Monday, November 29, 2010

Our Annual Christmas Letter

Christmas 2010
Basil Waine Kong

Merry Christmas from the Jamaica-Atlanta Kongs. 2010 was a banner year for us. With the addition of Hailie Christine Kong to our tribe and the graduation of Dr. Aleron Kong from Medical School, Stephanie and I thank The Great Architect of the Universe daily for our health and the well being of our children and grand children. With apologies to the younger grand children and to those yet unborn, we took three of the grand children to Disney World, Sea World and Universal Studios last summer and that was the last time I will be accompanying them on the roller coaster rides! While Mackenzie was fearless, I broke out in a cold sweat after each ride and still I rode. But never again.

I continue to enjoy my retirement and supporting Stephanie as she continues to pursue her professional interests. I never know who is going to show up on my frequent trips to the golf course, it could be 75 or 95! I have become one of those people who can say: “When I was in Nam.” We took a cruise to Thailand, Viet Nam, Malaysia and Singapore on the Silver Shadow, and gave up going to Cambodia to watch Tiger Woods play in Thailand. What an incredible journey and as usual, I have catalogued our experience on my blog.

I continue to travel back and forth to Jamaica to play golf and do a little business. I enjoy my work with the PNP helping to hash out what is best for the country and the people in Woodlands District are never far from my thoughts. They had a bad year as the storms destroyed their crops. New Market is completely flooded. I became a Freemason and have immersed myself in reading everything about its culture and traditions. My bIog has passed the tipping point with more than 15,000 hits. I continue to promote and encourage my ABC colleagues as well as continuing to serve as President of “The Heart Institute of the Caribbean Foundation”. Please help to make cardiovascular care more accessable to Jamaicans.

Stephanie continues to practice Pediatrics and help clients in Louisiana to gear up for managed Medicaid. This schedule has allowed us to travel back and forth to Jamaica and some very good bonding time. She continues to chronicle her spiritual journey at her blog and is determine to read and comment on the entire Bible. My love and dedication to this remarkable woman grows with each passing day and we are all blessed to be in her orbits. I commented to her just the other day how blessed she is among all women because her fabulously successful children have a genuine love for her. Being Stephanie, she reminded me that she only takes half the credit because they have had a GREAT role model in their Dad and it’s easy to love the Mom when there is love coming from the Dad. We do indeed have a GREAT love story.

Jill and her family continue to bloom in the dessert of Phoenix. Brooks has become quite the orator and is a spelling bee whiz. Mackenzie is now officially a teenager as she celebrated her 13th birthday this year. Most of you have seen Mackenzie grow up with us! Brian continues to be the anchor of his family and both he and Jillian continue to be generous with their home and their children. A while ago, I was ruminating about a legal question and called my daughter, (the immigration lawyer) and got the answer forthwith.

Freddie, Tracy and Kai welcomed Hailie Christine this year and Freddy turned the BIG 40! His wonderful wife Tracy threw him a fabulous surprise birthday party and went all out to ensure he knew how special he was to her and the rest of his family. Freddie also took a new position in Atlanta and is transitioning his family here. Can it really be that Stephanie and I will be able to live in the same city as one set of our grand pickney dem? Be still my heart! Kai continues to delight both his Poppop and Nanna and Hailie is right there with him.

Melanie’s business “Play Connections” is thriving as she added more staff and clients this year. Check out her web-site Audrey is blossoming into a wonderful girl and delights in the antics of her brother Vincent. We were able to visit them in the spring and never tire of their faces. Don continues to master his skills as a brew mister and has converted his garage to the production of some good Northwest beer. I hope I am not getting him in trouble writing this. Maybe you also saw them in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade holding up Horton.

Dr. Aleron Kong is working his way through his 1st year residency in Internal Medicine. Stephanie called him for something a couple of months ago and when he answered, “This is Dr. Kong”, she had an out-of-body experience and cried. He continues to want to complete an ER residency and is interviewing as we speak. Keep him in your prayers.

My mother Violet is celebrating her 88th birthday this year (December 16)and although she suffered more than usual this year, she continues to be independent. Stephanie and I are learning how to be caretakers and I am sure as time progresses we will get better at it. We are hoping she decides to come and live with us.

As we approach 2011, Stephanie and I wish you and your family a prosperous and healthy New Year. May God continue to smile upon you and give you peace. Let His love rest, rule and abide with you forever. Happy Christmas!

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Getting Ahead in Malaysia

Basil Waine Kong

We arrived in Kuching, Malaysia, Thursday, Nov. 4, 2010, on the Island of Borneo which is relatively close to the Philippines and Indonesia.

There are many theories about where the name came from but most likely it was named for the fruit (mata kuching or cat’s eye resembling the lychee) that is found here in abundance. The population is about 30 million Chinese and Malays who are mostly Muslims. Yes, this was the country of blow guns and head hunters which only came to an end in the 1990s.

When we departed the ship, we were serenaded by dancing women in traditional dress handing out beads. Paris has gargoyles, Chicago has cow statutes, Canary Islands have dog statutes, and Kuching has cats. Kuching actually means cats so it has become a tourist attraction. There are cats in all colors, shapes and sizes throughout the city including a cat museum.

In 1839, James Brook, and Englishman with the help of the British Navy, subdued the natives who had revolted against the Sultan of Brunei. He and various progeny then ruled the country (The White Rajahs) for 100 years. The Japanese then captured it in 1939 and lost it again after World War 11, succeeded by Australia and back to Britain and finally to independence in 1963.

In response to a simple question about when headhunting stopped, our guide said it was outlawed in 1939 but continued until the 1990s. He was very graphic about a tribal war in the 1990s between two philosophically different groups. It appears that one tribe were the serious hard working people that got ahead. The other group I am going to call “The Manana Tribe” or “we will do it when we get around to it” people. The hard working group advanced economically, took all the available jobs and were even attracting the women from the manana tribe. This made the manana men furious and they decided that they were not going to take it anymore. This was war! Notice that they never considered becoming industrious as well. They went into the hard working group’s village and killed all the children while the parents were working away from the village and predicted that the men from the hard working group would impulsively want revenge. So, they set an ambush and were able to collect the heads of all the men from the hard working group. Unfortunately, this is a true story. I wonder what the lesson is?

Like Jamaica, Malaysians were subject to British colonial rule. The economy of the country has, traditionally been fuelled by oil and timber but they are increasingly becoming tourism oriented and in particular, medical tourism.

In order to get to the see the monkeys at feeding time (9:00 am) the first stop for our tour bus was the Matang Wildlife Center. We were privileged to see the big orangutans that looked like King Kong in the wild. They also have large proboscis monkeys but we didn’t see any. It was a long walk in a very humid climate that exhausted all of us but well worth the effort. Over 1,200 species of orchids flourish in Kinabalu National Park, home to Poring Hot Springs.

I would like to tell the people from Fern Gully (Near Ocho Rios in Jamaica)that they eat fern as a delicacy in Malaysia!Paku is a Malay word for a type of fiddlehead fern that is found in Sarawak. They like to stir-fry the ferns with belacan (shrimp paste). They also harvest the young unfurled fern, boil them in salted water 3 to 5 minutes. Toss with lemon butter, soy sauce and sesame seeds. The local rice wine (tuak) goes well with it and actually taste good together.

Our next stop is the Sarawak museum which has excellent exhibits on everything Malaysian---history, culture and industry. We are particularly fascinated by the exhibit on Malay villages (Kampungs) with the Iban and Bidayah long houses.
The proceeded to the Sarawak General Hospital for our joint scientific session and head back to the ship. There was obviously so much more we could have experienced but the visit was short and sweet. We make a promise to return some day.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Kotching in Atlanta

Basil Waine Kong

I didn’t come to 'merica to stay
I only came to learn and earn a little money
To go back home to build a house, buy a car and maybe a bar
But I now have seven grand pickney here
Who don’t know the joys and have no interest in the place I call yard
I yearn for the Rock but the rock won’t have me
While I am kotching in Atlanta, my heart is in Jamaica
I don’t want to stay but I cannot go
See me daya between the sheets of the bed I made
With no idea where the grass is greener
I try to duplicate Jamaica in Atlanta but the patties are neither Tastee or Juici
I play dominoes, drink rum punch and Red Stripe Beer
I can eat escovitch fish, curry goat and rice but it’s not Cooshu’s
I can get fried fish, bammy and festival but it’s not at Hellshire Beach
I scream for run raisin ice-cream but it’s not from Devon House
I watch cricket matches but it’s not at Sabina Park
I read the Atlanta Journal Constitution but it is not the Gleaner
I enjoy all the comforts of home but it no home
I miss Mass Birtie, Mother Blake, Uncle Benji, Brother Boogs and Aunt Poochos
Greeting me with “mawnin” and “God bless you” when I share what I have with them
Sorrel and fruitcake in December only make me long for Father Christmas
I don't want a "Merry Christmas" I want a "Happy Christmas"
I can watch 200 stations on my TV but find nothing to watch
Instead of pumpkin beef soup on Saturday I now eat hamburgers and beans
Mi Belly full but mi hungry

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Singapore Slings

Basil Waine Kong

Jamaica is often compared to Singapore. We are both Islands that are highly dependent on tourism and enjoy fantastic weather. But as it turns out, Jamaica has ten times more land mass and a million fewer people making Singapore the second most densely populated country in the world. We also gained independence about the same time and that is about where the comparisons end. Singapore is a highly disciplined first world country with enormous wealth; while Jamaica remains one of the poorest with a third of its people unable to read.

After independence in 1965, Singapore rapidly became the fastest growing economy in the world with one of the five busiest ports. They build ships, mining equipment and heavy machinery. The IMF has no business with them. You will never find a pothole in any of their highways and streets that are beautifully decorated with flowers and other vegetation.

Singapore is the end of our cruise in the South China Sea and our port of disembarkation. This means that we are required to pack our bags and have them outside of our stateroom door by 11:00 PM the night before so that the crew can get them organized and off the ship. The passengers are given colour coded tags that will organize the timing that we use to leave the ship and clear immigration. Most of our group is given purple tags, so after breakfast and taking care of tipping our butler and our other favorite crew members, we wait for our “colour” to be called. After we clear customs, we claim our luggage which is then loaded into a separate bus and sent ahead to the Ritz Carlton. Our group is loaded into buses for a quick tour of the Singapore before heading to the hospital to continue our medical lecture series.

When our bus leave the dock, the first thing the tour guide says is: “Welcome to the City State of Singapore. We are a fine city: we fine you for everything. You will be ”fined” for spitting on the sidewalk, “fined” for littering, “fined” for jaywalking, ”fined” for smoking, “fined” for making loud noises and other lesser crimes against the state. She further joked that Singapore was so small, if you get lost, just keep walking, you will soon find the ocean and you can swim home.” She went on to say that the Rich Carlton (Ritz) is a very holy place. When you enter, you will immediately say: “Oh my God, look how beautiful everything is!” When you pay your bill you will no doubt remark: “Jesus Christ! That was expensive!.” She was a laugh a minute.

The Tour guide told us that there is no homelessness, as this is also a crime. But it is a crime with a benefit. If you do not have a home, the government will provide one for you and if you don’t have a job, the government will find one for you as well. So, there is no unemployment or homelessness. The government of Singapore is also tough on crime. In addition to the “fines”, the government also has a system of corporal punishment which includes “caning”. They budget very little to provide guards, room and board for prisoners, so caning is the prescribed punishment for many offenses including stealing, not meeting your financial obligations, sexual offenses, including rape and vandalism. They also impose mandatory death sentences for murder, drug-trafficking, and for possession of an illegal firearm. Amnesty International reported that they carry out 2 executions per month while Jamaica have had no none in over 20 years.

At the hospital, a lively exchange of ideas is well received by both the visitors as well as the doctors in residence. We learn that the citizens of Singapore contribute to a National Health Insurance fund and in turn receive the best health care in the world at no additional cost. The hospital provides a superb lunch after the educational program and we are able to exchange ideas and information with some of the local physicians.

After the lectures, a city tour is scheduled. However, we opt to be dropped off at the Ritz as we are scheduled to fly back to Bangkok in about six hours. (Twenty two years ago, Stephanie and I visited Japan and Singapore on our honeymoon.) We are joined by Dr. Jesse and Wilma McGee and the four of us imbibe Singapore slings (US$20.00 each) in the beautiful lobby bar/restaurant until it was time to depart for the Airport. The Singapore Sling is a cocktail mixed with gin, cherry heering, cherry brandy, cointreau, benedictine, grenadine, pineapple juice from Sarawak (Malaysia), fresh lime juice and angostura bitters and served over ice in a long glass. It was developed by Ngiam Tong Boon, a bartender at the Raffles Hotel Singapore before 1915. Actually, I prefer rum punch, but when in Rome, do as the Romans do.

Singapore is the closest that we have come to streets paved with gold. The high rise buildings do really scrape the sky. The glitzy part of town is the “Las Vegas of the East“ where a huge ship is balanced on three high rise hotels. This hotel/casino is very impressive and draws people from around the world. The government discourages gambling for citizens by assessing a charge of $100 US as an entry fee but free for tourists. There is no social security or welfare for the elderly as this is perceived to be the responsibility of their children. This is legally enforced as parents have a right to sue their children for support as a percent of the children's income.

I am reminded that several months ago, Dr. Wendel Abel, Head, Section of Psychiatry, University of the West Indies, wrote an editorial in which he made the following comments:

Jamaica must decide how we want to be seen by others. One of the first things the people of Singapore did before they embarked on their development was to decide how they wanted people to see them. The image that many people have of Jamaica is a bad and sad one. To many outsiders, we appear as a barbaric and disorderly people. Alcohol is sold to minors; ganja is smoked openly in public spaces; driving is reckless and undisciplined; music is played loudly; squatting is widespread and people freely litter the streets. We must now take a zero-tolerance approach to lawlessness.

So, Jamaicans are undisciplined and Singaporeans are disciplined. No one jaywalks in Singapore while in Jamaica, everyone compete with the traffic and dare cars to hit them. So, why is Jamaica the third happiest place on earth? Why doesn't Singapore win any medals at the Olympic games or have a football team that can compete with our Reggae Boys? When is the last time you heard of a new hairstyle, clothesline, song, dance move or a new musical genre coming out of Singapore. Our brethren developed the only new religion in the world in the last 200 years and produced geniuses in every field of human endeavor. Other than their discipline and economic success, make me a list of the great accomplishments for the people of Singapore.

While we could use a little discipline, do we really want to become like Singapore? Is this our model going forward or do we want to do it Jamaican style?

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Good Morning Viet Nam

Basil Waine Kong

We are now in Nam, some 9,000 miles from Jamaica. Our good ship “The Silver Shadow” has docked at the Harbor of Saigon early morning on Monday, November 1, 2010 after a day and a half crossing the South China Sea from Ko Samui, Thailand. By beloved wife is happy that we are finally on terra firma; Stephanie had a rough time at sea and has either been sea sick or drowsy with Dramamine. All is forgiven and forgotten as we look forward to exploring Vietnam for two days. First, the city was renamed Ho Chi Min City after the conflict in 1975. However, there are still signs with Saigon on hotel buildings and other structures. Stephanie and I decide not to take the organized tours and hang with a business associate living in Ho Chi Min City.

I e-mail Rose, our local contact who has promised to meet us at 9:30 AM on the dock. Rose doesn’t disappoint and is waiting for us as we disembarked. She is extremely gracious as we introduce ourselves as well as our friends Drs. Merton and Barbara Hutchinson who we invited to join us. Merton (Hutch) is a fellow Jamaican who lives in Maryland.

We commandeered a taxi and our first stop is the main post office which was originally built during the French occupation. The structure is significant for its European style and the foyer is crowded with merchants. Stephanie buys some old stamps as well as some stamps to mail the postcards that she has written to family. We also do a bit of shopping. There is a catholic church across the street from the Post Office where a wedding was taking place. Judging by how the bride and groom were dressed up, the wedding could have been a wedding in Kingston or Atlanta. We asked to take their photograph and the bride and groom obligingly posed for us!

After the Post Office, we are off to see a Dao Cao Dai Temple (Đại Đạo Tam Kỳ Phổ Độ or just Great Religion or even that highest spiritual place where God reigns). Joan of Arch, William Shakespeare and Victor Hugo are venerated. It is a very colorful edifice. True believers (about 4,000,000 Vietnamese)wear white to attend services, pray unceasingly, honor their ancestors, practice non-violence and are vegetarians. Men and women enter their Temple using different entrances. Like the Masons, they too have the all seeing eye (Holy See) as their symbol. Their goal is to join God in Heaven when they leave this life. They played an important role in the resistance to President Diem’s government in the early days of the conflict during the Kennedy years. President Diem, as you may remember, was assassinated in 1964 by his Generals.

Our next stop is the war museum or the Museum to American Aggression located in what was the Presidential Palace. Captured American helicopters, planes and tanks litter the yard and the interior of the museum is dedicated to the effects of bombing with Agent Orange as well as the painful detail that chronicles the 10,000 day war with the United States. France had lost about 100,000 soldiers before the United States entered the conflict with 500,000 soldiers. The US eventually rotated some 8,000,000 US soldiers during the conflict. The US eventually lost fifty seven thousand (57,000) soldiers with an additional 10,000 returning as amputees.

The totals on the Vietnam side of the ledger are a bit grimmer. Out of a population of seventeen million people, two million died, not including an additional two million who perished from starvation and from treatable medical conditions that could not be treated due to the war. North Viet Nam (The Viet Cong) survived 350,000 bombing raids dropping 8,000,000 tons of bombs (three times the amount used in World War 11). In the process, the United States lost 3,700 planes and 5,000 helicopters and 8,000 pilots.

We stopped for lunch in a very western four star restaurant where they bake rice bread in clay pots. One waiter breaks the clay pot, releasing the bread on one side of the room and tosses it across the room like a Frisbee where it is caught on a plate by another waiter. The food is excellent and as we are joined by a language professor who was invited by our tour guide. He spoke excellent English and was able to clarify several historical facts for us.

The language professor was a colonel in the South Vietnamese army. As it turns out he was trained in the United States but left behind on that fateful day in 1975 when he was not able to be accommodated on one of the last helicopters that left the roof of the American Embassy. He tried to blend into the population but the Americans had kept detailed records of all soldiers in the South Vietnam Army on computers that fell into the hands of the victorious North Vietnam Army. So, he, along with 200,000 military officers was sent to re-education camps for two years. He said they were just prisons. He has made several attempts to migrate to the United States without success. I asked him about the United States and he was ambivalent. “On the one hand, the United States is a great country that never understood Viet Nam. Throughout the history of our country, we have always struggled against superior foreign invaders and repelled them. We also have a history of moving on and not belaboring our struggles. Cambodia, United States, France, Japan and China are now wonderful trading partners and the quality of our lives has never been better.”

Our immediate impression is that the city is a marvel with busy streets and modern building. Motor Cycles and mortar scooters are everywhere. Business seems to be booming and seem very capitalistic.

We then took a five hour tour of the Mekong Delta. On our way, we marvel at the fertile plains with rice, bananas and other fruits and vegetables. We noticed that Mekong is a bustling city as we make out way to the Warf. We rent a boat and a captain who gives us coconut water and deliver us to the other side of the river were locally made products are displayed for sale. Everyone is friendly and we especially enjoyed the five piece band with two female singers. They were actually not bad---I actually felt something. We took longboats rowed by women down one of the canals that emptied back into the river where our other boat was waiting for us. We just imagined American soldiers wading through these canals with their guns above their heads. We made our way back across the river as the sun was setting and got some lovely photographs. Before boarding our bus to return to ho Chi Min City, we saw about 100 ladies doing aerobic dancing to American music at the community center.

On our return, Rose offered massages at a Parlor she is familiar with. After working on five of us for an hour, the charge is $10.00 per person. They asked how much it would cost in the United States and we estimated $100.00 per person.

We got back to the ship at 9:00 pm tired and relaxed in time for dinner and a good night’s sleep.

The next day (Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2010) we were taken by bus to a very modern hospital (Benh Vienn Tim Tam Duc Cardiology hospital) in the more developed part of the city that was indistinguishable from Paris. We met the Vietnamese physicians, toured the hospital and listened to presentations by both American and Vietnamese scholars followed by lunch. What were most memorable were the crowded waiting rooms.

On our way back to the ship, we met our wonderful guide (Rose) who took us to the market where we shopped. The prices are very reasonable. Even so, Rose got the prices lowered even more. We get back to the ship just in time for our 4:30 pm departure for Malaysia. In parting, Rose gave us all gifts and wished us Bon Voyage! We are very grateful and a wonderful time was had by all. I can now talk about: “When I was in Nam”.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

A Day At Sea on the Silver Seas Cruise

Basil Waine Kong

For those of you who are contemplating a cruise, regardless of destination, here is a typical day when the ship is between destinations and you are on the deep blue sea for a day or more. On days when we are at a Port of Call, we are usually on tours during the day while the ship is docked and sails at night while we are sleeping. “Sea Days” can be pleasant or fraught with opportunities for seasickness when you just to want to lay flat as your inner ear gets accustomed (or not) to the swells of the ocean.

These cruise lines offer Wi-Fi access in each room which allows you to check emails in the privacy of your own room. Again depending on the conditions of the sea, my wife can be found checking emails while I read the newspaper while having our morning coffee.

Regardless of the sea conditions, we awake with the rising of the sun and immediately call room service for coffee that is delivered within five minutes with a copy of “USA Times”. Room service is available 24 hours per day for a beer or a full meal at no extra cost. We enjoy our coffee, go up to the gym for a workout, walk around the top deck (2 miles) and swim (in a pool), return to our room, get dressed and meet our friends for breakfast at 8:00 am. A cruise is a perfect opportunity to develop deeper, more committed relationships as the conversation never cease as well share meals or have drinks on any number of patios and observation decks.

There are two dining rooms on this ship that are available for breakfast. Our choices for our eating pleasure include a variety of fruits, breads, cereals, eggs any way you like it and ten types of fish and meats items from around the world. We point to what we want and a waiter places it on your plate and deliver them to our table. We try to exercise more than usual because our consumption of calories will easily double. The food is all very tempting. So, cruises are not the place you want to come if you are trying to lose weight.

After breakfast, we meet in the lecture hall for an educational program. While the lectures are substantial, they are over by 1:00 pm, and we are ready to eat some more. Yesterday, an Asian Feast was set up on the eighth floor which also doubles as the pool deck. We were treated to a cornucopia of cheeses from around the world and a fanfare of Asian dishes representative of China, Japan and the Indo-Asian countries. On these cruises you are also treated to desserts after each meal inclusive of pies, cakes, ice-cream (especially rum and raisin) with all the toppings, as well as fruits.

Various activities are available for the afternoon including bridge, wine tasting, cooking classes, golf lesions, dance classes, casino games of chance and a lecture about our next destination. I chose the lecture and my wife chose wine tasting and the cooking class. We meet for bridge and participate in the golf putting contest. I come in second but it is all in good fun.

We dress for dinner and it is formal night. The Captain’s reception is at 6:00 pm so we get dressed in my summer tuxedo and my wife in her backless gown and present ourselves to the Captain. The band played on and we danced and enjoyed the finger foods before joining our friends in the dining room at 7:30 pm. My wife takes the Maître D’s elbow and I follow to our table for six where we are immediately offered libations. The conversation is lively and the jokes are funny so laughter is in the air. Our drink is followed by a six course meal. For my main course, I chose duck a la orange and my wife orders beef wellington. As I had previously ordered grand Mainer souffle for desert, it is perfectly baked and served with sweet cream. After coffee, we go across the hall to the theatre for a show featuring dancing from around the world. It is delightful but as the ship is rocking (tilting), the dancers often stumble. After the show, we go down a flight of stairs to the lounge where we are treated with a piano player and a Filipino lady singing the blues.

We retire to our cabin at midnight, discuss our plans when we dock in Malaysia in the morning and fall asleep to the gentle rocking of the ship.

I remind my wife that it is not the size of the boat but the motion of the ocean. She reminds me that this term was coined by persons unaccustomed to large boats!

So, from small ships to tall ships
Here’s to all of us who sail in ships
But most of all to our friendships

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

From Bangkok With Love

Basil Waine Kong

This is our first visit to Thailand. So, Sawatdee Krub to our male friends and sawatdee Ka to our female friends. If we were greeting you in person, in addition to “Sawatdee” we would clasped our palms together under our chin and bow slightly. There is no good morning or good night, as they ignore the time of day but wish that God will shower his blessings on you. This is called the wai. While the actions are the same, the equivalent word in India would be “Namaste”.

We departed from Atlanta on Tuesday, October 26 at precisely 9:47 am for the first leg of our flight to Seattle. Because of our incessant presence on Delta Airlines planes, each year, we accumulate enough miles for our annual two week safari to distant destinations around the world---first class! As a result, our ample seats recline to beds; we watch movies from our individual monitors as they lavish us with all the food and libations we can handle, again at no cost. They step it up on international flights and tend to our comfort including kits with toothbrushes, lotion, slippers, blankets and fluffy pillows. We will need them.

We are pleasantly surprised to find another couple who we know from previous cruises taking the same route to Bangkok and thoroughly enjoy their company. Dr. and Mrs. Roy Irons was recently elected President of the National Dental Association. This will be our twelfth cruise.

We gain three hours and arrive in Seattle at 11:00 am (five hours later). After a two hour layover that we spend in the Sky Lounge, we depart again for Tokyo, Japan on Thursday, October at 1:00 pm landing at 5:00 pm (ten hours later). Yes, we lost a day that we will get back on our trip back home when we will again cross the International Date Line. After a two hour layover at the Narita Airport in Japan, we are off again on our 6 hour flight to Bangkok at 7:00 pm and landing at 1:00 am having flown for 21 hours! After clearing customs and claiming our luggage we are surprised that we can just walk out without anyone checking our luggage or even having to turn in a declaration form. We are relieved that we immediately spot our driver who is holding up a sign with our names. He takes our luggage and accompanies us to the car we reserved.

We are impressed with how clean the streets are but we passed a road block where the police are checking drivers who may be impaired due to alcohol. We had no problem and we arrive at the Kingston Suites hotel at 2:00 pm---exhausted but exalted. We chose the hotel just so we could say we traveled from Kingston to Kingston. We are pleased with the quality of our accommodations and immediately step into the shower after two days of travel and were able to sleep for four hours. The time difference between Jamaica and Thailand is eleven hours.

A full breakfast is included in the cost of our hotel so we go down at 8:00 am and was surprised at the familiar fruits: mangoes, leeches, jackfruit, papaya, oranges, figs, strawberries, water melons, pineapples, sour sop, custard apples, rose apples, guava, and even neaseberries (sapodilla). I was, however, unfamiliar with mangostem, lampotan, dragon fruit, rambutans, durian (smells like hell but taste like heaven) and logans. We both got western omelets along with our usual coffee and croissants with orange marmalade.

We decided to take a walk just to experience the sights, sounds and smells of the city and as we depart, we are asked by the desk clerk: “pai nai?” which is a friendly “where are you off to?” To which we responded: “No where in particular. Which is the way to the city?” The usual rush hour traffic was brutal. As there are far more taxis than passengers, on our walk, we are constantly approached by taxi drivers with offers to take us on various tours. The streets are crowded with “tuk tuks” (motor cycles converted to seat six people), Japanese cars, buses, trucks, bicycles and motorcycles. Motor cycles can be taxis here and they are best for negotiating the traffic but the pas sager, usually a woman, sit sidesaddle. Unlike Jamaica, all riders and passengers wear helmets. In many ways, this is Kingston. When I left Jamaica, the authorities were struggling with vendors about crowded sidewalks and trying to get squeegee kids off the street. It is the same here. You can get a full breakfast from street vendors who cook and sell you breakfast items as well as lunch and dinner later. Like Jamaicans, Thais love soup. Instead of pumpkin, peas and pepper pot, They love the hot and spicy Tom Yum.

On our way back to our hotel, we passed the “Dream Spa“ and my wife decides to get a Thai massage. The cost is US$50.00 for 60 minutes although the cost elsewhere is advertised as low as $20.00. By the time we rendezvous back at the hotel for our 1:00 pm tour of the Grand Palace, she is glowing and absolutely relaxed from her spa treatment. She promptly falls asleep in the car.

On our way to the Palace, Tony, our guide, imparts essential data about the country and their culture. He does not speak English very well and I am obliged to ask him to repeat himself and even to spell out what he is trying to say. In a country of about 60,000,000 people, 15 million live in Bangkok, the capital. Fifty percent of the people are employed in the agricultural sector and produce 30% of the rice in the entire world!

I learn that “Korp khun mak” means thank you; “mai pen rai” or "mai mi pan ha” means no problem mon, and “Jai yen yen” means “Don’t sweat the small stuff" or “Be calm, what difference does it make?”. Unlike Jamaicans, the people pride themselves in not being excitable. They speak in a whisper and never never lose their cool. Unfortunately, the down side of their personality is that you can never tell if someone is glad to see you or not. I much prefer our haughty laugh and hug when I meet friends. The guide and driver say they are impressed that I am showing so much interest in their culture.

There is no touching in Thailand. You will never witness any public displays of affection. A man touching a woman (not his wife) even to try to shake her hand is a serious offense. Touching someone’s head is a fighting offence. So, no hugging or kissing in the street! The story is told that the palace guards were escorting a princess from one palace to another by boat when she fell overboard. Since none of the men could touch her, they watched her drown and everyone (including her father) agreed that that was the right thing to do.

They do not joke about their benevolent King who is greatly loved and revered. Thanks to shrewd maneuvering, they were never colonized. They changed the name of their country from Siam to Thailand (Land of freedom) in 1939. If you remember when the country was Siam, the movie “The King and I”, depicted a naive King Rama V, who welcomed missionaries and teachers to their Kingdom but remained independent. By the way, the movie is still censored in Thailand and our guide never saw it.

The current king, Bhumibol Adulyade, (Rama IX), who is the longest serving monarch in the world, was actually born in Cambridge, Massachusetts when his father was studying medicine at Harvard. So, he is an American citizen. He loves dogs, so no one would dare abuse them. As a result, dogs are to be found all over the country. He is also an aficionado of Jazz, sailing and photography. While the country is democratic and has a democratic parliament, every so often the King will put his food down and say: “It no go so” and will have his way. For example, when parliament outlawed "tuk tuks" because they were too polluting, these taxi drivers appealed to the King and he reversed the lawmaker's decision. You would not expect anything less as they celebrate December 5 (The King’s birthday) as father’s day. In Jamaica, you can be locked up and fined for cussing out a police officer, in Thailand, you can be charged with “lèse-majesté” for not showing enough respect for members of the Royal family. In Jamaica, many people look forward to earning Christmas money, in Thailand, the King will advise everyone: “nai nam mi pla nah mi khao” (There is fish in the water and rice in the fields."

The two dominant political parties are roughly equivalent to our own PNP and JLP. The PNP cousins wear red and are allied with those who struggle and the Yellow shirts are like the JLP,the party of the rich and powerful.

As we arrive at the Grand Palace, we encounter the unexpected. It is, indeed a grand palace that I believe is more impressive than the Vatican, the Hermitage in Leningrad, Versailles in Paris, any of the Mormon Tabernacles or Buckingham Palace. I have always been impressed with the effort that can be invested to immortalize God and King. The moment we arrived, we were awed and overused the word ‘wow” to describe one impressive temple after another. The Wat Phra Kaeo (The Temple of the Emerald Buddha) and the Wat Po (Temple of the Reclining Buddha) are particularly spectacular; I could not possibly describe this experience. You should definitely put seeing it on your bucket list. We also saw the golden Buddha that was made with a ton of pure gold and unguarded.

Exhausted from walking several miles viewing the various edifices in the compound, we ask our guide to take us to a great Thai restaurant and we would end our tour at that point. He takes us to Ban Khunmae. Both of us agreed that there are better Thai restaurants in Atlanta such as Nan’s. Common ingredients in Thai cooking are coconut milk, curry, fever grass (lemon grass), ginger, mango, chili peppers and always served with rice or rice noodles. We enjoyed the meal, walked five blocks to the sky train, got off at the Astok stop and walked five more blocks to our hotel. There was never any feeling of intimidation or concerns regarding our safety on our various nighttime walks.

After a jointly sponsored meeting on Cardiovascular Disease Prevention at Ramathibodi Hospital between our group and the Thai Society of Cardiology hosted by Dr. Supachai Tanomsup, we make our way to the Silver Shadow. To our pleasant surprise, in addition to the wonderful food that cruises are known for, all drinks are free. There is a bottle of Champagne on ice in our room and I order a bottle of twelve year old Glenmorangie single malt scotch for our room as well. We meet our butler (Andrew) who promise to accommodate all our needs.

We arrive in Ko Samui, a small island in the South on Saturday (October 31, 2010). On our tour we visit the Big Buddha, the smiling Buddha and more other Buddha we could count. We saw elephants dancing, playing soccer and giving massages, monkeys picking coconuts as well as a demonstration on how to husk coconuts and extract the milk. It is so efficient that I wonder why we don't do it this way in Jamaica. Can you believe that a small island with 60,000 people process one million coconuts per day? They have also found over 1,000 uses for coconut. We are late getting back to the ship but they accommodate us and depart an hour late. So, tomorrow, Good Morning Viet Nam!

After the cruise ended in Singapore, we flew back to Bangkok for three days. The one disappointment we experienced for the entire trip was having to pay an additional US$300 because of overweight bags. That was not fun. But all our bags arrived with us and we made our way back to the Kingston Suites.

Early next morning, our tour guide picked us up and transported us first to the Ramhopp market fifty miles away. It was definitely worth the drive. Actually, it is a railroad market! When the train comes, 100 vendors pull their good off the railway track and they relocate back on the track as soon as the train pass---four times per day. In addition to the usual fish, satay and coconut pancakes, unusual items include deep fried grasshoppers, crickets and caterpillars. I buy some pak thong kor (fried flour dumplings) and enjoy them. This area is also famous for producing sea salt, dried fish as well as sea food in general.

Our next stop is the famous "Floating Gardens"! The is the Venice of Asia. There are miles and miles of canals where boats outfitted with automobile motors cruise up and down these crowded waterways with tourists. You can buy a meal or anything else your heart desires from boats that pass you or you can pull up and shop from the thousand vendors along the banks. This is definitely a concept that would work in Jamaica. We loved it---very colourful and the bargains were wonderful. No wonder our bags were too heavy.

We then visited the famous China Town and then on to the Gen factory where you can see jewelery being made as well as displayed for sale. After all, this is the land of rubies. It was tempting but we bought nothing!

For dinner, we went to the "Cultural Show and Dinner". The show is an absolute feast for the eyes but the food wasn't. This is a model village that Chronicles the history and achievement of the Thai people. I wonder why we don't have a Jamaican village and show. It is very popular!

Instead of our planned trip to Cambodia, our tour guide arranged for tickets and transportation to watch the skins game with Tiger Woods, Carmelo Villegas, Paul Casey and Thongchi Jaidee in honor of the Thai King at the Amada Springs Country Club. It was a spectacular affair and the 5,000 people who watched and were all allowed to take pictures to their heart's content. Paul Casey played the best golf, Villegas won the most money and Tiger did not bring his A game. But a good time was had by all.

I was fascinated by a coincidence. On our pre tour stay in Bangkok, we saw a black family but was not bold enough to talk with them. But when I saw them again at the golf tournament, I could not resist and showed them the pictures I took of them. They turned out to be really gracious people from New Orleans who are on a five year assignment in Bangkok. That was special!

The next morning, we boarded the Delta flight to Japan then a terrifying flight (the bumpiest we have ever encountered) to Detroit and back to Atlanta. We took nothing but photographs, killed nothing but time, left nothing but footprints. Lckoon!