta is supposed to be the tourism hub for Indonesia. It's the number one vacation destination for Indonesians, with more culture etc. than anywhere else. Frankly, we didn't see it. Sure, it was nicer than some of the other cities that we've been to, but that was setting the bar pretty low. Plus, the level of pestering was higher here than anywhere else, with touts doing anything they could to get you into the batik shops. They'll do just about anything, including lying, to get you to take a discount tour or some other kind of trip that ends up in their "cousin's" shop, or in the "government institute of batik art". Very frustrating after awhile.

Our first day in Yogya we didn't really do anything. Just recovered from our prior travels. We had a decent dinner beside a mosque, beside which there was a courtyard with several sheep tied up in the yard. The combination of the sheep and the call to prayer made for interesting dinner music.

The second day we had planned to visit the Sultan's palace, called the Kraton, as well as some of the other sites around there. As we were about to leave though we double-checked with the front desk to ensure things were open, as we had been told that the day was a holiday. I had asked the day before and they had said that everything was fine, but we thought we should double check. They made a call and let us know that yes, the Kraton was closed, as were other things due to the Idul Adha holiday. I asked what this holiday was about and was told that it is a Muslim holiday. This point was punctuated with a running of a finger across the throat. Oh. Now I understood what those sheep were doing in the courtyard the day before.

I finished reading The Kite Runner the other day. In it there are a few mentions of this holiday and of the ritual slaughter of sheep. I was pleased with how this event tied together some of my holiday reading. I decided to avoid the sacrifice and we spent the day reading, catching up on e-mail, etc. It was only later in the afternoon that I realized that this was a one time opportunity to see something like this and went back up to the Mosque/sheep area, but by then it was all over and everything had been cleaned up.

The following day we decided to fit two things into one day. We were going to do the Kraton trip that we'd missed the day before as well a trip to Prambanan, a close by Hindu temple. We headed down to the Kraton by becak (for those who missed my earlier dispatches, this is a bike with seats for two passengers in the front that drives you head on into traffic), and found our way in through all of the touts. As soon as we paid and went in through the main entrance we were offered a free tour with a guide. We immediately said no thank you, as we didn't need another tout, and start to walk around on our own. However, we quickly decided that we had no idea what we were looking at and went back to get a guide. We got a great guy who toured us around the place.

The kraton was built in the mid-18th Century by the first Sultan. They're now on the 10th Sultan, and he still lives in the Kraton, which is a large area actually housing over 25,000 people. Everyone lives there tax free, but is required to perform a few weeks of service to the sultan each year. There honestly wasn't much to see, since the whole Kraton on the other side of the entrance way was closed off, so all we could view were some of the ceremonial areas, costumes and images of coaches, but the guide brought it to life very well. He let us know that many of the other areas that we were interested in were also closed, due to the previous day's holiday, but he suggested a tour of the government run batik training institute. (Oy. Even he was pushing it.)

After tipping our guide, we went out to just see the outside of some of the other areas, even though we now knew that they were closed. We walked down the street and discovered what looked like another entrance to the Kraton, with lots of people going in. Knowing that it was closed, we were rather confused by this, so we went up to entrance way to ask. It turned out that this was the main entrance to the Kraton, and the other had just been a supplemental tour. Our previous guide had lied to us, in an effort to get us to do a batik tour. Aaaaargh. I wanted to go back and take his tip back, but that probably wouldn't have gone over well.

So we took the rest of the tour of the Kraton, which was far more extensive than the first bit, but still not particularly fascinating. What was interesting was the Sultan's continuing role in society. Back in the day, the Sultan had been seen as a near God and had been somewhat supported by the Dutch. After WWII, when the Indonesians were fighting the Dutch for Independence the Sultan back the rebels, but the Dutch left him alone, knowing that if they opposed the Sultan the entire population would rise against them. After Independence in 1949 the Sultan took on a more ceremonial role, although it seems he was (and possibly is) still governor of the region.

After visiting the Kraton we had about an hour until we needed to get back to the hotel to catch our ride to Prambanan. I knew that there was a bird market nearby, so we walked in it's direction. When we came upon it a local grabbed us, wanting to show us the best of the market. This time I said yes, as it was a maze of cages and shops, selling any kind of bird or other animal that you could think of. I thought it best not to be walk around unescorted. Our "guide" showed us around, introducing us to all sorts of animals, most of which were for pets/training, some of which were for dinner. There were bats, whose meat is apparently good for treating asthma. Mongooses, for fighting cobras. Cocks, ready for fighting each other. Owls. Wildcats. Monkeys. All in small cages ready for sale. Our guide wanted to know if we wanted to see snakes. Of course. So he took us to the snake/spider/giant lizard area. Wow!

One of the guys had a python in his arms and Colleen asked if she could hold it, something I'd rather not do but something that she has done in other countries. Colleen proceeded to take the snake and wrap it around her neck. At that point the snake decided he'd had enough and completely relieved himself on Colleen. I'm amazed that that much liquids and solid could even fit into the snake. It went all over Colleen's legs. To her incredible credit, she semi-laughed, handed the snake back to the owner, tipped him(!!), and was led to some water to wash her pants off. I know I wouldn't have been that cool if something that nasty had happened to me in that very bizarre place.

It was time to leave. We started to head out. I tipped our guide, who actually tried to decline the money, and he asked if we'd come to his art shop. We needed to get back now, but we let him show us where it was, in case we needed to come back later. To get to his art shop we wandered through the Water Palace. This was a series of pools, rooms and gardens built by the Sultan to entertain himself and his people. It was all broken down now, and a poor part of town had been built on its remains. It was beautiful and would have been a nice place to explore, but we had to get back.

We returned to our hotel. Got Colleen's pants in the wash. She showered. And we went out to catch our ride to Prambanan.

The trip to Prambanan was 45 minutes out of town, but we were still in a very populated area when we arrived. We paid our entrance fee and a guide joined us. Prambanan is a Hindu temple, built between the 8th and 10th century and largely destroyed in 1006 by a volcano/earthquake. It was "re-discovered" in the 19th century and rebuilt in the 20th. It's now a UNESCO World Heritage site. (Which seem to be a dime a dozen.)

It's a collection of about 240 temples, all surrounding a series of central temples devoted to Shiva. The size and scope of the building that would have had to have taken place at that time is amazing. Unfortunately, by the time we got to Prambanan it was pouring with rain and the rain only intensified as we were there. As we went through the gates I was happy that it was a temple we were seeing, as we'd be able to go inside to see the good stuff and get out of the rain. What I was not aware of was that last year, in 2006 1000 years after the first one, there was another earthquake that seriously damaged the temple. So now, for our safety's sake, we could only walk at a distance around the outside, in the pouring rain.

It could have been so much better. I tried to imply to our guide that I'd pay extra to get inside and that I was willing to take the risk, but he wasn't going for it. The visit was impressive and well worthwhile, but also disappointing.

We headed back to Yogya and to bed early. Our ride was to pick us up at 5:00 the next morning for Borobodur.