Goodbye Rosella!

Regular readers of this Internet newspaper will be familiar with Rosella, a turtle, first described here when she was much smaller – in those photos, she was probably about two months old. In the eighteen months we have had her, she has grown considerably larger (she went through two larger tanks) and more vicious. She has eaten:

  • Many, many guppies, some of them pregnant.
  • Serena, a crayfish.
  • Mrs. Primrose, a suckerfish, and Button, a replacement suckerfish.
  • An enormous number of glass shrimp.

And I feel like I’m forgetting some other of her temporary tank-companions (was there a second Mrs. Primrose?) who she also ate. Softshell turtles are, it turns out, very easy to keep, but they are also ferocious and it is a real wonder that Rosella never bit anybody, even on her probably ill-advised trip to show-and-tell. A triumph of animal husbandry!

But: in another month we won’t be here any more, and we needed to find a home for Rosella where her antisocial behavior would not count against her. As is the Thai way of disposing of pets, we decided to leave her at the wat – in this case, Wat Prayun, previously discussed. Wat Prayun has a lovely turtle pond, full of a great variety of turtles, including some softshells. Since we first visited, they’ve decided to try to make the turtles vegetarian, and you now can get bananas and papayas to feed the turtles instead of fishballs. Rosella is almost certainly uninterested in having a piece of banana on a stick poked at her. But the pond is also full of an enormous number of fish that she will happily tear to pieces.

So we put Rosella in a mixing bowl (with a top) and took the hotel boat to the express boat and walked over the Memorial Bridge to Wat Prayun. We had a lot of ideas about showing Rosella the various places where she could go and explaining the different options and having a teary photo sessions, but that didn’t happen, Rosella escaped, and I was lucky to get these pictures:

That was the end of that! Probably she is even now eating all the other turtles.

Various Disasters

First, it turns out the Cara Meow Cat Café, the closest cat café to us – and as far as I know the only Italian-themed one in the greater Bangkok area – has closed. Who knows why! The space is empty. Presumably the cats were released to the wilds of Chan Road, which at least has a lot of fish soup restaurants. They’ll probably be okay?

Second, things in the aquarium are in a fairly savage state. Two of the three remaining fish have disappeared, and I have not seen Button in a while. Rosella is larger than ever; Serena looks to be about the same size. I went to the fish store and bought ten baht worth of glass shrimp; now there are probably about three baht worth of glass shrimp, which is still a fairly large number of glass shrimp.

We went back to Cambodia over the weekend, but things are too busy to write about that right now.

Who Is Living in the Aquarium Today

When last we posted, we noted the depravity that the aquarium sunk into over the summer. Well. Things have gotten even more complicated. Because the old aquarium is leaking (this is maybe what happens when you buy an aquarium for $3), we bought a new one; here is a terrible shot from above:


The sharp-eyed will note Rosella, the turtle, over on the right, trying to hide under some rocks. (The turtle in the top center is made of plastic and is not dead.) The long orange smear on the left is Button, the new suckerfish, who is no longer afraid of anyone. And just to the right of her is Serena, the blue thing that looks like a lobster. As far as I can tell, she is actually a blue crayfish. But Rosella is deeply afraid of her, hence her attempts to hide under the rocks. This is pretty clearly a baseless fear, as Rosella could almost certainly eat Serena, though that is how things are now. They have divided up the tank between them.

The fish struggle on: on last cleaning, there are four of them, and I don’t know what their names are. The one who survived the summer appears to have been eaten, though whether that was by Rosella or Serena I do not know. Here is a closer view of Serena and Button:


You might note, over on the left, a black dot with a tail: this is one of a number of tadpoles we borrowed from the local wat in the hopes that we can bring back frogs to feed to the local catfish and thereby make merit. This plan may not work: there appear to be less tadpoles than there were this morning. I don’t know who’s responsible. Nature is ever red in tooth and claw, even among the toothless.

We Are Back in Bangkok

So we went to Mexico City for a good chunk of the summer but I don’t know if there’s very much to say about that. But after several twists and turns we are back in Bangkok for another year! Here are the important things that have happened, in bullet-point so that you can read them faster:

  • First, I am sure you all want to know about what happened with the aquarium. You may recall that when we left it consisted of Rosella the turtle (previously), a suckerfish named Mrs. Primrose, three long-suffering guppies, and several shrimp. We returned to find a scene of carnage: nothing was left of Mrs. Primrose but some bones, and even less was left of the shrimp and two of the guppies. The one remaining guppy was missing most of his tail. Rosella was larger than ever. I don’t know whether Oi fed the turtle over the summer (she appears to think that the idea of feeding fish is the height of farang lunacy); perhaps Rosella just developed more of an appetite. We went to the aquarium store and bought another suckerfish (named “Button”) and some more guppies. Who knows how long they will last!
  • Second, the cemetery down the street is flooded again, as it usually is during the rainy season. Something curious though: Mr. Henry Alabaster Who Died (previously) seems to have acquired, after 132 years, a new grave:
    I have no idea who might be responsible for this marble and astroturf – the British government? some minor Thai functionary somewhere in the government bureaucracy responsible for keeping up the graves of people who once helped the old kings? It is a great mystery. But it’s nice that Henry Alabaster Who Died has not been forgotten.

And that basically is all there is to report here.

Denizens of the Balcony

So some time last year we went to the aquarium store down Chan Road and we acquired an aquarium with a handful of guppies. The guppies proved to be surprisingly resilient, there were baby guppies, some of the guppies were eaten by birds, and now we have three guppies. They had names but I forget what they are. In January, we got an eel named Hannibal but then, as they say, a bird ate her. After that we bought a tiny turtle who was named Rosella – at many riverfront establishments in Bangkok you can buy various aquatic creatures which you then release into the river to make merit and/or feed the catfish. Rosella has not been eaten by a bird and has in fact thrived. She is a Chinese soft-shelled turtle, a species notable for its rather extraordinary plumbing.

We’re mostly feeding her turtle food. But we thought she might like a change, so we went to the aquarium store and attempted to buy five tiny shrimp, which appear to be the variety known as dancing shrimp. There was some confusion and we ended up with five baht worth of shrimp, which meant about twenty-five of them. So we dumped them in the tank and they terrified Rosella, who was not interested in eating them, and the fish, who felt like they’d already been through a lot with the introduction of Rosella. These sort of shrimp evidently like to jump, and many of them jumped out of the tank, and were presumably eaten by birds. But now we have about ten of them, who are getting bigger and bigger.

But after all of this, the tank started getting dirty, and so we decided to solve this problem by acquiring a sucker fish, also from the aquarium store, who has been named Mrs. Primrose. Here is the whole tank seen from above:


And here is Rosella and some of the shrimp:


And here they are again:


And here is Mrs. Primrose:


She is kind of terrifying, it’s true. We hope she does well and that we don’t have to clean the tank out so often now.

We Went to Laos

So we went to Laos. More properly, we went to Luang Prabang, the old capital in the north, which is a place that makes you feel like you are a city slicker if you are from Bangkok. While it is chock full of tourists, of the sort that seem to avoid Bangkok entirely, it is still laid back and there’s not very much going on there, which is nice if you’re looking for a vacation. The center of the old town – which is a peninsula between two rivers, the larger of which is the Mekong – is under UNESCO control, which is probably why it seems more attractive than any other southeast Asian city I can think of – the closest comparison would be Siem Reap, but that feels insanely hectic compared to Luang Prabang, mostly because of all the package tours going to see Angkor Wat. There is not, strictly speaking, very much to see in Luang Prabang, but it is a very pleasant place. In the middle of town is a hill, Mt. Phousi, which gives you a nice view across the Nam Khan, the smaller of the two rivers:


There’s not a lot of development, which is vaguely shocking coming from Bangkok, where such waterfront would be quickly lined with poorly constructed condos. Though it’s generally hard to tell, Laos is still officially a communist country, and they’re a little slow to catch up with the hypercapitalism of the region. Also, of course, the country was extremely thoroughly bombed by the CIA in the 1960s and 1970s, which didn’t help very much, though it did provide some nice flower pots:


Luang Prabang is up in the Annamite mountains, which means there’s a lot of mist in the mountains. The Mekong is extremely wide and muddy:


There are plenty of tuk-tuks which pleased Harriet:


And a lot of Khmer-seeming nagas:


There’s a festival coming up and everyone was busy making nagas out of paper and bamboo; these are floated down a river, I think. Here are some from last year, a bit weathered:


The lions in the wats don’t often look very leonine, but they are reliably well-fed with sticky rice:


Harriet was very pleased to discover a statue of Hanuman in front of Wat Aham:


And I was very pleased to discover that Namkhong Beer is brewed with water that’s up to World Health Organization standards:


There are restaurants where you can eat delicious food or look out over the river:


And you can get paddled across the smaller of the two rivers, which Harriet enjoyed:


After tromping around Luang Prabang and eating too many baguettes we went off to see the Kuang Si Falls, which are south of the city. There’s a bear sanctuary there for rescued bears – Laos, for all of its charms, has a pretty terrible record on wildlife preservation & there’s a thriving trade in bear bile – but somehow we forgot to take any pictures of the bears. They looked much like other bears we’ve seen, perhaps slightly more sleepy. One gets a bit apprehensive when you hear about a bear sanctuary in southeast Asia, but this seemed like a nice one. Anyway, we were not there to see bears, we were there to see the waterfalls, which cascade down a mountain, creating pools for swimming. The current is a little strong – I lost my second pair of flip-flops on the trip there – but it is extremely pleasant.


When you leave the waterfalls you can buy more flip-flops (this was maybe a little suspicious, but not very) and then we went off to see a butterfly sanctuary, which was full of butterflies. My feet were attacked first by fish:


Then by butterflies:


It is hard to take good pictures of butterflies with my telephone. One might also note what terrible taste in flip-flops Harriet has. They did have some fine butterflies though, you’ll have to imagine them. After admiring the butterflies, we took our songthaew back to town, which Harriet was pleased by:


The next day we took a boat down the Mekong to see the Pak Ou caves. On the way we stopped at the village of Ban Xang Hai, where tourists are sold lao-lao, which is rice whiskey, almost insanely cheap. One is encouraged to buy bottles of it with snakes, scorpions, or both, but we bought it without, then forgot to drink it, and had it taken away by customs when leaving the country. Alas. Bang Xang Hai does have a lovely wat:


And the nagas are well fed, though how a snake is supposed to get a ball of rice off its nose without any hands is not clear to me. Maybe they feed each other? I don’t know.


The Pak Ou caves themselves are a set of caves along the Mekong where people have been setting up Buddhas for a long time:


They are relatively nice, though most of the pleasure in going to see them is just taking a boat slowly down the Mekong:


It was a bit like our trip up the river in Myanmar; and the caves with Buddhas were a bit like the caves with Buddhas we went and saw outside of Kampot in Cambodia. But still, pleasant. After getting back, we went to spend a couple of days up in the mountains outside of Luang Prabang, which you can see in the distance here:


The mountains were nice! though there is not very much to do there. We went for a lot of walks and did a lot of swimming and I read a lot of Henry James (The Other House, not so good). Also we ate more baguettes. The roads around there are lined with the sensitive plant, Mimosa pudica:

There are a lot of these! You can’t see it in that video, but sometimes you’ll touch one leaf and other leaflets on the same plant will close up, making it seem like the plant has a nervous system. Also growing wild are what look an awful lot like poinsettias, though those aren’t native to the region:


That concludes the botany portion of this blog post. It is very pretty in the mountains:


Also Harriet found a dead snake:


They have a lot of dead snakes in Laos – there was another one on the street in Luang Prabang as well as all the ones drowned in lao-lao – but we didn’t see any live ones. We took a very long walk around the local village, Ban Xiang Nouak, which almost ended in disaster. It started out very nicely:


But as you can see from that photo it was already the golden hour, and we kept wandering on and on until it was dark and we found ourselves in a confusing banana plantation in the dark. So we turned around and went on an equally long walk back, this time in the dark, and just as we were about to get back to our hotel we were met by a search party. Success all around!

The next morning we met a very large praying mantis:


And after a lot of nonsense involving telephones at the airport which I won’t dwell upon we came back to Bangkok. The end. Oh, somewhere in there we also went to the national ballet where they performed part of the Lao version of the Ramayana, which Harriet enjoyed, but we didn’t get any pictures of that. It was about what you’d expect the Lao ballet to look like? If you are a small child interested in the Ramayana you should go. If not, you might take a pass without missing too much. But that’s mostly what happened.

A Weekend at the Atlanta

Somehow we have never really stayed at a hotel in Bangkok. This is a little confusing as we have been here for two years and you’d think something would have happened, but no. There was the time we were flooded out of our apartment and were sent upstairs to stay in another apartment, but that wasn’t really a hotel. And certainly people visiting us have stayed at the hotel part of the Chatrium and we have taken the breakfast there but we have not stayed there. So having a long weekend and being blissfully free of ambition we decided to take the boat (and other modes of transport, not pictured) to a hotel in Bangkok, the Atlanta Hotel.


The Atlanta Hotel is a confusing place, which you might get a sense of from its website. They gave us a reservation (it is not expensive) though we did have some qualms about whether we would manage to keep our child under control to their exacting specifications, and we were not sure whether we qualified as “cultured occidentals”. Do we have too much of an air of “post-modern primitivism” about us? That seems like a charge that could be levied. Anyway, we found the place:


And then we checked in and were given the first in a huge number of paper coasters for drinks which give a sense of what the Atlanta is like:


Basically it is the Nightingale-Olympic of Bangkok hotels, if the Nightingale-Olympic was overrun with stray cats, turtles, and a stray dog, as well as being covered in a great deal of signage. If George Leonard Herter started a hotel, it would probably turn out very much like the Atlanta. The lobby is splendid and features some incongruous bronze dachshunds:


Over on the left is Max Henn, the founder of the Atlanta Hotel. It is hard to tell if he is still alive, but he would be 109 if so. He had a lot of opinions, and seems to have started the hotel as a chemical company before changing his mind.


Our adventures at the Atlanta started early: Harriet was attacked by two feral cats while we were checking in. The cats are kept out back. We had assumed they would be tame, but the Atlanta Hotel is not a cat café; that would be post-modern primitivism.

The Atlanta prides itself on keeping things the way they were and informing you about it:


Thailand’s first children’s swimming pool has perhaps seen better days:


As has the regular pool, though it’s still pretty splendid:


Even at night:


There’s a lush garden which is full of snails:


But it was late, so we went to the restaurant.


The restaurant was not very busy. It specializes in American food as prepared in the 1950s and Thai vegetarian food. The dinner menu is astonishing – it goes on and on for pages and pages and explains everything in excruciating detail. But you are not allowed to look at it for very long because there are only three copies of the menu and other people might need them. I would have liked to spend more time with the menu and photograph it, but those things are not allowed. The restaurant has an exciting if vague history:


Curiously unlabeled was this stuffed cat who seemed to have had a rough time before his death:


And there was a fine picture of more exciting days in the restaurant, when the King played jazz with Louis Armstrong and Benny Goodman there. The pleased young man on the right is George H. W. Bush:


(I don’t think I was supposed to take a picture of this, so it is blurry. It’s hard to tell what the rules are at the Atlanta.) There are also a lot of magazines that you can read at dinner:


This is almost certainly the only place in Bangkok where one can read The New Criterion while eating vegetarian food. I don’t think I’ve ever been to any restaurant that provided so many copies of The New Criterion for diners’ pleasure; there were more copies besides these. Maybe I am not going to enough conservative restaurants.

The rooms of the hotel are not so exciting, at least not the one we stayed in; possibly that’s because we wanted air conditioning. But the next morning we woke up and went swimming and then to inspect all of their turtles, who sometimes live with their cats:


The turtles are large, if not quite so interactive as those at Wat Prayun, now more complicated to get to since they changed where the express boat stops.


The turtles also have an extremely long explanation:


And that is what we did at the Atlanta Hotel. Does it have, as promised, “incomparable character, charm, style and atmosphere”? Probably. Also somewhere in there Harriet was menaced by the hotel’s dog, but we didn’t get a picture of that. She didn’t want to leave.


Maybe we will go back some time.

Back at the Protestant Cemetery

We went down the street to see how things are holding up at the Protestant Cemetery. They’re building an enormous new apartment building right in front of it:


The large white monument is that of Henry Alabaster, one of the first British visitors to Siam to learn Thai; he ended up serving Rama V for many years, and at his death the king erected this monument to him. Inside it has a curiously aggrandizing inscription:


What it says, and you can’t really read it in this photo, is “A prophet is not without honor / save in his own country”. What exactly this is meant to mean is unclear. Alabaster was not well-loved by the British for his service to the King, and so was possibly not honored in his own country, though following this analogy is a little confusing. This monument is also maybe a cenotaph. A little before you get to that one, you find this snail-encrusted grave informing you of salient detail of Henry Alabaster’s life:


(Before doing that he created an ointment for “all sorts of flesh wounds and minor skin irritations”.) The cemetery is still in use occasionally; either they are digging a grave here or digging up the dead. But it is perilous to do so in the rainy season: it’s full of tadpoles.


The cemetery is still full of snails. Also we met a lizard:


He was not very happy to see us: