Saturday, January 10, 2015

Impressions of Bhutan

I've had a few weeks to let my travels sink in. Bhutan is probably the most interesting place I've ever traveled. It is like being in a parallel universe. There is nothing western about the place - except for the hotels where the tourists stay. You will not find a Starbucks anywhere in the country, and I hope it stays that way. These are some of the things I learned and impressions I had during our visit. It is an epically beautiful, mystical and enchanted place. I hope to return someday to the area.


To really understand Bhutan's culture, you have to first understand the religion and the history and mythos that surrounds it. Bhutan is the only place in the world to have Tantric Buddhism as a state religion. Beyond that, it is the Tanntric flavor of Buddhism, which is unique to Bhutan, parts of Tibet and a small pocket of India in Sikkim. The central and western part of the country practice the Kagyu Drukpa sub set of the Kagyu sect of Mahayana Buddhism - our tour guide called it "red hat school". For one thing, it was my first realization of how splintered Buddhism really is. Also, there is a big element of the much earlier Bom (animist) religion mixed in with Hindu cosmology.

Guru Rinpoche

Relief painting of Guru Rinpoche

Besides the historical Buddha, there are 3 main religious figures revered in Bhutan. The first is Guru Rinpoche, who arrived from India in the 8th century. While Buddhism was already somewhat established in the area, Guru Rinpoche really solidified it in the area and the "red hat school" in particular. He was said to be a manifestation of the historical Buddha and he subdued eight classes of demons. He is said to have arrived by turning his Tibetan consort into a tigress and flying to a cliff above the Paro valley where they meditated for 3 years, 3 months, 3 days. This is where that Taktsang Monastery is built in his honor. You may note that he had a consort, which is inline with the Tantric school of thought where union of male and female is spiritual - monks and nuns can marry. The Mahayana path is thought to be more broad and inclusive. Not all of the area was able to accept his teaching, so he hid away some Tantras in caves, which were discovered later. The guru is depicted in peaceful and wrathful or fierce forms - in total he has 8 manifestations, which are depicted in artwork in the temples. He is often pictured with his Tibetan and Nepalese consorts - sometimes in a "joined" position.
A wrathful manifestation of the Guru with the wheel of life

Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal

The three most important religious figures

The next important figure is Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal. In the 17th century, he fled Tibet and established himself in Bhutan. He freed the country from Tibetan rule and unified all the areas under a new form of government. He also repelled Mongol invaders several times. The government was dual monastic and civil. There is a Jhe Kempo, or head abbot, and a Druk Desi, or king. The government remained completely in this fashion until 2010, when a Constitutional monarchy was established with a prime minister being the secular head and the king a figure head. You can see the government reflected in the Dzongs, or fortresses and seats of government with half the fortress dedicated to offices and half to a monastic body.

Drukpa Kunley

Phallus on the corner of a building

The final important figure is the "Divine Madman" or Drukpa Kunley. He was a 16th century lama who was a bit irreverent. He "enlightened" 5,000 women by "blessing" them through, um, "union". He is known for subduing demonesses into protective deities by hitting them with his penis. As such, his symbol is the "flaming phallus". And, the Bhutanese have taken to it with great fervor. You will find phalluses painted on buildings in graphic detail, sometimes spurting, with ribbons, wings or flames adorning them. Also, you will find wood carvings of phalluses hanging from the cardinal corners of buildings or over the doorways or placed as decoration in a home.
Phallus paintings


There are some practices that I found unique to the area, though my knowledge of Buddhism is admittedly not very deep.

Memorial prayer flags

When someone dies, a few interesting things happen. First, the family will erect between 1-108 white prayer flags as a memorial. These flags are attached to young tree trunks and very tall. There is also thought to be a 49 day period where the person is in an intermediary state. This is somewhat akin to the Catholic idea of purgatory. The person is trying to find their way to heaven, hell or the next incarnation. They will meet many mythical beings that will help them reach either heaven or the next incarnation. These beings will scare those who are not familiar with them, so you will see them depicted all over the temples to create trust and familiarity for the intermediate stage. Also, the person will be cremated and a small piece of bone will be preserved. The family will place the bone in a miniature clay stupa (same a chorten, same as pagoda - a miniature temple) and the miniature stupa will be placed in a cave or other special meditative spot.

Miniature stupa effigies

At birth, children do not receive a name. When they are 8 days old, the family takes them to the local lama with an offering and they receive their name from the local lama. As such, a lot of people have the same name. So, last names are largely made up for differentiation.

Something from the earlier Bom religion pertains to building a new home or building. One must receive the blessing of the naga or serpent deities in the area. So, the local lamas are hired to do rituals to seek the blessing before the house is built. If you build without consulting the naga, you risk an illness falling on someone in the home or some sort of catastrophe.

Because the path is wide, sexual relations seem fairly open, within the heterosexual sphere. The government distributes condoms. Marriage is usually taken upon conception of a child and is not that rigid or sacred of a contract. Broken or open marriages and composite families are rather the norm than the exception. There is apparently a bit of homoerotic activity in the monasteries according to the New York Times, but no one would openly admit to that being common.

Dogs are revered as being the closest of the animal realm to humans in the wheel of life and reincarnation. So, many people feed stray dogs to accumulate karma. This results in an all-night symphony of barking dogs in any populous area.

Music at the festival

The important stories of the religion are passed to the people via all-day festival events called tshechus. We were lucky enough to attend a festival at the top of Do Chu La pass - it was quite a feast for the senses surrounded by the theater of the high peaks of the Himalayas.

Masked dance at the festival

During our time there, we witnessed a tshechu, naming ceremony, a death anniversary ceremony, a memorial flag ceremony and also the local monks chanting at the end of the day to appease the local deities. All of these ceremonies were accompanied with ample incense, which was omnipresent in the air. For me, the smell of Bhutan is the smell of incense tempered by the smell of trees.

Incense can be burned anywhere


In 2010, the 4th king of the modern era established a Constitutional monarchy. He abdicated the throne and made his eldest son the figure head. Now, the people elect a prime minister. People don't seem all that excited about the voting thing. They liked their king and trusted him to act in their best interest. They don't seem to trust themselves. Also, there seems to be a general distaste for distention in the society which is stirred up with an election.
School girls in uniform

Everyone has access to health care and education. Elementary education is provided within approximately a one hour walk of all villages and is ensured by the government. Secondary education depends on test achievement or a family with enough resources to pay for a private school. Families who cannot even pay for books and uniforms typically send their children to the monasteries for a religious education.
wood carving students at arts and crafts school

Medical care is extremely basic. In the Haa valley, we visited the basic medial unit. They have 10 beds and one doctor for the entire valley. They don't have any testing facilities as their single x-ray machine was found to leak radiation - and only have access to a very limited range of pharmaceuticals. They do have ambulances, though travel across distances can take several hours for what would take 15 minutes here. And, some areas are only reachable on foot. The single doctor told us he travels on foot to make house calls to villages once per year. There is no medical training in country, so he was trained in Sri Lanka. Due to the relatively low level of education and lack of medical training, there is a severe shortage of doctors in the country. By our standards, one would only want to come down with a minor illness or injury in Paro and something relatively major like appendicitis could likely only be treated in Thimpu, the capital.

Rustic farmhouse in Haa

Most native Bhutanese have a decent standard of living as compared with the developing world. And, they live in relative harmony. Access to food is good. Many rural villages have access to electricity, television and some have indoor plumbing via rain harvesting or diversion of streams. In the cities apartments are spacious and have indoor plumbing, electricity and heating. Most rural areas use space heaters and the homes made of rammed mud have no insulation and no glass in the windows, so it is quite cold in the winter.

The worst standard of living is evident in migrant workers who maintain the infrastructure. The Indian Army is contracted to maintain the roads and many government buildings and they hire Bengali and Nepalese laborers for $1.50 a day to work. You see shanties constructed of corrugated metal or thatched bamboo erected by the side of the road where road crews live for months or years in squalor. The work is done in an extremely inefficient manner with small women, often with babies on their backs working on widening the road by taking a pick axe to the mountain side. I guess these inefficiencies can exist at $1.50 per day per person, which is apparently 3x what they would get in India for the same work. However, the roads show the lack of engineering and are in extremely primitive condition - often no asphalt, less than one lane with lots of vertical exposure and erosion. It is a good thing the Bhutanese are extremely patient and cooperative drivers, or catastrophe would be the rule of the day.

The Bhutanese have a co-dependent or symbiotic relationship with India. India maintains their infrastructure and provides agriculture and goods. Bhutan provides hydro-electric power to India and manual labor jobs for its citizens. Bhutan has a trade deficit with India in the $20 million dollar range. They seem to be aware of their vulnerability in the region, and their relationship with India seems largely a hedge against the fate of Tibet. They are very proud of their cultural and religious heritage and strive to protect it from the ever-encroaching world. After hydro-electric power, tourism is their biggest industry. They are working on developing infrastructure to support 50,000 tourists a year - up from 20,000 a year today. This will be a delicate dance to make sure that so many tourists do not dilute their unique culture.

Art, Food, Dress, Sport and Language

Art in the country is largely religious. Paintings are mostly Thankas, or depictions of the main religious figures and their manifestations. The paintings are beautiful and precise and very detailed. They are often approached as meditations by the students who are trained in the arts and crafts schools. Similarly, these are depicted in wood carvings and weavings.
Victory of good over evil banners

I've heard the decor described as "early over the top", which I find to be accurate. The spartan mountain landscape has led to a lot of brightly colored patterns all co-mingled together in ways that really wouldn't work anywhere else. And, of course, you will find phalluses thrown in everywhere for good measure. Art in temples and other buildings is often over the top in colors, done in an apocalyptic style with silk victory banners hanging all over in a myriad of colors and patterns.
Lady in a kira at the market in Thimpu

A lot of people wear the traditional dress. The woman in a jacket and long wrap skirt called a kira, and men in a short bathrobe-like garment called a gho. These are usually in vivid colors and patterns - again only working somehow in this mystical place.
High mountains
Conifer forest and rice paddies
The fertile Punakha River valley

The landscape is extremely varied, with the 200 mile wide by 100 mile high country having the elevation change from 700 feet to 22,000 feet. There are subtropics, high cloud forests, fertile river valleys, oak and confier forests and high alpine regions. The mountains are stunning and are made more beautiful with the adornment of ample trees - something that much of the Himalayan region is lacking. We were absolutely treated when a rare December snowstorm covered the middle peaks in white making the valleys seem truly magical for a couple of days.
typical food

The food is healthy and nutritious, though not very exciting. There is some Indian cuisine, which adds some variety. The staples are jasmine and red rice. They also grow buckwheat in the higher altitudes. They typically eat the rice several times a day with their national dish, which is chili cheese - a soupy warm cow's cheese with chiles stewed in it ranging from tepidly spicy to nuclear - one never knows until you try it. You will also find vegetables with the larger meals - typically stir fried fresh veggies or vegetables manchurian, which is tempura style. They have dumplings, called momos, which are like dim sum - mostly with veggies, sometimes with meat. And, some meals come with a stewed chicken or fish in gravy called a curry. The chicken is typically butchered in all sorts of strange ways, leading to a minefield of bones to avoid. They don't really do sweets, though they do like fruit - usually bananas, apples and oranges. After a few meals, I was ready for some more variety.

You better like tea if you go to Bhutan. You will get lots of it. For something different, try the butter tea with butter and salt. I found it pretty good. Coffee is almost exclusively Nescafe, and no, it does not taste any better after a few days. You can find a decent cup of coffee in one of two coffee houses in Thimpu or Paro.

If you are a fan of wine, this is not your place. The wine they produce ranges from moderately horrid to "gag me with a spoon". The beer is drinkable pilsner similar to most of what is found in the region - cheap and mostly unsatisfying. The arac, or grain "wine" or distillate, is pretty foul. It's like bad sake for the most part.  One shining exception is the grain whiskey. Their top shelf brand, K5 is a good mid-range whiskey by our standards, and being that it costs about $6 for a bottle, it's darn good. If you are more adventurous, you can try the local stimulant - betelnut. I did not try it as I try to stay away from known carcinogens.

Archery match

Archery is the national sport, practiced on very long fields with very tiny targets. Bows are made with bamboo and not extremely accurate. Men from opposing villages take on tournaments that last most of a day to several days. A hit on the target results in an elaborate dance. We witnessed a real tournament in Thimpu and a friendly match in Haa.

Stupa made of rock with script

The official language of the country is Dzongkha, which is not spoken anywhere else in the world. English and Dzongkha are taught in all the government schools. The way to greet someone is Kuzuzongpo or Kuzuzongpo-la to be more polite. It is a south-Tibetic language. The script is based on Tibetan.  The language is spoken in the center to western part of the country and many other hybrid languages are spoken in the east.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Bhutan, Cambodia and Thailand - December 2014

Alternative working titles: Sarah's Intro to Asia, Tour of Phalluses, Tour of Rice, Tour of Buddhism

Saturday, December 6

Flying from SFO @ 6:20 pm, landing in Tokyo scheduled for 10:00 pm, or ~10 hours after departure. Then, after a quick layover, we will be in route to Bangkok. Hoping to sleep a bit on each flight!

Addendum: Got good sleep thanks to my Nap Anywhere headrest/pillow!

Sunday, December 7
Fancy toilet in Tokyo Haneda Airport

We only saw 2.5 hours of Sunday on the ground in Tokyo @ Haneda Airport. 

The highlight of the stop was the Toto toilet, which cleaned itself as you approached, had a heated seat, played a babbling brook noise when you sat and offered various cleaning/drying services. 

I squeezed in my Monday strength training for a little movement and then we boarded our 2nd red-eye at midnight Tokyo time. 

Monday, December 8
Iconography at the Royal Palace

We arrived at 5:00 am in Bangkok and checked into Novotel - a quick shower and laundry and we were ready to meet Erika. We took the train into the city - 3 lines. At one point, it was so crowded, I could hardly breathe. We got to Mandarin Oriental at 9:00 and breakfast went until 11:00. Then, we met up with our guide Simastina, or Meow for short. She took us on a water taxi to the Royal palace and gave us a lesson on Buddhist cosmology while showing us the different buildings. 

We then took a tuk tuk over to Wat Pho to see the reclining Buddha. Our lesson in cosmology continued. It was the sweatiest December day I have ever lived. In the tuk tuk I noticed an advertisement for one of those massage parlors, so I guess the sex tourism still flourishes, though a bit more on the stealth. Our hotel even warned against indecent behavior in the spa and had a commitment against sex trafficking in the lobby, so I guess attitudes are changing. 

After a water taxi ride, we got Erika’s belongings and taxi’d back to the Novotel. We took a quick dip in the pool and had an early dinner at the hotel. 

We headed to bed at 7:30 for the 3:00 am wake up call. 

Tuesday, December 9
Walking across the suspension bridge

The day to go to Bhutan! We started the day with breakfast at 3:00 am, which was good. Our flight departed at 6:30 am with migrant Bengali workers in the back of the plane and us and Bhutan nationals in the front. We did a brief stop in Kolkata, which had very “thick” air. All the workers daprted and then we picked up one guy and headed onward. 

On the approach, we caught a glimpse of Everest in the distance. Then, we had a very exciting descent into Paro. 

Our first stop with guide Khandu Dorji and driver Nado was a bridge build by a Tibetan monk who found iron ore in Bhutan, so could build a bridge across the river. We crossed the river on the chain mail bridge, which was scary, and then looked at his monastery from below. 

We also stopped at teh confluence of rivers on the way to Thimpu. In Thimpu, we had lunch with rice, chicken, 2 kinds of veggies and chili cheese. 

We then headed to a 13th century monastery called Chonggonkalakhang. We arrived just as a family was brining their newborn to receive its name. We turned the prayer wheels on our way out. 

Then, we headed to the Folk Heritage museum, which is a preserved traditional farm house. We saw their grinding stone, plowing implements, the stable on the first floor, granary on the second floor and living quarters/shrine room on the third floor. And, of course, the flaming phallus for protection above the door. 

Our third stop was the national library, which is all Buddhist texts except for a grand book of pictures of Bhutan, created by a student from MIT. It is 2 meters tall and weighs 68 kg. Our final stop was at a local artist collective where we saw local paintings and a sculpture garden they have just started to work on. 

Dinner was a mostly Indian affair with rice, naan, veggies, saag paneer, lamb and chicken curry. 

I managed to stay awake and then headed for a 10 hour crash!

Wednesday, December 10
Prayer wheels and flags outside arts & crafts school

We had American breakfast at 7:30 and got picked up at 8:30 to depart. We took a small road east of town and parked for an ascent to Tango Monastery. It was a 1.5 mile meditation walk and when we arrived at 9,800 feet, we were treated to stunning views of the monastery against the mountains. The monks were working on constructing a fence to keep wild life like bears out of the retreat center they run. 

After that, we stopped for a picnic lunch down the road by some stupas. It was a repeat of lunch from Tuesday, catered by the same restaurant. 

After lunch, we hiked across a dirt track for 2.5 miles through the valley and saw villages and a government school. We also visited a private arts and crafts school for painting, weaving, and wood carving religious icons. 

On the way back to town, we stopped at a Taken refuge - the national animal that looks like a goat-cow. Finally, we stopped by the post office where I got a post card to send a Christmas greeting to Mom and Dad. 

We hopped on wifi in the evening at Hotel Galingka where I got news of my promotion to Director! We celebrated with wine at dinner, which was again Indian oriented. Yum!

Thursday, December 11
Chortens at Dochu La Pass
We started the day visiting the memorial stupa in town and then watching part of an archery tournament. We did see each team get a “hit” which led to an elaborate dance. 

Driving over Dochu La pass, we were rewarded with breathtaking views of the high peaks. We had chicken feet, veggies and rice with the most scenic views ever and even tried the butter tea (tea with butter and salt). The drive down the pass took us into a high rain forest. We saw two monkeys playing in the trees off the road. Then, we stopped for a hike, which was a steep descent with tricky footing to the river below, crossing the rice paddies, and then ascending gently through a pine forest to a ridge - about 3 hours. 

We drove from the ridge to Punakha and our lodge, Lobesa, which had rooms with sweeping views of the river valley and rice paddies below - a wonderful spot to rest our heads for a couple nights. 

We enjoyed a typical dinner with rice, veggies, momos, and chili cheese. We tried the Takin red wine, which was not very drinkable. We came back to beds warmed by water bottles!

Friday, December 12
Punakha Valley

We drove up the Punakha River valley to start our morning hike. We crossed a suspension bridge and then made our way up through rice paddies to a new temple - Khamsum Yuley Namgay Chorten built by the queen for a healthy birth. It had fantastic paintings in the tantric Buddhist tradition with all the creatures one would see in the 49 days middle stage between death and heaven/hell or the next life. After touring the temple, we headed back down the river valley through a local village of farm houses. 

Crossing back across the river took us to lunch, which was typical. We did have vegetables Manchurian which was a little like tempura or pakora and some super-hot chili cheese. 

We went to a nunnery after lunch, which had a nice painting of the life of Buddha and we saw the nuns making miniature stupas for effigies. We then walked around Punakha town, which wasn’t much other than local shops. 
Punakha Dzong

Finally, we went to the dzong, which is the fortress and seat of government. It was quite a spectacular building. We saw the monks doing the evening prayers to appease the local dieties with the discipline “masters” hanging around with whips :(. 

For dinner, we had a chance to try the local brew arac, which was fairly nasty, but good to try. It was a bit like watered down sake. 

Saturday, December 13
Musical core at the festival

We left Punakha a bit earlier than usual - at 8:00, for the long drive up Dochu La pass. We arrived just as the Druk Wayguel festival was starting. The hill was covered in colorful tents for the dignitaries and surrounded by flags and victory banners. 

The musical core played large drums, cymbals, and horns, both deep and piercing like bag pipes. The masked dancers played out dramas of religious significance as clowns flitted around the crowd with their flaming phalluses. 

We watched 4 or 5 dances with the dramatic mountains looming in the distance. The weather was crisp but ideal. After that, we ate lunch at the top of the pass with all the other tourists. Erika bought some beetlenut and “crack” - puff balls made with rice flour from a street vendor. 

We drove back to Thimpu and visited their arts and crafts school so I could buy a wood carving for Jennison. We continued to the weekend farmers market where we tried some dried yak cheese which was like sour and chewy smoked gouda. 

Rick had some tummy trouble, so we retuned to the hotel early. Erika joined a local woman for dinner, so Rick and I dined alone at the hotel. He had dal, rice, curried mushrooms, paneer, chicken and fish for dinner - again in the Indian style.

Sunday, December 14
Erika tries her hand at archery

We started the day waking up to rain! We rolled out at 8:30 and did a quick pass by the new supreme court  building under construction so that Erika could geek out. Then, we made the long journey to Ha - about 3.5 hours driving from Thimpu. We stopped at a dzong that had mostly burned down on the way. We skipped the planned walk out and continued to Ha. 

When we arrived, it was snowing in the hills around and very cold. We checked into our very rustic accommodations at Risum Resort. After lunch, we drove to town and watched a friendly archery match. We watched one round for each side. An archer let us feel the tension of his bow. 

We stopped at a local market and bought whiskey and a half bottle of white wine. We walked the full length of town and back to the lodge where we stayed by the fire reading and talking until dinner time. 

Monday, December 15
Prayer flags at top of Chela La Pass

We awoke to a winter wonderland today after the rain. But, the clouds were lifting, so we decided to take our walk down the valley. A short drive took us above the snow line and we ambled down through villages along the river. We met and older gentleman with teeth missing from too much beetle nut. He seemed interested in taking Erika home with him when he found out she was single!

The walk was gorgeous. Then, we ate lunch and headed over the Chela La pass, which we heard was drivable. On the way out of town, we stopped at the Basic Medical Unit and were invited in for a chat with the doctor. He trained in Sri Lanka and is the only doctor in the valley. They have 10 beds for admittance and he travels out to more remote villages once per year. 

The pass was nail-biting to say the least. The top 3,000 feet had snow on the way up and top 4,000 feet on the way down. We stopped at the top and made snow angels and looked at the prayer flags. 

We lost traction on the way down, but ultimately arrived safely at Kangkhu Resort, which is lovely and has a view of the Paro Dzong. We stopped for a cappuccino in town and had a nice dinner at the hotel. 

Tuesday, December 16
Carvings and victory banners at a 7th century monastery

I’m writing from Kangkhu resource, sitting on my bed, looking at snow-capped peaks across the valley. We awoke this morning to the sound of pounding rain on the roof and were happy that we had access to two guest umbrellas to walk to breakfast. 

After breakfast, we drove to a dzong above Paro, which was destroyed by fire (a fate that seems to have taken many dzongs and temples at some point - probably due to the love of lighting butter lamps inside the wooden structures). Then, we went to visit a 7th century temple in town. When we arrived, they were performing a death anniversary ritual, which was interesting - lots of incense, horns, drums and chanting. 

That temple also had a crematorium, which we viewed. Following that, we went into town and had cappuccino before lunch at a local Indian restaurant. They served pork curry, peas & paneer, and naan that were exceptional. The rest was OK. We had a view of trash for 180 degrees from the restaurant, which was not appealing. 

In the afternoon, we toured the national museum, which had a nice collection of masks as well as tea-making implements, weapons, and flora/fauna of the region. Our last stop was Paro Dzong which had a beautiful, sunlit temple and some nice paintings. We stopped at a tanka painting studio across teh street and saw an artist at work on a large piece. We enjoyed a late afternoon walk down to the river before returning to base. 

Wednesday, December 17
Taktsang Monastery

Today was the day! The hike to Taktsang Monastery. We awoke to clear skies and the sunrise lighting the snow capped peaks across the valley - an auspicious sign for our pilgrimage. 

We started up after 9:00 in brisk weather. We had views of snowy peaks and the monastery itself the entire way. We had a rest at a teahouse about halfway, though the second half was much slower due to photo taking. 

After 350 stairs, we reached the compound and checked our bags. We toured 4 temple rooms. In the second, a group were meditating. In the last, we received a blessing of holy water from a monk. Before leaving, Erika lit a butter lamp for the first day of Hanukah. 

When we returned to the base, I bought a necklace from a local village woman that I had seen on the way in. All in all, a perfect day to remember was had by all. 

Thursday, December 18
View of Everest and high Himalyas

We had our last breakfast overlooking the snow-capped peaks. Then, Khandu and Nado escorted us to the airport. We took off the same direction we had come in from for the landing, so lots of twists and turns before going across the entire Himalaya in snow-covered splendor. 

We landed in Bangkok around 5:00 pm and checked into the Novotel. Then, we grabbed a taxi to head to town. Traffic was so horrific, we diverted to a closer location of the restaurant we were headed for. We had several dishes - the only standout was the sautéed chayote greens, of which we had two servings. 

Then, we had a 45 minute taxi ride back at 9:00 pm. Ugh. I had a raging headache and tummy issues early in the night, but both settled down so I could have a good sleep. 

Bangkok was an assault on the senses after a 10 day period in Bhutan’s parallel universe. 

Friday, December 19
Dancers carved into a temple

We had a leisurely morning where I could work out, read, pray and then head for our flight a bit after 9:00 am. 

We took off at 11:30 and arrived in Siem Reap about 12:30. Surprisingly, Bangkok Air served a light lunch on the 40 minute flight. Our driver, Tann, took us through town and then dropped us at Borei Angkor resort. We spent the afternoon by the pool and then got a ride to dinner at Chantree Tree restaurant. Dinner was arranged by Vibol, our concierge, while we sat in the lemongrass-scented lobby. We enjoyed a malvasia/chardonnay blend, spring rolls, chicken with jack fruit and grilled kale for dinner. We had Kampuchean delight for dessert, which was a puff of rice flour over fruit/coconut compote with nuts and ice cream on the side. We finished off with coffee - happy to be back in the land of coffee. 

Rick and I took a leisurely stroll back to the resort, enjoying the river walk and Christmas festivities outside the hotel. 

Saturday, December 20
East gate of Angkor Tom

Today, we left at 9:00 to go to the temple complex. We stopped first at Angkor Wat after getting tickets. There were thousands of people and it was difficult to walk around, but we spent a couple hours. 

Then, Tann took us to the east gate of Angkor Tom and we walked the wall to the Victory gate. For a few heavenly moments, we ditched the crowds. 

We then toured Bayon and the Elephant Walk. Bayon was a bit less crowded and had more of the temple open. After that, we threw in the towel and headed for the pool where we had a couple snacks and some Angkor beer. 

Dinner was at Cuisine Wat Damnak, owned by a French woman. We had a 5 course tasting menu. Mine was great, and included frog - ribbit! The best dish was one Rick and Erika had with beef in peanut sauce. :)

Sunday, December 21
Sunrise at Angkor Wat

I woke up at 3:30 am with a cramped belly and sore throat and knew our 4:00 am start for our bike ride would be a challenge. We saw the sunrise at Angkor Wat, which really was all it was cracked up to be. Then, we toured the temple, including the top which had been closed the day before. After that, we had breakfast cooked by our driver and then started the bike ride. 

We mostly single-tracked our way to the walls of Angkor Tom and up and around the walls. Then, we saw a “corner temple” before descending to Bayon. Erika and I rested at Bayon and then I decided to sit out the last 5km to Ta Prom and rode in the van and napped while the group went on. Our driver escorted me through the jungle when I woke up toward Ta Prom. I saw a massive snake on one of the rock piles outside the temple. It was worth the trek and definitely my favorite - even without the whole Tomb Raider aura about it. 

We ended the day with lunch at a local cafe where I nibbled on rice and soup. Rick and I ate by the pool after I had yet another long nap in the afternoon. 

Monday, December 22
Making brooms in a village on Kulen Mountain

I felt much better after a good dinner and more good sleep, so we went with Erika to Kulen Mountain to see Thmuy Village where our colleague is sponsoring a school. We left at 7:30 after a good breakfast. We had to pay $20 each to go up a private toll road to the mountain built and run by an “official”. 

The town was about 10 km beyond the holy sites on the mountain. It was all dirt tracks and houses on stilts. The school was a single classroom with one teacher and 60 first and second grade students. 

We took the children bread and candy to augment the staples they get from the World Food Program. We watched villagers cleaning and winnowing beans and also were invited into the home of the village chief. He had mosquito nets and a TV in addition to his solar light. The TV is only one of two in the village and powered by a battery. There are 52 families in the village. We also witnessed some chickens mating and a spontaneous cock fight. 

On the way down the mountain, we stopped at the holy sites - a reclining Buddha carved in stone, the 1,000 “linga” and “yoni” (union of male and female, uh, parts) carved in stone, and a large waterfall, with dangerous steps, teeming with tourists. The highlight of the trip was definitely the village. 

Tuesday, December 23
Just a normal day on Tonle Sap

We awoke at an ungodly 4:00 am to see the sunrise again. Tann drove us for about one hour on increasingly marginal roads. Then, we gave $20 each to a very young long-boat captain who directed us through an narrow river filled with fishers, then through the floating village of about 450 families in the dark, on to the edge of Tonle Sap lake to see the sunrise. 

The sights, sounds and smells transported me back to the San Joaquin delta where I spent a lot of my high school years. It is easy to see why so many southeast Asian refugees have chosen that as an area to settle. We saw on the way back, villagers engrossed in the morning routines of fishing, cooking, washing and putting up their hammocks. 

We made a brief stop at a shop/restaurant. It was clear our captain was sweet on the daughter of the family running the shop. She helped pull in our boat. They had crocodiles, snakes and catfish in captivity as well as kayaks to rent. 

We were back by 10:00 and had breakfast at the hotel and then wandered around town - dropping off laundry to be washed and visiting a temple complex and the war museum for the killing fields and subsequent civil war. Dinner was just me and Rick at Viroth’s, which had a spin on Khmer + Balinese cooking. 

Wednesday, December 24
Christmas gala dinner

We finally had a lazy morning, waking up (relatively) late and having a leisurely breakfast. We ventured out from the hotel around 9:00 am on foot. No one seems willing to accept the fact that we want to walk - the tuk tuks harassing us at every turn to take a ride. 

We started by heading to Pub Street and the old colonial quarter, winding our way through streets and taking photos of the local businesses - a welding shop, car repair, laundry + bike rental, and “the top Mexican food restaurant in Asia” - hmmmm. 

We then headed for Angkor Children’s Hospital to see the weaving exhibition and the short movie about their work. We left a small donation, as the weavings were very fine and quite pricey. From there, we walked over to Wat Damnak, which was less kempt than the pagoda we visited the day before, but had charming monks who were eager to converse with us in English. We had a small lunch on Pub Street of beer, BBQ beef (meh), pumpkin soup (yum!) and french fries. We returned to the hotel via tuk tuk, stopping for our laundry en route. 

The afternoon leading to the Christmas gala dinner was lazy. The gala was quite extravagant with ice sculpture, all you could drink and western and traditional entertainment. It was not a typical way to usher in the Savior’s birth, but nice nonetheless. 

Thursday, December 25
Distributing sticky rice at First Church of Chiangmai

Merry Christmas! We had a short sleep after the thumping beat of the party died down. The hotel transported us to the airport at 7:30 am for our flight to Chiangmai. 

We got to Tamarind Village around 3:00 pm after a short taxi ride from the airport. We looked through various tour options and inquired about church services. We ended up at First Church of Chiangmai, which was having a big potluck dinner where they had invited disabled community members to have a meal with them. 

We listened to English Christmas carols being sung in the Thai language. There was a mix of Hmong and other villagers and expats amongst the majority Thai congregants. We served dinners to the disabled in attendance and then took around sticky rice for them for dessert. Before leaving, we stopped at one of the booths and had fried bread. Delish! 

We walked a few short steps to dinner at the Riverside, where they had a craft beer pub. We had a few Thai dishes - one interesting one was duck wrapped in bacon with dumplings and sauerkraut with a chili sauce. We called the night fairly early, as I was drained from an allergy attack. :(

Friday, December 26
Making green curry paste

We started the day with a two hour walking tour of the old city given by our hotel. We saw some small temples and gave food to the monks at the closest temple. We were told that as women, our menses makes us impure, so we could only place the tray of food in front of the monk before receiving our blessing. The men could hand it directly :(

After the tour, we went for a good coffee at Wawee Coffee across the road - kind of the Starbucks of Thailand. Then, we took at collective to the art shopping district and had lunch in a hole in the wall place for $12, including beer. The best part was sesame balls in ginger sauce, which may be my new favorite Thai dessert. 

In the evening, after a short dip in the cold pool, we headed for a cooking class - at Zabb-e-Lee cooking school. We went to a local market and then made 4 courses of our choosing. I made pad Thai, green papaya salad, tom yum gai soup and green curry. The class was first-rate and a great use of four hours. Highly recommended. 

Saturday, December 27
Statues at Wat Pallad

We called the guy who took us from the airport to our hotel, because none of the day tours really spoke to us. We wanted to hike up Doi Suthep from town. So, he took us at 8:30 just above Chiangmai University to the trail head. Of course, his first question was “Why?” when we told him our plan. I don’t think Thais are really into hiking much. 

We saw a snake immediately, which did not bless Erika. After 30 minutes, we arrived at Wat Pallad, a picturesque temple in the jungle. After another 80 strenuous minutes, we arrived at Doi Suthep and found our driver. We spent 45 sweaty minutes exploring the temple amongst the throngs of tourists (that’s why we hike where we can have the trail to ourselves!). Then, we headed for an elephant park, which was 40 km out of town. We thought it was a preserve, but alas, the elephants were chained up, and we felt like we’d thrown $30 down the drain. 

Our driver saw our disappointment and offered to take us to a beautiful temple nearby - Wat Ban Den. He got mega points, because it was gorgeous and had sweeping views of the mountains and valley below - and hardly any people! There was only one other farang there (foreigner). The afternoon was saved! Upon our return, we hit the Nutela crepes truck for a pre-dinner snack. 

Sunday, December 28
Rotisserie quail at the Sunday walking market

We had a very lazy morning. After breakfast, we joined Erika for coffee down the street at Pacamara. We lingered and enjoyed Thai-style coffee. Then, we made a walk to and along the north gate of the city to see if we could find street food (reportedly available in this location). We found nothing, so walked back alleys toward the hotel. We stopped at the Writer’s Club for a light lunch and then wandered back for a rest around 2:00 pm. 

At 4:00 pm, we headed out for the Sunday walking market and wandered for a couple hours and ate Thai street food - grilled mushrooms wrapped in pork; roti with egg, banana and Nutella; vegetarian pad Thai with glass noodles, fruit wine, and grilled quail eggs. 

We had two mai thais at the hotel and then went out for another hour and a half with Erika. It was so crowded, we could barely shuffle. Rick got a t-shirt and I got a new wallet and colored pencils for Luke and Claire (kids of one of my closest friends, Ann). We called the night around 8:00 and headed inside for showering and reading. 

Monday, December 29
New rice outside Chiangmai

We signed up for a half day bike tour of the countryside with Chianmai Bicycle. We had tried to sign up for the Doi Lom Challenge - a hillier tour along the mountains. But, it was full. We joined with a neurologist from Vancouver and his family, an Austrian couple, three in a group from Austrailia and an American couple - Eric and Karen, working in South Korea. We had a lot in common with Karen and Eric and hit it off. 

The tour was pretty mundane, and we rode 21 km only. The bikes were OK and the helmets atrocious. We stopped a lot, but had a pleasant morning talking with the other groups. Lunch was pretty plain pasta, so we deferred. Upon return, we hit Pacamara coffee shop again with a brief stop to get some protein and veggies + rice for me and a crepe for Erika and Rick. 

In the afternoon, we got our bags mostly packed and had a rest before heading to dinner. We walked 20 minutes to Rachamankha, which was fabulous and had La Na and Burmese dishes, along with the best “facilities” we’d seen the entire trip. We shared a bottle of Australian chardonnay. Sharing the restaurant, there was a small wedding parter for  Thai woman and a farang man, so it was a lovely evening. 

Tuesday, December 30

After breakfast, we caught our flight back to Bangkok. I realized I should have planned a later flight, because I had no desire to go back downtown on our third visit to Bangkok. Oh well. 

We spent the day packing, going to the gym and swimming in the nice hotel pool. We could have been anywhere in the tropical world. The day finished with $20 burgers and beers by the pool. 

Wednesday, December 31
Leg room! And my nifty new t-shirt. 

We got up at 4:00 am and enjoyed some fresh veggies and fruits at the breakfast buffet, unsure when we would see more of them on the long trip home. 

We took off at 7:10. After 3 hours, we stopped in Taipei. From above, Taiwan looks like a good place to explore mountains. We were re-screened despite the short stop and continuance. We were 30 minutes late getting out and arrived in Seoul 30 minutes late. We got screened yet again and enjoyed our brief walk through the Seoul airport. At 6:10 pm, we took off again for our final 9.5 hour leg to SF. We had the emergency row and TONS of legroom. Yay!

I only slept a tiny bit due to lots of turbulence and the regular flushing of the toilets - the only downside to our seats. After having Rick get caught in secondary passport control, we got our Lyft and arrived home at 12:30 pm. 

We had lunch at Armadillo Willy’s and a Trader Joe’s run while the laundry spun around at home. Despite living over 30 hours of December 31, we never passed midnight. We went to bed at 9:00 and awoke to the sound of fireworks at midnight and shared a New Year’s kiss. 

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Why is color contrast important in software design?

Designers and product managers often ask me why color contrast and the ability to zoom in is important in software design. There are two groups of people who benefit from color contrast.

1. Color blindness. 1 in 12 men are color blind. 1 in 200 women are color blind. Any design that adjoins two different colors with the same or similar value can be tricky for color blind users to navigate. Additionally, the use of color only as an indicator of system status becomes meaningless. For example, red for alert and green for ok. If those two colors appear the same to a user, the meaning is lost. Therefore, any time a design uses color for meaning, it should be accompanied by a symbol or text that also provides meaning. A red exclamation for alert and a green checkmark for ok will provide a way to convey meaning without color alone.

2. Low vision. Around 3-3.5% of the world population has low vision.  Low vision users can be aided by increased color contrast in addition to the ability to zoom in or magnify their view of software on a screen. Zooming and contrast can be enhanced by peripheral hardware and software, but at a minimum, software should have a certain amount of contrast built in as well as the ability to adjust the zoom.

Further reading:

Why is the the ability to navigate by keyboard important?

I often have designers and developers asking me why it is important to be able to navigate a web page with a keyboard only and why it is bad to require users to hover over something with a mouse.

Let me be clear that I'm not against adding motion or delightful visual effects when the mouse moves around the page. However, there needs to be a clear and easy path for users to interact with all features using a keyboard. Here is why:

1. Power users. People who use a web app heavily for productivity don't want to move their hand back and forth from a keyboard to a mouse. Doing everything with a keyboard is preferred. If that functionality is available and intuitive, it will be used. In addition to the ability to navigate by keyboard, these users require the ability to see where their cursor focus is on screen at all times.
web page on a tablet

2. Navigating via tablet. Today, a lot of users will access a web page on a tablet device. Tablets have touch screens that are not able to simulate a hovering action as the mouse can. As such, all controls need to be visible and able to be activated by a touch, which is interpreted the same way as the click of the mouse or hitting the enter key.

3. Minor ailments. A lot of users suffer from minor ailments including arthritis, carpel tunnel syndrome, diminished dexterity or temporary injuries like sprained wrists. For these users, long periods of mousing can be excruciating. Making things available via keyboard allows these users to continue being productive while healing from and avoiding aggravating their injuries. In addition to the ability to navigate by keyboard, these users require the ability to see where their cursor focus is on screen at all times.

using a switch
4. Profound motor disabilities. People with conditions like MS, Parkinsons, ALS, muscular dystrophy or who are missing a limb or digits still have a need to participate in our digital society. Creating web applications that are navigable via keyboard allows them to access information and services using a keyboard or a switch, which is a large button that can be plugged in as an alternative to a mouse pointer and used to toggle between web page controls. In addition to the ability to navigate by keyboard, these users require the ability to see where their cursor focus is on screen at all times.
navigating with a screen reader

5. Profound visual impairment. Users with profound visual impairment will typically use screen reading software to navigate a web page. Because they cannot see a pointer on screen, they need to be able to toggle through controls on a page using the keyboard. Additionally, all "active" elements like buttons, links and form fields need proper text labeling or alternatives, so they know what to expect when they activate the element. This is especially important with icons which need to be described to the screen reading software.