Archive for the ‘Asia’ Category

Paradise Found

Friday, November 16th, 2007

Ajarbagh Valley 269 I can’t imagine spending time in a more glorious place than the Aman Bagh Hotel in Ajabgarh Valley.  From the very moment our plane touched down, to the time we sadly departed, we loved every minute of our time in Ajabgarh Valley.  Our time there was outstanding in every respect, and we’d highly recommend it to anyone visiting this part of the world, or willing to make a special trip to such a great place.

Delhi 195 We arrived not long after meeting the Dalai Lama and then flying into the local airstrip with a big crowd waiting to see the plane land.  The enthusiasm and kindness of the people here affected our stay throughout.  It’s hard to describe what it’s like to have children everywhere run to see your jeep pass by, yelling “Tata” or “Hello” with huge smiles on their faces.  The people here are just so lovely, and it makes the stay here so memorable.

Ajarbagh Valley 260 The Aman Bagh wins many architectural awards, and it’s a marvel.  The staff are fantastic in every respect, and the building and grounds are extraordinary.  We had a great time here, and hope to come back as soon as we can.  They were particularly helpful to us in organizing our hikes and explorations, and their guide, Sita Ram, was quite knowledgeable about the area and its wildlife.

Ajarbagh Valley 169 While in Ajabgarh Valley, we explored several abandoned forts, as well as made several hikes in beautiful canyons or around gorgeous lakes.   We had so many great expeditions while we stayed at this great place, yet left feeling we had only scratched the surface.  Between the climate (warm, dry, and crystal clear blue skies), the geology, the hiking, the wildlife, and the people, we could stay for weeks at a time and not be ready to move on.

Ajarbagh Valley 082 While in Ajabgarh, we saw over 70 different species of birds, as well as some interesting mammals, including jackals.  These Collared Scops Owls on the right were a particularly fun sighting, but there were many more.  When we have completed our stay in India, Gibson and I will do a joint blog on the birds of India, and show our better photographs.  But there were so many great birds to see; it was a real highlight of our time here.  Stay tuned for this posting.

Ajarbagh Valley 098 While in Ajabgarh, we all took a whirl around the area on camels.  Even I was abe to ride without discomfort (not usually the case in riding on or in anything!).  Check out special edition videos of the girls and boys in our family getting off the ground on the back of a camel (to be posted once we get better internet access).   I’m now excited about the prospect of riding a camel later in this trip, since it’s not a bad way to get around, although camels don’t seem to be particularly fleet a hoof.

Ajarbagh Valley 018 When it came time to pack our bags and head out from Ajabgarh, we all felt considerable sadness.  This, though, is one place we definitely want to return to.  It’s hard for me to articulate the feeling we had in this region of India, but it made a big impression on us.   It was just scene after scene, and experience after experience, that made this such a joyous place, and so hard to walk away from. 

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For some of the very best photos we’ve taken on the trip so far, feel free to check out of Ajabgarh photo album.

A Day We’ll Never Forget!

Thursday, November 15th, 2007

The next time we have a day that’s not going to well at 11:00 a.m. and we’re tempted to conclude we’ve got a lousy day on our hands, we’ll remember November 13, 2007.

After a couple of days in Delhi, we were leaving for the Ajabarh Valley in  Rajasthan, India.  Given the choice between a 6 hour van ride, or a puddle hopper plane, we opted for the latter.  But Delhi has a “no fly” period for small planes from 9:00 to 11:00 a.m., so we wanted to take off by no later than than 8:30 a.m., meaning getting up early and battling traffic to get to the airport.  We were on time, but so was the fog, and we ended up sitting in our tiny plane for a couple of hours, doing homework and reading.  So at 11:00 a.m., we’re late, sleepy, and hoping to be able to fly out of Delhi soon.

Delhi 282 At around 11 a.m., our point person for our time in India, Vishu Singh and members of the firm Peirce and Leslie (who have done a fabulous job for us in India!!) approached us and asked, “Would you be interested in meeting the Dalai Lama?”  Well, in about .0003 nanoseconds, we said, “Absolutely!!!!”  His plane was about to land, and they were able to arrange for us to meet him just after he disembarked (and if you’re curious about how a Dalai Lama gets off a plane, take a look at this video).

Delhi 284 The Dalia Lama, and his representative Mr. Tempa Tsering, couldn’t have been nicer.  Our family had spent almost a week in Tibet while we were touring China.  So we could relay to him how heart-breaking we found it to observe first-hand what the Chinese have done to these kind and peaceful people.  We also congratulated him on his recent visit to the United States where Congress, over the Delhi 293 protestations of the Chinese government, met with the Dalai Lama and presented him with the Congressional Gold Medal Award.  While we only spent a few minutes with the Dalai Lama, it was an experience we’ll never forget.  His kind, calm demeanor was so apparent, and he was gracious enough to allow us to take a group photograph with him.   While this meeting was completely unplanned, our guide explained that, according to Buddhist philosophy, this was an encounter that was meant to be — and all of us believed that.

 

Delhi 302 Our flight to Ajabgarh Valley was quick and fairly scenic, but our landing brought us a huge surprise.  We were in an area of India that is so undeveloped that the landing of an airplane is a big event for the community.  So, imagine our surprise when over 200 people were there to meet us (well, actually, to see the plane land, but it’s fun to pretend!).  All of them were cheering and saying hello (or “Tata”), and we knew we were in for a special time in this gorgeous place.  We noted to ourselves the irony of a day in which we were almost the outsiders meeting the Dalai Lama upon his landing, and then when we landed an hour later, we were mobbed.

Ajarbagh Valley 418 We then proceeded to our hotel, the Amanbagh, which was fabulous.  I’ll cover the hotel and the area in my next blog posting, but this place is heavenly.  We checked in and they had upgraded us to a villa with its own swimming pool.  And then we went for an exploratory hike and jeep ride, seeing all sorts of amazing birds and a few interesting mammals, including jackals and antelope. 

In all, it was a day that we’ll never forget.  We had a great first experience with India in Delhi, but this day was the best of the trip for me.  And, as you’ll see in our next posting, we had a fabulous time in Ajabgarh.   

Fasten Your Seatbelt!

Wednesday, November 14th, 2007

I spent a day in Delhi, India, meeting with various business executives, and the day jolted my world view.

Delhi 333 In the morning, I met Hemant Taneja, a rising superstar in the world of venture capital. Hemant is with General Catalyst, based in Cambridge, MA, U.S.A., but makes regular visits to India, and coordinated his fall visit to overlap with mine. He set up a meeting with the CEO of major business operation of MoserBaer, a company in Delhi. In addition, he and Bejul Somaia, a former venture capitalist with General Catalyst who moved to India three years ago, organized a dinner that night with a half dozen technology executives from India. At the end of the day, all I could say was, “Wow!”

MoserBaer is the world’s leading manufacturer of optical CD’s and DVD’s. The company’s roots go back to Switzerland, where it started its life as a manufacturer of employee time clocks. This unexciting business morphed over the years into the manufacturing of CD’s, and the company moved its operations to Delhi. It now employs some 6,000 people in India, has three different rapidly-growing product lines, and is a leader in technology and advanced manufacturing.

Delhi 332I’ve seen a lot of manufacturing facilities in my day, and none ever blew me away. MoserBaer’s did. To start with, it’s vast — some 350,000 square meters! And it’s automated beyond what I could ever imagine. Discs work their way down long production lines, without any human involvement. They produce a staggering number of discs a day, and it was a sight to behold these discs racing through the manufacturing line.

The company has now successfully diversified into the area of photovoltaics, and we met with the CEO of this division, Ravi Khanna, as well as one of the company’s top executives, Pratul Gupta. We also got a tour of their solar manufacturing plant, which just 15 months ago was undeveloped land. When these guys decide to build something, they do it quickly and effectively. The plant looked immaculate, and was churning out photovoltaic sheets in rapid fire fashion — again with no human intervention.

Conventional thinking about India is that it’s the center of low-cost labor. Well, MoserBaer has one of the world’s most advanced and automated manufacturing facilities, staffed by very skilled and experienced employees. The company is growing rapidly, has successfully diversified their product offerings, and is a world leader in cutting-edge R&D and manufacturing technologies. [And those smart guys from Warburg Pincus somehow figured out how to invest in them years ago and own about 1/3rd of the company!]. I was not just impressed with what I saw at MoserBaer, I was stunned to see what this company is accomplishing.

That night, our dinner included Sandeep Kohli, founding CEO of a company that focused on the retail sector in India, Samir Sood, Head of Corporate Development for Google in India, Kirin Konduri, serial entrepreneur and most recently founder of a company in the mobile search area, Dhruv Agarwala, founding CEO of iTrust, an on-line financial services company, Sahad PV, founding CEO of VC Circle (India’s equivalent of VentureWire), and Deep Kalra, founding CEO of makemytrip.com.

In my venture career, I’ve been fortunate to work with some of the best CEO’s in the U.S. I was so impressed that this group of executives. They could measure up against the very best in the U.S. — they were smart, charismatic, and strategic. And they shared with me over dinner the current status of building a business in India.

I learned that the cost of real estate in Mumbai, Delhi, and Bangalore is comparable to Silicon Valley; it’s always a bad sign when the square footage costs are expressed on a “per month” basis! And the salaries for senior executives here are also comparable to those in top technology centers in the U.S., with a real shortage of top executives. India still has an advantage in the salary level of more junior employees, but the all-in cost of doing business is beginning to approximate that in the U.S. All in all, though, the model many of us in the U.S. have that the reason businesses do well in India is strictly because of their cost advantage is just wrong. They have talented, technically-gifted entrepreneurial teams that are driven to succeed, and moving forward rapidly.

What’s so compelling about business opportunities in India, versus those in the U.S., is the many nuts-and-bolts business opportunities that are wide open for investment and new company formation. The economy is growing 10% per year, a sizable percentage of the 1+ billion people here are gaining more purchasing power each year (although the savings rate in India dwarfs that of the U.S.’), and many things that are commonplace and mature in the U.S. are just unfolding in India. It’s very energizing, and there is no doubt that India, its skilled workforce, and its economy will shape the world we live in. Fasten your seatbelts!

Baseball in Delhi

Wednesday, November 14th, 2007

Delhi Baseball 011 We flew from Bhutan to Delhi on Sunday afternoon, and went immediately to a baseball field there to play with a great set of kids from Delhi. The session had been organized by our friend Kristie Jochmann in Milwaukee, who somehow found Joel Ehrendreich, a senior official with the U.S. State Department. Joel, his wife Rachel and their two great sons live in Delhi, and are very active with Delhi baseball. They were incredibly nice, setting up the practice, meeting us at the airport, helping us get to the field, filling us in on Delhi and India, and making sure this day was special for all of our family.

Delhi Baseball 008 There were about thirty players at the practice, and a set of dedicated and skilled coaches. Most of the players were 14 years old, and were quite good at baseball. Gibson warmed up with one of their top pitchers and, afterwards, said to me, “Daddy, he throws HARD!!” Little did he know that he was soon to bat against this very talented pitcher!

Delhi Baseball 054 After warming up, the boys played a four inning intrasquad game, which featured strong pitching, smart field play, and some good hits (many with swings that looked an awful lot like a cricket swing :-) ). Then, they players did about forty-five minutes of infield drills, with a coach who hit more ground balls per minute than I’ve ever seen (except, maybe, for Coach Howell in Charleston!). It was a great practice, and Gibson was thrilled to be able to play with strong players.

Delhi Baseball 030 We brought each player a Red Sox hat, and it was terrific to give them to the players after explaining that the Boston Red Sox are the World Champions! They looked great in the hats, and should put them to terrific use. We weren’t able, though, to persuade the Ehrendreich brothers to swap out their favorite hats (Brewers for Cooper, and Orioles for Cal, as in Cal Ripken), but we’re working onDelhi Baseball 084 getting them to Rhode Island next summer and taking in a Red Sox game!

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Delhi Baseball 087 At the end of the practice, the team gave each of us a terrific present — a red travel bag with “Delhi” on it. We put it to immediate use, and it will not only be useful, but will be a fabulous memory of our time in Delhi. We really appreciated this groups kindness in letting us play ball with them, and giving us such a great experience!

Delhi Baseball 071 These kids seemed really fired up about baseball, and practice at length on Saturdays and Sundays. They now are getting the Little League organization established in Delphi, and the Ehrendreich’s are doing tons to help the Delhi baseball program move ahead. The interest in sports in India is quite high, with lots of athletic talent, so it will be great to see a Delhi team in Williamsport someday!

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Feel free to check out our photos from this fun baseball session!

Not One Stoplight!

Sunday, November 11th, 2007

Bhutan 035 Bhutan is a country nestled between India and China, about the size of the state of West Virginia .  Until 1969, the country didn’t have a single paved road, and there isn’t a single stoplight in the entire country today!   Its population is 2.3 million, but Thimpu, its capital and largest city, has a population of less than 100,000.  This is the country whose king declared that their objective is to maximize Gross National Happiness (GNH), not Product.  This same king has four wives, somehow marrying four sisters on the same day!  Try explaining that to your eleven and nine year old!!

Bhutan 373 Bhutan has been called the last unspoiled frontier.  I can’t really comment on the “last” part of this assertion, but there is no question it’s an unspoiled frontier.  The air is clear and fresh.  The beautiful mountains had snow-topped peaks as the first sign of winter settles in.  And the trees have turned colors, making Bhutan a magical place.

Bhutan 550 We flew in from Bangkok and had been forewarned about the hairy approach to the airport.  We caught clear views of the Himilayas, including Everest on the flight in, and twisted through a valley in finding our airstrip in Bhutan’s only airport.  Whew!  That’s one landing we’re glad to have behind us.   The views of the Himilayas on our flight out of Paro (to Delhi via Katmandu) were even more spectacular.  We were on the wrong side of the plane, but our neighbor on the right took this great picture of Everest.

Bhutan 128 Our visit to Bhutan was short (five days), and we did a lot (way too much) driving around.  We started in Paro, moved to Thimpu (the capital, in the center of the country), and then headed west to Punakha.  As the crow flies, all cities are quite close to each other.  And we were very jealous of these crows by the end of each drive.  The roads in Bhutan twist through mountain valleys, and are in miserable condition.  About two minutes after our guide explained that we were on Bhutan’s first super-highway, I shot this video to give you an idea of the jolting nature of travel by “highway” in Bhutan.  And there are workcrews on the side of the road at very regular intervals (see picture above), mostly brought into Bhutan from India.  These crews worked with almost no advanced equipment, often breaking up rocks with a pick-axe.  And they almost always had entire families in the crew, including young babies with an older sibling caring for the younger child.  Anyway, I wouldn’t hold my breath for when Bhutan’s “superhighway” will approximate even a fairly basic secondary road.

Bhutan 369 In Paro, we poked around, went to a museum, took in a monastery/fort, and took a couple of short hikes.  In Thimpu, we met with a bunch of children at an elementary school there and had a great baseball outing (see my Baseball in Bhutan! blog).  And we had a really fun river rafting trip in Punakha, on which we had great views of several amazing birds (including the Crested Kingfisher, the Ibisbill, and the River Lapwing).   While we had to work hard for the birds we sighted, Bhutan had remarkable birdlife with some really special sightings (including the red-vented bulbul shot in the photo above). 

Bhutan 143 You can’t go a mile in Bhutan without seeing signs of the national sport of archery.  By the roadsides, they have concrete  blocks 140 meters apart, and use them to position small targets.  The archers then take turns shooting arrows across this vast distance in hope of striking the target.  When there is a “hit,” they then chant a song and do a dance (see video) that the NFL might try to copy for touchdown celebrations :-) .   Watch for Bhutan’s archery team in the 2008 Summer Olympics, and root for them!!

We loved Bhutan, even though our trip there had its issues.  We  stayed at the Amankora (they have properties in all towns in Bhutan), following our great stay with an Aman hotel in Thailand.  In Bhutan, Amankora supplied a mediocre guide, largely inept staff at the hotels (except for Punakha), dreadful room designs (imagine staying in a windowless bowling alley set in beautiful mountains), and an itinerary that involved lots of driving on torturous roads.  By the end of our stay, we felt like someone had blasted us with a jack hammer for five days.  Ouch!  So we’d encourage anyone to visit Bhutan — it’s lovely — but look for other options than the Amankora.

Feel free to check out our Bhutan photos.

Baseball in Bhutan!

Sunday, November 11th, 2007

Bhutan 278 We had an extraordinary morning at the Jigme Namgyal Lower Secondary School in Thimpu, the capital of Bhutan. We arrived a the school in time for their morning assembly, which included all 1,295 students. The school’s principal, Tshering Dupka, invited us to address the student body, which was a real honor. It was so impressive to see all these great kids dressed in the standard clothing of the Bhutanese.

Bhutan 153 After the assembly, the principal of the school gave us an overview of his school and the status of education in his country. Bhutan realizes that it’s behind much of the world in education and commerce, and is making a real push to develop world-class education. It’s free for all children in the country, and most children go to school for at least ten grades. The principal said that most of the children in his school go on to college, and almost 50% attend a college in another country. Also, this school has more girls than boys attending, which isn’t the norm for much of Asia.

Bhutan 171 Our advance baseball “scouting report” on the children at this school was that they are good athletes, but had only played baseball once before. I was a little nervous about working with kids with limited experience, so I brought some whiffle balls. I’ve seen the damage a hard baseball can do to the uninitiated, and figured whiffle balls would be safe. Well, once the kids started playing, it was evident that they had great baseball talent, and the whiffle balls never came out!!!

Bhutan 210 Boy, these kids could hit. And hit. And hit. I’ve never seen so many pounded balls in my life. They hit as though they spent hours each week in a batting cage (and, trust me, there are NO batting cages within thousands of miles of Bhutan). I asked if they played lots of cricket, but their main sports are basketball and football (our soccer). Maybe it’s something in the drinking water in Bhutan, but the batters just sent pitch after pitch deep into the outfield. And, given that I was doing the pitching, I felt lucky to come through without a baseball planted in my forehead! Their throwing and catching isn’t nearly so far along, but I was stunned to see kids with little baseball experience so good at something as difficult as batting.

Bhutan 212 The school is committed to athletics for its students, and is planning to add baseball to the sports programs it sponsors. This team will immediately be the best in their nation! The kids were so enthusiastic about baseball, and it’s great that the school gives them encouragement and support for sports. We brought them a full set of baseball equipment (bats, balls, bases, catcher’s gear, batting helmets, and gloves) so they have the means to develop their skills. Our box with Red Sox hats didn’t arrive in time for the morning’s baseball, but somehow made it to Thimpu that afternoon, and we delivered them the next morning (see picture below, where I’m giving hats to Head of School Tshering Dupka.

Bhutan 297 While there is lots of enthusiasm for baseball at the school, their athletic director, Pema Dorji understandably has no baseball background. He made a suggestion which I’m going to think hard about. He asked if there would ever be the possibility that someone like him could attend a program to train coaches. He clearly is excited about baseball, but knows he needs more experience at running a baseball program. The idea of bringing a good-sized group of overseas coaches (many of whom we’re meeting this year) for a week-long program on coaching skills, perhaps tossing in attending a Major League Baseball game, is very intriguing.

Bhutan 205 I want to express special thanks to our friend and colleague, Kristie Jochmann, who somehow found this great school in Bhutan and organized a baseball get together for us. She is so creative, but also so amazing at making these things happen. Also, we got great support from a terrific non-profit in Philadelphia, Pitch In for Baseball, who helped us get baseball equipment to the school. I could go on for ten pages on the challenges posed by in shipping things to these countries and getting them through customs. Somehow, it ought to be easy for Americans traveling abroad to give things to children in the countries we visit, but that’s not the case today.

Click here to see our slides for Baseball in Bhutan.

Awe, Phucket!

Monday, November 5th, 2007

The fall portion of our trip included a week of “rest” in Phuket (pronounced “Poo-ket”). After being on the go for 2 1/2 months, we were enthused about having seven days to unpack and just hang out. We had a bit of a false start, but ended up having a great re-charging time here.

Phuket 192 Our stay in Phuket got off to an interesting start. We flew from Chiang Mai to Phuket, drove to a dock, and then took a gorgeous 45 minute boat ride to our hideaway destination, a hotel called Yao Noi on a small island. We were dazzled on the boat ride over with the beauty of Phuket. It looked straight out of a James Bond movie, and actually was (“Man with the Golden Gun” and “Casino Royale”). So we were totally psyched to get to our destination. But after arriving, our first several hours were spent trying to get our Thai point person to say something in English besides “still under construction.”

Four hours later, thePhuket 140 English-speaking Assistant Manager showed up, apparently having just spent time on a different planet. We learned we had thirteen different pillow options, but she had little to offer in the way of activities. We asked if the hotel had a naturalist available, and her answer was, “Oh, yes, of course. Would you like someone specializing in reflexology, or in self-healing?” Well, we knew we had a “code red” on our hands. To top things off, our room seemed to have been designed by Rube Goldberg. Fortunately, our travel consultant in the U.S. (Samantha McClure) and our local contacts (Abercrombie and Kent) did a fabulous job of getting things sorted out, and our Phuket stay got back on track quickly.

Phuket 243 We did have one highlight at the Yoi Nol prior to departing. The question our kids have for everyone is, “Are there snakes here?” The hotel staff assured us that there were no snakes at the hotel. Well, we saw three Indo-Chinese Rat Snakes during our brief stay, and Gibson got a great picture of this critter. Of course, the hotel’s “expert” looked at the picture and told us that we had seen a cobra (about the same as mistaking a labrador retriever for a sabre-toothed tiger!). Anyway, our stay did have its highlights!

Phuket 186 As we explored Phuket, we saw signs of the horrible tsunami of 2004, which killed more than 200,000 people around the Indian Ocean. However, much of Phuket has been completely rebuilt, so it was not all that obvious that such a natural disaster had decimated the area recently. Odd that Phuket could recover, while New Orleans still struggles. But some of the natives here related their experiences, and it reminded us of Charlestonians experience with Hurricane Hugo in 1989. The boats in the photo above had been carried 100 yards or so on shore at a location that suffered 20 casualties during the tsunami.

Chiang Mai 152 We spent our last five days in Phuket, blissfully, at the Amanpuri Hotel, which was a fabulous spot for us. We didn’t do much of anything other than schoolwork, swimming pool, beach, and a little baseball. The food and staff there were wonderful, and it was exactly what we were hoping for — complete relaxation with suitcases completely unpacked.

Phuket 248 During our stay at the Amanpuri, we celebrated Halloween in an unusual way. Elizabeth made costumes for the kids and bought a big basket of candy. We figured it didn’t make sense to knock on the hotel rooms of perfect strangers from other countries and say “Trick or Treat” — unless we wanted to get arrested! So we took a big basket of candy and reverse “Trick or Treated.” We approached people, gave them candy, and did our best to explain the meaning of Halloween. Our kids didn’t see why this was a good deal for them, and some of the people we encountered looked justifiably wary of us. But the kids looked Phuket 265great, dressed as an elephant and a snake handler. We even managed to have an impromptu surrogate pumpkin, as our resourceful Thai chef turned an onion into a Jack-O-Lantern. Like everything else we encountered in Thailand, it was done with creativity and kindness — what a great country!

We had a lot of fun with hermit crabs during our times on the beach. At one point, Gibson got this video of Elizabeth and Sterling chasing down this particularly elusive crab. Take a look! Life can be tough as a lowly crab, that’s for sure.

Phuket 277 I regret to report that we had yet another boulder incident with Sterling. This girl just loves to live on the edge! Our photo album lays out the full story, but you can see that she had her work cut out for her in getting out from under an 18-ton boulder. Between boulders and snakes, this girl is keeping us on our toes!!

Click here to see our Phuket photos.

Thailand’s Tip Top

Monday, October 29th, 2007

We spent a fun three days in Chiang Mai, a four hour drive from Chiang Rai.  This part of Thailand is quite beautiful, so the drive was interesting, and the end destination well worth it.

Chiang Mai 020 We made a few quicker visits to local attractions in the Chiang Mai area, including an orchid farm.  The flowers were beautiful, and Elizabeth was mesmerized by the varieties and colors.  And we learned a fair amount about how they grow these beautiful flowers.  Orchids are so commonplace in Thailand that a gift of orchids is a bit like a gift of dandelions in the U.S.  I say, “Bring ‘em on!”

Chiang Mai 036 No trip to a country could be considered complete by our family without a trip to the local snake farm.  Elizabeth and I aren’t quite sure where our kids developed this fascination, but they are very excited by reptiles and amphibians, with special interest in snakes.  And we got an unexpected treat when a long-time family friend, J.D. Willson, sent us his advice on all aspects of snake investigation.  J.D. is getting his Ph.D. at the University of Georgia in Herpetology, and has a great website, which our kids spend considerable time exploring.

Chiang Mai 046 As you know, it’s a very slippery slope leading from interest to addition.  In the spirit of complete honesty and disclosure, our family is dealing with such a vicious problem.  Our nine-year-old daughter has developed a debilitating addition to snake handling :-) , which is getting worse by the country.  It was bad when it was a Children’s Python in Australia, but it’s now escalated to Burmese Pythons here in Thailand (photo above or brief video).  If anyone out there has any charms or antidotes we could use to help her control these urges, send them our way!!

Chiang Mai 126 One highlight of our stay in Chiang Mai was our hotel, the Mandarin Oriental.  It was remarkably beautiful, with great food and terrific surroundings.  At times, we had to remind ourselves that it was recently built, and not hundreds of years old.  The staff was very nice, and the pool was also great.  And there was lots of room to run around and explore.  It was consistent with our impression of the general area, lots of well-kept and attractive buildings, lots of natural beauty, and really nice people. 

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Chiang Mai 072 And, it was ideal for watching the last two games of the World Series, including the deciding Game #4.  Go, Red Sox!!  The final game ended with about fifteen minutes to spare for us to depart for our flight to Phuket, so it couldn’t have worked out better.  And our nine and eleven year olds could watch the games to completion here, since they end around 11:00 a.m.  And in 2004, I attended Game #2 of the World Series, and witnessed the famous “Bloody Sock” game pitched by Curt Schilling.  To bring extra good luck to the Red Sox, I managed to cut my left ankle and have my own bloody sock, undoubtedly the key to the Red Sox win in Game #3.

Chiang Mai 074 We spent a day touring one of Thailand’s National Parks, Doi Ithanan, and made it to Thailand’s highest spot.  The park is beautiful, and we got in a couple of great hikes.  We saw some very interesting birds, including two species of Sunbird, but they flit around so quickly I couldn’t get a picture.  But it’s a spectacular park, and great to see a country in this part of the world protecting it..

Click here to see our Chiang Mai photos.

Elephant Camp!

Sunday, October 28th, 2007

Chiang Rai 327 We flew from Bangkok north to Chiang Rai, Thailand, for a few days highlighted by elephant camp. Elephant Camp?!?! Well, we stayed at a great spot, the Anantara, which has a great facility and a family of some fifteen elephants, complete with skilled Mahouts, or trainers. And there were lots of other great things to do in the area.

Chiang Rai 052 We learned a ton (well, 2-3 tons, the weight of an adult elephant) about Asian elephants during our stay in Chiang Rai. They are smart animals, with remarkable agility. Just watching their trunks was an experience in itself. They had so much dexterity in their trunk, and feeding them bananas or sugar cane was fascinating to observe.

Chiang Rai 259 Elizabeth, Gibson, and Sterling not only rode the elephants, they learned how to command, wash, and train them. I, meanwhile, opted to be the family photographer, since I’m not sure my legs and back would ever be the same after trying to ride one of these beasts! But the kids loved every minute with the elephants, and Elizabeth showed remarkable agility in getting on and off of them.

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At the end of one trek, all riders and elephants also went swimming, an unexpected (or, to see Elizabeth’s face, shocking) development at the end of one trek. The elephants often disappeared beneath the surface of the water, leaving the rider soaked up to the neck, and hoping the water wasn’t too deep!

Chiang Rai 298 While our time with the elephants was the highlight of Chiang Rai, we did other great things there, and loved our stay in this beautiful area of Thailand. The area is called the Golden Triangle, because it’s where three countries — Thailand, Laos, and Burma — adjoin. One morning, we managed to spend time in all three countries, including making our way through immigration to and from Burma (no easy matter these days!). We were struck by how different the people are in each country despite the clear proximity.

Chiang Rai 287 While in Chiang Rai, we visited a great non-profit focusing on children at risk due to the child slave market in Thailand. All too often, parents or guardians will sell young children to unscrupulous parties, either for slave labor or sex trade. These “caretakers,” either through ignorance, desperate poverty, and unfathomable greed, will sell children to perfect strangers, sentencing these kids to a life miserable beyond words. The non-profit we visited identifies family situations where, for all sorts of reasons, have children likely to be victimized. They have a great school for these kids, educate them, give them great life skills, and take pride that many return to their communities to become leaders. It was a ray of hope in a very dark side of life in this part of the world.

Chiang Rai 335 The Golden Triangle historically has been a center of opium production. The government here has been successful in getting many farmers to switch from poppy to other crops. And they built an amazing, but perplexing, museum here called the Opium Museum. We visited it, found it educational, architecturally gorgeous, and . . . deserted. We were almost the only people there, for a museum that was larger than Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. But if you’re in this area with kids, and you want an effective way to educate them about the dangers of addictive drugs, this is a must stop.

Chiang Rai 317 One morning, we went on a great nature hike, covering a couple of great spots in the Chiang Rai area. We saw 53 different bird species in a morning, including the elusive Hoopoe (a truly bizarre bird) and a Coppersmith’s Barbet. The kids continued their quest for finding snake’s in the wild, and again came up empty-handed (a mixed blessing!).

With some sadness, we left Chiang Rai to move to Chiang Mai, also in northern Thailand. But this area is really a great place to visit. The air is crystal clear, it has beautiful plant and animal life, mountains, and the people are so nice. Thailand is a great destination, and we’re thrilled that we are still spending another week and one-half here!

Check out our Thailand photos and videos on Thailand, including some great elephant videos. For instance, you can see an elephant’s amazing trunk, Elizabeth mounting this beast from the side and the front (my favorite!), Gibson climbing aboard including the side mount, Sterling climbing aboard, and the one video not to be missed — the afternoon swimming party!!

The Venice of Asia

Friday, October 26th, 2007

Bangkok 467 We had a great time in Bangkok, and it rates as one of our favorite destinations on the trip. We stayed right on the Bangkok River and got a real chance to see why the city is called the Venice of Asia. And we did a number of fun things away from the river as well. We found Bangkok, our first stop in Thailand, to be a total delight, and a place we’d highly recommend to anyone visiting this part of the world.. We agree with one hotel staff member’s view — Hat’s Off To Bangkok!

Bangkok 155 For starters, I found the people in Thailand to be wonderful. I didn’t sense the same pace of economic development here as in China or Vietnam, but the country seems to be moving forward. Bangkok, with a population of 10 million, is the capital of Thailand. Some 95% of the population is Buddhist, and signs of the Buddhist religion are prevalent.

Bangkok 212 A must visit in Bangkok is the Grand Palace, the royal palace of the kings of the Chakri Dynasty. founded in 1782 and the current ruling house. The royal family no longer resides there, but it is still used for state functions. The current king of Thailand seems very popular, but is quite ill. He has four children (one son and three daughters) and the succession possibilities sounded quite complicated and challenging. Stay tuned!

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We had a most interesting evening in Bangkok, which started with a trip to a street-side flower market. I would never — in a million years — have guessed that I would be fascinated and energized by a flower market! It was so alive, though, with trucks pulling up full of amazing flowers from the farmlands. Vendors were selling all sorts of flowers. To give you an idea of prices, the bouquet of orchidsBangkok 353 above cost less than $1 U.S. Apparently, they’re so cheap that it’s not appropriate as a nice present. I’ve never seen so many amazing flowers. Elizabeth, who is totally into flowers, was in seventh heaven in this market. But all of us were astounded to see the variety and beauty in this energetic market.

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Bangkok 377 Well, talk about contrasts! We left the flower market and went to a Thai Kick Boxing Match. We’re not exactly the “boxing” types, but we thought it would be worth seeing while we were in Bangkok. We may have set the record for shortest stay, although we did make it through one match. From what we could tell, almost nothing was illegal. They punch each other, they kick each other, they knee each other, and they hip check each other. Honestly, it was almost as ruthless and fierce as the Boston venture capital market! To get a real feel for a match, take a look at the video at http://dintersmith.phanfare.com/album/454924/637612#imageID=29640418.

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The next morning, we visited a hidden gem of Bangkok, the Prasart Museum. Mr. Prasart, whom we met, is my kind of guy. He has little formal education, and grew up in a very poor family. At age 10, he began collecting art, primarily to make money. Early in his career, he also bought and sold real estate (and still does, at his current age of 64), quite successfully. But over the past twenty Bangkok 301 years, he’s focused on his own art work and his foundation. He does the most amazing work in ceramics, enamel, water colors. And his foundation is focused on improving education for children in rural Thailand. The grounds are so serene and lovely, and the art work is superb.

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As we readied to leave Bangkok, we stopped to think about how quickly our kids are growing up. At the start, they were so young, and now they have become much older and wiser. We never dreamed we’d be buying a razor and shaving cream for Gibson to take off sprouting facial hair :-) !

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Baseball in Bangkok 114 We loved Bangkok! The food was terrific, it was easy to get around, and we even managed to squeeze in another Baseball Ambassador programs, with 125 children who practice for three hours Saturdays and Sundays all year round. Very impressive. The day we played with them was “cool” by Bangkok standards, but Gibson was still worn out a couple of days later after working quite hard withBangkok 272 their team. After all the running he did, he was starting to look a bit like this hyper fellow we encountered at the hotel’s pool :-) . As I said earlier, they sure grow up fast!!

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For our photos on Bangkok, go to

http://dintersmith.phanfare.com/album/454924/637612#imageID=29640296.