Category Archives: Local Customs

Walking in the Giants’ Steps

June 7, 2017:

Another big day in our itinerary is finally here: we are bound for the Giant’s Causeway to see this incredible geological formation that left giant hexagonal basalt columns sticking up like broken teeth or stepping stones on the edge of the ocean! It’s also time for us to get our geek on; specifically, geeking out about Game of Thrones. All along our drive today, we’ll be seeing several of the sites featured in the series, which Jim and I really enjoy. It turns out Steve is a big fan, too.

We drove out of Belfast this morning to the east to drive along the coast, for another very picturesque drive called the Nine Glens of Antrim drive.  We will spend the whole day in County Antrim, but you are very clearly still in Northern Ireland, as it seems that each successive town takes turns proclaiming their allegiance to either the Republican or Loyalist forces. You can easily tell this by the prominent use of either Irish national flags or the British tricolor. So much for getting out of the corrosive partisan atmosphere of Belfast!

Nonetheless, the drive was as lovely as advertised! Our first stop was in the town of Carrickfergus, with a fort dedicated to the English invasion of William III of Orange. Plainly, this is a Loyalist town, complete with a mock redcoat statue on the ramparts of the fort.

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Carrickfergus Harbour
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The fort
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Statue of William III

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The Redcoat on the Ramparts
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Clearly, a Loyalist town

Next, we stopped in the quaint seaside town of Glencloy, which has been used to film scenes in Game of Thrones, both as the seaside port in Braavos where Arya Stark goes to learn from the Faceless Man, and the cliffside behind the town, which was featured when the Whitewalkers attack the Wilding encampment, a  If all of that means nothing to you, just know that Glencloy is the prototypical Irish seaside town and enjoy it for that!

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Coming in to Glencloy; the wall the Whitewalkers overran above the Wildings village
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Entrance to Glencloy Harbour

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Where Arya comes ashore

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Beyond that, we drove through village after quaint village, with sheep and lambs grazing happily in the fields. One town in particular, Ballycastle, looked like it might be a pleasant place to stay at the seashore, but we would probably pick the westside of the Irish Republic before we would come back here.

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Shortly thereafter, we pulled into a carpark on the coast on the cliffs high above the sea. From here, you can see the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, which connects the mainland to a tiny island that lies just feet off the coast. From here, you can also see the much larger Raflin island, and just 11 miles away, the outline of the coast of Scotland.  While I would have liked to climb across the bridge, several in our group don’t deal well with heights, and we still needed to get to the Giant’s Causeway.

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The only house served by the rope bridge?

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The island of Raflin and the coast of Scotland behind it

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Finally, we came into the town nearest the Causeway and had lunch at a very cozy pub, called, appropriately, The Nook.  Somewhat uncharacteristically for Northern Ireland, all of the young women working in the pub were very friendly.

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Following lunch, we hopped on the shuttle bus which takes you into the Giant’s Causeway area, and at last, we were free to explore!  First I hiked out along the seashore just past the main tourist part of the sight, which was TEEMING with visitors.  Then I walked up the trail behind the site to see the organ pipe-shaped rock formations, and then up to the top of the cliffs overlooking the site so I could get some perspective shots. Finally, I scampered down to the main site to see all I could before we left.  Sadly, I felt like I did not get nearly enough time here, and I would like to return someday, perhaps when there are fewer tourists.

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Then it was back in the bus to continue our tour of Game of Thrones sites.  As we drove south from the north coast of Northern Ireland, we headed for the location of the  “Dark Hedges”; more properly known as Kingsroad in the series. This location is a country road lined with twisted, gnarly beech trees, and was used a few times, including in the scene where Arya Stark dresses up like a boy to escape from King’s Landing, but is captured instead, and dragged off to the Brothers without Banners hideout (which was filmed in another part of Northern Ireland — Pollnagollum Cave, in County Fermanagh).  The actual road is Bregagh Road, outside of Stranocum, in the Ballymoney district in County Antrim.  Obviously, this is not a well-kept secret, as tour busses jockeyed for position, and it was a challenge to get a photo without other tourists in it. Some people went to elaborate lengths to strike poses from the GOT scenes.

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Finally, it was back to Belfast.  We enjoyed a super good meal at the restaurant James  Street South. Tomorrow dawns with the last day of our tour, so we all hurried back to pack and go to bed.

 

 

Buzzing Up to Belfast

June 6, 2017:

Wow! Today was a really action-packed day!  We left Lough Eske  (in County Donegal) early this morning so we could get Paula and Steve to Derry, where they were set to met with the parents of friends back in Virginia. In doing so, we left the Republic of Ireland and entered Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom.

Dermott drove us expeditiously to Derry, also known as Londonderry (but never by anyone from the Irish Republic). It lies on the seaside, where the River Foyle opens to the north onto the ocean.  There has been a town here since 546 when St. Columba founded a monastery here. Derry is a completely walled city, which became one of the first “Plantations” after the British took power back following the Nine Years War.

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The “Peace Bridge” by Calatrava

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Looking across the River Foyle

Derry was the center of several violent incidents during the “Troubles” which resulted in armed clashes between Republican and Loyalist forces in Ireland from the late 1960s until The Good Friday Peace Agreement was signed in 1998.  The Troubles arose out of a civil rights movement by the republican (largely Catholic) residents of Northern Ireland against discrimination in jobs, housing and suspensions of civil liberties against Catholics by the unionist, (largely Protestant) local councils and police forces. The city of Derry was the site of the Bloody Sunday massacre when British soldiers shot 13 unarmed demonstrators dead, and the Northern Irish Parliament was suspended, and direct rule from London was imposed.

Dermott dropped us off at the Guildhall Building, which is situated right on Lough Foyle. The building itself is lovely, Neo-Gothic in style (it was built in 1890), with stained glass windows telling tales of Ireland’s history. Additionally, there is a really good comprehensive museum archive, which documents the British Plantation system, as practiced in Ireland, and the seeds of Irish discontent which led to the Troubles, and ultimately, to limited Home Rule for Northern Ireland.

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View of the Guildhall from the Peace Bridge

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Stained glass windows in the Guildhall

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The Guildhall is located right on Lough Foyle, and right across from it is a Calatrava-designed bridge called the Peace Bridge.  We all hopped down from the bus and started to walk across the bridge, but the wind was blowing so hard (and cold), that we decided to get a latte instead.  After visiting the Guildhall, and learning more about the Plantation system (so we could get a better idea of the factors leading to the strongly opposing political views in Northern Ireland), we collected Paula and Steve, and moved on to see more of Derry.

Then we drove around to see more of the  city.  You immediately sense the turbulent emotions underlying the divergent political positions as you drive through the streets of Derry, which are divided into strictly Republican/Nationalist and Unionist/Loyalist neighborhoods. First stop, the Bogside neighborhood, which is staunchly Republican, and in the late 1960s, barricaded its streets from outsiders, creating an area known as “Free Derry”. There are extensive murals on the walls of some of the homes depicting political themes, mostly in favor of greater civil rights, and commemorating the struggles of Irish nationalists during the Troubles.

 

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Memorial to those killed while protesting during the Bloody Sunday Massacre

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From Bogside, we drove up to a point where we could access the walls of the city, and see the city from the walkways there. There are still cannons remaining on the ramparts, ostensibly placed to protect British forces of yesteryear from attacks by the sea. However, as I look at them, it’s easy to see that they are also pointed at the largely Republican neighborhoods in the city, and the feel is vaguely menacing instead of merely historical.

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Entrance to the barracks atop the walled city
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Cannons pointing at Bogside

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Then we all piled back in the bus to drive on to Belfast. First stop: the Titanic Museum! The Museum is located right in the docklands area of Belfast, and the building housing it looks like it has a giant ship’s bow on all four sides.

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We all had signed up for this very interactive tour, and enjoyed learning more about Belfast at the turn of the 20th century, when it was the second richest city in Europe.  In addition to all the exhibits which detailed the building of the the Titanic, and its final fateful trip, there was a reproduction gantry which reached up about 4 stories, just like the two which had been built about 100 yards from the museum to build the Titanic.  You could take a motorized ride through sections of the reproduction ship, and really get a sense of what a massive undertaking it was.  There were also re-enacted rooms which gave you a very good idea of what the traveling conditions were from the those of the first class passengers all the way down to the steerage passengers.  There was also a very cool overlay on the window looking over the former shipyard which gave you an idea of the scope of the ship as it was being constructed. Finally, there was a great exhibit detailing the discovery and documentation of the Titanic wreck, with some great footage from the submersible ROV which recorded the conditions of the wreck as it lay on the ocean floor.

We then picked up a local guide, Bibi, who would be our leader to some of the more recent historical spots in modern Belfast.  We went first to the Northern Irish House of Parliament (Stormont). It was built between 1928 and 1932 as a result of the Treaty between the Irish and the English which settled the Irish War of Independence, and resulted in the partition of Ireland into the Irish Free State and the British-controlled Northern Ireland. As noted above, this Parliament was suspended after the Bloody Sunday Massacre in 1972, and the Northern Ireland Assembly not re-established until Good Friday Peace Treaty of 1998.  A huge purpose of that peace treaty was to restore limited self-rule to Northern Ireland.

Stormont sits in a very pretty parkway way off in the eastern part of Belfast. There is also a prominent statue of Edward Cason, a Dublin barrister, who was the leader of the Northern Ireland campaign against Home Rule under the banner of the Unionist Party. He is largely credited with being the force behind the partition of Ireland in the Irish-Anglo Peace Treaty of 1921.

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Stormont
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Stormont grounds
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Statue of Edward Carson

Our next stop was at the Queen’s College of Belfast. Candidly, in comparison to Trinity College, this seemed to lack a little, with the exception of  the fact that after negotiating the Good Friday Peace Treaty, Former U.S. Senator George Mitchell was appointed Chancellor of Queen’s College of Belfast; a post which he held from 1999 until 2009. How cool!

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Queen’s College Belfast

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Symbol of the City of Belfast

We then drove to western Belfast, which was the epicenter of The Troubles. Many civil rights marches occurred here, among other areas in Northern Ireland, and it became a flashpoint for violence during the Troubles. In response to rising violence from both sides, the British Army erected huge walls between neighborhoods (some as tall as 25 feet high) which effectively partitioned western Belfast into Unionist and Republican enclaves, called “Peace Walls” or Peace Lines. Not only were (and are) the walls physically imposing, but the British erected armed checkpoints at the major intersections, and prohibited vehicular access (and some pedestrians) after dark every day.  Ironically, there are more peace walls today than there were before the 1998 peace treaty, but a sad fact is that a majority of the Belfast residents still think these walls are necessary for protection.

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Candidly, you could write a doctoral thesis (and many have) on the topic of The Troubles.  However, because I will undoubtedly blow the nuances about this issue, you can read more about it in the very good article in Wikipedia here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Troubles.

We made three major stops in western Belfast: We stopped in the Republican Falls Road area of West Belfast, and drove through the nearby Unionist neighborhood of Shankill Road, and made stops to look at the murals on the peace walls in several neighborhoods, as well as the infamous heavily fortified checkpoint station known as “Checkpoint Charlie”. On one of the main peace walls, tourists are actually encouraged to write graffiti messages of peace, and many famous people have done so, from President Bill Clinton to the Dalai Lama.

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Posters in a Loyalist Neighborhood

 

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Republican Murals in Falls Road

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One of the gates between neighborhoods closed each weekend night

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The Peace Walls where messages of peace are left

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Bill Clinton’s Message

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“Checkpoint Charlie”

After this mentally grueling afternoon, we made our way to the Europa Hotel in central Belfast right next to the Opera House, and then made our way to dinner at a nearby restaurant, Ginger Bistro (recommended by Dermott), we had an excellent meal and went to bed.

 

 

 

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A Glorious Catch of the Cliffs of Moher

June 3, 2017:

Today had us journeying from Killarney, in County Kerry, up to County Mayo via the west coast in County Clare to take in the spectacular Cliffs of Moher, on our way to Ashford Castle.  We rose to a gray drizzly day, but hope the weather will clear by the time we reach the Cliffs.

Our first stop is in the small town of Adare, located in County Limerick, which bills itself as the prettiest village in Ireland.  I’m not sure it deserves this credit, but it does feature a few worthy sights to see, most notably, the classic Irish country-style cottages with thatched roofs.  It was still raining by the time we got here, but we braved the weather to snap a few pictures of the cottages and the Trinitarian Abbey which anchors the town.  the Abbey, which is now the town’s Catholic church, has a cool stone dove cote at the back. Right outside of town is Desmond Castle, ancestral home to the earls of Dunraven.

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Irish Cottages of Adare

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Dove Cote
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Desmond Castle

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We continued our  drive through the countryside, passing more abbeys, castles and Norman manor houses than I could count (or remember). Sadly, I didn’t ask Dermott to help me label those flyby pictures!  I think these pictures were of Bunratty Castle (but I’m not 100% certain). UPDATE: Dermott weighed in and provided the missing names of these structures. Thanks, again, Dermott!

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Cratloe Castle, County Limerick
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Bun ratty Castle
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Clare Abbey in Ennis, County Clare
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Dunguaire castle in Kinvara, County Galway

We also passed by Dromoland, which was a great estate, now a hotel,once frequented by George Bush.

Our next brief stop was at the Monument to the Great Hunger, a memorial dedicated to the nearly 1 million Irish people who died from starvation in the Great Famine from 1845-1852.  Most Irish people feel that the famine deaths were greatly elevated due to English landlords throwing Irish tenant farmers off their lands when their crops failed in the potato blight, and during which time, the English government continued to import wheat and the other grains raised by the Irish to England.  From 1840 to 1922 when Ireland gained its independence from England, the population of Ireland was cut in half by both the Great Hunger and the mass emigration caused by the potato blight.  Today, the Irish population still has not achieved its numbers before the potato blight, and more people of Irish descent live in the U.S. than in Ireland.

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Famine Memorial

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Fortunately, as we drove on, the weather gods smiled on us again, and the day cleared. As we drove, we noticed the growing prevalence of stone walls in the fields, that seem to be laid out with no rhyme or reason.  Dermott tells us that the use of dry-set stone walls has been in use in this part of Ireland for over 6,000 years.  They sure make for charming scenery, with all the new lambs frolicking in their pastures.

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Then we came to the Cliffs of Moher, and it was ever bit as awe-inspiring as advertised.  Although it is a huge tourist attraction, the entire site is so large, it didn’t really feel crowded.  From the car park, you hike up to the headlands, from where you can see the rugged coastline fall away below you nearly 700 feet straight to the ocean.  We watched the sea birds reeling around the cliffs and then hiked up a bit further to O’Brien’s Tower, from where you have the best views of the coastline. The Cliffs stretch for about 5 miles along the coast and are made mostly of black shale, which made me really glad this morning’s rains had stopped so we didn’t have a slippery walk.  Hopefully, these photos show you why it’s worth the trek to see the Cliffs!

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Entrance to the Cliffs of Moher park

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O’Brien Tower

 

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After leaving the Cliffs of Moher, we drove through a unique area called the Burren, which is home to a very bio-diverse ecosystem, which largely lives in the fissured limestone surfaces and shallow pools called turloughs.  Sadly, we had no time to stop here, but this would be a top destination on a return visit.  Reputedly, not only is the flora and fauna really interesting, but there are also some amazing rock formations, including a great cave called Doolin Cave, and a stone dolmen (tomb) called Poulnabrone which dates back to 2500-2000 B.C.

On the way, we passed through the quixotic town of Lisdoonvarna, which is known as the Matchmakers’ Town.  In olden days in Ireland, towns which stood at the crossroads became centers for courting, and dances were held in the town squares of those crossroads to meet prospective mates.   Apparently, this was somewhat threatening to the Catholic Church (with its goal of controlling most aspects of Irish life), so they prevailed upon the government to pass a law banning these dances. Instead, the town of Lisdoonvarna sought to establish itself as a tourist destination by hosting a yearly “Matchmakers’ Festival”.  As you can see from the sign, this year the festival will last for a “full six weeks” during the month of September.  Obviously, someone else has paid a visit to Blarney Castle!

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Our next stop was in the seaport city of Galway, which looked lovely. There were even swans floating on the river Corrib, which leads to the sea from Lough Corrib.  Just months before his assassination, John F. Kennedy visited Galway, and was pronounced a Free Citizen of Galway by its residents who were much taken with our American President, despite the fact that the Kennedy family hailed from the town of Dunbrodie in County Wexford in southeastern Ireland.  We stopped long enough to visit Eyre Square , where there is a monument to President Kennedy.  Amazing, there is even a pub nearby which changed its name to “Kennedy’s” for his visit, and then never changed it back. I also walked around the corner for a quick visit to Shop Street in the heart of old Galway, and then it was off for our final destination: Ashford Castle.

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Eyre Park

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Kennedy Memorial
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Kennedy’s Pub
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Eyre Square
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Shop Street

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All is can say is Wow! Wow! Wow!  The Castle sits in the middle of a woodland park with its own golf course and forest, right next to the small town of Cong, which was the setting for the movie, The Quiet Man, starring John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara.  You even approach the Castle by passing over a river and through a turreted stone gatehouse.

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The Ashford Castle Gatehouse

The Castle was originally built in 1228 as a Norman castle, and was owned for decades By the Guinness family. In 1939, it passed to the Irish state, but was again returned to private ownership in the 1950s and turned into a hotel. Today it is part of the Red Carnation hospitality company and is part of the Leading Hotels of the World group.  As Jim and I were shown to our room, we could see a bride out on the great lawn being photographed before her wedding. I take this as an auspicious sign of our visit!

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Tomorrow, we plan to hang out at this glorious resort and check out the town of Cong. I’m kind of looking forward to a day without any bus travel involved!

 

Klongs and Kings

Jan. 23, 2017:

Today shaped up to be a very multi-modal sort of day.  We started off from the Shangri-La’s boat dock onboard one of the iconic long-tail boats which ply the Chao Phraya river at all hours of the day and night.  These bizarre boats have a long skinny rudder off the stern, at the end of which is a small outboard motor. The boats frequently throw up a huge rooster tail as they rip up and down the river. Although these boats are widely considered the fastest boats on the river, the trick is to sit in the middle of the boat so you can avoid dirty spray thrown up by your boat and other boats passing close as they cross the choppy Chao Phraya.

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Our first destination is the klongs of Bangkok; small floating villages located off the numerous canals (klong is the word for canal in Thai) lining the river.  Just past the Thai Navy building on the bank of the Chao Phraya is a large canal entrance to the Mon canal which accesses the Thonburi klong section of the city.

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Very slow, but packed water ferry on the Chao Phraya
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Long-tailed “dragon boat”

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Thai Royal Navy Headquarters

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This is the largest remaining section of klongs remaining, where many people still live on semi-attached floating houses.  The canals themselves are not very picturesque as they are fairly polluted, and there is much floating trash. However, some of the homes are charmingly decorated, and others serve as kind of mini-general stores.  There is also a wide divergence in the quality of the homes; some appear to be an the verge of falling into the water, while others look quite a bit more luxurious.  There are also multiple temples scattered among the homes, and most of the properties had some sort of “spirit house” outside their homes.

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Small temple
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General Store
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Nicer home
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And even nicer

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Spirit House

I thought the coolest thing that we saw were the giant waterborne monitor lizards.  However, I suspect Jim liked watching how the locks on the Mon canal operated best.  At one point, we also got to feed some catfish, which are almost tame.  However, I’m pretty sure we all made a mental note not to eat anything growing in these canals, although the egrets seemed to think the fishing was pretty good.

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Monitor Lizards

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Catfish Feeding Frenzy

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Egret

From the canals, our boat driver dropped us off at the pier to the Wat Arun (Temple of Dawn) complex.  These are some of the prettiest chedi in Bangkok, but sadly, scaffolding covered most of the largest one.  However, we were still able to climb up most of it, and from there, you can see up and down the river, with lovely views.  There is also a small crafts market by the pier for the water taxi, and our group passed the time waiting for the next water taxi by drinking chilled coconut water (straight from the freshly opened coconut), and doing a little shopping.

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Approach to Wat Arun from the river

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The cats of Wat Arun
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Happy Buddha (no, not Jim)!

 

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The water taxi took us back to the Shangri-La pier, and we unloaded to go to our next transportation experience; a ride on the brightly colored tuk tuks (motorcycle propelled taxis). Wow! What a wild ride!  We drove in a caravan to the museum at the former home of Jim Thompson, the famous Thai silk magnate.

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Our Tuk Tuk Driver

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Our official traffic break

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The story behind Jim Thompson is really interesting. During World War II, he was an OSS officer, stationed in Indochina.  He came to love Thailand during his foreign service, and after the war, settled in Bangkok.  An architect by training and practice before the war, he began studying Thai culture and architecture, and in 1948, formed his company, the Thai Silk Company Ltd. to revive the art of Thai raw silk weaving which had almost gone extinct.  In 1958, having collected Thai and other Asian art, consisting of both Buddhist statues, Thai paintings and secular art, he started construction of his home on one of the Klongs in Bangkok, just across from the homes of many of his silk weavers. His home complex consists of multiple buildings, many of which are constructed of abandoned historical wood structures from throughout Thailand and Burma.  The gardens are particularly lush and create sort of an urban jungle retreat right in the center of Bangkok.  Then, in 1967, Jim Thompson mysteriously disappeared while visiting a friend in Malaysia, never to be heard from again. Today, the home/museum is still operated by the Jim Thompson Foundation. Naturally, there is also a Jim Thompson store on the grounds, selling numerous pieces from the upscale Jim Thompson silk design lines, which continue to operate today.

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Entrance to the main house at Jim Thompson Museum

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Spirit House in the garden
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Gardens at Jim Thompson home

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Main living room and art collection

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Our final transportation experience came when we rode on the super clean and efficient Bangkok aerial tram system called the Sky Train.  The rest of the afternoon was at leisure, and then we enjoyed our farewell dinner with our travel mates in the lovely Salathip restaurant on the grounds of the Shangri-La hotel. Tomorrow, it’s off to Phuket from Jim and me, while most of our travel companions head home. After the pace of the last three weeks, Jim and I are looking forward to some relaxing times in Phuket.

 

 

One Night in Bangkok (OK; really 3 Nights & 2 Days in Bangkok)

Jan. 22, 2017:

Yesterday, we travelled from Chiang Mai to Bangkok. Immediately upon arrival, we were taken to the famed Blue Elephant Restaurant (one of several in the world), which is housed in an old colonial era mansion in downtown Bangkok.  I had eaten at their satellite restaurant in London several years ago, and still count it as one of the most memorable meals I’ve ever had.  This was also a great dining experience, but I have to say that I think management had been told to tone down the spicy heat levels for our American palates,

Then, we checked into our hotel (the Shangri-La), where we are in a multi-story tower (the Krung Thep tower), right on the banks of the Chao Phraya River, which is the central lifeline of Bangkok.  The official name of Bankok is “Krung Thep Mahanakhon Amon Rattanakosin Mahinthara Ayuthaya Mahadilok Phop Noppharat Ratchathani Burirom Udomratchaniwet Mahasathan Amon Piman Awatan Sathit Sakkathattiya Witsanukam Prasit.”  The Guinness Book recognizes it as the longest city name in the world.  More often, though, the locals just refer to it as Krung Thep.

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Views from the Shangri-La of the River Chao Phraya

The views out our bedroom are just fabulous, and we can see the always frenetic pace of life on the river.  Both ferries, and long-tailed “dragon boats” dart constantly about.  Centuries ago, Bangkok was laid out along the river, which flows down to the Andaman Sea about 30 miles away.After a couple of hours at leisure scouting the area around the resort (and buying the requisite Starbuck’s place mugs), we go out the front of the hotel to take a dinner cruise up the river.  This is a great activity, because many of the giant temples we will visit over the next couple of days are built along the river, and they are all beautifully luminated at night. The juxtaposition between old and new is also very striking, when the temples compete for space along the river with huge modern hotels and skyscrapers.

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Riverside View of the Grand Palace (home of the Emerald Buddha)

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Riverside View of Wat Arun (the Temple of Dawn)

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Riverside View of Wat Pho Temple

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Calatrava Bridge over the River Chao Phraya

This morning, we set off for a day of temple splendors, starting first with the famous Wat Pho temple complex, home of the spectacular Reclining Buddha.  This whole temple complex is amazing, but there is no doubt that the Reclining Buddha is its crowning glory.  The Reclining Buddha is about 150 feet long, and made of wood, loving coated in gold leaf numerous times over the centuries.  The temple complex was built in 1788 by King Rama I (remember: we’re now on Rama X), on the site of an ancient temple site.  The Wat Pho complex comprises the largest set of Buddha images in Thailand (over 1,000 Buddhas). At over 80,000 square meters, it is one of the biggest temple complexes in Thailand.

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Street scene in Bangkok
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Parasol seller outside Wat Pho
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Outside Wat Pho Temple with mourning bunting
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Entrance to Wat Pho

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Upon entering the temple of the Reclining Buddha, you are immediately struck by the immense scale of it.  Even with an incredibly wide lens, it is very difficult to get a picture that gets all of the Buddha in one frame.  It was complicated in our case by the fact that restoration was going on near the feet of the Buddha, which are inlaid with beautiful pearl marquetry.  Currently, you can get a slightly better view of the full length from the back of the Buddha, accessed through a separate door to the temple.  You can also have good wishes made for you by purchasing coins to drop in brass bowls lining the back of the temple. The act of dropping the coins one by one into the bowls was very peaceful and reflective, and the sounds resonate through the temple.

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In addition to the ashes of Rama I, which reside in the temple of the reclining Buddha, there are family ashes of generations of Thai nobles and famous people stored in golden Buddhas throughout the temple complex. The living relatives of these people must regularly schedule to restore the Buddhas by applying another coat of gold leaf to them.  In a country as poor as this one, the inevitable question remains: how do they pay for this?!!!!

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The temple complex is also jammed with over 90 chedi (stupa or towers), all gilded with gold.  Visiting on a bright, sunny day as we did, is almost an invitation to be blinded by the golden reflections!  However, the many structures within the temple complex also include teaching halls, statues, a library, paintings, galleries and gardens.  The complex is also home to a Buddhist monastery and there is a great ceremonial hall located there known as Phra Ubosot.  We were fortunate to also see a children’s dance group practicing for an upcoming performance.

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Chedi
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More Chedis
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and still more …

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Phra Ubosot ordination hall

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We left Wat Pho for our next temple extravaganza; the Grand Palace complex, which is located only about 15 minutes away from Wat Pho.  It was also begun by King Rama I, and construction began in 1782.  Although we had thought the Wat Pho temple complex was fairly crowded, it was NOTHING compared to the crowds at the Grand Palace!  As we have mentioned before, daily life here in Thailand has been extremely affected by the death of King Bhumipol (Rama IX) in October.  His body continues to lie in state in the Grand Palace complex, and thousands of mourners continue to crowd in to the temple/palace complex to pay their final respects daily. Our tour group was able to get expedited  entry, but once in the complex, there were times when it felt like we were salmon swimming upstream.

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The Royal Palace
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Crowds at the Royal Palace

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and more crowds
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Demon statues

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Like Wat Pho, this temple complex also features many chedis, many with elaborate carvings and tiled figures.  I particularly liked the huge Chinese statues and the carvings of demons on some of the chedis.

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Chedis and demons

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Demon statue

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Also  like the Wat Pho complex, this complex is a series of concentric courtyards with flanking galleries, with the centermost building being the royal chapel which houses the Temple of the Emerald Buddha (Wat Phra Kaew). This is the signature feature of the Grand Palace, and the lines were long to enter the temple and see the Buddha.  Candidly, this was somewhat of a let-down after the glorious Reclining Buddha.  For one thing, the Emerald Buddha is fairly small (remember: we stood right next to its virtual twin at the temple in Chiang Mai), and it is located so far away from the crowds that it looks tiny. Additionally, this Buddha gets dressed in woven golden clothing depending on the season. Since it is technically “winter” here, the Buddha was all wrapped up in its ceremonial robes, so you could hardly even see that it was jade!  Finally, there is virtually no place inside the temple to stop and compose a photo (and no tripods allowed) , and with so many tourists passing through, that it was almost impossible to get a decent photo. These I took outside the temple by bracing my long lens camera on a windowsill and trying to shoot between temple visitors.

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Our guide showing pictures of the Emerald Buddha in its seasonal dress
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Rear of Wat Phra Kaew temple

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The Emerald Buddha in “winter dress”

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As we wandered around the palace grounds, the crowds only got worse as the sun got hotter, and the lines to get into the viewing area for His Majesty were daunting. These pictures show all the loyal Thai subjects waiting to pay their respects. There are some who say that such shows of reverence for the late King are staged and required by the state, but many, many of the Thai people we saw daily genuinely appeared to be grieving their late King.

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Following our temple visits, we crossed the river to eat lunch facing the river at Supatra River House.  This restaurant was very good, featuring many traditional Thai dishes, and very good sticky mango rice for dessert. However, once again, Jim and I suspect that the menu offerings had been “dumbed down” for us Americans, as not a single dish was spicy at all.

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Supatra Restaurant

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The rest of the day we had at leisure, which meant that Jim and I were free to luxuriate around the lovely pool area, so we did! I even experienced the famous Thai massage! Another really cool feature of staying in the Krungthep tower of the Shangdi-La Hotel is that we had “club” privileges, which meant that in addition to getting our breakfast each day, every evening there was a complimentary bar and happy hour spread in the lounge looking over the river. We opted tonight to just stay in and make our dinner off the buffet, which really was plentiful and good.  Most of the rest of our tour members likewise joined us, which made for a very pleasant evening.

Hanging Out with the Hill Tribes

Jan. 20, 2017:

Yesterday afternoon, I opted to go to a jade factory where one of the carvers was the man who carved the Jade Buddha at the Doi Suthep temple we visited a couple of days ago.  Since that Buddha was carved nearly 20 years ago, I was surprised to see what a young man he still is!  Their jade carvings were magnificent, and one of our party bought a laughing Buddha.  The  jewelry offerings weren’t too shabby either! To top it off, the factory is surrounded by flowers, including some incredible orchids.

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Master carver with his lotus blossom sculpture

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Today, our mission was to go learn about some of the many hill tribes living in Thailand. While many of them are native to Thailand, others have immigrated from surrounding countries; predominantly Myanmar.  The area we go to visit is like a collective of the various tribes, with some tribal members living in the village, and other returning to their villages at night or weekly.  The tribes included in this village are the Yao, Palong, Akhu, Lahu, Sgaw Karen, Padong (or “long-necked”) Karen, Kayew Karen, and Hmong peoples.  This village collective is called Baan Tong Luang.

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Women of the Sgaw Karen tribe

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Baan Tong Luang village

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Lahu man smoking a traditional pipe

In addition to getting to see members of each tribe dressed in their traditional attire, you also get to experience different practices/customs of traditional life.  For example, one older gentleman was demonstrating how his tribe uses a crossbow to hunt.  Naturally, all the guys in our tour flocked around for that demonstration!  I was more interested in watching a very elderly woman show her artistry in creating beautiful batik fabrics. I love this art form!

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Lahu villagers

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Lahu crafts and headgear
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Hmong woman making batik patternn
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Indigo plant for dying batik
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Another intricate Hmong batik pattern
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Trying on a Hmong skirt
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“Ironing” the finished batik
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Makes you appreciate your ironing board, right?!
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Inside a Hmong home

Each tribe has a few homes in the village constructed in the style and materials common to their tribe, so you can see how the villagers traditionally lived.  The homes are all constructed around a communal rice paddy and crop area, which the villagers tend. Most of the homes we see have darling children, and the village acts as a giant display area for the sale of the native crafts of each tribe.  This is my kind of day — cultural learning experience and shopping opportunity!!!

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Irrigation system for the rice paddy
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Another housing style

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Entrance to the Akha village with a “spirit gate” to stop bad spirits from entering

In any event, you couldn’t help but be struck by how lovely and kind each of the villagers was.  So many of the native costumes were brightly colored that they all made beautiful pictures!  I particularly liked the velvet coats worn by the Palong tribe, and the Padong and Kayew Karen tribespeople were striking with their tubular brass embellishments.  The villagers let us try on various headgear, and take photos with them.

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Ahka woman with traditional headgear

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I think she wore it better!

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Palong villager with velvet coat

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Pudong woman with typical makeup and brass knee rings and bracelets

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Pudong man spinning wool
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Kayew Karen or “Long-necked” Karen tribespeople 

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Following the fun of meeting the hill tribe peoples, we returned to the resort for an afternoon at leisure. Jim and I started out by walking around this gorgeous property.  Then we retreated to the pool area to swim, edit photos (in my case), and gaze across the rice paddy. We’re almost sad to leave this oasis, but Bankok calls!

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All That Glitters …Is Probably a Thai Temple

January 18, 2017:

Up early again for a travel day, this itinerary had us hopscotching from Siem Reap to Bangkok to Chiang Mai. What we immediately noticed upon landing in Bangkok was how deep and public the mourning is for the former King of Thailand, King Rama IX, commonly known as King Bhumibol.  As we traversed the Bangkok airport to get to our transfer fight to Chiang Mai, there were huge altars with photos of the late king, and black and white bunting and white flowers were everywhere.  This impression was reinforced in Chiang Mai, as it seemed every block had some sort of public remembrance to the king.

 

As soon as we landed in Chiang Mai, Thailand, in the early afternoon, we loaded into busses and drove about an hour outside of town to the Wat Phra That Doi Suthep temple, which sits atop a hill 3,000 feet above Chiang Mai. The temple was originally built in 1296, and is probably the most revered temple in Chiang Mai. There is a climb of 306 steps to get to the top of the temple, but there is a funicular for the faint of heart.  At the summit, you are immediately struck by the glittering roofs on the buildings and the gold on the statues.  The view over Chiang Mai wasn’t too shabby, either!

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There are elements of both Buddhism and Hinduism here. However, the most striking component of the temple grounds is the giant gold-covered stupa (mound/tower), which allegedly holds some of Buddha’s remains. The remains were reputedly carried to the site by a white elephant, which is commemorated by a statue.

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One of the prettier elements was a carved jade Buddha, which is only slightly smaller than the “Emerald Buddha” housed at the Royal Palace. I really the fact that you could get fairly close to the statue, and because we were visiting late in the day, the Buddha was backlit by the setting sun.

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We climbed down the steps, which had elaborate dragons for balustrades, and we saw some children dressed in the costumes of the local hill tribes of northern Thailand.  chiang-mai-102

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Then, we headed to our hotel, which is located outside of town in the Mae Rim suburb, in a much more hilly and forested area. All we can say is “Wow!” when we see the individual casitas where we will be staying.

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The property is a Four Seasons resort, and for dinner tonight, we had a cooking lesson at the cooking school attached to the property.  I have to say this was probably the best Thai meal I’ve ever had!  In particular, Jim and I liked a local favorite which is a chicken coconut curry stir fry/soup called Kao Soy Gai.  You’ll have to excuse the large number of “food gawker” photos, but we promised our friend, Jay, that we would post them.

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Pad Thai with shrimp

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Look, Jay! Grilled local sausages!

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Making Kao Soi Gai

Then we were entertained by traditional dancers, including what appeared to be a dancing llama (maybe a yak?)!

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