Thailand: Anticipation and Preparations

Our trips to Thailand were not sudden decisions but a given: we knew we would go to Thailand every year, spend time with good friends, travel in the country, venture outside it, and have new experiences, so the anticipation was tied up with warm thoughts of friendships renewed and meals shared again.

Group photograph after dedication of new spirit house at Dusit Thani Hotel, Hua Hin, includes the monk who performed the ceremony, the GM, electrician, housekeeper, gardener, various room and restaurant staff – and myself and husband.

But why Thailand in the 1970’s? Well, our travel agent had invited us to an evening of Thai culture and food earlier that year and we were bowled over by the experience of meeting Thais, their charm, their smiles and their sincerity and so our first holiday turned into one of many.

When we first started visiting Thailand, we packed essential foods as Western foods weren’t easily available outside 5* Hotels so biscuits, tea bags, and bags of toffees and other long-lasting sweets had to be purchased (my husband had a notoriously sweet tooth).  In later years the bags of sweets increased as our Thai friends became addicted to them also.  Mosquitoes were a big problem – especially in Bangkok – so lots of anti-mozzie repellent was required along with sun cream and such like.

Initially we alternated Thailand with other destinations but after our circle of friends there grew and the pull of friendship and place began, it became our regular vacation spot.

After our first few visits, preparations had to include the buying of presents. We tried to ensure the presents were as ‘local’ to our area as we could get and even though no one every made tea in a teapot, they all adored English teapots, and all things English. The exchanging of presents in Thailand is very important and the correct etiquette is not to open the gift in front of the giver. I had to get used to the fact that no one ever came back to say what a lovely present I had given them, but they showed their delight in other ways and the exchange of presents was always successful. I was invariably there for my birthday and not opening my presents was difficult, as I would be deluged with exquisitely wrapped hand-made presents, Buddha medals, unusual gifts purchased in remote villages (like a necklace made from the bone of an logging-elephant), carvings, fruits, foods and pictures.

We would always visit a Temple or two and often attend functions where monks were present so packing had to include cover-ups and easy-to-slip-out-of shoes. Apart from ceremonies where monks were present, like weddings, funerals, donating of robes, and blessing of houses etc., I occasionally lined up at dawn with my Thai hosts to offer the monks food for the day (purchased a few minutes before from the market), I made offerings to the spirits at various spirit houses – and always to those in the houses of the friends I stayed with, to ensure my good health while there and to avert disasters.

Hard hat area. The laying of foundations for a new dwelling cannot proceed until the spirits have been appeased for disturbing them – hence the feast laid out for them.

I packed a mini-library because English books – apart from a few places in Bangkok – weren’t easily available in Thailand in the seventies. As we both read voraciously we took as many as we could and swapped with other English-readers we met on our travels. In remote parts of the country we would often find books left in bars and cafes which could be exchanged for another one.

Apart from that, no preparations. Books, presents, tea-bags and biscuits, sweets and the duty-free booze from the airport, and we were prepped and ready for holiday.

After our friends had been to the spirit house at the airport and given thanks for our safe arrival, we would pile into a car/taxi/mini-bus /whatever they had arranged and head off either for Bangkok or Hua Hin, a two hour drive away. The next few days were spent relaxing, recovering from the flight and adjusting to the heat, then the discussion as to where we would go began.

Over the years we’ve covered the four corners of Thailand and seen things we’d never have seen if we’d been alone. From our base in Thailand we’ve made long trips to Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam with contacts in each country lined up for us.

Our first trip was in 1972, the year of the major coup, and in that year we saw the two faces of Thai, the angry revolutionary and the quiet, peaceful one – both smiled. Politics are once again ugly in that country and I am sad about much of what is happening there. We don’t discuss the current situation much, my Thai friends and I, it’s a sensitive subject, and that too saddens me.

Before Thailand became our major holiday destination we travelled extensively in other parts of the world. We enjoyed every country we visited, but with Thailand it was love at first sight and it remains close to my heart.

I still have hopes of visiting again, to make and receive the wai as I join my hands together, smile, and say Sawasdee, Ka.

Lucerne: Heidi is now Hip

Don’t be fooled by the dirndls and schnitzels, the chocolate box houses and the cuckoo clocks.  Lucerne’s Alpine charm hides an up-to-the-minute city crammed full of attractions from minimalist, boutique hotels like *The Hotel to the sleek KKK (Culture and Convention Centre) perched on the lake, both designed by Jean Nouvel.  What’s more to the point, Lucerne has achieved this modernity without losing its old-fashioned charm, allowing it to be both hip and graceful at the same time.

Lucerne from the Lake

Years ago, the best way to arrive in the city was by the white Rolls Royce of the Schweizerhof Hotel.  Today, one effortless hour on the smooth, comfortable train from Zürich airport decants you on to the lakeside quay where you are face-to-face with picture postcard Switzerland – paddle steamers criss-crossing the lake backed by a panorama of snow-capped mountains, the Rigi, Pilatus, and the the pinnacled range of the Uri and Engelberg.  Grand hotels of the Belle Epoque that played host to poets, writers and musicians (as well as Queen Victoria of England), line the promenade.

Lucerne with Tower and Painted Bridge in foreground

An elegant city, medieval Lucerne with its fairytale-like turrets and covered wooden bridges, is one of the world’s most agreeable cities in which to spend time.  It is an easy place to get around: it offers not just stunning scenery and sightseeing, but year round artistic events and enough Museums to keep any culture-vulture happy for weeks.  Among the best are the Rosengart Collection on Pilatusstrasse (a treasure chest of Klees, Braques, Picassos), The Picasso Museum featuring original paintings by the artist and the quirky Museum of Art housed in the KKK which offers eclectic exhibitions at different times. 

Like Florence and Venice the outdoor artwork is equally attractive.   The KKK is a sleek, polished cube of over 7,000 sq. metres of entertainment and conference space which appears to float on the waters of the lake, a modernist contrast to the old town just a few steps away.   Here, frescoes of knights and their ladies cover the Renaissance façades of buildings in the cobbled streets and squares and glimpses of ancient Swiss architecture, turrets and balconies meet your eye wherever you look.  

Lucerne is bisected by the fast-flowing Reuss River which is crossed by two famous wooden bridges.  The larger of the two, the Kapellbrucke – burnt down in 1993 but since rebuilt – is the oldest preserved wooden bridge in Europe and displays a series of 17th century paintings on 67 triangular panels under its eaves, depicting the Dance of Death. The nearby Water Tower originally formed part of the city fortifications. 

Lucerne’s Sad Lion

The second most photographed site is probably the Löwendenkmal, which Mark Twain described as “the saddest and most moving piece of rock in the world”.  Carved into a natural sandstone wall in the centre of the town is a statue of a lion pierced by a lance and resting a paw on a shield depicting the Bourbon Lily.  It was erected to commemorate the massacre of Swiss mercenaries fighting on the royalist side after the French revolution and Twain’s remark is understandable because it is, without doubt, the saddest looking lion you are ever likely to see.      

Mountain view with spring flowers

There is a thriving music scene throughout the year, but the hills really come alive with the sound of music in August and September when Lucerne takes the world stage with a classical Music Festival that attracts performers and an audience, from around the world.  Inaugerated in 1938 when Arturo Toscaninni conducted Richard Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll in Lucerne, the festival now offers more than 100 events comprising concerts, ballet, opera, chamber music, dance and theatre, in the acoustically perfect KKK and at various venues around the city.  And every week-end sees magnificent firework displays which make the waters of Lake Lucerne sparkle and glow – especially when watched from the open air terrace of the KKK. 

June sees the very local Altstadtfest (Old Town Festival) when the streets resound to the music of the local oompah bands and visitors are invited to join in the dancing.  And if it’s jazz your after then make sure you’re there for the Blue Balls Festival in July with music from soul to R. & B. and funk.

For a spot of retail therapy, both sides of the Reuss can be recommended.  For top name watches go to the Bucherer and Gübelin stores which are easy to find: just look for the long queues of Chinese shoppers outside the store.  If you’ve already got a Rolex, then you can wander along the right hand bank of the river every Tuesday and Saturday morning and enjoy the fruit, flower and vegetable market, perhaps stopping off at the Rathaus Brauei for a beer or a coffee, or the famous Swiss Chocolate. Authentic Swiss cuisine can be found at Galliker, Wilden Mann Burgerstube, and Old Swiss House. 

Cuckoo clocks, musical boxes and Swiss Army Knives, are well made, traditional gifts from Switzerland that are usually appreciated, and a fine collection of these can be found at the Old Swiss Shop nestling at the foot of the Hofkirche and run by the charming multi-lingual Madam Lydia who has thoughfully placed a table and chair outside her shop for weary sightseers. 

Hot Chestnuts are a favourite

Switzerland has a surprisingly good nightlife and Lucerne has the coolest clubs and bars.   The Grand Casino Luzern offers live entertainment and in summer, the Stadkeller, an excellent restaurant, hosts some great concerts, but the really good thing to do is to take the night boat out on the River Reuss to listen to traditional Swiss music and join in the dancing.

The Gondola to Pilatus

As well as trips on the old-fashioned paddle-steamers to surrounding towns and villages like Viznau, Interlaken, and Brienz (if you don’t fancy this, just relax and enjoy the ravishing views from the steamer while you sip a coffee or have lunch), no one should leave Lucerne without making an excursion to the summit of the city’s own snow-covered Mount Pilatus from which the views are stunning.

Looking down on Trubsee

Factor in lunch on the summit to get maximum enjoyment from a trip that utilises lake steamer, cable car, gondola, and the world’s steepest cogwheel railway that climbs through flower-carpeted meadows dotted with clumps of intense blue gentians and wooden Swiss chalets hung with red and pink geraniums.  You won’t hear much yodelling here but you will be aware of the chiming of the bells around the necks of the gravity defying brown and white cows grazing on impossibly steep slopes. 

The tiny White Building in the centre is a mountain church.

If this whets your appetite for mountain views, then make for Stanserhorn where there is a 100 kl. Alpine vista of 10 Swiss Lakes and Gerrmany’s Black Forest.  There are opportunities for easy hiking at the summit, as well as lunching on the classic local dish of Luzerner Kügelipastete, a large puff-pastry shell filled with a rich stew of veal and mushrooms in a creamy sauce! 

Lucerne has something for everyone and an evening cruise on the lake or a stroll along the promenade, will allow you to experience the essence of Switzerland in the place the Swiss call City of Lights – an essence that is in the air, the changing shapes of the mountains, the changing colours of the water and, above all, the magical light. 

** The Hotel, a “concept” hotel (member of the Autograph group) where the ceilings are painted with scenes from art house films (think Fellini, Fassbinder). Tel: +41 41 226 86 86  www.the-hotel.ch  

NOTES:

Don’t leave home without your Swiss Pass which entitles you to either unlimited travel or half-price travel, plus entrance to Museums, depending on which one you purchase.  In the UK contact sales@stc.co.uk  

Ten minute outside town with magnificent views, the family-run Hotel Balm Meggen (Tel: +41 41 377 11 35   www.balm.ch