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.

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.

Our Trip to Myanmar, Part 7

Okay, we are almost done with this terrible slog through what happened to us. Two things in this post. First, Mount Popa. Second, our terrible Christmas in Yangon.

Because of her school’s idiosyncratic ideas about pedagogy, Harriet has developed an obsession with volcanoes, which, honestly, are not a concept that should be described to three-year-olds. But because of this Harriet was extremely excited when she found out that there was a volcano – albeit an extinct one – an hour away from Bagan. So we took a taxi out to see Mount Popa. From a little way off, it looks like this:


It is that basically vertical hill with shrines at the top. When you get to the base, there are stairs and then you climb up them. Going up hills to see shrines was an poorly planned motif of this trip.

Mt. Popa is the residence of nats. Burmese Buddhism generally seems to be less inclusive than Thai Buddhism: in Thailand, you see shrines to basically everything and there’s a great deal of worship of spirits that have pretty much nothing to do with Buddha: almost every building in Thailand, for example, has a spirit house, to propitiate the spirits that lived in the land before the building was put up. And there’s also a healthy overlay of Hinduism. You don’t see this quite as much in the parts of Myanmar where we were. But Myanmar does have nats, which are a pantheon of spirits, the thirty-seven major ones of which are people who mostly died violent deaths. Mt. Popa is the home of the nats, so there are shrines to the various nats, and a lot of statues of them. Most of them look pretty grim:


I don’t know if this is an elephant-headed nat or Ganesh hanging out with the thirty-seven major nats:


After looking at the nats, we started climbing all the stairs, which takes a while. We stopped for a bit and had some noodles, which were delicious:


The other thing about Mt. Popa is that it is infested with monkeys, who menace the pilgrims climbing up the stairs and try to take their food. It is a problem. Also a problem is that the monkeys are not toilet-trained, and because this is a shrine no one is wearing any shoes. Every twenty-five steps or so is a step-cleaner; they are waging a Sisyphean war on befoulment which they almost certainly will not win. You try not to think about this too much. Our feet looked pretty awful at the end of the day.


But at the top there are a lot of shrines and lovely views of the countryside.


In conclusion, you should visit Mt. Popa, but it would help if you knew more about nats than we did, because then you’d probably get more out of it.

*     *     *     *     *

We took another overnight bus on the way back from Bagan to Yangon (this was the night of Christmas Eve) and arrived in Yangon at about five, where we discovered that our flight out wasn’t until very late at night and that no one had slept very well. So we spent a glassy-eyed Christmas wandering around Yangon trying not to kill each other. If we had more sense, we would have gotten a hotel room for the day and slept for a few hours, but somehow this did not occur to us. After breakfast at the hotel we’d stayed at before we went to the Botataung Pagoda, mostly because it has a turtle pond:


A couple of things about this turtle pond. First, in Myanmar, they feed the turtles vegetables (leaves and flowers) rather than fish-balls, as they do in Bangkok. This is probably more religious, but it seems like it makes the turtles less ambitious. Also their turtle pond was noticeably greener and more opaque than the one in Bangkok. I think they had less turtles, but possibly none of them cared about being fed and just stayed on the bottom of the pond all day rather than showing themselves. So we didn’t get any good pictures of turtles.

We actually did a fair amount of wandering that last day in Yangon (to the market, to some galleries) but eventually we threw up our hands and decided to go to the park, as there are a couple of large amusement parks in the center of the city. So we got in a taxi and said to go to Funtime Land or whatever it was called, and got taken to a park that looked like it overlapped with Funtime Land on the map. This one was called The People’s Park. It cost fifty cents to get in. It had large displays of plaster fruit:


But that – and some similarly large and tasteless public art seemingly designed for people to take selfies with – is basically all it has. There is a single path that loops through the pretty enormous park and every single shady spot is occupied by lovelorn Burmese teenagers. Also it is hard to progress through the park because everyone is taking pictures of each others. At some point Harriet fell asleep and we were dragging her around and sitting on the ground in the shade of garbage cans because things were that dire.

But then! It turned out that there was a much nicer park next door – what park this was I don’t know – and there was a steady trek of people from the People’s Park through a small hole in the barbed-wire fence dividing the two parks. This certainly appeared to be illicit, but the People’s Park was terrible, and everyone else was doing it and also they thought it was funny that we would be sneaking a sleeping three-year-old out of the People’s Park so they held down the barbed wire so that we could get across. So we left the People’s Park. And the other park was much, much better. It had a large playground for children that Harriet enjoyed:


(that weird rope-and-bamboo tunnel was the only way to get from the bottom section to the top section, so it was constantly packed with children) as well as enormous towers with rickety wooden bridges between them and wonderful views. Also there was a decommissioned passenger airplane. We assumed that we had broken into a much more expensive park than the fifty-cent People’s Park, but it turned out, when we were leaving, that the park we had broken into was free. Myanmar is confusing that way.

I don’t know what all happened after we left that park. Oh right, we went and looked at two more pagodas because we figured we hadn’t seen enough pagodas this trip. One of them had an enormous reclining Buddha:


And it had three sets of bathrooms, for men, women, and foreigners.


After that we went to the airport and came back to Bangkok and that was the end of our trip to Myanmar.

At the Mae Nak shrine

Today we went to the shrine of Mae Nak, Bangkok’s most popular ghost. She was a lady who lived in the neighborhood of Phra Khanong (then a village, I expect) under the reign of Rama IV; her husband Mak (in some accounts he’s “Chum”) went off to war and took a long time to get back, during which time Mae Nak died giving birth to their child. But she kept up appearances and did not tell Mak when he returned that she was dead. They lived happily until one night while she was cooking dinner she dropped a lime and stretched her arm down to the ground to get it at which point Mak/Chum (who may have suffered a head injury during the war) caught on and ran to the sacred grounds of Wat Mahabut to escape from his ghost-wife. This made Mae Nak angry and she proceeded to terrorize the neighborhood until she is subdued by famous monk Somdej Toh, at which point, I think, she becomes an ex-ghost.

Mae Nak is extremely popular, and there have been a huge number of dramatizations of her story, listed here. Many of these can be seen on YouTube; this one is a tad melodramatic, but it does have high reptile content and the subtitles aren’t as poetic as this one.

Her shrine is at Wat Mahabut, where Mak fled; there’s a small statue of her and her ghost-baby:


I don’t know why she appears to have two babies here. Maybe the one on the left is a doll? Her fuzzy appearance is because she’s covered in little sheets of gold leaf which have been gilded on her; while we were there, the shrine was being vacuumed and the air was full of tiny motes of gold.

She’s surrounded by things that she’s been given by her devotees (a lot of clothing; some other toys for the baby) and portraits that have been painted or drawn of her, none, disappointingly, of her extensible arms. Picture-taking didn’t seem polite (though it wasn’t specifically forbidden) so these photos aren’t as good as they might be.


Because there’s only so much room inside, there’s a secondary shrine out back:


I don’t know exactly who this man is.


Nor am I sure about this plaster rabbit and chicken.


Though possibly these real chickens might be explained? The shrine is surrounded by stalls selling small fish, turtles, and frogs that can be released into the canal behind the wat to make merit – you can see one on the left in this picture – maybe releasing a chicken makes you a lot of merit. Or maybe they just live at the wat, like the dogs and cats.


There were plenty of little turtles and fish to inspect. I thought about buying some to set them loose, though it seems ethically (and ecologically) a little murky; downstream, local children seemed to be using nets to recapture some of the released.


The woman overseeing this pool of catfish and turtles (not quite visible) is not Mae Nak; she appears to be Guan Yin, the Chinese bodhisattva whose shrine near Wat Prayun we bumbled through yesterday.


At the canal, of course, there were catfish to be fed, so we fed them for a while.


Feeding the turtles at Wat Prayun

Yesterday we went to Wat Prayun (properly Wat Prayurawongsawas Waraviharn), which is on the other side of the river – you see it just after Memorial Bridge and before Wat Arun. It’s not really on most tourist routes, but it’s been recently renovated, and it’s not very hard to get to, so we took the express boat to the bridge and walked across.

The white chedi is really nice, though I didn’t get any good pictures of it, partly because it was a gray day. Also we were quickly detoured into Turtle Mountain, a garden that’s part of the complex which is full of turtles, which have been released to make merit. (Some information on the turtles can be found here.) It’s a peaceful place early in the morning:


And it’s full of turtles, both big and small. Some of them have clearly lived there a long time:


And some are fresh and new:


(This particular baby turtle, unfortunately, may have come to a bad end. Harriet decided to put it in the water, where it appeared to have been immediately eaten by a catfish.)


The garden is full of turtles, both in the water and on land, and they seem to generally be pretty happy.

A monk gave Harriet another tiny turtle, not knowing about the fate of the last one:


For a small donation, you can get a little bowl of cut-up fishballs and a pointed stick which you can use to feed the turtles.


Not all of the turtles are interested in being fed this way – some are shy – but those that aren’t are maniacal about fishballs:


We spent a great deal of time feeding the turtles. Many of the turtles are extremely fat.

After a while, I convinced Harriet that we should look at the rest of the wat, and we climbed the stairs inside the chedi:


The interior is stark and nice:


Wat Prayun maybe deserves more attention than as just a place to feed turtles: there are many interesting things there, and it’s a beautiful structure in general. There’s a tiny museum with Buddha figures found during the recent reconstruction; it was also Thailand’s first public library.

The neighborhood’s interesting as well. Just past Wat Prayun, there’s the Portuguese church, Santa Cruz, which has been there for a long time, though the current church only dates from 1916 and isn’t that impressive. There are still the remnants of a very old Portuguese community; we went to a bakery and had their traditional cakes (khanom farang kudichin), which are, honestly, not very good.

We spent a lot of time getting lost in the twisty streets around here, looking for an old Chinese shrine, which we eventually found. Google Maps says the name of this is
Kian Un Keng, though I don’t know how accurate that is:


This is not what we first saw, because we managed to come in through the back door, which is considerably less grand, though you do find the toilets much faster. Either because of this behavior or the way Harriet was dressed, some of the worshipers decided that we must be French and were astounded when we were not. Then there was a lot of confusion because we couldn’t get out the back door and thought that we would be trapped in here forever; eventually, we realized that you could go from the front directly to the river, which would have been a much simpler way to get there from the beginning.