Tuesday, December 17, 2013

How NOT to Get to Thailand’s Ayutthaya Historical Park

One of the reasons I wanted to go to Thailand was to visit all the archaeological ruins. The first set of important ruins, Ayutthaya, is situated a bare forty miles north of Bangkok. And according to my guidebook, it would be a short train ride to get there.
            However, I messed up on something crucial: getting to the train station. My first terrible mistake was agreeing with my friend, who thought it would be fun and easy to travel to the train station via the canal. In theory this should have been simple. We were staying near the Grand Palace. There was a canal stop only a short walk from our hotel.
Ayutthaya. Photo by D.R. Ransdell
            What we weren’t prepared for was the utter confusion at the water landing. People were scurrying to get into one line or the other, and there were several different express boats that stopped at the same place.
            But I was armed. I’d worked on Thai for over a month, so I bravely asked for the right boat to get to the train station.
            The first lady I asked looked at me as if I were completely crazy. The second lady looked away when I reached my second badly pronounced word. My third victim, a male teen, pointed to the boat that was just pulling away.
            My friend and I waited on the banks. Another line had already started forming. After a brief wait we were able to make our way onto the boat. But then came another surprise. The boats go SO FAST (after all, they’re express boats!) that the drivers have to put up plastic flaps so that people don’t get completely soaked with canal river water. This was bad for us because it also meant that we couldn’t see where we were.
Ayutthaya, Wat Mahathat  Photo by D.R. Ransdell
            We sped to the first stop, where our speed mobile paused for about ten seconds as people scrambled on and off. Then we were zipping through the canal again. Neither my friend nor I had caught the name of the canal stop, but we didn’t have a chance to communicate with one another. Instead we were thrown back into our seats as the driver gunned the engine.
            We reached the second canal stop and had no better idea where we were. Again our vehicle paused briefly before speeding away. But then I got a clue. I saw tall buildings through the cracks of the makeshift plastic awning. We were in the business district. We were in the heart of modern Bangkok.
            We were miles from the train station. At the next stop, we scrambled out.
            Smarter travelers would have found a cab and gotten to the train station the “easy way,” but now that we’d reached a modern section, we couldn’t find any cabs. It was only after a big fight that we even figured out where we were on the map.
Wat Rachaburana, Ayutthaya. Photo by D. R. Ransdell
            We were way off course. My friend had insisted on an early start, and I had begrudgingly complied only to lose everything by getting us so far of course that we had to find a bus to get back in the right direction of the train station, and after that we had to cover another few blocks on foot. By the time we got to the station, we found we’d just missed one connection and had to wait for the next.
            I was seething at my own incompetence, but my friend calmly took a seat at the train station after finding an English-language newspaper. By the time we finally caught a train, it was nearly noon.
            By then I’d made a pact with myself. No more attempts to speak Thai. We just didn’t have the time!
            Train stations aren't usually so hard to find--or are they? What's your own worst experience of trying to reach a train station?
For a fictional account of a trip to Ayutthaya, please see www.drransdellnovels.com/thai-twist.html

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Grand Palace, No Misnomer!

The first time I went to Thailand, I got to Bangkok after dark. The month was December, so it wasn’t late, just dark. After a harrowing ride to our hotel (given that our taxi driver was trying to outrun all the vehicles on the road), we arrived at the Queen’s Hotel. The friend traveling with me would have been glad to have spent the rest of the evening relaxing over a nice dinner. But I had other plans. I was determined to go see the outside of The Grand Palace. I was able to insist on this for a simple reason: the important royal complex was close by. I knew that because I had rather purposefully chosen a hotel that was close to two major attractions, Wat Pho and the The Grand Palace itself.
So despite jet-lag, I dragged my poor friend out on the street so that we could walk past The Grand Palace as our grand introduction to Thailand. Even though we could only see some of the rooftops of the buildings inside the complex, I was still thrilled. The rooftops were orange with green and white tips, so they were particularly distinctive. We could also glimpse the tops of chedis, or ceremonial mounds. The high wall around the complex prevented us from seeing anything else, but we didn’t care. We took a long loop around the building just to get an idea what it would be like when we managed a full tour the next day. 

The Grand Palace complex was so rich in history, in decoration, in importance, that we should have gone back several times. We didn’t have that luxury, so we tried to take in the whole thing in a single afternoon (after spending an exhausting morning at Wat Pho!). We missed quite a few things (as we found when we went back a few years later), but no matter. We got a sense of the fine complex. We saw the outside of the royal quarters. We enjoyed the decorations with fanciful warriors. More significantly, even though he was very, very far away, we got a glimpse of the Emerald Buddha, which is one of the palace’s most cherished claims to fame.

We came away with a sense of the grandeur of Thailand and its world importance. We felt privileged to have seen its delicate fine architecture and its cheerful decorations. By the end of the day we were exhausted but excited to be anticipating three weeks in such a fascinating country. 

My recent novel THAI TWIST is a cultural romance about two sisters traveling in Thailand. Most of it is fiction. But it starts with one sister being dead tired after arriving in Bangkok and the other insisting on a walk to The Grand Palace. In this case, art definitely imitates life!

To find out more: 
Author website:
Novels website:

Monday, November 18, 2013

Wat Pho, More Than a Temple

One of my biggest surprises in Thailand was that a visit to a temple often turned out to be a visit to a whole temple complex. Unlike a church where people usually go for a particular service, the Thai temples were places to hang out. Whole families would come to spend time together. They might go inside one of the buildings to pray, but they also might sit down and have a picnic! Children ran from one end to the other and vendors hawked drinks and candies. There were even a couple of cats on hand to keep us company.

At Wat Pho the most important feature is the statue of the Reclining Buddha. He's in a big room by himself. (In fact, the temple is named for a monastery in India where the Buddha might have lived at one time.) All the tourists, most of whom were Thai, were trying to get a picture, but we were having a hard time fitting the statue into a single shot.

Even though we'd assumed we would only need an hour to visit the temple, instead we wound up spending several. The architecture was so unique and beautiful that I wandered around taking as many pictures as possible. 

 Several times I got stopped by English students who wanted to interview me for their homework assignment. What a clever teacher! Even though most of the students couldn't understand what I said, I helped them cheat by writing down the answers!

I was so impressed with the temple that I made it the very first stop on Rachel's itinerary when she drags her sister to all the important tourist sites in THAI TWIST. No decent visit to Bangkok would be complete without a thorough visit to one of the city's oldest and most important spots.

Monday, September 30, 2013

First Impressions: Thailand

I was able to talk two girlfriends into going to Thailand with me for a simple reason--we hadn't been there before. Or maybe they were the ones convincing me! 

One of our first surprises was the arrival from the airport. The taxi driver wove in and out of travel as if he were a player inside a pinball machine! It was rather amazing, especially as he whizzed by all the tuk-tuks, or golf-cart like vehicles that were slower than we were. On the other hand, everything was slower than we were! 

By the time we zoomed to our hotel, we were out of breath and glad just to be standing still! But it was the start of a great adventure.

And since I'm a writer, those adventures got put to good use in my new novel, Thai Twist. I'll explain more in future blog posts; please stay tuned!

Friday, August 30, 2013

The Cliffs of Moher

 One of our favorite days involved a trip to the Cliffs of Moher. By accident we got lucky. We arrived about 2:00 p.m. While we assumed we would only need an hour to visit the cliffs, we soon found that you can walk along them for several miles. Since it was a beautiful, sunny day, we did just that.                 

However, we didn't walk very fast. We had to constantly stop and take pictures. Every new curve gave us a different angle and a beautiful view. Sometimes we even spotted seabirds in the nooks of the cliffs. Although the day was a bit windy (I kept taking my sweater on and off), it didn't rain, and for Ireland, it was fairly warm. Lucky us!

Monday, July 29, 2013

Swimming in Ireland

We headed to Dun Laoghaire for the day so that we could get an idea of what the Irish coast looked like. Besides, it was easy to take the commuter train from Dublin.

We also wanted to visit the James Joyce Museum (the Martello tower on the right). Joyce got ideas for one of his initial scenes from an incident that happened here. 

 Evidently, Joyce's host had a bad dream, woke up, and started shooting! Joyce decided he'd rather be anywhere else. 

Joyce remembered the incident and used it. In fact, he made his host the bad guy in Ulysses. Never anger a writer! It's dangerous!

(Note: Be especially careful if the author writes murder mysteries.)

The museum is right behind a little beach. When I saw lots of kids in the water I thought, "Wonderful!" Naturally, I had brought my swimming suit just in case. The joyous shouts of the children convinced me to give the water a try.

I might have guessed that even though the air temperature was in the 70s, the water would be freezing! That's why the kids were all shouting! But nevertheless, I got in a short swim, my first off the Irish coast. For a spoiled swimmer such as myself (it's nearly always nice to swim in Tucson), the cold water was shocking rather than refreshing, but afterwards I felt very successful!

Monday, June 24, 2013

Tivoli's Villa d'Este

One of my favorite spots to visit in Italy is the quiet town of Tivoli, which hides the luxurious gardens of Villa d'Este.

 The villa was the brainchild of Ippolito d'Este II, who was the Cardinal of Ferrara. Because he considered his governor's palace in Rome too rustic, he wanted to create the perfect summer retreat.
 Today visitor's can stroll past the Organ Fountain (above), the Hundred Fountains (left), the Fountain of the Dragons, the Grotto of Diana, and the Fish Ponds, and those are just for starters!
I like the Hundred Fountains the best. All the figures are slightly different. On a hot day, the fountains cool you off. More importantly, they seem to be whispering, "What secrets would you like to share with me?"
Despite the beauty of the Hundred Fountains, though, I also found some people who just wanted to relax and read. At Villa d'Este, there's something for everyone!

For a better view, check out Tivoli Reads Mariachi Murder.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013


One of the charms of living in Tucson includes listening to live mariachi music. This style of Mexican folk music has evolved over the past century. The instrumentation includes a guitarr├│n, which is a kind of string bass and provides the downbeats, a vihuela, which provides the upbeats, trumpets, and violins. Typically, the players take turns singing. Favorite songs include “Jesucita en Chihuahua” and “Mariachi loco” or romantic songs such as “Cerca del mar” or “Spanish Eyes.”  The musicians play at restaurants, parties, civic functions, weddings, baptisms, quince├▒eras (birthday parties for 15-year-olds), and even funerals. The players most often wear black outfits that have, at least for this player, a welcome slimming effect. The trajes, as they are called, are decorated with plata, which are silver-plated decorations that run up and down the legs and across the chest. When the musicians walk, they jingle. This makes it hard to come home quietly late at night!

When you hear mariachi music, what’s the song you most want to hear?

However, not all Tucsonans want to spend their free time listening to mariachi music. Many are graduates of the University of Arizona. When they have free time, they might well make use of the wonderful warm spring weather to read outside in their rock gardens. They are so concentrated that they don’t accept interruptions!

(Check out youtube video for Tucson Reads MArIACHI MUrDER)

Coming next time: Orvieto, Italy.

Google+ Badge