Doi Pui Hmong Village near Chiang Mai

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Like Boulder, Colorado, perched against the Flatirons, Chiang Mai sits right up against Doi Suthep, a mountain that is topped by both a Buddhist  temple and a one of many royal palaces.  This is the summer home for the royal family, should they choose to come this far to sample the bracing, mountain air. Doi Suthep has a twin, Doi Pui, which is about thirty feet higher.  The mountains  are about 5,500 feet tall, and the temperature at the top is noticeably lower than at the base in Chiang Mai. The air is sweeter and fresher on top, as well.

The winding road up the mountain is well maintained, and heavily traveled by bicyclists, motorcyclists and the red trucks that form the backbone of mass transit in Chiang Mai. Most people make it as far as the temple, climb the 306 steps, take a few pictures and then head back down. After the temple you come to Pu Ping Palace, but then the road becomes terrible, full of potholes.

But if you keep going another five miles, you come to a Hmong village that sells handicrafts in order to support its one-thousand inhabitants. Unlike most tourist items, I find these attractive.  I like their clothing and their silver jewelry. I’ve visited the village several times already, usually just as an excuse to ride up the mountain on my Honda PCX150, but this time we rented traditional Hmong clothing and used their beautiful little park for a location.  It was surprisingly fun.  They charge you 50 baht (about  $1.75) per person.




I first heard about Laos in 1965, when I was fifteen and a student at St. Louis University High School.  Our school library held three autographed copies of the books of Doctor Tom Dooley, an alum of our high school and my Catholic neighborhood.  His books had been best-sellers when published in the late fifties, and their strong portrayal of the evils of Indochinese communism may have gone a long way to prompting Kennedy, also a Catholic, to get us involved in the fight against Communism in Laos and Viet Nam.

Dooley had started clinics in Northern Laos, and on this trip I was determined to visit the first.  So when we arrived in Luang Nam Tha, I stopped by the local hospital.  After struggling to get all my vocabulary ducks in a row, I had mentally prepared a little speech I could give, telling them I had read about this place fifty years ago, and had always wanted to visit the hospital the famous Doctor Tom Dooley had established.

Turns out they had never heard of him.  No longer an isolated hamlet in the forest, Luang Nam Tha was now a thriving backpacker destination for those launching treks into the nearby forests.  The hospital was modern, and although the three doctors I spoke to could give  me a few minutes of their precious time, the only information I could get was that a German doctor named Gunter might know more about the history of the hospital, but nobody knew where he could be found.

So my plans for a glorious story of one man’s journey across space and time had come to naught. Just like our plans for what they call here “The Second Indochinese War.”




In the Thai language there is no word for “intolerance.”  The notion is so foreign to this Buddhist culture that promotes acceptance that they simply never got around to inventing a word to express the notion.  Thais  also tend not to have a lot of negative words.  I’ve never heard anyone described as “ugly.”  Instead, they say “not beautiful.”

When Thais drive, they do so in a way that mimics their language.  As far as I can tell, no notion of “right of way” exists.  People drive on the left hand side of the road, and when entering from the left, they don’t look behind to see if it’s safe to enter.  They just slide on in, expecting others to watch out for them.  Usually, it works, because no one is thinking “hey, I have right of way here and you’ve just invaded my space without asking.”  Such a person would have to be a foreigner, schooled in ancient inalienable rights that simply don’t exist here in a country where most people assume “we’re all just bumbling along as best we can, trying to be kind to one another.”

I’ve had a driver’s license here for two years now, but I wouldn’t assume that many of the Thai drivers I share the road with have bothered to do the same.  I’ve seen children as young as ten driving a motorbike containing three of their friends.  At night, they frequently drive with their lights out in order to economize on gas.  Often they drive the wrong way down a street, because the nearest turnaround is inconveniently distant.  I’ve never seen a police car chase someone down for a moving traffic violation.  Here police stage traffic stops, where they pull over anyone they think might be worth shaking down.  Foreigners are usually fare game.  I have been issued a ticket for “impoliteness” for driving without a shirt in hot weather.  The fine is about twelve dollars.  If you pay right there, you don’t have to go to the police station to collect your license.  I know another foreigner who was fined for smoking while driving his motor scooter.

Thai young people are most often stopped for not wearing a motorcycle helmet. They are simply too vain and rebellious to do so, and are willing to pay a fine that amounts to a full days salary at minimum wage. As much as they prize loyalty and obedience to elders, they also seem to lack the ability to fall into rank when it comes to discipline.  The image of herding cats springs to mind.  Siamese cats.




It seems to strike older men, causing them to spend the rest of their days making strange sculpture parks, sometimes using acres of land and millions of pounds of cement. Often the designs are repetitive, but the sameness of the imagery doesn’t slow these guys down. They have no “off” button.

In Iowa, we have the Grotto of the Redemption in West Bend. There a Father Paul Dobberstein, a Roman Catholic priest spent forty years-two years making the world’s most complete man-made collection of minerals, fossils, shells, and petrifications in one place. The rocks alone are thought to be worth four million dollars.

On both sides of the Mekong River, in both Ventiane, Laos and Nong Khai, Thailand, Bunleua Sulilat built enormous, fantastic sculpture parks using both Buddhist and Hindu symbols. He began in Laos, but after the 1975 Communist revolution, decided to continue his work on the other side of the river, in Thailand. These are truly “over the top” both in size and conception. A fall from one of his sculptures on the Thai side led to his demise at the age of 64. His mummified body is on display in a hall at the park.

It certainly gives a guy something to do with his hands, and ends up constituting a life’s work.





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In Viet Nam, I bought kopi luwak, a coffee made from coffee beans that had been eaten by Asian palm civets, weasel-cats that eat the ripe coffee berries and then poop them out. It had a distinctive taste, not unpleasant, but it wasn’t something I was crazy enough about to justify the inflated price.

Now Thailand has discovered that people will pay a premium for coffee beans retrieved from elephant poop.  I guess Thailand is known for elephants and like the civets they too can be induced to eat coffee beans. I have not yet sampled coffee processed in this way, but I imagine it will share some attributes of the Vietnamese coffee, but with its own distinctive elephantine edge.

Maybe various celebrities could be induced to swallow coffee beans whole and then workers could later painstakingly retrieve them from their celebrated turds. Justin Bieber and Beyonce come to mind. If A list celebrities decline to participate, we could open the talent pool to the semi-famous, has-and-might-have-beens, including former TV and radio stars of yesteryear. I would like to volunteer my services if it comes down to that.

And my last name is Coffey.  Not a big stretch to imagine Coffey Poop Coffee. “It tastes as good as it smells bad.” Be the first on your block to experience the distinctive aroma that says “Squeeze off a log to pour me a cup that’s lip-smackin’ good.”

I’m reminded of the motto that Thunderbird wine used.  It was (and maybe still is) a fortified cheap wine favored by true winos.  They didn’t care much about taste, all they cared about was effect.  And the makers of Thunderbird knew that.  They hired Jack Palance to do their TV ads.  While Orson Wells was touting Gallo, pompously promising no wine before its time, Jack was promoting Thunderbird.  “Thunderbird…its goes down kicking” he growled, grinning maniacally.

The Sacred and the Profane in Northern Thailand


With my friend Sam, I took a three day motorcycle trip to Phrae.  It’s about five hours east of Chiang Mai, past Lampang and then up into the hills.  Once you get into the mountains it’s fresh and cool, and the scenery compensates for the long haul. Phrae was once the center of Teak logging in Thailand.  Teak is a magnificent wood with which to build houses and furniture.  It’s heavy, insect resistant, and grows straight as an arrow. It’s also largely missing, as Thailand has lost 85% of its forests since World War II.  They’ve replanted a lot, but teak takes a long time to grow.

When we got to the mountains northeast of Lampang, we were looking for someplace to rest and came across a coffee shop that was largely hidden from the highway.  It looked like a dark recess in the trees.  The owner had built a delightful tree house in addition to his main buildings, the coffee house itself and a little church.  That’s right, church, as in Christian Pentecostal place of worship.  His name is Chestha Suwannasa, and he credits his conversion experience with saving him from a life of dissipation.  He also fancies himself an artist, and was busy working on a large canvas when we arrived.  The canvases have titles like “The Last Judgment.”

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When we got to Phrae, we toured one of several nineteenth century mansions that were made, of course, of teak. The largest had belonged to the governor of the region, and the opulence of the upstairs was in great contrast to the basement, which was used as a prison and a place of torture.  I could not imagine relaxing at home knowing there were people being tortured in my basement, but heck, maybe that’s just me.  Guess I don’t have thick enough skin to be a provincial governor in 19th century Indochina.

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Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five , 1926 . Left to right : Louis Armstrong at piano holding trumpet , Johnny St . Cyr with banjo , Johnny Dodds , Kid Ory , Lil Hardin Armstrong . American jazz band . Louis Armstrong , jazz trumpeter , singer , born 4 August 1901 , died 6 July 1971 . Hardin Armstrong , jazz pianist , composer , arranger , singer , born 3 February 1898 , died 27 August 1971 .  Jazz band . Editorial use only

The world is awash in ways to deliver content, but content worth delivering is still in short supply.  Now that everybody has a phone that can take a good picture there are still precious few photos that will make a viewer gasp in wonder. Now that recording music or video is within the reach of anyone with a laptop, there are still few movies or music compilations to get excited about.

The fact that content is given away for free is hardly an inducement for anyone to devote him to life-long discipline in the creative arts.  Getting a Master of Fine Arts in a discipline will not lead to any sort of gainful employment.  There are no meaningful certifications in the creative arts.

We are in a strange place with our culture. I can hear Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five play Potato Head Blues on my cell phone, laptop, pad, and if I were to buy a blue-tooth enabled hearing aid, I could even listen to that snappy tune on that if I wanted.  I think I already own one pair of good headphones and three pairs of ear buds, enabling me to listen without being constrained to any one location.  I have the freedom to consume anything that is created nowadays, except that I am unaware of any such product. One could assume that alive today there are many artists as talented and driven as was Armstrong, but I have no way to knowing who they are.

Would Armstrong have been able to develop his prodigious talent if he had been unable to get paid for writing and performing? I imagine if he had to endure four years at University in order to get a teaching credential in music in order to lead a high school band, such an ordeal might have taken the wind out of his sails before he ever bothered to record himself and distribute it free on Youtube. Burdened by student loan debt and exhausted at the end of the day from preparing lesson plans and the onus to constantly proving his worth to school administrators, he might have soured on the whole music thing by the time he hit his prime.  Bix Beiderbecke only made it to the age of 28, so going that route would have surely been a fool’s bargain for him. Chopin and Mozart would have proved too difficult to get along with the school board or the PTA, and their only hope might have been to seek permanent disability status.

Maybe the reason I don’t know what to get excited about in the arts today has less to do with my age than it does with the fact that we have created a world that actively discourages creativity. Rather than being a boon to artists, the Internet has proven to be the final stake through the heart, the last knot in the noose, the biggest clump of dirt thrown on the coffin.