Yucatan Birds and Builders

Rancho Encantado.

I’ve never been to Mexico, which seems amazing to me, considering how far I’ve travelled around the world. But lovely Mexico—just a relatively short trip away—just never made it to the top of my A list. I’m not sure why.

Earlier this year, however, I finally started putting two and two and two together and realized that Mexico’s Yucatan is not only accessible, but allows me to combine several of my interests in one trip. Birds, of course (578 species, including 7 endemics), but also pre-Columbian architecture (over 4,400 Mayan sites alone; phew!), local culture, road tripping, and swimming. Add to that cheap flights via the uber-popular beach town of Cancun and reasonably good infrastructure throughout the region and you have a pretty attractive package.

We’ll spend our first few days on the laid-back, hopefully sargassum-free beaches of Isla Mujeres doing absolutely nothing. A ferry ride back to the mainland to pick up our rental car and we’ll head down the coast to the region of Tulum, where we’ll have a couple of nights at La Selva Mariposa. The attraction here is the natural rock swimming pools on the property. We have a couple of birding sites planned plus the possibility of a visit to the Tulum or Muyil sites, but I suspect those pools will lure us into spending time at the bed and breakfast.

We then head northwest to Valladolid, which we’ll use as a base to explore the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Chichen Itza and enjoy the festivities surrounding Revolution Day. Our accommodations here will be Casa Hamaca. Driving north, we’ll visit the ruins at Ek Balam en route to the north coast of the Yucatan peninsula. We’ll stay one night in Rio Lagartos and take a dawn birding tour via boat with Ria Maya Birding Lodge. Apparently, flamingos congregate in this area and I hope to get photos of the pink waders.

The colonial capital city of Merida will be our home for six nights, staying at the Hotel Luz en Yucatan. I’m looking forward to exploring what sounds like a charming city with tons of culture and entertainment, much of it free. If the city pales, we can always take a trip north to a beach or find a local cenote.

Back on the road to ruin(s), we’ll drive south to Uxmal (another UNESCO World Heritage Site). As with most of the Mayan sites, there should be decent birding on the site in addition to the ruins. We’ll sleep at the appropriately named Flycatcher Inn.

I was keen to visit the port of Campeche (one more UNESCO World Heritage Site) on the Yucatan west coast and walk the old city walls that were built to keep out pirates, so we’ve booked a couple of nights at the Casa Mazejuwi. We may also take in the nearby Mayan site at Edzna.

Next, we’ll take a long plunge south with a 5.5 hour drive to complete our “grand slam” of World Heritage Sites with Palenque. Here, we’ve opted for an Airbnb room at Villas Adriana. If time permits, we’ll check out Cascada de las Golondrinas, a pair of nearby waterfalls that look enticing. The jungle surrounding Palenque should yield some different birds, as this will be the southernmost point of our journey.

Back up north in the little town of Xpujil, we’ll stay in the Chicanna Ecovillage Resort while we explore the area around Calakmul (you guessed it, another UNESCO Site). One of the more intriguing attractions is the famed bat cave, where every evening millions of bats fly out for their evening feed.

We then finish up our loop through the Yucatan with a couple of lazy days at the Rancho Encantado on Bacalar Lake (yup, the website photos got me on this one), and a final night within easy drive of the Cancun airport at Jolie Jungle (despite the obviously fake Photoshopped shots on their website).

That’s a lot of ground to cover, but we have several weeks and plan to drive no more than 4 hours per day on most days. With this basic structure in place, I can relax and enjoy each day as it comes, knowing exactly where we will lay our heads each night.

Hmm…why does this shot seem Photoshopped to me?

Knot Spots: Bangkok’s Chocolate Buffet

 

Heaven, I’m in Heaven….

Spotted: Sukhothai Hotel, Bangkok

Generally, I’m not much of a foodie. “Fill my tummy and don’t make me sick” is usually all I hope for from travel meals.

Chocolate, however, is another thing altogether. I will go significantly out of my way to track down a new chocolate experience. The chocolate buffet in Bangkok did not disappoint, featuring a variety of tasty non-chocolate savouries as well as a staggering array of chocolate-based cakes, pastries, confections, and drinks. I snapped this photo of the “tasting trolley,” which offers only pure chocolate in its many varieties, from single-source darks to premium whites and every shade in between. A polite gentleman stands in attendance to dish out as many and as much of each as you might desire. Or he will blend your choices into custom-made hot chocolate.

Here’s the tragedy: having stuffed myself shamelessly on the other options, I actually could not try one bite off the trolley. I stared at it with unbridled lust while the nice gentleman stood poised with his spoon, ready to serve, and I couldn’t do it. I knew that if I indulged in “just one little bite,” like the man in the Monty Python sketch I would explode. Not a pretty picture.

On the up side, I now have a very good reason to return to Bangkok someday.

One afternoon in Otavalo, Ecuador

Face painting for charity

One sunny day, we sat in Otavalo’s main square. We saw people wander past, families, couples holding hands, young men in groups, laughing loudly, wearing t-shirts and hoodies, phones in hand. Young women in twos or threes, jeans skin-tight, careful make-up, arms linked. Women in traditional dress carried children slung in shawls on their backs. All the old people were tiny, nearly dwarf sized.

The Ecuadoran Red Cross was raising funds by offering face-painting for donations. We watched the artist spend a good half-hour decorating a little girl’s face while her mother waited patiently nearby. I asked permission to take a photo and the mother smiled and gestured: Go ahead.

An elderly woman in traditional clothing begged for coins. When Mark gave her a couple of dollars, she smiled broadly and launched into a long speech in Quichua that seemed to be a mix of gratitude and blessings heaped on our heads. She had only a few teeth and those were rotten and rooted at wild angles. She shook his hand and shook my hand. Then she reached over, stroked his cheek, and touched the skin on his hand. She began talking to me, saying I don’t know what. She pinched the sleeve of his black jacket and shook her head. It seemed to me that her gestures encompassed his jacket, his face, Heaven, and his skin.

Perhaps it was my imagination, but was she telling us that he should not wear black, that it made him look sad and pale? Of course, he WAS sad and pale. As she spoke and gesticulated, I wanted so much to grab my camera and take photos of her amazing wrinkled face, but it just didn’t seem respectful.

After a few minutes of this one-way conversation, she wandered off, her small figure quickly out of sight in the colourful crowd.

Market sellers

Young senorita in traditional dress

Ecuador for Lazy Birders

Andean Cock-of-the-Rock. We hope to see this funky dude on our trip–as long as it doesn’t take too much effort. Image source: neotropicalecuador.com

So, the Great Big Map of Ecuador is up on my kitchen wall, coloured dots marking destinations. After months of planning, the itinerary is finally in place. The central focus of this trip will be seeing and photographing as many birds as possible—within the constraints of a fairly leisurely and comfortable journey. Ecuador boasts over 1600 species of birds, so even without lengthy or steep hikes, extensive domestic travel, or rough locations, I figure we should tally a good number. Yes, even without visiting the Galapagos, which we decided had to wait for a future trip. Although the itinerary is built around birding, I hope to include dashes of local culture and points of interest.

After much research and dithering, I settled on flights from Vancouver to Quito via San Francisco and Panama City. The price was significantly better than one-stop flights (partly because I used points for the YVR to SFO leg), the departure and arrival times more convenient, and the total flight time not bad, considering the two stops. This plan also allowed me to build in a couple of nights in San Francisco to take in the sights and it falls within my winter travel imperative to avoid east-coast routes with their attendant risk of snowstorms and nightmare layovers.

My immediate goal upon arriving in Quito is to rest up and acclimatize to the altitude, so I’ve kept the first few days simple and quiet: three nights in the San Jorge Eco-lodge and Botanical Reserve just outside the city. We’ll spend those days checking out the bird feeders and walking their private trails and probably not much else.

The San Jorge group of lodges form what their promo likes to call “The Magic Birding & Photography Circuit.” It’s a smart idea: offer travellers a variety of lodges located in different bioclimatic zones (read: more species) with comfortable accommodations that cater specifically to birders and other nature nuts. I admit, I fell for it and ended up booking three of their properties, starting in Quito.

Just before the weekend, we’ll head off for one of Ecuador’s must-do’s, the Saturday artisan market at Otavalo, staying two nights at the Hostal Doña Esther. If time permits, we’ll try for the Parque Condor bird of prey centre housing rescued raptors.

Next, back to the “Magic Birding Circuit” for three nights at the San Jorge de Tandayapa Eco-lodge and three at San Jorge de Milpe. Both lodges promise comfy rooms, good food, and features such as feeders, birding trails, ponds, and waterfalls. All of the San Jorge lodges offer packages with guides included, but I opted for bed and board only, preferring to explore independently.

Two nights in Quito will provide a short break from the birding lodges, although a planned tour to nearby Antisanilla Reserve should yield some sightings, including Andean Condor nesting sites (fingers crossed). We’ll try to squeeze in some time at the Museo Etnohistorico de Artesanias del Ecuador Mindalae (Whew! That’s a mouthful.), which happens to be located just around the corner from our snooze site, Hostal de la Rabida.

Heading east through the Andes, we’ll spend three nights at the Wildsumaco Lodge poised between the mountains and the lowlands. On the first morning, I’ve booked a half-day of guiding for an introduction to the area and its creatures.

Sacha Lodge. Image source: sachalodge.com

Then it’s down to the town of Coca to connect with our small boat up the Napa River to Sacha Lodge, deep in the Amazonian rainforest. Visiting the Amazon jungle is on my bucket list, so I’m trying to keep my sky-high expectations under control. I hope we get the chance to visit the clay lick where hundreds of parrots gather to supplement their diets with healthful minerals.

We’ll fly back to Quito just in time for the week-long fiesta leading up to the holiday that celebrates the founding of the city. Music, street parties, and sightseeing in the Old Town should fill up our days and we’ll spend our nights at the Casa el Eden, recommended by a friend of a friend. Somewhere along the line, I’m sure we’ll find time to check out the chocolate, coffee, and helado (ice cream) shops.

Does this itinerary sound like fun or folly? Let me know what you think in a comment.

Quito mural. Image source: muralcomunitario.com

Calidris Compares: A Tale of Two Cities

London’s Tower Bridge. Photo by Marian Buechert.

I’m not really a city girl. I prefer natural spaces, quiet, and fresh air over crowds of people, noise, and bustle. But given that cities are hubs of transport, culture, and history, passing through them is nearly inevitable. Two cities that are always worth a stopover are The Big Apple and The Big Smoke. So how do they compare? Let’s take a look.

London New York
Shopping London wins on quaint, curious, and antique. Prices are prohibitively high on most things. New York wins on sheer quantity, diversity, and affordability.
Song Streets of London, Maybe It’s Because I’m a Londoner New York, New York, On the Town

 

Transit The Underground: Even well-dressed, apparently well-to-do Londoners take The Tube. The subway: Not so much.
Longest-running show The Mousetrap The Phantom of the Opera
Cabbies World famous for rigorous training & vast knowledge of the city. World famous for attitude and language.
Monarch’s residence Buckingham Palace Trump Tower
Live theatre Wow. Helen Mirren live on stage; what more do I need to say? Wow. Dustin Hoffman live on stage; what more do I need to say?
Local lingo #1 Rubbing: Something you experience in an ancient churchyard and which involves a granite headstone, a sheet of paper, and a stick of charcoal. Rubbing: Something you experience in an aging massage parlour and which involves a pillow, a sheet over the table, and a scantily clad person.
Policing Bobbies: Authority without guns. NYPD: Not so much.
Street signs Not so much. Clear & logical.
Local colour Pearly kings & queens dressed in button-encrusted duds. Times Square guy dressed in a diaper and cowboy hat.
Attitude Tourist opens a map and looks around. Local stops to ask if he can help. Tourist approaches information desk in giant department store and asks: “Excuse me, is there a restroom?” Local responds: “Why?”
Urban wildlife Pigeons & rats Pigeons & rats
Local lingo #2 Rubber: Something you use to erase mistakes. Rubber: Something you use to prevent mistakes.
Woman with a crown Queen Bess II Lady Liberty
Museums London all the way since three of the top museums in London—V&A, National Gallery, Museum of Natural History, all world-class—are all free. The Met suggested admission donation is $25, MoMa and the Guggenheim are a flat $25 each. Come on, NY, get with the program: museums need to be accessible and FREE.
Fine dining Forget it; you can’t afford it. Forget it; you can’t get in.

New York, from atop the Empire State Building. Photo by Marian Buechert.

NY or London: Do you have a favourite? Why? Let me know in a comment.

The Getty Center

If you think Los Angeles symbolizes everything kitschy and facile, and serves only as hub for the cult of 15 minutes of fame, you haven’t visited the Getty Center. Who would have thought La-La Land could boast a world-class museum that impresses in so many ways?

First, there’s the gorgeous location, perched on a hill, overlooking LA one way and out toward the hills of Santa Monica the other way. One is so tempted to say it literally rises above the surrounding city, but I wouldn’t stoop to such a cliché.

Second, there’s the architecture and design. They’ve created an inspiring, welcoming space to relax outdoors in the courtyard, intriguing nooks and crannies between the buildings that frame the surrounding landscape, and galleries to rival any that I’ve seen.

Portrait study, 1818, Theodore Gericault

Third, there are wonderful tours to help you navigate and better appreciate the art. After many expeditions to many museums around the world, I know that it’s all too easy to get exhausted, lost, and numbed, stumbling around like a zombie, wanting to see everything and not seeing anything properly. You can get away with doing this for a quick visit, but if you’re there for the day, you need to find a way of focusing your attention and budgeting your energy. Tours are a great way to do this: someone else chooses the pieces to view, plots out the best course to navigate the galleries, and spoon-feeds you useful information. On our recent visit to the Getty, we did the Highlights of the Collection Tour, plus the Curator’s Tour of the special exhibition, “Eyewitness Views: Making History in 18th Century Europe.” This title might lead you to think the exhibition was a real yawner and pass it by; however, with the enthusiastic and knowledgeable guidance of the person who actually envisioned and put together the exhibition, it came alive as we gained real insight into commemorative paintings.

Last but not least, there is the art itself, representing a wide spectrum from paintings of all periods to sculpture, tapestries, illuminated manuscripts, furniture, photography, and decorative arts. The paintings of masters such as van Gogh, Manet, Rembrandt, Goya, Cezanne, and Fragonard are all included in the Getty collection. I wandered from gallery to gallery finding familiar works that I remembered from books and discovering new pieces that I will never forget.

The tapestry rooms literally took my breath away; I’ve seen tapestries on exhibit before, but never in rooms that are designed to emulate those in which the tapestries originally would have been hung and admired.

I was equally enraptured by a special exhibition titled “Illuminating Women in the Medieval World,” which explored how women’s roles in the Middle Ages are documented in the precisely detailed illustrations of illuminated manuscripts. The brilliant colours and shimmering gold leaf bring the Medieval world to life.

Peering in at a display of Sevres porcelain took me back to my university days and a research paper on Madame de Pompadour’s patronage of the ceramics manufacturer. It gave me a quiet little thrill to actually see some of the Sevres pieces from that period.

 

When your mind is saturated with great art and your feet are sore, take time to rest and refresh in the courtyard next to the water feature, where you can sip a cool drink and admire the architecture.

After a full day at the museum, I still had not seen the garden or the villa, and there were many unexplored galleries calling me back for future visits.

The icing on Mr. Getty’s cake is that his museum is free, such a rarity for anything in the U.S. (Thank you, J.P.) They do charge a parking fee, but that’s it. Which allows you to spend your money instead at one of the cafes or at the gift shop. Another perk is that you are allowed to photograph most of the art, so Snapchat away and share your favourites with all your “friends” who think you’re visiting the City of Angels for shallow pursuits like Rodeo Drive shopping and bus tours of celebrity homes:

Jeanne Kefer, 1885, Fernand Khnopff

“Adored this little girl i spotted at the Getty! Dont u just heart culture?! ”

Do you have a beloved museum or gallery? Have you visited the Getty? Share your thoughts in a comment.

Calidris Compares: Artisanal Ice Creams

Two hot summer days.  Two gourmet ice cream outlets.

 

Travel—even around town—can be tiring on a hot day, so it’s always good to know where to find a refreshing ice cream cone.

Yes, it’s a tough job, but someone has to do it: slurping down back-to-back desserts of frozen ambrosia in order to uncover the real story. Bravely, I threw myself into this challenge on behalf of you, my faithful reader.

A gentle reminder that on a baking-hot day, the line-ups for ice cream anywhere can be daunting, and at artisanal outlets, even more so. Mentally prepare yourself to be patient. Only you can decide whether it’s worth waiting for.

Earnest Ice Cream

Outlet: Branch & Butter, Bowen Island ferry terminal

The hype: “Our goal [is] to create ice cream that expresses our passion for flavour and a business that embodies our values.”

Single scoop cone: $5 plus tax

Flavour: Whiskey hazelnut. Excellent taste of whiskey & hazelnut, with lots of chunks of crunchy (not stale) hazelnut.

As I peered into the glass counter to choose my flavour, I noticed that all of the ice creams were runny and half-melted. When I ordered a cone, the servers looked unhappy and recommended a cup instead, as the ice cream was too soft to put into cones. A bit of a disappointment, but what the heck, go with the flow (in this case, the flow of dripping ice cream), I say.

Sadly, the single scoop was not only half-melted, but it was tiny. Since they weren’t giving me a cone AND the product was substandard, I thought they might be a bit more generous with the portion. Nope.

I don’t know if the skimpy scoop should be blamed on the outlet, the ice cream company, or the servers, but it wasn’t an error, as my companion received an identical small puddle of semi-liquid product. She summed up the experience: “We should have gone to the OTHER ice cream place.”

Rocky Point Ice Cream

Outlet: Rocky Point Park kiosk, Port Moody

The hype: “At Rocky Point Ice Cream we hand craft ice cream in small batches ‘with love’ using as many local ingredients as possible.”

Single scoop cone: $3.75 (double scoop, $1 more)

Flavour: Salted caramel. Delightful combination of sweet and salty. Really good.

Waffle cone was fresh and crunchy.

Single scoop was generous—far larger than the Earnest scoop. Plus the mere $1 extra for a double made it hard to resist trying two flavours. So I didn’t. The chocolate peanut butter flavour was also delicious.

Oh, and both flavours were the perfect temperature.

Rocky Point wins this comparison hands down, but to be fair and confirm the results, I should probably repeat the experiment. As soon as possible.

Earnest Ice Cream and Rocky Point Ice Cream are made and sold in the Vancouver, BC, area.

Do you have a favourite local ice cream or gelato? Make your opinion known in a comment.

Knot Spots: July 15, 2017

Spotted: Centennial Pier, Port Alberni, BC

Okay, we knew that Port Alberni is a bit behind the times, but 1810?

It was windy and overcast on the afternoon of July 15, but that didn’t deter 286 historically minded folk from trying for a new Guinness World Record in the category of Most People Dressed in Regency Costume at an Event. Although they didn’t set a new record, the participants at the Port Alberni Jane Austen Festival had the pleasure of mingling with scores of other well-dressed gentlefolk, an opportunity that so seldom presents itself in these lamentably casual modern times.

 

Here Comes the Showboat!

As we roll into the beginning of summer, I’m once again reminded of how splendid is my own little corner of the world and how happy I am when I get a chance to spend part of the summer around here. This doesn’t mean I don’t travel, but sometimes I enjoy being a tourist in my own town with all its festivals, free events, and fascinating nooks.

The Kitsilano Showboat is a perfect example. Even though I was born near Vancouver, for many years, I had no idea where Kitsilano is. Growing up in the burbs of Port Moody, Kits was just not a place my family visited. I was in my 40s before I heard about the Showboat. They ran an ad looking for roving musicians who would stroll the nearby beaches and perform for the crowds there, with the idea of luring patrons to check out the free stage at the Showboat. The shameless exhibitionist in me jumped at the chance to go where buskers and other musicians are normally forbidden. Evenings that summer found my partner and I gussied up in 1890s costume, playing to the scantily clad throngs in thongs arrayed on the sand. Afterwards, we would head back to the Showboat to catch the show.

It’s s a classic Vancouver experience: park your keester on one of the amphitheatre’s tiered benches, look down to where the Mexican Dance Ensemble or the South Surrey Concert Band is playing its heart out for you, and then gaze past: first to the epic aquamarine dimensions of the Kitsilano Pool, which lies just behind the Showboat, next, to the waters of English Bay beyond that, criss-crossed by the white triangles of sailing dinghies and the wet-suited figures of stand-up paddleboarders, still farther to the skyline of West Vancouver, and finally to the stunning backdrop of the Coast Mountains. A little to the right of this world-class vista, rest your eyes on the white sand of Kitsilano Beach set against the skyscrapers of downtown Vancouver. Now add in a perfect summer-blue sky and some silver gulls soaring on the breeze, and you have a scene to inspire E.J. Hughes.

Discovering the Showboat was like finding out I had a long-lost great-auntie living in a Kitsilano heritage home. This auntie is a former vaudeville star, fabulously eccentric but always entertaining. You can visit her any night of the week, as long as it’s Monday, Wednesday, Friday, or Saturday. You never know whether she’s going to show up for dinner as a hula dancer, a kilted lassie, a saloon gal, or a cowgirl. She might come out playing a tuba or bring a troupe of tiny tots on stage to wave little Canadian flags. Even though she’s pushing 82, she’s still a spry old showgirl flaunting a bright new coat of turquoise paint each year.

Founded in 1935—back in the days when the average person was much more accustomed to entertaining themselves, their families, and their neighbours with homespun talent—the Showboat relies on volunteer performers to put on a show. From the kiddies of the Hi-Kicks Dance School to wanna-be rock gods, everyone gives it their best effort, and although the talents are not always professional-level, they are never boring.

There’s a concession nearby for snacks and drinks, or, for more up-scale nosh before or after the show, drop in at the beachside Boathouse Restaurant just around the corner. Best option of all might be a packed picnic dinner on a beach blanket among the driftwood of Kits Beach.

When the performance ends, meander along the promenade and enjoy the sunset.

Hamming it up on Kits Beach with my partner a few years back.

“See the Show Boat,
Will you go?
Let me take you to the show!”
Show Boat (the musical, 1927)

 

If you grew up in Vancouver, do you have any memories of the Kitsilano Showboat? Or do you remember a similar local talent outlet from your own home town? Let me know in a comment.

 

Khon: A Fascinating Find

Khon performance in Bangkok. Image source: asianitinerary.com

 

 

In a quiet corner of the Grand Palace complex in Bangkok, rarely noticed by the streams of tourists focused on golden stupas and kinnaris, we stumbled into the Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles. It’s a cool, dignified space staffed by serious people who welcome you with a polite smile and guide you firmly through an appropriate visit. Appropriate, in the case of this royally sponsored institution, meaning quiet, properly dressed (no bare arms or legs), and, above all, respectful.

The museum was founded by the Thai queen in 1976 to promote the appreciation of traditional Thai handcrafts, especially the creation and use of silk. As the queen is also a champion of khon (variously spelled as kohn), the museum includes a small display of the elaborate costumes worn for this traditional masked dance (“Dressing Gods and Demons”). Constructed of silk heavily embroidered with gold/silver and “jewels” of colored glass and beetle wing, the costumes are based on research conducted in conjunction with a 2007 revival performance of the ancient art.

After viewing the exhibition, I was eager to check out a performance, and through considerable digging around, we discovered shows played at the Sala Chalermkrung Royal Theatre. Our efforts to see one, however, turned into a comedy of errors.

On the evening of the show, after an excellent meal in the tiny hole-in-the-wall Café 511, we asked the taxi driver to take us to the Sala Chalermkrung Theatre. We showed him the tickets, which had on them the name and address in Thai. We told him we were going to see kohn. None of these references worked. He consulted with his taxi colleagues. Nope, none of them had a clue. Finally, we said “Old Siam Centre,” which is in the same block as the theatre. Ah! Yes, now he knew! Off we sped, only to arrive at the Siam Paragon, a luxury shopping centre. Try again. Next stop: Siam Discovery, another mall. The poor guy obviously only understood “Siam” and was doing his best based on what the bulk of tourists wanted to find. On the other hand, this is the royal theatre, for gawd’s sake, surely someone must have heard of it? By a process of elimination only, I believe, he finally brought us to the Old Siam Centre.

We walked around the place several times, thinking, How can they possibly hide a theatre here? Is it underground? Is it on the roof? We began to question our mental competence: Could a Thai theatre look so very different from what we’re used to that we’re just walking past it? We commenced staring suspiciously at young Thai women selling Hello Kitty merchandise in the market: perhaps one of their booths concealed a hidden entrance to the theatre?

Finally, we asked the crisp information officer by showing her the tickets and she sent us off with a series of hand gestures. Tickets in hand, we walked out of the mall, following her instructions as best we could, only to be accosted by a sincere-looking old man who pointed to the tickets, shook his head vigorously, and sent us back into the mall. How were we to know that he was not a kind citizen but a critic who was warning us away from the show? At least, that had to be the explanation, because having slogged around the block yet another time, we ultimately discovered that we had literally been on the theatre’s doorstep when he intercepted us and sent us away.

Fortunately—having had much experience of losing our way in Bangkok—we had allowed lots of time. We were finally seated in the vintage-1933 theatre along with a dozen giggling schoolchildren and a handful of other patrons. This in a theatre that holds well over 450. My companion suggested that the rows of emptiness probably belonged to scores of confused ticket-holders wandering the streets outside after being turned away by the helpful old man.

After all our misadventures, I can happily report that the show was worth the effort. Although khon has been compared to classical ballet, they are similar only in that their movements are formal and stylized, and the dancers use mime. Where ballet dancers balance on their toes, khon dancers stomp down heavily on their heels. Where ballet calls for airy lightness, khon favors strong, deliberate movements. Khon is mostly quite slow and often involves balancing on one foot, moving the feet and hands very precisely, and sometimes posing in tableaux-like formations. There’s also a dash of acrobatics thrown in.

The stories are drawn from the Hindu epic of Ramayana and feature gods, demons, and monkeys. Despite wearing rigid masks that cover the entire head, the principle dancers were able to convey character and humor through hand gestures and subtle body and head motions. To make the performance comprehensible to foreigners, the theatre has LED surtitles above the stage (in English only; tough luck to other non-Thais).

The onstage costumes were similar to those I had seen close-up in the museum, and it was wonderful to see the silk, dazzling metallic embroidery, and “jewels” move under the stage lights. (Okay, you may need to be a costume geek to get excited by this, but I did.) At the same time, the background information I had picked up from the exhibition enhanced my appreciation for the performance.

The two experiences made a perfect pairing I’d recommend to anyone visiting Bangkok. Just leave generous amounts of time to find the theatre and beware of that kindly man who wants to give you directions.

This excellent video shows khon both in performance and behind the scenes.

Currently, khon performances run on Thursday and Friday nights. Tickets available from thaiticketmajor.com and their outlets; 800-1200 Baht (US$23-35). The Queen Sirikit Museum is open daily from 9:00 am to 4:30 pm; admission is included when you purchase a ticket for the Grand Palace complex.

Have you experienced a piece of traditional culture in a places where you’ve traveled? Tell us about it in a comment.