Jeffrey Miller

A Writer's Life

Tag: Travel (page 1 of 4)

Arirang Radio’s “Travel Bug/Guest House”

June 25 2013

It was fun.

That’s what best describes my appearance on Arirang Radio’s “Travel Bug” hosted by Korean celebrity Lisa Kelley. It was a lot more informal than I expected which made it more fun and allowed me to feel more relaxed.

The program is a veritable cornucopia on things Korean, Lisa, who was a most gracious host, explained that the majority of her listeners are from outside Korea who are interested in Korean culture, travel, music, and food.

I was invited to appear on the show to talk about War Remains on the 63rd anniversary of the start of the Korean War. Although the show was taped on Tuesday, June  25th, the show will not air until the day after. They would have liked for me to be on the show’s Monday taping, but timing became a bit of a problem.

In the Studio

I got the chance to talk about the book, how I came to write the book back in 2009, and at the end of the show, I was asked to read an excerpt. Now whether or not these listeners will be flocking to download copies of any of my books due to my appearance on the show remains to be seen.

Add one more “cool” thing to the list of things I’ve done while I’ve been in Korea. Now I can tell people, “yeah, I’ve been on radio.”

It was a lot of fun.

Guest House — June 26, 2013

Picture of the Day: Buddha through the doorway — Siem Reap, Cambodia 2006

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Look closely–yep, that’s the Buddha through the doorway at Bayon in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

Ferry ‘cross the Mekong

One of my first trips in Laos was back in July of 2007 when Aon, her family (her mom, younger sister, and Bia) and I visited the famous Buddhist temple and Khmer ruins Wat Phou Champasak near Pakxe in southern Laos.

Getting there was quite an interesting journey because to get to the temple and the ruins one has to cross the mighty, magnificent Mekong River on a ferry.

For those who are vaguely familiar with the Mekong River, the name alone conjures up all sorts of images whether it’s the Mekong Delta from the Vietnam War or if you are much of a Thai whiskey drinker, Mekong Whiskey. However, for those who live along its winding path, the river is an important waterway and natural resource.

The river itself can get quite wild during the rainy season (last year in the capital city of Vientiane it rose above flood stage and flooded out streets that run along its banks) but when I crossed it in the July of 2007, it was simply magnificent and peaceful.

The ferry is a couple of boats lashed together with a makeshift platform to accommodate a few cars and a bus or two. It might not look like much, but it serves its purpose well ferrying people and vehicles across the Mekong.

It takes no more than thirty minutes to cross, and when the weather is gorgeous like it was the day we crossed it, the scenery is breathtaking.

Let’s Boogie on down to the Boogie Café

Boogie_Cafe_November_2006_006It was a cold, rainy November Friday evening when my Japanese friend, rock and roll and tattoo brother Kenny Shangrila took me to the Boogie Café in Yokohama. On my way from Bangkok to Chicago via Japan, I had a three-day layover in Japan where I would be hanging out with Kenny. After he had met me a Narita International Airport we hopped in his banged up and dinged white Datsun truck for the drive into Tokyo and Yokohama with Johnny Thunders blasting on the tape deck.

Boogie Café. The name alone conjured up images of the 1970s of platform shoes, disco balls spinning from ceilings and The Bee Gees.

However, nothing could be further from the truth when Kenny and I walked in there that November night three years ago. To be sure, as soon as I walked in, I felt as though I as though I had stepped back into time—back to some American diner in the 1950’s or early 1960s—judging from the posters, handbills, signs and other bric-a-brac adorning the walls and filling up every inch of space. It was the kind of place one almost expected to hear Bill Haley and the Comets, Buddy Holly, Gene Vincent, or Eddie Cochran coming from a jukebox if there was one.

That’s okay, there’s plenty of classic rock playing on the sound system to satisfy any eclectic musical tastes. Knowing how much Kenny was a fan of Johnny Thunders, that’s what the bartender/cook/disc jockey played for us that night.

I’ve seen a lot of that when I’ve been to Japan. The Japanese are keen to what is cool culturally, especially when it comes to rock and roll and nostalgia. One of the greatest exports to Japan has been popular culture that the Japanese know how market and enjoy.

Back in 1989, when I was teaching English in Hamamatsu I went to this bar called The Ketchup Club—just down the street from where I taught. The owner modeled the bar after some bar he had visited when he lived in New York and everything was in English inside, down to the coasters and the napkins. He even had his friend back in New York record hours and hours of one radio station on a reel-to-reel that he played non-stop in the bar. You really did feel as though you were in bar back in the States, sipping imported beer, gobbling French fries, and listening to the radio.

As for the rock and roll ambiance at the Boogie Café, it is not without precedence. Owned by Mr. Chibo a legendary rock and roll and blues guitarist, who is often referred to as the “Godfather of Japanese Rock and Roll” – when he’s not meeting customers at the Boogie Café, he’s out playing with The Mojos a popular Yokohama rock and roll/blues band.

Even the menu was authentic that offered a standard fare of American diner favorites like burgers, and hot dogs served with a side of chips. Kenny suggested I order a burger and it was one of the best darn burgers I had tasted in a long time. Prices can be, for the lack of a better expression quite pricey in Japan, but not so at the Boogie Café where most of the food was a couple of bucks (under 1,000 Yen).

He joined us at our table where Kenny and I enjoyed some Dad’s Root Beer and our burgers. Having just spent the past two months in Thailand, he wanted to know all about my trip as well as check out my latest ink from Jimmy Wong. Kenny and I had met in Bangkok that previous February at Jimmy Wong’s first international tattoo convention in Bangkok and again in September. Nothing beats talking shop when it comes to rock and roll and tattoos.

The burger and the Dad’s went down well as did our conversation. It had gotten late, by now, Kenny had to drive back to Kofu (I would be staying in Tokyo) and we had a full-day planned for the next day (a visit to the Yokohama Tattoo Museum), so we bid farewell to Mr. Chibo; we would be back again soon.

As for the Boogie Café, well that was what you would call a real Boogie Night.

If you are ever in the Yokohama area and want a taste of what an authentic American diner has to offer, listen to some good tunes, and hang out with some cool people, the Boogie Café is a must. The café is located at Yokohama-shi, Naka-ku, Honmoku Makado, 20-1, Yokohama, Kanagawa-ken 231-0825. It’s small, so you might want to phone ahead (tel. 81-045-621-0990) to make reservations.

The Dolmens of South Korea

Dolmen2On the island of Kanghwa, west of Seoul, South Korea is a very large and interesting stone structure that from a distance, looks like a rock table. Known as a “dolmen” or “goindol” as it is called in Korean, it is a kind of single-chamber megalithic tomb, usually consisting of three or more upright stones in the ground that support a large flat horizontal stone, which serves as a roof.

Dolmens are found throughout the world in Asia, Europe, and North Africa; however, Korea has the greatest number of dolmens in the world. Indeed, Korea is home to approximately 30,000 of these tombs (including about 3,000 found in North Korea) or about 50 percent of the total number of dolmens in the world.

In South Korea, the majority, or greatest density of these dolmens are located in the  prehistoric cemeteries at Gochang (North Jeolla Province), Hwasun (South Jeolla Province), and Kanghwa. Although the dolmen on Kanghwa Island is the largest in Korea—known simply as Goindol—it measures 2.6 by 7.1 by 5.5 meters, Gochang has the largest concentration of them. Known as the Jungnim-ri dolmens, these dolmens are the most varied of the three sites. Built from east to west at the foot of a series of hills at an altitude of fifteen to fifty meters, the capstones of the dolmens average around one to 5.8 meters in length and weigh from ten to 300 tons.

Dolmen001

Additionally, these sites also preserve important evidence of how the stones were quarried, transported, and erected as well as how dolmen types changed over time in northeast Asia. Without question the construction of these dolmens would require great planning, coordination, not to mention collaboration. The dolmens in Korea are classified as two types: the table/northern type (the ones found on Kanghwa Island) and the go-board/southern type (the ones found at Hwasun). In the former, builders positioned the four stones to make box-like walls and capped by a stone which lay on top of the supports. The latter is characterized by underground burial with stones that supported the capstone.

These dolmens served as burial markers for a tribe’s ruling elite and spiritual leaders and most likely pre-historic Shaman priests would have conducted ceremonies invoking the spirit of the person buried there to protect the tribe. As such these dolmens are an indispensable historical and archeological resource which provide the earliest archeological evidence of the Korean people’s religious practices.

Royal Treatment on Thai Airways

Boeing777

Robbie: Oh, my! I’m sorry. I’ve never been on First class before.

Flight Attendant: My name is Joyce. Just buzz if you need anything.

Robbie: Sir, is that Billy Idol?

Flight Attendant: I believe it is.

Robbie: Oh my God!

Flight Attendant: Would you like some champagne or some orange juice?

Robbie: How much is it?

Flight Attendant: It’s free.

Robbie: It’s what? Holy shit! This is incredible.

Billy Idol: Good afternoon, everyone. We’re flying at twenty-six thousand feet, moving up to thirty thousand feet. And we got clear skies all the way to Las Vegas. Right now, we’re bringing you some in-flight entertainment. One of our first class passengers would like to sing you a song inspired by one of our coach passengers. And since we let our first class passengers do pretty much whatever they want, here he is.

The Wedding Singer (1998)

All it took was to be bumped up to business class once and it was hard to be stuck back in economy class again—at least on Thai Airways International.

It was back in the summer of 1994 and I was flying back to the States—from Seoul to LA on Thai. I had been a frequent flier on the airlines for a year (when I was off to Thailand every term break) and when it came time to fly back home for a week’s vacation I chose Thai, which was back then not too expensive.

Overbooking flights, especially in Korea during the summer months used to be a very big problem in Korea back then when many Koreans would make two or three different reservations and then, once they bought their tickets, did not cancel the other ones. Then there was the practice of travel agencies having their own internal waiting lists for tickets—could never figured how that worked out when you called a travel agency and they told you that you were on a waiting list. Add to this the number of Koreans who travel to the States each summer—usually to bring their kids there so they can go to school—and what you have is a traveler’s nightmare of a crowded airport (back then Kimpo) with friends and family members there to say goodbye and overbooked flights.

And that is exactly what happened to the Thai flight to LA that hot, July Saturday. The flight, which had originated in Bangkok, was overbooked. While I was enjoying a beverage in the departure lounge, I heard my name announced over the PA system telling me that I had to check in with the Thai ground staff. Great, I thought. There’s a problem.

As I walked to the gate where the flight to LA would depart from, I’m thinking that I am going to be bumped off the flight or something. Instead, when I got there I was told that because the flight was overbooked, I was being bumped up to business class.

Sweet. I guess if you’re going to be bumped up to first class, there’s no better time than when you’ve got a 12-hour flight in front of you. I won’t go into all the details of how superb Royal Orchid Service is on Thai Airways, but as Robbie said in The Wedding Singer, it was incredible—or in this case, royal.

Well, once you’ve feasted on filet mignon it’s hard to go back to a greasy burger or once you’ve tasted some of life’s finer beers; it’s not easy to go back to good old Pabst Blue Ribbon. You know what they say, “champagne taste with beer money” – or something like that.

A few years later, when I was flying to Thailand, I used some of my Thai frequent flier miles to upgrade to business class. I probably could have used them for a free ticket around Asia, but I wanted to fly in style again. At the same time, business class from Seoul to Bangkok was not too expensive—not too much more than an economy ticket and the next thing you knew, I flew business class a few more times (and racking up more frequent flier miles). Maybe I did go a little overboard pampering myself, but it was worth it every mile of the sky that I flew.

And then I pulled something, well not actually pulled something per se, but requested something a little out of the ordinary on a flight from Seoul to Bangkok in 1998—because after all passengers in business class and first class can pretty much do, as Billy Idol said, “whatever they want”—that could never happen in a post 9-11 world.

I asked if I could sit up in the cockpit.

There were not too many people in business class on that flight, in fact on most flights from Seoul to Bangkok that year because it was just a few months after the Asian economic crisis had hit Indonesia, Thailand and Korea very hard. The exchange rate was lousy as far as buying dollars went, but interestingly the crisis had not really affected airfare rates, so it was still cheap to fly to Thailand even though it cost more Korean Won to buy dollars.

As such, the flight attendants got to pay a little more attention to the handful of passengers, including myself who had put away, by the time the in-flight meal had been served, nearly a bottle of wine. I didn’t have to ask for any refills—the flight attendants kept on filling up my class.

It was right about this time, when I thought about how cool it might be to sit up in the cockpit. It must have been a combination of all that wine and how excited I was looking forward to two weeks in Thailand, including my first visit to Phuket, when I asked one of the flight attendants if I could sit up in the cockpit. I might have said something like, “I’ve never been in the cockpit of an airline before” or “I was once in the U.S. Air Force” – whatever it was I said, it worked because the next thing I knew I was escorted to the cockpit.

It was either 1997 or 1998 when Thai started using Boeing 777’s, which only required two crew members, so it wasn’t like I was going to be in the way. Besides, the plane was flying on autopilot. I sat down behind the co-pilot and for almost an hour I talked to both the pilot and the co-pilot about life in Korea, traveling to Thailand, speaking both English and Thai. And when I wanted another drink, the flight attendant brought me one.

If I thought flying in business class was sweet, this was real sweet. What was real cool was looking out the window as we flew through some clouds.

After about an hour in the cockpit, I figured it was time to go back to my seat—didn’t want to wear out my welcome; besides, the crew had to start getting ready for the final descent into Bangkok and Don Muang Airport.

A few passengers stared at me when I went back to my seat probably thinking where I had been for the past hour or for those who had seen me go into the cockpit, wondering how did I rate to be able to that.

Hey, I just asked.

I would never have the chance again to do that again, though a few years later I would sit in the cockpit of a different kind of aircraft, an F-16 to be precise, when I flew in one over Korea.

And in a post 9-11 world, you know that airlines are not going to let one of their passengers sit up in the cockpit again.

I wouldn’t call it a thrill of a lifetime or a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity—even though that is what it ended up being; instead, it was just a neat thing to do.

Starved Rock State Park – Named after a Native American legend

French CanyonOne of Illinois’ “Seven Wonders” and more popular state parks—famous for its fascinating canyons and sandstone formations—is also best known for the legend that the park and one of those formations is named after.

Located outside of Utica, Illinois—approximately 75 miles southwest of Chicago—along the banks of the Illinois River, the park is best known for its fascinating rock formations, primarily St. Peter sandstone, laid down in a huge shallow inland sea more than 425 million years ago and later brought to the surface where many of the canyons have been carved out over the last 12,000 years.

Today the park, one of Illinois’ busiest (over one million visitors in attendance each year) covers 2,630 acres and includes 13 miles of hiking trails, numerous waterfalls (ice falls in winter) and other landforms. Without question, one of the park’s geological wonder—aside from the sandstone formations—are these waterfalls, especially in early spring, when the end of winter thaw is occurring and rains are frequent, sparkling waterfalls are found at the heads of all 18 canyons. Likewise, the vertical walls of moss-covered stone create a setting of natural geologic beauty uncommon in Illinois.

As for the park’s famous sandstone formations and canyons, its best known sandstone structure, actually a large eroded butte derived its name from a story about a tribe of Illiniwek who were trapped on the rock in the 1760s by a band of Potawatomi to avenge the death of Ottawa Chief Pontiac.

Originally, French explorers had built Fort St. Louis on top of the rock, but abandoned it in the early 1700s. In 1673, French explorers Louis Jolliet and Father Jacques Marquette passed through here on their way up the Illinois from the Mississippi. When the French claimed the region (and, indeed, the entire Mississippi Valley), they built Fort St. Louis on top of the rock in the winter of 1682-83 because of its commanding strategic position above the last rapids on the Illinois River.

Pressured from small war parties of Iroquois in the French and Indian wars, the French abandoned the fort by the early 1700s and retreated to what is now Peoria, where they established Fort Pimitoui. Fort St. Louis became a haven for traders and trappers, but by 1720 all remains of the fort had disappeared.

In the 1760s, Pontiac, chief of the Ottawa Tribe, just upriver from today’s location of the park, had gone down to the southern part of Illinois to negotiate trade agreements with the French. During his stay he was murdered by a member of the Illiniwek tribe. Word got back to his tribe and they wanted to avenge Pontiac’s death. So the Potawatomi and Fox, a smaller tribe of the Ottawa tribe, paddled down river and attacked the Illiniwek.

The battle raged on for several days and by the end of the battle, the Illiniwek had suffered many casualties with more than half of their tribe killed. And here’s where the legend comes in: the Illiniwek knew that in order to survive they had to leave the area. As such, they decided to seek refuge on top of the 125-foot sandstone butte in the hope that the Potawatomi and Fox would by-pass them on their way south down the present day Illinois River.

Unfortunately, the plan backfired and the Potawatomi and Fox surrounded the base. As the Illiniwek tried to get water by lowering buckets with rope to the river below, the Potawatomi and Fox would cut the ropes or shatter the buckets with their arrows. They also climbed to the top of nearby Devil’s Nose—another sandstone formation and showered them with arrows. As the Illiniwek grew more desperate, some tried sneaking down, but they were murdered. The rest that were left on top eventually starved to death.

Although the veracity of this story has never been authenticated, (the legend was debunked by a historian in 1947) the legend has remained, not to mention the name of the park’s more famous sandstone formations.

Lincoln’s New Salem Historic Site

800px-New_Salem_villageWhen I was a young boy growing up in the 1960s, my grandparents took me to some cool places in Illinois including Ulysses S. Grant’s home in Galena, Illinois and New Salem, Illinois where Abraham Lincoln lived for six years.

One of Illinois’ more interesting and historical travel destinations is Lincoln’s New Salem Historic Site that offers visitors a chance to stroll through history and get a glimpse of life in 1830’s frontier America as well as the life of Abraham Lincoln where he spent his formative years.

Located approximately 20 miles northwest of Springfield on Highway 97, Lincoln’s New Salem Historic Site is one of Illinois’ must-see attractions if you are in this part of the state (any trip to Lincoln’s home in Springfield and tomb would not be complete without a visit to New Salem). To be sure, this pioneer village is a veritable living museum of not only an 1830’s trading center but also offers some historic insights into Lincoln’s young adulthood.

The town, which was more of a commercial center was founded in 1829 and thrived for about twelve years before it was abandoned and left for pasture. Today’s historic site is a reconstruction of what that trading center must have been like in the time of Lincoln. The village, comprised of twenty-three historically furnished buildings was built during the 1930s and 1940s by the Civilian Conservation Corps. These buildings include several log cabins, stores, and tradesmen’s shops (the cooper shop is the only original building having been moved to this site from nearby Petersburg, Illinois), as well as the Rutledge Tavern, a school, and several mills. Additionally, other log structures and buildings are scattered throughout the village giving visitors a real glimpse of life in a pioneer village.

As one strolls through the winding paths of the village and enters structures, the past comes to life whether it’s the sound of a blacksmith shaping metal on an anvil, a candle maker dipping candles or a woman spinning wool. One literally can reach out and touch history here and feel a part of the past.

Lincoln might have been “an aimless piece of driftwood” when he first arrived here in 1831, but over the next six years, he clerked in a store, enlisted in the Black Hawk War (he was a captain, but never fought in a battle), split rails (next to the Visitor’s Center there is a nine-foot bronze statue of him holding an ax), served as postmaster and deputy surveyor, and even failed in business. He also studied law while at New Salem and was elected to the Illinois General Assembly in 1834 and 1836 after an unsuccessful try in 1832.

During the six years Lincoln lived in New Salem, he would impress the villagers with his character and it was also where he picked up his nickname Honest Abe—no doubt stemming from one of the more famous stories about how he walked six miles to return a few cents to a customer he had overcharged. Likewise, visiting the tavern or the store where young Lincoln worked and lived, one can imagine him staying up at night and studying by a flickering candlelight.

One of the more notable structures in the village is the Rutledge Tavern where Lincoln boarded when he first arrived in New Salem and where he would meet Ann Rutledge (her father was also one of the founders and original settlers of New Salem). Although the veracity of Lincoln’s supposed love affair with Rutledge has been the subject of much debate, what is known is that they studied together and that they might have even been engaged. Sadly, she passed away in 1835 and for years after, Lincoln visited her gravesite.

Although the village did not thrive long it would definitely have an impact on the life of young Lincoln shaping the man who would become America’s sixteenth president. Today, the village is not only a reminder of what life must have been like in frontier village, but also provides visitors a glimpse into the formative years of one of America’s most beloved presidents.

Hours of Operation:

From November 1 to the end of February: Open Wednesdays–Sundays 8 a.m.–4 p.m. From March 1 to October 31: Open Wednesdays–Sundays 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. Closed on holidays. (Days and hours of operation are subject to change, especially during winter.)

Picnic and camping sites are also available at the park. For more information about the park call 217/632-4000.

Haw Pha Kaew — Once home to the “Emerald Buddha”

One of Vientiane’s “must see” attractions is Haw Pha Kaew, once the king’s personal Buddhist temple. Although it is not actually a temple per se with monks on the premises and services being performed, today it functions as a museum of art with a very impressive collection of Laotian Buddhist artifacts.

Built in the sixteenth century, the temple has many priceless Buddhist statues and antiquities on display; however, what makes this temple interesting and perhaps somewhat infamous is its controversial past, which revolves around the Emerald Buddha, one of the most sacred items in all of Southeast Asia and the symbol of Thailand.

According to legend, the Emerald Buddha was found when lightning struck a chedi at Wat Phra Kaew Don Tao in Chiang Rai province, Thailand, in 1434. Inside the chedi a statue covered in stucco was found and when the stucco was later removed, the Emerald Buddha was discovered. Realizing the statue’s religious significance, it was taken to Lampang, Thailand for safekeeping where it would stay there until 1468 when it was moved to Wat Chedi Luang in Chiang Mai.

Here’s where the story of the Emerald Buddha gets interesting (and sounds like the plot for an epic movie): The King of Lanna had no sons but his daughter married the King of Lan Xang and a son was born who would become the future King Setthathirat (King Chaichettha in Thai). Both Kings died almost at the same time and he was given the chance to become King of Lanna, but instead returned to Lan Xang to become King, taking the Emerald Buddha with him.

Got all that? The story gets better. Around the same time, Burma invaded Siam. Chiang Mai which was the capital of Lanna, was invaded and conquered in 1558. Because of the danger posed by the Burmese, King Setthathirat moved the capital to its current location, Vientiane in 1560 and brought the Emerald Buddha with him and once again, the Emerald Buddha was on the road.

Five years later, in 1565, Haw Pha Kaew was constructed in Vientiane to house the Emerald Buddha (Pha Kaew means ‘Jewel Buddha Image’ in Lao; actually, the image is made of a type of jade). The Emerald Buddha would end up staying there for over two hundred years until it was taken back to Siam by Phraya Chakri, the future King Rama I of Thailand, in 1778 and placed in Bangkok’s Wat Phra Kaeo or “The Temple of the Emerald Buddha.”

Sadly, Haw Pha Kaew sans the Buddha that had once given its name would suffer another tragedy when it was destroyed in 1827 by Siamese troops in revenge for then King Anouvong attacking Siam. The temple would not be rebuilt until the 1930’s by the French supposedly following the original plans; however, the reconstructed temple looks more like a Thai-style structure from the eighteenth century.

While the loss of the Emerald Buddha might still be a bitter pill for many Laotians to swallow, the temple today houses some fine and exquisite Laotian Buddha statues and related Buddhist antiquities. It is one of the finest collections of Lao art in the country. Outside, bronze Buddhas, many looted of the jeweled inlay that once decorated their eyes, line the terrace surrounding the building. Inside are a trove of statues and relics-one of the most striking being a Buddha in the “Beckoning Rain” pose (the Buddha is standing with arms to the sides and fingers pointing to the ground) and bearing a jewel-encrusted navel. Photography is prohibited inside, but there is plenty to see and photograph outside.

Located on Setthathirat Road (just past the Presidential Palace and across the street from Wat Si Saket) the temple is open daily from 8:00-12:00 and 1:00-4:00. Admission is 5,000 Kip (about 1.00). The best time to visit the temple is in the morning when it opens to avoid the throngs of tourists that start piling out of tour buses in mid morning or an hour or two before it closes in the afternoon.

The night I narrowly escaped a terrorist bombing

Hat_Yai_Sept_16_2006.3My vacation to Hat Yai in southern Thailand in September 2006 started off with a bomb when about an hour after I checked in the Novotel Hotel a car bomb exploded in a crowded shopping area at the end of the block from the hotel.

I had arrived in Hat Yai a little past 7:00 and had gone directly to the Novotel Hotel located in the downtown area near a busy market. Although I had often read about some terrorist attacks in the region as well as some other violence, I figured the downtown area would be safe.

After checking in, I decided to walk around for a while and find some place to have dinner. The streets outside the hotel were crowded, most likely typical for a Saturday night in this section of town with a lot of department stores and restaurants. I heard about this popular restaurant that was a favorite among foreigners and tourists; however, I was more in the mood for some Thai food, so I decided to go back to the hotel.

Later I would find out that the car bombs that exploded were in the same area I had just walked in 30 minutes earlier.

I couldn’t find a decent Thai restaurant to eat in, so I decided to have dinner at Fuji (a very popular Japanese restaurant chain in Thailand) located right across the street from the Novotel (in the basement of a small shopping complex).

I had no sooner sat down and ordered food when all of a sudden some shops outside started to close for no apparent reason. Then I heard some people shouting outside and saw other people running. Most of the staff at Fuji run outside and then run back inside the restaurant talking excitedly on their mobile phones.

When I asked one of the waiters what all the commotion was about, he told me that there was a bomb in a department store at the end of the block. At this point, no one had told me to leave, but we were not about to stick around waiting for someone to tell us. Then, no sooner had I decided to leave when another waiter comes to my table and tells me that a bomb had just exploded near the restaurant.

I was unable to leave the shopping complex from the main entrance and instead had to walk out a side exit. As soon as  I reached the ground floor, I could smell smoke and hear sirens wailing. Outside, the street had already been closed off as a number of emergency vehicles raced to the scene of the bombing. Hundreds of curious onlookers lined the streets. Police officers, firefighters, as well as some military personnel already on the scene were shouting wildly on cell phones trying to coordinate this emergency response.

One tourist who was also staying at the Novotel (and who had arrived from Bangkok on the same flight that I had taken) told me that he was going to check out of the hotel that night.

In the Bangkok Post the next morning, it was reported that there had been a series of bomb blasts all occurring around the Novotel Hotel that killed four people (including one foreigner) and injured over 70. The first of the six bombs went off around 9:00 just about the time I was sitting down to dinner at Fuji restaurant and the other five exploded about five minutes apart.Hat_Yai_Sept_17_2006_001

After I had breakfast that morning, I decided to take a walk over to area where some of the car bombs had gone off the night before. Most of the debris had already been cleared away, but the streets were still closed to traffic as hundreds of curious onlookers walked past the Odeon Shopping Center where one of the bombs was exploded.

How close had I gotten to becoming a statistic? Close enough according to one eyewitness.

While looking at the damage, this guy walked up to me who I recognized from the previous night (he had been sitting outside a café that I had passed when I was looking for some place to eat).

“Man, you are so lucky,” he said. “You just missed the bombing.”

He wasn’t so lucky. The café he was sitting at was right across the street from where one of the bombs exploded. Some shrapnel from the bomb had hit him in his fingers and shoulder. Two of his fingers were bandaged and he was still wearing a hospital shirt stained with blood. It looked as though he hadn’t slept at all and judging from his pale demeanor and sunken eyes, still seemed to be in shock.

“Yeah, I saw you walk by and I was checking out your tattoos,” he continued, “and then about 15 minutes later the bomb exploded. I saw this guy stop in his car in front of the café and the next thing you know, I saw his head blown off by the bomb blast.”

A few people who understood English gathered around him.

“Yeah, that’s right. I saw his head blown off. Glass and debris were flying everywhere. I was lucky that I got down when I did. If I hadn’t I probably wouldn’t be talking to you now.

That was more information than I probably wanted to hear.

Later that afternoon, the Prince of Thailand visited the area to inspect the damage and to assuage people’s fears of more trouble occurring in the region. He was accompanied by a large group of government officials including former Thai Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai who passed where I was standing. When Leekpai saw me, he broke away from this entourage and walked up to me and we both exchanged a Thai “wai” the customary greeting in Thailand where both hands are clasped together accompanied by a slight bowing of the head by the person who is younger or of lesser social standing. I figured some oHat_Yai_Sept_17_2006_002f the officials who went to Hat Yai after the bombing were there to assuage any foreigners’ fears about violence in the region.

I stayed in Hat Yai for another night before heading to Bangkok. Then a few days later, there was a military coup in Bangkok-but that is another story.

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