Counting Down…Counting Blessings

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Pid tong lang pra”

Meaning: Putting a gold leaf on the back of the Buddha. Which translates to “Doing something good without seeking attention”.

Our itinerary is looking great, and Sarah, my 13-year-old daughter is super excited to go on this month long trip to Thailand. The backpacks are out and already contain a few items. We did a pre-packing session the other day, to see what we want and need to bring, and if it’ll fit in our packs.

I always pack too much, so I constantly need to be mindful of every ounce that goes inside, and that will affect each step I take. The Thai heat and humidity already make it feel heavier than it is!

We’ll spend significant time in temples as they provide a quiet retreat during our hectic days in busy Thai cities, especially in Bangkok.  Many temples also offer Thai massages, a great way to overcome the jetlag and regain flexibility after spending months in an office chair.

I’ve always been drawn to Buddhism and love the way it is integrated into the Thai culture and daily life. People bring food to the monks in the early morning and celebrate many Holy days at the temples.religion

People often wonder whether Buddhism is a religion or philosophy. Buddhism does not ask you to accept its core principles on faith, it does not ask you to simply believe the results of someone else’s gnosis. To me it is a philosophy, the Buddha does not want you to believe, he wants you to seek out the truth–the very essence of philosophical enquiry.

The usual offering (Wai Phra) at a Thai Buddhist temple, consists of a candle, some flowers (often a lotus), a small square of gold leaf and three incense sticks. The flowers are placed in water before lighting the incense sticks using the candle. The three incense sticks are held between the palms of the hand in a wai gesture. In kneeling position with feet tucked behind (so that they face away from the Buddha image), a Thai making the offering recites in their mind, phrases from the Buddhist scriptures. Incense sticks are then planted into a container of sand, and the small square of gold leaf is pressed onto the Buddha image.

They cover the Buddha statue with the thin golden leaves to honour Buddha teachings. In the case of pain, the thin golden leaf shall be stuck at the same painful location on the Buddha statue. The gold leaf is a form of donation and seeing the leaves on the back of a Buddha makes a meaningful experience even more meaningful…

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We’ll put some extra gold leaves on the back of the Buddha’s we encounter, our way to show our gratitude, for being able to visit this exquisite country.

Voorpret

Not sure if there’s a good translation for this Dutch word. It refers to the happiness you feel before you are about to do something fun, let’s call it antefun. It’s in your imagination but feels very real. I’ve had voorpret for almost a year now, in anticipation of our Thailand trip. Last year in July I wrote a post about the decision to go on a trip to Thailand in 2016. Just making the decision caused a surge of pleasure through my body…

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I traveled to Thailand in 91, 96, and 97 and missed it ever since. I moved to the U.S. in 2000 and when my daughter arrived in 2003, the Thai memories were further pushed into the background. Then, as I was cleaning up some memorabilia and discovered the Thailand photo albums, the wish to visit again returned full force.

I had lots of doubts, I was afraid it would be too expensive for my daughter and me to make the trip. Could I take so much time (four weeks) off? Do I deserve this? Finally, I realized I first had to decide to go (pushing fears aside) and then see how things would unfold.

The moment I said to my daughter: “We are going to Thailand in 2016” the planning and voorpret or antefun started.  I know that not everything I imagine will turn out that way. We’ll encounter some obstacles and other pleasant surprises. I keep an open mind, my itinerary is just for voorpret , guidance, and budget planning.

Since I visited before, planning this trip was rather easy. However, my trips were a very long time ago, and things changed a lot. After the movie ‘The Beach” (2000) there was a serious influx of (backpacking) tourists, and nowadays most young people with a little budget, travel to Thailand, before starting a career or family requires them to shift their focus.

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Great free tool for planning: mindmeister. 

My imagination is fueled by some very vivid and positive memories of this pearl of the East. Another factor that helps tremendously with planning and voorpret are consumer reviews like TripAdvisor and Youtube videos, both were not available in the early 90-ies. I can check Google earth and zoom in on a beach and check how shallow the water is, or where there’s a coral reef for snorkeling.

Back in 1991, during my first trip, we only had The Lonely Planet guide-which was pretty awesome- and that was it. I printed a map of Thailand and planned our tour. One thing we didn’t realize was the fact that it is tropical, something I’d never encountered before as a Dutch native. When we got off the plane, it felt like a warm, humid blanket covered us, and we immediately realized that we had to move less and much slower.

Very quickly we decided to skip half of our planned route, we didn’t want to be on trains and buses every day and have enough time to take in the beautiful landscape and at times intense cultural flavors. When I tell people about our upcoming trip they ask me about all the places we’re going to visit and if we’re also going to Vietnam or Singapore, since we’re so close.

No, we’re not. Just the city of Bangkok is worth at least a week, and we also want to incorporate ample quiet, lazy, beach time. I’m very lucky to be able to travel for 4 weeks, so I don’t have to rush from one place to the other and upon returning feeling so exhausted I need another vacation. If you would ask me for one tip I would say: take it easy and take your time.

Another tip: Do some homework and prepare! I can’t image to just book a ticket and perhaps hotel, pack my bag the day of departure, fly to another continent I never visited before, and just see what happens. The chances you’ll experience more stress and unwanted challenges on your way, are huge.

I started with tracking flights, even though this was too early, at least, I had an idea of how much the two airplane tickets would be. I found an article that stated that at 171 days prior to departure and no later than 90 days before departure, you could find the best price. In my case, that was mid-January, thanks to a tip from my cousin I found two tickets for $1740 via Google flights. This is extremely cheap (they still go for $1200-$1400 per ticket), and yes, it is not the most perfect flight, arriving late at night, but you have to be flexible to get such a price.

Once I had the tickets I changed gears and started a “mindmap” (see screenshot above), this free tool helps you keeping track of all the things that need to be done prior to the trip and the wish-list of places to visit and things to do. Immunizations, for example, some require being given weeks or months in advance to allow your body to build the immune system.

I knew I wanted to spend at least 2 weeks on a tropical beach on one of the many beautiful islands. Thailand has different weather regions, based on that I selected the island Koh Phangan because in July it’s dry (Phuket for example, is in the rainy season that month). This time, I wanted to visit two other places I had never been before, Ayutthaya and Khao Yai National park, both are located within a 100 km range from Bangkok.

 

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Our bungalow at Chao Phao beach.

 

Another advantage of planning (early) is that you can spread the expenses. Last summer I found great backpacks on sale, and immediately ordered them and took them off the shopping list. I’ve paid for several hotels and other accommodations I found with the help of TripAdvisor. At this point I’m reviewing travel insurance, I advise you to do some research as some things might already be covered under your current life and medical insurances. The only expenses left are food and a few taxi and train trips.

Most travel guides have a section about Thai culture and the general dos and don’ts. I’m no saint and probably stepped on a few Thai tails myself, but I highly recommend to inform yourself a little bit. For example, most people from the West (Europe and US) live at a much faster pace, be prepared for things to go much slower and don’t get annoyed by that.

Thai people are usually soft-voiced and rather avoid confrontation and arguments. If something is not OK, or the way you like it, just smile and gently ask for something else, don’t raise your voice, make a fuss, or point your finger, it’ll make things much more complicated. Don’t complain if you only get one toilet roll (while you only paid $12 a night for your beach bungalow?) just go buy another one yourself, or use water, just like the Thai do.

Other things are just common sense, put on a T-shirt or top when you go to a restaurant or visit a store. Dress appropriately when entering a temple (no bare shoulders or tiny shorts). When you make a little effort to blend in and welcome sanuk and sabai, you’re in for an unforgettable time and might even feel becoming part of the Thai family that runs your hotel or resort. For now, I’ll end with a video from Sunny, he’s very straightforward, but he has lived in Thailand for over 15 years and he knows…

 

 

 

 

Zenything

Zen is in. Everything is zenable these days. What is Zen?

“One way to think of zen is this: a total state of focus that incorporates a total togetherness of body and mind. Zen is a way of being. It also is a state of mind.”

Got it? Got Zen? How about this one: “Zen is a Japanese school of Mahayana Buddhism emphasizing the value of meditation and intuition.”

For most of us, Zen is connected to peacefulness, being at ease. For me, it also means I feel “flow”, a state of heightened focus. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi—glad I don’t have to pronounce his name—a positive psychologist, has made flow, happiness, creativity, and fulfillment the focus of his life. He notes that things (including money) can’t really make us happy, instead, the activities that bring about a state of “flow” provide long lasting satisfaction.

When you’re in flow, you forget about time and your surroundings, and perhaps you might forget the daily challenges as well. When one is in flow, everything goes automatically, without thinking, you don’t have to think. You’re thoughtless, yet very aware.

This brings me to Zentangles, a new hype that was recently brought to my attention. Some might call this doodling with pen and ink. I think they are beautiful line drawings of patterns. The people behind this “Zen” product saw a market. They call it a method, and recommend you take classes and one can also become a certified instructor. They even sell stacks of square papers (a “real” Zentangle is made on a square piece of paper).

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Doodle art by Faith Georgia (not a Zentangle!)

I think this is utter baloney. Especially when they start talking about Zentomology. As a marketer and bachelor of fine arts, I can appreciate their boldness. Afraid a lot of people will get trapped in this marketing hype. They even went as far as to try to patent it (they were rejected 8 times).

You can’t patent drawing or art! Besides all that, they miss the point of “flow” and the limitlessness of Zen. All I want to say is: you are more creative than 1000 Zentangles, just grab a pen and paper (as small or as big as you want, square, rectangle or triangle) and start with the first line…

…or dot.

There we go again…

Thinking…I thought I had left it behind me, and finally entered the realm of just being and doing. NOT.

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I met some seriously strange characters in Prague. 1990

 

I realized my blog does not really have a theme, and thought it should, or does it? Why is it that everybody—including myself—wants to write, post, vlog, present, share, etc? Is this a new era of self-expression?

Are we doing this just because it feels good? Are we doing this because we think we have something really important to say or show? Or is it just because it’s so easy these days? Perhaps it makes us feel a little more significant and famous for a minute or more?

Why do I write this blog? I live a pretty mediocre life as a full-time working, single mom in the suburbs. OK, I’m not an average Joe/Mo, but I do my very best to blend in. Maybe that’s what bothers me?

Maybe it’s time to not blend or bend anymore, and just let it all go the way it flows. It’s amazing how quickly, little rules can take over. For example, I thought my blog posts needed to be long and deep. How about short and sweet?

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By the way, that Basque cake with semolina cream, cinnamon-vanilla sauce and ice milk was sweet indeed, yum!

À demain!

Mo

This is ridiculous!

Again, it took me several months to write my next post. Oh well…

The new year just arrived and so much already happened! It all started with the idea that I wanted no resolutions, but instead a theme to practice, my theme is “do”, no more thinking or testing, no more goals, just do! The reason behind my “do” theme is to prevent me from over-thinking, something I do very well and often I think myself out of an idea, either because of doubt or fear of failing or whatever other “reason” I can find.

So, I did.

I filed my own divorce (I was scared to do that for over 5 years), and this week I received the final decree, a new single chapter has started. Next, I tackled creating my new website http://www.moniquedicarlo.com which took me a couple of days with the help of WIX, a really cool web development tool. Of course, this is a work in progress…

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Then I had a nice little party to celebrate my 51st birth year. Last year when I turned 50, we were in the middle of a move and I couldn’t really celebrate. In a way, it was a re-celebration, as well as a housewarming party. Multi-generations of amazing women from different countries and backgrounds provided for some very interesting discussions. Brooksie Wells had recently released a new album, and she brought a few CD’s to share. “North East Rising Sun” has some very insightful lyrics, you should check her out!

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Buddha statue in Bangkok

The next VERY exciting thing is the fact that I bought two tickets for Thailand! We’ll spend the month of July visiting this amazing country. I started a mindmap at MindMeister to plan everything, another great tool I just discovered. I’ll continue to write about this trip and my preparations for it, I already got a lot of ideas of things to see and do. Some accommodations I’ve already booked, which will make the arrival and transition a little easier for my daughter.

Another item on my “do” list is creating a book via Amazon. I explored this a couple of ears ago, but this time, I’m going to get it done! For over 25 years I’ve been taking pictures of windows and I think this makes a nice collection for a coffee table book.

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À bientôt,

Mo

Confession

I must confess…I’m addicted to organizing and planning. There, I said it! Now I need to organize a few words around it. As a loyal, addicted organizer I’ll start with making a key word list of items I’d like to write about. Let’s start with describing how organized I am (or not!).

Hiding the unorganized

Can you organize a mess? Yes you can, just put it in a box or in this case a bag.

I wish it would apply to anything I could or should organize, but unfortunately it doesn’t work like that. Yes, my clothes closet is somewhat structured (by color). Same with my books, they are catalogued by the color of the cover. Yet, my kitchen drawers are a mess, same with most of my desk drawers, and I have a few piles of paperwork and knick knacks. Some things are just hard to keep organized I guess…

Artwork by Ursus Wehrli.

Larger scale: Organized parking lot by Ursus Wehrli.

Although they have a different meaning, planning and organizing are two concepts that complement each other. Actually, I think you cannot have one without the other. I wonder why some people (including myself) love organizing and planning, for example, this artist named Ursus Wehrli who takes it to the extreme—with beautiful results I think—adding a new dimension to the meaning of the different parts that make an object or scene. Organization gives meaning to the experience and improves it at the same time. For me, planning and organizing is not only fun to do, it also removes stress, I worry less because I did my homework. I feel I have a little more control over the chaos called life.

Making a list and checking it twice

When it comes to planning and knowledge, you guessed it, I LOVE lists and tables. “Making a list checking it twice”, is my mantra. Shopping lists, to-do lists, itineraries, tracking costs lists, wish list, logs, references (for example, metric conversion)…are there any other lists? Please let me know!

My favorite thing to organize and plan? Travel! There’s so much to figure out and put on lists for a vacation, I usually start months in advance. I just started the organization of a month long trip to Thailand next year, my earliest planning ever, 12 months in advance!

Got itinerary?

Unfortunately I can’t check flights at the moment, because they are not available yet. However, I was able to figure out which airlines have the best departure and arrival times. I also calculated the average price per mile, and found out that Tuesday is the best day to book an International flight. The cheapest flight days are Tuesday-Thursday. How’s that for a start? Research is a major part of planning, and one of my favorite aspects of organizing anything.

The next best thing: finding places to visit and what to do at the selected destination. No, I don’t get this down to the hour, like an organized group travel package would force upon you. Instead, I just make a wish list of possible fun things to do. Thailand is a huge country with a very diverse landscape. I’ve visited 3 times and just covered a few small areas. The often humid and hot tropical climate does not contribute to actively hopping around from one place to the other.

The first time I got off the plane in Bangkok and left the air-conditioned terminal, a wet, warm blanket wrapped itself around me and I immediately had to cut my pace and our itinerary in half. This time I really want to take my time and not travel too much within the country. I selected three places to visit: the big city of Bangkok, a small town Ayutthaya, and a small island near Bangkok.

Bungalows on a Thai beach

Bungalows on Thai beach

Next: a trip to the bookstore and library. One good (Lonely Planet) guide I purchase and the rest I get at the library. The first three times I went to Thailand with friends, this time I travel with my 12 year (will be 13) old daughter, which means I have to look for some teenage activities as well.

We’ll have about 28 days, some shortened by travel. I roughly estimate the time we need for each of the three places, with the beach taking at least two weeks for some extreme unwinding. Tripadvisor is one of my favorite travel websites, not only can I see the trips and tips of my (facebook) friends, I can also find customer ratings and reviews, including pictures.

Organizing Heaven

What to do where? Tripadvisior will show you a huge list and I love the fact I can ask people who just recently visited the place I plan to visit, how it was, how the weather was, how much they paid, etc. We are traveling during the rainy season, so it’s good to know where and when the season starts and flows (it starts in the North of Thailand and moves down, reaching the South near October.

Through Tripadvisor I found a perfect beach (how perfect it actually is I’ll describe in my future Tripadvisor review). It ticks off all the “would like to haves” from my list: Small beach, just a few resorts, no sunbeds and parasols, quiet and peaceful. For the two cities I selected, I gathered information about both lodging and activities. On the beach my accommodation can be pretty simple, since we’ll be on the beach or in the water most of the time. A simple hut/bungalow (comes close to camping) with a fan will suffice.

For both Bangkok and Ayutthaya I selected small hotels with a pool. After lots of walking and biking (in Ayutthaya biking around is a great way to go sightseeing) in the tropical heat, it’s nice to cool down in a pool at the end of the day.

What to bring? Part of my early planning is spreading the budget. There are a lot of things we need before departure, like backpacks and good shoes, waterproof bags, quick drying compact towels, solar lights etc. Buying things now, or when they are on sale will not only save us money, but also take things off the packing list, avoiding last-minute shopping trips and stress.  I have a “before-departure” packing list and a “shopping-upon-arrival” list (because I carry my backback with me, I need to keep it light, and many things are much cheaper in Thailand).

Touts, Tuk-Tuk’s & Gems Scams

The other day I read a story from a dad who traveled with his family to Thailand for the first time. In front of their Bangkok hotel the jet lagged family got immediately lured into one of the most described scams in Thailand, the tuk-tuk tour. I felt sorry for them, but I also think it’s extremely stupid to visit a new country and culture without informing yourself properly.

Tuk tuk driver

Tuk tuk driver in Bangkok.

Do as the Romans do

But what if you don’t know what Romans do? You have to find out! Do your homework! Read, ask! It just makes your life so much easier and your travel so much more enjoyable. For the Thai a smile is very important, so perhaps you should practice replacing that serious frown with a happy expression. They love having fun also called “sanuk”. When asked you can respond with “sanuk mak” (it’s lots of fun). Learning a few basic words and sentences, is always appreciated! Here are a few more tips you can easily find in most travel guides: don’t point your feet at people or things, don’t touch their head, don’t raise your voice (Thai are usually mild-mannered and soft-spoken). Do dress properly when entering a temple, say “thank you” and most important of all: do smile a lot!

It looks like my Thai trip is coming along nicely, I have to return to that unorganized red bag now, it is bugging me!

To be continued…